by Nanako V. Mizushima
This is the first of several short stories loosely based on anecdotes I heard about my Japanese-American relatives who lived in California from the 1920’s. Robert, an American citizen by birth left America as a teenager and lived in Japan during WWII, while his sister Grace was taken to an American internment camp for enemy aliens during the same period. I have changed certain identifying details to protect the privacy of their families in Japan, but the tragic deaths of Robert’s and Grace’s parents, many details of their war experience, Robert’s request at the American Occupation headquarters, and his work as a bilingual pathologist in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are all true.
Robert and the Bomb
Spring 1946 Tokyo
Robert, walked hours through the crowded streets to reach the American Occupation Offices, “GHQ” as the Japanese called it, to make things right. Although he was taller and more broad shouldered than most Japanese, he felt incredibly slow as he sidestepped the beggars, the scrawny street dogs, and the black market vendors haggling with customers along the edge of the cleared roads where military jeeps churned up clouds of dust like galloping horses. Finally, Robert saw the Imperial Palace and the huge Dai-Ichi Seimei building which serenely faced each other across the moat like two lovers unperturbed by the surrounding commotion. On the side of the Dai-Ichi Seimei, long lines of thin men and women clutching papers and red passports crowded the sidewalk. A swarthy man with oiled hair and an ill-fitting suit sidled up to the waiting people and whispered, “Tada hyaku yen zo! Only a hundred yen! A hundred yen for postcards from American relatives.” Robert could see that the postcards were scrawled with nonsense–English words hand copied from some Occupation flyer. As he worked his way through the crowd to the door guarded by two formidable caucasian MPs dressed in neatly pressed khaki uniforms, people shouted at him, “Ushiro e ike! Go back to the end of the line!” Each time he squeezed between the waiting people, Robert bowed his head like a bobbing bird and said, “Sumimasen. Sumimasen. Please forgive me. I am here on other business.”
Unlike everyone else in line, Robert had a treasure which would have caused a riot amongst the waiting people if they knew—an American passport. Despite its age, the passport looked new. It had only been used once, when Robert left Sacramento as a gangly fifteen-year-old to come live with his uncle in Japan, the only person who offered to take him in after Momma and Papa were killed by a drunk truck driver on the Hayward–Dublin highway the day after Thanksgiving Day 1934, more than ten long years ago.
He would never forget his last image of his parents. Even though he was only thirteen years old on the day of the accident, he identified Momma and Papa’s bodies in the morgue. As a medical doctor, Papa would have expected his only son to do this. Robert held his breath steady as he recognized Papa’s fine hands and the thick black hair which crowned what remained of his crushed head. Momma’s face was fortunately spared, but her waxen, white skin made her strange, as if she were made of marble. Robert insisted that the funeral be closed casket so that his sister, Grace, could hold onto her last memories of that happy day with Momma and Papa, on the way home from shopping for Christmas presents in San Francisco. The drunk truck driver had bounced off a bus, crossed the median, plowed into the front of the sedan, crushed Momma and Papa, and impaled Grace who was in the back seat. Robert, who had stayed in Sacramento that day with his junior high school buddies, was abruptly thrust out of childhood when the police came looking for him. After the visit to the morgue, he stayed by Grace’s bedside for the next three days. When she woke from her coma, Robert told her their parents were dead. Fortunately, Grace recovered but would never be able to have children. Over the next year she valiantly tried to recover funds from the drunk driver’s employer to pay her medical bills, and support herself and her younger brother but the family savings and the proceeds from sale of their home dwindled as quickly as the sand in an hourglass.
Unlike Robert who was born in Sacramento, a Nisei American citizen, Grace was brought to America as a toddler and faced deportation when she and Robert were orphaned. It didn’t matter that she was a twenty-year-old girl who only knew America and didn’t remember Japan. At Hawthorne High School, Grace thrived academically as well as socially. She was popular among the whites as well as the Asian students who made up about a third of the student body. Most of the other Asians at Hawthorne were Nisei—second generation Japanese immigrants—American citizens who dreamed of taking over their prosperous family farms or of going to college and becoming teachers, doctors, and engineers. Up until the car accident, Doctor Ishii and his family were living the American Dream—their own solid brick home, a car, a successful medical practice, and two popular teenaged children enrolled in the best schools. But a drunk driver had changed all that. Grace had no choice, if she wanted to stay in America, but to marry a thirty-two-year old Nisei man, a stranger who offered to share his American citizenship. But Robert didn’t try to stop his sister. He desperately wanted to stay with Grace, the only family member he had left, but knew there was nothing he could do except to not be a burden to her.
The day Robert left America, Grace said, “Come back home as soon as you can, Robbie. You’re the only family I’ve got now.” The plan was for him to return to America as soon as he could find a job. But he never made it back.
Grace wrote to him every week, always signing her letters, “Miss you like crazy, baby brother! Your loving big sister, Grace.” But Robert didn’t think of her as his big sister because he overtook her height when he was twelve and she was sixteen. To him, Grace was as delicate and beautiful as a nymph. And as loyal as a best friend. She had always defended him against Papa, who expected his only son to follow him into medicine. “You’re too hard on Robbie, Papa! In this country, grades aren’t the only thing that matters. Nisei boys have got to be more likable. More friendly.” And Papa would back down. Even the Japanese doctor couldn’t argue with his daughter who was recognized at the Hawthorne High graduation ceremony as one of nineteen Honor Scholarship students out of a class of four hundred. Grace’s letters to Robert crossed the Pacific like migrating butterflies, bringing joy and comfort until Pearl Harbor abruptly cut off all mail service. Over four years ago.
Robert felt the smooth passport cover in his pocket. A few years after Robert left America and moved into Uncle’s home in Tokyo, he was shocked when Uncle went through his room, pulled out the precious letters from Grace, photos of his home, his Boy Scout troop, the basketball team, the Hawthorne High yearbook, and anything else that reeked American and burned them in the stove. Uncle warned him, “Nanimo iu na! Don’t speak!” when the Tokkō secret police came pounding on their door shouting, “Do you have any enemy propaganda?” They confiscated a couple of English magazines and music records but didn’t find Uncle’s English dictionaries, medical references and Robert’s passport.
As tensions mounted between Japan and America, Robert found himself hiding his American identity and trying to blend into Japanese society. As lazy as he was in the Saturday Japanese Language school in Sacramento, he was surprised at how quickly he picked up the language at Uncle’s house. He discovered he had a talent for memorizing the thousands of Kanji characters. Four years after he arrived at Uncle’s doorstep, Robert managed to graduate Japanese high school, and enter medical school. Not only would a career in medicine protect Robert from the military draft, he found himself motivated to master the Japanese medical curriculum for a greater purpose, the same profession that Papa hoped would provide for a prosperous future for his family in America.
Growing up the son of doctor, spending so much time in the hospital by Grace’s side, then living with Uncle who was also a doctor, Robert quickly mastered the principles of medicine. It also didn’t hurt that he remembered the German he picked up from watching Grace study. A lot of the Japanese medical books were in German. But most of all, Robert fell in love with the microscope. Hours peering into the world of cells, tissue, and disease almost made him forget that he hadn’t heard from Grace year after year. He loved to decipher and recognize the different microscopic footprints of living creatures, creatures which had no nationality or identity. His battle against the ailments that plagued all humans distracted him from the war which separated him from his sister. At least until now.
When Robert finally got to within speaking distance of the American MPs guarding the doors of GHQ, he said in fluent English, “Excuse me, Sir. I’m an American.” The MPs startled at the sound of an American voice coming from the Japanese faces before them but didn’t notice Robert until he waved his hand. The crowd grew quiet. Even the postcard peddler stopped to stare. Robert hated these moments when everyone gaped with disbelief. He cleared his throat and said again more clearly, “Excuse me. I need to see someone about a private matter. I’ve got my passport”.
He handed his passport and his handwritten resume to the taller MP who scrutinized the documents, looked at Robert, and then back to the passport, his expression changing from that of disdain to surprise to respect. “Doctor Ishii? Right this way.” The tall MP strode into the crowd as if he were wading into a black ocean and led Robert through. The postcard peddler shouted, “Anta dare? Who are you?” as Robert went into the building. But he knew that what the peddler really meant was–What are you?
The MP whispered to a middle aged white woman who looked like a schoolmarm, and handed her the passport and resume. The woman looked at Robert with curiosity, led him through a maze of corridors and asked him to sit in one of the chairs against the wall while she slipped into an office. Robert could feel the eyes of every American soldier walking by bore into him. What’s this Japanese doing in here?
The schoolmarm secretary finally emerged, completely transformed by her toothy smile and said, “Dr. Ishii, the Colonel will see you now.”
Right away, Robert recognized the Colonel, tall and broad shouldered. He was one of the Americans he saw in Hiroshima. Not surprisingly, the Colonel didn’t recognize Robert. Why would he? To him, Robert just looked like another Japanese civilian, an enemy civilian. The Colonel’s crisp khaki uniform made Robert feel self conscious of his own shabby suit with its shiny shoulders and frayed cuffs. The American smiled broadly and stuck out a big hand. “Good to meet you, Doctor. I apologize for the crowd out there. Seems everyone’s trying to get out of town.”
Robert tried to smile as he felt the American’s firm grip and said, “Thanks for meeting me, Colonel.”
The Colonel called out to the secretary who was still peering with curiosity into the office, “After you get a hold of Ben, can you bring us some coffee, Mary? And some of those butterscotch cookies.” The secretary with Robert’s passport and paper in one hand, nodded and closed the door. Robert’s mouth watered at the thought of the refreshments.
The Colonel motioned for Robert to take the chair in front of the big wooden desk, while he half-sat on the front edge and offered Robert a cigarette. Lucky Strike, Robert noted as he accepted and leaned in to the Colonel’s metal lighter. He took a deep breathe.
Robert said, “Thanks, I haven’t had one of these for years.” Suddenly, he felt unsure. The Lucky Strike tasted so good. He couldn’t help liking this man who could have easily been one of Grace’s classmates at Hawthorne High.
The Colonel said, “Sorry to make you wait, Doctor. I’ve asked one of my colleagues to join us.”
The silence began to grow heavy as they smoked and waited. Then he suddenly said, “Doctor, I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’ve come here as an American volunteer. We could sure use your help as we rebuild this mess.” He waved his cigarette towards the window which framed the dismal view of the buildings which had crumbled under the onslaught of the B-29s.
Robert shifted uncomfortably. “Actually, I’m not here to volunteer, Colonel.”
A knock on the door and a smiling Nisei soldier, Robert guessed about the same age as himself, came in holding Robert’s passport, followed by Mary with a tray–three steaming cups of coffee, sugar and cream. Robert’s senses were overwhelmed. The smell of coffee suddenly brought back memories of the Mom’s Diner where he and his friends used to grab a bite before basketball practice. Coffee, hamburgers and floats. When Robert started to stand to greet the Nisei soldier, the Colonel put his hand on Robert’s shoulder and said, “Why don’t we have some coffee first.”
Grateful, Robert reminded himself not to eat too quickly. Not only would his shrunken stomach object, but he didn’t want to too look too eager. He made himself take small bites of the crumbly biscuits. He discreetly swished the coffee through his teeth, savored the sweet milkiness as he watched the Japanese-American soldier from the corner of his eye. He looked vaguely familiar with his chunky build and curly black hair, like he might have been one of his classmates in junior high school. Or had he been away from the States so long that any Nisei seemed familiar? The soldier put Robert’s passport on the desk, pulled up another chair alongside Robert’s, then started chatting amiably with the Colonel. “So what do you think about that Jackie Robinson?”
The Colonel said, “Heard from friends back home that he’s got quite a temper but might be a great ball player.”
The soldier said, “Better get used to hearing more of him.”
They also sipped their coffees, continued chatting and pretended not to watch Robert eat. The Nisei’s arrogance irritated Robert. He was obviously making it clear where his allegiance lay. With the Occupiers.
When Robert finished nibbling on two biscuits, the Nisei turned around and introduced himself. “Doctor, I’m Ben Nagata, MIS linguist. Call me Ben.”
Robert said, “What’s MIS?”
“Sorry, I assume everyone knows the acronyms,” said Ben. “It’s Military Intelligence.”
The hairs of the back of Robert’s neck rose. He had had his fill of dealing with the accusations and threats from the Tokkō secret police over the last years. Now the Americans.
Ben spoke. “Look. I’m going to be frank here. I know what’s going through your head. I know what it feels like. To be in your situation.” Ben looked at Robert with a solemn face, “I had to have bodyguards to protect me from getting shot by my own side.”
Robert was taken aback by Ben’s admission of weakness. The Tokkō officers would never say such things. But there was no way this Nisei soldier could understand what he had gone through during the war, no way. All the years of hiding his American identity, worrying about Grace, studying medicine as if his life depended on it, swallowing his pride. The loneliness.
The Colonel had sat down behind the desk and watched Ben and Robert, fascinated with their unfamiliar stories but asked no questions. He remained silent and let Ben do his work.
Ben said, “The war’s over. We’re not interested in testing your loyalty. You came here and that’s good enough for us.”
No. The war wasn’t over. At least for me, thought Robert.
Ben said, “Look, Doc. I’d like to hear your story, how you survived the war, but we’ve got an urgent problem, something you, as a fellow American, and especially as a Nisei medical doctor, can help us with.”
Robert looked at Ben, then at the Colonel. Both men were expectant, hoping Robert would bend under the weight of their combined kindness. The mighty warriors, the victors asked him, a powerless civilian, for help. Robert said, “I can’t help you, that is, until you do something for me.”
Ben and the Colonel were surprised. The Colonel spoke. “Doctor, you need to understand the urgency of our situation before you start making demands.”
Robert said, “I saw you. Out there in Hiroshima.”
The Colonel and Ben both fell silent.
Robert said, “I was there treating the injured when you and your group came.”
Robert saw the memory of the horror they saw that day sweep across their faces. Ben spoke, almost in a whisper. “I had no idea we were going to do something like that.” His voice trailed off as he looked down at his feet.
The Colonel coughed uncomfortably and said, “Let’s not get all emotional here. It happened. And who knows, the bomb might have helped end this damn war.”
Robert thought, we’ve all gone crazy. They’re crazy for killing thousands of innocent people. I’m crazy for thinking I can forgive myself. The whole world has gone crazy.
The Colonel continued, “Look. Nobody felt good about Hiroshima. Maybe someday we’ll find out why the President did that, but until then, we Americans have got to stick together and do our job.”
Robert looked at the Colonel’s blue eyes and said, “Exactly. That’s why I’m here. I don’t want to be an American anymore.”
Ben and the Colonel were taken aback and looked at each other. The Colonel stood and walked around to the front of his desk again. He leaned against his desk and said, “Doctor, you’re not thinking straight. You should be glad you’re an American, just like Ben here.”
At the sound of his name, Ben glared at the Colonel. “No disrespect, sir, but you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
The Colonel stopped, raised his hands in defeat, walked back to his chair and motioned for Ben to take over. Robert looked at Ben’s glossy, well-fed face. There was no mistaking him for the locals who were all gaunt and exhausted with hunger.
Ben said in accented Japanese, “Sensei, please excuse my foolish boss. Sometimes he is an idiot.“
Robert laughed. Ben was all right. Unlike most of the Nisei he knew back in Sacramento, this guy could speak Japanese. Not perfect Japanese, but fluent. The Colonel rolled his eyes. They must have gone through this routine before.
Ben continued in Japanese, “Sensei, you must have endured great hardship during the war. Wasn’t it difficult to become a doctor?“
Robert noted Ben’s use of the term Sensei, a term of respect for anyone who had endured hardship, obtained more knowledge. “Not as difficult as you imagine, Ben-san. My father and uncle were both medical doctors. Graduates of Japanese medical schools. Father immigrated to America to treat the farm workers in Sacramento.” Robert didn’t mention Grace. “Ben-san, where did you learn your Japanese? It’s very good.“
Ben said, “Sensei, I’m sure my Japanese is much more clumsy than yours is. My parents sent me to stay with Japanese relatives in Nagoya when I was ten, then I returned to America in 1936. Perhaps about the same time you came to Japan. I learned just enough Japanese to make the Americans think I’m a Japan expert.“
The two men laughed as they glanced at the Colonel who was smoking a cigarette as he examined Robert’s passport.
Ben said, “But if you don’t mind, let’s speak English. We can be direct with each other and not make my boss paranoid thinking we’re spreading gossip about him.“
Robert immediately knew what Ben was talking about. That crisp directness English embodied. No need to worry about Keigo polite language, hierarchy and inadvertently insulting someone. English was so easy.
Ben spoke up in English, “Let’s set aside the discussion about Doctor Ishii renouncing his citizenship for now.” He looked at the Colonel. “And any talk of we Americans sticking together.”
The Colonel put his cigarette out, stood up again and came forward to lean against his usual roost. He cleared his throat and said, “I apologize, Doctor Ishii, if I offended you. Ben here has tried to educate me on the untenable position our government has forced on our Japanese-American citizens.” He looked at Ben. “And thousands of Nisei soldiers. Ben has been with us on the Pacific front while his family has been, um evacuated…”
Ben added with a wry smile, “to a barbed wired camp.”
Robert looked at Ben. Him, too. Would he know where Grace was sent? Was she still alive?
The Colonel coughed and said, “Be that as it may, we’ve got to deal with the aftermath of this atomic bomb. We need your help, Doctor, to collect information on the collateral damage from this bomb.”
Robert said, “Collateral damage?”
Ben said in Japanese, “Human suffering.“
Robert felt the blood rise into his face. His medical training hadn’t shielded him from what he saw in Hiroshima. Hundreds, no thousands of wounded men, women and children crowded into whatever structures remained standing. People lying on straw mats on concrete floors. The handful of doctors and nurses run ragged. The lucky ones screamed and moaned in pain, the unfortunate ones silent as they slowly died. The few medical supplies he brought with him from Tokyo were like a drop of water to quench a fire. The flies (why did they all survive?) feasted on the bloody flesh exposed by the thermal burns which sometimes covered almost an entire side of a body, from head to toe. In seconds the searing rays of the bomb scorched bodies, just like a toaster browned white bread. One teenager lay on his stomach, groaning as the nurses futilely applied compresses of boiled herbs to the angry blisters that had erupted all over his back, save the white strip around his waist which was beneath a leather belt. Robert couldn’t bear to look at their eyes, especially those of grown men and women as they cried, “Itai. Itai, Okaachan. Mother, it hurts. It hurts.”
After an exhausting week of fruitless work, Robert returned to Tokyo. When Uncle and the others at the hospital asked him what he saw in Hiroshima, Robert could not speak. Uncle’s comment, “What have your Americans done to us?” cut Robert to the bone. A few days later, he found his passport and walked to GHQ with no clear idea of what he would do. He looked at the Colonel. “I will help you, if you help me. Change my American passport to Japanese.”
The Colonel steepled his big hands in front of his face. “Let me get this straight. You survived the war in Japan. You held onto your American passport when other Japanese-Americans gave theirs up. And now with all those desperate folks out there who would kill to be in your place, you want to give up your American citizenship. Why now? What’s your reason?”
Robert’s face burned as he stared back at the blond man. “The reason isn’t any of your business.”
Ben sat back in silence. The Colonel’s eyes turned icy blue. “Doctor. I don’t need to know your life story but I do need to know why you’re asking this.” He turned back to bring a huge stack of folders out from behind the desk. “These files are full of requests for visas to go to America. Full of heartbreaking stories.” Then he slapped the top of the stack. “Are you spitting in their faces? Are you a traitor to your country? Do you want to hang like Tojo will?”
Robert took a deep breath and said, “Colonel. I’m sorry if I offended you.”
Ben spoke up, “Colonel, Doctor Ishii is not on any of our war criminal lists. And he is an American. Shouldn’t we give him the benefit of the doubt?”
The Colonel turned on Ben, “Don’t get soft of me, Sargent. Just because he was born in California doesn’t mean we can trust him. Tokyo Rose was American-born and she knew exactly what she was doing on the radio, feeding our men hogwash.”
Ben gave the Colonel a sharp look.
The Colonel’s eyes softened. He put the files back behind him and ran his fingers through his crewcut. He said, “Look, Doc. I don’t understand you. This country is in ruins. You look pretty bad yourself. Who knows if Japan is going to make it.” He shook his head. “Why do you want to give up your chance at a better life? With your credentials and language skills, you’ll go far.”
Robert put out his cigarette butt in the crystal ash tray next to the Colonel’s crushed butt. His mind filled with images of Papa, yelling at him. Baca. Idiot. You are always throwing away your chance by making stupid decisions. Why don’t you study hard like your sister? How are you going succeed in America if you are so lazy?
Back then Robert had laughed at his father, Papa I’m not like Grace. She’s the one with the brains.
How did everything end up like this?
The Colonel said, “I’ll tell you what, Doc. Think about your passport for a month. If you still feel you want to change citizenship to Japanese then, we’ll do it. But in the meantime, you’ve got to help us. Collect data on the effects of the bomb and write an English report for us.”
Robert said, “Will you give me medicine? Supplies?”
The Colonel said, “Yes. Yes. We owe these poor people all the help we can give. Save the ones we can. But you’ve got to understand one thing. You’ve got to agree to our terms.”
Robert said, “What terms?”
The Colonel said, “All of the information and photos you collect are to remain top secret. You cannot discuss your findings with the press. Or with your colleagues, family or friends.”
Robert said, “How can you keep Hiroshima secret? Two weeks after the bomb was dropped, the newspapers already said that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be sterile for seventy-five years. Everyone knows tens of thousands of people already died.”
The Colonel said, “That was exactly the sort of reaction we wanted to avoid. Panic and hysteria spreading throughout the country because of sloppy Japanese journalism. We had to issue a press release denying those claims of biological sterility.”
Robert didn’t argue but his silence seethed.
The Colonel said, “This is a sensitive time. Not just for Japan but for America, too. We need to watch what we say. You understand. It’s a matter of morale.”