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Ten Days of Cleanup

Chapter Six—Mikasa Man

My ten-year-old daughter, Sycamore, had officially become my wing woman. Or should I say wing girl. She was definitely my top—and well, only—assistant in terms of my cleaning business, Souji RS.

Every day after her Zoom classes she was ready to go to my client’s storage unit in Pasadena to see what “treasures” we could unwrap and dispose of. I had only six more days to complete my task and the container was still about halfway full.

The next set of packages were comprised of three boxes wrapped in baby blue. Sycamore tore into them. I don’t know what she was expecting, but she was disappointed as she broke open the top flaps. “They are just dishes,” she said.

Dishes, more so than the car grille, historic photographs, and perfume, caught my attention. I used dishes everyday, and in fact, one of my family’s distant relatives had been a ceramics fanatic. Whenever my family would go and visit him in Kyushu on our way to enjoy hot springs, he would take us to various kilns that specialized in different kinds of china.

Curious, I bent over the boxes and pulled out a dish. It was white with a geometric border of baby blue and avocado green. In each of the blue triangles was a line drawing of a flower with a long stem. It was simple, modern yet old at the same time. I flipped over the plate. It was marked with the printing: Mikasa Fine China, Narumi, Japan.

“Is it special?” Sycamore asked, grabbing for her iPad. At a tender age, she had become a master at looking up the value of old items.

“You know Mikasa. We’ve been to a bunch of Mikasa Outlets.” Then I remembered those were the days when I traveled with my host family when I was a teenager. That had been at least fifteen years ago, years before Sycamore was born.

“I think the girl across the way wears a Mikasa T-shirt. But I think it’s from an anime that she watches.”

“I don’t think that it’s the same Mikasa.” I opened up another light blue wrapped box. It had platters, salt and pepper shakers, and bowls while the third contained coffee cups and saucers.

“Wow, it looks like a whole set.”

I was quickly able to identify the china on my phone: it was Mikasa Cera Stone Blue Point. And on eBay, a single vintage plate of the series which was apparently released in the 1960s was worth $50.

My mouth fell open. I was masked so Sycamore couldn’t absorb my full expression, but she sensed that I was astonished. Pulling my phone from me, she stared at the eBay listing and then began counting the individual pieces. “This must be worth maybe over three thousand dollars.”

You get an A in math, I thought. But then I attempted to contain her enthusiasm. “It’s only worth that much—”

“If someone is willing to pay for it.” My wing girl had caught on well.

Since I wasn’t about to post photos of each individual set on eBay, we had to find a rabid collector who was willing to buy the whole set and fast.

Meanwhile, Sycamore’s adept fingers were scrolling through various digital pages on the screen. Dealing with computer screens seemed second nature to children even as young as two or three. “Maybe this writer can help you. Her bio says that she lives in Pasadena,” she said.

Sycamore had located a book, An American Son: The Story of George Aratani, Founder of Mikasa and Kenwood. George, I thought. That’s not a Japanese name. I had always thought that Mikasa was a Japanese company.

This book was written by a local woman named Naomi Hirahara.

“There’s her e-mail address.” Sycamore pointed to a page on Naomi’s website.

I felt self-conscious contacting a writer out of the blue. But if she had an e-mail address for all to see, maybe she was used to unsolicited messages from strangers.

“Go on,” Sycamore urged. “We don’t have any time to waste.”

It was close to five and my stomach was grumbling. “Maybe I’ll e-mail her after dinner.”

“Now.”

I took out my phone and quickly devised a message. I hoped that my English was not too awkward. I was writing an author after all. I left my cell phone number in case she was willing to call me back.

We were waiting for some cheeseburgers at a local drive-through when my phone dinged with a text.

“She wrote back to you!”

“Already?” I was shocked. Earlier, Clement from the Japanese American museum said during the pandemic, people were finding themselves with a lot of time on their hands. Maybe that was the case with this writer.

“She says that she’s willing to talk to you on the phone tonight.”

* * * * *

While I drove us home, I did something that I told Sycamore to never do. I started to eat in the car. I pressed hot French fries in my mouth and then took a large bite of the cheeseburger. Sycamore was delighted to do the same.

When I was almost done with my meal, I called Naomi. She immediately answered and we began talking about the china set right away.

“Mikasa Cera Stone Blue Point, huh? That’s a pretty one,” she said. In my e-mail to her, I had attached a photo of one of the dishes.

“Are you interested in buying the whole set?”

“Me, oh, no. I’m trying to get rid of stuff, not acquire more.”

Of course, it would not be so easy to find a buyer. I had been too optimistic.

“What’s the stamp on the bottom of the plate?” she asked.

I grabbed a plate. “It says Narumi, Japan.”

“Great. That means it’s one of the early ones. Have you heard of George Aratani?”

“Not until now.”

“The George and Sakaye Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo?”

Yes, I had actually gone to that theatre several times with Stewart for avant garde Japanese performances.

“Yes, I have been.”

“That’s him. He was a great philanthropist.”

“I had no idea.” I felt foolish. Here I had sat in a theatre named after someone I knew nothing about.

“Anyway, he was a Nisei—you know what Nisei means, right? Second-generation.”

Naomi explained how George Aratani had been an early entrepreneur to adopt foreign manufacturers to create merchandise for American consumers. He had studied at a Japanese university in Tokyo and used his pre-World War II connections to launch a postwar business.

I was so impressed.

“I’m aware of some collectors but most of them are out-of-state. It might be a while before they can get back to you, especially during the pandemic.”

I thanked Naomi and said that I would get back to her.

I sat at the living room table strewn with fast food paper wrappers. Our cottage was so small that I could look straight into our kitchen, the open cabinets revealing our plates and cups from Ikea, purchased about five years ago.

“So what are we going to do now?” Sycamore asked.

Together we removed our old plates and cups, took pictures of them and stuck them in a box. I had recently joined my local Nextdoor and Buy Nothing Facebook groups and posted the china, only to receive some interest within an hour. I had been reluctant to use craiglist or other web-based bulletin boards in the past, but it seemed that during the pandemic neighbors wanted to reach out and connect.

After leaving the box on our doorstep for a Buy Nothing neighbor who needed a set of dishes, I returned to the storage unit and moved the three boxes into my truck. Soon our cabinets were bursting with vintage Mikasa. Who knew when we would use the large platter? Or have people over for dinner and coffee?

For once I didn’t care that it didn’t make logical sense and that I was cluttering my space—the opposite of my business motto. At times, I learned, it’s okay to be overflowing with material gifts, even ones that you give yourself.

Chapter Seven >>

(Note: To learn more about George Aratani, refer to the JANM-produced biography, An American Son: The Story of George Aratani, the Founder of Mikasa and Kenwood.)

 

© 2021 Naomi Hirahara

fiction Mikasa noami hirahara

Sobre esta serie

Hiroko Houki, the proprietor of the cleaning business, Souji RS, reluctantly agrees to take on a mysterious client who wants her to clear out his storage unit. However, it’s the middle of the pandemic, and Hiroko’s usual recipients of used items—thrift stores—are closed. It turns out some of the items have historic value and Hiroko attempts to return them to various previous owners or their descendants, sometimes with disastrous results. 

Ten Days of Cleanup is a 12-chapter serial story published exclusively on Discover Nikkei. A new chapter will be release on the 4th of each month.

Read Chapter One