Kyoko Morgan reflects on her Japanese history and her family’s stories of World War II. She considers that Japan was both the victim and perpetrator of terrible atrocities, but as is so often the case, history is told from a one-sided perspective. As South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy, she calls for a retelling of the various sides of our struggle history that brings to life the experiences of real people.
I was born 22 years after the end of the Second World War. To me, it felt like it belonged to another era. A historical event in a text book. My parents did not talk to us much about their experiences of growing up during or even after the war.
The only thing I knew was that my parents, especially my mother, were passionate about world peace. She joined a lay-Buddhist organisation because it offered her a philosophy and practice to contribute towards world peace, even as a housewife. She died of lung cancer at the age of 50, after her four children had left Japan, each determined to create a more peaceful world in their own ways.
It was only when I went back to Japan with my Jewish-South African husband and my daughter in 1997, that I heard a story from my grandmother about my mother during the war.
The little girl who cried for her new shoes
They lived in a place called Kure – just outside of Hiroshima – which at the time had a large navy base. My grandfather worked as a naval officer. There were many air raids over Kure in 1945. My mother, a six-year old girl at the time, lost her newly-bought geta (wooden slip-slop) and cried so much to go and find it while being dragged to a place of safety, in a man-made cave.
It made me cry just to think of my mother as a little girl during the war. I had never connected the war to the real, daily experience of little children.
A boy who couldn’t become a Kamikaze pilot
My father was a teenage boy during the war. Like other boys in his age group, he dreamt of being a pilot, but he failed the entry test because of his bad eyesight. If he had passed the test, he could have lost his life as one of the Kamikaze pilots.
In 2002 my father took my son and me to the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze pilots in Kagoshima, his hometown. He sarcastically laughed saying “They only glorify the pilots. They say nothing about us who had to carry heavy loads to build the tracks for them to take off!”
Building peace through personal relationships
In history class, we learnt about the horrors of the atomic bombs that shattered the lives of over 150,000 civilians in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But we hardly learnt about the atrocities that the Japanese committed in other Asian countries. My parents did not talk about this either.
It was only much later that I understood why my mother, on a trip to China, invited a young Chinese woman who was wanting to study Japanese to come and live at their house. She wanted to create a friendly relationship with China, because she realised how much damage the Japanese military government caused during the war.
A different perspective on the atomic bomb
Recently, I came across a YouTube video of a Japanese exchange student at Richland High School, just outside of Washington. The school’s emblem is a mushroom cloud.
I was horrified to watch the American students shouting “WE’RE SO PROUD OF THE CLOUD”!! It was as if they still live with the euphoria that the American people experienced watching the cloud destroying the enemy on 6 and 9 August 1945.
The video then cuts to a Japanese exchange student who asks the students of Richland High School to “consider a perspective that is more personal”. She explains that the “cloud is basically made of the thing the bomb destroys”. She says she “cannot be proud of the remains of a city” in which people were killed, people who included “innocent children, women and men who had no part in the war”.
What paintings tell us about our history
While I was still trying to process the shock and horror of the video, the images of two prints that were proudly hanging in the lounge of a beautiful, old guesthouse in Port Elizabeth came to mind. I went to stay there for a night with a few friends recently.
The pictures depicted the Anglo Zulu war of 1879. It could have been innocent enough if it wasn’t for the fact that some of my travel companions, guests, were black South Africans. They shrugged and didn’t seem too perturbed. Maybe they are used to seeing negative depictions of their history and have lost their sensitivity to it.
History is told by the victor, but the winning side may change with time. In contrast, there is something tangible and unchanging about the stories of ordinary people. It is a story of a girl in an air-raid crying for her new shoes. It is a story of a young man who feels bitter because he had to perform menial tasks after failing a pilot’s test.
Why didn’t my parents tell us these stories when we were young? We would have understood that our lives and historical events are interwoven.
A Japanese-South African who loves New York
I took a picture of my Japanese-South African son standing in one of the bungalows where the Kamikaze pilots spent their last nights without their families.
In the morning they took off with a just enough ammunition to attack the enemy, but they never expected to fly back. They were mostly teenagers not much older than my son standing in the dark room. When I looked at the photo, I had to show it to my father.
The words on his T-shirt read “I Love New York”! My father and I could not help laughing rather wholeheartedly, probably waking up all the ghosts there. I wonder if my son fully appreciated the irony of that moment.
History is more than a text book
It’s been 25 years since the end of apartheid. The so-called “Born-Free” generation is learning about apartheid for their matric exams. No doubt today’s history books tell a vastly different version of our past to that prior to 1994.
I wonder how many of their parents and grandparents are sharing their stories with them. How many of them are prepared to hear the other side of the stories?
History, among other reasons, is meant to create an awareness of past wrongs and atrocities so that they will never be repeated. It is meant to ensure that lessons are learnt. However, if the stories are not told – if they are not shared – then the truth will forever remain an abstract textbook idea.