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My Aunt Hiroko Nagaike Sensei - Part 1

One of the greatest laments that I have for the pre-WW2 immigrant generation is that our connections with Japan have largely disappeared.

When I went over to Japan in 1995, one of my intended goals was to make some sort of connection with the relatives who I had grown up hearing about on odd occasions. I knew little about both families: Mom’s siblings had visited their family in Kumamoto-ken. As an adult I learned that there was a mountain named Ibuki in Shiga-ken and that nearby Biwako was the largest fresh water lake in Japan. I had also heard that some Ibukis were still residing in Shiga-ken and working as rice farmers.

After making initial contact with mom’s side of the family, receiving a couple photocopied pictures and a letter in good English, my mom’s cousin, apparently a well known architect who had helped to rebuild Tokyo after the war, wasn’t interested in maintaining any further contact, despite having received other cousins with much more hospitality. Dad’s side was welcoming right from the beginning: Masu Kobayashi, my father’s cousin, was born in Vancouver and had returned to Japan in the 1930s. She still lives with her son, Ryuichi, and daughter in-law, Kazue, in Ishidera, a small village on the outskirts of Hikone-shi. They welcomed me openly to visit them at their country home. It was a kindness that I will never forget.

Those who follow my writing know that Sendai is my second home. I know it as well as my birthplace, Toronto. On this trip in the summer 2009, we were invited to stay with Akiko’s aunt, Hiroko Nagaike sensei, 86. Akiko’s mother, Ayako, 75, was raised by her after World War Two when sensei married for a second time to Hideo Watanabe. Ayako’s mother, Fusa, and younger step-brother, perished in the US fire bombings of Tokyo towards the end of the war. In 1948, Ayako, then 13, was sent to live with her Sendai uncle who as an executive member of the Daily Yomiuri newspaper. Hiroko graduated from one of only three medical schools in Japan at the time to become a doctor in 1944. She married a surgeon in 1947, divorced, then remarried to Hideo in 1952.

* * *

The last time I was in Japan in 2007, I stayed with my good friend Senji, Atsuko and Hikari. After his family home burned down a few years ago they moved into a tiny bachelor apartment in the Kawaramachi neighborhood close to the space that he rents for his hair salon. The site of the former home and salon has been paved over. He rents parking spaces there for 10,000 yen a month.

Painfully aware of our precarious finances on this trip, I gratefully receive news that Nagaike-sensei was inviting us to stay with her in her condo for the entire month. She lives in a five-room condominium in the stylish Itsutsubashi area of Sendai, close to the women’s clinic that she founded in 1951, the first to be owned and operated by a woman doctor in Miyagi-ken. It was built beside the dental clinic that her Ibaraki-ken born mother, Fumi, started in 1925, the first woman dentist in Sendai to own her own clinic.

Nagaike sensei was only three years old when her dentist parents divorced. She was then raised by her mother and grandparents who were of samurai lineage. Her civil servant grandfather, Kurazou, passed away in 1935, after having operated a tobacco shop after retirement. Grandmother, Yai, passed away in 1954 and Fumi succumbed to ovarian cancer in 1958. (Sensei herself has had a leg above the knee amputated and is now battling lung cancer.)

After attending “Miyagi Dai ichi Joshi koto Gakko” (Miyagi-ken’s First Girls High School) in Sendai, she went on to Tokyo Joshi Ika Daigakui where she received her medical training. In 1900, there were three universities for women: one to study medicine, another for languages and one for home economics.

* * *

Along one side of the fourteen-story condo are three small bedrooms: the one closest to the entrance is now used for storage, the next is also full of clothes as well as the butsudan alter which contains a picture of Hideo who passed away in 2006, a vase of fresh-cut flowers and incense are lit daily. On the other side of the hallway are the bathroom, spare bedroom and living room. The kitchen has space enough only for a microwave, refrigerator, sink and stove (no oven). There is a small dining room area where we take all of our meals. Looking out the window I can see the gentle rise of Mukaiyama, the line of red and white telecommunication towers and a blue and white neon sign advertising Shokei private girls’ school.

In the small community park below, we can hear a small work team setting up a small building. They’ve erected fencing around a large tree. The sound of chainsaws indicates that its time has come. Some homeless people sleep there at night. Over the next couple of days, the workers take down the tree slowly, systematically and soon where once a magnificent zelkova tree stood there is only a stump.

On the first brain hazy jet-lagged mornings when I am roused early, I look out over the mist covered city where I had spent most of my thirties teaching English at the LSC. I replay the sequence of events that lead me to this city. Then, after seven years, when the bookstore moved to its location in the AERU Building close to Sendai Station, the owner Kaneko-san was not successful in negotiating a move along with them. I wonder at my luck to have enjoyed the still heady post-Bubble glory days of the mid-nineties when the exchange rate was riding high and everyday was exhilarating.

The unusually cool, grey August morning is pleasant. A thin misty rain glazes the quiet city streets below. There is something reassuring about the Lawson convenience store that never closes. Neatly dressed office workers ride clunky ‘mama chari’ bicycles. The downtown streets are strangely absent of traffic. The calm is remarkable for a city of a million.

For now, I relish that the sounds, smells and warm feeling of being in a Japanese home: the tatami mat flooring, shoji sliding doors, fluorescent lighting, the drying racks for clothes on the tiny balcony, even the mellifluous sound of NHK TV announcers reporting the recent drug scandal involving of the celebrity ‘Nori-pi’ and her surfer husband. A landslide that has taken out part of a busy highway is big news too as the Obon holiday rush is approaching.

Part 2 >>

© 2010 Norm Ibuki

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