The Stowaway

By William Wetherall

How to sneak into Japan and stay

Began 26 October 2015, completed 29 October 2015.
Last revised 15 March 2017 (2,400 words)

The Stowaway

By William Wetherall

I'm not sure how law enforcement authorities in Japan would react to this story should they ever hear it. Could they even find applicable laws to prosecute me, if not my father? They couldn't deport me because I'm Japanese. My father, though, was an American at the time of his death.

It's not as though the authorities didn't have a chance to discover the facts before I did. But they can hardly be blamed for not paying attention, any more than I can be held responsible for not knowing the situation until I unpacked my bags after returning to Japan from my visit to California and Hawaii. From that point, a legalist might argue, I was obliged to advise Japanese authorities that I may have broken a law or two, or contributed to my father's delinquency, if that's what it was.

He was not invisible,
but visibility requires vision,
and vision requires a seeing eye.

In hindsight, I cannot deny that I failed to obtain a boarding pass for my father, but the fact is I had no idea he was with me. If pressed to defend my unawareness, I would ask if a falling tree makes a sound if no one is there to hear it. Though he was not invisible, visibility requires vision, and vision requires a seeing eye. Is "Out of sight, out of mind" actionable?

I submitted my passport to the immigration officer in Japan and proceeded down the escalator to the baggage reclaim area. I then handed the required declaration form to the customs official, who confirmed that the three people who had tailed me to the inspection counter were the two adults and infant child I had enumerated on the form as comprising my accompanying family. The form collectively declared that none of us were bringing in anything either disallowed or subject to a tariff. The official eyed my children, who were holding their passports in their hands ready to show if asked. He seemed about to reciprocate my granddaughter's smile when he returned my passport and waived us through, exactly as he had the woman with the small cabin bag immediately ahead of us, and the couple with the cartload of suitcases before her. My half-century record of never having any baggage examined by a customs official in Japan remained unbroken.

A minute later we were pooled in the middle of the arrivals lobby, fully inside Japan, beyond its hard and soft national borders -- the quarantine, immigration, and customs gates. The quarantine gates, which come before the immigration hall, had only some large signs listing the most virulent bugs and affected countries, and what to do if you had a fever, diarrhea, or other symptoms, or suspected that you'd been exposed. A quarantine officer stood to the side, watching for people who had questions or looked sick. Another officer was monitoring the mob with an infrared thermal imaging camera. Had there been an Ebola, SARS, or MERS alert, we would have been given a questionnaire on the plane and been required to queue up at the quarantine counters to submit them -- how we felt, where we had been, where we had sat on the plane, and our destination and contact numbers. Had there been a regional outbreak, we might have been screened before deboarding by a battalion of quarantine officers in full-body isolation suits, armed with disposable thermometers, virucidal wipes, bio-hazard waste bags, the whole pandemic prevention kit.

But entry formalities the day we returned to Japan from the United States via San Francisco, Sacramento, Grass Valley, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Honolulu were limited to immigration and customs. So there we were, in the arrivals lobby, back home in Japan, all of us survivors of a nasty flu bug which had swept through the entire family, first manifesting in my granddaughter the day we arrived in Sacramento -- something she had to have picked up in Japan before we left. It then struck in turn my daughter, my brother, and my adopted sister's sons, and finally, in Honolulu, just before our return to Japan, me and son. The only people were didn't show symptoms were my brother's wife and my adopted sister -- and my blood sister, who had been admitted to a Grass Valley hospital a few days before we arrived. All of us had visited her two or three times, in a room we were allowed to enter only after putting on gowns, gloves, and masks, as she had been diagnosed with full-blown MRSA septicemia and would be in isolation for as long as it took to treat her.

Back to the story of my father, though. If the airlines had known he was boarding the plane with us, how would the staff have treated him? Would he have needed a ticket, or would they have let him fly for free on my lap, like an infant? Still, he would have needed a passport, and the last one he had been issued -- when he and my mother visited Europe many years ago -- had long since expired.

For that matter, my father himself had expired two years ago. Technically he no longer counted as a citizen of the United States, though some legal boiler plate refers to ones "nationality at time of death" to establish the applicability of various posthumous actions. Transportation of remains or cremains would have been among these, but since he had no status of residence in Japan, I would have had to petition for special permission to import his relics into the country, with no assurances that officials would have found precedents for authorizing such a request. Precedented or not, how would I have classified the age of someone who had stopped aging and become essentially ageless? And though he no longer has any distinguishable sexual traits, would he still have to be classified male? There are no race boxes in Japan, where race has never been a matter of law, but if he had died and been cremated in Japan, and I had brought his ashes to the United States, would they have been subject to racial classification?

What if I had I looked in the bottom of my pack sack, and discovered my father, while on the plane en route to Narita? And then duly reported his presence to authorities there? Would they have refused him entry? Or under the circumstances, allowed him visitor status?

I can truthfully report that I had no idea my father had followed me to Japan until I returned to my home and unpacked. Before leaving Japan, I had put a couple of hand towels in the bottom of the main compartment of my backpack, to use if necessary. Otherwise their purpose was to cushion everything I crammed into the bag, including my camera and AlphaSmart keyboard. Back in Japan, unpacking the towels, which had stayed in the bottom of my pack, unneeded, I noticed that they were covered with what at first I took to be sand. But I'd been sick in Honolulu and hadn't gone to the beach.

I then realized that what I was looking at was the spillage from the container which had held my dad's ashes. I had carried it in my pack, while my brother had carried our mother's ashes in his pack, when hiking the Orene Wetherall Trail, which bore my mother's name. The main loop of the trail departed from and returned to the site of a bench dedicated to both of our parents. We had wanted them to hike the trail with us before we scattered their ashes around the bench and adjacent parts of the trail. While on the trail, I had bent over to pick up a fir cone, and some of my dad's ashes had spilled from the canister. I swept the few ashes that I could see out of the pack, not realizing that some had settled to the bottom around the towels.

Back in Japan, and seeing the ashes around the towels, I shook the towels out inside the pack, then carefully brushed out the ashes out on a sheet of newsprint. I collected the ashes in the fold of the paper, then poured them into a clear plastic vial, which sits in a tray of paperclips, toothpicks, and a supply of salty plum throat lozenges by the tower of my computer on the desk in my study.

So far my father hasn't complained. He hears every knock on the door and ring of the phone I do. The other day a woman from the local census committee came. A census is taken every five years, and until now the forms had been filled out by hand. This time I had the option of completing the form on-line. Would I like to do that? Sure, I said, and she gave me an id and password with a leaflet of instructions. She confirmed the two parts of my name, as only my family name is written on the mailbox, and asked how many people were "issho ni sunde iru". The expression means "living together" but more in the economic than biological sense -- "co-residing" or "co-existing" under the same roof. Most people use the verb "sumu" thinking of people whose hearts are beating, but the word makes no comment about the "quickness" of its subjects.

In any event, I told the census taker I was living alone -- which is true, if (1) in the demographic sense no other carnated being co-resides with me, (2) my father doesn't qualify as an occupant, and (3) you discount the books, dust bunnies, and mites and other critters that fill the void around me.

There is no law in Japan against keeping ashes at home. Ashes are collected in urns that are put in wooden boxes, which in turn are wrapped in white cloth. Most people deposit them in a family plot at a temple, or arrange for them to be kept at a graveyard or columbarium. A few people, though, put them in a closet and forget them. House wreckers find them under floorboards and above ceilings. Quite a few also end up at railroad, subway, and bus-line lost-and-found centers.

California law also permits ashes to be kept practically anywhere, so long as proper notifications are made. My father's "Application and Permit for Disposition of Human Remains" was notified in Nevada City, where he died, by my brother, giving his Honolulu address. But he gave our sister's name and Grass Valley address in the "Address, nearest point on shoreline, or other description sufficient to identify final place and California district of disposition. If burial at sea, only enter latitude and longitude." box in the "Scattering/burial at sea or disposition other than in a cemetery" section of the form.

The fine print on the back of the form includes the following paragraph under "Special Instructions Regarding Cremation" pursuant to California law.

Cremated remains may be scattered in areas where no local prohibition exists, provided that the cremated remains are not distinguishable to the public, are not in a container, and that the person who has control over disposition of the cremated remains has obtained written permission of the property owner or governing agency to scatter on the property. A state or local agency may adopt an ordinance regulation or policy as appropriate, authorizing, consistent with this section or specifically prohibiting, the scattering of cremated human remains on lands under the agency's jurisdiction. the scattering of the cremated remains of more than one person in location pursuant to this section shall not create a cemetery pursuant to section 7003 or any other provision of law. (Health and Safety Code Section 7116).

Their ashes were scattered
and mixed together on a trail
that drops down the mountain

My sister's home is not, however, the "final place of disposition" of our father's ashes, no more than his home was our mother's "final place of disposition". Their ashes were scattered and mixed together on a trail that drops down the mountain, below the Cascade Canal from the Cascade Canal Trail, which takes off from the intersection of Banner Lava Cap Road and Gracie Road a few miles outside Nevada City.

Their ashes, though, won't stay where we left them. Rains have already begun to work them into the duff and dirt. Some will eventually wash down to a stream and find their way to the Pacific Ocean. Others will decompose into molecules that feed the local flora and fauna and even the atmosphere. Eons from now, our parents will be part of whatever remains of the earth long after humankind has destroyed it and, with it, themselves.

Nor did my brother or I, or anyone else, obtain permission from the Bear Yuba Land Trust, which owns and maintains the trails and the property on which they are built. So as things stand now, we are legally culpable should someone wish to harrass us with a lawsuit.

Moreover, my dad -- or rather a spoonful of his ashes -- risks being deported from Japan as an illegal alien -- unless I figure out a way to acquire a legal status of residence for him here, preferably a long-term if not permanent status. It's not as though he's going to cause the state any trouble.

Possibly, though, the powers that be won't read this story. Or someone in the Ministry of Justice will read it, and spread it around the ministry's servers, until concerned bureau chiefs take their heads out of the bureaucratic sand long enough to put them together -- and conclude they've got better things to do than to publicize a silly story by an unknown writer who would bet that the State of California is not about to ask Japan to extradite him, and that a Japanese court would regard his father's migration to Japan as a fait accompli.

While writing this story the phone rang. A woman who I would guess was in her 20s, without mentioning my name or otherwise confirming who she was talking to, introduced herself as representing a company selling grave sites. Do you have one? she said. No. Have you been thinking of making arrangements? Not especially. May we send you a brochure? I'll pass, I said, and she rang off before I could ask if she had made plans. For if she hadn't, I knew a nice spot in my garden from where we could watch the moon across the river.