(Note: This is a work of fiction inspired by travels in Japan, and a meeting with a real man called Otsu-san, who wasn’t an ukai fisherman, but did take us up a mountain in Sapporo).
His hands move quickly in the low greenish light of the portable electric lantern which hangs over the water. In the photographs the lamp was a natural flame, but to be a part of such things we would have had to arrive during Uji’s true ukai season. No cormorant fishing now, we were told, but they had reckoned without my husband’s boisterous singlemindedness and certainly without the will of Otsu-san.
For tonight we are criminals. The sightseeing boats are empty, nuzzling their jetties not far off, and the crowds and sounds and dancers have long moved on to where the fishing season and the spectacle extend deeper into the autumn.
“If we get caught,” I mutter, “We’ll be fined.” I am hunched and tense. In the belly of the low wooden boat I wring my hands. It is cold too, with a clear, dark sky that foretells a harsh, imminent winter. I suppress a shiver.
My husband snorts, luxuriating in the cooking smells that are passed between the narrow orange windows of the houses above. “If we get caught, we’ll pretend to be ignorant foreigners, which we are, and he’ll be fined. So shut up and enjoy this. Once in a life-time experience, remember? Anyway, does he look worried?”
I watch the off-season fisherman as he deftly frees his catch from his cormorant’s gullet. No, he doesn’t look worried. Otsu-san catches my eye and gives me a very un-Japanese gap-toothed grin. With fingers too swift, deep-tanned and shadowed to see against his bird’s shaggy neck, he adjusts the line around the cormorant’s gizzard and has the creature jabbing down again into the slippery water nearby. He is an old man- and ages on inspection- but the speed of his hands belies this. They are aching though, and he massages his knuckles and cracks them with a humorous, weary look.
Otsu-san spends most of his time watching me, I notice. While his bird works its miracles in the unpicturesque waters of this concrete flood-channel, he knows his partner too well to interfere in its business. His isn’t a curious or even lecherous stare, but a knowing one. Despite our distance in age and differences in culture, my inveterate nervousness is blatant.
He points to himself, and indicates as he talks that he is seventy-six years old. I parrot him in terrible, incredulous Japanese and he nods. In this small talk he is plumbing my language skills, I know, and I realise as he continues that my interpretation of the unfolding conversation might be nothing at all what he means. Still, we persevere. He is the survivor of the Second World War, Otsu-san tells me, as his hands wheel and gun overhead, momentarily pausing in their assault to bat away moths. I ask him if he himself was a pilot, with a few words and a lot of pointing. He laughs through his teeth. No, he’s not that old. But he remembers the war. He remembers when the bombs fell. He certainly remembers the depression that followed. Otsu-san smiles broadly and continues on in the face of my awkwardness as a westerner and absolute incomprehension of the language itself.
Here, my husband, who has not been listening to our exchange but absorbing the spectacle of the cormorant’s fishing, interrupts. “It’s been down for a long time,” he says, curiously.
I look over the side of the boat tentatively, at the oily opaque dapples that have inhumed the bird. Otsu-san raps on the side of the boat irritably. At first I think he is signalling the cormorant. However, his pointed gaze is fixed on me. He has not finished, and his unseen assistant does not need my concern. I ask him if he is married, keen to move on from the politically delicate reminiscence of before. He laughs again, a dull sound rendered so by his illicit craft and many, many cigarettes. He explains his situation.
“What did he say?” asked my husband.
“His wife’s dead,” I say, helplessly.
My husband swears under his breath and goes back to watching for the cormorant. We both jump as it explosively emerges and rattles to the prow of the boat with a round of wet, applauding wings. Otsu-san, with consummate skill, ejects the catch of two slapping fish from the bird and sends him down again.
The cormorant pierces the black water of the gorge-like channel and disappears. It is impossible to see how deep the bird goes, or what obstacles may lie there. Otsu-san nevertheless remains casual, an attitude which can only be the wages of many years of experience.
He begins to clean his catch. As he does so, he indicates that normally he there would another person help him do this. I offer, but the idea is flatly refused (to my relief). Since he began to work ‘off-season’ he has done so alone, I gather.
“Is the money good?” my husband wants to know.
My Japanese is superior to his and I refuse to frame the question as far too direct, so he muddles through on his own.
My concerns are unfounded and the unflappable Otsu-san replies in the negative. He scrapes by. It isn’t about the money though- a young person’s problem- but about doing things in the original way. My Japanese has run to its limit so here I have to infer his reply from context. The crowds and the sounds and the dancers (he is mimicking the smiling faces of the fluttering kimonoed girls now) are hollow, profitable though they might be. Otsu-san is simply too old to care about such things as security, and far too alone. Regardless of his obvious skill, he refuses to perform. He is a craftsman, obviously, not an entertainer. Either way, he sells his fish to restaurants who have exhausted the supply of ukai-caught goods before their demand. As much as Otsu flaunts the boundaries of the season, I imagine his own profits are even narrower.
A voice sounds out over the water, startling my husband and I. Otsu-san raises a casual hand at the bridge above and behind us. I turn to see a homeless man- one of many to be seen in Japanese cities- pulling a neat blue-tarpaulined barrow. He calls out to Otsu who chuckles and urges him on with a wave. I wonder how Otsu-san lives. Does he have one of the little houses on the banks of this tributary, the curved rooves of which make a graceful wave against the deep blue sky? Does he live in one of the substantial concrete tenements that rise in the outskirts of Uji, optimistically named such-and-such ‘Mansion’? Or does he eke out his way in another way? However he lives, he seems proud.
I ask him clumsily if he is scared about getting caught, though I know the answer: worry is a young man’s game. Otsu shakes his head. Ukai fishing is an event with royal importance, he says, I think. The emperor receives the first catch of the season (though presumably he is unaware that Otsu or one of his customers has already appropriated that honour). The penalties for flaunting this rule would be severe for Otsu. He smiles broadly again, and tilts his head piratically: the emperor is an old man too though, he seems to say. He would understand.
We all seem to realise that his helpmeet really has been underwater a long time and the Otsu-san frowns. The old man gives the water a suspicious glance. Then, quick as a knife, he clips the line holding the cormorant. The river remains slack. Without a word the fisherman hauls off his boots and bundles himself into the water. My husband and I look at each other guiltily as the boat swings from side to side.
Then, there is a ripple, and the bird sloshes upwards. He bounces into the cool night air, wet and black and joyously alive after all. Carefully we lean over the side of the boat. After a fashion, Otsu emerges. He pants and wheezes, for once showing his seventy-six years. He tries and fails to heave himself onto the vessel by himself, even after removing his now soaked padded jacket. We help him aboard. He nods his thanks and grins, and lights a cigarette after a fashion. He strips off his wet clothes and wrings them out, exposing a torso that is wrinkled, certainly, but harder and lither than either of ours. Hauling his boat around and all the ropery entailed therein necessitates a youthful physique. Our easier lifestyle does not.
It crosses my mind that had Otsu-san been alone, as he would have been ordinarily, he would have been stuck in the cold river treading water for hours. He might even have drowned. Otsu sticks his shirt on as if nothing has happened and tends to his cormorant, who has returned.
Before long it is time to return to the shore, and us to our bright, plasticky business hotel. He douses the battery-powered lantern and paddles the little boat across the broad river into which this channel runs, and to the small dock where we had found him. We disembark clumsily. I hesitate as Otsu-san tosses his tackle box onto the boards, hoping that the old man won’t get chilled, hoping that somehow, his life is a little less precarious than it seems. My husband bows to the fisherman and starts to leave, but I hesitate. When Otsu-san sees me looking at him he throws me a debonair wink, mocking my might-have-beens.
The route back to our hotel means crossing the bridge above the jetty. I look down to try and catch a last glimpse of our friend, but the distant neon of the Toyoko Inn where we are staying – clean and warm and safe- blanches out the grubby river bank.