Thursday, November 15, 2012


October 5th marked one year since my mother's passing. I can't tell if this past year was fast or slow for me but having survived the first year of grief, I feel an odd sense of relief. I've had waves of emotions in between my normal routine and started to figure out how to exist without a mother. I call my dad about once a week and we chat for about an hour each time and I've noticed that he has also developed his new routine to get through each day.

In Japan, there are family gatherings after someone passes away based on the Buddhist tradition--which most people follow. They are on the 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, 35th, 42nd, and 49th day after their death, with the idea that every 7 days the deceased will stand in judgement in front of a god (like St. Peter) as to weather they can go to heaven. So the families get together and pray for their soul. It's also common that the cremated remains of the deceased will be put into their grave on the 49th day, though in some cases people wait a year.

Then the tradition continues to families getting together on 1st, 3rd, 7th, 13th, 17th, 23rd, 27th, 33rd and/or 50th year after a person dies.  Each time, you go to a temple, a monk will read a prayer, you pay your respect, and you go eat. I remember attending these things for my grandfather on my father's side who passed away before I was born. I found this tradition amazing.  It's put together to truly remember someone and honor their life.

This is a side note, but I recently found out that my father, who was baptized Catholic in his early 70s waited until then--though he had an interest in converting many years prior--because as the first born son he felt obligated to his father to remain a Buddhist until the last of the gatherings (in our case it was 33rd year). This may also have been because there was a huge fight when my father married my mother, a Catholic (they reconciled pretty fast), so he may have felt this to be a respectful gesture to his father, but that's just my speculation.

Being that my family is Catholic (particularly my mother who almost became a nun), none of the above traditions technically apply.  But, given that we're Japanese, there is a little bit of a hybrid situation as it did in funeral service.  So my father and brother felt it would be good to have a ceremony to mark the first year since my mother's passing with a private mass and a luncheon with close relatives. And at that ceremony, we would put my mother's remains in the crypt, which is located at the church that my family attends (my parents bought a space there some years ago and paid for everything so we wouldn't have to. More on that topic later). So I took a solo trip back for 10 days.

I made a trip back with my family this past spring but it's still strange to stay at my parents' house without my mom. I did not sleep much during my stay and I realized it was partly stress. I was put in charge of sorting and finding ways to get rid of my mother's belongings. I took care of some last fall, right after her death (which was hell), and some this past spring. But the woman owned a lot of stuff so there was still a mountain of things to go through which was also adding to the stress.

Then there is the whole inheritance situation.

Let me tell you the complicated, multiple-hoop-jumping process that is international inheritance transactions. First is the obvious division of the estate, which was smooth because my dad, my brother and I get along, THANK GOD. But then, we had an accountant prepare an official document which has to have all of our signatures and official stamp, called "Hanko." Everyone living in Japan has to own one of these that has your name on it in a unique design and that very stamp is registered with your proof of residency. You use Hanko on all official documents and it serves as a notarized document.

Like these. They are all the same name but different designs

Do I have one of these? No. Because while I am a citizen, I am not a resident.  So, I have to get my signature notarized where I reside, which is Seattle, and the way you do that is to go to the Japanese consulate. This past spring was all about me and my brother going over multiple bank and investment documents that belonged to my mother, requesting all forms that needs signing (including a document that states that we give my brother permission to be the executor), and carrying those back with me to the States so I can get them notarized.  I took a trip to the consulate and just camped out at a window, signing and thumb printing (in place of a stamp) each in front of the staff, who I must say were very kind and patient (I realize that is what they are there for but still). Then I sent them back to my brother via registered mail so he can proceed with moving funds to my bank account in Tokyo. All of this cost about $350 by the way.

During my last visit to Tokyo I went to my bank and got information on how best to transfer funds internationally (which has different rules according to where you are moving the money--in the case of the US, you have to keep the Patriot Act in mind). I was exhausted. I hope it all goes through before my daughter goes to college.

Then there is the matter of the US accounts.  My father, being a finance expert is super smart about money and has a couple of US accounts which are joint accounts with my mother.  He has to present a death certificate to remove my mother's name from the account, which is of course in Japanese. Most large banks have a Japanese staff somewhere to say that that document is authentic, but just to be safe I called the American Embassy in Tokyo and asked what people do in these situations. They told me that anyone can translate the document, but the translator has to get a notarized paper what states what they translated was true. So I translated the death certificate, made the appointment and took a trip to the US consulate which is located on the same grounds as the embassy I learned and went through so much security, it wasn't funny.  I am now an expert on what consulates do in both countries.  I should start a service.

I also tackled my mother's belongings with much more momentum than the last two times. We have this custom called "Katami Wake" which translates to "Keepsake gifts" where you share the belongings of the deceased with close friends and families so many people can have a piece from that person.  This is obviously a very daughterly task so first took out my mother's jewelry cases and spread them all out on the dining room table.  The woman liked to accessorize. "Jeez, mom" I actually uttered. She and I went through things right before she passed away when I was visiting last fall. I took a bunch then. But still there was a ton. I took a couple of more things and then I sorted some stuff for my three nieces to use later. I categorized things by types and made a display.  I did the same thing with her purses.

 Do you see what I'm saying?

Then I invited my female cousins and had a party.  I threatened them to take as many things as they could.  They were modest and polite about it but took things.

I actually didn't expect my male cousin to take things.  However, it's awesome that he took this Egyptian thing saying it would go well with his other Egyptian stuff.  Sure. Just take.

After that, I went through all the rest of my mother's every day clothes that was left and bagged them up and told our very faithful Filipino cleaning lady, who has been working for my parents for years and loved my mom, to take whatever she wanted and she took all the clothes, purses, and the accessories I left out for her.  I LOVE HER AND WANT TO MARRY HER.

I wrapped up some others for my aunts which I gave away at the luncheon and one of them busted it open on the spot and put it on her. I also gave away some small items to my close friends who knew my mom since their childhood, which made them happy and very touched.

I read a book called The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion last year and in it, she said she held onto one set of clothing and a pair of shoes that belonged her late husband and couldn't put her finger on why until she realized that she was keeping it in case he came back. I can relate to this. It is difficult to get rid of someone's belongings because it's admitting that they are truly gone, and because you feel they might be angry somehow. I keep wondering and hoping my mother approves of the choices I am making, which is silly but is pretty profound. But at the same time, this felt good.  Pieces of my mother's spirit was spreading to people who loved her. I would not have been ready to do this before this point, so it was the right time. I was now entering the next phase of my grief and survival.

I am nowhere near done, but put a pretty good dent in it this time.  Maybe it is good to be so far away so I have some distance and time in between these trying tasks. Or maybe that drags out the sadness.  Either way, I don't have a choice to do it a little bit at a time. My brother thanked me up and down for taking care of this.  I laugh a little at our gender specific roles we've played in this aftermath.

The ceremony was nice and quiet. I cried during the mass all over again. We watched my father put the urn into the designated space in the crypt and I couldn't help but think about some day in the future when we would do this again with my father. We watched the man seal the marble plate with my mother's name on it and it was done.

Rest in peace, mom

This was not a restful trip but productive.  I cheered up my father just by being there and I took care of things.  I also had just enough time to see my friends and shop for my husband and daughter who was lighting the torch and waiting for me back home. I realize I'm lucky I have someone to go home to -- both ways.

The street in front of my family's home

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


I've never voted in my life.  Not because I don't care, but because of my legal status. I left Japan when I was 15 (way before I took interest in politics), and I was on a student visa from 15 until 24, then on a work visa until 27, then obtained my permanent residency or green card (which, by the way, is not green). As a resident alien (title I love), I can work and therefore required to pay taxes, but two things I can't do is vote and serve on a jury duty. The latter is perhaps a gift in some ways (though I realize it's an important civic duty), in that I can just write "not a citizen" on a post card and not worry about getting out of work or being stuck in a difficult case for days, but the not being able to vote is tough.

Especially today.

There are issues at stake that are important to me and people around me as I have spent nearly 30 years in this country.  I wish so much that I could express my voice in a form of a vote, but I can't.  People have asked why don't I just become a citizen.  It is a logical question to them, but very complicated, emotional question to me and I choke on the answer every time. One is the identity. As most of my family is in Japan, I am still very much connected to my home country, despite the fact that I have been in the US twice as long.  I think it's because that is my origin of my being, where I  was raised in my formative years, where the house I grew up is (with people who raised and grew up with me in it), and where I go to be with the people who really know my true colors, and ground me in between my adventures.  Changing citizenship would feel like I am throwing away all of that and severing my roots from my body. That's not necessarily true and it sounds dramatic, but that is how it feels.

The other is the practicality. If Japan offered the option of a dual citizenship as many countries do, I would probably obtain citizenship in the US. But Japan doesn't, so having a green card is the closest thing to having dual citizenship.  Should something happen to my family in Japan, I could go and stay longer than a tourist would be able to and have the rights to do things that visitors don't.  Should some situation arise in the US where I felt unsafe, I could take my daughter there. And that is another thing--opportunity for my daughter.  Because I am a Japanese citizen and her father is a US citizen, she has both.  She can have that until she is 22 and she has to chose. At this point, she is likely to chose the US citizenship which is what I expect and am fine with, but should she choose to go study in Japan during college, she can have the benefit of a citizen and possibly work there, etc.  It opens up more choices for her.

Most Japanese people I know in the US keep their green cards like I do for similar reasons. We're not an immigrating people anymore.  The wave of Japanese farmers that came over (a.k.a Isseis) in the 1800s came for better life like all the other immigrants.  But then there was a period of time in the US that banned Asians from immigrating and after that was WWII when Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were interned which caused all kinds of emotional turmoil about where they belong.  Then Japan rebuilt during post war and became big and strong (I apologize for this totally over simplified history, BTW) so the need to immigrate went away for the most part.  Now, Japanese people who come to the US are either for school or if their company sends them.  Most of them go back.  Handful of them don't--like me. Coming here changed my life. It opened doors that I couldn't have imagined and it helped me to find who I am.  Not to mention I would have never met my husband who thinks I'm funny. That alone is a life changing event.  I care deeply for the future of this place and I work hard every day to contribute in gratitude. Yet I have no voice because of the choices I made. It's hard being me, I know.

So I can engage in conversations and perhaps inform people who might be on the fence. I can give money or my time to places that I believe is going to do some good or doing great goods. Maybe things will change for future elections for me but for this one, I have to once again sit on the side line and just route.

Do the right thing, America. I believe in you.