A Long Way Home: Growing Up Nisei In Japan During the Pacific War

This is the story of two Japanese-American sisters whose father had emigrated to the United States at the turn of the century. Fate led them to Japan where they experienced World War II on enemy soil. Their family was back in the U.S. and suffering because they looked Japanese while these two girls suffered from severe hardships brought on by the war and from bombs dropped by their own country. Their remarkable story was culled from a family history, a newspaper article, a U.S. military interview, a personal interview, telephone interviews and letters. I am indebted to Mary Yamamoto and Leila Myers for sharing their story with me so that I can share it with you.

First Generation: Yamamoto Shigeichi

In the 37th year of Emperor Meiji's reign (1904), Yamamoto Shigeichi* left his home in the small village of Hashirano in Yamaguchi-ken, Japan in search of the promise of wealth offered in America. He stopped briefly in Hawaii before moving on to earn a wage helping to build a railroad in Wyoming. The contractor of the railroad went bankrupt however, and Shigeichi, who by now had adopted the American name Harry, went to Colorado where he worked as a cook in a restaurant before finding a laborer position in the sugar beet industry there. After being in America for some nine years of struggle, Harry Yamamoto started a small farm of his own, and he began to look for a wife. He exchanged pictures with Urata Moto, a young woman ten years his junior who was living in his home town of Hashirano back in Japan. After encouragement from her parents, Moto boarded a steamship that brought her to Washington where she met her husband, Harry (Shigeichi).

[*complete Japanese names are rendered here as they are in the Japanese context with the surname preceding the given name so in this instance the family name is "Yamamoto".]

Harry brought Moto back to Colorado where they farmed and started a family. The Depression era was approaching and before long the family moved to farm along the North Platte River at the border of Wyoming and Nebraska. They moved a few times and life was difficult yet the family grew to include nine children by the end of 1935. The next year tragedy struck when Moto died in a farm fire. About this same time, Harry's father became fatally ill in Japan. Harry liquidated his farm, and took his nine children to Japan to return their mother's ashes to her homeland, and so they could all begin a new life. His father passed away before they ever reached Japan. Harry (Shigeichi) was the eldest surviving child (his younger brother Taichi lived in a town called Marifu located near Hashirano and was a president of the local Shinyo-Kunsai, or Agricultural Co-operative Bank; and his younger sister, Chika had moved to Hawaii sometime earlier).

Second Generation: Japanese-Americans in Japan

Yamamoto Shigeichi had left Japan thirty-three years earlier in search of prosperity and with a belief that he would return home someday possessing a fortune to live out his years in comfort. When Harry Yamamoto returned to Hashirano he was neither wealthy nor the same man who had left. He had struggled and persevered through difficult times in America, but he was unprepared for the reality that he was presented with when he returned to the land of his birth. Harry's stay was brief: he had arrived with his nine children when the rice planting season began and he left accompanied by only three of his four eldest children (Lily, Yutaka, and Tadashi) when the rice had been planted. A photo pregnant with meaning from Harry's aborted return to live in Japan appears in the Hashirano Shogakko (grade school) class picture from Showa 12 (1937) where his son, Kuni, appears seated with his teachers. Kuni sat in the teachers' row rather than with the other students because he had broken tradition by not conforming to the rule that male students have their heads shaved (this rule seems to have lasted at Hashirano Shogakko until about Showa 39). A year after Harry had returned with three of his children, four more children (Coralee, the eldest, Kuni, Jack, and Irene, who was three years old) returned to America. The two remaining daughters: Mary, (the twin sister of Jack) who was then twelve years old, and Leila, who was six, were left in Japan to help care for their aging grandmother. It's not known when Harry was going to send for his two girls, but geopolitical events in the form of the Second World War intervened. Mary and Leila would spend the next eleven years, until 1948, in Japan being Japanese while across the Pacific their father, brothers, and sisters lived in America, land of the enemy.

Harry Yamamoto had given all but one of his nine American-born children a Japanese first or middle name, and both he and his wife had made an effort to teach them about Japanese culture. Their older children were also enrolled in Japanese language courses during the summers. Mary's Japanese name was Takeko and Leila, who had not been registered with a Japanese name, adopted the name Hinako. These were the names they were known by when they lived in Japan and this is their story:

The girls lived with their grandmother in her house which stood along the main street of Hashirano with perhaps a hundred other dwellings. The o-benjo (contemporaneous term for "bathroom") was located down a hallway from the rest of the house. The toilet itself consisted of a hole in the floor that partially concealed a basin for human excrement. Periodically this basin was emptied into another, larger basin that was then topped with straw. When this larger container got full, Takeko and Hinako would attach a pole horizontally to the container which was suspended from it by ropes and hike to their fields to fertilize them being careful not to splash themselves along the way. Of course this was a foul smelling enterprise and not very hygienic, but was a common practice of the day and they had the sense not to eat their vegetables they raised in the fertilized fields until first cooking them.

Wet-rice farming is a highly labor intensive endeavor and even the six year old Hinako was enlisted to help after completing her school day. On the weekends she had to help her grandmother gather kindling and larger logs for three wood stoves and a fire place that lay beneath the o-furo (traditional Japanese bath) at their home. They had to climb up into the nearby mountains to do this and Grandmother Yamamoto had arthritic knees, but in those first few years she could still make it up into the mountains without complaint.

Leila's recollection of this time is vivid:

"One day Grandmother Yamamoto told me to stop working in the field and go home to cook rice for everyone. I was only six years old and I didn't know how to cook rice properly. It came out like soup, but everyone ate it without a word of criticism. After that first mistake I learned to cook rice properly.

"It seems very strange to me now, but we were not allowed to speak during meals. I probably didn't think much of it at the time because I was so tired from working out in the field or gathering the wood. I would often fall asleep in the middle of a meal while my hashi and chawan [chopsticks and bowl] were still in my hands. Grandmother Yamamoto would gently nudge me and I would continue eating."

Hinako's grade school years were difficult because her heavy burden of chores interfered with her ability to play with other children. Typically when she found time, Hinako would entertain herself by fishing, carving wood, painting and making her own toys. She also had a tree swing. There was a room in the large Yamamoto house where rice and wheat were stored, and before Grandfather Yamamoto Itsukichi died, livestock had also been housed there. A beam ran across the ceiling supporting the rooms which were above this storeroom area. The beam itself was a tree trunk that had been stripped of its bark and cleaned but not planed smooth. Using Grandmother Yamamoto's best rope, Hinako made a swing that attached to this "tree-beam" and so she had her private tree swing inside the house. Spending money was not easy to come by. On occasion she would go to the mountains with a classmate and fetch three bundles of wood on her back to sell to a businessman in the village for go sen (five cents) or kick and shove a log down a mountain for jissen (ten cents) which would be enough to buy a whole bag of candy. Finally, Grandmother Yamamoto also taught Hinako how to make zori, a footwear made from rice stalks. Hinako learned to wet the rice stalks before pounding them with a mallet to make the stalks softer for weaving into footwear while holding this "rope" with her toes.

Hinako would also fish either by laying traps catching the fish by hand as she waded in the stream, or fishing with a fishing pole that she made herself. She would use a female bamboo stick as her pole because these sticks were small and flexible. Then she would add string and gather some earth worms before going to the river to fish. Sometimes when she would sleep walk at night she would use her pillow to act out those times when she waded in the water patiently attempting to catch a fish near the rocky bottom.

Fate also led Hinako to begin developing her intellect. Uncle Urata, a millionaire who dealt in automobile parts in Tokyo, decided to send his daughter back to the village of his youth to protect her against the tuberculosis which had already taken the lives of his son and another daughter. Hashirano was a small village without a library to speak of, a solitary, tiny doctor's office, and the only phones that existed at the time were located at the post office and the policeman's office which doubled as his house. Yasuko, lived with Grandmother Urata Hatsu in a house that had a large library consisting of hundreds of books. Hinako began borrowing half a dozen books a week and read them from cover to cover.

Takeko and Hinako's maternal uncle, Akimoto, who was the sonchoo, or mayor of Hashirano. He was respected as an important official and the girls were taught to bow to him if they ever crossed his path on the street. The younger Hinako remembers seeing her uncle while she was riding her bicycle down the street. When she approached him she jumped off her bike, straightened up, and politely bowed.

Learning how to properly be Japanese began with the language. Takeko's comprehension of the Japanese language when she arrived in Japan was so poor that she had to enroll in first grade all over again even though she had already completed the fourth grade in America. (Takeko's class picture in Showa 15* (1940) shows her towering above her classmates with a hair style that distinguishes her from her grade school classmates and their "bowl cut" hair styles). She labored hard and caught up to the rest of the girls in her age group after a few years by completing the first, second, third, and fourth grades in half of the required time. Hinako had not begun school before she arrived in Japan so this was one less hurdle toward acceptance by her peers.

Because they were not born in Japan and their father had decided to return to the U.S. with his family after such a brief time, Takeko and Hinako had never been added to the official family registry that acts as a record of citizenship in Japan. In contrast to the difficulties encountered by the girls during their years in Japan the impact of this may seem insignificant, but it added to the trials they faced. When vaccination shots were being administered to her classmates, Hinako was excluded because she wasn't recognized as a citizen since her name did not appear on the family register. She just wanted to be like everyone else. Uncle Akimoto, who often helped the girls and their grandmother, came to the rescue and convinced the school principal to give Hinako her shots and to treat her like the other children in the future.
[Even to this day, Japanese officially record the date of the year by the reign of the current emperor. Showa marked the reign of Emperor Hirohito. Showa 15 was the fifteenth year of the Showa Emperor's reign which began in 1925]

Takeko and Hinako kept in touch with their family in America through frequent letter writing, but mysteriously their letters started to be returned without any explanation near the end of Showa 15 (1940). About this same time they heard rumors that people were not being allowed to return to the U.S. The girls had had no real concept of the expanse which separated Japan and America. At first they thought they could easily return to their father and family in the U.S. as soon as possible, even "next Saturday," but as time passed the realization of their predicament became clearer to them.

The week beginning December 8, 1941 was surreal for the Yamamoto girls (December 7th in the United States was December 8th in Japan which is across the international dateline from the former). At school, Takeko and her classmates were given small, hand held Japanese flags and told to march in a victory parade through town to celebrate the attack. Then the military police came to Grandmother Yamamoto's home and confiscated a small American flag and any documents, papers or books that they could find which were written in English. They even confiscated some Bing Crosby records and newspapers that had been sent to Hinako by an older sister because it had doll cut-outs that Hinako was particularly fond of. It had become clear that they may never be returning home. They may never see their family or America ever again. Moreover throughout the war they had to work to prove that they were Japanese while keeping their feelings about America and the war secret even from their grandmother who believed that Japan was the country of God (Emperor Hirohito) and that Japan could never lose a war. Beginning with this farewell week when the world was turned upside down, Takeko and Hinako would cry in secret and try to console each other when they could. Their strength, what helped them through the contradictions of their lives during the war, was their hope that they could someday return to America.

At times, Takeko and Hinako heard propaganda that the Japanese in America were having their noses and ears chopped off by the Americans, but they didn't believe these outlandish stories. Though they were born in America, they were not harassed too often because they looked Japanese, had Japanese names, and spoke Japanese fluently by the time the war had started, but it did occur. Some of the other kids would call these girls from America "whites" or some other derogatory names. When the American B-29s were dropping bombs, some would say "those might be flown by your brothers." The kids who said these things seemed to feel sorry afterwards, but the pressure to blend in was enormous.

Despite the fact that being Americans made life in Japan difficult at times, simply being Japanese during the years surrounding the war was an extreme hardship in itself. After the second year of the war with the U.S., rationing was implemented in Hashirano for such essential items as shoes, clothes, and food. The zori that Hinako made were a helpful alternative to new shoes and they could be replaced anytime it was desired.

Rationing for other goods could not be so easily remedied though and this added to the difficulties that had already confronted them before the war. Produce was confiscated by the village elders for "equal distribution" based on the number of individuals in each household. Grandmother Yamamoto and the girl's Uncle Akimoto had the largest holdings of land in the village, but this meant nothing during the war. Grandmother Yamamoto no longer received bushels of rice in payment for the extensive land holdings she possessed (which included land on three mountains!). She was now given a small, ten-day ration of rice which she had to share with her two granddaughters. They would divide it into ten individual portions only to look at one of these small handfuls, probably no more than a quarter of a cup, which they had to subsist on for an entire day (rice fills the role in Japanese meals which may be filled by either bread, potatoes, stuffing, or rice in a comparable American meal). On several occasions, Takeko would get rice from the black market. She would go to a farming area that was known for its rice cultivation so she knew she could barter for rice there. There she would exchange a kimono (a traditional Japanese robe worn as everyday wear by both men and women until the second decade of the Twentieth Century) that was in good condition for one issho of rice. This was about as much rice as she could hide in her obi (a wide styled sash for the kimono) to bring home. Other times the girls would sell kimonos to a seamstress in the village for hard currency until there were none left in the household.

The sugar ration was a meager three tablespoons for one month. This they could do little to change, but salt was something they could work to supplant. Hinako and one of her classmates would tie two empty sake (rice wine) bottles, about four liters in size, together and sling them over their shoulders with one hanging on their front and one on their back before taking a forty-five minute train trip followed by a forty-five minute walk to the coast where they would wade in the ocean to fill the two bottles with sea water. After returning home, the water was boiled to kill any bacteria and used in place of table salt.

On their one day off from school, Sunday, Takeko and Hinako would help Grandmother Yamamoto with raising their own vegetables to supplement their diet with taro root, potatoes and yams. Hinako would beg her neighbors who owned a sake brewery, to allow her to pick peas from their plants. After the peas were eaten, the pea pods were saved to be ground and eaten later as well. In Fall, they would gather mushrooms, which were taken to a canning factory for cash, and pick chestnuts to sell. There wasn't much to buy with the little cash they earned because most of the stores were closed down by this time. In the Springtime they would go to a bamboo forest and dig for bamboo shoots. They would fish in a nearby river whenever they could and submerge baskets during the Summertime to trap eels. Sometimes they picked edible dandelions and azaleas which could be found at the base of hills. In the most difficult times, Grandmother Yamamoto would call the girls to pick nana kusa (the seven [edible] weeds) and they would briefly boil them until they bulked up into a stew that would fill their stomachs. They were fortunate that various foods could be found on the land they owned, but their ability to grow foods and secretly hide these foods was severely restricted by the fact that they had no men to help them.

Hinako worked in the garden along with her sister and grandmother and the harvest was all given to the village elders in spite of the fact that they could not produce much. Other families had a male head of household and the means to hide a portion of their harvest, but not the two girls and their nearly crippled grandmother. Every night Grandmother Yamamoto and her two granddaughters would lay down on their futons (Japanese style bed) in a "T" formation with their feet joined together on the top of the kotatsu (a small radiator filled with hot embers of wood or coal) hoping that they would fall asleep before the heat was all gone. In the pitch darkness of the cool country evening, Hinako snuck out of the house and after hiking for several miles to reach their fields, she dug up some of their potatoes to bring back home [Hinako had plowed these fields herself by walking backward with a plow in her hands; some of the other villagers had horses that they would harness their plow to]. Grandmother Yamamoto never questioned Hinako because she knew why her granddaughter was "stealing" the potatoes, but Hinako still felt like a criminal even though they were produce from her own garden.

In the small village of Hashirano, village elders managed local affairs. These village elders required a representative from every household to participate in village meetings and other matters concerning the community. Takeko's schooling caused her to spend increasing amounts of time in Iwakuni and Grandmother Yamamoto's mobility was limited by her arthritic knees. As result, Hinako became the household representative for many community affairs even though she was only in her fourth year of Shogakko. The elders never said that Hinako was too young to attend the village meetings, but the fact that she was filling the role most adult men held, gave some school bullies another reason to tease her with "your father doesn't love you that's why he left!" These meetings were held in a village elder's house where the shoji screen walls had been removed from the interior house to create one big room and Hinako would sit in the back of the room where she could be inconspicuous as she passed the time during the boring meetings by reading.

During the war rationing, the village elders would organize the community to collect rice from farmers in an adjacent rice growing region. Hinako represented her household on some of these expeditions which included some fifty other villagers. They would hike up narrow mountain paths to a neighboring village where they were given rice which they carried back to Hashirano on their backs.

Hinako's responsibility to the community as the representative for her household also led her to grave digging. Whenever there was a death in the village, one member from each side of the street had to go and dig a grave in a village cemetery. Hinako's turn arrived. The bodies were put in a sitting position with the knees tied against the chest before they were put in square boxes. Hinako was in a deep hole pitching dirt up for one of these coffins when she hit something hard. When she realized it was the leg bone of someone who had been buried earlier she nearly fainted. She tried to scream but nothing would come from her mouth.

While they were students in Japan, Takeko and Hinako wore sailor outfits when attending school. They wore blue uniforms during winter, and white uniforms during the summer. Even before the Pacific War began, the Japanese people were only allowed to use a limited supply of electricity so the girls would place their pleated skirts under the futon (Japanese beds) which lay directly on top of the tatami mat floors so that their skirts would look freshly pressed for school. By this time kimonos were seen less and less frequently in public and were worn commonly only at home. The fashion was to wear a light yukata in the summer and an awasae, which had a lining, in the winter (photos from the centennial celebration of Hashirano Jinjo Shogakko, the elementary school in Hashirano, show that kimonos were replaced with the sailor outfits in Showa 5 [1930], male students exchanged kimonos for Western clothes three years earlier, but the adult males had done so sometime before).





Social Studies


Home Economics

Social Science






Self Improvemt.






Social Science

Study Period

Japanese History


Social Studies











Before Showa 23 (1948), Japanese children were required to complete six years of education. After completion of these six years the students could sit for an extremely competitive entrance exam to be admitted to a four year school program in Jogakko(middle school for girls). In their sixth year of school, they were given the option to take a test to begin Jogakko the following year or to return to the grade school for an extra year. School in Japan was rigorous. When Hinako sat for the week-long Jogakko entrance exam their were 2,000 girls sitting for 200 places at one of the two Jogakko schools in Iwakuni. The results were eventually posted on a school building wall. Each student was identified by a number only so that those who failed would not be embarrassed. Those who failed the entrance exam could apply to different, less rigorous schools. All during the years that the Yamamoto sisters lived in Japan they only had one month of summer vacation per year during which time they were expected to complete mountains of homework. They also had to attend school half-day on Saturdays. Before Showa 23 Japanese boys and girls were taught separately throughout the ten years of education. In Showa 23 co-ed instruction was introduced and twelve years of schooling was mandated which increased secondary education to six years. Hinako, who attended school in the U.S. after attending school in Japan believes that she developed excellent study habits while in Japan and argues that "if you look at the rigorous study schedules which were imposed on each and every student, a Japanese 10th grader's level of education far exceeded most 12th grader's in the U.S. We did pose questions during classes if we did not understand a particular lesson, but none of us ever argued with a teacher and we always obeyed their commands. If the students in the U.S. were half as polite and obedient, they would learn a lot more." She adds that her classes in Jogakko were typically large with about fifty students.

Hinako's years at Jogakko in Iwakuni were much happier than the ones she spent at Hashirano Shogakko. "Because I spent so many hours at school in Iwakuni, which was far from Hashirano, I no longer had to skip school to attend to village business. I couldn't have been happier. I met new people who were wonderful and quickly became my best friends. We all had passed the test and we all started on an equal footing. No one at the new school felt any jealousy towards me because of our family holdings or my name. This had been part of the problem during my years at Shogakko. Our house and our Uncle Akimoto's house were the only two homes with running water. Everyone else had to pump their water. As long as I can remember, this was a sore spot with some of my classmates in Hashirano. After attending Jogakko, I didn't have to carry my family burden with me and I belonged completely. It was a refreshing change! All my good memories are from those years I attended Jogakko."

Grandmother Yamamoto

The two sisters' education extended beyond the formal education of the classroom. Grandmother Yamamoto, Obaasan*, taught the girls traditional Japanese values based on haji, and respect. Haji can be translated as shame or disgrace. The girls were taught never to bring haji or shame to themselves or their family by misbehaving. There were certain rules of behavior governing such things as the way they talked and dressed that had to be learned. It did not matter if your kimono was an expensive one, for instance you had to look the best you could, "not like a beggar," by keeping it clean and neat. The kind of respect Obaasan taught the two girls was not simply reserved for teachers or titled people, but also for elders and men. Men, for example, were accorded the right to bathe first, to eat first, and the male head of a family always sat at a seat specially reserved for him nearest the tokonoma (an alcove where a flower arrangement and a hanging scroll were formally placed).

[*"Obaasan" is the Japanese form of "grandmother" used when speaking about someone else's grandmother. Typically when used within English text it is not capitalized, yet we chose to do so here because it refers throughout to one specific person, Grandmother Yamamoto.]

There were times when Obaasan's traditions and understanding of the world conflicted with her granddaughters who were raised in America before coming to Japan. She was born in a generation when it was common for married women to dye their teeth black. Though she had long since dropped this practice, it helps to illustrate the gulf separating her world from her granddaughters. Obaasan led a life that conformed to traditional Shinto beliefs of cleanliness and purity as well as Buddhist beliefs concerning killing. In an incident exemplifying this clash of cultures, she had become extremely angry when before the war, Coralee, Harry's eldest daughter, butchered chickens that she had raised after bringing the chicks in an incubator from America. Obaasan believed that killing and butchering were things that only the lowest class of people did. Because of this, the girls' diet consisted of a reduced variety of protein from what they had beend accustomed to though they ate soy bean products and fish whenever they could both during and after the war.

A source of conflict grew out of the fact that Obaasan's life centered on the practical knowledge essential for her generation of farmer's wives while her granddaughters were being educated in new ways with a matter-of-fact understanding of new technologies. Obaasan could not read and so it was common for her to mispronounce words associated with these new technologies. Denki (electricity), for example, became "renki" and denwa (telephone) became "renwa". When her granddaughters would try and correct her she would get upset and tell them, "No, this is the way I have pronounced it all my life and it is correct." Nor could she understand the true significance of her granddauthters' report cards when they were placed so proudly before her. New technologies would remain a mystery to Obaasan throughout her later years as when she walked outside and looked up at a telephone wire expecting to see something moving along it. Because she had a simple, practical education, Obaasan mistrusted the new medicine that doctors practiced and never visited one for treatment. The medicine that Obaasan had faith in was symbolized by two scarred indentations she had on her shoulders. She would have Hinako wad up a small amount of a weed of some sort and place it in the furrows on her grandmother's shoulders. These furrows were marked shiatsu pressure points where nerve endings were located. Then Hinako would light the wadded up weeds with a burning incense stick. She never complained when she applied this treatment to herself to alleviate the gnawing pain caused by her chronic arthritis.

Obaasan had a near reverent respect for snakes. Snakes ate the mice who otherwise did damage to house and field. Takeko and Hinako were afraid of snakes and yet Obaasan would not even permit them to say anything bad about the snakes which could be heard slithering along the attic floor. Sometimes one would be seen slithering in the house perhaps with a bulge in a portion of its body revealing the undigested mouse it had caught. Obaasan would gently kick the snakes out of her way, but Takeko and Hinako stayed away from them. Ironically, one of the few times that the sisters' limited protein diet was expanded involved snakes. Prompted by the difficulties encountered during the war, Uncle Taichi fileted a snake for the girls and served it telling them it was an eel. When after eating the snake he confessed that it was indeed a snake, Hinako promptly regurgitated the meal.

Obaasan was raised to believe that a woman's responsibilities included learning the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and to serve her husband so these things were passed on to her granddaughters. She spoke sparingly. So much so that whenever she did say something its meaning was always amplified in Hinako's mind. One day Obaasan met Hinako on the porch of their house after Hinako had just returned home from working in their fields and said, "I was watching you come down the hill and I was so proud of you!" Such simple comments and gestures held a world of meaning her granddaughter who understood her. When Hinako would wake up in the morning, she would see Obaasan holding her school uniform in front of the fireplace so that it would be warm when she put it on.

If hate is passed on and transformed from one person to another in a never ending cycle then certainly it must also be true that love has its own equal cycle. Sometimes it is difficult to articulate the love you have for someone or the respect and compassion that they draw forth from you, but your actions often speak more than anything. In this way it may be more useful to describe some of the attention that the young Hinako gave to her grandmother in such a loving and selfless way that may in some way reflect the love that she was attempting to return. Every night after her school work was finished, Hinako would spend two hours massaging Obaasan's arthritic knees. She also had the responsibility of relieving her grandmother's constipation with the aid of three chopsticks. In these days there were no practical ways to relieve constipation that the elderly suffered and it was the duty of the sons and daughters or grandchildren to manually assist mother nature. The embarrassment of both parties was extreme, yet it was also a simple necessity, and Obaasan's embarrassment was such that she asked Hinako never to tell her elder sister.

In keeping with Obaasan's understanding of a woman's place in society, her granddaughters were not expected to have a social life though they were permitted to join the seinendan, Community Youth Group, through which members volunteered as a group to clean, and maintain Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. They also helped families whose husbands, brothers and sons were off fighting the war by assisting in harvesting crops and other labor-intensive activities. A woman's true place was at home and so she was expected to pursue the art of flower arrangement and the tea ceremony. Takeko, the older of the two girls, had to meet boys for "dates" in another town so that her grandmother would not learn of such meetings. The five year age gap between Takeko and her sister often meant that they led different lives. Since Takeko learned and had to deal with matters first, she may have had a more difficult time in coping with the cultural, generational, and technological gaps that existed between her grandmother and the two sisters and her maturity also provided her with the opportunity to escape from this conflict. Hinako, on the other hand, had the advantage of being young, having more time to reflect on the situation, and less mobility than her sister due to her age. As a result of these differences that were intertwined with so many factors, they often led two completely different lives.

In spite of the restrictions placed on Takeko during the vital teenage years, she was popular and led social life that may have helped her remember these years with more happiness, even in the difficulties, than her young sister could summon.

Imperial Japan

There was another force which had an important influence on the girls' lives during the war years. The militarists who had taken over the government ushered in an authoritarianism that reached down to the grade school level. Much as if they themselves were in the military, students had to stand in rigid attention whenever they asked a question about a lesson or to be excused to go to the restroom. Twice annually, there were school assemblies to honor the Showa Emperor (Hirohito): Tencho, the emperor's birthday which fell on April 29th, and Kigen, the day used to commemorate the foundation of the Empire which fell on February 11th. The students assembled before the school principal on these sacred days and bowed as he raised an altar that housed a portrait of the Emperor behind its closed doors. The altar doors were slowly opened with a creaking sound made louder by the silence, so that the Emperor could symbolically look out over his subjects. Everyone remained bowed throughout, that is save one, Hinako. Her curiosity got the best of her and she had to steal a peek at the Emperor's picture which she did. She remembers that he wore a sash that was draped across his chest and he held a sword in one hand. Takeko, like most of the other students, never saw the photo in those days.

"I just wanted to see what 'God' looked like," recalls Hinako. "Before the war, it was drilled into our heads that our Emperor was God himself. I will bet that others also looked, but they would never admit to it. Anybody caught looking would have been severely punished."


The bombs that were dropped by the American planes during the war were often incendiary bombs that proved fatal to the traditional wooden homes when they hit them directly. One of these bombs landed in the street near Uncle Taichi's home in neighboring Marifu. Fortunately only debris from the explosion hit his house though this still destroyed part of roof and a portion of the main structure, but no one was hurt.

Not surprisingly, the heaviest brunt of the war was felt by the two increasingly larger municipalities in the region, Iwakuni and Hiroshima. Near the end of the war the air defense of this part of Japan was completely gone and American fighter planes flew low to the ground. There were oil tanks in Iwakuni that were targeted by these low flying American planes and a Shogakko was located in their path. On several occasions newspaper accounts would tell of grade school students who were injured or killed as they tried to run for the cover of the forest in the hills near their school after the air-raid siren went off.

While she was attending school in Iwakuni, Hinako she saw American B-29s fly overhead. The students were instructed to run for cover in the trees of the mountains. Hinako, who was standing out in a clearing, saw one fly close enough to the ground that she could make out the "USAF". She stood there and thought to herself, "please take me home!" One of the teachers ran up to her and pushed her against a wall for her own safety while reprimanding her for daydreaming.

Another time the girls heard an American pilot had been shot down nearby. The pilot bailed out of the plane avoiding instant death but a crowd of angry villagers beat him severely. When Takeko heard the story she wondered if it was someone she knew or even a relative, but had to keep her thoughts to herself. Such were the complexities of war and the predicament fate had placed the sisters in.

Uncle Taichi was a retired naval officer and wasn't called into active duty during the war. Most of the girls' classmates' fathers were similarly too old to be called into service. Another uncle, Urata Tetsuo, who became an Akimoto also served in the war. Tetsuo was their mother's youngest brother. Their mother's oldest sister had married Akimoto, who became sonchoo of Hashirano. Akimoto never had a son and so when Tetsuo married his daughter, he adopted the Akimoto name through the tradition of yooshi. Small Imperial Rising Sun flags were once distributed to Hinako's class and they were instructed to write on them, using a fude (calligraphy brush in this era before the ball point pen was introduced in Japan), a brief message to someone in their family or whom they otherwise knew was fighting in the war. Hinako, reflecting more of the fact that she was impressionable rather than her true sentiments, wrote "Death is Honorable." She never did learn about Tetsuo's war experiences because it wasn't considered polite to ask, even after the war, and such stories weren't shared with teenagers or children in any event.

Inspite of the secrets of the war, the fate of some was made clear. Grandmother Yamamoto rented out a couple of rooms to a sensei (teacher) who happened to be a fervent nationalist during the war. After he enlisted in the army, he was seen off at the train station by the two girls and their grandmother. He held a shiny sword in his hand and saluted the three women as he left for Manchuria never to return again. And then there was a neighbor of the Yamamotos. There were two girls in this household that were about the same age of the Yamamoto girls and they had a brother who served in the war in the South Pacific. He never returned and later it was learned that he had died of starvation.

To protect themselves from the bombing, Obaasan organized the two girls to dig a large hole in their backyard which they covered with wood and then placed straw, dirt and weeds on top to conceal it from up above. "We used this hole when there was an enemy plane in the vicinity to protect ourselves from direct gunning." They would rush to the hole at all hours of the night, and since Obaasan's knees were nearly crippled from arthritis, sometimes they had to carry her: "I can still see grandma with tears running down her face when we had to take her with us into the dug out." The hole was not large enough to be very comfortable for the three women when they tried to huddle in the hole, but it provided some sense of security.

The monsoon of Showa 20 must have been comparable in Grandmother Yamamoto's mind with only one other natural disaster, a volcanic eruption in Kyushu during the latter part of the nineteenth century when ashes fell on Hashirano for days. The downpour of the monsoon rains was such that the villagers expected a flood and the Yamamotos started raising some of the household items several feet off the ground as a precaution. When the flood came, it was more devastating than anyone had expected. The torrent coming down from the mountains broke the village levee changing the river's course. Obaasan was sick when the flood hit and so Hinako carried her grandmother on her back as she ascended the stairs. The water was rushing into the house at such a speed that it seemed to be a race between Hinako and the water to see who would reach the second floor first. Hinako and Grandmother Yamamoto beat the water, but it had reached within inches of where Hinako and her grandmother had made it to safety. Others lost their homes and even their lives. The village elders called for each household to help look for bodies. Hinako went out for two days in search of the bodies by herself and Takeko, who was now a teacher, went to make sure her school and students were okay. On the third day they teamed up in their search that took them to neighboring communities down the river:

"By the third day, the bodies we found were maggot infested, bloated and unrecognizable," recounts Hinako today. "I had nightmares for days after that search operation. We had even less food after the flood, but I couldn't even eat what little we had. My stomach turned to jello at the thought of eating. My skinny body became even worse and my arms and legs looked like chopsticks...not a very pretty sight. Then came the clean up operation. I was unable to attend school [in Iwakuni] because the railroad bridge had been torn down by the rushing water and debris causing the one and only train to stop running for a time. We had three feet of stinking mud in our house which needed to be carted away by hand. I drilled a hold on one side of a flat piece of wood and tied a rope on to it. Then, I piled the board high with muddy dirt and pulled it out of the house. By the time all of us [from the neighboring houses] dumped all the dirt and mud into the main street, portions of the street reached up to the second story of our building. Eventually many convicts were put to work removing all the dirt into what used to be the old river [from where it had changed course], creating new fields for those who lost their own when the river changed course. My 'big shot' Uncle Akimoto who lost more land than others was also the biggest recipient of this new land."

This natural disaster seems to have foreshadowed a far greater disaster that was coming.

Just before the atomic bomb was dropped, Hinako saw dozens of planes flying very low in the sky filled with silver strips (radar blockers) and millions of leaflets drifting down to the ground. The school children were taught that if such a thing occurred, the class president and vice president were to gather up the leaflets and hand them over to their homeroom teacher. "We were forbidden to read any of them. However, again I was curious and read everything. The leaflets said that if we did not surrender, something terrible would befall our country. They did not specify what exactly was going to happen."

As the war raged on and the prospect of Japanese victory seemed more and more desperate, school children were enlisted into the war effort. Some thousand students were enlisted to help grade a new airfield that had been built over mulberry fields (mulberry leaves are fed to silkworms and these fields were expendable whereas the rice fields were considered too valuable throughout the war to sacrifice even for an airfield). The students marched about stomping the ground to level it while singing war songs for rhythm, with little concern for the meaning that lay behind the words. The war ended before the airfield was ever finished.

Takeko worked in a factory welding oxygen tanks in her last year of Jogakko along with 1500 other classmates. "Putting all my thoughts behind me as an American citizen, I worked hard just to prove to the other students that I too was a good student. I had pride in what I did (I was president of my class of 150 students). I had no choice but to do the best work... My thoughts were of only one thing and that was to return to the United States where I belonged with my family. I worked extra hard so I could meet that goal one day. I can say, one good thing came out of all this work at the factory was that I did learn how to weld quite efficiently."

Hinako's school was turned into a factory for grinding lenses. Her job was not to work on these lenses, but to go into the mountains where she would cut open a pine tree and set a can at its base to collect pine tar. Later the pine tar was refined into airplane fuel, however it was never an adequate replacement for petrol. Whenever Hinako would hear a Japanese war plane fly over head and the engine seemed to make an unusual, sputtering noise, she would say to herself, "Uh oh, he's using your pine tar Hinako!" On August 6, Showa 20 (1945), she was walking through a valley meadow on her way to collect pine tar from the trees in the mountains, when in the broad daylight there was a bright flash "one thousand times brighter than any lightning flash." She was frightened, but it went away just as fast as it had come so she continued to walk on her way when a loud thunder, that matched the lightning flash of earlier in intensity shook the earth beneath her. She jumped into an irrigation ditch as fast as she could fearing that the world was ending. From the valley ditch she saw a black cloud appear over the other side of a nearby mountain. After awhile the top of the cloud turned white. Hinako ran home and everything looked fine except for some tiles which had fallen from the roofs of houses here and there. Of course she later learned that the cloud was much further than she had initially surmised.

Beginning in Showa 19 (1944) Takeko had started teaching in a town called Mishyo Mura east of Iwakuni. She taught third grade children for two years and fifth grade children for one year. Fortunately the war was not formally propagandized in the classroom so Takeko was never put in a position of talking about the war to her pupils. One morning she was in the school auditorium where the teachers and student body were assembled to listen to the principal when a bright flash of light filled the room. Nobody knew what it was but it was daylight outside and it was a sunny day so it couldn't have been lightning. A few minutes passed and so the principal began to speak again. Suddenly a loud thunder sounded and the windows of the auditorium shattered. Everyone scrambled to get under what chairs there were in the auditorium since most of the students had simply sat on the floor. Suddenly sirens signaling that the enemy was attacking sounded and the teachers began to assemble their students to take them to class-assigned dugouts. Everything was quiet except for the sirens as Takeko lead her thirty-seven students to the dugout. After the sirens stopped they began to cross a field that separated them from the school building and everyone noticed an enormous cloud in the direction of Hiroshima but no one knew what it was. [Iwakuni is approximately 18 miles from Hiroshima. Hashirano is another 2-4 miles or so from Iwakuni-Shi. Mishyo Elementary School is about the same distance south east of Hashirano.]

On the third day after the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Takeko learned that a request for volunteers had gone out for assistance to help in that city. Takeko and another teacher volunteered to go. They took a train in the direction of Hiroshima, but the train would go no further than Hatsukaichi, which was three station stops prior to Hiroshima. It was a very hot day and they continued on by walking until they reached the outskirts of Hiroshima where they saw scorched trees. They decided to turn back however when they were overcome by the terrible putrid smell that filled the air and the sight of dead bodies floating in a river. After the war, a blister raised on Takeko's lower leg for no apparent reason, when it healed an unusual scar was left behind. She attributes this scar to her experience because there was no other logical explanation for it.

When the emperor spoke to the Japanese people over the radio to announce the surrender, it was the first time they had heard him speak. Although his announcement was in a dialect reserved for the Imperial Court, the Japanese people could still understand his message. Takeko and Hinako never blamed the emperor for the war. They reasoned that the only time he spoke to the people was to surrender, and that all the other war pronouncements were made by others, the military. Looking back now, they say "He was just a figurehead."

Even after the war, the food shortages that afflicted Japanese families did not disappear for some time. During the American Occupation, Douglas MacArthur promulgated the "Land-Lease Law", a landholding reform law, Grandmother Yamamoto was no longer allowed to lease her land. As a result, Takeko, Hinako and their paternal Uncle-in-law, Uncle Nishikawa, tried their best to plant and harvest rice on one of their fields for their own consumption. Their inexperience proved to be an enormous burden to overcome (Uncle Nishikawa had lived in the city and knew nothing of farming) and the yield from the harvest was dismal.

Hinako would trade matsutake, pine mushrooms, which she had gathered from the land her grandmother owned on the mountains surrounding Hashirano village for rice grown by her classmate's family. Her friend lived in a rented house during the week when she attended school, but Hinako ould have to travel over seven miles and up the side of a mountain to this friend's house during the weekend to consummate these transactions.

Yamaguchi Ken-ritsu
Iwakuni Dainichi Kooto Jogakko

Due to shortages during and after the war, students were not able to obtain the cloth for their serge skirts so they gradually began to use material from kimonos to make pants. This became practiced throughout the country and is noticeable in the unusual patterns of pants in this picture. Pictures in the centennial anniversary of the Hashirano Shogakko show that the girls began wearing these pants around Showa 16 (1941) and the serge skirts only begin to return in Showa 23 or 24 (1948-49).

After the sisters had survived the war impediments to their hoped for return to their home of America continued to arise, not the least of which was serious concerns of mortality. While still a teacher, Takeko fell ill with pneumonia. In their concern for their teacher, her students came and visited her. Her illness was so severe that her friends prepared for her death by weaving her a straw futon as was the custom of the time. In the fever of her illness she revealed secrets to her younger sister that her conscious reserve would have otherwise kept secret, but Hinako was still surprised when a male teacher that Takeko visited and in explaining his concern for her welfare added that he wanted to bring issho-sake. Issho-sake was always exchanged at the time of marriage engagements so his meaning was clearly understood. Hinako feared that this would mean she would not be able to return to America with her sister so she tried to convince her sister's suitor that such a thing was impossible. When her efforts seemed in need of support she asked another teacher who was renting a room at their house during this time to explain their situation to the man. In the end she was successful.

Marriage, in fact, had twice threatened the sisters' return to America. Obaasan believed that it was right for girls to be married at a certain age. In preparation for that time she had negotiated with Takeko's maternal aunt, (Urata) Akimoto, to have Takeko marry her maternal cousin whom she had met in seinendan (the Community Youth Group). Aunt Akimoto believed strongly in maintaining the purity of the blood through intermarriage and consolidation of wealth that the Urata, Akimoto, and Yamamoto families possessed and such a marriage would support this goal. Issho-sake were exchanged by the two families and Takeko was engaged. Her fiancé went off to fight in the war and in retrospect it can be said that he miraculously returned.

In Showa 22 (1947), Takeko began working as an interpreter for the British administered Iwakuni Liaison Office that was set up at a former Japanese military air base in Iwakuni. She was earning more (her salary was ¥800 a month!) than she had been as a teacher and had hope that this position would aid her and her sister in getting back to the U.S. Takeko paid for Hinako's Jogakko education and the bulk of the household expenses which were also met in part by the money earned from renting out a room in their house. The British soldiers helped Takeko as they could and she eventually received a postcard from her family in America with a photo on the obverse side. Takeko sent three or four replies to her family which were eventually forwarded by the American Red Cross, but it took months before her letters were finally acknowledged. Grandmother Yamamoto was upset by Takeko's efforts to return to the U.S. with her sister, but Takeko was determined and finally earned the support of her Uncle Taichi who had initially sided with her grandmother. Takeko went on several trips to distant Yokohama and Osaka to make travel arrangements to get new passports for herself and her sister so they could go home (Takeko and Hinako's birth certificates were lost at the beginning of the war along with all the other documents, papers, and books that had English words on them, and their passports were virtually destroyed in the flood). When in Osaka, Takeko would visit her elder sister, Lily's brother-in-law who was stationed there as a member of the U.S. military occupation forces. Aunt Akimoto and Obaasan suspected some sort of impropriety because they didn't believe that he was married, though he was, and the marriage between Takeko and her cousin was called off.

Return to America

In writing the following about their farewell to Grandmother Yamamoto, their friends, and to Japan some fifty years before, Leila's (Hinako's) emotions overflowed and she began to cry:

"My school principal and homeroom teacher did something unheard of in Japan at the time. They gave my entire class permission to give a farewell luncheon, with food cooked by my classmates, in my honor a week before I left school and Japan for America. And then my classmates got a half day off from school just to see me off at the train station. Some fifty classmates and several teachers came to the station to wish me farewell. As the train pulled out, my grandmother tried to run along with the train with her crippled knees. As her figure got smaller and smaller my sister Mary and I broke down and cried so hard that a total stranger put her hands on my shoulder and comforted me. We must have cried for an hour or two before we could compose ourselves."

Yamamoto Mika (Obasaan in the story) died on July 15, 1952.

It was only after returning to America that Mary (Takeko) and Leila (Hinako) learned what had happened to their family. In March, 1942, Harry Yamamoto was told to report with his family to an assembly center by the War Relocation Authority. They were given the option of relocating somewhere beyond the coast (of California, Oregon, and Washington) or be sent to camps set up by the government. Since Harry had lived in Nebraska for several years, he decided to move the family there once again. They lost everything they had including a gardening business they had set-up upon their return from Japan. Coralee, Mary and Leila's eldest sister, married George Fukasawa on March 31, 1942 and they reluctantly chose to be sent to a relocation camp to wait out the hysteria that had by then even possessed the nation. They were sent to Manzanar.

The Yamamoto saga of difficulty probably started sometime before Yamamoto Shigeichi first left Japan, but Mary and Leila's experience are unique by any standards. They haven't been hardened by their experience, but they have been strengthened. Leila says that she no longer understands Japanese fluently like she once did. That it was a horrible period in her life and she just wanted to forget about it when she returned to the U.S.

Leila's readjustment to American society was extremely difficult for her. After spending some of her most formative years in Japan (from the time that she was six years old until just before she turned seventeen), America's customs and language were completely foreign to her. She could not even communicate with her younger sister or her nephews. After having been at the top of her class throughout her academic career she was devastated by her "ignorance" in the home she had returned to. Her friends from Japan wrote frequently to her making it even more difficult to break from her past which she believed was necessary to hasten her adjustment to this new life. She was to graduate from 10th grade the year that she left and now her elder sister, Lily, was forced to enroll her into the 6th grade. Her younger sister, Irene, was already attending the 7th grade and she was four years younger than Leila. Recalling this trying time she remarks:

"Fortunately I was short and looked their age so I didn't standout too badly. Once I made up my mind to learn English and all that goes with it, I had no time to look back and lament. Before long I determinedly packed my suitcase and headed for Denver [from Wyoming]. Mary was already there and had arranged a place for me to work as a 'school girl.' A 'school girl' was a young woman who worked as a maid in exchange for room and board while she attended school. My first job paid a mere $15 per month. After school I had to care for three young children, clean and cook. This was the only way for those without money to get an education in those days. My determination paid off though because I was able to complete Junior and Senior High School equivalency courses in two years before I set out for college with a scholarship in hand from the University of Denver. "

When asked where her father was during all this time, Leila comments that he was "happy-go-lucky" in an offhanded way that suggests she has come to terms with this long ago. Then she adds, "you know, I can only remember him sending us one postcard the entire time we were in Japan."

In this letter [omitted from "printer-friendly" version] to Leila (Hinako), her former sensei makes a request that she try and assist him in the purchase of streptomycin to aid him in the cure for the tuberculosis he had contracted. There was no relief from economic hardship in Japan for the several years following the war, and it was natural to think that a friend in America, where the streets were practically "paved with gold," might be able to help him out. He had no concept of the difficulties that Leila herself was confronting. Osamu died from tuberculosis.

Something of the trials that these two girls, now mature grandmothers, experienced as a result of the war years have helped them persevere through other difficult times in their lives.

"I not only treasure [my experience in Japan], but those difficult years made me what I am today. I can't help but count my blessings with thankfulness. No matter how rough and deep the waters may seem, I have gained the knowledge and confidence in rowing to the calm shores by true experience.

"My experience in Japan gave me the strength to survive! I am happy and consider myself very fortunate now. I have a loving and most understanding husband of 37 years. (I was left a widow with two small boys when my first husband died of cancer in 1955). I have two wonderful children (I lost my eldest son 11 years ago in an unfortunate hospital accident), and four beautiful grandchildren which I dearly love to spoil. Although I retired from work after 29 years with the Federal Government, at the moment [70 years old], I am working with the seniors at the Brighton Senior Center. It gives me great comfort to be able to give some compassion and love to others which Leila and I missed so much for such a long time."

-Mary (Takeko) Yamamoto, January 17, 1997

"For about five years after my return from Japan, I was too busy to sleep more than four hours a night. Due to my hectic schedule I was not able to write to my friends in Japan. I barely had enough time to attend to my English studies. I never did believe in doing things half way. Something had to give and it turned out that it had to be Japanese which took back seat to my English. I can still read and write Japanese, but not to the extent of my ability when I first returned home. Since it has become "half way," I tell others that I forgot everything.

"Despite the horrendous experiences of growing up in Japan during those difficult times which were my most impressionable years, I know that the building blocks of my life were laid years ago in the small village called Hashirano. It was only years later that I realized what a tremendous effect those years Mary and I spent in Japan had on my life. I believe I am a stronger person because of the experiences of that time and that I am more tolerant and understanding of others. I have faced many, many hardships since my school years, but faced them head-on and survived. Now I am at a point in my life where very few things bother me. In other words - I am a happy person."

-Leila (Hinako) Yamamoto Myers, February 5, 1997

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