Re-visiting Okaasan: Life, Death, and Chrysanthemums

My mother passed away on June 20, 2022, with her children and grandchildren surrounding her as a Buddhist priest read death rites and I read a poem written by a Zen monk at his death many centuries ago.

In celebration of her life, I am re-visiting an essay I wrote in her voice a few years ago.


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I am thirteen years old.  I like to read books, climb trees, eat cold noodles in the summer and hot noodles in the winter, and have pet cats that have stripes or spots.  I like to look at photographs of other parts of the world and imagine what they must be like.  I take classical dance and sometimes perform.  I attend an all girls’ school, and wear a uniform that has a dark, long skirt and a long-sleeved dark top with white trim.  My hair is cut short during the summers because it is very hot and humid where I live.  “Short” means that it brushes my shoulders; anything shorter than that is defined as unfeminine by my mother. 

While studying my face and body, my mother calmly announces that I am going through puberty.  It is not calm to me. Inside, I feel my hormones wrestling with the decorum that my mother demands of me.  In addition, I am confronted with my own blood every month. My menses.  It is not as simple as the word may sound.  It involves rolling strips of clean cotton into a pad that I must strap to hold securely between my legs to capture blood from my womb.  When it is soiled, I have to wash the material, hang it to dry, and repeat the process with new cotton strips.  I do this five to seven times a day.  I am not allowed to discuss it with anybody.

If this were not bothersome enough, outside of me war rages as well.  My puberty is being experienced through the prism of international hostilities because my country is at war with several powerful nations.  In truth, I don’t know why this war is being fought.  I believe that it has something to do with the leader of my country and its top military men flexing their muscles.  One thing is for sure, it has nothing to do with me.  I think war is senseless and wasteful.  So many people have died, and women and children are dying who were not part of the country’s decision to go to war.  I have two older sisters who I have not seen for some time because they have been living in a colony far away.  One of them was sent there because she became pregnant at sixteen and was unmarried.  The baby was sent to us; my nephew entered our family as my “brother.”  I have two brothers now.  My real brother comes home wounded from the war.  His arm and spirit broken, he wanders the family land like a ghost, but he always wears his army cap, perhaps as a reminder of his belief in his country and what he could have saved if it ever truly existed in the way that so many young men imagined it did.  My mother tells me that my sisters have been forced to flee back to our country with literally the clothes on their backs.  They had been wealthy and proud; now they were bereft and on the run.  In the provinces where my family lives, my sister close in age to me and my family are safe.  My brother, wearing his army cap even when he is in his pajamas, says he believes in our country’s cause.  I ask him what this cause is and he says, “Power.”  Befuddled by the urgency and determination with which he states this response, I wonder why power is so important to him and exactly what it means to him, but I know it is not my place to ask.  Power to me means being able to live without bombing alerts, and bombings and shrapnel; and being able to climb trees and have pet cats with stripes or spots.  I do not have power.  My only power is my mother and her love for me, and my dog, a Shiba named Taki.

Under my father’s guidance, we build an underground cavern that will serve as a bomb shelter.  He says we must do whatever we can to protect ourselves from the fire and shrapnel from enemy bombs and gunfire.  I ask him why the enemy would want to kill my mother, sister, and me; and he says that, in war, it doesn’t matter; anybody one sees as the enemy must die.  He says this adamantly, perhaps because the army would not accept him as a soldier.  A teenage leg injury left him with a limp that disqualified him, although I believe they should have been more concerned about his quick temper and alcoholism. Every day for four days in a row, we dig into the earth with shovels creating a dark, small cavern that perhaps will allow us to escape death.  Air raids come frequently; never does a week go by when the siren doesn’t wail and the warnings don’t emanate from loud speakers for citizens to rush to their shelters.

I think every day will be my last.  I am surprised when I wake up each morning.  Looking up at a blue sky, I wonder if bullets will rain down from that same blue sky at any moment.  At thirteen, my thoughts are not filled with boys, clothing, magazines, and the unkindness of classmates, but life and death.

photo setsuko in middle school in japan 1942


The worst air raid I ever experienced comes one afternoon when I am walking between the two cities in which my family lives.  A river runs through the countryside near my school. The picture above is from my middle school years; a few years later, most of these girls would be dead from enemy bombings. When the bombs begin to rain fire and the enemy aircraft looms overhead like vultures, I see my schoolmates running, their dark uniforms ablaze with burning cotton and flesh, their screams and cries a chorus of pain that make me feel as if my head might explode. Unbearably hot from the bombs’ impact, they leap into the river.  The river, however, also has been hit by bombs and is scorching.  As the girls leap into its water that they think will soothe their burns, instead they are greeted by water so scalding that the steam boils off their flesh and silences their cries forever. Horrified, I watch the steam rise from the river like the mist over a perfectly brewed cup of tea.  These were my classmates.  I had sat across the aisle from them in small rooms.  We had taken tests together, worked together during recess, laughed together, and eaten lunches together.  I am mystified and mortified at the same time.  I also realize that I am not on fire.  I realize this with relief – and guilt.

Suddenly, I am swept up in a wet blanket and hoisted on a strong back.  My savior thuds across the terrain taking me to safety.  It is my father; it is the first time we have ever touched.  I ride on his back smothered by the wet blanket as he makes his way back to our family’s shelter.  It is cold and dark inside of it. Worms slither in the earthen walls.  The women and children look sad; the injured soldiers sent home in a disgrace manufactured by their masculinity, the men who didn’t qualify for military service, and the men too old to qualify look resigned.  I try to imagine a time before war and I wonder if I will ever know a time after war.  Every time I hear an air raid alarm, tension fills my muscles and I clench my teeth.  This is no different.  Purposefully, I try to unclench my teeth and relax my muscles, but everything is stuck.  I wonder if this will be my last thought.

 It, however, is not.  I go back to school and learn and wonder.  My older sisters settle on the mainland of our country.  My brother, at only nineteen years of age, steps on a rusty nail and dies.  There are only potatoes and wild grasses left to eat; the protein sources are entirely gone.  We roast locusts on sticks and eat them as if they are chicken morsels.  They are crunchy and, in fact, do taste like chicken thigh meat that has been overcooked. As I try to pull Taki from the arms of soldiers, he is taken away to be cooked for military meat.  I have no power.

Across the small inland sea, a new kind of bomb is dropped on two different cities and there is a crippling sense among my family members that our way of life is no more.  Truth is, it hasn’t been the same since the war started, so what we actually are facing is that life will never go back to being what it used to be.  The leader of our land makes a radio address – the first ever in my country of a man of his rank.  The sound of his voice tells us that the war is over, that we have surrendered.  It also tells us that he is not divine and, for me, it makes me question the core beliefs of my society.  If we believed first and foremost in the leader’s divinity and we know for certain now that he is not divine, what then?  I feel at an impasse, but then the walls start to close in even more.  My nephew-brother is playing with old wood and accidentally injures my mother.  The injury becomes infected and she dies.  I hold her in my arms, hoping against hope that she will not die that, in fact, she will live forever, be with me forever, but that cannot be.  She dies. In that moment, I understand that life is finite, that the journey of life is short and those left behind to carry on must simply learn to endure.  I am not certain that I can rise to that task.  I feel as if I cannot stand up.  I feel as if I cannot stop crying.  I feel incredibly sad and empty.  She has been my best friend and perhaps the only person who loved me unconditionally.  Now she is gone.  The loss of my brother, mother, and the war are all my father can stand.  He takes his own life; I find his body.  I wonder if all this loss is worse than death.


Whenever the anniversary of the end of World War II and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occur, I reflect upon what it must have been like for my mother as an adolescent to face the indignities of war, monumental societal change, and overwhelming personal loss.  Moreover, she added to this weighty profusion an international marriage to a man who was a citizen of the enemy nation, the United States; immigration to that country, and becoming mother to children who are both Japanese and American, and who will always see the world from both of those perspectives.  When we came to this country, we came as Japanese immigrants; my mother was not welcomed by Japanese American society.  She pointed out the difference between being Japanese and being Japanese American.  Japanese had been the U.S. enemy while Japanese Americans were U.S. citizens.  The latter had been mistreated by their own country when the U.S. forced them into incarceration camps during WWII; the former had been on the Axis Power side of the war and were despised in the U.S. as symbols of the defeated enemy.  Being of both nations only fortified me. My Japanese culture meant not having to eliminate any Japanese cultural artifacts, speaking Japanese publicly without apology, cooking and eating Japanese foods without apology, and being proud of being Japanese.  In post-WWII U.S., such behaviors were not only unacceptable, but frowned upon by most U.S. Americans (perhaps that has not changed that much today).  As a child in Kansas, I was proud to be a mixed race Japanese.  The distinctions of my genuine multiculturalism only grow clearer and more treasured as I get older.

photo setsuko as teen and setsuko 2016 2016-06-16 at 4.51.54 PM


The girl from Matsuyama who came to Kobe for one week to care for a sick relative had her life changed because of that favor.  There are so few days in a life.  That she shares hers with me is a blessing that I will count until I rest my pen, which will probably be when I absolutely must.  Recently, I viewed the film, In This Corner of the World, directed by Sunao Katabuchi.  As when I watch the film Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata, I reflect upon what it must have been like for a child to live in a country ravaged by war.  In particular, I think about what it must have been like for my mother and the impact that it must have had on how she has journeyed through life.  The post-traumatic stress from that experience coupled with the challenges of being in an international, interracial marriage must have made her journey more rigorous than I can imagine.  While I imagine it here in Matchabook, I extend that effort in my play Tea; in the musical adapted from the play, Tea, With Music, with composer Nathan Wang, lyrics and book by me; and now in a novel, also called Tea, which is adapted from the play and will emerge this year.  So often with regard to wars, we as a society engage in discourse about the PTSD of former active-duty servicepersons, something that I know from my father, who was a veteran of two wars, is a painful, very real syndrome (it was not considered so when he was suffering).  There, however, is another dimension to PTSD: the women and children of war who struggle to keep “home” (and hope) alive while the wars of power are waged.  In my new musical project Aloha ‘Oe, also with Nathan Wang, I quote the last reigning monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani; her remarks make sense here as well: “Shakespeare has said it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”  My mother has a giant’s strength, but wields it like a chrysanthemum.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 10.52.52 PM


Photography Credits:
1 – Middle School Photo of the Class of Setsuko Okazaki Takechi, 1942.  Property of Setsuko Okazaki Takechi, H. Rika Houston, and Velina Hasu Houston.
2 – Photographs of Setsuko Okazaki Takechi at age fifteen, property of Setsuko Okazaki Takechi, H. Rika Houston, and Velina Hasu Houston; and at age eighty-seven property of Velina Hasu Houston.
3 – Japanese Chrysanthemum.  Web.  Retrieved on August 12, 2017 @

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