We didn't know what to expect when we arrived in Kumamoto, a city of more than 700,000 on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. This is the place my father-in-law Rex Yoshimura's family roots are planted, and my wife, Erin, and her parents had come here on a journey to try to dig them up a bit.
The immediate reason for our trip was to visit Kimie Okada, my father-in-law's sister, who is now 91 and ailing. Like my father-in-law, Kimie had been born in the U.S. But when she was 10 years old, she went voluntarily to Japan to be raised by an uncle whose family was childless, an accepted practice in traditional Japan. Besides, adds Rex, "they probably thought Japan was nicer than living on the farm" in California during the Depression.
Rex first met his sister in 1957, when he was stationed in Okinawa with the U.S. Air Force. He stayed at his sister's home in Yatsushiro, a town south of Kumamoto, for a week. He saw Kimie again in the late 1960s when she came to America for the 50th wedding anniversary of her biological parents. But that was the last time — almost 50 years ago.
The shame of going home
So when he heard that she had been ill, he decided to make the trip to see her. My wife and I were eager to go along. The truth is that we may not have planned this trip if it weren't for Kimie. It's common for Japanese Americans to be reluctant to visit Japan. I've come across many sansei or yonsei (third- or fourth-generation) Japanese Americans who aren't the least bit interested in crossing the Pacific. The main reason is because they're embarrassed that they can't speak Japanese. My wife's cousin Deb pointed out that her Japanese is limited to two things: "I can order sushi and sing 'Jesus Loves You' in Japanese."
It's a very Asian cultural value — shame — that keeps us from exploring our roots. But the real shame is if we let that happen. I'm an advocate for Japanese Americans of any generation to go, because with every trip back to Japan, I've discovered more of myself and my identity. My in-laws were able to speak more than either thought, and between us all, we were able to communicate in our halting Japanese.
When we arrived at the small town south of Kumamoto to visit Kimie at the local hospital, we were greeted by Rex's cousin Machiko, whose husband, Tetsuo, knew some English. We were taken to a room with four patients separated by curtains. Kimie was in the far bed with her eyes closed.
Machiko and Tetsuo woke her and told her that her brother Hitoshi (Rex's Japanese middle name) had come all the way from Colorado to visit. She recognized him. My father-in-law held her hands (which were, like his, surprisingly large for such a tiny woman). She tried to speak, but we couldn't understand what she was trying to say. However, the occasional tears that welled up told us she was happy to see us at her bedside.
We visited three days in a row, and we got to see her in physical therapy. Machiko and her brother Seiji told us our visit helped their mother gain strength and made her happy. On the third day we sat in a lobby area with Kimie and posed for photos that the hospital staff were happy to snap.
At one point I looked over at Machiko, her husband, Tetsuo, and Seiji's wife, Kumiko, all holding their hands over their mouths in wonder that Kimie seemed so happy amid the commotion that the Americans were causing.
We were also able to visit the graves of both sides of Rex's family and the tiny Buddhist temple where the Yoshimuras have worshipped for more than a century, in the middle of rice fields in the countryside, to pay our respects to ancestors. My father-in-law had visited both gravesites 57 years ago. He didn't remember that his mother's family plot was a steep hike up a wooded hillside, with a view of rice paddies below. Those gravestones were all covered in vines and scrub, and guarded by large menacing green spiders. The Yoshimuras posed for photos at both cemeteries.
One day Rex's nephew Seiji drove us to the beautiful landscape around Mount Aso, one of the world's largest active volcanoes, where he is CEO of a nearby museum. Mount Aso has since erupted, disrupting flights and halting tourist pilgrimages like the one we'd made just a few weeks earlier.
The remaining week of our tip through Japan included Hiroshima and Tokyo, and held plenty of highlights.
In the heartland
But the main point of the trip — and the most important, heartwarming part — was to go to Kumamoto and dig into those family roots.
Rex agreed that visiting Kumamoto was the best part of the trip, in part because he was pleased to see his sister's condition wasn't as debilitating as he had feared. She had suffered a brain aneurysm and had been mostly unresponsive since the summer. "I was expecting to see her on her deathbed, you know? So I wanted to get there as soon as I could, at least see her while she's still alive."
He got to see her, hold her hands, speak to her and even help her with her physical therapy. He began thinking about making one more trip to Japan. “You know, I’ve been to all my siblings’ funerals — never missed any of them. So I might go back for her funeral.”
Unfortunately, five weeks after our visit, Rex's sister Kimie suddenly passed away, and there was no time for Rex to fly back. However, the family in Kumamoto had decided during our visit that there would be a reunion in the United States in 2016, and Rex's nephew announced after Kimie's death that he would bring some of her ashes with him to Colorado. Rex hopes to arrange for her cremains to be buried with her parents in the family plot in a Denver cemetery.
"I know she always wanted to be back in the United States where she was born," he says. "So now she'll be coming back home again after all these years."
Gil Asakawa is a freelance writer for the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community page.
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