Monday, August 30, 2004

Blog from Japan - Part II

by Fazurin
Berjalan Menengadah ke Atas - A Tribute to Kusumoto-sensei

I was standing on the platform of Kamakura train station, waiting for the train back to Tokyo. It was already dark. It must have been around 19:30 when I heard it.

Ue-o muite arukou
Namida-ga koborenai-youni
Omoidasu natsu-no hi
Hitoribotchi-no yoru...

Right across the rail track, on one of Kamakura's streets, there stood a group of people, holding candles in their hands. Under the flickering flames, they sang.
The song they were singing, "Ue-o muite arukou" (or better known as "Sukiyaki" in the Western world) was popularised by Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto in the 1960s. More importantly it reminds me of my Japanese teacher, Takahisa Kusumoto.

It must have been more than 12 years ago, when I first flirted with the idea of learning Japanese in secondary school. Maybe a brief background is necessary. In my former school, when new students enter the First Form, they are asked to take a third language (in addition to Malay and English) as a subject, and at the time I was there, we could choose between Arabic, Japanese and French.

I chose Arabic. I suspect the fact that my mum and several aunts and uncles graduated from a religious school at one time or other had something to do with it. (I also felt compelled to make use of a tattered, yellowing copy of Kamus Marbawi that had been handed down like a family heirloom to me through a few generations of Arabic scholars.) And I thought that was that.

However, some time into Form 2, the itch to learn Japanese came upon me. Fadli, a batchmate of mine, who was a French student - as in he studied French, not that he was French though knowing him I wouldn't be surprised if he might sometimes like to think so ; ) - was already getting his hands dirty with hiragana and katakana. So I joined him. The problem was, since both of us had Arabic and French classes respectively, we could not attend the "official" Japanese classes.

This was where Takahisa Kusumoto came in. Freshly arrived from Japan as a volunteer to teach Japanese to scores of wide-eyed Malaysian students in the quiet town of KK, Kusumoto-sensei, as we came to call him happily offered to give us separate Japanese classes after school hours.

Those classes were fun. There was the staple offering of grammar and vocabulary, but there was a lot of excitement too. I still remember the day when Kusumoto-sensei let Fadli and me have a go at writing kanji using authentic Japanese calligraphy brush, calligraphy ink, calligraphy paper and ink mixer. We must have used up reams of paper that day, putting to paper any Chinese character that came to mind. Looking back, the results were aesthetically atrocious - the ashes of hundreds of generations of Japanese calligraphy masters must have been swirling in their urns - but did it matter? We were happy. It was one of those moments when we savoured that child-like joy of discovery.

Kusumoto-sensei's going out of his way to give us private lessons didn't seem like much at that time. Somehow when you were fourteen, teachers giving extra classes after school hours seemed like a perfectly normal thing. Teachers love teaching, so it's natural that they offer to give classes after school hours. No big deal, right?

But now, after starting to work myself, I really couldn't imagine how Kusumoto-sensei did it. On a salary of RM900 a month (this is what he told me, if my memory serves me well), thrown into a sleepy little town in Perak where everyone and everything was foreign to him, he still managed not only to do what was expected of him, but in fact to do way much more than that. The fruits of his labour helped shape the lives of those he touched - such as me - till this day. Looking back, Kusumoto-sensei gave us more than just grammar and vocabulary lessons on those quiet afternoons in the language lab. He showed us the joys of selfless giving, the bliss of being able to spend your life doing something that you really like. And in the process, he helped us see that there is big world out there for us to experience and discover.

It was thus that standing there on Kamakura train station that cool summer evening, listening to Ue-no muite arukou, surrounded by Japanese sounds and writings - some of which I recognised again like some long-lost old friends - that I thought of him.

I still remember the day when he gave me the Malay translation of that song, the underlined title in Malay, "Berjalan menengadah ke atas", vividly imprinted on my mind.

(I've always found this translation disturbing. You mean, it's possible to "berjalan menengadah ke bawah?")

Wherever you are, Kusumoto-sensei, domou arigatou gozaimasu.