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  • A Childhood Memoir of Wartime Japan
  • Kyoko Selden and
    Afterword by Akira Iriye

Part One: Growing Up in Wartime Tokyo

I was born in October 1936, and my first clear recollections are those of the Nishi-Ōkubo neighborhood of Tokyo around 1939. Akira and I lived with our grandparents in their big house set in by a granite gate.1 I knew that my parents were in Paris, but never missed them. Diagonally across from our house to the left were the homes of Yoshinobu-chan, Chika-chan, and Mitchan. A street stretched perpendicular to our house. On the right was the Kibōsha (a nice-looking building used by Korean rights activists) and then the home of Yatchan. Yatchan’s older brother Sato-chan went to middle school. Yatchan’s younger brother Yotchan was not yet school age. On the left, across the street from Yatchan’s house, was the home of Sakudō Naoko-chan. She had a little brother nicknamed Kō-bō. Later, the Maebashis moved into the large house next to ours. They had three children: a fourth grader who might have been named Hidehiko, a girl my age called Reiko-chan, and a younger brother who was probably named Kunihiko. One day, my brother and I were in a second-floor room with a large desk. Hidehiko gave us a dictation test. Among other things, we had to write “bu-un chōkyū o inoru” (I pray for your good martial luck).

One day, our grandparents took us, I think, to Tokyo Station, to meet our parents. It was July 1941. A few nights before, Grandmother had said to me, “You’ll sleep in the same room [with me] when your mother is home. Is that okay?” I didn’t think much about it. When my parents appeared, I took an instant liking to them. I intuitively knew my father was a good person. He just smiled without saying a word. He looked wonderfully warm and genuine. My mother smiled gently. Grandmother prodded, “Why don’t you say okaerinasai (welcome home)?” I hid behind her kimono sleeve. My mother said, “It’s okay, isn’t it? (iiwayo, nee)?” It was a sweet thing for her to say.

The next thing I remember is my mother standing in a room with a wooden floor next to the parlor, letting Akira and me take turns jumping at her from a low window [End Page 81] sill. Years later when I mentioned this to her, she said, “Of course, I was trying my best to win your hearts.” Her efforts were unnecessary because we quickly discovered where we belonged. When my brother ran into the house crying, having been barked at by a dog, Grandmother rushed to meet him. Heedless, he ran straight to his mother.

Grandmother had been rather strict, so it is no wonder we found comfort in Mother. But Mother proved to be stricter once she knew she had won her children’s hearts. She liked good manners, decent language, and honesty. Once after breakfast I found a little bowl of kinako (roasted soy flour) left on the small table (chabudai). Nobody was there. Mother was upstairs, probably airing out the futon. I looked around, made sure it was safe, and took a spoonful of kinako. It tasted so good that it was difficult to stop. I measured the time it would take to enjoy another spoonful. Nobody appeared. So I assumed it would be fine to spend that same amount of time eating another spoonful. I repeated this a few times until Mother came down from upstairs. She looked at me and asked, “Are you eating kinako?” Because she looked at me kindly, I made the big mistake of answering “No.”

Mother then reprimanded, “If you were enjoying kinako, fine, just say so. Why must you lie?” She caught hold of me and carried me to the veranda, saying she would not have a liar in the house. She was throwing me out to the yard, when Grandmother appeared.

“Naoko-san, you don’t really have to do that,” Grandmother admonished and tried to release me from Mother’s grip. This seemed to enrage Mother...