by Sandy Burgham
1928/29 Hiroshima. My mother Michiko Burgham (nee Sado) with my uncles – Chikao and Nobuo – on either side of the Buddhist Priest, and a family friend to the left. Not pictured is my Uncle Muneo who just recently passed, he would have just been born at this point.
When I am in Hiroshima, my heart always aches for my mother. Many years ago, it felt appropriate to return her ashes to her home town, although we couldn’t let all of her go, so we kept some at Purewa. The shinkansen pulls in to the station, I feel that familiar stirring in my chest. This is where she is, or where she’d prefer to be.
It has been a few years since I last made the pilgrimage to the Buddhist temple where we interred her ashes in the ancestral grave, so she could be honoured alongside my grandparents and her brothers. But this time my visit is a little different. Along with one of my sisters, I am returning to the temple with the hope of conducting a delicate negotiation. My last maternal uncle has died, and my one remaining cousin in Hiroshima is herself terminally ill.
We had not been in touch for some time when she made contact late last year with the news. What has ensued since is a protracted journey through Japanese bureaucracy, involving us handing over our inheritance rights to my cousin, in order for her to process our uncle’s estate, all the while both of us dredging up unexercised language skills and navigating tentatively through the minefield of mismatched cultural practices, to express the love of familial ties. We had hit, however, a roadblock.
We — my sisters and I — wish to take over the responsibility of the O-haka (family grave); our cousin, needing to tidy up her own affairs before she passes, wishes to close it. This is not unusual in Japan — the interred remains can be scattered or kept elsewhere. But for us, not quite nihon-jin (Japanese) and not quite gai-jin (foreigners), to not have a place of pilgrimage for ourselves and our children is devastating. Being half-Japanese and always grieving for our mother, we feel that we are forever searching through the cultural fog to connect to this essential part of our identity, and all those years of unrequited love.
My father, a sharp 91-year-old J-Force veteran who introduced Auckland to its first Japanese war bride in 1953, is waiting back home. He is unable to make the trip but more for practicalities than any physical disability — no-one would insure him. I am grateful that my sister is here. She seems to have inherited more Japanese genes than me, looks like one, walks like one, talks like one, is often mistaken for one, even by her husband once as he searched through the crowds of Chinese tourists at an airport. There is a well-known book about Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. She is more the former and myself the latter, but we will need both today.
We arrive at the temple with a friend who will be back-up interpreter. After formally worshipping at the grave; we meet with the temple-keeper’s wife, whose husband had passed away around the same time as my uncle. Her simple kimono is dramatic against the backdrop of a Japanese garden as she makes us matcha tea in a ceremonial fashion, which seems appropriate for the sensitive matter we are here to discuss.
As happens in Japan, our Japaneseness stirs from within us. Our bodies hold themselves a little differently. My sister even shuffles a little, and rather than thinking of what to say, long-forgotten Japanese words and phrases seem to spring out of us.
We are at pains not to offend. It would be easier to concede the grave, but we cannot bear to do this. The exchange is filled with emotion, as we feel our way through what is cultural, and what is simply human. Who are we to take over this responsibility of maintaining the grave? Who will worship there if we live in New Zealand and my cousin is gone? What happens when we die? Can we trust our children to feel the responsibility in the way that we do? Are we denying our cousin of her need to fulfill her cultural obligations before she dies?
Whether it was the peaceful way of Buddhism, or the wisdom of this older wise woman, or the presence of a familial bond struggling, then finally surfacing for air, we found a way through. There was deep reverence and even, finally, some levity from the temple-keeper’s wife, who noticed my sister was wearing Donald Trump socks (a decision she regrets, having forgotten she may be taking off her shoes. Damn her husband with those stupid Christmas stocking fillers). The temple-keeper’s wife is warmed by the Japanese way we have approached the matter. It is decided. We will maintain the grave.
The following day we return. We make our way through the graves, some of which still bear the scars and shadows cast by the blinding flash of the atomic bomb, to find our familiar family crest. We light incense, bow deeply and pray with our Buddhist juzu beads. Our ancestors worshipped at this same grave, here in the temple next door to my grandfather’s silk warehouse and the family home. The same temple into which my mother used to sneak in to steal flowers, which she’d sell on the street as a naughty five-year-old. I hope they are at peace knowing it is now in the care of a family far, far away, determined to keep their memory alive, and the love and familial connection flourishing.
To my mother, Okaasan itsumo arigatou gozaimasu. Happy Mother’s Day.
— Sandy Burgham
This article first appeared in The Hobson Magazine May 2018