Do you know ‘Willow Run’?

Yes, ‘willow’ as in the tree, ‘run’ as in the verb. Of course, I had no idea what it meant then, or what he—the soldier—meant by it. But I liked the sound—willow run—like something wispy, something escaping. Looking back, I have to laugh. But at the time? I’d repeat the words, so cumbersome on my tongue. Many women took to reciting the sutras. But in that situation …. I’m sorry—was there some way you wanted me to begin?

*

I was born in the first year of Taishō—

That’s right, 1912. Of course, as a Japanese, I wonder if nuances aren’t lost when accounting in the Western way. For example, unlike Meiji people like our parents, we, Taishō people, were very open to the Western world. Have you heard of ‘moga,’ or ‘modan gaaru’? As a girl, I thought we were quite modern, quite the sophisticates <laugh>.

I’ll be seventy-nine in October.

Yes, my husband passed on last year. Which is why I decided to take this chance.

That’s right, my son is the scholar. But please, as I mentioned on the telephone, I don’t want him implicated—

Yes, yes, you explained very well your legal ambitions. But are you sure my name won’t—

No, no, I’m quite prepared to speak. It’s just that …. Well, if I had half your courage, a young woman like yourself, coming all this way from America. You mentioned your parents are Korean?

Then I can understand your interest. But your cameraman—is he a historian too? Why an American man would be interested in …. I’m sorry, it must be my nerves, chatting away like this <laugh>. Not that people haven’t come forward—they’ve always come forward, haven’t they? And now with the Shōwa Emperor just passed and everybody reflecting on His reign …. You see, when I saw your call for testimonies …. Well, it was the first time I saw anybody soliciting that story. Oh! I’m sorry. The hand towel!

No, no, it’s alright. Is the camera still—

*

At the time of surrender, my husband and I were already in Kanagawa. We fled Tokyo after we lost our son—

No, no, we only had one child. After the war we adopted our son—

Yes, the scholar. Of course, we should have told him sooner—about his adoption, you know. But back then …. Well, everything was in tatters. And afterward, we had no desire to look back. You see, we never found our son’s body.

He was fifteen. Why he wasn’t in his room that night ….

Yes, the March air raid. Looking back, I see how unprepared we were. I suppose we’d gotten used to the false alarms—all we’d ever seen was the glow in the distance. But that night …. We hardly had a minute before we heard them, whistling through the air like a thousand fireworks. Back then we slept in our clothes, so all we had to do was put on our silly hoods and grab our emergency bags—

Oh, they were just padded pieces of cloth, another thing our government cooked up. Still, we put them on, you know, half of us running around with our hoods on fire <laugh>. We ran and ran, houses shooting into flames. Until then, I never knew fire could be so loud, crashing about like drunken demons. And the heat! It was like a rubber mask. We couldn’t breathe or see; all we could do was run from street corner to street corner, smoke rolling in from every side, shadows appearing and disappearing, sometimes knocked away like bowling pins. Everywhere families were calling each other, and one mother—I’ll never forget her—came barging past with a baby strapped to her back. She was so determined, you know. But that poor baby. Its little head was knocked back and running like an egg. There were so many lost children—we tried to take them with us. But they clung to the spot where they thought their parents would come for them. We eventually found a shelter, but the next morning …. Everything was in piles—even the air was scorched, embers sparking like fireflies. Eventually, we all drifted toward our homes, but the bodies, you know. They were sprawled every which way, clogging the ditches, cluttering the streets, and all I could think was whether Seiji, our son, had taken his emergency bag, or whether I’d seen it at the entrance. Now there’s little to remind us of that time, but it’s the body that remembers. Some people can’t stand the sound of fireworks. For myself, it’s the smell of roasting meat ….

*

At first I had another job. Thanks to my father, I could type. My mother died when I was a little girl, so he’d taken it upon himself to—

A secretarial job. With the American administration. Their headquarters was still in [Y]-city.

Oh no, my husband loathed the idea <laugh>. But there was no work for someone like him.

He was a newspaper man. A political journalist.

No, no, he leaned very much to the left.

No, he wasn’t a Party member, but in those days, any ‘radical’ was a ‘red,’ and that never changed with the Americans, so even after the war, no one wanted to risk hiring—

During the war? Officials of all stripes visited us at all hours—our neighbors wouldn’t come within ten meters of us. As a woman, all I could do was serve the best tea we could afford and clean up the ‘gifts’ they liked to leave behind.

Oh, broken teapots, upturned furniture, ripped shoji—they never missed an opportunity. Throwing tantrums the way only men can. Soon we had a spacious home with very few amenities.

Twelve of us. They hired twelve of us, all women in our twenties and thirties.

No, no, not all of us could type. But we did everything from filing papers to sweeping the floor. I was part of a group assigned to type up memos, transcripts, reports.

Well, we weren’t privy to that level of information <laugh>. The only ‘reports’ we saw were ones touting the success of this or that ‘democratic’—

That was the thing; none of us knew a drop of English <laugh>. Except our supervisor. She—[A]-san—would translate snippets, mostly to make us laugh.

Yes, she was our go-between. Several Americans spoke Japanese, but we rarely—

We did like her; [A]-san was a helpful woman.

Yes, there were people who disliked her, but there are always people who dislike people, aren’t there? And given her proximity to the Americans—

We did. We trusted her. As much as anybody could trust anybody in those days. We were all so needy, you know; it wasn’t always easy to discern—

Advantage? What do you mean—

Oh. No. No, no. [A]-san wasn’t a ‘liaison’ <laugh>. That office wasn’t a backdoor to—

Well, now that you mention it. About a month after I started, I found a piece of paper. I was, as they say, sleuthing <laugh>, looking for information about the air raids. The paper was peeking from beneath the file cabinets. It had rows of our faces printed on it, our names below each.

It was in English, in alphabet.

But we could read our names; we were taught the alphabet—

Yes, at first I did; I thought it was a roster. Some faces were crossed out, and I thought they were women who had left the job. Then, when I realized that most women were still there ….

About half. Half the women were crossed out, and at the top someone had scribbled the word ‘moose.’

No, not the dessert; the animal <laugh>. Of course I didn’t know that then, and my first thought was to show [A]-san.

No, her face wasn’t crossed out.

Yes, she was very distraught, very unforthcoming. Eventually, she asked me if I’d noticed the American fondness for contractions.

<laugh> I must have looked as baffled as you. Do you know the Japanese word for ‘girl’ ?

That’s right. Musume. Or musume-san, as the Americans liked to say. ‘Moose’ was short for musume. They had a popular game they called ‘Hunting for Moose.’

Yes, ‘Hunting for Moose.’

Exactly. The paper was their tally sheet.

I suppose we knew things went on; most women were widows with small children and parents to support, and the soldiers …. It wouldn’t be unfair to say they were here to enjoy a little—

There were twenty men in that office. Including the officer.

Yes, I believe they were all in on it.

[A]-san? She made me promise to keep it to myself. Not that there was any recourse, you understand. For some time, all I could think of was those faces, those terrible slash marks crossing ….

I suppose I assumed [A]-san disposed of the paper. Though sometimes I wonder …. Well, it’s just that, one morning, soon after, I arrived at the security gate, and they wouldn’t let me through.

No, not even to see [A]-san.

Oh, yes, I went back—I went every day for a week, returning at various times to catch a familiar face. But no one would speak to me. And I couldn’t risk anybody’s job.

No, I never saw her. But it was always that way. As though she never went in or out of that building. She was always there when I arrived, there when I left—

Oh, no, I don’t think she was in on it. Though it’s true: we all did what we had to. If one of them had told me they could find Seiji ….

Yes, eventually, I met the recruiter.

He was Japanese. A policeman. Working with the Public Safety Association. He got the job because, as a policeman, he knew all the licensed and unlicensed women in his district.

Oh, yes, our government was eager for women—for a ‘people’s diplomacy,’ they called it <laugh>. Our role was ‘to soothe foreign tempers and protect the purity of girls and women.’ It goes to show, doesn’t it? They knew exactly what to expect, didn’t they? After all, they’d had plenty of experience, all those years setting up ways to cater to our own soldiers’ … ‘needs.’

The recruiter? He was pleasant enough. He kept reassuring me of the clean conditions—

Coerced?

Oh, no, he never physically or verbally—

I suppose, yes, it was, as you say, my decision. But ‘voluntary’ isn’t exactly—

Well, many women were, as you say, coerced. But ‘coerced’ is such a … cunning word, isn’t it?

No, no, I don’t mean to trivialize—

But I never said I was coerced. On the telephone, I only told you—

But you agreed. You agreed to hear my story, my side—

*

I was fortunate; my shift was during normal hours. And my husband wasn’t the suspicious type—

Oh, no, I never told him. He was so frustrated in those days; he’d already had a few run-ins with the American authorities. But he did follow me one day. Of course, one might have expected a journalist to make a better mole <laugh>—you should have seen the fuss he made at the doors. I was afraid he’d barge right in—

No, no, it was open only to white foreigners.

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