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Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 20/24

Kimura started doing part-time work from about this time. He felt the orchards were showing signs of improvement, but the family finances remained in dire straits. Their circumstance worsened by the day. Unless he found work and earned some cash, they would find themselves on the breadline.

The main reason he finally started casual work, though, was a matter of pride. Having made an awful mess in the apple orchards, going to work would have been sending out a message admitting defeat. It would have been painful for him to have others think he’d taken on part-time work because he couldn’t make a living out of apples. People had always gone to do seasonal work in the cities, so there was no stigma attached to that, but doing casual work locally was something he couldn’t bring himself to do. Kimura was more deeply hurt by criticism and gossip than he imagined. Whatever anyone else said, he was an apple farmer. He could live by apples alone. He was hardly the type to do part-time work. Or so he’d always thought.

Since climbing Mount Iwaki and finding the answer, this peculiar sense of pride had vanished entirely. If feelings of pride arise in response to the way in which others see us, then he’d become oblivious to what others thought of him. He was prepared to do anything to have the apple trees bear fruit. Since returning from Mount Iwaki, he’d stopped sitting on the apple boxes in the middle of the night. There was a vast amount to be done before there would be an apple crop, but he no longer worried about what needed to be done. When work in the orchards finished, he now slept at nights.

He thought he’d do part-time work at nights. But finding a job in a rural town is by no means easy.

The first place he worked at was a pachinko [1] parlour in Hirosaki. It was the first time the earnest Kimura had been into a pachinko parlour in his life. He’d never even seen a pachinko machine. It was daring. The primary task of staff in a pachinko parlour is to respond to complaints from clients. Balls get stuck between the pins, balls go into a pocket but the balls you’ve won don’t come out, balls aren’t coming out of the machine in the first place … Complaints are non-stop. The key to the business is dealing quickly and appropriately with problems, and keeping the customers happy. It’s all down to the staff.

If the complaint is justified, and there is something wrong with the pachinko machine, they have to deal with the problem promptly and, without a fuss, make up for any loss the customer has suffered whilst ensuring the parlour doesn’t end up out of pocket. Even if a complaint is spurious, you must be able to deal sensitively but firmly enough with the customer so as not to annoy them.

It was all too much for Kimura. He’d didn’t know what to do when called over by customers, and instead of appeasing them would often end up rubbing them up the wrong way. His long-suffering boss let him have an old pachinko machine that was going for scrap. He told him he wanted to practice on it at home. He ended up learning how a pachinko machine worked, but showed no signs of improvement as an employee. He may have been able to understand apple trees, but the customers’ feelings were beyond him.

Given the boot after eight months, the next place Kimura found work was in a downtown cabaret. He started cleaning the toilets part-time. When the place closed down for the night, he’d go from bar to bar cleaning toilets, earning five hundred or a thousand yen.

It was a tough job, but he stuck at it so that at least he could buy things for his family. One night a cabaret manager asked him if he’d be interested in working in the club. When there were few customers, he’d try and attract them into the club, and when it was busy, he’d act as a waiter. Cabarets were an unfamiliar world. He didn’t know that you used different glasses for whisky on the rocks and whisky with water, and didn’t even understand the slang used by staff. Yet he somehow managed to bumble through each day and the customers indulged him.

The hostesses and most of the other staff came from outside Aomori Prefecture. They’d all ended up at the club for different reasons. Asking the others about their pasts was taboo in the club, but they were all sensitive to each other’s situations. That Kimura was poor was obvious. He was as scrawny as the apple trees which had been undernourished for years. He’d go straight to the cabaret on his moped when he finished work, wearing threadbare sweaters and shabby, patched trousers covered with mud. He’d start his work attracting customers after changing into a cheap a suit he rented from a clothing hire shop for five hundred yen a day, putting on a bow tie held in place with elastic. On cold nights when there were no customers, he’d stand on the empty street until after two in the morning.

Apple farmers were good customers in the downtown bars of Hirosaki. Why had Kimura, an apple farmer like them, ended up so poor?

When asked this, Kimura had nothing to hide. He probably talked jokingly about his wretched apple orchards, devastated by voracious insects, and his dreams of growing apples without pesticides.

The reason people like Kimura is obvious the moment you talk to him. Firstly, he’s interesting. He doesn’t blow his own trumpet, so although he usually talks endlessly about his failures, his disarming manner and perfect timing draw you in. There’s also a calmness about the way he talks. It’s like listening to rakugo [2] in the Tsugaru dialect. The stories are all about apples, yet are far more than that. After a drink or two, all sorts of dubious shaggy-dog stories are blended in. They may be fanciful, but they ring true, so when you hear them they sound quite plausible. He warms up after a few more drinks and the stories get decidedly bizarre. There’s one about the time he met a spaceman.

‘That was before I sold the light truck. It was the second or third year after I’d stopped using pesticides. I’m not sure of the time, but it was one evening, and it was just starting to get dark. I’d finished working and was sitting in the driver’s seat of the truck about to drive home, when I suddenly saw someone standing in front of me. Someone very strange. He shone silver from head to toe, although I couldn’t make out his nose or eyes. The silver man was facing my way, straight over the windscreen.

I couldn’t move. All I could do was stare at him wondering what on earth he was going to do. Then he disappeared into the apple orchards. The orchards where the leaves had fallen and which were in an awful state. He started running around the orchard at an incredible speed then, in a flash, he vanished. All I could do was shake my head in disbelief at what I’d witnessed.

A little while later, and this time it was during the night, I’d woken up and was sitting thinking beside my bed. My bedroom is on the first floor, but the curtains were swaying and the window was open. Two people came in through the window. They were small, and dark like shadows. They each took one of my arms and we flew out of the window. The next minute we were floating in space. Looking down, I could see the roof of the house. The dark men said nothing. We went higher and higher, each of them grasping one of my arms. I could see what looked like a huge spacecraft hovering high in the sky. I was led into it. I wasn’t the only one there. There were a couple of others. One was a young western woman, the other a western man. He had a crew-cut, which made him look a bit like a soldier. We sat there for a while before being led away one at a time. First the woman, then the military-looking man, and last of all me. Walking through, I saw both of them laid out sleeping on what seemed to be a raised platform. They’d had their clothes removed. For some reason I didn’t have the urge to escape or put up any resistance. I carried on walking thinking I’d be undressed too. But I wasn’t made to take my clothes off. Then I was taken to a place that looked like the control room of the spacecraft. I say a control room, but I couldn’t see any gauges or whatever. They explained how the spacecraft flew. Then they showed me some black stuff that was used to power the spacecraft.

This was how it managed to hover in the sky. I was then led to another room. There was a Greek philosopher there, not one of the shadowy figures. He looked like Socrates. He was sorting out piles of boards, telling one to go here, another to go there. Taking a closer look, I noticed that they were terrestrial calendars. One for each year. They weren’t for past years, they were future calendars. I wondered how many there were, so started counting them.’ He wouldn’t tell him how many there were. But he did say that there weren’t that many.

Jung would say that flying saucers are symbols of wholeness. They are one of the typical visions people today have when they are struggling to find a way out of life’s difficulties. People in the Middle Ages saw God. Having lost their faith in God, people now see flying saucers instead. If the earth symbolizes reality, whoever comes from space represents salvation from that reality. They can help those who are faced with difficulties, and who might be shattered, find some sort of balance in their lives. Round shapes and spheres are symbols of the whole self. There would be nothing particularly strange in Kimura having a flying saucer hallucination, given that he had failed with apple growing year after year and become so desperate and confused he felt his brain would split. But just when his stories are about to be explained in this way, a drunk Kimura will deliver a punch line.

‘We’d been watching television in the house for several years. You know those documentaries on UFOs that come on quite often. Things like “Flying saucers do exist!”. There was someone on telly who’d been abducted by aliens. It was that western woman. My wife watched it with me and was amazed. The story was the same as mine! She said there were two other earthlings in the flying saucer apart from her: a man who looked like a soldier, and an oriental man wearing glasses. That was me. Ha ha ha. Even I was amazed at the time.’

I haven’t checked the story with his wife Michiko. I know only too well that it’ll upset her. Kimura only tells the stories when he’s drinking. The staff at the cabaret were probably told stories like this. You know they’re fantasies, but they’ve got something that makes you want to listen to them again and again.

Pioneers are solitary. Since the dawn of time, people who have done something completely new, those who have been truly revolutionary, have always been solitary. This is because they’ve broken with the stereotypes. For people who adhere to accepted world views and conventions, a ‘pioneer’ is just another name for someone who upsets the established order. They say that when the Wright brothers attempted to fly, certain academics in Europe went as far as writing theses to ‘prove’ the man-made flying machines called airplanes couldn’t fly. The story about Galileo Galilei being brought before the Inquisition, where he was forced to denounce Copernican theory, is the same.

It’s hard to understand, from our perspective today, how these questions could cause such an outcry. Saying that the earth goes around the sun isn’t going to change anything. What harm can experimenting to see if you can fly do? But people at the time reacted differently. The arguments that they challenged the laws of physics and were blasphemy probably came later, as these have their roots in human beings’ instinctive fear of change.

We fear change. The reason the Wright brothers and Galilei are considered great and are respected by people today, is that neither aeroplanes nor Copernican theory are new. Kimura had to deal with the same sort of instinctive fear people have. Trying to growing apples without them in the days when pesticides reigned supreme amounted to lunacy comparable to asserting that the earth revolved around the sun in Galilei’s day. It’s not difficult to imagine how awful the physical and mental pressure he was subjected to was. For his part, Kimura hardly ever talks about it.

Instead, you’re likely to find him talking about flying saucers. His hands and feet may be covered in scars, but he’s like an adventurer talking about tomorrow’s plans. Flying saucers and apples would seem to have little in common, but subconsciously Kimura sees a profound connection. Both flying saucers and apples grown without pesticides symbolize the impossible. His having been in a flying saucer is Kimura overcoming the impossible. It is him growing the pesticide-free apple, Kimura becoming himself again.

Making the impossible possible. His entire is being devoted to growing apples without pesticides.

Staff in the cabaret, who knew nothing of growing apples, listened intently to Kimura’s dreams. Even if they didn’t really realize how difficult it was to grow apples without pesticides, it was clear looking at Kimura how significant his dreams were to him. Dreams are dreams, even if they aren’t your own. They remind us of how precious our lives are. Kimura, who had discarded his pride and worked day and night to realize his dream, was their own unsung hero. Kimura was soon known as ‘Pop’, and befriended by all. They knew that he came straight to work from the fields, so the hostesses took it in turns to take food in for him.

The manager of the cabaret noticed how the atmosphere in the club brightened up after Kimura arrived. An unselfish and honest character with bookkeeping skills, he was entrusted with the accounts. Kimura, who hadn’t given a moment’s thought to doing this sort of nightclub work, was suddenly an indispensable member of staff.

He worked there for three years, from seven in the evening until late at night. His one hundred and seventy thousand yen monthly take home pay was vital for the family finances. He’d probably not have left if it hadn’t been for a certain small incident. Although perhaps it was the apple trees that called Kimura back?

That day there were hardly any clients. Waiter-cum-accountant Kimura was, unusually, standing outside the club trying to attract passing trade. It was a cold winter’s night with snow piled on either sides of the road and there were very few punters out on the town. Whilst they were few and far between, he approached every drunk who happened to appear. If it hadn’t been for the car headlights which temporarily blinded him he probably wouldn’t have called out to the two men passing. There is an etiquette amongst those working in the entertainment districts; one thing you must never do is approach those in the same business. You can immediately tell people working in clubs and related lines of work, even if you don’t know them personally. There’s something that sets them apart from normal customers. These men happened to be the type you must be extra careful about, and never approach. They were the local yakuza, or mafia.

‘Evening gents. Fancy a drink?’

No sooner had the words left his mouth than he was grabbed by the scruff of the neck.

‘Hey, idiot! Can’t you see these?’

They brandished the gold badges they had pinned on their chests. He apologized profusely, but the damage was done. They tried to force their way into the club. If they had got in there’d surely have been trouble. Frantically apologizing, he was led away to the precincts of an out-of-the-way temple. The next minute he was surrounded by seven or eight men who proceeded to beat him up. His front teeth were broken and his white shirt covered in blood. Scared witless, he tried to escape. Looking at the ground, he noticed that the man who’d hit him was wearing soft, insulated boots. Without a moment’s hesitation, he stamped with all his might on the man’s instep with the heel of his shoe. He recalled a customer, a chiropractor, once telling him that a person’s weak point was their instep. Kimura made his escape whilst the man nursed his injured foot, getting away by tumbling down a slope behind the temple. Where he went and what happened after that is a blur. He recalls running down a private railway track that passes close to the nightlife area, and going over a level crossing. He ended up squeezing behind some gas cylinders next to a bar he found, from where he heard the sound of the men running after him and their shouts as they searched. He held his breath and waited. When he eventually got back to the club, there were two police cars parked outside. It was just like a TV police drama.

‘At the police station they showed me what looked like a register. It contained photos of the faces of people linked to gangs who the police were after.

They seemed to ignore the fact that my shirt was bloodstained and my face swollen. They went through the photos one by one asking me if it was this man or that man. I knew which one had hit me the moment I saw him, but I told them I didn’t want to bring charges. I was out of order for having spoken to them, so I wasn’t going to make a complaint. The policeman appeared to call it a day then, too. “Alright then. But the men who hit you are going to have to appear at the police station tomorrow.” No report concerning an injury had been filed, so they couldn’t arrest them, but he told me the police were aware of the details. The next day, the two men came to my house to offer a formal apology. I heard this later, but it seems that the club I was working in wasn’t paying any money to that gang. It was common in the old days for entertainment businesses like that to hand over money. As we hadn’t paid, the place was being watched. They couldn’t do anything, though, because the police were now involved. They came to apologize twice, saying they wanted to make amends, and I was asked over to the boss’s place. We made up over a cup of saké. I’d have been fine with it, even if they hadn’t apologized so profusely. But honour is everything to them and that’s the way they did things.

That was when I decided to quit. It was great timing because the apples were quickly getting better. I felt the trees were desperate for me to return to making a living from my main job of growing apples, rather than doing casual work. The manager of the cabaret came and asked me many times if I could return to work once I recovered. Feeling I ought to refuse in a more polite way, I went to the club only to find that he was waiting for me and wanted to give me severance pay.

“I understand. All the best with the apples!” I was amazed when I opened the envelope to find five hundred thousand yen inside! He said it was severance pay for having worked there for three years, but it was ages since I’d seen such a large wad of cash. There wasn’t much left after I paid my tax arrears, mind you.

Anyway, that’s the story of how I lost my teeth. I only lost one front tooth at the time, but I left it like that and didn’t go to a dentist so I wouldn’t forget what happened. The missing tooth was evidence of my having fought for the apples. I decided to live without the tooth so as never to forget the lengths I went to for the apples, including getting punched. Having lost one tooth, though, the other teeth started moving and then wobbling. When they began to wobble, I pulled them out one by one with a pair of pliers until there were none left. So when I’m asked why I don’t have any teeth, I tell them “I lost my teeth and turned over a new leaf”.’

[1] pachinko A vertical pinball machine for amusement and gambling.

[2] rakugos Popular storytelling. The stories are long and usually comical
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