By Kenichi (Ken) Sato For The North American Post
I was drafted into the U. S. Army in June 1945 from Kahului, Maui, Hawaii. After basic training in the muggy summer at Camp Wolters, Texas, I was sent to the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. I was in the last MISLS class to graduate from Fort Snelling in June 1946.
We studied very hard in school, but the school did not prepare us emotionally or psychologically for the devastation of the landscape that we were to witness upon our arrival in Occupied Japan.
As we boarded the train headed for Tokyo in the summer of 1946, the guys were relatively quiet during the trip as we looked out the windows to see the houses and larger buildings that were leveled by our bombers. It was not a pretty sight. Solemn-looking children and tired-looking women began to appear alongside the tracks as the train rolled along. Then, all of a sudden, without any orders or signals, the guys began to dig spontaneously into their bags and started to toss candies, soaps, gum, and what-have-you out the window to the youngsters and women below. The sky was literally filled with goodies and it was a sight to behold. Candies were falling from the sky.
As we neared our destination, all the guys on board sat quietly in their seats, thinking that perhaps we had just performed our first act of goodwill and human kindness towards the people of Japan. This act would be repeated many times as we performed our duties quietly and in an orderly manner.
Upon reaching Tokyo, we MIS soldiers were all billeted at the Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) Building and placed in the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) of General Headquarters (GHQ). After office hours, we walked around downtown Tokyo. I was amazed to see that the railroad system was working and the infrastructure was mostly in place among the ruins.
I communicated with my parents in Hawaii and made arrangements to visit relatives in Tokyo and my sisters in Fukushima Prefecture. When I was about four years old, my parents took the whole family in Maui to visit their roots in Japan. They decided to leave two of my sisters with my paternal grandparents in Fukushima. For one reason or another, at that time, it was not unusual for Issei parents to leave their children with their own parents in Japan.
Since I had not seen my two sisters for over 15 years, I had to prepare myself for how I was going to meet them. I packed some gifts, candies, and sugar for my grandparents. I wrote them as to the day of my arrival. Because I wanted to maximize our time together, on the Friday before the first opportune weekend, I walked over from ATIS to Tokyo Eki (railroad station), rode to Ueno Eki and took the night express train north toward Sapporo, then traveled south to Fukushima City. After appearing in Fukushima City, I rode a streetcar to Hobara town. I drew a lot of polite and curious stares in the town as they weren’t accustomed to seeing GIs, especially a Nisei, in uniform.
Transportation options to my grandparents’ house, which was located in a small farming village called Tominari, included walking many, many miles or hiring a taxi from Hobara. Since I had too much baggage to carry, I opted for a taxi. I waited while the driver stoked the boiler on the back of the cab with wood and coal to generate power to get going. Finally, I entered the cab and we headed towards Tominari. Even then, I had to walk the last 1,000 yards or so because the road came to an end. The taxi could not traverse the narrow trail and grassy mounds to reach my destination.
As I plodded along with my baggage, I could see two people standing and waving on the hillside along the skyline as I got closer to them. They were my older sister Toshie and younger sister Setsuko! They had tears in their eyes. I dropped my baggage and bowed and hugged them both together. The three of us were all standing and crying for what seemed like an eternity thinking of the years that we grew up separately — they in Japan and me in Hawaii.
I kept questioning, “Why did my parents leave them in Japan when we could have grown up together as a whole family?”
However, this was a happy reunion and they helped me with my bags as we continued the walk to meet our grandparents.
My grandparents were very happy to see me. Ojiichan (Grandfather) was waiting at the entrance while Obaachan (Grandmother) had prepared lunch for us. We had much to talk about and laughed and cried as they related their hardships during the war.
We walked about the neighborhood and even took some sugar to the priest at the temple. He was so thankful since sugar was a scarce commodity at that time. He cupped one hand, poured a little sugar into it, dipped his other index finger in for a taste, and smiled. The neighborhood turned out to be full of “Sato” families. I had a hard time keeping track of them, so we identified them by the locations of their homes, such as “Ue no Sato” (the upper Satos) and “Shita no Sato” (the lower Satos).
As I watched my grandparents, I began to understand why my father left his two daughters with them. Obaachan was blind in one eye and slightly hunched, but she managed to move about very quickly. Ojiichan worked alone on the farm. However, the family separation was a heavy sacrifice for my two sisters.
Ojiichan loved to soak himself in the furo (bathtub), so I later hired a contractor to build a new one with a cast iron tube that he could heat up with firewood in about 15 minutes. It was the best thing I could have done for him since he would soak himself two or three times a day in the tub, tying on a hachimaki (headband), as though he was at a hot spring.
My stay at ATIS lasted about two months, when I was reassigned to the Philippines to work the war crimes trials. I stayed in Manila for six months, then discharged at Camp Zama, Japan. I next took a U.S. civil service job as a Department of Army civilian (DAC) in the Legal Section in Tokyo.
Being in Japan provided me numerous opportunities to visit my sisters in Fukushima. I very happily attended Toshie’s wedding and later, sadly attended her funeral. She died shortly after giving birth to a daughter who died not long after being born. Setsuko and her husband lived in Los Angeles within driving distance of their two married daughters and grandchildren.
Life is short, but separation reduces its happiness even more.
Ken Sato is a past president of three Nikkei community organizations:
• the Japanese Community Service, which administered the Seattle Japanese Language School until donating its buildings to the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington (JCCCW)
• University of Washington Nikkei Alumni Association
• Military Intelligence Service – Northwest
Read more on Ken in “The Last Real Man” (North American Post, 2016).
Ken and his wife Sarah extend their best wishes to all.