Friday, October 16, 2009

7. Broken Chain of Sacrifice

My mother is on my mind. When I stand in front of a mirror, I see her face in mine.

She is strong yet weak, just like I am.  I’m not any stronger than my mother, just more fortunate in the choices that were available to me.

When I let my mother know how I really felt about my life in order to set myself free, it must have switched on a part of me that’s been a sleep.  I began recalling bits and pieces of her history she had told, when I was still living in Japan as a teenager.  The stories had surreal feel when I first heard of them, as if I was watching a black and white movie with my mother as a child acting in it.  The movie felt too unrealistic for me to feel anything then.  Now that I recall the stories as an adult, they are startling, even with a possibility that the stories had some distortion.

My mother was born in the late 1930s, in a very small southern island called
Tokunoshima, where there were very little influence of the cultural conditioning seen in “Hondo (本土)”: the mainland of Japan. (Hondo for the most part refers to Honshu, the largest of four main islands that make up Japan.)  

She is one of 5 surviving children, born to my grandfather I adored from a distance, and grandmother whom I never knew.  The stories my mother told of her childhood on the island were loving, bright and sunny.

Tokunoshima is so small that it takes only half a day to tour and see everything there is to be seen by car. People there are warm, trusting, open and kind. They speak in their very distinctive local dialect and they teach “formal Japanese” to children in schools. You wouldn’t understand most of what they are saying, yet their warmth would comes through in their bright and unguarded smiles.

More than 20 years ago, I took my husband at the time to the island, to introduce him to my mother’s family still living there.  My aunt, whom I had met only once or twice before then, spent a few days cooking up a feast for a party to welcome us.  Fresh fish caught by my grandfather just that morning, were served in a wonderful soup and also in sashimi style.  A pig picked from my uncle’s own little livestock, was butchered and marinated in homemade Miso (fermented soy bean paste), prepared the island’s way.  There were many dishes made with unusual vegetables and other ingredients I had never seen on the mainland before.  It was an all-out festive occasion, and it seemed the entire islanders had dropped in.  Some of the people that showed up were strangers to my aunt and uncle, including the taxi driver who gave some of us the tour of the island earlier that day.  Everyone ate and drank with us. And that’s the way it was on this island.  My mother spent a good portion of her childhood there.

When my mother would talk about the past, she’d sometimes mention that she would have been a person of significance - like a princess or some outlandish thing like that – if the tide of time didn’t change things.  I know there are some prominent figures in history in Southern Japan that bears the same last name as her maiden name.  So far my personal investigation into the family history on my mother’s side has been unsuccessful, and I have doubts.  I intend to ask my mother the details on the basis of her claim, when I feel it’s appropriate. Meanwhile, I’ll just tell the story she had personally told me.  According to her, one of her ancestors, and mine for that matter, who belonged to upper class spent a large sum of the family money on non-family members, without consulting the family.  My mother indicated that the money was spent on noble causes such as education for the poor and less fortunate.  But his family saw it as a misuse of the family money and deemed him untrustworthy.  For this, he was punished by the form of  “Shimanagashi”: exile or banishment, to a southern island surrounded by sea.

My mother claims she is a descendent of this man who “wronged” the family, and "Shimanagashi" of this ancestor was how her parents ended up on the remote island of Tokunoshima.  Her father - my grandfather - seemed to have been another rebel of some sort.  He supposedly stored away in a cargo ship that went around the world when he was a young man.  I was told that I inherited his spirit of adventure.  He was a man of few words, and I only remember his great big beaming smiles.  I've always felt he was connecting with me through those smiles, as if to say I was his kindred soul and he was pleased.  It has been a long time since he had passed away. He still lives in a very special place in my heart, and he always will.

During the World War II, my grandfather moved his family temporarily to a part of Taiwan to avoid the fire of war.  They traveled on a boat and the trip was rough and long.  My mother told once, and only once, that she had a younger brother who sustained a severe injury on his leg that had gotten infected.  He died as a result of the infection on the boat and his body was thrown overboard.  I still remember the expression on her face when she told this story.  The expression was vacant on the surface, yet it seemed to be filled with unspeakable sorrow underneath.  I found out rather recently that my mother dislikes being near an ocean.  She never said why herself, but the memories of the boat trip to Taiwan may be the reason.

In Taiwan, my grandfather, who was a farmer at home, worked as a machinist at a factory.  Japanese people were not well received in Taiwan, especially then because of
its history with Japan.  My mother’s family was no exception to native Taiwanese people.

Fortunately the prejudiced view Taiwanese people had toward my mother's family changed one day, my mother said.  At the factory my grandfather worked at, there was a terrible accident that could have turned deadly.  A large press of some kind began to close by accident and a Taiwanese worker was about to be caught in it.  My grandfather ran to the scene and wedged himself in between the heavy metal plates of the press so that the Taiwanese worker could free himself.  My grandfather was a tall and bulky man for a Japanese person of his generation.  (Thanks to his genes, I am 5’9”.)  He was tall and strong enough that he once competed in Sumo Wrestling.  So it wasn’t surprising that he didn't get seriously injured from the pressure of the press, although he was very sore for a while.  From that day on, he became a local hero for saving a Taiwanese man’s life.  My mother understandably was very proud of her father, and raved to me about how her entire family was fed really well after that, because they would receive gifts of great food from local people.

They would come home after the war was over.  There she lost her mother to some kind of illness. My mother couldn’t tell me what kind of illness, but she recalled that they placed many incisions on her mother’s lower legs to let fluid drain from them.  When her mother died, her younger sister was still trying to suckle on her breast and crying.  My grandfather remarried after a while in desparate need to have someone take care of his young children.  My mother however, never accepted this woman.  My mother would leave home to live in mainland eventually.

My mother was brought up as a catholic, with a Christian name of Clara.  My father’s family had a background of
Joudo Shinsyuu, which is a branch of Japanese Buddhism.  In Japanese traditional marriage, wife would join whatever religion her husband and his family practices by default.  I have a feeling my mother held a special place in her heart for her catholic upbringing, and it was apparent especially in the early years of my growing up.

As a child I remember my mother singing Christian songs with Japanese lyrics at home.  Her voice was high and frail, yet beautiful.  She must have shown me how to pray to God.  I remember when I was around 7 or 8 years old, praying every night in bed after the lights were out.  With my hands clenched on my chest and eyes closed, I would whisper, “Please God, protect my mother, father and my little sister. “  This lasted for a while until I was no longer irrationally frightened about terrible things that may happen to my family.  What’s interesting is that there never were any insistence from my mother, that God existed as a form of higher being.

I was exposed to two different religions, and it didn't seem to be a problem since my family wasn't deeply involved in any kind of rituals or concentrated teachings.  My father was never there to protest even if he secretly disapproved anyway.  Regardless, little by little, my mother would stop singing her Christian songs.

I was only in my lower teens when my mother talked about her past.  I regret not asking questions about the details of her stories.  Gathering from the little I know, I could still see that my mother had lived a multicultural life just like I have.  I wonder, as a result of exposures to different cultures in early years in her life, if she just wanted to settle where she did, in a "normal" setting for a "normal" family.   With my father, who seemed to be in love with her, and his family, of prestige and stability with long history in one location.  

Being a part of my father's family could have seem to my mother, like getting back to her original heritage of the upper class family, before her ancestor was banished.  My mother often  seemed to be proud of her lost heritage as she talked about "what could have been if".  In my mind, this a indication that she had been deeply influenced by the societal conditioning, once she landed on to the mainland.  Perhaps she realized she wasn't valued the same way she was back home anymore.  She very well could have suffered from feeling of inadequacy once she was subjected to the system of cultural judgment in the mainland.

The apparent social prestige my father’s family had in “the mainland”, might have been very attractive to her.  Of course it helped that she loved my father.  Perhaps the life with my father was the socially admirable "status" she so wanted.  It must have been comforting to her too, to know that she would be able to provide her children, my sister and I, the social prestige, so that our lives would be easier in her mind.

She was doing right by the society.  Sure there was going to be a trade off for what she was getting.  She was willing to work for it.  Only thing was... in order to have the “status” she thought was valuable, she needed to live by the village conscious of my father's town and the unreasonable patriarchy of his family.  I know she couldn't make sense of neither.  I know that because she complained to me all the time.  Yet out of desire to belong, she tried to fit there.  She probably desperately wanted to belong.  Because she wanted to belong and "be good", she sacrificed her personal happiness and was dragged through misery.  

As she struggled, she probably had same thoughts most wives of her generation in Japan had.  "I would have to sacrifice only until my children are grown... only until the tyrant of the town is gone... only until... only until... " And the time to stop sacrificing would never come for her. By the time she realized that, it was too late to pull out.  

A few years ago she mumbled that she felt like she wasted her life away, and that she didn’t know what her life was about.  She felt she had endured much, and she had nothing to show for it. What is left is her pride that she now belongs where she is.  And because her first born daughter broke the cycle of "sacrifice for status and honor", she ended up bearing the worst of pain.

I have cried for my mother and her hard life this past week.  Now that I stopped carrying the emotional baggage that didn't belong to me, a space in my heart opened up to be genuinely compassionate toward my mother and her life.  The old warm fond memory of my mother… how I used to see her as a young child came back to my heart.  She was my sunshine when she wasn't unloading on me.  She did try her best. 

I wonder how she is spending her days now, frail and confused, five thousand miles away.  I am now free to feel untainted love for her.  I do need to tell her very soon, that I truly love her.

Friday, October 2, 2009

New post as a guest blogger "Herbivorous Boys of Japan"

Recently I was invited to write a post for a Twitter friend of mine, Ryan Taylor (@c_rh) who has a blog "Caught*Red-Handed" (Click on the title of this post above to link or if it doesn't work for some reason here is the URL: . Sorry tags I know how to use for links don't work on this page.  Someday I'll have enough time to learn everything I need to know?) 

I wanted to introduce him to my readers properly and wrote a paragraph or two.  I was just getting ready to post it when the browser closed on me.... Poof it disappeared. So I will wait till next time to describe Ryan and what he has brought to my outlook about Japan.  Tonight I just want to say big thanks to him for giving me an opportunity to write about the phenomenon being seeing in Japan, the rise of the "Herbivorous Boys of Japan". (

I hope you'll enjoy.