Hiroshima, my mother, and remembering the Japanese during World War Two
Over lunch today, I shared with a friend something I learnt from my mother on our visit to Japan last year and her perspective on World War Two. I thought I should just jot down my thoughts from that conversation before I forget the experience.
I had taken my mother with me on one of my trips to Japan in August last year. It was a nice time to be in the country, it was still warm and balmy. As usual, I spend about 3-4 days doing interviews with various senior people in the different Japanese banks in Tokyo, and then squeezed in sight-seeing stuff for her sake. That’s how I juggle things, in any case.
We stayed at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (which I recommend as the best hotel in the world in every way! Ergonomically, design wise, service levels and so on). We visited Tokyo Disneyland, where we queued to take a photo and get the autograph of Mickey Mouse for the sake of a nephew.
I then took my mother on the Shinkansen to Osaka, where I have a very close Japanese family friend, the Fujimoris whom I have known for several years. The mother in the family, Yoko, had visited my mother a year ago during her visit to Malaysia. The special thing about the Fujimoris is that they are very close to their neighbours where Yoko teaches English and other kids school subjects. Over the years, I too have come to know the families who send their kids to Yoko’s classes, and from there, the personal struggles of Japanese families.
One of the personal highlights in my life was in being invited to attend the wedding of Yoko’s daughter’s, Yoshiko, a few years ago, a deep honour for me as a foreigner that I will never forget. I can still show off the family wedding photo with me in the line up very clearly different from everyone else in it.
The Fujimoris and the people in the neightbourhood welcomed my mother very warmly over a barbecue that Yoko organised for her students (she does this every year and I attend every year), despite language barriers and so on.
The next day, the Fujimoris took both of us to an incredibly exquisite restaurant by the streams in the hills outside Kyoto. Anyone who is familiar with just how organised, tasteful and exquisite Japanese culture is, would be really taken by just what a wonderful experience having an elaborate luncheon in a special but popular restuarant in late summer in the beautiful city of Kyoto can be.
After Osaka, I took my mother to Hiroshima, which is another two hours south by Shinkansen from Osaka. By this time, my mother had been enjoying Japan so thoroughly that she was surely enjoying herself very much. Then came the surprise that really became etched in my mind.
When my mother saw the Atomic Bomb Park, with the shelled out building, the walk ways, the epitaph, the memorial and the museum, my mother basically clamped up. She read every single explanatory sign-boards in the park to commemorate the suffering and experiences of the Japanese people during the Second World War, and she nodded in disagreement with every single one of them.
I think that if I had visited the memorial on my own, the way in which it was laid out and the slant of the stories would have caused me to have some sympathy for the Japanese people and perhaps come to the conclusion that “well, everyone suffered during the war.” There was no concession of any kind from my mother. Her position was simply that we must never forget what the Japanese did during world war two, that what they was really cruel and that Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the bombs fell, were the consequences of that cruelty and not the victims.
Now, my mother (and my father when he was alive) are the most humble, accommodating and gracious people in the world. They are incapable of wishing any ill whatsoever on anybody. No matter how bad a person is, if that person does no harm to them, they will never speak or wish evil on that person. They are decent people.
But in this one matter, there was no concession from my mother,and I am sure if my father were alive, his position would not have been too different. My mother was a young nine year old girl during World War Two. She saw the bombs fall. She watched an uncle being killed by Japanese soldiers pouring boiling oil over him as he was strung out on a tree. Her own father was nearly arrested just because he had medicines in a cupboard. They had to run into the jungle and live on tapioca roots for days while bombing raids were carried out night after night. My father had similar stories of his own when he was alive, the most compelling of which was that my paternal grandfather, who was a train engine driver, was killed by a Japanese air raid bomb on the train he was driving to transport British soldiers and suppliers in retreat during the early days of the war.
It is so important for parents to tell their stories to their children because that is how we remember what needs to be learnt and I have heard these stories many times before. But nothing prepared for my mother’s reaction when we visited Hiroshima. Her perspective on the Japanese during World War Two was non-negotiable.
I thought about what the Japanese could have done to make the memorial more acceptable to people like my mother, who were victims as young and vulnerable children in those years. I guess the most important word would have been the word “sorry”. Much of the memorial was dedicated to the stoic sufferings of the Japanese people when the Americans dropped the “little boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima. They showcased how logistical support for the city was back in operation within three days of the devastating bomb and somewhat of a twisted version of how the Japanese people were forced into the war. My mother’s version however was on the naked brutality of the Japanese soldiers as they sought to strike terror into the local population everywhere they went, for which the atomic bomb became a necessity to stop.
The most difficult thing about the Hiroshima Park is that it was designed and built by the very people who were part of the Japanese war efforts. There are three qualified categories of people who could have built the park. One, the vanquished (ie, the Japanese government). Two, the victors (ie the Americans). Three, a new set of netural (even Japanese) people who rebuilt the city from its ashes. Unfortunately, Japan does not have that third category of people. That is why the word sorry is so difficult.
There is very little that 43 year old sons would concede to their 72 year old mothers. But this experience in Hiroshima enabled my mother to slip in yet another deep influence on her adult child. Even if I belonged to the next generation that could possibly be more forgiving towards the Japanese for something that happened more than 60 years ago, I risked blurring the simple and stark reality of the truth as seen by the very people who had to deal with it.
On behalf of all the people in her own life, my mother wrote a long precise into the autograph book at the end of the Memorial Museum to express her feelings about the Japanese during World War Two. I did not go near to read it, I did not need to, I am sure it was an intense pouring out of her deep feelings in this matter, and as the next generation, I chose to leave her to it.
I very nearly missed this one influence my parents had in my life. So much of the memorials of sufferings I have seen belonged to “other” people. That of the Jews in Europe, the Palestinians in the Middle East, the blacks in South Africa, the Incas with the Spaniards, the natives in Australia. I can analyze them dispassionately. That of the Japanese during World War Two would have been in that list, if not for my ageing mother saving me in the nick of time and passing on the memory of her own experience from being lost forever.
That trip to Hiroshima now makes me a benefactor of her experience. Whether I like it or not, I am my mother’s son. Whether her views are prejudiced or not, uninformed or otherwise, I am now tasked with representing it for yet another generation and in this way, we are taught not to forget what makes us who we are today.
I hope my Japanese friends will understand and appreciate my experience. I still think that Japan is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. The fact that I do have some really good Japanese friends, makes me a truly fortunate person. As a foreigner, I am really lucky that I have Japanese friends who trust and accept me into their lives. I also know that it is not easy, in fact impossible, to speak with a Japanese person about World War Two in a dispassionate manner. So, it may not even be possible to ever discuss my mother’s sentiments and this new burden I have in my mind.
The interesting thing is that the Japanese have done so much good since World War Two that they have more than compensated for all the wrongs done during those dark days. All of us really want to move on. But for people like my mother, the word “sorry” is still so important, so personal, that it is impossible to really move on without it. Needless to say, this is the same position as the Chinese in Nanjing.
Right after Hiroshima, when we got back and she reviewed her photographs, my mother told me how much she truly enjoyed her holidays in Japan. She wrote to Yoko to thank her and hoped that Yoko and Toshihiko, Yoko’s lovely husband, will visit and even stay with her in KL soon. She does not mention Hiroshima very much, but she does not need to. It stands loud and clear in my mind.