Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Kechoque NST 28/4/2007

Pastime: Bridging the divide
P.C. Shivadas

Hafiz Othman playing the classical Japanese instrument, the koto, with teacher Suke Hisako
Hafiz Othman playing the classical Japanese instrument, the koto, with teacher Suke Hisako

THERE are all kinds of heroes but they have one thing in common — they have passion to fight the odds and win.


Hafiz says living and working in Japan was a real experience
Hafiz says living and working in Japan was a real experience
Hafiz attending to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan when they visited Malay College Kuala Kangsar on June 10, last year
Hafiz attending to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan when they visited Malay College Kuala Kangsar on June 10, last year
Muhammad Hafiz Othman, 31, has mastered spoken and written Japanese and is, in all likelihood, the only one in the country to play the koto, a Japanese classical instrument well enough for critical acclaim.

There’s more. He is also putting himself through the rigours of learning the intricacies and delicate steps of the Japanese tea ceremony which traditionalists in that country are struggling to keep alive.

The ceremony, he explains, "represents the essence of the Japanese people and how they treat guests in the small living space that is their common reality. The language used is poetic and exposure to it widens a learner’s grasp of its subtleties".

All this puts him in a class of his own for fostering people-to-people ties between Japan and Malaysia.

He has his father, a school teacher, to thank for kindling his interest in things Japanese from young.

"My father went to Japanese school during the Occupation and I enjoyed listening to him sing Japanese songs. He has no harsh memories of the Occupation."

As a 10-year-old Hafiz found himself glued to the TV for the popular Japanese drama series Oshin, which drove him to take Japanese as a second language in his upper secondary years in Malay College Kuala Kangsar.

It was taught by teachers under the Japanese Overseas Co-operation Volunteers programme and provided him with his initial face-to-face contact with the Japanese

It was interest turned to love when the Look East policy of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad saw him go to Japan in 1993 for university education on a government scholarship for four years.

Then, with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Communication from the University of Tsukuba, he worked for a bank in Tokyo for two years as one of only three foreigners among 120 or so selected by the bank from thousands of applicants.

The other two were a Taiwanese and a mainland Chinese.

"Living and working in Japan was a real experience," recalls Hafiz of the tiny living space he had, the rush of commuting and late nights at work because he couldn’t return home before his supervisor.

"I admire the Japanese sense of discipline, respect for time and the intense love of country."

He is glad his parents were able to visit him in Japan and realise their own dream on that score.

On coming home in 2000, he worked with the Public Service Department for two years on the Japan Desk of the Look East Policy Unit, Training Division.

That gave him responsibility for co-ordinating contact between the two governments, often becoming interpreter during official meetings.

Now with the Cultural Affairs Department of the Japanese Foundation in Kuala Lumpur, his work as programme officer includes co-ordinating academic exchanges that bring Japanese professors to Malaysia for university and public lectures and local lecturers going to Japan for study and research.

He also takes care of cultural tie-ups and is currently working on theatre workshops to be held in Malaysia by Japanese experts in costume and set design and for the disabled.

"I am enjoying the best of both worlds," he says about living and working in his own native land and yet building bridges with a country he has taken to heart.

"I really don’t know if I want to be with the foundation for the rest of my life but for now, there is nothing better I would rather do," says Hafiz, who hails from Kampong Kechor, about four kilometres from Kangar.

A high achiever in school, he represented Perlis in national drawing, debating and story-telling competitions and it was as one of the top 100 pupils in the country that he gained entry into the prestigious MCKK.

He was president of the college’s Japanese Language and Culture Club (1991-92) and he remembers it well for one particular reason — the cancelled visit of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan to the college in 1991.

The Sultan of Perak, Raja Azlan Shah, was Yang DiPertuan Agong then and MCKK’s reputation as a premier learning institution offering the teaching of Japanese as a second or third language was prompter for the visit.

Although the Royal couple did come, the trip to the college was cancelled at the last minute because of the haze that enveloped the country at the time.

However, they came again last year and made it a point to visit the college and make up for the earlier disappointment. Hafiz had to be there.

When he was introduced to the Emperor, the Japanese ruler did the unthinkable. He personally retraced his steps to the Empress, who was being greeted by others, to get her to come and meet him.

"And, you know, the first thing she said to me? She said sorry (for her cancelled visit) and then thanked me most politely. Imagine the empress saying sorry and also thanking me."

It had got the better of him as a video clip of that meeting clearly shows. His tears flowed freely as he thanked her in return for making the gracious visit and expressed his desire one day to play the koto before the royal couple. It was all in Japanese and in the language of the royal household, too.

It was a scene that became a focus when footage of the visit was played on Japanese television and resulted in him being invited to Japan for television appearances and talks recalling the happy and historic occasion.

Despite success so far, he is not content and continues to take language and koto lessons for the highest levels he can possibly reach even as he works for the foundation.

It was his interest and commitment to koto that won him tutoring by a master in Japan and a concert appearance at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur in 2002 brought him to the attention of a lady koto master, Suke Hisako, who is residing in the country.

Now under her wing, he is continuing his pursuit of excellence which is being honed by his regular performances for members of the local Japan Club.

The instrument he uses was given him by the grandmother of a friend in Tokyo. She appreciated his keenness not shared by any youngster in her own family. An insurer valued it at RM60,000.

Still single, he laughs at the suggestion that he is likely to marry a Japanese.

"I wanted to marry at 28 but now my target is 35," he says, not discounting the possibility of a Japanese bride.

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