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Translated by Sayuri Okamoto
Half a year has passed since I came back to Kyoto. I remember, with a certain nostalgia, the welcoming atmosphere of your home in the heights of St. Louis Drive and the beautiful views that your terrace offered me: incredibly blue skies, the endless Pacific Ocean, and a sea breeze suffused with gentle Honolulu sunlight. I also remember the amusing white blouse, reminiscent of a jellyfish, that you were wearing. You told me that your mother Yoko, a sculptor, had made it for you. Winter here in Kyoto is truly cold. But the plum trees have started to bloom, and I feel spring is just around the corner. Legend has it that a plum tree flew all the way to Dazaifu in one night to comfort its former owner, Sugawara no Michizane, who was in exile. Behind my flat is a shrine dedicated to him. I wonder whether the huapala or plumeria would fly to me too. I miss those beautiful Hawaiian flowers and the tropical islands.
I’m writing this letter with certain sadness, as I have to tell you that we can’t invite you to Kyoto and host your talk on that unprecedented environmental crisis. I am so sorry. And I am so worried too, not only about the coronavirus itself, but also for this indeterminate cloud hanging over us. We are asked to exercise restraint, and yet we are not allowed to decide anything by ourselves. It’s as if some foul, viscous membrane has wrapped itself around our minds, our bodies, and our relationships, immobilising us and enervating society. I think this pandemic is more of a mental and spiritual affliction than a medical one.
I’m strongly concerned about the current situation in relation to the coronavirus, and I believe my sentiment is akin to yours regarding the marine pollution caused by plastics. I often recall the short film you sent me. It is a beautiful and disquieting picture. You, like a fetus, are curled up as if in a transparent cocoon filled with amniotic fluid or seawater. You are waiting eagerly to be born, to be able to hear some gentle music. But gradually, you become aware that the cocoon is made of some rough, impermeable material, and the music, too, grows discordant. You twist your body and struggle to get out of the cocoon, in vain. What an intense ending! I thought I would suffocate too.
You made the film Transparency with your parents, the artists Tom and Yoko Haar, to increase awareness of an environmental issue that still does not receive adequate attention: marine and coastal pollution caused by plastics. But the film spoke of much more than that. It was an apocalyptic expression that the sea would no longer be the sea we used to know – a womb of our humanity, or our spiritual “home” or “mother” – due to the permanent contamination of foreign matter that severed the great circle of life there. Your film is an urgent warning that losing the sea, the heart of our lives, would mean losing our humanity. That compelling artistry was what moved me to invite you to Kyoto to talk about your work and your initiative EATA (Environmental Awareness through the Arts). To borrow your film’s metaphor, I feel that our sense of the world is being gradually hindered or blocked by some bizarre membrane (you could say the anxiety around the new coronavirus is also a symptom of that blockage). I wanted to share your warning, as well as the hope of new connections, with my community in Kyoto.
I was shocked to see that Kamilo beach, where adorable seals would have been peacefully basking in the sun otherwise, was covered with plastic waste. Regrettably, some of the plastic bottles had Japanese labels on them. Further out, in the deep blue sea, microplastics 1 mm or smaller float along, invisible to the naked eye. Sea turtles, fish, birds, whales, even we ingest and accumulate them, and all of our bodies are being compromised as time goes by. You told me that some fish had adapted to plastic waste and spawned on them to make a new ecosystem, though there were also some who were born inside a plastic bottle and grew too large to swim out of it. It’s a tragicomedy, isn’t it? Nature might have decided to include plastics in its systems. But how long would it take, even if the sea and plastic waste could find some way to coexist in harmony? And would we still call it Nature?
Standing on the waste-covered beach of Kamilo, speechlessly, I thought of the photos of the sea and ama female divers of Ijika taken by your grandfather, Francis Haar. Through those images, he documented the lives of ama who dove every day to catch offerings for the Ise shrine and for themselves. I say “documented”, but it was not a pragmatic report of the ama’s job. Instead, his photos are an empathetic portrayal of young women who truly enjoyed being in the sacred sea, despite the extreme hardness of their occupation. In the picture, ama are cheerfully chatting around the fire burning near their hut after their labours. Looking at the intimate atmosphere in those photos, I feel Francis is mirrored in the eyes of those women who are sympathetically looking back at him via the lens of the camera. I’m touched, and then wonder how he got so close to those ama, to their hut that traditionally had been closed to men, and to their joy which he eventually shared with them over a big catch. The same question comes to my mind when I see other portraits made by him, such as the picture of an old woman in a village in his native land of Hungary, her age shown in the number of wrinkles on her face, or the picture of a hula dancer in Hawaiʻi, the terminus of his wanderings, or the portraits of poor workers living downtown. The gaze he exchanged with his subjects gives light to their lives, their joy, and their sadness.
Some years ago, I visited Ijika with a photography book Mermaid of Japan, which Francis published in 1954. The old residents of the old port town were so surprised by the book and informed me, excitedly, “This is ‘Grandma Imasuke’, and here you see ‘Grandpa of Toraya’!” My wife, son, and I were shown around the town until we finally visited “Grandma Imasuke”, who was the only model still alive. In her picture as a young lady, she was holding agar weeds, freshly harvested, with a smile on her face. She remembered your grandfather. She only said in a small voice, “That’s me”, in a room in her house standing atop the cliff, and then she cast her gaze silently at the remote sea.
I was with my son Nagisa, who was only one year old at that time, and the ama took great care of my “very cute” boy. They even invited us to their hut. Half a century had passed since Francis visited the town, but they still dove into the sea every day to catch turban shells and abalone. It was fun to see my son bite into a live abalone with his newly emerged teeth, which made it writhe in surprise… The ama were no longer naked, nor did they wear the traditional white dress (they wore black wetsuits instead). But they still tied the tenugui washcloth with the talismanic symbol of seman doman around their heads and offered prayers to the sea with mugwort leaves, looking just like handmaidens of the gods, as they used to be regarded. Although concerned by aging and the shortage of successors, the old ama were so blithe and filled the hut with their laughter that I was just so happy being there.
My visit to Ijika, however, was also tinged with sadness. A beautiful little port that your grandfather had depicted was no longer there. Part of the coast had been demolished and covered with concrete, thanks to the construction of a big port in the 1960s. Even ama were forced to do the heavy labour at the quarry. They were perhaps remembering the lost beauty of Ijika as they stared eagerly at the pages of Francis’ book.
Above all, I had a bitter feeling when I found waste scattered around their hut. Next to it was a pure fountain from which ama used to draw sacred water to moisten their throats and wash the seawater from their bodies. But it was no longer in use; they now had their own modern water supply. And so the fountain became a rubbish dump. Ama simply and blindly believed that the sea, which has kept them alive, would purify everything, even plastics. They who have lived in and inseparably from the sea threw everything into it, despite the fact that they are the ones who will suffer when their catch is only a tenth of what it used to be. The “way of the god” running from the hut to the sea is littered with plastic bottles and ice cream cups. Ama offer their prayer to the sea even today. I believed that traditional wisdom is one way to reconnect modern humanity, in all its vacuity, with the world. But the rubbish around the ama’s hut made me rethink my belief.
In April 2018, Kilauea erupted and swallowed the southeastern part of the main island of Hawaiʻi. It was as if the goddess of volcanoes and fire, Pele, had lost her temper at the indiscriminate acts committed by humans against both sea (Ke Kai) and island (Ka Aina). The southeast coast of the Big Island was engulfed by the torrents of lava, which must have melted abandoned plastics. It was as if the sea had been purified by divine flame, and researchers saw such an effect when they measured the level of plastic pollution immediately after the eruption. But another report, which was made in less than two months’ time, shocked them: pollution was back to as high as 70% of pre-eruption levels. The report shows us the severity of marine pollution, and I imagine it is even higher today.
About two weeks before Kilauea’s massive eruption, I was walking on a lava field under the Puʻu ʻŌʻō volcanic cone. The plateau’s infertile rocky ground made me feel that I was on the surface of another planet. As the sun reached the horizon and gradually descended, the sky turned jade green. It was a mysterious sunset. The moonlight reflected on the ground shone silver and made a path of light. There were many cracks in the ground and they looked like gashes that were still burning. I felt I could see the tremor of the air, even in the night. My heart beat fast when I saw the lava flowing very slowly from the hilltop. I climbed up next to one of the volcanic vents and sat on a rock to see the lava flowing to the distant sea. Far ahead, on the surface of the sea, was a ring of moonlight.
On a night when all were joined in one spirit, the legendary Kumu Hula (Master of Hula), ‘Iolani Luahine, danced a sacred night hula in the flickering light of bonfires, the shadow of wave crests undulating and retreating into the darkness behind her. She looked as though she was one with the breath of the volcano. Through the lens, your grandfather, Francis, stared fixedly at the mystic dance with his unclouded eyes, and that film is now said to be the portrayal of ‘Iolani Luahine with the most Ola (life). I recall the lava flow that I saw whenever I watch this film. Both the lava flow and ‘Iolani’s dance show the sanctity of the universe. I remember that an old man who was at the volcanic vent before me said to me: “We used to see hula dancers dancing the night hula in front of this flow of fertility.”
The sea and volcanic islands are full of inexhaustible mystic energy that moves our soul deeply. I wonder how the swelling amount of plastic waste would interfere with the chain of life there. The marine life in the waters around Hawaiʻi has been reduced dramatically because of plastic waste and other factors. In Japan, enigmatic sea walls resembling the Great Wall of China hinder our vision of the sea. Much is lost, and I wonder how we can feel the bounty of the world as your grandfather did. Francis’ oeuvre makes me feel strongly that we have to recover our sensibilities.
I remember a drawing Francis had done of you as a little girl. I am truly grateful that you took it out from your drawer of treasured memories and showed it to me. That was the last work by Francis Haar, the exiled photographer who had voyaged from Hungary to France, Japan, and finally Hawaiʻi, devoting his life to capturing the warmth of the world in pictures. In that drawing, I felt that he preserved your warmth with strong empathy. From the image, I felt his hope, wish, and confidence for and in you and your future. You had only a few but very heartwarming memories of your grandfather who had passed away when you were ten. He did not stop producing images even when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s and losing the memories of his lifelong journey filled with shining encounters. His soul needed to make images. You as a young girl followed him with a brush in your hand. Your grandfather added his to yours, and the two of you made many drawings together. You remember, though vaguely, the softness of his palm, the Diamond Head, the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, and the back of an artist bending over a sheet of drawing paper on which colours were scattered. When they had a posthumous exhibition of Francis’ drawings, they printed your portrait on the invitation card. I imagine that you touched and retraced the warmth of the world with your grandfather’s hand guiding yours, and perhaps that has inspired you as an artist.
There is another story that you told me about your grandfather. He loved to play the harmonica, you said, and he had a collection of harmonicas from different periods and places. When he went out in Honolulu with his friends from Central and Eastern Europe, he would take his favorite harmonica with him, playing it and dancing, and they would fondly reminisce about their homeland on the opposite side of the world. Incidentally, your name is “Haar Monika” if you read it in the Hungarian order (surname first), which is the same as Japanese. I wonder if that’s where your name came from: your grandfather’s prized collection, and his nostalgia. Perhaps your music and artistry were given to you along with that name.
There are not enough words to express my deep respect for the long and unparalleled journey that the Haars have made over the generations. From Hungary to Japan and then to Hawaiʻi, your family has travelled across linguistic frontiers and inherited the memories of the islands, oceans, and the sentiments that your parents and grandparents had experienced. As for the cross-border network through which your parents, Tom and Yoko, and you are trying to restore the seas, I imagine the desire arises out of your family’s own transoceanic story. To my mind, this initiative is a light of hope shone into the darkness of our time.
We couldn’t make it happen this time round, but I am looking forward to having you in Kyoto once this turmoil is over. The group that I wanted to introduce you to is full of potential. We represent a range of unique specialisations, and our gaze is directed at the future. We have an engineer trying to make organic building materials out of hyphae, a researcher who has launched a project called “Retro Future”, a research-and-practice project of forgotten ideas of alternative technology advocated and then forgotten in the modern era, an artist looking for a sustainable mode of urban life, a promoter who builds international bridges between artists and scholars, and so on. It was a young Hungarian couple, an architect named Gergely Péter Barna and his wife and cultural practitioner Janka Barna Sinka, who brought us together.
Before coming to Japan, Gergely studied architecture at an academy of art in Budapest, just like your grandfather. I remember it was someone called Francis Gergely who first introduced Japan to your grandfather. What a curious coincidence! Gergely Péter Barna studied traditional Japanese architecture and engaged in conservation of cultural heritages. He is now searching for a way to re-energize the relation between people and materials by mixing Japanese traditional techniques and wisdom (of miyadaiku, carpenters who specialize in temples and shrines, for instance) with digital technology and applying it to our daily life. He is concerned about the reduced intimacy between people and things in this consumerist society. He renovated an abandoned house and transformed it into a community space called “Doma no Ie (house with earth floor)” for artists, architects, and locals to gather and relax in.
Janka and Gergely live in Doma no Ie with their three cheerful kids. The people who gather there have come to Kyoto from places such as Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and other regions of Japan, along with local Kyotoites. In Doma no Ie, we hear many languages being spoken: English, Hungarian, German, Romanian, Italian, Korean, standard Japanese, and the Kyoto dialect. The language situation of Gergely and Janka’s three children is particularly interesting. They have two first languages, namely, Hungarian and the Kyoto dialect, which is pretty different from standard Japanese. My son’s mother is from Germany and she speaks to him in German, but his first language is the Kyoto dialect. At Gergely and Janka’s, we see many kids playing together. Most of them speak the Kyoto dialect, and that is the most cosmopolitan language in this house. Obviously, though, they don’t really need a language to play together. I’ve learned from them that the branding of “Japanese” or “Japaneseness” is an utter nonsense that only adults use and rely on. I imagine the bright future of those kids, and that comforts me and cheers me up in this phase of our life.
On full moon and new moon nights, by an old mochi tree in the middle of the garden, we gather around a bonfire and talk about the environment, politics, and life, with a spoon in one hand and bread in the other – Janka bakes amazingly delicious sourdough bread. Gergely came to Japan to study Japanese architecture and traditional techniques, but there is also his despair at the current state of Hungary under the heavy-handed and xenophobic Orbán administration.
Gergely said at our first gathering: “Tradition is like a braid, a knot of the countless events that have occurred since the distant past. These events include trees, water, light, fire, bacteria, time, any and all strands of time. That is why it is never a fixed thing. It can be re-tied into something more relevant to us, even at this moment.”
Everything seems to be on a journey, including people, of course. Bearing the burden of a weighty history, one sets out, is drawn to the unknown, and sometimes one finds the truth unexpectedly, just as your grandfather did and just as Gergely and Janka do. One learns things from the people and places that one visits, and tries to lead a life that leaves a better world to one’s children. Doma no Ie is one place for such a journey. It’s called ie (house), but instead of a closed construction, it’s a space where wanderers meet and share the wisdom they have collected. The doma (earth floor adjacent to the entrance) is here but it is always “with” somewhere else: it is connected to the front of another ie, to the Haars’ house atop a hill in Honolulu. We are on our respective journeys wherever we are, even when we are at home. Our memories and thoughts travel far and cross somewhere in the distance.
Monika, I am waiting for you here in Kyoto.
Me ke aloha pumehana,
3 March 2020
Monika Haar is a pianist, music teacher, and environmental advocate based in Honolulu. She recently produced a music video, Transparency featuring her choreography and compositions. With this video, she aims to raise awareness about marine pollution and plastic waste. Monika is currently planning a performing arts festival in Honolulu and New York with a focus on environmental issues.