There was a boy who grew up in a difficult home. As far back as he can remember, violence filled his environment, a prestigious house three doors from the historic Kiyomizu-dera (Temple) in Kyoto, the most revered temple in all of Japan (the type of place where things such as this did not happen and if they did, no one knew about it). When his father was drunk and throwing, hitting, and pushing, the boy tried to use his small body to protect his mother from any of the abuse. He became the recipient of the abuse instead.
He learned to be a boxer, training day and night until he was boxing champion in his town, but not before the destructive seed had been planted in the subconscious.
Before his boxing years, there were endless months in an orphanage when his parents were unable to care for him. There were the hot summers and cold winters starting at age 4 when he was sent away to an aunt’s house, to which the fist-clenching boy traveled alone, holding back tears as he watched parents dote on children on the train. He was left by himself once at his aunt’s house, trying not to witness inappropriate events taking place between his aunt and her suitors. His days and nights were spent with Snoopy and The Peanuts instead.
There were no Christmas trees in his life.
Neglect, abuse, and loneliness permeated his childhood and any chance he might have of love, nourishment and care, were promptly taken from him.
When he wasn’t boxing, he drew pictures, winning contest after contest, prize after prize. He also learned to quiet his mind enough to become a master in the Japanese calligraphy art of Shodo…while in elementary school. (Most masters – as you might guess correctly – are fully grown adults in their 40′s and 50′s). He also got into massive amounts of trouble.
How was he to pursue those activities suburban teenagers whine about when, as a teenager, he was suddenly given the responsibility of paying off his father’s enormous debt – an amount unimaginable for most employed adults.
Years and yen. His life consisted of yen after yen, year after year. Through it all, he always took care of his mother.
To say he’s had a difficult life is nowhere near necessary. He has grown to be a strong-willed man, and the nightmares come just occasionally now, instead of every day and night.
Several years ago, as Creative Director for one of the largest department stores in Japan, Marui, he created a television commercial that warmed the hearts of children and adults around the country. The commercial featured an animation character (dog) named “Mimi”, who flew around with her heartful friends on Christmas Eve, passing presents along to the little children of the world. Set to eloquent orchestration, he directed each detail to perfection, from the way Mimi’s carpet flips over from holding too many presents, to her friends getting twisted up in little ribbon bits. The commercial was a hit. There was warmth all around.
The year he produced the commercial was also the year his older brother passed away of cancer. His brother was not yet 40.
When so much happens, one can either lose himself completely, or one can attempt to find himself underneath the rubble. There’s not really an in-between.
Since then, the boy has grown into a man who has not stopped searching for growth and understanding of the events that he refuses to let define who he is. Video clip in hand, he researched every orphanage and foster care center in Japan and learned there were hundreds upon hundreds, full of children like him, who, in a Japanese society that is not friendly to those whose roots are not known, were likely to have a difficult time creating a place (or space) for themselves.
So he sent a DVD of little Mimi and her friends on their wonderful adventure to each center (on his own dime, naturally), remembering what Snoopy and his friends had done for him during those lonely winters.
His message: I see you and know you exist.
There is a scene in the clip where every house in the village lights up, until the entire sky is lit, and Mimi and her buddy sit down exhausted, but happy.
But this man isn’t ready to sit down just yet.
This year, the man has returned to his artist roots, creating events and filling cafes in Okinawa, Japan with light and hope, in a country that is still nowhere near recovered from the shock of what they’ve lost this year. The illuminated tree above (top), he showed me, is his version of a Christmas that shines. Unlike any he’s known.
I know that Christmas devastates him, yet he knows it needn’t devastate everyone.
But the greater work of art, his greater challenge this year, showcased at a popular Vegan restaurant he produced in Okinawa named CASBAH, is his Food Mandala Art:
Mandalas, a Sanskrit word meaning “circle”, are sacred art forms in the Buddhist and Hindu cultures with a spiritual and ritual significance, and in this case, the Food Mandala is created with carefully selected and prepared vegetables and beans, cut into slices and angles in just the right manner so that the artist’s creation can emerge. After hours of cutting, boiling, calculating, and preparing, the artist stands before an empty table, and without anything to guide him, he begins to create.
This year, Japan faces a crisis like they have never faced, where the vegetables, meat, rice they once took for granted are being tested for radiation. The country that prides itself on its delicacies and food choices are now struggling with a new truth, which this artist hopes to address through his work. Food is no longer what we believed it to be. Be conscious of what you choose to put in your body.
The artist is AZZAMI, and he no longer waits for Christmas to happen. His artwork has been received with amazement, wonder, and tears.
“The beauty of the mandala,” AZZAMI says, “is that it begins to disappear the second it’s finished. People enjoy every last bit of it, and when the entire table has been cleared, the art is finally complete. Nothing in life is indefinite.”
This from someone who knows.
As I write this on Christmas, AZZAMI has returned to his childhood home in Kyoto, to empty and clean the 90-year-old house before handing the keys to its new owner. In Japan, it is rare to let go of a house and the land it occupies, as land is limited and valuable, and houses are oftentimes passed down through generations. AZZAMI is the fourth generation. When your house is located steps from a Historic Monument of Ancient Kyoto, it is unheard of to sell it.
However, with his father gone (there has been no contact since his father vanished nearly 30 years ago), his two older brothers having passed, and his mother, who is quickly losing her memory and no longer recognizes her son, now being cared for in a care center, the youngest son is left to make the final decision, and go through the family memories on his own.
To close this chapter on his life, losing his childhood home and the tangible memories it housed, is a pain indescribable, even to me. (And by me.)
It was another memorable Christmas. But in spite of everything that has happened, because of everything, his voice is a true one, an honest one, one that many (who fear truth) have attempted to clamp shut.
I think this little one hears you, AZZAMI…Merry Christmas.
*This Christmas story is 100% true, and something I’ve been wanting to write for ages.
I’m happy to finally have the chance this Christmas.
Our lives have all been touched a little bit by AZZAMI, and his art.
Photos by CASBAH