BlogTV: The Old Man and the War Against The Trees

Japanese society is formalized in many respects, the Japanese language has many ritualized aspects that shape every social interaction. A complex system of “keigo” (respect language) is used in every spoken interaction, and this confrontation between a cranky old man and Tokyo city officials is a perfect example. Even a direct confrontation must be done in the most indirect, nonoffensive manner. The old man speaks gruffly in rough abusive words like “bakatare” (asshole) while the officials are always polite, bowing and saying “shitsurei itashimasu” (pardon my rudeness) even after the old man throws one of them in front of a car.

This old man is furious because because leaves fall on his house and in his gutters and he has to sweep them from his genkan. The genkan is an area inside the front door of every home, where you must take your shoes off and “ascend” into the house. Even though these trees are by a stream across the street, he decides to cut the problem off at its source. He has been sawing limbs off the trees since last autumn, and the city officials are trying to get him to stop it. All along the stream, there is a majestic row of greenery, except in a zone of sickly, gnarled trees for about a block around his house.

Now it is spring, and time for a followup. New damage to the trees is clearly visible, massive limbs have been sawed off, leaving ragged stumps poking in the air. The TV crew asks the old man what he’s doing and he boasts that he’s going to kill the trees and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop him. I wonder how much of this story would have happened without the camera crew egging him on. The old man calls up to tell the City off, with the cameras watching. The City officials know that he’s been cutting down branches, he says there are no lower branches left, so now he’s just going to kill the trees outright. He speaks a guttural “rachaakane-ya,” a corruption of “rachi ga akanai” which is an idiom for “the gate is closed,” he is declaring an end to negotiations. The city official responds with about the politest keigo you can use for a prohibition, “kono toki moshiagemashita you ni.. ano.. katte ni o-kiri ni naru you na koto wa narazu.” Keigo expressions do not translate well, but literally, it says, “at this time, we have humbly told you things such as.. umm.. doing such things as cutting whatever you want, don’t do that.” The old man explodes and starts yelling, “yarimasu! bakayarou!” (I’m going to do it! Asshole!)

Now with extra courage from the TV camera behind him, he goes over and takes a little hand axe over and starts chopping the bark all around the circumference of the tree so it will dry up and die. Soon a delegation from the City shows up to try to get the guy to stop vandalizing the trees. The obsequious official gets nowhere with his polite approach, the old man threatens to punch him. To defuse the situation, an even more polite woman says, “shokubutsu wo sonshou suru koto wa kinjirarete orimasu node, sore wa shinai you ni onegai itashimasu.” Another extremely indirect prohibition, “things such as cutting of trees are humbly prohibited, we beg your indulgence to not do things like that.” She’s practically begging him not to hurt the trees. He shoves his nose right in her face and starts howling, “nan datte?! ningen wa ii no ka dou natte mo.” (What did you say? The People are always right, no matter what). So he gets mad and throws them out into the street, tossing one of them right in front of an oncoming car. The old man retreats into his yard and closes the gate, literally the “gate is closed” to the City officials. They bow and walk off. The officials explain in the politest possible way that this guy has been warned before, and now he is in a heap of trouble. The video ends with the guy wistfully looking up into the canopy of green leaves, he obviously has only one thought: how long until this tree is dead? Even with the denuded trees, this is a shady and peaceful spot to rest alongside a river, a rare enough thing in Tokyo to make it worth preserving. But the old man can only see one thing, a living garbage factory with only one purpose: to foul his genkan. But even if he kills the trees, the dead leaves will still end up in his genkan.

Postscript: I had presumed that this old man was shown on TV to ridicule the extremeness of his views, but alas, it appears that this is more common than I had suspected. I have been informed that the cutting of trees to remove autumn litter is a subject in Alex Kerr’s new book Dogs and Demons. Apparently it is a fairly widespread practice to cut the limbs off trees just before the leaves fall, the trees gradually become top-heavy and stunted. Through anti-environmental acts like this, Kerr argues Japan is at war against nature and itself.

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