Writings / Fiction

A Japanese Custom

Leslie Shimotakahara

         Kenji wouldn’t suspect anything.  He thought he was just being invited over for a little catch-up, so Keiko could show off her butter tarts.  While stirring the brown ooze in the pot – making sure to dissolve the streak of egg yolk – she inhaled the raw, syrupy scent that filled her kitchen. 

            The sheet of pastry, freshly rolled out, beckoned to her like play dough.  With each jiggle of the cookie cutter, a new idea for telling Kenji off popped loose onto the cutting board.
            “You know your brother’s coming over for lunch today?” Keiko said.
            “Be nice to have a visit,” Tak said, in a flat tone.  He hunched over his cereal bowl, so the top of his bald head faced her.  The very view she’d had for sixty-two years of marriage. 
            Taking a break, she sat down at the Formica table and poured a heap of Coffeemate into her coffee, followed by two cubes of sugar.  It lathered up, thick and sweet as a milkshake.  She was diabetic, but what the heck?  Suddenly, she was feeling without a care in the world.
            “I’m not going to let your brother get away with what he’s been saying about me.”
            “We never have to see them.”
            It was true that Kenji lived in a small town, two hours away from Toronto.  But that wasn’t the point.  “After all I’ve done for your family.”
            Where was Bachan anyway?  Still not up.  The smell of sandalwood incense – soapy and cloying – wafted from her room into the hallway.  Through the door, she could see Bachan dozing, her white hair fluffing out like a dandelion ball, her lips fallen open, emitting deep, gurgly sighs.  A ninety-year-old baby. 
            Although Bachan was only ten years older, Keiko was sure that she didn’t look anything like that.  For one thing, she still curled and dyed her hair.  Moreover, Keiko never slept in, not even when she had a sniffle or fever. 
            It was disgusting how Bachan had been acting like an invalid for decades. 
            Stepping into Bachan’s room, Keiko coughed.  Ribbons of smoke billowed from the little shrine that was set up on the dresser.  The brass incense burner was flanked by black-and-white photos of dour-faced ancestors, whom Keiko had never met, and never wished to.  It was silly how these Japanese people were dressed in European finery – suits with little white handkerchiefs tucked in the pockets, and dresses that puffed out at the hips like toilet paper dollies.  One of the women was holding a delicate fan, splayed open at her bosom, as if she was trying to be Mary Antoinette. 
            In front of the photos was a hodgepodge of objects, spread out like at a garage sale.  A string of milky beads.  A glass vase containing three plastic chrysanthemums.  A handkerchief cradling a green apple. 
            The apple was what really got to Keiko.  What a waste.  But Bachan stuck to the Buddhist tradition of making offerings to the ancestors.
            Why did everyone call her “Bachan” – Japanese for grandmother – anyway?  She’d never been much of a grandmother to Keiko’s children.  And it wasn’t as if she was related by blood to any of them, even Tak.  His real mother had died when he was a boy.  When his father remarried, Tak treated Bachan like a queen, finding something noble about a sixteen-year-old girl traveling around the world to marry a cranky old widower.  And it wasn’t long before she gave birth to his beloved little brother, Kenji. 
            Or maybe there was more to their closeness.  Tak wasn’t much younger than Bachan; he’d been twelve when she arrived.  Hadn’t there always been some funny business between them?  Of course he denied it, but Keiko had seen the signs over the years, especially after his father’s death.  Bachan’s fluttering glances across the breakfast table.  Her insistence that Tak sit on the side of her bed every evening, reading aloud from The Tale of Genji. 
            It was infuriating the things Keiko had had to put up with, living with her step-mother-in-law.     

            By 8:30, all the cooking was done.  Keiko changed from her housedress into turquoise polyester pants and the cream blouse with the big floppy bow, which she only wore on special occasions.  She dabbed on burgundy lipstick, which made her look dignified, in control – like a Principal or the Director of a corporation (women could do that now).  Peering in the mirror and running her fingertips along the wrinkles fanning out around her eyes, she could detect a hint of the wide-eyed, serious expression people had always bothered her about as a girl.  Her mother used to tell her to smile, but it never did any good.  Tight-lipped, Keiko glowered back, and over the years this expression had stayed with her.  Tak used to call it her sultry expression.
            But all alone, she could smile.  And suddenly she still felt remarkably pretty. 
            Keiko wandered from room to room, making sure that everything was in order – fluffing pillows, refolding blankets, putting out a fresh roll of toilet paper.  The bungalow looked cluttered, as always; there wasn’t much one could do about that.  The space was chopped up into too many small rooms.  There was only so much a new flowered bedspread could do, when the bed dwarfed the master bedroom.  It looked too big, too flowery and ornate, as though the vines and violets might strangle you.
            And the linoleum floor in the kitchen was always sticky no matter how often Keiko washed it.  The brick veneer would never look real.
            Sometimes it still amazed her that after all her father’s grand plans, this seedy street at Bloor and Lansdowne was where she’d ended up.  The neighbourhood had gotten a tad safer over the years, but that didn’t say much.  The “Gentlemen’s Club” around the corner brought lewd men to the area – they were definitely not gentlemen.  And the bars stayed open until all hours.  It certainly hadn’t been her first choice of a place to raise a family.  Long ago, she’d come to accept that this place would never feel like home. 
            But it was where they’d ended up after the war, when the Japanese-Canadians had lost everything.  After being released from the camp in BC, all they’d wanted was to get away – get on a train and go anywhere – and this was where anywhere had turned out to be.

            When Bachan trundled into the kitchen, it was nearly nine o’clock.  Keiko could hardly believe it.  Every day she got up five minutes later.  The bowl of corn flakes and coffee cup sat waiting for her, a teaspoon of Folger’s already spooned in, just waiting for the hot water.  Taking up much needed space on the table.  Where was Keiko supposed to set out her cutting board? 
            Without a word, she plugged in the kettle, letting the cord hit the counter with a satisfying whack.
            Bachan heaved her sagging body onto the chair, and primly straightened the sash on her mauve kimono – as if it were a real kimono, instead of a makeshift housecoat, a cast-off that some relative had sent.  Her wrinkled, sun-spotted hands were folded in her lap, like sleeping pigeons.  She stared ahead, her lips drooping down on one side.  Just sitting there, waiting to be served. 
            “You want toast?”
            Bachan shook her head, murmuring something in Japanese.  Keiko had long given up trying to understand her dialect.   
            Tak looked up from the paper, giving Bachan his full attention.  Funny how he never looked at Keiko that way.  They chattered on for several minutes, before Tak turned to Keiko.
            “Make Bachan two pieces of toast, and spread them with marmalade, no butter.”
            “Shall I bring the bill, too?”
            At least when Keiko used to work at her father’s restaurant, she’d been paid a decent wage, tips included.

            She could recall how infuriated she’d been when she first got married, and Bachan forbade her to call Tak by his first name.  In Japan, it was considered disrespectful – wives were supposed to address their husbands as “Anata,” which meant “Husband, dear,” while bowing their heads and presenting a cup of tea and offering shoulder rubs. 
            The result of Bachan’s nagging was that Keiko didn’t call Tak anything.  Instead of addressing him by name, she’d simply come to say “Chotto matte kudasai” – “Wait a minute” – to get his attention.  At some point, she’d shortened it to Chotto.  It was no wonder that her granddaughter thought that was his name; Grandpa Chotto, she’d started calling him.  It suited him perfectly.
            “Business was booming,” said Keiko, getting up from the table to put on the kettle.  She was surrounded by the remains of a very good lunch – the tail of the last shrimp sticking up, tempting as a mermaid.  Tak, Kenji and his wife, Mariko, were slumped in their chairs, lethargic from second helpings.  Bachan was the only one who’d eaten like a bird, as usual.
            Kenji kept eyeing the last shrimp, waiting for Keiko to offer it to him.  But she continued on with her story, not caring that they’d already heard it countless times.  She wanted to finish it before getting to the real reason for the visit.
            “Not only Japanese people, but even the hakujins came to our store on Powell Street – they couldn’t get enough of my mother’s baking.  We were better than the other stores.  We didn’t only sell milk and canned soup, we also sold my mother’s bread, butter tarts, and lemon meringue pies that she made fresh every morning.” 
            As Keiko held court, she was vaguely aware of Kenji’s rubbery face on the periphery of her vision, his mouth opening and closing every so often, as if he was itching to get a word in edgewise.  His puffed-up hair – if he’d had more of it, it would be a pompadour – was blacker than ever.  Ever since he’d discovered Grecian Formula, he couldn’t get enough of it, applying it with a Q-tip to his heavy eyebrows, too.  And Mariko’s hair was the same inky colour.  They must use the same bottle to save money.  There was a puppet – or muppet? – they both reminded her of, from a TV show she’d once watched with her granddaughter.  Bert?  Ernie?  She smiled at the thought and continued:
            “The old bachelors would come in for a can of soup.  ‘Keiko, would you mind opening this and heating it up?’ they’d say to me.  ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t mind at all, but why should I wash the bowl for free?’  So that was how I got the idea of turning the second store into a restaurant.  Lunch at the restaurant sold for twenty-five cents – including coffee, soup, main, pie slice, all homemade.  Nice soup, not from a can.  People loved it so much it caused a bit of trouble.  Never forget this one railroad worker.  Hunched over his bowl, ate all but a spoonful, and then he called over to me: ‘Keiko, what’s this?  A hair in my soup?’  Of course he wanted another bowl.  I was so mad – my brain was on fire.  I peered down at his bowl, grabbed the soggy hair, held it up to the sunlight,” Keiko held up an imaginary thread between her fingers.  “‘It’s blond!’ I shouted, dangling it in his face.  All the customers looked over.  He slurped up the rest so quickly.  Never pulled that one again.”  She shot Kenji a long, hard stare.
            Kenji chuckled.  “Keiko’s a feisty one, that’s what I said to my brother.  I remember first meeting you behind the counter.  You were quite the looker back then.  Everyone said that if it weren’t for your voice, you’d have been the prettiest of all your sisters.” 
            “Fortunately, I went deaf early.”  Tak cackled.
            Keiko poured the boiling water into the teapot, and took the saran wrap off the plate of butter tarts.  Her hands were trembling.
            “So, Kenji,” she said.  “I hear you’ve been talking behind my back.  Saying I’ve neglected to care for your mother.”
            “That so?” he asked, eyeing the butter tarts. 
            “Yes.  Your sisters told me.  I do talk to them once in a while.”
            “That so.”
            Kenji broke a tart in half and extended a cupped hand to his poodle, Coco, preening herself in the corner.  The blond fuzz-ball leapt to life and licked his fingers, yapping for more.  It was crazy how he brought that dog everywhere. 
            “That’s enough,” he said, and sunk his teeth into the other half.  “Delicious.”
            “Don’t you think you should wash your hands?”
“            I’m not afraid of Coco’s germs.”  He fluffed the dog, blond hairs sticking to the gunk all over his fingers. 
            “Coco and us, we’re family,” Mariko added.
            “Not everyone has time to play with dogs all day,” Keiko said.  “Wasn’t easy raising three kids, saddled with an invalid step-mother-in-law.”
            “But you have plenty of time now,” Kenji said.  “Think how much Bachan would love it if you would sit with her over a cup of tea and chat in Japanese.” 
            The resemblance between Kenji and Bachan – eyes like raisins, squished together in doughy flesh – had always made Keiko queasy.  They reminded her of what happened when you put too much batter in muffin tins.
            It was hard to believe that Bachan had once had smooth, pale skin.  Back in those days, before her Parkinson’s, she walked lightly, in tiny steps, priding herself on never having worn out a single pair of shoes.  Everyone viewed her as such a gentle, delicate creature.  A true Buddhist.  She’d go to ridiculous lengths to avoid killing anything – even an ant – in fear that she might be reincarnated as something so piddling.  She wasted hours flitting around her room with a margarine tub, trying to trap moths that flew in her window, in order to take them outside. 
            But when Keiko heard the commotion and came in waving a swatter, the moths had had it.    
            “The other day,” Kenji said, “I was looking at photos of Bachan’s ikebana arrangements.  The one that won first prize at the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre still takes my breath away.” 
            “Kenji sweet boy,” Bachan said.  A sheen touched her cheeks, making her look almost girlish. 
            It was the same glow that used to suffuse her face when people would mistake her as Tak’s wife.  That would happen quite a bit when the kids were young and the whole family would go to the Ex or High Park for a picnic.  Keiko would be straggling behind with the stroller, while Bachan walked ahead, her hand slipped through Tak’s arm, her nose powdered, dainty as a doll.  “What a lovely, exotic couple,” the hakujins would murmur.  Meanwhile, Keiko’s face dripped in the heat, her arms exhausted from swooping down to pick up babies, mopping up drool.
            Hakujins thought that Buddhists were such serene creatures.  Goes to show how much they knew.  Beneath her languid smile, Bachan loved power.
            “Well, Kenji,” Keiko said, “since you’re such an expert on caring for your mother, I’m thinking you should take on the job entirely.  It’s about time she went to live with you.”
            Silence filled the kitchen.  The clock ticked louder than ever.
            “But, Keiko, don’t you think it would be disruptive to her routine?” Mariko said.
            “And besides,” Kenji said, “it’s a Japanese custom that the mother always lives with the eldest son.”
            “That’s right,” Tak said, his forehead shining.
            “Well, we’re a long way from Japan,” Keiko said.  “Isn’t that right, Bachan?”
            The old woman had slumped down in her chair. 
            “Oh, I just hate it when she falls asleep like this.”  Keiko clapped her hands in front of Bachan’s face.  

            Throwing off her apron, Keiko stormed into Bachan’s room.  She dragged a suitcase out of the closet.  Pulling open the dresser, she was enraged by the sight of the beige panties, neatly folded into piles, like napkins for a dinner party.  What had she been thinking?  Time for someone else to fold this woman’s stinking underwear.  She gathered them up and dumped them into the suitcase, and then ripped a few dresses off their hangers and deposited them, crumpled and twisted.  With a single sweep, the shrine on the dresser went crashing to the floor – the vase and picture frames shattering.  The rolled up afghan would barely fit into the suitcase, but Keiko managed to stuff it in, although she couldn’t manage to zip the suitcase entirely, leaving a corner sticking out.
            But what was going on in the kitchen?  Tak was leaning over Bachan, shaking her by the shoulder, her face blank as a boulder. 
            “At least her face was twitching a moment ago,” Kenji cried.
            Edging to the window, to gather her thoughts, Keiko tripped on the suitcase.  It looked lumpy, like it belonged to a street person.  She kicked it aside, and a chasm of joy opened in her chest.  At last.  She was on the verge of freedom.   
            As she was picturing herself sending Bachan’s things to the Salvation Army, the old woman’s eyes flew open, fluttering deliriously.
            “Anata….” she whispered in Tak’s ear, and threw her arms around his neck with passion. 
            Keiko didn’t know whether the jolt to her heart was caused by fury or pity.

About The Author


Leslie Shimotakahara was born and raised in Toronto. After completing her M.A. and Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at Brown University, she taught for two years in Nova Scotia. She recently moved back to Toronto to return to her first love, creative writing, focusing on the Japanese-Canadian immigrant stories that her grandparents have been telling her since childhood.  Her work has been published in TOK: Writing the New Toronto and Genre and is completing a memoir, The Reading List: Literature, Love, and Back Again (Crossing Press, 2011). She blogs at www.the-reading-list.com.

/ Essays

Derek Walcott

George Elliott Clarke

Writing and Vancouver

rob mclennan

/ Reviews

Poetry and Miscellaneous Reviews

George Elliott Clarke

Fiction Review

Julia P.W. Cooper

Fiction Review

Michael Hingston

Non-Fiction Review

Rosel Kim

Fiction Review

Julie Leroux

Fiction Review

Andrew MacDonald

Non-Fiction Reviews

Reid McCarter

Fiction Review

Kaitlyn Pinder

Fiction Review

Amanda Tripp

Fiction Review

Jackie Wong

/ Fiction


Mary Baxter

Midlife Crisis Response Services

Kane X. Faucher


Lindsay Foran

Mr. English

Austin Kaluba

Savage Water

Matthew R. Loney

Waltz, You Forgetful Things

Tom McMillan


Dawn Promislow

That which is Written

Pratap Reddy

Rituals of Morning

Dolly Reisman

A Japanese Custom

Leslie Shimotakahara

/ Creative Non-Fiction

The Things We Carried

Juliane Okot Bitek


Veena Gokhale

Bed Pan(ned)

Kyle Stewart

/ Poetry

Dami Ajayi

Afam Akeh

Peter Akinlabi

Juliane Okot Bitek

Hemang Desai

Salim Gold

Kelly Howarth

Doyali Farah Islam

Deanna Nikaido

/ Drama

A Song For Tomorrow

Christina Wong

What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things... it is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its exterior surface.

– Constantin Brancusi
Featured Artist

The Sirens

–John Greer

Volunteers for Issue 8

For copy-editing this issue of MTLS thanks:

- Amanda Tripp
- Carmel Purkis
- Rosel Kim
- Julia Cooper
- Lequanne Collins-Bacchus


MTLS is grateful to Jean-Pierre Houde for his hard work on web management.