Shikata ga nai
Reading Time: ~7 minutes
This essay originally appeared in Issue 20 of Tahoma Literary Review. Shikata ga nai is a Japanese phrase meaning "it can't be helped." In this essay, a biracial daughter reflects upon the lessons of her Japanese mother's life, using considered and ultimately transcendent prose.
My mother died in the time of pandemic, on a morning when fires raged all over California, and smoke was choking her garden into dust. George Floyd was already murdered. Breonna Taylor’s murder was going unanswered. Americans of all races and ages took to the streets to protest 400 years of systemic racism and injustice. A reality TV host was running the country. I’m left to wonder if she knew what was happening outside her house set in the foothills bordering the Sierra Nevada and only miles from where Mark Twain made frog jumping famous. By now, her eyes were failing, making running impossible.
My mother died on a Tuesday; the first of September. She secretly liked being first, so the date seemed fitting. The coroner described it as a sudden and catastrophic death. A massive heart attack or a stroke. She had spent ninety years running, putting others’ needs in front of her own, hiding from bombs that echoed inside her long after the war was over. She found a way to freedom in a wavy-haired, Oklahoma-born merchant marine. A big talker. A smart man who claimed salt air and the open sea were his home. She straightened and cut her hair like Audrey Hepburn, rouged her full lips into a pout. She came to America, believing she could be American, but the ground never felt like home. The food, the language, the people—as foreign as a sliver of glass lost in the flat part of her small foot.
If she were here, my mother would say hers was a good death. Not even her head touched the ground. The crossing to join her ancestors was quick. Much easier than when she traveled on a freightliner twelve years after the war ended. My father said it was cheaper than travel on a passenger ship. She’d be fine, he decided, without considering comfort or that she couldn’t speak English. My mother was locked in a lower-level room without a window. She was, after all, an alien, a lingering reminder of a war that kicked-off in Pearl Harbor. Seasickness overwhelmed her. She tossed and turned on her cot, losing weight, wondering about a widowed mother and four siblings left without an older sister. In that small dark room, normally used for storage, my mother’s starched traveling dress hung from a hook on the door, swinging with the pitching ship, wilting from humidity. For two weeks, a bucket was her constant companion until the freightliner pulled into San Francisco. Her hope waned, as cargo unloaded before she could step foot on shore.
My father finally rushed up to receive her, pointing out the Golden Gate Bridge, as she stood on the pier, queasy, following his finger traveling along the horizon. San Francisco filled her lungs, reminding her of Yokohama. They drove inland, traveling north on a highway bordered by pastures and grazing cattle, empty hills with swaying grasses, and passing freight trains crawling on long, curved tracks towards Oakland. They drove into Suisun City, a small rough-looking town dotted with pool halls, bars, and farmhands loitering around neon-lit liquor stores. My father pointed out the market where she would shop, the high school he had attended, the butcher he liked, but her English wasn’t good enough to understand. All she heard was pride.
My mother’s heart knew there was no point in trying to tell him this is not what he promised. She said there was no going back when you marry an American, so she learned to hide inside herself, in a mind wound so tight, she hardly slept. She feared America even more when he gave her a baby; then, another eleven months later. They knotted her future to this man. A woman running in circles, a baby on each hip, weighing her down, with nowhere to go.
My mother died, having never told my brother what she wanted—not her dreams, nor her death wishes. She told stories once. There were no repeats like people do when they get older, forget what happened yesterday, or run out of things to talk about. It was on the listener to remember, because if asked about the story, she denied ever having the conversation. I learned to pay attention when she was catching her breath from all the running.
She told me she had not wanted to marry a Japanese man and have a foot on her neck for the rest of her life. I responded, “So you came here and had a foot on your back instead?” She triple-blinked, her mouth a line so tight that a fine needle, the kind used to sew organza or chiffon, couldn’t slip in. Her fingers went back to pinning a tissue pattern to an emerald green bolt of taffeta. That’s what my mother did; she made fancy dresses for rich wives of government officials, for weddings, and for quinceañeras. The latter made my mother most happy, because she ended up making sixteen gowns, fourteen in the same design, one for the quinceañera, and one for the mother celebrating her daughter’s entry into womanhood. The girl in white tulle and satin, put on display for all to admire, to set her up for a life in patriarchy.
My mother understood the patriarchy, living with a husband who controlled her every move. She said she liked being a second-class citizen, infuriating my brother, and entrusting men to make decisions for her. Except for the dollar amount, my father signed checks before she went grocery-shopping. The cashier wrote in the amount. She walked in rain or triple-digit heat, four long blocks with a full grocery cart, while my father smoked his pipe or napped at home. All credit cards were in his name, so she requested and he pre-approved all purchases whether it was a pair of shoes or a pack of underwear. My mother understood the cost of staying in America, of saving face.
She’s gone now, my mother. My brother said her glasses remained on her face. Her hair in place; wispy at the neckline. The Buddhist priest chanted prayers here, in Los Angeles, while her body cooled on a table at the coroner’s up north in Gold Rush country. For Shinto, the body should never be separated from the prayers, nor from its sacred departure rituals, but that’s what happens when living on strange ground, a former mining town where Chinese were lynched. When my parents moved there, I warned her most Americans can’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese, and she laughed.
She was used to being the only one, alone in a country where she had no mother, no aunts, no sisters. Not one relative came to visit in the sixty-one years, four months, and ten days she lived here. It is what happens when a Japanese woman leaves the family register, released to forever float alone in her decisions.
My mother died before she took off her gardening shoes and turned on the air conditioner. It was a morning routine and included shutting windows and the back door. My brother called to say the coroner decided no autopsy was needed. She was ninety years old and a three-time cancer survivor. She is now high up in her kitchen cabinet. I told my brother his choice is perfect given she couldn’t reach high shelves, and she always liked looking down on people. Our mother is in a special transport urn, because my brother thinks ahead. With my sons, we envisioned trekking to Hiroshima next year, driving to a small suburban area, checking into an Airbnb before presenting her ashes to three younger sisters and their adult children. Only they’ve decided my mother shouldn’t return to Japan. There is a legend that when a person leaves the family, they cannot come back. It is bad luck. This is what my mother’s sister tells my cousin to Google Translate to me. This, from the aunt my mother kept safely hidden in mountain caves while she scavenged for food, picking maggots from yams to keep the family from starving. She and her mother herded the children through those final months before Hiroshima.
My mother said I couldn’t ever understand the type of sacrifice needed to survive war. I am not a good Japanese daughter. I don’t listen, refuse to let men walk in front of me, laugh too loud, and ask too many questions. She’d be relieved. Her pushy daughter is taking her home regardless of legends, bad luck, or aunts who politely don’t want their sister. We’ll carry her ashes, a fine powder, a perfect cremation the funeral home said, in a carry-on, tucking it securely into an overhead compartment. We’ll transition our words into how Japanese refer to honoring the dead. Cremation is known as bone-cutting, and the ceremony is called bone-spreading. The Japanese have gotten it right. Our mother’s bones are resting after spending a lifetime being cut, fractured, and chipped in preparation for this journey. Returning her to the waters around Hiroshima where she swam as a child, the beaches where she dug her toes into the sand, is what is right for a woman who dreamt of being a teacher, was the fastest runner in her school, whose life was marked by failing to raise an obedient daughter, who survived the terrors of a world war, who forever saw images of the Tokyo fire bombings, Hiroshima, Nagasaki,
My mother came running to a new country, an unblemished place with gold paved roads, no hunger or burned cities, no bulletholes in buildings, no people with the slackened faces of intergenerational trauma, walking with soured mouths repeating shikata ga nai at every disappointment, every insult, and slur thrown by American GI’s. She came running, breathless, hopeful, to birth babies on the ground of those who hated her, what she represented, by being a small woman, a nearly five-foot-tall, dark-haired woman, eyes pointed downward, speaking English without pure “r’s” or “l’s” in broken syllables. Living and dying on stolen ground.
My mother died without finishing her coffee or starting the laundry. She left the back door open, and the heat, the smoke drifted in, and moved around the house. Realizing no one was home, except for a spirit waiting to run free, they carried her outside, high into the ash-filled skies over California.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Manning had this to say about their piece:
When my mother’s family declined her ashes being returned to Japan and ghosted me after I said I would visit, I learned that for a woman, defying tradition means forever. Compartmentalizing her life was more than saving face. It was survival. Her life is my life, and my life reflects her life. She has taught me a woman can search the entire planet and still not find the freedom she seeks. She has to shape her own kind of hope, and she must be prepared to go it alone
Sakae Manning (they/them) writes in Los Angeles with their heart in Oakland and may be found on Twitter @sakaetrist
Photo credit: Olivia Aguilar