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  • Evangelia Papoutsaki

The Japanese Cowboy: An Encounter with Amami's “Zorba the Buddha”


“I would like you to enjoy the wholeness of your being, when your body, your heart,

your intellect all fall in tune. I have called that the new man – Zorba the Buddha.”


“‘Why! Why!’ He exclaimed with disdain. ‘Can't a man do anything without a why?

Just like that, because he wants to?’” 

- Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

 

“In the mainland [Japan], I had to do a lot of bowing to others. Here, on the island,

I don’t have to bow to anyone.”

-       Kimiji Wada


“‘You don't want any trouble!’ Zorba exclaimed in stupefaction.

‘And pray, what do you want, then?’

I didn't answer. ‘Life is trouble,’ Zorba continued. ‘Death no. To live - do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble!’”

- Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek


Years ago, on a chilly December morning after visiting the majestic, at sunrise, Taj Mahal and floating, still half awe-struck, through the meandering and deserted streets of old Agra in search of sustenance, my travel companion and I passed by a small restaurant. Much to our relief, it looked open. What can one eat for breakfast in the land of curry and dhal? Titled “Zorba the Buddha,” the menu on offer, on a small free-stand by the door, captured my attention. A quick glance above the entrance confirmed that this was indeed the restaurant’s name.  


I was ready to eat anything at that point, let alone decipher the connection to Kazantzakis well-known novel character and iconic film of Zorba the Greek. This connection held personal significance for me as Kazantzakis hailed from my ancestral island of Crete. The little restaurant, run by Osho disciples, exuded an air of meditative simplicity and quietness, noticeable cleanliness, and a sharp whiteness, unlike anywhere I had been till that point on this trip. As the only customers at that early hour, we received attentive service and a simple, clean taste vegan meal, enough to satisfy our hunger and, as it turned out, minds too.


This encounter marked my introduction to Osho’s philosophy and the concept of  Zorba the Buddha. I fall in love with it, or rather rose in love, as it’s an uplifting notion that puts emphasis on the importance of balancing the material and the spiritual aspects of life, while not losing sight of the human experience in the pursuit of spirituality. Who is this ideal human, I started pondering, who could bring together the supreme qualities of loving and living life in full, like Zorba, while being able to experience equanimity and potentially reach enlightenment, like Buddha? As I was embarking on my own journey in exploring Buddhism, I looked out for inspiring embodiments of this character.


In all my travels around the world and there have been many off the beaten track, I would often meet fascinating individuals but rarely any that would embody Osho’s Zorba the Buddha character to my satisfaction. On small islands, every so often, I would catch a glimpse of it in humans whose islandness seems to foster some of the qualities that made Osho’s ideal being. Living so close to nature, surrounded by a vast liquid life that is both invitational and constraining – in both directions, to those who come and those who want to embark on a journey away from it – the islander perhaps knows best how to embrace life and might understand its higher meaning better than the arrogant mainlander who stands on terra firma. But perhaps I am biased, as I am an islander myself.



A Serendipitous Encounter on a Small Japanese Island


I met Kimiji Wada (和田 喜美二), aka the Japanese cowboy and a self-taught painter, on my first field trip to Amami Oshima in the south of the Japanese archipelago. When Professor Sueo Kuwahara, my Amamian host, fellow islands scholar, and good friend, stopped by the Westerners Café, mentioning in passing that he would like to introduce me to someone I would find interesting, I did not know what to expect. Kuwahara-sensei had the habit of taking me to places and people with an element of surprise, fascination, and richness, and I had learned to trust him.


The drive around the western coast that takes you to this seaside curio cafe is one of the most scenic landscapes on the island: descending from high up the mountain, passing by my favourite photo-capturing scenery spot, down to the little village of Toen, intimately enclosed by a small lush bay overlooking at a dramatic East China Seascape. I had no idea then that this first meeting would spark a long friendship with one of the most fascinating characters on the island whose paintings would decorate my walls, many of which were gifted to me so generously.


Wada-san, whose artist’s name is Kigyo (Ki: Joy, Gyo: fish), comes in a complex and rather striking make-over. Self-styled as a cowboy who loves cold river flyfishing, he spends his days in his studio, in the old but long ago empty of pupils village school, while his Amamian wife makes a single curry dish to perfection served at their Café, a converted container, and who when his moods take over him, takes off to the mainland on his motorbike seeking to let the steam off.


I remember that first visit so vividly, as I was immediately taken by his striking outfit and personality, let alone his Western-themed cafe. Sitting on the veranda on a very humid island summer day while cooling down with a much-needed iced coffee and petting Hartley---his dog named after Elizabeth Hartley---I could not contain my curiosity. I asked how he came to develop this fascination with Western cowboy culture. He replied that he grew up in post-war Japan, watching Westerns on TV, which left a big impression on him. It was the freedom, the wilderness, the camaraderie that appealed to him.


But, despite his love for all things Western, Wada is more than just Amami’s cowboy. As I gradually got to know him during my subsequent island visits, I started calling him the Japanese Zorba, and as it would be revealed to me much later, one with an unexpected Buddha element to him. But who was this cowboy-Zorba, and could it be possible for the two to coexist as a unique single-island character archetype?  


In fact, Wada himself had mentioned Zorba in that first encounter. He had asked me about the name of “that Greek actress with those big eyes” who acted in ‘Zorba the Greek’ film. He meant Melina Mercouri, and we got talking about Zorba and Anthony Queen, who acted as the leading character. Listening to him, I started getting an understanding of how this man’s values and lifestyle encapsulated the spirit of Zorba in his Cowboy manifestation, reflecting his passion for life and freedom. He seems to have gone through life with a childlike curiosity and a fierce desire to maintain his freedom from social conformity in a collectivist society built on them.



Growing up in Post-war Japan


Wada-san was born just after the end of the Pacific War, in 1947, in the suburbs of Hiroshima City. I wondered how it was growing up in a city so recently devasted by the Atomic bomb, but he did not seem to be aware as a child of this event and its ramifications in his world, and indeed our world. His mother, who barely survived that catastrophic event as a result of being evacuated to the mountains area of Hiroshima during the war, never talked about it. Having visited Hiroshima, I can only imagine the trauma experienced and the desire to cover the wound and move on with life. Japan had, after all, experienced a humiliating defeat, and Wada-san was born in an occupied by the American army country.


His parents came from very different backgrounds but were both the product of a vastly different pre-war Japan. His father, who had fought in the war, came from the Toyama Prefecture, where his family had farmed for generations. Wada did not remember him talking about the war either. His maternal grandfather was a Taishō era high-rank policeman who carried a sabre in his duties. His mother’s Samurai ancestry and upbringing meant she maintained a traditional, formal communication style, even with her children at home. His mother’s behaviour must have felt anachronistic to a boy growing up in radically different times.


Despite the fact that the Americans occupied Japan, he had no contact with foreigners as a child other than watching TV and cowboy movies, which did leave a deep impression on him. The US film industry has always been part of its soft power, exporting the American Dream and exposing its values to the rest of the world, especially at a time when the need for escapism was strong.


Wada grew up in a large family with six siblings, and when he was in second grade, his father worked in a construction company and took them to Osaka, where he remained until his thirties. Growing up, he never thought of becoming a painter, but he remembers having a vivid imagination as a child. He did not like school or studying, and he was always picking up fights. At that time, he remembers having a vague dream of becoming a novelist. “But I guess I chose to study economics because my teacher told me I couldn’t make a living by being a novelist.” Japan needed workers to build its post-war economy, not dreamers.


It took him six years to graduate from the night program of economics at Kinki University in Osaka while working as a rubbish collection driver during the day. That certainly takes some determination, and as his life unfolded, Wada seemed determined not to relinquish his quest for a more authentic life.


A Young East-Asian Man in Search of an Adventure in the West


Wada remembers dreaming of traveling abroad while he was still a teenager, which motivated him to start saving money as soon as he turned 20. Sharing his dream with his classmates had resulted in ridicule; they told him he was a fool. At that time, it was extremely rare for young people to travel abroad. And who was he, after all, but a night school student and daytime rubbish collection driver?


His peers’ reaction didn’t seem to deter him, though. He went to an English conversation school for about two months before going abroad, so he had enough English to get him by while traveling. Being adventurous does not mean you go unprepared; this was the trip of a lifetime!


He chose Europe for his first trip abroad, which puzzled me. Why not the US? I asked, where could he finally meet real cowboys?   “Europe’s longer history and more countries to choose from” seemed to appeal to him a lot more, and in a pragmatic way, as he wanted to see as many countries as possible.  He flew to Rome, and from there, he went to Milan, Marseille, Paris, and then to Germany by train, with a last stop in London. It was the 1960s, and a young Japanese man traveling alone, especially in smaller towns, was a novelty, so he attracted lots of attention, which I am sure he relished. Finally, he was unique!


He admitted knowing nothing about Europe at that time, but it was fun as everything was new to him. Rome left the deepest impression; its overwhelming number of antiquities and celebrated art history were a revelation to him. Wada remembers a defining moment when he came across Renaissance art for the first time in an old Italian church, leaving him in awe. At another time, he was taken by a very old hotel building with all the modern facilities.  He was charmed by old Europe’s ways at a time when Japan was modernising fast, often resulting in the demolishing of the old and not being destroyed by the war and building anew with concrete cement. In London, he stayed at a hotel near Piccadilly Square that he remembers vividly. It was in the heyday of the Beatles, and their music was heard everywhere. It was also during the Vietnam War, so Britain’s youth were buzzy demonstrating. What a time to go traveling!


After returning home, his inferiority complex towards Western people disappeared: “I became confident in myself; I no longer felt inferior to the Western man.” Listening to Wada’s realization and newly gained confidence after his trip to the West, I was reminded of a passage from Lefkadio Aherne’s book, “Kokoro: An Intimate Portrait of Japanese Inner Life,” about a young samurai who dreamed of going to the West to learn from it only to return disillusioned. The book reflected the Meiji-era Japan, which was forced to adjust its customs and traditions of “heart” to Western influences after centuries of isolation. In Japanese, heart/Kokoro/こころ/心 also refers to and includes the mind and the spirit of things; one informs the other, and all three form a more holistic way of seeing life, so unlike the Western philosophical tradition of separating logic from feeling, never mind including the intangible spirit!


Wada-san, whose country suffered a crushing humiliation in not only losing the war but also being occupied by Western forces, those very ones Japan had so successfully barricaded itself against for centuries, must have felt liberated in reclaiming a sense of his own identity and with it a pride to his culture. Winning a war does not necessarily imply cultural superiority, although the victors always claim that. Post-war Japan rushed to absorb all sorts of American ways, but I feel its kokoro still retains its core values, which fascinate any visitor to the country to this day.


The trip to Europe opened up more traveling. Wada visited Vietnam, China, and South Korea, but he felt that these countries did not resonate with him in the same way. In Europe, he had caught the bug of modern art. “In Vietnam, there were no paintings,” he said, but I think he meant art different from his own country and Asia, which could stimulate and satisfy his need to explore, experiment, and stretch his known boundaries.


More traveling was later linked to his life-long passion for cold-river fly-fishing, which he took up in his thirties, and then started teaching others: “Fishing is fun and an adventure. When life gets heavy, I leave, go on a journey, do some fishing, and come back lighter.”  This somehow reminds me of Zorba, the Greek character, and his deep connection with nature, which seems to have the capacity to lift their spirit:

“He, too, was thrilled by this side of spring. ‘What is that?’ He asked, stupefied. ‘That miracle over there, boss, that moving blue, what do you call it? Sea? Sea? And what's that wearing a flowered green apron? Earth? Who was the artist who did it? It's the first time I've seen that, boss, I swear! His eyes were brimming over. … “don't you see? There is magic behind all that, boss.’ He rushed outside, began dancing and rolling in the grass like a foal in spring.” - Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
“He stooped by a hedge and peaked the first little wild narcissi. He looked at them a long while, as if he could not see enough of them, as if he was seeing narcissi for the first time. He closed his eyes and smelled them, sighed then gave them to me. ‘If only we knew, boss what the stones and rain and the flowers say maybe they call-call us-and we don't hear them. When will people's ears open, boss? When shall we have our eyes open to see? When shall we open our arms to embrace everything – stones, rain, flowers, and men?” - Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

In his late forties, he went to New Zealand to learn more about fly-fishing where he returned twice, to Christchurch and Greymouth, as he developed a friendship with his Kiwi fishing guide. His only time in the US was when he spent a few days in Anchorage, Alaska, flyfishing again. He still dreams of returning to NZ and going to Montana, too.


It seems that fishing led him to painting,


When fishing, I wondered what it would be like to see this scenery from the other side, which inspired my first painting. I also thought about what would happen if I drew a picture myself while I was canoeing. The image of drawing came to me while I was fishing. The beginning of painting in the first place was when I wanted to draw a picture of myself fishing in the great outdoors when I couldn’t take photos - Wada


Clearly, our friend Wada was not that keen to become a sararīman/サラリーマン, what most Japanese white-collar workers aspired to become at his time. Having lived in Tokyo, I remember seeing so many salarymen going to izakaya and karaoke bars after work, drinking until late, often passing out on the pavements, and in many cases falling asleep with exhaustion from overwork on trains. Somehow, I could never see Wada-san being one of these salarymen or even dying of karoshi/過労死, overwork in someone else’s employment. Like Kazantzakis’ Zorba, Wada has been too much of a free spirit to aspire to a life bound by office work and loyalty to a single employer, even if that meant a steady income. How utterly constrained that life would have been for him!



The Restless Years, the Quest for an Authentic Life and Finding Art


After graduating from university, Wada married and continued working as a rubbish driver for a while, to my surprise, since he was now an educated man. That lasted until he got a job at a construction company, which was introduced to him by its director, whom he had met while traveling in Europe. His own attempt as an entrepreneur could have gone better, and after five years of running his own construction company, he returned to his previous employer.


So he became a salaryman, after all, and a good one, too, as I can see him bringing his passion to everything he does, like Zorba. In his forties, he moved to Nishinomiya in the Hyogo Prefecture, where he built his own house and commuted to work in Osaka. But his restlessness did not go away; he kept traveling around Japan and when a midlife crisis hit him as he turned 50, he quit his job because, in his words, he wanted to set himself free. He moved once more to Asago City, in the same prefecture where he built a log house and opened a café run mostly by his wife while he devoted his time to painting and fly-fishing that took him to New Zealand for the first time.


Although he had started drawing while working at the construction company, it was not until later, when he lived in Asago City, that he started drawing in earnest. He did not take any classes; he taught himself from books, which started a lifelong fascination with art and self-education. A true auto-didact, he has devoted his life to exploring different painting techniques and traditions with various results. But what does it matter when he finds so much satisfaction in self-discovering art?


He had an exhibition in Hyogo, and when some of his paintings were sold, much to his surprise, it suddenly daunted him that he might have a future as a painter. He was already retired when he drew these pictures and devoted himself to painting while running the café. That was a period where he did a lot of “dark” paintings. The dark/shadow painting period in his life, as he calls it, reflected his anxieties and despair, not only personal but also collective. When I asked him to tell me what was happening inside him then, I could feel he struggled to put it into words.


That picture is completely different from other pictures. At that time, I drew that picture in a situation where I couldn’t help but be in pain. I was very dissatisfied and angry with the world. So, I often used red colour to express anger. I’m unsure if it was anger at me or the world.  My life after retirement, I had a lot of freedom, time and money and I was not dissatisfied,  but there was always irritation and anger at something.  I drew a picture to free myself from that anger. – Kimiji Wada


He seems to be aware that they were his most authentic work:


Many foreigners who came here stood before that surreal painting, looking at it, understanding [its meaning]. Now, even if I want to return to that painting and draw it, I wouldn’t be able to do it. The paintings depicting the world of my imagination are original and eye-catching, but not landscape paintings and other images of the real world. – Kimiji Wada


These darker paintings, I believe, are his best, most authentic work because he did not seek to imitate others. They are raw and bold and overflowing with emotion, not pretty to look at, but somehow manage to convey his state of Kokoro with a rough kind of sincerity. What lacked, perhaps in technique, was balanced out by the sincere message it conveyed of a man trying to escape from society and himself at his darkest moment.

“I felt deep within me that the highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe!” - Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

In one of those paintings, we see a man stepping out of the canvas and over the frame, and I can’t help but imagine Wada depicting his own need to escape and get out of a “framed” life. In another, we see a lava overflowing with symbols of capitalism, perhaps a desire to destroy the tools of tyranny.  It's easy to see his disillusionment from a money-driven and conflict-ridden society. The raw shades and rough layers of dark reds overflowing like lavas of suppressed emotions strike you in an overwhelming way.


Then, a Buddhist monk came into his life and taught him to do calligraphy, which resulted in a joint exhibition. The Asago Art Museum invited them to display their work. So, life as a painter started becoming a reality for Wada, who began submitting to bigger exhibitions in Tokyo, Kyoto, and elsewhere and won some awards. He joined a Tokyo Art Group, won some prizes but then realized that he was not interested in painting for prizes and he stopped submitting to prize-focused exhibitions. He was rebelling again; our friend Wada was not driven by external recognition or monetary rewards. That comes with constraints, and he wanted to paint free of them.


His restlessness continued, and just after a few years in Asago City, he was on the move again, to his wife’s island home in Amami Oshima. He remembered visiting cafés in rural towns while traveling in Europe and his dream of running one someday. As they had already experience in running a café, they opened another one in a converted container in Toen village, thinking everyone needed coffee and curry rice.


They chose well because there aren’t that many cafes along that coast of Amami Oshima. He named it the Westerners Café, alluding to Arizona, a place he has long dreamed of visiting. He poured all his imagination into the decoration, ornamentation, and furnishings in the Western Saloon style. Before you even step in, right as you approach it from the road, you are taken aback by the décor, including skulls and all! And once you step in, it feels like you entered a Hollywood Western filmset, full of all sorts of cowboy and goldrush mining paraphernalia, artfully put together. Where did he find all these items? It surely took some time and money to locate and bring all the way to this tiny village on a small island south of the Japanese archipelago. He said that if he can’t go to Arizona, he might as well bring Arizona to where he lives. The power of his imagination and his need to create his own reality is extraordinary.


I was curious about what fuelled that need to move around so frequently as I shared the same restlessness. His answer resonated with me. I knew what he meant when he said, “I’m always trying to go to a new place because I am chasing the next dream, or delusion, a dream to open up to something new that leads to building a new life phase.” He refers to his dream of leading an artist’s life, which became a reality as the result of stepping out of his known world and embracing what every new place stimulated in him. “It also has something to do with my outgoing personality; I was in Boys Scout as a child.”


When I asked him if the move to the island was good for him, he pointed at himself, saying he and his wife had regained their health since they came to live there. He does not regret the move. I think he also found some contentment; the outside world is now well defined, it’s just beyond the water; taking the ferry to the mainland for a bike ride occasionally helps him let the steam off, but he always returns to the island and his studio. Wada never travels with his wife. “I’m fidgeting before going somewhere, but recharging my energy while traveling and coming home satisfied. My wife is also recharging while I’m away. She knows I want to go somewhere soon and is happy to see me taking off.”


On one of my subsequent visits, I asked him why he moved to Amami from mainland Japan, to which he answered that he does not have to bow to anyone on the island. He had to do too much bowing to those with status in mainland Japan, while on the island, everyone seemed to be more equal. I had called him earlier the Japanese cowboy because of his love for Western culture, but after a while, I started thinking of him as "the man who wouldn't bow" would suit his free, adventurous spirit better. I can’t help but compare this character trait to Zorba’s character, who somehow, even when serving others, always managed to retain his sense of self intact, fiercely guarding his independence.



The Artist and his Studio


My motto is reading 10,000 books, traveling 1,000 times, holding 100 conversations, having ten hobbies, and one painting. Read 10,000 books, travel 1,000 times, talk to 100 people, have ten hobbies, and then you can draw a picture.  - Wada

 

I’m {77} now, so I’m thinking how I should live for the next 15 years. I want to leave a real painting… – Wada

 

It’s pretty hard to get out the imagination from the unconscious. When I’m told that I have only a little more to live, I may be able to squeeze out my sleeping imagination. - Wada

 

Wada's atelier, as he calls it, is a marvel and a whole world to itself, not unlike his Westerner’s cafe. In fact, you will find it on the local visitor's map as a special point of attraction, along with him wearing his cowboy hat, his café, his motorbike and his dog Hartley. He has carefully staged his ideal world in this space that contains what he loves most: painting and fishing. Once inside his studio, you forget you are in a small, aging, depopulated coastal village on a small Japanese island. He has always allowed us so generously to intrude into his special world with our cameras and many questions.

 

The studio is housed in the village’s old school, now empty of students, the result of an aging Japan that has seen many smaller communities being severely depolluted. In the municipal unit his village belongs to, over 43 percent of the population is older than 65 years old. I found it rather poignant that his studio is in the village school. Wada-san keeps the spirit of learning alive. His walls are covered with studies of well-known paintings. That’s how he learns, he said: “The picture I am copying is a picture that was outstanding in that era, ahead of the time. That’s why I think it’s still there.” He studies art through books and by application; for him, copying is a way to understand the genius behind the art by proxy.

 

…I have to draw. So, I’m drawing [at the studio], though it’s hot, every day in summer. I draw with the intention of completing my painting. I’m in the atelier every day from 10:00 to 16:00. The atelier is a world by itself. From the desk to everything over there becomes one stage. I’m grateful that the village mayor rented out the school for free because I’m a painter… I pay only the utility bills.  It’s a concrete building, so it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. - Wada

 

Wada-san does not paint the landscape, unlike Isson Tanaka, Amami’s celebrated painter and another outsider whose iconic landscapes convey his deep love for this island. In Wada’s case, the island contains him and provides him with a space where he can finally be himself, a place to return to when his moods take him on the bike ride to the mainland. The island might not be the direct inspiration, but it’s a nurturing space that provides for him, even at a practical level, like the abandoned school he uses for his studio.  

 

However, like Isson, Wada runs away from the mainland and the art establishment. Although he claims not to know the real value of his work, he is aware his paintings are worthy of appreciation as some three hundred people have already bought them. During his ten years in Asago, he was in various art circles and artists groups, which he found annoying as there was a lot of dragging each other down and backstabbing, as well as self-promotion, despite appearing gentle and polite on the surface. He hated that aspect of the art world. “All artists have that. Isson also ran away from that.”


While writing this piece, I glanced at the big canvas hanging in a prominent position in my home on Waiheke Island and realized it might be one of the few, if not the only, paintings inspired by Amami Island. The painting depicts a nighttime scene featuring a young woman in a white dress seated alone with her back to the viewer at a table in a courtyard, seemingly after a dinner with guests. Illuminated by night lights, the painting reveals intricate details such as a large sub-tropical tree with sprawling roots and branches, two hanging nightlamps, a volcanic stone wall, a courtyard paved with flagstones, the seashore, and a distant bay, most of which are obscured in daylight. This artwork never fails to transport me back to a humid July evening in Amami. It exudes a sense of peace and invitation, suggesting that darkness holds more than meets the eye.

 


He understands the artist’s character as essentially a self-centered one. “Artists have a strong desire to express themselves, strong self-esteem,” he told us, “I didn’t draw or sell pictures to people I didn’t like.” His participation in public exhibitions was an attempt to be acknowledged for his art, but since moving to Amami Oshima, he has stopped chasing or being obsessed with external recognition. That’s when his painting technique changed. He no longer mixes colours. He is painting straight from the tube.  He started ink painting, learned Chinese poetry, wrote his own Chinese poem, and drew it with a brush. That very much illustrates his approach; once he takes up something, Wada-san goes all the way.

 

When I am painting, I am already inside the canvas, or I’m immersed in the painting. As I’m drawing with my imagination, I feel that I don’t know where I am when I come out of the picture. I drew the back of the woman in that picture with my imagination. The moment I want to draw, I draw immediately. Because my imagination spreads in my head, I immediately draw on the canvas. - Wada


All of his original paintings have a story to tell, like those earlier ones he did that expressed his anguish. On our most recent visit, I was keen to see if he had finished the canvas he was working on, which I had found rather striking and full of symbolism with faces on masks. It was finished and on the wall, tempting me to buy it. Something about it made me think about the need to drop my own masks. It reminded me of an article at the Tricycle, the Buddhist Review, I had recently read about dropping the masks (“Instead of trying to polish our mask until it becomes perfect, we can start looking for the one who’s wearing It.” Santiago Santai Jiménez, “Waking Up Is Letting the Mask Fall”).



I found the title apt for this painting. We wear many masks throughout life, reflecting the personas we construct to fit in and be accepted by others, and we create self-images, often unconsciously, based on our ethnicity, gender, looks, abilities, etc. We rely so much on those masks for protection that we often forget they are not our true selves nor reflect our deeper authentic selves. We spent our lives in a schizophrenic state, “behind masks,” and that must take its toll on our spirit. Wada’s painting called to an authentic self, aside from the ego constructs and self-images. Here again, Wada’s strength as an artist, despite limitations in technique, lies in the message and one that is not only personal but also collective. On the island, he does not feel the need or indeed the desire to wear the mask of the self-important painter, or any other mask for that matter.  If you pass by his studio and buy his work, you must know that he is happy to get the cash so he can travel again.

“No, you're not free,’ he said. ‘The string you are tied to is perhaps longer than other people's. That's all. You are on a long piece of string boss; you come and go, and you think you're free, but you never cut the string in two. And when people don't cut the string…’ ‘I’ll cut it someday! I said defiantly, because Zorba's words had touched an open wound in me and hurt. ‘It's difficult, boss, very difficult. You need a touch of folly to do that; folly, d’you see? You have to risk everything! But you've got such a strong head, it will always get the better of you. A man's head is like a grosser; it keeps accounts: I've paid so much and earned so much and that means a profit of this much or a loss of that much! The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string. Ah, no! It hangs on to it, the bastard! If the string slips out of its grasp, the head, poor devil, is lost, finished! But if a man doesn't break the string, tell me, what flavor is left in life? The flavor of chamomile, weak chamomile tea! Nothing like rum - that makes you see life inside out!” - Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Some time ago, while at the hospital with my dad, I brought a book by Khalil Gibran to read with him. As soon as I came across his piece on the Madman, I remembered Wada san’s new painting of the masks. I asked Kuwahara-sensei to share the poem I translated through Google. He loved it as it resonated with him. He subsequently told me that  Gibran’s books, ‘The Madman’ and ‘The Prophet’, became his textbooks. You will see his Japanese copy of Zorba the Greek on his desk, along with other novels and history of art books.  That’s how Wada is; when he finds something that resonates with him, he wholeheartedly embraces it and sets on a new learning journey.



Wada’s relationship with painting reminded me of another passage from Kazantzakis' book where Zorba’s dancing was his way of expressing his thoughts and feelings about life. Wada, lacking the words like Zorba, has found another medium to express life.

“’I think Zorba -but I may be wrong-that there are three kinds of men: those who make it their aim, as they say to live their lives, eat, drink, make love, grow rich, and famous; then come those who make it their aim not to leave their own lives but to concern themselves with the lives of all men-they feel that all men are one and they try to enlighten them, to love them as much as they can and to do good to them; finally there are those who aim at living the  life of the entire universe-everything, man, animals, trees, stars, we are all one, we  are all the substance involved and the same terrible struggle.  What struggle? … Turning matter into spirit.’  Zorbas scratched his head. ‘I've got a thick skull, boss, I don't grasp these things easily. … Ah, informally you could dance all that you just said, then I’d understand.’” - Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek.

As you leave the studio, you might see on the wall a pinned page with his three top wishes, which include a trip to Sicily for painting, a trip to New Zealand for fly-fishing, and a trip to Montana, also for fly-fishing. Remember, his artist’s name is Kigyo (Ki: Joy, Gyo: fish). His joy comes from fishing, where he wears no masks. Painting is where true labour lies for him, one that transforms.

 

Painting is different from fishing. Painting is very heavy.  I feel like it’s imposed on me, and it’s mentally heavy. None of the pictures I’ve painted are the best. I draw thinking that the best picture can be drawn at the very end of my life. There are no perfect scores in my paintings, 80 or 90 points at best. Copying (reproduction) is over, and I plan to draw humans from now on.  – Wada

 

I was curious about his children and what they make of their unconventional father.

 

I don’t know what my daughter thinks of me. My eldest daughter was an animator and is now a housewife. The second daughter is a pastry chef (pâtissier). My son is also an animator and draws.  It seems that he sometimes puts his work on the Internet. Two out of three children are artists.  It may be that they have seen me painting since they were little. - Wada

 

I would say a pastry chef is an artist, too!

 

During our recent visit, Wada presented me with a custom set of Japanese seals he had crafted for me. These were not the typical small wooden hanko stamps used for signing documents but rather the more traditional Chinese-style seals made of stone. Wada had engraved my name in Kanji characters on these seals, selecting those that phonetically represented my name, standing for "Asian Local Horse." Ha! A horse and Asian at that! It couldn’t be a better gift and message from a man who seeks to put his own individualised stamp to life!



Osho’s Ideal Human and the Amamian Zorba the Buddha


It’s a Greek movie I saw when I was about 18 years old, and I read the book about 73 years old (now 77), so the impression about Zorba and the book and the way of looking at them seems completely different. But I share many memorable moments with Zorba. The life of a Greek man when the novel was written (celestial nature, amorousness, the uncouth life of a man living hand to mouth, etc.) seems to be inside me. – Kimiji Wada


The more I interacted with Wada-san, the more I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between his and Alexis Zorbas’ characters; the same restlessness,  the continuous seeking of adventure, the love for travelling and exploration, the tendency to take up different jobs, often manual labor jobs, the unsuccessful but full of enthusiasm entrepreneurialism that kept failing because their heart was not really in the money but in the experience, their raw love of nature and that directness of character and spontaneity with which both embrace life, not to leave out that they were both largely self-taught men whose child-like curiosity provided the fuel for a lifelong commitment to self-learning.


Wada is certainly not the Tao-perfect man who accepts life as it comes with utmost equanimity. Like Zorba, he wrestles with life; restlessly seeking to find peace on his own terms while engaging with life but also knowing the value of the present moment. Perhaps the latter has come with age. He is happy pursuing his own journey of self-exploration through art. In fact, it’s his childlike curiosity and need to learn on his own terms that bring him closer to Osho’s ideal man. Becoming childlike, Osho said, is a great responsibility. As you become responsible for yourself, you start dropping your masks and false faces, making you freer.


Once, I asked him what he would do if he had the chance to live another life. He described a life similar to what he has now:


If I were 20 years old now, I would like to travel the world sometimes as a cowboy, fisherman, biker, etc. There are three things I still want to do but haven’t done yet: go to Italy to paint for a year, go fishing in Scotland for a month, and bike the highways of Arizona for a week. These three are left as homework. I’m not sure if I will pass as an artist in Italy.


It wasn’t until much later and in one of my most recent returns to Amami that the Buddha side of this Amamian Zorbaesque character was revealed. We had been served one of his wife’s delicious curries, and while chatting, she mentioned that a report from the NZ congregation of their Buddhist group was included in their monthly newsletter. That caught my attention. What Buddhist group do they belong to? I asked immediately. Much to my surprise, I discovered they were followers of Soka Gakai, the same Buddhist group I have been practicing in New Zealand. That was how I learned Wada chants Nam Myoho Renge Kyo every day, the essence of the Lotus Sutra. He came from a Soka Gakai family, and while his wife is more devoted, he chants and attends the congregation regularly.


I somehow could not see him as a devoted religious man, so I was surprised to hear that he carried his chanting beads when traveling to Europe at age 20. When I asked him what kept him practicing Buddhism, he replied that it’s not just any form of Buddhism but Soka Gakai, a rational belief system. He loathed the more traditional Buddhist priests who ask for money to perform ceremonies and other services and are part of a religious hierarchy. Soka Gakai’s more horizontal organizational structure suits his need to be independent of rigid structures.

“Yet, if there is a God, I shan’t be afraid to appear before him when the time comes. I don't know how to put it to make you understand. I don't think any of that's important, do you see? Would God bother to see it over the earthworms and keep count of everything they do? And get angry and storm and fret himself silly because one went astray with the female earthworm next door or swallowed a mouthful of meat on Good Friday? Bah! Get away with you, all you soup-swilling priests! Bah!’ ‘Well, Zorba,’ I said, to make him wild, ‘God may not ask you what you ate, but he will certainly ask you what you did.’ ‘And I say he will not ask that either!  And how do you know that, Zorba, you ignoramus?’ You will ask me. I just know! I'm sure of it! If I had two sons, one quiet, careful, moderate and pious, and the other rascally, greedy, lawless, and a woman-chaser, my heart would go out to the second one. Perhaps because he’d be like me? But who's to say I'm not more like God himself than old Papa (priest) Stephanos, who spends his days and nights going down on his knees, and collecting money?” - Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

I thought of him now as a closer embodiment of “Zorba the Buddha,” Osho’s ideal man, an autodidact with a zest for life, like Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek character but one who is spiritually grounded like Buddha. The Zorba the Buddha archetype combines the free-spirited, joyous approach to life embodied by Zorba the Greek with Buddhism's spiritual, mindful practices. It encourages a balance of living in the moment, enjoying life’s pleasures, and cultivating a deeper understanding of the self and the world.

“He [Zorba] interrogates himself with the same amazement when he sees a man, a tree in blossom, a glass of cold water. Zorba says everything every day, as if for the first time.”  - Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
 “What makes me happy? My current state, such as living here, talking about art and joking with people, having a good coffee, imaging where to go next; that makes me happy.” - Kimiji Wada 

Osho’s Zorba the Buddha philosophy, which seeks to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western thought, is based on the idea that if we want to find a balance between the two worlds and live a fulfilled life, we must learn to embrace both the spiritual and material aspects of life. Zorba the Buddha encourages us to live in the present moment and to make the most of our lives, suggesting that we should be open to new experiences and be willing to take risks in order to grow and evolve, and encouraging us to be creative and to use our imagination to explore new possibilities. It seems to me that Wada has lived up to this principle.


Osho also emphasizes the importance of being mindful and aware of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This helps us to stay connected to the present moment and to be conscious of our decisions and actions.

“I've stopped thinking all the time of what happened yesterday. And stopped asking myself what's going to happen tomorrow. What's happening today, this minute, that's what I care about.  I say: “what are you doing at this moment, Zorba?” “I'm sleeping.” “Well sleep well.” “ What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?” “I'm working.” “Well, work well.” “What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?” “I'm kissing a woman.” “Well, kiss her well, Zorba and forget all the rest while you're doing it; there is nothing else on earth, only you and her! Get on with it!” - Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek


Epilogue


In our most recent visit, Wada-san mentioned he rode to Osaka on his bike some months before to a reunion with his former university classmates, staying in hostels and often sleeping rough in train stations along the way to save money. I wondered how that went and what a 77-year-old die-hard free-spirited biker would have in common with a group of retirees. He was, he said with mischief in his eyes, utterly bored with the typical pensioner’s conversation, which was all about old age, disease, and grandchildren. I laughed out loud at that reunion description; it was so typical of him!


Our mutual friend, Professor Kuwahara, thoughtfully captured Wada’s contradictions. It’s his paradoxical character that makes him so fascinating and authentic, as he is not keen on fitting into one single box:


… for me, the most interesting aspect of Wada-san is that he is a man of gaps (or contradictions). When working for a major construction contractor before, he was pragmatic, sociable, and an excellent employee. On the other hand, he is a painter interested in representing his inner world, fantasy. While he is able to get along well with anyone, he escapes from the hassle of socializing with people. Though he seems to have nothing to do with religion at first glance, he is a serious Buddhist who puts his hands together in front of the Buddhist altar every day. On the one hand, he is a fun guy who enjoys touring on his motorbike and river fishing. On the other hand, he is also an avid believer of Soka Gakkai, a very serious religious group. Although he loves nature very much, he dislikes drawing nature. Although he is often disgusted with humans, he is always interested in drawing humans.


We are all products of our times, but sometimes, we wish we could defy convention and set out to carve our path. The British, sticklers to tradition as they are, found a way to accommodate or perhaps tolerate those who do not behave as the norm dictates by labelling them as eccentrics. Giving the oddballs a label seems to give the mainstream some kind of power against those who defy the norm.


I found the etymology interesting, ex-centric, off-the-centre, from ancient Greek ἔκκεντρος (ékkentros, “not having the earth as the centre of an orbit”), ἐκ (ek, “out”) plus κέντρον (kéntron, “point”). But is Wada an eccentric, a “character” as I labelled him, now to my shame? What if the eccentric is the only kind of a fully grounded human, grounded in their authenticity, orbiting their own true centre? I feel Kazantzakis’ Zorba exemplifies this, and  Wada’s life does too.


I wish now to take back the labels I so keenly and foolishly applied to Kimiji Wada in my effort to understand him, inadvertently putting him in just another box and going thus against the essence of his free spirit. I doubt he wants to be understood or even accepted, at least not by others. He is his own ex-centre creation, on his own orbit, but by no means disconnected. Kuwahara-san and I are both part of his constellation. What would it take, I wonder, to learn to live by our own unique frequencies but in harmony with others?



This last quote from Zorba the Greek is a fit way to close this story on this Amamian Zorba:


"As for you boss’, he said, ‘I think you do your level best to turn what you eat into God. But you can't quite manage it, in that torment you. The same things happening to you as happened to the crow.’

‘What happened to the crow, Zorba?’

Well, you see, he used to walk respectably, properly- well, like a crow. But one day he got it into his head to try and strut about like a pigeon. And from that time on the poor fellow couldn't for the life of young recall his own way of walking. He was all mixed up, don't you see? He just hobbled about.”  - Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek


Kimiji Wada knows he is a crow, and with a crow’s walk, he marches through life.

 



[*] Prof. Sueo Kuwahara contribution to this piece merits special attention. Not only he made the introductions and accompanied me in all our meetings with Kimiji Wada but provided valuable context, interpretation, and insights from his own friendship with Kimiji Wada. I am particularly indebted to him for being my guide to these islands and helping me understand their unique microcosm.


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