Shimenawa

By: Naoko Kumagai

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             ncle Kazuya, my father’s older brother, hung himself in the barn behind his house in Ishikari, just outside Sapporo in Hokkaido.

 

He had left a note:

 

I’m found out.It’s too late. Help.

 

“He went door to door and bribed people so they’d vote for him,” my mother said. “He was running for city council. He was an idiot.”  

“Your grandma’s pretty upset,” was all my father could say. She had called us with the news that early Tuesday morning, September 1988.

 

My 14-year-old self tried to detect sadness, anger, anything in my father’s expression. He rustled the Vancouver Sun he was reading and held the broadsheet up to his face like a shield. I was at the foot of the long dining table; he was at the head. We were remote satellites temporarily at rest. He didn’t go to the funeral.   

 

***

 

It was the beginning of a lesson for me. Death doesn’t necessarily bring people together; it can lift the veil and reveal how far apart you are. If my father ever cried as much as he needed to, I imagine he would flood every creek, every river vein, until the waters would rise into swirling pools. He would have to be compelled by some extraordinary force to soften him, crack him open and invite the grief in.

 

***

 

As the eldest son, Kazuya was expected to stay in the house in Ishikari where he’d been born. He and Aunt Yuko brought up their two boys on the farm. I had met my uncle only once during a visit to Ishikari when I was ten, a hazy recollection, aside from his booming voice. I pieced the rest of him together from hearing fragmented anecdotes and muted conversations between my parents. Kazuya was full of life, a man to be feared. He was generous, oppressive, a thief (he stole land that belonged to my father), a bully, a giant. He contained my shifting preoccupations with Japan, the country where I was born but didn’t know. He was a thread to slippery, remote family clues. My parents had told me very little. They were born in Japan at the end of the Second World War; they grew up poor. Married, immigrated, Canada. They moved through life like the walking embalmed. They held the war in the marrow of their soft child bones.

My father drank himself numb and did his best to follow his father’s credo: “A real man only speaks three words a day.”

 

At the end, his brother broke the family rules. I’m found out. It’s too late. Help. He would never have expressed such a cacophony when he was alive. It was too many words.

 

***

 

After hearing of Kazuya’s suicide, I contemplated rope in all its variations. My old skipping rope with wood handles, the tent rope in the garage, the multi-purpose yellow plastic twine in my father’s workroom that didn’t seem to have a purpose. A rubber hose in the grass, the trailing line of an extension cord, the white TV cable with metal ends. I conjured up heavy loops of rope lying on the ground in my uncle’s barn, like columns of sinister, sleeping vipers.

 

***

 

In July 1989, eleven months after Kazuya’s suicide, our family visited my grandmother and Aunt Yuko in Ishikari. Grandma was a tiny, fierce woman, who was bowlegged and rocked side-to-side like a metronome as she walked. She often sat in her corner in the living room, on a fat cushion on her knees.

 

One afternoon, I was sitting on the floor across from her. Her eyes were closed. For a moment, I thought she might be sleeping upright. Then she was speaking.

“Do you eat sushi in Canada?” she asked me, opening her eyes.

I was fifteen and could speak some Japanese. She didn’t know a word of English.

“Yes. There’s lots of it everywhere,” I replied.

“It would be nice if you married a Japanese boy someday,” she said.

“They don’t exist in Canada,” I said.

 She made a “hmmmm” sound and nodded.

“It’s sad,” she said. “That’s very sad. It would be nice if you could.”

Her gaze wandered away and did not return to me.

“I don’t know why he did it,” she said, her voice breaking.

 

***

 

I had heard that corruption was common in Japanese politics in Hokkaido; it was so common that people didn’t particularly seem to be outraged by it. Some were often more angered when their favourite politician was arrested for bribery, than by the corruption itself.  My uncle had been a popular councilman in his community. He probably could have gone on, unscathed, been forgiven, if forgiveness was even necessary.

 

So why did he do it?

 

“You must commit suicide at the height of your beauty.” This was something the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima believed when he committed seppuku in a government office at the age of 45 in 1970. Kazuya had been 52 when he died. Did he believe he was past his beauty? Was his suicide in part, an act of vanity?  Had he been terrified of getting old?

 

In the Shinto religion, twists of sacred rice straw rope called shimenawa are used to symbolize ritual purification and to ward off evil spirits. The shimenawa is hung over the doors of temples, homes or building sites after they have been purified. The rope is also used to encircle objects that are considered holy, such as trees or rocks. Kazuya had used a piece of rice straw rope to end his life. He was not a religious person. But was his death in some way an attempt at purification?

 

Through the years, I would turn the possibilities over and over again in my mind. It occurred to me much later that it was a way for me to keep him alive.

 

***

 

This is a story I was told.

 

It was August 1973. My brother Jiro was four, sitting at dinner.

“E tadaki mas,” my uncle said. Jiro picked up onigiri, a rice ball, with his hands and mashed it into his mouth. Fish and rice on his plate, untouched. He stuffed another onigiri in his mouth, bits of rice falling.

“Jiro-chan…” A warning from my mother.  Jiro opened his mouth wide, splayed his tongue covered in tiny white beads of rice. Kazuya stood up and roughly pulled Jiro out of his chair.

“What are you doing?” My mother asked, getting up.

Kazuya went out the back door, carrying Jiro firmly under his arm. With the other hand, he picked up a circle of rope hanging on the fence by the shed. In the yard was a large oak tree with heavy, twisted branches. He wrapped the rope around my brother once, then pushed him to the trunk of the oak, winding the rope around and around.

 “He must eat his dinner properly.” My uncle tied a thick knot at the end. “He needs to learn to be a man.”  

My mother was shouting at my uncle; Jiro was screaming, the sound flooding the sky. Kazuya went back into the house, relaxed and entitled, as if he had just finished a long day’s work.

 

No one remembers the rest. My mother never forgave my uncle. My father wasn’t there. Jiro can’t recall any of it. He jokes that the incident is possibly the reason he always, intuitively eats everything on his plate.

 

I invent my own ending. I imagine my mother struggling with the knot, with Jiro sobbing to be free. A kodama, a tree spirit, in the form of an old woman, appears. She unties Jiro, embraces his small body, presses her palm over his forehead as if to calm a fever. She banishes the event from his mind. Early next morning, Jiro peers out the window. A shimenawa with paper streamers is tied around the base of the oak.

 

***

 

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, I was living in Toronto. I called my parents in Vancouver.  My father picked up the phone. He usually passed the receiver to my mother once he’d said hello because he hated talking on the phone, but this time, he was watching the news, the endless looping footage of the destruction, the lineups for food and water and the brown water surging over houses and cars.

 

“Japan will disappear,” he said. “It’s going to disappear soon.”

He sounded like a child then, speaking in a voice I had never heard. He was trying to reach relatives in Tokyo and couldn’t get through. Something in my father’s tone indicated an opening, a chance to compensate for a lifetime of missed conversations. We could start with my uncle.

 

But I hesitated. I was too afraid to take the risk, to be evaded, dismissed. I told my father I’d call back later. I hung up the phone and left the tangled cord spiraling from the edge of the desk.BW

 

Naoko Kumagai has a background in journalism, publicity, screenwriting, and filmmaking. She’s been awarded the Canadian Film Centre’s screenwriting prize, has been published in Rice Paper and Event magazine and won Room magazine’s non-fiction contest in 2014. Most recently, she was long listed for the CBC non-fiction prize. She reads obsessively and loves a good almond milk latte.

 

She has an MFA from the University of Guelph.

 

 

 

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