The first short story Thersa Matsuura ever wrote in Japan, “Sand Walls, Paper Doors,” introduces the fantastical nonhuman characters of Japanese folklore, from the pillow-swapping trickster to the ghostly children who frolic through human dreams.
Inspiration for the story materialized from the traditional ramshackle wood and paper dwelling that was Matsuura’s first home in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Matsuura learned about Japan’s otherworldly beings from her elderly neighbors, and they populate her stories with whimsical reality.
Elderly storytellers gave the U.S.-born Matsuura a love for Asia from her early days as a university exchange student. “In high school, I started studying the internal martial arts from China, so in my freshman year of university, I applied for a short, one-month program on a small southern island in China near Xiamen, Gulangyu Island,” she recalls. “There was this mountain in the middle of the island, and I would get up before dawn and hike to the Kannon Temple to do tai chi. It was a temple for women only, so the elderly women not only let me in, they taught me the chants and let me wear the robes. I had no idea what they were saying, but they fascinated me.”
Back at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Matsuura searched for a way to return abroad. “I was interested in China of course, but I had also studied Zen Buddhism in world religions. One day I was walking down the hallway on campus and noticed a poster for a scholarship to our sister-city university in Shizuoka, Japan. It was just a bolt out of the blue since I had no idea Omaha was even connected to Japan, but I walked into the office and applied.”
Matsuura eventually was awarded a scholarship by the education ministry to study at Shizuoka University.
Coming to Japan in 1990 was like “being thrown into the fire,” she recalls. “I thought I had studied the language a lot before I came, but compared to the other international students, my Japanese was pretty pathetic. But everyone at Shizuoka University was great; I also joined the kendo club, and that immersed me in the culture and the language even more.”
Matsuura also found a chance to interact with a local storyteller. “A monk near campus told me about an elderly woman who lived by herself. Her husband had passed away, her children were gone, and she was afraid to stay by herself on weekends.”
Matsuura began spending Saturdays and Sundays with the woman. “I still didn’t know Japanese so well, but somehow we communicated and she told me so many interesting stories about her life.”
The stories of old Japan resonated with Matsuura, and she extended her university exchange program for another year. She also met her future husband, who hailed from a small fishing community in Yaizu. Returning to the U.S. only long enough to graduate and finish their wedding plans, Matsuura soon moved permanently to Yaizu.
“Friends tease me, saying I live in such total countryside, but for me, Yaizu is old Japan,” Matsuura says. “When we first moved in, there was no one under 70 years old in our neighborhood. Everyone talks about AKB48 or cute Japan, but the Japan I like is the old, gritty Japan, full of old traditions and old wives’ tales and festivals that last a whole week.
“It was difficult to adapt at first, of course, to be the foreign wife. But listening to the elderly people’s stories helped me to adjust. There were so many small, unspoken rules no one talks about, but the elderly ladies and men would tell me the original reasons behind why you do things a certain way, and it helped me to accept and understand.”
Matsuura admits she was isolated in her early years as a housewife. Her husband’s work as a computer programmer and musician required long hours away from home.
“I spent the whole first year studying Japanese cookbooks and literally cooking all day,” she recalls with a laugh.
After their son, Julyan, was born in 1995, Matsuura began writing short stories, inspired by the folktales she heard from the villagers.
“It was the perfect opportunity. I had always wanted to be a writer. Writing became a way to understand the culture and a very different way of viewing life.”
She began sending some of her stories to small literary magazines in the United States and had several published, gaining attention for her depiction of the surreal characters in Japanese folklore.
Matsuura did not take her writing too seriously, however, until fate forced her to confront the otherworld with her own mortality.
A visit home to Papillion, Nebraska, in October 2001 coincided with the discovery of a small lump in her breast; Matsuura casually decided to check it with her family doctors in the U.S. The lump was indeed cancer, and she found herself instantly swept into surgery and then treatment.
“In some ways, I thought, how could this get any worse? My husband was half way across the world and was working on a contract that kept him so busy he was only able to visit once in nine months. Then the lady in charge of insurance at the hospital wasn’t used to dealing with a Japanese insurance company and that caused all sorts of problems and misunderstandings. Of course, my 6-year-old son was with me, whom I wanted so much to see grow up. Despite everything, I was with family and friends and they took wonderful care of me.”
Matsuura would not return to Japan for almost a year, and during the long days in the hospital her early aspirations focused into determination.
“I remember I wrote a letter to my surgeon early on, telling him my dream of being a writer. I promised him and myself that if I got through this that I would write seriously. I was learning about a Japan I never knew existed, and I wanted to share it with the English-speaking world.”
Nine months later, hair and cancer-free, Matsuura returned to Yaizu and its folktales.
“I researched publishers and kept writing, realizing as I did that the stories all had a strong theme of Japanese folklore, superstition and myth. When I finished I didn’t even have an agent yet, but I sent them to my first pick of publishers and within a few months got a positive reply.”
Matsuura’s book, “A Robe of Feathers and Other Stories,” came out in 2009, and she has followed that success by consistently publishing stories, most recently in three anthologies over the past year — all dedicated to survivors of the March 11 disasters: an essay “Signs” in “2:46: Aftershocks,” “The Power of Perspectives” in “Kizuna,” and “The Zodiac Tree” in “Tomo: An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories.”
She has also had the chance to reconnect with her doctors. “I’ve had two really powerful moments relating to my two favorite doctors, Dr. Scott Rose and Dr. Stephen Lemon. The first was after ‘A Robe of Feathers’ was published and I went back to Omaha and Dr. Rose opened his desk drawer and pulled out that first letter and all my Christmas cards. They were wrapped in a ribbon. He told me he was proud of me. The second moment was at my first-ever book signing in Omaha. I was so nervous. There was a good crowd, family, friends, strangers, and I look up and see Dr. Lemon in the crowd. He’d brought his two daughters to hear me speak and get me to sign my book for them. I thought I was going to cry.”
Currently revising her first adult novel, “Seven Secrets,” set for publication next year, Matsuura still enjoys hanging around with older Japanese and learning their stories. She has studied Japanese watercolor and etegami (hand-drawn postcards), and frequently visits Buddhist temples to listen to the monks. One such friend is a local legend in Shizuoka — Takashi Sugimura, a carver of traditional o-jizo statues.
While researching o-jizo for her next book, she was surprised to learn he lived close by and taught students on weekends. “Sugimura-sensei is a real mountain man, he’s traveled the world, has carved o-jizo and Buddhist statues all over Shizuoka, Kyoto and even France. He even spent eight years carving a Fudo Myo-o into the side of a mountain.”
Matsuura spent every Saturday for years up in the mountain listening to his stories and carving her own o-jizo. “It took me three years to finish this small one. I imagine it will take five years to finish the next. It’s going to be bigger,” she says.
Although she is now on break from statue-carving to finish her novel and see her son through high school, Matsuura never tires of Japanese folklore characters — from the shape-shifting cat to the devious o-jiisan who cries like a child. “I think there is so much of Japan that hasn’t been introduced to the Western world yet, so much that isn’t understood, hasn’t been translated or just isn’t much talked about anymore. The more I study these things the more fascinated I am.”
For more information, see Thersa Matsuura’s website at thersamatsuura.com