Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Tsunami, the Geisha and a song.

The Tsunami, the Geisha and a song.
(A story by Joel Baumwoll based on the reporting of Norimitsu Onishi and published in The New York Times, April 4, 2011).

The giant wave that destroyed villages in Japan was the fourth that Tsuyako Ito had experienced in her eighty-four years living in the coastal village of Kamaishi.
 According to an article in the New York Times this one was “most frightening.”

Twice in her life, she had been carried to safety from the waves.  The first time when she was six-years old.  This time, her rescuer was a fifty-nine year-old owner of a sake store, Hiroyuki Maruki.  As the floodwaters tore at Ito’s hilltop home, she knew she must run or die.  Her grandmother had told her that a tsunami is “like a wide-open mouth that swallows everything in its path, so that victory comes to those who run away as fast as possible.”
So run, she did.  With regret, because Ito was scheduled to perform that evening at an exclusive hotel restaurant in the 117 year-old ryotei where she began working as a Geisha seventy years ago.  The Times report quotes Setsuko Kanazawa, whose family owns Saiwairo, the ryotei where she performs describing Ito as “a famous beauty, she both danced and played the shamisen, while most geishas were skilled only at playing the shamisen.”
Ito’s dream as a child was to “become a leading geisha in Kamaishi.  Her nephew says that her father, whose small time construction company had ties with the yakuza, supported her ambitions.  He is quoted as saying that her father was said to have told her she was suited for that life.  He added, “I think he did it to guarantee some debts.”
Recovering from her ordeal in a rescue center, Ito was sad that she had been unable to sing that night.  As the Times reports, she was hired to entertain a party of four in honor of a colleague’s transfer from Kamaishi.  Ito reported that she had picked just the right song, one meant to steel young samurai going to their first battle.
“I’d practiced the night before, and after putting my thoughts together, I thought this song would be all right,” she said, explaining that the song told the story of a young samurai on horseback going to his first, long-awaited battle.  “It ended without my singing,” she said. “It’s such a nice song, too.”

But her song was not to be.  As the earth shook, and the giant waves broke through the famous seawall built to withstand the mightiest tsunami, Ito knew enough to run.  But her legs gave out, and she would have perished with 1300 of Kamaishi’s residents had it not been for Mr.  Maruki.
He lifted Ito on his back and carried her to the top of a hill, away from the rushing waters.  “I thought she’d be light, but she was surprisingly heavy,” Mr. Maruki told the Times reporter.  “I wondered at one point what I was going to do.”
Ito had no doubts about her rescuer though, recalling, “feeling the soft warmth of his back.”  Why had Maruki risked his life to come looking for her as walls collapsed and neighbors were swept away?
He explained that he is the president of a group dedicated to preserving an old melody called “Kamaishi Seashore Song.”
“She is the only one who knows how to sing that song,” Mr. Maruki said.

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