Julie Otsuka’s ‘Come, Japanese!’ opens Granta’s Aliens issue. The excerpt from her forthcoming novel The Buddha in the Attic introduces readers to a group of mail-order brides coming to the US from Japan in the early 1900s. The women in the story have left their homes but haven’t arrived at their destination; they crowd together on their bunks in the lowest decks of the ship, imagining what their new lives, and husbands, will be like. ‘On the boat we often wondered: Would we like them? Would we love them? Would we recognize them from their pictures when we first saw them on the dock?’
Hiromi It? , one of the country’s most highly acclaimed poets, describes an encounter with an older woman hawking Japanese noodles—who is, perhaps, a kin of Otsuka’s brides.
At a market where all the Japanese-Americans go
Someone called out and stopped me in my tracks
At the corner of the mall is an izakaya
Where they serve simmering kiriboshi daikon and hijiki
Next to that is a curry shop
Where they serve katsu curry and other things
Next to that is a Japanese-style cake shop
Where they serve strawberry shortcake
And in the fall, Mont Blanc
Next to that is the Japanese market
An old woman works there, her job is promotion
She yells in English with a strong accent
Probably in her late sixties, probably born and raised in Japan
Came here when she was young, life here is probably longer
Never will return
She uses only Japanese with her family
When she speaks in Japanese
Her children and grandchildren respond only in English
Today, just now, she yelled
And stopped a single woman
‘Chotto okusan yottette! Good sauce ga included yo!’
I was the one she stopped
My mind spun as I stopped
What the heck, who on earth
Is her yelling meant to stop?
What kind of person, what background, what gender, what station in life?
What does she want to say to the person she stops?
Aren’t I the one?
The one who shares those things?
The language, the gender, the age, the station in life, the interests, the financial values
That this lady was targeting? That was what was going through my mind
As I took a sample of her yakisoba
And tasted it with so much nostalgia
I took a bag of yakisoba, thinking ‘Ara, kore wa rather cheap da wa ne!’
And threw it into the shopping cart
All of the what
That are there?
Arigato, she says
Iie, I say
Here is a woman
Who comes back alive, who comes back dead
Who connects with the next woman
With tens and hundreds and thousands of women
With generations and tens of generations down the line
Notes: The first quotation, with its idiosyncratic mixture of Japanese and English, means something like: ‘Hey, lady, take a look! Good sauce is included!” The second quotation means something like: ‘Wow, this is rather cheap, isn’t it?’ The lines ‘All of the what / That are there?’ are a reference to a famous haiku by Natsume S?seki, written on the occasion of the funeral of Otsuka Naoko, a married author for whom he bore a special love. The poem reads, ‘All the chrystanthemums / that are there, throw them / Inside the coffin.’
translated by Jeffrey Angles and Sara Nishi
photo by udono.
Also in this series: ‘Go, Japanese!’, Kyoko Nakajima’s response to Julie Otsuka’s story.
Google’s Crisis Response page
for updates regarding the 2011 Earthquake. The site is accepting donations to the Japanese Red Cross.