“Leaving the world without keeping an heirloom is a degradation of the divine purpose.” – Michael Bassey Johnson
When you think of an heirloom, you most likely think of jewelry or furniture or maybe even old letters or a diary. I guess there are several heirlooms in my family, but the jewelry and furniture could definitely go to someone else. My grandmother’s diamond ring isn’t something that I would fight over and neither is the china cabinet. For me, it needs to have personal value that a ring or fine china just don’t have to me.
AN HEIRLOOM THAT PRESERVE MEMORIES
I’m not married and I don’t own my own home, yet I have fine chinaware that was passed down to me. It’s sitting in storage because what value does it have to me being out in the open.
This post could be about the medals different family members received from various wars. Yes, I have some relatives that fought on the frontlines of the more prominent battles. What was received could definitely be seen as an heirloom, but there’s something even greater.
As a Japanese American, my family went through a lot to get to the states and to just survive here. My ancestors crossed the Pacific Ocean and entered the US by way of Angel Island.
Later, my family was thrown into internment camps during WW2 despite being born here. A lot of culture was lost in camp. Oftentimes, they weren’t allowed to speak Japanese so many children in camp lost their fluency. Most Asian Americans retain their fluency to an extent even generations later, but unfortunately, many Japanese Americans can’t speak the language at all.
Our families were stripped of all former wealth including land and businesses that they owned. They couldn’t bring all of their personal belongings to camp so a lot of these mementos from Japan were lost during WW2.
Even after the war, Japanese Americans faced a lot of racism. Many of our grandfathers and great uncles fought for this nation, yet we weren’t good enough
Over the years, I’ve made it a point to talk to those in generations before me to learn their stories. It’s our history. It’s our culture. Many have been hesitant to share their stories as it doesn’t sit well with them, but since we are of the same motherland, I normally get a bit more information. These stories are our heirlooms. They’re a token of our culture.
AN HEIRLOOM OF ANCESTRY
Really, there is only one thing that I’d like to inherit and that’s a small stamp that has my family name in Japanese. I believe it was my great grandfather’s and in Japan it’s called a hanko or inkan. It’s used as a signature on official documents. These seals are the equivalent to a signature in many East and Southeast Asian countries.
Inkan or hanko are usually custom made, but you can also have them made in vending machines. In Japan, it is common for people to have three different types of hanko.
It may not have any monetary value, but the sentimental value is high. I love studying culture, history, and most importantly my ancestry so having one of the few tokens of previous generations would mean the world to me.
AN IMPRINT OF CULTURE
But I guess I’ll always have a piece of culture imprinted on my skin. The stories have been written and embedded with ink onto my naked body. My skin is laced with several cultural tattoos and it’s a permanent fixture.
Irezumi is the Japanese style of tattoos. I have the beginning of an Irezumi tattoo, but it’s still incomplete. The placement of it is rather painful so I haven’t gone back to get anymore work done.
Irezumi tattoos were traditionally done tebori which means they used a bamboo stick and needles attached to it by silk string. It was a painful process (even more so than modern techniques). The history of tattoos in Japan is interesting. It used to be a form of punishment for criminals. Slowly, the yakuza started using tattoos to brand themselves until it became legalized in the 40s. There is still a lot of stigma in Japan so if you ever plan on visiting, make sure your tattoos aren’t showing. If your tattoos are not small enough to be covered with a bandage, then you will not be allowed to go to the onsen.
We are a culture with emblems. Everything has a meaning. So oftentimes, our families also have crests or what we call in Japanese, kamon. So it is common to see Japanese Americans with a kamon tattoo especially if they’re from a more prominent family line like myself.
While we can’t pass on tattoos like we can pass on traditional heirlooms, they become a permanent fixture of culture on our bodies. We pass on the culture, the pride, and the history.