This trip to Japan has not been just an occasion for me to explore another culture, but also ties me back to my family history. My paternal grandmother, born Tamako Matsuda, is a first generation Japanese-American or known as Nisei. My grandmother, known to many endearingly as T or to us grandkids as Monue, was a prominent figure in our family. She was loved by all those who knew her because she was so compassionate, giving and thoughtful. My parents, Kirk and Anita, had my older brother and I at a very early age. My siblings lives and Tamako’s were so interwoven that we would go less than a few days without seeing her. She would take us to her work when we were children, stay entire weekends at her place in Highland Park, she would sometimes take us to school and take us to the movies, etc. It is because of the large amount of time spent throughout 31 years of my life with her, I developed a strong connection with my Japanese roots. Even though I also have African-American and other mixed ancestry, my Japanese roots are very strong. It is important to note that my grandmother was born in Tacoma, Washington but relocated to Central Los Angeles where she continued to live until forcibly uprooted into an internment camp a few weeks shy of completing her high school senior year.
Tamako socialized with other African-Americans and Japanese-Americans – her experience was uniquely American. But somehow, many of the cultural aspects or cultural traits of the Japanese people was very prevalent within my grandmother. Let me give some examples. When I would go to her house, she would make a very delicious dinner (delicious is oishii in Japanese) which would be accompanied by a small salad of cabbage. Very thinly sliced in a small bowl. The first time I went to Japan, every salad I bought was cabbage, not salad leaves – in a small package. And this whole time I thought she was just trying to portion control for a chubby granddaughter. Tamako stood at 4 feet 10 inches, but could probably out walk a basketball player any day, she walked so fast (typical of any Japanese grandmother). She would watch movies till the very last credit, and we loved going to movies together ( she introduced me to Laemmle theaters at 7 years old) because she told me that it is important to see all those who worked on the film. There are so many things that she did that I associate with Japanese culture and although she was not outright taught these things, she exemplified these traits through her actions.
Being of mixed heritage I found it difficult as many others have felt to fit in. But my grandmother was so reassuring that my diverse lineage was something to be proud of not shrink away from. Besides she had to endure so many more prejudices in her lifetime. African and Japanese – Americans had to live within certain “zones” in Los Angeles. Many parts of Los Angeles until the mid 1950’s you could not buy property if you were not white. And she herself married and had children with an African – American man in the late 1940’s. I have heard from others that after the war she was reluctant to tell the stories of the Japanese internment camp in Arizona. Well, let me tell you that from every since I can remember, she was very forthcoming and honest about her experience to us grandkids.
About 10 years ago, I started asking my grandmother if she would like to go to Japan. She had never been. She firmly said no, she was reluctant to travel that far saying that she had no desire. When I told her shortly thereafter that I would be visiting Japan for the first time, she was excited for my trip. I also sensed some hesitance about giving any known information about her father, Sahei Matsuda, who left abruptly for Japan after being let out of the Arizona Gila River camp. My great-grandfather who was undoubtedly frustrated and angered by the American government, left the country without his official papers. His family had warned him to be patient and not leave the U.S. without his documents, but left anyways. Once in Japan, he was not allowed to come back to the United States. He passed away in Japan without seeing his children or wife again. I asked Tamako if she had any information about the family in Japan, to which she did not. My parents, family and my grandmother’s close friends began seeing either Alzheimer’s and or dementia symptoms in my grandma in the fall of 2006. It was during this time that I had the urgent desire to learn and hear more about my family’s history and lineage. With my grandmother’s memory declining, I felt the need to spend time with her and ask as many questions as possible. With Tamako’s passing less than 2 years ago I know that I could of spent more time with her and there will always be questions unanswered.
Now to the present day, when I found out that Angelo and I would be starting the trip in Japan – I knew that I wanted to find my Matsuda family koseki. A koseki is your family registry – all births, deaths, marriages etc are recorded by your prefectures city hall. I knew that both my great-grandfather and great -grandmother (Tsuya Shimada), were born in Tokyo, I too knew their birthdays, and siblings names. I also have little information passed down to my father after my great-aunt Yuriko passed away last year. My father and mother supportingly gave me as much information that was available to trace myself back to my great-grandfather. I was hoping to at least find where Sahei Matsuda was buried in Japan. The morning of heading out to the prefecture in Tokyo where my great-grandfather was from, I had our Japanese friend call the city hall. She asked him basically with the information given if I would not be able to obtain my family’s koseki. You must present an official birth and death certificate that links you back to the family member you are looking for. I had many items, but I do not have my grandmothers birth certificate which would directly link me to Sahei Matsuda. Also to top it off, the city official said that I would have to have all documents translated into Japanese, they are very understandably firm on these policies. I don’t know why, but I was very upset. I did not know my great-grandfather, but for some reason I felt the need to know more about my Japanese ancestry.
A few days later Angelo and I left for our temporary home in Osaka. Osaka was our home base as we traveled to Nara and Kyoto. Nara is a beautiful city, and also was briefly was the capital of Japan. We visited the famous Todai-ji temple, which is the largest wooden building in the world which houses the enormous Daibutsu (Buddha). Both Angelo and I gasped upon entering the the premises at how large the building is. As great as the pictures are, it is still hard to capture the enormity of the building and the buddha that is enshrined inside. It is one of those places I encourage you to see and experience in your lifetime. The smell of the incense that wafts through the cool air is calming and peaceful. The Buddhist religion seems very integrated into Japanese society, which we both find fascinating. Throughout my visit at the Todai-ji, I was thinking about how my great-grandmother was in the same place some decades ago. I know that Tsuya returned to Japan sometime after her husband had passed away. There are pictures of her in Nara with the deer that run around freely in that city. I took a picture in front of the temple gate in the vicinity of where I believe her picture was taken, I felt compelled to.
We also visited another temple very close to the Todai-ji called Kasuga-Taisha, a Shinto shrine known for it’s many stone and bronze lanterns that are all throughout the property. I personally enjoyed this temple because you get to take a long walk through very green trees and stone lanterns that lead to the orange temple. Upon arriving at the brightly painted temple, you cannot help but notice the bronze lanterns hanging thru the hallways. We chose to pay the small fee to walk inside the premises. There was a really ancient tree in the garden that had decided to grow a branch that went through the roof!
Overall, the day was nice and we enjoyed our time in Nara. It’s great to see these places that you have read about in school and to see with your own eyes. A very humbling and insightful experience. Angelo was inspired by the temples grandeur and appreciates the history and traditions of the Japanese. I felt, for a brief moment, connected to my family history while walking in Nara. Which for me is a reminder of my ancestry and more importantly, keeps my memories of my grandmother alive.