By Beth Lindsay
Mr Chizuwa was a challenge. He worked for JP Morgan, an American bank in downtown Tokyo. He was only 23. By nature timidly cautious, in his black-rimmed square framed glasses he looked bewildered. His English was wooden but dogged. He had no great aptitude for foreign languages but, with determination, would repeat a single word over and over, like a dog shaking a bone. Whenever I spoke to Mr Chizuwa I would find myself simplifying, as if speaking to a child.
So I was surprised one Thursday lunchtime class when he announced that he was going to New York for a week. On holiday. By Japanese standards one week was a long time away. I had never imagined Mr Chizuwa would venture into the unknown, and thrilling New York seemed a most unlikely destination. I said goodbye and wished him well on his travels. I was impressed.
The following week the class was strangely empty without him. Oddly I missed Mr Chizuwa’s struggle to communicate; in contrast the other students seemed easy to teach.
The week after I bounced into class. Mr Chizuwa had reappeared but he was strangely subdued. I asked how the trip had been. Always slow and deliberate, his response in English was slower than usual.
Finally he answered. “I had an experience.”
“What kind of experience?”
“I sky dove.”
“Dived” I corrected, hoping the teacherly correction would not stop the flow. “You mean that you jumped out of a plane?” I had over-stressed the “you”. Mr Chizuwa and sky-diving were an unimaginable combination. His lips were clamped shut, his arms were folded across his chest, his whole body tightly held. The memory was not attended with joy. I sensed I had better tread carefully.
“You went sky diving?” I could not keep the incredulity from my tone, nor the disbelief from my face.
“You mean that you jumped, with a parachute?”
He nodded solemnly.
“How was it?”
The question seemed to throw him; he was obviously at a loss for words.
I tried to help. “My cousin in New Zealand wanted to go skydiving. She decided to do skydiving to challenge herself, to get over a fear. She did a tandem jump together with an instructor. First she had a short lesson, then she jumped from a plane together with the instructor, they were strapped together, so she did skydiving with another person. Did you jump with an instructor?”
He shook his head. His mouth seemed to have jammed shut. Words could not escape between clenched teeth.
“You jumped by yourself? Alone?”
He nodded vehemently. Whatever had happened had evidently been life-changing. Slowly, sentence by sentence, I extracted Mr Chizuwa’s story.
He had travelled to the USA with a friend, and his friend had always wanted to try sky diving. Like so many Japanese, trained from an early age to acquiesce and go along with situations, to maintain the wa, the harmony of the group at all costs, Mr Chizuwa was not given to asserting himself. So when his friend had asked him to come along, Mr Chizuwa had passively agreed.
That was how he came to be at an aerodrome on the outskirts of New York one hot summer’s day, receiving several hours of preliminary instruction which covered the theory and practice of parachutes and ripcords. Armed with only a minimum of knowledge, nobody (including Mr Chizuwa himself) ever stopping to enquire whether he actually wanted to go skydiving, he boarded the small plane with his friend and the instructor and they took off into the skies high above New York.
“Gaman” is a concept that pervades Japanese society, the ideal of stoic endurance. In moments of difficulty or exhaustion, people will encourage one another with “gambatte kudasai” – it means keep going, no matter what, be brave like a samurai warrior, or fall clean and straight like cherry blossom returning to the earth. Mr Chizuwa had been brought up repressing personal feelings, feelings that might prove inconvenient or upset the activities of the group. As the single-engine Cessna climbed to 12,000 feet for the jump, in Mr Chizuwa’s mind, there would have been no way out.
No matter what doubts were arising, he would undoubtedly be attempting to observe the social codes of behaviour he had been drilled in from the day of his birth. In Japan, to lose face is shameful beyond words, to be avoided at all costs.
Dutifully, Mr Chizuwa determined to follow the course of action he had embarked on. His friend, parachute strapped securely on his back, eagerly approached the open door of the small plane, and jumped into the emptiness. Mr Chizuwa watched his friend go into freefall. Then, after ninety seconds, as instructed, he pulled the ripcord, and a huge multi-coloured canopy of parachute billowed out behind, and he floated softly back to earth.
In Mr Chizuwa, however, a different force was stirring. Where his friend had been eager, Mr Chizuwa was hesitant. Somehow though, he found himself standing poised to jump on the strut at the door, while in a loud voice and in a foreign language, the instructor began to count down: 3… 2… 1… JUMP! Mr Chizuwa, however, did not jump; instead he remained clinging to the flimsy steel frame of the open door of the aircraft, the last vestige of a solid world.
The instructor, having encountered cases of fright before, repeated the procedure patiently, his voice increasing in volume. Again Mr Chizuwa seemed unable to mobilise his limbs; he remained paralysed at the door. The plane droned calmly on as the instructor tried one last time; then, assessing the situation, he decided on a more forceful approach. Without warning, he came from behind and gave Mr Chizuwa a mighty push to release his steel grip and dislodge him from the door.
This action would have been fine, had Mr Chizuwa not, as he felt himself fall, instinctively struck out for something, anything, to hold on to. As if by a miracle, his hand made contact with a small steel handle that was affixed to the metal plates on the side of the plane. Like a drowning man proffered hope of salvation by passing flotsam he clung white-knuckled to the slim rectangle of metal, grasping it first with one hand, then with both. And the plane flew on, with the instructor looking out, and Mr Chizuwa dangling like a human earring from the side of the plane.
This state of suspended animation continued for what seemed an eternity, to Mr Chizuwa at least. Who knows what hell he entered, like a frozen lake of emotions, numb with shock, lost in no man’s land, unconscious of his actions. Then finally, his body failed him, and he could hold on no longer. The pain in his aching fingers and hands, wrists and shoulders passed a point of no return; with agonising slowness, his grip loosened on the handle. His mind, too, slid into oblivion; later he would say it went “white”.
As his body tumbled from the parent plane, and gravity took him into its weightless embrace, he went into free fall. Instructor and pilot watched as Mr Chizuwa plummeted earthwards, and made no move to pull the ripcord. Seconds passed, half a minute, a minute, a minute and a half, and Mr Chizuwa was still in freefall. He did not pull the ripcord. Something was wrong. He passed the 4000 feet mark. Any second the automatic activation device would kick in to open his parachute for him.
Later, Mr Chizuwa would recount that he was completely unaware of how much time had elapsed. As he hurtled towards the earth in freefall, his mind seemed to have disengaged from his senses. Adding to the confusion was the fact that a human being falling through space has nothing by which to measure his descent, nothing solid to take bearings from. Out of the blue, Mr Chizuwa suddenly returned to his senses with the shocking realisation that he had not pulled the ripcord.
It was some months before Mr Chizuwa recovered his former jauntiness and his usual sense of self-importance. It struck me that there was, perhaps, a kamikaze spirit in this young man, but one who managed three or four missions.
The shock, though, did his English no end of good.