I love to tell people that I am Japanese. I get to do that a lot because people have an awful time figuring out my ethnicity on their own. I tell people that I’m half Japanese, half white, never the other way around. My dad is full Japanese and my mom is Welsh, French, Scotch-Irish, and I can never remember what else. They met in Kyoto in a coffee shop that my mom ran with her friends.
I first went to Japan when I was one. I don’t remember anything from that trip, but when I traveled to Japan again in the 5th grade, it felt and smelled familiar. I’ve been to Japan five times, heard Japanese around my house my whole life, but I never learned the language.
I returned to Japan for the third time the summer after my second year of college. This time we went to visit my great-grandfather’s hometown, Murotsu, in Yamaguchi prefecture. We flew into Osaka and took the next train out to our ancestral home. The train sped through Hiroshima, where my grandmother’s relatives lived until August 6, 1945 at 8:15am. I usually only pray during airplane turbulence, but I prayed then.
Murotsu is a small, coastal fishing village on the inland sea of Japan. The name never meant much to me. Growing up, I only heard it when we prayed at an altar to our ancestors, next to our desktop computer and a stash of board games. The altar was covered in water-stained photos filled with faces from both sides of my family that I did not recognize. We lit incense and were supposed to close our eyes, but instead, I looked into theirs.
We arrived at a boxy, cedar house tucked away off the main road in Murotsu. Japan smells like cedar. An ancient woman with a 90-degree spine beckoned us inside. My dad explained that her name was Tsuyako Matsuda. She was my grandfather’s cousin-in-law. She immediately started speaking rapid nihongo, ushering us in, excited to learn about us distant Matsudas. Tsuyako asked me a question and I blankly nodded and smiled. She asked the question again. My mom explained that I don’t speak very much Japanese. “What do you mean he doesn’t speak Japanese?!” She kept looking at me and I kept looking away.
The family roasted a fresh caught mackerel and spread the table with heaps of steaming rice, pickled vegetables, cold tofu with ginger and scallions, tempura shrimp, and lots of Sapporo beer. We sat on the goza grass mats on the floor around a long black lacquer table. Folding my legs into the tiny space between the table and the floor was nearly impossible.
We settled in, put our hands together, bowed our heads, and said, itadakimasu. In one word, we thanked the fish for giving up its life for us, the fishermen for catching the fish, the soybeans for growing ripe and green so that they could be pulverized into tofu, the Germans for teaching the Japanese how to make beer, and so on. The utterance is brief and bottomless. I get impatient at my friends’ dinner tables when they say grace.
I burnt my mouth on the steaming rice like I always do. I eat rice most days of my life, so my mouth is usually burnt. Growing up, my mom only served us organic brown rice, which has too much flavor, too much texture. She says it has more nutrients. The steaming bowls of white rice in front of us were cooked to perfection. Every grain was distinct, but not dry. Good rice is hard for me to pick up with chopsticks. “You are holding your ohashi wrong,” Tsuyako said. Those words felt like she was pushing the blunt end of the chopstick into my chest.
The “proper” way to hold chopsticks is what’s shown on the back of the paper chopstick wrappers. In three steps, it expects you to learn how to master chopsticks. There aren’t even any words! One chopstick is supposed to anchor and the other maneuvers to pinch the food. I have tried this for 23 years. I prefer to let them both do the pinching. I can’t tell the difference, but everyone else in my family can. Now I eat my rice with a fork.
The sun rose over Murotsu’s bay and bathed the town temple in dawn light. The Matsuda clan marched down a straight road to the temple in a single file line like it was a procession. Small cars made for small people zipped by as we passed rice paddies and rows of vending machines. A farmer stood over a smoldering pile of debris. The smoke was sweet and black and drifted lazily upwards.
The temple was an austere building made of unstained cedar. The sesame brown and matte black accents of the roof blended into a massive bamboo forest. The groundskeeper welcomed Tsuyako warmly, bowing deeply. We all bowed in return, to the exact same depth he did, as is customary. Tsuyako explained who we were and he excitedly led us up a crumbling path into the forest. We climbed an abrupt hill and at the top lay a small cropping of deteriorating headstones. “Here we are,” he said. That’s the kind of phrase I can understand.
My brother leaned down and said, “I think these are Matsudas,” tracing the characters with his finger. Tsuyako nodded. The bamboo swayed overhead and I sank into the ground.
Claiming an identity is not simple. It’s a process. It takes continuous work. But I felt validated when I saw the graves of my Japanese ancestors who lived nearly 300 years ago in Murotsu.
Now when I tell people that I am Japanese, it feels true. I have the evidence; I took 22 photos of the gravestones. They are uploaded to my Facebook profile and my blog as proof. I even went to Walgreen’s and printed out a 4×6. It hangs on my wall like a degree. I still can’t use ohashi the “right” way and I ache with my inability to speak Japanese. So I compensate. I’m half Japanese, half white, not the other way around.