I found out I was a man when I was nine years old.
Next to a small woodpile deep in the mountains of Kobe, my grandfather grasped my hand and put a centipede on my wrist.
“Take it,” he said. If I hadn’t smiled at its 100 orange legs, if I had recoiled instead, then maybe ten years later I would have been on that plane from Logan Airport, running towards his hospital. But when the bug coiled, my arm calmed, and I cupped the centipede, feeling my palm warm. I asked if it was poisonous.
“Men are not afraid of bugs,” he said.
So I shed my girlhood for ten long summers, and sat in my dorm room at the age of twenty, getting ready to take a bath, as my grandfather went on dying.
“Catch a flight immediately after your test, then. He’s stable right now.” My mother’s voice echoed on the tiles. Her piano-teacher voice. “Are you sure?” I said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Call me if anything changes.”
I set my phone down, and walked to the bathroom to fill the bath with water and set the temperature to scalding, boil-a-lobster hot. I sat naked on the white cold tile floor. My ass numbed as I waited. This was part of being a man, being able to stand the heat. This was part of being the eldest of five granddaughters, and being the only son. I dug my feet into the water, my toes leaping from it without my consent. Soon my feet lost feeling and I inched my thighs in, clenching both sides of the bath for their cold support. I watched my body swell, pinked, my skin crying. I lathered. Every summer after Kobe, my mother used to try to scrape the tan off my skin, to expose the warm whiteness of woman. She would sweep my rail body with its lack of fat or breasts, her hard fingers pinching my chin left and right as she scuffed my neck. I was burned, tarnished. Eventually she taught herself Photoshop and used that to bleach my skin.
My mother was the only one who never accepted my manhood. But even she did not make a sound when my grandmother wrapped up my long thick hair and snipped right under my ear with her gray pearl-handed sewing scissors until the rest of my hair was the same length as my bangs. She was looking at her stomach, her chin from that angle crumpling in unexpected elderly folds.
She left the room as my grandmother told me to join my grandfather. He was cutting wood.
My grandfather liked simple things. He wore the same sweat-stained baseball hat on his head for 22 years, but he married a woman who likes to cover her long, white fingers with amethysts. A single flaw mars her hands: an index finger crooked at the first joint to the right, bent permanently in the angle at which she pinches her embroidery needle.
Their house is filled with dozens of tapestries of embroidered cloth, not Bible verses or proverbs but explosions of vicious color, fierce shrimp and fields of flowers and dancing children and red Noh masks and castles in Scotland. She started one every time my grandfather left for a business trip, and he framed each one once he got back. Tens of thousands of stitches formed neat silk bandages over clean white cotton.
A few years after he resigned from his job as the vice president of a metalworking company, he started learning Korean with a female Korean tutor. A few months later, my grandmother caught him trying to sneak out of the house with the second-floor air conditioner.
That was when my grandmother accused him—for the first time—of having an affair.
“It’s summer,” he said. “Her children need it, and they don’t have the money to buy one. No one was using ours, anyway.”
“I don’t accept that,” my grandmother said.
I knew instinctively that he was innocent. My instinct was supported by more than the childish belief in the faithfulness of grandparents, stronger by far than the belief in the faithfulness of parents. The idea was that if they had lasted for 50 years in the prime of their lives, they had basically mastered the art of overcoming anything that could break them apart. I knew because he once said that the man of the family could not be weak, because others were.
In kabuki theatre, men who play women are called onna gata. Gata means mold, an example to follow. The delicate, settled gestures of kabuki men who play samurais’ wives, the lovelorn daughters of merchant families, or Yoshitsune’s mother are cast as the highest examples of form and motion for women to shadow. Successful kabuki actors are immortalized for their craft in “femininity,” and are often heralded as national treasures. Yet when women play men, they are called otokoyaku. Yaku means role, and connotes a kind of show. In the Takarazuka Revue—formed as an all-female counter movement to Kabuki 100 years ago—otokoyaku waltz on stage with four-inch heels, silver glitter eye shadow, and a seven-foot-tall feathered peacock tail harnessed to their backs. Their masculinity is an artificial interpretation, in which supposedly ideal male characteristics—constant declarations of love, chivalry, and honor—are acted out on stage. Audiences and fan groups are overwhelmingly women.
In the bath, I recall a page from a Takarazuka magazine that I used to subscribe to about a prominent Takarazuka actress. She had chain-smoked her voice to gravel from the age of fourteen, lowering it to the optimum male pitch, a feat made more impressive by the fact that she remained disgusted by smoke. She signed an agreement that detailed that when she married, or entered anything that could be taken as a sexual relationship—this included talking to anyone who was not a brother or a father in any personal or private setting—she would have to resign. She applied as an otokoyaku, cropped her hair, and watched Marlon Brando movies, absorbing male mannerisms. After 25 years of daily ballet training, singing lessons, and a grueling professional career on stage, she left the company to follow the musical troupe’s motto: “Takarazuka men become good wives and wise mothers.”
“At least I’m a woman,” I said one summer, following a dinner during which my grandfather had told one of his war stories. My mother was drying a kettle with my aunt and my grandmother. We had a little assembly line going on, and I was in charge of suds.
“Oh, are you one, now?” My mother took a white plate and raised it to the light. She then returned it to my basket, to wash again. “Tell me, exactly, how are you a woman?” My aunt laughed, and my cousins looked at me, washing carefully.
My grandfather used to go to the bathhouses with the workers from his father’s coal mine in Pyongyang and scrub their backs with soaped cloth just as roughly as they scrubbed his. He and his six younger sisters were born and raised outside of Japan as part of the colonization project in the Korean peninsula. My great-grandfather, along with ten other Japanese employees, oversaw hundreds of Korean workers, and sent coal for the war effort.
Near the company houses, there was a steam bathhouse, a tennis court, a swing set, and a makeshift baseball field. In winter he would skate on frozen rice paddies, and on his way home from the bathhouse, his wet towel would quickly harden into slabs of cloth ice. On sunny days, young Korean girls took turns swinging themselves high up into the air, their skirts flying in streaks of red. He took care not to watch.
My grandfather did not doubt that Japan would win the war. His father enlisted in the military, so my grandfather dreamed of joining the air force. Naturally, he skipped school with his friends most days to go to the aviation base, camouflaging planes with grass.
On August 15, 1945, my grandfather’s best friend told him that there was going to be a big announcement on the radio. My grandfather assumed that Japan was going to declare war on the Soviet Union. They gathered in the makeshift baseball field and stood to attention as the announcer told all citizens to rise.
At first, he did not understand the radio address. The radio waves were weak, the voice unsteady, using honorifics that were beyond his sixth-grade comprehension. The voice spoke soft and high, resembling that of his mother.
It was the voice of the emperor. He told them that the war was lost, that he had agreed to an unconditional surrender. That he was no longer god, but a man, just a man. They sat on the sand mound in the baseball field, and the swings were still, although the sun beat down on their necks. No one moved, but even the heavens were changing.
For a year, his family worked in the mines. Their belongings were taken and distributed among their former workers, or burned. They lived where they had housed the Koreans, where the red clay walls that invited the wind. The temperature dropped below -33 degrees Celsius. He carried pieces of heavy rail and lumber to the station and back in endless loops, tracing the steps and paths made by the friends who used to teach him Korean songs, laugh at his accent, and give him cigarettes while they all waited for his father to finish his turn in the bathhouse. These men now called him dirty, as he had teased them a year ago. One wore his father’s best coat.
By 1947, it was time to leave his homeland. It was past time. They had started to hear rumors of Japanese colonists killed by Soviet troops, by the Chinese, by the Koreans, all of whom were heading steadily south from the north. The Soviets were going to close the 38th parallel, and soon. His father started to make plans for the family to cross the parallel into American territory without him, before the border closed. His father would be forced to continue working in the Korean mines for a decade.
One day, my grandfather saw a blonde woman in a red dress standing with an officer on the station platform. She was tall, laughing, using her height to scan for someone in the crowd of troops. The officer’s chin dipped as he looked at her. My grandfather tried not to watch as he continued to walk on, hauling his rail to the mine where there was no color.
Each repatriate had a moment of realization that Japan had truly and irrevocably lost the war. For some, it was the radio address. For my great-grandmother, it was when she saw ashes instead of Tokyo. For my grandfather, it was seeing the blonde woman in the red dress, waiting on his station’s platform.
In the end, there was no safe way to cross the 38th parallel. My grandfather’s family and a few other Japanese families hired a boat to get to the south by sea, deciding to risk routine checks by Korean and Soviet troops who had prohibited any Japanese from crossing the border. When they got on the boat, his mother handed my grandfather the baby, his infant sister.
“Please take her,” she said. She then guided his sisters to the crates they would hide in for the five-day trip.
He carried his sister to his crate. He knew what this meant, what he had to do. What only he could do, because their father wasn’t with them anymore. When she cried. When Korean soldiers knocked on top of his crate, checking for warm bodies, listening for living sounds. He looked at his sister’s pink, cold nose pressed against his chest.
Her mouth was barely the size of his thumbs pressed together.
I got out of the bath and wrapped a towel slowly around my breasts. I fumbled in my dark room to my desk and took out a piece of notebook paper, folded in four, which I had stuck in my wallet. I hadn’t opened it since last summer, when my grandfather was in remission, when the steam was still curling in my hair and he had pushed a glass of orange juice towards me and told me to write down everything he said. On the paper were the names of a generation of men and women who left their childhood behind to raise a country out of ashes. And then there was me. I had finished my orange juice; my grandfather told me to go upstairs and sleep.
When I arrived, everyone was getting ready for the fu- neral, occupying the two rooms on the second floor of my
grandparents’ house: The women’s room and the men’s room. My room was full of strangers, except for my sister. She was looking in the mirror, tying up her hair. My sister, the daughter who knows before being told that she should divide her favorite type of cake into four, and that she should take the smallest piece.
“Why weren’t you here?” she said.
“What? I had a test, how could I know, dad told me I should stay in Boston.”
“You know he asked for you. He asked for you, he wouldn’t stop, he just sat there on the hospital bed connected to all these wires and asked why you weren’t there, kept on saying your name, like I wasn’t even there—”
My chin is almost on my chest, I feel so tired. Take it, take the centipede, its not poisonous; you just have to look at it carefully. Where did it go? You should’ve taken better care of it.
“I’m sorry, okay, I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I wanted to be there.”
“Try telling him that,” she said, and retied her ribbon. If only I were a girl who cried. I get up and leave the women’s room, to stand in the hallway between the two rooms. On the roof, the cicadas scream and call, and soon I am calm, but not quiet.