Jami Nakamura Lin’s The Night Parade is an unusual, genre-bending, and deeply emotional memoir that mirrors the sensation of being caught between worlds.
It is divided into four acts in the traditional Japanese narrative structure, featuring watercolour illustrations.
Read on for an extract.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Jami Nakamura Lin spent much of her life feeling monstrous for reasons outside of her control. As a Japanese Taiwanese American woman with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, her adolescence was marked by periods of extreme rage and self-medicating, an ever-evolving array of psychiatric treatments, and her relationships with those she loved — especially her father — suffered as a result.
Frustrated with the tidy arc of the typical mental illness memoir, the kind whose trajectory leads toward being ‘better’, Lin sought comfort in the Japanese folklore she’d loved as a child, tales of supernatural creatures known to terrify in the night. Through the lens of the yokai and other East Asian mythology, she set out to interrogate the Western notion of conflict and resolution, grief, loss, mental illness, and the myriad ways fear of difference shapes who we are as a people.
It braids her experience of mental illness, the death of her father, and other haunted topics with the folkloric tradition, The Night Parade shines a light into dark corners in search of a new way, driven by the question: How do we learn to live with the things that haunt us?
The problem is that the story of my father and me is also the story of my illness and me, in the sense that all my stories spiral around illness. How sick I am of this.
Each time I open my archive – the hardback smiley-face journals from elementary school, the notebooks whose covers I collaged in high school, the staid black Moleskines from college – I am searching for the demarcation between Before and After.
Colloquially it is called a breakdown. But the term mental breakdown sounds like a singular event, as if your brain snaps as easily as fingers, or twigs.
A clean break, my doctor father once told me, is the easiest kind to repair. The other kinds of fractures have crooked edges.
that must be pinned to fit.
In May 2017, I woke in a youth hostel in Tōno, a little village tucked in the basin of a mountain range in the northeast prefecture of Iwate. I was 28, on a four-month writing fellowship to Japan. In less than two months I’d discover my father was dying; for now – blessed ignorance. I could look at the men passing in the street without a clutch in my chest. When I woke, I felt excitement, not the cold shock of remembrance.
The hostel’s sole guest, I waited for my breakfast in a long wooden room, looking through the enormous windows at the rain falling on the even more enormous mountains, astonished at the scale of the landscape. I was from Chicago; I had never even used a parking brake.
Minutes later the proprietor, a middle-aged woman wearing a lacy pink apron, appeared with a heaping tray. A salmon wedge, a cup of soup, a glistening egg with neon yolk. Yogurt spooned with berry jam, a toasted slice of shokupan. Seaweed salad in a little bowl. I looked at each tiny treasure and wanted to cry.
Back in the cramped Tokyo studio that served as my home base, my breakfast consisted of whichever of yesterday’s leftovers could fit in my refrigerator, an appliance so short that when I purchased a liter of milk, I had to decant it into two water bottles.
As she watched me eat, pleased at my delight, the woman asked about my plans for the day. Luckily, this was a question I understood in Japanese – a rare occurrence – though as I tried to align the verbs and nouns in my mouth to respond, I found I could not.
Kappa, I said finally, giving up. It was a word I’d only seen in print, and despite the way I’d practiced my vowels at home, I still pronounced it like the Greek letter.
She looked at me in confusion. I attempted the word again, shortening my long, nasally Chicago A’s.
Oh! she said, after another attempt. Kappa!
In her mouth, the first syllable sounded like cop, the p popping like a little bubble. I nodded, flooded first with relief, then embarrassment. She pointed at a shelf on the wall, where sat a large green stuffed animal with wide eyes, a yellow beak, and dark petals atop its head – a toy that would fit right alongside Badtz-Maru and Keroppi. Looking at its smile, you would never guess that this creature was once best known for invading human’s anuses to retrieve the ball of flesh that held their souls.
After I explained in simple nouns the places I planned to visit, the woman left me alone. I savored the flavors and textures of my meal, for here I could eat as slowly as I wanted. In Japan I was funded by grant money. I was beholden to no one. I hadn’t had a bipolar episode in five years. It looked, and felt, a lot like freedom.
The village of Tōno is famous for being the cradle of Japanese folklore, the place where Yanagita Kunio, the man called the father of folklore studies, meticulously cataloged local lore into the 1910 compendium Tōno monogatari, or The Legends of Tōno. I was in Japan to write a young adult fantasy novel set in a world based on such stories, and so to Tōno I went.
Several of the tales in Yanagita’s book concern the kappa, one of the most famous of all yōkai, the Japanese creatures and monsters and spirits of legend.
Yōkai are the frightening figures I’d encountered as a child in my brightly colored Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories picture book, though there the word yōkai was never used. I didn’t understand yōkai as a category until after graduate school, when – sick of myself, sick of writing about myself – I began to dive into these tales.
Despite my obsession with yōkai, I had trouble explaining to people what they were.
Yōkai are what Usagi Yojimbo fights, I said to my sisters and cousins, who like me had grown up reading Stan Sakai’s manga about a ronin rabbit.
Yōkai are like the oni from Momotarō, I said to Japanese American friends. Think of Spirited Away. Think of Totoro and Pokémon.
Yōkai are like the equivalent of orcs and Ents and the Loch Ness monster and Big Foot and demons and ghosts, I said to everyone else.
I knew this was a pale comparison. I still struggle to form a brief, coherent answer. The kanji that make up the word yōkai refer to strange apparitions; they can be understood as beings that occur as a result of a supernatural event. Yet every book I’ve read on yōkai also touches on the slipperiness of its definition. As yōkai scholar Komatsu Kazuhiko cautions: ‘Yōkai has a broad range of meanings and these meanings are not fixed.’ *1
To say they are spirits is to ignore all the yōkai who are defined by their visceral flesh. To say they are monsters is to flatten hundreds of different characters into one, to overlook all their individual personality traits, their mischief and humour and honour – and yes, their anger and violence and thirst for revenge. (Many kinds of yōkai could easily be categorised as monsters, and many could not.)
Yōkai, more broadly, are the uncanny, the answer to the question Why is this happening? *2
Yōkai are a way to make the formless concrete, to try to give a name to the nameless thing that keeps us up at night.
Yōkai are dynamic, transforming over the centuries as people discover or invent new ones, as other yōkai die out or disappear. And though yōkai can be playful – appearing frequently in comic forms, in manga and its precursors, in games – they reflect a culture’s questions and fears.
‘Yokai begin where language ends,’ writes yōkai scholar Michael Dylan Foster.3 And yet here I am, trying to explain, mouth gaping open.
Instead, the electric bike looked exactly like a regular bike. When I pressed the electric-assist lever on the handle, it felt like a push from a not very strong child.
Help, I thought, pedaling as hard as I could up the inclined roads. Though I possessed what my ama – my father’s mother – called daikon ashi, my legs were stuffed with fluff, not muscle. I stopped frequently to rest, gazing at the flooded rice paddies whose surface, unmarred by ripples, reflected the mountains like panes of glass.
That was the thing: I always needed to rest. Even here – a place where I did not have to report to anyone and all my notebooks were fresh and blank – I knew how travel could tip a person over. Here I was separated from my husband, family, therapist, psychiatrist, and regular schedule, and I couldn’t even take my regular medications. In lieu of Adderall, which is illegal in Japan, my psychiatrist had to prescribe a less effective stimulant.* Neither my insurance nor my Chicago pharmacy would allow me more than a thirty-day supply of the controlled substance, and Japan wouldn’t allow pharmaceuticals in the mail.
When I tallied the time spent trying to acquire this medication before my departure – hours spent researching, or on the phone with the consulate, multiple pharmacies, my insurance company, and the Japanese version of TSA – I came up with almost a full workweek, for which I received nothing except another Blue Cross Blue Shield customer service rep telling me Sorry, the agent you spoke to earlier was wrong.
At the last minute, my father learned from another doctor a loophole that would allow me two months’ worth of pills. When I first received his voicemail laying out his plan, I was upset that he had done this without consulting me. By the time I called him back, half an hour later, I was grateful. (And now, years later, due to the vagaries of phone syncing, this is the last voice mail I have from him.)
Still, the 60-day supply did not cover the entire four-month fellowship. In Japan I managed my intake, deciding which days were going to be Big Days, worthy of a pill, and when I would have to droop through a morning of writing into an afternoon nap.
The days in Tōno counted as Big Days. I pedaled, sweating the entire way, to Denshō-en Park, where images of the kappas’ smiling faces greeted me from every corner, and where I paid two hundred yen for a kappa fishing permit. After being handed a kappa sun hat and a fishing pole baited with cucumber. – the kappa’s favourite food – I followed a stream to a spot called Kappabuchi, one of their favourite hangouts.
The kanji in the word kappa mean ‘water child’, an apt name for a river-haunting creature the size of a three-year-old (or six-year-old or 10-year-old, depending on who you ask). And who you ask is important. To understand the story of the kappa you have to travel backward.
The characteristics that bridge visual depictions of kappa across time, from present day to the medieval scrolls, are the carapace on its back and the shallow indent on the top of its head, which contains its life energy. If this liquid spills, the kappa will weaken or die. While very strong, kappa are also unfailingly polite. When one is bowed to, it will usually bow back – thereby spilling its life force. This is good to know if you attempt to conquer one in a sumo match.
The contemporary kappa – the image that greets visitors in the gift shops and on the hostel owner’s shelf – is cute and cuddly, but if you go back in time, its image is much more frightening. It looks like a gaunt hybrid of a monkey and a frog. The first textual mention of kappa appeared in the fifteenth century, and by the 17th century they were believed to be ‘aged soft-shell turtles that took on humanoid form. *4 The older stories emphasise the malevolence that accompanies kappa’s mischief. It might drown your horse. It might drown you and eat your liver. In this way, the stories of kappa were protective: children knew to stay away from the rivers where kappa might live.
Yet the kappa is also capable of bestowing blessings. Around the Kappabuchi stream I found a child-size shrine where visitors had placed ema, the wooden plaques available at shrines and temples, upon which worshippers can write prayers. They’d also left offerings of stuffed animal kappa and a variety of breast-shaped handicrafts: tan breasts with dark crocheted nipples and pink fabric breasts with nipples of red buttons. Mothers who left tokens here, I learned, would be granted plentiful breast milk. (I had no child and did not leave anything. A year and a half later, staring at my low milk supply, I regretted this decision.)
I dropped my fishing pole into the water and waited. The cucumber bobbed in the water. But my father was the fisherman in the family, and I didn’t know his secret ways. The kappa knew I was an interloper and did not bite.
In a photo from this day, I look thrilled, squatting in approximation of a kappa crouch, holding one hand up in a broad wave. In the other hand I grasp a fishing line, the thread I saw as explicitly connecting me with the past.
- Komatsu Kazuhiko,“What Is a Yōkai,” trans. Kaya Laterman and Satori Murata, in Yōkai: Ghosts, Demons and Monsters of Japan, ed. Felicia Katz-Harris (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2019), 55.
- My understanding of yōkai was greatly shaped by the work listed above, in addition to: Komatsu Kazuhiko, An Introduction to Yōkai Culture, trans. Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt (Tokyo: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture, 2017); Toriyama Sekien, Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien, trans. Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt (New York: Dover, 2017); Michael Dylan Foster, The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015); and Foster, Pandemonium and Parade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
- Foster, Book of Yōkai,
* In December 2021, after almost 10 years of taking Adderall for fatigue and lack of focus, I was diagnosed with ADHD (in addition to my previously known bipolar diagnosis). But that is a different story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She is a former Catapult essay columnist, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Electric Literature, Passages North, and other publications. She has received fellowships and support from the National Endowment for the Arts / Japan-US Friendship Commission, Yaddo, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, We Need Diverse Books, and the Illinois Arts Council, among others.
She is a 2023 Sustainable Arts Foundation awardee and her work was shortlisted for the 2021 Chicago Review of Books Awards. She received her MFA in nonfiction from the Pennsylvania State University.
After many years working in library readers’ services and editing at Anti-Racism Daily, she now writes and freelances full-time. She lives with her family outside Chicago, USA.