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At 81, a Japanese Woman Tweets to Remember the Terror of War

まっちゃこさんと両親と弟。1939年頃、神戸市東灘区にて。許可を得て使用。

Macchako, her parents and her brother in Kobe in 1939. Used with permission.

As Japan has recently armed itself with legislation allowing the country to go to war after 70 years of official pacifism, some Japanese are reflecting on the bitter experiences of the Second World War.

Japan actively participated in the Second World War, invading China and widening the conflict to fighting allied American and British forces across Southeast Asia. After Japan's main cities were destroyed in a sea of fire, and atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese emperor announced the end of the war in a radio address on August 15, 1945.

According to the Japanese government, more than 80 percent of Japanese people were born after the Second World War. Not even considering people who fought on the frontlines or experienced the destruction of war, there are very few Japanese alive today who have childhood memories of the conflict.

Those few who still have recollections of the war feel there is a need to express their experiences and share them publicly.

My mother, who goes by the Twitter handle “@まっちゃこ” (Macchako), has been sharing her experience of the war on the social network. On the 70th anniversary of the end of combat, my mother published a series of short tweets.

August 15, 1945, was a hot day!

This tweet alone received more re-tweets than some photos she had published of a recent trip (most of her Twitter contacts are younger people who share similar interests in travel and Japanese entertainment personalities).

On August 15, 1945, I was a fifth-grade elementary school student. I was playing a game outside with the other kids in the neighborhood. Everything changed in an instant.

Four years earlier the war started (on December 8, 1941) while I was still in first grade.

Fujita-sensei, our homeroom teacher, had informed us of this news in the strictest possible way. We weren't surprised because Japan had already been at war before.

During the 1930s, Japan employed a variety of schemes to invade China, gradually increasing the scope of the conflict there.

As the public's appetite for fighting increased, in 1940 Japan entered into an “Axis” alliance with Germany and Italy. The event was celebrated by giving young Japanese children flags of the three Axis powers:

When I was in kindergarten we were made to sing a song with the lyrics, “Japan and Germany and Italy will always be great friends.”

As an elementary school student I returned to kindergarten to help make flags of the three Axis powers.

Of course, the Japanese flag was the easiest to make. At the time Japan had not yet joined the war.

And all three Axis countries would be defeated in the war. And we were allied with Hitler's Germany! I shudder now just thinking about it.

At the start of the war, Japan presented itself as helping the small countries of Asia stand up to the rest of the world. Japanese people at the time enthusiastically supported Japan's war effort.

Opposition to the war at home was brutally crushed. Anyone in Japan who publicly opposed the war was jailed and tortured according to Japan's wartime Public Security Peace Preservation Laws (治安維持法) and would be publicly ostracized.

‘All we could see was a sea of fire’

Macchako was born in Kobe, in Hyogo Prefecture, and she experienced the massive bombing of the city on June 5, 1945. Studio Ghibli's animated film Grave of the Fireflies” depicts the bombing of Kobe and other cities by Allied forces towards the end of the war in 1945.

Her parents ran a confectionery shop in Kobe's Higashi Nada Ward. Including Macchako and her two siblings, there were five people in the family.

Because Macchako's father lived with a chronic illness he was not sent to the front. Wartime food rationing made it difficult to continue with the family business. By the time Macchako was in the fourth grade in 1944 and the end of the war was drawing near, air raid sirens would often end the school day early.

The next year, in 1945, shortly after Macchako had turned 11 years old, her father became the caretaker to a wealthy family's home.

The entire family moved in together, and one early morning a week later Kobe experienced a massive air raid:

On June 5, 1945, when I was in fifth grade, our family went to an air raid shelter after the sirens sounded. Oh no! Our house would be burned down!

“Don't worry, your father and I will put out the fire. You children go to where it's safe–Shonin Hill Temple [outside of the urban area],” said my mother.

With my 4-year-old sister slung on my back I could not walk one step. So my 6-year-old brother and my sister pulled me up to the temple.

All we could see was a sea of fire. Small balls of fire bounced on the ground like flaming coins.

Although the children took shelter in a graveyard halfway to the temple, they were still hunted by machine gun fire and could not get to the temple itself.

The road to the Shonin Hill Temple was famous for luxurious mansions of wealthy merchants. In the distance we could hear the thud of exploding bombs. We took shelter in a ditch, and I made by brother and sister plug their ears with their thumbs, cover their eyes with their fingers and lie face down. They listened to what I said.

When we looked up we saw, 30 meters away, people who had taken shelter in a graveyard. Copying them, we took shelter in the graveyard too. A mansion to the left of us burst into flames.

In the back part of the air raid shelter there was a statue of a Bodhisattva. About 20 people had crowded into the shelter, and there was a girl even younger than me holding a baby. A crazed woman started chanting a prayer in a terrified shriek.

Suddenly the woman called out to me, “How come you're not helping care for the baby here?”

I replied weakly, “Because they aren't from our family.”

Once the bombing had stopped, the children were able to reunite with their mother, who had come looking for them.

Once the bombing appeared to have stopped and we went outside, staff from the temple gave everyone one piece of tempura in the main hall. While I received a piece of battered lotus root, I gave it without thinking to the younger girl.

After that I always had the bad habit of pretending to be cooler than I really was, lol.

My mother, who had thought we had escaped further into the hills, finally found us at the graveyard, and cried as she met us.

A sooty rain fell down on us, turning our faces pitch black.

They returned to the city to find the house they were living in, as well as the family store, burned to the ground.

Once the enemy planes had gone, we returned to our flattened home where small flames still guttered and burned.

Our father had returned to carry what he could from the house, but all he could salvage were two photo albums and a cask of rice. He waited a long time before trying to open it, but once he did the cask emitted a cloud of ash.

I burst out crying because I felt pity for my father. Or was I crying because I myself had nothing to eat?

‘This was the first time I had ever seen a corpse’

Macchako's Twitter friends said her tweets made them cry. However, her subsequent recollections exposed even more trauma.

The day after the air raid Macchako's parents went to check on a neighbor. They could find no trace of this person, who was so close she may as well have been a member of the family.

She was a woman without any other family who had lived in a space at the family confectionery and had looked after Macchako and her brother and sister.

There were witnesses who said she had left the air raid shelter during the middle of the raid. “Could it be?” my father asked himself as he dug around in the burnt out ruins of our confectionery shop with a hoe…

“Could it be here?” A bone appeared. Her body was a burnt brick of olive brown. I was 11 years old and this was the first time I had ever seen a corpse that looked like this.

While it was not normal at that time to express one's thoughts openly, the victims of the bombing were also victims of Japan's Imperial regime.

While my parents had been entrusted with her care, she had no family or relatives. Every day she had subsisted on a ration of just 330 grams of rice, and grumbled when the ration was reduced to 300 grams.

She had done a good job while looking after my brother and sister. She had also used a newspaper clipping of the emperor mounted on a horse as a chamber pot for my younger sister.

“If they catch me doing this I'll be arrested for lese majeste,” she had said.

At the time photos of the emperor were venerated as religious objects. During the war, dying for the emperor was considered to be the supreme service one could provide to their country. Even as it was obvious that Japan was losing, the destruction continued under the slogan “100 million shattered jewels” (一億玉砕, ichioku gyokusai; Japan's population at the time was about 100 million people).

‘Be prepared. The winds of change are upon us’

After being manipulated by a wartime government and a media that glorified the conflict, many Japanese resolved to never allow their children to experience war for a second time.

During the seven-year-long American-led occupation, Japan's postwar constitution renouncing war was enacted. Many Japanese people were proud and pleased their country had developed a global reputation as a pacifist country.

But in August 2015, efforts by the Abe government to pass a legislative framework that would allow Japan to go to war again dominated the country's media coverage of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

After Macchako's family lost their house in that very conflict, they stayed with relatives for several days. After that, they moved to an acquaintance's house in the mountains of the rural and remote Shimane Prefecture, where they lived as evacuees until the end of the war.

While the family experienced some hardship being cut off from the rest of the world in rural Shimane, what was different from their experiences as evacuees compared to the children in “Grave of the Fireflies” was that they did not starve.

Macchako avoided that fate by a razor's edge, and lived the next 70 years singing the praises of a peaceful Japan.

In fact, I grew up listening to my mother's stories of the air raid.

“Even if I get old and senile and can't recognize your face, I'll keep telling the story of the air raids,” she says. “Be prepared. The winds of change are upon us, and the world back then is not so very far away from us now. We must never let war happen again.”

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