My grandfather, Hisakichi Kanemoto, immigrated from Hiroshima in 1898 with my grandmother Kono coming in 1908 to become his picture bride. They had seven children of which my dad is the last surviving sibling at 96 years of age. Five of those children called “Hotel Fujii” their home at King and Maynard in Seattle, WA. Sadly, Hotel Fujii is no longer standing.
My two littlest kids and I took a short vacation trip to Seattle the week of June 22, 2015. One project I tasked myself was to attempt putting together “then and now” recreations of family photos taken about 100 years ago. Well, mostly 90 years ago but 100 sounded better. Yet, I was only partially successful; it was luck for the most part:
This “then and now” project was only partially successful as I did not consider many things:
Other very successful “then and now” recreations by professionals primarily had one thing in their backgrounds that I did not: a building. I overlooked that fact. The Fujii Hotel was torn down with only a park left in its place, e.g., there were no windows or doors to line up the old photos with. For the most part, that made for difficulty in guessing/placing from where the photos from the mid-1910s to the 1920s were taken.
I did not consider the fact that the buildings on this street 100 years ago were built on a hill, i.e., all were built upon a concrete base that was taller at the west end compared to the east end.
Because of the number of cars parked curbside, I had to resort to wide angle shots. By doing so, perspective in comparison to the original would not be correct.
There were a few homeless at the park who clearly did not want their picture taken. As my two kids were with me, that became a hurdle.
I did not take into account the time of day (shade).
I did not anticipate the construction nor the large trucks, garbage cans and trees blocking the view.
I misjudged the position from where I took the photographs, affecting perspective and angle. I should have been ten more yards east for a few of the images. Too late now.
I also realized that there were no pictures of Uncle Yutaka nor Aunt Michie at the Hotel Fujii. Uncle Yutaka had likely already been in Japan (1913) by the time these old family photos were taken. Aunt Michie, of course, was the only sibling not born in Seattle but rather in Hiroshima.
A lot was learned.
I only wish I had gained the experience before undertaking this family project. I do hope my cousins and children will still find these images interesting if not to merely appreciate our family photos from “100 years ago”.
1. Grandfather (back to camera in center) camping on Mt. Rainier and Mr. Fujii’s 1913 Chevrolet Six:
2. King and Maynard today:
3. The northeast corner of King and Maynard, taken June 25, 2015. The building still stands as it was 100 years ago.
“When it comes to giving, some people stop at nothing.”
– Vernon McLellan
That was Aunt Michie. She gave all of herself and of her life strength to others because her heart knew no other way.
At the moment Aunt Michie watched the ugly mushroom cloud rise from her field that day, her older siblings – my dad, Aunt Shiz and Uncle Yutaka – were all imprisoned in the “war relocation centers” scattered about the United States. These were truly prisons and the popular view is that FDR imprisoned them “for their protection” because they looked like the enemy.(¹)
Life within these “camps” was “sub-standard”. They were forced to live in small, shoddily built wooden barracks covered only with tar paper with little or no privacy. No running water inside their barracks – they had to go wait in line outside, whether it be rain, snow, dust storm or searing desert sun to use public latrines or showers. Food was served in mess halls on pot metal plates at specific times, just like in the military. The food was miserable according to Dad and worse yet, they had to wait in line again. For the first month or so of imprisonment, he said all they had was liver, powdered eggs and potatoes.
But then again, he said it was food.
Aunt Michie and her family were near starving in Hiroshima while dad was imprisoned in the good ol’ US of A.
It is assumed like for the rest of America, Dad and his older siblings heard the news of the atomic bombing but while in the camps on or about August 8th… that one enormous bomb had wiped out Hiroshima. There must have high anxiety and anger as many of the inmates in Dad’s camp (Minidoka) were from Seattle; they had family in Hiroshima as their parents had immigrated from there.
My cousins tell me that sometime after war’s end, Michie’s “American” siblings – my dad, Uncle Yutaka and Aunt Shiz – managed to re-establish contact with Grandmother Kono and Michie. With the Japanese infrastructure destroyed, it was a miracle. And it was no easy task as letters to and from Japan were not only prohibited, it was impossible. There was no telephone in the villages where Grandmother and Michie lived.
But her American siblings somehow managed to send much needed clothing to them. When my father finally reached Hiroshima while a sergeant in the US 8th Army, he carried two duffle bags full of C-rations, candy and Spam. They said it was a feast for them after years of hunger.
Sadako (who savored the white rice Michie made them on the day of the bomb) told me at a farewell dinner two years ago that she fondly remembered my dad taking them to a market of some kind where he bought her a little coin purse. She remembered Dad gave her the money to buy the little purse and was told she could keep the change. She remembers then handing the change – which was a LOT of money back then – to Michie who humbly accepted it. Sadako said she cherished that little coin purse for years.
From exhaustive laboring on her farm… to taking precious sashimi to her brother Suetaro… to walking ten miles with children in tow to care for Grandmother Kono after her stroke… to the pain of learning of her brother being killed in action… to being thrown onto the ground and watching a huge mushroom cloud rise over a small hill… to pulling a wooden cart over a hill… to tirelessly aiding the victims… and most of all, sacrificing her own health for the sake of others…
She never gave up in those thirty years. Would you have? I don’t believe I would have had the fortitude.
But because her soul would not quit, she got everyone to tomorrow… but in doing so, her own tomorrows dwindled.
Michie is still here. The fruit of her sacrifices can be seen today in her six children, all of whom have lived – and are still living – full, joyous lives.
They have their mother, Michie, to thank and they cherish that… and that they were all there at the farmhouse when she looked at each one of them intently one last time before leaving this world.
A most grand mother.
They all love food to this very day.
I wish to deeply thank my Hiroshima cousins for sharing their memories of their life with Michie with us.
Like all Hiroshima citizens I have met, they simply pray for peace.
(¹) There are declassified US intelligence documents which show that a small number of Japanese and Japanese-Americans were performing espionage. Intelligence was able to determine this by intercepting and decoding secret Japanese communications. This information was given a cover name of MAGIC and these documents were typed up for FDR and a very small number of trusted officials. However, rounding up the spies would clearly indicate to the Japanese that their code had been cracked. These documents present another view contra to the widespread belief that FDR imprisoned the Japanese and Japanese-Americans from discrimination and war time hysteria. In other words, FDR used that hysteria as a cover story; by doing so, he was able to remove the “spies” from the West Coast without alerting the Japanese. FDR also stated in communications that there would be “repercussions” from such action.
Indeed, the difficult struggle for food in enough quantities and quality continued. Black markets for food flourished, particularly in larger cities.
Housing in the cities, however, was extremely tough. As an example, after many cities were bombed out, millions flocked to Kyoto. MacArthur and other Allied military leaders omitted Kyoto as a target for its ancient cultural richness. Many Japanese had heard of that by war’s end and trekked to Kyoto in hopes of finding a roof over their heads. Unfortunately, all living spaces were occupied. No rooms were available, even at a huge premium.
Even in 1948 – three years after war’s end – Tokyo still had tremendous scars as can be seen in one of my father’s photographs below:
Soon after the bomb was dropped, the hostilities finally ended. However, food and essential goods continued to be largely absent. Amazingly, my cousins who went through that hell choose to reflect on these post-war years positively. That is, reflecting on it as a miserable time will but cause a wound to fester. They had seen enough of festering wounds.
But let us step back a year in Aunt Michie’s life.
One month before the surrender, Grandmother Kono was informed by the remnants of the Japanese military that her son Suetaro was killed on Leyte fighting as an Imperial Japanese soldier. The date of death was recorded as July 15, 1945. The Emperor capitulated just one month later. Of course, we have no record of that communication nor when Grandmother Kono was actually told, but the bomb was dropped just around this time, we believe.
A little more than a year earlier, around March 3, 1944, Suetaro walked to Tomo and Masako’s school. He wrote a farewell note on a chalkboard at Masako’s elementary school to say good bye as he was off to war. Masako remembers he had written to be a good girl and that he was sorry he couldn’t say good bye in person. The family took their last family picture with Suetaro (Part 2); he was flanked by his older sister Michie and Mikizo.
We believe the next day, Aunt Michie went to the train depot to say good bye to Suetaro. She was very fond of him and “his American citizenship”. Everyone loved the fun Suetaro and she apparently talked of him often after his death. But at that farewell, deep down, she knew it would be the last time she would see him. I wonder how she felt watching the train disappear.
Soldiers rarely came back. Per tradition, he had left Grandma Kono some of his nail clippings and some of his hair. That is what is in the family crypt.
For hundreds of thousands, entire bodies would never be found. This was true for America, England, Australia, Russia or Germany.
But at least part of him remains there in Hiroshima.
The cousins tell me Aunt Michie grieved for days after his departure… and that she was torn apart when she learned of his death.
The bomb would fall just days later.
According to the family, even shortly after the bedlam caused by the bomb, Aunt Michie continued to care for her stricken mother by walking to her house five miles away when she could. My dad said the road was “pretty” level but that since it is Japan, there were hills along the way, especially near Ishiuchi, a small village.
In December 1947, Aunt Michie started to have contractions while walking over such a hill. She was able to make it to Grandmother Kono’s house where she gave birth to Kiyoshi, right then and there. No, no doctor…no nurse… and Grandmother Kono could not help due to her stroke. It is said she was very happy that the birth took place at her childhood home. She grew up there along with her American siblings. She had felt safe.
My cousins believe their mother, Aunt Michie, gave all of herself for her children and her family. In spite of malnourishment, she toiled in her farm’s fields, cared for Grandmother Kono, gave her all in the bomb’s aftermath, set the example for her children. She put everyone before her.
But soon after giving birth to Kiyoshi, she developed kidney problems.
They tell me that medical care then was still pretty non-existent so she had no choice but to ride it out. However, she pushed herself back into working the farm too soon to care for her children, her own stricken mother and other household duties. That was Aunt Michie.
Cousin Kiyoshi remembers massaging his mother’s swollen legs after a day’s work. He also fondly remembers perspiring trying to keep up with Aunt Michie on a hot, humid summer day as they walked up a hill overgrown with thick, green wild grass. There was a “石じぞう”, or a stone figure representing Buddha, alongside a ridge overlooking a blue Hiroshima Bay. Kiyoshi will always remember that moment, looking at his mother with perspiration running down her face and the blueness of the bay.
In retrospect, they feel that if Michie had taken some time to rest and more often that she may have regained her health.
On May 29, 1963, she was laying in the same farmhouse in which she nursed the 23 injured people that fateful day. Her kidneys were giving out. She opened her eyes one last time and looked lovingly at each of her children who were gathered about her then closed them. Thirty years after her father gave away her hand in marriage at 19, after 30 years of a life heaped with physical and emotional demands one after another, world changing events and family tragedies… After enduring the pain of survival, Aunt Michie left this world. She was but 48.
Aunt Michie conquered all and gave her life to others so they could get to tomorrow… and she did that with dignity and unconditional love for her children.
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.
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 de-husk them as shown. Along with barley, it served as a substitute for the flavorful white rice with the higher calories.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
The aftermath of the bombing was no different from hell. Not that I’ve seen hell nor that I would want to…
But Aunt Michie and my very young cousins saw it.
They visited hell.
Nearly all doctors and nurses within the city had been killed or seriously wounded on August 6, 1945. If they survived the blast, they were likely to fall ill from radiation poisoning and they themselves would die within days. All remaining medical supplies – which had been nearly non-existent due to the war – had been destroyed as well. Most food – even unpicked fruits or vegetables – were contaminated with radiation as was water(¹). Thousands of corpses plugged the rivers as they would go in to soothe their burns but would soon perish.
It is important to note that food rationing in Japan was much more extreme than what was imposed on the American public. While the rationing in America began in May 1942, it started with just coffee and sugar. In Japan, rationing of a far more extensive reach began in 1939 if not earlier. It extended to nearly all first quality food stuffs. Rice, barley, seafood, meat, soy bean paste and soy sauce, vegetables, fruit, seafood, etc. Groups called “tonari-gumi” were established in villages and the like; they monitored and rationed food to the Japanese families based on what work they were doing, e.g., war production, number of family members along with their age and sex. The rationing was so severe that when one family member died, the family did not report it. The average caloric daily intake was cut down to less than 2,000 a day by 1945.
The Japanese civilians were starving, so to speak, and were without question malnourished.
Aunt Michie was no different. She was hungry like everyone else and likely tired easily due to low nutritional intake and daily physical and emotional demands upon her. It is important to have an understanding of her condition at this crucial moment in history.
After the shock and black rain subsided, Aunt Michie’s thoughts immediately went to her treasured family. According to my cousins, she went into her priceless family rice reserves and cooked real rice for the children. Sadako, the second oldest, remembers to this day how she savored that bowl of rice, a definite luxury at that time. While but a child of ten years and filled with anxiety about eating such a fine meal, she saw at that moment her mother’s love and affection for them was unconditional.
Aunt Michie’s thoughts went to the Aramaki family (aunt and uncle’s family) who lived in Hiroshima. She had no way of knowing that day but they had become direct victims of the atomic bombing. They had been burned over most of their bodies and had even been trapped under their destroyed house. They managed to struggle with their searing injuries to Aunt Michie’s house to seek refuge and care. They had realized that only strong family support would allow them to live.
Grotesquely, the path going over the 300 meter high hill which the relatives traveled became littered with scores of dead people. Masako said they were unrecognizable lumps of flesh and died where they crumpled. Many had their clothes burned away. While thousands were killed instantly, other thousands suffered for days before dying from intense burns, radioactive poisoning and other injuries. As radiation poisoning was unheard of amongst them, some were told they had dysentery and the like. Many before dying oozed pus from their ears and blood ran from their noses. You will not read this in any Western textbook. In fact, the gruesome information about the days, months and years after August 6th was suppressed for a couple of decades by both governments.
While the dazed and immensely pained adults struggled to Michie’s farm, there were young children of the family unaccounted for(²). Without hesitation and unbelievably, Aunt Michie – in her weakened state – pulled a two wheel cart over the hill to Hiroshima to look for them.
Over a hill.
Miraculously and while the details are lost, she found some of them and hauled them back to the farm on the cart, now laden with the additional weight of the children… on the same road that was further littered with dead and dying people. Think of the mental anguish Michie had to endure when dying people came up to her and asked for her help… It would be difficult to not look at them. It was more difficult to ignore them, I’m sure.
According to my cousins, a total of 23 people got refuge and care at Aunt Michie’s farm. I understand many were relatives from the Aramaki side of the family.
There were more hurdles for Michie and her children immediately ahead – caring for the injured and dying.
The preceding photographs may show what Michie and the children were faced with. And the children were just that – children.
How old are your children, by the way?
The older cousins recall that they, Michie, Mikizo’s parents and the less injured relatives took on a 24 hour a day field hospital of sorts to treat the injured. It was stifling hot and humid; yet, they had to be given constant attention and there were so many of them. I cannot imagine how exhausting this task could have been, especially when you are hungry and malnourished yourself.
The common injury were burns. Severe burns…and they had no medicine whatsoever.(³) No Bactine. No Motrin. No aloe. All Michie could do was to coat the burns with a type of cooking oil and bandage them with pieces of cloth. She must have endured unlimited anguish in knowing she could not measurably lessen their pain and suffering. There must have been constant crying and unbearable moans of pain.
And on their hands, blood from human beings.
Six year old Namie could never forget what she had to do. Flies were swarming having sensed dying flesh. Namie was tasked with shooing them away with a fan but they wouldn’t stay away. And worse yet – time and time again, she had to remove the maggots that were feeding on dead flesh…with chopsticks. I do not know if I could have done that…but Namie did.
The turmoil that must have stormed inside Aunt Michie to tell her daughters to do what they had to do for the sake of survival…and then to be stern with them and tell them to continue when they wavered or cried… must have been punishing to her as a loving mother. She must have wanted to cry.
(1) Per my 2012 meeting with Mr. Tsukamoto in Hiroshima, water is the main theme of the Cenotaph at the Peace Park. Survivors clamored for water. Where there was well water, many survivors were suffocated as dozens more pressed against them for the precious liquid. Please see “A 1937 Yearbook, the Atomic Bomb and Hiroshima” for further information and links to their personal story.
(2) The number of unaccounted for children is unclear.
Human dignity is as crucial to an earnest life as is air, water and food.
Aunt Michie drew upon that dignity inside her to help her family and others survive the day to day ruthlessness of life during war and ultimately, the atomic bombing.
While her dignity was larger than life, Michie would ultimately sacrifice her health and well-being to ensure her family and others would survive…and survive strongly.
By January 1945, Japan had already lost the war. While the Japanese military leaders controlled the country and its path to ultimate destruction, the civilians took the brunt of war. Many cities had been destroyed by US bombing raids leaving millions of families homeless. There was not enough food to go around. Many starved to death, especially orphaned children, if not from neglect as others would shut their eyes to them.
However, Hiroshima was largely spared from aerial attack. The US did carry out bombing raids in March and April 1945 against military targets in Hiroshima but it was not frequent…but it was frequent enough to require air raid drills The naval port of Kure though, where the battleship Yamato was built, was essentially destroyed in June 1945 by US Army and Navy bombing attacks.
After her marriage in 1933, Michie was tasked to arduous farm labor at the Aramaki farm. Their primary crop was rice. She also gave birth to five children before war’s end: Masako (1933), Sadako (1936), Namie (1939), Tomiko (1942) and Masataka (1944). Kiyoshi would follow in 1947. She loved them unconditionally.
On the farm lived Mikizo, his parents and Michie. The four of them – and eventually three of her oldest daughters (a total of seven family members) – would work the land from a little before sunrise to sunset. It was hard, arduous labor. Back breaking work. They did not have John Deere tractors or combines to aid them but had an ox to plow the fields with. This was 24/7.
After all that hard labor, nearly the entire crop was taken by the Japanese military for the war. They were allowed to retain a small portion of the crop for their own use. As a result, rice was even further rationed for family consumption. They had no choice. On top of that, there was little else to eat. They lived a meager life per my cousins.
As the war dragged on, Japan was descending into the abyss…and it kept getting more and more darker.
In the story “Dear Mama”, Michie’s youngest brother Suetaro (my uncle) hurriedly wrote a somber good bye letter to Grandmother Kono in his war diary. He was being sent off to war and certain death.
I wonder how she really felt, knowing that Suetaro was going to fight to his death against the country in which his two older brothers and sister were imprisoned. They were her brothers and sister, too. An ugly internal conflict.
The area around Tomo was nearly barren of younger, physically capable men. All the men up to 35 years of age were taken by the army, regardless of their family status. Mikizo was no exception.
In late 1944, at 35 years of age, he was taken by the Imperial Japanese Army. Suetaro foresaw that happening in his farewell letter; he warned Mikizo to fully cooperate with the officers and to do exactly as he was ordered. This was because it was brutal even within the non-commissioned ranks of the Imperial Japanese Army; the training officers routinely beat recruits into submission. These recruits were largely the men who were ordered to their deaths in “banzai charges” by the thousands. They greatly outnumbered the “hard core” Japanese officers.
Aunt Michie’s family who tended to the back breaking labor on the farm was now lessened by one. As with her brother Suetaro, she foresaw never seeing Mikizo again.
To make matters worse, her mother (my Grandmother Kono) suffered a cerebral infarction the day she learned Suetaro was being sent off to war. She became paralyzed on her left side. To get about the now empty house, she would have to pull herself around with her right arm.
On top of everything else – tending to the crops, the house and the children – Aunt Michie now had to care for her disabled mother.
Michie’s daily life was now further strained with even more stress… Life must have appeared darker to Aunt Michie.
Michie’s willpower and dignity will now be on trial and severely tested.
But the struggles she will endure will have purpose.
Life in Hiroshima was uncertain and grueling in 1945 – especially for women and children. It is a fact that nearly all the men up to the age of 35 had been taken by the Japanese military. For many, it was truly day to day.
Little food, clothing and medical care. It all went to the military…and then there were the B-29’s and the bombings. Devils associated with being on the losing side of war.
But at 8:15 AM on August 6, 1945, my Aunt Michie’s already tough life would be cast into wretchedness to test her mortal soul. She was in her farm’s field clearing old crops on that hot summer morning. There was an intense flash of light then the atomic bomb’s shockwave traveling close to the speed of sound slammed into her. She was catapulted and hit the ground.
At the same instant, her oldest daughter and my cousin Masako – who was eleven and in her classroom nearby – was hurled across the classroom by the same shockwave. The schoolgirls that were standing in front of her were pierced by shards of glass and debris.
Below is an eye opening re-enactment supplemented by computer simulation of the atomic blast in 1945. Perhaps you can put yourself into Aunt Michie’s or Masako’s shoes on that morning and experience what they did:
After years of a most grueling life, Aunt Michie and her children would now face the searing pain of surviving.
Even while giving shaves at my Grandfather’s barbershop in Seattle, Grandma Kono was busy in her early years of marriage. She gave birth to Yutaka (1910), Hisao (1912) then Michie in 1914. Other children followed: Shizue (1917), Dad (1919), Suetaro (c. 1921) and Mieko (c. 1924). A total of seven.
All seven of the siblings were born in Seattle… All except for Michie who was born in Hiroshima.
My cousins tell me their mother Michie told them she would wistfully ask her family, “Why couldn’t I have been born in America like everyone else?!” Lovingly, of course.
Aunt Michie never did get a chance to visit America.
Dad’s siblings came to Hiroshima and half of them were able to return to Seattle to continue their lives as Americans before war with America. But Michie lived her entire life in Japan. She was the oldest sister to the siblings and helped Grandma Kono raise them.
Michie’s father (my Grandfather Hisakichi) was a devout Buddhist. He required the family to chant Buddhist mantras daily; it was not “praying” but a way through which a follower “energized” himself to the teachings of Buddha. Dad’s Hiroshima home to this day has the altar in the main room where they chanted; it is unchanged in nearly a hundred years having survived the shockwave from the atomic blast.
According to well accepted family lore, a man from a village called Tomo came to the house one fateful day apparently to seek one of his daughter’s hand in marriage. His name was Mikizo Aramaki. He immediately went to the altar and chanted. Grandfather Hisakichi was so impressed by his devotion to the Buddhist way of life that he immediately gave his daughter away in marriage…but apparently, Grandather gave away the wrong daughter – Aunt Michie. It is said Mikizo had come seeking the hand of my Aunt Shiz. (Aunt Shiz was the prize of the village according to my cousin Masako.)
Being of farming heritage, Mikizo had acreage and a home. After Aunt Michie was told she was to marry Mikizo, she was, to say the least, not very happy. I guess that is a slight understatement if I say so myself. She argued – pleaded – with my Grandfather that she didn’t want to marry him and that she was not raised to be a farmer…but to no avail.
Aunt Michie was given away in marriage. Done deal.
Embarking on a ten day vacation to a land far, far away needs a lot of one’s time to prepare… one reason for my recent absence from WordPress. Not that anyone would notice, of course.
For now, just some colorful images of nature taken during the journey to Japan I immensely enjoyed… which would not have been possible without the unqualified help from my Hiroshima cousin Masako – after whom this blog is named – and her extended family. Hopefully, time will permit sharing more of this glorious journey – and enlightening in ways I could never have imagined.
In the past several years, as his dementia progresses, Dad is repeating many times how he broke his elbow as a young boy… “Many times” like as in every four minutes. No…every two.
I thought, “He doesn’t remember he ate like a horse ten minutes ago… How can he remember something that happened 80+ years ago?”
Well, I just HAD to find out about his story… and I did.
The story (which never varies) is/was he was playing “oninga”, or tag, with the neighborhood kids. “There was nothing else to do then,” he would tell me. They would end up in the yard of 正覚寺 – pronounced “Shoukakuji” – the Buddhist temple which is a hop, skip and a jump from his home. No wonder he excelled in the triple jump at Nichu.
You can see a tiled roof on the tallest structure to the right of him. That is 正覚寺.
For those who like visuals:
He would tell me (over and over) that while playing tag, “…I tried to get away so I jumped on this big round stone then leaped up to a branch on big a pine tree in front of 正覚寺.”
Now that I know he did the broad jump at Nichu, I thought this jumping thing was therefore plausible. (Did I mention I’m a writer for “Mythbusters”?)
“Trouble is, I jumped too far so my hands couldn’t grab onto the branch. I slipped off the branch then broke my elbow when I hit the ground”.
To this day, he cannot completely straighten out his right arm. It’s crooked. He now tells this story to my youngest kids, Jack and Brooke… Every four minutes.
On September 7, 2012, I had to know. Off to 正覚時… But unlike my agile father of the 1920’s, I was walking very gingerly. There were four humongous blisters on my toes from walking in Japan and (from being tricked into) climbing Mt. Misen on Miyajima.
Indeed, there was a Japanese pine tree, or “matsu”. A huge one. You couldn’t miss it as you walk through the “mon”, or gate. It was so huge, the temple had steel braces installed to help hold these majestic branches up.
Off the to right, was the base of the tree. A puny trunk in relation to the Goliath branches… It was hard to believe at first this small trunk was the heart for this proud tree.
Then… at the base… was a large round stone. Could it possibly be? Plausible as we don’t know how long the stone was there… Am I tough?
But where’s the branch my father jumped for? Myth: Busted!… or so I thought.
Then we saw it. Above my son Takeshi in the picture. The base of a broken branch. It was at the right height! OK… Myth: Plausible.
But conclusive proof was just beyond reach. There was no evidence as to age of the tree or how long the stone was there…
Then, as if Aunt Shiz summoned him, the reverend of 正覚寺 came out…with his wife. He was about 90 years old. Almost as old as my dad but he still had his wits about him. Thank goodness.
He told us he didn’t know my father personally…but that he played with Suetaro and Mieko, Dad’s youngest brother and sister! He knew Suetaro well, he said. He listened to Suetaro blow on his flute from the house in the evenings.
My Japanese wasn’t good enough so Masako stepped in… She explained to the elderly reverend how my dad (her uncle) had jumped from a large round stone at the base of a pine tree here 80+ years ago and broke his elbow.
Unbelievably, the reverend said with pride, “The pine tree is about 400 years old…and that stone has been there for as long as I can remember. It hasn’t been moved, either.”
Then the wife said that a number of years ago, the branch had broken off but it was very long. Then after it broke off, “…a swarm of bees made a home inside. We had to seal the crack unfortunately,” to account for the mortar on the branch.
Was his story a myth? Busted? Plausible? Confirmed?
Dad wasn’t imagining ANYTHING. His memory is intact from that time.
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.
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:
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.
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”:
Here is Suetaro, perhaps in a posed photograph for PR purposes. It is of professional quality and taken on the same day as above:
I have a strong belief this was taken at the Fukuyama training grounds for his regiment, the 41st Infantry Regiment (unverified):
Another piece of his elusive history then emerged – but it was not from the 100 year old woodshed.
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.
It is not known if Grandmother knew of this fact. It would have been an overwhelming of her heart.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
True stories about World War II – One war. Two Countries. One Family