by Chikako Atsuta
I went back to Japan in May to bury my grandmother's
bones. She died in February. I did not attend her funeral because I could not
get there in time from here. It was my first time losing a family member while
I was away. It was strange. It did not seem real that I actually had lost my
grandmother without any people who had known her around me. It also scared me
to feel so disconnected from a death in my family. My absence forced me to
understand that a funeral is not for the dead, but for the living to share this
simple fact of life: Everybody will disappear from the world one day.
I had to see my family members to confirm that she was really gone. They were
planning to visit the family's graveyard in the west of Japan to bury a pot
containing her bones gathered after cremation. I decided to join them. I flew
back to Japan.
From Tokyo Airport I took another flight to Hagi city where we have our family's
graveyard. I joined my parents there, and also my relatives, whom I had not
seen for almost 15 years. I had not seen them for that long because I went to a
college in Tokyo and stayed there for my job, while most of my relatives live
in the Osaka area. My long absence of communication seemed to make us talkative
at first, but actually it did not. After having exchanged basic information on
what was going on with our lives, we realized that we did not have anything to
Every time I go back to Japan, I can't help feeling dizzy for the first couple
of days, not because I suffer seriously from jetlag but because I am surrounded
by many Japanese faces, which look, more or less, like mine. I live in a city
where almost all the residents are white. It was strange that I was standing in
the middle of my relatives that looked exactly like me and yet I had nothing to
say to them. It was as if I was speechless looking at older or younger versions
of myself in a magic mirror.
After burying my grandmother's bones, we went to the house of one of my cousins,
Jiro, for a light dinner. Jiro is a successful dentist, in his mid 50s. He sat
next to me at the dinner table and asked me, "So, what are you doing in
"I've been working there doing Web development," I replied.
"...heard that you got divorced." Jiro did not mention who heard the
news about my divorce.
The most frustrating thing about the Japanese language for me is that you can
omit a subject from a sentence. For instance, all these three sentences -- " I
like baseball." "He likes baseball." and "We like baseball." -- can be simply
"Like baseball. (Yakyuu ga sukida.) " in Japanese. So whenever you have
a conversation in Japanese, you might get confused about who is the subject of
the statement. As I began to live and work in America, I had to force myself to
get used to inserting subjects in my speeches.
When Jiro made the statement, I could not tell who heard the news because
of this feature of the Japanese language. Jiro himself? Or one of my relatives?
Whatever the case, I realized if any of my relatives did not already know about
my divorce they certainly knew about it now. Silence fell upon during our
"I'm sorry." I did not know why I had to apologize to Jiro about my divorce, but
it seemed a suitable thing to say at that time. Jiro, who looked exactly like
me, came closer to me and said, "...don't think divorce is very bad any
more. " He did it again. What did he mean? Jiro was the one who did not think
that way? Or all my relatives? The Japanese society as a whole? Or the world?
Jiro continued. "Why don't you come back to Japan now? Some men like batsuichi
women. It's not too late for getting married again." Batsichi literally
means "one bad score." It represents a man or a woman who has been divorced.
The word shows that I have already been regarded a failure in my home country.
"She is too old...don't know if she can find a husband any more," said my
father, using the same technique that Jiro had been using to distance himself
from his statement. "Hey, you're her father. You are the one who should be more
optimistic." Jiro raised his voice, and continued, "The most important thing is
that you should be back here to take care of your aging parents. Don't you
think it is your important task?"
"Give me a break," I screamed only in my head. On the day right after my long
flight, somebody who had almost the same face as me began preaching to me after
15 years' absence. "After the divorce, I struggled hard to find a job and
started to make a living all by myself in a foreign country. Can't you use a
little bit of imagination and say some nice words to me?" I thought this, but
did not actually say it. I knew well that I was regarded as such a loser in my
family that it was not appropriate to say something back to my father and
cousin. The core holding a family together is an unspoken promise to reproduce
somebody looking the same way generation after generation. That's the core of a
family and also the core of a race. I was a loser in my family and also a loser
in the Japanese race. I missed my home. My home in America.
After the dinner, Masako, another cousin, offered me a ride back to my parents'
house. We had not had time to talk, so I accepted the offer joyfully. I let my
parents go back in their car, and rode in Masako's. I used to play a lot with
Masako. She was such a tomboy that she often scared me with all the creatures
she caught in her yard: frogs, beetles, and baby snakes. Masako married about
ten years ago and has not been able to have a child. I heard from my mother
that their doctor found that Masako's husband was infertile and that his
parents, who heard this piece of medical information, offered divorce and a
generous compensation for Masako. Masako refused to accept the offer.
Masako had been quiet during the dinner. Everybody seemed to ignore her in a
subtle way without even asking where her husband was. While driving me back,
she asked me about my job and about America in general, a place she had never
seen. "It must be nice living in a foreign country, huh?" Masako asked me. She
seemed to have lost all her tomboy qualities. And then she added, "Don't worry
about anything Jiro-san said. He loves you but he just does not know how to say
it." When I got to my parents' house, Masako said that she would like to visit
me in America. I begged her to come.
After that night, I stayed in Japan for another three weeks, and then flew back
to the East Coast of America. Again, for the first couple of days I felt dizzy
looking at all the faces which did not look like mine at all. Also for the
first week after I came back, I felt completely lost. When I decided to settle
down in America, I thought that I could have two homes in the world -- one in
Japan, and the other in America. Now I was afraid that I might be losing both
homes on both sides of the Pacific.
Soon after I came back I realized that we, my family members, had not had chance
to talk about my grandmother while I was there. So I posted a picture of my
grandmother in my living room. Looking at the old black and white picture of my
grandmother helped me to feel relaxed and also at home.
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.