Through the Eyes of My Sensei

By William Moran
August 23, 2022
Shibuya Hachiko-mae. There was no doubt in my mind. By the nose of Hachiko’s statue at Shibuya Station is where I will find my friend. Decades earlier, our Japanese professor, Father George Hisaharu Minamiki, S.J., taught us the story of Hachiko, the loyal Akita dog who waited patiently each day for the return of his departed owner for ten years until his own death when the two would be reunited in the next life. I was to meet my university classmate who was visiting from the United States. We had only set a meeting time, but not a location, which we had agreed to confirm later by phone. Technology failed us and my university classmate’s mobile phone would not work. Unable to reach me, he followed the instinct that Fr. Minamiki, a Jesuit priest, had instilled: Hachiko-mae is where one meets friends. Our shared instinct caused me to reach the same conclusion and we met precisely at the designated time with Hachiko looking down at us with approval. We had yet another reason to be thankful for the teachings of our beloved professor.
The statue of the dog Hachiko
The Hachiko Statue in Shibuya, a popular meeting landmark. 
A few years earlier, Fr. Minamiki insisted that I meet him in Kyoto Tower’s observation deck, 100 meters above the city that until 1868 was Japan’s capital for a millennium. This was to be our last reunion as he passed a short time thereafter. Eager to take him to some of my favorite historical sites in the city I called home for the three years of my graduate studies in law and politics, I was surprised at his choice of the meeting place, a modern structure that stands in contrast to the temples, shrines, and castles for which Kyoto is famous. Upon meeting me at the observation deck café, he explained the choice: from this vantage point, we could see the entire city and understand our destinations for the day. That was one of Fr. Minamiki’s many talents, providing a framework to make sense of the possibilities and find order where to the uninitiated there was no discernable pattern.

As we discussed our plans for the day, my professor abruptly asked, “Why is Otonanofurikake called Otonanofurikake?” Nagatanien, the Tokyo-based maker of various premixed and instant foods, introduced Otonanofurikake – translated into English as “adult furikake condiment for rice”– in 1989 to change the widely-held perception that the dried condiment was mainly food for children. The then 81-year old teacher smiled at the novelty of his question, demonstrating the curiosity of a new student, then proceeded to inquire further, “Is this furikake only for adults or can children can have it, too?” Whenever I find something unexpected or new in Japan, which happens often, I remember Fr. Minamiki’s smile upon his discovery that day.

I became one of Fr. Minamiki’s students towards the end of his career. Even now more than thirty years later I recall his many lessons, which were formed during his time as a teacher in Japan between 1949 to 1966. The young Japanese American Jesuit priest came to teach English, theology, and ethics at Rokko Junior and Senior High School in Kobe and Eiko Gakuen Junior and Senior High School in Kamakura. He spent his last five years in Japan until 1966 as the principal of Hiroshima Gakuin Junior and Senior High School before returning to the United States, where he became a professor of Japanese.

I recently found an article Fr. Minamiki wrote in 1953 about his early travels in Japan. Some of his observations remain true to today:
We are now ready to depart [Tokyo], this capital of six and a half million people. The station platform moves slowly behind us. You must not count on finding an empty seat in the train … and if you do not like crowds, well, you have to learn to become accustomed to them ….

Finally we reach Osaka, the industrial center of Japan …. But our thoughts are interrupted by the rousing cheers we hear in the distance – we are reminded that we are near [Koshien Stadium], the home of Japanese professional baseball, where fifty thousand enthusiastic fans turned out to see Joe Dimaggio in one of his exhibitions ….

[O]ur Rokko students … are typical Kansai boys, much more free … than boys elsewhere on the islands – and noisier, too.1
Through his observations, Fr. Minamiki distilled essential truths to share. Midway through the first semester, he stopped the class to emphasize the need to perfect fundamentals of the Japanese language before proceeding. “Those of you who can grasp this grammatical rule, which is the complete reverse of the English grammatical structure, will go on to become proficient; those of you who do not take the time to master this will not,” he admonished. He then wrote on the board heya ni isu ga arimasu – “there is a chair in the room,” which when diagrammed becomes “room in chair is.” He then made the class repeat this sentence aloud for what seemed to be hours. The lesson had been learned. With this fundamental structure imprinted in our minds, we had been equipped to advance.

It is through the eyes of my sensei that I often view Japan, looking for the history that has become tradition alive in the present and embracing the contradiction between the old and modern, while taking the time both to learn the fundamental and to seek the novel and new. Perhaps it is time to update the tradition. The next time I meet at friend at Hachiko-mae I will bring onigiri rice balls with a little Otonanofurikake sprinkled on top. Fr. Minamiki would approve, but certainly would insist that we translate into Japanese “There is an Otonanofurikake onigiri in Shibuya” if just to make sure that we remember our fundamentals.
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