“Are you sure you want me to do this? One wrong move, one incident of bad timing can close the door for you permanently.”
I told the boy, stressing on the risks of making me look for his father. This is not just a case type-written, put in a folder, and hidden in a filing cabinet. This is Kenji’s life. 1 This is the avenue of his happiness.
“Opo, Kuya Ken.” He said. Yes, big brother.
“I’ll do it but I’m not promising a favourable outcome.”
Poor kid. I know the life he’s leading too well – a timeline of endless waiting; a constant vigil for doors that open in the horizon only to realize that they weren’t doors at all; a thirst he’d been so wanting to slake only to choke at the sand in his mouth when the momentary opportunity proved to be nothing but a dried up oasis.
The prospect of seeing our Japanese fathers prove to be a fever dream at times and I’ve seen the simple yearning of kids like Kenji to embrace and know their fathers crash and burn. Take for example two of these nameless Japanese Filipinos in an article that appeared in the online version of the Asahi Shimbun on June 25, 2012 entitled International Marriage: Japanese Filipino Children pay for their father’s mistakes. A 21 year old woman searched for her father in Fukui only to have her grandparents shut the door in her face; a boy, only a year older than her, sought his father in Gunma only to be told by his father:
“I do not want to have anything to do with you.”
According to Kenji, he wanted to be with his father for more than 19 years now, beginning from the time when he developed an idea of what a family is. The very first crop of Japanese volunteer lawyers who worked on the cases of the children in BATIS Center for Women already handled his case and closed his file after being unable to find Mr. Takeda.
A lawyer and his associates weren’t able to his father in the ‘90s, so how can a Nihongo illiterate writer be more successful a decade later? What if the elder Takeda is dead? Kenji mentioned that his father’s farm was in Fukushima and given the events of the March 2011 disaster, I imagined that a search for Takeda-san would entail a trek into an irradiated landscape full of abandoned homesteads.
The scenario left a bitter taste in my mouth. It wasn’t looking good for Kenji, not good at all.
Hindrances in Father Searches
I told Kenji to prepare all the documents in his possession – clues that might aid me in my search for his dad. The more detailed and specific the information the better – since the search location involves the prefecture where the Daiichi nuclear power plant is.
Sarah Philips, an anthropologist who studied the Chernobyl meltdown and the recent one in Fukushima, mentioned that a survey of radiological contamination is not just heavily concentrated on the radius of the reactor; the winds spread out irradiated soil and lay them out in a claw-like pattern on the land. Since the government facts on that matter are murky at best, I aimed to limit my exposure to as few a microsieverts as possible by first ascertaining Takeda-san’s location through the Internet.
The prospect of developing tumors, at worst, and gaining superpowers from the radiation, at best, are not the normal concerns when searching for Japanese fathers. Through my exposure to BATIS Center for Women, Development Action for Women Network (DAWN), and Maligaya House, I learned that the most common hindrances involve A.) Names, B.) Documentary Evidence, C.) Hometown Location, D.) Establishment of Contact.
The staff at Maligaya House encourage their clients to find the names of the fathers in Kanji. Names written in Romaji or the Roman alphabet just don’t cut it. The Japanese use a writing system which employs ideographs, drawn symbols to represent things or ideas, whereas the Roman alphabet relies on the sounds of syllables. Currently the Ministry of Justice and the Japan Cultural Office lists around 2,997 Kanji characters for use in personal names.
These lists just show individual Kanji characters; Japanese names commonly use at least two Kanji characters in family names and first names. How do we even begin to comprehend the amount of possible name combinations? Does multiplying 2,997 by itself to determine the amount of two character combinations? In the Philippines, the use of the middle name helps to easily narrow down the list from which a person can be identified. The symbolic and textual divide between the Japanese ideographic system and the syllabic Roman system used in the Philippines presents a great hurdle even before the search has officially begun.
The next thing the Maligaya House asks of its clients are documentary and photographic evidence. The presence or absence of documents like birth certificates and marriage certificates dictate if the child is legitimate or not; whether her case is still eligible for the nationality claim or if it is already lost. Little details no one cares about like place names, the list of primary and secondary sponsors concretize life events into facts; items which suggest associations that corroborate stories. Photographs showing younger mothers and fathers drinking in a pub together, wandering a park, in an extended family portrait with relatives from the Philippines – snapshots of a long lost liason seal the deal.
Although information on the home town of the father isn’t required, its knowledge adds a boon to the search. Once the town where the man’s particular Ie is identified, his kosekitohon or family registry can be easily be found. The kosekitohon contains the addresses of the family members under the patriarch; the procurement of this document spells a near-end to the search. The Citizen’s Network for Japanese Filipino Children, the main branch of Maligaya House based in Tokyo, requires volunteers to go to the address in order to make a visual confirmation. This is to make sure that a particular house does exist and that, you know, actual people live in it. It only sounds ironic but according to Cesar Santoyo, head of the Center for Japanese Filipino Families and my roommate in Sendai, the Japanese have ways of disappearing from the grid if they wanted to. The bum you see sleeping in the park at the West Exit of the JR Shinjuku station may have been the CEO of a failed company or the father of a JFC for that matter. These visual checks make the next steps more efficient.
Once the staff procures the contact numbers and they isolate the location, they try to approach the fathers. Special care needs to be taken in the approach and this is one particular hard lesson I had to swallow.
You see, Kenji was not the only one who asked me to look for fathers. In fact, a single mother of three kids, let’s call her Daisy Matsu, asked me to find the father of her two JFCs, Nami and Yuki. A week before I left for Japan in June 2012, I went all the way to Calumpit, the border town of Bulacan on its boundary with Pampanga because of Yuki Matsu. According to Daisy, ever since we’ve met, Yuki cannot stop talking about me and would like to wish me well on my trip. I guess I got suckered into going, being a father to a daughter and myself having gone through what Yuki has gone through. We ate rice porridge in one of the local eateries in their neighbourhood and I bought the kid a cake. Nami wasn’t able to join us because she had just given birth; she was already a mother at 16. Daisy told me that Yuki just offed and left school because she found out I was coming to see her that day. I don’t know if Daisy got me down pat and was turning my wind-up key, but it worked. I wanted to do everything for her.
During my flight to Japan, I was thinking of the various ways I might be able to approach Nami and Yuki’s father.
Do I go to Ibaraki myself and knock on his door? Do I write a letter and if I wrote a letter, what reasons should I tell him for disturbing him?
The day after I landed, I met up with Amane, one of the volunteers for the CNJFC and someone thoroughly familiar with the process of searching for fathers; she was in charge of looking for address confirmations in Osaka.
“No, you cannot.” she said. “Just ask them to go to CNJFC.”
“Daisy already went to Maligaya House.” I said.
“Then don’t do anything.”
“Can I at least write the father a letter?”
“Are you a member of the family? Let the children do it.”
“If you interfere, CNJFC might have a harder time to contact the father. The father can get confused as to whom he should be talking to. The children might end up with nothing.”
I was terribly frustrated after that conversation. It also didn’t help that Amane’s face was red and her eyebrows were raised; I had apparently been at the receiving end of a scolding. The realization that I was entering an area where there were very strict boundaries punched me in the gut. I became angry and had been unable to hide my frustration. I wasn’t even about to begin to knock at the door and it was already shut in my face.
Fortunately, the sum of all my fears of turning into a walking cancer-ridden flesh-sac was unfounded; Sendai City is 80 kilometers away from the nuclear power plants. I met Koyang Cesar in front of the bus stop of Family Mart near the main JR station in the city. JR Sendai appears to me as the heart of Miyagi, drawing in buses and trains and pulsing them out in arrhythmic measure. We had breakfast in an udon-ya inside the station itself, surrounded by workers slurping thick rice noodles and dashi, getting some quick breakfast before the work day.
After eating, Koyang took me to SEELS Sendai. The alternative English learning school rests on the 2nd floor of a building, just above a chiropractor’s clinic. It was composed of two big rooms around 75 square meters each with a small pantry and a toilet in between them. The room overlooking Miyagino-ku’s stretch of Aoba-dori shall serve as the café while the room facing the west is the classroom. Down the street across on the other side is the apartment where we slept. I lived this way, alternating between the apartment and SEELS café room.
When I became comfortable, I began my search for Takeda-san. Kenji provided scanned documents before; pictures of his mother Lilia running and frolicking around the snow and the pines; Lilia with the Takeda clan seated around a table, drinking small cups of sake; Lilia with a 3 year old Kenji smiling in front of their nipa hut in Montalban, captured in black and white. What stories might have Kenji concocted out of the clues these photographs provided? Then there other documents like the wedding wishes of the mayor of Adachi, a scroll written in Kanji, possibly a wedding ban, photocopied for austerity, and lastly Takeda-san’s telephone number and address in the ‘80s. I had misgivings in using the information; 20 years have already passed and Takeda-san could have moved somewhere else or worse, he could be dead. I don’t want to be the bearer of sad news.
Since it was the first lead I had, I used the telephone number first. My Japanese was extremely basic, something that helps me a little when ordering food or superficially understanding what is being said to me through hand motions and facial expression. A phone conversation is beyond my social abilities at that point so I enlisted the help of Isabelle to call Takeda-san. Isabelle is often cheery but I have noticed a slight note of apprehension on her part. She has lived in Japan for more than 20 years and she was probably well aware of the cost of interfering in somebody else’s private life.
We called his old telephone number – Isabelle confirmed that it was ringing and then an old man picked up the phone. Isabelle started speaking in Japanese in a high-pitched voice, greeting and then explaining the reason for the call, weaving Kenji’s name now and then through the lilt and polite turns of her Nihongo. She paused for a moment and asked:
“Takeda-san, genki desu ka?” and then looked at me, “He is having a hard time breathing.” Isabelle then told him that we will call again. According to Isabelle, Takeda-san spoke a rigid “So desu ne.”
“Is that so?”
During the time that he wasn’t able to get in touch with his son, Takeda-san lived an entirely different life. According to Kenji, his father tried looking for them around two years after he was born, contracting a lawyer in order to search for them in the Philippines. The lawyer did indeed find them but hid and took the money Takeda-san sent for his family. In the end, Kenji mentioned that Takeda-san sought his wife and his son himself; having no guide to see him through the dense Manila streets and get through a route eastward into the mountains of Rizal where Kenji and his mother were, the Japanese man got lost and went home broken-hearted. Takeda-san probably stopped thinking about his son altogether, and satisfied himself in giving up Kenji as the son that got swallowed by the many inevitable vicissitudes of time and life.
And then twenty years later, two strangers call out of the blue to talk about two lives he had already forgotten? He was breathless at the invocation of those two syllables – KEN-JI.
For his sake, we left him alone for a week to compose himself. Talking to Takeda-san was the easier task. How do I tell Kenji, that in some way, his father gave him up for dead?
Letter to Takeda-san I
Since the telephone number Kenji gave me was still his father’s number, I immediately sent the elder Takeda a letter in order to make him understand that we were not extorting or blackmailing him. I sent him some proof of life – Kenji’s recent graduation pictures and the old ones Kenji had scanned. Since I had no help translating my letters, I used an online translating tool to turn these words into Japanese:
I hope you are having a great day. We were deeply worried about you and that our sudden telephone call did not upset you. I am writing here today to tell you about your son Kenji. According to Kenji, 3 years after his mother gave birth to him, she left for Manila to find work. Kenji’s grandmother became his primary caretaker. Unfortunately, Kenji’s mother saw him rarely and started having a string of relationships.
Kenji started working early in life. He helped his grandmother sell vegetables from their backyard and then moved on to hawk sundries when there was no produce. When Kenji was a little older, he started working as a conductor in his granduncle’s jeep. This is probably the reason why Kenji chose accounting as his course in college. Throughout high school and college, Kenji worked part time in various restaurants as a crewman. He also worked as a bookkeeper in an auditing firm.
The only thing Kenji wants more in life right now is to see you, embrace you, and to know that you are proud of him. Would you grant him his one wish?
Like Kenji, I am also in Japan looking for my father. I grew up just like Kenji. It is a lonely and sometimes empty life. I don’t care if I don’t find my father – please make Kenji’s dream come true!
How did I know if the online translation tool did not translate my words into “I want okane?” – After three days, Takeda-san wrote back.
I apologize if I was out of breath when you called me. It was indeed a surprise to hear about Kenji after all this time. I’d like to thank Kenji’s mother. She had been an important part of my life and had brought a lot of changes in it.
I know I have been a bad father to Kenji but a lot of things have happened since then. I currently own a small business here in Fukushima and I am leading a quiet life.
I hope you find your father.
Takeda-san’s two words “quiet life” struck a chord with me. I fell into the trap of its implications without necessarily finding out what he had actually meant. What does this quiet life entail? What goes into a life to make it ideally a quiet one? What do the Japanese intimate a quiet, ideal life to be? Does it involve white picket fences? A car in the garage? Here I was getting lost in an entire forest of connotations; it should not have become a big deal but the right words to say for Takeda-san to understand the depth of Kenji’s feelings kept getting lost.
For a while, I kept putting off writing the response letter. I began having an unhealthy relationship with the words “quiet life.” Was it a polite nudge from Takeda-san for me to mind my own business? Or was it just a simple statement that he is in fact living a life bombarded by cicadas down on his farm? I figured that I would have to write the letter sooner or later but in the meantime I was baffled by the person I was corresponding with. As a writer and a lifelong student of literature, my training involved learning what makes a particular story or poem beautiful, and in practice, would be able to relate to readers what I intimate this sense of beauty to be. As a relatively shy person, I would read in order to “get” people; I was certainly not getting Takeda-san at that moment.
What does a Japanese man mean when he talks about “a quiet life? “Is it is family? Is it his job? Is it his hobbies? Just what are the things that compose, that fulfil the needs and satisfactions of their day-to-day?
Finding out how Takeda-san thinks about his life and constructs the world in general was maybe the only way to reach him.
Reconstructing Our Fathers
Ernest Hemingway once advised “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people not characters.” What Mr. Hemingway didn’t realize is how difficult that edict is. People can be infinitely boring and infinitely interesting at the same time. I might be talking with a friend about Wittgenstein and then she’d ask me to remove the pesto sauce crusting on my moustache.
The reason I meditated on this great writer’s advice is because I want to write about our fathers and depict their world as they see it in a way that humanizes them. This is a pretty tall order considering that I want to punch my own father in the face. Angst and self-entitlement aside, the longest time I’ve shared with the Japanese are often on trains; I did my people watching while they were locked up with me for miles and miles of tracks. I know for certain that most Japanese have a high degree of personal space, but around sixty percent of the time I have enough room beside me to sit one other person on each side.
People probably think I’ll follow them after they get off and savage them in a dark alley but most of the time I’m fixated on the sararimen. I memorize what they smell like.
I can only imagine me doing a nanpa on 60 something shachos: “Hey nice coat oji-san. That brown overcoat goes well with your pink salmon tie. Are you going to drink alone? Mind if I sit close to you and pour your beer while you flirt with a girl? What are you saying? Waru-waru otoko desu ne?
Of course, not all your sararimen are created equal. Some of them look like they stepped off a Jdorama series: they have amber brown highlights on medium length hair that is styled in a way that communicates a sense of finesse while appearing like they’ve just stepped out of their beds. Men of the younger generation have a different take from their elders; they style their hair, try to smell good, go to the gym to keep their bodies fit, curve their brows, maintain an assortment of cosmetic products, and enter salons. According to Laura Miller this is a form of oyaji-rejection; a rebellion from the image of the older generation of sararimen. [Miller, 2003 ]
As for the older ones, who seem to be eons older than their younger counterparts, dressed in weather-beaten gray jackets; bellies rotund from the so much sake and beer consumed in thousands of nights in a pub; with skin tanned to suggest that they’ve been golfing; faces caked with wrinkles and crows feet which indicate that they don’t probably smile a lot or their vices have seeped into their well-being. Some of them may have aged to the point that they had the faces of mountains, but I can only imagine the kind of authority and power they have at the office. One of the girls I interviewed did say that one of their regulars in the omise she worked in once spends around Go man or 50,000 yen a night. They probably have access to the company’s entertainment funds – disbursements that are used in order for workers to spend time together and bond after hours.
Based on the age projections of the JFC I talked to, they peg their dads to be in their 60s now just like my father. The four mothers I spoke with have a ten to twenty year age gap to their partners. If these clues are correct, most of our fathers come from the Showa generation, the time when Japan reaped the benefits of its 2nd industrialization, when the locus of business and work shifted to heavy industries.
The oyaji-sarariman type is the group that catches my interest because they indirectly tell me who our fathers are. I want to put the entire lifestyle under a microscope and put the culture in a petri-dish in my hunger to understand. Although Gayathri Spivak, in her review of the discussion between Deleuze and Guattari [Spivak, 1988], warned about the arrogance of analysing people and thinking that they can be rendered transparent, I wanted to interrogate how the world of the sararimen operated.
Through the masses armoured in sports coats and jackets ambling through the trains and drinking sake in the after hours, I might be able to catch a glimpse of my own father and exorcise his spectre from my own mind.
Letter to Takeda II
It was already two days before I finally had to leave Sendai; time was running out for me and Kenishiro Takeda-san and his son Kenji. I took the courage to ask Isabelle to call the old man one last time in order to request for his answer: will he or won’t he see his son? The dialling sound on the receiver crept on my shoulders like a garter snake wanting to enter my ear. Takeda-san answered and Isabelle chirped her lively Nihongo on the phone.
Something has got to give. I wrote him another letter in the interim, this time with a letter from Kenji properly scanned, printed and translated by another JFC. I thought my own letter did not need translating; I again used the web translator to write. In order to convey my sincerity, I wrote him my first haiku in Nihongo and written in Kanji which read:
akete imasu yo
Since he was a farmer, I just thought that he would get what the hana kotoba meant.
The tense minutes of explanation and thoughtful silence yielded a yes. Yes, he wants to see his son and he would help in the papers to get him here.
Kenji told me through chat that he could not explain how tears were falling down his cheeks. I resisted calling him an idiot because I could not explain how mine were falling down as well.
I believe it boiled down to Kenji’s passion and ambition to see his father, his agony to embrace the father he had dreamt of meeting an entire lifetime. Kenishiro-san also deserves credit; I believe it was a courageous decision for him to overcome his fears and his guilt of having abandoned his son. I feel privileged to have been part of this miracle, even if only by expediting the formation of this link.
There is bravery and magic in little things and in seeing people transcend their own veils and limitations. Maybe, just maybe, there is a real space beyond the walls of generations, gender, nations, language and pride for fathers, daughters, sons, mothers to reunite.
(former Asian Public Intellectual Fellow)
Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 15 (March 2014). The South China Sea
Matsubara, Hiroshi, Mr. “INTERNATIONAL MARRIAGE: Japanese-Filipino Children Pay for Their Fathers’ Mistakes.” Asahi Shimbun, June 25, 2012. http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201206250001 Accessed July 5, 2012.
Philips, Sarah, 2013. Fukushima is not Chernobyl. Don’t be so sure. Somatosphere, March 13, 2013. Http://somatosphere.net/2013/03/fukushima-is-not-chernobyl-dont-be-so-sure.html. Accessed March 13, 2013.
Laura, Miller. 2003. “Male Beauty Work in Japan.” Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan: Dislocating the Salaryman Doxa. Eds. James E. Roberson and Nobue Suzuki. London: Routledge, 37-58.
Spivak, Gayathri. 1988. Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- All personal names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of informants. ↩