Diary: Brandon Shimoda, A House that No Longer Exists

The woman selling tickets in the Kumamoto bus station had never heard of Nakanose. She gave us a map but did not know where on the map Nakanose was. Yoshie, the young mother we were staying with, had never heard of Nakanose. Nor had her father, who lived a few streets over and had grown up there. They looked at the map and found a post office in a village called Kumamotonakanose—only a few miles from Yoshie’s house—but could not tell from the map how to get there.  

All Shimodas are from Nagasaki, Yoshie said.  

Her father drove us around the neighborhood farms in his sedan. The roads were only as wide as the car. We drove past rice paddies and empty greenhouses. It was late July. Most everything had been harvested. There were tomatoes and watermelon. It was hot and overcast. I looked up the names of vegetables in a simple dictionary.  

I wrote to the Kumamoto poet Hiromi Ito asking for her help. She met us at the bus station with her daughter Zana. I never turn right, is the first thing she said, out the window of her car. She drove us, by way of a series of left, ever-tightening turns, to a small noodle shop where we ate sea eel tempura with soba off round wicker plates with potato cream and ginger, and drank tea from the buckwheat foam strained from the pot. I told Hiromi that we were looking for my dead grandfather and for a town called Nakanose. She had never heard of it. She called her friend Baba-san. Baba-san was the first person we met in Kumamoto who had heard of Nakanose, but we never actually met Baba-san, fitting for a guide who knew of a town that no longer existed. Hiromi offered to take us.

I do not remember the way. We passed through a landscape made nondescript (I remember MOS Burger) by the anxiety of trying to remember instead of seeing everything we were passing.

We crossed a bridge. Hiromi pulled to the side of the road. Nakanose, she said. A demolished wall. Smoke in the air and the smell of grilled eel. There was a road parallel to the main road, and a smaller road connecting them to a levee between the river and rice paddies. A silhouette moved in a garden near a small pickup truck. Kase River, but the map said Midorikawa: Midori River, green river.

In the middle of the rice paddies was a small graveyard. Two dozen gravestones. White mold. Black rectangles. A small white house with a gray-shingled roof. Four bushes and a tree. Dead flowers between stones.

Hiromi turned left onto a narrow levee and stopped beside the graveyard. Tiny frogs flamed across the muddy water and sky.

Tiny peaches grew in clusters on the leaves of rice—pink, twenty-five or thirty to a cluster. The peaches were the eggs of the apple snail. The snail lived in the water, emerged to run its eggs up the leaves, where they would be safe.

We crossed the narrow strip of land into the graveyard. There were large bouquets of flowers. Candles melted into small round stones had not yet burned all the way down.

The stones were inscribed with names, birth and death dates. Hiromi spotted a tall stone, with a roof flared like a hat broken by a strong wind, and shouted, Shimoda! Three bouquets of pink and white flowers encircled the stone. In front of the stone were a thin white candle and an incense holder stuck to a ceramic plate. The incense holder was a sawed-off pipe. The wick of the candle was black and stuck up like a thick hair. To the right of the candle was a larger incense holder, also a sawed-off pipe, cemented into a white bowl. To the left was a blue ceramic teacup. A can of beer looked refreshing.

Surrounded by pussy willow and plastic flowers, facing west, was the Shimoda family stone. Takayuki Shimoda, an army sergeant in Wolrd War II, fought in Russia, died on the battlefield. He was in his early twenties. I ascended the steps to the stone. I ran my fingers over the name. The graveyard was where people came to worship, but the people were elsewhere. Candles, incense, tea and beer, it had not been long since they had been there. But the graves were coming to ruin. Colors eaten by the sun.

As we left the graveyard, two gray herons flew in front of Hiromi’s car and landed on the water. From behind the levee, a third heron rose, then landed apart from the other two. Then a fourth and a fifth appeared low in the sky and joined the other three upon the water. Then Hiromi turned right, which she swore she would never do, out of the rice paddies. The last rice paddy we passed was planted with hundreds of black flags. The wind was passing through their solemn demonstration. Frogs continued to spring, the flags’ shadows growing larger, five gray herons hanging suspended.

My great-great-grandmother Yumi Taguchi’s house no longer exists. Or it exists only as a letter from a mother to her son, suspended in the air like a window without a wall.

This passage is drawn from Brandon Shimoda’s new book, The Grave on the Wall (City Lights Books), which tries to recover the history of Shimodo’s grandfather, Midori, from his birth on a remote island near Hiroshima to his childhood in the village of Nakanose, where his mother left him as a small child in the care of his grandmother to emigrate to America, to his own emigration at the age of 9, his efforts to establish himself as a photographer in California, the arrival of war and the destruction of Hiroshima, and Midori's internment as an enemy alien in the Fort Missoula Detention Center in 1943. Midori himself returned to Japan only for one brief visit in his seventies.

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Image: “Tombs” (2014), by Magalie L'Abbé