…echoes of the Sino-Japanese war...
I stood outside my apartment door staring at it and not very far from crying--jet-lag messes up with your brain, they say. I agree.
I found myself locked out of my apartment the morning after I arrived in Tokyo to take up a lecturing position at a local university. To be more precise, I was locked out not because I had lost my key but because I did not know how to use this damn-weird-swipe-card-of-a-key.
I was terribly jet-lagged, hot and very frustrated. The typhoon season humidity was building up to unbearable levels. Great start, I had thought to myself.
My only connection to a help line was a Japanese phone lent to me by a friend who kept it for her visits to the country but which I had not yet managed to figure out. My efforts thus to calling my hosting professor were not met with success.
There was nobody around. Even if there was anyone around, on a Sunday morning, in a very suburban silent neighborhood in the outskirts of Tokyo, I would have been very lucky indeed if we could have communicated with each other. My Japanese was practically non-existent and English proficiency in the Japanese population is not that high. Not that one expects the world to speak English for their convenience.
Just as I was about to sit on my door step to contemplate on my new life in Tokyo and its rather unpleasant beginning, there was rescue coming my way. A woman appeared coming out of an apartment three or four doors down the open ground corridor. I did not even wait for her to come closer. I started calling, waving my hands in case my non-Japaneseness rendered me invisible.
She walked towards me answering in fluent English, much to my relief. A young, taller than the average, Japanese woman, with very short hair, perhaps in her early 30s--it’s hard to tell with Asian women--and very factual in her behavior. It was strange I had noticed that, as if I had sensed in her the very quality I needed right at that moment, someone practical.
I was not in the mood to socialize, just someone to help me unlock my door. She showed me how to use my swipe key and then she gave me a short but easy to follow demonstration on how to use my phone, entered her number in the contacts, in case I needed her again, and went away. I think she sensed I would need her again.
And that is how I met my rescue Angel ‘made in Japan’ or rather “remade in Japan”, as her story would reveal later. Noriko was her name. “Nice to meet you Noriko”, I said as we parted, the tone in my voice infusing this standard polite expression with the most heartfelt feeling.
I did not see her much after that first day. At one time, on the phone, she explained how I could get my internet connection up and running. And she did come once after calling her, at another moment of frustration that involved soapy hair and cold water, to show me how to use the complex dual functions of Japanese shower/bath system which were mind boggling to me. Anyone who has been to Japan can tell you how entertaining but rather confusing, translations into English, instructions can be. Alas, I was not even given the chance to be amused, all instructions in my apartment came in Japanese. I was living in the midst of Japanese suburbia, far out from Tokyo’s cosmopolitan center.
She was indeed my guardian angel on domestic issues. I remember--I had noticed back then--how unusually direct her behavior was, very atypical to my other Japanese encounters which seemed to be bound to the incredibly complicated, for a foreigner, kata system of elaborate rules and indirect communication.
Closer to my departure, I called to ask if she was interested in taking any of the meager possessions I had accumulated to furnish my rather Spartan looking apartment. She had moved to another place but she would be happy to come around, she replied. Reliable as always.
That last meeting with Noriko was also the most substantial we had in our short acquaintance. I offered her tea, we sat on the floor in my tiny and now empty looking sitting room and she told me about her life. An abbreviated version of it, but one that offered me a glimpse into the Sino-Japanese war history and its rippling effects on ordinary people on both sides for several generations. The kind of history historians leave out of their books when they decide to tell their stories through the voice of those powerful men that made those disastrous decisions.
“I came from China, with my family, when I was 18 years old. Although I grew up Chinese, I am in fact half-Japanese.” She knew she had my attention right then. Noriko, I think, was accustomed to getting this reaction.
Her story was perhaps well rehearsed and most likely frequently shared with those foreigners who picked up the ambivalent nature of her identity and, I am sure, the countless locals who instinctively knew she was not one of them. And this is how I came to learn about a part of north East Asian history--through the mouth of someone who lived it first hand.
Her mother, she continued without further probing, was Japanese born in Manchuria or Manchukuo as it was called at the time, a part of China the Japanese had colonized before World War II and used as a base from which to invade China. Noriko’s maternal grandparents, like thousands of Japanese settler-farmers, were brought to the colony with their families during the 30s. They farmed the land given to them until the war started, at which point they knew they had to leave. Their poverty and many children pushed them to make a hard decision. They left behind their youngest daughter, a toddler, with a Chinese neighboring family, in hope that one day they could come back for her or perhaps, as she was so young, she would soon forget her own family and assimilate.
A map of the Manchukuo, 1939. Dates shown indicate the approximate year that Japan gain control of the possession (Wikimedia commons)
This was no dissimilar to many other stories from that period. In the confusion that ensued at the end of the war, many Japanese orphans were left behind and adopted by Chinese families. Most of these orphans and adults were girls and women who ended up marrying Chinese men, known as “stranded war wives” (zanryu fujin). Many of them integrated well into the Chinese society.
The Chinese family of Noriko’s mother brought her up like one of their own and protected her throughout the war and during the infamous cultural revolution. It was indeed amazing that all those Chinese people, in her immediate environment, who knew of her Japanese background never sought to betray her to authorities, as an act of revenge against the Japanese atrocities committed against the Chinese population during the war. On the contrary, they went out of their way to protect her identity.
Noriko’s mother grew up Chinese, any Japanese she spoke as a toddler almost forgotten. She married a Chinese man and mothered two children, Noriko and her brother. When Japan offered citizenship to all those people like Noriko’s mother and their families in the 80s, like many others, they decided to move to Japan knowing nothing of this country, its customs and its language, in hope for a better future for their children.
Their newly-acquired Japanese status did not proof them against the hardships of migration, neither did it make it easier for them to be accepted. They had little option but to take up factory work. But like all new migrant parents, all their efforts went to provide new opportunities for their children, insisting that they get a good education for a better future.
Noriko went to night school to learn Japanese and persevered so much that she qualified for the university entrance exams which are notoriously difficult in Japan. She got a degree in interpretation studies, which explained her very good English, and found work as an interpreter for Japanese and Chinese businessmen, traveling frequently back and forth to China where she felt at home and where she met her Chinese husband who she brought back to Japan and who in his turn struggled to adjust without the language and forced to do a laborer’s work.
She ended her story just as we finished our last sips of green tea. I felt I was granted private audience to a very special oral history performance narrated by an ordinary person affected by the big events of history. Noriko belonged to the breed of ‘in-betweeners’, those who are from neither here or there, those who feel comfortable on either side but are not seen by others as belonging on their side.
Noriko packed her car with my no longer needed possessions and my suitcase and drove me to the hotel I was staying at that last night in Tokyo. I had run out of business cards, she gave me an old card of hers where she wrote her new email address which I lost.
She was one of those encounters that come to your rescue at a moment of crisis.
* Top page icon: Manchuguo propaganda poster advocating co-operation with Japanese: "With the cooperation of Japan, China, and Manchukuo, the world can be in peace." (Wikipedia commons)