Table Speech

Learn all your life, stay young all your life ---Talking about my father Mitsuo Aida

July 9, 2014

Mr. Kazuhito Aida
President, Mitsuo Aida Museum

 It is said that people receive strikingly different impressions from Mitsuo Aida’s works. I speak today as a son about the human side of my father Mitsuo Aida and therefore, my speech will be limited to a highly personal view.

 Mitsuo Aida is best-known for his first book Ningendamono (Because I’m Human), published 30 years ago when he was 60 years old. Readers have kept growing slowly over the course of time and today, 4.5 million copies have been purchased by readers of different generations.

 My father suddenly passed away 23 years ago from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 67. He was born in 1924 in a quiet town in Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture. He spent his whole life in this town, located about 100 kilometers from Tokyo. I lived with my parents and my younger sister in dire poverty back then. My father secluded himself in a 30-tatami-mat workroom that he called the “atelier” and dedicated himself to his artworks day and night. My father was a calligrapher as well as a poet. He composed poems and wrote them down with a calligraphy brush in a unique style of handwriting.

 I must say there is some misunderstanding about my father. One is that he wrote down with ease the short phrases that came into his mind, like “It’s alright to make mistakes, we are human.” Let me clarify that my father spent an enormous amount of time and effort on creating his works, no matter how short the poems were. This photo shows heaps of paper in his atelier that are all the works he was not satisfied with. He wrote as he remained standing or seated and kept throwing away messy papers that made an interesting symmetric heap on both of his sides. He picked up the best piece and asked me to burn the rest. He kept repeating the same process throughout his career. I recall my elementary school days when my father handed me a bundle of paper as I came back from school and I burnt it to prepare the bath. My father went for perfection and kept saying “I’m ashamed of my works. There’s not a single work I’m satisfied with.”

 My father did his utmost and refused to use rough paper for practice. “Learn all your life, stay young all your life” is the phrase he created that became his lifelong motto. He believed that you can stay young at heart only by continuing to learn.

 My father’s works appear to be easy to write, but actually they require much skill. He worked with great concentration at his atelier and I was afraid to get closer while he was working. My father began studying calligraphy seriously in his teens. He became a disciple of a leading calligrapher in Tochigi at the age of 17 and made his way to win the top prize in the first nationwide competition after the War in 1947 when he was 23. I think he was and still is one of the youngest calligraphers to win a nationwide competition. The award-winning work in the Mainichi Calligraphy Exhibition shows his very original writing style.

 My father used to transcribe the sutra in sosho (cursive) and kaisho (printed) styles. Being a professional calligrapher, he excelled in writing such letters that impressed people. But he was not satisfied with just nice-looking writings. He wanted to stir people’s emotions by his works. When my father reached around 30, he started to write down his own words and poems in an original style of writing as they did not covey well in the traditional sosho and kaisho styles. I have noticed that many people try to copy his handwriting these days but you must first master the traditional writing skills to be able to copy his. Having established his original handwriting, my father found his way to the masterpiece: “It’s alright to make a mistake, because we are human.” His handwriting best conveys the meaning and emotion behind his poetry and therefore gives a very powerful impression.

 Another misunderstanding about my father is that he was thought to be a Buddhist monk. Although he was not a monk, he was fated to Buddha’s providence from his early days. His work reads “every single encounter may lead to fundamental change in our life, I wish you many happy encounters.” My father experienced life-changing encounters throughout his life. As a teenager, he met a Zen priest of the Soto sect Tetsuou Takei in Ashikaga City, who became his spiritual mentor. My father practiced Zen meditation over 40 years and got well versed in the Zen teachings by Dogen Zenji.

 As I close my speech, let me share with you the work that best expresses the way my father lived. “Path” is the life my father led himself.

“In your long life, no matter how hard you try to avoid
There are paths you have no choice but to take
As you walk on such paths, keep walking silently
No complaints and no grumbles, just walk silently
Keep silent, never show your tears
And you know, at such times, you deepen your root of life
as a human being”