Return to Japan
by John Cho


When I was young, my mother would take me back to her parents in Shioya nearly every summer. It was the satogaeri, the traditional visiting by the bride of her own family. My mother was faithful to the concept, although she was already in her forties at the time. Shioya, literally "salt-ery," was a small village, just beyond the western reach of the Osaka-Kobe urban continuum. No doubt, by now, it has been annexed as a suburb of Kobe - I have not been to Shioya for over twenty years. Because the rail corridor from Osaka to Kobe stayed inland, its veering out toward the coast as it approached Shioya suddenly brought the fecund smells and the open vistas of the Inland Sea.

Without waiting for the conductor's announcement, I always knew that we had reached our destination. Kobe was historically a port of entry, where foreigners and their cultural influences had been relatively strong. My grandparents lived on Jeemusu Yama, or James Mountain, where missionaries had built their spacious Western-style homes nestled in the sparsely populated and forested hills above the coastal towns. Not many foreigners lived there anymore, but the aura of a far away place remained.

For a Tokyo kid like me, it was a trip to another country - the tortuous road rising steeply through the tall trees, the dense chorus of cicadas cascading down all around, the air passing from the slightly nauseating maritime odor to the dry, piney smell of the mountain. I never interacted very much with my grandfather, who was in his eighties with ailing health. He was already too weak to go outside and play with children. I remember a slight, balding man with thick glasses who usually stayed in bed. He had a peculiar diet. His main intake consisted of an evergreen brew that was mostly comfrey leaf from his wife's garden. I had to try it, of course. It was horrible and I told them so. I was a very honest child. He also had cases of ramune, which was a clear sodapop like 7-Up, but with a novel bottle design. This I liked very much, perhaps because of the fun bottle that was divided into two chambers - the main one at the bottom that held the drink, and a smaller one on top that caught the glass bead stopper, which you pushed in to open the bottle. The comfrey glop and the ramune were the only things my grandfather ingested.

My grandmother was a smiling, happy-go-lucky woman. Quite a contrast to her husband, who gave permission for my mother to marry a Korean, not out of acknowledgment for the universality of love, but because he felt deeply ashamed of the atrocities that Japan had committed as a colonizer; he thought that giving a daughter away to an oppressed member was the least he could do as atonement. After raising six of her own children and a few more of others' in the role of a traditional Japanese housewife, my grandmother nursed her husband during his final decrepit years. After he died, she took up painting, poetry, and calligraphy. On her 88th birthday she sent each of her 18 grandchildren framed examples of her calligraphy in verse, and before she died at 97 she sent each of her progenies (her name, Momoe, is written "hundred-hundred branches") a copy of her self-published book of poetry. Unlike her husband, she was an omnivore with a robust appetite. There were never any leftovers after a meal, because she would finish off whatever the others didn't eat.

My grandparents' house held many repulsions for me as a thoroughly urban child. The spiders with their long legs silhouetted against the paper-paned sliding doors. The wooden bath tub with its slimy, organic surface. The thick-bodied moths that crowded into the lighted space and spread their ugly, grey wings against the wall. The dangerous, metallic taste of the well water. The uncivilized stench of the compost heap. A mass of the hated mosquito larvae floating on the pond surface. The primitive kitchen appliances.

But for my mother, Shioya had been irretrievably changed by the postwar boom. Photos from her childhood reveal a darkly tan, tomboyish girl who loved to swim in the sea, who looked on proudly as her older brother captured an octopus with his bare hands. The children would wait for the fishermen to bring in the day's catch and they would share the task of lugging dinner up the steep paths of James Mountain. Pollution now made it unsafe to go in the water near Shioya and the fishing had moved further away.

I remember taking a boat to Awajishima, an island halfway to Shikoku and the epicenter of the recent big earthquake, and going swimming with the reassurance that the water was cleaner there. When I emerged from the water there were black oil speckles covering my body. One element of nature that I looked forward to with zest was the typhoon. Tokyo was usually too far north to be hit directly by one at full strength. The Kobe region had a much better chance of devastation, so every summer I waited with hope for an early typhoon to be spawned by the tropical seas far to the south. Unfortunately, we always had to go back to Tokyo before the peak of the typhoon season, and I never got to live through a top-class typhoon. Perhaps, this early unrequited desire was a force that led me into the study of the atmosphere.

Earthquakes, on the other hand, were scary things. Every Tokyo resident knew the route to the nearest "refuge area," a place open enough not to be swept over by the sea of fires that consumed many of the 140,000 lost in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. We knew, though, that the evacuation plans were a sham. The designated safe zones were few and far between and could hold only a small fraction of the city's population. Our refuge area was Ueno Park where the zoo was also located. It took an hour by foot to get there under normal circumstances.

How long would it take with thousands of panicked people clogging the narrow alleys and streets, fleeing the imminent horizon glowing with doom? I had heard that when you are surrounded by a great fire, you die of suffocation because the fire burns up all the available oxygen. I imagined us huddled together in the zoo, watching the flames shoot up all around toward the stars, prying open the bird cages so that they could soar away to safety, the polar bear already catatonic from the heat, all of us slowly choking amid the baying, howling, roaring, meowling, barking, screeching, snorting, and crying of the animals, the humans indistinguishable from the rest.

A phone call to my mother in Tacoma confirmed that her childhood home in Shioya was still standing after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. My parents were traveling in Egypt during the event; they watched the first pictures of the fallen highways and the gas-main fires on CNN International in a Cairo hotel. A Japanese tourist passed on a copy of a Japanese newspaper to my mother. She was able to reassure herself that the names of her two older brothers and their families, who still live in Kobe, were not listed in the long casualty and missing list. When she got home, she called her daughter in Shikoku who, three days after the event, was finally able to get through via cellular phone to my mother's brothers. No injuries, no property damage.

* * *

Sometimes at night I would climb up a balding James Mountain (even then, they were bulldozing for development). I would scramble on top of the large, concrete water tank at the apex, and lie down prone on the smooth slab. With the comforting heat of the afternoon sun slowly transferring itself from the large thermal reservoir to my back, I would watch the meteors blaze in their ephemeral glory. Crickets chirped in the distance. An occasional firefly described a whimsical trajectory across my wide-open field of view. If I stared long enough I could convince myself that I detected the movement of the stars across the sky. One could easily imagine that the Earth was firm and unyielding, that the heavens gyrated round about, occasionally losing a star or two that shot down toward us. Later, the concrete would cool down, and the chilling air would induce me to return below. But for a little while I could remain and savor the illusion.


Copyright 1995, John Nagamichi Cho. Contact John Cho at: jcho@pemtropics.mit.edu or visit his website at http://pemtropics.mit.edu/~jcho/

John Cho at Large / Technobeat Central