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What is a man urged to feel when he loses his wife?
Our SEA issue is here! After a summer spent editing by the shores — Isabela in Spain, Zoë in Sicily, and both of us for a time at home in Vancouver — we’re ready to bring this meditative edition to your inbox. Our central concepts of water, food, and gender flow like rivers through this issue, bringing us on journeys that periodically join and diverge and at their conclusion, remind us that we should have trusted the process all along.
We’re getting the waves rolling with this beautiful piece on nurturing, parenthood, and loss by Megumi Koiwai, a freelance writer based in Tokyo. Coming up, we have so many other exciting stories: windows into the fraught world of salt production, deep dives into oceanic poetry, new ways of honouring coastal foodways, and much more. Whether you dip just a toe or dive in all the way, we’re thrilled to have you with us.
- IV & ZJ
The short feature film “nowhere to go but everywhere” shows the essence of nurturing, within and beyond traditional gender roles in Japan.
By Megumi Koiwai | Paid subscribers have access to an audio version of this piece on our podcast.
In a film called “nowhere to go but everywhere”, the sea swallows a man’s life whole.
Directed by Masako Tsumura and Erik Shirai, the short documentary depicts Yasuo Takamatsu’s life after losing his wife, Yuko, to the tsunami that hit the Tohoku region of Japan in 2011. The film is heartbreaking and submerged in tenderness all at once. It starts with the cameras shooting from beneath the sea. The surface glistens with the reflections of the sun. It feels like something or someone is looking towards us — trying to reach for the air above the surface.
The camera switches to Takamatsu, gearing up with his hooded wetsuit, getting prepared to dive into the cold waters. He flips into the ocean, fins up and face down, diving one step closer to the seabed with his flashlight. The water is murky. You can only hear him breathe slowly and the sound of his oxygen bubbles floating around, as he starts his routine search.
13 years before, the tsunami had swept Yuko off the roof of the bank where she worked. Initially, Takamatsu started looking for her on land, searching from morning until evening, but had no luck for two and a half years — that’s when he turned to sea. In September 2013, at the age of 56, he decided to get his diving license to search for his wife, diving into the place that took her away from him. So far, he hasn’t found her, but Takamatsu remains committed. Part of his new life involves figuring out a way to nurture his love for her in her absence, and diving is one way to do that. Takamatsu knows that Yuko is out there somewhere, but he also confesses with anguish in the film that if he does end up finding her, that will be it — the reality will sink in that she is, in fact, gone. But until then, he dives, combing through debris from the tsunami that still sits underneath the sea, tangled in seaweed and forgotten by the rest of the world.
Flashbacks show their previous life together, awash with tenderness. “Say Happy New Year to your dad,” Yuko tells her children in one festive home video. It feels like a classic “mother” type of moment: with Yuko herding, cooking, bringing the food to the table and taking care of everyone; multitasking at its best. Takamatsu rolls his camera towards her. The footage portrays the essence of what it means to nurture: to provide a feeling that is warm, cozy, familiar. In Japan, this type of nurturing is usually seen as a feminine domain, the job of women in a family or relationship. But what happens when the woman is out of the picture — literally and figuratively? In a country like Japan, what is a man urged to feel when he loses his wife?
I was born and raised in Tokyo and I only knew the world in one way — where you don’t question other possibilities for your life beyond the path laid out. Women take care of their husbands and children and the men go to work; that was just how my household was and I didn’t know anything better. Tokyo is huge, but my community was very specific. Middle-class to upper-middle-class families, with traditional gender roles attached.
I was a rather observant kid in elementary school, and I started noticing that some of the moms were too busy to go to school events because they were working. I didn’t understand why those moms were working. Who took care of the children? Who fed them? Surely, they can’t cook for themselves, I thought. In the world that I knew, mothers were the ones constantly surveilling and caring for. I assumed that men, husbands, and dads were unavailable all the time. The dads were never seen on school premises, and even if they were, it was for sports day or any other event day. I remember that dads presented some kind of authority to me because of their lack of presence: strong, scary, mysterious. My mom didn’t scare me. My dad did, even though he was absent for most of my childhood.
At age seven, I witnessed something that caught me off guard — a family dynamic I wasn’t familiar with. I went to a friend’s house for her birthday party, and I met a dad who seemed to also be playing the role of a mother. I didn’t realize the impact it had on me until later on in life, but it was one of the first times I realized that fatherhood or motherhood is not so much about gender but a primitive instinct — to love and care for your child no matter the circumstances. I knew that my friend had lost her mom to an illness, and so she just had a dad and a little sister. The birthday cake came to the table, we blew out the candles with her, and then her dad came in and started cutting some slices for us. He said to my friend, “Let’s give a piece to your mom, too.”
He placed a slice on a plate and took it to the butsudan, a small Japanese Buddhist shrine that is in dark wood and cabinet-like. It’s used in some households to honour the dead, allowing people to pray for them at home, and is usually decorated with the deceased person’s photos. The dad placed the cake in front of the mom’s picture and said, “It’s your daughter’s birthday today. We’re eating some cake with her friends.”
I went home and told my mom immediately what I discovered. I was stunned by the fact that a dad was taking care of us — that a dad was attentive. He was cutting this sweet and delicate strawberry shortcake filled with whipped cream on top and placing it carefully on our plates. He was constantly present in the room. It wasn’t the tough love that I thought dads were supposed to play a role in, but it was tender love, a kind of love I’d never seen before from a man.
Gender roles in Japan are not a blurred line; people are loud and clear on what they expect from men and women. Japan enacted a law in 1999 on the Basic Act for Gender Equal Society. Every couple of years the government issues a poll on what people think about the topic. On page 19, there’s a question that asks the public how a household is supposed to be.
“What do you think of the idea of ‘men working, and women staying at home protecting the household’?”’
In 2019, 35% of people answered ‘agree’ or ‘somewhat agree’. In 2016, 40% did. While the numbers are slightly declining, these figures indicate that there is an expectation for Japanese women to stay at home and take care of household matters while men go to work.
There’s a Japanese phrase that still makes the rounds in our daily lives, haunting the progressive awakening of feminism: “Jyoshiryoku (女子力).” The kanji literally means “girl power”, but not in the context familiar to most English-speaking countries. When people use this word in Japan, it means if you have the right abilities as a woman — that you are woman enough for men. The word is not subjective, and it has very specific responsibilities attached to it: Can you cook? Can you clean the house? Are you not a messy person? Do you take care of your nails, hair, and other things? Do you have enough makeup on? Do you have bandaids on you? Because, well, you never know when a man will need a bandaid and you can take it out to show off that you are prepared for emergencies. It is a sign of care in our Japanese social language.
Another common phrase in Japanese, totsugi-ni-iku, or oyome-ni-iku, translates as “to become a wife somewhere” and is still a thing that many families suggest to their daughters, especially in rural areas in Japan. To become a wife somewhere, there is a checklist you need to cross off. My mom is an American who married a Japanese man in the 80s. My dad is from a rural area of Japan and my Japanese grandmother taught my mom how to cook Japanese food. You must learn how to make miso soup and rice for your husband. My mom mastered Japanese cuisine: the delicacy of making the perfectly rolled tamagoyaki, homemade hijiki (seaweed) that has just the right amount of dashi and soy sauce, and a perfectly cooked fish on the grill. She successfully learned the intricacies of one of the most difficult cuisines in the world, perhaps to show that she was now good enough as a Japanese housewife.
Ironically, women in Japan put much effort into proving their abilities in these arenas but their labour is most of the time unseen, unappreciated, or even deemed to be disliked or disrespected. My mum is the one who cared for me constantly as a child and yet I, like many children, often treated my mum with disrespect for it. My dad wasn’t involved in the rule-making and breaking of my early years, but I saw him as much more of an authority figure.
This is not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon; in my favourite TV show, Motherland, protagonist Julia says to her mom on Mother’s Day: “It would just be so lovely if my family could pretend to like me for one day.”
“You don’t have children to be liked, Julia.”
“Then what’s the blinkin’ point of having kids if they don’t like you?”
The scene is funny because even someone who’s not a mom can understand the absurdity of it all. I find motherhood and being a woman unbelievably remarkable for its indefinite shape-shifting. It can mean all sorts of things to us, but regardless, it opens us up to being tested by society — to see if we are selfless enough. To see if we will put all of our needs aside, to be instinctively mothering, loving, and caring.
These days, fatherhood is establishing a new place in Japanese society. Traditional and social media are generating a new narrative, that men can also be caregivers. It feels like themes related to fatherhood are always making media headlines — being a father nowadays demonstrates bravery. Dads who take paternity leave are praised for their participation in parenting and collaboration with their wives but it shouldn’t be like this. The other shouldn’t be more important or less than the other.
As I date in my early 30s, I realize the type of men I gravitate towards are the men who are so-called “homely” types, the ones who can take care of things and people in their most vulnerable form. Like the dad who was cutting cake for us or Takamatsu who is diving into the sea for a greater purpose — nurturing others not to show off their excellence but from an inherent instinct to take care of a loved one. My judgment in prior years was cloudy, with my upbringing leading me to believe that men should be the ones leading and that women are there to serve the men in the name of jyoshiryoku. But now I find it attractive, unrulily so, when a man has “domestic traits”. I recently went on a date with a pattern maker and finding out that he can use a sewing machine and patch up anything made my heart squirm with excitement. He was kind, observant, and engaging. His affection wasn’t forceful but tender.
I then can’t help but wonder: What is the difference when it comes to men who possess the selflessness to care for someone? What does it take for men to allow themselves to be perceived as fearlessly vulnerable, tender, and caring? I think of Takamatsu and “nowhere to go but everywhere”. For Takamatsu, bringing Yuko’s body home is essential; bringing someone he loved into their home once again allows him to nurture that love even in her absence, his search an open display of tenderness and grief.
Around 2,000 victims of the 2011 tsunami are still missing. In Japan, we cremate the bodies of the dead. We then honour them by picking their bones up one by one. Some cultures may find it jarring, but for us, this ritual allows them to rest. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese people had a saying: “Hirou-hone-mo-nakkata.” It meant that we didn’t even have any bones to pick up because all of the bodies turned into ashes. For some people, continuing to search for their loved ones 12 years after the tsunami is too painful, but there are also people like Takamatsu who say, “It’s too early to give up.” Despite Takamatsu’s years of effort to find his wife, her grave is still empty — no body nor bones. I understand the importance of bringing just even a fraction of her body back, and how painful it must be for him to not be able to do so.
In the most striking scene of the film, Takamatsu comes up to the ocean surface, takes off his face mask, and floats. A beautiful blue sky and the sun shine over him, and he just floats there for a while. Vulnerable in his affections, he is one with the sea but more so, he is one with Yuko. You wrestle with a strange feeling while watching it: The sea took her away from him, but it seems like the sea is his happy place. I like to think that she is watching him from the sea somewhere and that she feels his warmth while he floats, absorbed by his tender love every day.
Megumi Koiwai is a freelance writer based in Tokyo. She likes to write essays about her life and curate cultural recommendations on Substack. She is always plotting the next place to eat.