PMGenesis: Chapter 9

Peter Milward's Autobiography: Genesis of an Octogenarian (2008)


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Who is Peter Milward?
0. About PM Genesis of an Octogenarian
1. Attempt at an Autobiography
Pre-conscious World
Local Patriotism
Wimbledon in Wartime 
Pastoral Peace
Pastoral Philosophy
7. Life at Oxford
Between England and Japan 
9. A New Language and Culture
10. Rural Japan
Pastoral Theology
12. Teaching Shakespeare in Japan
13. A Missionary in Japan
Student Revolt  
A Floating University  
16. Literary Pilgrimages  
A Scholar's Paradise  
To and Fro in Japan  
Words, Words, Words  
Annus Mirabilis  
21. Renaissance  
Lost Years  
Two Papal Pilgrimages  
Two Peninsular Pilgrimages

More American Adventures
26. In the Footsteps of Hopkins and Newman  
Two International Conferences  
Catholic Shakespeare  
Last Words  
Bibliographical Afterword  












Torii: Gate of a Shinto Shrine











 The Daibutsu: Big Buddha













 A Buddhist temple










Who is Peter Milward?

Blog Brittonia

All About Francis Xavier


Who are the Jesuits?

Joining the Jesuits in Japan












 A Lifetime with Hopkins  by Peter Milward













     Jacobean Shakespeare
by Peter Milward










Shakespeare the Papist by Peter Milward 









 Arise My Love by William Johnston, S.J.












 Mystical Journey, the autobiography of William Johnston, S.J., author of Mystical Theology and many other works on mysticism










All About Francis Xavier (Articles on Japanese Catholic History and Jesuits) 











9. A New Language and Culture


  It was still raining as we bumped and lurched over seemingly unending potholes on the primitive road that led from the harbour of Yokohama to the naval base of Yokosuka, which had now become a base for the American navy.  Before reaching Yokosuka, however, we came to the outlying town of Taura, where there had been a submarine base for the Japanese navy.  Now it was serving as the campus of a Jesuit high school run by German fathers and our language school.  Or rather, it was on one side of the harbour, the other side being occupied by a few naval vessels belonging to the newly designated Self-Defence Forces (or SDF) that remained to Japan after the war, and by a small fleet of boats owned by a whaling company.  This was to be our home for the next two and a half years – two years for the study of Japanese and a previous half-year for the teaching of English to our new Spanish companions.  This was something we hadn’t been expecting.  We were all keyed up to begin our study of the difficult Japanese language from the time of our arrival.  But no!  We were requested to sacrifice the first six months, at least two of us, to the teaching of our Spanish companions, who numbered ten, some of whom were better than others in their command of English.  It was a bitter blow!  But such is Jesuit obedience.  As Tennyson has put it, “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die!”  We have to be prepared to accept whatever is decided for us, for better or worse, by our superiors.  So one of us went to Sophia University to look after Japanese students there, while I and another stayed on at Taura to do the best we could to teach English to our Spanish companions.


   What did we teach them?  And how did we teach them?  I have to confess I have forgotten almost everything I taught them, and I have no doubt that they have repaid me in kind.  They, too, had been looking forward to starting work on Japanese.  Still, even if we didn’t do much in the way of teaching them English, we were all engaged in learning about the new Japanese culture in various ways, without having to be taught it.  Just by living where we were, and by going for walks in all directions around the harbour, we were taking in the strange sights and sounds and smells of Japan.  The buildings we had to live in were rather run down, as an inevitable result of the war.  They were all built in a concrete, cost-saving, geometrical style, which was hardly designed for human convenience.  Only, we did have a primitive central heating system from a boiler that had only just been installed.  It had been without this boiler that our poor predecessors had to make do during the cold winter months.  So we could count ourselves fortunate.  When we arrived, we still needed to use mosquito nets over our beds during the night, but we shuddered at the size of the mosquitoes and the number of holes in the nets.  During the daytime we were infested with larger centipedes and millipedes than I had ever seen in my life.  Once I felt a nip on my big toe, and when I pulled off my sock, out came crawling a fat, sleek, self-satisfied centipede.  After that he didn’t remain long in the land of the living!  There were also outsize grasshoppers, called batta, which gave us a creepy-crawly feeling but were relatively harmless.  There were also outsize frogs that came up from the oozy, oily waters of the harbour.  They, too, were creepy-crawly but innocent.


   Indoors, we were gradually introduced to Japanese customs, notably Japanese meals.  I have always been surprised since my arrival in Japan at the amount of interest shown by the Japanese in food at every stage of preparation, culminating in its consumption.  Of course, I admit that food is basic to human life, and in Latin the same verb esse has both meanings, “to eat” and “to be” – which provides the Japanese with a punning interpretation of Hamlet’s famous question.  In England, however, we don’t give food the same pride of place as the Japanese give it.  Once television came on the Japanese market, it was soon noticeable that more programmes were devoted to food than to anything else.  At times almost all the channels seemed to be taken up with it.  Of course, in the matter of food it might be objected to me that the English haven’t much to be proud of, but I might follow the same reasoning and say that, to judge from TV programmes, the Japanese don’t seem to have anything else to be proud of.  I don’t say so, and I don’t believe it either, but I do object to this disproportionate emphasis on food.  For us at Taura the typical Japanese food took the form of sashimi, or raw fish, and tempura, or a way of frying fish and vegetables that goes back to the time of the Portuguese Jesuits in the sixteenth century – the food they used for the four periods of fasting and abstinence known as quatuor tempora (the four times, or Ember Days).  The raw fish doesn’t have much taste in itself, but it needs to be taken with a sauce consisting of a sharp radish, or wasabi, mixed with soy sauce, or shoyu.  The first time we were served such a meal in our dining-room, I hadn’t been warned about the wasabi, or if we had been warned I hadn’t paid attention.  So when I noticed a green substance beside the raw fish in front of me, I took it as a kind of appetizer and put it all with my chopsticks into my mouth.  Then it seemed to me as if a hole was being bored into my tongue with red-hot pincers, or as if I might soon be breathing out flames from my mouth like a dragon, or as if I were being plunged tongue foremost into the depths of hell.  Yet those around me, far from pitying me in my predicament, could hardly contain their laughter.  Such, too, I find, has been the invariable reaction of the Japanese whenever I recall this painful memory.  For them it is nothing but a huge joke.  Yet they themselves are the first to say they have no sense of humour!  Anyhow, once I managed to get over this preliminary lapse, I have come to enjoy raw fish, in spite of the common Japanese expectation to the contrary, and to enjoy the related form of sushi, when a piece of raw fish is put, not without a touch of wasabi, on a small cake of rice.

   Since our language school was located on the same campus as our Jesuit high school of Eiko Gakuen, I have several memories of the boys, though we really had nothing to do with them.  First, they seemed to be so happy coming to school every morning with what Shakespeare calls their “shining morning faces”, with no sign of what he also describes as “creeping like snail unwillingly to school”.  For them, it seemed, school was the centre of their lives, and if they ever crept unwillingly, it was back home after school, when their various school activities were over.  When it was time for them to begin class, the bell would ring and immediately, wherever they might be on the playground, they would stand still like so many statues.  Then, when the bell stopped ringing, they would make a concerted rush to their respective classrooms.  It was what I could only call “the daily miracle”!  They also had their daily physical exercises in the playground, and then they would come trooping out of their classrooms and form regular lines in front of the school buildings.  There they would perform the exercises rhythmically in time to the prescribed piano music.  It was such a fascinating sight!  Yet it struck me, as an Englishman, too much like the behaviour of toy soldiers in a regiment, a model of German and Japanese military discipline fused together.  Again, when we returned from afternoon walks, we might encounter them on their way home along the road beside the harbour.  It was then their fixed habit, no doubt instilled into them by their German teachers, once they were about to pass us, to stop in their tracks, doff their caps, and give us a ceremonious bow, as if we were their teachers.  It was so embarrassing for us when we had to pass one group after another of these excessively polite boys, as if we were running their gauntlet.


   Speaking of walks, the little town of Taura was situated on the small Miura Peninsula – Miura being the Japanese name of the first Englishman to come to Japan in 1600, the “pilot” (or anjin) of a Dutch ship that had been wrecked on the Japanese coast, William Adams.  He rose high in the estimation of the first Tokugawa ruler Ieyasu, for his skill in making ships and guns.  He was even made a daimyo, or feudal lord, and given a Japanese wife in addition to the one he had left at home in Kent, with the Japanese name of Miura Anjin.  When he died, he was given a splendid tomb called Anjinzuka on the Miura Peninsula between Taura and Yokosuka.  This is a rocky, hilly peninsula dividing Tokyo Bay from Sagami Bay to the West.  When we went for a walk, instead of keeping to the busy road, we simply crossed the road and climbed up the mountain opposite.  The mountains, too, both here and elsewhere in Japan, were not at all like anything I was used to with English hills, but steep and sharp.  It was quite a climb up to the top, but once there, we could look down on either side, while along the summits there was a system of paths leading us all over the peninsula and affording us a variety of views.  In one direction, we could look down on our little submarine harbour, with the vessels of the SDF and the whaling fleet, or the larger American naval base at Yokosuka, with a wider variety of vessels which might include a battleship or aircraft carrier.  In the other direction, we could see the bays of Zushi and Kamakura, with vast forests of Japanese cedar proclaiming the presence of a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple.  Highest of the heights on our peninsula was a mountain named Takatoriyama, or mountain for taking hawks, whether in the sense of catching sight of them or of catching them to train and make one’s own.


   It was too far for us to walk all the way to Kamakura on an afternoon’s walk, but we could always take the train there from our local station of Taura.  In Japan we found the Fr Minister more forthcoming with money for such purposes than his counterpart had been at St Beuno’s or Heythrop.  Kamakura had once in the Middle Ages – about the time of Robin Hood in England – been the capital of Japan.  It could boast of one or two impressive Shinto shrines, such as that of the Japanese god of war Hachiman.  From the railway station one had to walk along an avenue of cherry trees located in the middle of the road, till one reached the red torii or gateway marking the entrance to the shrine.  Further on, one came to a flight of stone steps, with a gigantic gingko tree on one side hung with a sacred rope, and at the top was the shrine before which there were always people to be seen paying their worshipful respects to the god.  The respects consisted first in throwing a small coin into the large box for offerings, then in clapping one’s hands twice to attract the god’s attention, then in bowing for a moment in silent prayer.  The whole process was over in a few seconds, but I found it deeply impressive.  Most of the other religious buildings, however, were Buddhist temples, where people still prayed in much the same manner.  It seems there is a lot of give and take between the two religions, without any need of people belonging to either one or the other.  On the whole, at Shinto shrines I found more stone and more colour, especially vermilion, in evidence.  They existed for prayer to one or other of the many ancient gods of Japan, or to them all together without distinction.  They also existed for the solemnization of Japanese marriages and for occasional festivals – as if standing for the forces of life.


   On the other hand, in the strange symbiosis of these two religions, it seemed that if Shinto was the religion of life, Buddhism was the religion of death or the preparation for death.  So if traditional Japanese weddings were celebrated at Shinto shrines, funerals would take place at Buddhist temples, usually adjoining a gloomy graveyard with the feeling and possibility of ghostly apparitions.  Even the meaning of prayer seemed to be different in the two religions.  The kind of prayer mentioned above was the typical Shinto form of inori, implying a request of some god or many gods for a special favour, such as the passing of a university entrance exam.  On the other hand, Buddhism seemed to be more monastic than religious, and Buddhist monks would go in more for meditation than for prayers.  To an outsider like myself, though I imagine insiders or experts would make more precise distinctions, there seemed to be two main forms of meditation.  One might be the frequent recitation of a holy formula, such as “Namu Amida Butsu” – “In the name of Amida Buddha” – which is characteristic of the more popular Buddhist sects.  The other is the speechless, thoughtless, motionless meditation known as zazen, practised by one or other of the Zen sects.  The latter is the more original, ideal form of Buddhism, culminating in the state of satori, or enlightenment, though few claim to have reached it.  The former is a later, more popular development for ordinary people.  In Kamakura we found many temples belonging to different Buddhist sects, in contrast to the few Shinto shrines.  They were distinguished by doorways with roofs as entrances to the temple area.  There was more wood than stone in evidence, and a general impression of black and white with little colour.  Yet in them, more than in the shrines, we came upon elaborate gardens, such as formed no small part of traditional Japanese culture.  Especially to an Englishman like myself such gardens, rather than the food that often goes with them, revealed something of the precious heart of Japan.


   Then what, I may be asked at this point, do I think of Zen, whether in itself as practised by Buddhist monks or as applied to Christian meditation by not a few Jesuit colleagues of mine?  I myself have never gone in for Zen in any purposeful manner, like those Jesuit colleagues, but I think I know more or less what it is, and what it isn’t, and I have perhaps to some extent been brain-washed by it.  As a form of meditation it is no doubt very good and may as well be adapted to Christian as to Buddhism monasticism.  In fact, it seems to have been followed by Christian mystics even as long ago as the late Middle Ages, with no apparent influence from the Far East.  One may even trace it as far back as the sixth century AD in the mystical teachings of a Syrian monk named Dionysius Areopagita.  His works were welcomed in the mediaeval West at least from the time of St Thomas Aquinas, and particularly by an anonymous author of Chaucer’s time who not only translated his book on Mystical Theology, as Denis Hid Divinity, but composed a treatise of his own entitled The Cloud of Unknowing.  According to him in prayer it is better to do without any thoughts or desires, but what is needed is a humble awareness of God as Creator without any distractions from creatures.  Out of this humble awareness there should arise a fiery dart of love rising upwards from man to God, from the creature to the Creator.  That is the heart of prayer.  In some ways it seems very similar to zazen, but in other ways it is very different.  In zazen, as I understand it, there is no room for love, and that makes all the difference.  So I say that I approve of zazen in so far as it is implicit in The Cloud, and I withhold my approval in so far as it isn’t.


   Now let me return from Kamakura to Taura, and from this digression on Japanese religion to the main point of this chapter, which is the Japanese language and my vain attempts to master it.  Nowadays, when I am asked if Japanese is a difficult language, I simply answer, “No, it isn’t difficult.  It’s just impossible!”  Indeed, it is.  Yet it is necessary to do one’s best to communicate with Japanese people in their own language, without expecting them to communicate with oneself in English.  Language is after all the key to culture.  I have heard that, as long as General MacArthur was dealing with Japanese politicians, he expected them to speak with him either in English or by means of interpreters, and so he received the unflattering impression that the Japanese were a nation of twelve-year-olds.  At the same time, I suspect, they were regarding him as a twelve-year-old!  So when I began the study of Japanese with the sentence, “Kore wa hon desu” – “This is a book” – I felt like returning to the days of my childhood, when I had to learn French in the same way, “This is the pen of my aunt.”  However much progress I made in Japanese during those two years at language school, I still felt like a child, and I felt the Japanese thinking of me as a child.  I could hardly say they were wrong!  Once after a full year of language study, I happened to be speaking in my poor Japanese to a Japanese Jesuit, and he began laughing at me.  “Why are you laughing?” I asked him, “Have I made a mistake?”  “No,” he replied, “You haven’t made any mistake, but we Japanese never speak as correctly as that.”  I had been studying Japanese all that time without realizing the difference between spoken Japanese and bookish Japanese.


   When we had completed our first year of language study, however, this was all changed by the new principal of our language school.  He had recently returned to Japan from an intensive programme of Japanese language teaching at Michigan University, and he was full of a new method called “the Michigan method”.  He was convinced that the emphasis in teaching Japanese should be not on writing or reading but on speaking.  So he decided to begin with us again from the beginning and to use us as guinea-pigs for his experiments.  We had to forget all we had learnt according to the former method, based on a series of textbooks compiled by a Mr Naganuma, and to follow his Michigan method.  Once again, therefore, we had to become as little children, just as we had come to flatter ourselves that we were growing up.  As a result, after two years at the language school, I found that I had had one year each of two different methods, which somehow cancelled each other out, and I was left with nothing.  Not that it was quite as bad as that.  I had learnt very little language from the Michigan method, but from the Naganuma method I had learnt at least many interesting things about Japanese culture, even if they were expressed in a rather stilted, old-fashioned manner.  From the Michigan method I may have gained more facility in speaking Japanese, but I wasn’t so sure about that.  Rather, it left me with a feeling of nostalgia for the good old Naganuma method and an opposite feeling of distaste for the brash new Michigan method.  All in all, I had the overriding feeling of having fallen between two stools.  So now I had to make the best of a bad job in applying my insufficient learning to the needs of daily life and conversation.  And now, when asked how long it took me to learn Japanese, I simply answer, “Fifty years!”  But now, so far from continuing to learn the language, I find I am progressively forgetting it.  Indeed, it isn’t difficult but impossible – though I may be told, “No, you are impossible!”  To that I have no answer, except to mumble, “The Michigan method!”

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