Between Japan and America: time, space and remembrance

by Ray K. Tsuchiyama

About a century ago, my grandfather departed economically depressed Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu for Hawaii, followed by my grandmother. Then came the birth of two sons, the younger my father, on the island of Maui.

My grandfather believed that his children’s futures would benefit from a schooling in Japan in that open-minded Taisho Era (1912-26), so at age 4 my father and his older brother were sent back across the Pacific to live in Kumamoto.

Fast-forward a century, and on a fall day in New York City last year, my wife and I accompanied our daughter as she moved into a college dormitory with 550 other women. When we left her that day, it was with mixed and tearful emotions that we returned on a 13-hour flight to Tokyo.

A day later, and by then 11,000 km apart, we made our first Skype video call with our daughter. My wife burst into tears when she saw our daughter’s face on the screen. We quizzed her on her courses, her meals, and whether she was warm enough or not (she was).

During our Tokyo mornings we would exchange text messages with our daughter until she fell asleep, then pick up where we left off after our dinner, when she awakened. After a couple of weeks of continuous grilling like FBI interrogators, we probably knew more about what she was doing on the other side of the world than we did about all of our Tokyo friends.

In contrast, once the ship carrying her two sons disappeared over the shimmering blue horizon, my grandmother never knew how long she would wait to meet them again. Letters took months to arrive, if at all; a trans-Pacific telegram probably cost a week’s wages to send. Then, when my grandmother’s third son was born in Maui, she must have cried silently for joy when he was not sent to Japan; it is absolutely forgivable that, as the third son, he was spoiled by his parents throughout his idyllic childhood.

Nowadays, though, with cell phones, e-mail and Skype, we receive daily updates of our daughter’s new adventures in New York (saw Jude Law in “Hamlet” on Broadway! Went to a Halloween parade in Greenwich Village!). In fact, we are insatiable for more details; her recounting of new friends met and reporting on changing foliage hues in Central Park.

Struggling in an unfamiliar, blazing- hot sugar-plantation town in Maui, my grandmother’s loss of two sons must have weighed upon her daily — even though the pre-World War II population of Maui was nearly half made up of Japanese immigrants. During her daily manual labors she spoke Japanese to her coworkers; imported Japanese rice and condiments such as miso and soy sauce were plentiful — and there were even Japanese silent movies (with benshi narrators speaking all the parts). But her boys were absent, and she would miss every birthday, every school sports day and, in fact, their entire childhoods.

In the early 1930s my grandfather, whose life’s ambition was to return to Japan as an overseas success, died unexpectedly, triggering my father and uncle’s homecoming to Maui, their American birthplace, in the then Territory of Hawaii. How emotional and bittersweet a reunion it must have been, since my grandmother had long dreamed of being with her boys, though their return was due to my grandfather’s passing.

Ironically, if my grandfather had lived, my father would have graduated from an Imperial high school, then would probably have been drafted into military service in Manchuria. He likely would not have survived the war (and I would not exist). Instead, my father’s abrupt return to Maui set his life on an American trajectory: learning English from scratch; studying auto-mechanics in Detroit when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred in December 1941; then volunteering for the U.S. Army and being sent to Europe — and then to Japan when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Afterwards came his marriage to my mother, from Hokkaido — and I was born.

My own trajectory would move our family to Japan from Hawaii when my daughter, born, like my father, in Hawaii, was barely 8 months old. It would culminate with her entrance to that New York college last fall.

My grandmother would have smiled at our incessant communications with our daughter; by using new technologies we had magically availed ourselves of shortcuts through time and space. She would add that we were oya-baka, or overbearing, crazy parents — which is true. Then her head would drop and her eyes close, as she realized her irrevocable sense of loss.

Ray Tsuchiyama is a member of the President’s International Advisory Committee of Barnard College at Columbia University in New York. He recently lectured at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Californis, and formerly headed the Japan office of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.