Editor’s note: This is the tenth in a series of stories by The Garden Island marking the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, and the end of World War II.
Aiko Nakaya lived in Sapporo, in the mountains on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, during the war years.
Hours from Tokyo, hours from the heavily bombarded south, it was mostly a cove of peace compared to the rest of the nation.
There was nothing like the raids at port cities or Tokyo.
There was a joke around the city, even. American engineers had put too much work into helping build it to take part in its destruction.
“They not going to bomb Sapporo because America paid for it,” she said the rumor went.
But after the war came uncertainty.
Nakaya was in high school in August 1945 and on her way to the factory — which had all but replaced school since war was declared against the United States four years earlier — to sew uniforms and volunteer for the government, though it was required labor.
“Today, lunch hour, there’s very important news,” someone told her. “So everyone go and listen.”
She huddled over the radio with others and listened to the Emperor surrender.
“We hear that, but no feel,” the Kaumakani woman said. “I don’t know what to say, kind of sad, but not to me.”
Maybe we can relax now, she thought, instead of “pressure, pressure, pressure.”
Four years earlier, when war was declared, her reaction was that of slight joy. She was a sixth-grader, and relieved in a childlike way that she no longer had to go to school.
Japan had been warring with China, but what could be so different?
“I was happy,” she said. “We didn’t know nothing about the war.”
But after the surrender, rumors swirled, anxiety built.
After the radio announcement of surrender, she suddenly didn’t have to go back to the factory, just like she didn’t have to go to school on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
She headed for home. People were out, leaving the places where they’d just listened to the news. There had been rumors that Japan had been losing — that the local reports that they were winning were false — but walking home, it sunk in. The image she still remembers is of a Korean man, leaving a factory with a group of other Korean men, ecstatic. Were they prisoners? Forced labor? She still doesn’t know.
One man grabbed the back seat of Nakaya’s bicycle and she turned and saw his delirious, happy, smiling, menacing face, teasing her as he held the seat.
“They were so happy,” she said of the group. “Afterward, I think about how they feel. So happy. But then, at the end of the war, I was so scared.”
It was the beginning of the uncertainty. How would the locals defend themselves should the Americans — God forbid the Russians — march through? Neighbors said there would be no choice but to make knives out of sticks and attack them in the street.
“There were all kinds of rumors, you start to believe in it,” she said. “Americans are going to come in. They are going to do something. How are we going to fight with a stick?”
Students, back in school, walked in groups with chaperones for safety.
“Security,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
It would last that way for awhile. There wasn’t an overwhelming sense of defeat or depression. It was, as the saying goes, what it was. The Japanese respected Gen. Douglas MacArthur, she said.
And it was the Americans who came to town. Nakaya remembers seeing her first one. It wasn’t too alarming; Sapporo was an international city and foreigners weren’t unusual.
She eventually saw her first B-29 plane. College-aged boys started returning to town. But it took awhile for that normal feeling to return.
“That took a long, long time,” she said.
Four years after the war, in 1949, Nakaya met her husband through her uncle. The young solider, Mitsuru Nakaya of Kauai, was trying to get his teeth fixed at her uncle’s Tokyo dentist office after the G.I. dentist mangled the solider’s mouth. It took awhile for the family to warm to the U.S. solider, but they eventually did. The Nakayas moved to Kauai in 1952, and raised four boys on island.
“After is OK,” she said of her post-war experience. “I’m very lucky.”
Now, 70 years later, she said she doesn’t feel any special connection to the anniversary date. No special pull. It didn’t feel at the time that she was a part of anything remarkable because it was everyone’s normal. It still feels that way, she said. It’s just what everybody went through together.
It’s like when the plantations closed on Kauai, where her husband worked. She misses those days, but things change, and people move on.
“There’s no plantation now. I loved it, kind of dusty maybe, but comfortable, quiet,” she said. “I got to accept it.”