Grandfather’s Lamp おじいさんのランプ

Ni’imi Nankichi brings us a story about the ever evolving world in which we live. A lot can change over the course of a lifetime.

Grandfather’s Lamp
By Ni’imi Nankichi
Translated by Tony Perrin

Tōichi emerged from his hiding place the corner of the storeroom with a lamp in hand.

The lamp was of a curious construction; it hardly looked like a lamp at all at first glance. Its base was a thick cut of bamboo about eighty centimeters in diameter, with a small wick placed above it. And the lamp’s chimney was a cylinder of fine glass.

“That’s an old gun, yeah?” said Sōkichi, whose was it in their game of hide-and-seek.

It took Tōichi’s grandfather a little while to see what was the matter. He got it after a minute of peering through his glasses at the object. Once he realized what it was, he set about to scolding the children.

“Now look here! Just what have you gotten into? Kids these days, leave ‘em alone and who knows what mischief they’ll get into. Gotta keep an eye on you or you’d rob me blind! Get that out of here and go do something outside! Play Red Rover or something, I don’t care.”

Once they had been scolded the children, for the first time, realized that they had done something wrong. Then Tōichi and the other neighborhood children dragged themselves out to the road, the guilt plain on their faces.

Outside, the midday winds of spring were kicking up dust from the road. White butterflies danced behind a plodding ox cart. This would be the perfect place for a little game, but not one of the children felt like playing. They thought it would make them appear foolish to play a game after being explicitly told to do so by an adult.

So instead, the children made for the plaza, clinking some bottle-caps together on the way. It wasn’t long before they forgot all about the lamp.

When Tōichi returned home once the sun had started to set, he found the lamp in a corner of the living room. But he didn’t say anything about it, lest he again draw the ire of his grandfather.

Tōichi leaned against his dresser and rattled the handles on the drawers. The post-dinner period of the evening, when boredom started to settle I, had begun. He made his way down to the store and watched closely as a professor of agriculture ordered a book with some long-winded title like Theory and Practice of Radish Cultivation.

After Tōichi tired of this, he went back to the living room. After carefully checking to make sure that his grandfather was not present, he sidled up to the lamp. He removed the chimney. He unscrewed the penny-sized screws. He took out the wick and then put it back in.

Halfway through his analysis, Tōichi was discovered by his grandfather. But there was to be no scolding this time. His grandfather had the maid fetch him a cup of tea and stoked up his pipe.

“Tōichi, this lamp is very important to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about it, but you fishing it out of the storeroom really takes me back! When you get to be as old as your grandfather, any old thing can make you happy.”

Tōichi stared blankly at his grandfather. He had thought that the scolding had meant that his grandfather had been angry with him, but really he was just happy to see the old lamp.

“Sit down here and I’ll tell you all about it,” his grandfather said.

Tōichi was always up for a good story, and so he first sat beside his grandfather. But this had all the makings of a sermon, so Tōichi switched to a more comfortable position. As his grandfather began his story, he laid down and tucked his feet in behind him, occasionally bringing the bottoms of his feet together.

*****

It was fifty years ago now, about when we were at war with Russia. There was a boy of thirteen from the town of Yanabe. His name was Minosuke.

Minosuke didn’t have a mother, or a father, or any siblings. He was an orphan in the truest sense of the word. So he was an errand boy for one house, a babysitter for another, and a rice farmer for some other. Anything a boy like Minosuke could do, Minosuke would do.

But to speak frankly, Minosuke despised the fact that he lived to serve the town. If he were to spend his whole life babysitting and hulling rice, he would constantly think, it would be a waste for him to have even been born.

A young man had to meet with success. But how would Minosuke find success? He just barely had enough food to eat. He couldn’t afford a single book, and even if he could, he wouldn’t have had the time to read it.

Secretly, Minosuke was waiting for his opportunity. And then one summer afternoon, Minosuke was offered a job driving a rickshaw.

There were two or three rickshaws in Yanabe in those days. There were lots of customers coming down from Nagoya to convalesce (that means ‘get better’) in the ocean. They’d usually take the train to Handa, and then they’d catch a rickshaw down to the west coast of the peninsula, usually Ôno or Shin-Maiko. And Yanabe was the perfect place to catch one.

Driving a rickshaw was slow work. There was a ridge between Ôno and Yanabe that slowed things even further. And to make matters even worse, rickshaws in those days had giant metal wheels that were darn heavy and always screeched. So customers that were in a hurry would hire two drivers for their carts. It was one such summer customer who had hired Minosuke.

With the rope that was tied to the shaft of the rickshaw coiled around his shoulder, Minosuke huffed and puffed his way down the road, hazy with heat. It was grueling work that would take some time to become accustomed to. But Minosuke did not mind the hardship. He was overcome with curiosity. For as far back as he could remember, he had never set foot outside his own village. He had no idea what towns or people there could be over the ridge.

As the sun set and pale figures were starting to glow in the blue twilight, the rickshaw reached the village of Ôno.

Here Minosuke saw many things for the first time. First of all, it was a rare sight for Minosuke to see so many big stores built up next to each other. There was only one merchant in Yanabe. More or less everything used in the town—candy, sandals, looms, poultices, eye drops—were all sold in the same small store.

But what surprised Minosuke most was that each of these large stores had its own colorful glass lamp. Most of the homes in Minosuke’s village went dark at night. The villagers would have to grope around in the dark like blind men to find the water jug or the mortar. The more well-off households might use a simple lantern—a single wick situated in a plate of oil and surrounded by paper on all sides—received as a wedding gift. The tiny flame would give the paper a warm orange glow that would give the surroundings a bit of color. But none of these lanterns could hold a flame to the lamps Minosuke saw in Ôno.

And these were glass lamps, which were still a rarity back then. They seemed much finer than the paper ones, which were prone to staining and tearing.

All these lamps made the modest city of Ôno look like some fairy-tale palace. Minosuke never wanted to go home. For who among us, after seeing the light, would wish to return to the darkness?

After getting his tip from his passenger, Minosuke left his rickshaw behind and roamed around the town in a daze. He listened to the incessant roar of the waves, he popped into the unfamiliar stores, and he simply stared in wonder at the beautiful lamps.

The clerk of the clothier had hung some camellia-printed fabric beneath his lamp for his customers to see. The grocer’s shopboy had hung strings of adzuki beans from his store’s lamp. And from another store’s lamp were suspended prayer beads. Filtered through the dim light of the lamps, normal human existence became as beautiful as that in a fairy-tale or a moving picture.

Minosuke had heard of how Japan had changed since coming into contact with the West, but until now he had not understood just what that meant.

As he wandered, Minosuke came upon a store with many lamps hanging outside. This must have been the lamp store.

Minosuke hesitated for a moment, clenching the few coins from his tip tightly in his hand, before he strode confidently into the store.

“I’d like to get one of those.” Minosuke pointed to the lamps. He didn’t yet know the word for them.

The store clerk took down the hanging lamp to which Minosuke had pointed, but Minosuke didn’t have enough money.

“Come down a little,” Minosuke insisted.

“I can’t go any lower,” the clerk replied.

“C’mon, give it to me wholesale.” Often, Minosuke would make straw sandals and get them sold at the general store in Yanabe. He knew that everything had a wholesale price, and a retail price, and that the wholesale was cheaper. For instance, Minosuke’s sandals. The merchant would buy them for one and a half sen, and then sell them to the rickshaw drivers for two and a half.

Now the clerk didn’t know who the heck this fellow was, so he just stared at Minosuke in surprise for a moment. Then he said:

“I could sell it to you wholesale if you were a lamp merchant. You don’t just sell wholesale to some random person.”

“So you’d sell wholesale to a lamp merchant?”

“Indeed I would.”

“In that case, I’m a lamp merchant.”

Lamp still held in his hand, the clerk burst out laughing. “You? A lamp merchant?”

“I swear it! I’m getting into the lamp business. Just do me a solid and give me one of ‘em wholesale today. Next time I’m gonna buy a bunch of ‘em.”

At first the clerk had been laughing, but he was moved by Minosuke’s spiel. “All right, just this once, you can get it wholesale. To tell the truth, even the wholesale price is more than what you’ve got, but I admire your enthusiasm. From now on, though, you’re gonna be a serious businessman, right? I want you out there selling my lamps!”

The clerk handed Minosuke the lamp and showed him how to use it. Minosuke lit the lamp—so much brighter than his paper lantern—and headed for home.

With his lamp hanging from his rickshaw like a summer flower, Minosuke no longer had anything to fear in the thickets and forests that covered the dark ridge.

There was another light shining within Minouske. He could sell these lamps in his own dark village, which Westernization seemed to have passed by. He could brighten his neighbors’ lives with these marvelous lamps…

*****

Minosuke’s new business venture was not successful at first. Small-town farmers didn’t put much stock in new-fangled ideas, you see.

After much thought, Minosuke took the lamp to the town’s sole merchant and would encourage customers to take it home for the night and try it out, free of charge.

The old woman who ran the general store was hesitant, but she stuck a nail in the ceiling and allowed the lamp to hang there.

A few days later Minosuke went to the store with some sandals to sell, and was met by the old woman with a big grin on her face. She said, My! this lamp is so bright; and that all the customers come to see it, even at night; and that she can see the money so clearly now; and would you sell it to her please. She also told Minosuke that now that the townsfolk understood just how nice the lamp was, she’d had orders for three more. Minosuke was ecstatic.

Minosuke had barely got the profits from his sandals and the lamp into his pocket before he took off running for Ôno. He explained the situation to the lamp merchant, asked him to loan him the remaining money, and sold the three lamps he had bought to his customers in Yanabe.

From now on Minosuke’s lamps were all the rage.

At first, when he received an order, Minosuke would go to the merchant in Ôno to pick up his lamps. But after a while he had made enough money to always have some lamps in stock.

Minosuke quit his jobs running errands and baby-sitting to sell lamps full-time. He procured a cart with long metal poles from which he hung lamps and chimneys. He went all through his village and the neighboring towns, the lamps clinking crisply together as he moved.

Minosuke was now a young man. He did not have a house; until now he had lived in a small lean-to on the mayor’s property. He built himself a house with the small amount of money he had saved up. And then he got himself a wife.

One day Minosuke was hawking his wares in a nearby town. “You can sit yourself down beneath one of these here lamps and read the newspaper if you please!” Minosuke had heard the mayor say this before. A customer asked him, “You for real?” Now, Minosuke hated lying, so he thought to test out this claim for himself. He got some old newspapers from the mayor and opened them up beneath the lamp.

Sure enough, the mayor was right. In the light of the lamp, Minosuke could clearly see each of the intricate characters on the page. “Liars don’t make it in business,” he muttered to himself. However, even though Minosuke could clearly see the characters, it didn’t matter. “S’pose we ain’t quite modernized yet. I can see, but I can’t read.”

From then on, Minosuke went to the mayor’s house each night, where the mayor would teach him his letters.

*****

Minosuke was in the prime of his life. He had two children. “Guess you could say I’m independent now, whatever that means. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m successful,” he would think sometimes, contentedly.

And then one day, when he was in Ôno to stock up on lamp wicks, he saw five or six workers digging holes on the sides of the street and erecting large wooden poles in them. Two planks of wood were attached parallel to the tops of these poles, which held several of what looked like ceramic spheres. As he was wondering just what these strange contraptions could be, Minosuke came to the next street, which also boasted these strange poles. Sparrows were resting on the planks.

These poles, placed at about fifty meter intervals, lined the streets.

Minosuke finally asked a man hanging up noodles to dry in the sun. “We’re gettin’ that—whaddya call it?—electricity,” the cook replied. “Won’t be needin’ those lamps anymore.”

This was tough news for Minosuke. He didn’t know the first thing about electricity. But if it were to replace lamps, he thought, then it must be lighting. If it were lighting, that meant you could use it in the home. Well, no preposterous poles were going to be erected in his small town.

When Minosuke next came to Ôno the following month, the poles standing along the road now had black cords strung between them connecting the ceramic spheres. They seemed to go on forever.

Looking closely, Minosuke noticed that some of these cords pulled away from the poles and had attached themselves to the sides of houses.

“Hmph, you’d think this electricity is for lights or something, but these cords just look like places for birds to sit!” Minosuke sneered.

However, when he went into a bar owned by an acquaintance of his, the large lamp that always hung above the table in the center of the room was now attached to the wall, and in its place was a large light with no receptacle for kerosene. To it was attached a thick cord.

“What’s this ugly thing on the ceiling?” Minosuke asked. “Ain’t there something wrong with it?”

“Oh, that’s one of them electric lights!” the bartender responded. “It’s a blessing, let me tell ya. No chance of a fire, it’s brighter, and you don’t need no matches!”

“But it’s a god-damned monstrosity! It looks so stupid you’re gonna lose some customers, trust me.”

Knowing that his acquaintance was in the lamp-selling business, the bartender didn’t speak any further about the lamp’s conveniences. And Minosuke refused to see them for himself.

“Now you listen to me! Look at the ceiling there! That old lamp’s been there so long it’s stained the ceiling where it was black with soot! Now the lamp’s not there no more. And there’s this light—which you say is a real blessing—hanging in its place. Now how do you think the lamp feels?”

Now around this time night had fallen, and though nobody in the bar had a match, all of a sudden the bartender made the bar as bright as day. Minosuke was so shocked he whirled around.

“This, Mr. Minosuke, is electricity.”

Minosuke gritted his teeth and stared down the light, as though it was his sworn enemy. It was so bright it made his eyes hurt.

“Mr. Minosuke, this ain’t a good demonstration of what electricity can do. Why don’t you go outside and take a good look around?”

Minosuke slinked over to the door and looked out at the way. Lights just like that in the bar were ablaze in every house, in every shop. The light from homes spilled out into the streets. For Minosuke, so used to his lamps, it was all too dazzling. Frustrated, he stared at the lights for a long time.

My most formidable foe yet!, Minosuke thought. Though he had spoken much of Japan’s modernization previously, he had known nothing of these electric lights that were a step above even lamps. And now that an industrious person such as himself might be on the verge of obsolescence, he wondered if he had erred in his judgment of it all.

From that day on Minosuke lived in fear of the idea that the people of Yanabe, too, would become entranced with the electric light. If the lights were turned on, the townsfolk would hang up their lamps on the wall, just as the bartender had, or they’d store them away somewhere in a shed. There’d be no need for lamps and no need for lamp merchants.

On the other hand, thought Minosuke, the townsfolk were rather wary even of the lamps at first. Electricity might seem like anathema to them.

But before long, Minosuke heard it whispered that at the next village assembly, they were going to discuss the matter of whether or not to electrify the town. His old enemy had reared its head at last. Minosuke felt like he’d been kicked in the head.

He couldn’t stay silent! Minosuke led the anti-electricity faction in the town. “Electricity means wires strung up all over town! You know where those wires are coming from? Deep in the mountains. That means that foxes or any manner of creature could creep down them in the dead of night and rampage through our rice paddies!”

Even as he spoke the words Minosuke felt ashamed. He was only speaking nonsense to protect his way of life. So when he heard that the village assembly had at last decided to electrify Yanabe, it was a body blow. He’d been so badly beaten by the electric light that he feared for his health.

Soon his fears came alive. On the afternoon three days after the village assembly, Minosuke laid down and pulled the sheets over his head. When he awoke he was quite mad.

Minosuke bore deep resentment for everyone involved, including the mayor, who had chaired the assembly. So he conceived of various reasons to despise the mayor. Minosuke was usually a bright fellow, but not knowing whether or not his job would exist the next day had caused him to abandon judgment. He began to hold onto contrived grievances.

*****

It was a warm night. The moon shone brightly overhead. The rumblings of drums from a distant spring festival could be heard.

Minosuke did not use the road. He scrambled through the gutters like a sewer rat, or wandered the woods like a wild dog. This is what people do when they don’t want to be seen.

The mayor’s house had long been a thorn in his side. He knew it well. Ever since he had left the house, he knew that the best place to start a fire would be the cow shed, with its straw roof.

The house was silent. The cow shed was silent. This didn’t mean that the cows were asleep; cows were silent in the daytime, too. Though the cows would most likely not interfere.

Instead of matches, Minosuke had brought some flint. When he had left, he had searched the stove for matches, but there were none to be found. Fortunately, he had hit upon the flint.

Minosuke set the kindling alight. The flames danced, but they barely moved. The shed might have been too damp. Useless old tool, he thought. The flames failed to grow, but the loud grating of the flint awoke the people in the house.

“Goddamn!” Minosuke hissed. “Shoulda brought matches. This old thing’s way past its prime.”

Minosuke thought about what he had just said. “This old thing’s way past its prime… This old thing’s way past its prime…”

Just as the moon can bring light to a dark night, these words brought clarity to Minosuke’s head. Now he could see clearly where he had gone wrong: the lamp was a tool of a bygone age. Electric lights were a more useful tool of the modern age. That was how much the world had changed. Modernization continued. As a citizen of Japan, Minosuke ought to be proud of how far his country had come! That his job had become obsolete was nothing more than a sign of progress. And here he was trying to burn down the house of a man who had done nothing wrong? What kind of a man did that make him? The world had changed, and Minosuke would have to change with it. He would cast aside his business, and enter a new trade…

Minosuke went home. He awoke his wife and started to fill all the lamps in the house with kerosene.

His wife asked just what he was doing so late at night, but, sensing that she aimed to stop him, Minosuke said nothing.

He had about fifty lamps of various sizes, all stocked with kerosene. Then, just like he always did when getting ready for the day, Minosuke hung all the lamps on his cart and headed out. This time he made sure he had matches.

The western road to the ridge passed by Handa Pond. When it swelled in the spring, steam would come off of its glassy surface in the moonlight. Several shrubs and willows on the shores of the pond drooped into the water.

There was not a single soul to be found. Minosuke had chosen this location for precisely that reason.

Minosuke lit each of his lamps in turn. Once they were all lit, he hung them from the branches jutting out over the pond. Once a tree could not hold any more lamps, he would move on to the next one. He managed to get all of the lamps on to three different trees.

Neither the lamps nor the flames moved in the still night, and before long the whole area was as bright as midday. Fish started slicing through the waters like knives, trying to reach the twinkling lights.

“This is how I put an end to my trade,” Minosuke said to himself. But he could not bring himself to leave. He stood for a long time looking out at his lamp-festooned trees, arms hanging limply at his sides.

He knew these lamps so well. He had become accustomed to them. These dear, tragic lamps.

“This is how I put an end to my trade.” Minosuke moved to the opposite side of the pond. From there, too, he could see the lamps flickering. Around fifty of them. And another fifty on the surface of the water. Here, too, Minosuke stared for a long time.

Those dear, tragic lamps.

After some time Minosuke stooped down to pick up a stone from his feet. Then he aimed for the largest lamp and threw the stone with all his might. The flickering flame vanished with a shattering crash.

“Your time is over. The world’s moved on!” Minosuke exclaimed. He picked up a second stone. The next biggest lamp was extinguished with a crash.

“The world’s moved on! This is the age of electricity!” As the third largest lamp shattered, Minosuke’s eyes welled up with tears, and he could no longer see well enough to aim.

That was how Minosuke put an end to his trade. After that he returned to town and began a new business. He opened a bookstore.

*****

“Minosuke still owns the bookstore,” Tōichi’s grandfather concluded. “But he’s gotten too old, so his son runs it now.” He sipped at his tea, which had gone cold. Tōichi looked at his grandfather for some time. After a while he sat up again and laid his hands on his grandfather’s knee.

“So what happened to the other forty-seven lamps?”

“Who knows? Maybe some travelers found them the next day.”

“So you didn’t have any lamps left at the house?”

Looking at the lamp Tōichi had found in the storeroom, Tōichi’s grandfather said, “One.”

“What a waste! I’m sure somebody would have bought the rest of them.”

“It was a waste. When I think about it now, I could have just let them go cheap. Even though we had electricity in Yanabe, I could have easily sold fifty lamps. There’s a small village to the south called Fukudani where they still use lamps today! And there were other villages that made use of lamps for quite some time. But my blood ran hot back in those days. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Well, it was pretty dumb,” Tōichi said with the innocence of youth.

“Oh, it was pretty dumb. But Tōichi…” Tōichi’s grandfather clasped his grandson’s hands, pipe still held in them. “How I acted was pretty dumb, but I think the way I put an end to my trade was quite spectacular! What I want to tell you is that if your trade is no longer of use to Japan as she moves forward, just let it go. Someone who clings desperately to a dirty old trade, says how good it was in the old days, and resents the progress that’s been made just hasn’t got no self-respect.”

Tōichi looked up at his grandfather, whose face, though small, was vivacious. At last he said: “Well, I think you did good.” Then, with eyes that were a little older, he looked back to the old lamp.

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English translation © 2016 Tony Perrin. All rights reserved.