When my mind is idle and I’m looking for something to be anxious about, I rehearse rescuing the precious things that accompanied my father on his exodus from Japan, and that are now in my possession. I imagine that the house is on fire. Quick! I trace my path through the house grabbing all of the things that I can’t live without (besides my family of course). First: upstairs, my dad’s leather-bound dictionaries, gold writing faded and worn (lower shelf upstairs guest bedroom), his tailored suit jackets, with gold silk lining, that fit my broad shoulders perfectly though about an inch too short (bedroom closet). Now downstairs: the lacquer rice bowl that was my grandmother’s wedding present to my parents, dutifully presented on my dad’s first return trip home (family room tansu). And don’t, ever, forget his abacus (dining room china cabinet). These things are symbols of my father’s dreams, and reminders of his potential, his talent and skill with numbers passed on to me. But they are also icons of a dream life obscured by trauma that I can’t quite unearth, and by addiction and effort to wash it all away. They are reminders that I might need to step in, to complete his dream.
It was 1963, my father had just finished college and was expected to return home, but instead he booked a one-way ticket to the west, via the great welcome mat of Vancouver BC. He left Japan with his arms outstretched behind him, balled in a fist except his middle fingers.
I have a fuzzy polaroid of him just after his arrival, though the colors have muted to shades of greenish-grey. My father is looking very clever, delighted, with his a tailor-made business jacket slung over his shoulder. His eyes wide and his short black hairs all smart enough to point up and to his left as if they were going somewhere important. He is standing on a street corner with his Canadian classmate, the one he met at college and who he saw as his ticket away from the duties calling him back home, a whisp of a person with a flash of long blond hair blowing in the wind.
My father’s life began in 1944 amid air raids in a small town called Maizuru, north of Kyoto on the Sea of Japan. His father was away, working as a guard in the nearby prisoner of war camp. His mother was left with charge of my father as an infant, and his 3 older siblings. And uncertainty about whether or if the necessities of life, let alone life itself, would be present in the next moment. During the frequent raids, his mother had to run with her children, my dad strapped to her back, to the nearest bomb shelter. As the story goes, his mother resented him because he was so big and heavy. That sturdy boy was 15 months old when the US dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Japan did not see that kind of destruction again until the 2011 earthquake and tsunami near Sendai Japan and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. I was walking from the train station to my office when I saw the image on the front of the Times, which showed a scene of gross disaster, buildings fallen, rubble and the stuff of life scattered, deserted of people except those that might have been trapped underneath, except for one lone person squatting on a ledge looking at a loss for who, what, where, when, and why.
I stepped out of the forward march and held tight to the brick wall of the Irish pub that sits every morning and waits. The scene resembled that which I hold in my heart to help me understand what had hurt my father, what pushed him to leave, and then to numb his mind every waking hour of my childhood. Japan for me is a child, wounded by war, by US, by the relentless bombs that were dropped on cities and hometowns, and people, to destroy them, and finally by the atom bombs that we used to punish the people whose government and military had been bad. By exploding them and burning their flesh off and ripping love apart.
Eventually there were eight Kondo children, four boys and four girls, and while WWII had ended, the war among these siblings for parental love and attention, and the family’s meager resources, had just begun. They knew it was a zero-sum game.
School, numbers, came easy to my father. His sharpness, skill with the abacus, and charisma, won his father’s favor. Eventually, my grandfather decided that the family would invest only in my father’s education. When it was time for my father to enter high school, he convinced my grandfather to allow him to move away from his seven siblings in to one of the family’s properties on his own. He bought my dad, and none of his siblings, a Vespa. For the sake of his studies. The house may have had two rooms. But they were his rooms.
My dad’s two older brothers used their might to try to put my dad in his right place. In Japan, everyone must have a hobby – a sport or an extracurricular – like an apple must have a variety. Typical hobbies for boys might include baseball or judo. And when someone asks, “What is your hobby?” It is typical to reply, “I am baseball.” On my first trip to meet my family in Japan, I asked my uncle, my dad’s younger brother,
“Ojisan, chichi no shumi wa nandeshitaka?” in my formal Tokyo dictionary Japanese. What was my dad’s hobby?
He opened his eyes wide and then tightened them.
“Bodi birudo,” he replied. Bodybuilding. My dad’s strength spelled the end of their being pushed around by older brothers.
While my dad’s older brothers did their duty, by going to work full time for the family business after high school, my father left to attend Meiji University in Kyoto to study business. At least in theory, to ensure longevity of the family fish shop. He was the only one of his siblings to go to college. But while my dad was in college, his father died of a stroke. And then there was no more duty or obligation to go back home or remain in Japan. A kite whose string was cut.
My father didn’t stay in Vancouver for long, and eventually parted from his whispy Canadian classmate and made his way, with his abacus, down to Seattle. What little English he did speak was likely incomprehensible, though he learned quickly to order a, “Haambaagaa.” How his Japanese gut could have withstood frequent encounters with the fatty red meat, an uncommon food at least decades ago on the island nation, I do not know.
After arriving in Seattle, he found his new home in the St Regis Hotel, and his new family in the adjacent Gibson House that had a bar and restaurant. My father would eventually linger and cling to this place over the next 30 years. The St. Regis was one of many Single-Resident Occupancy hotels (SROs) in downtown Seattle at the time. There were also many in Pioneer Square and Chinatown (now called the International District). They had been built around the turn of the 20th century to house workers of Seattle’s modest industrialization. Many of them fell in to disrepair, and most were demolished by the early 2000s. And this is unfortunate because they represented a solid supply of affordable housing near Seattle’s downtown, and they played a large role in Seattle’s immigrant history.
My mother tells me that at the bar he, with his abacus, would challenge people with a calculator to sum or multiply giant numbers. And he always won.
“Seeeee? What I tell you.”
His charisma and his skill with numbers won him a crowd, a place of belonging in America. A new family of his choosing, instead of the one granted to him and the one he never wanted to see again (except his younger brother). And it won him a job. Eventually he became the manager of the restaurant and bar at the Gibson House. He managed the purchasing and sales, accounting, hiring and firing. Some times he was chef or helped with food preparation. On his desk sat a pen holder. In between the two pens sat the three brass monkeys on a stone pedestal. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Fulfill your duty, do it right, and don’t ask questions. He would work here until the day his left corroded artery became completely blocked, at age 56, leaving him unable to walk and largely unable to communicate.
But my father never taught me to use the abacus, let alone to speak Japanese. These were relics of a life that ended in 1963, signed and sealed in 1970 when he married my mother on the eve of his visa expiring. My mom, with her long bleached-blond American hair, of mostly German ancestry but who claims Oregon as her creed. He especially liked her; he might have even envied her because she truly had no family obligations. She had lost both parents by the age of 10.
At the same time, my father would inform anyone that the Japanese were the supreme beings to grace planet earth. I believed without question that Japanese were the smartest, the best at math and science, the most technologically advanced, genetically supreme.
The abacus was part of his evidence. It was the only tool or instrument he needed as he embarked on his independent life, and he kept it at his side like any modern person does their phone. It is an ancient tool, its ancestors developed in Mesopotamia somewhere around 3000 BC, moving to China around 100 BC, and eventually to Japan in the 14th century. It was a tool for merchants and traders, and was likely the primary tool that my dad’s family’s fish-import business used to track purchases and sales.
When my dad was young, if he wasn’t helping with the family fish wholesale business before and after school in that small sea-side town, he was at abacus-school learning to master its use. His skill with the abacus was partly what set him apart from his seven siblings, and convinced his father to set him free.
But he didn’t want to have anything more to do with Japan. It signaled a set of people and system of rules and obligations that cramped his style. He despised other Japanese-Americans, and any other flavor of Asian he encountered. He’d rather be locked in a boiler room filled with cockroaches than spend time with them. He wanted to be American, and he would cut the climbing rope to let free any desperately clinging post-, former-, still-Japanese, without hesitation and would never look back.
I met other ni-sei and even san-sei that spoke home-Japanese or at least Nihonglish with their parents, with those short, round verbs, and the “no?” instead of harsh “ka?” to signal question, all spelling intimacy, in a language in which love is not explicitly expressed.
But I was that daughter-of-a-native-born who barely spoke a word of it. My dad only kept his Japanese so that he could keep up with his younger brother on his regularly scheduled one-hour calls. I would sit and listen-in. Over the years he would throw in English words more and more frequently, which I used to follow-along. After the call, he’d laugh to himself, and admit to me that his brother was frustrated with how terrible his Japanese had become.
Japanese might have been my key to access to a world forbidden to me. Was it my world? Did my grandmother, then still alive, know about me? Did she know what had hurt my dad, did she know I was trying my best to finish his American dream; was she proud of me?
The cherry trees wake in April in Seattle, flashing their pink ruffles. This signals time for the bon odori Japanese festival in Japantown. My mother thought it was important for me to go, and she took me on occasion. But she would have brought me whether or not I had a Japanese daddy. The world, at least the parts we could drive to in our little green Volvo, was our playground. They would close a street on the veranda of the Buddhist temple and sell bake-sale takoyaki, and onigiri rice balls stuffed with pickled ume or salty salmon and covered in that toasty seaweed, and, home-made signs written in Japanese, by the Japanese parents. I saw other Japanese, and Japanese mixed kids, and their parents dressed in kimono or yukata and speaking Japanese, and performing the bon odori dance that I didn’t know. Though I recognized the food, the decoration, I always felt the celebration was not for me.
I learned partly from my dad, not through any lesson or tutoring, but through osmosis that numbers were the essence of life; they were my father’s occupationThey were at the top of his list of things, along with liquor and cigarettes, that were worthy of his time, his schedule.
On the weekends, we would hop into his Toyota Corolla station wagon. He had seat coverings of woven little wooden beads that hurt a little and also gave a thousand little massages over your back side. And allowed the air to circulate under your thighs, which was a blessing but only on the few hot days of Seattle’s summer. Our outings, for years and years, were to the Costco on 4th Ave South in Seattle’s Duwamish Valley. A big-box store that surely caused countless small businesses to close shop, but it offers a nice taste of home when I’m away from Seattle. Who wants to buy a pound of ribs when you could buy an entire five-pound rack (or more!)? Who wants 12 rolls of toilet paper when you could have *12 times 12* rolls all in one pack? Who wants 3 ounces of vanilla when you could have 32 ounces? And in my dad’s case, who wants to buy 1 pack of cigarettes, 1 bottle of Gran Marnier, and 1 package of Top Ramen when you could fill the giant American grocery cart with them? The unit price was so much lower. My dad knew exactly how much lower and he would include me in fact-finding missions to regular grocery stores to uncover retail value for single units. “Seee what I mean?” he would say.
And God help a cashier that made a mistake at check-out. My dad would tally the total cost in his head, tax included, as we amassed his important items through the store, and if something was amiss at checkout there would be a hostile fact-finding mission to figure out where the cashier had gone absolutely dead wrong. And I got to hear the colorful descriptors of the poor “sonofabitch” the entire ride home. Never try to fool my dad with numbers, he will smack you down like the rat you are and leave you to rot in the sewer. Count or be counted. It was father-daughter time very, efficiently, rationally spent.
While my father was a loyal employee at the Gibson House, and managed a tight ship, his employers treated him like a servant. His pay remained low, he didn’t receive any benefits. His employers would not invest in his retirement. Instead, they promised him that when it came time for me to go to college, they would pay. In Japan an employer’s promise is as good as a written contract signed in court. Though he had divorced Japan, he kept faith in this basic premise. My mother pleaded with him to recognize that the American way is to lie, cheat and steal, and that his employers would not fulfill their obligation.
Of course they didn’t, but we did get invited to their hydroplane parties for a time every summer. I would stand on the veranda of that lovely, now multi-million dollar home overlooking Lake Washington on those statistically-reliable beautiful sunny Seattle summer days and eat shrimp cocktail until the acid of the cocktail sauce singed my fingers, slashed by the razor-sharp tails. My dad would be loudly and lively inebriated, the life of the party. I wonder which part of it all they subsidized with the profits they earned from his devoted labor.
This well-resourced crowd didn’t know how to regard me. I was the daughter of their servant. The one who helped them keep costs low and profits high. Using numbers. Was I destined to become their servant too? What on earth could my future hold? Throughout my childhood they would repeatedly ask me: “Michelle, are you going to follow in your dad’s footsteps and manage the bar when he retires?”
“Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha”
I never got to finish my sentence.
My dad’s employer’s twin sons were always home from Stanford law school for the summer, and I’d get included in grabbing some tubes, walking down to the lake and floating among the lake weeds and the weed-smokers and my organs would shudder as the blue angels made their promenade across the sky. The re-occurring thought, If only I could drive us home, splashed around my head.
I didn’t inherit a family from my father, no obaachan, no ojiichan. Instead he gave me the knowledge that rather than seek out worldly possessions, his abacus included, I must grasp on to education, squeeze it, savor it, own it. Throughout my life I would search for my Dad, and some honest, sober, expression of love. But if I ever caught up to him he would turn me right back around to face my real duty, my education. If I needed belonging, identity, I could find it in any math problem tossed my way.
When it came time, I admitted to my dad that I was going to enter a PhD program. I braced myself for his reaction. Perhaps by then I was permanently braced, to shield myself from the uninvited, disgusting reactions that had already been thrown my way. I knew that PhD’s were viewed as esoteric, even more so in Japan, a sure way to kill opportunity for meaningful employment (for men) and matrimonial sponsorship (for women). But no one gave birth to me so that I could serve tea to men, have their children and quit work, then cook and clean for them until I died.
It was an unseasonably warm day during Seattle’s fallwinterspring season. My Dad and I were at Alki beach on one of our usual Sunday morning outings for coffee (aka liquid sunshine) and a walk. He sat in his wheelchair at the café table reading the newspaper backward, the Japanese-foreword, as usual.
“Dad,” I announced, “I’m going to get a PhD.”
He looked up, and raised his eyebrows. “Why?” he said, with the y curling up into the atmosphere, as if it were utterly alone without answer.
Oh no not again, I thought. What kind of argument will it take this time? “Because I want to be the boss.”
He smiled and quickly tilted his up and back down, “Okay.” He said, and went back to reading his paper.