a+ a- print

Teachers of My Childhood

[From the book One by One by Daisaku Ikeda]

When spring arrives, heaven and earth, towns and cities--everything--takes on a new brightness. The fresh faces of the students just starting school as the cherry blossoms burst into bloom are also bright and shining.

Although many people delight in the beautiful blossoms, few bother to consider the roots that make that blossoming possible. In life, our roots are largely formed by our first experience of education, the years we spend in elementary school.

"Blooming, blooming, the cherry trees are blooming . . . " I remember my very first school textbook when I entered elementary school in the spring of 1934. Opening it with excitement, I saw a beautiful spring scene of cherry trees in bloom. In the distance there were mountains, and in the foreground the lovely pink cherry blossoms. This Elementary School Reader was the first textbook in Japan to be printed in color; it had just come into use the year before I started school.

"Blooming, blooming"--our teacher wrote the words in big letters on the blackboard. Miss Tejima was tall and slim. Many people, I would imagine, retain a clear memory of their elementary school teachers. I, too, recall Miss Tejima with great clarity--the color of her clothing, her hairstyle, and even her characteristic gestures. On one occasion, Miss Tejima selected me and just one other student from our entire school year and praised our compositions, saying that they were very well written. I was a little embarrassed to be singled out, but I was also very pleased. Everyone is happy when praised sincerely. It builds confidence. Indeed, Miss Tejima's praise may well have influenced my desire to become a writer.

Changing Times

I attended Haneda Elementary School No. 2 in Tokyo, which at the time was a two-story wooden building surrounded by rice paddies. On frosty winter days, the water in the paddies sometimes froze. On such days, a rowdy band of children, we would stray off the road and, shouting "This way! This way!" cut through the paddies on our way to school. It was a tranquil, idyllic time.

But things were changing quickly. Japan was entering a dark, oppressive period in its history. The Manchurian Incident, which began Japan's invasion of China, took place when I was three. When I was four, there was an abortive coup d'état in which the prime minister was assassinated, and when I was five, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations. Young as we were, we didn't understand what was going on in the world, but the rising waves of the troubled times reached even into our classrooms. A few pages after the blooming cherries in our reader was a page with the barking command: "Advance! Advance! Soldier, advance!"

Another spring came around, and once more the season of cherry blossoms arrived. About this time, my father suffered an attack of debilitating rheumatism and became bedridden. We were forced to scale back our family business of seaweed processing; our lives grew harder day by day. My eldest brother had enjoyed good grades, but he was forced to quit school and go to work to contribute to the family finances.

In the third and fourth grades, I had my first male teacher, Mr. Takeuchi. He had just graduated from teachers college and was young and energetic. He placed a particularly heavy emphasis on physical education: "You can be as smart as you like, but if you don't build a strong body when you're young, you'll be of no use to anyone as an adult. Health is important. Study is important. True education combines both." This appears to have been his credo as a teacher.

I was on the short side and not very strong, so it was no easy thing to meet Mr. Takeuchi's expectations. To this day, I am moved whenever I remember how keenly he encouraged me to develop my physical strength and become healthy. I also remember how he taught us about the meaning of the Olympics, explaining in detail how they were conducted. That was in 1936, the year the Berlin Olympics were held in Germany. Mr. Takeuchi stressed the importance of holding the Olympics on a grand scale every four years as a means of promoting world peace.

He clearly hated war. In the depths of his heart I think that he strongly opposed the militaristic trend of the times, believing in the importance of peace and encouraging children to grow into fine individuals with a true love of peace.

Watching Over Growth

In Japan, people who tend and care for cherry trees are called sakuramori, a word that implies a sense of careful stewardship. The sakuramori look after the cherry trees, encouraging them to grow, tending to their welfare and generally caring for them throughout the four seasons. The care they extend expresses faith in the power of life as it grows and develops into the future. They don't fuss too much about the trees but at the same time they never ignore them. They observe the trees' growth in great detail but allow them to develop freely. For example, if we stake a tree from the very beginning, the tree will rely on the stakes for support and not grow strong on its own.

The roots are especially important. One expert on trees says that the spread of the crown of a cherry tree is mirrored almost exactly by the spread of its roots below ground. If we water the tree only around the base of the trunk, the tree will become "lazy" and not bother to spread its roots far in search of water.

For people, "roots" correspond to the tenacity of our spirit, our refusal to give up. Once a tree has taken firm root, it can survive even on a rocky mountain face buffeted by powerful winds.

Trees are living things. They are not machines. Every cherry tree is unique. They each grow and thrive in different environments. That is why there is no manual that can tell us how to grow a cherry tree. The only way to succeed is to learn the particular tree's character and idiosyncrasies and, taking them into account, warmly care for it.

Each child is also unique. Each has a distinct way of flowering that is his or hers alone. To raise a tree or to foster people, we need a patient faith in their potential to flourish. A child who has poor grades or who is out of control and behaving badly now may in the future grow into a person who does truly remarkable things. It is not at all rare for a child we think we know very well to suddenly change and show us a side we never would have imagined. To the precise degree that we care for and have faith in children, they will extend and spread their roots. And it is this that will give them the strength to survive and make their way successfully through life.

Protection, as in "protection of the natural environment," assumes that nature is frail and therefore needs our protection. But stewardship expresses a spirit of awe and respect for the potential for limitless growth. I believe that such awe and respect for children should be the foundation of education.

Vivid Memories

My teacher in the fifth and sixth grades was Mr. Hiyama. I think he was about 25 or 26 at the time. His broad forehead and clear, bright eyes gave an impression of intellect and acuity. His classes were sometimes challenging, but they were always interesting. Between classes he would read Eiji Yoshikawa's samurai tale Musashi to us, gesturing and posing and reading with dramatic expression, bringing the story alive. We were pulled entirely into the world portrayed in the novel; we could see Musashi dashing about and rival swordsman Kojiro brandishing his sword right before our eyes. It took a year, but Mr. Hiyama read the novel to us in its entirety.

During one class, he spread out a large world map before us and asked us where we wanted to go. I pointed to the middle of the vast expanse of Asia. "I see!" he said. "You have pointed to Dunhuang. There are many wonderful treasures there." From that moment a fascination with Dunhuang--the oasis city on the silk trade routes famous for its temples and painted grottos--took hold in my mind.

I may have pointed to China because my eldest brother, whom I loved and respected, had been sent there as a soldier. He was drafted when I was a fourth grader. After him, my next two older brothers were called up for military service.

My father's rheumatism was improving, but with my three brothers away we were short of help and our family finances got worse and worse. When I was a fifth grader, we had to sell our house and move to a smaller one in the same area. The original house had a large yard with a big pond and a tall cherry tree. Whenever I looked up from beneath the cherry tree in our yard, it seemed as if countless bell-shaped flowers were falling from the bright blue spring sky. It was hard to say goodbye to that big tree, but I was glad that I didn't have to change schools because of the move.

A Teacher's Kindness

Hoping to do what I could to help my family, I got a job delivering newspapers. I woke up each morning while it was still dark and helped out with the seaweed production. When I finished, I delivered my papers and then went to school. After returning from school, I helped with the family business again, pulling the dried sheets of nori seaweed off the racks. Then I delivered the evening paper. At night there was the work of cleaning the seaweed, removing any impurities. I look back now on those busy days with fondness.

When I was in sixth grade, we took a school trip to Kansai. We were away for four nights and five days. It was my first trip away from home, and I was very excited. My mother had given me some pocket money, which she had somehow managed to scrape together. I used it to treat my friends, and at the end of the first day it was almost gone. Mr. Hiyama must have been watching me the whole time, because he called to me as I was going up the stairs of the inn where we were staying and said, "Daisaku, your elder brothers are all away at the war. You have to buy your parents a souvenir from your trip."

I was crushed; of course he was right. My mother's face appeared before my eyes. Smiling, Mr. Hiyama called me downstairs. He placed some money in my palm and closed my fingers around it. I think it was two one-yen bills. At that time, it was a large amount of money. I was happy. I breathed a sigh of relief. When I returned home and gave my mother her gift, I told her what had happened. "You must never forget Mr. Hiyama," she said with a gentle smile.

I don't feel that he was giving me special treatment. He wouldn't have been as well loved as he was by so many students if he was the kind of teacher who had favorites. He cared for us all equally, looking deep into our hearts, aware of the family situations that were the "soil" that nourished us. I will never forget the warm affection with which he looked at each of us during our graduation ceremony, large tears running down his cheeks.

In 1940, I graduated from elementary school and entered Haneda Higher Elementary School. My teacher for the next two years was Mr. Okabe, whom we called "Mr. Buccaneer."

He was from Okayama in the western part of Japan and used to make us laugh by telling us that in a past life he must have been the leader of a pirate crew sailing the Inland Sea, which was near his hometown. He was tall with jet-black hair and a handsome, intelligent face. There were some 40 boys in our class--no girls. Mr. Okabe often encouraged me to exercise to strengthen myself physically. He loved sumo wrestling, and taught us various sumo techniques. Even though I was small, I did my best. In summer, we would take off our shirts and run to the Tama River to swim.

At first glance, Mr. Okabe appeared very intimidating, but I never felt afraid of him. It may have been because I was rather shy, but I can't remember him ever scolding me. Once one of the students in our class was hit by another teacher. When Mr. Okabe heard about it he charged into the staff room shouting, "Which one of you hit one of my students?!" He had a very strong sense of right and wrong. He may have seemed gruff on the outside, but we all felt his concern and affection.

Growing Nationalism

When I was in my second year at Haneda Higher Elementary School, its name was changed to Haginaka National People's School. This was mandated by the National People's School Order, a law filled with militaristic overtones that sought to turn children into soldiers. Terms such as "loyal subjects of the Emperor," "drilling" and "group training" became staples of school life, and the gymnasiums of many schools were converted into martial arts training halls. Japan was sliding down the slope from war with China into the even more disastrous Pacific War. In their arrogance and stupidity, the leaders of the day had no thought for the welfare of ordinary citizens. They were driving the nation into the abyss of war with a mix of threats and well-crafted slogans.

Life became harder with each passing day, and cherry trees, whose wood burned well, were cut down one after another for fuel. The tree in our old garden that I loved so dearly was cut down, and a factory for military supplies was built where it had stood.

Education has a truly astonishing power to cast a spell over the innocent hearts of children. Many of the students in my class at the new "national people's school" applied to enlist as soldiers or as civilian colonists on the Chinese mainland. They did this because it seemed to be the highest expression of patriotism: to be a pioneering hero of the new era. I, too, wanted to become a student pilot in the navy after I graduated. Although I was concerned about my family and how they would fare without me, I secretly sent in an application.

"That's Enough!"

I wasn't there when a representative of the navy visited my home. My father sent the man away saying: "My three eldest sons are all in the army. The fourth will be going soon. Do you really plan to take away my fifth as well? No more. That's enough!"

When I got home, my father berated me fiercely. I was never so harshly scolded before or after. It gave me a glimpse of my father's true feelings, which he usually kept to himself.

After graduating, I went to work at the Niigata Steelworks. The war situation had worsened and there was an intensifying sense of impending defeat. In 1945, the last year of the war, air raids on Tokyo started on New Year's Day. Our days were filled with war and air raids. Even so, when spring arrived, those cherry trees that remained began blossoming, honest and true to their nature as always.

On the night of April 15, when the cherry petals were starting to fall, southern Tokyo was attacked in a massive air raid. The anguished sound of the air-raid sirens wailed and mighty B-29s appeared like majestic conquerors, flying steady and low across the sky. The staccato of the strafing from the American planes combined with people's screams. Incendiary bombs fell like a heavy rain. Tongues of flame leapt up here and there, burning madly. In an instant, the entire area was a sea of raging fire, and everyone was desperately trying to flee the conflagration. Parents were separated from small children. Sons and daughters struggled in vain to save elderly parents. All those caught up in this hellish nightmare of death and destruction were filled with searing anguish. Even now, it brings unendurable pain to write of that night.

When the sun rose the next morning, the entire area where I lived had been burned to the ground. Except for Haneda Airport, the town had been reduced to ashes. Both my beloved elementary school and the so-called national people's school had been razed.

Around this time I found myself walking alone, lost in thought. The war dragged on. What would happen to Japan? What would become of my family? How would I live my life? I could not envision a future. Eventually, I found myself in a small section of town that hadn't burned. A little group of cherry trees was in fragrant bloom. It was like a quiet and peaceful dream. In the vast expanse of burnt-out gray, the beautiful colors of the cherry trees glowed like a torch. In the midst of so much death, here was the light of shining life. "Blooming, blooming, the cherry trees are blooming . . . "

Words on a Wall

In those days, even cherry trees were made into symbols of death. The Japanese people were told to be like cherry blossoms, to scatter courageously in the wind without a whisper of regret. But the cherry trees before me clearly rejected such perversion and spoke to me-powerfully, sublimely-of life. They were overflowing with hope.

"Live! Live fully and deeply! Never cease living! Outlive the winter and let your own unique nature bloom," they said to me. Powerful emotions welled up and filled my heart. On the wall of a burnt-out factory building I used a piece of chalk to write a passage from a poem that I composed. Many people carried chalk with them in those days so that in an emergency they could leave a message that would enable their families to find them. I didn't bother signing my poem, but later I saw that others who shared my feelings had written their thoughts below mine on the wall.

A certain poet once wrote: "Blossoms that scatter, blossoms that remain. Even these will scatter." I had not scattered but had survived, and was now 17. The war had for too long kept me from school and learning. I was filled with the desire to study, to learn, to read books.

I have never forgotten the beloved teachers of my youth. I have stayed in touch with a number of them to this day. Mr. Okabe once wrote to me, exhorting me to live strongly and tenaciously in the face of all obstacles. In another letter he encouraged me, saying: "The taller a tree grows, the harder the wind blows against it; please endure the wind and snow."

I was able to have a reunion with Mr. Hiyama in Tochigi in 1973. He and his wife had traveled an hour and a half by bus to see me. I hadn't seen him for more than 30 years, but he still had the aura of a great educator who had made a fine job of raising many children. "You don't seem to have any time to rest," he said. "Please be careful not to harm your health." His gaze was just as warm and caring as it had been on that school trip long ago.

Sitting in front of him, I felt as if I had returned to my elementary school days. To a student, your teacher is always your teacher, and to a teacher, your students are always your students. How wonderful it is to have a true teacher! It is easy to encounter a teacher who imparts knowledge, but hard to encounter one who teaches you how to live.

Elementary education is the most critical. But how should we teach elementary school students? It is a very difficult job. That is precisely why I have such tremendous respect for elementary school teachers who do succeed in this challenging work. Are high school teachers more important than elementary school teachers? Are university professors more important than high school teachers? Absolutely not. It is just this kind of erroneous thinking that afflicts our society today: theorists often have the mistaken idea that they are better than practitioners.

Fostering the Future

An architect who theorizes about architecture is in no way superior to a carpenter who can actually build a house. An agricultural expert is not more productive than a farmer who actually grows vegetables or rice. I sometimes think there are too many people who theorize about things and far too few who actually make painstaking efforts to achieve something.

There are many people who love cherries and other flowering trees, but few who truly appreciate the efforts of those who work behind the scenes to keep the trees alive and healthy. The life of an educator is also far from glamorous. Teaching is inconspicuous work that doesn't get much attention; it's a matter of continuous hard work and effort. But it is precisely because of such teachers dedicated to fostering the future that the next generation of children can grow up straight and strong. We must never forget this crucially important fact.

In those dark days, when the power of ultranationalist authorities pressed down so heavily on Japanese society, my teachers held up for their students the great light of humanity. Just like teachers today who are earnestly committed to their profession, they firmly embraced their students and shared their lives with them, while struggling against the intrusions of political power into the realm of education.

If being blessed with good teachers is one of life's joys, there can be no one happier than I.

Share this page on

  • Facebook
  • X