The Teachers of My Childhood
When spring arrives, heaven and earth, towns and cities—everything—takes on a new brightness. The fresh faces of the students just starting school as the cherry blossoms burst into bloom are also bright and shining.
Although many people delight in the beautiful blossoms, few bother to consider the roots that make that blossoming possible. In life, our roots are largely formed by our first experience of education, the years we spend in elementary school.
I attended elementary school in Tokyo, a two-story wooden building surrounded by rice paddies. On frosty winter days, the water in the paddies sometimes froze. On such days, a rowdy band of children, we would stray off the road and, shouting “This way! This way!” cut through the paddies on our way to school. It was a tranquil, idyllic time.
But things were changing quickly. Japan was entering a dark, oppressive period in its history. The Manchurian Incident, which began Japan’s invasion of China, took place when I was three. When I was four, there was an abortive coup d’état in which the prime minister was assassinated, and when I was five, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations. Young as we were, we didn’t understand what was going on in the world, but the rising waves of the troubled times reached even into our classrooms.
Another spring came around, and once more the season of cherry blossoms arrived. About this time, my father suffered an attack of debilitating rheumatism and became bedridden. We were forced to scale back our family business of seaweed processing; our lives grew harder day by day. My eldest brother had enjoyed good grades, but he was forced to quit school and go to work to contribute to the family finances.
In the third and fourth grades, my teacher was Mr. Takeuchi. He had just graduated from teachers college and was young and energetic. He placed a particularly heavy emphasis on physical education: “You can be as smart as you like, but if you don’t build a strong body when you’re young, you’ll be of no use to anyone as an adult. Health is important. Study is important. True education combines both.” This appears to have been his credo as a teacher.
I was on the short side and not very strong, so it was no easy thing to meet Mr. Takeuchi’s expectations. To this day, I am moved whenever I remember how keenly he encouraged me to develop my physical strength and become healthy. I also remember how he taught us about the meaning of the Olympics, explaining in detail how they were conducted. That was in 1936, the year the Berlin Olympics were held in Germany. Mr. Takeuchi stressed the importance of holding the Olympics on a grand scale every four years as a means of promoting world peace.
He clearly hated war. In the depths of his heart I think that he strongly opposed the militaristic trend of the times, believing in the importance of peace and encouraging children to grow into fine individuals with a true love of peace.
In Japan, people who tend and care for cherry trees are called sakuramori, a word that implies a sense of careful stewardship. The care they extend expresses faith in the power of life as it grows and develops into the future. They observe the trees’ growth in great detail but allow them to develop freely. For example, if we stake a tree from the very beginning, the tree will rely on the stakes for support and not grow strong on its own.
The roots are especially important. One expert on trees says that the spread of the crown of a cherry tree is mirrored almost exactly by the spread of its roots below ground. If we water the tree only around the base of the trunk, the tree will become “lazy” and not bother to spread its roots far in search of water.
For people, “roots” correspond to the tenacity of our spirit, our refusal to give up. Once a tree has taken firm root, it can survive even on a rocky mountain face buffeted by powerful winds.
Trees are living things. Every cherry tree is unique. That is why there is no manual that can tell us how to grow a cherry tree. The only way to succeed is to learn the particular tree’s character, and warmly care for it.
Each child is also unique. Each has a distinct way of flowering that is his or hers alone. To raise a tree or to foster people, we need a patient faith in their potential to flourish. To the precise degree that we care for and have faith in children, they will extend and spread their roots. And it is this that will give them the strength to survive and make their way successfully through life.
Stewardship expresses a spirit of awe and respect for the potential for limitless growth. I believe that such awe and respect for children should be the foundation of education.
My father’s rheumatism was improving, but with my three brothers conscripted into military service we were short of help and our family finances worsened. When I was a fifth grader, we had to sell our house and move to a smaller one in the same area.
Hoping to do what I could to help my family, I got a job delivering newspapers. I woke up each morning while it was still dark and helped out with the seaweed production. When I finished, I delivered my papers and then went to school. After returning from school, I helped with the family business again, pulling the dried sheets of nori seaweed off the racks. Then I delivered the evening paper. At night there was the work of cleaning the seaweed, removing any impurities. I look back now on those busy days with fondness.
When I was in sixth grade, we took a school trip to Kansai. It was my first trip away from home, and I was very excited. My mother had given me some pocket money, which she had somehow managed to scrape together. I used it to treat my friends, and at the end of the first day it was almost gone. My teacher, Mr. Hiyama, must have been watching me the whole time, because he called to me as I was going up the stairs of the inn where we were staying and said, “Your elder brothers are all away at the war. You have to buy your parents a souvenir from your trip.”
I was crushed; of course he was right. My mother’s face appeared before my eyes. Smiling, Mr. Hiyama called me downstairs. He placed some money in my palm and closed my fingers around it. At that time, the two bills were a considerable sum. I breathed a sigh of relief. When I returned home and gave my mother her gift, I told her what had happened. “You must never forget Mr. Hiyama,” she said with a gentle smile.
I don’t feel that he was giving me special treatment. He cared for us all equally, looking deep into our hearts, aware of the family situations. I will never forget the warm affection with which he looked at each of us during our graduation ceremony, large tears running down his cheeks.
In 1940, I graduated from elementary school and entered junior high school. My teacher for the next two years was Mr. Okabe, whom we called “Mr. Buccaneer.”
He used to make us laugh by telling us that in a past life he must have been the leader of a pirate crew sailing the Inland Sea, which was near his hometown. He was tall with jet-black hair and a handsome, intelligent face. There were some 40 boys in our class—no girls. Mr. Okabe often encouraged me to exercise to strengthen myself physically. He loved sumo wrestling, and taught us various sumo techniques. Even though I was small, I did my best. At first glance, Mr. Okabe appeared very intimidating, but I never felt afraid of him. It may have been because I was rather shy, but I can’t remember him ever scolding me. Once, one of the students in our class was hit by another teacher. When Mr. Okabe heard about it he charged into the staff room shouting, “Which one of you hit one of my students?!” He had a very strong sense of right and wrong. He may have seemed gruff on the outside, but we all felt his concern and affection.
When I was in my second year of junior high, its name was changed to Haginaka National People’s School. This was mandated by a law filled with militaristic overtones that sought to turn children into soldiers. The gymnasiums of many schools were converted into martial arts training halls. Japan was sliding down the slope from war with China into the even more disastrous Pacific War. In their arrogance and stupidity, the leaders of the day had no thought for the welfare of ordinary citizens. They were driving the nation into the abyss of war with a mix of threats and well-crafted slogans.
Education has a truly astonishing power to cast a spell over the innocent hearts of children. Many of the students in my class at the new “national people’s school” applied to enlist as soldiers or as civilian colonists on the Chinese mainland. They did this because it seemed to be the highest expression of patriotism: to be a pioneering hero of the new era. I, too, wanted to become a student pilot in the navy after I graduated. Although I was concerned about my family and how they would fare without me, I secretly sent in an application.
I wasn’t there when a representative of the navy visited my home. My father sent the man away saying: “My three eldest sons are all in the army. The fourth will be going soon. Do you really plan to take away my fifth as well? No more. That’s enough!”
When I got home, my father berated me fiercely. I was never so harshly scolded before or after. It gave me a glimpse of my father’s true feelings, which he usually kept to himself.
After graduating, I went to work at the Niigata Steelworks. The war situation had worsened and there was an intensifying sense of impending defeat. In 1945, the last year of the war, air raids on Tokyo started on New Year’s Day. Our days were filled with war and air raids. Even so, when spring arrived, the cherry trees began blossoming, honest and true to their nature as always.
On the night of April 15, when the cherry petals were starting to fall, southern Tokyo was attacked in a massive air raid. The anguished sound of the air-raid sirens wailed and mighty B-29s appeared like majestic conquerors, flying steady and low across the sky. The staccato of the strafing from American fighters combined with people’s screams. Incendiary bombs fell like a heavy rain. Tongues of flame leapt up here and there, burning madly. Parents were separated from small children. Sons and daughters struggled in vain to save elderly parents. All those caught up in this hellish nightmare of death and destruction were filled with searing anguish. Even now, it brings immense pain to write of that night.
When the sun rose the next morning, the entire area where I lived had been burned to the ground. Both my beloved elementary school and the so-called national people’s school had been razed.
Around this time I found myself walking alone, lost in thought. The war dragged on. What would happen to Japan? What would become of my family? How would I live my life? I could not envision a future. Eventually, I found myself in a small section of town that hadn’t burned. A little group of cherry trees was in fragrant bloom. It was like a quiet and peaceful dream. In the vast expanse of burnt-out gray, the beautiful colors of the cherry trees glowed like a torch. In the midst of so much death, here was the light of shining life.
In those days, even cherry trees were made into symbols of death. The Japanese people were told to be like cherry blossoms, to scatter courageously in the wind without a whisper of regret. But the cherry trees before me clearly rejected such perversion and spoke to me—powerfully, sublimely—of life. They were overflowing with hope.
“Live! Live fully and deeply! Never cease living! Outlive the winter and let your own unique nature bloom,” they said to me.
I have never forgotten the beloved teachers of my youth. I have stayed in touch with a number of them to this day. Mr. Okabe once wrote to me, exhorting me to live strongly and tenaciously in the face of all obstacles. In another letter he encouraged me, saying: “The taller a tree grows, the harder the wind blows against it; please endure the wind and snow.”
I was able to have a reunion with Mr. Hiyama in Tochigi in 1973. He and his wife had traveled an hour and a half by bus to see me. I hadn’t seen him for more than 30 years, but he still had the aura of a great educator who had made a fine job of raising many children. “You don’t seem to have any time to rest,” he said. “Be careful not to harm your health.” His gaze was just as warm and caring as it had been on that school trip long ago.
Sitting in front of him, I felt as if I had returned to my elementary school days. To a student, your teacher is always your teacher, and to a teacher, your students are always your students. How wonderful it is to have a true teacher! It is easy to encounter a teacher who imparts knowledge, but hard to encounter one who teaches you how to live.
There are many people who love cherries and other flowering trees, but few who truly appreciate the efforts of those who work behind the scenes to keep the trees alive and healthy. The life of an educator is also far from glamorous. Teaching is inconspicuous work that doesn’t get much attention. But it is precisely because of such teachers dedicated to fostering the future that the next generation of children can grow up straight and strong. In those dark days, when the power of ultranationalist authorities pressed down so heavily on Japanese society, my teachers held up for their students the great light of humanity.
If being blessed with good teachers is one of life’s joys, there can be no one happier than I.
©2011 Soka Gakkai. All rights reserved.