SPRINGFIELD, Mass. It was early Thursday afternoon and Hiromichi Kotani had just finished teaching his last class of the week in theoretical physics at the Springfield Institute of Technology, so he was in a hurry to drive back to his home in Watertown, Mass., an hour and a half away. “In retrospect, I should have been more careful,” he says to this reporter as he sips green tea in his living room. “I have brought shame on my family, my native country, and the discipline of physics,” he says with genuine remorse.
In his haste to leave, Kotani backed into the car parked behind him, denting the front bumper of Cindy Tinocci’s 2012 Toyota Camry, a run-of-the-mill accident that was followed by what appeared to a commonplace scene: Kotani got out of his car and scribbled on a piece of paper, which he then left under Tinocci’s windshield wiper. Onlookers assumed that he was leaving his name and contact information for the young woman, an administrative assistant in the college bursar’s office, but that’s not what Tinocci read when she got off work at five.
“What is this crap?” she exclaimed as she scanned the note, which read as follows:
Like a tree that rots at the roots
and falls into a stream
I have rammed your car,
the hope of all your dreams.
The cryptic verse was a latter-day instance of an ancient tradition, the samurai death poem, which members of Japan’s medieval warrior caste wrote before committing ritual suicide after bringing dishonor to their feudal lords. The form has seen a revival among higher educational faculty members–notoriously bad drivers–when they are involved in accidents that a Westerner would attribute to their race as a whole based on the stereotype that Asians are bad drivers.
“It’s a shame there have to be so many fender-benders for this ancient genre to be revived, but as either Robert Louis Stevenson, Lenin, Napoleon or Yogi Berra once said, ‘If you want to make an omelette you have to break some eggs,'” says Daniel Martinson, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk. “A $500 deductible is not too high a price to pay to keep a fifteen-hundred-and-fifty-year-old literary form alive.”
Samurai death poems were generally written before, and not after a samurai committed suicide, a sequence that Kotani followed even though he had just come from a lecture in which he had explained how time can, under some theoretical models, flow backwards. “This is not simply unfortunate, it is entirely my fault,” he said when Tinocci tracked him down with the help of a bystander who wrote down his license plate number. “However, it was necessary for me to atone for my misdeeds first by writing a poem, before I contacted my insurance company to tell them you might make a claim.”
Literary magazines looking for an alternative to the gloom-and-doom tone that has pervaded American poetry for over a century have begun to track likely accident perpetrators as they leave faculty buildings in the hope of capturing a jiko uta (accident poem) fresh from the pen of a wool-gathering professor whose motor skills are less highly developed than his intellect. One such candidate is Ichiro Sakita, a specialist in quantum field theory who, his colleagues joke, needs a forty-acre field to make a three-point turn.
Sakita emerges from the Nathan and Gloria Krumholtz Physical Science Building here, his head in the clouds as he contemplates similarities between gluons, an elementary particle, and Klingons, extraterrestrial humanoid warriors in the Star Trek entertainment franchise. “Very few letters separate the two,” he muses to himself as he puts his Subaru Forester in reverse, looks over his left shoulder, then clips the back bumper of a Chevrolet Equinox parked in front of him as he tries to drive out of his space.
“Oh,” he exclaims as he surveys the damage, “so much damage from a body moving at such a slow speed. I must seek Chevy-san’s forgiveness with a poem.”
He takes out a small note book and a pen, and writes these lines.
Equinox comes but twice a year,
Once in the spring, once in the fall.
I hit your Chevy in the rear,
Here is my number, give me a call.