When grieving is over, when no one pauses to remember, things will be forgotten forever.
Things Remembered and Things Forgotten is a collection about memory, but it is also a collection about grief. Gathered from author Kyoko Nakajima’s published work, the stories assembled here speak about loss—of a loved one, of a place, of a culture—and what comes next.
One of the collection’s stand-out stories is also one of its quietest. “When My Wife Was a Shiitake” opens with the death of Taihei Ishida’s wife. Two or three weeks later, his daughter calls to urge him to take his late wife’s place at a private cooking class. He resists, but ultimately goes. The names of Japanese foods and cooking techniques are integrated seamlessly into Ginny Tapley Takamori’s masterful translation.
Like many of the stories in Things Remembered and Things Forgotten, “When My Wife Was a Shiitake” has a light feminist touch. Taihei is assigned to prepare “salty-sweet shiitake ready simmered in sugar and soy sauce” for homework, and his bumbling attempts to prepare the dish are comic. So is his masculine overconfidence: “Once the shiitake had been boiled to soften it up, slicing it should be a simple task for a grown man.”
The most poignant moments in the story, though, are when he explores his late wife’s cookbooks, which she has used almost as a journal. In the margins, she reflects on the little sacrifices she makes for her family, the things Taihei has taken for granted about her. Taihei finds in these cookbooks “the wife he wished he’d known when she was still alive, but who he would never now come to know; the side of her that she herself had wanted to keep secret.”
Elsewhere in the collection, this realism gives way. These stories take place in a kind of limbo where the line between life and death has been blurred. “The Harajuku House,” for example, has strong ties to one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories, “The Peony Lantern”, about a young man who accidentally falls in love with a ghost.
In “The Harajuku House”, a first-person narrator relates a story told to them by W, a “rather taciturn older man”. As a youth, W took a part-time job collecting surveys door-to-door. In a bizarre house cobbled together from Eastern and Western designs, he encounters a mysterious and beautiful woman. Eventually, he begins an obsessive romantic and sexual relationship with her, despite the warnings of an ominous elderly woman he encounters in the street—“She’s a ghost, you know.” Eventually, the house and even the neighborhood take on the characteristics of the ghostly. The narrator sprinkles in reminders that “this was long before anyone else had even thought about pulling down Omotesando’s iconic pre-war concrete apartment block and replacing it with a high-end shopping complex”; not just Noriko, but an entire time and place are gone.
Woven throughout the stories is an indictment of Japanese society for collective amnesia about their past.
Nakajima has commented that she is fascinated by Japan’s post-war period: “Even seventy years after the end of the war, I feel we still have not completely come to terms with what happened.” Woven throughout the stories in Things Remembered and Things Forgotten is an indictment of Japanese society for collective amnesia about their past, particularly the destruction and painful aftermath of World War II. Characters in her stories remember buildings demolished to stop fires from spreading during the American firebombing. Ghosts of war orphans haunt Ueno Station. One character’s mother once unknowingly interviewed at a brothel set up to satisfy the sexual desires of American GIs. “Are you prepared to serve as a sexual breakwater to protect and nurture the purity of our race for the next hundred years?” the interviewer asks her, using the actual language of the “Recreation and Amusement Association” established by historical Japanese authorities.
In volume’s final story, “The Last Obon”, Nakajima’s characters face the inevitable truth hinted at in her other stories: nothing is remembered forever.
Satsuki and her sisters have decided to spend one last Obon at their late mother’s childhood home before they sell the property. (Obon is a Japanese Buddhist festival to honor the dead. Ian McCullough MacDonald’s excellent translation provides necessary cultural context without ever condescending to the reader.) The sisters, though, can’t remember exactly what a “traditional Obon” entails, nor do they have any elderly neighbors or relatives to consult. Obon is, at its heart, a festival about remembrance; in essence, Satsuki and her family have forgotten even how to remember.
Satsuki recognizes that what memories she has are “not a hundred per cent reliable” and “her real childhood memories [have] been gradually overwritten with scenes from movies and TV shows set in an imagined, nostalgic past”. Nevertheless, she proceeds with the family celebration, cooking traditional dishes and asking a Buddhist priest to read sutras in her mother’s honor. Over the course of the several-day celebration, figures from their family’s past come and go. Yes, some of the characters who appear may be ghosts, but the protagonist finds that it doesn’t really matter. The essence of Obon is memory:
Surveying the little scene around her, it occurred to Satsuki that the belief that the ancestral spirits returned at Obon wasn’t something mystical or paranormal, nor was it a metaphor for human existence—it was an expression of how the dead were resurrected through the gestures and actions of the living in the performance of traditional customs and practices.
Yet for the characters in “The Last Obon”—in all of the stories collected in Things Remembered and Things Forgotten—there is no enduring resurrection. After Obon is over, Satsuki and her family pack up their things and say a last goodbye to their family’s ancestral home. The house will be sold and they will never return again. Supernatural or not, the people who visited will now have nowhere to go and no one to remember them.
Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction