Memory Matters

Mayumi Kimura Meguro

HIST407 / CICS401

December 14, 2015

Enriqueta Toshiko Yamaguchi de Meguro, or Abi as she likes to be called by her grandchildren, was born on January 9, 1939 in Colima, Mexico.  Abi is my grandmother and even though I consider my relationship with her to be very close, I have always felt there was this part of her that I was very ignorant of, but that could be felt through every interaction I have had with her throughout my life. Although my grandmother was born in Mexico, she lived and suffered all of World War II in Japan. In this paper I will narrate and analyze some of the life experiences that my grandmother had during and after the war and with that, gain a deeper understanding of her and the war in a personal and broader context.

When she was only a year old, my grandmother traveled with her mother and older brother back to Japan. This separated their family as her father had to stay in Mexico to work and be able to send money to support their life in Japan. She was a first generation Japanese immigrant born in Mexico but was going back with the purpose of getting an education since there weren’t any opportunities for a good education in their town in Mexico. They settled in the city of Takamatsu located in the Kagawa prefecture of Japan. Shortly after however, World War II erupted and left them stuck and without the hope of going back to safety in Mexico. They were not able to return home until my grandmother was 13 years old in 1952.

My grandmother was born holding hands with war. Her memories of the war are unique in that it is remembered from the point of view of a child that was born and raised with war. The narration of Hideo Satō from Cook & Cook’s book was also from the perspective of a child “I was born in war. It was always around. But war is fun. Boys like war. War can become the material for play” (Satō 239). But just like Hideo Sato mentions, “Even the same wartime experiences take on different colors and shapes as you grow up” (Satō 239). My grandmother’s experiences were utterly different from that of the infant Hideo. Her experience was not only taken from the point of view of a child whose only knowledge of life involved war, but also the experience of a child that was alienated and treated as not belonging to the same nation that she was trapped in supporting.

As individuals, they could neither protect the skies over their cities, nor negotiate peace. The domestic sphere proved the only theater of operations in which Japan’s military leaders could exercise unrestrained power and control to the last moment, and they exploited that position to the fullest. There were no revolts, no explosions. The people obeyed and endured until virtually the final moment. (Cook & Cook 176)

Many of our childhood memories rely more deeply in how certain situations made us feel rather than clear and concrete recollections of how they took place. My grandmother’s narration and memory of the war therefore depend heavily on emotions rather than clear facts and instances of events that she suffered. Abi’s story does not only feature the fear and anger that was omnipresent in Japan during those times. But it is more a narration of utter confusion, misunderstanding and innocence from the point of view of a war child that looked and acted Japanese but was treated and seen as an outsider by them.

As my grandmother recounted her story there were so many things that she wanted to tell me that she often missed finishing sentences to skip to the next part of information. All of the stories she told me were of poignant and painful memories that she had from her childhood. Mostly all of them fore grounded to the hunger, the fire bombings, and the alienation she felt from other Japanese.

This year I saw on the news that it is the 70th anniversary in Japan from the end of the war. I am 76 years old. I was 6 years old when the war ended. So my experience of the war is that of an infant even though I have read so much about everything since then. But from my own real experience… the first thing I remember is the hunger. There was nothing to eat. So much that when my mother and my older brother talked at night in the darkness, remembering the things they had eaten here in Mexico, I asked them to stop talking because I did not even have that memory of food. That is what I remember the most, that and the day of the bombing. (Takamatsu city was bombarded with firebombs on July 3, 1945). In Japan the bombs were meant to burn and the houses in Japan were mostly made out of wood so they completely burned. The sky of our city, which is the capital of the state, was red… red, red. (Meguro)

My grandmother reflects on her childhood experiences from the perspective she has 70 years later. In fact, she was not able to fully reflect on her war experiences until her adulthood. My grandmother finished a degree in psychology when she was in her 60s. She treated psychology as a way of trying to understand what she lived through in Japan. When I asked my grandmother if she remembered what she or her family thought about the war she said the following:

I entered elementary school in April when I was 6 years old. In August the war was over. In reality it was 4 months that I was in school. So to think… I don’t think I thought… I did not know the totalitarianism. I did not know about many of the -isms… you just live day by day. Later when I studied the psychology of Adler, there is a pyramid of the basic level of needs: food, shelter, and clothes. When you are living under that basic of the three, nothing psychological enters. You are barely surviving. So that’s when I realized, Oh… well yes. If food was the principal thing that was missing, it was as if you did not have oxygen to live. (Meguro)

She said that it was because she studied psychology that she was able to go through our full interview of going back to those hurtful memories without even a tear as she had already worked over them. But it was when I asked her about her brother that she cried, as she had never fully reflected about what her brother, who is 7 years older than her, had gone through. Her brother, unlike her who had the blessing of innocence and ignorance at that time, was fully aware and affected by their family status and country’s situation.

We had double nationality. My brother was in secondary school. I remember tremendous fights between him and my mother because my brother wanted to enter a school named ‘Yokaren’ (Japanese Navy’s Preparatory Flight Training Program for Kamikaze pilots). I have never talked to my brother [voice starts cracking] but there must have been something for him to want and go kill himself. I have never talked to him about that. I also had my experiences in those four months of elementary school that were very, very, very unpleasant. That now as an adult I understand that when everything is lacking, when everyone is living the hunger, the fear, the sirens every night, the darkness, everything… I understand that people also become miserable. We were foreign even though we spoke Japanese and looked Japanese. But, they called me spy and I did not understand what ‘spy’ was. The teacher didn’t stop them either. The whole classroom would come after me and I would run and run from them. I would run because I could not understand. Right next to us people would talk with hate about me, about how my dad was a spy because we were immigrants from North America. Now I understand as an adult. But at 6 years old, you don’t know what to do with that information. The only thing you understand is that you are not wanted nor loved, that there is hate felt towards you, and you don’t understand why… so you learn to shut up. (Meguro)

Ericsson and Simonsen write in their book “Children of World War II: The Hidden Enemy Legacy,” about how wars go on for a long time after armistices have been declared or peace treaties signed. Their book talks about children born during or shortly after the German occupation yet I see a direct connection to the experience of my grandmother and her family in Japan. Ericsson and Simonsen write, “The children grew up enveloped in public and private silence. This silence, however, was not a void or a blank. It was filled with meaning: a silence of shame and guilt.” (1)

During our interview my grandmother was able to reflect on how her brother must have been alienated and oppressed just like her. Being 7 years older, how he must have received it more directly and poignantly. How just like her, he learned from this oppression to swallow his words. But how she thinks he coped with this oppression, “I think that just like Japanese Nisei from Hawaii, demonstrating that ‘I am American,’ and going to war, demonstrating to their country that ‘I am from your country!’ I think my brother had something similar in his mind” (Meguro).

In his book “Embracing defeat: Japan in the wake of World War II,” Dower writes, “Before the victors ever set foot in Japan, defeat had profoundly altered how people thought and behaved” (26). My grandmother may not have had clear memories of events during the war, as she was just a child. But the teachings and feelings that the war fed her lingered with her like parasites throughout her life. “The habit of shutting up and swallowing my words did not leave me, it did not leave me until I was about 50-something years old,” she said.

World War II did not really end for the Japanese until 1952, and the years of war, defeat, and occupation left an indelible mark on those who lived through them. No matter how affluent the country later became, these remained the touchstone years for thinking about national identity and personal values. (Dower 25)

Even though my family suffered like all the Japanese people in Japan, their case was additionally one of isolation from the very country and people her family was supposed to be fighting for and from the emperor that they were supposed to respect and love. For the Japanese people that they were suffering and sharing their misery with, my grandmother and her family were not Japanese people but rather part of the construction of who “the other” was. It wasn’t until the end of the war that she recounts the Japanese people finally treating her family as part of them. “When the war ended, in the reconstruction of Japan, everybody worked really hard to build up the country again. And that’s when I was treated as an equal” (Meguro).

Since my grandmother left Japan in 1952, just as Japan was in their road towards reconstruction, I do not think she ever got full closure with her experience of the war in Japan, not even after she studied psychology. She was not able to experience the peace revolution and ideology that overtook Japan post-war. Instead, my grandmother left Japan right at the beginning of this revolution to once again live in a country, culture and language she was a complete stranger to and, ironically, to be alienated once more because of the fact that she was Japanese.

In our interview, there was a moment when my grandmother started to talk about the Jōmon and Yayoi eras for almost ten minutes. She told me how she had seen a TV special in NKH about how the Jōmon period (period of gathering, hunting and fishing) almost 15,000 years ago in Japan, was a period of peace. She said hearing about the Jōmon peaceful period made her incredibly proud and happy to be Japanese because a civilization was able to maintain peace for so long. But that when the Yayoi period came with agriculture, that is when warfare started.

The addiction to assets, to ‘having’… is what started to produce warfare. Just like the holy war… no God would want that! That’s how the closeness to faith obsessively is also a motif of war. I think that in our DNA it exists that you have things, so you want more things. ‘I want more land, I want more oil, I want more of this and this…’ So war is never going to end. I believe that there is never going to not be war. It is sad. (Meguro)

My grandmother was so young that when I asked her what she felt when the war ended she replied with “Well… I felt nothing! I do not even remember the day that the emperor gave his first transmission announcing the end of the war. I have no memory of it. That’s how ignorant and innocent about the war I was.” More than showing a solid recount of the past, my grandmother’s oral story was a reflection and attempt to understand her past and her present. This was from the point of view of an adult that has spent her whole life studying and trying to come to terms with her war experiences. The traumas left inside of my grandmother still acting as a hidden but pertinent and consuming legacy of the war.

My grandmother was robbed of something very precious in life, something that only comes once and never returns. She was robbed of her childhood. Abi’s war experience as a child left her with more unresolved problems in her life than many other war survivors. This is because unlike many other war survivors, she is not able to remember the specific memories of war and be able to analyze each one of them individually, to come to terms with them in some way. But she is left with the lingering pain,feelings of not belonging and misery that this first stage of her life brought her. Unlike many of us who were born into protection, kindness, and acceptance, she was brought  into a world of hate, starvation, destruction and alienation.

“What war left us with are the thinking, the reflection, and the awareness. We need to make good use of them in order to be empathic with others. That is what I have come upon as learning from war, if there is any learning at all from it” (Meguro). My grandmother taught me that Takamatsu city, the capital of the Kagawa prefecture, lies across the ocean from Hiroshima. This fact gave me complete chills and repulsion. It sickened me how Takamatsu could have been one of the targets that was decided by the oh-so-powerful United States of America. How my grandmother would be dead and my whole family would not exist. It sickened me how people living thousands of miles away from the other had the power of playing Death on both the Japanese and American sides. Getting to choose who got to die as if it was a simple game of chess. It sickened me how I have the privilege of recording my grandmother’s story when there were millions of people who died without having someone to share their story because of the greed and ego of nations and individuals.

It sickens me to think how we are repeating history and have yet to learn from it.

Memory matters. History matters. Life matters.

Works Cited

Meguro De Yamaguchi, Enriqueta Toshiko. “Remembering the War: WWII from the Perspective of a War Child.” Skype interview. 09 Dec. 2015.

Cook, Haruko Taya, and Theodore Failor Cook. “Homeland”. Japan at War: An Oral History. New York: New Press: 1992. Print.

Cook, Haruko Taya, and Theodore Failor Cook. “Childhood” Satō Hideo. Japan at War: An Oral History. New York: New Press: 1992. Print.

Ericsson, Kjersti, and Eva Simonsen, eds. Children of World War II: The hidden enemy legacy. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005.

Dower, John W. Embracing defeat: Japan in the wake of World War II. WW Norton & Company, 2000.

United States of America. XXI Bomber Command. Headquarters. Tactical Mission Report. Vol. Mission 247 250. N.p.: n.p., n.d. APO 234. Web. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/61702152/21st-Bomber-Command-Tactical-Mission-Report-247-250-Ocr&gt;.

Bleed, Peter, and Akira Matsui. “Why Didn’t Agriculture Develop in Japan? A Consideration of Jomon Ecological Style, Niche Construction, and the Origins of Domestication.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 17.4 (2010): 356-370

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