Anoyo Realm of the dead
Hāfu Half Japanese and half another race
Gaijin-mura Foreigners’ village/ghetto
Kuōtā Quarter non-Japanese
Obon Festival of the dead when ancestors are remembered
First Winter, First Spring, First Summer, and First Autumn, taken from the Japanese seasonal calendar which is marked by sekki—24 sections or divisions and 72 kō—each lasting approximately five days, together reflecting the transience of Nature and life itself.
Waking is like a Jenga tower, constructed overnight, toppling down. So much sorrow falls around me, even before I open my eyes. I cannot stand mornings – they’re all sunless, like it was months ago on that First Winter day, a week before my sixteenth birthday. The sky was still grey—the sun had not yet climbed up from behind Mt Tanigawa—when my father crossed the creek, made an offering to the forest kami, and hung himself on one of the oak trees in the Kamimoku woods.
I leave letters for my father at the shrine.
I write in English, so Okāsan cannot read them.
Many things have changed since you journeyed to anoyo. For one thing, it’s First Spring. The ice on the pond has melted, and the fish are rising.
I’m not just “the hāfu” anymore. I’m the fatherless hāfu. People feel sorry for Okāsan, but they despise me even more than before.
I’m trying to stay strong and positive, as you taught me.
There is nothing romantic about how my parents met – at an orphanage. My father was the product of a liaison between my grandfather, Martin, a corporal in the All-Black-24th-Infantry stationed in Okinawa, and a Japanese woman, Akiko. Neither of them wanted Dad. And he was never adopted. Okāsan arrived at the orphanage as a teenager for different reasons. Her parents died, her father during the Pacific war in Papua New Guinea, and her mother from accumulated grief, or so Okāsan tells me.
“Technically” I’m not hāfu; I’m kuōtā. But my father looked more like Martin, and I look more like Dad, so I appear to be at least hāfu to observers who categorise people. The part I hate most about myself is my eyes – an inescapable reminder that I’m an amalgam of my parents. It would be easier if I looked exactly like one of them.
The cherry blossoms are emerging.
My schoolmates act as if your death has turned me into more of an alien than I already am – another reason to shun me. Like, somehow, suicide is catching. I think sadness is contagious.
Dad brought us to Kamimoku. He knew one of the Americans who lived in Gaijin-Mura. The foreigners there were looking for a caretaker for their properties. It was easy work for Dad and good money. Although I often overheard Dad say to Okāsan that he looked after the houses of white misfits who’d retreated to Gaijin-Mura to produce more hāfus. It sounded like a factory, almost.
The geese are flying North.
I know you didn’t always like the people who lived in Gaijin-mura, but I understand why they live up there together.
We live at the base of Gaijin-mura—in a rental above a café—close to Kamimoku train station. Okāsan never adapted to life in a small village. Too Japanese for the Gaijin, and for the locals, marred by being married to a man like my father. And now, in all her unassembled grief, she is even more of a transient – and a pathetic one.
Me? I don’t know where I belong. I’m unsure which is worse: being tainted by someone else or the source of someone’s misfortune.
Dad said that I was double, not half. One of him and one of Okāsan. He said I was worth more than all those ‘singles’! It still makes me smile when I remember that.
It’s First Summer. The frogs are calling, and bamboo shoots are erupting through the soil. Okāsan says we need to move. Her sporadic earnings are not enough, and the money you saved is running out. She’s in touch with a friend in Hong Kong who says Okāsan can work as a cleaner at an international school there. Why do we have to leave Japan? Wherever we go, we’ll be outsiders.
Are you there? Dad, you seem further away.
It’s as if Okāsan has stopped considering the world – the one with me in it. I wash my only uniform and prepare my lunch for school. I eat breakfast alone, and once I’m done, I lock the house and leave. I’m never sure if Okāsan is working or if she’s asleep. She was once hopeful. But hope was sucked out of her by my father’s death.
Every day, I try to think of a positive – today, at least it’s not raining.
The woman on the train frowns and holds her legs away from me when I sit next to her. She smells like the sea. It must be taxing for her to keep her legs in that awkward position for so long, and she moves when another seat becomes available.
Dearest, dearest Dad,
Fireflies are rising from the damp grass.
I’ve realised why Okāsan wants to leave Japan. We all have a fleeting idea of a place that’ll make us happy. We all have hopes and dreams. Even though Okāsan’s have dried up, she has aspirations for me. Okāsan’s asked me to study hard for a scholarship to a Hong Kong University. I will. She wants the best for me, and I shouldn’t begrudge her for that.
I want her to live a long life so I will not be alone.
Miss you so much,
I have one friend at school, Hiromi. She stands out with shiny black hair gathered in a high horse’s tail and school uniforms ironed with starch. I noticed her on my first day of school because of her confident walk – her skirt hitched high and unfazed. I met her while trying to find a classroom. I was darting back and forth like a crazed summer fly when she casually approached me.
At first, I couldn’t speak. But I managed to stammer a reply. And ever since then, I’ve been under her wing. Everyone knows that ours is an unequal friendship. I think her affection for me is like that given to a tremulous dog. And like a stray shown unexpected love, I worship her.
Today, Hiromi is not at school.
‘Where’s your master, Hanami?’ asks Sato. His face is bursting with pimples.
I remain silent.
‘We have a collar and leash for you,’ says Miko.
I’m cornered with nowhere to run.
‘Sit like a good dog.’
I sit, hunched and obedient, while they secure the collar around my neck and tether me to my locker. I watch those faces, deformed and crooked in their laughter. I remain tied for two periods. No one, not even the teachers, notice my absence. I am too scared to free myself until the end of the day when I’m sure they’ve gone home.
A cool wind has started blowing. First Autumn is here, and it will be Obon soon. Our inaugural Obon for you. Is it true that spirits are closer to earth at this time of the year than at any other? That the tenuous fabric between our worlds is almost transparent? It doesn’t seem that way to me. You seem so far away. We were once a happy family. Weren’t we?
I miss you terribly. Please visit during Obon. I promise to leave your favourite cakes on the table.
Hiromi didn’t return to school. Her family had moved to Tokyo. She didn’t say anything to me before she left. We don’t have a phone, so she can’t call, even if she wanted to.
Hibernating insects have closed their doors.
I feel alone.
Have you shed your earthly appearance? Does everyone look the same in anoyo?
I hope so.
With all my love,
When I was little, I was curious about the world, and I asked questions of Dad and occasionally Okāsan. As I became older, things changed. And now, well, I’ve lost any sense of myself.
The frost descent has begun, and there are light rain showers. It’s been almost twelve months since you journeyed to anoyo. Are you happy over there? Time’s passed, but the deep sadness I feel inside has multiplied like a virus. Don’t feel bad for me – that’s not why I’m telling you these things.
I understand the courage it took for you to do it.
The North wind is blowing the leaves, and the rainbows have begun to hide behind the clouds.
Love you more than anything,
I stand under the same impressive oak where my father took his last breaths and look up into its magnificent branches, barren of leaves. As much as I want to, I cannot gather the strength of mind to join him today.
The sky is uncharacteristically beautiful with a pink evening haze. The bears have retreated to their dens and the elk have shed their horns.
We leave for Hong Kong tomorrow. I’ll make sure Okāsan gets there safely.
Then, I will join you from there.
With much love,
Author: Mesh Tennakoon is a writer and non-practising lawyer living in Naarm. Born in Sri Lanka, she spent her childhood in England, PNG and Australia. She is studying for an MA (Creative Writing) at Deakin University and working on a collection of magical realist fiction. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and forthcoming in Island.
Artist: Zoe Hawker is a multi-disciplinary student artist working with sculpture, installation, and painting. Her self-reflexive practice aims to decode the absurdities of our current culture.
Editor: Euri Glenn