Stephanie Karlik

Category: Japan


I get into a Toyota Corolla parked in an American suburban household’s garage.

Hachiko Crossing is shed from a single hair follicle.

I’m in the middle of the desert driving along wide, SUV-sprinkled roads.

The Yamanote Line gets swallowed with my saliva.

I swing by a drive-thru fast food establishment.

A shokunin sushi master slips out of my pocket.

I stroll through mega-aisles at mega-warehouses lined with Korean appliances.

A Togoshi Ginza gift shop flakes off like dry skin.

I flip on a TV set: another home invasion and a murder.

A Meguro River sakura petal detaches from a tree branch and shrivels.

I jog on a treadmill on carpeted floors.

A Shibuya studio-trained house dancer is pushed out of my sweat glands.

I buy avocados imported from Mexico and shrimp imported from Thailand.

A Fukushima-radiated tomato rolls out of my bag and splats on the floor.

I take a shower.

And a steaming hot furo flies off like a broken fingernail.

I dress myself in muted tones and Uggs.

And a Harajuku girl comes out with my menstrual flow.

The Japanostalgia eats me up.

An obi, yakitori skewer, salaryman, OL, otaku, Osaki station jingle, ubervending machine, Franco-Japanese bakery, manga, soba noodle, and izakaya run down my cheeks as tears.

I’m interned in the hospital.

Chuken Hachiko dutifully awaits me at Shibuya Station.


The Emperor

On three occasions, I went to see the Japanese emperor on his birthday.

From his glass-encased patio at his palace, he greeted visitors like me who’d trekked up the paved, sakura tree-lined hill to his imperial abode. Some had come from Tokyo station to give him birthday wishes, some from Shinagawa, some from France or America, Nepal or Italy.

The emperor was petite, his hair silver and combed slickly. As he approached the microphone, the crowd of visitors I stood amongst went silent and looked up to him as he began to speak. His voice was gentle. Regal.


I am deeply appreciative of all of your birthday wishes.


This year marks the twentieth anniversary of my enthronement and our fiftieth wedding anniversary.


I’d like to express my gratitude to the many people who have congratulated us on these milestones.


Looking back on the past year,


it grieves me that there are many people facing difficulties due to the severe economic conditions in our country, triggered by the global financial crisis.


It is my hope that this coming year will be a better year. And as we enter into it, I wish you all the best of health.”

“BANZAI!” “Ten-thousand years!”the largely Japanese crowd yelled in unison, vigorously waving their hand-held flags in the air.

I drowned in a sea of rising suns, intoxicated by the fervor, waving to the emperor myself.

“BANZAI!” I declared.

There he was.

Like the President of the United States in power.

Like the King of England in gentility.

Like the Great and Powerful Oz in enigma.

But more.

The emperor of Japan.

Momo と Banana と Ocha

I hadn’t opened a Japanese textbook in months. Lord knows life had a way of getting in the way.

And then Mom told me one day, “My friend Nanako’s husband died.”

“He what?” I asked.

“Died,” she repeated, “fell over, died.”

Like little kernels of popcorn popping in an aluminum pan, questions popped into my mind, not one at a time sequentially, but sometimes three or four at a time, followed by a lone straggling question and then again, several at once.

What happened? How old was he? Where was he?


Was it sudden?


Where was Nanako? Did she go to work? How is she?

There were no answers. Only questions. “I’m going to bring food over to her and her father on Monday,” Mom said. She was always showing her love through food, to those close and to those not so close. “Will you come with me?”

“Of course.”

So I sent an email to Makoto. “How do you say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ in Japanese to acknowledge when someone died?”

He wrote back the next day, “You say, ‘konotabi ha goshushoo sama deshita/ この度はご愁傷様でした,’ or ‘gomeifuku wo oinorimasu/ ご冥福をお祈ります.’ Both pretty hard to say. It’s one of those things you only use for the specific occasion.” One an acknowledgment of grief, the other a reference to happiness in the next world. The richness of the sounds rolling off the tongue in Japanese and the dignity that went along with them made me never want to express the sentiment again in English. I said the words aloud a few times, and then the words were mine. Maybe for life. Maybe not.

We went over carrying trays of grilled meat, corn on the cob, and green beans. The meat, whether intentional or not, carried a slight hint of Taiwan.

“Oh, thank you so much!” Nanako said as she held the house’s front door open for us. A smile turned into a whimper and a few tears that were gone in mere seconds. Grief was the strangest of experiences: jerking us around from heart-wrenching pain one minute to inexplicable joy the next. It was no wonder that the Chinese hired professional mourners at these times to put on a show for neighbors. How could anyone understand anyone else’s grief and the mysterious outbursts of absurd behavior that came along with it? How much easier it must be to cover all this up with people trained to wail, sob, and deflect the criticisms of others.

“O jama shimasu,” I said, loud enough only for myself to hear, taking my shoes off at the door.

Nanako’s father, an old Japanese man in his seventies came downstairs and into the living room, a minimalist space with Japanese accents here and there: a scroll painting hanging on a wall, a single orchid plant on the coffee table, individually wrapped crackers from a shop in Ginza.

If there was a confusing grief showing from Nanako, there was no grief here from Sato san, as I learned to call him, just a bright, toothy smile and lucid eyes behind square spectacles.

“Hajimemashite,” he greeted me.

“Hajimemashite.” And if there was any time to deploy the shushoo or the meifuku phrases, this was it, but as I felt the energy of the man in front of me, I knew that this actually wasn’t the time to utter them at all. There was peace in the home already.

“Dozo. Dozo,” he said to me, gesturing towards the couch, and there we sat reminiscing on the good old days in Tokyo: the food, the kabuki, and Togoshi Ginza of all places. Turns out we had the same former stomping grounds.

“Sou desu ne. Sakanaya san no chikaku ni sundeimashita,” I told him as we identified the exact location of my former apartment and the best fish vendor on the road.



Togoshi Ginza’s white sign with black writing hanging over its crowded shops flashed into my mind, all the bicycles parked on the side of the road, the baskets of fruit laid out in front of fruit vendors, the mess of flashing hiragana and kanji billboards luring customers into dark izakaya caves. Natsukashii. Yappari.

“Momo wo tabemasuka,” he asked. (“Do you eat peach?”)

“Hai, tabemasu.” (“Yup.”)

He disappeared into the kitchen momentarily, then came back with gorgeous orange momo.


Momo we ate.

“Banana wo tabemasuka,” he asked.

“Hai, tabemasu.”

Back into the kitchen. He presented frozen banana slices.


And bananas we ate.

“Kono banana wo chotto kitte, reitouko ni irete, sono mama de tabemasu. Konbini no aisu mitai desu ne.” (“I slice the bananas, pop ’em in the freezer, and eat them like that. They taste kind of like iced candies from the convenience store, don’t they?”)


“Ocha wo nomimasuka,” (“Green tea?”)

“Hai, nominasu.” (“Sure.”)

Ice cubes clinking against my glass, “Itadakimasu,” I said, and iced green tea we drank.

So what about the deceased husband? It seemed there was no time to speak of him in-between the nostalgia, the laughter, and the fruit feast. Not for Sato san.

I looked at Nanako, engaged deeply in conversation with Mom, where the details emerged. Jerry was an American, a soldier, a heavy drinker, a heavy smoker, had a heart attack suddenly in the bathroom, fell over and died. The end.

Was he a kind man? An intelligent man? What were his hobbies? His passions? I don’t know. All I know is that Jerry was an American, a soldier, a heavy drinker, a heavy smoker, had a heart attack suddenly in the bathroom, fell over and died. The end.

And now I find myself going over to Sato san’s for Japanese classes. An educator for most of his life and a Japanese teacher now, he sets up an easel and a board, which he taps with a pointer made of connected pencils, lecturing me on sonkeigo and kenjyougo. We eat momo and banana and drink green tea and talk about Jerry’s indulgences.

“Are you gonna go back to Japan?” I ask Sato san.

“No. Fukushima won’t be my home anymore. This is home now,” he tells me.

I nod my head and write my keigo.