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.
They walked on it. They posed for family portraits on it. They passed away on it. It felt as if their souls were infused in it.
Although my ancestors have come and gone through that house for about a hundred years, the old sakura wood shared their souls with me.
While I am certainly not in the construction industry, my father’s family home is based on the Edo design era. Generally speaking, they are built on stone foundations, with supporting square timbers and a raised floor. “Tatami” mats were used for flooring.
My father, while now 93 and suffering from dementia, fondly recalled the floor plan of the Kanemoto house…especially of the main room seen the family portrait. He said it had a “tokonoma”, or a small alcove alongside the altar, or “butsudan”. He also clearly recalled the floor space measured by the number of tatami mats used; in this case, “hachijyou” or eight mats.
This is the room in which my cousin Masako “saw” Aunt Shiz a few days before she passed away.
The house was indeed damaged from the atomic bomb’s shock wave. This same shock wave shook the Enola Gay violently even while trying to escape the blast at about 30,000 feet altitude. She was 11-1/2 miles away.
The house is about 4-1/2 miles away by way the crow flies. Almost due west of the hypocenter. Masako was knocked down by the hard-hitting shock wave while in her classroom.
A low lying hill called Mt. Suzugamine served somewhat as a barrier, deflecting the shock wave. Still, nearly all of the sliding door panels were knocked down and the ceiling was sucked up more than a foot per Masako. Roof tiling was also blown away from the force.
My Uncle Suetaro took one of his last photos in front of this house in May 1944. My grandmother already had her stroke and is not in this photo but his sister, Michie, is standing to his right.
Grandmother Kono’s funeral in 1954; my father can be seen in the lighter suit to the left standing next to Michie and Masako (hidden by the flowers):
The home does have spirits within. It’s not cornball. It is an incredible sensation. We were called to those souls in the wood this month. Seriously.
When I saw my son in front of the home, I saw that I’m in the last half of my journey in life… but I came back to myself on that old sakura wood.
Although my Aunt Shiz passed away ten days before my son and I were to travel to her childhood home in Hiroshima, I believe it was her caring soul that made our journey eerily complete.
Time for heebie-jeebies.
Like all but one of the siblings, Aunt Shiz was born in Seattle in 1916. My grandparents operated a barbershop as mentioned in “Masako and Spam Musubi“, the first story in this blog. In the picture below likely taken early in 1918, she is standing in front of her mother Kono at their barbershop in Hotel Fujii near King and Maynard in downtown Seattle. Grandma Kono is smiling while looking on; she appears to be holding a straight razor. My relatives tell me Grandma was great with the customers and gave excellent shaves. (If it is a straight edge razor, she’s holding it in her left hand. We have a number of lefties in our family. Hmmm.) Notice the wooden sidewalk:
In this photo taken about five or six years later, the wooden sidewalk has been replaced with concrete. Aunt Shiz shows her friendly character while dancing on the left. You can make out “Fujii” on the sign hanging overhead in the background:
Masako tells me Aunt Shiz was the village “hottie” as she grew up back in those days. It made us laugh but it was true. Surely, she broke a lot of the young boys’ hearts in the village.
She returned to Seattle on April 7, 1935, a vibrant young lady. Amazingly (well, really not), her granddaughter looks very much like her at that age. Genes.
She married and had three boys and one girl. All but one were imprisoned during World War II. They had the dehumanizing horror of having to first stay in vacated horse stalls at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Los Angeles before being transported under armed guard in blacked out trains to Manzanar where they stayed until war’s end. They were American citizens. Incredible, isn’t it?
Aunt Shiz, who was my dad’s older sister and last lving sibling, was a true “Kanemoto” as the saying goes. They were much alike…especially when they talked in their “Hiroshima dialect”. Funny they aren’t able to remember when their birthdays are but they sure remember their happy days as children in that Hiroshima home. Both loved to eat. And eat they did. Most of all, they loved sweets. Don’t ask why.
When I see Dad now, I always take him Japanese treats – mainly “manjyu” and “youkan”.
Last October, shortly after her 95th birthday, I took Dad to visit with Aunt Shiz. It is a long drive to and from. While Dad had great difficulty remembering why he was in my car – not just once but several times – there was no hesitation by either of them when they first got a glimpse of each other at Aunt Shiz’s senior home:
Yes, I took a bag of yokan. Its on the front right in the video in a cellophane bag. There were three different flavors, too. They ate them ALL. Really.
But they couldn’t remember who was older. Absolutely precious to our family.
At her funeral service in Los Angeles, her grandson described her perfectly as a very warm person. She loved to hug and give her young relatives a peck on the cheek. That was Aunt Shiz.
But back to the story… Some heebie-jeebie stuff. You know… Stuff that gives you a year’s supply of chicken skin.
Our journey to Hiroshima was planned for months. My decision to do so was made after I met with Masako and the others in Hawaii in May and returned home…or so I thought I made that decision. It was as if something took over my thoughts and actions. It was kharma. I was also going to take my oldest son Takeshi (24 years old – very important. Remember that.) who had NEVER been out of the country.
As the time neared, our Hiroshima family was excited my son and I were going. Although those of us here in the States were unaware, in the extreme heat and humidity of Japan, my cousin Toshiro went deep into a 100 year old wooden shed which still exists in a last ditch effort to uncover past family information. He found it…about a thousand pictures from the late 1800’s through shortly after war’s end. That is where the photos of Aunt Shiz and the barbershop emerged from although all were damaged by mildew and insects. They were extremely elated and flabbergasted to have found these vintage family treasures still existing. They began to go through them in the main family room where their “butsudan”, or family altar was. The altar is also about a hundred years old.
A few days after they looked over the treasure, Aunt Shiz passed away quietly… She had fallen asleep in her wheelchair like she frequently did but this time, just didn’t wake up. Oddly, her daughter and my cousin Bessie, who diligently and energetically cared for her for many years, said “…she said she wasn’t that hungry that evening then just passed away”. Not having an appetitite is NOT Kanemoto. I will have to remember that.
Bessie immediately notified the family in Hiroshima at which time Masako immediately said, “I saw Shiz in the room while we were looking at the pictures. She passed through the house.” We all got chicken skin when we heard that. Masako does not make things up and is as sharp as a tack at 78 years of age. She has all her wits about her. (That last trait is NOT typical Kanemoto, by the way.) We don’t doubt her.
Bessie suddenly requested I take some of her ashes back with me to the family home for interment. I was honored.
After my son and I arrived at the family home with Aunt Shiz, my cousin Toshiro immediately placed her ashes on the 100 year old altar…in the same room where Masako saw Aunt Shiz. Again, Masako said to us she saw Aunt Shiz in that room before she passed through the house. Creepies.
Shortly thereafter, my Hiroshima family surprised my son and I with the many, many vintage photos. Then to add to the heebie-jeebies, Toshiro remarked, “We know Masako saw Aunt Shiz’s spirit in this room shortly before she died while we were looking over our ancestors’ pictures. Aunt Shiz could have passed away two months ago or next year. But she knew you were coming and in her soul, she wanted to come home now with you. She arranged for all this to happen at this time. She is happy now.”
Wow. I felt like if a day’s worth of chicken skin out of Foster Farms was thrown on my arms. Really creepie-crawly.
Not over yet… We had her official interment into the family crypt a few days later. My other cousin Kiyoshi – another kind hearted person and the man who invented the first EDM device – came with us to the family burial plot, or “ohaka”. The stone ohaka holds the ashes of my grandparents and their deceased children – including my Uncle Suetaro who was killed on Leyte in the Philippines during World War II as a soldier of the Japanese Imperial Army.
As my son was cleaning the ohaka prior to the interment, Kiyoshi said to my son and I, “Suetaro was 24 years old when he was killed. Now, your son is meeting Suetaro for the first time. Your son is 24 years old. It was all planned for by Aunt Shiz. She picked this time to come home and for Takeshi to be here and to meet Suetaro. It was meant to be this way. To help strengthen our ancestral family bonds although an ocean separates us.”
He was right. Masako and Toshiro are right. Aunt Shiz picked this time to come home. She knew we were going. She decided Takeshi was to come. She made everything happen as they did. My son was very moved and affected by this coming together of family…so much so he cried at our farewell dinner.
The main Hiroshima newspaper yesterday ran a story on my Dad and his yearbook – and of international kindness. Fittingly, it was the anniversary of the atomic bombing.
Hiroshima conducts an annual, somber peace ceremony each year on August 6th. A peace ceremony. That’s the message. Peace. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just peace.
They are not calling attention to themselves seeking pity or repentance. While there are still many who feel the Japanese brought this on to themselves, the citizens of Hiroshima have moved beyond forgiveness and are simply seeking to spread a strong global message for peace.
This year, the grandson of President Truman (below) was in attendance. Ari Beser was there, too. His grandfather was Jacob Beser – Enola Gay’s bombardier. Wonderful.
In my short story, “An Atomic Spark and a 1937 Yearbook“, it tells of how two complete strangers from Hiroshima – without hesitation – sought out my father’s yearbook from 1937. They miraculously found one, made a digital copy and mailed it to me through my cousin, Masako, who still lives in my father’s childhood home in Hiroshima. I printed it out and showed it to him a week before Father’s Day this year.
Dad – who is suffering from progressing dementia at 93 years of age – was overjoyed. He recalled so many things from the most happiest years of his life…including being a track star. Riding on the train to get to school with his friend Aoki… The school song. Dementia was put on the back seat for that morning.
In a small expression of thanks, I had sent to Mr. Tsukamoto a flask etched with “Nichuu High School, August 6, 1945”. I also asked he offer a prayer to the students of Dad’s high school on August 6th. Dad’s beloved high school was but 1,500 yards from the bomb’s hypocenter.
Think about it. 1,500 yards from the hypocenter. A Marine Corps sniper armed with a Barrett .50 caliber rifle can take out a target over 2,000 yards away. The school ceased to exist.
As part of the peace ceremonies yesterday in Hiroshima, Mr. Tsukamoto visited the school’s memorial wall. You can see the stainless steel flask on the black center stone in front of a praying Mr. Tsukamoto.
In this photo, Mr. Tsukamoto is offering a symbolic toast with water from the flask.
I will be showing the article to my father this next weekend.
I wish to thank Mr. Tsukamoto, Ms. Kanetou and Ms. Michiko Tanaka, the reporter who authored this article on international kindness, forgiveness and peace.
To say it is incredible falls short. 1,500 yards short.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima left a spark – a spark which grew into universal forgiveness and kindness. From that unbounded forgiveness and kindness came a 1937 high school yearbook from a school that no longer existed – but its soul survived intact and gloriously
Dad is simply a very quiet man. For every word he spoke, mom must have said a bazillion words. No wonder he was quiet. (You know, it may have been better to write “every word he tried to speak”.)
But this past Sunday, June 10, dad was a songbird in Spring…even though mom was there.
Dad was eighteen again and back in Hiroshima, riding the train to school with his friend Aoki. Carefree. Young. After 75 years, Dad was looking through his high school yearbook he probably never saw.
How I got that yearbook from 1937 for Dad is a story of unbounded kindness and a love for peace – and driven by a unwavering desire to honor those that perished in Hiroshima.
All Dad had said in the past was that he ran track in his high school days and that the school was called “Nichu”. I thought it was a nickname. He wasn’t enthusiastic to share much more.
I was determined to find out more of my Dad’s past he was keeping hidden.
All I had to start with had been a 1930’s photo (above) of a pennant Dad had stashed away in a shoebox and a couple of class photos. After some exploring, I figured out the Japanese symbol on the flag was a melding of “二” and “中”, or “Nichu”, the name Dad mentioned.
Researching in the Japanese language was an endeavor. I finally came across a possible lead and sent a blind e-mail… In spite of considerable odds, I received a reply from a man in Hiroshima.
Mr. Akira Tsukamoto is a survivor.
In the waning days of the war, school children were put to work for their nation’s war effort in factories and fields. That was their destiny. Mr. Tsukamoto was one of those children.
Their teacher was Mr. Sekimoto; they had a nickname for him, “Mr. Pale”, because of his pale complexion. The night before that fateful morning, Mr. Sekimoto had decided that it would be better for the class to tend a field and clear it of weeds. Preparing the field for crops was more important than having class, he determined. They would be in the northwest area of Hiroshima.
Then came the morning and they were in the field while the other classes fatefully went to school. Then they heard the familiar drone of B-29 engines. They all saw what appeared to be three parachutes and a B-29 flying away. One student recalls seeing something black in shape tumbling towards the earth.
There was a terrible blue and yellow flash. A shock wave blew them down. They covered their eyes and mouths as they had been trained. But the heat from the blast was so searing, they could hear their skin and hair burning.
Their faces and bodies were burned on the left sides; in addition to searing pain, their skin slipped off. All they could use was mashed raw potatoes as a salve. It would take two months for their wounds to heal. They say they were spared for a greater cause.
Mr. Tsukamoto’s story – translated into English – can be read here. It is gripping and without malice. Just kindness.
Fast forward 67 years. Mr. Tsukamoto – the child who was pulling weeds in a field – was the one who kindly responded to my blind e-mail. It turns out he graduated after the war from the school that rose out of the ashes of Nichu.
He did not know me but his survivor’s heart – driven now for world peace and in honor of 300+ young classmates that perished – propelled him to our communicating.
After learning of my search for information on my father’s high school years, he found Ms. Tomoko Kanetou. Ms. Kanetou is an administrative manager at Dad’s successor school. Together, they tracked down an actual copy of dad’s yearbook from 1937. It is the last copy in existence. She conscientiously made high resolution scans of the 48 page yearbook and sent a CD to me here in the United States through my cousin Masako.
They did all this without pause. For a complete stranger across the Pacific. An American. Just incredible.
This past weekend, my oldest daughter hosted an early Father’s Day breakfast at her first home. My father went through the yearbook I assembled page by page. Not once. Not twice…but for almost three hours during last Sunday morning.
He remembered the school song. He said he was on their track team and won 1st or 2nd places in the 100m, 200m, broad jump and triple-jump. He was even pictured, front and center, in Nichu’s track team yearbook photo (right).
Other pages struck me with disbelief and astonishment. They gave a glimpse into life during the “pre-war” days in Hiroshima. He talked about the influence of war on schooling. That will be saved for a later story but further explains why his love and remembrances of his youngest brother are buried so deep in his hidden memories.
My ever-quiet father was not quiet that morning. I have never heard him talk so much and for so long… Truly an atomic spark from a 1937 yearbook. All arising from a peace-fueled and unsolicited joint effort by complete strangers, Mr. Tsukamoto and Ms. Kanetou. Perhaps they weren’t complete strangers after all.
In an earlier story, I praised old man Jack for being a giant in forgiving.
There are other giants in this world.
Mr. Tsukamoto, a survivor and Ms. Kanetou.
On behalf of my father, I thank you.
True stories about World War II – One war. Two Countries. One Family