‘Between Word and Mouth’ by Emi Sasagawa16 min read

20 April, 2018 0 comment


It’s 6:30 a.m. The whole family is sitting around the dining table for breakfast. Gohan, tamagoyaki, tofu, sake, misoshiru. My sister and I eat one, two, three bowls of rice, each time with a different topping—nori, furikake, shirasu.

Between mouthfuls, I show hiiobaachan[i] I can count in Japanese. Ichi. She follows along. Ni. My sister joins in. San. My dad smiles approvingly. Shi. Hiiobaachan’s eyes widen. She shakes her head.

“Yon,” she says.

I shake my head back, “Ichi, ni, san, shi, go-”

Shi o iwanaide.”[ii]

I look back at my dad, my eyes pleading for help.

“Shi and yon both mean four,” he explains. “Shi also means death. Hiiobaachan is superstitious. It’s bad luck.”

I try it again. “Ichi, ni, san, yon, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyuu, ju.”

Hiiobaachan claps in approval. I smile awkwardly. This is about the extent of my vocabulary. The last time we visited I could speak fluent Japanese, but now that I am eight I go to a Portuguese-speaking school in Sao Paulo. I’ve forgotten most of the language. Smiling and nodding works for most occasions. When that fails I call out to my dad.

Hiiobaachan is 91, but she doesn’t look it. She only has a handful of white hairs, which she ties in a perfectly round bun. Apart from her hands, painted with sunspots, she’s almost wrinkle-free.  Only her posture gives away her age. Hiiobaachan walks at a 135 degree angle, as a result of carrying children on her back while working the rice fields.

After breakfast, she gestures for me to follow her to the bedroom. I drag my feet, imitating her walk. She slides the shoji[iii] open, and we take off our slippers and sit around the warm kotatsu.[iv] It’s January. The house is cold. Our feet meet in the middle and she laughs. She turns on the TV and hands me a bowl full of oranges. We sit in silence.

At 10:00 a.m. she looks at me, presses her hands on the table and sweeps her legs under her knees. She pushes the kotatsu away and digs her feet into the ground. This is the fastest I’ve seen her move. Hiiobaachan puts on a light blue, quilted coat, opens the door to her room and points back to the main house. I don’t get it. She gives her coat two tugs and points again. I run as fast as I can. I grab my coat, gloves and scarf. Before we walk out, she picks up a couple of oranges and puts them in her pocket.

The last time we visited I could speak fluent Japanese, but now that I am eight I go to a Portuguese-speaking school in Sao Paulo. I’ve forgotten most of the language.

We walk in the opposite direction to the main house, along a poorly lit corridor, then down a set of stairs. She takes off her slippers and slides her feet into pink rubber shoes for gardening. There’s an identical pair for me. We follow the fence that separates my grandparents’ house from their neighbour’s. The path is narrow. I can hardly fit.

We come out at the back of the house, where the entrance to the family’s tatami[v] factory is located. We wave to my grandfather and uncle in their blue coveralls. They nod in return. They’re carrying three stacked tatami mats, holding an end each.

I have no idea where we are going. We walk along the street that leads to the department store where I bought my origami paper. We turn left at the small stream where just yesterday my dad showed me how to catch frogs. We follow the main road until we reach a row of perfectly stacked box-shaped stones. She walks up a small set of steps and stops by one of the stacks. It’s a tight space, but I follow right behind her. In front of us is a large stone with our family name carved in it.

Hiiobaachan removes a wooden dipper from her coat. She scoops up water from a nearby bucket and pours it over the gravestone. From her other pocket, she takes out a spade and a small rake. She tends to the weeds around the grave with surgical precision. Then she takes out an incense stick and the two oranges, handing one over to me. She lights the incense and props the stick up. She places her orange on the grave. I put mine next to hers. She joins her hands, starring ahead. One, two, three, four—I count how long she stays frozen. Eyes closed, she takes a small bow. She looks at me and smiles. Then she picks up her tools and we walk down the stone steps, out on the street, back to the house.

Over the next three weeks I spend every morning with hiiobaachan. We watch TV and sit by the kotatsu. At 10:00 a.m. we get up and walk over to the cemetery. I am familiar with the routine after a few of days. I wash the gravestone. I pick out the weeds. She never asks for help and I never offer. I just do. Sometimes it’s easier to hear when you’re both silent.


Backpack in hand, I zig-zag across Tokyo station for the shinkansen.[vi] The Nozomi leaves for Shin-Yamaguchi once every hour. I told my cousin when to pick me up and I don’t have a phone on me. Missing this train is not an option. I reach the platform as the whistle starts to sound. I jump in. Made it!

Trying to catch my breath, I walk towards Car Six, keeping an eye out for the coffee cart. Going out last night was a bad idea. My head pounds to the rhythm of the train’s vibration. I’m nervous. This will be the first time visiting my dad’s family on my own. I pull the hoodie over my head and close the curtains. I want to sleep, but I should review some basic phrases.

I arrive at Shin-Yamaguchi station at 12:34 p.m. My cousin is waiting for me on the platform. Of my entire extended family, Yasuhiro is the only one who speaks English and he seems happy to have someone to practice speaking with.

In the car he asks me about my family, university and what it’s like living in London. Yamaguchi hasn’t really changed since I visited a few years ago. I am not sure it ever looked different. As we approach his house, my cousin asks me if I know what happens when a person dies—in Japan, that is.

He hands me maroon beads. I wrap them around my hand and bow.

Last year Yasuhiro’s mother, my father’s favourite sister, passed away. She’d been struggling with cancer since my teens and we’d known that the end was coming for a while. I couldn’t attend the funeral but my parents did.

Yasuhiro tells me the first time you visit the house of someone who’s passed away, you have to pay respects to the dead. First, you make an offering at the family shrine, then you walk up to the family grave and pray. I wish my dad had told me about this, shown me how it’s done. In my typed-up list of basic phrases, there are none to express grief.

“Are you ready?”

I nod. I don’t think I have a choice. I walk behind Yasuhiro, greeting my uncle at the door. A photo of my aunt sits on the shrine behind the offerings—rice, salt, water, sake. My cousin kneels. I follow. He picks up an incense stick and hands it to me. I light it and dig it into a pile of ashes in a metal bowl. He puts his hands together. I do the same. We bow, then get up.

My cousin and I don’t carry the same family name. When my aunt married, she became a Kuramashi. Their family grave sits atop a hill. He points to the cemetery, letting me know how far we’ll have to go. My uncle joins us. It’s August. The heat makes the climb more arduous.

My mind wanders to a few summers ago when my aunt took us to a hot spring nestled in the mountains. Every morning she ordered artisanal tofu from a local soybean grower. We would sit together. I would mimic her perfect scoops until our straw bowls were scraped clean.

The view is beautiful. Rice fields. Rows of wooden houses. Mountains in the distance. My uncle goes about performing the same ritual hiiobaachan had shown me. One, the water. Two, the weeds. Three, the offering. Four, the prayer. He hands me maroon beads. I wrap them around my hand and bow.

We collect the tools and walk back. I wonder if I should say anything, but silence is all I can find.


My parents meet me at Haneda Airport. In the car, my mom shows me a black, silky button-down shirt and a pair of black dress pants. I missed the funeral last month, so nokotsu[vii] is my last chance to say goodbye to obaachan.[viii]

The next day we take the shinkansen to Shin-Yamaguchi. My dad is quieter than usual, although he is not a talker even on his best days. My parents wanted to move to Japan a couple of years ago. After my aunt passed away, my grandmother’s health deteriorated. She was diagnosed with dementia shortly after. My dad asked his company for a transfer, but it hasn’t come through.

Yasuhiro’s younger brother picks us up at the train station. My dad and my cousin talk about work, where to eat and how long we have before the ceremony. My mom listens in. I look out the window and watch the rice fields pass by.

I don’t know how to mourn obaachan—to mourn someone whose presence always had to be translated. I try to recall a conversation, any conversation I might have had with her. I list all the things I know. Name. Age. Hair colour. Then, I list all the things I wish I knew. The soaps she watched. Her favourite food. Where she came from.

We make it to my dad’s childhood home minutes after the monk. Ojiichan[ix] meets us at the door. I want to hug him, but my dad says touching is out of the question. I bow instead.

The monk gives us a booklet each. Facing my grandmother’s picture, propped on an altar, he begins to chant. We follow the words in silence. It’s a low, throaty sound. Repetitive lines, like a never-ending echo. I look up and around the room, where black and white photos of my ancestors look down on us. Most of them I can’t recognize.

I don’t know how to mourn obaachan—to mourn someone whose presence always had to be translated.

Obaachan was so quiet sometimes you could forget she was there, but my dad didn’t. When her back started to curve and she couldn’t reach the kitchen sink, he put together a step stool for her. When she became depressed after my aunt’s passing, he began to visit more often. And when her mind started to go, he’d patiently stay on the phone with her, in silence.

My grandfather walks to the altar and picks up the urn containing obaachan’s ashes. My dad’s older brother grabs a handful of incense sticks. We follow them. They walk the same path hiiobaachan and I used to take, down the poorly lit corridor, through the narrow path, and out the back where the tatami factory still is. We walk down the street with the same department store, turn left at the stream and follow the main road to the cemetery.

The monk walks up the steps first, followed by my grandfather and my uncle. The rest of us stand in the back. They wash the grave. Then, my grandfather places the urn in a chamber underneath the gravestone. My uncle lights up the incense sticks and distributes them among us. One at a time we walk up the stone steps, prop the incense up on the grave, join our hands and bow.

On the way back to the house, my mom, my sister and I surround my dad. We try to follow his rhythm. He looks ahead, like he’s walking purposefully towards something. I want to hold his hand and ask if he’s doing ok. I want to say I also wish I’d done more, visited more often. But touching is out of the question. So, I look ahead and keep quiet.


I wake up at 3:23 a.m. to my mom’s call. “Ojiichan is no longer.” Last year, my parents finally moved to Japan to be closer to my grandfather. But my dad’s new position kept him from visiting more often. A month ago, ojiichan went into the hospital for routine exams. It started with a cold, then a lung infection. His organs started to fail a few days later.

“Your dad’s not doing well, Emi. Be gentle.”

My dad calls five minutes later. Nakunata. It means gone or lost. I ask him if I should go to the funeral. He says he is going to take the rest of the day off and go home. I remind him I need to get a ticket soon. He hangs up the phone.

I pace back and forth in my Vancouver apartment, then walk to the bathroom and turn on the tap. Sitting fully clothed in the empty bathtub, I watch the water rise. I submerge my body and let out a scream—the sound muffled, the chaos contained. One, two, three, four. I come up for air, tears trickling down my face. The world is just as I left it—dark and silent. I walk over to the computer and buy the first ticket I can find.

My parents don’t pick me up at the airport. They’re already on their way to the funeral. By now the commute to Tokyo station is familiar to me. I run to catch the Nozomi to Shin-Yamaguchi. At the platform, no one is waiting for me.

I try to brush my frustration aside. I pick up my phone, turn on roaming and begin to Google “Death in Japan,” “Japanese funeral,” and “Funeral traditions in Japan.” I am acutely aware of my ignorance. No one has told me what to expect. As always, I am underprepared to be here.

My dad meets me at the funeral home. I try to feign calmness. I’ve never seen a corpse before. I walk behind him, hoping he will shield me from the shock. He slides the shoji open. I brace myself. The smell of incense is overwhelming. Lying on the tatami, ojiichan. If it weren’t for his perfectly aligned body, I would have thought he was asleep. My mom is kneeling next to him. She gestures for me to take a seat.

Out in the corridor, old floorboards creak. I hold my breath, bracing myself for an unexpected movement or sound.

We pass around a small bowl with water and a damp cloth and take turns cleaning his body. Ojiichan is covered with a thin, white sheet. Underneath it, his skin is bare. I gently lift his leg. It’s heavy and stiff. I wash his left foot, then his right. I start with the big toe down to his ankle. His skin callused and tough, his heel cracked.

Two men from the funeral home dress him in a blue silk kimono with a white diamond-shaped pattern. One man puts both arms through the robe, stretching the left and right sleeves. He carefully puts ojiichan’s left arm through and straightens out the kimono underneath him. With the help of his partner, he rolls my grandfather on his side, passing the remainder of the robe to the right. They lay his body down and pass the right arm through the other sleeve. They wrap the left side of the kimono over the right and tug at the white sheet covering my grandfather, removing it from under the robe. They’re careful not to reveal bits of skin in the process. Then, one of them wraps prayer beads around ojiichan’s hands and places them over his chest in praying position.

Across the room, a selection of awkward smiles. My mom taps me on the shoulder. “Tonight, we sleep with your grandfather.” I let that sink it. I feel the shock, but I don’t react. I’m numb. I look at my dad a few feet away. He stares at ojiichan, then out the window.

One of the last times I saw my grandfather, he asked if he could show me something. With a lot of gesturing and some broken Japanese, I said yes. He picked up a large box from under his desk and took out a magazine. He opened it to a bookmarked page and held a magnifying glass to a photo of almost a hundred businessmen. Right where his index finger rested was my father. Inside the box, a collection of all of my dad’s achievements since he was 15. A few months later, I asked my dad about the box. He’d never seen it.

We arrange our futons in a row. My uncle and cousin at one end, my sister and I at the other, with my parents sandwiched in the middle. My grandfather lies at our heads. Lights are off. Out in the corridor, old floorboards creak. I hold my breath, bracing myself for an unexpected movement or sound.

I watch my dad’s chest rise and fall. His breathing is heavy but controlled. My lips part, but nothing comes out. A tear falls, wetting the pillowcase underneath his head. I look at the silhouette of my grandfather’s stiffened body, just a few feet away.

Between word and mouth exists a silence that doesn’t need translation. Ichi. A silence of understanding. Ni. A silence of pain. San. A silence of guilt. Shi. A silence of loss.

[i] Great-grandmother.

[ii] “Don’t say four.”

[iii] A room divider consisting of paper over a frame which holds together a lattice of wood.

[iv] A low, wooden table covered by a blanket, upon which a table top sits. Underneath is a heat source.

[v] A type of mat used as a flooring material in traditional Japanese-style rooms.

[vi] Bullet train.

[vii] A ceremony, happening 49 days after someone’s passing, where an urn containing their ashes are interred.

[viii] Grandmother.

[ix] Grandfather.

Emi Sasagawa is an award-winning journalist whose work has been published by The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America and The Tyee. She is currently enrolled in SFU’s Writer Studio. She writes about experiences growing up Brazilian-Japanese.

We explore grief and coping with loss in Kelsey Inouye’s Ceremonies and Zeng Xiaowen’s Carrying the Soul back Home, translated by Alison Bailey. 

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