So It Goes

My third and final story from my Pulitzer Center-supported trip to Japan last year published on Monday. It was the eight-year anniversary of 3/11 and the death of my Japanese grandmother as a result of the tsunami. And I have to say that “After the Tsunami,” the essay title my editor and I settled on, was in the works for the duration of those eight years.

Those of you who’ve hung around this humble blog for a while know that I started writing about the tsunami in 2012 in a series of posts called “Tsunami Debris.” It was winter here in AK, and it had been a year since I’d deployed to Japan. I recall reading about the arrival of tsunami debris on Alaska shores, and making the mistake of reading the comments on one story in particular about the cost of removing the detritus arriving on Alaska’s remote shores. The comment was something to the effect of “make Japan pay for it.”

I was pissed. I’d lost my grandmother, seen the devastation for myself, and still left Japan without a sense of having really participated from and confused about who I was as someone of Japanese descent. So I started writing.

I never finished the posts, by which I meant that I never completely documented my deployment. But when, a year later and facing a requirement to produce several essay manuscripts for my first MFA workshop, I went back to the blog posts. There was some good stuff in there. So, I grabbed it all, mashed it up with a bunch of other fragments pulled from memory and research, and called it good. Over the course of the MFA program (three years) I resurrected the essay every year, worked on it, and then ultimately put it away in favor of other projects. Every year, I pored back over it, trying to figure out what was at its core even as I poured more material into it.

It was good. But something was missing. For all the research, all the memories, I felt I still didn’t understand the nature of what happened in 2011. I lacked basic facts. Like exactly what happened to my grandmother. And how the people of Tōhoku had recovered since then. I needed texture.

Landing a Pulitzer Center grant, and a pitch to re-shape “Tsunami Debris” into something that wasn’t just memories and things I found on the internet meant that I’d have the chance to go and see for myself. And that’s exactly what I did last summer.

“How was Japan?” friends asked when I got back. Never a particularly eloquent conversationalist, I instead poured the experience into the three stories I wrote. Hopefully, you see that.

Happily, “After the Tsunami” has made it out into the world enough for me to receive very kind notes from strangers, a handful of whom have encouraged me to continue to look at the 2011 Japan tsunami. So while I feel like publishing the essay put a coda on one chapter, there are more stories I want to tell. Hopefully I get a chance to do that. Thank you to everyone who’s been a part of the journey so far. Stick around.

Uncertainty: Visiting Yasukuni and Yūshūkan


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.






Remnants of the Tsunami


I’m not sure where I end and the picture begins.

A true professional would never say that he/she wanted to run away from his/her subject. But on my last day in Kesennuma, I visited a local museum that had a tsunami exhibit. It was one of the last things I did during my time in Tōhoku (the last was sit down for a re-interview that I thought would take fifteen minutes but ended up over an hour long.) The museum was, to say the least, difficult.

We’re supposed to be objective, unemotional, detached. Yet we’re are also supposed to remain human. I’m not sure how that’s possible.

One of the fundamental aspects of storytelling is the recognition of what makes us human. Loss, grief, love: these are just a few of the things that we connect with when we read a story, then pass it along. The best stories stay with us.

I suppose it helps to not have a personal connection if you want to remain objective. And in this case, the storyteller by necessity retreats. The story takes precedence. Nobody remembers the writer; everybody remembers the story.

I suppose that in my case — which is to say, the three stories I’m to write — I’m hoping for a happy medium; an even balance of story and teller. I want you to know that I’m invested. But I also want you to be able to look beyond the authenticity factor of my own experience and recognize something beyond the primacy of the narrator. I get it: it’s a tall order. But I am nothing if not aspirational, if not hopeful.

Here is where I say something smart. Where I reference my betters, or the type of story I aspire to write. But I have none of that for you this day, folks. All I’ve got is a personal story, researched to the extent possible given a working life, and a passion to get it done. I’m not sure that’s enough to go the distance. But in the next few months, you’ll be able to judge for yourselves. I hope you find that my words are equal to the task.