So Many Words

Today was my last day in Japan. Yu and I wrapped up one last interview of a scientist this morning in Tōkyo and that, as they say, was it. With a few hours to kill, I went to Ueno to check out the National Museum. And as usual, I found inspiration in yet another unexpected place.

This is a photo of a Buddhist text written a godawful long time ago. It’s long, as you can see, but what you don’t know is that the scroll still has several yards way down there at the end. Look at that text. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? It looks like it was shot off a laser printer, the lines are so crisp, the black so deep. The crazy thing is, we’re looking at the end of the text right here. The beginning is rolled up and tucked away. Couldn’t see it if you wanted to.

Last count, I’ve got 100 pages of fairly small print of my own scrawl in a black Moleskine. It’s solely from the last two weeks. Sitting in my backpack, just begging to be put to use. And so the work begins, I suppose. Of finding beginnings and endings and middles and all the parts that belong, and the so many that do not.

Thank you to everyone who followed along over the past fourteen days. To the folks who left comments on Facebook, retweeted me on Twitter, or had just enough time to thumbs-up an Instagram photo: thank you, and I hope you stay tuned for the stories as they publish. It’s been a hell of a trip. Thanks for joining.

All My Best,

Matt

Uncertainty: Visiting Yasukuni and Yūshūkan

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So close, yet so far away: Standing the closest I’ve ever been to my grandfather’s service as an Imperial Japanese Army aviator in WWII.

 

This weekend, my dad and I visited Yasukuni and Yūshūkan, the Tokyo war shrine and accompanying museum that honors two-plus million Japanese war dead. You may recognize the place due to the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Abe’s 2013 visit to a place that honors, amongst others, 1,068 war criminals — including fourteen Class A war criminals. Not ambiguously bad, either. But death-by-hanging for seven, 20-to-life for five, died-before-conviction x 2 level of bad.

I was conflicted about going to Yasukuni at all. But if intent is a measure of human action, then know I went only to understand. We only recently learned that my dad’s father was a Japanese Imperial Army enlisted aviator. Which means that not only do I have a great-uncle who died as a U.S. Marine on Tarawa; I also have a grandfather who fought on the other side of WWII. While I’m pretty damn familiar with U.S. military history and how we think about service in this country, I have no clue about Japan other than it seems a taboo subject. Yasukuni seemed an essential place to visit if one wants to get a feel for the complex relationship Japan has with its military history.

Lacking the context of its history, Yasukuni might just seem like an oversized Shintō shrine. I suppose maybe that’s how a global pop star ends up posting what he thinks is a nice pic on Instagram like it’s no big deal. This is gong to come off as maybe odd or self-exonerating, but I purposefully avoided the main shrine, which is where the Japanese go to offer their prayers. The idea of doing so made me feel even more complicit than I already felt with pen and notebook in hand.

I entered the accompanying Yūshūkan museum thinking maybe I’d find some nugget of information regarding my grandfather. Standing in front of the Zero pictured above seemed like a promising start. But I left off-balance, having spent two-plus hours immersed in a version of Japanese military history I struggled to rectify with what I know to be true. In this version, Nanking did not happen, comfort women didn’t exist, and Hirōshima was barely worth mention save its relationship to the end of the war. Several rooms were dedicated to the heroism of the Special Attack Units, or tokkō-tai. You might know them by the aviation-specific tokkō-tai: kamikaze. Suicide attackers. In the final rooms, beneath ten thousand portraits of war dead, I read death letters. At least one of whom was written by a man slated to be executed for war crimes the following morning. It was like walking through a museum I thought only possible in the pages of Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle: unsettling.

I’m still trying to come to grips with that I learned at Yasukuni and Yūshūkan. What I know is that my grandfather was somehow a part of it, in whatever role he served. And he lived to consider that role as the controversies surrounding Yasukuni evolved in the decades until his death in 1987. What he thought, though, is more than likely the answer I’ll never find.

 

 

 

 

 

The Kaze no Denwa

IMG_4934A few days ago, I dropped Yu, the interpreter who made my time in Tōhoku possible, off at the train station in Ichinoseki, punched my destination into Google Maps, and drove a couple of hours up the coast to Ōtsuchi. My destination (or so I thought) was the kaze no denwa, or “wind phone.”

I learned about the kaze no denwa through an amazing episode on This American Life, which you can find here. The episode is called “One Last Thing Before I Go” and the segment, produced by Miki Meek, is titled “Really Long Distance.” It’s the story of a telephone booth in Itaru Sasaki’s backyard, which he put up before 3.11.11 to help him grieve his lost brother. He’d enter the phone booth, which has a rotary phone (unconnected to anything,) dial a number, and talk to his brother. Since 2011, Japanese grieving the loss of loved ones in the tsunami have streamed to Ōtsuchi to use Sasaki’s wind phone.

On the drive, I confess to having little idea of what I’d do once I got to the phone. And once I got to Ōtsuchi, I learned that the Atlas Obscura blurb about the kaze no denwa had an incorrect map of the location. I had a hell of a time trying to find it. Despite the notoriety of it, no one seemed to know where it was. And, being sans interpreter, I had to fall back on rudimentary Japanese and a lot of hand gestures and mouth noises. At one point, I was wandering through what was clearly personal property, cutting myself on thorns and brambles and generally cursing the Atlas Obscura entry in addition to my own incompetence. As the hours passed, my anxiety crept up as I feared that I would have to return to Kesennum empty-handed.

I finally found a very nice lady in her yard, who spoke enough English and knew where it was, to guide me on foot. And just like that, there I was.

It wasn’t a pretty day. The peaceful views of the Pacific from Sasaki-san’s back yard are now blocked by construction of the Sanriku Expressway. It had been raining intermittently from a gray sky. Gloomy, not the picture of resolution or catharsis. And I still didn’t know what I’d say on the phone. I’m not a superstitious person, and I don’t follow the ancestor-worship that survives in today’s odd blend of Shinto and Buddhist tradition that is secular Japan’s take on a national religion. I knew she wouldn’t be on the other end. So, I sat down on the bench and wrote her a letter that I could read over the phone.

A few of you have reached out and expressed your hope that I can find peace from this trip. And I thank you for it, but this aspect of the trip — the search for answers regarding my grandmother’s death — has never been about peace. Life is messy, and death makes it even more so. I didn’t know my grandmother, not really. So maybe I came to Japan to grieve, but maybe I also came to understand who I am and how the tsunami defines some aspect of it.

When I left, the clouds didn’t part and no angels sang. But it felt good to have made it there despite a few hiccups, like it was the right thing to do after all. I guess that’s a kind of peace.

Note: The coordinates for the kaze no denwa are 39 degrees, 23 minutes, 9.98 seconds North by  141 degrees, 55 minutes, 54.92 seconds East. Also, if you enter the kanji for kaze no denwa ( 風の電話  ) into Google Maps, it will take you right there. If you’re headed there and want some tips, shoot me an email. Due to increasing traffic, it’s only open to the public 10a-3p Sunday through Saturday, so factor that into your planning.