…but Dad passed away quietly at 99 years of age on Good Friday, March 30, 2018 in Los Angeles, CA – at the same facility where his older sister, my Aunt Shizue, passed away just a few years earlier at 95.
Just an eulogy in photographs of Dad:
And my last video of Dad:
Dad, I wish I were a much better son… but I know you are joyfully back playing “oninga” or jump-frog in front of your Hiroshima home with your favorite brother Suetaro. I hope you have all the odango you can eat now. You will be forever young.
Before Pearl Harbor, the US was still not recovered from the Great Depression. With the money printed in great quantity – as a necessity – by the US government, the US war machine rolled into action. Many executives and businessmen taking part in this frantic and mass expenditure of government money with their companies gained their financial fortunes from this great war as did a large number of Congressmen.
The boots on the ground also had fortune – but it was MISfortune. Misfortune fell upon the millions of brave young men who were sent to war because world leaders had their own agendas. Millions were killed like my dad’s favorite brother, my Uncle Suetaro.
Misfortune, unfortunately, also followed home for the rest of their lives those young men who survived combat. Men like Smitty, Old Man Jack and Mr. Johnson. Horrible nightmares each and every night. Some succumbed to the immense weight this horrible misfortune had on their minds and ended their own lives after making it home. Sadly, they are all being forgotten in our children’s history books.
Our little group was afforded a day of sightseeing before leaving for Osaka/Kansai Airport in Japan, once again led by Mr. Yusuke Ota. Here’s a small collection of sights taken in, some during the week (Clicking on an image will show you its location.):
While waiting at the Manila Airport for our connecting flight to Osaka, Mr. Ota took us to the Philippine Air Force Museum where among other items was the Type 99 Arisaka rifle Lt. Onoda kept with him for over 29 years in the Philippine jungle. He was the last holdout from WWII:
A Victory Nonetheless
Seventy years after this most brutal war in the Pacific, the same US Marines and the same Japanese military that sought to kill each other with extreme bitterness are now the closest of allies as shown in the USMC photos below. Now, they sail together on the same US Navy ships, eat together, train together and assault the beaches here at Camp Pendleton, CA together in joint training exercises. The same with the US Army. My gut feeling is one of these gallant young men would die to protect the other if the unfortunate circumstances arose.
Uncle Suetaro lost his life and while Smitty carried the war silently for the rest of his life, they were both victorious because of the above.
It was not in vain.
One War. Two Countries. One Family.
My Thoughts of the Experience
I cannot speak for Masako or my other cousins but what you believe in is almighty. Hope. Fear. Happiness. Sadness. I experienced all those during the pilgrimage to Leyte.
While listening to Masako’s tender letter to Uncle Suetaro, a feeling of deep regrets and the dashing of hope experienced by Grandmother Kono buried me. My heart could see Grandmother’s face in silent torment, resting in Masako’s arms in 1954 as she drew her last breath in the Kanemoto family home.
Just like most American mothers, Grandmother must have clung on to a hope – however dim – that her youngest son Suetaro would come home… the one she decided to keep from returning to Seattle in 1940 so that he could carry on the Kanemoto name and inherit the home and land. That was not to be now. It would have been better to have let him go home. Her son would be alive.
But perhaps Uncle Suetaro would have ended up in the same prison camps that my dad, aunts and uncles were in but would still be alive. Or, he would have answered the call out of camp and volunteered for the US Army as thousands of other Nisei’s did to prove their loyalty, only to die in Italy or France as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII.¹
I also thought about my dad often during the trek. At 96 years of age, this journey would have been physically impossible for him. More so, I wondered if the stirring up of fond memories of his youngest brother would do more harm than good at this stage in his life.
I also felt more deeply the quandary confronting Uncle Suetaro when he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. The decision he had to make to knowingly fight the country your siblings were living in as Americans… and the country he most dearly wanted to return to. However, he wrote in his farewell letter that he will fight to free his older siblings from the prisons FDR sent them to.
Also in his heart and in that of his mother, both knew this was a one-way trip. A death sentence. Japanese soldiers rarely returned from war. In the case of his IJA’s 41st Regiment, only 20 young men returned home out of 2,550.
I’m sure just like any other American boy, he wanted a life that was worth living, a life filled with feelings, emotions, love and dreams. That would never happen and it pains me without end.
Before he met his death, was he drowned in futility or solace? Did he see death up close and come to the stark realization that would be his future perhaps tomorrow? What did he dream about as he took his last breaths or was he blindly looking up at the stars hoping? Was he dreaming about his childhood, playing on the corner of King and Maynard in Seattle with my dad? Was he in great pain or was his death swift and without warning? Did he see the eyes of the American soldier inches from his own eyes in a hand-to-hand combat to the death? Was he hungry? How terrified was he?
The painful mystery of what Uncle Suetaro did, felt or saw in his last days will remain forever so… That is one agony that will be with me until my own time comes. Happily, we at least visited him in his unmarked graveyard among the now lusciously green vegetation with the birds endlessly singing Taps for him.
As Izumi passionately said to Uncle Suetaro’s spirit, “Come home with us.”
Indeed, he did.
He is no longer a soul lost in a faraway jungle.
I wish to thank my Hiroshima cousins for making this unforgettable pilgrimage possible and a special thank you to Izumi whose untiring efforts to follow up on Japan-based leads brought comfort to our family. I also wish to express my sincere gratitude to Akehira and Carmela who made dear Masako’s journey so comfortable and worry-free. And a heartfelt thank you to Mr. Yusuke Ota whose in-depth knowledge allowed us to see our Uncle Suetaro’s last footsteps on this earth and gave Masako peace in her soul.
Most of all, Uncle, thank you for your sacrifice. Indeed, you set your older brothers and sister free.
Rest in peace.
Other chapters are here for ease of locating earlier posts in this series:
In my seemingly never-ending drive to uncover lost details of family history – both here in America and in Hiroshima – many surprises have popped up. Stuff I could have not even imagined.
For instance, finding out my grandfather went camping – complete with a Coleman stove from that time (circa 1915). It’s odd even for me to see Japanese immigrants camping let alone in shirts and ties:
Or that Grandmother Kono – also from a small farming village in Hiroshima as my grandfather – would pose for a picture on the running board of a brand new 1918 (c) Chevrolet Touring happily holding my Aunt Shiz:
I don’t think even she could have ever dreamed she would be sitting on the running board of an American icon from the poverty she had lived in before coming to Seattle as a picture bride.
On other subjects, I’ve developed unprovable conclusions based on detailed inspection of such photos… but I guess there’s no harm in believing them.
For instance, there are quite a few lefties in my dad’s side of the family. I’ve always wondered from whom that trait came from.
Well, in the few photographs remaining of Grandfather Hisakichi, I see some glaring patterns:
Here he is on the right, holding a cigarette in his left hand:
In July 1922, he is photographed here holding his hat in his left hand; however, as in his other photos in a suit, his gold chain (perhaps a watch) leads to a left vest pocket. I am unsure of which direction a watch would have been pocketed:
But there is one undeniable fact. While I cannot find the actual US Immigration manifest, the 1930 Census discloses Grandfather Hisakichi (legally) immigrated here in 1898 when he was just 17 years old.
But because he was a documented immigrant, the government knew he was here. He had to register for the draft in 1918! WWI was raging then. He was 38 years old.
“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.
Japanese women being given “home defense training”. My grandmother on my mother’s side underwent such training on a Tokyo schoolground. 1945.
The Japanese home front had essentially collapsed by 1945. Instead of focusing on food, supplies, building air raid shelters and organizing orderly evacuations of civilians, Japanese military leadership focused on misleading news reports and propaganda. Millions fled the cities into safer rural areas(¹) on their own initiative but once there, supplies of daily sustenance was meager.
In one’s own life, you are tested. A good human being will at times prove oneself to be a good brother or sister, son or daughter, friend or life partner. Some fail. Some pass.
Aunt Michie was one who passed; her heart led her to care for others before herself. It is as if she knew being good to others was the way to have a good life.
As an example, US air and naval forces ruled the skies and the seas. A key staple of the Japanese diet – fish – had been nearly cut off as fishing boats were attacked once out to sea. Yet, when Aunt Michie came across sashimi, she traveled hours with Masako in tow to take a precious portion to her brother Suetaro at his army base in Fukuoka:
“…(Masako) remembers a couple of trips (to see Suetaro). It was not easy travel in war-torn Japan. For one trip, Aunt Michie managed to take sashimi – in this time of little food, it was a tremendous treat and gift.On that trip, Masako remembers her mother stealthily sliding over to Uncle Suetaro the wrapped sashimi. He was being stared at by many of his fellow soldiers – they were not well fed either. She remembers Uncle slowly turning so that the others could not see and quickly devoured the treat.”
Aunt Michie could have eaten the precious sashimi herself…but didn’t.
With her husband taken by the Imperial Japanese Army then dispatched to war in Manchuria, she was burdened with running the farm… still laboring to produce crops only to be taken by the military. She would get up before sunrise, help prepare meals, tend to the family then toil in the fields. And when her mother became partially paralyzed and alone in her own home five miles away, Aunt Michie knew she had to take care of her, too. Michie was the last of her children left in Japan.
While Michie and Grandmother Kono managed to get part-time care, Aunt Michie still took it upon herself to check in on her stricken mother. My cousins tell me their mother Aunt Michie would take them along for the ten mile round trip to her Kanemoto family home.
No car. No bus. No taxi. No trains or bicycles. They had to walk. After all, it was 1944 and fuel was a huge luxury. One memory the youngest happily recollect is that they would take turns riding in some kind of baby stroller that Michie would push to Grandmother Kono’s. Neverthless, it was still a great deal of effort and sacrifice on Michie’s part in any case… and she did this after working in the fields, too.
Masako will eventually end up caring for Grandmother Kono.
After picking herself off the ground, Aunt Michie saw an evil yet mystifying mushroom cloud slowly rising up beyond the 300 meter tall hill separating her village from Hiroshima proper. At that instant, she knew her life had taken a wrenching turn for the worse… as if it could get any worse.
I cannot imagine what was going through her mind and heart watching that mushroom cloud rising. She could not have even dreamed that it was one massive bomb, kilometers away, that could cause this sort of force and devastation. It must have defied belief.
According to Michie and my cousins, the shockwave blew out all the sliding doors, all the tatami mats were flung and the ceiling was shoved up in the house. Try to imagine yourself being inside the house. The same thing happened to Grandmother Kono’s house five miles south (See map in Part 1).
As per their daily air raid drill, they apparently all ran to the air raid shelter in the small hill behind their house. After about half an hour and with the mushroom cloud still rising, a black, syrupy rain began to fall on them. According to the cousins, Michie believed that the Americans were dropping oil from space.
She could not have fathomed it was contaminated with over 200 kinds of radioactive isotopes. We now call it black rain.
Sadako, who was ten years old, clearly remembers their white blouses had turned black from the rain. No one – absolutely no one – knew that other than staining skin, clothing, and buildings, but that ingesting black rain by breathing and by consumption of contaminated food or water, would lead to radiation poisoning. Even flowers would bloom in distorted shapes and forms from the radiation.
With the enormity and the suddenness of the brilliant flash of light followed by a shockwave and the swirling mushroom cloud, Michie deep inside knew her world had forever changed.
Horror was to literally come into hand shortly to enforce that foreboding thought.
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.