By Kay Hirai
Reprinted with supplementary images by permission
Editor’s note. In submitting this story, Kay wrote, “I’m hoping that you will find a space for my story. It’s the first chapter (from) my book, “Keiko’s Journey, Story of World War II” (2015, Chin Music Press, 97 pp.) It seems so appropriate that I share (it) now as we are living through another atrocious war, this time in Ukraine.”
It was soon after I returned from my tearful, homage trip to Kokura, Kyushu in Japan that I finally felt comfortable in my own skin. As I stepped off the plane at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, a definitive moment occurred when I said to myself, “Keiko, you are home. You belong here. Now, go forward and pursue your dreams.”
For the first time in my life, I was able to free myself from the painful, yet nostalgic memories of growing up in Japan in the aftermath of World War ll. I realized how selfish I would be if I didn’t make the effort to share my story. Even though it is the recollection of many memories from past years, it is really a contemporary story that applies and is relevant to the millions of immigrants, migrants, and refugees, young and old – groups that live in two worlds, yet feel as though they don’t belong in either one.
I was an only child of a second-generation Japanese woman, Fujiye. She was born and raised in United States, but immigrated to Kokura, Japan in her early twenties. Her uncle who was childless adopted Fujiye as his daughter. She lived a seemingly hopeless life – a loveless marriage that was assigned by her uncle, inferior status of the Japanese female, and painful secrets that had to be kept from her daughter.
I was deeply impacted by my Mother’s experiences. As hurtful as many of those were, they are, and always will be, a part of me. I often wonder how I survived a childhood with only my dog, Shiro, to share my constant emotions of confusion and fear. I also wonder how these painful struggles eventually led to my self-discovery and my life’s purpose.
The dates and timeframes that I have indicated in this book may not be totally accurate, but they reflect my best recollected memories between the ages of five to eleven.
I truly hope you enjoy my life story.
Chapter 1: Siren Kokura, Japan, 1945
We stood on top of a hill, Mari and me. The sky was crystal clear, except for a few floating clouds that resembled thin sheets of white gauze. Yellow and black butterflies fluttered around me, eventually resting on the wild flowers that peeked out amongst the tall grass. The field of rolling, green grass stretched far into the distance and I wondered where it ended.
My friend, Mari, who lived close by, was three years older than me. She was tall compared to other girls her age. Her long, thick, shiny, black hair was gathered into a rubber band and pulled to the back of her head. I didn’t know why she paid attention to me, a girl so much younger. I enjoyed going to the bookstore with her, where we would spend hours looking at the books we wished we could buy. I looked up at her as though she was the older sister I didn’t have.
It was a typical July afternoon in Kyushu, the southern island of Japan. The temperature was in the 80s. It was too hot for adults, but perfect for us children. On this day, my mother asked Mari if she could go with me to the fields nearby to pick some yomogi leaves. She needed them to make my favorite manju. I loved eating this special Japanese confection filled with azuki bean paste, neatly tucked inside the green covering made of rice flour and yomogi leaves. When eaten warm, it would melt in my mouth.
When we reached the top of the hill, Mari and I raced to pick the leaves.
“Keiko, this is a contest! Whoever fills her basket full of leaves will be the winner,” Mari exclaimed.
I proceeded to pick the leaves as fast as I could. In the end, Mari was the winner. After the race, we lay on the grass looking up at the bright blue sky, giggling and laughing as we picked and threw the wild flowers and grass at each other.
Mari said, “I can hardly wait to go home and help our mothers make the sweet manjus.”
“Yes, we can have our own tea party!” I replied.
Suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, the shrieking sounds of the air raid sirens were around us. The loud, shrill sounds with short pauses seemed to come from all corners of the land. We stood paralyzed, staring into the sky as the siren grew louder and louder. I covered my ears with both hands and screamed, “Mari, Americans are coming to attack us!”
“Keiko, remember what our mothers told us?” Mari said, with a look of panic in her eyes. “Drop everything and start running for home. Quick, hold my hand and keep up with me,” Mari commanded.
I started to cry, “Mari, I don’t want to leave all the leaves.”
She screamed, “No, drop them and let’s go!”
I ran as fast as I could, trying to hold onto Mari’s hand with a tight grip. I stumbled and fell, and felt my body rolling down the hill, out of control.
I heard Mari’s panic stricken voice, “Keiko, stop!”
The sound of the siren kept coming, closer and louder.
Mari came running down the hill, slipping and sliding, but kept her balance.
“Keiko, get up,” she said as she pulled me, grabbing my hands. “Be strong and hurry,” Mari said, looking terrified.
I ran as fast as I could with all my might. It seemed like forever.
When we finally stumbled into the familiar streets of our neighborhood, our mothers came running up to us.
“Keiko and Mari, you made it back!” Mother said with a sigh of relief.
There were screaming voices and people running in the streets as frantic mothers gathered up their children.
When we reached the front of our house, I saw two bags on the ground that mother had packed with food and clothing. Ojiichan, mother’s elderly uncle, sat by the door, ready to leave.
“I will carry the large bag. You carry the small bag,” Mother instructed me.
Mother strapped the canvas bags over her shoulders and mine.
She stretched out her arm and told Ojiichan and me to hold on to her hands.
“We must go now,” Mother said.
From the sound of her voice and the terrified look in her eyes, I knew I had to obey her every command. Hand-in-hand, we ran to the underground shelter.
When we reached the front of the tunnel leading to the shelter, I saw a mob of people shoving and fighting their way to get in.
“Ready?” Mother asked us. “Hold on tight and never let go!”
Using the force of her 105 pound body, she pushed her way through the tunnel opening. I squeezed my eyes shut and hung on, feeling people’s bodies pushing and shoving against me.
When I opened my eyes, we were inside a pitch-black cave.
Mother said, “Ojiichan and Keiko, we made it in. We are safe now. Are you both all right?” I let her know that I was fine, even though my body ached and my knees felt raw from the tumble I took on the hillside.
Mother turned on her small flashlight and examined me. It was then that she noticed my injury.
“Keiko, it looks like you had a bad fall. I will put some medicine on your knee,” she said.
I could no longer hold back my tears and cried, “Okaachan (endearing word for Mother), it hurts!” Mother gently held me in her arms and rocked me as she wiped my tears away with her hands.
Mother looked at Ojiichan, who was huddled on the other side of her and asked, “Ojiichan, omizu wa dou desu ka? (Would you like some water?)”
He replied with a weak and raspy voice, “Daijobu – Arigato (I am all right. Thank you.)”
I looked at Ojiichan and saw that he looked weak and tired. I reached over and squeezed his hand and said, “Ojiichan, oyasumi (Good night, Grandpa).”
He nodded his head and tried to give me a smile.
Mother told us to get some rest. As I closed my eyes, I heard the moaning sounds of adults and children crying in the dark cave. I felt the sweaty bodies of people, pushing against me to find more space. I forced myself to keep my eyes shut and tried not to think about the throbbing pain in my knee.
I wondered where Mari was. The vision of us picking yomogi leaves on the green hill with the blue sky above gave me comfort in the darkness.
Editor’s notes. An accompanying book trailer, “Keiko’s Journey, World War II,” is on YouTube. It is also worth mentioning why the city name “Kokura” sounds familiar to Americans. It is because it was the primary target for the “Fat Man” bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, owing to clouds obscuring Kokura.