March 3, 2015.
I am trying to write a story—a love story—about a man and a woman I know. I’ll call them Satoshi and Yuriko. I am writing and erasing, writing and erasing. Sometimes I think I should stop trying. Or write instead in Japanese. But if so, how to title the story? Koimonogatari — 恋物語 — love thing told — is too sappy. My story isn’t about some girl’s first kiss. Ren’ai shousetsu — 恋愛小説 — heterosexual love novel—is, well, a novel. Rabu sutōrī — ラブストーリー — isn’t even real Japanese, just a bastardised form of “love story.” Besides, in all Japanese stories about love, the man and woman are always in love and are always honest. The obstacles to their love are external (war, leukaemia, amnesia), and I cannot but pity these perfect, impossible characters.
I mention this to Okaasan on the phone.
“What’s the name of the female character?” she asks.
“That’s what we almost named you.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“How is her name written? Which kanjis? The same ones we would have used?”
“Um.” I lick my lips. “The story is in English.”
My parents think I’m not Japanese enough. I don’t sit with my knees shut. I open my mouth when I laugh. I walk too fast. I can’t distinguish between sonkeigo, kenjōgo, and teineigo: respectful language, humble language, and polite language. But I don’t need grammatical constructions to tell me where I stand in the Japanese hierarchy.
I know. I am the dainty little daughter. The one who serves green tea to father and uncles and brothers, then disappears behind the sliding doors.
This is why I don’t write in Japanese.
March 4, 2015.
I am trying to write a story about Satoshi and Yuriko, but these aren’t their real names. I don’t remember their real names. I met them only once, at an izakaya in Tokyo, where we ordered beer and sake and soba and grilled shiitakes that Yuriko, who hates mushrooms but didn’t dare refuse them, quietly passed, under the table, to Satoshi, who ate them for her. I remember Satoshi and Yuriko are twenty-two, because we laughed about how we were all the same age, but leading such different lives.
My ex-boyfriend is the one who planned that dinner. He knew Satoshi liked Yuriko and Yuriko liked Satoshi and he wanted to put them together. Don’t tell Yuriko about Satoshi’s job, he said, I don’t think he wants her to know. Oh. If I were him I’d tell her and if I were her I’d want to know, I thought, but maybe they have different expectations because they are pure Japanese. In any case, it was none of my business. I kept quiet.
But Yuriko seemed to know. Or at least she knew Satoshi harboured a secret, which made her feel both slighted and seduced. He has such darkness in his heart, she whispered to me, such loneliness — I wish he would let me help him. I said, Hm, huh, maybe he’s just shy.
Satoshi works at a nuclear plant in Fukushima. The one hit by the tsunami. Ten hours a day, six days a week, he shovels caesium-laden debris into sandbags.
So? I asked my ex-boyfriend as we walked to the izakaya. He looked at me sideways, and said, No one wants his genes. He’s damaged goods.
March 5, 2015.
I have clouds of scenes and lines in my mind. (“I am deformed inside,” Yuriko thinks, “but I still have silky hair.”) I know I will pick the most tragic details from the real Yuriko and the real Satoshi, fuse them, make this amalgamated character female, and make her my Yuriko. I want my Yuriko, the girl, to be the “damaged goods.” She will be short and shy, just as I am, but she will be from Fukushima. She will have a birthmark the colour of soot below her collarbone, above her heart. I have one in my left armpit. She will move to Tokyo, alone, and try to start a new life. And look for love.
No one knew where she was from. Or where she used to live; which university she went to; whether she had siblings. She just appeared in Tokyo one day. Men fell in love with her secrecy.
I am staring at these four sentences on my computer screen. I delete “Or,” and put it back in. I type “secretary,” catch the mistake, and change it to “secrecy.” I edit “university” to “college,” then edit it back to “university” because colleges don’t exist in Japan; just universities. But even universities don’t really exist in Japan — what we have is daigaku: 大学. Literally, big learning.
Back to Yuriko. Should I call her Yuriko? Give her my alternate name, the name I almost received? Because I am not her, I know nothing about her than that she is twenty-two and pale-skinned and fries chicken at a cheap restaurant chain in Fukushima, which is where she first met Satoshi.
We were drinking more beer and sake and shochu on the rocks. Satoshi told us he felt stiff from riding rush-hour trains in Tokyo (where are all these people going?) and that he hasn’t had good shochu since 3/11. You don’t find good shochu anymore, he said, not where he lives. All the distilleries in his town have collapsed, or been abandoned, or irradiated.
My house is like that, Yuriko mumbled. Then she went quiet.
Maybe I’ll make my Yuriko’s grandparents shochu distillers. Her grandmother is the wife of a famous shochu master who handwrites his spirit’s brand name (Yakimugi: 焼麦: burnt barley) with ink and brush on labels made of rice paper. But he abandons his barley and brush to defeat the American beasts, and to die for the Emperor. To bloom and explode like a thousand falling sakura petals—all pink and red.
The sakura-suicide simile — is this too much? Or is it just right?
Nagasaki is famous for its shochu; Yuriko’s grandparents can be from there. I’ll make the grandfather die, maybe in a kamikaze attack. I’ll make the grandmother, with her two-year-old daughter who later becomes Yuriko’s mother, go to the outskirts of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, to help her sister through labour. They hear the blast; they see grey clouds mushrooming toward the heavens. They survive. Yes –– saved by the newborn.
Am I going too far? Too many convenient coincidences, too much tragedy?
In their situation, survival is relative. People call these women “Nagasaki women.” The grandmother knows her daughter will never find a spouse in their hometown, where survivors will forever remember how muscles melted and concrete crumbled and DNA mutated.
So they leave. To Fukushima.
March 6, 2015.
What if Yuriko’s grandmother and mother did almost die of the atomic bomb? Because then, I can write a passage like this:
The women in Yuriko’s family carry a secret. A terrible secret that began as a lie.
It goes like this: “I am from Fukushima.” So said her mother. She might as well have been; she spent almost all her life there, and knew of no other place.
But no — she was from Nagasaki.
When she became pregnant with Yuriko, she prayed every day to the Shinto gods. She prayed to chase away her nightmares of brainless, limbless, soulless babies.
Yuriko was born. Beautiful; normal. Now, twenty-two years later, she flees from Fukushima, just as her mother once fled from Nagasaki. She can never go home — even their house’s doorknob is contaminated. She stares at her reflection in the mirror and thinks, My genes are ruined. I am deformed.
I pause and read the passage out loud. Not bad, I think. Then I wonder if I could write this in Japanese. In Japanese, to be deformed — kikei: 奇形 — is to possess a rare or strangely fantastic form. To diverge from the shapes surrounding it, like a red cube floating in a garden of grey pebbles. These oddities are collected and displayed at museums: polka-dotted boar, sunflowers that grow from another sunflower. Aberration, from a safe distance, is precious.
But Yuriko, my Yuriko, is not a work of avant-garde art. She is distorted within.
March 7, 2015.
I reread the last lines from my passage. My genes are ruined. I am deformed. Dramatic. Melodramatic?
Why make Yuriko deformed? Why not write about a beautiful, healthy woman blooming with love and youth? I have tried to write happy stories, but as the characters grow into themselves they reveal their acne and bulimia and their urge to strangle their own reflections in the mirror. It’s not me — they are already deformed.
Yuriko: was she already deformed? That is, the woman I’m calling Yuriko, the one whose name I no longer remember. Yuriko, with her crooked dimples. As we were leaving the izakaya, I saw Satoshi reach his fingers toward one of them, touch it gently. A tremor; joy.
My Yuriko: does she have dimples? No — she can’t. She doesn’t smile; she’s named after me. My Yuriko, my Lily Child.
If she — I — were named after a flower less haughty, then maybe I could write a sunlit story about first kisses and sakura petals and smiling girls. But to do this, we must learn to be a different flower: yamato nadeshiko: 大和撫子. A delicate pink carnation, which the Japanese call the “caressed child of the great harmony.”
The name Yamato Nadeshiko looks human. Can you imagine a gentleman bowing at the hips and lowering his gaze to say: Hello Miss Yamato, how do you do? But I am not fooled; I know its other name. Dianthus superbus.
How distasteful it would be to invite a creature named Dianthus Superbus to tea. The truth is that everything about it is rudely unfeminine. It shoots up lanky. Its petals branch into filaments, wiry as split ends. It hides in its cells a toxin, though it is too feeble to cause any harm. The Chinese sages grind it into a contraceptive — maybe this suits the Japanese ideal, for no woman should dare give birth to what is not pristine, perfect.
All this violence, just to tell my story.
March 11, 2015.
I just came back from the clinic. It’s a girl.
What will I name her? English or Japanese? Any name would be false: she is not and will not be Japanese. But Japanese blood courses through her veins and she can never be anything else.
I cannot name her.