Heaven and Earth Become Solemn
At the corner of the west entrance to our danchi apartment complex, there was a mini-police station called koban in Japanese. The koban was next to the terminal where the local bus shuttled residents to and from the nearest train station. There were three to four policemen assigned at this police station-cum-information center in rotation to protect our community of around 2000 families.
We didn’t know the names of these policemen because we simply called them ‘omawari-san,’ which means, ‘the person that goes around.’ True to the name, they frequently patrolled the complex on their sturdy-looking white bicycles. They chatted with the residents, listened to their concerns, and arrived quickly when there was a disturbance in our community, no matter how minor it was. We all respected and depended on the omawari-san and felt safe because they were always around.
One September day after the summer holidays, my older sister talked about an exciting project at her primary school over dinner. Her class was going to bury a time capsule that would be opened many years later, and the students discussed what should go inside. She said that someone suggested that the music album ‘Swim! Taiyaki (oyoge taiyakikun)’—a song about a fish-shaped cake filled with red bean paste that escaped the pastry shop— should go inside the time capsule. The song, which sold over 4.5 million copies, was so popular that almost every child in Japan could sing it. She said that the class agreed that it was the perfect item to put into the capsule.
As a pre-schooler, I listened intently to my older sister’s stories because I was very eager to attend primary school. I also wanted to imitate everything my older sister did, which, unfortunately, extremely annoyed her. When I heard this story, I immediately decided that I should make my own time capsule with my friends.
I acquired a small biscuit tin from my grandfather and started gathering precious items with two other friends. One of them brought his supercar Lamborghini-shaped eraser (a rare transparent one in green), and the other brought her orange yo-yo that she valued greatly. I decided to put my little glass jar of ‘star sands’ that my aunt gave me as a souvenir from Okinawa. It is funny because I was fascinated by these tiny star-shaped sands, but didn’t know where Okinawa was. I vaguely imagined that it was a tropical island with coconut trees in a foreign country.
After filling the tin with these ‘treasures of our times’, the three of us went to a field in the southern part of the danchi, next to the rice paddy fields. As we looked for an ideal burial spot, one of my friends found a 100-yen coin. We stared at the coin for a while wondering what to do, then decided that it was best to take it to the omawari-san.
“Where did you find it?” the omawari-san asked when we arrived at the koban with the coin. The fan was blowing furiously at the station, but it was still stifling inside. We nervously explained to him that we found the coin in the field next to the rice paddy fields. To avoid any suspicion, I quickly added that we were in the field to look for a spot to bury our time capsule.
“A time capsule?” he said, and curiously eyed the tin that I was holding. “You’re going to bury that?” We quietly nodded in unison, and braced for further interrogation about its content.
But no more questions came, which was a relief to all of us. We were worried if he thought that the time capsule was a bad idea. The omawari-san picked up the coin, put it in the desk drawer, turned to us and said, “well, thank you for bringing lost items to the koban, we appreciate your cooperation,” in a very formal tone. He then smiled and pulled out a 100-yen coin from his shirt pocket, passed it to us and said, “here, this is for you, buy some ice-cream at the bread shop.”
We ran with joy to the bread shop feeling proud that the omawari-san praised us for our actions. We bought three “Home-run Bars” with the 100-yen he gave us. Home-run Bars were the cheapest ice-cream available at 30 yen each. And while we ate the ice-cream on a bench, my friend discovered that her stick had “home-run” written on it. This meant that we could get another ice-cream for free, and we were all surprised because this rarely happened.
I can’t remember how our discussion progressed after that stroke of luck, but the three of us concluded that the home-run stick and the leftover 10-yen should all go into our time capsule. We put them in the tin, went back to the field, and buried our time capsule. We then said goodbye and went home for dinner.
Three years after I buried the time capsule with my friends, our family moved to Singapore. When I returned to see my grandparents several years later, I heard whispers of several suicides that happened in the danchi after we had left. I was much older then and tried to imagine what could make people end their own lives. I also thought about the gentle omawari-san who bought us ice-cream and wondered how he was, because he would have investigated these incidents. He was no longer working at our koban, but I imagined that he must have been heartbroken that these tragedies happened in the community that he looked after.
I also never got to dig up my time capsule. While I was away, the field was paved and turned into acrylic tennis courts. When people talk about Japan’s feverish bubble-period that soon followed, I think about those tennis courts that appeared in the field where we used to play. They were jarringly out of place in the middle of the beautiful paddy fields.