Oshogatsu: the Last New Year’s
Matsujiro Watada, my father, died in 1987 at the age of 81. He was a rugged man; his body was sculpted by his years working as a highrigger in a BC logging camp before farming on the prairies. He then made his way to Toronto to work for a construction company. He was a kind, gentle and quiet man, only opening up with a shot of Canadian Club Whiskey in him. Though silence dominated our relationship, I loved him and, I know, he loved me. It was the little things: he stuffed a fiver in my pocket even if I didn’t need it; he once said he was proud of me; and he smiled at me every time I accomplished something. He called me Te-bozu, a term heavy with affection.
With his passing, I was left with a nagging emptiness, a void that could only be filled with the stories of his upbringing, his arrival in 1920, his wilderness job, his unjust arrest as an “Enemy Alien,” his forced labour on a road-gang, his subsequent internment in an isolated camp, his exile to Alberta and his working-class years in Toronto’s eastend. But it was too late, our house was now empty with only a silent buzz as company.
My father spoke Japanese peppered with broken English, enough to get by but not enough to express complex thought. I was fluent for a time, but then we bought a television set and my Japanese ossified into “baby” talk. My mother spoke less English, and my brother, eighteen years my elder, was out busy with his own life. With my mother’s death in 1984 and my brother’s in 2012, I became the child of immigrant parents and an absent brother tormented by an extinct childhood and a mute past.
I do have some fond memories. Oshogatsu or New Year’s was always a special time filled with customs, traditions and an unparalleled feast. The night before, the house became a blur of activity. My parents prepared the osechi ryori or traditional New Year’s food. My dad moved the kitchen table to the middle TV room and topped it with a large piece of plywood to expand its surface. Mom filled the jubako or lacquered boxes with kuromame, gobo, renkon and other delights. She proudly placed them in the middle of the improvised table. She then sliced the maguro and peeled the shrimp for tempura to be stored in the refrigerator. My favourites seemingly thrown together the next morning were Japanese Canadian style chow mein, teriyaki chicken and my mother’s char shiu.
On New Year’s Day, the food glistened and the plates and good hashi sat at the ready. My anticipation tingled my stomach but I had to wait, because throughout the day, visitors would pop by to pay their respects. Old friends (we had no relatives), a steady parade of men celebrated with good cheer. The house filled with the smell of gilding tempura, the flow of beer and sake, and the sound of good-natured laughter. Later, Dad and I made the rounds to his friends’ homes to eat the same food and renew acquaintances. It was Mom’s duty to stay behind to greet other guests. That was the way we celebrated the New Year.
It all ended with my parents’ deaths.
While trolling through my father’s possessions, I came across my dad’s diary. It was written almost entirely in Japanese, but I knew it covered 1942. I immediately contacted a translator from the local Japanese Language School. Michiko Abe-Kozlowski was only too happy to help. When I received the first ten pages, I glowed with warmth.
January 1, 1942 Thursday Clear Sky
Today, after getting out of bed shortly after 8 a.m., we prepared ozoni and welcomed the New Year, the first in wartime, wishing happiness for this year. As soon as I was ready, I went to see Mr. Jikemura. While I was there, Mori came, then Shiba. While we were enjoying a great meal, others came too, so I left for Idenouye’s. After that I returned home, remembering that they had told me they would come to my place. At my house, Messrs. Jikemura, Shiba and Nishi were drinking. They said Konishi, Tanaka and others had just left, so I kept them company. When they left, I went over to Konishi’s, but he wasn’t there. So I returned home and then visited the landlord together with my family. We returned home around 8 p.m. I felt sick because I drank too much so I went to bed. While I was in bed, Takeda came.
I am grateful that we can still drink and eat freely during wartime. We cannot thank the soldiers enough, who are working hard day after day, sacrificing their lives.
If I had stayed in Japan, I would have been also fighting on the front line.
I heard my father clearly. Michiko said the language used was highly unusual for a diary. It was as if Dad wrote it to be read. Perhaps he wanted me to know he was a devoted family man and had many friends. He loved his adopted country though I wondered if he understood what was coming. How could he?
January 1st, 1942, was the first Oshogatsu of the war years; it was also the last for a long time. It wasn’t until they settled in Toronto that they could celebrate again and when I could last enjoy the sounds of family.