Yūrei 幽霊 Japanese American Ghosts


2016 Boulder, Colorado

Mom was so annoyed with my efforts to write her and Dad’s love story, she said, “Watashi ni hanashita. He spoke to me. Robert Oppenheimer spoke to me. In 1964.” 

That got my attention. I looked up from Dad’s letters splayed across her kitchen table, took off my  glasses and stared at her. She was eighty-two years old. Mom’s eyes were still clear and skin smooth. She kept the same erect  posture she always had. Only her grey hair and a few age spots betrayed her age. Without Dad around anymore, Mom was the only one who held the keys to the past. Her English had deteriorated over the last decade but my Japanese was good enough to know she wasn’t babbling. Yet. I had my doubts. I was in the middle of translating Dad’s essay  about how he met Mom in 1955 Tokyo. “Nani? What?” I said. “What are you talking about?” 

Normally, Mom and I never talked about Dad’s profession as a theoretical physicist.  Dad first came to this country in 1952 when he was 29 years old as a research associate at a physics lab at Duke University. Mom was a high school graduate, nine years younger than Dad, who joined Dad three years later when he started working as a professor at the university. They didn’t seem to have much in common other than their Japaneseness. They were a mystery to me. How did a physicist and a bank clerk end up together? Why did they come to America? My parents, especially Dad, told me nothing. Nothing about his past. Nothing about why he came to America in the first place. 

Mom also said nothing about why she married Dad. I learned not to ask too many questions. I loved my parents but this shroud of secrecy kept me wondering. As long as I didn’t know about my parents’ beginning in America, I felt unmoored. Like a life raft subject to the currents of a vast ocean. If I didn’t know where I came from, I had no clue where I was headed.

So I was thrilled when Mom found hundreds of Dad’s letters, journals and diaries, a year after he died at the age of 91. While he was alive, Mom did not dare snoop in his office so she had no idea what he kept in there. We found Dad made carbon copies of all his letters from when he first arrived in America! Many file boxes filled with Japanese and English correspondence to scientist colleagues in Japan and in the States. But I found one box labeled “Yoko” Mom’s name. I hit the jackpot! I would finally find out how my parents met and married. The thirty-two year old physicist, Masa, back in Tokyo after three years in America, was introduced to the pretty woman nine years his junior by a friend. Dad’s meticulous account of his blind date with Mom opened the door to a side of him I never knew.  

 I translated Dad’s account of their first date, “Sometime in the middle of the movie, without really thinking about it, I found my hand on  top of Yoko’s hand. Completely natural for me to do on a “date”. In this situation, some women get angry, some start breathing fast with excitement, and some  respond with affection. Yoko was the last type. She put her other hand on top of our hands and leaned  closer to me. Her body brushed against my arm and I felt the swelling of her breast. What an intimate expression. Out of all the women I remembered, Yoko was the most composed and unhesitant in her response.  

Here was some evidence of the romance I wanted to find. Dad hinted at relationships with other women during his first years in America. This was exciting and scandalous. A Japanese physicist dating American women in the early 1950s. Then something goes wrong and instead he falls in love with a beautiful Japanese woman. Mom. So like any good American daughter, I decided to piece together their Love Story. A story to give meaning to my existence.

But Mom was not cooperating. She wasn’t amused by Dad’s letters which detailed his affection for her. She said, “Zenzen oboeteinnai. I don’t remember any of this nonsense.”

I excused her lack of enthusiasm. Sixty years is a long time to be married to one person. Mom’s burned out after taking care of Dad for the last several years. He had several mini strokes but she kept him at home until he died. 

So either Dad was lying in these letters or Mom had gone senile. I desperately wanted to believe in Dad’s version. Even though he was an enigma my entire life, I hoped that these letters would spark insight into a meaningful past life. I was a failure in my own marriages so I needed Mom and Dad’s story of their sixty year marriage to prove my worth. See? I come from a good family with solid values.

Of course, Mom and Dad were nothing like Lucy and Ricardo in the “I Love Lucy” TV show I used to watch. They never kissed, held hands or even yelled at each other. Dad was a tenured professor his entire career. Mom was a dedicated homemaker. They weren’t warm or emotional but they took parenting seriously. Every summer, Dad took us on long driving trips through Arches National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and took us camping and skiing. Mom used her Betty Crocker cookbook, made sack lunches for me and gave me Ding Dongs for snack after school. 

I can laugh now about their American parenting skills. For my first Halloween party at school, they dressed me as an Arab sheik complete with fake beard, a head dress and white sheets for a robe. For my tenth birthday, Dad gave me a microscope along with a dead frog ready for dissection. Throughout my early years, Mom told me stories of her traumatic childhood in Tokyo. She told me about eating cabbage soup and roasted crickets, and stepping over dead bodies on the street. For whatever reason, I chose to be perplexed rather than horrified by these childhood experiences. I believed they loved each other and me the only way they knew how.  

I suppose that like a lot of the American children of immigrants, I learned to accept the fact that life inside my home was different from life outside. I had gotten so used to their strange ways that when Mom gave me my fifteenth birthday card with the inscription “I love you” scribbled inside, I was shocked. They had never said those words before. I suspected the card was their effort to follow American customs. That was around the time I began wondering why Dad and Mom never shared their “coming to America story.”

During Dad’s last years, the two of them withdrew into their own Japanese island. Mom became the caretaker. Dad grew feeble and became even harder to understand. The mini strokes affected his already limited language skills. I was running out of time so I asked him, “Why did you leave Japan and come to America?”

Surprisingly he started to tell me a few things. Dad’s uncle, Dr. Ishii, came to America in 1920. I thought I was the first Nisei (American born) in the family but no, there were Dad’s American cousins who grew up in California. Why the hell didn’t Dad tell me about them? My childhood as the eldest daughter of Japanese immigrants in Boulder Colorado was terribly lonely. One of Dad’s cousins, Grace was an Honor Roll student at Stockton High. Grace’s photo in her high school year book reminded me of mine. Her brother Robert became a doctor like his uncle. I looked him up and learned he was a pathologist a few years older than Dad. But why had Dad kept them all secret? Apparently Dr. Robert Ishii was famous for a report on the atom bomb. I found it under his Japanese name, Eisei Ishikawa. I ordered the book on Amazon. It was about radiation burns and poisoning. The grainy black and white photos of the bomb victims were horrifying. One was of a blackened corpse of a child raising his/her arm to shield the eyes against the burning rays of the bomb. The plump cheeks and slender body showed the child must have been maybe a second grader. The images were so repulsive I stuck the book in the back of the closet to forget them.

So Mom’s mention of Robert Oppenheimer immediately reminded me of those  horrible photos I threw away. No. No. This is not the story I wanted. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the atom bomb and WWII. Many years ago, I had done my obligatory tourist visit to Hiroshima Peace Park when I was an exchange student in Kobe. That was an uncomfortable experience that reminded me how different I was from my fellow American students. Were my classmates’ relatives involved in killing my Japanese relatives?  Back then, I distracted myself from that awful topic by immersing myself in Japanese art and language. But there was no escaping this situation. I felt like I discovered my bed had been the site of a brutal rape and murder.

I gently tried to doubt Mom’s claim. “Are you sure it wasn’t Frank Oppenheimer, the younger brother?” He also taught physics. I knew Dad had worked with Professor Frank Oppenheimer at one point.  

My mother said, “Chigau. No. It was Robert, the older brother.” She was adamant but she wasn’t going to plead to have me believe her. She sipped the genmai  cha that had grown cold. The nutty tea mixed with rice I like more than the Celestial Seasonings teas that crowd her cupboard. We were both careful to avoid caffeine because of our insomnia.  

Is that possible? Robert Oppenheimer, speaking to Mom? In this house?  1964. I was seven years old then. Mom’s details, the chirashi zushi she prepared for the party, the Oppenheimer brothers invited as the guests of honor, the taller Oppenheimer discreetly asking her for a private conversation, her leading him to the unfinished addition in our house and my own vague memories of serving hors d’oeuvres to the guests – convinced me it did happen.

Mom said, “Kare watashi ni ayamatta. He apologized to me.”

Chills ran up my spine. We were sitting in the same place Oppenheimer asked my mother for forgiveness for his most famous creation – the atom bomb. I immediately thought of the terrible injuries documented by Dad’s cousin, Dr Ishii. Had Dad kept his American relatives secret from Mom? Had Mom kept Oppenheimer’s apology secret from Dad? I didn’t bother to ask Mom if she actually accepted Oppenheimer’s apology. How does one forgive a man  for the deaths of 80,000 Japanese men, women and children and the possibility of our own total annihilation? The fact that she had kept this anecdote secret until now was shocking enough.

Suddenly the love story I was trying to write shrunk to insignificance. Which is probably what Mom wanted to do. She wanted to knock me off my feet. Kudaranai. Stupid American daughter. Why are you so interested in creating a love story? Listen to the ghosts instead of your own dreams. 

Mom’s secret and all those ghosts came creeping back into my life three years later after Mom passed away and the pandemic forced me to isolate in my Seattle condo. Armed with Mom’s Oppenheimer anecdote, Dad’s cousin’s atomic bomb report, internet research and my dread, I began piecing together a story. But with so many gaps and only my imagination to flesh out the details, I realized I had to write this story as fiction. I decided to name it Paper Ghost because that was what it feels like to write this story. Mom, Dad and his cousins’ ghosts all looking over my shoulder saying, “Hora. Chanto kakinasai. You had better write it well.” 

In 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, the Pulitzer Prize winning and best selling novelist Jane Smiley described the types of novels and their desired objectives. What I had hoped to write was what Smiley described as Romance. I wanted to uncover and enjoy the love and connection between Mom and Dad, and hence myself. Who doesn’t want to be part of a great Romance? After all, it’s even written into our Constitution – “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Isn’t that what we do? Pursue Happiness. But instead, the Yūrei forced me to write what Smiley calls the Epic. Smiley notes, “The goal of this form was to solidify a warrior nation’s sense of its own identity and the battle prowess of its warriors. The epic is essentially tragic, since as Krishna remarks to Arjuna at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, there is no avoiding either death or killing in this world. The reader’s pleasure in the epic comes from a sharpened sense of what makes up a particular national character.”

The United States is obviously one of the planet’s warrior nations, along with Russia and the other nations who enjoy the privilege of attacking and invading less powerful countries. But this Epic isn’t about celebrating battle prowess. I realized that the warriors in this novel aren’t soldiers or the military. The warriors are doctors like Dad’s cousin Robert, physicists like Dad  and Honor Roll students like Grace or me. People who start off their lives wanting to better the world, to help people and live the American Dream. Just like Dad, I wanted to do well in school and contribute to society. Like Dad did, I love art, literature and music. While he chose to be a physicist, immigrate here and raise his family, I chose to marry, raise children and do what I thought was honorable work in international education. And I looked for love. But now I’m writing this novel and learning an uncomfortable truth. Regardless of whether the characters in my novel chose to be a scientist, an artist, or fall in love, I’m chagrined to find that for all of their good intentions, they are all part of a messy Epic, rather than a lovely Romance or a delightful Tale. But an Epic where, as the cartoon character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

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