Pictured above: Young Jim pictured snacking and smiling in an east coast diner, near his hometown in New York.
Pictured below: Little Kaori and Jim frolicking at the Los Angeles beach.
Just got off the phone with my American grandma, bading her a farewell before my yearlong+ adventure in Japan (with the occasional foray into India, Vietnam, China, & Korea.) She reminisced on a trip she had made to Japan in her 60’s, to visit me when I was a toddler growing up in Nagasaki. My dad had been working in the education sector and at a translation company, and had convinced my grandmother to visit around the Japanese New Year, so she could join the family get-together on January 1st. On that special day every year, Japanese families gather together with a confluence of festivities and color. In the home, family wearing delightfully embroidered kimonos are seated around grilled mochi tantalizing to the tastebuds and slowly expanding over the hearth. Outside, people go to shrines and temples for hatsu-mode to pray for a healthy new year, as little children run amok flying paper kites. After feast-time featuring sushi galore, tempura, oden, and more, kids finally settle down to receive otoshidama, delightful little red packets of small money, from their peers and relatives.
My American Grandma got the chance to experience all of this. But what she seems to remember most is staying with her son and daughter-in-law, and hearing about the little red velvet dress my mother was sewing me in preparation for my big appearance in front of the entire Matsumoto family at the most important family gathering of the year. Apparently I was the youngest of the clan, and according to “talk-box-Grandma,” and an adorable one to boot! I was about 2 years old. I can’t remember those days, and treasure memories retold for me by those with the wisdom that age brings, and keen memories despite their years.
I’m a miniature flower girl at my aunt’s wedding in Nagasaki. My other aunt stands above me, looking down at the top of my tiny head. I look a little nervous.
My dad and my mom’s union were an arranged marriage through a Korean church (whose cultish rituals and spatiality I studied for my senior thesis at Reed College) in New York and promptly settled down for 11 years full of sun, beach, wind, and plenty of family drama in Los Angeles, near Santa Monica. One of my most vivid memories was getting stuck in a swiveling office chair while my parents argued in the living room. I was a little attention hog.
Sported a top knot before it was the hipster way to do your hair, circa 2015.
Since my mom made the permanent move from Japan to America, we have always lived on the west coast. When we made the 10 hour road trip up from sunny California to rainy Portland, I insisted on wearing the same Old Navy flip flops for years afterwards, despite the perpetual rainy skies. Whenever I move, I like to bring parcels of memories or odd habits to my new home. I guess when I was a teen, flip flops symbolized my stubbornness.
When you’ve been born in another country but raised in yet another, there seems to always be a sort of longing, or desire to reconcile, with the country of your origins. For this reason I am glad to be returning to Japan to explore my heritage, meet my Japanese family after all these years, and figure out how my birthplace fits into my current identity.
Grandpa Matsumoto (deceased) and Grandma Matsumoto holding baby K. My sister, Karen, would be born a few years later, in Los Angeles. They have a stunning persimmon tree and a koi pond in the front yard. Word of warning: too many raw persimmons can make your tongue feel raspy and your mouth a little numb!
Grandma is a professional dance teacher! Very elegant, and knows her way around a fan.
My family is strong! Grandma lived in the countryside, well outside the inner radius of the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Thus, the Matsumoto legacy survived and flourished.
Mini History Lesson
Located in the southwestern-most part of Japan closest to Korea, Nagasaki was the only city that accepted foreign goods and services before Japan opened its borders to the Western world in the 19th century. After the United States devastated Hiroshima with the first atomic bomb in WWII, the second atomic bomb hit Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, forcing Japan’s surrender. Some say the graphic novel and manga industry was one way survivors documented and dealt with the lives lost and cancers inflicted in the horrific aftermath of the bomb.
Watch Isao Takahata’s 1988 animation Grave of the Fireflies if you haven’t the guts enough to google-image “Nagasaki bomb.” Be sure to have a box of tissues by your side, or a stuffed bear to hug. The first time I watched it I couldn’t finish it, so good luck.