In his last year at one of Tokyo’s best private schools while all the other students were preparing for their final examinations, Kikuo Itaya devoted himself to ceramics. His father, Hazan Itaya, was to become the most important ceramicist in modern Japan. The son, although he won a prize for one of his vases in a national contest, went on to study Japanese literature at Waseda University. His father’s pursuit of classical aesthetic perfection was at odds with Kikuo’s predilection for a plainer, simpler kind of beauty. After obtaining his degree, Kikuo returned to his private school in Tokyo and taught Japanese there until his retirement in 1977—at the same school for fifty-four years. Plain and simple enough. He is now eighty-six years old and has never regretted his long teaching career, but he did remark recently that if he would have had the chance to repeat his life in good health, he would have pursued the family vocation of ceramics. In fact, he did pursue it by proxy through the endless polishing and repolishing of a series of stories inspired by his Buddhism and his love of classical Japanese literature. Tengu Child is the only collection of these tales Kikuo Itaya has allowed to be published.
This capsule biography might tempt Western readers to assume that Kikuo was the victim of a monumental Oedipus complex. A Buddhist, however, would read the story differently. Father and son had each achieved oneness with the universe by taking paths that only seemed divergent. The disorderly surface of life deludes one into exaggerating the significance of particular actions and experiences, of individuation itself. Gradually, as one approaches enlightenment, a sense of “inner orderliness” calms the mind. Kikuo’s regrets, gentle and ironic, about taking a wrong turn in his life actually constitute a celebration of his discovery that the choice he made was largely an illusion; that what he learned from his choice was a wisdom that transcends its individual meaning.
Many of the stories in this haunting collection of fantastic parables and fables seem to repeat in endless variation the experience of enlightenment central to Kikuo Itaya’s own life. In the first story of this collection, “The Robber and the Flute,” a robber of great notoriety is captivated by the incredibly beautiful sound of a flute. He tries to steal the flute but is unsuccessful. Eventually, the player of the flute takes in the robber as a pupil who promptly loses all the anxieties connected with his former profession and easily trades the competence of thievery for the talents of musicianship. The reader learns at the very end...
(The entire section is 1079 words.)