Mochi Days

I like to think that I am mostly brutally honest when writing this blog, but there are some things that no one needs to hear or read about. There are some things that I would be foolish to share. They sit at on fingertips, get written in ink in a small blue notebook, and committed to a life that no one else sees. These are the hidden words, the ‘under the mochi’ journals. In feudal Japan bribes were passed literally under the sweet pounded rice cakes called ‘mochi’. It became a synonym for ‘under the table’, hidden and secretive, but valuable never the less incentives to behave a certain way, or do certain things. Want safe passage? Put the bribe under the mochi. Want a certain bureaucrat to give business and favor to a certain group or merchant? Put the bribe under the mochi. It was the art of getting what you wanted but doing it ‘shinobi’  – sneaky-ninja style. Walking round Japan town I hear young Japanophiles talk. They discuss ‘monga’ and ‘moechee’ in crude and alarming mispronunciations of the words. It is not that hard. No one should be elongating the vowels like they are Mary fucking Poppins! It is man-ga, with a short ‘a’ not an ‘ooo’ sound and ‘mo-chi’ with a short ‘o’ and a short ee sounding ‘I’. I confess it infuriates me to the point of developing a small but persistent twitch in my left eyelid. I say nothing. I wish I was the kind of person who would go up to them, present my credentials as someone who was in Japan for over a decade and closer to two of them, and tell them kindly but firmly, that Japanese has short vowel sounds.

In my head I tell them ‘ma, me, mu, me, mo’ as if I am teaching a small child the kana equivalent of the alphabet. In reality I finch and move on to run my fingers along the shelves of Kinokuniya, looking for that elusive copy of Vagabond 2, or Death Note 3, and waiting salivating for the next Blue Period to be translated. I am illiterate in Japanese. I can’t read or write very well at all, so I am left, in my shame, to read in English along with the ‘monga’ enthusiasts in their Naruto cosplay. They sip their green tea frappes and I go walk down the street for real food at the best little Japanese grocery store in the entire country. I feel mean-spirited all of a sudden, smaller than I am. After all, what is the harm in a little cultural appreciation and mispronunciation? I suppose there isn’t any, but after a while it all feels like cultural appropriation, not a love of the country, but using the marrow of its culture without seeing the pain.

Some young white men wear tee shirts with Imperial flags inscribed on them, not understanding or caring about the pain this causes Japanese elders. It seems to be more a locust-like pillaging, and it makes me nervous. These are the same people that justify dropping nuclear bombs on Japanese civilians in world war two, when no bomb was ever dropped on the white skinned, blonde Germans who also blew up American boats before the Japanese ever did, and who caused even more suffering. These are the same people who objectify Japanese women and dismiss Japanese men, and it hurts me. I am not Japanese, but my ex husband is, and I lived there a long time. The Boy, my child, is halfu. He bears the scars of both cultures and moves between them like he is being passed under the mochi.

I am old. My son is a teenager now, half Japanese, not illiterate in the language and cooler than I can ever hope to be. We swap books and raised eyebrows. Japan Town is one of my favorite places in San Francisco. It feels like home, though I live about a twenty minute walk away. Japan is never far from my heart. I always desperately wanted to try on a kimono but it always felt as if I was disrespecting the culture if I did so. The last thing I wanted to do as a gaijin was abuse the hospitality of my hosts. As a long time resident I tried to be respectful, to stay thoughtful and appreciate not consume the culture of my Japanese husband, my beloved in-laws and the country as a whole. It was not an easy line to tread. I went to sumo matches, as my cousin-in-law was a referee, I went to onsen, and trekked up to temples. I took part in matsuri and at times lived a rich cultural life full of mochi, sakura trees and trips up the sides of volcanos. A large part of my time was spent surviving my marriage and mochi was a small comfort amid a lot of darkness. I loved the strawberry mochi with the anko red bean paste around the fresh berry. When I was pregnant, I could eat them by the dozen, filling my mouth with sweet red beans, cool fresh strawberries and stretchy powdered mochi. Nothing was ever put under them. They found their way into my hand from the shelves of combini and small wagashi-sellers. Traditional Japanese sweets are my favorite. The textures are not what my western palate expects: they are slimy and slippery and powdery. The taste of roasted soy beans, sweet red beans and kuromitsu black sugar syrup was almost alien to me when I first got there. Sweet beans are not my culture. Slimy and slippery is not a texture I was taught to love as a child. I expected everything to be sweeter and easier, crisper and creamier. My cultural expectations were confounded: I learnt a new lexicon of love under the mochi.

I have a strange relationship with Japan. I do not want to love it as much as I do. Heaven knows Japan does not need me to defend it or protect its honor; in fact to do so would be almost grotesque. Gaijin wander around with their mis-pronounced Japanese, picking up the nippon steel whilst Naruto-running thinking they are some kind of fucked up orange hakama-pant wearing ninja with magickal powers. My husband ended up being a very unkind person, who hurt me badly both physically and emotionally, but that remains separate from Japan. My Japan is the Japan of the man I called ‘Granddad’, though he was the Boy’s granddad and not my own, with his smooth brown skin and kind sparkling eyes. My Japan is the country of my son and his gentle spirit. My Japan is a place I respect immensely. It was not Japan’s fault that I was not used to the textures and flavors of its culture. It was not Japan’s fault that my husband turned potentially deadly and hurt me so badly. It was not mine either.  There is the sweetness as well as the sadness in my time there, however hard it is to remember the mochi and not be swallowed up in the horrors.

Perhaps that is why I get so hurt when I hear people talking about ice-cream filled western confections like they are the real thing, whilst not even bothering to pronounce the word correctly. “Moe-chi” bizarrely filled with ice cream, was never part of my life. Mochi, however, filled with anko and a fresh strawberry, represents the one time a man who beat me mercilessly showed me a kindness. The one time he brought me something sweet and did something affectionate towards me by coming home with a bag full of chewy stretchy red bean goodness to feed my pregnant belly. I used to joke my baby was made out of mochi, since I ate so much of it, but he turned out to be so sweet and kind, a traditional guy who respected the past from which his family was born but who looks towards the sweetness of life, that maybe that is not as much of a joke as I intended it to be.

Now I live hidden, under the mochi, in lthe life there is after that life there. I am forever changed as a result of Japan. It informed my soul and broke my heart. This is what I dare not write, the secret affection only gets written in my personal  notebooks and then filed away: that once upon a time in Japan, before my husband became a monster, for a very short amount of time, he was a kind man who didn’t hit me, and who bought me strawberry mochi from the wagashi shop I loved the best, and who was sweet and gentle. He hurt me so badly, beat me so terribly in the days that followed those mochi days that it feels wrong to look at the man he was before he became a monster.

It feels as if I am excusing him, sweeping it all under the mochi,  yet it is the truth. Before he became the man who beat me, broke bones, scarred me, ripped out hair and threw our son across a room, he seemed to be someone else, someone better: someone good. Maybe it was an act. Perhaps he lost his mind. I don’t care to think too deeply about it, yet it makes me feel better to remember those days before everything went wrong. It makes me feel less of a fool for marrying him, and ever loving him. Mochi days. Sweet days that passed me by in the blink of an eye, and now I grow old and sentimental. I need to regain my fire. It is time for a change of menu, a different taste, another flavor, yet I am not excited, but fearful for what might come next.

I suppose I will sweep this under the carpet along with the crumbs of sweetness, and pretend that I never wrote it, thought it or said it. Does sweetness need an exorcism? Can you wash it away with tea? I have left anko paste stains on this clean white page. I don’t suppose Ill be able to erase them.


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