JAPAN: Exodus – 1945

The war ended on August 15, 1945 in Japan.  I was thirteen.  It was a very hot summer.  The Emperor spoke to the nation on the radio to inform us that Japan had surrendered to the Allied Forces.  Our family by then didn’t have a radio, so we heard the news from other people.  The emperor spoke in the ancient form of Japanese language and some people didn’t understand exactly what he meant.  But everybody knew that the war had ended.  It didn’t matter that we had lost.  I remember feeling very relieved.  I couldn’t imagine how things could get any worse.  Most of us were starving and sick.  I was happy that now we could go back to Tokyo and live with Papa – together as one family.

In early September, Papa came to take us back to Tokyo.   But as soon as he arrived, a typhoon struck Honshu – the main island of Japan.  Ferocious rains washed away many parts of the highway system, and the buses stopped running.  During the war, the military had clearcut many mountains, so there was no tree to stop the run-off.  Trains were running, but there was no way to reach the station except on foot.   Since we could not stand the thought of living in the village even a day longer, now that the bombing of cities had stopped, we decided to walk.  It was about 30 kilometres walk to the Kofu train station.   We had no idea how long it would take us, but we felt that we could not just wait in the village and starve. 

With so much moving around, we had  lost most of our belongings, so the moving back to Tokyo should have been relatively easy.  We had nothing to carry but ourselves.  Even so,  it was not easy.  We were all hungry and weak.   During the last year of the war, food had disappeared from the stores.  Food rations worked well in the beginning, but towards the war’s end, with nightly incendiary bombing, the infrastructure of the country gradually became dysfunctional.  Food distribution became erratic, and coupons meaningless.  Rice was almost non-existent.  Food ration became very bizarre.  Whenever food came, there was usually only one item.  Sometime just sweet potatoes, some other time only barley, etc.   My sisters and I walked around fields and mountains collecting edible plants to supplement the food rations in desperate attempt to make our diet as balanced and as palatable as possible.  Food preparation became a full time preoccupation for the whole family.  But we were not so successful.  Our diet was unbalanced, and we were always malnourished. 

For some reason, there were lots of soybeans.  We ate soybeans in many different forms – boiled, roasted, roasted and crushed, roasted and crushed and ground, etc.  The problem was that soybeans were too rich for a weakened stomach, the result of months of the unbalanced diet.  So we suffered from almost perpetual diarrhea.   Months of loose tummy had made us very weak.  We could barely walk a mile at a time, and had to have a long rest before moving on.

Another serious problem with walking a long distance was the foot-wear.  Clothes we managed because Mama loved to sew.  She turned every piece of cloth into clothes for us growing kids with her cranking sewing machine.  But our shoes had worn out a long ago.  So we all had straw flip-flops called “waraji” on our feet.   They wore out in a very short time  about two weeks.  But they were cheap and easy to make if you could not buy them, as long as you get hold of a bunch of straws.  The problem was; they were hard on bare feet.  They were rough.  Constant rubbing broke the skins, and walking became painful within a few hours. 

Mama took that hand of my nearest sister, Taeko.  She was 11.  Dad carried Junko, who was 5 on his back, and I carried Kokko who was 4.  It was a difficult journey.  The roads were rough and dangerous.  But Papa always had songs to walk with.  That made our life on the road so much more bearable, even fun.  He loved to sing.  His favorite in those days, which became our favorite too, was a song about a traveling monk called “Basho”.  He was a famous 16th Century Haiku master who became known as a sojourner.  He traveled constantly on foot all over Northeastern Japan, and wrote Haiku about nature and historical events that happened at places he visited.  The first verse went like this:

“It is so precious,
    Traveling has become my home. 
    I follow a narrow path
    Covered with tall green grass.
Straps of my back pack
Are hard on the tired shoulder bones of an old man,
    But my staff is ever so comforting.
    Futara mountain in May
    Is full of young green leaves
    Dancing in the sunbeams.”
    [The first line and the last constitute Basho’s Haiku.  The rest is an interpretation by another person.  Forgive me, Venerable Basho, for the butchery of your masterpiece!]

In many places, highways had been cut off by landslides.  Some parts had been washed away by a swollen river.  By mid-afternoon of the first day, we were too worn out to go any further.  Luckily, there was a small inn by the road.  Papa knocked on the door and found that the inn keeper was willing to put us up, but could not give us food.  We decided to stay there until our strength came back.   We collapsed on the tatami floor.   Mama went out to look for food.  She came back with lots of sweet potatoes.  She found farmers who allowed people to dig them for free, because they had all been spoiled by flood water.  They looked OK to us.  So we cooked them, and soon enough found out why they were no good for the market.  No matter how long we boiled them, they stayed hard.  So we ate them raw.  Still it was something to fill our stomachs with.  What sustained us, in retrospect, was a huge bottle of Vitamin B supplement Papa brought from Tokyo.  We took one Vitamin pill everyday.  Papa said that an US Army chaplain had given it to him.  The chaplain was a former student of Dr. Charles Eiglehardt*, Papa’s Theology Professor when he was in a seminary.  Dr. Eiglehardt had asked the chaplain to seek out his former students when his regiment landed in Japan.

*Dr. Eiglehardt came to Japan after his retirement, to teach at my Seminary.  I took Missiology from him.

The next day, Papa told me that he and I would walk to Kofu train station, to check the road conditions, to see how long it would take to walk, and to find if there were any hotels or inns on the way if we had to stay the night.   Mama and Papa must have talked about this while we were asleep.   It took us all day to reach Kofu city.  It was easier to walk without carrying a child on my back.  Maybe a day of rest and sweet potatoes had given us some strength.  We reckoned that it would probably take two days with small children.  Kofu city had also been completely leveled by incendiary bombing.  After making sure that the train was running, we looked up a family Papa had known through the church work.  They were a wealthy family who owned a large vineyard.  We found them living in a bomb shelter*.  We were happy to see friends, any friend, because we were never sure during those days who was still living  and who wasn’t.  We had a wonderful dinner!  I couldn’t believe my eyes when white rice appeared.  We all slept in one small bomb shelter that night.*

    *The government had required every household to build a bomb shelter.  But they turned out to be dangerous death traps. Bomb shelters killed many people who went into them during the incendiary bombing.  When the house above was burning, the fire sucked out oxygen out of the shelters and killed people by suffocation.  So we started to use the shelters only as storage to save household items, and not for people.  Ironically, they provided temporary shelters for those people who lost their houses after the bombing.  Many people lived in the bomb shelters for many months after the war until they could afford to build the houses. 
In the morning, our friends packed for us bag lunches to last the day.  It was a glorious autumn day.  It took us more time to go back;  I don’t remember why.  Probably it was because the river had swollen over night.  It might have rained more in the mountains.  I remember hearing the roar of the swollen mountain river all the time we were walking.  At times, the noise was deafening.  We had to overcome more washed out roads and landslides.  We didn’t make it back before nightfall, so we kept on going in the dark.   It was a dark moonless night.  I climbed over boulders, feeling the way with my hands.  We also slid down many sandy hills, which took us by surprise.  I thought we were being very careful not to go near the river.  But suddenly Papa cried,  “Stop.  Don’t move.”  We were on top of a large boulder about the size of a small house.  The roar of the river was deafening.  Papa said, “Look around.”  I looked and saw that we were surrounded by the howling river.  I have no idea how we ended up there.  Walking one step at a time, looking only one step ahead of you, does that, I guess.  Papa said, “Don’t you ever move.  It’s too dangerous.”  We stayed on that rock until dawn.  Papa didn’t sing; we were too scared.   Next morning, as we started to walk, we saw many bodies washed up on the river banks.  We could easily have been among them.  It was so close. 

After only an hour more of trekking, we reached the inn where Mama and my sisters were staying.  They were fine, we started walking towards Kofu.  The rest of the trip was kind of fun.  We knew what we were doing, and Papa had lots of songs and tricks to entertain us kids all the way to Kofu.  We got on the train and reached the church in Tokyo late at night after two days.  Papa’s church was a big downtown church.  So  though much of the building was a burned-out hollow, there were some rooms that were still quite usable.  I was surprised that the power was already restored and there was light.  We put cushions from the pews together on the floor and slept on them that night under a huge drape Papa brought from somewhere to use as a cover.

One thing I can never forget on that first night in Tokyo was Smarties chocolate.  Papa produced boxes of Smarties and gave each of us one box.  I didn’t know what they were.  They didn’t look like chocolate.  They looked to me more like some kind of toys than something edible.  Papa told us to eat them.  I never would have believed that there was anything so delicious.  I remembered chocolates, even though I had not tasted it for years. But I didn’t realize that it was so delicious.  My younger sisters didn’t even know what chocolate was.  It was a taste of the heaven.  Peace at last.  We were home.


Tad Mitsui
November 9, 2000

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