The Museum in Urashima Taro's Box

Literary : Karen Tei Yamashita / June 2000
Of all the folktales of my childhood, the tale of Urashima Taro whispers most closely in my inner ear such that when I received the package of ARAMASA Taku’s photography from Tokyo, I left it unopened on the table for most of a day, shuffling and rearranging books and papers around it perhaps to savor the wonder there contained but also to rub away the foreign address embedded in its postage. Ah, but curiosity.


My premonitions, however, were correct, and as I turned the pages of this photographic geography in large sweeping arches of black and white movement and contemplation, I became lost in memory and forgetting, at once youthful and aged, a child of senility. I was aware of having entered a kind of museum, a place of history deeply personal to myself yet displaced by a sad and timeless beauty. I had entered the world inside ARAMASA Taku’s camera. I had entered the museum in Urashima Taro’s box.
Sometime in the early 1990s when the Japanese American National Museum was getting its start, I remember a conversation with my friend Chris Komai who was involved in planning for the new museum to be situated in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. He explained to me that the fledgling museum had already begun to receive archival and historic artifacts donated by members of the community.


The interesting problem was how to evaluate the historic value of any artifact. Presumably there were paper documents, journals, photographs, articles of clothing, handmade and artistic work, but also perhaps mundane objects that survived the camps — utensils, polished driftwood, old dolls, a baseball bat, pressed flowers. How should one make a judgment about an article of sentimental value? What meaning would a particular artifact have placed behind glass, carefully lit, and documented with an explanation and a date? Why should the museum choose to preserve and keep one artifact and not another? I tucked these questions away, assuming there to be a science of the museum; a museum curator must know the answers to these questions.


At the same time I was reminded of the Museu Historico de Imigração Japonesa no Brasil located in São Paulo City's equivalent of Little Tokyo, the Liberdade. This museum had already been open and functioning for some time, and I had probably visited it for the first time in 1975. It contained a photographic and documentary exhibit of early Japanese immigration to Brazil, replicas of early housing for contract laborers on coffee plantations, including tools and furniture, as well as the paintings and drawings of Tomoo Handa, known for his extensive historic work detailing that immigration. At the end of the exhibit I also recall an aquatic tank with an electric freshwater eel, perhaps to demonstrate one of the exotic species of wild life found in the Amazons but most likely one of those donations that a community museum might necessarily absorb into its collection. Perhaps I am mistaken in my memory of this; the upkeep of a live animal in such a museum seems now to be rather difficult if not improbable. In any case, if there were an Amazonian eel, there might also have been an exhibition of the various insects, birds and mammals, all equally exotic for the Japanese immigrant newly arrived in Brazil.


Again, the question about what should be placed inside a given museum for safekeeping, memory and display tweaks the imagination. For whom does such a museum exist? Is a museum, like the American Smithsonian, an attic for our discarded junk, curiosities that remind us of the past, of a modernity that is no longer modern, the proof of life experienced, of the relentless passage of time?


In Los Angeles, there is a curious museum written about in a book by Lawrence Weschler entitled Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a kind of installation that challenges our notion of the museum and its reason for being, revealing the origins of the museum in the desire of the private collector to gather and organize a collection of oddities, antiques or natural objects.


One small section of the museum is dedicated to the work of Geoffrey Sonnabend, a scholar who, according to the details presented in the exhibit, developed a theory of forgetting. The audio-visual portion of this exhibit demonstrates Sonnabend's ideas graphically in the form of what is called the “Cone of obliscence” and the “Plane of experience” which intersect to create brief but after all ephemeral and inevitably illusory memory. The wonderful irony of the exhibit is contained in the collected artifacts said to belong to the theorist, including audio from an opera he would have attended. Marvelous to me is the encased miniature panorama of the Iguaçu Falls, one of the most extraordinary natural sites located at the very corner of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil where Sonnabend presumably experienced the epiphany of his idea. If Sonnabend thought of a theory of what might be called anti-memory, the museum's exhibit is the most elaborate and arcane tribute to the memory of the man himself.


When you emerge from the museum squinting in the daytime sunlight, you find yourself on the busy working class street of Venice Boulevard, as if you have emerged from a time-warp or the dark memory inside another brain. Quickly you run down the street to the Cuban restaurant Versaille or the Café Brasil and contemplate the Foz de Iguaçu inside a demitasse of strong espresso. The cone of obliscence has wiped your slate clean again.


The museum is a project of memory in which artifacts are preserved and, although removed from their locations and time periods, furnishes a way back to the past. The museum is a project of choosing to remember as well as choosing to forget. Perhaps the museum itself is the very intersection of obliscence and experience, an intersection where memory is briefly caught.


The photograph, like the museum, can be an act both of memory and erasure, an artifact that captures an exact moment in time, a moment which in its exactitude defines and defies every other moment before and after, erases the minute and myriad, gentle and dramatic, changes that construct the exact moment of exposure, erases the continuing passage of time as we walk away from the moment of the photo itself and every succeeding viewing into the future.

Vanishing Landscapes

Urashima Taro saves a great turtle, an ageless turtle, who cannot understand the nature of human time, cannot understand Urashima's confusion as he returns from his underwater adventures to his seaside village. Where is the house where he was born? Where are the familiar markers, the neighbors, his mother's garden?


One of my favorite books about Japan is a compilation of oral histories of the oldest inhabitants (born between 1889 and 1917) of the town of Tsuchiura in Ibaragi Prefecture, transcribed by a physician named Saga Junichi and published in English translation in 1987. The title of his book is Memories of Silk and Straw: A Self-Portrait of SmallTown Japan. These stories reveal the long-gone livelihoods and physical surroundings of townspeople such as tofu and sembei-makers, fishermen, gangsters, horsemeat butchers, and even executioners in the 1910s and 20s. By this time, my own grandparents had established their lives in San Francisco or Oakland, California, but I imagine that the Japan they knew as children might not have been so different. What struck me when I first read this book was the incredible change and difference of that old world remembered only 60 years later. Never again, for example, would we experience tofu sold from wooden buckets balanced on a pole over a man's shoulder. The Japan of my grandparents had all but disappeared. The tale of Urashima Taro was true.


Similarly, it is as if a great turtle has left us within the pages of ARAMASA's photography to contemplate a deserted village, once teaming with human community. There is an unsettling beauty in these landscapes of vanishing wartime internment camps. If you are a sansei like me who was born after the war, you begin to wonder about the stories you have heard and collected and the erasure of human history across an unfeeling natural landscape. If you are a nisei like my mother who was interned at Topaz Internment Camp in Utah, you look on the desolation of the land where you, your family and thousands of Japanese Americans lived during the war and acknowledge the land’s inhabitability — a place like the moon fit only for exile, badlands stolen long before from indigenous peoples, further tainted by your loss and suffering. No one since has wanted to live again in such places. Where did the water and the electricity come from? What cunning could so quickly build a prison around innocent people and then all but disappear? How, you wonder, can we have been so hated, so feared, mistreated and abandoned?


ARAMASA's landscapes are interrupted by ruins and artifacts: the crumbling foundations of barracks; the stonework of a dried out garden pond; a group of tombstones with names like Kinoshita, Takade, Kunitomi; a field of rusting cans; an arrangement of castaway bottles and metal objects; a door knob, nails, hinges; a Japanese doll, old geta. Within a few of the scenes, ARAMASA includes work by Miyatake Toyo, an issei photographer known for smuggling his camera into the Manzanar Internment Camp. Thus, a framed photograph by Miyatake sits on a tree stump, the great Sierra Nevada in the background. Miyatake's image of young boys staring out through barbed wire that stretches back to a distant guard tower returns momentarily to haunt this horizon. It is not just the framed image; the young boys themselves return and so does Miyatake Toyo. One imagines the photographer risking a moment on the opposite side of the barbed wire, the shadow of his camera and his own body cast against the rocky soil. And then there is this second moment, some fifty years later when ARAMASA Taku's camera and body too are cast in shadows we can only imagine over the same spoiled earth.


From Saga Junichi's Tsuchiura to Miyatake Toyo's Manzanar to ARAMASA Taku's landscapes of Japanese America, Meiji to Heisei in one hundred years, how much is changed, how many ways of living abandoned and forgotten. Punctuating the center of these years was the violent event of war — lives divided by hatred and killing, and to have lived them all is a small miracle of survival and obstinacy.


The essence held in Urashima Taro's box is the process of human growth, maturing and aging — Shakespeare's seven ages of man, from puking infant to second childishness. Here, ARAMASA Taku conjoins landscape and portraiture such that all of the photographs depict landscape, whether of the land or of the human body, and all of it vanishing, disappearing wartime internment camps but also the bodies of issei centenarians in the very process of erasure and forgetting. Like the ruins of these American sites of imprisonment, the one hundred year-old body is another kind of ruin, a living museum, clothed and surrounded by the artifacts that mark time and place, individual stories and sentimental worth. The mind does a strange trick, superimposing portraits of issei and nisei on the landscapes they once inhabited. Like Miyatake's photographs within photographs, these portraits conjure memories, return as dogged witnesses to events even as the remains of these sites and their bodies have been captured on film perhaps for the very last time, the very edge of absence, erasure, death. Their bodies inscribe the landscape with a history of human existence. What are missing then are their voices. They stare at us from their posed moments, their old bodies speaking a great silence. Speak! I want to say. Where is Saga Junichi now? Who will transcribe their stories? How to conjure words? What words to conjure?


Of course the tale of Urashima Taro begins with mukashi mukashi, but my memory encounters the word: Abunai! This may have been one of the first Japanese words I learned. My mother could never explain why in a moment of great distress and the need to protect me from danger, the only words that she could successfully utter were Japanese. Instinctually, abunai was the word that summoned the command that would protect me from harm. I would hear it and know it from a deep past that belonged to her and to her own mother as well.


Ii ko ne. These are words that my cousins and I all associate with our Tei obaachan who did not speak a word of English. We were all good children, and if Tei, whom everyone regarded as wise in her old age, could say such words, they must be true. I remember my maternal grandmother to be a small woman with the protruding chin and malocclusion that has marked all of us progeny, her spine folded over, her thin white hair combed into a tiny bun at the base of her head. In the summers, my family visited Tei who lived above the family fish market and grocery in an old Victorian house of high ceilings on Post Street in Japantown in San Francisco. My grandfather and, thereafter, my uncles and aunts, had run the Uoki Fish Market since the 1900s. Sometimes I slept next to Tei in the large double bed in her room overlooking Post Street.


She was so slight and quiet, I barely felt her presence, and she slipped away from the bed every morning as soon as it was light. While the night below on Post Street was filled with the distant sounds of jazz and human carousing, the early morning hours faded into the commotion of unloading produce from trucks, my uncles yelling orders back and forth, their feet stomping up and down the long staircases to retrieve boxes of imported Japanese foods — dried bonito, sembei, nori. I followed Tei's bent figure through the old house, down the long staircase, observed her daily ritual before the Buddhist altar with the stern photo of my grandfather, watched the thin trail of smoke from incense that followed the long reverberations of the chime, then followed her through the kitchen, down the back stairs into the back entrance of the fish market, past the cold breath of the refrigerator and the stink of fresh fish. I watched her reach for frosted flakes and the green and yellow packets of something I knew as ochazuke.


My mother wouldn't approve of the all the sugar on the corn flakes, nor the salt in the ochazuke, but Tei obaachan never gave it a thought. I would indulge myself for breakfast and lunch. This was the luxury of having your very own grocery store right under your house. While I slurped up ochazuke from my ochawan, Tei sat hunched over at one end of the large kitchen, her gnarled and wrinkled hands constantly in motion, crocheting a blanket.


Minna! Katta! My father was always a great and avid competitor at games, and his wild enthusiasm gave every act of play a special life. One summer while camping he taught us to play poker, hardly a very orthodox activity for a Christian minister, but he was never orthodox. In any case, we played for pebbles collected in the riverbed. He loved to tease us with his great bluff. He bet everything, pushing his great mound of pebbles to the center of the card table. Minna! he roared so that his mother who had joined us for the summer would roll her eyes. We all dropped out like frightened flies only to have him reveal his poor hand. Katta! he would yell into the redwoods.


My paternal grandmother Tomi spoke what she called broken English, lived alone in a small apartment in Berkeley on San Pablo Avenue, and came to visit and live with us from time to time. If Tei was obaachan, Tomi, given her broken English, was always gramma. Her husband had been a tailer, schooled in New York. He opened the Yokohama Tailor Shop in Oakland where my grandmother must have also learned to sew. She was always well dressed with hat and gloves — elegant and vain. Proud of her figure and posture, for much of her life she wore a corset laced down the make it tight. When you hugged Tomi, you could feel the stiff corset around her torso and the little hooks sometimes digging into your chest. She'd tell me that I was very pretty like my aunt, her first daughter. who in turn also resembled Tomi herself when she was young. She made me think that I was part of a continuing line of beautiful women. Always curious about her activities, I watched her fill her fountain pen with blue ink, scroll kanji down the pages of her letters, and carefully use a blotter to prevent smears.


Maybe she ended her letters in kamisama no okage de. She had been converted to Christianity probably in Tokyo by Christian missionaries, and she had a large group of issei friends who all attended the same church. Sometimes I sat next to her on the sofa while she prayed and then fell asleep. She was a great snorer, and at night you could hear the sound of her guttural roar penetrating the walls.


She died while I was a student in Tokyo where I practiced my kanji and sent her letters in Japanese. Perhaps by then she was too ill to my broken Japanese. My father wrote me from Oak Park, Illinois, where he and his sisters nursed her until she died. He wrote to me saying that every day gramma awoke in surprise and announced, mada ikite iru?


Abunai. Ii ko ne. Minna! Katta! Mada ikite iru? First words to last words, words that for me lose their emotional grip in any other language. Within them, voices return to me — the high pitch of my mother's greeting, Tei's low chuckling tones, my father's exuberance, Tomi’s exasperated dignity. My grandmothers both lived a decade short of a hundred years. Carved into their faces and hands, their sagging breasts, bowed spines and bunioned feet, was an entire landscape of history and experience. But it all happened so quickly. How were they to know in 1900 when they arrived in America that a war would interrupt the very middle of their lives, would disperse their children and destroy their dreams? Why had they and other women come so far to suffer the frustrations of unsuccessful men, to raise their families through a Great Depression, to see their children imprisoned or sent to war to die? Who could read the intricate landscape of their bodies, that silent map, the inscription of their lives? Ii ko ne. Mada ikite iru? Their voices waft over the landscape, haunt the ruins, swirl around artifacts, breathe life and story into our museums of memory and forgetting.

The Future in a Camera Box

Can the future exist without the past? Why not? If time is an inevitable continuum moving on, unstoppable, surely the future just happens. But, if the future is also what we imagine, then the past and a memory of that past must exist to build such a future. Some, like Sonnabend, would say that memory is illusory, imagined. And so it is.


Memory can be a kind of story we tell about past events. Some of it we imagine. We do our best to remember, to tell the truth, but sometimes the truth doesn't always make such a good story. And there is memory that hovers over any story, inexplicable memory: the salty stink of shoyu, the texture and weight of my father's hand on my forehead, the shape and dance of light over kelpy waters, the sound of the sheen as its glistening disappears into porous sand and crumbling seashells. An ancient Urashima Taro at the edge of the ocean. Does he look through the camera box or is the camera box focused on him? Or is he anyway a pile of ashes within that very box? It all happened so fast — an impossible dream, but ARAMASA's natural and human landscapes are here to tell you that it really happened. Fleeting evidence but evidence. A great gift of dying that charges the freedom of the future.