A Place Called ‘Motomenai’

The Japanese press reported widely in early January of this year about the recent death of someone I had known fairly well, Shozo Kajima, of old age. He was 92 years old. He was cited in most of the obituaries as the author of a mega-bestselling poetry book titled Motomenai [Not wanting], published in 2007.

But what most of the media here didn’t report in their brief stories on Kajima were the kinds of things I had gotten to know personally about him in recent years: how he had been among the up-and-coming literary figures in Japan after World War II, how he became a renowned scholar and translator of English-language classics (especially by the U.S. author William Faulkner), how he found a new form of expression in watercolor painting, and how, later in life, he rediscovered his Asian roots in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and had become known as a respected Taoist philosopher in Japan.

You see, Shozo Kajima for me was a kind of mentor and a literary father — the kind any son would be proud of. And to think it all began with a single newspaper story and two books, his and mine….

It was a late spring morning, a Saturday I remember, in 2008 when I opened the newspaper and read the English-language version of this story in the Asahi newspaper in Japan. It showed a bearded elderly Japanese man sitting in a windowed patio of his house with a wide vista of nature behind him.

The article said that his 2007 book Motomenai, a book of Japanese short poetry verses based on calligraphic paintings he had done, was a blockbuster in Japan, selling around 400,000 copies. It was especially popular among younger generations of Japanese readers, who apparently connected with the book’s subtle message of giving up the material clutter of life in favor of a more spiritually based existence.

Kajima had for years been living and working alone in a cottage in the rural Ina valley in Nagano Prefecture, near the Japan Alps mountain range, far from the urban madness of Tokyo, where he used to be based. These words by Kajima in the newspaper story caught my attention and made straighten up in my chair:

“It takes me five years to write a book of poetry. I have to wait for the high energy necessary to write poems and draw pictures. While I’m waiting, I lack all ambition. I waste whole days at a time. Art emerges from the unconscious. It doesn’t happen according to a plan.”

As something of a poet myself, I knew exactly where he was coming from. I had self-published my own bilingual (English and Japanese) book of poetry in 1999 titled Inochi, the Japanese word for “life”, and I never charged anyone a cent for the book. It was my first published book, and I wanted to write it purely from the heart and soul without any thought of making money off it; I donated any money I did receive for the book to charitable causes.

Why haven’t I heard about this bestselling book Motomenai? I thought to myself, as I read the newspaper article. And who in the heck is Shozo Kajima?

I bought the book soon afterward — a small, square-shaped book with a humble-looking cover — and carried it around with me throughout my busy day, reading the simple poems within it whenever I could. I instantly fell in love with it. Unlike most books of poems, here was one that really said something to me. I soon understood why readers all over Japan had connected with it too.

I decided to try and write to Kajima, tell him how much I loved his book, and send him a copy of my own book of poetry. But I could find no definite street address for him anywhere. So I just mailed it to the general neighborhood where he lived in rural Nagano Prefecture, hoping against the odds that the package would somehow find its way through the postal system to his rural home.

By some miracle, it did.

One day, not long afterward, I received in my home mailbox a reply letter from Kajima, brush-painted on traditional rice paper. Watashi mo anata no nakama da to kanjimashita, it read in Japanese: “I felt a kinship with you as well”. He invited me in the letter to make a trip to his home someday in rural Nagano Prefecture. I was humbled, to say the least, that he would even write back.

Making a long story short, I eventually did take Kajima up on his invitation in 2008, setting out by bus for half the day through a part of Japan I had never seen before. The bus wound its way through the majestic Japan Alps, awing me with the sheer natural beauty in abundance. I finally made it to Kajima’s spacious rural home, which also functioned as his personal library and creative studio space — Banseikan [Clear Evening Hall], as he had officially dubbed his two-story wooden quarters. I felt, somehow, like I was being welcomed home again.

We agreed that I would translate his Motomenai book into English, and in the subsequent trips I made to the Banseikan, he and I would spend hours going over my translations poem by poem. It was not my first time to translate Japanese documents into the English language, but it was the first time for me to translate Japanese poetry into English, which turned out to be far more difficult than I had anticipated.

Kajima coached me well, telling me to forget a strict translation of his poems and aim for a very loose translation instead. “Make them your own”, he advised me one day, and from then on I did. My translations became more organic and naturally flowing, much like the fresh air and water of the mountains and surrounding farmlands that were his home.

In all I made three trips to visit Kajima up in the high plains of Nagano over the course of 2008 and 2009 to work on our draft of Motomenai. It was a wonderful way for me to spend a few days each time, just walking the country roads where he lived, photographing the rich natural scenery of the area, taking in the crisp, clean, mountain air, and watching the evening sun set over the Japan Alps on the other side of the valley from us. It filled my spirit with renewed energy and an even deeper love for the Earth.

The author visiting Shozo Kajima at his residence/studio in rural Nagano, Japan, 2008

One memorable evening after dinner, I never will forget. The conversation at Kajima’s dining table over tea casually turned to spiritual matters, and he asked me if I believed in the channeling of spirits. I said I did. That was how the calligraphic poems that became Motomenai were conceived, he told me: “They just kept coming to me, one after another, like they were being channeled through me by some force”. Over weeks and months, the inspiration for the poems had come through him and onto the paper, he said. He had never had such a profound experience before in all his years of writing. He was in his 80s at the time this all happened.

During the months that Kajima and I were working on my translated draft of Motomenai, the Tokyo-based English Journal, a monthly magazine geared toward young professionals and readers wanting to brush up their language skills, approached Kajima about publishing some of his Motomenai poems in a special series. He asked me to do it, as a first step in possibly getting the whole book published somewhere someday. I jumped at the chance.

So, for one year from spring 2010 to spring 2011, each monthly edition of English Journal magazine featured Kajima’s original Motomenai poems and watercolor paintings, along with my English-language translation of them. The CD that came with each issue of the magazine also featured audio tracks of my reading of the selected poems, which we had recorded in a professional studio in Osaka.

You can view images of the entire yearlong series of Kajima’s Motomenai poems, together with my translations, exactly as they appeared in the pages of English Journal, on this website’s POETRY page.

We eventually finished the back-and-forth work on the draft of his book Motomenai around that time. I was hoping that he would be able to find a suitable publisher for it in Tokyo, and looked forward to one day seeing it in print. I guess Kajima never did find that publisher, as I heard that a couple of years back he had suffered a stroke, which had left him bedridden and unable to create anymore.

And an eerie thing happened some time after that. On 25 December 2015 — Christmas Day — here in Japan, I remember waking up with a feeling of grief and deep sadness. It stayed with me the whole day, a blue mood that I just couldn’t get rid of: Where’s this coming from? Did someone I know die? I felt sure that some person close to me must have gone. I got on the Internet and checked, but found no deceased relatives in the States. As it turned out, I was looking in the wrong place.

The next thing I heard in early January of this year was the news media reporting in Japan about Shozo Kajima’s passing of old age. The obituaries placed his dying day as 25 December 2015 — the same day that I had inexplicably felt the death of someone close to me. Now I understood.

I heard from one of Kajima’s family members that he had died peacefully in bed, “almost like sleeping”. I was saddened beyond words to hear of his demise, yet comforted to know that there was no suffering for him at the very end.

Although I had joined Kajima only in the final years of his life, I was supremely grateful for having walked that last road partially with him. It changed me forever. The sadness of losing him, a source of so much creativity and wisdom, is somehow soothed by a feeling of enrichment within me in having known and worked with him as an apprentice of sorts, even for a short time.

Not long after the media reports of Kajima’s passing, he was constantly on my mind and one day it dawned on me where he actually was now. Out in my backyard, I had a silent conversation with Kajima, the way people sometimes do with lost loved ones. Well, you’ve finally made it to that place of “motomenai” you always wrote about, I said smiling. Where you are now, there’s no more wanting, no more desiring, no more material things. Now you’re at peace.

And to think it all started with just two books of poetry, Kajima’s and mine, which had unexpectedly brought us both together back in 2008 — books from two different generations of writers and so different in appearance and style, yet containing the same simple message: Life is the most precious thing of all. Treasure it and live it well.

Who knows? Maybe our English version of Motomenai will be published someday. I had wished all along that Shozo Kajima would live long enough to see the book printed up in his lifetime. But now he’s gone. With his departure, I feel a renewed sense of wanting to share with the world that treasure of a book that had moved and inspired so many people all across Japan.

And with a literary father’s help from a faraway place called motomenai, maybe, just maybe, I will get it done after all.

Kajima’s book ‘Motomenai’ and Covert’s book ‘Inochi’, during a break from a working session, 2009

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