August 01, 2000

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My View: Akiko's father out at sea

Akiko's father out at sea


Akiko is from Sakaiminato, Japan. It's a fishing port that juts out into the Japan Sea. Akiko's father was a computer engineer on a fishing fleet. Since I met her a few years ago, she has talked a lot about her mother, but never about her father.

In the beginning I thought she didn't have a father. When I asked about him, she said, "Once he goes out to sea, he does not come back for months. And he's always working. I really don't know anything about him."

Last summer when Akiko was visiting me here in Gloucester, we walked along Stacy Boulevard, chatting about the book, "The Perfect Storm" -- the movie version of which was in production on Rogers Street at that time.

She told me about the night when a big typhoon struck her hometown when she was about 10 years old. The storm was nothing compared to the weather brought by the "perfect storm" of 1991, but Akiko remembered how scared she felt. When the winds began to rise, her father was on the ocean as always.

"I was with my mother listening to the sound of wind and rain," said Akiko. "The roof tiles blew up, and the water came down through the ceiling. In the middle of the stormy night, my mother had to go up onto the roof to fix it. While I held the ladder for her in the wind and rain, I didn't think much about how my father was doing out at sea. I was thinking instead that I would never forgive him. My mother was married, but her husband was never home. I remember thinking that it wasn't fair."

Her father retired in 1998. Akiko quit her job in Japan, borrowing his retiring bonus, and came to New York City to attend graduate school to become a better journalist. I used to work with Akiko in Tokyo. She looks like our late Empress Dowager Nagako, so we used to call Akiko "Her Majesty" as a joke.

The budget of "Her Majesty" was almost too tight to live on in New York City. So anywhere she went, she carried rice balls with her. She ate them on the subway or on campus or on the street. She never complained, but looked tired all the time.

Last December Akiko went back to her hometown to relax and celebrate the coming new year with her parents. While she was at home, her father had a heart attack and died the following day. He was 58.

She took care of all the funeral arrangements, spent the rest of the month with her mother, Setsuko, and flew back to New York City in late January. I visited her. As we talked in her tiny Manhattan apartment, Akiko appeared not to see me. Her eyes had a far away look as if she was standing on the beach scanning the horizon. We only stopped talking when we realized that it was too dark. We couldn't see one anther even though we were sitting next to each other on the couch.

Akiko told me that after the funeral she had put her father's personal belongings in order. She checked his computer, and on the Internet found bookmarks he had left on his browser. They led to a board game, the site of a philosopher and of some novels that Akiko never had thought that her father was interested in.

"I was stunned," said Akiko. "As soon as he left the ocean, I went to a different country. I realized that I completely lost a chance to get to know my father. I know that I will seriously regret this in 10 or 20 years."

After coming back from New York City, I sent a consolation card to Setsuko. We had met once a year earlier in Boston when she came to the U.S. by herself to visit her daughter. Setsuko wrote me back: "I am supposed to feel sad, right? But I feel like he went to the ocean again. It seems natural to me. Such an odd feeling."

Recently I received a postcard from Mexico. It was from Akiko, who had graduated in May and taken her mother for a trip. Akiko used to plan on starting a life in the U.S. but has since decided to go back to Japan to live closer to her mother.

I know Setsuko can take care of herself and I think that Akiko is missing a good opportunity to work in New York City. But I would never try to convince her not to go.

I am looking forward to visiting them in Sakaiminato. We will eat sashimi, and talk about fishing, a life on the ocean and Akiko's father out at sea.

Chikako Atsuta is a Japanese freelance writer living in Gloucester.

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