Dust In The Wind

Alone above the city, in an office the size of three average Tokyo apartments, sits Mr. Keimatsu.  His view encompasses the big new buildings rising everywhere just east of Shinagawa Station: Sony, Citibank, Seafort Square.  Along the harbor canals below pass seagoing barges and corporate luxury yachts.  Faultlessly dressed secretaries are at his beck and call, and from his desk it is a long walk  to the leather couches where he receives his clients and guests.

Keimatsu is an impeccable, dignified man in his early fifties, fatherly in manner.  A kindly sobriety can be seen in his eyes.  He is the president of IMS, a company which issues reports on pharmaceutical firms in Japan.  IMS is a Dun and Bradstreet company occupying four floors of this building and other offices elsewhere in Tokyo.  Keimatsu also oversees six other Dun and Bradstreet operations in Japan, companies like Nielson Rating Japan, and Moody’s Financial Reports.  About once a month he flies to New York and reports in to the President of D&B.  There he sees incomprehensible things such as the CEO personally stepping to the mike to give people directions to the post-conference  restaurant.

Mr. Keimatsu’s English is nearly perfect, but he wants to learn more American-style English, so into his office I come, a Berkeley exile with briefcase and beard.  The first session went fairly well.  I didn’t bring up my old Ford pick-up truck or how I used to drive it to the Berkeley dumps to unload yard clippings.  I made subdued inquiries about his corporate responsibilities.  Keimatsu responded, then gazed out a window, reflecting on how bad business was in Tokyo, how hotels were half-empty and his favorite restaurant was empty, period.  He began to looked a little drained, and halfway through the session he let me know why.  It involved an old school friend who had retired and moved north to Aomori to spend his days relaxing and enjoying his wealth.

“Friday morning at about five o’clock,” Keimatsu began, “my friend’s wife called.  She said he died during the night.  He got out of a bath and fell down.  She said  he looked up at her and said this is the end of my life.  He turned white and that was it.

“My wife is close friend of his wife,” he explained, “so by 9AM we were on the bullet train north to Morioka.  When we arrived at the house, my friend was lying in the center of the room being dressed for burial in a kimono,  white tabi and straw sandals.  I had to grab his legs to help lift the body onto the stretcher.  The man’s wife was crying.

“I tried to get back to Tokyo early,” he explained, “but I could not avoid the cremation ceremony.”  He pointed to a low black table in front of us, as if to help me visualize things clearly.  “In Japan, we sit watching as the body is placed on a long tray and rolled into the uh….”

“Oven?” I offered.

“Yes, the oven.  And then you hear the fire begin and all the different noises.  You sit for two hours and then they roll it back out.  There are a few bones left and a great amount of ashes.  After the ashes, each bone must be picked up by two people together, using hashi (chopsticks) and placed in the urn.  The, uh, throat bone…?”

“Adam’s apple?”

“Is that what it’s called?  Yes, that must be placed on top, right above the skull.”

At this point I suddenly remembered the pop tune that had floated out of the loudspeakers in Shinagawa Station on my way to IMS that day.  I had hummed along with it:  “Dust in the Wind…all we are is Dust in the Wind.”  Some dark thing poked its way into the room.  “He was just my age,” Keimatsu emphasized, “and then I started having chest pains myself.”

I appreciated that he was sharing all this with me.  I asked if he had any spiritual resources to fall back on.  “There’s a young Buddhist monk I play tennis with once a week.  He said my wife should not pray to the dead man for his widow recover her strength.  This only prevents him from detaching from the world.”

I agreed, but also pointed out, diplomatically, an advantage of monotheism: you can  ask God to give the woman strength instead.  In my mind’s eye, though, I kept seeing Keimatsu’s monk as he sprinted around a tennis court in flowing white robes:  “Your wife” – plunk! – “really shouldn’t be praying” – thonk! – “to the husband’s spirit” – thwack! – “in that way…Oops!   Damn this robe!… Fifteen-love!!”

Keimatsu was not unfamiliar with the paranormal.  In boyhood, after his grandmother’s death, a relative had seen her ghost walking with his own aunt and uncle, who were the grandmother’s children.  This relative predicted the death of these two, and that came to pass within a year.  But he returned to the current case: the deceased man’s widow in Morioka was still distraught.  It seems the urn, which according to Buddhist law must be kept in the home for 49 days, kept waking her up at night.  She claimed to hear the ashes settling and her husband’s bones sinking deeper inside.

It was a month or so before I saw Keimatsu again.  The week before had been pleasant, he observed.  His company holds a yearly seminar for customers at a beautiful hotel on an island at the end of Izu peninsula.  He just speaks at the opening and closing ceremonies, leaving the details to others.  They hold the seminar in Izu because it’s near a home he built there by the sea.  On Sunday everyone took a boat cruise across the bay, and then helicopters came to whisk everyone to a nearby golf course and return them to the hotel afterwards.

But Sunday was hard. The 49 days had passed, and his old friend’s ashes were buried in the family plot in Tokyo.  Keimatsu had had to attend the ceremony.  I asked after the widow, and he said she had received another shock: she was destitute.

Three years ago Keimatsu’s friend had told him, “I’m going to die at 60.”

“How do you know,” Keimatsu had asked.

“I just know.  I’m going to enjoy my life between now and then.”  The man proceeded to make a very large inheritance disappear – it’s not clear how.  Having spent all, he died.  His widow found only empty bank accounts.  They had no children, they owned no property, and now her rent will take half the meager widow’s pension from the Japanese government.  It’s not clear how she will get along.  Keimatsu looked somber.  He and his wife had called the old woman many times during the month.

“I’m afraid,” he said, “to see my telephone bill this month.”

I cleared my throat and glanced out of the window.

Springing from their conception of the laws of karma, Japanese people maintain a definite distance from the misfortune of others, the idea being not to create reciprocal obligations.  I’ve seen a woman fall hard on an icy Tokyo street; the man walking five feet behind her stopped and stared embarrassedly but did nothing to assist her.  Now, Mr. Keimatsu, fresh from helicoptering about to his golf courses, was talking about his telephone bill, perhaps desirous of, but unable to help the wife of his assinine best friend.  I sat quietly on his black couch, looking at his black table.  You never know.  Maybe he would find a way.

I never found out.  With no explanation, inscrutably, we might say, he called my company and cancelled further classes, and our apparently cordial relationship dissolved into, well, dust in the wind.

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