17 Aug 2012

A little bit more about my father

filed under: journal  :: personal

This piece was originally posted on Quora in response to this question. I wanted to re-post it here with some additions, as a part of my own history and that of my family. It contains some painful and personal/family details, for which I may incur the wrath of my relatives if they should happen to read this. For this, I apologize. But somehow I needed to tell it. It may also explain to some people why I have not responded to your condolences or attempts to reminisce about my father in the past year. For that, I also apologize.

In many ways, this is the "other side" to this.

My father barely ever talked about his childhood. I only learned of most of what's below from my uncle earlier this year.

My father was born in 1936 in Tokyo. When he was in the 3rd grade in 1944 he was sent to the countryside along with other schoolchildren his age. He was the oldest of his siblings, and the only one to be sent away since his brother and sisters were too young. This was by mandatory order of the military-controlled government; parents had no choice in the matter, and the only kids within the designated age span (grades 3 to 6 initially) allowed to stay were ones that were helping out with the family business. It wasn't even called evacuation (hinan 避難) - it was called gakudou sokai (学童疎開) which means "the movement of schoolchildren", like a military maneuver. Around 400,000 children were 'moved' nationwide. Below is just a random photo of some of these children.)

He was returned home after the war was over, a totally different person. Before he's been a sweet, happy-go-lucky kid (元気一杯, full of beans). But when he came back he was sullen and violent. He refused to tell his parents of anything that had happened during his time away, ever, but they guessed something terrible must have happened. He was also very emaciated and had several scars all over his body, and had been seriously ill.

From being a caring big brother he'd turned into a bully and a terror. He beat up his siblings frequently. He even raised his hand against his mother, although he did help her out too. One incident I do remember him telling was walking for hours and hours with his mother to get some black market food from somewhere. On the way home, his mother became so exhausted that she fell over on her back and couldn't get up, and because he too was so weak and hungry he couldn't help her out. They had to wait for someone to come along to help pull her up. For some reason he told it as a funny story though. He tended to do that - make light of dire situations. He never ever liked to show weakness.

(Another thing I remember which could be attributed to his wartime hunger and his evacuation experience: he had a lifelong habit of hoarding everything, especially food, even when there was no logical reason to. After his died when my sister was clearing out his stuff, she found 30+ boxes of pasta and tons of expired ramen packs stuffed in his closets, and even more food in a storage unit. This despite the fact that he never even cooked. The only thing he ever heated up on a stove was a kettle.)

When he grew up and became a husband and father himself, his violent behavior continued. My sister and I basically grew up in fear of him. He could be a great father sometimes, but he had these frequent unexplained fits of rage, and he would take it out on my mother, myself, my sister, even the dog. While I was a total daddy's girl when very little, as I grew older even his "nice" moments would grate on me because of his "bad" moments. (My youngest sister is 10 years younger than me, and escaped much of the violence, but had her own troubles with him.)

I'd always wondered why he was like that. My grandmother was the kindest, gentlest person on earth, and while I didn't know my grandfather much since he died when I was very young (he was never that healthy, which is one reason why he never did military service) he was by all accounts not a violent man at all. None of my aunts and uncles showed any signs of being like my father was that I can recall.

I hated my father for much of my adolescence and into my 20s, especially after my parents divorced. I didn't speak to him at all for years. We sort of reconciled after a while, but a part of me could never forgive him. I was nice to him when we met, but he lived in New York and I lived elsewhere so I saw him at most once a year. He wrote me frequent letters but I answered maybe one out of 10, always muttering to myself why he couldn't learn how to use email already.

Last year I had a serious illness of my own, so I ignored all of his letters, intending to answer them later when I was feeling better. Then the day I got out of hospital in late November, I got the news that he had been found dead in his bedroom. And in February after his memorial service, my uncle (his youngest brother) handed me a long document he'd put together detailing the family's history, and my father's history. And the part about his experience as a young boy, and his changed character after the evacuation camp, was in there.

I wonder now, whether my feelings and attitude towards him would have been different if I had known about his childhood experience much earlier. Maybe, maybe not.

It's too late now, anyway.

Some footnotes

  • My mother was born in November 1941. She grew up in a small town in Saitama, close to Tokyo but a world away. She never remembers being hungry, since her father was a prominent man in her town and her mother was able to grow vegetables in their field with the help of a live-in housekeeper who was a distant relative. It's like my parents were in two different countries, just by a small distance in time and space.
  • I have always wondered a bit about my grandfather, my father's father. As I've told before here my grandparents were Christians and Salvation Army officers. That was highly unusual then, as it is even now, and being a Christian during the war must have been very difficult since it was the religion of the enemy. I have no idea if he or my grandmother were persecuted in any way though.
  • I think one reason why my father loved America so much was that after the war, the GIs and other Americans who came as part of, or with, the occupying forces gave him food. He made it his life's passion to become fluent in English, and he succeeded at that wonderfully. He even kept his diary during his last years in English only, in perfectly formed handwriting.

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