My mother died four years ago: she was a difficult, often angry person, and there were times where I refused to speak to her, since I was often the brunt of her anger. Looking back as an older adult myself however, I realize she had a hard life as a young woman. Her father was the black sheep of an old samurai family; he was disinherited in favor of a younger half brother, I suspect because he was an incorrigible child who grew into a temperamental, self-absorbed young man. He also brought upon his family a curse, according to legend: when he was little, he took a sacred halberd from the family shrine and used it to try to catch eels in a nearby stream. When he was caught, his nurse, an old family retainer, predicted the family would never prosper because he had dishonored his ancestors.
Anyway, without any prospects in Japan, my maternal grandfather used the last of his funds to buy passage to the United States, where he tried to become a farmer. Of course, with no experience in agriculture, it was a disaster; with the onset of the Depression, his fortunes, along with my mother’s and the rest of the family’s, declined sharply…until he got a telegram from Japan, announcing that his half brother had died suddenly with no living heirs. The family’s estate was all his, along with its holdings, mostly tenant-farmed rice fields.
My mother didn’t get to enjoy much of this good fortune, however. She was married off at 19 to the son of a wealthy family of industrialists. She and her husband were then sent off to oversee the construction of factories in Manchuria, which had been recently conquered, violently, by the Japanese Imperial government. My mother spoke a little of those times, but any probing on my part made her clam up: she knew how popular Japan’s actions were in the United States back then. She was there only for a short time, until Chinese nationalist forces moved into the area. Her husband sent back to Japan, assuring her he would join her later. He didn’t: he disappeared, likely a prisoner of the Chinese army before being shot or hung.
She went back to live with her parents outside of Tokyo, which was still smoking from the firebombings by US planes. Not long after, the family received word that my mother’s older brother, who’d been drafted to act as an interpreter for the navy, went down with a Japanese battleship at Midway. Their own home survived the war, but shortly after the surrender to the United States, my grandfather died of a sudden stroke, after cutting down an ancient pine tree growing next to the house. It was thought then that the spirit, or kami, of the tree, had struck my grandfather down in revenge for destroying its home.
Not long after this, my grandmother tried to marry Mom off to a much older but rich man, “because at your age you should be glad to have any husband at all.” Mom was 28 by then, and a widow with no prospects: during the US occupation, the family’s land holdings had been redistributed to the tenants. The old feudal system was finished, and all they had now was the house. Mom however didn’t sit around and let tradition take over her life. She enrolled in an American business college that had opened up in Tokyo with the US government’s assistance. She took shorthand and typing classes, and eventually got a job in the typing pool on the US army base. Her favorite story from that time was seeing General MacArthur come into the office with a memo and ask, “Who can type this in five minutes?” My mother was the fastest typist in the pool, so she took the memo and had it done before the general could leave the room. When she gave it to him, he read it over and said, “Very nice!”
My mother told me these stories, by the way. She was a marvelous storyteller: I think she could have written a memoir, had she not been so overwhelmed by emotions about her past. I don’t think she ever got over her experiences from the war. She suffered from depression, though she refused to admit it, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, probably a form of PTSD.
After the US occupational offices closed up in 1952, my mother decided it was time to seek her own fortunes in the United States. She went back, worked briefly for the Office of the Interior in California, then met my father and got married. I wish I could say she lived happily ever after, but that’s for fairy tales, not for the complications of real life. She was never the stereotype of a passive Japanese housewife, and in spite of our problematic relationship, I do respect her adventurous but grief-filled life.