“A date that will live in infamy.”
That was President Franklin D. Roosevelt describing December 7, 1941 the date when Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor.
Within an hour of the “Infamy Speech,” Congress passed a formal declaration of war against Japan and officially brought the U.S. into World War II.
In Hawaii we have a very personal connection with Pearl Harbor.
We know the giant Naval Base and its sister airfield Hickam as a New Yorker knows the World Trade Center buildings; we know it as a San Franciscan knows the Golden Gate Bridge. They are part of our daily lives. The warp and woof of life on Oahu .
So December 7th has a special meaning here. There are so many stories about that day. Unbelievable courage. Incredible sacrifice.
For some Americans the story is a binary stage play. US – good; Japan – bad.
That kind of thinking doesn’t recognize the many levels of complexity surrounding the events of that day, the start of the war or the impacts of the war on the lives of people around the world.
By “people” I mean the plain folk, the little ones, the fodder of war on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
People like my very own Alpha Japanese Female – the AJF.
Here’s a little secret, keep it to yourself: my one and only is a bit older than me! I was not even long-tailed swimmer in Dad’s slacks at the outbreak of World War II whereas she was a toddler during the war years, living in a little town just outside of Tokyo.
As you will imagine, her perspectives of those times are different from mine and from those of many other Americans. (She has been a US citizen for many years.)
As a very young child she grew up believing and trusting in all the things told to her by the powers of a very hierarchical and rigid society. She believed in the divinity of the Emperor, directly descended from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. Years later she listened to the radio and heard the Emperor himself deny that divinity.
Her war memories are those of a wee child, of course, more scary imagery and mental flashes rather than actual detail or narrative.
She recalls a sense of fear, militarism, and deprivation. She clearly recalls the ceaseless propaganda and being entreated to live in conformance with the Bushido code which had its roots in the samurai culture of Japan’s feudal period.
She remembers the surrender of her country and then its astonishing post-war transformation.
For me, that slice of history is in a book; for her, it is in her memory.
My most personal contact with the war was a string of stories told by my father who drove a landing craft at Anzio and later served in the Pacific. My perceptions reflect watching a lot of old movies on late night TV.
For my AJF it’s direct experiences of the bombings of the capital city, the devastation and the loss of her sister Chizuko. It’s memories, although a bit vague, of broken families and desperate survival.
In Pearl Harbor, over by Ford Island, there is the Arizona Memorial, a somber place that reminds us of the cost of war.
It is very popular with Japanese tourists, almost all of whom are too young to have a personal connection to the memorial.
To them it’s all old-time stuff.
Once in a while you spot a veteran of December 7, 1941. An American or maybe an elderly Japanese person visiting this solemn place. For the survivors of that day, a visit to the Arizona is intensely personal, almost unbearably so.
I have another personal story that I was mulling over this day. This one also involves the AJF.
When we lived in Utah, we decided to load up the RV and take Max on a tour of the internment camps that were established for Japanese Americans during WWII. The ruins of these camps stand as testimony to a shameful racist bias against Japanese Americans fueled by the pressurized emotions of the war. It’s not a proud part of our nation’s history.
The AJF was never in a camp; she didn’t come the US until a decade or so after the war. She knew about them, of course, but had never had a chance to set foot where the camps were situated. We wondered what daily life was like for the people held in the camps during World War II. So off we went.
We visited many sites in Idaho, California, Utah and Oregon. Places with names like Manzanar, Tule Lake, Minidoka and more.
Perhaps the most poignant of our destinations was Topaz, the “war relocation center” in northern Utah.
We were there on a day when the clouds were low and dark and the never-ending wind-swept across the barren landscape and our only companions were tumbleweeds. I doubt there was another person within miles.
These days there is very little to see at Topaz. Dirt, a few foundations and footings for guard towers, and traces of roads. It’s an unwelcoming place in the ass end of nowhere.
There’s a little monument at Topaz to the people who were incarcerated here. The American flag flies above, whipped by the wind over the desert.
The AJF walked away from me and stood facing the camp area. Just standing. Seemed like forever.
I took a snapshot of her. That image of a little Japanese lady leaning against the perpetual wind with her head bowed and her arms folded tightly about her silently screams solitude and loss.
Then she walked back and got in the car. I wanted to ask what was on her mind but somehow that felt awkward.
She looked at me, looked back at the camp, stared out the front window and said words I will never forget.
“So many people on both sides think everything about that war was black and white, but actually everything was shades of grey. But there was so much loss. It was such a waste of life.”
Then she started to cry.
We sat there for a long time. Later, we talked about the strangeness of life, fate or random coincidence that led the two us to a happy life together despite such different beginnings and lives after December 7, 1941.