The Pain of Survival and Aunt Michie – Part 5

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A rare photograph taken after listening to the Emperor’s surrender speech, August 15, 1945. There was a coup attempt the night before the speech was broadcast.

Although the violence of World War II was nearing an end, other aspects of the war could continue against Japanese civilians for years to come.

Their infrastructure was gone.  Essential assets such as manufacturing plants, machinery, trains, roads, housing, utilities, even fishing boats had been destroyed.

And most of all, food.

And Aunt Michie’s dignity – the entire family’s dignity – will continue to be tested until the late 1940’s.

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boy genmai mainichi
Dated April 1943. A boy poses holding a stick in a bottle filled with unpolished brown rice. This is not the polished brown rice you eat today at Panda Express. It was more wild. Japanese would insert a stick into a bottle partially filled with brown rice then repeatedly jab at the rice until the husk came off. It was low grade rice with the germ still on. (From the Mainichi Shimbun archives.)

For eons, Japan has been unable to produce enough rice for their people let alone food.  In fact, it was not until about the time Japan hosted the 1964 Olympics that Japan could produce enough rice for themselves.

The war took a terrible toll on regular folks from getting their “rice fix” – they were just not able to eat it.  This deprived them savoring it, the mental and biological satisfaction of just eating it.  Think of it this way – what if not just bread itself was kept from you but also the sweet smell of the freshly baked bread with the perfect crust..with melting butter?  Talk about attacks on your psyche: deprivation.  Deprivation for years.  Prolonged sensual deprivation makes for huge changes in one’s outlook on life.

Like the photo of the little boy, millions of civilians would acquire a wild form of brown rice (玄米 genmai) and dehusk them as shown.  Along with barly, it served as a substitute for the flavorful white rice with the higher calories.

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Confronted by not only the absence of medical supplies, Aunt Michie’s house was now filled with 23 men, women and children with varying degrees of burns.  I doubt emergency rooms could handle such a sudden load of burn victims… but Michie’s family did.  On top of that, her house was damaged by the atomic bomb’s shockwave.  It pains me to even see in my mind what they had to do to make the house habitable enough so quickly to nurse the injured.

It was mayhem and Michie personally did not ask for this horrific situation… but now, on top of trying to provide medical care for 23 people, she was confronted with one ominous problem: how to feed them all.  There was no food left in the city of Hiroshima and it was just over the hill.  And any food left in the village of Tomo was fresh.  It would spoil quickly anyways in the heat as there was no refrigeration.  No supermarket.  No canned goods either.

She did as Aunt Michie only could.  She used her precious reserve of rice and only served it to the ailing victims.  I am sure she believed that would be the only way to truly help them survive as all of them were malnourished.  As a result of rationing the remaining rice to the victims, her own children who weren’t physically injured were delegated to survive on cooked pumpkins, stems, stalks or taro roots for the duration.

A huge, gut wrenching decision for Aunt Michie, I’m sure.

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Some of the wild grass or other vegetation boiled for emergency eating can be seen behind my father and Uncle Suetaro. Hiroshima, circa 1929. Copyright Koji Kanemoto

To help this dire situation, the Hiroshima aunt who was not badly injured went about the area with Mikizo’s parents scavenging for wild grass and other vegetation to boil.  That, too, became part of their food.  Although likely not very nutritious to say the least, there was no other alternative.  And it is important to note such wild vegetation they boiled or ate had been subjected to the black rain…

What do you have in your yard?

Perhaps you can somewhat understand why my cousin Masako thought Spam was the most delicious thing she ever ate.

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In spite of all Aunt Michie could do, my cousins tell me some of the burn victims’ injuries wouldn’t heal.  They had worsened.  Their wounds began to fester or decay for lack of a better description.  Pus formed.  There was nothing they could do.

The odor of the decaying flesh permeated out of the house.  They say you could smell it from the dirt road immediately outside.

It became so intense that people would hold their noses to scurry past the house.

None of my cousins who were there tell me they will ever forget that vulgar smell of rotting flesh… or death.  Never.

Just like Old Man Jack.

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From Aunt Michie clockwise: Aunt Michie (holding Kiyoshi), Namie, Mikizo’s father, Masataka, Sadako, Masako, Mikizo and Mikizo’s mother. Taken in 1948 at their farmhouse where they cared for 23 victims. Courtesy of Kiyoshi Aramaki.

My cousins tell me some didn’t make it.

Others would pass away in the next couple of years from the effects of their injuries or radiation.

Nevertheless, the struggle for food and other essentials would continue…but my Aunt Michie’s immediate family survived.  Even Tomiko who was in Hiroshima proper.

And Aunt Michie’s dignity and strength reigned supreme.

They all made it to tomorrow.

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The surrender documents were signed by Emperor Hirohito’s representatives aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.

Unbelievably, Mikizo also survived the war.  Although taken prisoner upon Japan’s surrender as a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army, he was released from Manchuria and allowed to return to his Hiroshima farm in late 1946.

To be continued in Part 6….

13 thoughts on “The Pain of Survival and Aunt Michie – Part 5”

  1. None of us knows what we can handle, or how we would act, in the face of such cataclysmic horror. We would all like to think we would be like your Aunt Michie. Talk about courage and honor. She has it.

  2. It would not take much to thrust a very large part of the USA into such dire circumstances as this, and I am afraid most people living here would not survive the experience. I’m not talking about a war necessarily, or the effects of an atomic weapon dropped on an American city. The sudden loss of the electrical grid would do it. Whereas Japan is an orderly society, where you don’t see sudden eruptions of anarchic behavior, here is another story.

    A few years ago, a hurricane went through central Florida and power and water was lost to citizens. The gov-mint brought in semi-trailers full of ice and you would not believe the pushing, and shoving, and the fistfights that broke out near these “ice distribution centers.” I guess no one thought about the basic knowledge of boiling and straining water, adding a tablespoon of clorox per one gallon of water collected from adjacent ponds and canals … you know, in order to survive. How many Americans even know about Dandelion Greens?

    You are right about the smell of death—and blood. You never can erase the memory of that putrid odor. We should pray that an ebola virus never breaks out here. If all those films that Hollywood makes about war could somehow incorporate the smell of death, no one in this country would ever want to go to war.

    1. I agree with you, sir, on how parts of America would react in emergency situations. I am very concerned. And after the unbelievable tsunami hit Japan a couple of years ago, there was not one riot, not one case of thievery reported. Survivors even brought back safes that had been washed out of destroyed homes. When the US Marines (the first ones to come to the aid of survivors) helo’d in supplies to the most stranded towns, the citizens formed chains to help unload the much needed supplies like water, food and toiletries.

  3. Mikizo being released and allowed to return home was especially fortunate in his case because, as I’m sure you know, the Soviet Union had a habit of keeping a number of POW’s from Axis armies for decades.

    1. Yes sir, I realize that. My father served as a sergeant in the US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service during the Occupation. One of his duties was to interrogate Japanese soldiers finally being repatriated from (the former) Manchuria, Korea and Russian owned territories, e.g., did you see any installations? Paul Maruyama (Col, USAF, ret.) also wrote an excellent recounting of the repatriation efforts spearheaded by his father.

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