Cheerfully Building and Rebuilding Despite Fire, War, and In-Laws

By Anna Husson Isozaki

Eighty-three-year-old Waki, though recently widowed, leans forward with a smile. Her wrinkles are deep but what one notices is her bright, sharp eyes behind her glasses, and how wide and generous her smile is.

She’s back from her daily morning round of gateball with the neighborhood team, and is settled in her armchair, facing the low kotatsu table with its quilted tablecloth holding in the heat produced by a lamp in its underbelly. The day is cool in this part of rural Japan, northwest of Tokyo, that has always been her home. She’s wearing a cardigan sweater over her blouse and slacks. Two newspapers lie on the table in front of her – one with local Gunma prefecture and national news, the other with national and international news. She reads both every day. 

Her gray hair is cropped short but stylishly so, and though her shoulders are hunched, she remains slim and active. Gateball is a version of croquet played mostly by senior citizens in Japan and it can be a serious undertaking. “We’re not allowed to chat during play. We get told off by an older man on the team if we do, so we only talk during breaks.” 

A car knocked her off her bicycle a few years ago, when she was eighty, and she has some metal replacement parts in her hip and thigh. She was told she would not walk again, but she walks, sometimes with a cane, and continues taking care of her home and garden. Her only real concession to the injury was giving up the bike. “Mother’s tough,” her daughter-in-law says. “When she had her glaucoma operation she wouldn’t even let me come. There was a fifty-year-old woman there, crying, who’d called her whole family into the hospital to be with her, but Mother told her, ‘It’s nothing, don’t worry about it,’ after she was done.”

Waki was born in the spring of 1924, the youngest of the four children in her family who lived to adulthood, and she says the toughness comes from her upbringing. “Our elementary school was a little over four kilometers away, through rough, uneven fields. We went barefoot to school because we couldn’t get across that kind of ground in our (wooden, prong-soled) geta sandals. Once we got there we’d wash our feet, then put on our geta for the morning assembly. We wore kimonos in those days, and we had no money for school backpacks, so we carried our books in a cloth wrap.” 

Her farming family worked together, raising silkworms, vegetables, and rice. During busy times like the rice planting and harvest, the children would get up at three in the morning to help plow and plant the fields or hand-cut the rice, and then would walk to school, only to leave early to help again in the afternoons. “We were jealous of the kids from farms that were close-by, or who had so many other children in their families that they could stay in school.” 

Their own farm was well-organized and they made a living on it, until they lost everything in a fire. The house, the barn and the animals. They managed to pull the panicked horse from the barn by covering its eyes with kimono under slips, but by that time it was too late and the horse was blind. Now without farm, livestock, or even clothes, her family stayed at the home of a nearby aunt. Kindly neighbors gathered and donated what they could, and then the aunt took most of the gifts and allowed the family to keep only the remains. Her family put all their efforts into rebuilding at least a makeshift house as quickly as possible and moving out. 

Waki’s was the generation that was either thrown into Japan’s wars by the dictatorship or was forced to support it at home, laboring from elementary school graduation on. There were Tokko (“Special Higher Police,” meaning, “thought police”) who arrested those who did not express enough optimism and patriotism. “But we knew we were losing. There was nothing here. Stores were empty.” 

Unlike many in Japan, Waki’s family did not go hungry during the war. There was only enough rice for the first meal of the day, but they made do with other foods and stayed healthy. Fried grasshoppers made a traditional, high protein treat.

Her two brothers were drafted and sent abroad. The brother closest to her in age died in Manila. There was no word at all from her eldest brother for three years. They had given him up for dead, when partway into the fourth year a telegram arrived from a hospital in Osaka. He’d gotten malaria and beriberi in New Guinea, and a nurse from the same area of Japan had kept him alive long enough to be shipped home. Two ships bringing soldiers home had sailed together; the one behind his sank. 

The sisters and their mother gathered sweets and took a train across the country to see him. The young man lying in the hospital bed was unrecognizable, thin and ill, but he handed his mother an envelope with every bit of pay he’d received.

Waki and her older sister were working in the fields soon after, when the huge B-29s flew over their area, heading for targets. Thirty Mustang attack planes followed behind, and many neighbors, still toiling in their fields, were mowed down. Houses burned, and the nearby larger towns were severely bombed. Inexplicably the planes missed bombing a munitions factory which was only a short walk away from Waki’s farm, but it seemed the bombers knew where most of the other war-related industries were. Waki and her sister, hiding in their grove of mulberry trees, escaped without injury.

I reflect momentarily that a grandfather whom I never met – passing away decades before my birth – had been a surgeon assigned to a 1945 island base that may have been a stopping point for these B-29s. He never made it to Japan’s mainland, but returned to the U.S. to tell his young son of a Japanese physician prisoner he met while stationed: the two doctors on Iwo Jima agreeing that the war was an unbelievable waste. Sipping hot green tea for a deep breath, I refocus on Waki, who held, carried and indulged my chunky baby boy for years of weekday afternoons while I taught English to the local neighborhood kids alongside her daughter-in-law.

Waki was twenty when the war ended. They had no radio at home so it was from neighbors that they heard Japan had surrendered. A period of fear followed: “The American soldiers are coming.” But she never saw any occupation soldiers in their area, and “MacArthur was quiet,” she says, referring not to his voice but approvingly of his character. 

At twenty-three she was sent into an arranged marriage, as was usual in those days. It didn’t go well. Her husband was from a big, rich family and he had a gambling habit. She never knew the particulars of his evenings, but the fact was that he would take all their money, go out and not return for the night – nor would he return with any money.  His family also had a great number of elderly relatives, and as was and is expected of a daughter-in-law in traditional Japan, she took care of them all. She bore this for eight years and then managed to get a divorce, despite scoldings from his surrounding relatives about her ingratitude in the face of her “good fortune” of marrying into wealth, and the fact that divorce was almost unheard-of at the time. 

At thirty-four she was introduced to a man who during the war had been drafted and laboring in that nearby munitions factory when the B-29s passed over. He was now a widower, with a farm. When they married she farmed it with him. As usual when farms were busy, she was up and working at three a.m., but she was used to it. Her husband supplemented the farm income by working construction jobs during the week, then focusing on the farm during the weekends.

Before her first marriage, an amateur fortune teller had told Waki that she would have a clever son, and when she was pregnant she prayed that it would be so. She nursed him through preschool, not that unusual in Japan then, though it is less common now. He grew up clever, handsome and kind – one of the top students in the prefecture. 

When a highway was being constructed nearby, the government paid for the land taken, and Waki and her husband saved the money from the portion of their farm used for it, while other neighbors frittered away their windfalls. Meanwhile Waki always raised one cow each year, riding her bicycle around the neighborhood and cutting grass to feed it. With the combined savings from the land and these cows, they put their son through university. He became a teacher, living in the family home with his own wife and raising three children, now in high school and university.

Waki worries about the younger generations now, who haven’t been raised with self-discipline. “They say ‘everyone else has it so I want it too.’ It’s better to be raised poor, and be used to working hard.” 

As the members of their generation in the neighborhood dwindle, talk during gateball breaks these days can turn sober. A ninety-five-year-old neighbor threw herself into the river on a recent rainy dawn. “She had been saying for a while that she wanted to die, even though she was living with her family and she was still healthy. Everyone at the gateball court says they understand her feeling, and they feel the same way too.” Waki pauses, and then amends this, maybe to soften the effect. “Her life was unhappy, though. Her mother was a geisha and she was sent to a hill-town to be raised when she was a baby. Then she married into a big house.” It was a love marriage – the young man had refused a great number of arrangement offers – but though some love marriages happened in those days, they were looked down upon. It was a sign of not being serious-minded enough, and not keeping one’s focus on duty to one’s family, to have been off somewhere falling in love on one’s own.

“That family was rich but the mother-in-law was really tough. She’d say things like, ‘I wish we’d gotten another, more beautiful daughter-in-law than you.’ Her husband drank, and died young in an accident, but that woman stayed with the family she’d been married into….”