Non-Fiction Winners

Non-Fiction Winners
Hale‘iwa couple, from The North Shore of O‘ahu (Arcadia Publishing)
Image: courtesy the matsumoto family


Cover image for Dec 26, 2012

Non-Fiction Winners / Non-Fiction Winners

Second Place

Jii Chan

Jii-chan he

Watashi no koto yoku shiranai to omou. Watashi no jinsei ni go kai shika attenai node, sono toki demo watashi no kangae wo hakkiri nihongo de ienakatta. Soredemo, Jii-chan no omoide ga takusann aru yo. Isshou ni onsen ni itta no mo, Jii-chan ga jitensha no shigoto wo ganbatteita nomo oboeteru. Itsumo no you ni ogenki de ne.


I thought a bulldozer was trying to knock down my grandmother’s house. It was 9:42 a.m. on the day of my grandfather’s funeral, and she was finally being evicted. There we were, myself, my mother, and my grandmother, three generations of women, standing in a small cluttered room trying to figure out what the heck was going on. The room would not stop shaking.

Jii-chan da yo. Jibun no ososhiki ni ikitakunaino.

In a very maternal fashion, Goo-chan, my grandmother, was trying to convince me that Jii-chan didn’t want to go to his own funeral.

Sore ha jishin da yo!

My mother: the voice of logic. It was indeed an earthquake.

Ma had emailed me to tell me that she was flying to her hometown in Ishikawa-ken to say goodbye to Jii-chan. Goodbye? This must be serious. I immediately booked an overnight bus ticket from my home in Sendai to Kanazawa. The morning before my departure, M.–Ojichan, my youngest uncle, called me and told me that Jii-chan had already died. It was too late. Ma was still on the plane, and she didn’t get to say goodbye.

Ojama shimasu. I arrived early the next day. I went to my eldest uncle’s house, slipped off my shoes, and tiptoed into the washitsu tatami room. Jii-chan, draped in ceremonial Buddhist cloth, was surrounded by my aunt, his three sons, and my mother. According to the Buddhist sect to which my family belongs, a direct relative of the deceased must be awake and with the body at all times. Two of my uncles had been taking turns staying up with Jii-chan for the past two days. I could see the exhaustion in their faces. I also smelled incense.

I knelt next to Jii-chan and sprinkled some incense on a piece of burning coal. As the smoke slithered its way up to my face, my head tilted downwards and I put my hands together as though I were praying. I don’t know what I said or thought, but, whatever it was, it could not be expressed in either English or Japanese.

Akichan mite, Jii-chan no kao da yo.

I looked up at Ma. She was removing the white silk cloth covering his head. Yep, that was Jii-chan, all right. Eyes closed, mouth open, cleanly shaven, skin glowing. I touched his forehead. Tsumetai. Cold.

I didn’t know Jii-chan very well, but I feel much closer to him now. I used to be terrified to speak to him and Goo-chan on the phone when I was younger. I dreaded the vacuous pause after I said moshi-moshi and asked if they were genki. Simple thoughts and phrases were negated; they were smothered into silence by words I had never learned and sentences I had never heard. Why was it so difficult for me to speak Japanese? Everyone else in my family could.

When I went to college, I had the opportunity to study Japanese. Most of the other students in my class were interested in manga and anime, or they had already taken some Japanese in high school and wanted an easy A. I felt a little out of place. All I wanted was to be able speak to my grandparents on the phone. I wanted to talk to my cousins and speak to Ma in her mother tongue.

Soon after graduation, I found myself moving to a small northern Japanese city called, Sendai. The first thing I did was visit Goo-chan and Jii-chan. Jii-chan was already old by then and didn’t remember me. I tried talking to him, but I don’t know if he ever really heard me or figured out who I was.

Two years later, I found myself holding a letter. Before they placed the lid on the coffin, I carefully balanced the letter I had written on Jii-chan’s chest. It was written in Japanese. It started, “Watashi no koto yoku shiranai to omou . . . I don’t think you know much about me.” After 23 years, I could finally communicate with Jii-chan, and it was at his funeral. My seemingly meaningless time in Japan and many years studying Japanese finally made sense. My letter would be cremated with him.

I’d never seen anyone be cremated before. The coffin was placed inside a large oven and took 2 hours to fully incinerate. While he was in the oven, we waited and everyone ate onigiri rice balls. I had no appetite, knowing that Jii-chan was being swallowed by flames. I took a walk to the family gravestone, picked weeds, and said hello to my ancestors. I stood by the grave staring. Time eventually passed as it always does. Two hours were up.

Jii-chan was taken out of the oven. His naturally thin body and sallow cheeks, the ceremonial silk cloths, my letter; everything had been reduced to a fine powder. It was science at its finest. This was a perfect example of the first law of thermodynamics:

The total quantity of matter and energy in the universe is a fixed amount and never any more or less.

I kept reminding myself that Jii-chan was still here, just in a different form. A short man working at the cremation place enthusiastically pointed out all of the so-called important bones, the ones that skillfully evaded being turned to ash: the knee caps, jaw, cranium, and teeth. One by one, we placed these bones into a container with large chopsticks. Mother to daughter to brother to sister. Cousin to uncle and then to aunt and finally back to mother. It was a balancing act with chopsticks, a dexterous dance. We had to be careful not to drop the bones. And finally, we were finished. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Japanese cremation rituals leave nothing to the imagination. Jii-chan was now packed away nicely in a portable container and was very visibly gone.

Earlier that morning, Ma met me for breakfast. She had brought over some 7-grain bread and muesli as omiyage gifts and was preparing our rather wholesome morning meal. It was going to be a long day. I was warming up milk for Goo-chan. And then, it happened. The earthquake: the release of tension between two tectonic plates.

A release that reminded me that my foundation, the ground I stand on is not as sturdy as it appears; that the ground is only an illusion of stability, not to be mistaken for stability itself; that bodies are merely vehicles carrying a person through life, easily transformed from flesh into fine powder; that language is just a code for emotion, an attempt at articulating one’s thoughts. And all of these symbols, despite their superficial and sometimes contingent nature, are necessary for making sense of the world. For although I never actually needed to learn Japanese in order to feel love for Jii-chan, breaking through the linguistic barrier finally allowed me to express myself to him in a way he could understand.