Japan: A Ghost on the Doorstep

posted by Katie on May 15, 2019

I think the very worst thing you could do when visiting an old, wealthy, traditional Japanese family is to arrive on their doorstep, unannounced, with no gift in hand, twenty years after not being in touch. Oh, and with a hairy white husband and young child too!

I regretfully did all these things when visiting my Japanese homestay family in Nagano. I can’t explain why I didn’t write them a letter in the months leading up to our trip to Japan. Why wasn’t I more persistent with my phone calls, after they didn’t pick up on my first attempt? Why, after my homestay mother and sister wrote me a Christmas card a few months after I returned home to Minnesota twenty years ago, didn’t I ever write them back?

Because you’re an asshole, feels like the appropriate answer here.

The first time I arrived to the Nakajimas’ doorstep, I was 18, wearing tan corduroy bootcut jeans and a puka-shell choker. (I’m not kidding. I have photos to prove it). I lived with them for three and a half months, from August-December 1998. They were the first of four homestay families. They weren’t my favorite (my last family, the Ichikawas, were). In fact, they were the family I experienced the greatest hardships, including late night sobs in my pillow from homesickness and rigorous, daily Japanese language lessons from the Nakajima’s “Mama.” I was at my loneliest when I lived with them. I spoke no Japanese and my only friend at the time was Fujimoto-sensei, the bald-headed, former-monk-turned-principal at my school. Every Friday afternoon, I would visit him in his office and we talked. He wanted English conversation practice. I wanted someone to look me in the eye without consternation/pity/distaste. It was a mutually beneficial best-friendship.

I think I knocked on the Nakajima’s door because I knew reparations needed to be made. I remember leaving their home 20 years ago feeling bitter. So what better way to make amends than to show up unannounced, like a long-buried ghost from the past? Oh, and Nakajima Mama spoke fluent English, the best of all my homestay parents. Because I couldn’t stand the idea of Matt, Remy, and me standing in someone’s home, pantomiming major life events from the last 20 years, followed by gorilla grunts, chest thumps, or worse, silence.

And the truth is, I didn’t think anyone would be at home when I knocked on their door on a Wednesday afternoon at 4pm. I thought I could tell everyone that I tried “my best,” or “did all I could,” but “aww shucks. It wasn’t meant to be after all.” Then I could resume my rabid, linen-potato-sack-silhouette Japanese apparel shopping and Matt could continue his rabid, 90’s throwback fannypack shopping, and all would be, as the Talking Heads say, Same As It Ever Was. Which, felt like a very pleasant place to be. Why throw displeasure into the mix?

I should have known things wouldn’t go as planned when we got into a taxi with an abnormally chatty driver. And, as though some duolingo switch had suddenly turned on in my head, every question he asked in Japanese I understood and was able to respond appropriately in Japanese. (I was actually saying “Hai,” for yes, instead of “Si,” like what I had been doing all week). Could it be that my mind was activating dormant language skills to prepare for this visit? The driver became especially animated when I told him the purpose of my visit to Nagano. If this were a reality show, after he said, “Honto sashiburi dana” (=oh my god, you ungrateful wretch, it’s been a long time!) the camera would remain steady on my face, hoping to capture the mix of terror, excitement, shame, and potential vomiting that I was feeling on our way to the Nakajima’s home.

Everything that followed was classic reality show ratings bait. I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. My finger shook. My homestay Mama came to the door. I gave her some marbled introduction that didn’t contain any Spanish words whatsoever. She looked stricken. Then she said, “Katie? Katie!” and embraced me. Then I started to cry. Actually, it was more like weeping, willowy, hiccupping sobs. Matt looked embarrassed enough for the both of us.

How do you explain a 20-year absence to someone who opened their home, their heart, and their life to you? The only thing I can think of, the only explanation that made sense to me, in the weeks leading up to this visit, was that the year I lived in Japan was the same year my mother began to lose her memory. And all these years, I think I resented my time in Japan because I lost my mom while I was away. If I hadn’t gone to Japan, if I had stayed nearby, would she have gotten sick? It’s an irrational question that I still ask myself (and write about) to this day. A Year of Magical Thinking? Try 20 Didion.

In a profound twist of fate that I am still trying to unravel, I learned (once I stopped crying enough to carry a conversation) that Mina, my homestay sister and eldest daughter of the Nakajimas’, died seven years ago. She was the only sibling with whom I lived during my year in Japan. At the time, she was single and in her late 20’s. She was an accomplished classical musician. She studied in Rome and spoke fluent Italian, as well as English. She taught private music lessons in their home. She had some mysterious health problems, including severe acne, that kept her mostly inside. Every night I watched as Mr. Nakajima, a prominent surgeon, administered medicine via syringe into Mina’s arm. He would be seated on the living room sofa. Mina knelt on the floor beside him. Tell me this isn’t a scene out of a gothic horror movie.

Mina and her mother were very close. When Nakajima Mama told me about her daughter’s passing, she, too, began to cry. Their home looked like a disheveled version of what it once was. Stacks of paper piled up along the walls. An empty container of Yakult sat on the grimy coffee table. The once pristine dining room table, where my homestay mother used to present elaborate, made-from-scratch meals each night, was now covered in notebooks and office supplies. My homestay mother told me she no longer cooked, now that it was just her and her husband at home.

Visiting the Nakajimas was like seeing grief displayed. Perhaps, the same kind of grief that kept me away from Japan, and contacting them, for 20 years.

My homestay father returned home from the hospital, appearing more dapper and charming than I remembered. Together, the five of us drove to a famous Suki-yaki restaurant in the city. The food kept coming, and Matt and I were sweating from overconsumption. Afterwards, they drove us back to our hotel in downtown Nagano. Matt remembered to take some group photos. As I said “Goodbye” and “Thank you” over and over again, Nakajima Papa leaned in and kissed Remy on the cheek, which, no surprise, made me tear up all over again.

It’s taken me 20 years to come around to the idea of returning to Japan and visiting my homestay family. The last time we saw each other, I had a mother who wasn’t yet sick, and the Nakajimas had a daughter who was teaching music lessons out of their home. Now those people are gone. Now I’ve moved across the world with my husband and young child, in part, I think, to upend the auto-pilot equilibrium, the Same as it ever was, that happens so easily in life.

Once in a lifetime, it turns out, is the Talking Heads song I keep referencing. All this time, I thought the title was “Same As It Ever Was.” But Once is a Lifetime is right. Visiting my homestay family. Apologizing. Introducing them to my husband and child. This was my once in a lifetime chance to heal an old wound, hit reset, and then play again, hearing an old song anew. If this were a reality show, this is the part when Once in Lifetime would be playing while the credits roll. The final image? The photo of 18 year old me hugging my mom at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, before I’m about to board my first ever international flight for my year in Nagano, Japan.