A Cassette Tape from Osaka
by Chikako Atsuta
In early May I received a cassette tape from my mother in Osaka. It
was a copy of a tape of her interviewing my grandmother, who died at
the age of 90 last year. My grandmother lived in a public nursing home
near my parents’ house, and had become senile for the last couple of
years of her life. Four years ago when she still made sense and had
memories left, my mother conducted this project. The interview took
place at an open space on the top of the nursing home building where
scattered chairs and plants formed a makeshift patio, while overhead
was constant air traffic of jets flying to and from Osaka airport. More
than a year had passed since my grandmother’s funeral. For some reason
my mother had suddenly decided to make a copy of the tape and send it
When the tape arrived in mail, it was Saturday, mid-afternoon. I
began driving to Somerville to shop at an Asian grocery store called
"Reliable Market". Passing through Harvard Square, I inserted the tape
into my cassette player and pushed play. The recording began with the
roaring sound of a jet passing by. A few seconds later I could hear my
grandmother telling my mother what kind of canned coffee she wanted
from a vending machine on the 2nd floor. Her high-toned voice filled
the inside of my Corolla as I drove down Massachusetts Avenue.
"Well, Grandma, will you tell me where you were born?" my mother asked.
My grandmother was completely unaware of my mother’s intensions. She
didn’t even know that my mother had a tape recorder. My grandmother was
not the kind of person who would cheerfully agree to such a project.
She was timidly proud. Knowing this full well, my mother naturally
started asking questions in hopes of easing her into the interview.
That was why the interview began with my grandmother complaining about
someone stealing her pocket money and chronic pain in her knees.
"Grandma, where were you born?" my mother repeated.
"What? In Dairen, Manchuria."
"When did you come back to Japan?"
"When I was two years old. I came back on a big ship
I parked my car on Somerville Avenue near Union Square, where
Reliable Market is located. I turned off the engine and stayed inside
the car to listen to the tape. On my right was the billboard for Mike’s
Liquors which was decorated with dusty blinking lights. A middle-aged
shabby man with a Red Sox cap on came out of Mike’s Liquors and glanced
My mother asked questions about her mother’s childhood in Tokyo.
About the school she went to and the house she lived in. About her four
brothers. My grandmother’s family was quite well off back then, so they
had several in-house servants. My grandmother talked about the
ping-pong games she played with these servants. According to her, she
won all the time. My mother changed the subject and asked my
grandmother about the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, which destroyed her
family home. However, being reminded of this dramatic incident in her
life did not make her talkative.
"Earthquake. Yep. I remember." That was all what she said.
My mother asked about her parents’ marriage. She wanted to know how
they had met, how her father had proposed, how wedding ceremonies had
gone and so on and so forth. Once again, my grandmother did not sound
very enthusiastic. She sounded far from romantic. Shockingly, she did
not even remember my grandfather’s name. (My grandfather had passed
away 15 years earlier). She said, "Hey, what was his name? Your father.
Heizou-san, yeah, right. What did I think of him when I saw him for the
first time? Well, he was smiling all the time, so I thought he was like
Two young men wearing gold chains of various lengths around their
necks passed in front of my car. I checked the signs on the streets to
make sure that I was not parked in a towing zone. Somerville police
cars drove by several times. The strong mid-afternoon light was beaming
into my car through the front glass.
My mother asked about the Second World War. My grandparents lived in
Tokyo during the war while my mother and my uncle stayed at their
relative’s place in Nagano in order to escape from the bombings in
Tokyo. As a result of these bombings, my grandmother lost her house for
a second time. She said with a sigh, "War, it was awful. It was not a
trouble in your household. It was something that came from outside
home. You can’t do anything about that kind of things, can you?" Then
she paused and continued. "By the way, do you remember Mitsukoshi’s
According to my grandmother, Mr.Takahashi was a sales representative
of the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, who had many
businesses dealings with my grandmother. Their business relationship
started at the time of her marriage. He was in charge of helping to
prepare for her married life: he brought furniture, futons and all
other household items of the best quality. He also prepared all the
decorations and gifts that she needed for her wedding ceremony and
accompanying parties. He worked very hard as if "grinding his soul and
body" (This was my grandmother’s expression). She began to trust him
and called him anytime she needed to buy something. My grandmother told
that my mother met him many times when she was still a child.
"Agh, Takahashi was such a sincere man. Too bad that nice guy died
so young," said my grandmother. Surprised, my mother asked, "How do you
know he died? Did he die when he was still at Mitsukoshi?" My
grandmother did not reply.
All the rest of the answers my grandmother gave to my mother led to
the subject of Mr. Takahashi. My mother tried to ask about the drastic
moments in our family history: the move to Osaka, the flood in Kobe and
my grandfather’s struggle against cancer. But my grandmother’s focus
was completely on Mr. Takahashi: how honest he was in business, how
sweet his smile was, and how happy he seemed when he saw my grandmother.
"When did you hear that your husband had cancer?" asked my mother.
"A doctor told me about a couple of years before he died. By the way,
Takahashi once gave me a beautiful antique cigarette case from China as
a gift. Have you seen it before?"
I got out of the car, and went into Reliable Market. It is a grocery
store specializing in Asian food, especially Korean and Japanese
products. Browsing through an aisle of rice crackers, I was thinking
how interesting it was listening to the tape that I had chuckled at
exactly the same places where my mother had chuckled. Anytime I laughed
over what my grandmother said, my mother did, too, so that our laughs
resonated in harmony. We did not laugh at anything that was obviously
funny, but on subtle things such as the tones or pauses that my
grandmother created in the conversations.
Before she moved to the nursing home, my grandmother lived in a
house near my parents’ place. I grew up sitting around my grandmother’s
dining table and chatting with my grandmother, mother and sister over
tea and sweets. Those numerous afternoons of chat created an unique
rhythm among us. Nobody else except my sister, who now lives in Osaka,
could have joined and laughed at the same places on the tape, I
thought. It was our music. It was our jam.
I brought some shabushabu meat -- Reliable Market is the only store
in Boston that carries this paper-thin beef or pork --, some Japanese
cucumbers, several kinds of Kimuchi and strawberry-flavored chocolate
called Ichigo Pocky to the cashier. The young woman at the register
looked at me and gave me the price in English. I know that the cashiers
at Reliable Market talk to Koreans in Korean, but for some reason they
always speak to me in English. I wondered what it was that made me not
look Korean in their eyes. What was the differences?
I returned to my car and listened to the rest of the tape eating
Ichigo Pocky. The interview ended abruptly when someone working at the
nursing home came to look for my grandmother. It was supper time. They
always offered supper at 4:30 pm. The interview came to close, but at
the end of the tape my mother had added her own short message. "The
finding of this interview is that Grandma had a life of not making any
decision of her own. The End." The way my mother said "The End" was
funny, so I chuckled. I was certain that my mother chuckled, too, when
she stopped the tape recorder. My sister would, too. So would my
After the tape was over, I drove through Somerville still nibbling
Pocky. Looking at the landscape of Dunkin Donuts and flowerpot vendors,
I felt there was a transparent filter between the surroundings and me.
A filter, which was sort of a spider web stretched in a triangle shape
connecting Osaka, Boston and wherever my grandmother had gone.
A big African-American woman wearing a black T-shirt passed in front of my car at a busy intersection. She
might have been caught by her own invisible webs with their own rhythms and tempos. After all, catching
yourself with various webs and various struggles is the whole point of life, I thought looking at the woman.
Chikako Atsuta was a Japanese freelance writer
living in Massachusetts and a regular contributor to Gate 39. For more information see: her memorial page. More selections from
"Ako's East Coast Blues."
The text is the property of the estate of Chikako Atsuta and is not to be reproduced without written permission.