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.


  1. Yuko, this is another beautiful post. It has an epic quality to it and I strongly suggest that you start exploring this whole topic (you, Japan, your family) as a novel.

  2. I second the novel idea.

    I love these types of stories as they express life in a personal way that everyone can relate to.

  3. Very moving Yuko. First your mother was moved out of the system by circumstances. Then you moved to the US brave one that you are. And now this reader is moved by the story. I hope you two will meet again and have a mother-and-daughter experience of a lifetime.

  4. Amir, nice to see you here and thank you! It means a lot to me that you feel my personal story could be a novel. I am thinking about it in the back of my head. A couple of other twitter friends have suggested the same thing. If my story has enough substance that it might benefit others, I would seriously consider it.

  5. Welcome Doctor Sakai and so nice to meet you! Thank you for your vote of confidence as well. I feel the same way about stories that seem ordinary but strike a cord deep within me somehow. If what I write here does the same to you, I would be so excited. Your site Doctor Sakai Quotes is very interesting as well. I will look forward to your updates.

  6. Ron,
    I'm still not sure if I was actually brave, but thank you. :)
    A message from my mother arrived right after I finished this post, which said she is grateful for me being there as she struggled in the past. How amazing is that. It feels as if my mental wave was unclogged enough to allow connections in the way it hadn't before. I offered my empathy toward her struggles and thanked her for her love in my reply to her. It feels good.

  7. Another interesting chapter Yuko! I find your experiences so intriguing because your mother at times remind me so much of my late mother and the relationship I had with her. Those moments when your mother would mention a family tragedy nearly expressionless, as you intrinsically know exactly what she is NOT saying, is stunning. It reminded me of a similar experience I had with my mother and I could see her face.

    I am continually amazed by how much I identify with your story. Much love to you, Yuko!

  8. Yuko,
    I like to read your stories but I am usually afraid to read them because I'm afraid of what effect it would do to me. : )

    I finally finished reading the article and I stopped at several places, just so I could pause and feel what it was like living through those moments in your mother's younger years.

    In the ending, you said that you cried for your mother and you unloaded the baggage that did not belong to you. You also mentioned how your heart softened & felt that she tried her best.

    I think this was what I wanted to say from reading the previous blog article. I just feel that most people really did the best they can given the circumstances they were in. Had they known something different, things would have come out differently too. However, tehy just did not have the luxury of knowing at the time.

    It is especially nice that you were able to put down the pieces of her memories for her. As you were examining her life, you were also feeling and saw her dreams and limitations.

    Your words just got me thinking more about my relationship with my parents and other people. I don't want to sound very general, but really they all had their reasons with what they did. "Perfect or not, we are all only human," suddenly I just want to make that statement. : )

  9. Reiko, I don't know if you had a chance to laugh carefree with your mother before she had passed away, and I sure hope so. Regardless, you had to have gone through a personal struggle or two of your own, in regards to your relationship with your mother. I feel for you. It is most satisfying to me that you identify with my life story and continue to sense what is not being said. Big hugs to you, and thank you.

  10. Suchu, lovely to hear from you here. You are very sweet, and I know you care deeply about people. I know that what you've tried to express here is out of goodness of your heart. So I hope you won't take what I say next as a criticism of any sort. Because I understand exactly where you are coming from. I just want to clarify some points.

    I think the compassion you've expressed here about how my mother did her best, carries warms and it's socially well accepted. What you've been feeling is what most people tend to feel. I felt that way for years myself, since I was a child. But unfortunately, after years of personal pain, I began to see something very dangerous about what's behind that apparently loving way of looking at things. It raises a huge red flag for me.

    That is one of the reasons behind my candid writing. The point of my story is to shed the light onto something people don't seem to notice often. It is to explain the meaning of the red flags I see, each time society tells people something out of compassion, without really knowing the consequences of the statement it is making. But I see now that I actually haven't expressed myself clearly enough.

    As I expressed in my previous posts, I've known my mother's pain, and I cried for her most of my childhood. Because I cared about her struggle I tried to protect my own mother as a child. I operated on my sense of indestructible strength for a long time because of it. And now that I know what I know about what happened in my life, it became apparent that my relationship with my mother was a dysfunctional one.

    I think you might have given me a subject to focus on next. Such as how a social conscious of a compassionate kind can cause a dysfunction in someone's life. Whatever it would be, I intend to try to explain in a way that people would understand.

    Thank you Suchu, I really do appreciate your thoughts. And please don't hesitate to comment again anytime. :)

  11. I failed to mention above, that the tears I shed for my mother now is so very different form the tears I cried for my mother in the past. I have no dark clouds above my head as I feel the love for my mother now. Whereas before, I couldn't think of my mother without feeling a knot in my stomach, without sorrow and anger. It took a lot of work on myself to reach this point.

  12. Suchu, typo error... Sorry. First reply to you, second paragraph, second line - warms is incorrect, I meant to type warmth as you might have figured out already.

  13. What a lovely and interesting story! Thanks for sharing with those of us in cyber space!

    Your newest follower
    (Another person thousands of miles from home)
    Holli in Ghana

  14. Well, Yuko, you already know the amount of respect I have for you, and the admiration that I have for the limitless way in which you project your life and history across people's minds.

    I agree with the early comments that a novel could be a next step for you, as your recollections are immense and your emotive power is just sublime.

    A very heartfelt piece, and if it pains you not too much, then more of the same would be greatly appreciated.

  15. Hello Holli! It's great to meet you, and I'm grateful that you read my post and left a comment to let me know. Thank you! You have a very interesting blog as well, and I'm excited to get to know you and the culture of Ghana through your blog. Hope to talk to you again soon. Cheers to you!

  16. Hi Ryan! I am not only flattered but also greatly encouraged by your comment. Thank you so very much for your thoughtfulness!

    It's wonderful to know that what I try to express through my less-than-perfect English writing reaches your heart somehow. I believe a reader has to be in touch with the depth of his/her inner feelings to be receptive of emotional expressions. It feels wonderful to be able to connect with you this way as well. :)

  17. Yuko,

    You keep on amazing me with your skillful renditions of your inner-most thoughts!

    And...yes, I hope you will find the opportunity to soon (again) remind your aging mother of your loving feelings for her!

  18. Dear Ernie,
    Thank you so very much!! I had an opportunity to send a message to my mother to express my love toward her recently. It's become very apparent, as I always felt it would, that it is better to be open and healthy, than to pretend and keep the baggage to maintain the status quo. I am certain that our relationship will be enriching and true in the future. Thank you again for your support, uncle!

  19. Yuko, I googled "Tokunoshima" and I stumbled across your beautiful post. My grandmother was born in Tokunoshima in 1939, the 3rd of 8 children. She tells the best stories of growing up there- playing in the ocean at sunset, running through the streets of Amagi, and playing hide in seek in the forests. And she would talk about the Arikawa (my great grandfather) and the Sakoda (my great grandmother) families being the most prominent families in town, and even when she was a teenager, the elderly would come up to her and bow to her, just because who parents were.

    But I was wondering, did your mother ever tell you the story about the US Navy ship coming to Tokunoshima? My grandmother said she was playing outside when she was 4 or 5 years old, and her older brother spotted a US ship coming towards the island, so they all ran to tell their grandfather, who was also the mayor, that the ship was coming. And my grandmother said, that after the ship pulled into port, that everyone from the neighboring towns, Tokunoshima and Isen, came to see the American ship. But since my great-great grandfather was the mayor, my grandmother's family were the only Japanese allowed on the ship, because the Americans invited him and the rest of my family on board. And since my grandmothers father, my great grandfather, was the high school principal, school was also let out early so the kids could go the Americans.

  20. Hello Danielle,

    Thank you for stopping by and letting me know. It is wonderful to connect with someone who shares a similar family history. I'm afraid my mosher never spoke of the incident with the American Ship. I will ask her when I get to talk to her next time. My aunt and uncle still live there, and they probably have some knowledge of your family from the past.

    Again, great to meet you and stay in touch!

  21. Yuko, thank you for sharing your memories and histories. I found some parts of it to be sweetly/sadly familiar: my great grandparents went to Taiwan from Japan. My mother went to a private Catholic high school, and she believes in her own hybrid version of Jodo Shinshu (I do need to confirm with her) and Catholicism. For instance, she kept on telling me, since I was young, that she prayed to Mary for a girl, and that's how she had me at the age of 36 (which was considered to be extremely high risk 40 years ago). She also wears a cross around her neck though I doubt she's ever been to a church since high school. And of course, my Catholic mother-in-law looked insulted when I mentioned that my mother believes in Mary though she is not Catholic... I shouldn't ramble on here on your blog. I just want to let you know I enjoyed reading this post and I hope you have found an opportunity to tell your mother how you feel deep down, including saying I love you. I have never said this in words to my parents. You just don't do that to your parents if you are Chinese. If I were physically there, I would be able to hug them (I am a hugger which scares a lot of people back home...) I will make sure to call my mom tonight.

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  23. Hope you are doing well Yuko! I wish you the happiest of holidays!

  24. Hello Ron! Thank you so much for the holiday cheers. I am well. I am planning on posting at Cross Cultural Station soon to update everyone of what's going on. Wishing you the best to you and your loved ones during for this Holiday season!

  25. Didn't realize so few signs could say so much.

    translated by google:

    "Growth target for a healthy person and a good way parents.

    Eternal Kid sound level culture."

    Yes that must be on target.


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