By Kay Hirai For The North American Post
Following Japan’s surrender in September 2, 1945, the US Occupation of Japan continued until 1952. During that interval, some 10,000 Nisei who had been stranded in Japan, like Kay’s mother, tried to live quietly between the two sides while commonly working as civilian translators for the U.S. army.
Nothing could have prepared me for what turned out to be one of the most frightening days of my life. It was a bright, sunny day in mid-July. When I woke up, I was anticipating that I would have to tackle every activity on that day’s schedule: exercise in the morning, help clean up the neighborhood in the afternoon, and do my homework in the evening. Even though we were on a break, the school assignments continued. There were the daily journals, scenery paintings, and collections of butterflies and bugs that had to be kept up throughout the summer….
At breakfast, Mother sat next to me. She sipped a cup of tea and watched me as I delightfully ate a raw egg cracked over a bowl of hot, steaming rice. “Keiko, how fast you’ve grown. You are already finishing up the third grade. Remember those days when you cried, begging me to buy you a fresh egg? We should be so thankful that those days of constantly being hungry are over.”
“Yes,” I replied, thinking about the infected boils on our bodies at that time. My face cringed as I pictured the itchy, throbbing sores in my mind again.
Mother abruptly ended our conversation, got up, grabbed her purse, and called out, “Aki-chan, please come in here so that I can give you instructions… before I leave for work.”
Aki-chan was a girl Mother had hired for the summer to watch over me and the house.
I ran up the stairs to my house, exhausted and famished from the rigorous exercise program and neighborhood clean-up. “Tadaima! (I’m home!),” I shouted as I entered the open doorway.
Aki-chan came running from inside the house and said, “Irashai (welcome home).
Shiro-chan and I’ve been waiting for you. I made cold soba noodles, knowing you’d be hot and hungry when you arrived home…”Aki-chan said, “You must be tired, why don’t you take a short nap? I will be busy washing clothes in the yard, but call if you need me.”
I was awakened by Shiro’s wet tongue licking my face. I whispered, “Shiro, do you want to go into the woods with me? We can find the butterflies and insects ourselves….”
The house was quiet. I knew Aki-chan was doing the laundry, so I carefully got out the wooden insect cage and net. Then, I put on my canvas shoes and snuck out.
Shiro and I walked for what seemed miles before we entered the wooded area, a place where the air was cool from the shade of the bamboo trees that lined both sides of the trail…
Suddenly, three boys jumped out of nowhere. Each had a stick in his hand. They looked like Ninjas (espionage or assassination agents), dressed in dark clothing.
The boy in the center, the largest of the three, said to the others, “There she is. That’s Ezaki Keiko, our enemy. Our Fathers are dead because her Mother ratted on the Japanese military. Isn’t that so, Keiko?”
I was frightened and couldn’t stop shaking. I stood there speechless. Shiro sensed the danger and began to growl.
“We see your Mother and you riding home in American jeeps. You think you’re better than us because you get all those privileges from the Americans.”
I whispered, casting my eyes down and shaking my head, “iie (no).”
“Why don’t you go back to America and take your Mother with you? We don’t want people like you living in Japan,” he said, as he lunged toward me, holding a stick over his head as I sat in the darkness with Shiro, the surroundings became very still and silent. I wondered if the boys had left or if they were still waiting for me to come out… Sitting there trapped, I couldn’t help but think that this was my bachi (punishment). I had disobeyed my parents; they had warned me of the dangers of being alone in the woods. When I snuck out of the house, I had betrayed Aki-chan. Shiro had been hurt… Tears ran down my cheeks… I would have to hide out in this dark cave for a while, but I did not know for how long.
When I heard footsteps coming from the back of the cave… Shiro began to bark and I screamed. A shabby-looking man suddenly appeared and held a faintly lit lantern in his hand. He had a greyish-colored beard and wore a tattered shirt and baggy pants. The straw zori (thongs) on his feet looked as though they would break apart with a slight tug.
“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. What brings you here little girl?” he asked with a raspy voice.
“Bad boys came in the woods and hurt my dog,” I said, sobbing.
“Let me see your dog. I can put some ointment on his cut to stop the bleeding,” he said, as he came closer to examine Shiro’s wound. You’re lucky they didn’t kick her in the stomach. That would have been the end of your dog.”
He shuffled slowly toward the back of the cave. Searching amongst bundles of paper and blankets, he came back with a small tube in his hand. He knelt close to Shiro and reached for her leg.
Shiro squirmed and tried to get away from the man. I felt a sense of panic, but from his gentle demeanor, I sensed that I could trust him.
“Keep still, Shiro. This man will help you,” I pleaded.
When she calmed down, the man put some of the salve on his forefinger and dabbed it onto Shiro’s thigh.
“She’ll be all right now. This ointment will keep the infection from spreading to her leg,” he said.
“Arigato (thank you),” I said.
The man nodded his head as he said, “Dou-itashi-mashite (you are welcome).”
“Why do you live in this cave? Are you a Kojiki (homeless person)?” I asked.
“I have no one left in my life to go home to,” he said with a shameful look on his face.
“Where are your wife and children?” I asked.
“I came home from the war alive, but my family was gone. They had been killed by the bombs that were dropped on our city by the Americans. I couldn’t believe it. If anyone should have died, it should have been me.”
His eyes moistened, as he continued.
“So, what do I have to live for? I’m satisfied living as a hermit in this cave. I see no one and no one sees me.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt sorry for the man. I wished Kami-sama would bring his family back. I wanted to comfort him….
The man walked further into the cave, toward his belongings, and sat down on a pile of blankets. He said, “The war has a way of changing our lives. One day, you are surrounded by your loved ones, and next day, you are alone in this world to live a lonely life. Poof, they are gone just like that.”
I sat there intently listening to this man talking about the hardship he had gone through fighting for the Japanese army.
Suddenly, my heart jumped. I could hear my Otouchan’s voice calling me, “Keiko, where are you? Please answer me!”
As I rose to leave, the man said, “Promise me little girl, don’t tell anybody about me living in this cave. Wakatta (do you understand)?”
“Kojiki-san, I won’t tell anyone,” I promised.
I ran to the front of the cave holding Shiro tightly in my arms and yelled out, “Otouchan, I’m coming!”
I saw him standing by the trail and ran into his open arms.
I don’t understand why we have wars. Peoples’ lives are changed forever.
I will never forget the things I experienced on that dark and frightening day.
Kay Hirai is a regular NAP contributor (keikokayhirai.com). This excerpt is printed by permission from her book, “Keiko’s Journey” (2016).