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Dear Sosobo

Dear Sosobo,

Let me begin with an apology. I didn’t know what to call you; I had to look it up in a Japanese-English dictionary: sosobo. I’m sure I’ve never heard this word before. I would have remembered its rhythm, like the chorus of a children’s song, so-so-bo. Why didn’t I know this word? Perhaps we are too American and fooling ourselves when we think we have cultural pride, when we dance at Obon, celebrate Oshо̄gatsu, or light incense on family shrines. Maybe there’s something else we are missing, closer to our core, everyday things, like the word for great-grandmother.

When you came to this country in 1914, your destination was Beikoku, the abundant country, land of opportunity, prosperity, and safety. That’s where you thought you were going.

You came with Hiijiji—another new word that dissolves in my mouth like a butter cookie with a dab of raspberry jam. According to my mother, who never met him, he must have been ugly. This is so typical of her. Her mind often goes to a bad place, a judgmental place, especially when she is talking about one of her own.

In the one photograph I have of you and Hiijiji, the only part of his face I can see is his arched nose, sticking out of the shadow of his hat. You are in Norwalk, California, in the potato field you could not have owned because it was against the law for you to own land. To your right are five daughters.

Matsuji Matsuoka farm, March 26, 1927. Photo by Wakaji Matsumoto, courtesy of the Matsumoto family. From Wakaji Matsumoto—An Artist in Two Worlds: Los Angeles and Hiroshima, 1917–1944, an online exhibition by the Japanese American National Museum (2022)

The oldest, my bachan, looks about ten years old, and the youngest looks like she’s four or five. Judging by their similar heights, the first four girls were born a year or less apart from each other. To your left is Hiijiji, your husband, holding an enormous baby boy. What a relief the birth of that boy must have been for you—someone to carry the family name because your first son, the one missing from this portrait, could not.

You are all standing in a row, careful not to step on the plants around your ankles. It must have been early summer, and it looks like you, your husband, and all those little girls did a good job getting the fields planted. For the next few months, you will sew the simple dress that each of the girls will eventually wear; fix the leaks in the shack, which can barely hold the eight of you; move the outhouse; excavate the “night soil”; build stacks and stacks of boxes; and repair the barn, which is more important than the shack because it has to keep out the moisture and the mould spore that can destroy a year’s work while you sleep. In September, you will follow Hiijiji and the horse’s plough as it carves deep furrows into the soil, which you and the girls will break apart to dig the potatoes out by hand.

You had to produce this boy because Hiijiji wanted to own a farm and needed a native-born child, preferably a son, to hold the deed. During the months and years you spent growing and carrying babies, did you think about the one you already had, the boy you left behind in Japan with your first husband? Or had you learned to silence those thoughts?

These are personal questions, the kind of questions we would never ask each other, but I can’t help it. I want to know: how did you—a young, poor, undereducated Japanese woman—overturn all the power in your world? You were not a rebel when you left your abusive first husband and returned to your parents’ house, but you were strong. People shunned you as a bad wife and a bad mother. Your toddler would slip out of the house and wander around the village looking for you, and when you saw him, you would lead him back to his father’s home. You were able to bend the rules once by leaving your husband, but you could not break them. The baby belonged to his father. You remarried—probably not an ugly man, as my mother thought, but more likely an older man—and went to Beikoku, where you had five daughters and one more son.

Hiijiji never made enough money to buy that land, and the family returned to Japan in the early 1930s. Soon after, in quick succession, your three oldest daughters came of age and married Nisei farmers who took matchmaking trips to Japan to meet their future wives. The three sisters would return to the California fields as newlyweds and soon-to-be mothers themselves. When your youngest son turned fourteen, you and Hiijiji guessed correctly that Japan would lower the conscription age, and you sent the boy to Beikoku to be with his sisters. A year later, your California children and their families were forced into a concentration camp in Poston, Arizona, then another in Tule Lake, California. You would never see them again.

Where do I find you here in this country? The potato fields are long gone and my bachan had no keepsakes or hand-me-downs, no pearl ring or embroidered handkerchief to give me. I have only this photograph and the vague, haunting sense that I exist because you refused to accept violence as part of your lot.

When the matchmaker handed Hiijiji your photo and told him you had been married before, what did he see? Was he drawn to your stoic expression or your strong back? Did he see what I see, the physical and moral rectitude that could hold a family up? What caused him to feel a murmur for a tired woman in a black-and-white photograph?

Your circumstances do not fill me with feminist pride, but rather, with a disquieting sense of all that you surrendered—your child, your dignity, your place—not for a piece of this country or a dream, but for your life and, therefore, ours.

Kieko Matsuoka Hata, the author’s grandmother

My bachan, who always thought of herself as the eldest, would not see her two youngest sisters until the 1970s, when they returned to California for a reunion. The five women, all in their fifties and sixties, still called each other by their baby names. One of them carried a surprise in her handbag, a photograph of their oldest half-brother. It was the kind of news that doesn’t get shared in a letter.

By then, you and Hiijiji had already passed on, but you had survived the war and the atomic bomb, and all your children survived too, all seven.

I didn’t know any of this until two weeks ago. I was talking to my eighty-four-year-old mother, and she mentioned it to me the same way she might have told me that a lightbulb was out:

Kieko Matsuoka Hata and the author

“Oh, I should have told you, my grandmother, your bachan’s mother, left an abusive husband and abandoned a child in Japan.”

“Really? He must have been so awful for her to do something like that.”

“Oh yes.”

“Worse than Uncle Ota, even.”

“What did Ota do?” my mother asked.

“He yelled at Auntie every day. He treated her like a servant!”

“Is that abuse?” my mother asked.

“Yes, of course it is!”

“Well, I guess they were all abusive then.”

I’m not sure why, a year into the pandemic, my mother decided to share this particular family secret. I think she was tired of carrying it alone.

Sosobo, we almost forgot you completely. You and Hiijiji planted us in this country, but we act as if we sprouted from this earth like native poppies, unburdened by your loss and labour. I wrap myself in a happi coat, place a mon over my fireplace, and imagine that I am connected to my past, when really, I still don’t know your names.

Five years ago, I visited the Hiroshima neighbourhood where your daughter lived for many years in a house on top of a twenty-foot stone foundation that had miraculously survived the bomb and where my cousins still lived. From there, we toured the city, meeting more and more relatives until we had a caravan that included babies and old people, teenagers on bicycles, and a white-faced golden retriever in a diaper.

Matsuoka descendants in Hiroshima

In their faces, I saw versions of my aunts and uncles, but in their voices, their lightness, they were nothing like us, the American side. Rushing around the city we accidentally passed through a toll booth without paying. I gasped. My cousin whispered, “Daijobu,” to comfort me. He started singing an American song that the sisters had brought back with them when they were young. Amid all the confusing stories and songs, someone probably told me about the half-brother, but I didn’t understand. I might have even met his children somewhere in that parade, as new contingents joined wherever we went.

One of the last two living Matsuoka sisters, her son, and the author

In every house we visited, placed high near the ceiling was the same photograph of you, Hiijiji, and your American children in the potato field. They could have chosen a photo from a reunion, wedding, or anniversary, but they knew the art of remembering and chose the one that showed your sojourn and sacrifice so perfectly.

When I returned from my trip, I looked up their old songs and found a video of Paul Robeson: “Where are the hearts once so happy and so free? The children so dear, that I held upon my knee? Gone to the shore where my soul has longed to go. I hear their gentle voices calling Poor Old Joe.” I remembered how my cousin looked at me, his newfound relative, as he sang his mother’s song. He didn’t understand the words, but she did, and this was her lullaby for her post-bomb babies.

The Matsuokas and their spouses

“They’re nothing like us,” I told my mother, describing our cheerful relatives who ran through red lights with dogs leaning out car windows.

Without a pause, she said, “Well, I guess they must have had it easier than we did.”

“Really? How is that possible? They showed me a spot where school children stayed alive by jumping into the river and holding on to dead bodies.”

“I don’t know. Maybe you misinterpreted.”

Kieko Matsuoka Hata, her husband Katsumi Hata, the author, and two of her brothers

From our forgetful American shore, we couldn’t understand their happiness--their songs and spontaneity. Over the years, they had managed to reconcile their pain while we were still holding ours in silence.

I may never learn the art of remembering, but I will not forget that we are held together by these simple words: sosobo, hiijiji, and himago, great-grandchild, and that we are still circling toward safety together. Sosobo, we haven’t arrived in Beikoku, not yet.

—Your himago



1. Sosobo: great-grandmother
2. Beikoku: United States
3. Hijiji: great-grandfather


*This article was originally published in Brick Literary Journal, Issue 108, Winter 2022


© 2022 Amanda Mei Kim

family great-grandparents Hiroshima United States