Kumamoto, July, 1945.
The air raid sirens break the stillness of the night. I jump out
from under our futon. Im not yet three years old but I know
what the sound means. Its a warning that the Americans are
coming to kill us in planes called B29s. We have to run for safety.
I dash to Mother who quickly covers my head with a padded hood.
She puts on her own and ties a small bag containing our valuables
money, bank notes, and family seals - to her neck. Then she
asks my twelve year old sister, Chiyoko, and my nine year old brother,
Shigeru, if they are ready. They give affirmative nods while tying
the strings of their hoods.
Mother picks me up in her arms and runs to our backyard. My siblings
follow right behind us. As the door and the windows are all covered
by thick black cloths during the night to avoid the houses
becoming a target of night raids, there is no light escaping to
the outside. In complete darkness, Mother leads us with a dim flashlight
to the shelter in the backyard. It is a small hole in the ground,
about three by three by four feet deep, dug by Mother with the help
of our neighbors.
After locating the shelter, Mother carefully jumps in and helps
us to get in. We crouch on the ground while she pulls the wooden
cover over from inside. The cover has a few small holes to give
us air but it is stifling inside and I hate to be here. Im
frightened by the darkness, too. Knowing how scary the B29s are,
though, I dont complain. I cling to Mothers neck quietly.
Then, in a deathly hush, we wait.
"Theyre coming!" Shigeru
whispers. I hear the planes in the distance. They sound like a massive
swarm of bees. Then in no time, the noise becomes so fierce that
my body trembles with fear even though Mother covers my ears and
holds me tightly. I know I mustnt cry no matter how scared
I am. Mother tells me that Americans can hear me from the sky. Having
heard this so many times, I imagine that they look like the devils
that I see in the wall paintings in the nearby temple. They look
at us from high above with their sharp, mean eyes and huge pointed
ears. I fear that Americans will detect us with those eyes and ears
from far away in the sky. I dont want to be spotted by them.
I keep myself absolutely still.
The B 29s are now flying overhead. Anticipating the bombs momentarily,
my teeth chatter and my body shakes uncontrollably. Clinging to
each other, I feel Mother and my siblings trembling, too.
I dont know how long we wait this way, but after a while
we realize that the planes are leaving our area without dropping
any bombs. As soon as we heave a sigh of relief, though, we hear
strong successive explosions in the distance. "The downtown
area!" my sister whispers. Mother climbs out of the shelter
carefully and a few minutes later, she lets us out.
We look at up the sky and see numerous lights blinking downtown.
They are so bright and beautiful they look like fireworks. Then
something pops out from each light and in an instant, flames burst
from the houses below. The sky quickly becomes red. Everybody stands
there without a word. On a hot summer night, our bodies shiver with
"Lets go inside." Mother
says when the attacks die down, "At least were safe for
The second massive air raid comes to our city on August 10, 1945,
a day after Nagasaki was destroyed by an atomic bomb. This time
there is no warning. An army of planes suddenly appears in the sky
in the late morning and begins randomly dropping incendiary bombs.
"B 29s!" neighbors scream. They
shout at each other to run. Mother quickly soaks our padded hoods
and a blanket in a bucket and douses our clothes with the rest of
the water. She tells us she doesnt want our clothes to catch
fire from sparks while we run. Japanese houses, made mainly from
wood and paper, easily ignite. I see the roof of the house next
door already in flames.
Mother tells my brother and sister not to forget to carry the rucksack
that contains first aid and our emergency food a small bagful
of roasted beans - and to follow directly behind her. She covers
my head with a padded hood and wraps me with a wet blanket. Then
she ties me tightly on her back.
The planes fly extremely low with a tremendous roar. They keep
dropping bombs and shooting people. Some neighbors run, covering
their heads with wet futons and others hold tatami to protect
themselves. But these things make them easier targets and after
a few people fall, the others abandon the idea and just run. People
collapse one after another but nobody stops to help them.
Following the crowd, Mother shouts to my siblings to be careful
not to stumble over fallen people and not to lose sight of her.
Then she almost bumps into an old woman who is adamantly refusing
to run with her family.
"Please let me stay here," she begs, "I dont
want to be a burden." A middle aged man yells at her, "No
mother, you will come with us." He forces her to climb on his
back and he starts running with the rest of the families. We hear
the woman chanting a Buddhist sutra, "Nammaida,
The streets of burning houses and the racing crowds terrify me.
I hold Mothers neck tightly so that I wont part from
By the time the attacks die down, we, along with our many neighbors,
are in the middle of a rice field at the edge of Mount Tatsuda,
about three miles from the house. When people begin to rest in the
field, Mother takes me off her back and flops on the ground as if
she has suddenly lost the bones that support her. Although my legs
hurt from being carried on Mothers back so long, Im
glad. Im finally free. I run around near Mother until I realize
how utterly exhausted she looks. She just sits there in a stupor.
After a while, a woman sitting on the ground next to us says to
Mother quietly, "I wonder if Japan is losing. Otherwise, how
could the Japanese air force allow these massive attacks during
the day? Why havent we seen any Japanese fighters?"
"Of course Japan is winning! Dont
you read the papers?" an elderly woman answers. "Our soldiers
are busy fighting overseas to protect us. Thats all. You should
be more careful what you say in public," she chides. "Japan
may be losing! Youre lucky we dont have any military
police around here."
Afterwards, everyone falls into silence. Suddenly, I realize how
hungry I am. I ask Mother for food. She whispers to Chiyoko and
Chigeru to share the beans theyre carrying. She tells me to
eat them very quietly because some people dont have anything
to eat and we dont have enough to share. So I eat them trying
not to make any sound while being watched by other hungry looking
children. The amount of beans is so little that I finish them in
no time. I ask Mother for more but she says there are none left.
. No more food? But Im still hungry! All the fear
that Ive endured now bursts out. I wail until I get so tired
that I can no longer stay awake.
We spend a hot and humid summer night in the middle of that rice
field with many other people. The ground is very uncomfortable to
sleep on, and this time, instead of bombs, an army of hungry mosquitoes
The next day, Mother takes us home. I see from her back what the
bombs have done. Theyve created a vast burnt field! There
are no houses to be seen. Only smoke hovers near the ground. Mother
walks though the field with my siblings, trying to find our house.
It isnt an easy task because there are no landmarks left to
help locate our old neighborhood easily. Eventually they find the
area where our house used to stand.
"Look," Shigeru shouts excitedly after digging through
the debris for a long time with a piece of roof tile, "Our
rice bowls!" There are pieces of familiar looking bowls scattered
around. Nearby, Chiyoko digs up an iron kettle. It is still hot,
she says. A few feet away, Mother picks up a blackened brace handle.
It used to be a part of our dresser.
"Well," she says with a sigh after
a while, "It seems that what we are wearing is all we have."
Everybody stands in a daze. Smoke, and the combined smell of burnt
wood, clothes and all our household goods sting our eyes and noses.
"Dont cry," Mother says
to my siblings. Her hair is unkempt and covered with ashes. Her
body has soot and bite marks all over from the mosquitoes. "Were
lucky. We are all alive," she says, as if to assure herself.
Chiyoko and Shigeru nod while they wipe their tears with their sooty
hands. They look equally miserable with their dirty, partially burnt
clothes and mosquito bites. On our way, they talk with Mother about
all the people whove been killed. Chiyoko says that she heard
from her friends that a bomb hit the house of one of her classmates
and the whole family died instantly.
How can she say we are lucky when we lost everything? I
ask myself. What is so lucky about this? I dont understand
how my entire world can vanish so easily. Im frightened and
miserable. I wail again not knowing how to articulate my feeling.
My stomach hurts, too, from hunger. We havent had anything
to eat since the beans yesterday.
"Im hungry," I say.
"Shut up!" Shigeru shouts at me.
He looks so angry I get scared. I start crying harder. I rub my
wet, dirty face into Mothers monpe, the work pants
gathered at the ankles, which were worn by Japanese women during
"Shut up, you fool," Chiyoko shouts
at Shigeru, poking his head, "Just because youre hungry,
you dont have to be mean to Kuniko."
"Im not hungry," Shigeru says and he tries to
push Chiyoko back.
"Thats a lie." Chiyoko sneers.
"Stop that, both of you," Mother
says quietly. She looks so tired she doesnt seem to have any
energy left to scold us. She stands as if she has lost herself.
After a while, she puts me on her back again. She tells us we are
going to Auntie Otamas house.
"Do you think her house was spared?" Chiyoko asks nervously.
"I dont know," Mother says,
"but well find out."
We trudge through the burned out streets toward the Hirocho
area where Mothers sister lives. On our way there,
I fall asleep on Mothers back. Hunger and fatigue deprive
me of the energy to stay awake for long.
After walking heavily for a little more than three miles through
burnt fields, we finally arrive at Auntie Otamas street. I
wake up when Shigeru shouts, "The house is still here!"
He sounds as if hes suddenly recovered his energy. I remember
how hungry I am and begin whining again.
"Youre alive!" Auntie Otama
screams when she come out from the house. "I was just about
going to look for you." Without responding to her warm welcome,
Mother asks her sister to give us a glass of water. After walking
on the smoldering streets, our throats are terribly dry and we are
on the verge of collapsing. Auntie Otama immediately takes us to
the well behind her house and draws water from it. The fresh water
tastes so good.
"You all look like bums," she
says smiling and suggests that we will bathe there. Mother helps
me wash in the tub while Auntie Otama looks for some family clothes
to let us use. She and Uncle Manjiro have two teenage daughters
and two sons who are six and four years old. After we all wash ourselves
and put on the fresh clothes, we are invited into their kitchen.
Then she gives each of us a boiled sweet potato to eat. Those potatoes
were obviously prepared for the family because as soon as we begin
eating, our two boy cousins dash into the kitchen. "Were
hungry!" they say in unison after saying hello to us. "Sorry,
you have to wait for a while," Auntie Otama says to them, "because
your cousins need to eat something now."
"We need to eat now, too!" they
shout. "Yoshinobu! Taketomo!" She throws them a fierce
look one at a time.
"Im glad that the girls are away
in the weapons factory," Antie Otama says to Mother. "so
I dont have to feed them."
My cousins become quiet but keep staring wistfully at our mouths.
I feel sorry for them but my empty stomach doesnt care. I
devour the potato in no time.
Uncle Manjiro comes in to greet us. "You had a terrible time,
I hear," he says bending his long skinny body to sit on the
tatami. As usual, his face is so pale he looks sick. Mother
has told us that he suffers from a stomach ailment. Looking at the
empty dish on the table, Uncle Manjiro seems to figure out that
he has to skip his meal, too.
"I told Okoto that she can use your
storage room," Auntie Otama says to her husband, "you
dont need that room now, do you?"
"I guess not," he says quietly. "I guess I wont
need it anytime soon. You know, Im working at military police
headquarters as a part timer to help soldiers train German Shepherds."
Uncle Manjiro is a lacquer artisan. Mother has told us that he
used to varnish various household utensils, but decided to specialize
in sword scabbards when he failed his physical to become a soldier.
Believing strongly that it was his duty as a man to serve his country
by going to war, he was terribly disappointed when he couldnt
be a part of it. By devoting his lacquer business to sword scabbards,
he felt he was helping the countrys war efforts. He had been
busy for many years because all the officers who went to the war
needed swords. To meet the demand, he used to keep lots of materials
in the storage room hed built behind their house.
But now his business isnt doing well. "Swords are no
longer in demand now that we dont seem to have any soldiers
left to send." Auntie Otama says sarcastically. "We can
move all the materials under the floor for now."
"I hope you dont mind a room that smells like lacquer
and has no window," Uncle Manjiro says to Mother.
"Of course not," she says. "Anything
with a roof will do." She thanks him and tells us to do the
same to our uncle and aunt for their help.
"We may lose our house, too,"
he says, "We never know when those merciless Americans are
coming back. But in the mean time, you can wait here for Katsuji-san
(our father) til he comes back from the war.
Uncle doesnt have to lose his house after all. On August
15, 1945, five days after our house burnt down, the war suddenly
ends. Auntie Otama tells Mother that they have to go to the house
of the president of their neighborhood association. At noon, she
is told, the emperor will deliver an important message to the nation.
Mother and Auntie Otama ask each other why the emperor will suddenly
speak to the people directly. Until today, he has been revered as
a living god and nobody has ever heard his voice.
The entire neighborhood stands in front of the radio to listen
to the emperor. He begins speaking, but the radio has too much static
and he has such a unique way of speaking that Mother doesnt
understand at all what is being said. "What is he saying?"
she asks her sister. Auntie Otama doesnt understand, either.
The crowd eventually figures out that the emperor told them that
Japan has surrendered. "He is asking us to endure the unendurable,"
an old man in the crowd says sadly.
"How can it be?" Mother whispers to Auntie Otama. "Didnt
the government say we were winning?" Auntie Otama doesnt
say anything. Nobody is saying anything, either. Then, some people
begin crying while others just stand there as if theyve completely
lost themselves. Covering their eyes with their hands, some squat
Looking at Mother sob, I worry. "Okaachan."
She doesnt respond. "Okaachan!" I say again
and pull her monpe, trying to draw her attention. No use.
She doesnt even look at me. Im terribly alarmed.
Then I hear Shigeru asking Uncle Manjiro if losing the war means
there will be no more air raids. Uncle answers him, "Thats
right. We dont have to run for our lives any more."
"Really?" Shigeru says excitedly
and pulls my hands. "Come on Kuniko, no more B29s! Lets
go tell everybody," he says with a huge smile. I follow him
as he begins running around the streets. "No more war, no more
B29s!" he shouts. Im so thrilled to follow my happy brother
I repeat what he says as loudly as I can. For a while, I even forget
that I have an empty stomach.