The Stowaway

By William Wetherall

How to sneak into Japan and stay

Began 26 October 2015, completed 29 October 2015.
Last revised 23 December 2023 (3,100 words)

The Stowaway

By William Wetherall

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

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 a 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 purchase a ticket and obtain a boarding pass for my father. 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 hears 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 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 two adults and infant child who were trailing me comprised 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 clenched their passports in their hands and attempted to appear relaxed. The official seemed about to reciprocate my granddaughter's smile when he returned my passport and waived us through -- 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 and two quarantine officers. The signs listed 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. One of the officers stood to the side, watching for people who had questions or looked sick. The other 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 -- our name, nationality, where we had been, our final destination and contact numbers, where we had sat on the plane, and how we felt -- and would have had to queue up at the quarantine counters to submit them. 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, viricidal wipes, bio-hazard waste bags, the whole pandemic prevention kit.

But entry formalities the day we returned to Japan from Grass valley -- via 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 affecting 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 my son. The only people who 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 at my feet, or in an overhead bin as carryon baggage?

Still, if immigration officials had discovered he was with me, he would have needed at least a passport, no? The first and last one that he had in his entire life, had been issued when he and my mother visited Europe many years ago. Even if it had been among his belongings, and I had thought to bring it, it 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. Some legal boiler plate refers to one's "Nationality at time of death" to establish the applicability of various posthumous actions. Some cemeteries make a fuss about nationality, but generally the next world is borderless. Nonetheless, my father had no status of residence in Japan. If confronted with my father's ashes, would border-control officials have debated whether they were American, stateless, or beyond the reach of compulsory political affiliation?

My father, 102 years old at the time of his death, became ageless. Reduced to ashes, he no longer had any distinguishable sexual traits. How would I, as his proxy, complete an immigration form? Would checking "Male" for "Sex at time of death" imply that he might now be something else?

And what about race? There are no race or ethnicity boxes in Japan, where such things are not matters of law or government interest. But say he had died in Japan, and I had brought his incinerated relics back to the United States. Would I have been required to declare their race, ethnicity, peoplehood, culture, or heritage?

What if I had discovered my father in the bottom of my backpack, while on the plane en route from Honolulu to Narita, and then duly reported his presence to immigration authorities? Would they have refused him entry? Issued a transit permit allowing him to enter the country -- in order to make his way to a columbarium, from which he could book proper passage to the next world?

Orene Wetherall Trail
Orene Wetherall and William B. Wetherall Memorial Bench

On 2015-10-18, a memorial bench was dedicated to Orene Wetherall and William B. Wetherall, by his family and representatives of the Bear Yuba Land Trust. BYLT built the Orene Wetherall Trail in the Woodpecker Preserve off the Cascade Canal Trail on Banner Mountain in the Sierras just east of Nevada City, California. The trail was formally dedicated in June 2010, at which time William B. Wetherall, then 99, walked the entire length of the trail, including the sometimes steep and precipitous loop that drops down the side of the mountain from the bench, along one side of a ravine, then returns up the other side to the bench. On 2017-10-18, contingents of the extended family from Placerville, Santa Fe, Honolulu, and Japan revisited the bench.

Orene Trail memorial bench back

Inscription on plaque on memorial bench

Orene Wetherall (1913-2003)
William B. Wetherall (1911-2013)

"Whose woods these are we think we know"
Bear Yuba Land Trust

I can truthfully report that I had no idea my father had followed me to Japan until I returned to my home and unpacked. When packing for the trip to America, I had put several tenugui in the bottom of the main compartment of my backpack, to cushion everything I crammed into the bag, including my camera and AlphaSmart keyboard, and be there in case I needed towels. 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 I was looking at spillage from the container which had held my father'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. I recalled that, while on the trail, I had bent over to pick up a fir cone. Some of my father's ashes had probably spilled from the canister.

I spread a page from a broadsheet newspaper on the floor, shook the ashes from the towels onto the paper, then turned the backpack inside out and brushed the ashes out of the seams. I gathered the ashes in a crease in the paper and 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. 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" in the sense of "co-residing" rather than "co-habiting". Most people use the verb "sumu" thinking of people whose hearts are beating. Definitions do not comment on the "quickness" of its subjects. There are two kinds of gun fighters and swordsmen -- the quick and the dead. In the thick of battle, opponents can't "co-exist" alive -- one or the other has to die. Or perhaps they end up "dying together".

I thought of asking the census taker if I should include my father, who in some sense was living with me, but decided not to test her sense of humor. She lived in the neighborhood, and as a census taker, was in a position to warn others of a weirdo in their midsts. In any event, I told he I was living alone -- which is true, in the sense that no other carnated being was co-residing with me, and if you disregard the books, dust bunnies, and mites, spiders, and other critters that fill the void around me.

There is no law in Japan against keeping ashes at home. Ashes are usually collected in urns that are put in wooden boxes, which in turn are commonly wrapped in white cloth. Most people deposit urns in the vault of a family monument 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, and airport lost-and-found centers -- left by passengers who forgot them, possibly on purpose.

California law also permits the keeping of ashes 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. In the section on the form called "Scattering/burial at sea or disposition other than in a cemetery", he gave our sister's name and Grass Valley address in the box labeled "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."

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 rest. 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 just below the intersection of Banner Lava Cap Road and Gracie Road, a few miles east and a bit south of Nevada City.

Their ashes, though, are no longer where we scattered them. Rains and snows have already worked them into the duff, or washed them down to the stream at the bottom of the ravine, from which they found their way to the Pacific Ocean. Those that decomposed in the soil have fed the local microbes, flora and fauna, and even the atmosphere.

Eons from now, everything that has ever lived on earth, will still be part of whatever survives of the earth. The earth itself -- its atmosphere and oceans -- will vanish as the sun exhausts its thermonuclear fuels and swells into a red giant that threatens to engulf the nearest planets. Thus shall all incarnated relationships continue their molecular afterlife, within the solar system, still nestled in the Milky Way, by then colliding with Andromeda.

This answers the question I posed in 1965 -- What shall we do with Andromeda? In my romantic ignorance, I misspoke. I should have asked -- "What will Andromeda to do to us?" In the same vein, Kennedy should have said -- "Ask not what your country can do for you; worry what your country can do to you."

But back to the reality of life on earth as we think we know it. Neither my brother nor I obtained permission, from any authority, to scatter our parents' and sister's ashes -- not even from the Bear Yuba Land Trust, which owns and maintains the memorial trail and bench. So as things stand now, we are legally culpable should someone wish to harass us with a lawsuit.

As for my father's ashes in Japan -- the risk of them deported as part of an illegal alien is minimal. He's not causing the state any trouble. He's unable to go anywhere without me, and I'm not about to take him to the local police box to look for the rest of himself.

The last time I brought human remains to the police box, they laughed me off. I had found a skull while digging in my garden. It didn't look like a Jomon relic, so I took it to the koban in front of the station. The officer on duty was the same one who had logged the report I had made the previous year, of a wallet I had found on the sidewalk near the bus stop. A few weeks later, the officer had biked to my home to thank me on behalf of the owner, and to give me a 10,000 yen book coupon as a token of the owner's appreciation. This time, he flashed a you-again smile, and regretted to say that the skull didn't qualify as a lost-and-found item, for the simple reason that, no one who had lost their head would in their right mind come looking for it.

For the sake of discussion, though, say the directors of the bureau of graves in California and the border control bureau in Japan were to take their heads out of their respective bureaucratic sands long enough to put them together. I'm betting that California won't ask Japan to extradite me, and that a Japanese court would regard my father's migration to Japan as a fait accompli.

While writing this story the phone rang. A woman who could have been in her 20s introduced herself as representing O-Miwatari Reien -- God's Crossing Spirit Gardens -- a new cemetery in the Kiso mountains with a view of Lake Suwa. Ordinarily I quickly but politely dismiss telemarketers. But being a writer interested in the death industry, I let her go on, and she got right down to it.

Do you have a grave site? she said. No. Have you been thinking of making arrangements? No. May I send you a brochure? I'll pass, I said, and she rang off before I could ask if she had plans. If she didn't, I knew a nice spot in my garden, by a miniature I made of the massive tomb of the semi-legendary emperor Nintoku, replete with scaled-down haniwa, from where we could sip plum wine with my dad, and watch the old moon set in the new moon's arms, across the river that divides our world from his.