Do you ever listen to your parents’ advice? Fumitada Naoe, a minority displaced in 1980s-era Japan, certainly tried to. On page 9 of his strange, elliptical, memoir-cum-self-help-book, his mother tells him “Rich people and poor people all eat the same grain of rice. The time given to them is also completely the same. You have an enormous amount of time left. So it’s harder to find a reason for not being able to achieve.”
Naoe uses the rest of his 160 pages mostly telling us what he’s done with his time, and how we should spend our own time. His advice – sometimes edging toward simplistic bromides, sometimes pithy insight – comes sandwiched between photojournalist Takashi Owaki’s grainy, black and white photographs of street children and everyday life. (We’ll get to Owaki later.)
His greatest puzzlement, Naoe tells us, was what to do with his time. Why was he even alive? His existential quest brought him more satisfaction once he realized he inevitably would die along with the rest of us. At a former girlfriend’s funeral, he remembers insisting that a pitifully askew portrait of her be straightened. From then on, he decided to find dignity, even a mission, in bringing affordable, customized funeral services to Japan, where expensive, highly ritualized services failed to give grieving families much choice.
Willpower, creative thinking, and discipline launched his business into the 30 million dollar range by the time he was 27, and the grit and details of how that happened (though he remains a little reticent) are what really captivate me. Naoe dishes out these details in brief chunks sandwiched between pages of sometimes simplistic general advice. He labels each section with headers like “Use the fluctuations of your heart as a springboard,” and bolds the advice that really matters: “Decide on your own what matters to you. Do not break promises you make to yourself.”
Unclear purpose and mismanagement of time is what stymies so many people, Naoe concludes. He urges readers to follow his example: Live life. Establish independence. (For example, in one of his testimonial sections, Naoe relates how he bankrolled his funeral business by taking out heavy credit card loans rather than seeking angel investors or cheaper bank loans, because he wanted the responsibility and risk to remain firmly his.) Love yourself. Look cool. Divide your day and life into manageable sections with achievable goals. Prioritize. Anticipate difficulties and accidents.
Nothing revolutionary, true, but good, solid advice we could all afford to reflect upon. Naoe seems to write to slightly younger people, in hopes of inspiring them, and they do seem his most likely audience, since they, too, still have so many years to live. Perhaps Owaki’s photographs – usually scenes of Asian street life, particularly portraits of children – are meant to speak to this demographic as well. They’re beautifully composed images, though they don’t seem to support Naoe’s text in any particular way.
I find myself skipping some of the photographs, and toning out while reading the more general self-help advice. It’s the insight Naoe gives about himself that I really care about. Towards the book’s end, he even includes examples of charts that help him plot his day. In sum, this is an odd book, easily read, but not quickly mastered.
Naoe closes with an injunction that would probably make his mother proud, telling us to pursue what stirs our souls, to share ourselves, to begin “to die with passion.”