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Wednesday, May 18, 2011


When I was growing up, there was a three-acre field of long grass behind our yard. In that meadow we found snakes and pheasant, and deer could sometimes be seen cavorting in early morning or near dusk. Behind the field was a dirt road that you had to climb over a wooden fence to access. Across the road was a cemetery, a small and very old cemetery with the many of the large headstones laid flat across the ground. General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, hero of the Revolutionary War, was buried there. When I wanted to be alone, I would walk up to that cemetery and sit near "Mad Anthony" Wayne and think.

I've always liked going to cemeteries, something many people find creepy. Japanese people seem to find my penchant especially disturbing. Land next to a cemetery in Japan often has a lower market value than the otherwise comparable plots in the same neighborhood. Once when we were house shopping, a real estate agent apologized to us for showing us a home near a cemetery, which caused my husband to laugh and assure the salesman that such a feature only made the place more attractive to me.

Cemeteries in Japan are often in remarkably pretty locations, such as mountainsides. Given my husband's liking for living in woody mountain areas, we have lived near one cemetery or another most of the years we've been in Japan, and now is no exception. There is a cemetery only two-minutes walk up the road from our house, and I still find myself  wandering around headstones when I want to be alone. The gatekeepers no longer gawk at the foreign woman coming to roam around, but nod at me companionably.

Recently I dragged my husband up to the cemetery on a walk (and that the gatekeeper did gawk at). I wanted to show him two of the graves in this sprawling graveyard that I like to visit. Going row by row, this cemetery takes hours to get through, a leafy uphill climb all the way, but since I knew right where we were going, it took only ten minutes. We were on our way to visit the grave of "Walter H. Witting / London 1880 / Kobe 1967 / great spirits never / with their bodies die".

The first time I stumbled across Walter H. Witting's grave I actually was startled enough to cry aloud audibly. Kobe was one of the first Japanese cities opened to the west and has a famous section of the city full of old foreign houses from that time (this section being in my own neighborhood), so it shouldn't have surprised me to find a foreign grave in the local cemetery. But I was surprised, since all the times I had wandered around up there, I had not ever come across any English before. But there it was, on a western-style tombstone right in the middle of the Japanese family markers.

I'm not sure why I was so pleased to find Walter H. Witting's final resting place. But I was, and continue to be. Unaccountably I feel less alone knowing that Walter H. Witting is right up the road from me where I can go visit when I want to. And it's comforting to imagine that before I ever knew of Japan or the concept of nations, he had lived out his old age and even died here in Kobe (presumably), two notions which terrify me, but less so now that I can go and visit Walter H. Witting (though oddly death itself does not bother me, just dying here).

I've also found a stone near the top of the cemetery that isn't well cared for, is difficult to read, dirty, and obviously not visited by anyone but me. In English it reads "in memory of Katie Kirby". Underneath that there is a Buddhist name in Japanese. My guess (one my husband shares, now that he has been dragged up there to have a look) is that Katie Kirby was a Buddhist nun, probably some long time ago. I don't know who it is that memorialized Katie Kirby but does not see to the upkeep of her memorial, perhaps someone in her home country wherever that is, but at least I can be sure she isn't forgotten now that I've found her stone.

I'm having today one of those days during which I feel bereft about living in Japan. These days don't come to me all that often, but recently I have had a spate of them. Days of being tired of being treated like a moron by mothers at the PTA or the gas meter guy because I don't know a word or two used in a ten-minute conversation, even when I've understood the gist (I mean, really, is it so awful I don't know the words for certain kinds of government paperwork or for kinds of gauges?). Days of being tired of people deciding they cannot understand me even before I have begun to speak, days when my husband repeats word-for-word what I have just said and suddenly people can understand (causing me to rant, "What did I say wrong?" and my ever mild-mannered husband replies, "Nothing. You made perfect sense." and it doesn't make me feel any better to have that confirmed.) Days when I cannot see what kind of personal or professional growth there is for me here.

Those are days I go and visit Walter H. Witting and Katie Kirby. To be reminded that other foreigners have made lives and gotten comfortable enough here to even be buried here. And it could happen for me. Maybe.


Leslie Jam said...

What a beautifully written piece.

No surprise to me about cemeteries. I enjoy them too-such stories one can concoct about those who have passed.

And on behalf of your native land (in my mind you are the 'native daughter' just like Richard Wright's 'Native Son'), we miss you too!

Leslie Jam said...

Okay I just posted a witty comment and it disappeared. :( I think.....

Anyway I too like cemeteries, I love to walk in them and to try to 'slueth' out the stories of long ago people who have passed.

And on behalf of your native country, we miss you our native daughter! Love ya missy!

Leslie Jam said...

Oh yeah....reading helps! Sorry for the sort of duplicate messages.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hey, Les, nobody can say you are not persistent! Thanks for your many replies! Love to hear from you, and miss you too!

Mari said...

Jessica, I'm very moved by your post. I, too, love cemeteries; they're calm, peaceful, often beautifully landscaped and I enjoy walking among the dead. As a kind of mirror to your experience: up the street from my Bay Area home there is a cemetery with an entire section devoted to Japanese Americans who once settled in this area and are now buried there. When we first moved to this neighborhood nearly two years ago and came across the headstones with their engraved family names in Romaji and Kanji, I felt comforted, as if they were a sign we'd moved to the right place.

I also understand your bereft feelings. For all its "benri-ness," natural and cultural beauty, and blessed civility, Japan can be achingly lonely for gaijin. I hope this spate passes quickly. In some ways I envy you living in Japan, but I also know from first-hand experience how challenging it can be. There's always a trade-off, isn't there?

I would like to visit your neighborhood in Kobe. My godparents (who, I suspect, are now long dead) lived there and I vaguely remember walking around there when I was very young. Can you tell me the name of the neighborhood? Does it begin with "N" (in English, of course)?

Also, are you planning to attend the Japan Writers Conference in the fall? I have some vague notions of attending. But they are vague.

My best...

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Mari, thanks for reminding me that when I live in the States, I prowl around looking for Japanese things. It's good to remember that, that it's not just looking for western things here to feel comfortable, but it works the other way too! That gives me perspective in my current funk; thank you.

I think you might be remembering the huge and beautiful cemetery in Nada maybe? We lived there when I was pregnant with my first son, and I used to hike up the mountain to the cemetery a few times a week; my husband wondered how good it was for our baby in utero to be visiting graveyards so often! Is that where your godparents lived, by chance?

We now live in a different place in Kobe (having lived in Florida between that previous neighborhood and this one). We live not far from the Ijinkan now.

I am going to the Japan Writers Conference this year, as it is in Kobe. It would be very exciting if you could make it. (I've been twice when it was in Tokyo.) I'll probably only be able to attend one day due to family obligations, but I'm really looking forward to it. If you make it, we'll have to get together for sure! I'd love to show you around the few places i know in Kobe.

Thank you for your kindness, as always!

Mari said...

Whether or not I make it to the conference, I'd like to visit Kobe in the fall. Stay tuned.

Sadly, as I was a baby in Kobe, my memories are mostly cellular, but I know we lived in an "old" part of Kobe (which may have been destroyed in the earthquake) and that my godparents lived in a large Western-style home on a hill in the "European" neighborhood, the name of which I've since forgotten... it's been many, many years since I last saw them.

I appreciate our Japan/California connection across the miles. Take care and I hope to see you within a few months!


Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Mari, There are a couple of "European" neighborhoods here, all which did pretty well during the earthquake. One is in Injikan (near my neighborhood) and one is in James Yama.

Anyway, I do hope you make it to Kobe soon. I'd love to show you around if you do.