On Writing: The Ocean in the Closet

The Ocean in the Closet is a work of fiction based on the real stories of the children born between Japanese women and foreign soldiers during the occupational period in Japan post-World War II. Although the characters are invented, their struggles are real. The novel explores how memories of the war can outlive one’s own life and appear in a different shape in the next generation. What happened in the previous generation is deeply rooted in the consciousness of the next. Yet even though we inherit these passed-down memories—feelings of guilt as well as a sense of pride associated with our country and community—we are not completely helpless. The task of living with inherited memories and feelings is bravely handled in this novel by the nine-year-old narrator, Helen. Her journey absorbs her in the stories of men and women whose war experiences have been forgotten. What it takes for her to break away from the circle of war-influenced life is not only her own strength, but also her fortune in encountering the incredible kindness and empathy of others.

What I wanted to do was to bring the past closer to us, to touch the truth that lies underneath the surface of the struggles of these children and others who were associated with them. Wislawa Szymborska calls compassion “heart’s imagination.” Imagination serves as a bridge to relate to others’ lives and a willingness to be aware of the truth and to relate to others’ pain perhaps brings us closer to a desire for compassion and peace.

A closet used to be a place where I hid, playing hide and seek. If I wasn’t found within a few minutes, I got out of the small dark space myself because it scared me. My parents also told me to go into the closet when I didn’t stop misbehaving and needed quiet time. I vividly remember the process of being taken and placed into the small space in the closet, and kicking the door to protest it even though it was only for a few minutes. When my brother was placed in the closet, he worked on the doorknob from the inside and got out on his own. He never settled for losing his battle, and I was always amazed by his ability to figure a way to get out of the situation on his own while I just waited for someone to let me out. This method of punishment, which Helen and her brother Ken also experience in the novel, was the last resort and therefore rarely happened in my house, yet this experience has always stayed in my memory. The closet was also a place where my parents kept (or hid) important items such as wallets, jewelry, passports, documents for the house, insurance, etc. Ten years ago, our house was robbed and many valuable items were taken from our house and from the closet. My parents were deeply disturbed by the fact that the strangers came into our house and opened our closet, which was supposed to be a safe and private space.

The closet is its own world to me. What we keep there tells much about what is personal and even secretive about our lives. The voice of a child coming from inside the closet occurred to me immediately when I first thought of my narrator. Finding Helen’s voice is how I started writing this novel. I fell in love with her voice exploring her wonders and imagination, and through listening to her voice, she became more and more real.

I have heard many stories about Japanese-American immigration over the years, and they have always been quite memorable. The darkness of Helen’s family, especially her disturbed mother and her disconnected father, is connected to the struggles I have known about Japanese immigrants. But to continue with this novel, I needed to know more about them. While I researched the experiences of Japanese immigrants on the West Coast, I found out about many biracial Japanese children who were adopted by American families starting in the 1950s and 60s. I was taken by the life stories of these individuals, and their experiences helped shape and develop specific characters in my mind. I spent a year reading many historical texts, articles, memoirs, and essays, watching documentary films, and conducting interviews with people from similar backgrounds. I took many pages of notes and tried to absorb all the details. I wanted to gain the memories of the characters. Once I started writing again, I barely returned to my notes from my research. I let my new memories guide the novel to develop its own life. I returned to my notes only after the novel was completely done, to make sure of its accuracy and consistency.

I didn’t start writing this novel with great themes in mind, but I encountered amazing people and their stories by accident while I was looking for the source of Helen’s voice. And I’ve always been interested in the reasons why an individual leaves their own country to live in a foreign land. I left Japan in 1991 at the age of fifteen, with every intention of returning home. Leaving home seemed hopeful, exciting, and possible only with a plan to return. But eight years later, through my marriage to an American, I faced the probability of being a permanent resident of the United States. While I struggled to come to terms with the fact that I will long for my home the rest of my life, I wondered why anyone would choose to leave their own country, especially if they knew that they could not return home. I reached out to others who made such a decision. Curiosity and my own longing pushed me to write this novel.

I came to realize that even if it is one’s choice to live in a foreign land, even if he or she is successful and happy there, living away from home is heartbreaking. This longing may turn into strength for some and bitterness for others, but at the very least, it has a chance to turn into a deep sense of empathy and sensitivity in understanding the loneliness and desolation that can overwhelm one’s life. I strove for this empathy, which became the ultimate driving force in writing this book.

Informative Links related to the topics explored in The Ocean in the Closet:

American Radio Works

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

Yuko Taniguchi, The Ocean in the Closet

In this beautiful debut novel, Yuko Taniguchi creates a moving story of hope and redemption, of tragedy and resilience, and of the secrets, burdens, and ultimate strength that lie in a young girl’s heart.