Favorite Blog Posts

With over seventy posts so far on this blog, here are a few of my favorites:

Children of Keishoji – The amazing family history of this Buddhist temple

Visiting the Sugihara Museum – Visiting the museum honoring the so-called “Japanese Schindler”

Searching for my Aunt – An emotional and logistically complex search for my aunt Masako-san’s gravestone

Unagi Pie – A popular treat with an unusual incredient

February 19, Day of Remembrance – A list of links to videos, articles, and pictures about Japanese American incarceration during WWII

Hiroshima – The emotional and visceral impact of visiting this infamous city

Nagoya Castle – Visiting the impressive castle with an emotional connection to my aunt, Masako-san

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A question of attitude and altitude

Summary: Proper manners dictate height and depth when bowing and clinking glasses

Respect and hierarchy are paramount in Japanese society. In general, one should always show respect to one’s elders and superiors. This is demonstrated, for example, in toasting and and bowing.

Baggage handler bowing to a departing airport bus

Whenever people bow, which is often in Japan, it is proper for the “underling” to bow deeper to his or her superior. As a side note, if space is limited, bow to one side of the other person to prevent conking heads.

Similarly, when glasses are clinked, you should always click with your rim lower than that of your superior (elder, boss, etc.). When several people are clinking glasses together, you can observe this awareness of respect and hierarchy.

It is also good form never to fill your own cup. People should keep an eye on their companions’ cups and always refill theirs. Yours should be filled and refilled by someone else.

If you travel to Japan, people will notice and be impressed if you observe these simple customs of respect.

Some fun can be had with these customs. For example, if you are the boss or the respected elder, when several glasses are about to clink, you can suddenly lower your glass and enjoy the sight of everyone else having to hurriedly lower theirs as well before contact. This usually elicits laughter.

Mom had some fun in a similar way when we were visiting Keishoji. As honored visitors from overseas, we were shown great respect and gratitude everywhere we met. Being the eldest meant Mom typically occupied the position of highest respect in nearly any gathering we attended.

Mom, the Buddhist priest, and his brother, the fisherman

One evening, about a dozen of us were seated for dinner. As was customary, we sat on the floor next to a low table. The priest’s brother, a fisherman, had to leave early because he needed to rise very early the next morning to fish.

We were all seated on the floor, and upon taking his departure, the fisherman dutifully nodded and bowed his head to each of us. Turning to my mom, the most respected person in the party, he bowed low. Mom bowed low in return, which obligated him to bow lower.

Mom kept bowing lower and lower, and he kept responding until his body was basically plastered to the floor. He finally protested that he could bow no further. Everyone knew Mom was having a little fun with him and we all had a good laugh.

As for myself, I hope I am still agile enough to sit on the floor and bow low when I reach my 70s and 80s.

Getting My Own Kanji Name

Summary: My Buddhist Priest cousin invents a kanji name for me

In my immediate family, apart from my mother, I am the only one who has a Japanese name. My middle name, Asai (浅井), is my mom’s family name (it means “shallow well”).

My middle brother almost got a Japanese first name. My parents debated naming him Kenji, but decided against it at the last minute. So he is named Kenneth.

While poring over and translating our Japanese family tree at Keishoji, I commented that I wished I had a kanji name. My last name, Loftus, would be difficult, since the closest Japanese approximation would be something like, “roh-foo-tah-su”). But my first name, Toby, has sounds readily replicatable in Japanese.

Our cousin, the Buddhist priest, Gensho-san, and my mother

My cousin, the Buddhist priest at the temple where we were doing our family research, overheard this. I noticed him thumbing through a Japanese dictionary and scribbling notes over the next day or two. On the last day of our visit, he handed me a piece of paper with a kanji name he created for me. He used these three characters:

飛 Toh
美 Bee
維 Ee

Two of the kanji are quite clear. The first one is associated with flying. The second one, Utsukushii, means beauty or beautiful. That character is in my mother’s name, as well as my Aunt Mika’s and late Uncle Min’s, and I am happy to share part of my name with them.

The third kanji is a bit more difficult to translate. My cousin the priest translated it as “support,” but potential meanings associated with this character are more broad. Another cousin informed me that this character is used in “fiber” (繊維), “maintain” (維持), and “restoration” (維新). By itself, it can mean connect, support, make bigger, and more.

For example, a single thread or piece of yarn (糸) can be wound and spun into something bigger: a rope (維). He also found a cool word, “Ten-i” (天維), which means “An imaginary net that exists to keep heaven (or sky) from falling to the earth.”

Apparently my interest in researching the family tree and strengthening family ties across the Pacific Ocean impressed my Japanese relatives. Everyone in Japan with whom I shared my new name deemed it to be a very good and fitting one for me.

Humbled, I hope to live up to my Japanese name.

Kanji Family Names

Summary: Discovering the Japanese names of my aunts and uncles
As I’ve written, kanji, one of the main writing systems for Japanese, is non-phonetic. Therefore, one may be able to read it on the page, and grasp what it means, but have no idea how to pronounce it. Conversely, unlike English, you could hear a Japanese word and have no idea how to spell it in kanji.

The same goes for names. You may know how to say someone’s name, but there may be a variety of ways to write it, and you wouldn’t know which was correct until you saw it.

This is one reason why the exchange of business cards in Japan can be so formal: Until you see someone’s name written in kanji on their business card, you would have no way of knowing how it was written and what that person’s name might mean.

Mom has often explained how for many years she didn’t know the meaning her own birth name, Mitsuko. Not knowing how it was written, for many years she assumed “mi” related to three or third, since she was the third daughter.

Taro, Matsu, Mitsuko, Sagoro, Itsuo, Gene
Her father once overheard her say this and immediately corrected her: “No, that’s not how we write it!” Instead, it is written with these three characters, 美津子 and it means “beautiful child.”
Family members often wondered why my Uncle Gene was the only member of his generation to receive a Western-sounding name. Since all the children had been delivered at home by grandfather, none had birth certificates until later when my grandfather had to apply for them.
Masami and Gene
Years after my uncle’s birth, everyone learned that grandfather had spelled his son’s name “Jin.” Uncle Gene stuck with the Western spelling, and there have been many laughs in subsequent decades over the fact that neither he nor anyone else (other than his father) knew how to spell his name.
I realized that all my mom’s immediate family members must have kanji names. More than half had passed away by the time I started asking my numerous cousins if anyone had any record of what those names might be. None did.
I finally called my nonagenarian Aunt Mika to ask, and a few weeks later I received a handwritten note in the mail with all the family names written in kanji.
Several of my uncles had gone by names other than the ones assigned at their birth. Uncle Taro was known as “Tot,” and Uncle Masami was always known as “Min.” Uncle Itsuo was known as Dick or sometimes just “Its” (pronounced “eats”). Of Uncle Masaaki, mom, in her book, Made in Japan and Settled in Oregon writes:
“[Masaaki] was short for his age and graduated from high school when he was fifteen. No wonder that he was nicknamed “Half Pint,” a name that was later shortened to “Half,” which stuck until his life ended at age twenty-nine. Some knew him as “Ace” in the U.S. Army and later at Oregon State College, but that was not a name used by our family.”
Masaaki “Half” on left

Mom changed her own name from Mitsuko (“mee tsu koh,” which all her classmates pronounced “mitt soo ko”) to just “Mitzi.”

I’m very glad to have obtained this list of names, since I know of no way we would have figured them out without my aunt’s assistance.

Mom and Aunt Mika share a laugh on Aunt Mika’s 90th birthday

Studying Our Japanese Family Tree

Summary: Deciphering a Japanese family tree requires patience and lots of reference materials.

I’ve written before about how difficult it can be to locate a Japanese gravestone.

Similar challenges face any westerner attempting to read a Japanese family tree. When we visited our cousins at Keishoji, a large copy of a family tree was brought out, which both excited and confounded us. Of course all the names were written in kanji, which neither my mother nor I could read.

The only kanji name I could recognize was my family name, Asai (浅井). And just like on gravestones, no Arabic numbers could be seen, since birth and death dates were written in Japanese and used the years of the era rather than the years of the Gregorian calendar.

Aiko-san and Kazuko-san helping mom decipher names and dates

Fortunately, the matriarch of Keishoji and two of her sisters sat down with us and helped us translate each name and decipher each year. It took a couple of hours, but we completed the work. I imagine no one on either side of the Pacific Ocean had this information prior this point.

Hatsui-san, Aiko-san, and Kazuko-san at Keishoji helping us with the family tree