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A long life of peace that sprung from war

A retired politician recounts how hardship and luck shaped her future

by Sayuri Daimon

Twelfth in a series

Tenkoko Sonoda recalls that when the war ended on Aug. 15, 1945, she was left with an unanswered question: Why had she survived when so many of her close friends and neighbors had died?

Three times during the war she had somehow come out alive after U.S. air raids.

Now an 88-year-old retired politician from Tokyo, Sonoda, whose maiden name was Matsutani before she married Sunao Sonoda after the war, vividly remembers a U.S. air raid on a navy factory in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Prefecture, where she was a contract worker for the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The usual practice at such factories was to issue a number to each worker corresponding to an air raid shelter. Sonoda remembers running to her assigned shelter during an attack.

“But when I got there, the iron door was already closed. So I banged on the door and screamed, ‘I’m supposed to be in this shelter. Please open the door,’ but someone inside immediately responded that the shelter was full and told me to go to another,” Sonoda said in an interview with The Japan Times.

She rushed to the next shelter. As soon as she got inside, the shelter she was supposed to be in suffered a direct hit and was completely destroyed.

“Everyone in that shelter died. The person who made a mistake and entered the shelter died in my place,” Sonoda said.

Making the rounds of navy factories as a counselor for female workers, she could sense Japan was losing the war. Scarce daily supplies at the navy’s facilities belied the propaganda disseminated by military authorities.

“One day, I went to the officer in charge of public relations and complained about the media reports, which only spoke of Japan’s victories when it was obvious that we were losing. ‘Why are you telling lies to the Japanese people?’ I asked him,” she said.

The officer told her that she was too young to understand the situation and that it was necessary for the military to keep telling people that Japan was winning. “Otherwise, we cannot win this war,” Sonoda recalled him saying.

After Tsuchiura, she survived two more U.S. bombings before the war ended.

Taking shelter in a warehouse in Kawasaki, she was relieved when the surrender came in August 1945. Her home in Tokyo’s Ueno district had burned to the ground in a May 1945 air raid that left much of Tokyo in ashes.

“I thought I didn’t have to worry about being killed by U.S. warplanes anymore. My fear was gone, but instead, a daunting question remained.” For weeks, the young woman shut herself away, asking herself why her life had been spared.

Everything changed that Oct. 1 when she heard a returned soldier speak on NHK radio.

The soldier described returning from the war only to find that everyone in his family had died. With nowhere to go, he ended up at Ueno Station and encountered a scene of devastation: The bodies of many who had starved to death littered the station, while others wandered around begging for food.

” ‘There is no guarantee that I won’t become one of them. How can I go on?’ the soldier asked. When I heard his words, I felt ashamed because I was only thinking of myself. People were suffering and struggling to survive. I felt I must go to the station and see the reality,” she said.

She persuaded her father to take her to Ueno Station. There, they saw the station full of homeless people and orphans, while the stench of corpses filled the air.

“Seeing that, I felt strongly that people who survived the war must not die of famine. We must work together to grow plants and trees again and rebuild the city,” she said.

On their way home through the Shinjuku district, her father encouraged her to tell the people on the crowded street what she had seen and how she felt. Although she had never made a public speech before, she was overwhelmed by what she had witnessed and words poured from her mouth.

“We must contribute our wisdom to survive and rebuild Japan,” Sonoda recalled telling the crowd. “Because I was a young woman, I think many people thought I was strange and stopped to listen to me.”

From that day, she made daily speeches at the same place and the crowds in front of her grew day by day. One day, a man came up and said, “The government is stockpiling rice while Japanese people are starving. Let’s set fire to the storehouse.”

Shocked by such a violent proposal, she immediately confronted the man. She told him, “If we set a fire, there will be a riot. We should instead petition the government to open up the storehouse and ration out the rice to the public.”

Thus, on Dec. 1, 1945, the 26-year-old activist and her supporters went to the Diet and demanded to see Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara, only to be rebuffed by the guard at the entrance.

Overhearing her quarrel with the guard, Japan Socialist Party member Jiichiro Matsumoto invited the young woman to speak her mind.

“I’ll bring my colleagues, so wait here,” Matsumoto told her and brought back four other Diet members — Tetsu Katayama, who later became prime minister, Suehiro Nishio, Rikizo Hirano and Inejiro Asanuma. All went on to become key JSP leaders.

Sonoda said she asked them to distribute the government’s rice stock to prevent riots and allow people who had lost their homes to stay at now vacant military facilities.

Crying, she spoke for 50 minutes while the lawmakers listened to her with tears in their eyes.

Later in the day, with the help of the lawmakers, she was able to appeal directly to the prime minister, and her group’s wishes were realized two weeks later.

Such actions propelled Sonoda to the Diet in 1946 as the youngest female politician among 39 women elected in the first postwar general election.

She made headlines as well when she married. Her husband, an influential politician from the rival Democratic Party who later held a number of Cabinet posts, including foreign minister, had left his wife to marry her.

Although Sonoda turns 89 next month, she keeps herself busy serving in executive posts at various organizations and going to meetings, speaking about her war experiences and the importance of peace.

“War destroys everything we created with our wisdom. War is hatred, and nothing can be born out of hatred,” she stressed in a clear voice. “I really wish for a world without war, as I believe maintaining peace is foremost for the happiness of all the people.”

Sonoda also said that world peace depends on children, and adults have to create an environment where children from different countries and cultures can understand and respect each another.

“Only by doing so, can true world peace be achieved,” she said. “I think the last job of my life is to teach the importance of peace to children. Maybe that’s why God has saved my life so many times.”

Read more articles in the series Witness to War.