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.

Yes, there were designated establishments for black soldiers.

Actually, some women refused to work anywhere else. They claimed they were treated more … sympathetically, perhaps because of the soldiers’ own plight—

Yes, two guards. They were there mostly to watch the line.

Oh, yes. From opening to closing. All the way around the building. They were usually keyed up too, drinking from first thing in the morning.

Fourteen of us. Though someone was always out sick.

Yes, we did; we had our own designated clinic.

No, they were Japanese. They were overseen by American doctors.

Oh, yes, every week. Why they didn’t insist on examining their own soldiers with equal—

Fifteen minutes or a half hour. Most soldiers chose the fifteen.

Forty yen. Can you imagine? Same as a pack of cigarettes.

On average? Between fifteen and twenty. One woman had more than thirty in a day. She was relieved when she was taken out for a course of penicillin.

Yes, for VD.

Well, of course, they were required. But we could hardly force them to put it on—

The first time? I never thought I’d make it home, my legs were so shaky. Every few steps I had to stop. And all the way home I bled and bled. And the pain! It was like giving birth all over again. The next day …. Everything ached, my hips, my joints, and when I passed water, the sting of it …. Eventually, we all found ways to … accommodate things, but I don’t think anyone got used to it. Some days we could hardly wash, we were so swollen, you know. And the feeling of seeping, as though everything were rotting out. I never felt clean, always as though it were infected with some terrible odor or disease. I’d wash and wash ….

No, my husband never said a word. Then afterward, after he followed me, he stopped trying to … you know. Except once. He’d been drinking. But when he saw my … you know ….

Oh, I don’t think they noticed a thing—they might have enjoyed the swelling. Of course, there were always a few who insisted on inspecting … things. One of them even brought gloves. But most were ready before they got in the doors.

But in their eyes, they were paying customers, weren’t they? The things they would demand for forty yen.

But what do you expect? Letting loose a pack of boys in a country where they could do as they please. Most were curious, many afraid of losing face, but they all got used to it, didn’t they? Demanding our ‘geisha tricks,’ as they called it. As though we knew such things. We started to wonder what you taught in your country—

Occasionally, yes, there were soldiers like that. One soldier came twice a week, making such a racket, clomping up the stairs, shouting to his friends, but once he was in the room, he never looked my way. Eventually, everyone did what they paid for, especially those who fancied themselves different, you know, talking and caressing, asking us to open more than our legs. But that soldier? He never did a thing. When I finally summoned the courage and asked him my question—about my son, it took him a long time to find the words. His Japanese was only slightly better than my English, which was awful, you understand <laugh>, but he was kind enough to tell me the truth. From his tone, it was clear he was chiding me, for presuming they had all the answers in the world. How many millions of lost people do you think there are? he asked me. One more lost Japanese boy was the least of their problems. And he was right. That soldier was also the one who mentioned Willow Run. To learn that it was a place all those years later …. Do you know they built those B-24s there?

Yes, the ones that bombed Germany? They were called Liberators, weren’t they? Funny, isn’t it? That’s what they called themselves, too, those soldiers. Years later, I saw photographs of Willow Run, on NHK. I was watching a program about your President Roosevelt. To learn that it was such an important factory …. Most photographs were of the assembly line, but one was of a large room with rows and rows of cots. Do you know what the caption said? ‘A bomber an hour.’ A bomber an hour! <laugh> Of course, I don’t know if that’s why that soldier mentioned the place, but it’s how he saw us, isn’t it? A bomber an hour. Some days, watching all those boys huffing away over me, I couldn’t help but wonder if Seiji could have, would have …. And then I’d wonder what he would’ve done if he ever found out his own mother …. And every time, I was grateful he never got that chance. Awful, isn’t it? To be grateful of such a thing. But, please, the camera. It’s awfully close—

*

[K]-san was younger, in her twenties. She had a strong, clear voice and was quite the force, standing up to everybody <laugh>. By the time I arrived, she’d been there two months, and she’d already claimed the respect of our manager—

Oh, she was older, in her forties or early fifties.

She was fair enough—we weren’t unlucky. Women like her can be quite cruel to other women; as a manager, she had to answer to not just the Americans but our government, too. I certainly didn’t envy her her position.

Yes, she was hard on [K]-san. But I think she rather liked her, too. She put herself out quite a bit when …. I’m sorry ….

No, no, I’m alright. It’s just that …. You see, there was a man, a soldier. He was a regular, one of those …. brutes. He liked the new ones, you know, and we all did what we could to protect each other. There was a woman who started after me. We never got her full story, but we suspected she was one of those munition factory girls—you know, the ones taken to officers’ parties to be ‘broken in.’ [N]-san was young—very young. Of course, in those days, it was hard to tell, everybody was so skinny, you know. Still, she couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen. And that man. That murderer. He forced himself into her through the back—

I’m sorry, yes. The anus. Usually, one of us would have heard something, but that poor girl …. When she didn’t appear at reception, our manager went looking for her. She was lying on the floor in her own blood. She had soiled herself, too. That monster—he had ripped her right up. Nobody even knew her name ….

Yes, we had assigned names. Kimiko, Emiko, Maiko—something bright and easy to pronounce. I suppose it also helped us keep things … separate ….

[K]-san? She was beside herself. We were all afraid she’d try to hunt him down.

Oh, no, [N]-san never came back.

Report him? To who? Our police? <laugh> And as for your government …. Even now, your soldiers only have to make it back to base to evade—

Oh, yes, all the time. In Okinawa, Yokosuka. Your government never cooperates, does it? Instead, you shelter your soldiers. Your murderers.

That monster? He came right back. Acting as though nothing had happened. One day he smuggled in a baton—not to beat anyone, you understand. The poor woman. She made sure she screamed and screamed. How anyone could turn out that way, at that age. I’m sure they came from nice families, like our own boys, who committed such unimaginable … acts.

I was luckier; I was older. I had learned not to react. With the ‘wrong’ kind of journalist for a husband, I had plenty of training <laugh>. [K]-san counseled everyone to do the same. But the body. It does what it does, doesn’t it? Especially when fear—

[K]-san never got over it. One day, about six weeks later, she pulled me aside and asked if I’d do her a favor. She asked if I’d take her child, if something happened to her. I was surprised; I had no idea she had a child. But [K]-san had been an invaluable friend, and I had no reason to refuse or suspect her. In retrospect, I see that I had told her all about Seiji; I had exposed my … susceptibility, hadn’t I? It was three weeks after that. She asked me to watch her son for a night.

Yes, she told me she had an errand. Five days later, she turned up in the Sumida River with three beer bottles broken inside her. She had burn marks all over her body and a rope burn around her neck. After that, many of us started carrying cyanide.

Yes, the ones we were given, in case we were invaded.

No, we never found out. We assumed it had something to do with that monster, but there was no way for us to know. We were lucky enough that our manager happened to know a policeman who happened to recognize her ….

Yes, when she didn’t return for her son, I went straight to our manager. None of us had any idea where she lived. Our manager asked her policeman to look into it. It turned out [K]-san lived not five minutes away, in a tenement apartment, with two other Korean women—

Yes, I believe [K]-san was Korean.

No, she never said as much, but she told me her parents had been conscripted workers, forced into the mines.

Her Japanese was flawless. But she would’ve been a little girl when she was forced to learn—

No, the other women spoke with an accent.

Well, we didn’t ask their profession. They were terrified when we knocked, and we weren’t there to interrogate—

Yes, I suppose they could’ve been former—

[K]-san too could have been, as you say, a ‘comfort woman.’ But, frankly, that wasn’t at the forefront of my mind—

No, I hadn’t a clue. We’d heard the term, some variation or another, but we assumed it was some sort of nurse corps. Of course, insinuations were made about ‘nurse corps,’ but insinuations are always being made, aren’t they? It’s the sort of talk men enjoy over a cup, isn’t it? And even if we did suspect they were, as they say, camp followers, we never imagined a whole system of … of ….

… Thank you, sexual slavery. To think that all those tens of thousands of women ….

Yes, the Tribunals were going on at the time, but what with your censors, and the shame …. And then when it became clear that the men in the courts weren’t going to pursue anything, not even when it concerned a group of white women—Dutch, I think they were ….

When I first heard their testimonies? I couldn’t stop shivering. To come forward like that. In front of the whole world. Of course, I had to rely on subtitles and voiceovers—

<laugh> You sound just like my son. ‘Recolonization.’ He particularly abhors voiceovers. But to see their faces and hear all the things our own soldiers, our own military, had done …. Then when I saw that interview …. It was with a former Imperial Army man. He was recounting his war experiences. When the reporter asked him if he’d visited any of those ‘comfort stations,’ you should have seen his face. It lit up like a little boy’s. He had nothing but fond memories. Can you imagine? It started to make me wonder what all those American soldiers—

Oh, yes, our circumstances were very different from the women who worked—

—I’m sorry, were enslaved at the comfort stations. Of course, I heard many of them were set up like brothels. Not that that should excuse the behaviors—

No, no, I don’t mean they were brothels—

But I’m not trying to compare or ‘conflate’ my situation with—

But soldiers from one country aren’t so different from those of another, are they? Even now, wherever there are foreign soldiers, even peacekeepers …. I’ve heard that your own troops in Korea set up a similar—

But, surely, this isn’t a ‘national’ issue or a ‘historical’ one. Just last week there was that woman in Okinawa with an umbrella—

Didn’t you see it in your newspaper?

But it’s hardly an ‘isolated incident’—your government is very much involved. Do you remember that six-year-old?

No, no, I don’t mean to ‘shift the blame’; I understand you’re trying to get justice—

Yes, that Okinawan woman was, as you say, a ‘professional.’ But an umbrella

But they’re your soldiers, your men. Surely, you know what they’ve been doing in the Philippines, in Thailand—

Yes, I understand your specific mission, your specific concerns—

Yes, I’m from the perpetrator nation, but—

But what are you doing? Where are you—

No, please don’t go.

No, I’m not a comfort woman; I’m Japanese. But [K]-san was Korean; she was probably—

No, please. You must tell the world. You must—

No, please. You must stop them. You must—

No, please. Please, I promised her—I promised myself. You see, my son—her son—

Please!

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