Photograph by PHOTO/arts Magazine
Across the Pacific not a month went by without some news of resistance somewhere in the sprawling territories of the Japanese Empire; prisons in the Northwest Territories couldn’t keep up with business after decades of resistance from Seaside, Oregon all the way to Boulder, Colorado in the Rockies. Yet here in our bustling logging town of Mossyrock in Washington, where Japanese had us chopping every tree as fast as it would grow, most folk just accepted being Japanese — myself included. You had to be there to understand.
After the Denver Peace Treaty, Mossyrock became a model colonial town. It went from being a sleepy village nested in the foothills to a bustling town of tens of thousands.
No one even mentioned the bomb, or Seattle for that matter. We talked of New Sendai and progress. We had no choice.
Ma had nothing to do with it.
Ma called Japanese rule “a blessing and a curse. Sure, they love our Mossyrock, or Koke-iwa as they called it. It’s covered thick in forest. They can’t get enough of it.”
They rotated clear-cutting whole hillsides, but then reseeded them with Japan Number One Quiku-Guro fir and hinoki species that shot up like weeds, making the economy boom.
But she called them a curse because they saw non-Japanese as second-class citizens, and meant fewer opportunities for students like me.
To stand as equals to Japanese, I not only had to learn the language but also do something like practice one of the Japanese martial arts like Judo and Aikido, draw fan manga comics, or, like me, study ikebana flower arranging — which I’ve done since I was eleven.
After four years, my sensei said that I “displayed some talent” and had “perfected all the basics.” But he also said that I seemed “stuck, at an impasse” — no better than the “big-noses” he tutored touring the Bay Area in Shin-Kalifonia. As I am half “big-nose” and half Chinese, I took offense to his racism, though I had gotten used to it under Japanese rule. How could they rule if they didn’t tell themselves — and the rest of us — that they were better. After all, they won the war. They wrote the history.
Being mixed, like the rest of the Americans, that was the hardest piece of propaganda to stomach: their claims of being better then us “mixed” people.
Well, I was still a teen. Sure, we knew we were American, but it was complicated. You had to be there to understand.
Returnees shouldn’t be too quick to judge us.
You hardly could say I was brainwashed. They hardly treated me we respect at all. They tolerated me as the lone “American” in the Flower Arranging Association.
I tried to present a carefully pruned gathering of flowers, decaying wood and moss that even a curmudgeon such as sensei would love. I spent weeks brushing up on the basics of design — including color, line and space — and testing combinations of pedal hues, lichen-tinged mosses, and coniferous twigs. Some demonstrated the emergence pattern of stems stuck into the “frog-spikes.” Once, my composition focused entirely on the bright lime-green gleam of barely-opening new fir needles peaking through the folds of their papery red sheaths.
I thought I’d made time freeze that early spring.
Half the battle was in learning where to find a reliable supply of pristine stems and flowers to use in such compositions. As some flowers are seasonal and hard to find, I had to prepare alternatives as backups. Sensei ridiculed the use of hothouse flowers, saying our arrangements should contain elements of a narrative of how we had walked somewhere (anywhere, he often added) to find ourselves stirred into collecting the life of the woods, creek, or lakeside.
Once, I decided to include a fresh combination of rather linear lilac twigs and globular peonies set off by an array of magnolia buds, which in their sheer size lent a somewhat intimidating radiant power to the arrangement.
A diminutive clump of blackberry blossoms rested at water level, setting off the expanse above it with its surprising off-shade tint. It was modeled on satellite variation A, but with its sprawl and dangling lichen and moss, it managed to rise up unconventionally high, in fact higher than myself when my mother set it on the display table encircling the courtyard of the Shinto Shrine down the street from where we lived in Mossyrock. It’s a small town deep in the mountains north of Mt. Kobuji, or “little Mt. Fuji,” as it looked just like its Japanese big sister before it erupted in Showa 54.
When sensei arrived to critique the exhibit, as is customary, I begged him to please grant me his wise consul on the merits and shortcomings of my piece.
He told me to wait by the piece and he would attend to me in good time. Other girls and a few boys — all Japanese — arrived and asked him to critique their works. He followed each one to their work and smiled with them as he lavished attention, going even so far as to gesture with his hands and point not with his nose, as he usually did with my works, but his fingers — often breaking customary restraint.
After an hour and fifteen minutes, when no one else had approached him, sensei looked at me on the other side of the courtyard and raised his index finger in the air in a sign of remembering his promise. As he approached my piece, which I had worked on for weeks, he said immediately upon coming to a stop, “Is this insult intended? Do you not know about the bombings, the terrorists in Shin-Kalifonia? Are these peonies not little bombs, and your piece an act of treason?”
“What?” I said, not aware of the events. I had no idea my art could be interpreted as political. I wish I now could claim that I had been part of a resistance movement, but the fact was that we were quite isolated in Mossyrock. “What?” I repeated to sensei, befuddled.
“You mean to say that these peonies are just peonies to you?”
“Yes, and they are globular, fitting the principles of looping within a balanced, evenly weighted space. They are settled,” I said.
“Ah hah. Well, you have not yet mastered even the most basic lessons in embracing free styles in postmodern ikebana.” Without altering his facial expression, he said, pointing with his nose, “Look at this: you seem unable to bring the twigs and buds into a refined relation of play. Where is the multiplicity so crucial to the most basic Moribana style today? The piling of flowers, twigs and leaves must rise from the rusty frog and water in distinctly upright yet minutely tilting lines. This composition is neither of the slanting nor rising style. Quite a mess, it is. Is it any wonder it appears seditious? I may have to ban it from the exhibition.”
I wanted to say that it was simply of the satellite variation A style, an explicitly open and indeed quite postmodern variation, but I dared not contradict my master who was, after all, Japanese.
“And look at this,” he said. At the flower frog, a small cluster of blackberry blossom emerged from the water. “How dare you defile the spring season with such a rude weed? Are these blackberries indigenous to Japan or in these distant territories? Do they even have a proper seasonal association? Of course they do not. They blossom over and over before the first ring of fruit has even grown heavy and ready to fall. Out with it!”
He then plucked the blackberry buds and tossed the wet clump behind the display table in one massive swish and diminutive thud.
I heard sensei mutter half to himself, “It is so American. I thought you would have evolved beyond this.”
I agree. Can you imagine such a person talking to a child in such a manner? Is it any wonder I ended up where I am?
I loved those cute little blackberry blossoms from my grandfather’s vacant field. He used to say I “grow fast as a blackberry vine.”
Then with one swift wave of his pruners he snipped nearly all the beautiful buds and horizontal outcroppings. My work had been denuded, violated by the blur of his sheers compounded by my welling vision. The peony stood alone, bereft of its expanding lines of flight that so offended the master.
He then said, “You must take a firm place in the universe.”
He made a click with his tongue, drew a long breath that hissed through clenched teeth, and said, “I only wish, really wish, that you were just a bit more Japanese.”
Closing his eyes and turning his head to the sky he said, “If you had the innate spirit we Japanese are born with, well, I’m certain we would not be having this unpleasant conversation.”
“I am deeply sorry,” I said.
Now, mind you, I am merely retelling the story of my ordeal. You must understand that, being so young, I took each word of my lofty sensei to heart. We were occupied.
Then, upon hearing this, I shed not a few tears that I quickly wiped on my sleeves, and said to him, helpless in the face of his fury, “Sensei, what can I do?”
“My dear, dear Chuenzu,” he began, always using the Chinese pronunciation of my name. Everyone else called me Haruko, making me feel more a part of the colonial community, regardless of my mostly Chinese and Dutch American heritage.
“Ikebana by Japanese exhibit a certain gall that mixed peoples may find hard to muster. It reflects some subtle, noble thrust of thought, some surprising sense of gentle force that barely manages to transcend the artist’s own limitations and allows the flowers to be arranged so as to present a blessing of numbers — always odd, engaged in play of grand and miniscule scale and surprising nuances. At its finest, the elements assemble naturally to form a frozen motion, a moment that moves even the coldest and most heartless viewer.”
“I see, sensei. I will be less docile,” I said. “I will be more of the dragon I am.”
“A dragon. Hah! That’s a Chinese fetish. Little good it will do you in ikebana,” he said.
“I will be more forceful,” I said.
“That is only a start, as your composition exhibits a lazy lack of focus and thrust. You are indeed an American — have an inbred penchant for the undisciplined and random, while your Chinese blood only lends you a misplaced ornateness, an excess of elements. A sense of minimalism is fundamental to the Way of Flowers. Yet your lines are lost within a vague space. All possible geometry is broken off, left tangled. Hints of form are there, the training too, but it can only be your bad blood that makes you really quite hopeless.”
“I will try harder!” I said, pathetically imploring him for faith in me as a human, no less as a young artist.
Sensei replied, “Not good enough. I must say, without mincing my words or giving you any false hope, that your problem is simple: you lack a Japanese soul. And worse, with your peonies threatening to explode and blackberries mining the waters with filth, it seems you are at best unconsciously drawn to a rebellious demeanor. Is it any wonder that Chinese seem plagued by revolution, while we Japanese live under the longest living imperial reign on the planet?”
I don’t know, exactly, what he meant by saying that I lacked no Japanese soul. But, I had been working so hard at my flower cutting, placement, and developing my aesthetic eye by observing nature, other flower compositions, and even how poetry, painting, and classical Japanese architecture teach me things about how to grow time in my arrangements, that I was heartbroken.
To hear my sensei talk in such bald absolutes, though no worse than insult heard in the media daily, made him seem mechanical and bigoted.
Of course I always knew it didn’t matter what mix I was. His words went against all I had learned in the gentle ikebana community about being cosmopolitan and serving the Greater Sphere of Co-prosperity. Yet I was still somehow hurt.
At home I told my mom, “My flower sensei said I lack a Japanese soul. Said I was hopeless and a danger. Said I was harboring peonies about to explode into full-blown rebellion, like the terrorists down south. He treated me as if I was a Shin-Kalifonia sympathizer.”
She laughed out loud and said, “Oh, he says you lack it now, as the economy dives and they don’t need us for our cheap labor. Now they say we are ‘Americans’ and deserve what we get. Yet whenever they need workers to watch the weapons-production or soldiers to oversee robots staking mining claims in the new lunar and asteroid frontiers, you watch: they all of a sudden say we are all brothers, part of the big chain of being, all equals, or the next-best thing to being Japanese. We’re better. We’re still, somewhere in here, a free people. Don’t you ever forget that.” Ma told me that, she did.
“I know it’s just flower arranging, but you know I love it, work hard at it. And sensei hated my work — my favorite piece — the one with a tiny blackberry blossoms from grandpa’s bramble,” I told my mom.
No matter how insulting he was, I couldn’t just give up.
About this time the talk shows and Net ads were all abuzz over a new genetic resequencing company, Genetic Spirits, which boldly advertised:
Americans! The Japanese Spirit is now in your reach!
Apparently, my sensei was not the only Japanese bent on putting us non-Japanese down. Someone had opened a market to fill this niche. Another ad went:
Open your heart to true Japanese blood.
Many Japanese picketed Genetic Spirits clinics, saying that only Japanese could be Japanese, and that Japanese are born not made. More than anything, they feared equality with us Americans they had grown accustomed to seeing as servants and forced laborers, if not space slaves left to rot in the cold when the oxygen runs out.
At first my mom said it was nonsense and that in Shin-Kalifonia vigilante Japanese had burnt down such clinics as well as the homes of its doctors. But, as resequencing became the topic of talk shows, she began to think about my future. The Empire’s hold on our slice of America still seemed unshakable. Even though Japanese made up a minority, with their cameras and control of web sites, they still seemed invincible. If you needed a reminder, just trying forgetting to bow to a police officer on the sidewalk.
So my mom asked me to look into how much it would cost to become Japanese.
At the Genetic Spirits clinic across from the train station in Chehalis — just a half-hour away — I asked the representative, “What can your therapy actually do?”
“Simply put,” the Korean woman said, “it makes a once-nondescript colonial subject into one more aesthetically sensitive and yet more decisive person — key traits of being Japanese as laid out in the texts of Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century, himself building on ancient Japanese literature.”
Of course I knew about Motoori from school, but I still had to ask, “Can you be more specific?”
You will learn to work harder, be more productive in your service to the Empire, and augment innate attentiveness to detail. It is, indubitably, the essence of the Japanese spirit — a mix of the bushido way of the warrior, wabi-sabi lonely sublimity, and the latent jouissance expressed in the Japanese discovery of the atom’s unboundness. It’s all in the genes. It’s a sure thing. We set them in a junk string that gradually reshapes your pituitary response and other regions of the rear lobes. It resets both glandular and nervous systems. Effects will become evident between 2 and 48 hours. We guarantee our work, or your money will be refunded in full. Of course, one naturally signs a consent agreement as there are risks and we assume limited liability.”
So I stamped and dated the dotted line, got my blood test and within hours my customized Japanization shots — all in one day.
Then, I expected at least bumps or a rash — a body’s natural immune response to such a foreign infusion. Evening came: nothing.
The next morning — the next evening — nothing.
There was no sense of vertigo, no burst of spirit, not a peep from my Japanese soul.
I began to suspect it was all a ruse, an Oz-like placebo effect, and I played the Tin Man.
I still believe that to be the case. Indeed, I immediately thought of the shots as a forfeiture, a certificate of good behavior to show the Japanese bosses in job applications after graduation. So I reasoned.
Sensei treated me no differently in his critiques of my ikebana arrangements. I did not have the nerve to tell him I had a Japanese pedigree. It seemed absurd in so many ways.
Yet, just as my mom predicted, after the terrorists struck hard in Shin-Kalifonia, he began to pamper me! He suddenly approached my flower arrangement first, even before the Japanese students, and extolled the beauty of my “masterpieces” and even had photos of us slightly bowed before the piece printed in the Takoma Shimbun. The caption read: “American High School Student Embodies the ‘Genetic Spirit’ of Ikebana.” He must have discovered my name on some white list.
Not a week went by without some news of resistance somewhere in the sprawling territories of the Japanese Empire; prisons in the Southwest Territories couldn’t keep up with business — resistance from Seaside on the coast or in Boulder in the Rockies. Yet here in our bustling logging town of Mossyrock in the Cascades, where they had us chopping trees as fast as we could grow them, most folks just accepted the Japanese.
Just like my mom said, when they need us, we Americans become best friends of the Japanese. In just a few weeks I went from being a thorn in my master’s side to the key to the empire.
Of course, I didn’t buy his ploy to use me for a moment.
Around the same time, the government announced in a media campaign that Imperial Healthcare would now cover “Japanese spirit” injections, though it did not even cover my mom’s tendonitis treatments. Rumors had already spread that free China was now allied with Europe in funding the rebels, and that the Western Territories would be next.
As I said, I had already gone through the procedure, you see — which is why I must stand before you, nearly ten years later, to publicly expel any misgivings about my loyalties.
What happened? I’ll tell you. Just as chaos heaped on chaos, sensei asked me to make another arrangement for the upcoming Grand Empress Exhibition, to show off the rich promise of being Japanese to those they called the “less fortunate.”
I cannot take all the credit for what then happened. Following my mom’s advice, I made the worst arrangement possible — breaking all the rules! It took more effort than following them, I must say (laughter).
So, what did sensei do? I saw him whisper into each judge’s ear and, suddenly, I was put into first place and stayed there! He tried to use even my blatantly bad ikebana as propaganda for the new “honorary Japanese” misplaced in the bodies of Americans.
But as I stood receiving the award, surrounded mostly by Japanese and not a few cameras, I laughed and giggled so hard tears ran down my cheeks — not in joy in winning — but in having beaten them at their own game.
You have the photo? Then see for yourselves, please. Such laughter was certainly not a sign of a successful genetic resequencing.
Just as we all began stepping down from the awards stage, yakuza in black suits appeared and headed straight for sensei. The frowning men took the shortest route to us.
I said to sensei, “I hope my laughter didn’t come across the wrong way.”
You see, everyone receiving this award follows protocol and always bows deeply to one’s sensei. Instead, I burst out in laughter.
“You ingrate. What will this prove?” sensei said to me as one of the yakuza said in brusque Japanese, “Please, this way.”
“Take her, not me,” sensei pleaded.
“She is a celebrity. Certainly not,” the short, stocky man in the photo said.
As they escorted him away, I gave a cute little wave goodbye, as girls and fashionable women are wont to do.
I never heard of him again.
My dear inmates and visitors, warden and panel of analysts: believe me when I say that in my heart and in my mind I am not Japanese — I believe in the many, the beauty of rainbows.
The so-called Japanese gene and its one-drop logic was a gimmick. I never fell for it; I just played along.
Long before the troops landed and liberation, I’d seen through them and their census.
Ask my mom.
We bided our time.