Archive for Suibara

Thinking about Exits

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , on June 26, 2012 by Louise Steinman

So many leave-takings in a life; some go unnoticed, some shake us to our foundations. Sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has long been fascinated by exits, from saying goodbye to her children leaving for school to the cataclysm of leaving a marriage. “We are taught to start our stories at the beginning, “ she writes. “We open with ‘once upon a time,’ hoping to capture the nascent moment when everything came to be. But there are few lessons — in our culture, in our schooling, in our socialization — in how to exit well.”

What does it mean to look at our life narratives from the “prism of exit.” As I listened to Dr. Lawrence Lightfoot’s fascinating talk at ALOUD the other night, I did a mental scan of exits and departures that were the major markers of my life. Which ones were made bearable by ritual observances? Is it true that we Americans pay little regard to our exits, that we often “slink away in the night, hoping that no one will notice?” In contrast, our guest suggested, “Watch Russians at train stations—you know something big is happening!’”

That’s when I saw them—the Shimizu family– standing at the window of our bullet train. It was the afternoon in April 1995 when Lloyd and I left Suibara, the little town in northern Japan where we returned the Japanese flag my father acquired in combat in the Pacific. (the subject of my book, THE SOUVENIR)

The ritual of our arrival had been startling, outside of our cultural norm. The entire town lining the streets and waving tiny American and Japanese flags. “Is this some kind of a holiday?” we asked the mayor. “YOU are the occasion,” he replied with a chuckle.

After the sober and awesome ceremony of returning the flag to the Shimizu family, after listening to stories about young Yoshio, who had died in battle at age 21… after the elaborate feast of sushi and sake, after our visit to Lake Hyoko to meet the Swan Uncle, the guardian of Suibara’s Siberian swans… after that astonishing day the Shimizu family packed themselves into several cars to escort us to the train station in the nearby city of Niigata

Lloyd, our translator Masako and I boarded the waiting train. The family assembled outside our window, the colours of their sweaters and jackets making a somber study in mauves, blues and gray.

They did not wave, but stayed in their places as if a portrait photographer were taking a long exposure. The women were in the front, the men behind them. Hiroshi, Hanayo, and Chiyon—the three sisters of Yoshio Shimizu—stood elbow to elbow, their hands clasped together. Behind them: Hiroshi’s husband, Suezo; cousin Yasue, the farmer, and beside him, the new patriarch, young Yoshinobu, Yoshio’s nephew.

When have I taken enough time with an exit, created a ritual if none existed? Perhaps the Shimizus assumed this tableau to allow us to sear the image into our memories. No fleeting goodbye, like so many others, all forgotten. And they are still there in my mind’s eye, after all these years. Their calm presence at the moment of departure marked the rarity and depth of our unlikely meeting and how it had transformed all of us.

Thoughts Towards Japan

Posted in Crooked Mirror, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , , , on March 24, 2011 by Louise Steinman

March 24, 2011

On this bright March day in Los Angeles, my thoughts are turned to Japan. I write on a page that is white like the snow in Suibara, I remember the bright whiteness of 5000 Siberian swans wintering in Lake Hyoko. In my minds eye I see the Swan Uncle making his rounds to feed them, the Suibara children who form “swan patrols” to protect their yearly avian visitors.

I’m thinking about the communal grace with which Lloyd and I were received in this small town, our only connection a blood-speckled flag my father retrieved from a battlefield in Luzon and subsequently sent home to my mother in the United States. I discovered the flag among my father’s letters after he died. TO YOSHIO SHIMIZU IN THE GREAT EAST ASIAN WAR… IF YOU BELIEVE IN IT YOU WILL WIN. The flag belonged to a young man named Yoshio Shimizu who grew up in this village.

The day we arrived the villagers lined the streets waving American and Japanese flags. I wondered if it were some sort of holiday but our visit was the occasion, the mayor informed us. Yoshio’s family was waiting for us, they were waiting for the flag which was in a box in my backpack, they were waiting for a messenger bearing tidings about their relative fifty years after his death on a battlefield in Luzon. They received us like long-lost family, nearly 70 people crowded into the Shimizu home to watch and participate in the dignified ritual of Yoshio’s flag returning home, into the hands of his sister Hiroshi. Yoshio was only 21 when he died.

The day we arrived in Suibara to return the flag was April 15, 1995, also the day the demented guru Shoko Asahara (whose minions had released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system) had predicted as doomsday. No such apocalypse happened, but in the middle of that beautiful ceremony in Suibara, the room began to clatter and shake. We all sat frozen on the tatami map. An earthquake. When it was over, we cautiously smiled at one another. There. We’d been through something together.

April 15, 1995 in Suibara, Japan

Sixteen years later– the unthinkable, that enormous earthquake, the ensuing tsunami has happened, and we read about fathers and mothers and sons and daughters swept out to sea in front of their families. And in the New York Times this morning, a description of a mass burial in the town of Higashi-Matsushima, each surviving family leaving something for their loved one… a can of coffee, or a ball of pressed rice, “following a local tradition that regards food and money as essential gear for the long trip to the afterlife.”

Now I’ve finally heard from Masako Hayakawa, my translator, that she and her family are safe. She called the Shimizu family to check on them for me and they are safe as well. Though she related the sad news that dear Suezo-san passed away more than six months ago. Before my last visit to Suibara, he dreamed I was coming. He was the one who met Lloyd and me at the bus stop on that bright morning of April 15, 1995, when two Americans disembarked wearing the backpack containing the box with the flag of Yoshio Shimizu.

Holding Japan in my thoughts, in my heart.

Lake Hyoko, Suibara, Japan

[Read more about Suibara and the Siberian swans in my book The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War]

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