My youngest daughter and I are holding a brush together, because she wants me to help her write the symbol for “ko.” Next to our sheet of paper, there is a small block of ink and a pool of water. “Nihongo de? Eigo de?” the calligraphy teacher is asking me. Which language are we going to use for this lesson, Japanese or English?
“Eigo,” I tell the teacher, somewhat apologetically. I’ve only taken Japanese classes sporadically over the years. Listening to Japanese being spoken is both comforting and frustrating: I can only catch every fifth word or so. But I do remember how to write a little bit of kanji—“ko” is the last part of my first name, and it’s in my daughters’ middle names as well. My youngest daughter and I watch the teacher write the symbol, and then we write it together: a short horizontal line, from left to right; a longer vertical line with a little zigzag in the middle; a “jump up,” as the teacher encourages us, taking the brush off the paper briefly, back to the middle of the vertical line, making a very short horizontal line from left to right. I’m happy that I’ve still got kinesthetic memory of writing kanji: I know that it matters which part of the symbol we draw first, that it matters when we draw from left to right, and from top to bottom.
“Ko” is just the right symbol to be writing this morning: we’re celebrating Kodomo no hi, or Children’s Day, at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Seattle.
“Welcome! Please take a map for the scavenger hunt!” We’re greeted at the front door by a smiling woman. We take a look at the schedule of performances, the list of activities. The JCCNCC takes place mostly in the old Japanese language school building, so there are a few larger classrooms, but a lot of smaller classrooms. The hardwood floors are creaking a bit, although the sound’s comforting to me. There’s history here.
I was a little surprised that there wasn’t any food advertised for the event (what kind of Nikkei festival doesn’t have food?), so I’m pleasantly surprised to see some Umai-Do boxes of mochi and manju for sale, along with other pastries from Setsuko Pastry in the hall.
The girls take their time coloring in the maneki neko hats first. Then we see other kids walking around with origami samurai helmets, made out of Japanese newspaper. We make our way into that room, where there are people available to help the girls fold the helmets. Both girls are excited to see their first full display of Girls’ Day dolls in person, though, and they spend a lot of time looking at the Emperor, the Empress, and their court. In the same room there’s a place for boys and girls to try on kendo armor, although my girls aren’t especially interested.
We move upstairs, where the girls decorate their own uchiwa (courtesy of Hyogo, Japanese sister state of Washington State). Students and teachers from the current Japanese language school are also there, to help the kids write hiragana letters. Students from the school write my daughters’ middle names on name tags. They are selling karepan, which smells (and, we discover later, tastes) delicious.
As we leave the room, I prompt the girls: “What do you say?” “Arigato!,” says my oldest daughter promptly. The Japanese teacher nods approvingly. “Joozu desu, ne.”
Across the hall, there are sumo wrestler paper dolls, and more volunteers to help the girls decorate the dolls and even play a game with them. There’s also a display of LaQ blocks to play with, which are like miniature and slightly more flexible Legos. Under our feet, the taiko drums have begun to rumble. We try to make our way downstairs to see the performance, but there’s not much room left, much less standing room for the girls to see. We move next door to Hosekibako, the center’s resale shop for Japanese goods, which reminds me of my aunties’ living rooms.
My oldest daughter’s brought my childhood summer yukata with her, one that my relatives in Japan had made just for me. Although I explained to her that it’s a summer garment and she might be one of the few kids dressed up, she doesn’t care. She’s excited. I help her put it on. She’s also brought her own basket of Japanese crafts. On the hour-long drive from Tacoma, she made a bunch of origami cups and frogs, to distribute to the festival volunteers. I’m grateful that culture for her is not just a one-way street, that she’s not just a receptor or student; she’s also an active participant.
At the end of Kodomo no hi I am marveling at how many people are here to celebrate, at how many activities the Center has planned for the kids. I count on the event brochure: there are twenty partner organizations involved, including local businesses, community groups, performing arts groups. I am thinking about collective effort, too—about all these people who have volunteered their time to help all of these children learn about Japanese culture, for free.
I am thinking about multicultural parenting: about the concerted effort that it takes for my daughters to learn about Japanese culture and customs, so far from Japan, two states away from my Japanese American family in California. I am thinking about the allies who support and encourage my family’s efforts to know about Japanese culture. There’s my husband Josh and my dear sister-friend Bryn, neither of whom are Japanese or Japanese American. The three of us have participated in Girls’ Day and Children’s Day festivals together; my husband’s been to Obon summer festivals for years with me.
I am thinking about my daughter’s teachers and the ways they’ve supported my daughters. A few years ago, I bought a couple of small carp flags (koi no bori) for my girls at Daiso. The flags got a little lost among all the other toys, and one even made its way down to the basement. But then my youngest daughter recognized the big carp flag that kids could decorate at the festival—“that’s the same one I have in my room!” I brought out her carp flags on May 5th, the official Monday of Children’s Day. She asked if she could bring it to school. Then my oldest daughter remembered hers, and ran to get them from her room. Both of them walked to school carrying their carp flags and wishing their friends, “Happy Children’s Day!” My oldest daughter had some leftover mochi in her lunch. When the girls came home from school that day, they were excited that each of their teachers had asked them to come up to the front of the room and talk about what the carp flags meant. I know that this is a privilege that my dad and his siblings never had growing up in elementary school before (or after) World War II.
“Do you remember what the flag means?” I ask the kindergartener. She nods. “It’s about being strong.” “That’s right,” I tell her. I am remembering our large carp flag, the one that flew silently over the dining room in my childhood house. “The fish have to swim upstream, which means that they become even stronger.”