A Mother’s Anguished Solitude – Part II

A young Grandmother Kono takes a modeling pose in front of her Seattle barbershop. She cannot possibly have foreseen what the future holds in store for her.

The most wicked risk of a mother’s love for a child is loss, and the price of loss is grief…  But the sheer passion of grief can become indescribable if a mother ponders on her decisions.

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In Part I, we left when my father returned to Seattle to stay while leaving behind in Hiroshima his two youngest siblings and his parents.  This was 1937.  Before leaving, the family took this portrait with Grandmother Kono sitting on the sakura wood at the house.  Suetaro is standing next to her:

One of the last portraits of the three siblings and my grandparents. Grandmother Kono is sitting on the sakura wood written about in “Souls of Wood“. Circa 1937

My father says that their younger sister Mieko was ill often.  Indeed, she passed away in 1939 at just 15 years of age from an apparent kidney infection.  Since my father was already in Seattle by that time, only his youngest brother Suetaro was left along with my grandparents.  Most decisively, Grandmother decided Suetaro was not to return to Seattle when he turned 18.  In “Masako and Spam Musubi,” she was very concerned over the harassment and intimidation she had received due to the threat of war against Japan.  I also “feel” that Grandmother knew Grandfather was ill by the time she made the decision.

Sure enough, the very next year (1940), Grandfather Hisakichi passed away from stomach cancer.  He was 59 years old.  After raising Mieko for 15 years and marrying Hisakichi 31 years earlier in Seattle as a picture bride, only she and Suetaro were left in their home.  War with America would start the following year.  A war in which her three oldest surviving children called America home.

One family.  One war.  Two countries…  One mother.
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An undated school portrait of Suetaro. He looks to be about 14 years old.
For reasons I have been unable to document, Suetaro became part of the Imperial Japanese Army.  All Dad will say now is being taken by the Imperial Army was “part of life” back then.  Below, he is sitting on the sofa’s arm to celebrate the young man in the center being sent to China’s Army HQs.
According to the handwritten date on the back, this photo of Suetaro below (on right manning a non-combat grade light machine gun made for training) was taken on May 10, 1939 at the “Hara Mura Training Grounds”:
Suetaro on the right. Dated May 10, 1939. I wonder what Grandmother Kono was feeling.
Here is Suetaro, perhaps in a posed photograph for PR purposes.  It is of professional quality and taken on the same day as above:
Likely a professionally taken photograph of Suetaro.  It was also taken on May 10, 1939 in Hara Mura.

I have a strong belief this was taken at the Fukuyama training grounds for his regiment, the 41st Infantry Regiment (unverified):

A proud looking Suetaro in his full Army uniform. I cannot tell if the handle on his katana, or “samurai sword”, is wrapped in silk or machine stamped. All military issued swords were numbered, by the way.

Another piece of his elusive history then emerged – but it was not from the 100 year old woodshed.

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Readers know that my Uncle Suetaro was killed in action as a Japanese soldier on Leyte.  His regiment – the 41st Infantry Regiment – was annihilated by the US Army on Leyte.  My Grandmother Kono was told he perished on July 15, 1945 – just a month before Japan surrendered.  My father’s secret US Army unit, the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), had a direct hand in the high number of Japanese casualties – and the low number of American casualties.  In other words, the MIS likely had a direct hand in the annihilation of Suetaro’s regiment.  The MIS was comprised of Americans…of Japanese descent.
Dad as part of the MIS in post-war Japan.
It is not known if Grandmother knew of this fact.  It would have been an overwhelming of her heart.
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However, this is not a story on Suetaro’s life but about his life with his mother.  In “Masako and Spam Musubi”, we know she had her second stroke after being informed by the remnants of the Japanese military of her beloved Suetaro’s death.  The last Kanemoto in the family home was now… herself.

During my trip to the family home in September, my cousin Masako, her younger brother Kiyoshi, her son Toshiro along with my son were looking at vintage photos Toshiro uncovered just a couple weeks prior in the shed.  A number were of Suetaro with my father and Grandmother.  We were all quite emotional by then.  Masako removed herself from the table; I assumed she was overcome.  I didn’t stop her from quietly leaving thinking that.

Instead, she came back a few minutes later with something in her hand.  It was a small notebook.  Aged and frayed at the bindings.  Her eyes were red.

It was Suetaro’s war diary.  We were simply stunned.  Masako had it secreted away.  For decades.  She chose to bring it out now.  For closure.  It was the right time.

Masako shocked all of us when she brought out Suetaro’s Army diary.  (L to R) Masako, Kiyoshi and Toshiro, her son.  The Kleenex box is there for my use.

It took us a few moments to realize what she had brought.  It was brittle and smelled of old books.  The paperstock was of low quality – more like newspaper stock – as paper was in very limited supply during the war years.  We handled it as gently as possible.

The first few pages were of what he did during a short period of time; Suetaro’s writing was neat and in black ink.

Then the handwriting changed.  Suddenly.  It was hurried.  Rushed.  And in pencil.

It was his farewell letter to his mother.  My dad’s mother.  My grandmother.  It was dated March 3, 1944.
Kiyoshi is holding Suetaro’s farewell letter. It starts with “Dearest Mama” on the right.
Kiyoshi tried to read it; it was difficult as it not only was in his hurried cursive but in pre-MacArthur Japanese.  Many characters are simply not used any more.  Unused since 1945.  Only a few people can read it – like my father.  Suetaro’s brother.  But we managed to read critical passages.  I will include two pages as reference.  However, these are very literal translations of a few sentences but needs be read in its entire context considering the environment was when he wrote this.  It is easy to misunderstand or misconstrue his heart and soul at that moment.
Towards the left, it states, “初陣に臨むことを喜んでいます. 勿論, 生還を期してはいません”, or literally, “I am glad to be going to war and facing my first combat. Of course, I do not expect to be coming back.”
He writes, “今の時局は日本が起つか亡びるかの境です。どうしてもやり抜かねばいけないのです。兄さん達を救い出すことも夢見てます,” or “At this time, Japan is at the point of either winning or perishing. We must persevere as I still dream that we will free our older brothers.”

I stress this abbreviated presentation can be misunderstood.  My interpretation is, “I willingly go to war for Japan as we are on the brink of winning or losing.  By winning, Japan will free my older brothers from the concentration camps in the US.”

He will fight – and die – so that Japan will win.  If Japan wins, they would take over the United States and by doing so, free my Dad and his older brother Yutaka from the concentration camp.  At the time of his writing, both were imprisoned at the camp in Minidoka, Idaho after being relocated from Tule Lake, CA.  (His nephew, Bobby, had already perished in Minidoka at the young age of six.)  His older sister, my Aunt Shiz who passed away last month, was imprisoned at Manzanar.

Man, my eyes welled up.  Everybody was in shock…even Masako once again.

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I am unable to comprehend how my Grandmother must have felt reading that letter in 1944.  Suetaro had secreted it away in the “butsudan”, or family altar.  She had decided Suetaro was not to return to Seattle to join his elder siblings.  Now, having read this letter, her regret must have been immense.  Grief.  She lost a piece of herself.  A beloved piece.

Mieko had passed away.  So did her husband in 1940.  Now her youngest son writes he does not expect to return.

Could she have foreseen this fate while she happily stood in front of her Seattle barbershop near King St. and Maynard in Seattle in the 1910’s?  I doubt it.

She would be alone.  To ponder.  To possibly regret to her last day.

A mother’s anguished solitude.

It is dated April 9th on the back with no year indicated. However, as my father took it when he was in the MIS, I will assume it is around 1948. Her face is worn.

27 thoughts on “A Mother’s Anguished Solitude – Part II”

  1. Koji, thanks for sharing this. You took all the pieces you shared with me over the last few years and glued them together with the revelations you discovered on your trip back to Japan. Very well done my friend!

  2. Oh my! A mother’s grief translates across countries, cultures and decades. I feel a deep sadness for her, and for the family that comes through and survives the heartache of war that separates them from those they love.

    We were on a trip up Hwy 395 the other week and I saw a sign for “Manzanar” off to the other side of the road. I quickly veered the car and backtracked, walked the grounds a bit and took a few photos. I was thinking of your family while I did this. I would like to post the photos at some point, but I want to be thoughtful and better informed as I share them.

    It isn’t a “tourist” stop on a map! Your words, “they were imprisoned” cuts like a knife, because of course it’s true, but when I was a child being raised we were “informed” of the necessity and the entire awful affair was given a cloak of decency.

    I hope you continue to share about your family for a long time to come. I wish they could know how much their stories mean to filling in huge gaps of historical understanding. Debra

    1. Thank you, Debra, for taking that detour. Aunt Shiz, my uncle and all four of their children lived or were born in Manzanar. Yes, its not a tourist stop but a national park now. One relatively famous “internee” was Toyo Miyatake. I believe he is one of those featured in that little museum they have. He took “illegal” photos while in camp. His grandson Alan took my wedding photos – both of them. 🙂 He is even taking my oldest daughter’s wedding photos come January.

      History is what we make of it and you. And of the times. For instance, the war with Japan was over in less than four years but took countless lives. It was very personal, violent and bitter. Hatred continued for years against the Japanese and understandably so.

      We have been at war with the Terrorists for over a decade now. We will have to see how Muslims living here are documented – today and 70 years from now.

      Thank you for your most sincere and thoughtful comments.

  3. Koji: Thanks again for sharing in this amazing part of history that only emphasizes how truly precious life is. The story as you can best interpret it is pretty amazing. Having lost a brother, I can not begin to imagine what Grandmother must have endured during the time of these events and all the years following.
    I am greatful of our reconnection and continued friendship!! God bless you and your loved ones……………………..see you soon my special friend! Affectionately, Secret

    1. Secret, we thank YOU for being our social director, bringing us boys from the old neighborhood back together again. You are right, as you mentioned to me recently. Life is too short and unpredictable.

      See you soon.

  4. Koji….your family’s eyes just captivate me. It’s like they are looking right back at us. I can’t imagine your grandmother’s suffering. I can’t imagine the emotion in holding Uncle Suetara’s diary.

    Your Grandfather’s strong face, your Grandmother’s face in that last picture…

    You have brought forth your young Uncle to share him with today. And you’re story is so honorable. I can’t help but look at the faces over and over again. And not even come close to how often your Grandmother must have searched his eyes in his pictures, his words in his diary, for comfort.

    Beautifully done Koji.

  5. Thank you once again, Chatter Master. I am frankly still a bit stunned from the recent discoveries, visits with my Hiroshima family and meeting those who found a copy of my father’s 1937 Hiroshima high school yearbook.

    The writing about my uncle’s farewell letter is to ensure his sacrifice and his mother’s grief is not lost. Their message was the same overall in feeling as Old Man Jack’s and my father’s saying: “War is no good.” We must fight it when we must but while ensuring mother’s are spared this grief as often as possible.

    I thank our men and women in uniform.

  6. I couldn’t stop reading….amazing photos and documentation. Promise me, if you publish your family history that I can purchase an autographed copy ! You write so very well!

    1. You are too kind as always, Shar… But you should read what my oldest COULD write…but won’t. She is very talented but she didn’t get that from me – its from her mom’s side. 😉 I hope you are doing well health-wise in Chi-town! Thanks for reading…

    1. That is essentially correct except my father understands his younger brother Suetaro was drafted. He did not “enlist”; it was like it was here in the US – we had our draft, too…except there, nearly all able males were taken. There is more written in the rest of his letter that corroborates that plus gives a chilling accounting of the manpower shortage in Japan.

  7. Loved the article. It is well-written and detailed, more important, it is thought provoking. Families who emigrate to the United States still have family members who live in their native countries. My grandmother was French, but her father was German. So, as with your story I had great uncles who fought on both sides of the conflict in World War I.
    Thanks for a great family story.

    1. Thank you for reading… Its a tad long but more so for my family’s knowledge about our family. You mention your family’s conflicts during World War I. Things were much more fatalistic back then. There was little hope for those wounded on the battlefront due to the absence of penicillin and sanitary conditions.

  8. This is the third time I have been to this post and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Young men being trained for war all have the same look in their eyes.

    1. gpcox, I am honored you have taken your time to visit this story again. It is good some people will read of what life was like during the world’s most horrible war – on all sides. Thank you.

  9. What comes to mind is how Mary suffered so gravely when her son Jesus was crucified. There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between her supreme sacrifice and the pain any mother feels when losing a child. Whether they will “fight and win” for a cause or seek to die for our entire humanity.

  10. Koji,
    First, your love for your family is inspiring. Every family should be blessed with such devoted love and respect.

    You can’t help looking at the last photo (on the page) of Grandmother Kono and realize that she was a mother who grieved. I don’t mean that in any negative way, it is just that there is a look that remains on a mother’s face when they have lost their children.

    Thank you, Koji. I love every photo and story you share.

    1. Yes, her face shows it all… A far different face from that when she was posing outside their barbershop a hundred years ago… Thank you always for your kind thoughts and words, Jeanne Rene.

  11. Koji, I could feel your grandmother’s anguish as I read your posts, and I cried with you and your family as you learned of and read your uncle’s diary. Thank you for sharing your family’s poignant history with us.

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