Friday, June 5, 2015

Stories from My Mom: Why Can't Anyone be an Empress?

Now that my Mom, Sook Cha Lee Kennel, has moved to Beavercreek we are spending more time with her and listening to her stories (only like a million times).  My mother was born in Seoul Korea during the period of Japanese Occupation.

The family moved from Korea to Japan in 1933, just before the birth of Crown Prince Akihito.  She remembers that event strongly, because the whole country celebrated for days.  Even the streetcars were covered in beautiful flowers.  My mother was too young to understand much about politics and the intricacies of being a Korean in Japan, but understood that something wonderful had happened, and that a royal baby had been born.  

Found this picture of a Tokyo streetcar from 1934.  I found it interesting to see the mixture of eastern and western styles, plus signs in Japanese (Chinese Kanji plus Hirigana),  quasi-foreign Katakana spelled right to left,  and even English (Romaji).  

     One of my mother's early memories is being asked by her father what she wanted to be when she grew up.  "I want to be the Empress of Japan!" she replied.

       "Silly girl!  You can not be the empress!"  her father said.  

       "Why not?"

    Her father tried to explain that an empress must first be a princess, and a princess must be born in a royal family, and above all the princess must be Japanese.  Korean girls simply can not be princesses, but this made no sense to a stubborn little girl.  Why, anybody should be able to be a princess, she figured!   My mother always had the idea that people should be allowed to do great things, and that the human spirit can overcome just about anything. In that sense, she was really an American, though I suppose the concept of royalty does not fit well with our way of thinking.  

    Well old dreams die hard.  Let us now flash forward 80 years to the future, when her little granddaughter got her ears pierced.  And actually this story is only funny if you believe that I knew, absolutely knew, what her reaction would be.

    Me:  "Well your grandaughter got her ears pierced last week."

    Mom: "Oh..."  (voice trailing)

    Me:  (frowning because I know what's coming next)
    Mom:  "You know, in Japan.."

    Me:  "Stop it, mother."

    Mom:  " can not marry a member of the Japanese royal family if one's ears are pierced."

    Me:  (eyes rolling to the ceiling)  "How nice that we live in America!"

    Mom:  "Of course I will always support the decisions made by my granddaughter..."

    Me:  "Mom!  Japan lost World War II!  Who cares what the Japanese Royal Family likes?!" 

    This may seem like a totally off the wall conversation, but I think it will make Japanese Americans from my generation laugh.  Many folks from my Mother's generation feel compelled to follow the example of the Royal Family in all things, whereas people from my generation are completely unconcerned about these traditions and have no desire to emulate Japanese Royalty at all.  But in my Mom's day, the Royal Family were considered to be almost like Gods. 

     The last laugh, however, comes from my daughter who recently showed Grandma a picture she had found of a Japanese princess....with pierced ears.

My Mom, Sook Cha Lee, upon graduation from Ewha Womans University, Seoul Korea 1948. My Mom also graduated from Teacher's College in Tokyo, and would later graduate from Baldwin Wallace College in Berea Ohio, and Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  But definitely not an empress.  


  1. Maybe not an empress, but I think she's close... certainly much wisdom!

  2. Loved the story, Elliot! Your mom is an impressive woman.