- August 11th, 2013
I have two young dead men in my head. For various reasons both of them have been on my mind for a while now, making me cry when I think too hard about them—which isn’t a bad thing, because they were worth it. I didn’t meet either of them. One I might have done; I was ten years old when he died, and he was a friend of my father’s for a while, but we never intersected. The other died more than seventy years ago. They were both far too young, only thirty-three—almost the same age at their deaths, down to a couple of months. One succumbed to chronic illness; the other took his own life.
Atsushi Nakajima died in December 1942, of the asthma which had troubled him since his early twenties. Such a goddamn waste; if I had a time machine to go back and bring him modern treatment methods… . He was a writer, although he never made his living at it, and he needed to make his living: his family was well enough off but not rich, and he had a wife and two young sons. Takeshi was nine when his father died; Noboru was only two or three. Atsushi taught Japanese and English at a girls’ high school for several years, and seemed to enjoy it, popular with his students and fellow teachers and happy with his family, plus an avid gardener in his spare time.
His stories are spare and abstruse and difficult, drawing heavily on (Chinese) history and literary myth, and it can be surprising to find out that, while unenthusiastic about spending time with people who didn’t meet his standards, with friends he was a life-of-the-party type, interested in everything, active, merry. His story “Sangetsuki” appears regularly in high school Japanese textbooks, which I think is a terrible shame. It’s a story written in old-fashioned Japanese and set in old China, about a poet who turns into a tiger, and it’s wonderful, but not for teenagers: it’s for people who have learned, or are learning, about the way life turns and twists in your hands to betray everything you once expected, for good or ill.
They should have the high school kids read some of his letters to his wife from Micronesia. He was already in his early thirties when worsening asthma made his teaching job difficult; hoping for an improvement, he took a job editing Japanese textbooks for children in the Micronesian islands which were then Japanese colonies, Palau, the Chuuk Islands, Saipan and so forth. He spent a year or so traveling around the islands observing schools (both the “public schools” for “native” children and the “national schools” for Japanese children), finding that the tropical climate was not as good for his health as he had hoped, and writing quantities of letters to his wife and postcards to his sons. The letters are much easier to read than anything else he wrote, because his wife Taka probably had only about a sixth-grade education; she was a girl from the provinces whom he gave in and married after getting her pregnant (or so at least one source would have it), and in some ways it’s amazing that the marriage worked at all. Perhaps if he had lived longer it wouldn’t have, but at that date it’s very clear how much they cared about each other. And he was absolutely nuts over his sons, there’s no other way to put it, an absorbed, loving, thoughtful father.
The letters from the South Pacific make me cry every time; they’re vivid descriptions of what he sees and who he meets there, but they’re also spilling over with homesickness and longing for Taka and the boys, I miss you, I want to come home between every line, and when I think that he lived less than a year after returning to Japan, it’s unbearable. God, I would have loved to know him—not as “the great writer Nakajima Atsushi” but as a colleague in the school staffroom, or one of the guys a few years ahead of me in grad school. Why are there no time machines, or why do those whom the gods love die young.
I’ve written about Ohira-san—another Taka, although only a nickname—here before. If the gods ever loved someone it was him, surely: born in a well-to-do Osaka family, a violin prodigy from his early teens and a student at one of the most prestigious schools in town, winning or placing in two national violin competitions in junior high and high school, going to Tokyo University—the ultimate academic success—and serving as concertmaster of the orchestra there, eventually becoming an associate professor at the same university while still in his early thirties. And then killing himself at the age of thirty-three, leaving his wife of six months to find his body in the morning.
I’m not sure exactly why Taka died, because it’s a thing you can’t ask without more of a need-to-know than I’ve got. The most I can infer, from people who knew him, is that the intensely competitive pressure of high-level hard science research—in Japan in the late eighties—came to be too much for him, especially in an environment where his superiors gave him the fisheye for carrying a violin case to work with him. Maybe he regretted not having become a professional musician, but felt that it was too late to go that route. Maybe there were other things happening. I don’t know. He might have been clinically depressed. His wife, twenty-five when they married, was getting her master’s degree in piano performance at the time of his death; she took her exams, got her degree (in spite of collapsing into tears during one performance, and who in God’s name can blame her), and then, only a year later, entered a nationally well-regarded medical school to study psychiatry. Given the stiff entrance exams for any medical school (Japanese medical school is a six-year combined undergraduate/graduate degree), this would be a remarkable feat even without the tragic background. She gave up playing the piano professionally, and is now the head of psychiatry at a major eastern hospital.
Everyone I’ve been able to get in touch with—friends at the American university where he did postdoc research and played music with my father, friends in Japan, colleagues—seems to have fond and admiring memories of Taka. Where is that damn time machine? To go back and say, Taka, you have so many paths to take, you’re so gifted and so loved, there are other ways out, don’t do this, don’t take yourself away from us, from yourself.
I had one recording of Taka’s violin—playing the Tchaikovsky concerto with a student orchestra, under my father’s baton. The recording quality is lousy, but you can still hear how his sound shimmers. An unexpected benefit of asking around about him was that people gave me other recordings of his playing—Brahms, Schubert, Prokofiev, Dvorak, Bach—and they’re all wonderful. Not perfect, because nobody is, but brilliant, and with his passion for the music, sheer love of what he’s doing, shining in every note. And yeah, they make me cry. Oh Taka.