What Holds Up the Air

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you discover the nearly perfect cup of tea.  You savor the flavor and the feeling it creates throughout your body. You feel it seeping into every molecule of your being as it lifts your soul above and beyond the trivialities of life. It’s a brilliant moment.

photo yamamoto san with me in kyoto by riverside 2015

-Kyoto, Japan, 2017.-

Despite that brilliance, however, you know that, sooner or later, the tea will be gone and the only remnants of that splendor will be what you retain in your mind.  You must cultivate that splendor because there will never again be a cup of tea like that one.  Certainly, some, if you’re fortunate, may come close to approximating it, but not truly.  Its distinction was one that connected with you in a visceral, unique way that will not repeat itself in the same way ever again.

When my daughter was eleven months old, a Japanese American woman colleague in the arts called and told me that an extremely shy, but incredibly gracious man from Uji, Japan, was an admirer of my work and wanted to meet me.  In town (Los Angeles) for a short time, he was staying in Little Tokyo.  Would you please call him, she asked, he’s too shy to pick up the phone and call you, so, if you don’t call him, you two won’t meet.  Even though I had a high regard for this colleague, I hesitated.

After all, it was an awkward request.  I wasn’t enamored of the idea of calling up a perfect stranger and scheduling a meeting with him.  My friend, however, noted the man’s deep and genuine interest in Asian American literature; and stressed again the depths of his shyness.  Shyness.  Reserve. Yes, this was familiar to me, especially the Japanese kind.  I had been withdrawn in grade school and had to take assertiveness training classes to find ways to balance Asian reserve with Western wherewithal.  When my daughter grew older (four), her shyness would be so intense that, if we had guests, not only would she close her bedroom door, but she also managed to move her large dresser against the door to ensure a proper blockade.

I decided to call a friend, a Japanese woman dramatist, Yuko, to attend the meeting with me.  After she agreed, I called the Japanese gentleman and made arrangements to meet.  On the phone, his voice was quiet and polite.  This eased my apprehension.

We met at Mitsuru Café in Little Tokyo:  my friend, my eleven-month old daughter, the Japanese gentleman, and me.  The Japanese gentleman was Iwao Yamamoto.

photo yamamoto san #3 with yuko & leilani first meeting 08-11-2018

-Mitsuru Cafe, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, 1997.-

Fourteen years older than I, he had been one of four brothers reared by their mother, a Japanese widow. As we began to converse, we realized that something special connected us.  It was the beginning of a twenty-one-year friendship that ended on August 4, 2018, when Yamamoto-san passed away from a rare, but aggressive form of cancer. Truly, his death stunned me.

Of course, I knew he was aging, but many of my Japanese friends live into their late nineties or over 100; certainly, I understood the nature of loss because I had lost my father at the age of eleven, and because of my mother’s aging and the reality that death is a part of life. I knew Yamamoto-san was ill, but I had been assured that the kind of cancer he had was treatable.  I suppose I found solace in that; some odd kind of creative evasion, I guess.

For five years, he had been troubled by an encroaching, diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. In 2014, he told me, “Remember our friendship and how much you mean to me in case I forget you in the future. You are my best friend.”  I feared for what my friend would lose, but part of that fear was motivated by what we would lose.  What is it that we truly fear when we see loved ones sinking into dementia?  Is it a selfish fear of oneself and all the brilliant experiences one shared being forgotten?  Is it loss, period?  I am not certain, but what I am certain of is that absorbing and processing it all makes me quite sad.


-In Yamate, 2015-

I held Yamamoto-san in my heart and will continue to do so, but I suppose one always feels one could have been a better friend, loved better, and spent more time together.  The last time I saw him, he insisted on joining me at Kyoto Station as I was leaving Japan.  We already had shared a meal and viewed the cherry blossoms I love so well, but he insisted on meeting me at the station to bid adieu again.  He told me that he had been enjoying riding his bicycle with his wife, Mari.  Recently, he had been struck by a car and momentarily lost consciousness.  In that moment, however, he seemed fine, although frail. His other adopted family member, Mikiko, and I noticed his frailty and feared together.  Yamamoto-san told me to hurry back to Japan so that we could see each other again.  He feared he would die before we had that chance.  He was correct.

For the last twenty years, I have visited Japan annually.  Last year, I decided to travel to England to interview Japanese women living in the United Kingdom.  When thinking about that decision, I wondered if, instead, I should return to Japan again so that I could see Yamamoto-san.  I envisioned myself taking the train to Uji, and visiting Mari and him at their home. I thought, If I wait a year, will he remember me?  Thinking that it might be salubrious for me to travel to England with my English husband, I chose the West over the East.  Balancing those two utterly different dimensions is the bane and glory of my existence.  That choice is now something that I will never forget.  Yes, I plan to return to Japan next year.  It, however, is a year too late to see Yamamoto-san again. Moreover, Japan will not be the Japan I have known without him.

Yes, I have many memories of Yamamoto-san: participating in Gion Matsuri together, the dense crowds floating our bodies along the streets as if we were at sea, the air so thick in that kind of rarified Japanese summer heat that makes one feel as if one is breathing chawan-mushi; attending Daimonji at the culmination of Obon, drinking cold mugi-cha while sitting on a blanket in northern Kyoto, visiting Nara and Hiroshima, walking among the deer on Miyajima, and going to Mari’s calligraphy exhibit at Kyoto National Museum.  In Nara, Yamamoto-san and I were deeply amused when two Japanese women looked at us with disdain and one declared, “I am so tired of seeing older Japanese men with their Filipina wives!”  At the Kyoto National Museum, Yamamoto-san introduced my daughter, my son, and me to dignitaries as Nikkei-jin and did not bother to explain our multiethnicity.  To him, the Japanese Diaspora was diverse, and Yamamoto-san reveled in being genuinely inclusive.

photo yamamoto san with kodomo 2001? in kyoto

photo yamamoto san gion matsuri 1999

Even with the best tea, sooner or later, it is gone.

I suppose that is part of the reason why it is so special: that ethereal quality; it is there in the moment, it happens, and then it vanishes.  Theatre shares that same beauty, that ethereal quality that allows one to enjoy it in its breathing reality and then it is gone.  You are the bearer of its essence.  Love and friendship demand the cultivation of that essence.

Besides giving me unconditional love and embracing my Nikkei and multiethnic heritage without question long before being of mixed ethnicity was fashionable (or at least topical), Yamamoto-san adopted me as family.  Indeed, he was what some might all an “O.G.” Japanese.  In the United States, O.G. seems a familiar enough colloquialism. When I was walking our family’s two Shiba dogs with my husband, a man stopped watering his lawn to stare at the dogs, “Are those gigantic Shibas?” he asked with a look of bewilderment.  “Yes,” I said.  I explained that the dogs were standard-sized Shibas and that the tiny Shibas that have become so popular in the U.S. are “mame-Shibas” or bean Shibas, miniature forms of the standard.  “Oh,” he said, “you have O.G. Shibas!”


-Kiyoshi Houston with Kenta and Koji-

What is an O.G. Japanese? Like many Japanese of my mother’s generation and the generations that preceded and followed it (Meiji-Taisho-Showa), Yamamoto-san lived his life with reserve, grace, broad-mindedness, and heart. When I visit Japan today, I find traces of that in many people, but I also encounter many contemporary Japanese who perform Western culture with such panache that they have transformed into a new Japanese being that doesn’t have time for pre-Heisei cultural ways.  It reminds me of the onnagatta in Kabuki theatre. As most know, Kabuki theatre is comprised only of male actors.  The onnagatta is the male actor who performs female roles.  He does this performance of femininity with such excellence that many say he is more womanly than cis-gender females.  Like the onnagatta in Kabuki, sometimes many contemporary Japanese seem to be more Western than Westerners.

With regards to Yamamoto-san, however, he was purely O.G. Japan and I feel so fortunate to have shared a special bond with him.

When he retired from the faculty of Ritsumeikan Daigaku, he asked me to write an essay about his departure from the academy and the work that he had accomplished over the years. I did so happily; it was called “Ties That Bind.”

photo chawan with tea canister 08-11-2018

-“Yamamoto” tea from Uji, Japan-

Every year, Yamamoto-san sent me new tea from Uji.  It commemorated an afternoon that we had spent in Uji having tea and talking about life. Every time I look at tea, I think of him.  Today, I drink the tea that he sent me last April.  I drink it in his honor, in his dearly beloved memory.

Another ritual of friendship we had was to send each other autumn leaves or pressed blossoms. Because of my love for cherry blossoms, he sent me different varieties.  They were like poems to me.  Sometimes we sent maple leaves.  I liked to find interestingly colored leaves.  A few weeks ago, I found a beautiful leaf that looked as if it had been painted gold and burnt orange.  I pressed it into a book to send to Yamamoto-san.  I never sent it.  It wasn’t ready yet.  I should have sent it anyway.

If there is an “other side,” he is one of the first persons I will seek.



photo yamamoto say orrizante kyoto 2016

-In the Kyoto International Hotel, 2017-












All photographs except maple leaves by Kiyoshi Houston, Leilani Houston, and Velina Hasu Houston.  All rights reserved.  May be used with permission.

Maple leaves photograph credit: Emmon.  “Autumn Foliage: the Magic of Maples.”  Web. www.bombayoutdoors.com.   Downloaded on August 11, 2018 @ http://bombayoutdoors.com/garden-ideas/autumn-foliage-maples/.





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