By ENZO KOHARA FRANCA.
MY MOTHER WAS blunt. She once said I ruined the most beautiful part of my body breast-feeding you, just to get you those three extra IQ points, and you’re destroying them smoking marijuana.
She had to marry in secret. Her people, the Japanese, were suckers for rules and traditions. Starting a family with a non-Japanese, a gaijin, was dishonourable. And if you know what seppuku and harakiri mean, you know how much my ancestors cared about honour.
My mother’s parents didn’t make it easy for her. In 1938 they immigrated from Sendai, where all men are Japanese, to São Paulo, where all men are Brazilian.
Jichan was an entrepreneur. Batchan a palm-reader. Japanese bureaucrats bribed by rich South American landowners talked them into making the trip. They said the laws of nature were kinder in the New World. They said in the Americas chicken laid golden eggs, rice was harvested throughout the year, and no one knew what fishing nets were, since the tides brought all the seafood you could ever eat to your doorstep. Gratis. Twice a day.
Their voyage across the Pacific Ocean took eight weeks. Meals were infrequent and depended on the mood of the passengers in the upper decks, on their plans for their leftovers. Showers were infrequent and depended on how heavy the clouds were, on a butterfly flapping its wings in the New World.
For the rest of nan’s long life, Proustian forces would link the texture of rain to life aboard the HMS Wells. To the blueness of the skies. To the sameness of the days. To the gradual realisation of what it meant to emigrate.
Made in Britannia at the turn of the century, Her Majesty’s Ship Wells was supposed to carry my mother’s parents to the future. To Utopia. It was the prophet and the prophecy, that vessel.
But what did their American future look like? To Japanese eyes, accustomed to cherry blossoms, to divinely-ordained hierarchies, to thousand-year-old rituals – it looked like Naraka. It looked like seriously bad Karma. It looked like life after the Great Hokusai Wave.
Turning back wasn’t an option. Half a century earlier slavery had been made illegal in Brazil, creating a need for free labour to be replaced by virtually free labour.
This was achieved in two stages. First, a misinformation campaign in the Old World promised four-hour workweeks and regal abundance to anyone willing to cross the ocean. Then, a crooked credit system – in which Brazilian landowners paid for immigration costs, and the immigrants worked on their land until this debt was repaid – ensured years of servitude.
Never one to be distracted by single facts only, Jichan – my mother’s father – would remind his compatriots to look around, to zoom out and consider all the possibilities of a new beginning.
Yes, the heat and humidity were unbearable. Yes, dangerous beasts lurked in the jungle ready to harm you. But here all the things your ancestors were guilty of centuries ago were irrelevant. No one was stained or held back by the demands of the past. This was a society without memories.
Jichan’s willingness to let go of the Old World was far from reciprocated. While he made himself a Brazilian citizen by working the land, by communing with it, and grew proud of the sunlight darkening his skin, and the soil mixing with the blood on his hands and knees – the Old World came knocking, ever more forceful, ever more self-righteous.
The Old World.
A MASTERFUL PALM-READER, Batchan – my mother’s mother – would offer her services to her fellow fruit pickers at the start and at the end of the day. She’d look at the muscles in their wrinkled faces, and then read in their callused palms a parent, a sibling, a friend, had died for Emperor Hirohito, the Tennō. The Supreme Ruler from Heaven.
Confirmation bias, our natural resistance to facts, inevitably reinforced everyone’s beliefs. Those who were unhappy with their lives in Latin America saw the war back home as evidence they had been wrong to immigrate. Those who were determined to make it in the tropics, like Jichan, were grateful they were no longer the disposable pawns of a geriatric Empire.
Making up for the losses in their country of birth, they were fruitful in their country of residence. Every year, every Japanese couple brought a first-generation Brazilian to the world.
My uncles. My aunts. My mother.
My mother’s posture was perfect. At Catholic school she had been forced to walk around balancing holy books on her head. The weight of the New Testament was supposed to make her ladylike.
A religious zealot with atheistic tendencies, mum would chastise her classmates whenever she sensed a weakening in their faith. Finding plot-holes in the Biblical narrative, showing an interest in scientific explanations, making any choice Jesus wouldn’t have made – these all incensed her. She saw it as her duty to report all ideological deviations to the Sisters, who without a trial would order the deviant to kneel on raw corn kernels and repent.
Secretly however, in the long debates she’d have with the Almighty, mum wouldn’t hesitate to threaten Him with desertion if her prayers and lobbying weren’t answered. Strong-willed, once she cut someone from her life – even if it was the Creator Himself – she’d never walk back on her decision.
Despite eventually becoming a landowner, greatness had eluded Jichan. While in Japan, his eloquence and resourcefulness strengthened his fantasies of one day becoming a leader of men. It was only his low birth that stood on the way, he thought. An irrelevant fact in the New World.
In the New World the new language turned out to be the obstacle. Jichan failed to learn Brazilian Portuguese. The morphemes, phonemes, the cadence – none of it made any sense to the Japanese speaker inside his head.
This, combined with outdated notions about the legitimacy of informal deals, made my grandfather vulnerable to all sorts of swindlers. Jichan’s pride and refusal to acknowledge his mistakes meant he never punished those who cheated him.
My mother’s family earned a reputation for being easily swindled. Whether this had anything to do with mum being impregnated just before her fifteenth birthday I can’t know for sure. But I do know it shaped what happened afterwards.
The father was twenty-six years old. A nisei, the son of Japanese immigrants. Every afternoon he’d hang out in the vicinity of the Girls’ Catholic School, playing the samisen, a three-stringed Japanese guitar his dad had brought from the motherland, singing amorously about the seasons.
After extensive negotiations between the two families, in which serious violence was considered, a wedding date was set. The man boy and teenage girl would get married twelve weeks before their child was due.
Several decades later, while living with my godmother, mum and I watched a movie about the hundreds of Japanese citizens who had been kidnapped, on Japanese soil, by the North Korean dictatorship. Fewer than twenty of these were recognised by the Japanese authorities.
Halfway through the film, mum – with her characteristic bluntness – said that if it weren’t for Jichan’s reluctance to cheat, and his willingness to keep working with those who had cheated him, the neighbourhood wouldn’t have humiliated her that much. Her fiancée wouldn’t have eloped two days before their wedding, having been bombarded with made-up stories about her family’s submissiveness.
She said her people had distorted the concept of pride. Being unable to accept others had dared wronging them, they pretended instead the crime never took place.
Losing her fiancée, she lost her child. The rules were illogical but clear. A baby boy, he was taken away from her minutes after his birth.
Despite her compactness, and what she had just been through, teenage mum brought havoc to that small farm. It took three of her siblings to hold her down, her screams agonisingly audible throughout the neighbourhood.
Jichan ignored what he thought was his daughter’s hysteria, and focused his mind on bigger questions. Batchan pressed on with her chores at home, on the fields, trying her best to hide her tears.
It was left for mum’s older brother Hiro, on a break from his military duties, to enforce the family’s rules and traditions.
Expertly unbuckling his leather belt, Hiro – in uniform – was about to turn his sister around, and teach her a lesson about honour, when her supplicating gaze stopped him. Their dark-brown eyes locked. He let go of his belt. His thick hair was slicked back. His boots were muddy.
Hiro closed his fist, and taking pleasure in the symbolism, punched his sister hard in the stomach, in the womb now empty of her bastard child.
This is when mum first tasted blood. This is when mum dropped God.
WHEN I WAS eleven, she bought me a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. En route to the bookshop mum confessed it took her a whole year to figure out who she hated more, her parents or Hiro.
Once she determined it was Hiro, who by then was living in the big city, in São Paulo, mum convinced the powers that be she should move in with her oldest brother. In pain, her instinct was to destroy herself.
For those who believed there was truth in violence, 1964 was a memorable year. With the help of the oblivious American taxpayer, a military coup overthrew the insufficiently conservative government of President João Goulart. The country’s motto Order and Progress, engraved on the Brazilian flag, was informally replaced by the less tolerant Brazil — Love it or Leave it. Talk of workers’ rights and civil liberties became a sure way of getting a bullet in your head. Art was forced to conform to tradition.
In a small act of rebellion, mum’s older sister – my godmother – began to put herself through university by waiting on tables at night and on weekends, and living off bread and potatoes.
Mum watched from her brother’s apartment, where she cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Where she cleaned the floors, the toilets, the rooms. Everyday. She lived to sabotage, in small ways, Hiro’s wellbeing. Slightly burning his rice, his coffee. Making sure her brother’s home was never truly comfortable.
Four years went by. Mum was twenty when another one of her sisters left the countryside to emulate my godmother’s small act of rebellion.
Gradually, mum allowed her imagination to simulate better days. Time weakened her self-hatred. It made the prospect of ceasing being her brother’s slave more and more appealing.
Her decision was made easier by Hiro’s army friends. Their visits had increased over the last few years, and the reason wasn’t her brother’s charisma and hospitality. Knowing this but refusing to admit it, Hiro would boast the Family was arranging for a good Japanese man to wed his sister, just like it had arranged for a good nisei girl to wed him next semester – a factoid which only made his Brazilian friends more anxious.
One night Hiro and another soldier came home drunk, and as her brother passed out on the couch, his friend slowly turned to her with a repulsive grin on his face. Sensing trouble, mum dashed to the pantry where she locked herself and waited. Having had a fraction of a second to choose between a rosary and a carving knife, she had chosen the blade. Crouching down, she mentally rehearsed thrusting it in her assaulter’s neck.
Her brother’s bestie punched and kicked the pantry door as hard as he could, calling her cunt, whore, slut, detailing what he’d soon do to her, and how she’d feel about it. Mum knew the barrier between them wouldn’t hold on for too long, and gripping the knife, she searched her Being for the strength to do the inevitable.
But the door did hold on, the blows grew weaker. And instead of calling her names, the soldier started sobbing. His voice made even more repellent by self-pity, he declared his love, pounding weakly on the pantry door until he eventually blacked out in a drunken stupor.
Mum moved in with her sisters. With their help she majored in Portuguese five years later, the language her father had failed to master.
The early 1970s brought money to the tropics. A miracle, the military propaganda machine declared. A clear sign God endorsed those in charge.
Emboldened by their financial success the regime hardened, censoring all difference of opinion, making thinking impossible. And for those who insisted on having thoughts of their own, there was always torture, exile, the possibility of being made to disappear.
Having a clear goal kept mum and her sisters out of trouble. Being outraged by every injustice they witnessed would have driven them to madness.
They had one goal only – to find my mother’s lost child.
Money was set aside every month in order to someday hire professional help. On their annual visit home, the three sisters would question the neighbours, inspect the local children, and go through Jichan and Batchan’s papers, frenetically chasing every lead.
Twelve years went by. Twelve years constantly feeling like they were almost there, but never quite making it.
More than once, after hearing about our family’s reputation, a conman tried to pass as my mother’s son. Even though the three women desperately wanted the candidate to be the real thing, one would always see through the swindle.
While searching for that baby boy my aunts found themselves partners, had their own children, and over time were able to spare fewer resources to their lost nephew.
Even mum met somebody. A gaijin. A non-Japanese man.
The gaijin was kind, sociable, and owned a bakery in the outskirts of São Paulo. Mixing their blood would have been dishonourable, but my mother went ahead and did it anyway.
I was born a moral crime. Jichan was never informed, my aunts having agreed this might have dangerously sped up his heart. Mum didn’t buy it but went along. She told me her father would have just pretended she had never existed. It would have been easier than accepting one of his daughters had disrespected him.
In 1984, Brazilians took to the streets and peacefully brought down the military dictatorship. My parents were there, and so was I. A two-year-old revolutionary.
Hungry for knowledge about the optimal way of bringing up children, mum looked far beyond the findings of psychology. The tentativeness of scientific conclusions made her anxious. Turning to the wisdom of gossip magazines and tabloids, she made dad and I drink only aubergine water ( good for the heart ), catnap throughout the day (good for the brain ), and go on a chakra-based diet ( good for the soul ).
She loved, protected, and worried about me as if I were three people. As if I carried within me herself as a child, as well as my lost brother.
Mum never stopped searching for her first son. No longer making annual trips home, she bought ads in the local papers instead. She hired a new detective every third month. She had weekly sessions with palm-readers and clairvoyants.
In 1990, the past and the future simultaneously showed up on our door.
Brazil was once more the country of tomorrow. The young and personable governor of the state of Alagoas, Fernando Collor de Mello, became the first democratically elected President since 1960.
My lost brother came dressed in a business suit. Opening the door, mum straightened herself, thinking he was a seller of Holy Books, until the word mother left his lips. His first word. Thirty years late.
Why did it take you so long?
Questions and Answers.
THOSE WERE BY far the happiest days of mum’s life. Having been prevented from watching her son grow up, all she could count on were stories. For weeks we lived off stories.
She asked him everything.
Everything he remembered. Everything he ever felt. Everything he ever wanted.
Watching those two embrace and weep, hearing them describe all they went through just to be in that moment, my eight-year-old self was confused.
Clearly, unconditional love for this Stranger was what was expected of me, and was what I feigned. But what I truly felt was jealousy. I wanted to be him. I wanted to be that important.
Even though he didn’t move in, the Stranger spent most of his time with us. On the good days, he helped in the house, at the bakery, showing off his DIY skills, charming all customers. On the bad days he’d storm in and then sulk like a teenager. He’d curl up on the couch, his hands covering his ears, and refuse to interact with the world.
My ghostly brother had the power to bring infinite joy to our lives, and infinite sadness. Whatever he felt mum felt as well, only ten times more.
It took several weeks of maternal pressure for the Stranger to open up. He was frustrated by his dreams. Surely a new country would need new heroes, new brands, new drinks. He saw an opportunity, had the right skills, but none of the funds necessary to make use of them.
The product was aloe vera juice. We eventually got to try it. He sliced aloe vera leaves open, removed their gel and mixed it with honey and lemonade. He said it boosted your IQ, your immune system. He said it was Ayurvedic.
Mum revised our diet, replacing the aubergine water with my brother’s aloe vera. She popularised it in the neighbourhood, and helped him sell a homemade version in our bakery.
This lessened but didn’t heal the Stranger’s depression. He needed capital to scale.
So we became investors. My parents borrowed more money than they knew was possible, using our house and business as guarantee. To stretch our funds, my brother decided to set up a factory in a cheaper north-eastern state, away from our supervision.
Meanwhile, our gifted President had his own agenda. Privatising utilities, freezing ordinary people’s bank accounts, forcing us to buy government bonds. Forcing us to lend him our money.
Naturally, the economy took a turn for the worse. As financiers worried about recession, hyper-inflation, mum worried about her eldest son’s silence. Her unreturned phone calls. His empty apartment.
Our first democratically elected President in thirty years was impeached for corruption.
My thirty-year-old brother was un-invented.
The Stranger was a fraud. A con-man who upon learning our story in the news, focused his energies on ruining our lives.
Soon after my tenth birthday my parent’s marriage fell apart, our family disintegrated. Asked for my preference by a stoical and decrepit judge, I wasn’t aware I was choosing mum, I thought I was just calling for my mother.
Rejected. Bankrupt. My father left us to try his luck in Brasilia, a pre-planned modernist city, a failed attempt at utopia, over six hundred miles away.
We spent the next few years bouncing back and forth between the homes of my two aunts. Being a burden on my uncles and cousins. Being the relatives they were ashamed of.
Love went up against reality. My love for mum. Her love for me. Our homelessness. The ghosts of my father and brother.
The week I turned eighteen I fled to Japan. Without papers, without the right to be there. Being illegal meant I couldn’t leave my adopted country, even for the shortest of trips, even for emergencies. If wronged I couldn’t call the police, if hurt I couldn’t use the hospital.
I packed Kobe and Wagyu meat in a factory outside Tokyo, and lived with seven other Brazilians — all of Japanese ancestry, all undocumented — in a small four-bedroom apartment.
Some of us were saving Yen to one day build a home in Brazil, others to start a business. Walking around, we were indistinguishable from the real Japanese – until we opened our mouths.
Speaking could arouse suspicion, get us in trouble. We avoided self-expression. We let our voices weaken.
My mother died when I was twenty-three. I hadn’t seen her in half a decade, and would have missed her last days if my cousin hadn’t emailed reporting she had just a little time left.
Two days later than planned, after being banned forever from the country of my ancestors, I was back – with mum.
Brought down by the Emperor of All Maladies, that most self-important of diseases, I held her rough hands as her eyes began to let go of the world. Despite her bluntness, despite the radical honesty that defined her life, my last words to her were lies.
I told her what she wanted to hear.
I said he’s coming mum.
He’s on his way here.
Born in Brazil t0 Japanese and Italian parents, Enzo Kohara Franca studied Photojournalism at the University of Arts London, and covered conflicts in Eastern Ukraine and Abkhazia. His story “Other Americans” was shortlisted for an award being announced this fall, and will be published later in the year. He’s recently finished his first novel Love in the Age of Acceleration.