Subtitled Caring for Japanese Arts at the Chester Beatty Library, My Half-Century in Dublin is the new memoir by Yoshiko Ushioda.
The story begins in 1960, when Yoshiko traveled from Tokyo with her young son to join her husband, a research-fellow at University College Dublin. Beginning as a volunteer at the Chester Beatty Library in 1970, she would go on to become curator and accompany masterpieces loaned by The Chester Beatty Library to special exhibitions all around the world.
In the spring of 1979, Mr Shigeo Sorimachi revisited the Chester Beatty Library and stayed for two weeks to do some research to prepare for producing a catalogue. He brought with him an assistant cum photographer, Mr Masaji Yagi.
One Sunday afternoon, Mr Yagi, having finished up his work for the week, went for a drive on his own in the Dublin Mountains. The weather was very variable, with some sunny spells. True to the saying that you can experience four seasons within a day in Ireland, a rainbow suddenly appeared arching across the sky. Fascinated at the sight, he hastily pulled the car over to the side of the road, and started to take photos.
On the following Monday morning when I arrived for work at the library, I was told that there was someone on the phone asking for me. I should say that in those days my office didn’t have a telephone, so I rushed out to the main office where the phone was. It was a consul from the Japanese embassy.
"By any chance, is there a Mr Masaji Yagi visiting the Chester Beatty Library?" The tone was somewhat grave. So I started to reply that there was… Without waiting for me to finish my answer, he demanded that I put him on the phone.
I was taken aback slightly, as I knew the consul, and his tone was very out of place. As I returned to the office, I whispered in Mr Yagi’s ear that he was wanted on the phone, trying to make sure that Mr Sorimachi was not disturbed. Mr Yagi was slightly startled and then excused himself as he left the room. A few minutes later he came back and resumed work, explaining just that it was something about his driving licence. As he looked calm and normal, I didn’t think anything about it.
During the lunch break, he asked me for directions to the embassy, saying that he had a little business to do there. I gave him directions. It wasn’t far. On his way out, he said, "To tell the truth, they found the wallet I lost yesterday, so I’m going to pick it up. Mrs Ushioda, please never ever say anything of this to Mr Sorimachi."
Mr Yagi returned later that afternoon, and kept on taking photos as if nothing had happened. I was very impressed with his respect for his teacher, Mr Sorimachi, who was of a very different time, the Meiji era, and famous for his stern manner.
Later that evening, Mr Yagi called to our home, and explained the mishap in more detail.
It seems that the wallet fell out of his pocket when he climbed out of the car to take the photographs of the rainbow. Some time later, the driver of a truck passed by, saw the wallet, stopped, and picked it up. Checking the contents, he guessed from the business cards inside that the owner was Japanese; he then travelled to the embassy and left it there. The consul who received the wallet saw the nature of the business cards and made the educated guess that it might belong to someone visiting the library. The embassy arranged for the truck driver to be present when the wallet was handed over to Mr Yagi. Mr Yagi was embarrassed, as he was too deeply moved to thank the man properly in words, even though he was obviously very grateful. He expressed his heartfelt thanks by providing the driver with a generous reward.
Mr Yagi acted as buyer for Mr Sorimachi on his various travels abroad, for purchases of antiquarian books for the bookstore back in Japan. This explains why the amount of money in the wallet was very substantial.
The episode was reported in a small article in an evening newspaper. Although the paper did not record the amount of the reward, it was quite a considerable sum, as the consul related to me afterward. Mr Yagi kept the article as a memento of the event. Thirty years on, whenever he recalls the trip, he never fails to mention how grateful he was for the honesty and kindness of the Irish truck driver. Mr Yagi now runs a bookstore dealing in antiquarian books on the history of the countries of the West and their interaction with Japan.
Some of you might think that this anecdote might only have taken place in those earlier times, when Ireland was still an idyllic place. The following incident happened some twenty years later.
I was teaching Japanese art history in Trinity College Dublin, and after one lecture I met up with an old friend who was revisiting Dublin, together with her husband, after a long absence. We enjoyed catching up over tea at a small café on Grafton Street. The friend used to study Yeats at University College Dublin and moved to the US after obtaining a teaching position there. This was the first time I met her Canadian husband, a nice gentleman who sat patiently listening to us chatting away in Japanese.
I was so fully caught up talking to her that it took some time before I realized that my bag was missing. It was a chilly evening, and I had my thick woollen scarf on my lap and had put the bag at my feet. The café was very crowded and I felt the blood draining from my face. My friend’s husband was quick to handle the situation, calmed me down first, and then we made our way to the Garda station. The waitress in the café had mentioned that there were some pickpockets operating in the area, before kindly handing me some money my friend had paid her with to use to get home, adding that I should "Take care."
Feeling very insecure and quite upset, I took the train home. The journey seemed much longer than usual. My husband, who I thought would blame me for not looking after my bag, said consolingly, "So good you are safe." I had to make phone calls to all the bank and credit card companies, as my friend had told me to do, to cancel all the cards. Then we had all the locks changed in the house on the next day. And that I thought was that. I did reflect on what the Garda officer had told me, that foreign tourists, especially older ones, were an easy target.
Some days later I received a phone call. It was a man working at a refuse disposal centre in the outskirts of Dublin. He explained that he had found a handbag, and from the business cards inside had tracked me down. He said that there was a box of some twenty colour-slides, pictures of art of some sort, and that the bag was somewhat worse for wear on the outside, although the inside was fine. Of course the wallet was missing.
I was lost for words at the thoughtfulness of the man. The bag must have been ditched somewhere in Dublin, picked up and transported to the refuse centre, and must have somehow caught this worker’s eye. The next day, my husband and I headed to the huge refuse centre. It took nearly an hour to get to the place. The guy showed up in his grimy work suit, and had my beige bag in his hand. He recounted how he had spotted my bag while moving refuse on a bulldozer. He stopped to check what was inside, and then had given me a call on his break.
When I looked around and saw the enormous waste site, I realized what a kind and conscientious person this man was. I made a deep bow of gratitude, and gave him a small reward to express how thankful I was. Although I had had reasons to be impressed with the kindness of the Irish on many an occasion, I had never been moved like this before. I’ve used this precious set of slides in my lectures many times since, and each time I remember how lucky I was.
Caring for Japanese Arts at the Chester Beatty Library (published by Dalkey Archive) is out now.
About The Author: Yoshiko Ushioda was born in 1931 in Mito, Japan, and moved to Dublin in 1960. In 1970, she began volunteering at the Chester Beatty Library, and was promoted to curator of the Japanese Arts Collection in 1980. She retired in 1996, and currently lives in Dublin with her huband. Mrs. Ushioda is also a founder member of Ireland Japan Association.