The Story of Tei’s Story


Almost seventy years ago, Tei Fujiwara wrote a memoir about her harrowing journey home with her three young children. But the story of her story is what every reader needs to know.

Tei’s memoir begins in August 1945 in Manchuria. At that time, Tei and her family fled from the invading Soviets who declared war on Japan a few days after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. After reaching her home in Japan, Tei wrote what she thought would be a last testament to her young children, who wouldn’t remember their journey and who might be comforted by their mother’s words as they faced an unknown future in post-war Japan.

But several miracles took place after she wrote the memoir. Tei survived and her memoir, originally published in Showa Era 24 [1949] became a best seller titled Nagareru Hoshiwa Ikiteiru (Shooting Stars are Alive). Over the following decades, millions of Japanese became familiar with her story through forty-six print runs, the movie version, and a television drama. Empress Michiko, wife of the current emperor, urged her people to read Tei’s story.

Why should Westerners read this translation of her story? Tei wrote about men, women and children caught in the middle of the world’s most devastating war and how they coped. The suffering, endurance, and struggles she described reminded the defeated Japanese of their strength, their spirit, and hope in the future. Her sense of humor, compassion and love helped defuse anger and despair. She brought back a basic sense of trust towards former enemies, but also a honest new look at her own countrymen.

In many ways, Tei was a typical Japanese housewife, but she was also extraordinary. The memoir begins with a well-educated but sheltered young wife of a civilian scientist, who is a mother of three young children. Her keen insights in 1945-46—on the Koreans, fellow Japanese men, women and children, as well as the Russian soldiers and the American GIs—give us rare glimpses into a part of the world few Americans know.

Why did I translate Tei’s memoir? My initial reason for translating her book was personal. My parents both grew up and lived in Tokyo during the war. My father was 22 years old and my mother was 13 when the war finally ended after four long years. WW II devastated the lives of millions of Japanese civilians living in Japan as well as in Manchuria and other parts of Asia. Tei’s story resonates deeply with my parents’ generation.

Her memoir and family also influenced my family in unexpected ways. Tei’s younger son, Masahiko, became a mathematician, and came to the University of Colorado as a Visiting Scholar, where my father taught in the physics faculty. My parents enjoyed taking care of any visiting Japanese, and often invited them over to our house to stave off homesickness. I met Masahiko at one of the social gatherings at our home. I was 13 at the time but vividly remember meeting the young professor.

Over the next years, my family visited Tokyo several times. I heard first-hand, stories of how people survived and struggled after the war. The stories of the Fujiwara family as well as those of my own family encouraged me to study in Japan, obtain a

Masters degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, and work in international educational exchange over the next several years. This included several years as the Educational Information Officer at the offices of the Fulbright Program (Japan-U.S. Educational Commission) in Tokyo, and as the Japan Correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education newspaper.

The impact of Tei’s story on her own family life is also fascinating. After her memoir became a best-seller, Tei found herself in the public spotlight and dealing with the complexity of life after the war. At the end of this book, I included the afterwords she wrote in two of her later editions of her memoir.

Her husband, a former meteorologist, became an award-winning historical novelist himself, under the pen name, Jiro Nitta. Her children also wrote essays and books. In 2005, Tei’s son Masahiko Fujiwara wrote a book, The Dignity of a Nation, which has sold more than 2 million copies.

For Tei, this memoir was the achievement of a lifetime. She wrote it because she thought she might not live long enough to pass her story on to her children. In an interesting twist of fate, she has lived longer than most of us ever will. As of this writing, she is alive and well, ninety-six years old and living quietly in a senior home in Tokyo. Although Alzheimer’s has taken its toll and she no longer speaks or writes publicly, she still shares weekly meals with her three adult children, and her grandsons.

I feel fortunate to have had the privilege of translating her memoir while she is still alive. Her words are still as fresh as when she wrote them over sixty years ago. Tei’s story has also helped me in my own life as a mother of three children. By coincidence, I also have two boys and the youngest, a girl, about the same spacing in age as Tei’s three children.

When I first read her memoir, I was a full-time mother of three young children, adjusting to life in Colorado after living in Tokyo for two years, and in Jakarta for a year. Although I faced completely different challenges—divorce, financial hardship and starting over—her words encouraged me, inspired me, and gave me perspective.

My mother helped translate this memoir, by reading out loud passages from the book, and explaining what life was like in 1945 Japan. We spent many afternoons reading and discussing Tei’s stories, and we worked together to create the glossary in the back of this book. My mother and many of her Japanese friends say they have read and reread this book. When she introduced this book to me in the midst of all the turmoil in my life, I knew this was more than a casual book recommendation. The emotional impact of this memoir hasn’t diminished, even after sixty years. Often, during our afternoon talks—my mother would stop in the middle of a chapter she was reading to me—because she couldn’t continue. Her voice would break, quaver and die off to a whisper as her eyes filled with tears. Memories of the end of war and the beginning of peace are still very much alive.

Nanako V. Mizushima

Refugee Mothers and Children Today


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As gut wrenching as Tei Fujiwara’s story is, it is sobering to know that the suffering of refugees continues today, seventy years later. As George Clooney noted in the video clip posted by the International Rescue Committee, the huge numbers of refugees is mind numbing and one is tempted to just turn off the news, and focus on one’s own life. We’ve all got enough problems of our own. But when we can hear the story of one family, one person and see the tears of one child, the suffering becomes real. Connecting with such suffering at the individual level is what compels us to take action. Tei Fujiwara had the courage and the strength to write down her experiences as a refugee mother with three young children. Her story was one of suffering and honest reflection, but also of great hope and belief in the goodness of people. Her generation of Japanese civilians, including my mother, recovering from WWII read her story, were encouraged, and still urge the young today in Japan to read her book, to truly understand what war meant for Japan. My mother, who grew up during the war, read Tei’s memoir when she was a young woman before she immigrated to America. When I was a teenager myself, my mother was thrilled to meet Tei Fujiwara’s son, who came to the University of Colorado as a visiting scholar. I also met him but wasn’t really aware of his mother’s story until my mother shared Tei’s Japanese memoir with me years later. Through the friendship between our families, I contacted them and began translating Tei’s memoir a few years ago. After translating her story into English, “Tei, a memoir of the end of war and beginning of peace”, I’m excited to see that readers today are also deeply moved by her story. I believe Tei Fujiwara would want her story to enlighten us in the English-speaking world, to help us understand the refugee’s story, no matter what part of the world they are in.

Amal and George Clooney talk to Syrian families in BerlinToday, on the 5th anniversary of the Syria conflict, we share a message of hope stemming from a recent meeting with George Clooney and Amal Clooney and three Syrian refugee families now safe in Germany. The families shared with the Clooney’s the terror of fleeing war-ravaged Syria and their hopes for a better future. In turn, George also shared his family’s history of flourishing in America after fleeing Ireland, and Amal her family’s history of leaving war-torn Lebanon for the United Kingdom. We’re honored to have organized this meeting. Share this video if you stand #withSyria, IRC, George, and Amal in making #RefugeesWelcome– wherever they are.

Posted by International Rescue Committee on Tuesday, March 15, 2016



Is the Translation Good?

After a year of getting feedback from readers, I’ve been happy to hear how readers were moved and impressed by Tei’s remarkable story but very few readers can really evaluate the quality of my translation.

Happily, last October I received a letter from Columbia University after I submitted Tei to the 2015- 2016 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature. I didn’t win the translation competition but the judges sent me a very nice letter which I will share below.

Translation, especially from Japanese to English, is a tricky business since the two languages are so very different. I want the translation to be as accurate as possible and at the same time, the English version to be as readable as possible.

TEI Translation


I’m grateful the translation judges felt I did a decent job. I hope Tei Fujiwara will be happy to know that English readers are can also appreciate the rich textures and nuances of the story she wrote seventy years ago.



Amanda Palmer and Tei


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I just finished listening to the audio book of “The Art of Asking” by Amanda Palmer who became famous for her TEDTalk in which she said something like – perhaps we ought to think about, not how do we MAKE people pay for music, but how do we LET people pay for music. That made me think about the new audiobook I made of the Tei book. How do I make it as easy to listen to Tei’s story as it is to listen to music?

Just like music, audiobooks have almost become a required staple of many busy people. Audiobooks are easy to load, listen to while we do all the mundane chores of our lives — driving, washing dishes, writing blogs. In fact, I am listening to an audiobook now as I write this blog. (Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”).

This month, I plan to explore where I can distribute the audiobook version of Tei. I hope to let readers/listeners access the audiobook for free or a low fee. If you have any suggestions, please use the contact form here to share your ideas. Thanks!


TEI Soon to be an Audiobook


I love storytellers but when was the last time you heard one? The next best thing are audio books. You can enjoy stories while driving, doing chores and relaxing at night. A human voice telling  a story, conveying emotion through tones and  rhythm as well as words. This summer, Tei will be read by the translator, Nanako Mizushima, and produced by Two Tigers Studio in Boulder.

Additional Resources


A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II, by Eric Jaffe, Schribner (2014)

The Gods Left First: The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945-1956 by Andrew E. Barshay, University of California Press (September 2, 2013)

Year Zero: A History of 1945, by Ian Buruma, The Penguin Press. (September 26, 2013)

Under the Black Umbrella, Voices from Colonial Korea 1910 – 1945, by Hildi Kang, Cornell University Press (2001)

YouTube videos

Two film of Tokyo, Japan in the 1930’s.
Manchukuo (Manchuria) 1938

Wikipedia articles.


Some of the Serious Conditions in Japan After World War II

Tei Honored as Notable Book

Tei book selected as Notable Book by Shelf Unbound Magazine

2014 Best Book Notable Indie
2014 Best Book Notable Indie

SHELF Unbound magazine

I am writing to let you know that Tei is being honored as a Shelf Unbound Notable Book in the category of Memoirs…in our December/January issue. We received nearly a thousand entries this year, and it was a very competitive field. Congratulations to you..

Margaret Brown
Shelf Media Group
National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Member