New Edition of Kwaidan: Japanese Ghost Stories and Insect Studies

Spine-chilling old Japanese ghost stories and thought-provoking essays by Lafcadio Hearn.

I loved putting this book together. I’ve added a new introduction, wonderful Japanese prints for the cover and each story, e-book and audiobook versions. Priced below $10 for the beautiful paperback, 1 Audible credit for the audiobook, and $2 for the e-book makes this a true cheap thrill!


Each story and essay is headed up with a delightful illustration. This collection of twenty ghost stories and three insect studies are from a number of Lafcadio Hearn’s writings and include his book ”KWAIDAN: Stories and Studies of Strange Things” which was originally published in 1904, the year of his death. In this 2023 edition, I’ve kept the title Kwaidan which is actually the English pronunciation of the Japanese kanji 怪談 meaning “ghost stories”. Several stories are included here which were not in the original Kwaidan book. To help contemporary readers, I added illustrations, translations of the story titles, attached Hearn’s notes to the text for easier access, and created an audiobook version I narrated under my pseudonym Nanako Water. (The audiobook is available on Audible.)

A short video clip I made for this book with a biwa player singing the song that appears in the first ghost story – THE STORY OF MIMI-NASHI-(Earless) HŌÏCHI. Enjoy!

Risking Life at Folklife

Risking Life at Folklife

The Folklife Festival was finally back after two years of the forced pandemic hiatus. An email from Fresh Ground Stories Storytelling Group mentioned a “Liars  Contest” on the Armory stage. I’ve never been in a story telling contest  but since the Seattle Center is only a twenty minute walk away, I thought, Why not? Here’s a chance to test out one of my short stories. My Japanese American story.

Despite the cool drizzle, I was happy to get out of my isolation. The unfamiliar number of people walking around the Seattle Center made me nervous and I kept a hand on my mask. Exposing my face as an Asian American woman had certain implications during the pandemic. Recent events in Texas and Buffalo made every place feel dangerous. The Armory’s huge main room has a food court and a stage in the corner. Maybe a hundred folding chairs had been set up in front of the stage. The contest had started by the time I got there. I ended up in one of the few empty seats near the edge of the crowd. 

The moderator knew most of the story tellers he introduced on stage. Were they all from the same group? It only occurred to me later that a “Liars Contest” might be a tradition familiar to a certain ethnic group – white, Mid-west, rural? From the meetup group I joined last year, I knew Fresh Ground Stories was the Seattle version of the Moth. I joined their Zoom meeting hoping to learn tips which might help in my writing. But I didn’t volunteer to speak. I only observed a few story tellers through the distant lens of my computer. Being in the Armory with lots of people was a completely different experience. Then when the moderator sat down in a chair very close to me, I saw my chance and asked him to add my name “Nana” to his paper list. No last name. No incriminating evidence.

Because I didn’t know anyone here, there was nothing to  lose. If I made a fool of myself, no one would know. I listened carefully to the dozen or so storytellers as they went up on the stage one by one. My favorite was the My First Fish tale told by an older woman. The woman looked like she could have been the school librarian at my elementary school in Boulder. She starts off with a sympathetic hero – herself as a young girl left behind by the men who go fishing. The irritated grandmother then takes the girl fishing. When the girl catches a big fish, the storyteller added drama and delight by having the fish leap out of reach. The grandmother’s fantastic skills, a lopsided mountain goat, and a bear all played parts in the chase for the fish. Her story reminded me of my childhood growing up in Colorado. The elements of surprise and suspense kept me hooked.

Finally, the moderator looks at his list and calls out, “Nana?” and I stand up. Everyone looked at me with curiosity as I walk to the stage and stand in front of the mike which the moderator adjusted down to my short height.  What’s this older Japanese American woman going to say?

I looked down on the men, women and kids still wet from the rain, and confessed this was my first time at a story telling contest. I knew my fear would be small compared to everything else. The events of the past two years tired us all out. Shootings, homelessness, and of course, our old friend Corona forced us to struggle between the need to and the fear of connecting with others. Getting together with friends isn’t to be taken for granted anymore. I reached back to the Before Time and said, “I miss going to the Maneki for a drink. You know, that tiny bar in the old restaurant in the ID.” A few nodded their heads in recognition. The Maneki is an old Japanese American restaurant that survived the internment of the Japanese Americans during WWII. 

I chose a folktale as the base for my story because I believe there’s a reason folktales survive. But I added details to the story to ground it in Seattle. The hero in my story is a young man, Lee, who regularly gets drunk, chats, then falls asleep in the Maneki bar before he goes off to work the night shift at the Uwajimaya supermarket. As if I were one of the regulars at the Maneki bar and witnessed all the fantastic things that happened, I told the story. In my story, one of the other regulars gets annoyed by the young drunk and spits a Rainier cherry pit that lands on top of the sleeping man’s head. A week later a tree sprouts on Lee’s head. The tree grows fruit. The tree is chopped off. Then mushrooms grow on the tree stump.

The moderator’s whistle blew cutting my story short right when the lumberjack chops the tree stump out of the hero’s head. Had the audience heard enough of the story to give me feedback? I couldn’t tell.  I’m not good at reading audience reactions. But as I walked back to my seat, one young man said to me, “I want to hear the rest of your story.” I was taken aback. I didn’t want to interrupt the rest of the story telling contest so I just smiled my thanks at him and sat down. I felt grateful for that young man’s interest. At least one person liked the story. Then one more story teller followed and the moderator gave prizes, including one to the woman with the fish story, but nothing for me. Everyone clapped and the event was over. Time to go home.

Then I got a big surprise. A woman came up to me and said, “Tell the rest of your story.”

More people came and stood around me, “Yes, tell us the rest of the story.”

So around ten people waited for me to tell the rest of the story. I should have stood up so they could hear me better, but I was so busy collecting my thoughts I remained seated in my folding chair.  I told the rest of the story to this small group crowded around me. When I finished, they commented. “That was a good story. I liked it being set in Seattle.”  

“I liked the tree growing on top of the kid’s head.” 

“I liked how the pandemic played a part.”

I was stunned. These strangers went to the trouble of coming up to me after the event was over and asked me to tell the rest of my story. Then they patiently stood around me and listened. Someone asked me for a card but I had none. Someone else told me about another story telling group. I felt overwhelmed by this social contact that had been absent for so long. Walking through the rain back home, my heart was full. My idea worked. I heard a Japanese folktale that resonated, then rewrote it in English, then told the story as if I was a witness to this fantastic string of events happening in the here and now. 

That experience was a wonderful reward for all those lonely hours of writing during the pandemic. Not having any idea if what I was thinking and doing would be of any interest to other people. Writing stories is like talking to yourself. Background noise of doubt, insecurities, and self-criticism fill my head as I write. Writers groups, especially the ones on Zoom, only give feedback that’s focused on writerly stuff like POV, tension, and plot. Or maybe it’s the Zoom experience itself that I found off putting. Zoom meetings were better than nothing but I felt so distant from the others. Even before the pandemic, I was not a very outgoing person. I don’t think I would have dared stand in front of a crowd back then. Did the social starvation make me into a performer?

Those people at the Folklife festival gave me a gift. It wasn’t just the speaking from the stage part. It was after the contest. By coming up to me and asking me to tell the rest of my story, they validated all my efforts of the past two years. I’ve always been interested in Japanese folktales and so I tried translating and rewriting them in English for American readers. Even when I myself didn’t understand all the elements of a story, I hoped people would get something out of it. I chose this particular story about the tree that grows on a drunk’s head for Folklife because I set it in Seattle. What could possibly be the moral of this story? For whatever reason, the story survived hundreds of years of retelling, translation from Japanese to English and my Seattle spin on it. The energy I got from  those people gathered around my folding chair at the Armory was palatable. Sharing stories is a necessity, as crucial as food and water, to our survival.

I Tried to Kill Chuck Palahniuk

I was late to Chuck Palahniuk’s May 23 story reading session in Portland. After arriving from Seattle earlier that day, I felt like a fish out of water. Yes, I felt like a tired idiom in search of a story. How to get to the pub Chuck mentioned in his online Plot Spoiler group? After witnessing a homeless man stick a needle in his own arm on the street, and a woman get in a fight with herself on the bus, I decided I needed a car. But the Lyft ap wasn’t working. Finally got an Uber but where is the darn car? Consequently I was a nervous wreck by the time I arrived at the pub where we were supposed to read out loud. I planned to read part of the novel I started since the pandemic began. My first novel at an age when I should be at the end of a career, not the beginning. A novel about war, death and the atomic bomb, when my life experiences consisted of raising three kids and teaching at Front Range Community College. Chapter One was what needed feedback. Hundreds of pages written and rewritten but Chapter One is the one that kept eluding me. I wanted readers to understand why this monster of a novel haunted me. Three generations of a Japanese immigrant family before, during and after WWII. Why should the reader care?

Months earlier, I stumbled across a writing book titled “Consider This” and liked it, although I didn’t know the author with the unpronounceable last name. I’m more of an Amy Tan fan. When I learned he wrote the novel which the Fight Club movie was based on, I was curious. I normally didn’t read that kind of stuff but my first novel was forcing me to write about things I didn’t know and didn’t want to know. Violence and gore. I even had to write a fight scene set in the American concentration camp Manzanar. Chuck’s comment that his book “Fight Club” was the young male equivalent of Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” intrigued me. I can learn something from this guy. So that was how I ended up signing up to read in front of Chuck.

In the Uber drive to the reading session, I checked my bag. Damn. Of course I forgot the story back in my room. No time to go back and get it. As I tried to sneak into the pub, I thought God. The place is packed – maybe a hundred people the same age as my kids. They’ve already listened to some readers. Good. It’s too late to put my name in the hat. But I didn’t come all the way down here from Seattle to just listen. 

Sure enough, Chuck had me write my name and add it to a hat.  A few minutes later it was called out. I gulped, stood up, faced the crowd of shining, expectant faces. Most likely as judgemental as my two millennial sons and millennial daughter. I said, I forgot to bring my story. The audience gasped. The rest is a blur.

My subconscious did a wonderful job. By giving me no time to panic and no paper to read, my naked soul was thrust out into the world. There’s a difference between reading a carefully crafted piece of work, and telling a story from the gut. The paper couldn’t shield me. The scaffolding of words couldn’t support me. I couldn’t go on auto pilot. The story had to stand on its own wobbly little legs. I forced myself to look people in the eye. I am telling you what I know. 

I blurted out what I remembered of Chapter One, then sat down in a daze. People clapped. Thank God there was a reaction. Crickets chirping would have the worst possible reaction. Even hissing and booing is better than that. Then Chuck said something to the effect of – we’re not just listening to stories, we are being called to witness. Witness? Really? They believed me! They understood what I was trying to say!

Reading my written words out loud from a piece of paper (or an I-phone) would have been a different experience. I don’t know if I could have pulled it off. For better or worse, I ended up doing an impromptu speech. But I did come away with some thoughts for my next reading. (Dee Goto asked me to read one of my short stories for the next Stories at the Panama Hotel.) 

  1. Use a story written in first person. (I’m going to have to rewrite that short story for the Panama Hotel.)
  2. Look people in the eye. For me, that means I have to memorize and practice what I’m going to say. 
  3. Let the story go. Dee had read ten of my stories for the Omoide group, and when I asked her which one she thought I should read out loud for the Stories at the Panama, she chose the scatological one. The most embarrassing one. Cringe. But if that’s the one that resonated with her, that’s the one that’ll go. My self dignity won’t stand in the way.

The night before the reading in Portland, I read the discussion thread in Chuck’s Plot Spoiler. A guy named Roy wrote: I first heard the phrase “kill the people” (meaning ‘good luck and slay the audience’) from Thelma Ritter in “All About Eve.” 

Isn’t that what we all hope to do? To reach into the soul of another person and devastate them in some way? To destroy some cherished illusion they had about the world? I want to write stories I love but they have to mean something to the readers, too. Writing and reading are solitary pursuits. Great pandemic pastimes. Consequently, it’s pretty safe. But at some point, the story (and I) have to be tested out in the cold, cruel virus-ridden world. Standing up in front of people to tell a story is the quickest way to kill or be killed. 

My Viola-Playing Mother

Published May 13, 2022 in Voices of the North American Post.

Several months ago, I joined the Rain City Symphony Orchestra. I hadn’t played cello for over 40 years! And even when I did play, I was definitely no Yo-Yo Ma. But I knew doing this almost impossible challenge would help me get my mind off my burned out, sick of the pandemic, “what am I doing trying to write a novel at my age” despair. The reason I knew this was because of my Japanese immigrant mother.

All during my childhood, Mama nagged me every day to practice my cello.

“Renshu shinasai,” she said.

As a teenager, I finally snapped back at her, “Do it yourself!”

And she did. As a middle-aged housewife with limited English, Mama started private lessons on the viola. She practiced diligently. I can still hear her struggle with the viola. She joined the Timberline community orchestra where she was the only foreigner.

She practiced daily for the next forty years. She practiced despite breaking her arm. She practiced after Dad died. She practiced until she had a stroke in 2018 when she was 86.

As I struggle every day now to remember the scales, the fingering, the bowing and the million other details of playing cello, I keep Mama in my mind — her determination to play a string instrument and connect with others. Despite her age, her language handicap, and her isolation, she managed to do her best. The essence of Gambaru.
I’m hoping to learn to play a lovely orchestral piece by Samuel Coleridge- Taylor without mistakes. But that’s not likely. The June performance is coming up soon. So I’ll just practice every day, or as much as I can, until then. Anyway, the performance is not the important part — it’s the daily efforts which challenge me and bring me joy.

Thoughts from Amy Tan’s Mother’s Day talk:

Amy Tan described her mother muse as “lihai”. Even before I knew it meant “terrible, formidable and devastating” – I was aware my own complicated maternal relationship. In the case of my mother, she was ten years old in Tokyo when WWII began. In hindsight, I believe my mother suffered from PTSD shaped by the trauma, violence and death she encountered during her formative years. Like Tan, I also remember the moment I decided to no longer fight or resist my mother. It was in 2000 when i moved back to Boulder to live near my childhood home. And when my mother realized I was listening, she began to share her wartime trauma with me. But I was in my fifties when I was finally mature enough to listen without judgement or fear.

Amy Tan’s drawing of birds is an example of how writing requires heightened sensitivity. In order to write well, I need to pay attention to the world. Not only what my mother was saying, but also what is she did NOT say. Just as Tan notices the fine lines of a feather that would normally be invisible, I must learn to listen to the whispers of the dead. So I began playing the cello again after a 50 year break. Listening to and playing fine music, note by note helps attune my writing.

Tan’s example of how she used the clues from her grandmother’s photograph to write the novel Valley of Amazement was a wonderful insight into the mind of a writer. She used those details to grow story. I also used a 1934 high school graduation photo of my long lost relative Grace to piece together the day that year when she lost both parents and her future as a mother in a terrible car accident.

In writing Grace’s story, I also tried to follow Tan’s goal of finding the emotional truth behind the factual truth. Using fragments from my father’s letters (Grace’s cousin) who immigrated to the US in 1952, a conversation with Grace’s brother who was trapped in Japan during the war, and online research – I tried to recreate her emotions while she was incarcerated in Manzanar.

Tan’s comments about her husband Lou made me aware of the sacrifices a writer must make. While women praise Lou for being such a thoughtful, supportive husband I wonder if they realize how many sacrifices Tan made to deserve such a partner? Her decision to not have children allowed her to devote her energies to writing. She is willing to work long hours alone to create great stories. I am too selfish to have a “Lou”. I wanted it all. Three children to raise myself at home, interesting work with other people, travel, and now writing only about things I am interested in. So it’s no wonder I’m so unsuccessful in my writing career and single.

Amy Tan made a huge impression on me when her Joy Luck Club novel first appeared in 1989. She inspired me to consider my Japanese American family story worthy of telling.

MEDIA RELEASE Monday May 17, 2021

Nanako Mizushima (Pen name Nanako Water) has just been published in a new Wising Up Press anthology, Flip Sides. The anthology is edited by Heather Tosteson and Charles D. Brockett.

Nanako notes that the title “Be Worthy of Your Heritage” of her short story set in 1987 Ghana, is the motto of an exclusive New England prep school. The story is told from the point of view of a Japanese-American woman, Nao. Her husband Lane, a white PhD student and her father-in-law, a prominent surgeon, are both graduates from this prep school. When Lane was a student in the early 1970’s, he learns his ancestor made the family fortune as a slave ship captain.

Description of the Anthology: Spot cleaning wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t have beliefs and ideals—or if they didn’t need to be continuously reconciled with the exigencies of raw life. This evocative and thought-provoking collection from thirty-seven authors of poetry, essay, and short fiction allows us to explore many dimensions of these tensions—from our participation in systemic harms to the most intimate of ones, from dramatic instances to quiet, almost unnoticeable ones. They are organized by the dilemmas they explore: race; nationality and culture; class and community; family dynamics; and faith. This anthology was originally, and rather playfully, conceived as two. Truth, Fair Play & Other Myths We Choose to Live By was a response to an increasingly cynical worldview that disavowed our best intentions. The other, Spot Cleaning Our Dirty Laundry, responded to an increasingly righteous reactivity in all of us that refuses to take responsibility for the harm we ourselves can cause. Then we realized they were flip sides of the same coin. We invite readers into a more intimate, not always comfortable, engagement with those two interlocked dynamics.

READ MORE: [after July 1, 2021 also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other internet booksellers]
Universal Table/Wising Up Press is an organization dedicated to exploring the complex challenges and lasting rewards of living up close and personal with pluralism in social, family, religious, and civic life, or, more simply, Finding the “We” in “Them,” the “Us” in “You.” Wising Up anthologies use literature by contemporary writers to approach various dimensions of pluralism because of the power of narrative to help us identify safely with others who may at first seem, by appearance or circumstances or culture, very different from us. The anthologies serve as an invitation to stand in that richer relation—empathic, musing, open to new meaning—with ourselves and with our neighbors.

FLIP SIDES Heather Tosteson and Charles D. Brockett, editorsWising Up Press, P.O. Box 2122, Decatur, GA 30031-2122ISBN: 978-1-7324514-9-0LC Number: 2021938070274 pp.; ill.List Price: $20.00 Distribution Arrangements: Lightning Source/IngramPublication date: July 1, 2021

Short Story Receives Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and acceptance by EASTLIT Journal

Grace photo

1935 Hawthorne High yearbook

Robert and Grace has been recognized as

(Glimmer Train Honorable Mention Short Story)

AND a revised version of the story will also appear in the November issue of  Eastlit Journal 

as Robert and the BOMB

Eastlit Journal, Creative Writing, Literature and Art focused on East and South East Asia

Thank you for your interest and support.

Nanako V Mizushima

Binge Reading


As a writer, I’m always asking myself whether I should be reading or writing–there’s only so many hours in the day, so many years left before I’m senile, so much electricity left before a magnetic sun storm wipes out civilization as we know it. Do I really have time to read? Shouldn’t I use every spare moment I have to write? To produce something? Reading something, especially a book, seems so indulgent in this age, so mentally fattening. I don’t have time to sit by the fireplace (which is never lit anyway) and curl up with a book. When I do take a break after a busy day, I either look at Facebook or turn on the flatscreen to watch movies or my favorite HBO series because I can multitask (knit, fold laundry, eat) while I absent mindedly watch.

But every once in a while I have the urge to stop consuming junk food, and fast. I turn off the computer and TV, and I pick up a book. And another book. And another book. Interestingly, when I take the time to stop writing, I have the urge to wolf down as many books as possible, in other words–binge reading. Then, to continue in my lovely eating metaphor–I have the urge to write about what I binge read–in other words–vomit out my thoughts in the hopes that a few nuggets of wisdom have remained in my brain that I can share with you.

Over the past few weeks, I read or re-read In Other Words and  Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Seamstress by Sara Tuval Bernstein, Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls, Unforgettable by Scott Simon, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, and three books by Alexandra Fuller: Don’t Lets Go the the Dogs TonightCocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and Leaving Before the Rains Come. As you may have noticed, these are narrative non-fiction books–“true stories”– except for Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (a collection of short stories.) But even Lahiri’s fiction is firmly rooted in her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. One reason I choose to read these books is for practical purposes–I need to read good non-fiction writing in order to write good non-fiction. But the other reason I’m drawn to these stories is their texture. The vitality, layers of meaning which seem to have grown in the rich soil of true life. For some inexplicable reason, a sentence written by someone who has truly experienced a tragedy, a trauma, a story rings much clearer–feels more visceral–than one written by someone who pulls it out of a hat.

I’ve picked out a few lines from Leaving Before the Rains Come because they are relevant to my own writing. Like me, Fuller is of the immigrant culture (a white girl who grew up in Africa and moved to Wyoming). In this book, Fuller explores her marriage and divorce. She explains her attraction to Charlie, a white American from an old Philadelphia family.

“I suppose in some instinctive way, I believed that Charlie would be the route back to something more solid and enduring. After all, inasmuch as settlers of anywhere could be, he was of this nation; too many generations to count back how long his people had been here. Our children would be able to stand unabashedly unshod upon this soil, they would sense their ancestors, they would feel a belonging.”

Although I write from the perspective of a Nisei, a Japanese-American who lives in predominantly white Colorado, I think that anyone who feels lonely, who longs to belong to a community, can relate to Fuller’s words. Every newcomer tries to connect to others by finding that rock, the solid person who seems to be firmly rooted. But Fuller also writes about the feeling of alienation from, not only other people, but from those who only remain in our heads.

“There is no loneliness quite like the loneliness that comes from living without ancestors, without the constant, lively accompaniment of the dead.”

Perhaps Americans, whose dead are safely locked away in antiseptic morgues and cemeteries, might have a hard time understanding this type of loneliness. Bernstein’s WWII memoir, The Seamstress, based on her childhood in Romania and the grim Ravensbruck concentration camp is littered with lively, colorful characters–some wise, some foolish, some brave– all dead now. Bernstein’s story was dictated by all the ghosts in her mind. In Japanese culture, for example, one never says goodbye to the dead. There’s the tsuya (wake) first, then a funeral, then a kotsuage at the cremation, then ,shonanoka seven days after death, and the  shijūkunichi  49 days after death, and another memorial 100 days after death. At the annual Obon festival everyone celebrates the dead by visiting graves, reminiscing, dancing and telling ghost stories. Then as if this wasn’t enough, at home, in between these death gatherings, I’ve seen Japanese offer food to the small urn of ashes before every meal, and share the news of the day –“Look, isn’t this a lovely handbag I got today”– as if the dead were sitting across the living.

In my current writing project, translation (Japanese to English) is an additional challenge to coming up with my own writing. I translated my deceased father’s Japanese letters and used them as an anchor to write my own thoughts.  Jumpa Lahiri in In Other Words, described the process of translation beautifully:

“I think that translating is the most profound, most intimate way of reading. A translation is a wonderful, dynamic encounter between two languages, two texts, two writers. It entails a doubling, a renewal….It was a way of getting close to different languages, of feeling connected to writers very distant from me in space and time.”

Translation is to writing as crawling is to hiking. It’s a lot slower and messy but one is still working towards the same objective: to connect to a different place and time. To get from one place to another across the landscape of life through words. Words written in another language. One may stumble over the rocks, the individual words, and fall occasionally but those accidents are what add joy and interest to the journey, and satisfaction when reaching the end.

Finally, one more twist to the metaphor I started with–eating. Eating books is not just about digesting the contents, getting through all the pages. I like to think that reading is to writing as tasting is to cooking.Of course, it is possible to cook without tasting, but then how can one develop the nuances, the textures, the complexity of a unforgettable meal? I hope that as the words of these books I read slip through my retina, I took notice of them. I let them sink into my mind. If I occasionally stop to reflect and write about certain passages, maybe their wonderful qualities will remain in my brain, ready–I hope–to be sprinkled into my own writing like subtle seasoning. I know that the question isn’t one of whether I should be reading or writing. One cannot be separated from the other, just as eating cannot be separated from speaking. Without food, one’s voice will soon fade. Reading is life.







Cultural Exchange – a short story


A writer friend asked me if I had written many short stories. I’ve played around with the form often but only published one. Three years ago I published this short story with the now-defunct Fat City Review.   I am a bit chagrined when I read it now but here it is for your reading pleasure.

The old waiter brought Matt a glass of beer.

“Your neighbor’s a gang member. That’s why you got that place so cheap.”

Matt’s heart sank.  A gang member. Thugs, drug dealers, killers.  Shit.  He felt foolish for congratulating himself on his good fortune. Finding a one room apartment so close to campus.  Dad was going to have a cow.

In fact, after Matt had signed the lease, he was so happy that he stopped at the Corner Cafe to celebrate.  The Café was the first place Matt ate at when he first came to New York City last year.  An ordinary place for the locals but exotic for a kid from out West.  Worn seats, faded carpet and waiters who didn’t try to become your best friend.   Matt shared his good news with the waiter who served him. But the old guy just sighed.  Another rube from out of town.

Matt thought, “I’m an idiot”

The old man noticed Matt’s dejection. “Son, don’t worry. Your neighbor is one of the lower guys in the family – Charlie is his name. If you stay out of his way, he probably won’t bother you.”

Probably won’t bother me. Great.

Loyalty to the gang, to the family, big gorillas with knuckles dragging on the floor.  That’s what a gang member meant. There’s nothing glorious about them any more now that Matt graduated from college and managed to get into the Masters program in sociology at Columbia.  It was more of a continuation of college than a professional school since he still wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. He only knew what he didn’t want to do.  He didn’t want to be a businessman.  He didn’t want to be a lawyer.  Dad was watching him like a hawk even after he moved across the country.  If he got into any kind of trouble, Dad would hit the roof.   He could just hear him now.  “You never did have much common sense. You should have checked with me before you signed the lease.”

Well, they didn’t need to know.  It was his own business. Anyway, he was never going to invite family to his place while he was a student.  When Matt started looking for his own on place in the Upper West Side, the man in the realtor’s office had discouraged him from looking at this cheap listing but Matt immediately liked the look of the red brick building.  No nonsense. Clean and close to the campus. Six small units, two units on each floor.  His place was on the top floor.  With his own tiny bathroom and kitchen, he’d have a lot more privacy than he did at the graduate dorm. Hearing every cough and fart of the fellow residents got old.  And unlike a lot of the one room apartments squeezed between tall buildings, sunlight actually came in through a window in back. There was even a little bit of a view – if he leaned to one side, he could see a corner of Riverside Park, glimmering like a green oasis in a grey desert. 

He couldn’t help bragging about his place to his little sister, Sara, when she called.  As far as she was concerned, her brother had moved to the moon.

“Mattie. Mattie.  It sucks here.  Dad and Mom have no one to pester so they’ve started picking on me.”

Matt envied Sara.  She could do whatever she wanted without getting criticized every step of the way.  “Why are you wasting your time?  What are you doing with your life? Have you started thinking about your career? On and on and on.”   Getting away from Dad, going as far as he could, was what Matt wanted.  Columbia was a label Dad could use to keep up appearances when he bragged to his office.  “It’s not Harvard but it’s one of the Ivies,” he could say.

Matt moved in right away.  He climbed up the narrow stairs, his footsteps seemed to announce.  Here… I…come…up…the….stairs. The hallway, without any carpeting, didn’t help.  As he walked by his neighbor’s door, he couldn’t help but tread lightly.  Was Charlie looking out of the peephole in his door?  Getting a glimpse of the hick who moved in next door?

For the first few days, Matt listened carefully to figure out what his neighbor’s routine was. Even resorting to placing the drinking glass on the wall. No sense in running into him on the way to classes.  On his way home, he stopped at the used bookstore across the street and pretended to get engrossed in a bargain book as he peeked sideways at his building, making sure Charlie wasn’t on his way in or out before he dashed up the stairs, leaping over two steps at a time. 

But a month later, Matt saw Charlie for the first time.  The back of his head as he opened the front door and left. A short dark guy.  About 25, wiry, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans which made him indistinguishable from the thousands of other guys on the street.  But then he glimpsed the blue tattoo on his neck, snaking out of his T-shirt and up behind his ear.  In the movies, a gang member wore flashy sunglasses and gold chains but Matt had never seen a real one. The criminals back home were probably like annoying baby raccoons next to the wolves here in this city. Matt prayed as he stood frozen in the hallway.  Oh, don’t look at me. Don’t look at me. When Charlie got all the way down the stairs and the front door slammed shut, Matt discreetly watched him through the window. 

By the middle of the semester, avoiding Charlie became such a routine part of his life that Matt forgot about it when he talked with his sister, Sara. She was all excited about the Cosmopolitan Club she joined on campus. She was having a lot of fun meeting all the foreign students. Even as a freshman, she was given the job of Hospitality Coordinator and her first assignment was to take care of the foreign students who had come for the semester.

She said, “Mattie, I have a favor to ask. A Japanese student, Taro, needs a place to stay when he visits New York City over the winter holidays.  He’s a really sweet guy.  I told him he could stay with you.”

Japanese.  Matt remembered the only other Japanese person he knew. The college girl who visited his middle school when he was 15.  Noriko.  She was fun. She looked so much younger than the other teachers. And she was cute. Noriko showed the kids how to fold origami. Paper birds, people, stars, and even paper butterflies.

Matt fell in love with her but was disappointed when he found out half of the class had secretly fallen in love with her, too.  After Noriko went back to Japan, she sent a really nice letter back to the class.  Matt was disappointed she didn’t specifically mention him. 

“Sure. That’s OK,” he blurted out.  Then he remembered about Charlie.  Shit, he thought, we’ll just avoid him.  No point in getting worried about something that’s not going to happen. He didn’t mention it to Sara.

December brought the brutal weather from across the Atlantic.  Icy winds that gathered speed as they blew through the city canyons.  The cold in New York City went right through his coat and penetrated his bones.  Matt’s feet got soaked in the black, muddy pools of slush in the street.  The only way to really warm up was to soak in a hot bath.  The little tub in Matt’s apartment was a lot smaller than the one at home but he could still get the hot water up to his chin if he propped his legs up on the wall and lay back.  With only the sound of water dripping, Matt heard murmurs from Charlie’s side.  Charlie’s door opening and closing.  Voices of men.  Laughter. Music.  Charlie must be having friends over.  Gang member friends.

Matt got out, too nervous to relax in the tub.  Throwing on a sweatshirt and jeans, he went to grab a cold beer from the tiny fridge.  He wiped the sweat off of his face with the hand towel.

Pushing his door open a crack, Matt saw the hallway was wet with the dirty sleet tracked in from the street. Charlie’s door was halfway open and the back of a man’s shoulders and legs were visible.  Their conversation a murmur. Then the man stepped back from the door and a flash of a white envelope disappeared into his jacket.  The man glanced at Matt as he turned to go down the stairs. A glassy look which didn’t even see him. Matt’s shoulder muscles tightened back into a knot.  He shivered.  There must be a dozen guys in there now.  Their loud laughter drifted through the door in waves.  One guy had a hyena laugh. Matt locked the door and turned off his lights.  Burying his head under the covers, he drifted off into restless sleep.

Over the next month, a recurring dream Matt had was one of running. Running from building to building as gang members chased him.  He had to get to his classes. But he had to dodge knives slicing through the air. Bullets zinging by his head. Ducking into doors as he tried to get to classes on time.   Matt blamed the dreams on too many movies.

Taro arrived the first day of winter break. He was just as Sara had described him.  Real earnest.  Looked like he was fifteen even though he was 25.  His jet black hair stuck out in all directions like the feathers on a new chick. Skinny as a rail but dressed decently.  His English was a little tricky to understand but his smile was so genuine that it was hard not to like him right away.  The city didn’t seem to faze him at all.

Matt planned to show off by taking Taro to the Met, the Guggenheim, and maybe a Broadway show.  But Taro yawned as they walked through Matt’s favorite exhibit at the museum – the monuments of ancient Egypt.  Taro saw through Matt’s ruse of knowing anything about the city.  So Taro negotiated himself into taking charge of the day’s activities through a series of pointing, nods, and half-conversations.  With Japanese guidebook in hand, Taro dragged Matt through the labyrinth of public transportation to strange little enclaves in the city.  Sunset Park. East Village and Le Petit Senegal.   Places Matt had never heard of. 

At first, Matt panicked when Taro disappeared into some hole in the wall.  That Japanese guy was surprisingly quick.  Several times after getting off of the bus or emerging from the subway, Matt found himself spinning around looking for the black tufted head which had gone ahead. Taro’s head would be smoothly bobbing into the sea of people while Matt clumsily swam through the crowd to catch up.

After a third day of chasing Taro through yet another unfamiliar part of the city, Matt suggested they grab a pizza and come back early to the apartment.   There was no point in trying to impress his visitor anymore.  It was all Matt could do to keep up with this relentless tourist.  He was on the verge of nodding off on the sofa when someone knocked on the door.  Taro jumped up and opened the door.  It was Charlie.

“Hey man.  I’m your neighbor.”

Matt froze.  It was the first time he had ever heard Charlie’s voice.  He sounded oily and slick.

Taro stuck out his hand and cheerily said, “My name is Taro.  I come from Japan.  Nice to meet you.”

Matt fell over himself as he stumbled over to the front door. 

Charlie smiled and slapped Matt’s back. “Hey, neighbor.  Aren’t you going to invite me in to meet your foreign friend?” And he walked right in, past Taro and Matt, with a paper bag.  Charlie made himself at home on the floor, pulled out a six pack of beer out of the bag and offered one to Taro.   Taro smiled, accepted the beer and sat on the floor across the cheap coffee table.

Charlie looked at Matt and nodded toward the sofa.  Matt obediently sat himself between the muscled thug and the Japanese guest. Matt thought, Oh, my God.

Charlie leaned in toward Taro.

“Hey, man. I’m Charlie. I love sushi.”

Taro smiled. “I love soul food.”

Charlie laughed, “You’re kiddin, right? Soul food?”

Taro pulled out his camera.  “I love hush puppy.” And proceeded to show Charlie a photo of the basket of round fried balls they had earlier in the day in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.  Taro pointed to them and said, “Be-rii good. Be-rii good.”

Charlie laughed with delight. He looked at Matt. “You showing him this stuff?”

Matt smiled weakly. “No. It wan’t my idea.”

Charlie slapped Taro on the back. “My favorite, too. But you gotta try the homemade kind.”

Taro beamed.  A pang of jealousy hit Matt.  Taro pulled out a small photo album from his bag and pointed to a shot of a small Japanese food stall.  “You try  tako-yakee.  Be-rii good Japanese food.”

Where did this album come from? Taro had never shown this to Matt. Charlie peered at the photo.  A grizzled looking Japanese man was using a stick to poke at round, doughy balls in what looked like a small worn muffin pan. 

“Looks like doughnut holes,” he said.

Taro said, “No. No. Not donuts.  This is oku ta pasu.”

When Charlie and Matt looked at each other with puzzlement, Taro jumped up and began flailing his arms. He puckered his mouth and opened his eyes wide as he danced in a circle. His arms were waving, Michael Jackson style.

Charlie laughed, “What the hell? What is that supposed to be?”

Matt mumbled, “I think he means octopus.”

Taro said, “Yes! Yes!  I love tako-yaki.”

He proceeded to show Charlie and Matt more photos of people eating the small balls with toothpicks.  Apparently each ball held a tiny chunk of octopus.  They were using paper plates and standing around the food cart.  Taro’s other photos were of similar food carts or stands. Some showed Taro smiling and holding up an unrecognizable morsel of something. 

Charlie said, “Where’s the sushi?”

Taro explained that sushi was not street food.  He ate what was cheap at food stalls and dives.  But, obviously, this was the food he loved. 

Charlie said, “Well, I’ll be dammed. I thought everyone over there ate sushi.”

Matt’s stomach ached from the effort of keeping still.  He wanted to run out the door. But if he left, Charlie might get mad.  Would a gang member come after him?  And Sara would yell at him, “You did what?!  You left Taro with a gang member?” And then of course, Dad would blame him for everything.

So Matt willed himself invisible and slumped into the sofa.  Charlie kept asking questions.

“So what’s this stuff?  What’s it taste like?”

Taro was delighted at his audience and kept going. Yakitori, kushiyaki, oden, yaki-imo.  On and on and on. All Japanese street food of some sort. Finally, after going through dozens of photos and various pantomimes, Charlie got up.

“Gotta get going.”  Taro started to get up, too.

Charlie pressed down on Taro’s shoulder, “No. No. Don’t get up.  Thanks for telling me about your food.”

Charlie warmly smiled at Taro but then his face went back to the tough mask.  He glanced at Matt and jerked his head toward the door. Matt thought, “Oh, shit. Now he’s going to beat me up.” Matt stood up and walked Charlie to the door.  There weren’t any tattoos visible this time but he noticed a scar on the back of his neighbor’s head.  A fine white line where the hair wasn’t growing.  Was that from a knife fight? A bullet? Charlie turned around and stuck out his hand.  Matt nervously put out his, the cold sweat in his palm pressing against the warm, sandy skin.

Charlie said, “Hey, man. That was cool. I learned a lot.” He waved back at Taro and Taro smiled.

Matt watched him go back into his apartment.  Matt closed the door and turned back to Taro. He probably had no idea how dangerous Charlie was.  Matt said,“You probably should stay away from that guy.” 

“Why?” said Taro.

Matt mustered up his fatherly tone. “That guy is trouble. He’s with a gang.”

Taro considered the information, then looked at Matt with a steady gaze. “I am burakumin.”

Matt said, “What? What is…burakumin?”

Taro said, “You know samurai?”

Matt nodded.

“Samurai top class. Burakumin bottom class.”

“But…but everyone is equal in Japan, aren’t they? Japanese are all the same.” As soon as Matt said that, he knew he was wrong. 

Taro said, “Burakumin are like…..gang.  But in Japan for many, many years. Everybody knows. My father burakumin.  My grandfather burakumin.” 

Matt didn’t know what to say.  Why did he feel like an idiot… again? 

A few days later, Taro told Matt, he had plans to visit Long Island on his own so don’t wait up for him.  Matt said, “Sure. Fine. Have fun. I’ll probably go out.” 

The East Asian Library on campus was closed for the holidays so Matt went to the public library.  When Matt asked the older female librarian about burakumin, she snapped, “Look it up yourself, young man.” New Yorkers are so friendly… not.  But the information he found only confused him even more.  Burakumin weren’t an ethnic group.  They weren’t even poor. They were the same Japanese as 99% of the other citizens of Japan.  The only difference was their original jobs hundreds of years ago – handlers of leather or the dead.  Why would it matter any more? It’s not like India, right?

  The bookstore across the street was quiet.  Matt wandered through the narrow dusty aisles, picking up familiar titles.  Catcher in the Rye.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Naked Lunch. But none of them seemed to lift his depressed mood.  He checked the bins near the front of the store one more time. 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.  This made him even more depressed. 1,000 Places You Know Nothing About was more like it.  It was growing dark and he’d be alone again.  Another thrilling night with Conan O’Brien.

Two days later, just when Matt was beginning to worry about Taro, the phone rang.  It was an unlisted number.

“Hallo, Matt?” Taro’s voice sounded tinny.

“Hey, Taro.  When are you getting back?”

“Matt.  I want to tell you…I am not coming back.”

“Taro, I don’t know if that’s a good idea…,” Matt started but Taro paid no attention to the advice.

“Matt-san, you must not stop me.  I cannot go back Japan.  They will not let me marry Tomoko.”   

Even if he had never had that rush himself – that real feeling of throwing everything into one person, that certainty – he recognized it. He could feel the months, maybe the years of agony in Taro’s voice. Would he ever be in love like that?  But he had to caution Taro.  “It’s not that easy in this country.  You should think about it.”

Taro had already thought about it, judging from his quick reply. “Matt-san.  Thank you for helping me.  I am okay.”

“Taro, what am I supposed to tell Sara when you don’t go back?”

“Tell Sara-san thank you very much.”

  One more try. Matt hated himself but couldn’t help it. He could already hear Dad.  “Taro. What is your father going to say?”  Silence. 

“Matt-san, my father knows.  This is my life.” 

The silence was full of thought. Matt finally spoke. “Okay, Taro. I get it. Good luck to you.”

After a pause Taro said, “Why do American say – good luck?  This is not luck.  This is my decision.” 

The phone call ended. Matt suddenly saw that this man was at a turning point in his life.  He was leaving behind hundreds of years of pain and suffering.  Leaving behind his father, his society, his country.  Everything he knew and loved.  Like millions of others before him, he was taking a leap of faith.  A leap of faith into an unknown future.  Taro had chosen his path.