War and Natural Disasters
Dear Family and Friends,
After the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and as Thanksgiving approaches, maybe the following wise reminiscences are very pertinent.
Tsuyoshi Minegeshi San was born in 1928. That was a very precarious time in world history. He, like so many others, was educated to believe in nationalism and duty to his country. At age 16 he went to a special school that would prepare him for war. He was pleased to be there and felt superior because of his uniform and healthy food. Likewise, he got a blanket, special sweet bean cakes, and coupons for cigarettes. He also was not a regular foot soldier, so felt professional and proud.
This special corps was very hard to get into, and Minegeshi San was the only one selected from Miyagi Prefecture. The entrance examination involved not only a written test and interviews, but also a long investigation into several generations of his family. At some point one of his uncles had been in the Emperor’s exclusive military, which added greatly to Minegeshi San’s credentials.
Minegeshi San fought in WW II. He witnessed and was part of shocking happenings. He will always remember August 15, 1945, hearing the Emperor’s speech of surrender. It came as a complete shock to him, then 18 years old. “My whole life and focus had been on the nationalistic training and propaganda of the government. When that collapsed, I was confused and uncertain where to turn. As I left the army, I was fortunate to be given a blanket and food to see my home. But people were desperately poor then, so I was robbed even before I had gotten out of Tokyo.
“It was also strange for me to see the Japanese Army and how it changed. The Emperor and government wanted to be sure there was no trouble as the country pulled itself out of the devastation of war. So the army changed from being the aggressors, to becoming a group whose mission was to protect the American military in Japan.
“Everyone was so poor then. And the yen was worth so little against the dollar. So we would rummage through rubbish bins, especially ones near American military bases. Whatever we could salvage we either used or sold. We lived from hand to mouth.
“Surprisingly, after Tokyo, Sendai had the second largest army base in Japan. That is where many American troops were sent. I volunteered there when I first got home. I was amazed by little things. For example, American GIs ate carrots, cucumbers and onions raw! I’d never seen anything like that in my life. We always cooked or salted our vegetables, but there they were stuffing them down completely raw. Even though I eat salad now, the image and feeling of surprise are still with me.
“We were also astonished to see huge American tankers arrive. They brought gasoline since there wasn’t any here. They also brought in American food for the GIs. I learned about coke and got lots of chocolate. The coke tasted better back then. And the bottles were in the shape of a sexy woman. We all loved that, of course. Now coke isn’t the same, so I don’t go near the stuff.”
I asked him the differences between war and the recent tragedies. He threw back his head and said, “Completely different. Completely different.
“War involved the entire country. And it was based on a questionable mindset. The propaganda machine was in full operation, so news was distorted and controlled. And there was also ongoing hunger and fear. Before and during the war the plight of women was hard. There was a lot of repression and they had no vote. Now their lives are so much better.
In addition, farms back then were huge and owned by a few wealthy families. The farmers who worked the land were almost life serfs. They were always hard working, but very poor. After the war those huge tracts were broken up and the farmers themselves got parcels of the land. So the entire structure of society changed. So our minds and hearts had to adjust to a whole way of thought that was different from what we had been trained to believe.
“The recent earthquake and tsunami devastation were terrible, as we all know. And in many places things are still very bad. But that disaster was immediate and did not destroy the entire nation. Likewise, the system of government and the general running of society were not ruptured. So, even though we are still struggling, we are all working together in a land of peace and hope.
“The Fukushima nuclear problem, though, is another matter. It is much more complex. It involves not only the devastation of the plant, but also the land and sea around it. It took away the livelihood of so many, the childhood of the young, and the people’s trust in the government. It is a terrible, ongoing tragedy.
“Yet at the same time through all these dark days, the structure of society has held. As individuals we are all evolving our way of thinking about life, and hopefully that will bring about positive results for this country as a whole.
“We Japanese have always had cycles of hard times. In fact, we actually expect them. And we don’t give up. So I am confident we’ll get through this challenging time and be stronger for it.”
“If there is anything I would tell young people, it is this. Everything changes. Today maybe you are rich. Tomorrow you could be poor. Today you are well. Tomorrow you might become ill. We are here today, now. Tomorrow we have no idea. So be active. Create peace wherever you are. That is something that we hope will last – but only if we make every effort to manifest it and then to keep it alive.”