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Voices of Chicago


You never know your fate or your path in life, yet somehow I feel we cannot avoid reflecting upon our own lives and making some decisions that are influenced by our ancestors’ bitter memories in their lives, trying not to repeat their mistakes, or else following their will, even unconsciously.

Ayako and Yuria (photo by David Grist)

My grandmother, Asano, was born in California in 1914. According to my mother, Masumi, it was in Gurendora (グレンドラ), presumably Glendale, near Los Angeles. Her parents were Yoshinosuke and Yoshie Saitoh. My great grandma, Yoshie, came to America to marry Yoshinosuke, traveling two months by ship. When she met Yoshinosuke at the port, she felt, “Oh, this person is totally different from his picture!” He had rented a suit for the picture. He looked quite unlike the very handsome and kind journalist she met on the ship and had grown fond of, who had just headed off to Chicago. My grandma’s name, Asano, which means “morning field,” was given to her because the sun was just rising and the light was starting to shine on the strawberry field when she was born. When I was small, I used to wonder about her name, “Where can you see the horizon?” I had never seen the horizon in Japan. I understood after I visited America.

When I was small and whenever I visited grandma’s place in Mejiro, Tokyo, I used to see Butterfingers and Snickers candy bars in her refrigerator. She loved ice cream and apple pies as well. I used to wonder why such foreign sweets were kept in her house all the time. When I was ten, I started to stay at her place overnight every Saturday to take ballet lessons in Tokyo, coming from where I lived in Yokohama. Then, she and I started to spend a quite a lot of time together. The sleepover stay became my once-a-week excursion and free time away from my parents. We watched our favorite TV programs together. We drank cold soda (Mitsuya cider) in big glass beer mugs (she got me my own smaller beer mug). She loved popcorn. She cooked me very delicious dinners, and I again used to wonder why she was very good at cooking Western food.

She came back to Japan when she was twelve years old with her parents and four siblings. Her father, Yoshinosuke, was a farmer in California, started by working in lemon fields and eventually owned his own strawberry farm. Asano had learned piano with her sister. Her father used to give them a ride in his truck, carrying his gun to protect them. When they came back to Japan, they brought an upright piano from America. It had a carving of a lion on it. Right after coming back to Japan, her father started his trading business. However, he passed away a month later because of acute lung tuberculosis which he got while he was waiting for his trader to arrive, delayed by a typhoon. When her father passed away, during the wake, Asano was playing Gekkoh (Moonlight), I am not sure by Beethoven or Debussy, reflecting upon the moon she saw in California on the way to her piano lessons. Since playing music or dancing is considered to be indiscreet while mourning in Japan, her relatives thought she was imprudent and decided to sell her piano.

In the back of grandma Asano’s home, in a dark room among piles of things, there was a black upright piano, which my aunt used to play when she was small. Whenever I visited grandma’s home with my sisters, we played rambling songs on the piano. We did not think much why Asano had kept the piano and I had forgotten about the piano by the time I started to stay overnight on Saturdays. Nobody played the piano it seemed, yet it was still sitting there next to her frequenty-used sewing machine.

Ayako Kato (photo by Jason Roebke)

Over the nine years of the regular weekly visits, plus everyday stayovers during summer time, Grandma Asano was so supportive with loving care to have me over at her place. When I came back later than usual, she would wait for me outside, worrying about me, especially on very cold winter nights. Before I left her place on Sunday morning, she used to zip up the front of my jacket, which looked so uncool to me, to make sure I was warm. I unzipped immediately after I got on the bus. When I entered the ballet competition and became one of the junior finalists, she was so excited and told her neighbors that I received a gold medal, which is, in a way true, since all sixteen finalists received gold-colored medals. I felt embarrassed because it sounded that I won the first prize when I did not.

In the next year, I could not be a finalist and my ballet practice started to lose momentum. Two years later, when I was nineteen and a freshman in college, majoring in International Studies, I started to wonder what I can contribute in a society where a lot of issues were waiting to be solved. In addition, I was also in doubt about my own talent, hoping to be financially independent in the future, and dreaming of happy marriage. I felt it was selfish to continue ballet just for my own sake. I decided to leave ballet. It was not easy for me to do, yet I thought the decision would make me mentally healthier, and give me chances to pursue a more useful occupation. Grandma Asano was of course not happy about the decision because not only was I quitting ballet after fifteen years, but it also meant that the beer mug parties were over.

Three years before I stopped ballet, Asano found out that she had cancer. Luckily, her symptoms processed slowly, so she could do a lot of traveling, which was her dream. One of her dreams was a trip to California. She was planning to visit her hometown in Glendale. At the last minute, however, she was afraid to see the change and not be able to recognize the place where she used to live, so she decided not to go. Instead, she bought a lot of chocolate-covered caramel candies, which is a very popular California treat.

During the last days of her life, I used to visit her often. By that time, I was a senior in college and had been starting to learn modern dance as a hobby. I started it because my body would not accept not dancing. I was used to six days a week training and I did not want to go back to ballet. At that time, I had also made a decision to get married with a person who entered a PhD program in economics in the United States. One day, while I was giving Asano a massage, she suddenly started to lecture me. “You tend to go back and forth, back and forth (Omae ha detari, haittari, detari, haittari).” I wondered what she was talking about. My hand rubbing her back slowed down. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Don’t quit, that’s what I mean,” she said. When I was visiting another time, she started to share how much she wanted to be a professional weaver, apprenticing in some long-established craft shop either in Kanazawa or Kyoto. I was wondering why then she did not do so. She also shared how much she wanted to continue piano and how much she had the potential to be a pianist, if her father had not passed away. I also wondered why she did not learn piano more intensely at some point in her life if she loved piano that much. Even after her death, these conversations I had with her remained in my mind.

Later, I heard from my mom that Asano received a marriage proposal from her boyfriend who immigrated to America. However, at that time, although she loved him, Asano could not commit herself to come to the U.S. and cried hard in her room alone after her boyfriend’s proposal. I understood that is the reason why she was so excited about my marriage and told me to work and support my husband by doing whatever I can through any hard or low-income job.

Ayako Kato (photo by David Grist)

When I got married, I left dance again because I wanted to dedicate myself to being a good wife. I knew that if I stayed in dance, I would make it my first priority. Eventually, I found out that I cannot stop dancing and I cannot just live for others. I then committed to dance again. Whenever I was losing the courage to do it intensely, for example when I was planning to enter an MFA program, one of the greatest influences that stopped me from quitting again was Asano’s memory, her words reflecting upon her life and her regrets about not pursuing what she wanted to do.

Now I am married for the second time and had my first baby last year. Whenever I think of the reason why I ended up living in Chicago in America and dancing, I wonder, “Am I here in part because of my grandma’s or even my great grandma’s will or dream?” Maybe so and maybe not. Yet, the truth is I never forgot massaging my grandma’s back and hearing her unspoken words, “Do what you want, so that you don’t regret later.”

* This article was originally published in Voices of Chicago, online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society.

© 2010 Ayako Kato

california chicago dance


The articles in this series were originally published in Voices of Chicago, the online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, which has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

Voices of Chicago is a collection of first-person narratives about the experiences of people of Japanese descent living in Chicago. The community is composed of three waves of immigration, and their descendants: The first, about 300 people, came to Chicago around the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1899. The second, and largest, group is descended from 30,000 who came to Chicago directly from the internment camps after World War II. Called the “ReSettlers,” they created a community built around social service organizations, Buddhist and Christian churches and small businesses. The third, more recent, group are Japanese nationals who came to Chicago, beginning in the 1980s, as artists and students and remained. A fourth, non-immigrant, group are Japanese business executives and their families who live in Chicago for extended periods, sometimes permanently.

Chicago has always been a place where people can re-create themselves, and where diverse ethnic communities live and work together. Voices of Chicago tells the stories of members of each of these four groups, and how they fit into the mosaic of a great city.

Visit the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society website >>