I met Hideo Asano in 2006 while visiting Tokyo. My friends and I were strolling around Yoyogi park, waiting to catch the train to the airport. Our three day holiday had been largely uneventful. We had a long weekend thanks to the lunar new year, and ignorantly assumed that there would be celebrations or some kind of party in Tokyo. We learned quickly that the Japanese don’t celebrate the holiday, there was no day off, and it was just another weekend. The previous evening had been spent in an extremely small bar (approximately six barstools and room for little else) called “Tombstone”, a self-proclaimed “biker bar” run by a young man who’d spent a good ten years in San Francisco. We drank Corona, talked about Japanese perceptions of Americans, and watched a David Bowie concert DVD.
After that, meeting Hideo Asano the next day was a breath of fresh air. He walked up to us and asked us where we were from; we were two Canadians and an American. Asano was clearly living in the park. He said he sets up his tent at night, and then has to pack it up before 6:30 am when the police come through to clean everyone out. He described to us the noodle kitchen where he gets his meals, and his intense hatred of microphones and amplifiers, saying that vendors were polluting the air with their noise. He called it a major problem of modern society.
Asano himself is not Japanese, but in fact North Korean and had come to Japan as a refugee as a young man. He had also spent time in Afghanistan in the 1970’s as a “journalist” interviewing mujahideen, and had traveled widely throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. Or at least, that’s the story he told us. We talked for almost thirty minutes, or rather he talked and we listened, and then he finally tried to sell us some of his poetry chapbooks. I bought one for 500 yen, entitled “Two Lovers Sitting on Dung”, a less than cheery collection of flawed, slightly sentimental, but sometimes intriguing pieces. I’m not sure where the chapbook is now, though I’m certain I’ve kept it safe somewhere. I am forced then to quote a poem of his from his website. Yes, that’s right, his website.
Everybody looks different but says the same thing.
I prefer everybody to look the same but speak differently.
All the trees have different shades but say nothing.
prefer everybody to look different but remain silent!
The poem is seemingly contradictory in its message at first glance, but Asano’s desire for diversity and silence is clear. We said goodbye, and I never saw him again.
Four years later, on the other side of the world in Geneva, I met Farouk. I was leaving work on a sunny afternoon, walking to catch the number 5 bus home. As I strolled toward the bus I saw a man clearly trying to make eye-contact with me, with a smile on his face. I managed a weak smile in return, and he asked me if I spoke English, I replied that I did. He asked me if I would read something out loud for him.
We spent the next thirty minutes editing his poetry, and translating some Farsi prose into a paragraph for one of his short stories. The story revolved around living in the back of a train station and collecting food from an old wooden caravan each day. He was intent on describing clearly that the so-called caravan (a choice of word upon which we disagreed) would run out of food sometimes, and it was never clear how much he would receive. He was pleased to learn the term “loaf of bread” though somewhat skeptical that it was correct. Thankfully by the end of the editing session he declared that I had excellent English.
Farouk (the only name he gave me) was an Iranian political refugee, and had left Iran in the mid 1980’s. He told me he believes that all religions are evil, and cause destruction and sadness the world over. I didn’t argue with him. He motioned toward the headquarters of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a large blue and glass building just a few steps away. “I went to them, well that building wasn’t there, it used to be a garden, and I wanted to get a visa to go and teach Iranian literature at Oxford. I wasn’t able to get the right visa.” I gathered Farouk had been assisted by UNHCR in settling outside Iran, and had ended up in Geneva. He now spends his time, from what I could tell, writing his stories and poems, and wandering the streets looking for editors.
“What do you think of this poem?” he asked me. It wasn’t nearly as convoluted and random as his prose, and described dark sad memories in his mind, approaching like a storm cloud. We spent time working on the imagery of a the rain; while another “editor” up the street had suggested a complete re-wording that involved a “violent storm” I preferred his original wording, which was calmer, and melancholy. It fit the part of his eyes that was old and dark, partially obscured by the twinkle of excitement and joy that I felt his writing brought him. I didn’t convince him of the edits, but he wrote down my suggestions nonetheless.
As suddenly as he had approached me, our meeting was over. He packed up his papers into a folder, shook my hand, and told me that his eyesight was poor. If I was ever to see him on the street again… “I’ll be sure to say hello” I finished his sentence. He seemed uninterested in this, “yes, say hello, and also help me edit my work!”
I have seen him once since then, but he was in a hurry, lunging down the sidewalk in his corduroy pants, red suspenders, and brown blazer. He looks the part of a professor, though his dream to be one is sadly unlikely. Perhaps I’ll see him this afternoon. Or perhaps never again.