Reprinted with permissions from Nomadic Knits. Originally featured in Nomadic Knits Issue 8: Washington (2020) available in print and digital download.
I’m very interested in learning about people’s backgrounds and how they came to be who they are. I am especially interested in the interplay of their genealogy, geography, language and culture.
A few years back, I did research on my family’s ancestry, and I learned a little more about who’s who as far back as my great-great-grandparents. I also used 23andMe to learn more about my genetic history and got a boring but somewhat fascinating confirmation that I am 98% of Japanese origin.
My father’s side has multiple generations in Fukushima Prefecture, but he and his siblings were born on the northern Korean Peninsula in the 1940s. Many Japanese farming families were sent there to grow crops, and his family stayed there until the end of World War II. My paternal grandfather died in Siberia soon after, but the rest of the family returned to Fukushima after a long journey through the Korean Peninsula, East Sea, and Honshu Island.
My mother’s side had their main roots in Yamanashi and Tochigi Prefecture, but there were many cross-prefectural marriages, children conceived out of wedlock, and divorces. (Family drama!) My maternal grandparents left their respective homes and moved to Tokyo, where they met and started their family.
Post WWII, Japan was very poor and most youngsters in rural areas moved to Tokyo for better job opportunities; my father was one of them. My father and mother met at work and got married, then my two older sisters and I were born in a bedroom community just outside of Tokyo.
Many years later, I left Japan to follow my American boyfriend to Austin, Texas. I spent three years in Austin going to school, then I found a visa-sponsored job in Michigan. He quit his job and followed me. I got my green card after eight years of gruesome and time-consuming processes, and we moved to New York City. Eight years later we made the decision to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and settled in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. During our time together, we were married in Toronto, Ontario, where gay marriage was already legal. About ten years later, the U.S. recognized our marriage, but Japan still does not.
What does all of that have to do with knitting, let alone Washington and my Midori Hat? Well, there are many intersectional ties. Let me decipher them one by one.
The art of knitting was brought to Japan, most likely from Europe. It has become a popular craft there. Japanese people were already used to tying knots from a long string of fabric like obi bands or furoshiki cloths, so knitting was a natural fit.
My mother enjoys all kinds of crafting, and knitting was one of her favorites. Several years ago, she showed me the first sweater she had knitted for my father over fifty years ago. (The boyfriend sweater curse did not apply then, obviously!) I did not learn how to knit from her, but yarn was always around in my home, and I would use scrap yarn to play cat’s cradle, or make pom poms, or for my makeshift weaving machine made from cardboard boxes.
On my father’s side, my grandfather met my grandmother in their hometown, Fukushima, when he, a farmer’s son with superb math skills, was the bookkeeper at my grandmother’s family’s silk and kimono business. So there is a textile connection there as well. Silk kimonos are made from woven cloth, which is a different process than knitting, but I was interested to learn of my family’s connection to fiber crafts.
I did not take up knitting until I was over 30 years old. At that time, I was living in Detroit, Michigan, where hats, scarves and mittens were a basic necessity for almost half of the year. My husband and I did not plan on staying in Michigan for so long, but my green card process dragged on, and without it, I was bound to my employer. I got so hopeless and depressed about the uncertainty of my future, especially in the gray and frigid winter weather.
I had to find something to lift my spirit. Then I remembered a little cozy yarn shop in town. The store looked so colorful and warm. One day I walked into the store. The store staff seemed a little surprised to see me, but they welcomed me anyway. That day I enrolled in a “Learn to Knit a Scarf” class. The rest is history.
Washington State and the Midori Hat
Before I moved to the United States, I used to travel to Washington State a lot, because Seattle was the closest major city in the contiguous U.S. from Japan—it takes “only” eight to ten hours by plane—and I had a friend there who would travel with me in his RV. That was over 25 years ago, but I still fondly remember the Evergreen State, especially the beautiful Olympic National Park.
I also have strong feelings for Washington State because, like other West Coast states, it has a big Japanese population. Many of them had immigrated from farming or fishing towns in rural Japan, similar to the one my father had come from.
So it was only natural for me to use the Japanese word for “green,” midori, as my motif when I created a design inspired by the Evergreen State. And as a new designer who’s still learning more about construction and fit, a simple accessory like a hat made more sense than a large-scale garment. This was going to be my tribute to Washington State, home of Evergreen forests and Japanese descendants.
Unexpected Turn of Events
This was going to be the end of my story about this design. But during the editing process of my Midori Hat pattern, I learned something new from one of the test knitters: a green hat has a whole different meaning in another part of the world. In China, where the kanji writing system used in this motif originated, wearing a green hat is an expression used to imply that the wearer’s spouse or partner is cheating on them. Apparently, it comes from an ancient folktale or law. My Chinese-speaking friends confirmed the symbolism and said they would only rarely see people wearing a green hat in China.
So please take this as a disclaimer: if you knit this hat in green, with the word “green” spelled out in kanji, wearing it in a Chinese-speaking community may draw unwanted attention. It was not my intention to embarrass you. I swear to my ancestors!
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Download Midori Hat knitting pattern
Hi, Duke. I always enjoy your posts. Your most recent story was particularly interesting to read because I’m a Japanese living in WA. (A knitter and cat lover, too. (^^) ) And your Tolkien jacket is absolutely breathtaking! That takes a LOT of patience and commitment. Hats off!
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Thank you, Yumi-san!