17 years ago I asked my future father in law for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Surprisingly or suspiciously, he quickly offered it up and then we spent the rest of the night drinking beer and sake. The next step was to introduce me to the relatives, so a family reunion was arranged at the grandmother’s farmhouse in Chiba. Aunts, uncles, and cousins came from Tokyo, Kyoto, and Shikoku to meet me, the goofy American that would soil their gene pool.
Grandmother was a semi-retired rice farmer and had taken care of the farm ever since grandfather had died of a stroke some 30 years earlier. As we pulled into the dirt driveway, we saw her standing in the doorway, cane in hand and flashing us a smile that exposed two of her remaining three teeth. It was a large, traditional Japanese house with a small garden attached and a few persimmon trees on the western side. Mother quickly waddled from the car and gave grandmother a succession of quick bows. No hugging. This is Japan where you could go a decade as an adult and not even realize you haven’t touched either of your parents. Father gave a formal bow to his mother-in-law and my wife followed with the same. Of course, I did likewise, but to me the grandmother flashed a grin and chuckled slightly.
Finally, all the relatives showed up and we had a dinner of hairy crab, shabu shabu, vegetables from the garden and beer from the liquor store. Lots of beer from the liquor store because father likes to drink on vacation. A little prodding about where I was from and my natto abilities by the relatives, but otherwise they treated me like a new member of the family. I only wish I had understood more than 8% of what they were telling me.
Around nine o’clock grandmother was ready for bed. The uncles, aunts and cousins left to stay at a nearby hotel and mother and my wife went off to bed after taking a bath. Father, God bless him, stayed up drinking with me until 11pm before his head got wobbly. I helped father up and asked him where I was sleeping. Not being technically married yet meant that my wife and I couldn’t sleep in the same room even though we were living together in Tokyo. Grandmother’s house, grandmother’s rules. Father gathered his wits enough to make zero sense, so I had no idea what room to go to.
I walked down the hallway and saw my luggage stacked neatly in front of a fusuma, so I slid it open to see if that was my room for the next two nights. The curtains were open so the moonlight shone into the tatami room. I couldn’t find the light switch, so it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. In the center of the room was a perfectly made up futon and pillow. The only other thing on the floor was a butsudan against the wall with a black and white framed picture of a man that must have been grandpa. About two thirds up the wall were dozen framed pictures of scowling men, some of them in WW2 soldier uniforms. They were hung in a manner that allowed them to lean forward and it seemed like they were all staring directly at the pillow. Right where I, the American who was banging one of theirs, was to sleep.
Rural Chiba in the winter is dead silent at night. No streetlights or passing cars to flash in the window allowed for the perfect environment for the moon to do its business on the room. I undressed and crawled under the futon and spread out on my back, scanning the men who were obsessed with me. This was grandma’s prayer room and she had decided this is where I needed to sleep.
The scowling men weren’t really scowling I figured out after staring back at them for a few minutes. These were Japanese men of the early 20th century and you didn’t smile in pictures then. These were men whose lives were necessary for me to have the wife I have. Even the soldiers, at whom I first recoiled at upon seeing, became human. One of them was about 30, which was my age at the time. He had on the flat Japanese army hat and a few medals pinned to his chest. All of them were dead now and grandma was praying for them every morning.
Do I hate what Japan did in WW2? Without hesitation. But I didn’t realize until then that I didn’t really hate the average Japanese person who lived at that time. These were fathers and sons that had been sucked from their rice farms to kill other men on the whims of their government. Should all the memories from the Japanese that died in the war be locked into a museum like some kind of eternal prison of shame for China and Korea to wield like a baton for political advantage? I watch what’s happening in the U.S. and the scorn and hatred for Southern heritage and think, “Why can’t they honor their dead?”