The 38th Parallel was Tei’s “Holy Grail”, the key to the survival of her family and tens of thousands of other refugees fleeing from what is now North Korea. There’s fascinating old photos and video footage of this important place.
Shinkyo Station was a mass of people stumbling in the dark. There were supposed to be about fifty in our assigned group, the dan. It was a minor miracle that my husband and I found them, huddled in front of the government travel office in front of the train station.
“Good. We made it,” he said.
But I didn’t see anyone’s face that I recognized. I collapsed, so thoroughly exhausted that I couldn’t do anything. The families of the Kanto Army formed nervous lines around us that steadily snaked into the train station. We were told that our group’s departure would not be until seven that morning, long after these military families left on the first trains. I spread out a single blanket on the bare dirt ground, and together with the children, curled up into a circle to sleep. The only comfort I had was the knowledge that my husband was near us until we had to leave.
An uneasiness, the unfamiliar sensation of being surrounded by so many people, grew like a web in my brain. In my sleep, I must have breathed in the soot-filled air. A fit of coughing woke me from the desperately needed rest. It was dawn. Now we were surrounded by a crowd that had grown through the night; how did we sleep without being trampled? My husband was nowhere to be seen. As I looked for him I was relieved to see faces I knew right in front of us—Mr. Daichi and his family! Their kind, friendly faces lined up near us was reassuring. Between Mr. and Mrs. Daichi sat their teenage daughter, Seiko who hid her pretty face in her father’s shoulder. Mrs. Daichi held their baby. It turned out that my husband had gone to the office to get more instructions.
The chief of our General Affairs Section, Mr. Shibata, was busy trying to organize our group. “Is Mr. Fujiwara back yet?”
Mr. Shibata waited anxiously for my husband’s return. By the time my husband came back, it was already past seven. Now we were told that our train would depart at nine.
“What did the director say?” Mr. Shibata impatiently asked.
My husband said, “He told us to make our own decisions on how to select the men.”
The two of them moved away from me and began discussing matters in lowered voices so that I couldn’t hear. But I knew they were deciding which men would accompany us on the train. By us, I mean the women and children. Four men were selected. The families of the lucky four joyfully crowded around their own husband or father.
“Who should we choose as dancho, to head the dan?” Mr. Shibata looked at my husband’s face.
“Mr. Tono would be good,” I distantly heard my husband say.
Mr. Shibata hesitated, then said, “Hey, Mr. Fujiwara. Why don’t you go on with this group? You’ve got three young my children… I can explain everything personally to the director later. Even if you stayed behind with us, it’s just a matter of two or three days anyway.”
My husband didn’t answer. I stood up unsteadily and went closer to him. “Dear…please come with us,” I said.
My husband looked at me accusingly, as if to blame me for embarrassing him. “I will not go,” he said very clearly to Mr. Shibata. Then he shouted so that everyone could hear, “Mr. Tono. Mr. Tono, you’ve been selected to head this dan.”
I couldn’t believe it. I witnessed my husband sacrifice his own family. For what? For the sake of appearance, for the sake of honor. He did what he was expected to do in his position, I suppose. Back then, all I could do was cry like an ordinary,
helpless housewife. Tears poured down my face.
Night gave way to morning, and Shinkyo Station became clear in the light. The station as much more crowded than it was when we arrived in the middle of the night. Lines and lines of people formed, most of them women and children. Japanese soldiers ordered everyone about with hoarse shouts and barks. My husband brought a bundle wrapped in our large furoshiki cloth, the cloth I used to wrap my packages. He must have picked it up from our house on his way from the office.
“You might end up throwing this away but if this bundle stays at the house, it won’t do any good there either,” he said. It was mostly clothes. In my husband’s other hand hung a basket full of my freshly picked tomatoes. Seeing my fresh vegetables made me happier. As the children and I ate the sweet, juicy tomatoes, I watched my husband’s eyes—red, bloodshot eyes that hadn’t had any sleep at all. There was one hour left before our train was supposed to depart. It was a terrifying sixty minutes.
The motorcycle sidecar that was supposed to fetch Mrs. Tono, our dancho’s wife, came back loaded with baggage belonging to someone, I don’t know who. But Mrs. Tono was not aboard. Mr. Shibata shouted something at Mr. Daichi. People argued, discussed, bickered. I listened distractedly, no longer capable of caring. At eight o’clock we were allowed onto the train platform. Then we were assigned to an open freight train car with the number thirty-five painted on in black and white. It wasn’t a passenger car, just a freight car used to transport logs or rocks with no roof overhead, no seats.
My husband dragged us onto the car, with our children and our bags. But by the time we got on the freight car, the ‘good seats’ on the car floor were already taken by the nimble people. We were left with the worst spots, in the front—right where the train’s steam engine would shower us with smoke and coal dust.
Mr. Shibata then called out, “All right, men, we’ve got to get back to the office!” They were leaving us.
My husband loved two-year-old Masahiko with a special tenderness. He was a lively little boy who looked just like his father. My husband picked him up and put his face close to his son’s. He spoke using his usual paternal tone. “Masahiko-chan, remember your Daddy’s face, all right? Don’t forget me, all right? Do as Mommy tells you. Okay? Listen to her; listen to her well. All right?” He nuzzled Masahiko’s frightened face and set him down beside me.
Then he turned to our eldest son, Masahiro, who stood in a daze. My husband knelt down, faced him, and placed his hand on his small shoulder. “Masahiro, how old are you?”
“Five,” he said in a small voice.
“That’s right; you’re five years old. So you’re old enough to understand what Daddy has to say. Listen to me carefully, Masahiro. You are going on this train with Mommy, your little brother, and the baby to a place that is far away. Daddy has to stay behind in Shinkyo. I am not going with you, so you need to do as Mommy says and be a good boy.”
Masahiro obediently said, “Yes, Daddy:”
My husband then turned to look at me and simply said, “Dewa tanomu yo—I leave this matter in your hands,” just the way he asked me when he needed me to do an ordinary task, and then he stood up. It was a man’s job to be strong, not sentimental.
This might be the last time I would see my husband. The last time I would see him alive. I couldn’t possibly utter the word ‘good-bye’—not like this. I stood up and said gently into his ear, “Please stay alive, dear. Stay alive. Do whatever you have to do, just please stay alive.” I whispered this over and over into his ear.
Without saying a word, he took out his watch from the pocket of his tailored government jacket and gave it to me. It was his precious Longines pocket watch.
“Kodomotachi wo tanomu yo,” he said, asking me formally to take on the responsibility for the lives of our three children, a terrible burden to place in my hands, and then he turned his back to us—to get ready to jump off the train car. Just then, a small towel tucked into his waist brushed against his hand. He stopped, came back to us, took the towel out, and put it around Masahiko-chan’s head and face.
“Don’t let him get sunburnt. He’ll get too hot.” He said this without losing control over his emotions. A father worried over his son. Then without hesitation, he took a big leap off the freight car and lightly landed on the station platform. He ran to catch up with the other men.
Long after I lost sight of him in the crowd, I kept looking and looking, hoping that he would reappear. The cold Manchurian wind penetrated me, and sliced my heart.
Four Kilometers to the Train Station
Shinkyo City, Manchuria
August 9, 1945, around 10:30 p.m.
I heard a loud knocking at the front door. The children were asleep. My husband and I were talking about getting to bed soon because we had stayed up late the night before.
“Mr. Fujiwara! Mr. Fujiwara! We’re from the meteorological station!” a young man shouted from outside.
My husband and I opened the front door to find two young uniformed men holding rifles.
“Sir? Are you Mr. Fujiwara? Please come immediately to the office,” said one of them.
My husband asked, “What is going on?”
“Sir, we don’t know the reason is but everyone is being called to an emergency meeting. Please cooperate and come right away!” The two rushed off to the next house to continue their mission.
When I closed the door, I felt light-headed. My intuition told me that I shouldn’t let my husband go into the pitch-dark night by himself. “Are you sure you want to go out alone?” I asked.
Right after I said that, I peered into my husband’s eyes to try to extract what vital knowledge he had. I was sure that there was something he didn’t tell me, something he hid about what was going on with the war. The last two or three days, uneasiness clouded his eyes.
“Don’t worry. I want you to wait for me,” he said. Then he sighed. “It looks like the day has finally come,” he added and he opened the door again. “Here. Listen…it definitely isn’t the same old Shinkyo City we know.”
I turned my attention to the night and listened carefully. In the distance I heard cars running, people’s nervous voices, and other restless noises. A big change was about to happen. It was like an omen, vibrating all around us in the dark night air where the new moon shed no light. “Has the day finally arrived? Is this it?” I asked. I sat down in the dark, narrow hallway as all of the strength drained from my body. I clung to the bottom of my husband’s jacket and trembled.
“Baka! You fool,” he scolded me. “What are you doing? Hurry; you’ve got to get everything ready so that we can leave this place right away.”
“Leave here? Leave our home—to go where?” I asked.
“I don’t know myself. I don’t even know yet if we’re really leaving or not—but we’ve got to prepare ourselves; we’ve got to be ready.”
He hurriedly wrapped his uniform leggings around his trousers and rushed out. The meteorological station where my husband worked was in the suburbs south of Shinkyo, in a place called Nanrei. From here, it was going to take at least thirty minutes for him to get there by foot. Even if he turned right around, it would about an hour before he got back home.
I went upstairs and tried to decide what to do. From the second-floor window, I saw confirmation of my fears. Even though there was an official blackout order, scarlet points of light flickered between the window shades of the neighbors’ houses.
Tonight, it wasn’t just my home. Everywhere, in every home, terrible thoughts ran through people’s minds. Turmoil and fear spread, like a plague. The shadows in the windows moved about hastily, as if they were in a panic. ”I’ve got to do something,” I
told myself and opened up our emergency suitcase.
Inside, our winter clothes—children’s and adults’ were neatly packed. What about emergency food? Some packages—sugar, hard biscuits, and canned goods were already packed inside. If we have to leave Shinkyo tonight and go who knows how far—other than these things—what in the world should we take? As I thought about this, my heart pounded faster and faster, and soon any semblance of rational thought fled my mind. I couldn’t think.
Under the mosquito netting hung in the center of the eight tatami-mat room, I saw the faces of my children, all sleeping together on one bed—limbs and bodies intertwined as if they were one creature. How could we possibly leave this house and get very far with these children? My two boys—Masahiro was five years old and Masahiko was only two. My baby girl, Sakiko, was a newborn who had just turned one month old. As I nervously packed and unpacked things in and out of the backpack and suitcase, I was overcome with dread, and my eyes welled up.
“I’m not strong enough for this. There was nothing I could do by myself,” I thought. A woman alone with her children. All I could do was wait for my husband to come back. As I sat quietly, various sounds outside seemed to press in on my home from far away. Looking out again from the window, I saw the unfamiliar sight of the headlights of many trucks reflecting off the white walls of our housing compound along the Daido Daigai Road.
My husband came home. His pale face was so tense that he seemed like a different man from the one who usually stood before me. “We’ve got to get to the Shinkyo Station by 1:30 this morning,” he said.
“What!” I cried. “Shinkyo Station?”
“We’ve got to evacuate by train,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
He explained the situation quickly in terse sentences. The military families of the Kanto Army were already moving. The authorities had issued an order; families of the civil servants must do the same. There was the real possibility that Shinkyo City would be engulfed in the turmoil of this war. I thought, “Did that mean the Soviets were invading the city?” Any Japanese who remained would be risking his life. We had to leave right away. Other families besides those of the meteorological station were also preparing to leave. We needed to evacuate immediately.
He said, “We’ve been assigned to a train. In just thirty minutes…we’re supposed to leave. Hurry!” My husband instructed me as if he were ordering the troops,
“Of course, you’re coming too, aren’t you?” I asked. There wasn’t time to argue with him any more than this. I felt that as long as we were all together we would somehow survive. I looked at his face.
“I will take you as far as the train station but I’ve got to stay here,” he said.
“What! You’re leaving me?” I was shocked. With fear and anger rising in me—like a woman who had lost her mind—I hurled harsh words at him. As I screamed, I barely heard him say, “I still have work to do…” and something about “…as a man in my position, I can’t leave without first finishing what needs to be done…” But he was overwhelmed by my anguish and stopped talking. He looked into my eyes. As I noticed my silent husband gazing at me, I realized that there was nothing I could say to change his mind. I stopped.
He put his hand on my shoulder as I crumpled in tears.
“Now hurry. Think about the children,” he said.
With those words, I regained my composure. I‘m a mother…a mother who has to save her children by running away. I became resolute. There was no room for crying now.
Once more, from the beginning, I organized our belongings. But with three children, how much could I carry? With just the essential things—the children’s winter clothes—the bags were full. I put two-year-old Masahiko piggy-back in a sling across my back while my husband tied Sakiko, papoose-style, on top of his backpack. In both hands he carried the other bags. Masahiro was just old enough to walk, carrying his own small bag. That was how we decided to get to Shinkyo Station.
As we opened the door, the cold night air blasted our faces and took my breath away. We had the children wear as much as they could. Since I was also dressed with layers of winter clothes, the dry cold wind blowing in from the Manchurian plains felt just right. From the many vegetable plants I had in our yard, I picked a couple of tomatoes and put them in my bag. My husband kept saying, “Hurry, hurry,” while I thought about how I wanted to properly pay my farewell respects to the neighbors, Mrs. Maeda and Mrs. Sato. But tonight, the six houses in our compound were dark and empty. Where did they go? I said good-bye to them silently as we walked out toward the Daido Daigai Road. As I looked back once more at our home of two years, I saw only a dark square shadow, and it looked like a pile of dirt.
Shinkyo Station was four kilometers away, straight on the Daido Daigai Road. But before we had even walked one kilometer, I was exhausted. My poor body had given birth to Sakiko just a month earlier, and I was in no condition to carry a toddler like Masahiko. I tried to catch my breath around Daido Park, but was overcome by a sadness that I have never felt before in my life. In front of us passed a truck heavily loaded with the military families and their luggage. There were parents like us who were fleeing, holding onto the hands of their small children. How could it be that just two hours earlier, my family had been living here in such peace? My husband and I had often admired the vast Manchurian night sky. Why do we now look at that same starry sight with such fear? What could a woman with children do? We passed the thickets of the park and, almost horizontally in front of us, a large shooting star flew across the sky.
I felt as if an icy blade were plunged into my chest—hopelessness bled into my body. I said, “Let’s go home. If I am going to die anyway, I’d like to die at home.”
My husband said nothing and kept marching. He took out his pocket watch and tried to look at it in the light of the stars. I knew he wanted me to keep walking. There were still three kilometers to go. I thought if I kept walking like this I would collapse, a body already weak from loss of blood.
“Please. Please…let’s go home,” I pleaded one more time. But I knew that I was making an impossible request.
I am not a professional translator or an academic, so the reader may wonder how I came to translate this work. First, my language background in a nutshell: My parents both immigrated from Japan as adults. I was born in the United States, but spoke Japanese at home and attended school in Japan several times for stays ranging from half a year to a year (yochien, middle school, and college). I vividly remember learning English when I began kindergarten in Boulder, Colorado. I lived in Japan for a total of about ten years, spread out over several visits.
I enjoyed reading many Japanese-to-English translated works through my middle school and high school years, but found many of them to be difficult to read. I have consciously tried to avoid the stiff style I encountered in some of those translations. Once I reached college age, I did not major in Japanese but I did study Japanese at the University of Colorado, and in the Master’s program in International Affairs at Columbia University. (My major was economics as an undergraduate, and international affairs, with a focus on modern Japan, at Columbia University.)
Much of the Japanese I learned was through living and working in Japan. Besides attending Japanese schools, I worked for a large Japanese steel company (Nippon Kokan) for two years, the Japan-US Educational Commission for four years, the Chronicle of Higher Education for a year, and was the busy mother of three children who attended local Japanese schools for two years. Many of my relatives and friends are Japanese.
I do have professional experience as a Japanese-English interpreter (translating the spoken language) with two companies here in Colorado. I was an interpreter for a Japanese heart transplant patient in Denver, other Japanese medical clients, and an American engineering company with Japanese clients. I find translating written work more difficult because I am limited to written characters. Fortunately, I can ask family and friends to clarify the Japanese vocabulary. Now, I mainly communicate in Japanese with my parents.
I don’t have the linguistics background to explain the intricacies of my translation process. My goals are to be accurate and translate the emotional intent of each sentence. In any case, I hope that most readers are going to be more interested in the story rather than my translation process. I am going to cheat here and quote a professional translator, Professor Jay Rubin, who translates Haruki Murakami’s works and is much better than I am at articulating the translation challenges.
The Japanese language is so different from English …that true literal translation is impossible, and the translator’s subjective processing is inevitably going to play a large part.
I try to write in a natural style which is enjoyable to read. I believe the translation should be invisible, just as the camera is invisible in a good movie. But the reader should be aware that this is my interpretation of Tei Fujiwara’s story, not a literal translation. What is the difference, you ask? I will give you a specific example from Jay Rubin’s work mentioned in his book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (ISBN 1 86046 952 3 (tpb). A paragraph from the Professor Rubin’s translation of Haruki Murakami’s “The Girl from Ipanema”:
When I think of my high school’s corridor, I think of combination salad: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, asparagus, onion rings, and pink Thousand Island dressing. Not that there was a salad shop at the end of the corridor. No, there was just a door, and beyond the door a drab 25-meter pool.
Professor Rubin notes that a literal translation of the same paragraph would actually look like this (foreign non-Japanese words are italicized):
“High school’s corridor say-if, I combination salad think-of. Lettuce and tomato and cucumber and green pepper and asparagus, ring-cut bulb onion, and pink-color’s Thousand island dressing. No argument high school corridor’s hit-end in salad speciality shop exists meaning is-not. High school corridor’s hit-end in, door existing, door’s outside in, too-much flash-do-not 25-meter pool exists only is.”
The differences in grammar between Japanese and English make translation between these two languages challenging. Professor Rubin’s example is from a Japanese book which is widely regarded as more American in style than most Japanese books. So the reader can imagine Tei Fujiwara’s book, written in the 1940’s, is going to be even more difficult. Here are a few notes for this translation:
If readers notice errors in the English or the translation, I would appreciate you letting me know. One of the drawbacks and benefits of the Information Age is the ease of making mistakes myself, and correcting them with the help of many others.
Nana V. Mizushima
Since I am not a historian, I will present only basic information and anecdotes from my own family who immigrated from Japan after the war ended. I hope these snippets will help the reader better understand the background for Tei’s memoir. Tei and her family traveled through Manchuria and Korea, both former colonies (1868 to 1947) of the Empire of Japan.
My great-grandfather, Masamichi Mizushima, served as a general in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) which gave the victorious Japanese significant influence over Manchuria and Korea. The Japanese military at the time was instrumental in expanding the Japanese Empire which extended over Manchuria, Korea, Taiwan and other parts of Asia. But like many members of the former samurai class, he grew disenchanted with the military, and encouraged his son, (my grandfather), Seizo Mizushima, to study and begin a career outside the military. Education, not family background was the key to success in the new Japan.
My grandfather Seizo was the first civilian in his family, and he built a successful dental practice in Tokyo during the prosperous, liberal Taisho Era (1912-26). Several members of my family went to the United States to study and seek their fortune during that time. Well-educated young men like Tei’s husband and Seizo’s son (my father), were also eager to learn from the West. My father’s uncle, a medical doctor, followed in the footsteps of other Japanese scientists who went to the United States, but a tragic car accident killed the ambitious doctor and his wife in Stockton, California. My relatives were dismayed to hear how poorly the Japanese and the Japanese-Americans were treated in the U.S. at that time.
The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 killed over 140,000 people in the Tokyo-Yokohama region, set back the economy, and increased social instability. My family survived the earthquake but remembered the anti-Korean sentiments—thousands of Koreans living in Tokyo were killed by panic-stricken Japanese who believed the Koreans had poisoned the drinking water. Conservative military leaders fanned such xenophobic feelings toward foreigners and the West, and they began silencing the liberals, imposing more restrictions and military control.
As my grandfather Seizo saw the growing militarism in Tokyo (In 1932 young fanatic military officers assassinated the Prime Minister), he was probably relieved when his sons took academic paths away from military school. The Kenpeitai (secret military police) forbid political meetings, censured student meetings, confiscated foreign books, and tortured dissenters, including my father’s friend who never recovered. The Kenpeitai were known to be brutal, particularly in Korea.
By the time Tei’s husband moved to Shinkyo City, Manchuria in 1943, the Japanese army had been at war with China for three years. Manchuria was an important source of raw materials for Japan, a resource-poor island nation. Although my father and many others in the educated community knew the U.S. would defeat Japan, the militarists, particularly the army, pushed for war, especially when the U.S. threatened Japan’s oil supplies. My father escaped widespread military conscription because he could do scientific research—such as on alternative fuels. Tei’s husband was also one of the educated who was not drafted.
Tei and her husband were part of a thriving economy in Manchuria. Over 850,000 Japanese lived in Korea and more than 2 million in China. In Shinkyo, where Tei and her family lived, the Japanese made up almost a quarter of the population. Modern factories, and institutions such as the Meteorological Institute where Tei’s husband worked were well established.
Tei begins her story in August 9, 1945 as they fled from the invading Soviets who declared war on Japan right after the U.S. dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. The Japanese military abandoned the civilians, leaving them completely vulnerable. More than 11,000 Japanese settlers died as they fled, about a third by committing suicide. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese men were captured, including Tei’s husband, and were sent to the Soviet forced labor camps, the infamous gulag.
After the end of the war, the hikiage began, the massive reverse migration of millions of Japanese soldiers, civilians, women, and children back to Japan. Most of Tei’s memoir takes place in what is now North Korea. Long before the Russo-Japanese War, Japanese merchants settled throughout Korea, seeking economic opportunity. Westerners were also in evidence on the peninsula. Tei saw a church and a hospital left behind by Protestant and Methodist missionaries who arrived in Korea from the United States and Canada beginning in the 1880’s. By the time Tei arrived, these missionaries were gone, replaced by the Japanese military. Tei’s group stays in the house next to a shinto shrine which was burned down, most likely by locals who resented the Japanese and their regulations: the abolishment of the Korean language in public schools and public functions, the pressure for Koreans to adopt Japanese names, use Japanese language, and bow to Japanese shinto shrines.
When Tei finally reached the shores of Japan in 1946, the situation was not much better—food shortages and the spread of the black market. My relatives experienced malnutrition and vividly remember the U.S. emergency food packets which saved many lives. It was no wonder that Tei thought her memoir might be her last testament. Her world in 1946 looked bleak and uncertain. Tei’s memoir is about a year that was the confluence of tremendous change—the end of the most devastating war the world had experienced, and the beginning of tremendous social change for Japan and the rest of the world. For her personally, her memoir documents the end of her innocence. Just as Pandora found when she opened the box, Tei found hunger, pain, suffering, cruelty and all the evils man could inflict on man. But also like Pandora, Tei finds one last spirit still remaining in the box—hope.
Nana V. Mizushima
In Japan, movies, television dramas and plays have been produced based on Tei Fujiwara’s memoir 流れる星は生きている (Nagareru Hoshiwa Ikiteiru)
Stills from the movie
Excerpt from the original movie.
TV drama ads
If you’ve seen some of these productions, what were your impressions?
Tei Fujiwara’s memoir was published in Japan over 60 years ago under the title – 流れる星は生きている (Nagareru Hoshiwa Ikiteiru), and her book continues to be on the best seller list. On July 1, 2014 Amazon Japan page for the book showed over 60 reviews averaging 5 stars. (Screen shot below of page translated into English)
Why do you think Tei’s story continues to remain popular in japan, sixty years after it was first published?