Jennifer Linsky is a Twitter friend who graciously agreed to write a guest blog for me.
Note added 2017/04/30: Please see the additional information in the biography section below. This is not information I had available when this guest blog was posted.
Hello! My name is Jenny, and I’ve been invited by Heather to do a guest post this week. Since much of Heather’s blog content is about her great-great-grandfather’s civil war diary, I thought I would write a bit about my Ojii-kun, my grandfather, and an entirely different war: the war in the Pacific.
I was born on a Thursday morning in September, on a day which also happened to be the anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s birth. Despite having arrived in the world only twenty-eight hundred kilometers away from my grandparents’ home in Hakodate, I did not meet the rest of my family for several years; instead, I was flown to America where I mastered the complexities of walking, eating solid food, and speaking English.
The summer before I turned five, however, my mother put me on another airplane with a stuffed bear almost as large as I was. Colonel Bear and I flew across the Pacific, accompanied only by a stewardess, a flight crew, and a couple of dozen strangers. In Tokyo, the stewardess spoke to an old man who looked like the pictures my mother had shown me, and then, she handed me off to him.
“Hello, Jeni,” he said. “I am your grandfather.” I made the bow my mother had practiced with me, and my grandfather chuckled, returned the bow, and offered his hand to shake. I shook it. Then I held his hand as we went to reclaim my bags, as we left the airport, as we took a train.
During that trip, I learned things about my grandfather: he spoke very good English, in a measured, precise way, with a cowboy accent layered over his Japanese accent. I learned that he liked literature, both English and Japanese. And when we visited a shrine together, I learned that he had once had a little brother whose name meant “Shining light.” I learned that my grandfather’s name meant “Studious first-born,” and my mother’s original name meant “Clarity girl.” My grandfather did not know what my name meant, because it was not Japanese. He would find out, and later call me his fair one, though I suspect that in his mind, fair related to justice, not hair color.
That first trip, I also gave him the label by which I called him for the rest of my life: Ojii-kun. My cousins all referred to him as Ojii-chan, which mystified me. When I asked my grandfather for an explanation, he just spread his hands. “They call me Ojii-chan because I am their Ojii-san, and they like me,” he said. “What do you think I should be called?”
Rules are comforting when you’re four and learning a new language. -chan, I explained, was for girls. Jeni-chan, Umeko-chan, Skura-chan. Boys all had -kun names. Hikaru-kun, the lost little brother. Tatsu-kun, the cousin who didn’t like me. So my grandfather should be Ojii-kun. He nodded, and agreed that he could be my Ojii-kun. Later, I found out that in general Japanese usage, an Ojii-kun is an exceptionally youthful looking grandfather; perhaps this stroked my Ojii-kun’s ego.
(My Ojii-chan was also called “Castro-sama” by my cousins. When he retired, he decided to grow his beard, with the result you likely expect; a whispy white tangle. He would tell me with a twinkle in his eye that he thought he looked like Santa-sama).
Over time, as I got older and my understanding increased, I learned more. I learned that my grandfather spoke English as he did because he had studied Civil Engineering at a University in Texas. He had gone to learn about railroads, and when he came back, he did what many young men from good families, who had the right social connections, did…he joined the Army.
The Army put him to work building railroads. He built local lines in Osaka; he built a major line in Hokkaido. He fell in love with a woman from the wrong background, and full of the egalitarian spirit he had picked up in Texas, he married her anyway. Then my Ojii-kun was sent to build railroads in Manchuria.
(My grandmother, my Obaa-sama, remained in Japan and worked hard to have her husband’s affluent, socially-connected family accept her despite her farming roots. Instead, I think she absorbed their disdain for anything which was not “good enough.” And a half-barbarian child who barely spoke Japanese? Not good enough).
Many Japanese believe that you can not know who a person is, until you’ve been drunk with them. There are too many layers of pretense, of politeness, of carefully crafted veneer between you and their true self, and only alcohol can tear away those layers and show you the soul. Though I was not old enough to drink, I saw my grandfather drunk. I know that, even thirty years later, the Manchurian incident tore at him. “They blew it up,” he would rail, deep in his cups. “They blew up my pretty roadway!”
Memory is the most unreliable narrator of all, and when it is the memory of a man grown old, filtered through the memory of a child who didn’t understand all of it at the time, what remains is likely to be as much wishful fiction as history. Should I take his drunken ramblings literally? Should I believe that he designed, or surveyed, or supervised the building of the railway line bombed on a chill September morning in 1931? It would have been early in his career, but possible. Or did he simply mean that the rail was his in the way that all rail was his?
My grandfather loved railroads. We would leave the house early, some days, Ojii-kun and I. Ojii-kun said that we were getting out of Obaa-sama’s hair, but really, he just wanted to go and ride the rails with me. Some days, we would just ride around Hakodate, and he would tell me little stories about the neighborhoods. Some days, we would ride out into the Hokkaido countryside, and eat our lunch at a railway station someplace, having whatever ekiben (train-station lunchbox) was on offer at that station, in that season.
Sometimes, when we took longer trips, Ojii-kun would pick up a manga volume, and we would read together -- which is to say, I would look at the pictures and he would read to me, translating on the fly as he turned the pages.
(Decades later, I would incorporate that common scene into Flowers of Luna, the girl and her grandfather changed to young lovers, but the train and the reading aloud still symbolizing love).
Sometimes, when I could not sleep, my grandfather would read to me from a big, pre-war book of Japanese fairy tales. Obaa-sama would scold him for coddling me, but Ojii-kun would just smile and go on reading. He didn’t translate when he read from that book, and the sound of half-understood words and phrases tumbling by in the deep voice of my Ojii-kun would make me feel safe, and I would fall asleep.
I do not know where my grandfather was in December of 1937, but I do know that he was still in China. He may have been present for the approach, siege, and massacre of Nanking. If so, he never spoke directly of it. More than once, however, when he was in his cups, he looked at me with sorrow deep in his eyes, and he asked, “Jeni, who is the better samurai? The one who serves the just master, or the one who serves the wicked master?”
And, though I knew his answer after the first time, I would always answer that it was the one who served the just master. But Ojii-kun would shake his head, and say, “anyone can serve a just master. It takes a truly exceptional samurai to serve a wicked master faithfully and well, despite the cries of his soul.”
If he were alive today, I would ask him many things. Whether he truly built the railroad in Manchuria that wasn’t destroyed by the seditious bomb. Whether he was there in the days around the dreadful activities in Nanking. Why he hadn’t opposed the Army’s plans. But he is not alive.
He died the winter following my twelfth birthday. The previous summer, as we stood in Tokyo at the shrine for the Imperial War Dead, we looked at the sky. “It was the weather,” he said, “that made them choose Nagasaki.” I nodded. He looked around the shrine once more, and then said, in a confidential tone, “I have always believed it fate that Hikaru-kun became light at the end of his life.”
That afternoon, at the airport, we engaged in our ritual of leavetaking. I shook his hand solemnly, and bowed. “Be well, Jeni-chan,” he said. “I do not believe we will meet again in this life.” When I picture him now, he too has become light, and he laughs, the unfashionable deep belly laugh of my childhood.
Jennifer Linsky is a second-generation Japanese American who could join the DAR. She is the author of Flowers of Luna, a Japanese-influenced F|F romance in a SciFi setting, independently published through Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N163SY4 ) and available on Kindle Unlimited. She tweets as @Walkyrjenny and uses the same handle for Wattpad, where more of her writing can be read for free.
Note added 2017/04/30: It has come to my attention that "Jennifer Linsky" the author is a fictional character created by an author who does not have Japanese ancestry and who does not identify as female. I maintain the principle that books should stand on their own, regardless of authorship, and I uphold the right of authors to use pseudonyms for whatever reason seems best to them, but I am not willing to knowingly participate in an author mis-representing membership in a marginalized group. The above story and associated bio should be considered a work of creative fiction and the novel that is referenced should be evaluated on its own merits but not as an "own voices" story. My apologies to anyone who may have been misled by the original version of this blog, as I was.