Thursday, December 29, 2011

At Least They Thought Of Us (?)

Just after Christmas, we were at a Target and my husband spotted this lovely ornament:

I don't even know where to start. It's like a tiny character from Mikado. I would call this "an Oriental ornament." Or perhaps, "Orinament." We should have bought it.

Thank you, Target.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Japanese Funerals in Films

Because my world has been immersed in this, I thought I'd extend the sharing of my culture around funerals. There are two films that are excellent (I think) on the topic of funerals in Japan. One is Departures, which won the academy award in the foreign language film category in 2009:

It's a beautiful film about a old traditional ritual of preparing the deceased for their departures. It's quiet, powerful and deeply touching.

Then there is The Funeral.

It is one of Juzo Itami's most famous films, in which a family prepares for a funeral and encounters many drama in the process. Unlike Departures, it's a comedy and it takes many weird turns but shows all sides of Japanese funeral and is thoroughly amusing.

Later day, I shall do a post about other Japanese films I feel people should see, but for now, I'll start with what is on my mind.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Two days after the funeral, my husband had to fly back to the States. After much discussion, we decided that our daughter should stay with me since I was just away from her. We felt that she could have more time with her cousins and it would do all of us, especially my father, some good to have her around.

From the time I got there until after the funeral, I didn't sleep right. I'm certain multiple jet lags did not help the matter, but even with medication, I could not stay asleep for more than 5 hours and when I tried to lie down during the day, I just ended up spending that time crying and not sleeping. My body felt like it was someone else's and I ached and couldn't focus. But then about about three days after the funeral, and the day after my husband left, I started to sleep. I no longer needed any medication and my body was finally letting me have some rest. Having my daughter sleeping next to me was a huge help and because of that, my days were beginning to have some clarity. And what I was facing was this daunting task of picking up the pieces.

When someone close to you passes away, you are left with their stuff. The house looked like my mother was still in the hospital and it was impossible to even know what to do and where to begin. I walked around the house several times to try to put my mind around this and couldn't start. Then as I do at work when I feel stressed, I narrowed down the task to something manageable for the next 10 days that I was going to be there with a 4 year old. I tried to look around and think what would be the hardest thing to live with for my father. To me, those were things that indicated the strongest presence of my mother. Her medical supplies, her purse, her makeup on the vanity, and her toiletries in the bathroom. Those objects that showed everyday routine would be hardest for me to deal with and see as a companion, so I decided to take care of those.

I first went through the things that were brought back from the hospital. I emptied two paper bags of her things, went through her purse, and put things away for the time being. I went to the small foldable table in her bedroom that she set up to hold all of her medical supplies and divided them into categories of things and bagged them. My father and I discussed contacting the nursing care facility and see if they would take any of these items. I gathered all of her medication from the kitchen where she kept them and bagged them up. This part felt fairly good to do. She was no longer sick. She didn't need them. But at the same time, I saw her efforts of trying to get better and make some sort of routine by the way she had things organized. I was there--just a couple of weeks before and helped her with these routine. Now she was dead.

I went into my parents' walk-in closet and took down everything of my mother's that was hanging on this rolling rack by the ironing board--a set of clothes that was just freshly ironed and ready to wear. I took some that I thought I could use and put the rest away in the closet, out of sight. I then went through some of her casual clothes and bagged four shopping bags for our Filipino house cleaner who has been working for my parents for over 10 years and adored my mother. I couldn't get through all of it. It was starting to feel overwhelming. So I stopped there. My father kept saying, "you don't have to do it all now. Just do a little bit at a time every time you come." The things I kept walking by were the clothes I had just purchased for her. She asked me to go out on an errand to pick up some things she needed. She wore a couple of those items while I was still there but there were some things still in a package with price tags on. I would walk by the entry way a hundred times a day and catch a small shelf full of my mother's shoes and kept thinking, "I gotta put those away" because they looked like she would just use them any minute.

I kept spotting things that I bought and sent to her this year. A portable DVD player with some movies, a lap table with clip-on reading light, small photo album full of photos of my daughter. That was all I could do from far away. Buy things to cheer her up and send them to her. But all of it was left behind and my efforts seemed ineffective now because she died anyway. "She was using those things you sent her, you know" my dad would tell me. I felt foolish anyway. It was a confusing process. I didn't want to put any efforts into forgetting her, but I wanted to put away things that looked like she was still alive--I wanted her memories to remain for my father, but not her ghost. I somehow found that line in my own way and chipped away every day but I would not last more than 30 minutes at a time before I felt exhausted.

By far the most challenging was my mother's vanity. A very personal space where she sat everyday for just few minutes when she was well to fix her hair and apply make up. She had everything organized just so in small boxes. I sat for a minute taking the whole thing in. There were many items that looked familiar from my childhood, like her gold compact that has a place for a lipstick at the hinges on the outside. I remember helping her hunt down the correct size lipstick to fit it once for hours. When she took me to Europe, we went through Moscow and the immigration officer was very suspicious of this item and had her open it and close it and take out the lipstick many times. I was 10. So much memory packed in this one small item. This was difficult. I almost felt nauseous. But it had to be done. I started bagging up things that can't really be used by anyone, then sorted things that could be used, things that would be a memento (like the compact), and things that were brand new. I went fast and furious because I knew that if I paused at any moment, I would have a breakdown. I got everything on the surface off, then I closed the tri-fold mirror, which had never been closed since this piece of furniture was purchased. I knew there were more things in the cabinets below but they were out of sight. I needed to save those for later. I then went into the bathroom and did the same thing and cleared the counter and shower of all things that belonged to my mother; shampoo, lotion, shower cap, facial soap, and a small glass bottle full of Q-tips. It was sad to see empty towel racks, but it would have been more odd to have towels there so I left it.

As we were going through our week, my father expressed his concern for being alone downstairs in the evenings. Not so much for company but more for something happening in the middle of the night. My brother and I went to a Home Depot type of store and purchased a buzzer that he can ring in case of an emergency that will be heard upstairs. We placed the button next to his bed. Then we had a thought that perhaps my middle niece should move downstairs to sleep. She was the one who helped my mother when she was home from the hospital, carrying down dinner from upstairs, set it up, eat with my parents, clean up and take everything back up. She is 16 and yet is having to share a room on a bunk bed with her 10 year old sister so we thought she would enjoy a room of her own. My mother's office had a sofa bed--and is located right next to the master bedroom so the decision was made to move her down. As I touched on in my previous post, my mother worked. In fact, her last cell phone entry was work related on the day she died. She has piles of paper and books everywhere. I purchased some filing boxes and boxed up some books to clear some space for my niece. During that process I found a note book that she kept from when I was in preschool and she took a parenting class with very through and detailed notes. I put that aside for me to keep and read. I packed about 7 boxes and the space looked more accommodating. My father and I moved some furniture around--some into his bedroom. We stood in the doorway looking at the rest of the stuff and he said, "It's a lot of work, isn't it--when people die." I took a pause then said," Yes it is. Please start throwing things out now." He chuckled. I glared.

When I couldn't deal with her belongings, I kept myself busy with another task, which was to take care of the nearly 40 flower arrangements that were sent to the house. They were placed strategically throughout the house and some of them were starting to wilt and die. Everyday, I would go around the house plucking out the dead ones and watering the rest. Every 2 or 3 days, I would consolidate. This was as skill I learned from my mother who loved flowers. If someone gave her flowers, she would change and add water everyday and trim the stems and rearrange if some died until the very last flower was just floating in a glass of water. When she was ill, this was a task she asked me to do everyday with flowers she received at the hospital. I felt as if she would find a way to nag me if I didn't to that--also, it's sad to be surrounded with dying flowers. That is all you need. What was comical was the amount of Oasis (the hard, green foam) and little baskets that were beginning to pile up outside the kitchen door. As Japan has very strict garbage codes, we had to look up how to throw them away. I probably could have built a castle with them for my daughter. People also give you gift certificates to florists in place of flowers so that when all of them die, you can use those to purchase flowers to place in her shrine at home. My father has a big stack to which he could probably have some sort of floral arrangement for the rest of his life.

The day before I was to return to the States, we were having a private mass given by a priest who has known our family closely since I was a child. We decided not to wear all black for that but my two older nieces felt they did not have adequate clothing for the occasion. I told them to come right down stairs to go through my mother clothes to see if they could find something. You might wonder what an 84 year old woman had in her closet that a 19 and 16 year old would find interesting to wear. Well, let me tell you that she was stylish. She had impeccable taste in clothes that could be worn by any generation. She often sent me clothing and was spot on with what looked good on me and what I liked. She gave me some beautiful clothes of hers from the '40s and '50s that she used to wear throughout my adulthood and those are the clothes I get the most compliments on. She designed and made several formal clothes I wore to my piano recitals and weddings as a flower girl. So she had things that could be of use to these two girls. We spent about two hours, digging through her things and trying them on. We had some laughs and I told them to come down anytime and take what they want. They said "OK-we'll borrow these." I said "Take to keep. Not to borrow. Your grandma would want you to have them."

Even if it's your mom, it's still strange to go through her things and just take. I felt like I was stealing. There was this set of designer clothes that someone sent to her that she felt she may not have the occasion to wear anymore. When I was visiting in September she said, "Look through those and take anything you want." So I started looking and setting some aside. She saw what I was taking and said "Oh, wait, maybe not that one." Then after about 10 minutes of watching me, she said, "I take that back. Let me go through it and get back to you." I made fun of her lightly and backed off. Now I have those clothes. She wanted to wear them. She thought maybe she'll get to. I had mixed feelings about taking them, but I thought better to wear them on her behalf than let them hang in the closet.

The very last thing I took was my mother's apron which was hanging in the kitchen. I walked by it every day and my heart would hurt. Even though my mother was unable to cook much of this year, she wore her apron when she ate. Japanese moms wear aprons. It is their uniform at home. And it hang there being of no use to anyone anymore. So I just grabbed it and put it in my suitcase as if to say, "You're coming with me."

I got on the flight back to the States with my daughter, two and a half weeks after arriving. The priest who gave us the private mass asked me "Do you say, 'I'm going to Seattle' or 'I'm going back to Seattle?'" I thought for a moment and I said, "I think I say 'I'm going back' both ways."

After all that ordeal, my daughter came down with the stomach flu on the flight, but somehow I handled it all without too much panic. It felt challenging but totally manageable. I suppose I was entering the phase where everything seems different than it usually does. I returned to work three days later to an office full of cards and flowers. I was met with many long hugs without any words or "Welcome back," "We've missed you so much," and "I'm so sorry about your mother." Some people just dropped off food. One donated money in my mother's name to the theatre where I work. I was grateful and so touched that people took that time to do those things. I was reminded that I also had a family in my friends here.

After being back for almost a month, I've finally stopped crying everyday but am struck about every other hour by the fact that I don't have a mother anymore. It's easy to almost forget because my daily routine had not involved my mother in so long. I am not certain if the distance is helping or hurting the grieving process but it's the way I'm going to have to work through. I call my father frequently. And I wear something of my mother's everyday to have her with me. I plan to go back in the spring and next fall--at her one year anniversary--and throw a small party to invite my female relatives and friends to divide the rest of her belongings. And we will have a good time.

My mother on her wedding day, 1959
wearing a dress designed by her mother

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hatched, Matched, and Dispatched

I had a crash course in Japanese funereal traditions (Japanese Catholic, that is) through my mother’s funeral. My father and brother hired a well-known funeral home that had worked with the church where we wished to have my mother’s service. Catholic or not, in Japan, people have two services: a wake and a funeral. The wake is a shorter service in the evening so that people who work during the day can come and pay their respects. The funeral is during the day, typically the day after the wake, and is more of a formal service. But because most people have work, the wake tends to get bigger attendance. Then there is the cremation. Everyone is cremated in Japan. But there is a service that occurs at the cremation place that involves families and close friends also—like a burial. It is part of the ritual. Deceased are then place in a grave after 49 days, if you are Buddhist, or whenever you feel ready, if you are Catholic. After that, most people create a small shrine in their home to pray for the deceased and make food and flower offerings to remember them.

In between receiving flowers and visitors, we were having meetings and making list of things that had to be done. Through a fog of double jet-lag, I found a drawer full of old photos of my mother and pulled some, which my brother scanned and made into a photo book for people to see. My sister-in-law went through five (yes, five) of my mother’s address books and notified the people in them, which took about three full days. She also walked to neighbors’ homes to let them know that they might see some activities. My brother ran numbers and went over the schedule with the funeral director and figured out who needed food and car service when and to where. And my father, who was still in shock, was making final calls on these decisions with us and answering the phone which seemed to ring off the hook. I’m certain it’s the kind of chaos people experience around the world in preparing for a funeral where you are going from feeling in control while making decisions to getting the wind knocked out of you in between when you are reminded why you are making those decisions. In our case, it seemed extra strange that my mother, who was always in charge of big events, was not there. Stupid to say, but it’s true. I felt suddenly in charge of all decisions that required the female touch like the colors of the flowers at the church.

My first unexpected emotional moment came when I’ve requested to have “Ave Maria” played during the service since my mother loved it. We were told that we could either speak to the organist or play a CD and just in the midst of trying to decide, a phone call came in from a woman who is a professional cellist whom my mother supported. She called to offer to play, along with her husband who is a violinist from Finland. They just happened to be in the country when this news came and they wanted to do something. When my brother told me, I welled up. I’m not sure why that particular thing hit me but I felt like my mother sent them to me as if to help put some professional touches on her funeral. The time frame of planning a funeral can be tight at times, but in our case, there was almost a week from the day that she died until the wake which was helpful in digesting things and thinking of these kinds of small touches.

My mother dedicated her life to helping people. She belonged to number of organizations such as College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ) and Japan America Women’s Club (JAWC) who supported artists and contributed to other international relations. And because of that, she has worked with the Royal Family quite frequently in coordinating their appearances for benefits and other events. She had a close relationship with the Empress, the Crown Princess, and Princess Akishino (the bride of the second born son of the Emperor) for years. Two days after her death, flowers were sent from the Empress and Princess Akishino to our home from the palace as well as a message from the Crown Princess which was sent over the phone through the head of the house. The day that most of us were running errands and my father and my niece were home to receive visitors, a phone call came in. It was the palace. The lady said, “Princess Akishino will be stopping by to pay respects. She should be there in about 10 minutes.” In exactly 10 minutes from the time my father hang up the phone, the door bell rang and when he opened the door, Princess Akishino was standing there alone. To be discreet, she had come with just her driver in a regular car and had the him wait across the street. She spent about 15 minutes by my mother’s casket, spoke to my father and my niece and ran across the street to hop back in the car. My father and my niece stood there for a minute trying to figure out what just happened. This is also the same princess who paid a visit to my mother in the hospital in disguise and sent sandwiches and soup to our house after my mother’s passing. We always knew my mother was a big shot, but it was starting to seep in just how big. Did I mention we received about 40 flower arrangements from the likes of her childhood friends, colleagues, a well-known traditional Japanese musician, a top ballet dancer, Mr. and Mrs. Toyota (as in “who could ask for anything more?”), and the Ambassador of Peru? Emails and telegrams were pouring in from around the globe and we couldn’t help but start laughing every time the door bell rang. It was surreal.

On the day of the wake, a team of people flooded our house. The makeup artist from before came to put final touches on my mother with my approval, they cleared the room of flowers to make way for the casket to get loaded onto a vehicle, then rearranged the room with a space for an altar. We were all dressed in our funereal attire (which for men is black suits with black ties, and for women is black dress/suit, often with a string of pearls ) to send her out of her beloved home for the last time. We stood out front and watched the casket get carried and loaded by formally dressed men and got into various cars to church. My father sat in the passenger seat of the hearse, me in the second row next to the casket and my uncle, my mother’s only living sibling, sat behind me with a large framed photo of her (which is also something we do culturally). My brother drove his own car with his kids and my aunt, and my sister in law followed with my father’s car with my husband and my daughter.

The ride to the church was quiet. I was thinking about this being our last ride through Tokyo together and while that was unbelievably sad, I also felt ready to send her off. I wore my mother’s pearls and felt honored to be in the company of two men who adored her. Once at church, we were first invited into a tiny chapel where a Jesuit Brother who we’ve known for ages gave us all a blessing and a prayer. Then we went up to a waiting room to start receiving visitors. As we entered the room, a group of people rose and bowed deeply to my brother who was leading the way. They were all people who work for him at IBM who his assistant arranged to come and help at the reception desk out front. It is customary for people to write their names, addresses, and the relationship to the deceased as they arrive so that the families can track who came. It also typical for people to bring monetary gifts, but in our case, my father announced ahead of time that we are not accepting any money. For all this, you need several people running the table. After speaking briefly with my brother, they scattered to take their posts. My brother looked like a mob boss. Fitting for the son of a big shot, I suppose.

As people filed in, the funeral home staff (with their ear pieces like secret service) came in and told my father, brother, and I to get up stairs to a private room to receive yet another flower arrangement from the Palace. Royalty don’t just wire a florist to do these things, they send an official messenger to deliver it personally and you have to be there to receive it. We waited and there was a knock on the door. The staff opened it and announced the first messenger. A young man, dressed in a morning coat and pin striped pants, appeared with a beautiful Japanese chrysanthemum arrangement in hand and said something like, “Her Highness, the Empress graciously offers you this arrangement for Shigeko Katano. She sends her deepest sympathies.” We bowed deeply and my father said, “We humbly accept the gift.” And took it. The messenger then opened up a beautiful fabric pouch and pulled out a long marker with her title written on it with calligraphy to be displayed with the flowers and handed it to us. After he disappeared, another messenger—who was in a regular suit, because his rank is lower—delivered another arrangement, but from Princess Akishino. A similar message was delivered and we accepted. These flowers were placed to frame my mother’s casket in the church. The funeral director said he has rarely seen anyone who received flowers from the palace twice. “Medals of honor for her hard work,” my brother said.

The view of the altar. You can see the mums from the palace on clear pedestals. The one of the right is the Empress' flowers.

We went into the cathedral to take our places in the front pew then the service began. A Japanese Catholic wake is not a full mass but has similar components. There are scripture readings and a sermon and prayers by a priest. The priest (who is Argentinean) was someone who visited my mother two weeks before at her request because she felt depressed. They had a good talk , as she said to me, and he promised he would come back to see her again. And because of this, his sermon was very personal. My oldest and youngest nieces served the mass (as they often do) which was a suggestion by the priest. My middle niece, who was the closest to my mother and helped to take care of her opted out because she did not think she could contain herself—and she was right. During the opening hymn, incense was lit and holy water was pelted in that stirring, Catholic pomp and circumstance and I, a non practicing Catholic, got suddenly overwhelmed and felt a physical feeling I’ve never felt before. Her casket was surrounded by white and lavender flowers framed by two of her angels in the church where she was married and it was stunning. She would have approved.

My brother doing a reading with his daughters on his sides

At the end of the ceremony, each person brings up a flower prepared by the church to the table placed in front of the casket and takes a moment. They then come around to the back of the church and pay respects to the family in a receiving line. The immediate family is to stand there and bow deeply to each and every person who passes by to thank them for coming. There were 465 people attending that night. That is how many times we bowed. There were many familiar faces I’ve not seen in a long time, including some of my classmates from grade school, their mothers, my kindergarten teachers, and cousins. Many were people I did not know personally but they were kind enough to say “I’ve heard so much about you from your mother” or “She was so proud of you.” Many also asked with great concern to please take good care of my father. It was a long night of emotions I’ve not felt but I put on a professional face to try to represent my mother well.

Us three

The funeral ceremony the next day was similar except that it was a full mass this time with four priests. There was a eulogy delivered by an American woman who is the president of JAWC with a translator—I found it fitting that my mother got a bilingual eulogy. In Japan, eulogies are delivered by a close relative or friend, and never by a family member. This stems from an old cultural modesty that one does not speak of their family fondly to outside people. Also, typically, eulogies are delivered as a letter to the deceased as opposed to it being a speech about them to the congregation. I found it impressive that the funeral director was well aware of this cultural difference and when he heard that it was going to be delivered by an American, he quickly made a decision to place her at a lectern as opposed to a spot facing the casket.

After another long receiving line (of about 300 people this time), we were gathered around the casket with just relatives and close friends and were told to place flowers in it and things we wanted to give to her. We had selected a couple of books my father knew she loved, photos of people she adored, some sheet music of songs she taught to her English students I found in her teaching material, a drawing from my daughter she liked, and a small stuffed rabbit (as she was born – and died – in the year of rabbit and owned a huge collection of rabbit things). We placed those items in and the people placed flower after flower in the casket until you could only see her face. They then closed the lid, and asked some male members of the family to help roll out the casket in a procession. My father led the way with the framed photo in his arms, then the casket accompanied by my brother, my uncle, my male cousins and other close friends. I walked behind the casket and everyone else followed. As the front doors to the church opened, the light poured in and I could see my father in a silhouette and when I got outside, I was astonished to see most of the 300 people lined up across the way to send my mother off. She was loaded into a hearse with my father in the passenger seat, then the rest of us got in hired cars (all in accordance to the Excel spread sheet made by my brother) to go to the cremation house.

My father leading the way

This was the part I was dreading to be honest. I have never been to a cremation ceremony and I was asking my brother what to expect so I could prepare myself. We arrived at this beautiful building with all marble interior and were escorted into a large room. Four men in uniform and hats greeted us and asked us to gather around the casket. They removed the lid for the last time and the priest who accompanied us from the church gave his final blessing. Then the funeral director asked us to take a moment to say good bye. People looked in and said few things to my mother—I heard my uncle say to her, “Thank you for the great memories. I’ll see you again.” I blew her a kiss and thanked her, and my daughter waved good bye. The uniformed men slowly closed the lid and we lined up behind the casket in front of what looked like the door of an old freight elevator which was the crematory oven. You could hear the low hum of the fire and all four men turned towards us, took their hats off and opened the door. One of them turned to us and said “This is your final farewell” and they slid her casket in, bowed, and closed the door. The man reached over an pushed a button and that was that. We stood, took a moment of silence, and were led to a waiting room.

It’s an odd thing to be sitting in a room with drinks and light snacks while waiting for your mother to be cremated. But we all chatted fondly about her and let out some smiles and laughs. About an hour later, the funeral director came to get us and we headed down to the same room. The door of the oven opened up and they pulled out the tray. As my brother described to me, there were ashes and just a small pile of bones that looked like sea shells left. In Japan, we cremate just so that there are some remains. The men ceremoniously gathered around the tray and placed the bones in a large steel box and moved it over to a table. We were then asked to come up, two at a time and using long chopsticks, pick up one bone and place it in an urn. This is why it is considered bad form to pass a piece of food from one chopstick to another at a table. My immediate family (including my 10 year old niece), my uncles, aunts, cousins and some of my mother’s closest friends all picked up pieces of her and placed her gently to rest. My delicate American husband and my daughter stayed in the waiting room during this part of the ceremony. The man then went through what he had set aside. First, he picked up a small bone that was her Adam’s apple—it’s called Nodo Botoke (throat Buddha) in Japanese because for men, it actually look like a Buddha with his hands in prayer position. Then he picked up what was left of her lower jaw, then her left ear, right ear, then finally part of her skull. He gently placed all of these pieces on top as if to recreate her face a bit and asked for her glasses that we held onto. As he opened them up and placed them in there, a lens popped out. We all paused for a second, looked at each other, and told him to just put them in there as is. “That was totally Mom, winking at us,” my brother said later. It sounds grotesque but it was oddly peaceful and interesting. This ritual really let you know that this person is gone and is now down to these few pieces of bones. And doing this as a family gives you a kind of a bond you can’t get through anything else. The lid to the urn was closed respectfully, then it was placed in a black box with a white cross on it for my father to carry. And it was over.

We then went to a restaurant where we had reserved a private room (you don’t want to just walk into a place wearing all black and carrying someone’s remains). The restaurant prepared “kage-zen” which is a meal to offer to the dead (which we are also allowed to eat at the end) and we placed it in front of my mother’s photo. It was a nice meal. My father seemed relieved that all that was behind him. It was good to see him giggling with his kid brother and sister. I felt exhausted, drained, and relieved also.

Ma and her food, of which my middle niece ate every bite so as not to make her cringe from being wasteful.

I learned a great deal that funereal ritual, no matter what the culture, is constructed with people’s care and thoughts and experience. It is the hardest ritual to go through, and yet within it, there are things to help you give closure, comfort, and family bond. I have this experience under my belt now. And what’s most important, we all learned that my mother was a giant who touched so many people so profoundly—that was a gift.

When I was getting married, my mother said to me and my husband that there are three major events in one’s life: when you are hatched, matched, and dispatched. She told us that since the first and the last were out of our hands, we must choose very carefully as to who we married. One of her many proverbs. My husband blurted this phrase out, after she was dispatched, and we both giggled for a second.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

And Just Like That...

5 days after I left my mother, she passed away at age 84.

I received a phone call from my brother on Saturday night, the day after I came back to the States, saying my mother was back in the hospital. She had severe pain in her stomach and woke up my father. He called the home-visit nurse and the doctor and they accompanied her to the hospital. The pain was so terrible my mother, who never complains and can endure a lot, was near tears. They administered a strong dose of pain killer to make her comfortable, which eventually helped her to sleep. I called and talked to my dad who said she was actually doing pretty well yesterday--ate all three meals and even took a short walk outside with him. He sounded exhausted and concerned in a way that he was not previously.

The next 4 days were hell. I talked to my dad and my brother everyday to hear updates, but it did not seem like things were moving in a direction we wanted. In one phone conversation my father said, "I don't know she will be able to come home." I had no words. My brother was still optimistic and we agreed that he should see the doctor with my dad and ask some questions including about going to a larger research hospital. I couldn't shake the bad feeling and every time I got in my car, I broke down crying. I wanted to be there. But at that moment, it seemed better to sit and see if things would improve especially because I had just returned from being away from my daughter for 10 days.

Her condition was not improving but my mother's pain got under control enough for her to talk and visit with my dad and my brother. On Tuesday, my dad spent all afternoon with her, chatting and visiting, and my brother was able to stop by for about 15 minutes before visiting hours were over. On Wednesday morning, the doctor called my dad and asked if they could meet and my dad called my brother to see if he could join them. I got my first phone call of that day that my brother was headed there and when he found out what was going on, he was going to call me back. I spent the next two hours in complete stress. They went in and had a talk with the doctor who explained that they had exhausted their resources and her condition was deteriorating. She was facing brand new issues this time around and the blockage in her intestines, which they were able to remove in her previous visits, was not moving at all. They suspected it was starting to fall apart inside her and putting a lot of pressure on other organs. My dad requested that they do everything they can to make her comfortable and asked how long she had. The doctor said hard to say but the way things are going, she could last for a few days. maybe a week, but she could go as early as that night.

After that meeting, they pondered going into my mom's room--and this is the decision they are still regretting--but they decided if the two of them went together in the middle of the day on a week day, my mom would suspect the worst so they went to grab a quick lunch at nearby place and my dad was going back to see Mom, and my brother was going to go back to his office and stop by later--their normal visiting times. But as they were eating, the phone rang. The nurse said my mother's heart was weakening and they should rush over.

They went in and were stunned to see that my mom was no longer conscious, though her eyes were slightly open. My brother said it was as if all other parts of her body had failed except for her heart, which was working so hard to keep pumping. The second phone call came in from my brother then. He told me to make arrangements to come if possible. Neither one of us thought I'd make it but it was important to make the effort just in case. My brother told two of my nieces (19 and 15) who were home to come right over (the hospital is only about 20 minutes away). He could not get a hold of his wife who was at work and my youngest niece was at school, but the 4 of them gathered. My dad and my brother each took my mother's hands and within an hour, she drew her last breath. And that was my third phone call.

I hang up the phone and cried so hard that my daughter was startled. I don't remember how I packed, but I did with assistance from my husband and I got on the computer to take care of some work related emails--mostly to give myself something to do. I climbed into bed at 3:00 am, but did not sleep a wink. We went to the airport one more time, and though my husband and daughter were following me the next day, it was difficult to part from them. I had no control over my tears while waiting to get on the flight and my entire body hurt from crying all night.

I had minor anxiety attacks during the ten hour flight, which I never had before. I couldn't concentrate and it the flight took forever. I got to Tokyo and my brother greeted me at the airport. We had a long good talk on the way in. Though the day I arrived was warm and sunny, my brother said it was cold and pouring rain the day before. He said it was "Namida Ame," rain of tears.

In Japan, when people die, they come home first, if you have the space to accommodate. My nieces ran home to grab some clothes for my mother and the hospital nurse dressed her and put a little make up on her. As she was being wheeled out, the entire third floor nursing staff (about twenty five of them) who had taken care of my mother all year came out to bid her farewell. My mother got to know them well and knew every single one of their names. The home visit nurses came to help her body into the vehicle and she was brought home that afternoon. She was laid in the guest room.

Because we don't embalm, the body is laid on a futon with dry ice around the it under the blanket and you crank the air conditioning in the room. Once the body is in a casket, they hide some more dry ice. There is a window that you can open to view her face, but it has a clear cover to keep the cold in to preserve the body. It may sound creepy, but it's actually very tastefully done.

When I got there, she had been there only for about 24 hours. My brother took me to her and said, "Look Mom, Mimi came back for you." I held my breath and saw her face. She looked peaceful. Like she was sleeping, with absolutely no pain. And she looked young. And though she was so cold, I gave her a kiss on her forehead.

The next several days were busy. The funeral director and two of his staff came to meet with us to talk logistics and while we did that, a young lady took care of cleaning my mother's body one last time and dressed her in more formal and appropriate clothes, which my brother requested I choose. My mother worked in a wide variety of very high-profile international women's volunteer organizations that raised funds for various causes. She always wore suits in her official duties so her closet was full of them. I went through each and every one and pulled out one that was my favorite, the one we bought together a long time ago at Lord & Taylor in Boston. She always looked good in it. I felt she should look her best for her departure.

The young woman came in to ask how she should tie the scarf so I went in and helped. Then she asked if there was a lipstick she should use so I went and grabbed one from my mother's makeup. I grabbed a blush as well. I sat next to her as she applied my mother's make up and she asked at every step if Mom looked right. She was very gentle and kind in her demeanor and I felt like this was my last daughterly duty I could do for my mom. The woman said, "She had such beautiful skin."

When it was done, she looked good. They then lifted her up with a white cloth and placed her in the casket and made an altar with a large photo (which my brother and father chose the night she died), a cross, and candles. Then the flower arranger came and arranged about 25 of the flower arrangements (including ones from royalty--but more on that another time) that had already arrived around the casket. The room looked beautiful.

Then the visitors started pouring in. Before the wake and the funeral (especially because we decided not to rush the process), people who wish to spend a private moment with my mother paid visits to come view her. We serve tea to each party and sit and chat for a bit. Some really good childhood friends of mine came, some of her students (she also taught English privately for about 60 years), family and old friends. While conversation often repeated, it was comforting to be with people who loved my mother and to have them cry with us.

My brother and I decided to put a CD player in the room to pipe in some music, as she was a great lover of classical and liturgical music. There was a funny side conversation about whether we should keep the music playing through the night but we decided to let her sleep (?!). We also changed up the music every now and then. Every time my brother walked by, he would peek in to say "hi" to my mom which I thought was sweet. I said my good morning and good nights.

This is a time in which it helps you to grasp the concept that she is gone. It still makes it horribly difficult because we are still surrounded by her things to which she intended to come back, but there is also that physical evidence that she is gone, right there in that room. I am appreciating my culture right now.

Her wake is this evening and her funeral tomorrow. She was a devout Catholic so the ceremonies will be more western than traditional Japanese, but there seem to be some Japaneseness peppered throughout. The attire pretty much is black suit or dress, in a modest conservative style with single strand of pearls (apparently if you double it, you double your misfortune). I will be wearing my mother's pearls. While I miss her in this house, I am also anxious to send her off now.

The soup I made was left in the freezer, by the way. One of many things she didn't get to. But rather than collapsing and sobbing in front of the freezer like I felt like doing, we defrosted the soup and ate it as a family. It was good.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


It has been about 10 years since I've come to Japan alone. I was just here with my husband and child this past spring, but this time, I came to check on my 84 year old mother who has been in and out of hospital all year with bowl obstruction and infections. While we were here last, she had a colostomy done which was supposed to improve her condition, but in August, she went back into the hospital with yet another infection. She was released on her birthday in early September, but all of us felt that it would perhaps lift her spirits for me to go there. I have a window of about 10 days to get away from work so I took the opportunity.

As soon as I decided, I was plagued by stress. It was a lot to endure for both my 4yr old daughter and my husband, and for me to see my mother in her weakened condition. As I have chosen to live this far away from them, I have been dreading this sort of trip and it was in front of me. I have no idea what I'm doing. But it was clear that this was the right thing to do.

The trip here was long. There was a delay in departure, then a long wait after landing before getting to the gate, my luggage came out second to last, then the unusually bad traffic into Tokyo doubled the travel time from 90 minutes to 3 hours. But all the while, in the delirium of jet lag, I was thinking about ways in which my parents traveled to see me. After my first year in the States, I spent a summer at a ranch in Sacramento, working for a summer camp to keep up the English. The ranch was in a small, real cowboy town where people have never really seen anyone from Japan. This summer camp was introduced to me through a friend of my mother's and I worked there for 10 weeks. My mother, then in her mid 50s, flew out from Tokyo by herself and rented a car and drove several hours to come see me. She was pretty concerned about doing this (this was before the time of cell phone or GPS), but she did because she hasn't seen me in a year. My father drove me to Narita air port so that I can have an interview with the representative of the boarding school I attended. The school administrator was coming through Tokyo on his way to Hong Kong to interview some more students and had several hours of lay over. And so in an air port restaurant, I had my entrance interview. My dad introduced me to him and then stepped out and just walked around the air port for about 30 min. I'm not sure how or why I passed, but I guess the gentleman though there was enough potential for me to become fluent so I passed. My father also flew out to California and took me to the East Coast to look at colleges during my senior year. And until I was out of college, my parents always flew separately so that should a plane go down, my brother and I wouldn't become orphans. It was totally my time to travel for them.

I got here and went straight to my mother's bedroom. She lost weight even from the time I was here 4 months ago. She looked weak and small, but stretched her arms to greet me. I gave her a hug and sat with her. The next day, as I was thinking about what to fix for lunch, I thought of the soup my mother used to fix when my brother and I got sick. It is a vegetable soup in which you put, potatoes, celery, carrots, onion, and cabbage and simmer it until everything melts in your mouth. When I was less than a year old, I got a stomach flu and got so dehydrated that I was admitted to the hospital. The doctors treated me with some iv fluids but I was getting any better so after a few days, my mom just took me home and fixed this very soup. Apparently, that's all I needed and I recovered. Every time one of us was sick with a stomach flu, mom would make this soup and nurse us back to health and to me, this is the ultimate comfort food. So I asked my mom if that would provoke her appetite. She said yes. I got to work and within an hour, I had the soup for her. She took a bite and said, "this was the taste I was longing to have" and proceeded to eat the entire bowl of it. It was good to know that I could actually help. That I would make her feel better both physically and in spirits. I made it in a large pot twice because it has become a thing I could do well for her right now.

In between doing things for my mom, I have ducked out to see some friends. Taking the subway alone and seeing good, close friends without kids feels a bit like time travel. It's an odd and confusing place to be--to be alone and be here and watching my mother, who has been so strong and active, age rapidly and become small and frail. It's time traveling in both directions.

More than ever, I suspect will feel the pull in both directions for a while. And tomorrow, on my last day, I will cook the soup with my niece so that she can learn it and make it for my mother after I go. Perhaps through that, my mother can feel my presence until I come back again.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


In Japan, on August 6th at 8:15am, we have a moment of silence every year. In the city of Hiroshima, they sound a siren that blazes through the city and people stop to remember the atomic bombing of 1945. It is ingrained in my body to stop and take a moment to reflect on that day. Interestingly, I also do that on December 7th-Pearl Harbor Day. Perhaps that is because I am a Japanese who live in the States and also maybe because in my work as a Japanese actor, I've done many Internment related shows in which I researched and learned a lot about what the Japanese in America went through. I have realized though that this country does not take particular moment on that day.

As I experienced America live through the devastation of September 11th, it occurred to me that this was the first time in their history that civilians were killed on American soil. And though that launched this country in a war, it did not host battles. War came to Japan. Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed and hundred and thousand of civilians died. Our experiences on war were completely different from each other which made the impact of 9.11 even worse because there was no frame of reference. No one had any idea how to process a tragedy of this magnitude. And for that, I felt even more heart broken. America was now forced to join many others who have to commence in an important, yet sad ritual of remember things for years to come.

5 months after 9.11, our theatre did a production of "A Story of Sadako," the only full length play I ever wrote. Its a story of Sadako Sasaki who died of Leukemia as a result of Hiroshima bombing but about 10 years after the fact. This was scheduled to be produced for about a year, but the timing turned out to be interesting. The kids who were in it had an immediate connection to the story because of 9.11. We had countless discussions which helped all of us to process the events past and present, more so than if it had been any other times. One Nation's tragic history connected to another and what we walked away with was "we should never forget."

I was raised by two war survivors with the notion that it is our responsibilities to pass on their stories of survival. And in that same vein, I hope that people of NY who were there that day, and people elsewhere who lost their families and friends will continue to tell their stories and help us remember.

It's the only way to stop it from happening again.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Do You Know What It Is? Then Stop It

My husband has a co worker by the nickname of "Gin Fairy." No, he does not work at a bar. Anyway, Gin Fairy was wearing her hair up with chopsticks in her hair, of course, and he told her of this blog. She was apparently excited and let him take a photo of her for me to post here:

OK, so she is totally rocking the look, but still. When my husband told her the premise of the blog, another co worker of his chimed in and said, "but Ariel uses a fork to comb her hair."
Now, I have heard this from people regarding this blog before and here is what I want to say:


Also, are you saying we should forgive certain behavior because Disney characters do them? Should we push our brothers off a cliff during a stampede? Should you share a single strand of spaghetti with a dog you don't know very well? Should we inject poison into apples and feed it to everyone who is prettier than us? Oh, nevermind.

Either way, this blog is now making all my friends be on the lookout for chopsticks in hair. Spreading awareness is an important part of any quest. Even if that awareness was just "Oh, Mimi would be PISSED if she saw that."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hope for the Future?

A few months ago, a parental magazine to which I subscribe had an article about ideas on kid's birthday party and there was one entitled "Japanese Tea Party." I cringed and went on to look. Much to my delight, there were some cute ideas in there, but here was the picture:

Photo credit: Fraincis Janisch from

Two things: 1. chopsticks in hair 2. the fold on the robe is that of a dead person*. In the following month's issue, there was a letter from the reader that said, "thank you so much for the great idea!" with a photo of white children dressed in the exact same manner. So here are my mixed feelings-- should I feel good that people are trying to teach their children to be multicultural or should I feel annoyed that they are just spreading stereo type?

But then on a hopeful note, one of my drama educators at thetheatre where I work was looking something up on her laptop for her students during break. She was just reading this very blog recently so when she opened up her laptop, her students could see the title pretty prominently on her screen. One of her students, a white boy about the age of 9 saw this and said "EVERYONE knows not to do that with chopsticks."

I would like to high five him and his parents.

Win some, lose some I guess.

*In Japan、in accordance to the Buddhist tradition, we dress the dead in white kimono and the fold is right over left. Apparently, it stems from the belief that things are opposite in afterlife. Consequently, if you dress an alive person in that manner, it's believed to bring bad luck to not only the person who is wearing it, but those who are around them.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cool Biz

Since the earthquake in Japan, it's been the topic of much discussion all over Japan as to how to survive the deadly heat in the summer while conserving energy.

Let me paint you a picture. Summer in Tokyo is similar to summer on the American east coast or the Midwest. Temperatures can reach above 100 degrees and the humidity above 90%. According to my parents, Tokyo is not a place for humans in the summer. (I stopped visiting home in the summer because having lived in the Northwest for more than 10 years, I am now horribly out of shape for that sort of heat.) What makes it even worse is buildings are air conditioned to DEATH, which makes the outside air even hotter and because there are now so many high rises on the Tokyo Bay, the sea breeze is blocked, which is also making things worse. It's pretty much hellish there. When you get up north, it's not as bad, but as you go west, it's even worse. So this is a problem.

Even before the earthquake, people in Japan had been talking about ways to stay cool in summer. One of the things that was introduced to business men a few years back was a dress code called, "Cool Biz." Japanese business men still wear suits to work. So the idea here was to encourage businesses to allow their male workers to lighten their layers. An example is like this:

It's basically dress pants, dress shirt, no tie. Also some men wear a jacket with it. The fact that this has to become a category of business wear and a permissible dress code in corporations cracks me up. Did I mention I live in the Northwest where Microsoft/Amazon/Starbucks headquarters are and if men even tuck their shirts in people suspect they have a job interview?

So now this has been promoted as the way to be this summer. Politicians and TV news anchors are wearing Cool Biz to lead the way and so is my brother, god bless him.

Another one that I saw a lot in department stores on my visit home was this traditional men's underpants called "Suteteko" which is a pair of long, cotton boxers. Apparently wearing those under you pants, as opposed to restricting tighty-whities leaves you much cooler and pleasant. And they are now suggesting women also wear them at home.

Other, less humorous items include bamboo shades, climbing plants, Yukata (our traditional summer cotton kimono)--all things that people used to use to keep cool before technology kicked in. There is something to be said for old ways of doing things because people were smart. And perhaps it's not so terrible for us to figure out that stuff anyway. But I can probably say that because I am not on the un-air-conditioned subway everyday. I wish I could send them 65 degree weather from where I am. Good luck Japan.


And an update on the benefit from May. We raised about $3,000. Not $10,000 I wanted, but better than nothing. I think people who came had a good time and perhaps I will make it a personal goal to keep doing things until we reach $10,000. If you are interested in photos, please look on Facebook under "The Sun Always Rises." Thank you so much for those who came and/or donated!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Where My Money Goes

I eat my money in Japan. I think it's the best way to spend your money, quite frankly. Sure, there is a lot of useless fun crap you can buy and believe you me, I buy those too, but I spend most of my money on food. Here is a food journal of our trip. Please note, some meals were consumed before being photographed due to extreme hunger.

Day One: We were greeted by this greatness on our first night. A HUGE sushi plate (two of these plus more) by a delivery-only sushi joint near my parents house.

Jet lag be damned. We ate until we hurt.

Day Three: Shakey's. That's right. Japan has a chain of Shakey's and it's one of the cheapest lunches you can get. All you can eat Pizza buffet, which inexplicably includes curry and rice, is less than $10/person.

Pile of pizza and pasta. Not photographed:dessert pizza
Day Five: Birthday cake/mousse for my brother who turned 50. Japanese people a coo-coo for melon flavored things--case in point, McDonald's in Japan has melon milk shakes. This was a melon mousse. Very light and yummy.

Yes, those ARE giant grapes on top

Day Nine: Japanese diner food. We went to Lake Nojiri in Nagano prefecture where my folks have a cabin. This is one of their most favorite restaurants that serves great home meals in large quantities.

Pork Ginger Lunch Set

My husband's favorite meal on the trip: Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) sandwich

Day Ten: Still in Nagano, in a town called Togakushi, known for a Ninja training ground (for serious) and soba. It is our family ritual to stop at this noodle shop to eat what they make by hand, fresh. It is also our tradition to go to Ninja House where you enter each room that has no doors and try to figure out ways to get in to the next one, much like finding secret passages.

Notice both soba and tempura plates have empty spots.
We came to our senses after having initial rabid bites

Day Eleven: Lake side Italian. Nagano is a farm country therefore their produce is to die for. Tomatoes are particularly amazing. This lake side area also has an international village where, during summer, many foreigners from various countries occupy cabins. I used to love driving through there because no one speaks Japanese and it made me feel like I stepped into America. This restaurant is apparently very popular amongst those who spend time there.

Pizza Margherita

Tomato salad

Day Twelve: Izakaya food. The word "Izakaya" roughly translates to "a bar where you dwell." It is basically a bar that serves countless amounts of small dishes that go well with alcohol beverages. Of course, you can get in even if you are not drinking (meaning families). It is Japanese Tapas. You can eat bigger variety this way. There are Izakaya in the States (Seattle has a couple of good ones) and I recommend them highly.

Grilled clam in a shell

Aji (horse Makerel) sashimi. This fish on a stick was still twitching, it was so fresh.
I had to turn its head away from me while I ate.

Grilled sardines: yes, we like our fish whole. It took until I brought my very first American friend to Japan to realize that is totally freaky by U.S. standards.

More grilled fish--can you tell Japan is an island nation?

Broiled Musubi (rice ball)--lightly brushed with soy sauce then on the grill. It is not to be believed.

This was new to me: Ray fins. Delicious with mayonnaise.

Gyoza grilled correctly with "wings," which is a thin layer of crunchy goodness that connects the dumplings.
Wings are made out of water and flour. The dumplings are underneath.

Studs who grill things.

Oh and let's not forget, they have these, too.

It was about $150 for 7 people (granted only 2 adults drank and 1 out of 7 was our 4 year old daughter), which ain't bad for the amount of food we consumed. What we photographed was about half of the food ordered. I don't drink much but imagine above foods with a nice cold beer. Good stuff.

Day Thirteen: Indian food. I've never had Indian food in Japan. It was REALLY good.

Dead give away that this is in Japan: cabbage salad

Day Fourteen: Ueno Zoo kid's meal. Kids' meals in Japan have a common theme. Always on a divided plate, always with a rice that is scooped in a shape of an ice cream and always with a flag. Not sure why it's a British flag here, but it was. We took our daughter to see the Panda bears that recently arrived from China. They were both asleep. Oh well. At least we got some good lunch.

Standard kid's meal: curry and rice

Day Fifteen: Japanese pasta. My husband and I had a date night and we went to an Italian restaurant. I ordered something you could not have in American Italian joints, which was Simeji mushroom with clams pasta in light soy sauce based broth topped with scallions and shredded nori.

So light and good

Day Sixteen: Sapporo Ramen. My father asked if there was anything we haven't eaten and I blurted out, "Ramen." Sapporo is a city in Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan. For whatever reason, ramen from that region is famous and this noodle shop fixes ramen in that particular style.

Rather than sitting and ordering, you buy tickets from this machine, which is old-school cafeteria style in Japan. You give them to the waiter while you wait in line to get seated so when you sit down, your food comes to you right away.

Bummer for those who can't read Japanese

Then you get this:
Chashu ramen. Can't explain the goodness.

Then you sprinkle these on top as you wish:

Thin slices of grilled garlic.
My husband ate these by handful which led him to eat an entire box of mints after lunch.

Dude that makes the noodles.

Day two, four, six, seven, eleven, etc: Katsu Curry. My husband's favorite Japanese dish, ever. He had this a lot. Pork Cutlet (fried) with curry on top. What is not to love, I tell ya.

Mmmm...spicy lard...

What we totally neglected to photograph was many of our convenience store lunches, which are delicious and cheap. You would not believe the variety of rice balls and bento boxes that are readily available at local 7-Eleven and other places alike. If you are on a budget, that is the way to go. Just click here and see for yourself.

And that is the story of our food fest.