Make friends with a book in the coming year
Many Japanese schoolchildren are likely enjoying their winter holidays now. But in olden days in China, I understand, this was the season of winter schools.
Such schools were small private academies that taught children in rural areas only during the months of the agricultural off-season.
Back then, the Chinese believed winter was the best time for reading books. In fact, their three favorite times for reading were on a rainy day, at night and in winter. That means any winter's night was the perfect time for this pursuit.
Kan Sazan (1748-1827), an Edo Period (1603-1867) writer of Chinese-style poems, penned "Toya Dokusho" (Winter night reading).
Comprising four lines of seven kanji characters each, the poem describes the pleasure of secluding oneself on a snowy night in a "snowbound cottage deep in the woods" and reading an old book "in the blue glow of a candle" to commune in spirit with the book's author.
The last line of Kan's poem inspired Zenmaro Toki (1885-1980), a tanka poet, to come up with this poetically graceful free translation: "In the candlelight emerges the ancient author's image."
According to a New Year's Day supplement to the vernacular Asahi Shimbun, the Diet adopted a resolution in 2008 designating 2010 as the "national year of reading."
The purpose is to nurture the Japanese people's language skills through reading. Reading may seem like a passive activity, but it apparently helps improve the brain's function.
In recent years, young people have become increasingly prone to "snap" and behave irrationally because of their inability to express their thoughts and feelings in their own words. One suggested cause of this disturbing tendency is a deterioration in language skills.
But a welcome new trend has been glimpsed. Elementary school students who use libraries reportedly borrowed a record 36 books per head during 2007.
Many Japanese stayed at home during the year-end and New Year's holidays, and I imagine a good number spent their time reading.
Personal encounters bring joy, and so do encounters with books. I hope people will encounter their "book of a lifetime" during this national year of reading.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 3