It’s a random memory really, happening sometime in early January of 1989 while visiting my maternal grandparents. I was thirteen years old. After saying hello to grandpa and removing my shoes at the front door, my mom and brother still fiddling with their own, I was the first to walk into the kitchen and greeted my grandmother. She was at the stove putting the kettle on to boil for tea.
“Tommy,” (because everyone who knew me before college called me and still call me that) “did you hear Emperor Hirohito died?”
“Yes, I did.” I replied.
And then the rest of the family entered followed by commotion and what not, that the Monarch’s passing did not come up again during our time together.
I’ve often wondered about that abbreviated conversation. Why did she ask? What did she mean? Was it simply chatting about current events or was there more? Why didn’t the subject come up again? Was my grandmother processing with me something about his passing? I never brought it up again or asked her about it.
Emperor Hirohito, more commonly Emperor Shōwa to Japanese, was born in 1901 and succeeded his father and became Emperor of Japan on Christmas Day, 1926. He inherited an empire undergoing significant economic and military expansion and quickly becoming a world power. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, by 1937 was at war with China, and in 1940 was allied with Germany and Italy. On December 8, 1941 in Japan, (and December 7th in Hawaii) Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. Following World War II, the emperor was not prosecuted for war crimes as many other government officials were. The Empire of Japan officially ended however, with the implementation of the Constitution of Japan on May 3, 1947 in which the emperor retains a ceremonial role as the head of state, but as it is not a constitutional monarchy, the emperor possesses no reserve power. The emperor of Japan has long been associated with the Shinto religion. He is considered a direct descendant of Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, goddess of the universe. Her name means shining in heaven. As such, historically, the emperor carried a divine association. The Japanese name for Japan is Nippon and Nihon which mean “the sun’s origin and are often translated as the Land of the Rising Sun.
My grandmother, Hisae Clisby, née Ihara, was born the daughter of Hitoshi and Kiyoko Ihara, on April 11, 1931, in Shimonoseki City, Yamaguchi, Japan. She grew up in a small village in a very much working class family southwest of Hiroshima in Imperial Japan. By the end of 1941 Japan was at war with the United States. She was 14 when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945 near the end of the war. She spoke very little of that time period, except to say that the entire countryside was on fire. She and her family survived and took all of their few valuables to a nearby river. My grandfather, Harry L. Clisby, served in the Army during the Korea War. While on furlough in Japan he met my grandmother. They married on Dec. 17, 1952 and moved to the States and were married for 57 years until Harry’s passing. She was an army bride who quickly became an American, learning a new language, a new culture, a new way of life.
To be fair, the post war years were that way for many. The whole world was learning a new culture and a new way of life. But specifically, I wonder how my grandmother did it. Coming from “the old country” and learning and adapting in the new. It’s the immigrant story. But with a particular East meets West twist. Still it’s been lived out millions upon millions of times. The multitude of things she must of considered and processed over the years, changing understandings and comprehensions, world views and paradigms shifting. How did she do it? How do any of us? The tensions we exist in as worlds and ideas collide can be mind-boggling.
If there is one element, one reality, that I’ve been clinging to during these last few weeks it’s been hope. March is a rough month. Weather-wise we yearn for Spring. Our bodies and souls have grown weary with winter. Yet March only gives us glimpses and tastes of sunshine and warmth only to be snatched away by snow flurries and more frozen nights. (Often, April does this too.) March is also Lent, a dangerous time for introspection, but also an opportunity for hope. This week’s lectionary passages speak well of this muddled time and place in which we dwell. A resurrection for Lazarus, and yet so much pain, that even Jesus weeps. A valley of dry bones whose “hope is lost,” but who receives the promise of God’s Spirit to restore them. Even the Psalmist exhorts us to “hope in the LORD.” Hope.
March is also a month of meetings: meetings for Classis and committees and other denominational commitments. These meetings are also a lot like winter in that they can sometimes be draining both to body and soul. Gathered together the Body—or perhaps we forget we are the Body?—struggles with the changes that our church and world are undergoing. Our understandings are shifting (or not shifting at all) and we find ourselves stuff with conflict and tension. This can be wearying. Even painful. But every now and then, it can bring us closer to hope. A hope that can move us to experiencing and practicing grace. Therefore, I’ve been clinging to hope.
Having just finished with one big meeting last Monday and on my way to another one on Tuesday morning last week, I received the phone call during the 30 minute layover, 8 am at O’Hare. My grandmother had passed away the day before.
As I began, I often wonder about that abbreviated conversation about the emperor. My grandmother was raised in a typical Japanese home, religiously and culturally Buddhist Shinto. She was still culturally speaking, Buddhist Shinto. She believed in God and had an understanding of Jesus. (Although, I do not know if she would call him Lord. She was not a church-goer.) Still, I wonder. She grew up at a time when the emperor had god-like status. Moved to a nation where that same emperor had a complicated narrative, and she certainly lived to see him in a different light. Rolled with the variety of punches that life brought. How do we make sense of such things? How did she?
I don’t know. So I hope. And Hope is real. I hope.