My great-grandmother was a geisha. She grew up in a remote village surrounded by the mountains and left home for a big city to become a geisha. She had a daughter by a patron and died right after she gave birth. The daughter was my grandmother on my mother’s side. She didn’t remember her mother at all and didn’t know her father, either. No one still knows who her father is, except that he was a rich and powerful name.
She was taken in and raised by her mother’s parents at their home in the mountains, but for various reasons, she was soon handed over to one relative to another. She lived in countless different homes of her relatives and changed her school for innumerable times in her childhood. At every school she attended, she was the smartest honor student and had never dropped to second.
One of her relative’s homes where she lived for a while was my grandfather’s. Years after she left, he told his parents that he wanted to marry her. She got married with him at the age of sixteen and moved in his house again as his wife. She settled down and got her family at long last. But only five years later, my grandfather was drafted for World War II and she was left with her two daughters, one of which is my mother, and her in-laws.
A former prodigy with no home and no parents found herself working hard as a farmer everyday in the fields with her in-laws…
When I was nine years old, I suffered from a kidney disease called nephritis. I skipped school and stayed in bed at home for a week as I felt sick and had a fever every day. It had gotten so worse that I vomited blood one night and passed out. My mother found it next morning and called in a neighbor who worked as a nurse. She urged my mother to take me to the local clinic which doctor in turn urged her to get me examined at the hospital. As a result, I was hospitalized for nephritis. As it was when I lived in a small village of Kyoto, Japan, no one in my family knew what nephritis was. My mother rummaged out a supplement of a homemaking magazine that featured medical issues. It had charts of disease that showed a result according to symptoms by following the arrows to correspond applicable symptoms. I chose the arrows of my symptoms and ended up the result of ‘death’. No matter how many times and how many different patterns I tried, the bottom of the chart concluded with a word ‘death’. “Does it mean I’ll die of this disease in any case?” My mother and I asked the same question to each other and closed the booklet. My hospitalized days in a shared room of six patients at the children’s ward began. As a nephritis patient, I didn’t have freedom of flushing the toilet. Urine had to be kept in a glass jar each time to be examined. Its amount and color told a condition of a patient. Other patients’ jars were put on the shelves along with mine. Compared to others’, mine was less and darker. I was afraid if my condition was so bad. Because I didn’t want to admit it and didn’t want doctors and nurses to find it either, I tried to cheat. Into a one-time jar, I urinated twice so that at least my amount seemed normal. It had escalated gradually and I urinated the whole day into one jar. Ironically, the abnormally large amount of urine drew an alarming attention of a nurse who thought my illness had taken an inexplicable turn for the worse. It worked directly opposite to what I had intended and I confessed my cheating helter-skelter. My six-patient room wasn’t usually lonesome as we were kids and some of their parents were allowed to stay with them on the couches next to their beds. But some got permission to go home for the night provisionally, some got well and left the hospital, some got worse and moved to a single room, all of which coincided at the same time and the room was almost empty one night. A girl whose bed was on the opposite side of mine and I were only patients in the room. After the lights-out time, she asked in the darkness if I was still awake. As I answered yes, she started telling me a story that she made. I thought she felt lonely and couldn’t sleep because the room was too quiet that night with just two of us. Her story was about two rabbits. They seeded, watered and grew carrots at each section in the field. The night before the harvest, one of the two rabbits sneaked in the field and pulled out all the carrots from the other rabbit’s section. He ate them all and put leaves back on each hole to cover it. Next morning, two rabbits came up to the field and started to harvest their carrots on their each section. The other rabbit, who knew nothing about the night before, was excited to reap his carrots since he had been looking forward to this day for long. But every time he pulled out his carrot, there was nothing beyond the leaves. He was puzzled and sang, “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” While his friend rabbit was pulling out a ripe carrot one after another next to his section, he pulled out only leaves out of a hole repeatedly and sang each time, “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” I dozed off and woke up by the girl’s voice of “Hidemi, are you listening?” a few times during the story. Unfortunately, my patience didn’t last until the end. I had been completely asleep at that part of the story and didn’t get the ending. With hindsight, her story may not be her original but something she read or heard since it ‘s too good for a story that a small child makes. Either way, I still remember the story for some reason. When my song didn’t sell at all although I had spent many years to complete it, I heard “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” from somewhere. One day, we had a new comer in the six-patient room. Although she was a junior high school student and wasn’t supposed to be in the children’s ward, she was sent here because the women’s ward was full. She was unhappy to be confined with kids and complained to her mother and the nurses. She looked a grown-up to me and I liked her instantly. I went to her bed to talk to her and tried to console her. I had been stuck to her bedside every day since. She often told me not to make her laugh because her wound from an appendix operation hurt. She laughed at my talks anyway. When she left the hospital, she gave me a gift. It was a small porcelain doll who was wearing a white bouffant skirt beneath which was a bell. On the skirt, there was a printed inscription saying, “I wish for your happiness.” I had put her on the shelves in my room long after I left the hospital, until I grew up and left home. I think those hospital days have influenced me immensely. I had been constantly aware of death in those days. I got well after all but I had never felt death so close to me in my life. As it’s said that people don’t live life unless they understand death, that experience has driven me to think things based on the idea that I eventually die, and therefore to do what I want for my life. Even if my carrot gives nothing but leaves.
One summer in my childhood, my grandfather on my mother’s side invited my mother and me to lunch. The restaurant’s specialty was eels. An eel is an expensive treat in Japan. We arrived at an awfully old-fashioned Japanese restaurant where we took off our shoes and sat on the floor at the low table. Except for us, only one table was occupied by a woman with a small child, who was busily stuffing the leftovers into a tin box she had brought. Every time my grandfather needed a server to come to our table, he clapped his hands twice and called out, “Hey, sister!” It was an obsolete manner no longer practiced, which embarrassed my mother and me.
When our house was rebuilt, I had my own room for the first time. That time, my grandfather took my mother and me to a furniture store to buy me a bed and a wardrobe. After we chose the items, a young salesperson calculated the total. My grandfather naturally asked for a discount but the salesperson’s offer didn’t satisfy him at all. He was an old patron of the store and had bought every piece of furniture there for my mother when she got married. He was used to special treatment and assumed he would get one there. But the salesperson declined the further discount, as he was new and didn’t know my grandfather. Even so, my grandfather persisted and decided the total amount of his own. He handed bills to the salesperson, and told him how much the change to be brought back should be. My grandfather’s way apparently perplexed the salesperson. Standing next to my grandfather, I was so embarrassed again.
Eventually, a long tug-of-war was over and the salesperson brought back what my grandfather had told him. My bed and wardrobe were successfully discounted, but I learned my grandfather’s style was outdated in the modern world…
I loved my grandfather on my mother’s side so much. He lived in a small town that was a 20-minute drive from my family’s home. We used to visit him quite often, and occasionally he also came to our house with my grandmother. At times they stayed overnight in which case my sister and I would scramble to sleep next to him. I won the place one night and he offered his arm for my head. I slept with my head on his arm, which wasn’t so comfortable, to be honest. I woke up with a slight pain in my neck.
After they left, I began to feel sick and skipped school the next day. As my condition worsened with a fever, my mother tried to find the cause. I told her I had been sick since I slept with my head on my grandfather’s arm. She picked up the phone and reported it to my grandmother for a complaint. It took me a week to get well, but seemed nothing but a cold after all. I concluded my grandfather’s arm didn’t cause my illness.
When I met him again, he told me he would never sleep beside me. He explained how relentless verbal attacks from my grandmother had been. She had blamed him for causing my illness everyday although he knew his arm had nothing to do with it. For him, it was an exact situation of biting the hand that feeds you. True to his word, he had never let me sleep beside him ever since no matter how much I pestered. I wondered how severely my grandmother ranted him…
I was raised by my grandmother on my father’s side. She was a very strict and unsociable woman. She led a secluded life and spent most of the time retreating into her room. She would take a trip or go to the theater with my grandfather only once or twice a year.
On those rare occasions, she always wore glasses that she usually didn’t at home. A pair of glasses was a must for her to dress up. She had only one pair with gold rims. Although they were an essential item of her best clothes, she looked terrible with them. She had a stern face by nature but the pair made her look fearsome. Everyone in my family knew that she looked much better without them, and yet, none of us had the courage to say so to her.
Consequently, on every important, memorable event in her later life, she had an awful look by putting them on. She did it not just outside. When there was a guest or I took my friends from school to our house, she always greeted with the glasses on. She had great confidence in glasses. Shortly before her death, she even urged my father to wear glasses because she believed they would help him look grand and dignified. Her treasured gold-rimmed glasses were put into her casket when she passed away. The unpopular pair went to heaven with her. I know she’s wearing them up there still…
I was a member of the drama club at junior high school. There were almost 100 new comers when I first joined it in the seventh grade, but only six remained including me after a month because of sober training that was far from the stage glamor. We did voice and physical exercises every day to develop our abdominal muscles.
In the end of the exercises, the members would stand side by side and utter a loud and long tone one by one in front of the club captain. While we were squeezing ‘Ahhhh’, a senior member would put a hand on our shoulder to see if it rose. If we were doing abdominal breathing, our shoulders didn’t rise. The club captain would time the length of the tone and check whether it wavered or not. A loud, long, steady voice was good and I was the one who always uttered the loudest, longest, steadiest ‘Ahhhh’ without raising my shoulders. While the club captain corrected each member, in my turn she would say “Nothing to be corrected” to me. That made me so happy and I practiced diligently back at home too, to hear her say that every time.
Gradually, I had tougher training at the club such as tongue twisters, short dialogues and pantomime. For some reason, I was good at those and had a good word from the captain each time. I began to think I might have a talent for acting. Secretly I took pleasure in picturing myself on the stage of a school play. A sad fact was, I was a fat and short girl. Even with the ability to act well, things wouldn’t go so smoothly for an ugly girl like me in the theater. But back then, I was too young and innocent to realize that. I just kept on striving and improving only my acting without caring about my bad looks…
My grandfather on my mother’s side was a quiet, generous and kind person. Because I lived with my grandfather on my father’s side, whose character was completely opposite to him, I liked him all the more.
One day, when I was little, I was left in the backseat of the car with him while my parents were out for an errand. He suggested playing ‘rock-paper-scissors’. He took his notebook out of his pocket, and started drawing a score table. He had an honorable position in the local society, and there were many important notes and appointments in his notebook. But he was drawing the table for his granddaughter next to them without any hesitation. And the rock-paper-scissors match of my grandfather vs. me began. It had a lot of rounds and continued long after my parents came back to the car and we got going. He looked so merry, and I was absorbed in the game.
It was my happiest time with him not because the game was fun but because I was able to monopolize him. There were only two of us without my younger sister around. The match ended with his great victory by a wide margin…
I was born and grew up in a small village of Kyoto, Japan. My family made a living by farming, which contributed to my even more old-fashioned childhood than usual that was nothing like a current ordinary life. Food on the table was almost self-sufficient that came form our fields or the front yard and the chicken coops of the house. We had only one tiny refrigerator without a freezer that was more than enough as beer or watermelons were chilled by pumping well water. The bathtub was round and made of wood. Its floor was a round iron plate on which a round wooden board was put in to sit. Beneath the iron plate was a small furnace that my grandmother put wood, straw or used paper in the fire to heat water in the bathtub. Our toilet was a wooden bucket placed in the garage. My grandfather would carry it on a wooden pole to our fields as manure. Not only the way of living was old-fashioned, but also the way of thinking was. All the family members obeyed submissively my grandfather who was a patriarch of my family. Women were deemed to be inferior to men and treated unfairly. Families were giving and receiving them through marriage as if they were commodities. But the changes of the world can’t be stopped. In the year I was born, a bullet train started running between two major cities in Japan, Tokyo and Osaka. It was dubbed ‘a dream super express’ because of a high speed. The city of Kyoto where I lived was close to Osaka and on the line of the bullet train. A new special railroad and its platforms were built above the existing ones. The railway near my home accordingly had the new overhead railroad above it. When I was an elementary school student, I crossed the local train railroad and the big, tall, splendid bullet train railroad by an underpass beneath the tracks on my way to school on foot every day. In the middle of the passage, when a local train or a freight train passed above my head, I would cringe at an enormously thunderous noise. But the bullet train sounded like a whistling wind, almost soothing. The number of children had been increasing as the economy was picking up. The elementary school I went to burst with students and a new school was built when I was in the fifth grade. I was sent to the new one that stood right next to the railroad. Out of the windows, the bullet train was running. From a brand new school building, I had never get bored to see the bullet train zipping past at incredibly high speed through the countryside where time went by so slowly. Thanks to the bullet train, my new school had the air conditioner since the building had soundproofing windows that can’t be opened because of train noises. My former four years in the old school with wooden buildings and coal stoves were felt like ancient. I loved the bullet train so much. To me, it seemed alive with a soul like Thomas the Tank Engine as its headlights looked like eyes and its coupler cover looked like a nose. Since I had difficulty in getting along with others back then, I felt more attached and closer to the bullet train than other human beings. Every time I saw it passing by, I sensed it glanced at me and was running toward the future, carrying hope and dreams. Years later, I left home of an old village and moved to Tokyo by bullet train to become a musician. Sometimes there is a day when we feel that this world has come to an impasse and been headed just for destruction. But if we adapt ourselves to new ways of living or thinking, we may be able to see more of something bright and exciting. In 2027, Japan is going to have a new railway on which magnetic levitation bullet trains called Linear Bullet Trains run at the highest speed of 320 miles per hour. I wonder how their faces look like. I can’t wait to see them.
This incident happened one New Year’s at the end of the card game called ‘kabu’, in which my uncle acted as dealer for the yearly family casino at my grandparents’ house. He had lost quite a lot to my cousin, who was his son, as usual that night and my cousin had left the table as the morning dawned.
My uncle, my mother and I were left at the table and the game was about to close. My mother asked for a few more deals because she had also lost a large sum and wanted to get it back. To recover her loss quickly, she bet by the $100. The game was played for high stakes every year, but I had never seen the stakes this high. She lost in succession and her loss swelled to $500 in a flash.
“This is the last bet,” she claimed in desperation and put $500 on the table. She tried to offset her total loss on the last deal of the game. All at once the tension skyrocketed and strange silence filled the room. I held my breath and withdrew my usual small bet. The cards were dealt tensely and my mother and my uncle showed their hands of fate. Both hands were ridiculously bad but my mother’s was even worse. She lost $1000. Burying her head in her hands, she repeatedly uttered, “It can’t be! Can’t be true!” I saw tears in her widely opened bloodshot eyes. Then she repeated “Oh, my… Oh, my…” in a faint voice for ten times and staggered away. I clearly remember her state of stupor.
A couple of days later back in our home, I enticed her into playing ‘kabu’ with me since I learned how poorly she played it and I knew I would win. I used to receive cash as a New Year’s gift from my relatives during New Year’s and it would amount to $1000. I dangled it in front of her and said that it would be her chance to get back her loss. She took it and we played for $1000. As I had thought, she lost another $1000 to me. She said she couldn’t pay, and I offered her the installment plan. I got $100 more to my monthly allowance of $30 for the next ten months. That was the richest year in my early teens.
Many years later, she failed in real estate investment and lost most of our family fortune that had been inherited for generations. The amount she lost that time was well over $1 million. And that was the money I was supposed to inherit…
Back in my Catholic school days, a teacher for home economics was Sister Carmela. I was in her cooking class. I had no interest in cooking at all and all I did during the class was giggling with my friends and washing the dishes. I simply couldn’t take anything in the class seriously. Home making seemed ridiculous to me, and to begin with, I could laugh endlessly when I thought about a sister called Carmela teaching how to make caramel.
As I was lazy all the time chatting and giggling, Sister Carmela often had to call my name in front of the class and shush me. She also noticed I hadn’t participated in any cooking but just been doing the dishes. No matter how hard and often she scolded me for my bad attitude, I didn’t obey and kept making other students laugh. Her patience snapped at last and she called me before the principal.
In my school, bad students were close to zero and a student was hardly ever called to the principal’s office. The principal was Sister Mary Catherine who reasonably believed I had done something extraordinarily wrong. But she was taken aback when Sister Carmela told her that I had fooled around during the class. She looked at her face with an impression of ‘That’s it?’ After mildly telling me to behave myself, she let me go. Sister Carmela’s punishment didn’t work and my bad behavior continued.
I was in her sewing class next year. Again, I slacked and asked my friend to make a skirt for me. Sister Carmela found that out when I turned in the skirt pretending I had sewn it. That snapped her completely. She decided to appeal directly to my parents and called up my mother that evening. Over the phone, she told her at length how bad I had been in her class. She blamed my bad attitude on my mother’s lack of discipline. My mother kept apologizing for a long time, but her tone gradually changed. As Sister Carmela strongly criticized my mother’s way of raising a child, my mother suddenly yelled, “I have no reason to listen to someone who has never married nor had a child!” and hung up violently.
I was stunned because it sounded to me the most insulting remark about a sister. She said to me, “Who does she think she is? She has never raised a child herself, and yet looks down on me who did raise a child. You don’t have to obey such a stuck-up person!” And Sister Carmela stopped complaining about my behavior ever since…