Excruciating lower-back pain kept me home and out of my classroom today, so I decided to indulge myself in reading several selections from The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 3.
“Separate Ways” by the 19th-century author Higuchi Ichiyo, is a tale of abandonment. Kichizo, a rather misshapen and small 16-year-old boy, has forged a friendship with “Okyo, a stylish woman in her early twenties.” Their unusual relationship is so strong that Kichizo can tap at Okyo’s window even in the middle of the night with the assurance that she will admit him to her home. Okyo’s kindness and compassion are a source of great joy and satisfaction to Kichizo, for he is often taunted by his peers, who call him “dwarf” and “the tiny monk who’ll never grow.”
Kichizo, who works as an apprentice in an umbrella factory, has no family. He was informally adopted by the factory’s former owner, a massive woman named Omatsu. Omatsu, however, has been dead for two years, and Kichizo’s birth parents have been dead for so long he can barely remember them, nor does he know when to honor them with an annual abstinence.
Okyo, a seamstress, is nearly as bereft of family as Kichizo. Her tenuous connections to a distant relative are not strong enough to prevent her from moving into a house near the umbrella factory. Because the owner of the umbrella factory is her landlord, she invites all the factory’s apprentice boys to leave their mending with her. She develops a special bond with Kichizo because, despite his dwarfish stature, he is not afraid to speak his mind.
One evening, shortly before New Year’s Day, Kichizo makes an unnerving discovery: Okyo is planning to move away. He begs her not to go, but Okyo says she must; she professes to have no choice in the matter. She’s tired of washing and sewing and wearing drab clothes. Then Kichizo understands: Okyo is about to become someone’s mistress; whatever she needs will be supplied.
However, Kichizo also understands something else: Friendship is more important than having fine clothing or a life of relative ease. In an attempt to dissuade Okyo from leaving the neighborhood—and his life—he professes great disgust for the choice she has made. Then he tells her that she’s just like everyone else who has disappeared from his life, including Omatsu, a friend who threw herself in a well and drowned.
Okyo, however feels that she has no choice. Powers greater than she have made the decision. ‘“You can’t change things,’” she says, matter-of-factly.
It is clear that Okyo does not understand why Kichizo is so upset about her impending departure to take up a new life that does not include him. It is equally clear that Kichizo, despite his bravado in the face of taunting from his peers, is unwilling (and perhaps unable) to sustain yet another loss. With tears in his eyes, Kichizo tells Okyo not to touch him anymore, thus signaling his willingness to close his heart against the possibility of further abandonment.
Although “Separate Ways” was written over one hundred years ago, it is a story that reminds me of many the students I work with today. Granted, none of them are physically challenged as the “dwarf” Kichizo. But they too have experienced the pain of abandonment as their fathers (and, sometimes, mothers) have left them by divorce or disease or death. They know the uncertainty that comes from being part of a school culture where the teaching staff changes so frequently that their unspoken question is: “Will my teacher be here tomorrow?”
The story of Okyo and Kichizo reminds me that while human beings are amazingly resilient, they are also incredibly fragile. Abandonment preys on our frailty and makes us close our hearts to the universal invitation to love our neighbor.
Contrary to what Okyo says, there are things I can change about how I relate to other people. The most important of those things is to refuse to walk away from my neighbor—even if that person has hurt me deeply, even if I think some other neighbor will welcome me more warmly.
No more separate ways.