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.
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
return, but with no remains, of the soldiers who became the first gyokusai
 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.
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.
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