Trivial Things: Okoto Tsume

I’d forgotten I still had these. Then during the ordinary course of packing and purging for a move to a new, smaller, better-located home, my mother brought over a box of my stuff from my year of teaching in the JET Programme. A box that she’d found that had been moved in their last move, and also moved in their move before that, which was just after I did my own move (my official I’m-all-grown-up-now-move-out), which was, oh, 20 years ago? She was, quite reasonably, beyond done with the whole moving-my-crap thing.

The aforementioned “these” are picks for the Japanese harp. The photo above is a complete pair, three picks (tsume) per hand: thumb, index finger, and middle finger. They let me keep these. The harp (okoto), on the other hand, is 4 feet long, made of expensive wood and silk, and suffice to say I didn’t bring home one of those. (Even to my home in Japan – we practiced in the music room of a school every other week, but “practice” at home consisted of miming the pick movements, sans instrument.)

A little bit of music history: the koto (we drop the “o” in English, and in Japanese when you’re just chatting, informal-like) was first developed in China, then Japan did what it often does — adopted it, put some Japanese fingerprints on the design, and pronounced it “improved”. It went from being exclusively played in the imperial court to becoming a staple in traditional music, then folk music, and today continues to be modernized and blended with more western music (jazz, experimental, even pop). Last I checked, it’s still considered the national instrument of Japan.

Did I choose to learn the koto because of all that gravitas? Of course not. I decided to learn how to play the koto for the same reason I decided to do most things at that time in my life — my friends were doing it, and invited me to come along.

It also checked a box for my job: the JET Programme was intended to be a reciprocal cultural exchange: be a teacher, but also be a learner, amongst a group of learners — the other Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs). They encouraged us to not only be ambassadors of our particular English-speaking country, but also to find something extracurricular — something from Japanese culture — so we could bring that understanding back home with us, and ultimately become ambassadors of Japan. (Tricksy, eh?)

I was expected to pick something, et voila, this was the first “something” that came into my view.

Every other week, I would meet up with two other female ALTs at the main hub train station, and we’d hop the remaining two train lines together for our class. We dutifully brought our tsume and sheet music with us, left our shoes at the door, and donned the traditional socks before entering the room. We endeavored (in our clumsy, American way) to follow the strict protocols for setting up the instruments, sitting at the right angle (and in the right position), and comporting ourselves in the stoic yet gentle manner of serious musicians. And we would focus on every minute aspect of playing these harps, from posture to hand position to striking the note with exactly the right level of pressure and release.

All of these lessons culminated in an end-of-year talent show put on by the ALTs (at the behest of the JET Programme facilitators). Each JET presented on the Japanese cultural “thing” that we had selected. I have only fuzzy memories of the logistics of getting the harps to and from the talent show site, except for a very strong sense memory of hating every minute of it. The performance was fun, though. We weren’t amazing, but we didn’t have to be: the music (“Sakura, Sakura”) was about as complex and dynamic as playing “Chopsticks” on the piano. And our Japanese friends thought we gaijin were nothing short of “kawaii!!“. (Those of you who have been to Japan will know exactly what I am talking about.)

I still hold fast to that philosophy, by the way. Someone to learn from. Someone to learn with. Someone to teach. It’s one of my main pithy maxims, and my most frequent answer to that annoying interview question about what I look for in a work environment (which, oddly, still comes up a lot, even though I haven’t interviewed for a job in 14 years). The JET Programme wasn’t the first to espouse this approach — I think I may have actually first encountered this adage when I read “Illusions” by Richard Bach in my teens — but being “cordially required” to live this way during my year as a JET was the litmus test that ultimately reinforced it. My cerebral philosophy was now, and has been ever since, my concrete experience.

So my first instinct, in answering today’s fundamental question — why decorate with koto finger thingies? — is that they’re a fun conversation piece, don’t take up a lot of space, and happen to fit my decor. Which is true, but it’s a surface response, that ignores the very real fact that I like to surround myself with metaphor and symbolism, and this is no exception.

They’re a reminder of a period of my life when my learning curve was the steepest it has ever been: every day a new revelation, about Japan, about its people, and of course, about myself.

They remind me to keep learning from, learning with, and teaching.

They remind me that sometimes, in a random box, opened on a random day, lies a lesson that I forgot, and that I am better for the reminder.


Trivial Things Series:

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