The package arrived about a month after my father had passed away.
‘Hashima-san, there’s a delivery for you!’
Sugamoto-san, one of our office part-timers, brought a thick brown envelope over to my desk.
‘It’s cash on delivery . . . The museum can’t pay until you’ve checked the sender’s name. If you don’t mind . . .’
She’d left the delivery man waiting at the staff entrance. I was busy planning a new exhibition and was irritated at being disturbed. Inwardly grumbling, I took the envelope and checked the sender’s name and address.
Apt no. 203, x-xx Nishi Waseda-3-chome, Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo
I squinted at the writing. It was my father’s name, but I’d never seen the address before.
‘I could always decline it . . .’
Sugamoto-san’s tone was tinged with impatience.
‘I’ll deal with it,’ I said hurriedly. ‘Don’t worry – I’ll pay.’
Getting up from my desk, I went to the staff entrance, gave the delivery man 650 yen from my own pocket, then stopped in the corridor to examine the label more closely.
Ms Satomi Hashima, Curatorial Department, K—Memorial Art Museum
It had to be my father’s writing. I’d never received a letter from him in my life, nor did I have a memory of any letters or other documents that he’d written; but I just knew this was his handwriting. The scrawled characters were extremely faint, and looked to have been made with a trembling hand.
I checked the collection date: 1 February. Then the requested delivery date: 5 April . . . today. My father had passed away on 1 March of this year. In other words, one month before he’d died, my father had mailed this envelope with instructions for it to be delivered to me on a specific date, more than two months later. Apart from anything else, I was surprised that delivery services would hold a package for so long.
Next, I looked at the box marked ‘description of contents’.
‘Oh, that’s right,’ I said aloud. I’d forgotten that it was my birthday.
It felt eerie to receive a letter from beyond the grave.
After many years living alone, my father had died in hospital. It wasn’t until after his death that my mother was told he’d been there for a month, in the terminal stages of cancer. Neither my mother nor I was there when he passed. He’d breathed his last with only doctors and nurses at his bedside.
The hospital was in Funabashi City, in Chiba Prefecture, north of Tokyo. The place we’d gone to clear out his possessions was a tiny apartment in the same city. I’d never heard of this Nishi-Waseda Tokyo location before.
Why had he sent me a package with that return address?
Did he send it before he went into hospital or after? I guessed that when he’d set the delivery date two months in the future, he would already have known he was going to die. He’d arranged for this package to arrive on my birthday . . . which had totally slipped my mind. Since becoming an adult I’d never received a birthday present from anyone.
As I stared at the unopened envelope, the cell phone in my pocket began to vibrate. It was my manager.
‘What are you doing? Get back here. The meeting’s about to start.’
‘Sorry. I’ll be right there,’ I said, rushing back to my desk. I dropped the package on top of a pile of papers and headed straight to the meeting room.
In fact, it was my fiftieth birthday. I’d joined this art museum’s curatorial department when I was thirty-two, meaning I’d been eighteen years in the job. Before that, I’d worked down in Fukuoka Prefecture.
I’d studied Art History at a private university in Tokyo. After graduating I was determined to find a job – any job – as long as it was connected to art. And I’d secured one at a place that had just opened. It wasn’t exactly an art museum or a gallery; it called itself an ‘art space’. These days it wouldn’t be anything extraordinary, but back then it was the first of its kind in Japan, devoted to original, modern artworks. The rather eccentric businessman who ran it was famous for raving about how modern art should be encouraged.
In those days, the modern art movement hadn’t really registered with the average person. Impressions were mostly negative, and people used to complain that avant-garde stuff was too difficult, or that they couldn’t see the point of modern art at all.
Of course, my mother was one of those types. Our family had always been hard up, but when her only daughter got into a prestigious private university, she did everything she could to make sure that I was able to go and to stay until I graduated. She worked all hours of the day doing low-paid menial work, stretched the household budget, and begged relatives for loans. She’d expected that same daughter to land a good job at a well-established company. Instead, I left for a faraway city and took up a strange art-related job she couldn’t understand. Worse, it was not even as a regular employee, but as a part-timer. My mother’s despair was absolute.
My father’s reaction was a total surprise.
‘That sounds interesting,’ he said. ‘I think you might enjoy it. People haven’t really caught on yet, have they? How interesting all that modern art stuff can be? You know I think if you find it interesting, it may be . . . no, not maybe . . . it’s sure to be, er . . . well . . . interesting.’
‘You think so?’ I replied, with an awkward laugh.
I was disconcerted, because my Dad, who surely didn’t understand the first thing about modern art, had somehow hit on the truth. Take something with no value at all, something that people see as completely pointless – all it takes to become an object of interest is for you to find it interesting.
That was precisely what art was all about.
At the time, my father was working in the fruit and veg section of a supermarket chain. He’d started there when he was still a young man, forced to drop out of university due to his family’s financial situation. One year later he’d married my mother, who worked at the same shop.
My parents had me when my father was twenty-five and my mother twenty-six. After I was born, my mother quit work to become a full-time housewife. But promotions never seemed to come my father’s way, and we barely kept our heads above water.
My father spent his life silently arranging spinach and cabbages. And somewhere along the way my mother began to distance herself from him.
‘He never speaks, your father. All the other people, they call out hai, rashai, rashai when they see a customer. He can’t do it. He’s too reserved. He’s got no presence. You forget he’s there. And that’s why he’ll never succeed.’
My mother would say all this in a tone of disgust. These feelings built up over the years, and culminated in my middle-aged parents’ divorce.
The divorce was finalized a few months after I moved back north from Fukuoka to Sakura City in Chiba Prefecture. I’d landed a job at a brand-new private art gallery there. The previous year, my father had left the supermarket where he had spent all his working life. But he hadn’t taken voluntary early retirement, neither was he graciously thanked for all his years of service and waved on his way with a golden handshake. Instead, he was accused of looking the other way when local housewives came shoplifting – a charge that may or may not have been true – and he was fired.
If my mother had thought about it rationally, she’d have realized my father was an obvious target for a company that needed to downsize. But she was too frustrated.
‘He was in cahoots with them,’ she’d rant, spewing little sparks of anger everywhere. ‘He had the hots for thieving housewives!’
My father barely protested. He offered no excuses, and waited patiently for the storm to pass. After that, he tried to find a new position, visiting the government job centre, tirelessly mailing out copies of his CV, but for a man in his late fifties the job market was grim.
My parents rented a tiny two-room flat in Funabashi City, so that when I first returned from Fukuoka there was no space for me to move in with them. I rented my own small place in Chiba City, which was handy for work. My mother used to come and visit me at home on my days off, full of complaints, and begging my advice. ‘I want to leave your father. We ought to separate, don’t you think?’ She’d repeat herself over and over – until finally she got the answer she wanted.
Ever since I was in junior high, my mother had worked part-time on cash registers, or as a cleaner. It was becoming clear now that she resented that my father barely earned more than she did. For years she had kept her criticisms in check, but now they came flooding out.
‘Your father’s too timid, that’s why he never made anything of himself. I can’t stand living with someone like that. He’s just hopeless.’
How did I feel about my father?
I suppose daughters are strongly influenced by their mothers. If mine had treated my father with more affection and respect, maybe I would have treated him the same way. But I’d grown up listening to so many of my mother’s complaints that the image of my father as a useless man was painted in my mind.
By the time I was in high school, I knew my father as a man of few words. He didn’t socialize with his co-workers; always came straight home after work. When my mother was working the night shift, he’d prepare dinner, feed me first, then sit at the dining table quietly reading until she got home.
My father didn’t have an extensive collection of books. He used to read one book constantly: Tenshin Okakura’s The Book of Tea. He would read this tiny paperback over and over again. One time, dying to know what it was that consumed him so intensely, and half-suspecting it might be some sort of pornographic novel, I waited until he was out and took a peek.
The pages had browned and were spotted and stained. There were dirty finger marks throughout. And it was full of difficult kanji characters. At first glance it seemed to be about traditional Japanese tea ceremony. My favourite subjects at school back then were art and Japanese literature, so I decided to give it a go.
. . . Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others . . .
The book was part aesthetics, part philosophy, intended to explain the meaning behind tea ceremony to Western readers. Naturally it was complex, but that very complexity left me determined to read on.
There was a weighty discussion of the logic of tea. And at the same time, an overwhelming sense of beauty. Although I didn’t really understand it, the traditional view of beauty discussed in this book awoke some kind of vague curiosity in me . . . followed by a fierce rejection of its message.
Everything in the book may have been true at the time the author lived. But didn’t aesthetic values change with the times? Precocious though the thought may have been for an eighteen-year-old, I fervently believed it. That was when I made up my mind to study at an elite Tokyo university known for its art history course. And to become familiar with the newest and best art of my own generation.
I never told my father – or my mother – that I had read his book.
I threw myself ferociously into my studies and succeeded in passing the entrance exam to the university’s Faculty of Literature. My mother was absolutely thrilled and immediately began to make arrangements. My father, taciturn as ever, mumbled ‘congratulations’ and gave me a shy smile.
Over the next few years, while I was a student, and then after I started work, my impression of my father underwent a slight change. I realized he wasn’t a useless or hopeless man at all. But I understood how in my mother’s eyes, and in the eyes of society too, he may have been unnecessary.
And now that I’d found my path in life, perhaps he had become unnecessary to me too.
I spent the momentous occasion of my fiftieth birthday alone, working overtime at my desk in the art museum.
I’d lived for half a century, but I had no sense of what that meant; no particular reaction. I’d never run into any great trouble, nor suffered from any serious illnesses. And although my career didn’t pay especially well, ever since leaving university I’d always had a job connected to the art I loved.
There’d been several boyfriends, but work had always been more important to me than relationships, and I’d never married. My seventy-six-year-old mother would grumble that her life would be happier if she had ‘just one grandchild’, but I always ignored her.
For eighteen years I’d been a simple curator. There was no chance of any future promotion, but it was a job where I could be involved with my beloved art. I was free to design exhibitions, regularly got to meet artists, and often visited other galleries to borrow and return artworks. Unless something unexpected happened, I planned to keep working like this until retirement. That was my modest dream. If I’d had a husband or children, I might have taken a different path, but I was perfectly satisfied with the one I’d chosen.
‘You turned out just like your father after all – living the quiet life,’ my freshly-divorced mother once commented. Still, I detected the implication that a quiet life wasn’t altogether a bad thing.
It wasn’t until I’d finished my work and was getting ready to leave that I finally rescued the discarded envelope from on top of my pile of paperwork. To tell the truth, it had been on my mind all day, but somehow it hadn’t felt quite right to open it immediately. After all, it was the last message my father had ever sent me . . .
Checking my watch, I saw it was about ten to nine. If I stayed at the museum beyond nine p.m. I was supposed to let the night guard know. I carefully opened the seal.
The envelope was one of those padded types. I turned it upside down and shook it. There was a clatter as something fell onto my desk. It was a key.
‘What?’ I said aloud, for the second time today. This was my birthday present?
I peered into the envelope to see whether there was a letter with the key, turned it over and shook it again, but there was nothing.
Dad, what are you playing at? Is this some kind of practical joke?
I felt weirdly unsettled.
Throwing on my spring jacket, I stuffed the key and envelope into my pocket, switched off the lights and left the office.
Although it was April, I found myself bracing my shoulders against the chill of the night air. It was a good fifteen minutes by bus to the nearest train station, but the last one had already left. I pulled out my cell phone and called a taxi.
As the taxi got closer to the station, I saw the odd straggler here and there hurrying home. The streets were lined with rather forlorn-looking paper lanterns advertising a cherry blossom festival. I thrust my hands deep into my pockets and found the metal key. I gripped it like some kind of pocket warmer.
My father had come to visit me at the art museum just one time.
It must have been fifteen or sixteen years ago; during my second year in the job, and about a year after my parents’ divorce. One of my colleagues took a call on the internal line, and called me over.
‘Hashima-san, your father’s waiting for you in Exhibition Room Two.’
It was my lunch hour. I had just taken out my homemade bento and opened it on my desk.
It seemed my father had introduced himself to the attendant sitting in the corner of the exhibition room and asked if his daughter was in. They’d been in touch with reception and had me called out from the office.
Since the divorce I’d seen my mother about once a week, but I hadn’t seen my father at all. To be honest, I hadn’t expected to see much of him; nor did I particularly want to. In other words, from now on my mother was my sole parent. And that was fine by me.
This unexpected visit was disturbing. The first thing that went through my head was that he’d come to borrow money. I set off for the exhibition room with heavy steps.
He was looking at a famous painting by Mark Rothko. I took in his smart, button-down white shirt, grey trousers and brown leather shoes, his salt-and-pepper hair neatly combed. It wasn’t what I’d expected at all.
The painting was of two deep-red rectangles, softly contoured, and arranged one on top of the other inside a bright orange border. A simple abstract painting, but inexpressibly beautiful. It was a rich landscape that seemed to emit its own hazy light. And in front of this delicately coloured window stood my father. I approached.
‘What brings you here?’
My father turned from the painting and looked into my face. He gave an embarrassed laugh.
‘Good to see you. I was in the area so I thought I’d drop by and say hello.’
There was absolutely nothing at all in the vicinity. This place had been built in the middle of nowhere. There was no other reason to be in the neighbourhood other than to visit the museum.
‘I’m sorry. I’m in the middle of some work . . . I don’t have much time right now.’
The lie slipped right out. The truth was that my lunch break had barely begun and I had a whole hour to spare, but I wasn’t brave enough to look my father in the eye and have a proper conversation with him.
He looked relieved.
‘Really? Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I’ll go . . . It was worth coming just to see this.’
He turned and looked again at the Rothko, as if letting the madder sky swallow him up.
‘I still don’t really know what kind of work you do, but maybe . . . no, not maybe . . . you must be happy, right?’
I stood blinking at the unexpected question.
‘What makes you say that?’
‘Every day you get to enjoy beautiful pictures like this. That must make you happy.’
The simplest words, but they were the truth. I nodded. My father grinned with delight.
Hesitantly, he told me how he’d found a job at a bookshop in Funabashi City, and how much he enjoyed arranging the displays. Then with a smile and, ‘I’ll be seeing you then,’ he slipped away.
The next time I saw him he was confined in a tiny white urn.
I called my mother when I got home. The first thing I did was to complain.
‘It was my birthday today. You forgot, didn’t you?’
‘Oh no! So it is. It completely slipped my mind . . . Sorry.’
She laughed cheerfully.
My mother didn’t sound the least bit sorry. These days she was into Korean soap stars, and had just come back from Tokyo where she’d had a blast socializing with her similarly-aged fan club friends.
‘I picked up a bunch of soap opera souvenirs,’ she told me. ‘How about something like that for your birthday?’
‘Hey Mum . . . there’s something I need to ask you – about Dad . . .’
I was wondering if she knew anything about the mysterious key – the real reason for my call. But her voice immediately hardened.
‘What? A bit late for that. If you’re hoping there might be any insurance money left over, no chance.’
I’d previously heard in great detail how my father had taken out a very cheap kind of insurance policy which had barely covered the hospital fees, the arrears on his rent, funeral expenses and a communal grave plot. I’d been the designated beneficiary of this policy. My mother had grumbled that he was just trying to saddle me with settling his affairs.
‘That’s not what I meant . . . Do you happen to know anything about the Nishi-Waseda area near Shinjuku?’
She fell quiet as she considered the question.
‘I think it might be the place your father used to live before we got married.’
My mother had only visited that area once, and she recalled my father telling her that he lived somewhere nearby, but he’d never invited her to his apartment. So, she told me, she had no idea what kind of place he had.
I felt as if I’d fitted one piece of a complicated puzzle, but that I was still far from completing it.
‘Why are you asking about Nishi-Waseda?’ she asked, her antennae perking up.
‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ I answered quickly. ‘I thought I might go and check it out sometime.’
‘Oh yes? Well, that came out of nowhere. Is there someone interesting living in that neck of woods?’
‘No! Nothing like that,’ I said with a laugh. ‘Mum, how old do you think I turned today? Fifty! I’m half a century old. Do you think anyone’s going to be interested in an old maid like me?’
‘What? Of course they are! I’m what they call elderly now and I’m having the time of my life following these soap stars. It doesn’t matter how old you are – you still need to feel that thrill.’
The conversation had taken a strange turn. Now it was about how my mother still hoped to see me married.
Three days later, on my day off, I set out for Nishi-Waseda. I’d found out that Omokagebashi station on the Arakawa Line was nearest to the return address on the envelope. I took the JR line, then changed to the Arakawa. It was the first time I’d taken the Tokyo Electric Railway, and I was amazed to find this quaint, single-carriage tram line still in operation in the middle of Tokyo.
The interior had bright green upholstery and well-worn wooden floors. I sat down alongside a young mother and her little girl. The girl immediately clambered up onto the seat and pressed her face to the window. The mother hurriedly yanked off her tiny pink trainers. Both mother and daughter’s hair glistened in the April sunshine.
The tram moved with a pleasantly rhythmic clickety-clack, clickety-clack. As it began to descend a long, gentle slope, the little girl at the window cried out, ‘Look, flowers!’ Then, as we entered a curve, for an instant the whole window was stained pink. We were crossing the Kanda River; its banks lined with sakura cherry trees in full bloom.
I got off at Omokagebashi, and with a printout map in one hand crossed the street and headed back towards the Kanda River.
There were cherry blossoms everywhere. The warm breeze scattered flurries of petals like snowflakes.
I crossed Omokage Bridge – the bridge of memories – appropriately stopping for a while in the middle, lost in thought. I stared at the whirling petals, the branches that hung heavy on the surface of the river, the white sash of sakura petals drifting downstream.
This was where my father had lived when he was a young man. I didn’t know how long ago the trees had been planted, but from their elegant form I guessed they’d been here fifty years, probably longer. I couldn’t know for sure why my father had lived in this neighbourhood, but it could well have been the pull of these stunning cherry trees.
It suddenly occurred to me that my father had been an admirer of beautiful things, but that neither I, nor my mother, nor indeed anyone else had noticed. He’d quietly passed away without telling anybody. That was so typical of my father.
Large and small houses lined the river bank; brand-new apartment buildings and old pencil-thin buildings stuck up here and there in between.
The address on the envelope turned out to be a two-storey wooden apartment building, so decrepit that it was hard to believe it had been left standing at all. It looked as if the ground floor belonged to the landlord. The building was surrounded by a stone wall with a gate in the middle, on top of which a faded futon had been hung to air. I imagined the owner had lived there for years, stubbornly refusing any suggestion to knock down and rebuild.
Beyond the stone wall was an exterior staircase to the upper floor. I double checked the address on the building, and began to climb. I walked along the upper passageway, past washing machines and bundles of newspapers, until I reached number 203.
The shabby wooden door was rotting, its reddish-brown paint peeling away. I took a deep breath, pulled the key out of my pocket and inserted it into the keyhole in the centre of the doorknob. If I wasn’t mistaken, waiting for me here in this room would be the last birthday present I’d ever get from my father.
The lock turned with a satisfying click. Nervously I pushed open the door.
The apartment was empty.
It was a single tiny room, four-and-a-half tatami mats in size. The frosted glass window was south-facing, and the light that softly filtered through brought into relief each delicate ridge of the faded tatami. The dove-grey walls were old but unblemished, enclosing the room in total silence.
Clean, pure space. Except for . . . a single book, placed in the very centre of the room. I entered reverently, as though broaching the protective forest around a sacred shrine. When I reached the middle, I carefully knelt, facing the window.
Immediately I recognized the paperback sitting on the tatami. It was The Book of Tea. I picked it up and flipped through. The browned pages, the stains, the dirty fingerprints; there was no doubt that it was my father’s treasured copy.
Tucked inside was a piece of paper, folded into four. I opened it up to find the rental agreement for the apartment. My eye fell on the section marked ‘contract period’. The room had been rented from 30 April two years earlier until 30 April of this year.
I got up and walked over to the window. Releasing the catch, I slid open the frosted pane. Instantly the opened window became a painting, choked with cherry blossoms.
For the rest of the day, until the sun finally slipped away to the west, I sat in that room and gazed at my painting.
I knew I would return every spring to admire it. And that this was the way I wanted to live my life.
Those were the things I dwelt on as the fourth day of my fifty-first year drew to its close.
Image © Mr Hayata
This story is part of our 20 for 2020 series, one of twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.