Bailey Irene Midori Hoy, My Family’s Haunted Left Stairway (Ethics, Intersections, Reflections Symposium) [2021 C4eJ 34]

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Bailey Irene Midori Hoy*


Using my father’s throwaway comment on cursed familial artefacts, I conduct an auto-ethnography on my family through theories of memorial hauntings, in association with Japanese ghost lore and curses. I examine the objects within my familial collection, establishing their historical and emotional context. Using hauntings and the supernatural as a way of analyzing historically unrecorded phenomena, particularly within Canadian trauma sites, I analyze the nature of these objects as “cursed” or “haunted.” These “hauntings” are placed in greater context through an analysis of Japanese traditions of curses and horror, in addition to the Japanese concept of “shikata/sho ga nai” and the general silence which permeates the memories of Japanese-Canadians in the wake of the Japanese Internment. Finally, in the conclusion of my auto-ethnography, I examine the sense of the uncanny within my visits to my ancestral homeland of Hiroshima, and the methods in which the ghosts which haunt my family and community at large might be exorcised.

* * *

It was a decidedly normal morning the day my father planted the kernel of what would serve as the genesis of this paper. While whipping a bowl of scrambled eggs he said, not looking up, “Y’know, I’ve been thinking…that sword, I bet it’s cursed.”[1] The sword, keeper of the supposed ‘curse’, is a samurai sword handed down through my family for at least seven generations, and likely more.[2] Missing for decades, the sword resurfaced in the family relatively recently and is now part of a trove of objects that reside in the basement of my dad’s cousin, the male heir to the Sasaki name. The sword is the focal point of the collection which contains diaries, a medal from the Japanese Emperor, RCMP intelligence records, faded family photographs, and historical scrolls. It made me think. Why, when these objects are displayed, do we approach them with a sort of reverent fear, and feel strangely unsettled? I argue that my father is right — the objects are indeed ‘cursed’, or haunted, by the memories of events that our family and community have not fully dealt with.

Image 1: Midori Kobuke Sasaki and her siblings in Hiroshima, prewar. Sasaki Family Collection.

I examined familial artifacts, using material culture and anthropological theories of objects as sights of post-traumatic memorial hauntings. These theories were placed within the greater concept of Japanese mythology and lore pertaining to ghosts and hauntings. In the acceptance of objects as haunted by memories of events that, to the Japanese community and my family, are not fully ‘over-and-done-with,’ I hope to examine the silence largely left in the Japanese Canadian community, and the healing process which, for my family at least, may be able to break the curse.

In the formation of my argument, I will be heavily relying on Tim Edensor’s theory of places and objects as “sites of memory” that are containers of historical associations and recollections of events and people.[3] Often lacking details and explanations and relying more on immaterial recollections and stories, these ghosts act as an alternative to traditional, nationalist histories.[4] In order to examine the Sasaki familial objects, they must be approached not simply as pieces of Canadian history, but rather as an intersection of Japanese and Canadian memories.

In order to better understand the nature of the spirits within the artifacts, the Western theory of haunting must be complemented by the nature of Japanese ghosts.[5] In order to study Japanese history, one must have an awareness of Japanese society. The supernatural has long played a key part in Japanese history, and death remains a large point of social life to the present day.[6]

The themes within the Japanese supernatural which will be highlighted in this paper are the emotional, the family/uchi, and the uncanny/monstrous. In Japanese ghost stories, it is emotions, rather than the act of death, that gives a person the power to place a curse, seek revenge, or become a monster.[7][8]

The family/uchi, refers to the intense, oftentimes inseparable connection between a person and one’s social unit. In many ghost stories, ghosts seek revenge not simply against their wrongdoer, but also their families, seeking total familial annihilation. The actions of a single person are the responsibility of others, and the group is inseparable from the individual.[9]

The final theme, the uncanny, is the creeping horror of the strangely familiar within society.[10] These uncanny forces serve to remind society of unpleasant facts, faces, and memories that it has long tried to ignore. These particular themes have dominated Japanese ghost stories, from the Heian monogatari to the Edo kaiden to modern-day creepypastas.[11] With such major holds on the Japanese psyche, it is unsurprising that these stories maintained a presence in diasporic minds as well.[12] Japanese ghosts and the supernatural are key players in the dialogue between the dead, the living, and the heirlooms that connect them.

The objects discussed come from my father’s family, who immigrated to Canada from Hiroshima in the early 20th century. During the Second World War, my family was removed from the West Coast and separated, eventually reuniting in Toronto thanks to the efforts of the eldest son, Yoshihide (Fred) Sasaki. After the passing of my issei great-grandparents, Shuichi and Midori Sasaki, the artifacts were entrusted to their oldest nisei child, Fred. Upon Fred’s death in 2014, the collection came into the care of Paul Sasaki, Fred’s only son and sansei. In this paper, I will be discussing the disruptive memories that “haunt” these three artifacts, namely a sword, a photograph of Fred, and a collection of postcards.

The most unique and mysterious object in our family is a wakizashi, or samurai short sword, allegedly passed down from our ancestors (Image 1). Although the exact date of the sword is unknown, family lore tells of it possibly dating back to the 18th century. A smaller sword than the katana, wakizashi were intended for close-combat fighting, backup, or occasionally to commit ritual suicide. The sword has an engraved bronze handguard with the auspicious symbols of pine and clouds. The handle itself is wrapped in sharkskin and contains a bronze tiger charm, which is in turn wrapped in silk. The blade and handle are connected by a habaki, which appears to be made of gold. There are three nicks in the tip of the blade, which is often covered by a wooden scabbard. The blade is still sharp. The sword has never been on display but has long been a point of pride for the Sasaki Family. My father vividly remembers the one time he saw the sword as a child, despite living in the same house where it was kept for over a decade.

Image 2: Wakizashi, Sasaki Family Collection.

This is the sword that my dad jokes is cursed. This theory is perhaps due to the fact that tragedies have historically befallen the owners of the sword over its known history; it was inherited by my great-great-grandfather, Hanshiro, after he was adopted into his wife Chiyeko Sasaki’s household in order to preserve the male Sasaki line (a common process in Japan known as mukoyōshi).[13] Of his three sons, only the youngest, Shuichi, would survive into his late twenties, and, as the only surviving son inherited the Sasaki sword. When, at the age of sixteen, Shuichi left Hiroshima to find a new life in Canada, settling in Vancouver, he not only “broke [Chiyeko’s] heart”, but also ended the Sasaki male line in Hiroshima.[14] In Vancouver, Shuichi would lose a son, Tetsuro, to an unknown illness, and would have his extremely successful lumber company dissolved by the Government of Canada after the attack on Pearl Harbour.[15] He would be detained, first in Vancouver, and then as a Prisoner of War in Petawawa, where he and other prisoners came close to being shot in a standoff with the guards.[16] Following the war, the family would continue to suffer through a myriad of illnesses, all seemingly following the trajectory of the sword’s path.

What this tells us is less about the validity of a curse, and more about the memories and mindset of the family that experiences the object. As an object that is rarely seen and relatively unstudied, the sword provokes fascination, and speculation wherever it goes. As a weapon, such thoughts often turn to the dark and violent, making this object a ‘disruptive’ object, “…keep[ing] alive the meaning of the past”.[17] The sword provokes speculation and thoughts of curses because it is haunted by the legacy of our ancestors. In continuing to wonder and think about the sights the sword has seen, if the nick in the blade is from battle, if the family unit is cursed by the ghost of a samurai fallen on the blade, we continue to wonder about our ancestors, and in doing so keep portions of their memories alive. While the curse is more of a fun, slightly morbid thought experiment, the haunting is real, pulling long dead Japanese relatives into living Canada, temporarily disrupting our current Canadianess for a suggestion that the past has continued to follow us over oceans and centuries, not to be contained in assimilation and forgetting.

Image 3: Roy Nose, Fred Sasaki, Kiichi Noguchi, Tats Sanmiya, Doug Arai. UBC, 1941. Sasaki Family Collection.

The second artifact from the Sasaki Family collection is a black and white photograph, taken on the campus of the University of British Columbia (Image 2). It features a group of young men with their books, standing in front of a car. They are fashionably dressed, with wool sweaters, wide pleated pants, and sleekly parted hair. It would be an unremarkable picture, were it not for the fact that the students are all Japanese and the picture was taken in 1941, months before Pearl Harbour, which would result in the dispersion of all members of the group and the dissolution of the Nikkei Community on the West Coast. The photo was showing one day of many, as Hiroshi Roy Nose remembered:

While attending UBC, Roy often carpooled in Tats Samiya’s car to the university, along with lifelong friends….Fred Sasaki and Kiichi Noguchi. The car would be more than just transportation for the young men as each day they would meet at the car to eat their bagged lunch in an effort to save money. In fact, Fred Sasaki claims he never recalls going into the cafeteria on campus during his time as a student at UBC.[18]

When my family uncovered this picture, the feeling was ‘eerie.’ At the time, Fred was planning to work for his father’s company upon graduation, Roy was in Finance, Kiichi was aiming to become a doctor, Tats was in his final year in commerce, and Doug was double majoring in Physics and Chemistry. All of their dreams would be abruptly put on hold at the end of 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Although their hard work eventually led them to successful lives, with Fred becoming Vice-President of Finance at Canadian Tire, Roy obtaining an MBA from Harvard, Kiichi founding several successful businesses, and Doug becoming a chemist, they had become much different men in the wake of the internment. Indeed, the structure of this photo, with the students directly facing each other, turned away from the lens seems to exclude and alienate the audience. These are the same students who were uncanny and un-Canadian Canadians to white British Columbia, who would be named as enemy aliens, framed as dangerous, and removed from the West Coast systematically, in a manner not dissimilar to the treatment of Japanese monsters in lore. This should, of course, be a simple old picture, but to the Nikkei it isn’t, and the emotions we superimpose onto it make this picture unsettling. Because of the date, we cannot forget the events in the months to come, and therefore, the photo takes on a life of its own – foreshadowing and reminding us of a counter, alternative history. Fred was the only person in the photograph still alive in 2012 when the University of British Columbia formally honoured their Nikkei students who had their studies disrupted during the internment.[19]

When I was searching through the artifacts, I found a collection of prewar postcards, interspersed with old images of my great-grandmother, Midori (Kobuke) Sasaki’s family. Many were of travels taken, such as visits to Neko (Cat) Island and Tokyo, but there were two in particular that caught my eye. One is a building in Miyajima (Image 3) and the other is a view of Hiroshima (spelt “Heroshima” on the card) (Image 4). The postcard from Miyajima is covered in cursive Japanese, illegible in the face of my poor  language skills, and the Hiroshima card was never sent, mended with tape at the corner. The back is covered with writing, in pencil, of Japanese names I do not recognize: Minoke, Minoko, Ninoko, Ariga Tamenori, written seven times (Image 5). They are clearly people of importance; people I do not know. Family? Uchi? Ghosts? The postcard was taken before August 6, 1945, before an atomic bomb wiped out all traces of my great-grandparent’s former lives in Japan. Today, the only parts of the city they would recognize are burned out husks of their former selves, meant to teach the world the power, and danger, of atomic weapons.

Image 4: Building on Miyajima Island, Hiroshima. Postcard. Prewar, Exact Date Unknown. Sasaki Family Collection.

Japan is very regional, and hometowns are important to Japanese people.[20] When I go to Japan, people often want to know what area my family is from. “出身はどこですか?” (“Where do you come (lit. originate) from?”) they ask me. “Hiroshima City, Asakita and Saeki Wards,” I say. My visit to Hiroshima is simultaneously the most important and most painful part of my trips to Japan. I am constantly reminded that this is a city built from rubble, a peaceful city defined by a summer day in 1945.[21] I visit the Hiroshima Peace Museum and look up the names of deceased family members. I walk over bridges where, on that dreadful day, a black rain fell and mothers held their suffering babies up to drink, not knowing it was radioactive and poisonous.[22] Some of those mothers may have been my ancestral family. All around me, I feel and remember and see the war, and then peace, but I am unable to imagine the before captured in the prewar postcard.

I am haunted, and alienated, by the after. I am unsettled by a place that once was home, but not to me. This creeping sense of unease, the uncanny, is not unique to me. The unsettling other is a key part of Japanese horror, and the gothic flavour of the tradition leads many Western films to set themselves in Japan, a quick route to creating a sense of deja and jamais vu in an audience.[23]  I go to Miyajima, in the same way as my family who sent the postcard did, and pray at the Itsukushima Shrine for my ancestors because I do not know where their ancestral shrine is located. I place shinto bells on my bags so that their ghosts can find me, an ocean away. In the late Meiji and early Taisho eras, when my family left Japan, many writers examined the nature of their native places (furusato) in the context of contemporary uprootings and changes.[24] To some, it was their hometown, and for others an imagined safe space.[25] My furusato and my uchi are in Canada, but the ghosts in the objects and in my blood disrupt this singular narrative, constantly calling a part of me back to Japan.

If, as established, there are objects (and people) that are haunted by disruptive memories, how then should these hauntings be dealt with? Papers on haunting theory call for an “exorcism,” and Japanese lore seeks purification.[26] What is the purification of a memory? Both academics and folklore call for the same remedy: to face the memories and accept them. This is not a simple task, particularly in the Nikkei community who has survived for decades on accepting assimilation into the generalized Canadian identity. Initially, assimilation was necessary for survival in a Canada hostile to Nikkei.[27] Then, it became safe, a significantly easier alternative to attempting to recoup elements of a culture that was rapidly being forgotten in a world where “the Japanese face and body…conveyed meaning about the inner self.”[28] The community forgets the pain in order to remember the positive memories. However, Sugiman notes, the intergenerational trauma and the memories that accompany it, never truly leave, instead resurfacing in later life, sometimes as ghosts, like in my familial collection.[29]

Once a year, Japanese and Nikkei alike celebrate Obon, a summer festival devoted to dead ancestors, who are believed to walk among the living during this time. Rather than fear the returning spirits, we celebrate them with food and dance, and wish their spirits well.[30] My great-grandfather once said, “‘Giri’ without ‘Ninjo’ is without true value.”[31] 

It is my hope that, by facing the emotions that haunt our memories, not as terrifying mononoke, or demons, but as memories of a past that existed, caused pain, and also brought happiness, we can return agency of these objects to ourselves. In Japan, the question asked is not “am I seeing a ghost?” but rather “why am I seeing a ghost?”[32] In accepting and purifying the complex, conflicting ghosts of our past, we may coexist with the narratives, the past singing in our blood, the future within our grasp.

Image 7: The Author dances at the 2019 Obon Celebrations at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. Photo Courtesy of Author.

* Bailey Irene Midori Hoy is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto. A fourth generation Japanese Canadian, she developed an interest in her community’s history while completing a history specialist. This passion, coupled with an interest in fashion, has led to work related to diaspora, feminism, and material culture. In 2020 she was a co-recipient of the Richard Lee Insights Through Asia Challenge, where she conducted research on the relationship between kimono and Japanese Canadian women, currently under review for publication in Re: locations journal. Recently, she finished her senior thesis on Japanese American Beauty Queens. Bailey is currently working as a research assistant and helping curate an exhibit on origami for the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. Other interests include historical re-enactment, stand-up paddle boarding, and bubble tea.

[1] Based on recollections of a conversation with my father, January 29, 2020.

[2] Based on family recollections and the Sasaki family registry.

[3] Edensor, Tim. “The Ghosts of Industrial Ruins: Ordering and Disordering Memory in Excessive Space.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23, no. 6 (December 2005): 829–49. doi:10.1068/d58j.

[4] Harries, J. 2010. “Of Bleeding Skulls and the Postcolonial Uncanny: Bones and the Presence of Nonosabasut and Demasduit.” Journal of Material Culture, 15(4): 404., 415

[5] This reasoning is best explained by Iwasaka and Toelken, who, when examining the difficulty of analyzing Japan from a Western viewpoint, use the metaphor of the “left stairway”. In Japan, people walk (and climb stairs) on the left side, as opposed to the Western right side. Thus, it is not uncommon for a foreigner in Japan to be suddenly rushed by a flood of people moving in the opposite direction, sweeping the confused visitor into an overwhelming tide.

[6] Iwasaka, Michiko, and Barre Toelken. Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1994. xvii.

[7] Reider, Noriko. Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present. Logan, UT: Utah State Univ Press, 2013. 60.

[8] Indeed, as in Genji Monogatari, the death of the wronged is not even required for the manifestation of a demon or ghost, as the Lady Aoi is haunted by the jealous ghost of the still living Lady Rikujo.

[9] Iwasaka, Michiko, Toelken, supra note 6, 82.

[10] Blouin, M. Japan and the Cosmopolitan Gothic: Specters of Modernity: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016; Iwasaka, Michiko, and Toelken, supra note 6; Kawai, Hayao, The Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in Fairy Tales of Japan. Woodstock: Spring, 1997.; Marak, Katarzyna. Japanese and American Horror: A Comparative Study of Film, Fiction, Graphic Novels and Video Games. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015.; Reider, supra note 7, 60.

[11] Reider, Noriko T. Tales of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan: Kaidan, Akinari, Ugetsu Monogatari. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.; As commonly found on 2chan, a popular Japanese messaging board and ground zero of many famous urban legends.

[12] Radin, Paul. “Folktales of Japan as Told in California.” Journal of American Folklore 59 (1946): 289-308.

[13] Sasaki Family Register, Asa Municipality, Hiroshima City.

[14] Sasaki, Fred. Interviewer Unknown. Toronto, 2010. Sedai: the Japanese-Canadian Oral Legacy History Project.

[15] Ayukawa, Michiko Midge. Hiroshima Immigrants in Canada, 1891-1941. UBC Press, 2008. 149.

[16] Okazaki, Robert Katsumasa. The Nisei Mass Evacuation Group and P.O.W. Camp 101: the Japanese-Canadian Communities Struggle for Justice and Human Rights during World War II. Markham, On: Markham Litho Limited, 1996. 46.

[17] Edensor, supra note 3, 832.

[18]  Degree of Justice from the Asian Immigrant and Asian Migration Studies, “Roy Nose”, Graduation Pamphlet. ; The University of British Columbia twenty sixth congregation for the conferring of degrees.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Dodd, Stephen. Writing Home: Representations of the Native Place in Modern Japanese Literature. Cambridge (Massachusetts); London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004. Accessed March 9, 2020.

[21] Yoneyama, Lisa. Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999. 44.

[22] Kanda, Mikio. Widows of Hiroshima: The Life Stories of Nineteen Peasant Wives. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989. 131

[23]  Blouin, supra note 10.

[24] Dodd, supra note 20.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Edensor, supra note 3, 829.; Mockett, Marie Mutsuki. Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: a Journey. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2016. 171.

[27] Makabe, Tomoko. The Canadian Sansei. Toronto, ON: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1998. 162.

[28] Ibid; Sugiman, Pamela. “Days You Remember: Japanese Canadian Women and the Violence of Internment” Sisters or Strangers?: Immigrant, Ethnic and Racialized Women in Canadian History. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

[29] Sugiman, supra note 28.

[30] Mathews, Gordon. “Understanding Japanese Society through Life after Death.” Japan Forum 23, no. 3 (2011): 363–83.

[31] Oki, Jack T. “A Tribute to Shuichi Sasaki And All Issei Pioneers” The New Canadian, Friday, May 16, 1986.

[32] Marak, supra note 10.