By Kit Pancoast Nagamura
Frankly, the ceramics shop in Morishita did not look promising from the outside, with cracked walls and wind-shredded awnings. Inside it was more stall than store. I walked among the rows of tables sagging with pottery plates and cups, tied in sets of five with plastic twine. I noticed that everything was coated in a thick layer of dust, as though abandoned decades ago. Perhaps the owner is suffering hard times, I thought.
Seeing no one about, I sang out: "Gomen kudasai!" From the penumbra in the shop's rear, an elderly man emerged, wearing dark glasses. "Go away," he said, waving me off.
"Are you closed today?" I asked, straining to make out his face, not certain I heard correctly.
"Go away. I hate foreigners."
"Wow," I replied. In all my many years in Japan, no one had ever expressed this sentiment to me directly. "Why?"
"I don't need to explain," he said, then after a moment added, "You're troublesome."
"But," I explained, very gently, assuming he had perhaps had a bad experience with tourists or something, "I speak Japanese, and have Japanese yen, and not everyone thinks I'm bothersome."
"Then go to a department store," the man replied. "You'll find better stuff there, anyway."
"Maybe so," I answered, "but you have such good prices."
The man shook his head. "Nope," he said. "I don't sell to foreigners."
"Did something happen that made you decide this?" I asked, knowing that in digging, I could turn up worms as easily as ordnance, because Morishita was hit hard during the war.
The man tilted his head. "I can't explain," he said, his voice momentarily softer. "Just go away. No foreigners."
In a city overflowing with superlative and inexpensive ceramics, I felt no need to beg purchasing rights of this man. However, Martin Luther King's wife, Coretta, once said: "Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated." I suspected this man's hatred was like shrapnel in his heart, but I felt helpless to operate on it.
Another shopper, having overheard the exchange, came up to me as I stood stunned out on the sidewalk.
"I can't believe that," he said. I smiled wanly and nodded. "I'm so sorry. But, by the way, do you like ceramics?" he asked. I nodded again.
"OK," he said, "then I have something for you. I collect ceramics, good pieces. Let me give you some."
Still slightly rattled, I protested and demurred, but he finally convinced me to at least view his collection. His apartment, it turned out, held hundreds of boxes of work by known potters.
"I rent this place just to store my collection," he said. "If you take some, I'll have room to buy new ones."
We spent hours talking pottery, and I learned a great deal. In the end, I sheepishly admit, I received a few pieces. I cherish them now, and they remind me daily of how like vessels we humans are, capable of storing poisons or pouring out tonics, of being treasured or buried in dust, of saddening or delighting others.
Shukan ST: July 1, 2011
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