finally year ends
death is not what you expect
love endures beyond
senryu by M. Nakazato LaFreniere
Mom passed away March 2017. I am writing about her for my brother, sister and their children. Mom was not one to talk about herself but sometimes driving to bingo, she’d tell me about her life because I’d ask questions. So this is a little bit about WWII, Okinawa and meeting dad. I don’t think my siblings know these stories as they never asked Mom about her history and you have to dig a little to get her to talk about it. I wish I had written stuff down as I’ve forgotten a lot. I know my sister reads my blog pretty regularly so I think she’d like this. For other folks, it’s a long read but if you like oral history, you may like it.
Mom thought Japan fighting in WWII was stupid. At that time, she’d just finished junior high school in Okinawa which back then was a colony of Japan. It didn’t make sense to her, this going to war but junior high school students don’t get a lot of say in what people that head the government decide to do. Even adults don’t get much say. People who voiced or wrote opinions against joining the war were at best called “unpatriotic” and at worse beaten, thrown into jail or even killed.
As Japan copied Europe’s Imperialistic policies to avoid being seen as a weak country easily colonized and to gain resources through colonizing other countries for their coal, gas and metals to fuel Japan’s newly developed industrialization, the Japanese military gained a lot of power after Commodore Perry forcibly opened up Japan, ending the samurai Shogunate and ushering in the modern era. Newspaper offices were burned down by patriotic ruffians if they wrote editorials advocating a less aggressive militaristic stance. Mom’s only brother had been conscripted and sent to Manchuria after he graduated college. These forced conscriptions meant the young able-bodied men were gone from Okinawa.
My grandfather left Okinawa to work in either the Phillipines or Taiwan or some place like that. He was supposed to send money home but I don’t think he did that much. Grandmom took a job working for the school cafeteria while running the farm with her elder daughters. I wonder now if grandad left partly to avoid being forcibly conscripted into the Japanese army. He returned shortly before mom graduated from junior high school.
Mom’s oldest sister went to Tokyo to work in a factory. She became sick and returned with a daughter to the family home. So while mom was the youngest of six, her niece became her younger sister. The oldest sister died of pneumonia.
Okinawa’s economy was very poor being based mostly on limited agriculture on rocky soil and fishing. Before Japan closed it’s borders for 200 years, Okinawa used to trade up and down the coast of Asia from India to China and did pretty well until Japan passed a law that anyone leaving Japan would be killed upon re-entry. That pretty much killed the Okinawan economy for centuries. Losing their young people to mainland factories and military conscription probably didn’t help. Tourism wasn’t a big thing back then — you need peace for tourism to become a healthy industry so the beautiful beaches in Okinawa had yet to become a big draw.
Mom lived on a farm without running water. One of her chores was to carry large buckets of water on a long pole across her shoulder and bring it back from the river. They were pretty poor so rice was a luxury. Mom and her sisters would dig up the wild mountain potatoes and knew which plants to pluck to bring home for dinner. (Years later she would recognize wasabi, a wild mustard growing on an Arizona mountain as well as another herb good to help you sleep. She told my dad to stop the car so she could pick some.) She and her sisters had a lot of chores but Mom loved school so she would get up at dawn to do her homework before her chores started.
Mom graduated top of her junior high class. She wanted to go to high school. Very few people went to high school back then so if you did, you could become a school teacher. But high school required tuition. Her father said no, even when her teachers visited to explain why it would be good for her to go. He said she was needed on the farm. Not only had her brother gone to high school but she and her sisters had helped earned money to pay for his college tuition and board.
Mom felt bitterly angry at first at the unfairness of it as her grades and scholastic achievements were much better than her brother’s. However one of her teachers told her there is more than one way to climb a mountain — sometimes you follow the path already made and sometimes you cut a new path. She decided she’d find another way to climb the mountain.
Okinawa is only 70 miles long and about 7 miles wide and is part of a string of islands called the Ryukyu Islands. Okinawa had a different creation myth and religion than Japan. Back before it was colonized by Japan, the oldest son would become king and the oldest daughter would become high priestess. Political power was seen as male but religious/spiritual power belonged to women so there were no priests, only priestesses in the village. There still are priestesses to this day but their numbers are dwindling. In the homes, the oldest female relative was responsible for taking care of the hinukan (hearth god), furugan (bathroom god) and the butsudan (family altar with memorial plaques and pictures) although the butsudan was generally passed to whoever inherited the parental house, generally the oldest son.
High school became a moot point for mom when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States started flying bombing raids over Japan and Okinawa so the schools closed down. Her 15-year-old older sister took the daily boat over to the next island where she was paid to help make a new plane runway with a lot of other folks. Tomoko was her closest sister. (not sure of my aunt’s name actually. Names on the back of photographs are written in Japanese) Mom got permission to go with her one day.
People looked up when they heard the buzzing of the planes. When they saw the star of American planes, everyone ran for shelter. My mom and her sister jumped into a ditch. Tomoko lay down over mom, protecting mom with her body. The earth shook as the bombs hit. Some shrapnel hit Tomoko’s legs.
When the planes left, Tomoko and mom stood up. They wrapped Tomoko’s bleeding legs as best they could and along with everybody else limped their way to the docks. There wasn’t enough boats for all the people. They took Tomoko right away because she needed medical attention and despite Tomoko’s best efforts, they left mom behind. Mom was about 13 at the time.
The boats all left leaving mom on the dock with some others. She didn’t know what to do so she sat, waiting for another boat to take her back to Okinawa, her home island. Mom got really hungry and on the second evening, a kind lady offered to take her home and feed her. So she had dinner and a bed that night but then mom returned to the docks the next day early in the morning.
Meantime her parents are frantically trying to rent a boat after Tomoko is allowed to go home and they realize mom had been left behind but there were no boats available.
On the third day very early, a military ship picked up mom and the others and deposited them on the southern tip of Okinawa. Mom’s village was in the north. There were no cellphones back then. Her home didn’t even have a telephone anyways. Her father finally located a fisherman who rented him a boat but when he arrived, mom had already left the island. He searched but could not find her.
Wars use up a lot of resources as military consumes vast amounts of materials so for civilians many things get rationed. In Japan, an adult had to get a license to be allowed to buy a pairs of shoe annually as leather was scarce. So most children did not have shoes. Mom did not own a pair of shoes. There was no car, bus or taxi she could hop on. Not back then. She walked home. It took a day to walk more than 50 miles barefoot. Since her father had returned without her that evening, everybody was extremely happy to see her when she walked through the door that night.
The war continued. When American soldiers invaded Okinawa, mom and her family retreated to the mountains. They dug out caves to hide in. Back then, Okinawan houses had poles surrounded the house to hold up the heavy tiled roof
and rested on a platform so that during the monsoon season, the waters would flow under the house. When mom’s family came down from the mountains, they found the soldiers had chopped down all the poles of the village houses. Their house was collapsed, flat as a pancake, on the ground.
traditional Okinawan house
After the war, the villagers were shunted off to concentration camps. Mom got sick there. Typhoid, I think. A lot of people died but mom’s mom nursed her back to health. Mom’s mom had been the village healer and midwife. She knew a lot about herbs and nursing even though her paid job had been working in the school cafeteria.
Fast forward a decade. There are American bases now on Okinawa. Mom worked as the housegirl for a lieutenant. Mom studied English and started being able to converse. The lieutenant saw how smart she was and told her that she should study keypunching and typing so she wouldn’t be cleaning houses forever. So mom saved her money and then took night classes.
When the lieutenant was transferred away, instead of finding a new housekeeping job, mom applied to be a keypuncher on the Air Force Base and was hired in Supply. She loved to dance so she was also teaching dance to GIs in the early evening. One GI fell in love with her and wanted to marry her but got transferred away before he could. He wanted to get a visa for her to bring her to America to get married. His mother was helping him.
Meantime dad came to the dance class with a buddy who wanted to learn to dance. Mom said he looked just like a movie star. Now, I love my dad. I really do but his nose is huge! The fact that my mom thought
he looked like a movie star? Shakes my head. She fell pretty hard for him. So she wrote to the guy and told him she was sorry but she couldn’t marry him.
Dad fell for her too. But Dad was too shy to dance with her. She didn’t know it but he was ten years younger than her. He was only 19 at the time although he’d been in the air force for several years by then (he had runaway to join the air force and lied on his application as he was underage at the time.). At the same time, he thought she was in her early twenties so he was off by about five years.
Dad wrote a poem back then that I found:
Dad found out she worked in the keypunch office and would find errands to take him through there as he worked in Supply. Eventually, they finally did get to talking.
When they first dated, her family did not want her dating an American so they couldn’t walk together in town. She’d walk several steps behind him or in front of him. When they went to a movie, they entered separately and sat in different rows. When the lights went down, dad would move to sit in the chair next to her.
The prejudice ran both ways. Dad’s commander sat him down and told him in a fatherly tone not to date Okinawan women. I remember when dad was chatting to another guy at bingo 48 years after mom and he married — the other guy had also married an Okinawan — they both had received the same lecture when it became known they were dating Okinawans.
Despite the many obstacles they dated for a year or two before dad was transferred away to Japan. He missed her a lot and wrote to her to come up to Johnson Air Force Base (near Tokyo) and they could get married. So she did. They were married at the American embassy.
And the rest as they say is history.
daily prompts, daily post
What Sparked Japan’s Aggression During World War II?
by Harold Kingsberg, Quora, July 7, 2014
Noro (Nuruu) priestess