This page started out as notes Mitsuko took for herself so she wouldn’t forget her magical visit to Papasan’s factory, the visit which had been the highlight of our May 2017 trip to Japan.
Later she expanded and rewrote them as a page for our Japanese language website.
What you’ll find below is a retelling in English of the same story. Like Govinda, it’s too loose a rendition to qualify as a translation, but we think it’s true to the spirit and meaning of her original piece.
A red and gray forklift, the perfect size for a keychain. Each time the tiny plastic model catches my eye, it takes me back to our recent trip, to the very first time Papasan ever allowed me to visit him at his company.
Down by the temple bazaar, a dismal morning right after Golden Week, with Arthur I board a Hankyu commuter train. Forty minutes later in Osaka we transfer to the Kyoto line, as I remember a Limited Express waits for us at Platform One. My heart dancing, we step in, quick grab two seats. Twenty years, no it’s more, since last I rode this Kyoto line, and even now it’s a special trip. Guess I’m still an Osaka kid if just sitting down in the Kyoto train is enough to start me dreaming. And today! Today I’m finally on my way to meet Papasan in his factory! Can he really be 90 and not yet done with building forklifts? Thinking about what we might find makes me big uptight, then the train smooth glides into motion, again I’m a young girl staring out the window.
Our destination, Takatsuki City, half way to Kyoto. Rush hour’s over, the train’s far from crowded. Across from us two teens sit lost in phones. Outside the city slowly thins to suburbs, thirty minutes later and we’re there.
Clutching directions from a friendly shopkeeper we walk past the station bus stop, thread our way down a short lane, not yet busy, almost too narrow for cars. On both sides noodle stalls, beauty parlors, bars. Above us a hanging sign, “Johoku Dori”, Castle Street.
From the train looking north we’d seen twin tall office towers, and thought, “a modern city…” Now headed south, in the air one can almost smell the previous century. Modest concrete government buildings, a neatly gardened shrine, a school, soon we’re at the park.
Guarding its entrance stands a 16th Century samurai lord of Takatsuki Castle, in his arms a large cross. What a man he must have been, this Ukon Takayama, to renounce his lands, his wealth, to endure exile, to accept dying in Manila, all to remain true to his Catholic faith….
Past him a pond with playing ducks and geese, a small plum orchard, a merchant’s house built when the Shoguns ruled Japan. Remodeled and moved to the park by a town proud of its heritage, thick white walls, deep heavy eaves, in its dark spacious interior, tatami mats, polished wooden floors, carefully displayed old hand tools, without words tell a story of the past.
Back outside, the laughing shouting voices of children, a whole kindergarten moved to the park. Conquering jungle gyms, painted concrete walls and barrels, shooting down slides, furiously peddling go-carts, a happy busy chaos. Closing my eyes I’m back with friends in Traffic Park, forgetting time we played until dark.
In the far corner of the green, adults intent at gateball, carefully with mallets knock wooden balls through metal arches stuck into the ground. Decades ago wildly popular with elders, I’d thought the game long forgotten, sweet here it’s still alive. On a path around the playing field, a stylish woman briskly pushes her walker.
Clean, garbage free, well tended, busy, Takatsuki clearly loves its park. Everything about it is subtlety out of phase with the modern world, as though the city’s drawing strength from its old castle town past. In this island of safe stillness, we sit on the rounded root of an old tree, quietly eat our emergency rations, slices of plain white bread.
Straight south from the park, a quiet neighborhood of closely built small homes, newish, very ordinary, all proudly tidy. Then tucked into a vacant lot beyond two schools, a tiny farm overflowing with good looking greens, radishes, and cabbages. Strolling further along an irrigation ditch, we catch the roar of distant cars, the State highway.
Now I’m really nervous, almost there. Turn onto the big road, two more blocks, we see the parking lot the Company built on its unused land. Beyond it, just like the photo on Google Street View, Papasan’s factory. Hung high in a row across its face, five white boards, each bearing one character of the company name, “Nakashima Unpanki Manufacturing Co., Ltd.”. Next to it, a modest single-story wooden office. We’re at a major intersection, the traffic noise is impressive. Must be what I hear in the background, when I talk to Papasan on the phone.
Company or Museum?
So this is it! I knock loudly on one of the two office doors. Nothing happens. Take a deep breath, crack it open, then suddenly hear Papasan, “No, No, not that one, come over here.” The other door opens, beaming Papasan bows us into the official company reception room. Doffing our shoes, accept slippers, step up into the crowded space. It’s musty like an old house.
A low table, a small sofa that’s seen better days, three glass fronted antique bookcases packed with texts about machinery and electrical engineering, most from the second half of the last century, some look much older. Or is it just the vibe of the room that makes everything feel ancient? Yard wide blueprints hang from wooden rods in a rack taking up the room’s far side. On the walls, tucked into every empty space, are clocks from Papasan’s collection. Next to the door his prize, a huge precious grandfather clock, tall as a man, driven not by a spring but by gravity pulling on a heavy weight. Years past whenever from the States I spoke to Papasan on the phone, I used to hear the clocks one after another chime the hours. More recently winding them got to be too much work, and I miss them.
The space so crowded with treasures, to even cross our legs we must be careful. But Papasan’s completely comfortable, right at home. It’s his world, these days he’s the last one left alive at the company.
In a recent call I’d casually asked Papasan if maybe he had an old abacus lying around. Now in front of us on the table is what looks to be a very basic nothing special model. But that’s only until Papasan explains it’s the very one which kept the company accounts, suddenly in the ghost filled room, I hear the sound of flying clicking black wood beads.
Next to the abacus, a stack of documents, like everything else obviously from a different age, the newest dates from 1967. Stapled into one glossy paper brochure, a beige tinted tissue insert, on it in beautifully brushed characters the company’s proud motto, “Highest Quality, Most Reliable, The Very Best Possible Product.”
Leafing through, a page where the previous president’s name has been crossed out by hand, Papasan’s name stamped in. A bit further on the words, “excellence for the selective few”, the proud policy of a company which won’t mass produce, which insists on making products one by one, each tailored perfectly to the needs of the specific customer.
Back in 1905, right at the tail end of Meiji, the company got its start in Osaka as a steel mill. To begin with it fabricated just about anything that used steel, if it didn’t have a mold, it made one. Then in the 20’s it started focusing on electric powered locomotives, tractors, and trucks for factories, mines, and construction sites, as well as on electric city buses. Finally in 1934 it built its first rechargeable battery powered forklift.
As its customers discovered its one-of-a-kind high quality vehicles were good for years of hard workplace use, the company grew, and eventually the moving vehicle division was split off as a separate entity. Through the 50’s the new company prospered, but as mass produced vehicles got cheaper, Nakashima Unpanki, which stubbornly refused to lower its quality, started to lose business.
Still a few loyal customers continued to insist on Nakashima quality, and thanks to them the shrinking company managed to survive. One by one my father’s former superiors and colleagues died, now 90 year old Papasan is the sole survivor. He’s the president, the engineer, the designer, the mechanic, the secretary, the gardener. Single handedly, all by himself he keeps the company alive.
Also on the table, a photo, big low orange painted truck, off-scale tough, solid not pneumatic tires, strong enough to haul 30 ton loads around an industrial park. Papasan tried to say no to that one, eventually gave in, his old customer absolutely refused to have a vehicle from any other maker. Of course nowadays he doesn’t build them from scratch, subcontractors send him necessary special Nakashima designed parts, other components he buys ready made. Still it’s a mystery such a tiny little old guy, 85 he was at the time, could wrestle them together into a giant machine! For sure he paid a price, it crunched his health, that half year he sweated by himself to assemble the beast, but he was big proud he could do it, big proud no other machine was good enough for a buyer all the way over the other side of the Pacific in Los Angeles.
Waves a schematic of the truck at us, then too fast for more than just an impression, shuffles through blueprints of earlier Company vehicles. New ones prepared by Papasan with CAD, the others classic white on blue drawings done by hand. Does anyone now have the skill to do such impeccably detailed drawings? For me they’re a foreign language, I understand nothing.
Keeping our slippers trail after Papasan from the cave like reception room into a bright spacious office. Three walls of big windows, ten large office desks, fax machines, computers, giant printer, office shelves, another rack of blueprints, except for Papasan’s desk, all covered with years of thick dust.
Ancient, mostly unused, but at first glance it looks very business like. That’s until I turn around. Ah, what’s this? A wall of antique hand held scales, dozens of them, some tiny, some a yard wide. I’ve never seen their like before. Weirder than the ones we watched street sellers use in India, these have just one pan close to the center, on the other side a long arm for the weights. Papasan chuckles, “the weights are Japanese system not metric, they’re good for nothing now.” Still how cool, how beautiful, how old can they be?
After all maybe this place is more museum as office.
No not museum, time machine. Even the computers. An old CAD machine running Windows 3.1, the XP laptop my brother discarded 15 years ago. Kind of sad. Papasan used to be so geeky. Smile remembering how with BASIC he programmed dragon flies and forklifts for the grandkids. Their wings flapped, the forks went up and down…. and the way he just dove into CAD!
Too bad though he’s not into the net, would be useful for him and Mamasan now it’s so hard for them to get out, shopping, books, those old movies they used to love….
Well supposed to be fiber here at the office, at least we can show him our website. Fireup the laptop, mmm…. taking forever… there it is, our homepage…. no the links don’t work so good. Papasan watches patiently, clearly not very impressed. What to do. Maybe he’ll be more interested in Amazon Japan, no forget that, doesn’t even start to load. Bet he hasn’t updated his browser for a decade, but got to be careful, don’t know enough to mess around with his system, be nasty if we shut down his CAD. Wonder if he’s still using his original program, on that one we’re right there with him, do our translation jobs with Word 2000, better to have control than gobs of fancy templates.
Back in the reception room, Papasan swaps his slippers for shoes. Good, my stomach’s rumbling, ready for lunch. No, not yet, wants to show us the factory. Step out, follow him across the little courtyard into the big gray building, 50’s industrial, practical, cheap…..
Thirty yards long, 14 wide, 3 stories high, corrugated walls with a sandwiched layer of asbestos. “I charged this one overnight,” Papasan tells us pointing to a forklift parked in a corner of the huge room. Hops onto the operator platform with the lightness of a young man, starts playing with the T-shaped control bar. Startled we watch the forklift dance, left, right, forward, backward, Papasan’s totally in control.
Changes over onto a smaller machine, backs into the tight space between two ceiling high sets of shelves, suddenly he’s beaming down at us from ten feet above our heads. Terrifying. Down at ground level again, still smiling, “piece of cake, totally safe,” he assures us, “won’t move an inch left right unless you tell it, in warehouses can’t be hitting any shelves.” Maybe, but no way I want to drive one, guess for him after 70 years they’re like extra arms and legs.
Along every wall in the factory monster machine tools, lathes, drill presses, huge enough to work thick steel, all like his forklifts unbelievably solid looking. “Now these are different, to use them you need real skill, real strength” pride in his voice, “But if you know what you’re doing they’re better than the new computer controlled machines, can go between the presets, for a really fine fit, they’re much more precise.”
His hand tools too share the feeling of long lost quality. Not hardware store flimsy, pliers, wrenches, all heavy in our hands, sleekly finished, no looseness, no random play, move only like they’re supposed to, and do it perfectly. Arthur’s fascinated, touching and feeling everything, he’s a bit awestruck. He keeps muttering, “I’ve never seen tools like these…”
What’s that roar! Quick twirl around, Papasan’s got a torch, sparks fly, no gloves, no eye protection, barehanded he burns a hole through inch thick sheet steel. Ninety year olds aren’t supposed to do this sort of stuff! Sizzling fireworks over, smiling shows us a clean inch wide hole. He’s big enjoying our visit, his chance to show off to someone in the family.
Stepping out another door, we’re in the parking lot. “The company set this land aside for future expansion. But that never happened, so I had it paved, now at least I can rent it out for long term parking,” Papasan explains.
Tour finished, next up food, but what? Past the park it’d been residential, no restaurants, no stores. The noodle shop across the highway from the factory is closed for the day. And a lunch box is out of the question, too poisonous with MSG for our pampered American stomachs. We’re stumped, then Papasan asks, “how about conveyor belt sushi?” Why not. We’d never try that on our own, it’ll be a cultural experience. The sky’s heavy, at any moment it could rain. Papasan grabs an umbrella, we our much too heavy day packs.
Mamasan said Papasan can’t walk without a cane. Now he’s not even leaning on his umbrella. Though she’s right about one shoulder being a little down, still he’s trucking right along. Got to walk fast to keep up. How cool.
Ahead of us, across above the street a bullet train zips by, nose arrow sharp, not cute and rounded like they used to be. Sparks fly from its overhead power cable.
Under the tracks, through a multi-level parking garage, into a big nondescript building with a sign “Round 1”. Inside the whole place is shaking, can’t be an earthquake, oh I see, we’re one floor down from a bowling ally. Suddenly back in the 21st Century.
Papasan pays no attention to the incredible noise, steps through automatic glass doors into a high ceilinged space with many 4 person booths stuck like grapes along a low U-shaped wall, on top of it an endless moving rubber belt. Plates with small pieces of fish, bowls of rice and soup, laughing families with lots of kids grab them as they circle by. Nothing costs much more than a buck, People’s food, you pay for empty plates the waitress collects from the table. Papasan’s been here before, knows his way around the touch screen menu, starts ordering sushi. For us who don’t eat meat or fish, the pickings are predictably slim. Good thing we like udon noodle soup.
Walking back to the factory after lunch, Papasan points to a bus stop, “that’s for the city bus I take from the station. There’s a private one that runs more often, but it stops further away.” Even from this stop, it’s a good 150 yards to the office. Amazing how he’s turned himself back into a walker.
Last year when Papasan gave up his license and sold his car, we all suspected he’d had another fender bender without telling us, and since that left public transportation as the only way to get to the factory, the family thought his working days were numbered. He himself even made a few noises about shutting down the business. But he’s always lived for his work, so instead he buckled down to commuting two hours each way right through the winter. Not even surgery in January stopped him, why once he snuck out from the hospital to taxi to the office and check his mail, then barely healed went right back to work. The dude is nothing if not stubborn. Half a mile from the house to the first bus, an hour balancing in moving trains, walking to the factory from the last bus, and all of this twice each day, quite a chunk of being on his feet. Striding down the sidewalk next to him, it’s obvious it worked. He didn’t give up, now walking’s again a useful way for him to get around. Guess if you’re still working at 90, doing the impossible becomes routine.
Back at the office, Papasan has work to do, time for us to leave. Carefully sliding the precious documents he’d given us into an official Nakashima envelope, stow the rest of his gifts into our packs, then just when it’s time to put on our shoes and say goodbye, Arthur notices an antique camera in the bookcase by the door. Papasan’s off again, along with the camera starts pulling out stacks of glass negatives. So many things I’m seeing today for the first time.
Eventually he returns camera and negatives to the bookcase, on impulse picks up something small, puts it gently on my palm. His parting gift. An awesome cute plastic forklift! Mr. Papasan, official head of the family, was always more than a little scary serious. Now I’m wondering if his priest friend might be right, maybe underneath he’s really a marshmallow, “a jolly open kind of guy” were the priest’s words. Fighting tears, so much warm playful love concentrated in his tiny present, he really did enjoy our visit! But no way will I spoil such a gloriously special occasion with tears, smiling bravely I bow and say goodbye.
As soon as we’re safely outside by the highway, thinking of him all alone again in that downright spooky office, I start sobbing. Even Arthur’s struggling to control himself. But it’s a strange grand noble sadness, it’s way more than just Papasan’s onrushing personal fate, once he goes the very last hand made forklift will have been made, the world will have lost something thousands of mass produced machines can not replace. Through oddly sweet tears kick myself for never before trying hard enough to understand the myth he’s living out with such courage.
Still better late than never, at least I finally got it.
Light drizzle, retracing our steps, we reach the park. No kids, no gateball, it’s empty, quiet. But by the pond there’s something we don’t remember, a statue? No absolute stationary, balanced on one foot, a huge heron. Ignoring us, totally unafraid, silently it stares into the pond. Black brush stroke pattern on white feathers, long sharp yellow beak.
Buoyed by a final strong hit of magic nature, we safely reach the station. Our trip to the past over, we get off the time machine and sadly return to the modern world. For sure I like this Takatsuki City, it’s a special place.
Our first visit to Japan for 10 years, two weeks flew by rich with tears and laughter. In the middle of May we returned to our home in western Massachusetts. Were we ever really there, was it all a dream? But around the house are things proving it was real. Two empty cans from hot coffee bought before leaving from the airport, swirling forest green and smoky gold, understated, not flashy, shibui, ultimately cool, Japanese taste at its best. Its owner’s name scratched onto its back, the black wood abacus which so accurately kept the Company accounts. And at eye level, on a shelf along with other treasures, the tiny model forklift. Each time I see it, in my mind, Papasan’s on his forklift smiling brilliantly at us from way up by the ceiling.
Thinking back over the visit I realize that though trained as an engineer, he’s always presented himself more as machinist craftsman than executive. Now living up to the company motto, “Highest Quality, Most Reliable, The Very Best Possible Product”, at 90 he’s still committed to only making custom machines that last forever. The modern way, cutting costs through mass production, lowering quality, repairing only by replacing expensive modules, throwing stuff away as soon as it gets old, is absolutely foreign to principles deeply ingrained in his 1920’s cells. He doesn’t like it, has no interest in getting on board, no desire to go with the program. Time has passed him by, and he accepts it.
Of course he knows he’s from a vanishing breed. Looking around as we’d walked back from lunch Papasan sadly observed, “This road was once lined with little factories, now they’re all gone.” His is the only one still standing, and when he goes there will be none. He knows that. But so long as he can hold a wrench he’ll continue with his work. Making it even more sweetly precious, he doesn’t even realize he’s a culture hero single handedly keeping alive a precious flame from the past. But we choke up everytime we think of it. So noble, so uncomplaining. Arthur sees him as a true karma yogi, as someone who’s faith lies in his actions, who worships by making forklifts. I think he’s right.
Papasan You’re Awesome!