by Tony Concannon
Akira Sato wasn’t speaking to his son Hiroshi. It had started the week before New Year’s when Hiroshi had sold the restaurant behind Akira’s back. It was the morning of January second now and Akira was watching the news and drinking tea at the big table on the floor in the living room. He’d always been the first one up in the house. The gas space heater in the corner was on high.
“Grandpa, akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. Kotoshi mo dōzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
His grandson Yasuo was standing in the doorway. Akira hadn’t heard him come down the stairs. The night before Akira had already been asleep when Yasuo and his wife Keiko had arrived from Tokyo, where Yasuo worked for one of the big banks. Akira returned the traditional New Year’s greetings. “Come in and sit near the heater. It’s cold,” he said.
Yasuo sat on the floor across from his grandfather. He poured himself a cup of tea from the pot of the table.
“How’s Keichan?” Akira asked.
“Good. She’s getting up now. How are things in town?”
Akira made a dismissing gesture with his hand.
“Everything keeps changing. You remember Yoshida’s bakery down by the high school?”
“We used to go there on our way home from school.”
“They tore it down and razed the hill behind it. Now they’re putting up housing for the marine research facility. The beach at Mihama is a park now. They put barricades in the water. The currents changed and a little girl drowned last summer.”
Yasuo took one of the tangerines from the bowl on the table and began peeling it. The night before his father had told him about the sale of the restaurant.
“You shouldn’t have done it without talking to Grandpa first. It’s not right,” Yasuo had kept saying while he and Keiko had drunk beer with his father.
“But this was the time. Land prices are starting to go down again,” his father had said.
“It’s really his restaurant. He’s the one who built it up,” Yasuo had argued back.
“We were going to have to sell it sooner or later. You and Keiko are not coming back to run it. Your mother and I were still young enough to get jobs at the hotel opening in front of the station. It was the best thing.”
There were footsteps on the stairs and Keiko came into the room. She and Yasuo had been married for just over two years. They worked for the same bank in Tokyo. She was a small woman with a thin face and slender arms and shoulders. Her hair was cut short.
She knelt on the floor and bowed to Akira. They exchanged the traditional New Year’s greetings.
“How are you feeling, Grandfather?” she asked.
“Good. Just the arthritis in my hip.”
“Is that the one you broke?”
“It’s not as cold as last year.”
“It will be. Niigata winters are brutal.”
“The snow is beautiful.”
“Not when it is up to the roof.”
They all laughed. Keiko stood. “I’m going to help in the kitchen.”
Yasuo broke off a piece of the tangerine and popped it into his mouth. On the television they were showing how people in the areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami were celebrating the holiday. His mother, Sachiko, went upstairs and came back down and went into the kitchen. A few minutes later there were heavy footsteps on the stairs and Hiroshi, Yasuo’s father, stopped in the doorway, his big arms on both sides of the frame.
“Good morning,” he said.
Akira didn’t look at him.
“We thought you were going to sleep all day,” Yasuo said.
“Let’s make a toast,” Hiroshi said. He walked around Akira, his own father, and sat on the floor. “Bring an ashtray,” he shouted to the women in the kitchen.
Keiko came in from the kitchen with an ashtray, which she placed in front of Hiroshi, the only one who smoked. She filled a cup of tea for him.
He lit a cigarette.
“Anything on the news?” he asked.
“They’ve been showing scenes from Fukushima and Iwate,” Yasuo told him.
“Those poor people.”
He drank the tea and smoked his cigarette. Keiko came back with another tray holding two flasks of sake and cups for everyone. Hiroshi’s wife and mother followed her into the room.
The two women squeezed in around the table. Keiko put out the cups and poured the warm sake. When she’d finished, Hiroshi raised his cup.
“Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. Kotoshi mo dōzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
They touched cups.
Sachiko got up. “Let’s have some o-zoni,” she said. Keiko stood and followed her into the kitchen. The two women returned with more trays carrying bowls of o-zoni and chopsticks. Keiko
passed everything out. When she finished, she filled Yasuo’s and Hiroshi’s cups with more sake.
“Itadakimasu,” Akira said. He picked up his bowl and chopsticks. Everyone looked forward all year to having
o-zoni because of the mochi, a small cake of glutinous rice especially served at New Year’s.
“No baby yet?” Yasuo’s grandmother asked Keiko.
“Keiko still wants to work,” Yasuo answered.
“Your mother wants a grandchild.”
“Keiko’s young. There’s plenty of time.”
“It was different when I was young.”
“Yasuo and Keiko didn’t even come on New Year’s Day,”
Yasuo bowed to his grandfather. “I’m sorry. We stopped at Keiko’s house first. That way, we can stay longer. Otherwise, we’d have had to go back today.”
Akira made the same dismissing gesture with his hand. “She married into our family.”
Everyone ate in silence for a while. It was Sachiko who noticed her father-in-law was choking. She was sitting opposite him and she stood and moved around the table.
“Cough it up,” she said, slapping him on the back.
“Don’t slap his back,” Keiko said sharply. “It’s dangerous.”
Akira’s face was red. He was trying to cough but nothing came out.
“You need to do the Heimlich maneuver,” Keiko said.
She knelt behind him and placed her hands over his stomach. She thrust up several times and the cake of rice popped out and landed on the table.
“Keep coughing, Grandfather,” she said. “Yasuo, bring some water.”
By the time Yasuo returned with a glass of water, his grandfather had stopped coughing. He drank the whole glass of water and took several deep breaths.
“Thank you,” he said to Keiko.
“Where did you learn that?” Hiroshi asked her.
“I took a lifesaving class when I studied in America.”
“What did you call it?”
“The Heimlich maneuver,” she said slowly.
He shook his head. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“He eats too fast,” Akira’s wife said. “He never
“Do you want some more water, Grandpa?” Yasuo asked.
He held up his hand.
Sachiko looked upset. She hadn’t said anything since Keiko had spoken sharply to her.
Keiko bowed to her. “I’m sorry I raised my voice.”
“When Yasuo was a child, I always hit him on the back whenever he choked,” she said. “It’s over now, though.”
“It’s finished,” Hiroshi said. “Let’s everyone eat and then we can pray at the shrine.”
“Grandfather, chew slowly,” Keiko said gently.
“I know. I know,” he said.
They all ate slowly. Sachiko got up and went into the kitchen. Yasuo looked at his father and grandfather. His grandfather’s face was still flushed from the exertion of trying to cough up the rice cake. His hair was mostly gone and he wore glasses with thick, brown frames. Yasuo had always thought he looked like a school teacher, whereas his father looked like a carpenter or a longshoreman.
“You have to talk to each other,” Yasuo said.
“What’s to talk about?” Akira said. “He sold the restaurant.”
“It was the time,” Hiroshi said. “Land prices are going to start going down. Sachiko and I were able to find jobs at the hotel.”
“You didn’t even talk to me about it.”
“You wouldn’t have listened. Anyway, Sachiko and I couldn’t run the restaurant forever.”
“Yasuo and Keiko would have come back.”
“They’re not coming back.”
Akira looked at Yasuo.
“We wouldn’t come back to run the restaurant.”
There was silence in the room.
“It was the best thing_____,” Hiroshi began after a few seconds.
Akira put up his hand, cutting off Hiroshi.
“When I came back from the war, there was nothing in this town. Everything had gone to the war effort. Nobody had any money.”
He rested for a moment.
“I borrowed money from the bank and bought the restaurant from a man named Ebihara. His son had been killed in Okinawa and he was going to live with his wife’s parents in Yamagata. I worked seven days a week for years. Your mother did the same after we got married. Everybody did the same.”
He rested again.
“Bit by bit Japan built herself up again. The town grew, the restaurant did well. But that was then. Now is now. Things were different for us after the war and we had to change our ways. Things are different now and we have to change again. That’s life. Even Yasuo and Keiko came on January second.”
Yasuo bowed his head.
“I apologize,” Hiroshi said. “It was wrong for me not to discuss it with you.”
“What’s done is done,” Akira said. “Are we going to the shrine today?”
“We have to get ready first,” Sachiko said from the doorway, where she was standing. “The shrine’s not going anywhere.”
Editor’s Note on January Second
January Second is not Tony Concannon’s first piece in Eastlit. The following pieces of work have appeared in earlier Eastlit issues: