How can I explain the embrace of a ghost? Arms open and extended, not even arms. The whole body extended and open. But the embrace, arrested, is unconsummated.
August 8, 2019
The following is the first chapter from Brandon Shimoda’s The Grave on the Wall, now available from City Lights Books.
My grandfather had one memory of his childhood in Hiroshima: washing the feet of his grandfather’s corpse. He was six or five or four. He stood in the doorway of the room where his grandfather’s corpse had been prepared. His grandfather, covered in a white towel and laying on a thin futon in the middle of the room, looked like he was sleeping. There was a sponge in a large white bowl of lucid water, and a robe, tightly folded, in the corner. My grandfather’s mother and three older brothers nodded at him to enter.
He looks like he is dreaming.
He studied his mother and brothers before kneeling beside them. He touched one of his grandfather’s feet. The first touch was the most daunting. The vein. He was afraid it might come apart in his hand. The skin was the texture of the rooms in which he spent time with his grandfather. But the seasons had been extinguished. He sank the sponge in the water, wrung it out, and touched it, tentatively, to his grandfather’s sole.
Like he is dreaming us, into the room with him, washing his body. Dreaming my thoughts, even; that I think he is dreaming.
He knew his grandfather was dead. His brothers told him. How did they know? A bead of water sank into the tatami.
He had a dream about a woman being lured from deep inside a cave to its mouth, where a mirror hung from a branch, and was burning. A grandfather is a strange, somewhat impossible work of conscience, especially when old, especially when in a state of decline, on the verge of appearing to dream.
My grandfather’s name is Midori Shimoda. He was born on an island off the coast of Hiroshima. He was born three years in a row, 1909, 1910, 1911, depending on whose memory is being consulted. According to my grandmother, June Shimoda, he was born March 26, 1911. According to records kept by the FBI—the file opens April 7, 1942—Midori was born a year earlier, March 26, 1910. According to a biography accompanying an exhibition of early twentieth-century Japanese American photography at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles1, he was born a year before that, March 26, 1909. His death, after nearly two decades with Alzheimer’s, unfolded across a number of years, the final year being 1996. He died in the United States. He had long forgotten the island, its name, that he was born there. It had been eighty years since he left the village of Oko, stepped off Kurahashi onto a boat to cross the Ondo Strait to Honshu. Eighty years since he moved, with his mother and three older brothers, to Nakanose, in Kumamoto, where his father was from, where his grandmother (his father’s mother), Yumi Taguchi, had prepared space in her house. That is where he lived before immigrating to the United States. He returned to Japan only once, in 1983. Japan was, by then, as much a curiosity as it was his birthplace and ancestral homeland. What could be more curious than one’s birthplace, one’s ancestral homeland? Changeless, always changing, evasive, filled with faces assumed yet uncanny, pregnant, only practically known.
Midori was nine when he left Japan. He was in his seventies when he returned. Not only had the homeland changed, but most of the places he visited (Kamakura, Kyoto, Miyajima, Nagoya, Takayama), he was visiting for the first time. Land, not home, maybe not even land. The maybe not even land in which he was most likely to encounter his ancestors—whether they were home or not—were in Nakanose and Oko. He did not visit either of them.
I visited Nakanose the summer of my thirty-third year. I visited Oko the summer of my thirty-eighth year. No one in my family had visited either place in almost one hundred years. Nakanose no longer exists. Oko is on the edge of extinction. I went to where Nakanose once was, and to Oko, to visit Midori, but within a basic confusion. The grandfather I had in mind was old; if I was seeking him there, I would have to be seeking a child.
Kure is thirty minutes by train from downtown Hiroshima. Kurahashi is twenty minutes by bus from downtown Kure. Katsuragahama is thirty minutes by bus from the Ondo Bridge, spiraled on both ends, bright red. It is the closest town of any size to Oko. Katsuragahama has hot springs, a shipbuilding museum, an inn, a beach, and between the beach and the road, a grove of five-hundred pine trees. In the seventh or eighth century, a poet sat beneath the pines and, facing the sea, wrote an ode. To the pines, to what he felt to be their perfection. The ode enfolded a lamentation to what the poet felt, by comparison, to be his perilously misshapen life. The pines held the sound of the waves, and the poet’s silent labor. The poem is one of the many thousands of poems in the Man’yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), and is inscribed on the face of a large stone that sleeps beneath the pines. The day I arrived, it was raining. The poem and its characters were leaking.
I asked Natsuko, the innkeeper, about Oko. Did it exist? (I was afraid it did not exist.) It exists, she said, yes, but there is little reason to go. We were standing on the stairs beside a window looking onto the pines. Then she said, I went there once … It is famous for its sunrises. I marveled at the thought of a place giving birth to its own suns, separate from those of the rest of the world.
The bus from Katsuragahama to Oko does not run very often. It is very small. White, shaped like a loaf of bread. Lisa and I were the only people on the bus. The driver was formal. He did not look up once into his mirror. I imagined him announcing the names of the stops to an empty bus. The road followed the coast, people fishing off white rocks, with children, radios, plastic bottles of tea. The bus passed into trees, bamboo. Then back into the open. The driver announced Oko. The stop was four wooden school chairs lined up against a wooden building facing the harbor.
Oko is arranged up the side of a foothill at the base of a range of small mountains. The predominant color—gunpowder gray—is set by the ceramic roof tiles. The houses are a combination of light blue and burnt-wood. Above the houses are trees, dark green, to the top of the mountain, with the occasional granite exposure. The village comes right up to the sea, separated by a narrow road and a seawall.
It was mid-afternoon. The village was at peace. A canal ran along its western edge. Green weeds grew out of its stone walls. There were intermittent cascades, but the canal was otherwise flat, the water stretched like braided glass. There was an occasional bridge. I walked up the canal then followed the narrow paths between houses. All the doors were open, but I could not see through the screens. I heard voices. Running water and dishes (lunch was over), but I only saw one person: an old man in a doorway wearing baggy pants tucked into white rubber boots. A large cat with mottled dark fur stretched in a gutter. Do you remember? it moaned. The you inside you? Golden curtains in the window of the schoolhouse. Gardens covered in green mesh. Bundles of kindling stacked against the burnt-wood houses. I envisioned snow falling in the middle of summer.
The torii gate in front of the shrine was made of old, gray wood. Two lightning-shaped pieces of white paper (shide) hung from a thick, colorless rope. I walked up the stone stairs. I passed beneath the lightning then turned around and looked out through the gate—the lightning became eyebrows—over the roofs, into the sea. Fifteen islands were visible. The islands were the same. The sea was the same. Where the trees around Oko met the sky was not the same, so the sky was not the same, and maybe the sea and the islands were not the same either. Was the shrine the same? It resembled a shelter, beneath which a well of dark green water, was sleeping. I am here by the well at your house, grandfather. I see a flicker in the dark when I pull water up by the rope.2 But I did not see Midori’s face in the water, divining the depth of his grandfather’s descent into dying. Nor did I see my great-great-grandfather’s feet, floating in the shadow of the reflection of his feet floating in an electrified cloud, in the air above Oko. I saw instead my great-grandmother.
I could imagine his had not been the main branch but an offshoot of the family
A branch family goes out into the world, it splits off3
Midori never mentioned his mother. My father never mentioned his grandmother. No one in my family ever said her name. But her name was there, a snake-like map inside a circle on the wall above my grandparents’ bed:
I was told that the snake-like map inside the circle was my great-grandmother’s signature. That she had invented it when she was young. It evoked a part of my grandparents’ past that was obscure to me. And presided over its continuation in the obscurity of their dreams. But I was not told my great-grandmother’s name. As if I was being told, instead, to engage with the snake, get lost in the turns of its maze. Very little of the past was offered. The obscurity of the past resided in not understanding, when I was young, that there was any past. Everyone existed, as at the opening of a play, as they were, which made their aging strange and terrifying. An error. A breach. To go backwards, to imagine my grandparents as children, for example, or not yet born—that they had parents, who once were children, or not yet born—was beyond my imagination.
My nameless great-grandmother’s signature was as clear as it was incomprehensible. Was it a route she walked, that she wanted, needed, to remember? Maybe it was a map of Oko. If I could learn to read it, travel through it, would I be pronouncing, with my body, her name?
It was only after Midori died that I asked about his parents. The simplest question, who were they? Midori’s death, or departure to another place, opened up a pantheon of ancestors. He had to have gone somewhere. The pantheon of ancestors was the most likely place, because it was intuitional. I felt it. Therefore assumed it. The ancestors formed a place, in which no single individual could be truly differentiated from the collectivity of the dead. And yet, the first ancestor who introduced herself to me as an ancestor, was my great-grandmother. Her name is Kawaki Okamoto.
Kawaki was born in Oko on the first day of February 1883. Her father left his wife for a young woman, about whom the only thing I was told is that she was deaf. She was an illegitimate child, June said, about Kawaki, but her father raised her like his own. A funny thing to say. But the narrative endured: Kawaki, born out of wedlock to a deaf mistress, embodied an offshoot, a branch family splitting off.
Her father (name unknown) was a contract laborer in Hawaii. He worked on a sugar cane plantation for three years, then in a flower shop in Honolulu, before returning to Hiroshima. One day, a man came into the flower shop. The man was looking for flowers to give to the wife of the minister with whom he was staying. The man was from Kumamoto. He too had been a contract laborer, on a pineapple plantation—where he made $9 a month and shared a thatched-roof shack with five men, one of whom tried to kill himself by drinking a gallon of soy sauce—but left before completing his three-year contract. He escaped. And was living with a white minister and his family. The man’s name was Geiichi Shimoda. Okamoto helped Geiichi select the perfect flowers. He thought of his daughter back home, and asked Geiichi if he had a wife. He did not. He asked if Geiichi would be interested in marrying his daughter. He showed him a photograph.
In the photograph, Kawaki is standing at the edge of the woods, her back to a body of water, which can be seen over her shoulder, articulated by lines of cloud-like waves. The illuminated limbs of a tree hang over the waves. There is a fog in the woods.
The body of water is not real. It is a painting, a backdrop. For presenting Kawaki, as a picture, to her husband, also unreal. Her gaze is steadfast yet distant, with a little fear at the barely legible edge of unknowing. She is holding a small bag with two fingers. She looks like she is going to drop it, on purpose. It will fall very slowly. Then open, like petals in water.
This was the photograph Okamoto showed to Geiichi. Two men, surrounded by flowers, deliberating over the fate of a young woman standing with her back to a fanciful ocean.
On the boat we were mostly virgins.4 I dreamed, at first, of young women flying over aureoles of light, the edges of their bodies illuminated.
On the passenger list of the steamship from Yokohama to Honolulu, Kawaki’s Calling or Occupation was listed as: Wife. She, like her unreal husband Geiichi, was a contract laborer. Picture brides were one of the unintended consequences of the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, a political compromise between the Japanese government and anti-Japanese white Americans in California. On October 11, 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education called for the segregation of Japanese students in public schools, citing the need to save white children from being affected by association with pupils of the Mongolian race.5 (The Japanese population was relatively young, the number of Japanese students small; Chinese students were already segregated.) The Agreement, coordinated by President Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of State Elihu Root, appeased both sides of the one-sided war, by agreeing to desegregate San Francisco schools, while restricting further immigration from Japan in the guise of establishing new criteria for the issuance of passports to Japanese laborers. Three classifications of laborers were to be permitted: relatives of someone already in the United States; those returning to their homes; and laborers assuming control of land already in possession. Yobiyose Jidai: the Period of Summoning Relatives. Women could become relatives of Japanese men in the United States by marrying them. Proxy weddings (shashin kekkon, picture marriages) were performed in Japan. The women were marrying men they had never seen. Except in photographs. They married the photographs first.
The women were given pamphlets by immigration training societies on how to dress and bathe and walk like a western woman, how to sit on a toilet, how to cook food that would not offend their white American neighbors. They were not, due to legislation dating back more than one hundred years, permitted to become American, but they were expected to behave American. They were expected to be both exemplary and invisible.
The proxy weddings in Japan were not recognized in the United States. When the young women arrived, after three weeks at sea, they were married a second time, in mass ceremonies on the docks. A young woman is a bride and the groom doesn’t always belong to the human species.6 The men often looked considerably different from the men in the photographs—older, 10-15 years on average, less attractive, not the men at all, brothers, friends, cousins of the dead. Between 1908 and 1920, over 10,000 Japanese picture brides immigrated to the United States. The unintended consequence of the Gentlemen’s Agreement was the first generation of American-born children of Japanese ancestry, the Japanese Americans. The Ladies’ Agreement followed in 1921, ending the emigration of picture brides. The last passport issued to a picture bride was dated February 29. It was valid through the first of September.
In the first of Akira Kurosawa’s dreams, a young boy stands at the gate of his family’s house and stares into the rain.7 His mother comes up behind him with an umbrella. You can’t go out today, she says. The sun is shining, but it is raining. Foxes hold their weddings on days like this. They hate it if anybody watches.
The boy defies his mother and walks out into the rain. He enters the woods. Trees are tall and feathered. The rain falls in curtains. Out of the mist and rolling fog comes the sound of rattles and drums: a fox wedding procession. There is a bride and a groom, and twelve attendants. The bride is wearing the traditional white hood (tsunokakushi, resembling a squid mantle). The procession moves very slowly. The boy watches from behind a tree. The foxes see the boy spying on them. They turn their heads in unison. The boy, seeing them seeing him, runs away.
When he gets home, his mother is standing at the gate. You saw it, didn’t you? You saw something you shouldn’t have. Her voice is lower than before. An angry fox came looking for you. He left this, she says, pulling a tanto knife out of her robe. You are to atone by cutting your belly open. Go quickly and ask for forgiveness. Until they forgive you, I cannot let you back in.
But I don’t know where their home is, the boy says.
Of course you do, his mother says. On days like this, there’s always a rainbow. Their home is beneath the rainbow.
She slides the door closed. The boy, gripping the knife, leaves the house in search of the fox’s home. He walks into a field of richly colored flowers, mountains rising before him.
It was not the canal or the narrow paths or the lightning hanging from thick colorless rope or the torii or the shrine, but everything and nothing at once that evoked my great-grandmother. I felt her sleeves, her arms inside her sleeves. Was there a flag somewhere channeling the ocean in incisive, wave-like snaps? Her sleeves breathed a silken coolness. I felt the nostrils of caves and a sudden decrease in temperature, the exhalation from an old, expired earth. But her arms were warm, a warmth that was, within the silken coolness, euphemistic. Her arms were familiar. I had been inside the sleeves before. There was a memory of a light once having illuminated the sleeves. Not just her arms, her whole being.
How can I explain the embrace of a ghost? Arms open and extended, not even arms. The whole body extended and open. But the embrace, arrested, is unconsummated. The two embracing bodies never touch. An irremediable abandonment burns, like a swallowed polestar, down the spine.
I traveled one hundred years and thousands of miles, to connect with a place that may or may not have had anything to share with me about my past. I started with Midori and the feet of his grandfather’s corpse. The pilgrimage was to that. But the ghost, in Oko, was me.
I stood with my back to the shrine, looking through the torii gate at the sea, and where I had been feeling at peace, I now felt anxiety. I wanted to get closer to the feeling of my great-grandmother, but I did not know where to go. I chose a narrow path back down the hill, and wove my way through its maze.
In the second of Kurosawa’s dreams, a young boy, serving crackers to his sister and her friends on Hinamatsuri (Doll’s Day), sees a young girl in a light pink robe in the hall of his family’s house.8 The boy asks his sister who the girl is, but his sister insists there is nobody there. He slides the door back. The hall is empty, but for a potted spray of peach blossoms. Have you got a fever? his sister asks. The boy, agitated, goes into the hall.
At the end of the hall is an open door. Standing in the bamboo outside is the girl in the light pink robe. The moment the boy sees her, the girl turns and runs into the bamboo, accompanied by the sound of a small bell.
He follows the young girl through the bamboo into his family’s peach orchard. The orchard is terraced up the side of a hill of bright green grass, but there are no peach trees, only stumps, and as soon as the boy enters, he is met by a troupe of guards. On the terraces above are kings and queens and their retinue of maids and musicians. Fifty-nine figures, the life-sized incarnations of Hinamatsuri.
Listen carefully, they say, their voices booming. We are never going to your house again. Your family cut down all the peach trees in the orchard. We are the spirits of the trees. We are the life of the blossoms.
The boy starts crying. The dolls laugh, saying that he is only crying because he cannot have any more peaches. The boy, offended, and suddenly empowered, scolds them. I can buy peaches at the store! But where can you buy a whole orchard in bloom? The dolls, disarmed by the young boy’s sensitivity, change their hearts. Let us allow him to see the peach orchard in bloom one last time.
They arrange themselves on the terraces, and commence a performance of etenraku (music from heaven). The fifty-nine figures spread the colors of their regalia across the orchard. Reed and bamboo flutes and pipes, koto and drum. Peach blossom petals begin to fall. The dolls turn into peach trees. The boy, admiring the music, the colors, then the orchard in bloom, hears the bell again, then sees the girl, and runs after her into the orchard. Once he enters, the trees disappear, replaced by stumps. All the trees but one: a sapling, with peach blossoms.
Midori had dreams of depositing his dead grandfather’s feet in the sea, like sending boats to the horizon. He walked down the hill and slipped his empty hands into the salt water. He had not anticipated being stung with regret—had he accidentally washed off his grandfather’s feet? He smelled his hands. They became, for a moment, his grandfather’s feet, bars of soap.
He would think of his grandfather’s feet again, years later, while waiting to board the Africa Maru in Yokohama, alone, en route to Seattle, fish breaking the still surface of the harbor, turning mid-air, disappearing into ovals. The memory of his grandfather’s feet, his grandfather a toppled pillar on a white towel, overgrown now, becoming a mound.
In what tradition is the washing of the feet a prerequisite to the journey, on foot, of the dead into the afterlife? Midori’s grandfather’s footprints would gradually be swept from the house. Would the aura come back? His grandfather’s face reared up like a pale pink fish, then evaporated. Midori was left with the image of cotton balls sticking out of his grandfather’s nostrils, his ears. He was sealed, could neither hear nor breathe. Midori felt like that too, tried to shake it away.
To say that a village is on the edge of extinction is to say that its future is strictly memorial. That the village’s inhabitants are few in number, and decreasing, without likelihood or possibility, even, of being succeeded. Maybe it is a diagnosis that makes it easier to colonize a living place with the presumptive and proprietary desires of the imagination.
At the far western edge of the village was a small graveyard, well-kept and proud, surrounded by bushes, overwhelmed by the sound of cicadas. They were loudest in the trees above the graveyard. The village itself might have been a momentary resurrection for the benefit of the nostalgic youth who followed his great-grandmother, and her fading, still sonorous bell.
There are, traditionally, two graves: the burial grave and the ritual grave. The burial grave is where the dead are buried. The ritual grave is where the living go to visit the dead. Sometimes these graves are the same. Sometimes not. The ritual grave could be divided: where the dead were born, where the dead died, anywhere, in whatever form, the dead may be perceived and remembered. An altar in the house of the living, a stone in a graveyard, a painting in an alcove, a book.
I live with Kawaki’s picture bride photograph; it rests against a large (3-foot-by-5-foot) mirror. The mirror and its reflection, over Kawaki’s shoulder, are descendants of the painted body of water behind her, and I worry that the photograph tethers Kawaki to dimensions she would not recognize. She would not recognize my face, coming in and out of focus, attending, so I think, to her memory, which is synonymous with trying to keep it alive.
A grave is anywhere we leave an unrepeatable part of ourselves. A part that has broken away. It does not satisfy an imagination of death, but does provide ritual guidance to the vulnerable, oftentimes humiliating, necessarily mundane act of waiting to die. The grave of what living remains.
The hour was silent. The water held the ghost of a temblor. The boats, moored to the seawall, rocked, making low, gulping sounds. A starfish was stuck to the end of the wall, drying out in the sun. Viscera clung to its mouth. Or asshole. Still wet. There was still life in the star, even though its own life had ended. Like an old, elongated, mysteriously maintained mirror that once hung on the wall of a shrine, maybe a house, above a memorial shelf. A mirror in which smoke from incense, vaguely colored, light purple or green, had imprinted itself as a streak. In which foreheads were always creased, eyes closed, eyebrows drawn together. In which the trees overhanging the stone stairs were reflected more accurately, and more often, than the faces that showed up in the foreground. A star burning into the sea, to live on in the blood of perpetual waves.
The ancestors are always arranging, the hands reaching from all generations to locate me in a body that is also theirs.
We returned to Katsuragahama. It was the weekend of the summer festival. A stage was erected in the pines, facing the sea. Eight young women in spandex, sports bras, and windbreakers, were rehearsing a dance to Missy Elliott’s “Work It,” a coda for the poet’s ancient ode to the pines. For the next several hours, boats entered the harbor. The beach filled with people. Umbrellas and tents mushroomed in the five hundred pines. The fireworks started in daylight, filling the gray-blue sky with pale flowers. Jellyfish propelled down through the color spectrum until colors could not go any further. The faces of the five hundred pines flashed. Night rose. The silhouette of the poet, and his passage back into the life he lamented, sparked, then withdrew. The burning ends of each explosion twirled, for a moment, like spirits communicating the order of their future, then turned away from each other, enclosed in their own, autonomous orbits, before vanishing into the sea.
1 Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920–1940, February-June 2016.
2 Amarnath Ravva, American Canyon.
3 Hiromi Ito, Eels and Catfish, translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles.
4 Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic.
5 Raymond Leslie Buell, The Development of the Anti-Japanese Agitation in the United States, Political Science Quarterly (December 1922).
6 Etel Adnan, Sea
7 Akira Kurosawa, Sunshine Through the Rain, Dreams.
8 Akira Kurosawa, The Peach Orchard, Dreams.