Who is the true mother: the one who gives birth to the child, or the one who raises him?

I spoke no Japanese and my husband's birth mother, Miyoko Ito, spoke just a few words of English, which was a problem since the purpose of my trip to Osaka was to interview her about her life, and understand why his parents gave my husband up for adoption when he was just two-and-a-half years old. I was planning to write a novel based on my husband's family history. He generously gave me permission to pursue my research and showed no curiosity about what I might uncover in the process. He said, "I'm done with all that. Miyoko did what she did."

When my husband and I were first dating, he told me the basic story: his father, Ichiro, had tuberculosis and was unable to hold down a job to support his young wife, Miyoko, and their son. He convinced his wife that it would be best for their child to be adopted by his older sister, Mitsuko ("Mitzi"). She and her husband, Harry, were childless after nine years of marriage. Harry had a good job as a dispatcher, working for the Halliburton Mining Company in Glendive, Montana. Mitzi cautioned her brother, "You must think about this at least one hundred times. You are not giving away a dog or a cat. Once your son, Noriyuki, comes to live with us in Glendive, we will never give him back to you. He will be ours forever."

Ichiro and Miyoko had to give up all parental rights to their child so that Noriyuki could be deemed "an eligible orphan" under U.S. law. Only then could Harry and Mitzi adopt him. On February 28, 1963, Ichiro and Miyoko put Noriyuki with his small valise and toy red truck on an airplane by himself bound for San Francisco, and then went to the government registry in Kobe, Japan and removed their son's name from the family records. It was as if Noriyuki no longer existed. Six months after Noriyuki came to the United States, and adoption proceedings were moving ahead, Ichiro died of a heart attack. He was just thirty-two, and Miyoko was twenty-two, still a young woman. Miyoko said, "My husband died of a broken heart. He came to miss his son more than he could bear." She added wistfully, "I thought we could have more children if Ichiro got well, but that did not happen. Perhaps if I had known the price Ichiro would pay, I would never have agreed to his plan. I would have stood up to him, maybe. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I did not want to displease my husband."

When I asked my mother-in-law, Mitzi, if she would accompany me to Osaka, and be my interpreter, initially she was overjoyed. Then she hesitated, "How can I leave Harry? Who will cook for him? He won't have anything to eat." I suggested the freezer and the kindness of neighbors or Winger's, the local restaurant. Then she raised her concern about her arthritis. I promised her we would not have to do much walking. "We'll be spending most of our time talking with Miyoko in the hotel."

And finally she admitted, "I have never flown on an airplane." Fifty years ago, Mitzi had come to the United States from Japan on an American military transport ship, the S.S. Black Eagle, with other frightened Japanese brides who met their husbands during the Korean War. She had neither the financial resources, nor the independence of spirit to make the trip back to Osaka without Harry.

Trying to counteract her reluctance I said, "Mitzi, at seventy-eight years old, it's about time for you to go back to Japan. Harry will get along without you for ten days; the flight from San Francisco to Osaka is just fifteen hours. I'll take care of everything. I'll make sure we have comfortable seats in the front of the plane; I'll arrange for a beautiful suite at a fancy hotel. I really need your help. I cannot visit Miyoko without you."

I felt her mood shift. "I never thought I would see Japan again in my lifetime."

"So it's settled? We will go to Osaka."

"Yes. Thank you. I will call Miyoko and tell her of our plans." And then she added, "That is so long as Harry is in agreement."

Mitzi and I arrived at the Osaka International Airport on April 10, 2006, and were driven by a white-gloved chauffeur to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in the heart of the expensive Namba district. Miyoko was waiting for Mitzi and me in the wood-paneled lobby of the hotel surrounded by twenty family members. She was wearing a pair of khaki pants, a pink blouse, and a raincoat tied at her waist. Her short, wavy hair framed her unlined face; she looked a decade younger than her seventy years.

There was an outburst of bowing, laughing, crying, the flashing of camera lights, and the presentation of two exquisite bouquets of cascading white orchids to welcome us. Hotel guests simply walked around us, not seeming to mind in the least that we were causing a commotion. My Japanese family carried on as if the lobby were their private living room, in much the same way that people in Los Angeles speak on their cell phones in public, as if no one can hear them. Introductions all around: two cousin Keikos, two Akikos, one Katsue, one Joji and several aunties and uncles. I wished they had worn nametags, but we were not on a group bus tour.

The first and only time I met Miyoko was at my wedding in Los Angeles. After the ceremony, she stayed with us for four days, along with her niece, Keiko, who accompanied her because she spoke enough English to say: "Please kindly take us to see where Pretty Woman filmed" and "Not worry about rain. We go to Universal Studios Tour to see Jurassic Park ride, please?" I proudly showed them The Museum of Contemporary Art, because its architect is Arata Isozaki, and we ate dinner at a Japanese restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, with a sign on the wall that said TRUSTA-ME. I thought that was a kind of fish, but my husband informed me that the sign was the chef/owner's humor. He was immediately smitten with Miyoko and Keiko, belying his reputation among local patrons as the "sushi Nazi," and treated us to several rounds of premium sake and special dishes made especially for us.

Mitzi and I had not seen Miyoko in seven years, but we fell into an easy and familiar routine. We spent our mornings sitting at a faux French antique table in our Ritz Carlton suite next to a floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking the monstrous, modern steel buildings of Osaka. I'd ask a question in English, Mitzi would translate into Japanese, Miyoko would answer in Japanese, and then Mitzi would give me her answer in English. Round and round we went for two or three hours. I recorded each interview session and took notes. Sometimes Mitzi became so excited that she and Miyoko carried on in Japanese for several minutes before I could interrupt their animated conversation. "Mitzi, Mitzi, what is Miyoko saying?" Then she'd laugh and apologize, or Miyoko would nod her head and say "So, so, so," and I'd ask, "Mitzi, what is Miyoko agreeing to?"

"Oh, she says she fell in love with my brother Ichiro right away. And she got pregnant on their honeymoon."

"A real love child," I said.

Miyoko nodded, "So, so, so."

Once in a while, Miyoko used a Japanese word or an expression unfamiliar to Mitzi, such as the name of the religion Miyoko practices—Tenrikyo. I later learned that Tenrikyo is a religion separate from Buddhism or Shintoism, founded in nineteenth-century Japan, which espouses selflessness and doing good for others. Miyoko is a devout disciple. When I asked Miyoko how she survived the death of her husband and the loss of her son, she answered, "Tenrikyo." Mitzi looked puzzled, but I did not want to interrupt the flow of conversation, so we just continued. Later, I learned what the word meant from Marlon Okazaki, who diligently transcribed all my tapes into English when I returned to Los Angeles. One night he called me, "I am listening to your interviews with Miyoko and Mitzi. Miyoko says she is a disciple of Tenrikyo. I am an ordained Tenrikyo minister as are my father and grandfather. You will have to come to our church in East Los Angeles and attend a service. We all know Miyoko's minister in Osaka, Reverend Ikeda."

I was startled. Marlon said, "That is no coincidence. It was meant to be that I should be given the honor of transcribing these tapes for you. I hope that you will explain Tenrikyo to your American readers."

Our daily morning sessions came to be known as "book time." Mitzi did not know very much about Miyoko's life, since she had left Japan before Ichiro married Miyoko, and she and Harry could not afford to attend their wedding in Osaka. Her life stories were new to both of us—being saved by her father when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima; trying out for the dance theater in Osaka; meeting Ichiro at the tea house where she worked as a waitress and he as the general manager; their love affair and discovery of Ichiro's illness; and then the birth of their first and only son, Noriyuki.

Miyoko assured Mitzi and me that her life was a happy one now, and that she was content working at a tearoom in Namba. "Jobs are scarce in the city. I am very lucky, although I take a one-hour subway ride each night to get to work. But I don't mind. And on Sundays I visit my sister, Setsuko, in the nursing home. She had a stroke. I go there to take care of her. She doesn't say anything, but she smiles at me. I know that she still knows who I am." She stopped speaking and took a sip of cold water.

We were all silent for a few minutes. I wondered what other selfless acts Miyoko performed.

I asked Miyoko, "Did you ever want to remarry after Ichiro died?"

"No, but I had a boyfriend for many years. He was married and I did not want to break up his family."

Mitzi said, "I am relieved to know that you had someone to love you and that you were not alone."

Miyoko answered, "Yes, widowed women do not have much opportunity for romance in Osaka. They are referred to as a cold bowl of rice. He was good to me. He used to drive me to visit Ichiro's grave in Ichi City."

I asked, "Where is your boyfriend now? Are you still together?"

"Oh, he died of cancer last year. I was not able to go to the funeral. I did not want to cause any embarrassment for myself or for his family."

After our book time, we spent the rest of our day as tourists with Miyoko: visiting the Osaka Castle, attending a performance of Bunraku puppetry at the national theater, eating in private banquet rooms of authentic Japanese restaurants, and touring the Buddhist temple in Nara. Each morning Miyoko brought gifts for me, her American daughter-in-law: a handkerchief decorated with colored butterflies, sweet candies, and a beautiful fan Ichiro gave her as an engagement present. She also gave me her mother's hair comb made of jade and tortoise shell. She said, "I always planned to give these things to Noriyuki's wife, and now I can."

I asked, "Are you sure you want to give these precious mementos away?"

"Yes, take, take. I have no need now."

On our fifth day in Osaka, Miyoko announced, "Today we are not going to have book time." I have planned a special excursion for us to a ryokan outside Kyoto." I needed time off from our Japanese-English interview sessions, and thought a day at an authentic Japanese inn would be a welcome respite. In all honesty, I was getting a headache from the intensity of emotions and facts, my head swiveling back and forth from Mitzi to Miyoko and back to Mitzi while making sure my tape recorder was functioning, and keeping backup notes. When I listen to the tapes today, I hear the scratching of my pen, and the clinking of ice melting in the water glasses on the desk. What I do not hear is the sadness and melancholy behind the words and the laughter.

The Togetsutei Inn outside Kyoto was a short cab ride from the train station. The recumbent hills of Arashiyama were covered in verdant foliage, and the cherry blossom trees were already shedding their pink petals, although it was only the middle of April. The water of the river flowing underneath the Togetsutei trestle bridge glistened in the late morning sunshine.

The innkeeper, dressed in a traditional kimono, escorted us to the private room Miyoko had reserved for us. We sat on silk cushions around a low lacquered table. One by one, the dishes were brought in and a glowing brazier kept the teapot hot. I had no idea what I was eating, but after a few days in Osaka I had stopped worrying about the strange food, because everything was delicious, beautifully prepared, and freshly caught from the sea or picked from nearby farms. We finished eating and then Miyoko said, "Now we go to the bath."

I had been dreading this moment since Miyoko told us that she had reserved time for us in the communal onsen; the prospect of floating naked in a hot bath with my two mothers-in-law seemed a little too intimate. But Miyoko had been willing to bare her heart during book time, so why should I be afraid of taking my clothes off in front of my mothers-in-law?

We undressed in a tiny anteroom, and folded our clothes in straw baskets sitting on shelves. Miyoko opened the door to a large tiled room. In the middle was a shallow heated pool with bright lights overhead. Around the room were wooden stools and buckets. I followed Miyoko's example, soaping myself and then pouring a bucket filled with hot water, to rinse the suds off my body. Mitzi did the same and then the three of us slipped into the water. The lyrics to "Three Little Maids From School Are We" from The Mikado popped into my head.

With no other guests to worry about, we paddled around in the hot water, laughing. I rested my head against the cool ceramic tile; Miyoko floated in the middle of the pool, her face flushed from the steam; and Mitzi jumped up and down enjoying the soothing water on her arthritic feet and legs. We climbed out of the pool, wrapping ourselves in individual white towels and got dressed again. I felt cleansed and refreshed. Before we boarded the train back to Osaka, we walked through a black bamboo forest and visited a Buddhist temple. A few curious Japanese glanced politely at the tall red-haired American woman and her two Japanese companions.

On our last day together, Mitzi said, "Miyoko has something she has wanted to ask you, but until today she did not feel ready."

"What does she want to know?"

Miyoko asked, "Is Noriyuki happy? Is my son happy?"

Mitzi repeated the question in English, "Is Noriyuki happy? Is my son happy?"

I felt as if both mothers were asking me this question: Miyoko needing assurance that she had done the right thing to give her toddler away and Mitzi needing assurance that she and Harry had been good parents to my husband. I told both mothers, "Yes, I think he is very happy."

Miyoko and Mitzi embraced one another, and then turned to me. In unison, they bowed and said, "Thank you."

I answered, "No, it is I who should thank you."

I am now back in Los Angeles, spending book time without my two mothers-in-law, carried forward on the strength of their stories to write a novel. I am filling in the blanks that the years have stolen from Miyoko and Mitzi's memories. A photograph of the three of us standing on the trestle bridge sits on my desk: we are all smiling as the river flows underneath us.


Title image, "View of Osaka from 25th Floor of Ritz-Carlton," and footer image, "Miyoko Ito, Loren Stephens, and Mitzi Miyoshi," provided courtesy of Loren Stephens.