I ask the young man seated at table if I can join him for breakfast. He acknowledges my request with a nod, reminiscent of a small bow. I introduce myself, offer him my hand. “My name is Shinji,” he says.
“Ah, yes,” I say, “you will be speaking this afternoon, no? What is your presentation about?”
“I will be talking about Thoreau’s vision of democracy,” he tells me. “I will try to relate an essay by Terry Tempest Williams, The Open Space of Democracy, with Thoreau’s writings; specifically using the idea of Hegel’s dialectic.”
That’s quite a proposition, I think to myself. Already my head is spinning. Thankfully, I’ve had my morning cup of coffee. I dig down deep, searching my memory banks for Hegel, Hegelian, dialectic—and I come up with thesis, antithesis and synthesis. I speak the words, and Shinji smiles. “Ah, you know!” Now we are on the same page.
I listen as Shinji expounds his thoughts on Williams’ essay and its relation to Thoreau’s method of argumentative prose, both Hegelian at core.
“You know, Terry Tempest Williams first delivered her essay as a commencement address at the university in Utah,” Shinji tells me. “She was raised a Mormon, but she told her audience that, after reading Thoreau, she had become a transcendentalist.”
I raise my eyebrows. “I’m guessing that that was probably not well received.”
“It takes courage to speak your mind,” Shinji says.
“How did you come to study Thoreau?”
“Thoreau is very popular in Japan,” Shinji says. “Mostly because of Hiroshima.”
“Yes. Hiroshima created many pacifists among the Japanese people. Unfortunately, now our government has chosen to follow the U.S.A. no matter where it leads.”
“I take it that many Japanese are not in favor of the war in Iraq?”
“Exactly. But these days there are also many people who don’t concern themselves with politics—they are just concerned with making money. Young people want to study business or science to get a good job and live comfortably. No one studies the humanities any more.”
“But the humanities are very important. They give us a reason for living.” I tell Shinji about my work, about my efforts to try to instill an appreciation for the humanities in medicine and influence the development of humane medical practice.
“Yes,” Shinji says, his eyes becoming distant. “When my grandfather lay in bed in the hospital dying in coma, we called for the doctor. It was the middle of the night. The nurse told us that the doctor said he would be up later. ‘People don’t die that quick,’ the doctor said. He arrived three minutes before my grandfather died, dressed in a T-shirt and blue jeans. It was the end of his shift, and he wanted to go home.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” I say, apologizing for a member of my profession that I don’t even know.
We are silent, then Shinji says. “Do you know Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’? That film has served to open the discussion about American foreign policy in Japan. At least people are talking about it.”
“Are they free to talk openly?”
“Yes. I would say for the most part, yes.”
Shinji asks me about my interest in Thoreau. “I read him in high school in the 1960s. Back then many young people were interested in looking at alternatives to the pursuit of wealth.”
“I know—the counter-culture: the Beat generation; Jack Kerouac; Woodstock; Neil Young; ‘Four Dead in Ohio,’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’”
Shinji’s string of free associations sets my mind reeling. Memories of that era flood my brain. “You know all about that?”
“Yes. Many people in my country are very interested in that time.”
“So much different from now, when fear seems to be the operative word instead of hope.”
“Hope; yes, I like that word,” Shinji says, smiling.
Our conversation took place last July in Concord, Massachusetts. As I write these words, I imagine that Shinji is celebrating the American president-elect with his countrymen in Japan today.