"You have to work hard to offend Christians. By nature, Christians are the most forgiving, understanding, and thoughtful group of people I've ever dealt with. They never assume the worst. They appreciate the importance of having different perspectives. They're slow to anger, quick to forgive, and almost never make rash judgments or act in anything less than a spirit of total love . . . No, wait--I'm thinking of Labrador retrievers!" David Learn, 1998

Friday, May 20, 2011

Memories of MUM - Moving to Japan

Slightly modified from His Scribe, May 15, 2010
Dad and Mum were away at a writers' retreat in the hills of some eastern state when the news came that a new type of bomb had obliterated Hiroshima. They felt relieved. Not because they had anything against the Japanese. But maybe--finally--this would end the war. Mum went back to polishing the novel she was writing, Alias for Death. Dad went back to working on his latest play. Bite the Dust, maybe. Or, I Weep for You.

We had no way of knowing that the Hiroshima bomb would gradually come to profoundly affect our own family. The day would come when Mum would tell survivors of that bomb, weeping, "I too, am a hibakusha (fire-exploded person)" and they would design a monument to her with those words on it in her handwriting, to be erected in the Peace Park.

But for the next six years we didn't think about the bomb. We lived a normal American life in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Dad, Dr. Earle L. Reynolds,--who was a physical anthropologist--worked at Fels Research Institute and taught at Antioch College. In 1951 that changed forever. The National Academy of Sciences assigned Dad to conduct a three-year study on the effects of the first atomic bomb on the growth and development of surviving children.

Each of us had to get passport photos taken, apply for visas and endure a series of ten injections, for everything from typhus to typhoid, yellow fever and smallpox. Then, complete with our "Woody" station wagon and our dog Cappy (short for Caprice), we packed up to move to Hiroshima.
We drove to San Francisco and steamed across the ocean on the President Wilson to Yokohama. We drove the Woody carefully down the length of Honshu, the main island, because the only road was often only one lane wide, and even where it was wider, one of the lanes was always under repair. Large chunks of the road had been blown away. Perspiring laborers were lugging the chunks back from the fields in baskets swinging from each end of a stick across their naked shoulders. Beyond them, ankle-deep in mud, their wives stooped to transplant spears of rice.

We passed through towns that were clogged with cars, bicycles, oxen-drawn carts and three-wheeled "bata batas." Once Daddy had to back up and he asked me to look and see if there was anything behind us.

"No, Daddy," I said. "Nothing but people."

People. Wherever we stopped, children, their eyes bright with curiosity, crowded around our car, greeting us with a chorus of "Harro, Harro!" They jostled each other aside and held out grubby hands, grinning and clamoring eagerly for "Chu-in-gu ga-a-mu!" That's all the English they knew. Chewing gum. The only foreigners they had ever seen were soldiers. We were a family. A father who was not wearing a uniform. A mother. Kids, like them. (Later, when our grandmother Diggie Dee came to visit, her soft white hair made a sensation throughout the country. Even grown women wanted to touch it.) And a dog! There were no dogs, cats or birds left in Japan after the war. Rumor had it they had all been eaten. 

Every child had a runny nose.

Japan was still occupied by Australian and American forces. The Australians were finishing up and would be gone in a year. Although Dad was coming to Hiroshima as a scientist we lived on the nearby Army base, a community of pastel-colored houses called NijiMura (see "Australian families") (Rainbow Village).

Families in NijiMura did what families were probably doing back in the States. The men went to work every day and the women got together for bridge and gossip. We kids went to school--all in one room--and attended Saturday matinees at the one theater on the base, even though there were only enough of us to fill the first few rows.

The base effectively insulated us from Japan and the Japanese people, except for those who cooked our meals and mowed our lawn.

It was fun living in NijiMura because we had a maid.  Mum didn't have to cook or do housework and I didn't have to wash the dishes or clean my room. Miss Dote (Dohtay) couldn't read English so the first night she worked for us, she opened all the cans to see what to serve for dinner.

Once she forgot to cover the pitcher of syrup and when I poured syrup on my pancakes, a two-inch-long shiny black cockroach washed out and lay in departed dignity atop them, thin little contracted legs in the air. Little brown roaches, of no consequence by comparison, never bothered me after that but it took a long time for me to like pancakes again.

My brother Ted, who was absent-minded long before he became a professor, wore the same shirt every day. At night Dote-san would wash it, iron it, and place it folded back in his drawer on top of the others, until Mum instructed her to put the clean shirt on the bottom. My mother was a genius at some things and avoiding confrontation was one of them.

We kids made fun of the maid but Mum tried to get to know and befriend her. Miss Dote was young and overwhelmed, trying to survive in a foreign world within her own devastated one. The Americans she had been taught to hate were now the employers she must learn to respect and serve. (Years later, Dote-san was murdered.)

Most people in NijiMura paid little attention to the world outside the gates. They didn't go outside if they didn't have to and on the anniversary of the bombing, everyone was warned not to leave the base. The Japanese might be hostile. 

If dependents had to leave the base, they watched curiously through the glass of car windows, noting shops lining narrow streets, their fronts open to display fruit, vegetables or cheap trinkets. Men urinating along city sidewalks. Mothers nursing babies in public. How primitive, how offensive! Americans would never think of using public Japanese restrooms. They were just holes over mountains of reeking excrement. Every Australian and American would return to the base in relief.

But Mum was an exception. Mum took us kids off base by choice.

Mum wanted to experience Japan. As a child, she had read a book called The Japanese Twins by Lucy F. Perkins (published in 1912) and she was fascinated with Japanese life. She had her mother tie a doll to her back and practiced using chopsticks. So she had never feared or hated the Japanese before or during the war and she was excited when Dad was assigned to Japan and we were invited to go with him.

Mum had me take lessons in flower-arranging, calligraphy and dance (a far cry from the ballet and tap I studied during three months we had spent in Tucson).
While Dad was at work (ABCC sent a car and driver to pick him up), Mum would take us into Hiro, the nearest town. We would get out of the car and walk down the narrow roads and look at, even buy, the fresh fruit and vegetables. Japanese women behind the stalls would rush to help us, bowing a lot, carefully selecting the cost of the items from the coins we held on open palm. Others, in kimonos and wooden clogs, perhaps a baby asleep on their back, would sling dippers full of water on the dirt roads to keep down the dust. We'd smile and they'd bow, their baby learning social skills by participating in them.

Mum and Dad also hired a strait-laced little professor named Mr. Yamada. Impeccably groomed and proper, carrying a briefcase, he would come to our stucco block house in Rainbow Village once a week and teach them to speak and read Japanese. They would ask him all kinds of questions about the culture and the "inscrutable Japanese" mind.

After they felt they knew him well enough, Dad asked him how to swear in Japanese.

Professor Yamada's impassive expression betrayed nothing. "We do not have words like that in Japanese," he answered politely.

"Sure, you do. Every language has words like that," Dad prodded. "What would a workman on a ladder say if the man above him spilled hot tar on his head?"

Mr. Yamada was unruffled. "He would say, 'Please don't spill hot tar on my head.'"

"Come on, Mr. Yamada," coaxed Dad. "What would he really say?"

Mr. Yamada relaxed just a little. "Well," he admitted confidentially, "he might leave off the 'please.'"

Mr. Yamada lived into his 90s and became one of our best friends and strongest supporters.

Mum had written children's books for Tim, (Pepper, about his raccoon) and for Ted (Hamlet and Brownswiggle about his hamsters).
Later she would write Emily San about a little American girl in Japan with her family, for me. It was translated into Japanese after her death and published as Rainbow Village.

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