woke up as she had every morning for the past six months. Tired but optomistic, she looked forward to another bleak day at the city office. As a fourteen-year-old and as a young girl, she had little understanding of the politics of war. Such things were discussed by the old men with whom she worked. She knew it was atopic that affected her daily life but still it was something she’d rather not think about. And a clear August morning gave her no reason to think about any further.
That is, until the air raid siren screamed.
Her mother immediately turned on the radio to see what was happening, to learn if there was anything they had to do, any specific place to where they had to evacuate. But the siren stopped and the radio announced that everyone should return to their normal routine. What’s so normal about our life? thought Y.
Once upon a time, Y would ask her mother to switch stations to listen to popular songs, but all she ever got was the news. But today, as with every other day lately, her mother turned off the radio after the announcement, her way of saving electricity for the ar movement. So silently, she ate her breakfast of miso soup. There was no rice, as it all went to the military. They rarely had fish to eat–perhaps something someone caught in the river behind her house–but that was a luxury reserved for dinner. But she did have chunks of potatoes and daikon radish in her soup, something that some of her classmates did not enjoy.
After eating, she washed her face and hands with cold water from the flat tin basin, as she prepared to go to work. Her younger brother was just waking up and getting dressed in his black uniform to go to elementary school. Her mother had few words of comfort after coming home from Chosen–the name the Japanese had chosen for its Korean colony. No one really knew what was happening, except for the news of bombings in Tokyo and Nagoya, but a bad economy, more frequent air raid warnings and news of the deaths of friends and relatives was enough to make most suspect that things were not going well, and to drag morale down. So when Y went to work, all she and her mother could muster was a perfunctory exchange: Itte mairimasu (I go and will come back); Itte rasshai (Go and come back).
She lived along the banks of Honkawa, the main river that flowed through the middle of Hiroshima. During more leisurely times, she would crawl down the steep, rocky banks and dive into the river to swim with her brother to wash away the heat of Japan’s searing summers. It seems like decades ago, she thought as looked down toward the river as she walked to work. She turned the corner, crossed the bridge over Honkawa and made her way toward the city offices near Hiroshima castle.
Ohayou-gozaimasu, she greeted everyone in her office with a good morning as usual and then turned to sit at her desk when suddenly there was a bright flash. It came through the window at first, but soon it seemed to permeate through the very wall of the city building. There was no sound and the light began to fill the whole room in slow motion, bleaching the everyone and everything white.
It’s brighter than the sun. Everything’s so white. What is it? These thoughts flashed through her mind in a millisecond.
Then everything turned black.
lowly, Y regained her consciousness, although there was nothing to suggest that she was actually conscious. She opened her eyes to look around, but it was pitch black. Dazed and disoriented, she tried to figure out where she was.
I went to work. I said good morning to Mr. Shimizu. Her mind tried to recall what had happened, but it was difficult. It was hot and her legs burned. She tried to reach down to feel what was wrong, but she could not. Her whole body was pinned down by something heavy and she could not move.
But with each passing moment, she began to get her bearings. She became aware the moans around her. If nothing else, this told her that she was alive, if barely. She recognized Mr. Shimizu’s voice. He was the section chief where Y worked. By the beginning of 20th year of Showa, there was a dearth or able-bodied workers, so everyone who had graduated elementary school had to work. Y felt lucky at the time. She didn’t really like school, and many of her friends were forced to work in factories outside the city, some as far away as Kure, where the Naval shipyard was located. Thanks to her grandfather’s connections, she was assigned a municipal desk job where she filed and served tea. Since her commute was short, she could wake up later and return home from work earlier than any of her friends. She was the envy of her classmates, but in a playful sort of way.
On Sundays, when they didn’t have to go to work, they would often gather at Y’s house to go swimming in river right behind her house. From the back door, there was a short but steep grassy incline that led to a stone embankment, from which there were a few steps that led directly to the river. But the girls rarely used the steps. Instead, they would jump directly into the deep river, using he steps only to return to the top of the embankment to jump in again. Once in the water, they swam across to the other side then back, then they’d scream and giggle and carry on.
The river had a purifying effect on them. The waters cleansed their young hearts, washing away the soot and grime of the adult life they were forced to live, and allowed them to be fourteen-year-old girls again. If even for a few hours on Sunday.
“Yoshiko, you’re so lucky to live so close to work,” said Atsuko as she stretched out grass above the the embankment .
“Yeah,” agreed Setsu as she started to spread out her lunch in front of her. “I have to take a train out to Hatsukaichi everyday. Do you know how early I have to wake up?”
“Gee, sorry.” Yoshiko laughed. “But being so close to work is not always good, you know. I get off at five o’clock and come straght home. There’s nothing to do.”
“Oh, how sad,” they all whined sarcastically, then giggled as they devoured their modest lunch of rice balls.
But during the week, it really was boring for Y. She was one of the rare youngsters to get an office job and she was surrounded by adults. When the clock struck five, Mr. Shimizu would look for her immediately. “It’s five o’clock. Go straight home now. Don’t take any side trips,” he would say everyday on cue. Mr. Shimizu was one of the few men younger than 50 still living in the city. But he had a bad leg from a childhood accident and could not serve in the military, although he always insisted that he wish he could go to the battlefield to do his duty. These comments were always annoying to Y. Who’d want to go to war? Who’d want to die? But his comments after work were always welcome. Even if they both knew she had nowhere to go after work except home, it was a small kindness that seemed to be in short supply, like rice and meat.
“Yes, I will,” she replied obediently.
In the darkness, it all seemed so far away
s someone there?” Yoshiko recognized the voice. It was Mr. Shimizu. For a moment, she was excited and relieved to hear someone familiar. Even in the dark, she struggled to turn in the direction of the voice, but the best she could do was turn her head.
“Mr. Shimizu. Over here.”
“Ah, Hayashi-kun? Are you alright?” he said in a weak voice.
“It’s dark and I can’t move my body. I think something’s on top of me.”
“Me, too. It looks like the building’s collapsed. Just stay still. Someone will come to help us soon.”
Just as Yoshiko was about to answer, she heard a shudder, and whatever was on top of her shifted at an angle downward, freeing her hands. But she was still pinned down from the waist. “I can move my hands, now.”
“The rubble is shifting. Maybe you can wiggle yourself free.”
Yoshiko tried hard to push whatever was on top of her, but she was afraid of pushing too hard. Not seeing what was on her as well as what was around her unnerved her. “I can’t,” she yelled. “I’m scared.”
“Hang in there,” Mr. Shimizu said, when there was anothter big creak and a thud.
Yoshiko let out a scream. Then she covered her mouth instinctively out of embarassment. She didn’t necessarily have a low voice, but she knew that her scream was not very girl-like. Her brother had told her as much a year earlier.
The summer of 1944 was hot and muggy. Sleep was virtually impossible. On one particularly muggy night, she and her brother spent the night drinking cups of cold barley tea in an attempt to cool off.
“Yoshiko, I have to pee.” Tadao confessed.
“Then go, why don’t you?”
“It’s dark,” he whined.
Yoshiko got up from her bedding. “Okay, let’s go,” she sighed in resignation.
In some of the more recent homes, the toilet was isolated down a long hall at one end of the structure. But the house in which they lived–their grandparents’ home–dated back to the Edo period, according to her grandfather, so the toilet was located in a separate structure out back. While spotless, an outhouse is still an outhouse, Yoshiko often opined. There were ten gray stepping stones at even intervals covering the twenty feet between the back door and the toilet. As far back as they could remember, they would jump from stone to stone, yelling the number of the stone they landed on–Two! Four! Seven! Nine! Indeed, this is how they learned the various counters used in Japanese. Yoshiko would say pencil, and Tadao would count using the counters for long narrow objects: ippon, sanbon, gohon, nanahon, as he jumped from stone numbers one, three, five and seven. Then Tadao would yell plates, indicating flat objects, and Yoshiko would call out nimai, yonmai, rokumai, hachimai, as she jumped from stone two to four to six to eight.
In the middle of the night, they did not want to make a ruckus, so they were not going to raise their voice. And, as they often did when not adults were looking, they went barefoot. Out of habit, Yoshiko jumped from stone to stone. Two, four, si… She froze as her foot landed on something wet and gushy. She looked down at her feet and saw in the moonlight that she had squished a frog the size of her fist. Every muscle in her body tensed as she bellowed. “Oooooooooh.”
Tadao started to laugh hysterically, trying to stifle himself by covering his mouth with his hand. But he had buckled over in laughter.
“What!?! Why are you laughing.” Yoshiko was staring at the frog that was still moving.
“Foghorn? Ooooh!” Yoshiko bellowed again when the frog suddenly hopped away into the darkness. She caught her breath, relieved that she did not have to deal with a dead frog. “What do you mean, foghorn?”
Tadao was still laughing. “Your ‘scream’. It sounds like a foghorn.”
My scream sounds like a foghorn? Yoshiko repeated mentally. At that moment, Yoshiko hated her brother. How could he say that? I just yelled in surprised. There’s no need to compare it to a FOGHORN! Tadao, I just hate you. But at least it was only her brother who heard her. She swore that she would never let out a loud voice again, for fear that someone else would hear her foghorn of a scream. And she didn’t, not until a year later when she was pinned beneath a mountain of rubble, one that used to be the municipal building in which she worked.
s Yoshiko stifled her cry, she noticed that she could move her body a bit more, and began to wonder if the moving ruble affected anyone else beneath it. If she could move more, maybe others in the same predicament could move as well. Maybe there was hope.
“Mr. Shimizu? Can you move?”
But all she heard were moans. And they were not Mr. Shimizu’s. Who’s moaning? Why didn’t I notice them before? When Yoshiko first regained consciousness, she was still in a daze. The first voice she heard was the one that was most familiar. But as she slowly gained a sense of time and place, her senses sharpened and she began to notice more than the darkness.
What happened? she thought. How did the building collapse? She tried to recall she had experienced up to this moment–she woke up, then ate breakfast, then walked to work and entered the office, then… A bright light, a flash that kind of filled the room, like a camera’s flash bulb when you look right at it. What was that? Yoshiko had no idea. All she knew was that she was trapped under some rubble and she had to get out of there.
“Mr. Shimizu? Are you there?” But she did get a response. All she heard were the moans faceless others.
Dear God, please help us, Yoshiko thought. She had never been an especially religious person. Like many young people in Japan, her life was filled with the symbols and rituals of religion, but little understanding of it. She knew that the state religion was Shinto and that the emperor was a direct descendant of the Goddess that created Japan, Amaterasu Omikami–the Great Deity Who Lights the Heavens–or at least that’s what the text books taught her. Every New Year, she went to the Shinto Shrine to give an offering and received from her mother or grandparents an amulet that was supposed to protect her, sometimes to help her with her studies, others times to ward off illness, usually a general purpose amulet. She would happily accept it, then shove it into her small dresser when she got home. When she went to the shrine, she always copied the adults she was with by washing her hand with the water at the well near the entrance. It had never occurred to her that this purification ritual was related to her taking off her shoes before entering a house, or the mounds of purification salt placed in front of many shops and restaurants around town.
At home, they also had a Buddhist altar in which were displayed a faded sepia-tinted photo of her great grandparents. Everyday before a meal, either she or Tadao would place a small bowl of freshly cooked rice–or whatever staple they had for dinner–at the altar as an offering. Tadao once wondered out loud why they had to waste such a precious commodity as their dinner–rice was so scarce–but he was roundly scolded by their mother. It was simply there way of honoring their spirits. Their grandfather was also a devout Buddhist. He was a strict vegetarian who refused to even kill pesky insects. Yoshiko, who wouldn’t think twice about swatting a mosquito feasting on her forearm, would stare in amazement at her grandfather who calmly shooed away the bloodsuckers by fanning his hand or blowing at them.
And yet, with all these symbols and practices around her, she did not understand religion very well. Nonetheless, she began to pray very hard in the darkness of the fallen building.
A Note on “A Bright Light”
s some of you probably already know, my mother is an atom bomb victim, which makes me a second generation atom bomb victim åŽŸçˆ†äºŒä¸–. Interstingly enough, this is an actual status in Japan, where if I was registered, I’d be eligible for certain medical benefits. But that’s not the point. As someone who was directly affected by the atom bomb, I have very strong feelings about it, just as Koreans whose relatives were forced into labor–especially as comfort women–and Chinese whose family were in Nanjing when the Japanese army raped and pillaged and murdered civilians will have strong feelings about their sufferings.
In any case, three years ago when my mother died, I gave a eulogy at her funeral that was, in part, a synopsis of her fateful day in Hiroshima. As this is the 60th anniversary of the bomb, I thought I’d write a slightly more detailed version of the eulogy, but as it turns out, I am fleshing it out much more than I had intended. Why is it that memories can trigger such verbosity. I find myself recollecting many of the stories my mother had told me over the years of her life in Hiroshima as well as what happened on August 6th. I hope you guys don’t mind as I set down in words these recollections. I believe that in many ways, blogs are our oral histories in real time. But it can also be a repository of our memories–as flawed as they may be–as well as a place to record the recollections of those who can no longer record them for themselves.
As the only offspring who spoke Japanese, I became the repository of my mother’s life story. I wish I had been more aware of the value of her stories when I was younger and the memories fresher in my mind. I wrote previously about the scars she still bore from that day. “A Bright Light” is not a verbatim transcription of my mothers stories. Rather, it is a collage of the various stories she had told me of her life in Japan. As the talkative kid in our house, I became my mother’s conversation partner on many nights, and I heard a number of stories: funny, sad, always interesting. (You youngins out there should also talk with your parents and find out their stories, if you haven’t done so already.) While the content is consistent with what she had told me, I have woven it together into a narrative so I won’t bore you guys to death…