I knew then was there was an enemy near-by.
I was five years old when a birthday party in Kapoho
was disrupted with news that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the
Under the rising sun
The enemy came
Wearing my face.
Yes, all I knew then was there was
an enemy, an enemy who would wear my face, an enemy who would not be
forgotten nor forgiven in the years to come. Although we were
Americans in this little village on the Big Island of Hawaii, we
spelled "danger" because our faces and names matched those
of the enemy. These similarities would later deny the human rights in
many social situations in the sixties and seventies. Yet, we had both
fought the same enemy.
As a child, I remember being told by
the older children that we could help weaken the power of the
Japanese army if we killed all the green Japanese bugs. I recall
being extra sensitive to my surroundings. Each time I saw those
dainty emerald green insects resembling a
fan, I would crush them and feel the end of the war near. As
children, we went around searching for these insects, believing. It
didn't matter then, what my grandmothers felt seeing their grandchildren kill those insects to
the army of the Emperor, the Emperor whom they had left behind when
they had migrated to Hawaii.
We always spoke in whispers after
the sun went down. I recall vividly, a little wooden box covered with
a piece of black dyed old sheet. Inside, a flickering kerosene lamp,
the only light in the entire house. All of us (parents and five
children) huddled around this little light. We spent our nights
sitting around this lighted black box. Nearby, a new born brother,
born nine days after December seven.
In the corner of the room
was a paper carton of cloths, all ready for evacuation. I remember
the use of the battery-run radio, used only for news. That
frightening man's voice, repeating news of the war, of the crouching
danger and a reminder always to listen for air alerts.
the people in the village had an air-raid shelter. We had none. Our
neighbor had one dug and cemented with railroad ties at the entrance,
camouflaged by bushes in the doorway. Another neighbor
had a shelter that was to be shared with another family. We played in
those shelters, feeling the cold dampness of the dirt floor and the
mildew walls. In a corner a box of canned goods: spam,
sardines and corned beef waited. I hated to go near those shelters as
they were a constant reminder of bombs and airplanes. I especially
felt the fear of war because we did not have a shelter of our own. I
never questioned my parents as I knew they spoke of a cave in the
backyard of my grandmother who lived about six miles away. I wanted a
shelter of my own. I felt unprotected and scared.
there was an air alert. An uncle came rushing in his Ford. The
nervous radio announcer's voice warning of a possible air attack and
to take cover. Leave the radio on! We were bundled in our uncle's car
with Japanese futons (quilts) piled over us. We were taken to our grandmother's. The ride was long and
silent. I was too scared to cry. We sat in the living room of my
grandmother's house with the radio on. The adults saying "It
will clear" to reassure all of us, the children sitting in
silence. After what seemed hike hours, the all clear signal from the
I began school during the war. The Japanese language
schools were closed so I would not have the experience of attending
Japanese language schools as did my older brother and sister before
the bombing. I attended Kapoho Elementary School, a mile away from
home. The army barracks were situated across from our school, so
tents, army tanks and trucks were a constant sight.
walking to school with my head down whenever I passed certain homes
in the village. My half-running steps would not be able to avoid the
"Hey, Jap' that came from the
non-Japanese children and adults. We were told to be careful because
so many of the non-Japanese people carried knives for protection.
school, we began each day with the flag pledge, then sang the song
with the opening line, "I remember Pearl Harbor and how we died
for liberty." We spent a few hours each day doing work for the
Red Cross. We sat on the floor, cutting material into little pieces.
These would be sent to the army hospitals as fillings for pillows for
the wounded soldiers. I looked forward to this task. It gave me a
feeling that I was doing something for my country. Patriotism was at
its maximum. I remember cutting my own dress one day, thinking I
would sacrifice my own dress for a wounded soldier somewhere. I got
ruler-spanked on my knuckles by my teacher. I was in the second
The Japanese Language School was converted into a USO
hall. We knew exactly when to be there to watch the USO girls
entertain the soldiers. We usually stared through the windows or sat
in the doorway. Sometimes we were given refreshments.
remember Easter. We dyed our eggs the night before, the oldest child
being able to take the most eggs to school. We used the coverings of
the round onion for dye. The following day our teachers would hide
the eggs in the school yard for a great Easter Egg Hunt. The entire
stone wall of the school would have soldiers sitting on them,
watching us, telling us where to look and the teachers getting
irritated at the soldiers. It was a fun time. At the end of the day
we would exchange our eggs for oranges and apples which the soldiers
seemed to have in abundance. Often, while walking home from school,
the soldiers would toss us apples and oranges from the back of the
I went to bed every night during the war years with a
special prayer. I prayed to be alive. I wanted to live until
the 7th grade. I pulled weeds in the garden praying the same prayer.
Why 7th grade? Because that was the promised year...I would go to Pahoa High and Intermediate School on a
bus, I would have my first hair permanent, and I would be able to
wear shoes to school. And no war was going to deprive me of these
three things. And so I prayed every day to be alive a few more years.
I promised to be good. I continued to kill the green bugs.
village men were trained to guard and patrol
the village. I still see them marching in the ball park. I remember
an old Japanese man who spoke no English, saluting every soldier he
saw. We imitated him a lot.
We had to be careful of lights
during the nights. The soldiers and village men patrolled the streets
looking for rays of light escaping through walls of homes. They threw
rocks on rooftops to warn residents of penetrating lights. Any light seen at night would draw enemy planes
bomb the village, we were told. We had a rock thrown on our roof
once. That sound of the rock shattering the silence of the night
sounded like gunshot. We shook with fright. Every night, our father
took a walk around the house to check to see whether any light could
be seen., He'd rap the wall where light cam through and these
cavities would be filled with putty.
We were given gas masks;
ugly, heavy, masks with the strong rubber and medicinal odor kept in
a green and brown canvas bag which we slung over our shoulders.
Infants like my baby brother were not given any until they discovered
a way of protecting them. My mother never took her gas mask with her,
saying she would not carry it until my brother was given one.
was later that a little gas mask, in the form of a sleeping canvas
bag, was given to my brother. We had practice sessions regularly in
school. We were timed to see how fast we could unfasten our bags to
get the mask on our faces. We also had our masks checked for any
flaws. A room was filled with tear gas. We entered this room with our
masks on. I remember my big brother checking our eyes for tears. Any
sign of tears meant a malfunctioning mask and we were given new
We had evacuation practices. We were
timed walking from
school to home with soldiers following us in their army trucks. I
hated these sessions. It made war seem so close and I felt safer in
school with all the children and teachers.
Somehow teachers seem indestructible. We all wore a little home-sewn
bag around our necks with a piece of smelly camphor-like asofetida
inside for protection against germs.
lived near the train station and the post office so traffic
was constant out side out home. Our father had befriended four
soldiers who came to our house whenever they were free. I remember
one soldier with an Italian name wanting to eat spaghetti and he and
my mother in the kitchen preparing real Italian spaghetti. I remember
the soldiers playing cards in our living room.
We often saw
truckloads of soldiers being shipped out to the war front. One day,
one of the trucks stopped by our yard long enough to have the
soldiers drop off a great wooden barrel. They quietly waved good-bye
and drove off. We were scared and were warned
to stay away from the barrel until our father returned. It could be
some explosives. (In war, trust gets reduced to its minimum.) My
father opened it carefully. It was a barrel of beautiful white flour.
The soldiers' last gesture of thanks before going off to war. We
later heard of the death of three of the soldiers. Years later, after
the war, one of the soldiers would meet an aunt of mine by accident
in front of a movie theater.
Hubba hubba, soldier bait and hapa-haole
would become part of my childhood vocabulary.
I remember the MP's and that red and white
their arms. I still see them entering our neighbor's house searching
for signs of loyalty to the country of Japan. First generation
Japanese homes were searched for any
Japanese item. They were confiscated or the men were taken away to
camps. Although our parents were second generation Japanese, we took
no chances and destroyed all our Japanese records, books, toys, and
spent time tearing the red dots (Japanese flag) off our Japanese
medicine packages. During this time, there were many bonfires in
backyards as people burned family antiques, family treasures
brought from Japan. These were signs of disloyalty to the United
States. I knew of a friend's mother who buried their books in the
ground. The soldiers parked some of their
tanks in their yard and caused much anxiety lest they discover the
buried books. The soldiers were feared, never
questioned by the village people.
Without warning one night, a
friend's father was taken out of a meeting and sent off to a camp in
California. He was not allowed to say goodbye to his family. His
family, wife and six children, had to fend for themselves, not
knowing whether their father would ever return.
He sliced the
Off the stalk
And left it naked
in the sun.
The bombing of Hiroshima became the
cause of many loud
discussions in our house. My father would never hear from his
relatives ever again. Some of my mother's relatives survived the
Hiroshima bombing. Years later, my father would question
my mother whenever she prepared to mail money or clothing to her
family in Hiroshima, somehow resenting the fact that he could not do
the same for his family. Hiroshima was real to both my parents as my
mother spent part of her childhood in
Hiroshima and my father spent some of his bachelorhood days
We had a big garden of sweet potatoes and peanuts in
our backyard, our father's preparation for that day when there would
be no food because of the war. I remember my mother going out to get
liquor and cigarette permits for my father.
Our neighbor who must have been about fifteen then, left every
morning in the back of a truck with her hoe and gloves. She belonged
to the Victory Corps. Victory garden was just a term I heard, and
My uncle was drafted sometime during the
war. I had somehow gotten the idea that without a President of the
United States, there would be no war. I wished for my uncle to shoot
the President as soon as he was in the White House. My child's mind
thought all soldiers got to meet the President. I wanted my uncle to
assassinate President Roosevelt. Throughout my uncle's years in the
army, I kept hoping for such an end. My brothers and sister and I had
even worked out a plot on how our uncle could fulfill
such a wish. The scene was quite clear in my mind.
were treated like the enemy sometimes, we lived, believed, and felt
as Americans. A young eighteen year old neighbor came to our house
one day before being drafted. His last words to my mother: "I'll
return a Lieutenant." He died in battle a few months later. I
remember his flag-draped casket, the village women cooking for people
who came to express their sympathies, the two American Caucasian
soldiers in uniform escorting the casket to its military burial
grounds. And the dead soldier's mother's concern: With the casket
closed, how can she be sure it was her son in that casket? Many
stories would follow of how these caskets were returned home empty.
Again, the distrust of the United States government.
remember the day President Roosevelt died. I heard it from a first
generation Japanese woman who said "Zuluzulubelu"
(Roosevelt) had died, maybe the war would now end. There were many
whispered exchanges that day - happy and hopeful sounds.
don't recall the end of the war except for the constant loud voices
in our kitchen, as my father argued with his friends over the
question of who had won the war. It was a familiar sound whenever the
first generation men and my second generation father gathered under
one roof. The first generation men claimed Japan had actually won the
war and the second generation men saying no. It was the second
generation men who had fought under the famed 442nd and 100th Battalion infantry. I always thought
exchanges were simply passing arguments among men who had too much
beer or sake until a few years ago. My over 90 year old grandmother,
a bit confused with age, confided in me that she had heard from the
Emperor of Japan that he had confessed to her that Japan had really
won the war. This, more than thirty five years after the end of the
My dreams during those years were big. I wanted to become
a writer. Margaret Higgins, the war correspondent, was my idol. It
was my favorite pastime to sign my name along with Margaret Higgins;
a dream that someday I too, would become a writer. The fantasies in
my mind were at their height. Limestone
that is all that's allowed a child suddenly
thrown into a constantly changing world of fear and destruction
interlaced with ignorance. (This dream would someday become real as
the child who practiced her autograph would someday have her own
autograph parties for her published books.) I read a lot. A good
escape into a world that promised almost nothing. I wanted to believe
that I would live happily every after. Books, I felt, would be the
only survivors in a civilization and I wanted to survive.
Emperor Hirohito's Visit to
A Sansei, wearing denim jeans and zoris
Meets the eyes of the
An Issei, bows
And sees only her feet
As the Emperor passes by.
Note: Kapoho was a small Japanese village on the Big Island of Hawaii.
There was no electricity. There were four little grocery stores and one
theater. Telephones were available only in the four stores. Only after
the 1966 eruption which destroyed Kapoho, and only after our house was
relocated in another village, would our house be lighted with the
turning of a mere switch on the wall. That kerosene lamp is still kept
somewhere in the house for when the lights go out.
Ironically, the first copy on my
first published book
arrived on December 7.
First published: Bamboo Ridge, The Hawaii Writers' Quarterly,
# 9, December 1980-February 1981