Fairy tale about a magic organ: Mimei Ogawa’s “The Life of a Musical Instrument”

By | September 16, 2019

In the last few years I’ve put out a bunch of E books, but I always try to divide my time between working on E books and free content for Self Taught Japanese.

Of all my books, I think my books by Mimei Ogawa (小川未明) are the most suitable for the readers of this blog because they contain parallel English/Japanese versions (every other paragraph) and also because their difficult level is relatively low, in terms of both grammar, kanji, and conceptual complexity. To be fair, there are some older expressions and abstract concepts, but overall those aren’t too frequent.

Anyway, after some consideration I thought I would translate at least one story from Mimei Ogawa and publish it on this blog in full to give my readers a taste of what this author has to author. If you like his style, please consider checking out my series of E books that contain other stories by the same author and are priced at $0.99. If you happen to have a Kindle Unlimited subscription you can read these for free.

The story I have chosen, “The Life of a Musical Instrument”, is about a specially made instrument music with special properties. As a person who loves both listening to, creating, and performing music, I feel a special connection with this story. Music in a common theme throughout several of Mimei Ogawa’s stories, for example the second book above has a story where a different music instrument plays an important part (“The Moon and the Seal”).

I’d like to thank Yeti san from Shousetsu Ninja (a blog that reviews Japanese books) for doing a quality check of this translation.

You can see the original Japanese text of “The Life of a Musical Instrument” (楽器の生命) here, which was first published in 1924.

(Update: I’ve released a few more books of Mimei Ogawa’s stories since making this post. You can see the entire series on Amazon here.)

The Life of a Musical Instrument

Mimei Ogawa

(Translated by J.D. Wisgo)

That which we call “music” can bring sadness to the hearts of many. The more skillfully made a musical instrument is, the more its delicate sound can dig deeply into our souls and evoke feelings of sorrow. And the more proficient the performer is, the more unbearable those feelings can be.

Once there was a little known musician who had an idea: Could a pleasing instrument offer great comfort to people?

The musician worked very hard to determine how such a pleasing sound could be made. He thought it was not possible with a simple instrument like a flute or a koto, although perhaps he could achieve his goal with a more complex instrument like an organ.

Day and night he researched how to build an instrument with not merely a nice tone, but also a sound so pleasant that it could not be expressed in words. First, he tried using a very fine wire of pure gold. But the tone produced was too clear and too bright. Next he tried using a thin wire made of part gold, part silver. But that sounded too tinny and was unable to produce a beautiful tone.

Then, after a great deal of time spent and a great many failures, by combining iron and silver he finally succeeded in producing a pleasant tone.

The musician then inserted the single wire made from iron and silver into an organ. This organ now made a tone that sounded pleasant to anyone who heard it.

Indeed, soothing the soul with sound––for instance, cheering up a depressed person––was the opposite effect of what music had done up to that point. This organ’s sound would work its magic on anyone, whether it was a fidgety child or an ill person in the depths of misery.

However, unfortunately it was not easy to produce more organs like this. This was because the organ was comprised of a complex mechanism, and the wire, made from a combination of iron and silver, could only be forged by the hands of this musician, not anyone else. It cannot be said this wire’s properties were simply a result of the right application of heat. Rather, it was a truly original creation of the musician.

One day, a wealthy young woman found an advertisement for the organ in a foreign magazine.

Thanks to this wondrous invention, the once obscure musician had become well-known. Therefore the organ crafted by his hands was an extremely expensive item.

The young woman went to the coast to recuperate from an illness. It was there that she stumbled upon the advertisement.

Each day when the already downhearted woman heard lonesome sounds––the crashing of the waves, the wind blowing against rows of trees––her depression would only deepen. This was by no means good for her illness. 

Because the woman enjoyed music, at times like this she thought to try playing a violin or a koto, but the doctor refused to permit her, saying it would only stimulate her and likely be bad for her condition. The doctor’s advice was surely because he was very knowledgeable about the connection between music and the human psyche.

“Here it says there is an organ that soothes the soul,” said the young woman, showing the magazine advertisement to the doctor, who was still quite young himself.

The doctor stared at the magazine for a few moments. With a look of surprise, he finally said, “My lady, if that is true then it’s a revolution in the world of music.”

The young woman’s face was pale, but her eyes glowed with an inner light. Those eyes looked directly at the doctor as she spoke. “Such a revolution is possible. Is it really wrong for us to believe in such a thing?”

“Well, of course it is not wrong,” was all the doctor could say in reply.

The woman decided to have her father spend an exorbitant amount of money to buy the organ for her. That was how dearly she yearned to have it. Looking across the sea she could not help but imagine how, in some distant land, people were playing the soothing organ, or how, on a night when the wind carried the organ’s music and the moonlight was just right, people walking through the city would stop and listen, enchanted by the beautiful sound of the organ coming from inside a nearby building.

So when the organ arrived from a far-off country, how terribly delighted the young woman was! From that day onward, she played the organ every day and every night.

The organ produced a truly soothing sound. To all who listened it brought a tremendous joy, like fresh seedlings sprouting up through loose dirt.

Once those living by the sea heard this organ’s sound, their spirits were lifted and they began to take leisurely strolls along the water’s edge, even at night time.

There was even a fisherman who remarked, “Rarely have I seen the fish this lively. It all began with that organ’s sound!”

The young woman, forgetting all about her illness, played the organ until late at night. But this worried her father, so he begged the doctor to caution her.

However, the doctor was at a loss because he knew that no matter what he said, the young woman would never listen to his advice.

“My lady,” he said, ”you must not open your windows at night and incessantly play that organ.”

“I’m playing in harmony with the sound of the waves. The beach folk are saying the fish are jumping about happily,” said the woman with a touch of anger in her voice, absorbed in the music.

“But, you see, the briny wind that blows in from the ocean will damage your instrument,” responded the doctor.

The young woman was shocked to hear the organ would be damaged. Eventually she passed away, never recovering from her illness. The organ was donated to the village elementary school.

The school principal was utterly delighted. The music teacher, too, was overjoyed to play the organ.

“Now all of you can enjoy exercising, or even singing in time with this finely-made organ,” said the teacher to his students.

The school sat atop a small hill. A dazzling view of the violet ocean was visible from the school’s windows. Orange trees grew outside the windows, and in summertime white flowers with a sweet scent bloomed. From autumn until winter they bore bright yellow fruits.

There were times when a teacher, a young woman, stayed behind at school alone and played the organ until the sun went down. A male teacher also sometimes stayed late to play the organ. The organ’s soothing tone echoed far into the sky above the violet sea. In the blink of an eye, the children who had listened to the organ in gym or chorus class had grown up, girls now wives and boys respectable farmers. But they never forgot the pleasant sound of the organ they heard as children.

Over the years, the teachers in the school changed. Only the principal remained throughout the entire time. But he had grown bald, and his beard was pure white.

One day, the principal gathered his students and said, “The organ in our school is a finely crafted instrument, and not a single person can listen to its sound without being delighted. Each day every one of you must walk in time with this organ, refreshed by the soothing sound as you go about your studies.”

The chorus teacher felt the principal’s words to be true, but by no means did the young children believe that the school’s organ sounded pleasant.

When the children, returning home, told this to their mothers and fathers, the parents said with admiration, “Oh my, your school’s organ is quite famous!” But for some reason, the children felt the organ’s sound was not particularly pleasing, or anything else for that matter.

Well then, why could that be?

Had the old musician who had made the organ listened to it, he would have understood everything in an instant. And he would probably explain things like this.

“The ears of the young ones are honest. As the children say, this organ indeed does not make a pleasant sound. That’s because it is broken. But I no longer have the energy to make a new organ. This one has adequately served its purpose…”

Many years of the salty sea breeze had rusted the wire made from iron and silver, and at some point it had snapped. Even without the wire, the organ would still play. But because of the broken wire, even if the organ sounded out across the ocean, the fish would no longer jump up cheerfully between the waves. 

English translation Copyright © 2019 J.D. Wisgo

(Note: The picture of the organ was taken from Pexels.com)

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