Koga Takeo (1950-2008)
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 19, 2008
SORRY FOR THE LIGHT POSTING lately, but the end of the fiscal year in Japan is a busy one for translators, and other things have been occupying my time this week as well. On Monday afternoon, Koga Takeo, the man who got me to Japan 24 years ago this month (and the nakodo at my wedding three years later) died. His wake was held tonight, and the funeral will be held tomorrow.
Ordinarily Japan is the subject here rather than anything to do with me, but in many ways, to talk about Mr. Koga is to talk about grass-roots Japanese internationalism over the last quarter of the 20th century. To the extent that Japanese society, a former feudal domain that emerged from its self-isolation in a particularly unpleasant way, is now enthusiastically and pleasantly engaged on a variety of levels with the rest of the world, is due to people like Mr. Koga and thousands of people like him in cities and towns throughout the country.
The obituary in the newspaper noted that he was a pioneer (kusawake, literally grass-parter) of international exchange activities in the prefecture, and that doesn’t begin to describe it. The man was a veritable fountain of ideas, and he had the energy to pull most of them off and the persuasiveness to get people to go along with him. He was the founder of three different enterprises (all of which continue to operate today), as well as an instructor in Wado-ryu karate with his own dojo. (He was seventh dan.) It was not unusual for him to spend summer vacations leading a group of students to stay in a remote Thai village that lacked electricity or running water.
On one occasion some years ago, I was part of a group of people bouncing around ideas for solving his latest problem. He was trying to figure out how to find the money to ship two buses to Thailand that he had convinced the local bus company to donate to an orphanage in that country. It took him a while to get them there, but it was just the sort of thing he enjoyed doing.
He had created a scholarship fund for that orphanage, and there were two reasons for his involvement with it. First, he wanted Japanese to become more aware of Asia, and second, he wanted poverty-stricken orphans in rural Thailand to go as far in school as they could. In a country where uneducated country girls often wind up in the sex industry, that is a very big deal.
He convinced his hometown to form sister-city ties with a small town in the United States, and then served as the interpreter during the formal signing ceremony. He also could have interpreted had the ceremony been conducted in French. Ten years ago in Busan, I had a couple of late-night drinks with him in a pojang macha (I think they’re called), a sort of yatai, or street stall, but with the selection of a yakitori restaurant, and his conversational Korean was good enough for all the other customers.
He thought that too often for Japanese, foreigners = Caucasians, so he embarked on a one-man affirmative action program of hiring as English teachers people from such countries as Sri Lanka, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Zaire whenever he could.
As if that weren’t enough, he was always coming up with ideas for projects on the side. For example, he conceived the idea of filming The Wings of A Man, the story of the only Japanese professional baseball player to die as a kamikaze pilot, and wound up borrowing money from the bank himself to finance the bulk of it.
He also had his eccentric aspects. I have seen him show up for events dressed in an informal men’s kimono, a black cape lined in pink, and a bowler hat. Apparently, he was like that as a young man, too. His first job was as a high school English teacher, and his classroom attire was a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals.
Oh, and did I mention he shaved his head like a monk? He said a priest gave him permission to do so.
The subheading to this site is “Japan from the Inside Out”, and the reason I was allowed that vantage point is because he was the one who opened the door and invited me in. To be sure, participation in Japanese society as an equal (with no special favors) is exactly what I wanted, and that is exactly what he insisted upon from his foreign employees. Still, it is surprising even today that many foreigners who talk about internationalism and their interest in Japan and the Japanese are really just blowing smoke. It is also surprising how many Japanese still give them a pass.
But I continue to learn things from him, even indirectly. At the wake, his son delivered a short eulogy in which he said, “My father was like a storm who always thought what he wanted, said what he wanted, and did what he wanted. Many of you might have been engulfed by that storm and suffered some damage from it, but we ask you to forgive him.”
That’s when I learned that the Japanese can laugh at a funeral, as well as cry.
The final scene in the movie Leo the Last, made in 1970 during a period of global social upheaval, shows the star Marcello Mastroianni lying in a heap in the street with the neighbors after an explosion on his block. One of his neighbors tells him, “You can’t change the world.” Mastroianni replies, no you can’t, but you can change your street.
Koga Takeo didn’t change the world, but he certainly changed a lot more than his street. Over the years, he inspired more young people than I can count to expand their horizons, travel the world, and accomplish things they couldn’t have imagined trying before they met him.
Before going to his wake tonight, my wife and I calculated how much time it would take to drive to the funeral parlor and set out accordingly. So many people came that it caused a traffic jam, and we arrived 25 minutes later than we planned. Goodness knows what it will be like at the funeral tomorrow.
He died 10 days short of his 58th birthday. May he rest in peace.
Update: I don’t know how long the link will last, but here’s a Japanese-language story about his funeral with a photo that appeared in the regional newspaper. Attendance was estimated at about 1,000, and that is no exaggeration. The prefectural governor delivered one of the eulogies, in which he said, “That a person such as him even existed is a marvel.” That about sums it up.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at 12:37 am and is filed under Education, Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Social trends. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.