The Various Types of Sea

Takahashi Mutsuo

Illustration by Hugo Muecke

I was four years old when I first encountered the word "sea." That was after Mother ran away to China to be with her lover, telling me only she would be away for a short time while she did her shopping. Three months later, a big package arrived from China and Grandmother finally leveled with me.

"Mommy went to China."

"Where is China?" I asked.

It was in her response that I heard the unfamiliar word "sea" for the first time. "It's on the other side of the sea, really far away."

When a word first presents itself to a young soul, it always appears suddenly like this. As it struck my eardrums, the sound of the word "sea" conjured up for me the image of some dark, expressionless, enormous thing. This expressionless thing stood as a barrier between Mother and me, separating the two of us. If so, then perhaps my mother's love affair, which I was only vaguely aware of, was perhaps also wrapped up in whatever this unfamiliar word "sea" might mean.

Just as all children do when presented with such situations, I quickly tried to fill in the substance of this new concept that had presented itself to me. "What does 'sea' mean?"

Grandmother thought for a moment, then said, "It's like the pond, but it's so big you can't see the other side."

Hearing this, I imagined the "sea" as being like the pond in front of her house—the very same pond that would rise nearly all the way to the road during the rainy season but then grow so shallow at the peak of summer that the fish would come to the surface gasping for air. I imagined the sea to be like the pond with frogs crying out from afternoon until evening, making sounds like cows. I thought of the sound of the yosshoi birds, which would travel each night across the pond from the thickets on the opposite side. I imagined the sea to be like the pond where the black and white dragonflies would dip their tails to put out the fires inside, or the pond where I would wade barefoot with Mother and Grandmother to collect snails and water chestnuts. The images of all these things and more merged in the single word "sea"—so many images it would probably have taken me two hands to count them all.

Grandmother's description of the sea was, needless to say, not very accurate. Still, I don't mean to blame her. She had probably only ever seen the sea a few times in her life. One of those times would've been soon after her family was reduced to poverty in western Yame-gun in Fukuoka, when she moved with her sickly husband and young children to Nōgata. She traveled by train, and I can imagine her catching a glimpse of the sea through the dirty windows and the smoke pouring out of the engine. Later, when she went with her son and wife to Yawata, she may have had other occasions to catch a glimpse of the sea, but I imagine that was about the extent of her experience. For both Grandmother and Grandfather, life meant work, so seashell hunting on the beach, swimming in the sea and other such things had nothing whatsoever to do with their existence.

The first time I ever saw the sea was a year after Mother's disappearance, when my cousin Non-chan took me to Shimonoseki to meet her upon her return to Japan. As we rushed from the new station to the hotel where she was waiting, I caught glimpses of the sea each time we came to the end of a block—a strip of blue laid like the tile of a mosaic between the houses and warehouses. The blue was so deep it seemed to roar with color.

"Mut-chan, the sea!"

As Non-chan said this, I nodded in agreement. Indeed, this serene thing between the rows of buildings that I saw every time we reached the end of a block—this entity that roared with blue—was no doubt the very same "sea" that had kept me apart from Mother.

When I saw my mother for the first time in a year, she was seated in front of a bay window on the third floor of a hotel. Behind her, the sea filled the window. She was wearing a dark blue, Chinese-style dress decorated with a clover pattern, and she leaned back against her wicker chair. As she did so, I noticed small and mysterious vibrating things on the calves of her lightly crossed, white legs. When I pressed my cheek against the glass of the bay window and looked at the sea directly below, brimming and shaking with sunlight, I realized the things dancing on Mother's exposed calves were tiny fragments of sea.

Looking down on the water, I saw that it was entirely different than the blue sea I had seen at the end of the blocks outside. The water was a dark, deep, almost stagnant green. I looked back at Mother, who was holding a cigarette in her left hand. On her ring finger was a ring that sparkled with a piece of jade the same color as the sea below.

Perhaps it was because the green of the jade was so deep, but the fingers of my mother, whom I was seeing for the first time in a year, looked pale, and she looked plumper than before. Each time she lifted the cigarette to her mouth, I could see green veins running from the palm of her hand down her forearm, tracing a beautiful line that seemed to rise to the surface of her skin.

During the time that the sea had separated us from one another, some sort of change had taken place within her—something that could not be detected with the naked eye. While she was living in her lover's house in China with his wife and children she had become pregnant with his child, and disposed of it with the help of an abortion doctor. Of course it is impossible that anyone could have told me this, considering I was so young. Still, the senses of a child are acutely attuned to minute changes, and somehow I sensed that Mother was not the same person she used to be. In other words, the resourceful umbilical cord that once connected the two of us—the cord that not only carried nutrients but also connected us in an open, mutually receptive relationship—had been severed, and what had separated us was the sea.

After Mother came home to Grandmother's, she looked for an apartment to rent near Shimonoseki. She probably wanted to live there because it would be convenient for her lover Ōgushi-san who sometimes traveled on the ferry from Pusan, Korea back to Shimonoseki in Japan. I held Mother's hand as we walked through the hilly streets of Shimonoseki and then took the train to the neighborhood of Yatabu, which was filled with lotus ponds. As we walked, I found myself unable to talk to her in the same carefree way I had before. Whenever I found myself slipping back into our old ways and talking about trivial things, the blue sea would appear on the far side of the slopes or through the forest of pine trees. No matter how tightly I held her hand, the sea would sneak in between us. We were no longer a single unit of "mother and child." Instead, were two separate entities, "mother" and "child," linked only by a tenuous conjunction.

Once when I went to Grandmother's house, I felt sick to stomach, as if I were going to have a bout of diarrhea. The sky was leaden that day. I suffered my discomfort silently as we walked the morning slopes of Shimonoseki and the country roads of Yatabu. It was on the way home, when we were on the seats on the upper deck of the ferry from Shimonoseki to Moji, that I suddenly found I couldn't hold back any longer. The sea was rocking gently beneath my seated bottom. The swaying of the sea below the ferry took all the tension from my body. It was gentle enough to lull my backside into a calm slackness, and before I knew it, I had leaked into my khaki-colored shorts.

When we got off the ferry at Moji, we went into the bathroom at the dock, and Mother cleaned me up, mumbling unhappily to herself the whole time. On the train home, I felt like I was dreaming. After the diarrhea, I was listless and languid, and I could still feel the gentle rocking of the sea beneath my bottom, even though I knew there were really steel wheels rolling under my seat. There were rails under them, and nothing but sand and gravel beneath that. Not a single drop of water anywhere . . .

But the sea continued to rock below me, even after we reached Grandmother's house. It was beneath the veranda where I sometimes walked and looked at picture books. It was under the path I took when I put on Mother's clogs and went down to the general store to buy ramune. Even now, over twenty years later, that sea continues to rock beneath the futon where I sleep and dream.


The summer after I first started school, Mother and I moved from Nōgata to Moji. For the previous half year, Mother and I had been living apart from Grandmother, nearly a mile away in the neighborhood of Kamenko, where we rented a three-mat room from an old lady who was nearly ninety. Our humble furniture was fastened onto a horse-drawn cart, and just before five a.m., before it was even light outside, the driver set out for Moji. I still remember he had a cloth tied around his head and fastened under his chin.

It was probably about ten o'clock before we left the old lady's house and got on the road behind him. The lonely old lady who sold cheap confections to the children would be all alone again, unable to collect rent for the room. She hadn't wanted us to move because of the loss of income, and to make her feelings clear, she had resolutely hidden her stooped body inside the shōji and refused to see us off. The same female relative who had taken me to Shimonoseki to meet Mother was with us again. This time, she helped us carry some of our things.

We arrived at the new house at about two thirty in the afternoon, and Mother and Non-chan began sweeping. The house was in the neighborhood of Dairi, which butted up against Kokura on the west. It was located on an old highway that ran from the seashore along the slopes of the hills. Two blocks west of where we lived was the red brick beer factory that soared into the sky. The clatter of the horse-drawn carts that delivered the beer shook the front hall and front windows twenty-four hours a day, and the tatami in the house, which had been vacant for half a year, was completely covered with dirt and dust from the road out front. The horse-drawn cart we had sent ahead of us in the dark from Nōgata arrived at the new house after nightfall. By that time, Mother and Non-chan had just managed to finish cleaning the place.

I woke up early the next morning and went out to the seashore. On the left side of the new house was an alley probably about three yards wide. The alley ended at the workshop of a carpenter who specialized in boat-building, and just beyond his house was the sea.

That was the first time in my life I had seen the sea up so close. The morning sea was at full tide. Outside the boat-builder's workshop, the interlocking floorboards had been eaten away by the salty wind coming off the sea. The tide had swollen, as if it were trying to engulf the floor, but the sea did not lap at it with waves. Instead, its movement was much more gradual. The water simply rose, crept toward the wood, then subsided, creeping back again.

The color of the sea there was entirely different than what I had seen through the rows of houses in Shimonoseki, or from the third-floor bay window of the hotel where I'd had my long-awaited reunion with Mother. The sea was neither blue nor green. It was as transparent as celluloid, but a sea that is that transparent can also easily grow soiled—the transparency of the sea allowed me to see just how dirty the water was. There was no way a young boy like me could have known the words, but I think I could also have said that the transparency of the sea made it seem everyday and banal.

This "banal" sea with its transparency was harder to fathom than the sea that had been so blue it had seemed to roar at me. It was also harder to understand than the sea that wanted to suck me in with its greenness. This transparent sea was far more common, more unceremonious and even cunning, and for those reasons, the more I looked at it, the more unearthly and eerie it seemed to be. The word umi, which means "sea" in Japanese, is a homonym for the word meaning "birth." Not coincidentally, it seemed to me that the blue sea, the green sea and the transparent celluloid sea were all singing a song of birth and death. But the song of birth and death sung by the transparent sea seemed to have a corrosive power missing from the others. For instance, as I stood with my feet at the water's edge, the water crept casually between my toes, as if trying to gently engulf my soft skin.

Creeping forward, creeping back . . . As it repeated these same simple actions over and over again, the sea gradually withdrew to the depths, returning to its center of gravity far from shore. Things were left behind in the wake of the retreating water: wet, green seaweed that looked vivid and fresh, gulf weed covered with sand, bits of straw, and driftwood. Every time a wave came onto the shore, it would leave behind the wreckage of the sea's song of birth and death. This wreckage would lie on the sandy shore, forming a silhouette of the wave's highest point until the next wave reached ever higher and washed it away.

When afternoon rolled around, I took a metal pail and went down to the seashore. About fifty yards to the east of the boat-builder's workshop was the ice factory where the man worked who was renting us our new house. I had taken special notice of the place because I'd seen a cluster of pointed rocks gathered together there on the sand.

There were creatures living at the base of the rocks by the water's edge. I had learned that when I went to Kiyama with Mother on the Fudō pilgrimage and played by the edge of the waterfall. I climbed down a little precipice to the sandy part of the shore and used all my strength to move one of the rocks. Just as I'd thought, in the indentation where the rock had been, the retreating sea left a little puddle of saltwater. A bunch of small creatures that had been spit up from the dark bowels of the sea were wriggling in the hole. The sea is an enormous body of water, but it is also a source of unending birth. Even though I tried to cup my hands together as quickly as possible, I was unable to catch the little sleeper gobies and other fish. Before long, all I had caught in my pail were tiny crabs too young to have much power in their pinchers.

I went to the water's edge and scooped up some fresh seawater for the strange little sea monsters with their eight legs and two sets of pinchers. Then I added some seaweed, thinking it might be handy for them to hide underneath. Despite my careful attention, by the next morning the seawater in the pail had turned lukewarm and the small creatures were upside-down, showing their white undersides and horizontal stripes. Every last crab was dead.

The bluntness of their deaths was clearly something different than the death the sea was singing about. The death in its song was fundamentally linked to birth, so in it, there was a gentle promise that death was not all there was. The death of being cut off from the sea, however, had nothing do whatsoever with birth. It was just death, plain and simple. Even though I did not have the words to express is, that is what I felt as I carried the dead corpses of those little creatures, still in the pail, to the water's edge and poured them back into the shallow water.

When the tide was out, people would come and dig fishing bait out of the sand. On the fifteenth day of each lunar cycle, when the sun and moon would cooperate to create an especially dramatic tide, the narrow strip of sandy beach was especially crowded with people who had come to dig bait. It was easy to find kebu or lugworms, which looked like reddish millipedes. You would find them just by turning small rocks or scratching at the sand with a piece of driftwood. These were used only for fishing at the water's edge, but for deep-sea fishing, the fishermen would use honmushi worms, which were as thick as a finger. To find those, one had to dig deep at the water's edge and scoop out the water over and over. We children were the ones who searched for the kebu, while the adult fishermen would dig for the honmushi.

I continued to collect the little crabs that lived on the rocks at the edge of the water. No doubt people thought me ridiculous when I turned my back on the people looking for bait and put my useless little crabs into an unsightly metal pail originally intended for use as a chamber pot. Children carrying empty cans for kebu would come over, take a look, and make a face that seemed to say, "What the heck?" And with that, they would walk away.


There was a girl who would walk, stooped over, along the edge of the water. As I put the little crabs from the seashore into my metal pail—a game that still continued to entertain me—I looked with curiosity at what she picked up from the shallow water. The girl tended to walk most often along the water's edge when the sun was setting across the straits over Hikoshima, the island off the coast of Shimonoseki, and the sunset was dyeing the sea pink all the way from the deep water to the water's edge. Sometimes the things she picked up in her white fingers would catch the flame of the sunset and emit a beautiful sparkle of light.

At some point, we started to have brief conversations. Her name was Hiroko-chan, and she lived in the house right in front of mine. She never went out in the street in front to play, and that is why I had not known where she lived.

What she was picking up on the seashore were shards of glass. The sky blue shards of glass were from the bottles of the carbonated, citrusy drink known in Japan as "cider." The bluish-green shards were from bottles of ramune, another popular carbonated drink. The brown ones were from beer bottles. The thin, translucent ones were from medicine bottles. The cloudy white and pale pink ones were from bottles of make-up or face cream. There were even times that she would occasionally find bright red or purple shards that had come from bottles she could not identify.

Hiroko-chan would break these shards into even smaller pieces on a rock, then select only the pieces that had the most beautiful shapes. She would then wet the pieces at the water's edge and hold them up to the sunset to show me. The shards of glass would glitter beautifully in the last light of the setting sun. The sunset would outline her luxurious hair, soft, pale blue cardigan, and skirt, and she would look like a flame—a vision out of a dream.

"It's like a jewel, don't you think?" She smiled as she asked this question. But the shards in her hands were not the only jewels there. Clad in a cardigan with feathers around the neck—clothing incredibly rare during the time of war—Hiroko-chan's soft and gentle figure itself struck me as a rare and precious jewel.

"But when it dries out, it'll turn into just a regular old piece of glass."

One time Hiroko-chan showed me the jewel box in which she carefully kept her treasures. It was a small, empty box of paulownia wood lined with dark green velvet, and inside, she had carefully lined up her "jewels"—diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and opals. They had dried out completely and lost their shine, but they still emitted a faint scent of the seashore, commemorating the fact they had once been soaked in seawater.

Her father was an elementary school principal so she had lots of books at her house. Of the books she showed me, there were two that left an especially deep impression. One story went like this. One evening when the weather was nice, the main character looked out in the distance and saw a house with metal windows. When he walked all the way over to take a closer look, he saw the windows were made of regular glass. The reason they had looked like metal was that they had caught the light of the setting sun . . . The reason I liked this story was because it reminded me of Hiroko-chan with her "jewels."

The other story was Andersen's "Little Mermaid." Hiroko-chan was also unable to swim, just like the mermaid who was no longer able to swim after climbing onto land. Although she could not swim, however, the mermaid unmistakably belonged to the sea. Likewise, Hiroko-chan was a daughter of the sea through and through. And it was precisely for that reason that she was able to pull up such magnificent treasures from the belly of the sea.

The fingers with which she picked up the shards of glass from the edge of the water were white, but the lines at the joints were a pale pink, and her fingernails were like agate, the rosy pink of dawn. Her hands were delicate and moist overall, and the vessels just beneath their surface were as beautiful as blades of grass. When I was out of sight, I furtively spread out my fingers and took a look at my own hands. Mine were darker in complexion, the skin strangely dry and the fingernails distorted. I took some hand cream from the stand where Mother did her makeup, and I tried slathering it on my hands. Still, my hands did not become as moist and attractive as Hiroko-chan's. With this, I was forced to recognize that the humanity was divided into two groups: those who had beautiful hands and those who had unsightly and even distorted hands.

One day, the two of us were crouched on the seashore showing one another what we had found that day when five or six boys from the neighborhood passed by. The boys looked at us and said in a deliberately loud voice, "They say Takahashi and Inoue get into the bath together . . . " Inoue was Hiroko-chan's surname.

The two of us would sometimes meet down on the seashore, but of course, we had never taken a bath together nor done anything that intimate. Still, even though their slander was completely false, I felt embarrassed about what the mean boys had said. At the same time, I have to admit there was some small part of me that took a strange pleasure in it as well. To hide this, I picked up some seaweed that had washed up to the water's edge, and threw it down for dramatic effect.

Hiroko-chan had a younger brother Kin-chan, who seemed to suffer from some sort of neurosis. One day, he ran out right out of the alley and was hit by a truck. He let out a little whelp like a puppy and died straight away. For quite a while, Hiroko-chan did not venture out of the house.

One evening, I picked up a stray kitten and took it to her front door. There was one pane of glass missing in her door, and so I dropped the kitten inside, thinking it would help keep her company after her loss. The next evening, I saw Hiroko-chan down on the seashore for the first time in ages. She asked me, "My dad said some boy threw a kitten in the door. Was it you, Mut-chan?" Terrified that she would see right through me, I denied it vociferously.

I began to engage in a kind of primitive fortune-telling to tell my future with her. For instance, if there was a log tossed at the edge of the road, I would think to myself, "If I can walk the whole way down the log without falling off, then I'm going to marry her. If I fall off, then we can't get married." With that, I would walk carefully across the length of the log. When I did fall off, I would start over again, saying the same thing. I did this over and over again until after numerous tries, I finally made it all the way across and heaved a big sigh of relief.

Another thing I would do is throw my wooden clog in the direction of the sunset. That was a game other children would use to predict whether it would rain or be clear, but when I did it, I changed it so that the answer would have to do with whether or not I would marry Hiroko-chan. There was nothing I wouldn't use as a means of trying to tell my future with her. I would keep trying over and over until I inevitably got the answer I wanted, but afterward, I would always realize how absurd my methods of divination were, and I would become uneasy about whether or not I could trust the results.

Hiroko-chan and I were placed in the same class in the fifth grade of elementary school, but whenever I ran into her, I would blush bright red and become completely tongue-tied. Even in class when the teacher called on me, I would become discombobulated and confused if I thought Hiroko-chan was listening.

At the end of our fifth-grade year, we had the school race. When I had run six miles and come almost all the way back to the school gate, Hiroko-chan surprised me by jumping out of an alley and shouting, "Takahashi-san, hang in there!" She did not say, "Mut-chan," her childhood name for me. She had used my surname, "Takahashi-san," with the suffix indicating polite respect. I could not help but feel that she had used this adult form of address to maintain propriety in the eyes of the public, but hiding behind her formality were her personal feelings for me. This thought spurred me on as I squeezed out my last ounce of energy and dashed for the finish line. I took seventh-sixth place overall.

translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles

This excerpt consists of most of one chapter from the book Twelve Views from the Distance, forthcoming in Fall 2012 from the University of Minnesota Press.