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My Grandmother's Nameplate
by Kenji Ojima
Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture
Messages of Peace from Chiran
13th Annual Speech Contest, 2002
First Prize, Adult Division

During World War II, an especially fine nameplate hung at the entrance to our house. It was a tin nameplate with a Japanese flag on the top part, and "home of patriotic mother" was written in white on a blue background. It was a tribute to my grandmother, who had sent off my father and two uncles to the war. In the entire village there were few homes that had this type of nameplate, and as a child it was something of which I was very proud.

After sending off three children to the front, my grandmother, who had not been able to attend school beyond the third grade of elementary school, suddenly began practicing the characters of the Japanese alphabet. It was because she really wanted to be in touch through letters with her faraway children. However, this was unimaginably hard after finishing grueling farm work each day without her home's workers. She said aloud character after character to remember them, using a wooden box cover instead of a desk under a dim lamp. It took her a week to finish one letter as she tried to make sure it was correct. Even though someone offered to write a letter for her when seeing her difficulties, she would say, "I would not be satisfied with that." She never let another person write for her.

"Please do not get sick, and work with all your strength for the Emperor." These are the words my grandmother wrote to end the letters.

In those days the war was becoming fiercer every day. We captured Attu Island and Kiska Island in the Aleutians in order to seize a strategic location as an advance base near the Japanese mainland. However, at the same time as the Japanese occupation, there was a fierce counterattack by the Americans.

In such conditions, the attack suddenly became fiercer in May 1943. Imperial Headquarters gave up on the rescue of Attu Island. It became a battleground that was abandoned. Commanding officer Yamazaki radioed a farewell message prior to an attack leading to his unit's death, "We will make an assault with departed spirits." In turn, he encouraged the officers and men under his command, "Display the spirit of the Imperial Army with honor by completing devoting yourselves." Everyone listened quietly, prayed toward the far off Imperial Palace, shouted "banzai" three times, and made an assault at the American army.

The triumphal return, but with no remains, of the soldiers who became the first gyokusai [1] unit in World War II started at the beginning of October. Among those returning was my youngest uncle.

At the end of October a village funeral for my uncle took place. His photo, a memorial tablet, and a white wooden box wrapped in white cloth were placed on an altar. The village mayor, the elementary school principal, selected students, and others stood in a line at the front of the ceremonial hall. It was a funeral service attended by the entire village, just like the name "village funeral" says.

My grandmother's figure was at the very front of those present. During the ceremony she stared at my uncle's photograph sitting up straight with both hands together. The spirit of this patriotic mother whose figure from behind did not quiver seemed to be floating on air.

My grandmother, standing at the gateway after the ceremony, did not show a tear as she continued to greet politely each person who attended the funeral. It was when the final mourner had left. My grandmother suddenly turned on her heels, dashed to the house entrance, hit the nameplate two or three times with her tightly clenched fist, and rushed into the house. I, startled at her sudden behavior, tried to follow after her. In a corner of the dim room, my grandmother's figure huddled with rounded shoulders was sobbing with a muffled voice. Her shoulders were trembling slightly. That figure was not the brave patriotic mother seen up to then. Losing her precious child, she was nothing but a mother choked with tears. My grandmother suddenly seemed small and frail.

Fifty years have quickly passed since my grandmother passed away, and this April we held a memorial service for the fiftieth anniversary of her death.

Strangely, this same year the Cabinet decided on three pieces of emergency legislation, and there was a live broadcast on TV of the special committee debate at the Diet. If this legislation passes, it does not appear that there is a hidden risk of constraints on basic human rights of life and private property and the freedom of speech and expression. The proponents emphasized the need for a constitutional change with the slogan, "if you are prepared, there is no worry." However, this can be said related to natural disasters, but war, terrorism, and guerilla warfare are social phenomena carried out by people.

Therefore, assuming something does occur, one must not only deal with the situation in the best way possible, one must search for the causes of the incident and must "prepare" by taking steps so it will not occur again.

The grievous road walked then by my grandmother as Japan's course must never be seen again.

I have been thinking I want to seriously reconsider with what love my grandmother wrote her letters character by character, the meaning of her violently striking the nameplate meant to be a tribute to her, and the significance of the tears she shed with trembling shoulders.


1. Gyokusai literally means "jewel shattering" in Japanese. During World War II, this term connoted an honorable death in defense of the country. Soldiers in a gyokusai unit would die either fighting to the death or committing suicide to prevent capture.

Translated by Bill Gordon
August 2004