I asked my grandma about the war when I was in fourth grade. I’d just learned about the World Wars in history that week, learning for the first time about the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States. I still remember how many of my classmates, and even my teacher, had looked directly at me after discussing the Japanese involvement in the war. I was one of two Asian kids in my entire school, and the other was Filipino. I’d wanted to hide under my desk and my face burned with my discomfort.
“Do you remember the bombs?” I asked her.
We hadn’t talked much about my grandmother’s life in Japan up to that point. My Aunt Etsuko had just come into our lives, and I had only gotten bits and pieces since then—things that I needed to know to understand what was going on, but not anymore than that. There had been some things from Japan that my grandma had passed on to us: kimonos, getta shoes, geisha dolls, folk songs, food—trivial things that I could learn from the internet if I really wanted to, nothing personal. But now I’d been exposed to enough of hers and Japan’s past to be curious.
I wanted answers, I wanted to know.
My grandma contemplated the question for a moment, taking her time to come up with an answer. I waited patiently, letting myself get distracted by the decorations in her room. To this day I like to refer to my grandma’s bedroom as “Little, Little Tokyo” because it is and always has been the most Japanese room in all our homes.
“I was very little,” she began. “Eight or nine years old. I was outside catching bugs with my younger brother, the first born of the two boys and the third born of the five of us. Nobuhiko. We had glass jars to catch them with, and then there was a boom and a shake and I fell to the ground.”
She rolled up her pant leg then to show me a white scar on her right knee. “This is where I cut myself. The jar broke when I fell and it stabbed me.”
“Were you living in Hiroshima?” I’d asked.
She shook her head, slowly. She’d always been very gestural in her speaking and used lots of verbal confirmations that she was listening to you. Now that I’ve been to Japan in my adult years and spent more time with other Japanese people, I know that this is a cultural characteristic, one that I personally quite enjoy.
“No,” she said. “I was a couple hour away from Nagasaki. Close enough to feel it, far enough not to be hurt by it.”
I nodded in response, not sure what else to say.
“You know, Megan,” she said, her face scrunched up in concentration and looking that the ground to the side of me. She did this a lot when talking to me about something serious, still does today. “War is a terrible thing. It ruins everything! I don’t ever want to experience that sort of thing again and I’m glad that you and your mama have never had to see war. That is why I come to America—because I want a better life for me and my children and grandchildren. Japan was completely changed by the world. It was very sad, very damaged, you know.” She paused, staring at the same spot on the floor and nodding her head rhythmically. “War ruins everything, Megan. Everything.”