Warren Nobuaki Iwatake’s family has seen more than its share of calamity.
When he was still a child his father was lost at sea off Hawaii. With no breadwinner, his family was forced to move to Japan, where Iwatake was drafted during the war. He lost a brother when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.
But through it all one thing has remained constant.
His parents bought it in 1937, and his family has brought it out every Christmas without fail, even when that meant risking arrest.
“This tree was a shining light, because it was a symbol of unity in my family,” Iwatake said as he and his wife put the final touches on the frail, 1-meter-tall heirloom that is, once again this year, the centerpiece of their small, neatly kept Tokyo apartment.
“We have put this tree up every year for 70 years.”
Though he considers himself Buddhist, Iwatake was raised in a Christian tradition. He still keeps a photo of the tiny wooden church on Maui, Hawaii, where he and his five brothers went to services and Sunday school.
Christmas was always a special time.
His father worked at a merchandise store, and Iwatake remembers the day he came home with a tree. It was nothing all that special, just metal and plastic, the kind of decoration that can easily be placed on a table, or in a corner somewhere. He got a string of lights, too, the kind with the big bulbs.
Soon after, his father was lost in a fishing accident. His body was never found.
Iwatake’s mother had relatives in Japan, and took Iwatake’s younger brothers there. Iwatake stayed behind to graduate from high school. In 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, he moved to Japan as well.
“Things were pretty bad,” he said. “There were war clouds hanging everywhere.”
The United States and Britain were the enemy, and Japan clamped down on overt displays of anything Western, including Christianity. Though they had grown up speaking English, Iwatake and his brothers communicated solely in Japanese and did their best to hide their past.
But their mother refused to give up on the tree.
“She was in charge and she wanted to put it up,” Iwatake said. “During the war years, we had to do that in secret because in wartime Japan it was not welcome. We could have been arrested.”
To keep the neighbors from asking questions, his mother found a place for it in the back of their house, on the second floor, away from the windows.
“We were afraid they would report it to the police, or become suspicious about why we were harboring Western things,” he said. “But we were brought up in the American way of life. It is something that you cannot forget. It really is something from the heart.”
The year after that first Christmas in Hiroshima, Iwatake went to Tokyo to study economics at a university. At Christmas, he directed a school play, a nativity story, again keeping it secret so that the authorities wouldn’t get involved.
Then, in 1943, he was drafted and sent to Chichijima, a tiny island that virtually no one has heard of. To get there, you go out to the middle of nowhere, and turn south.
In 1944, Iwatake boarded a transport ship from Yokohama to assume his duties at a radio monitoring post on the remote crag. The ship was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine, but he survived and was put on an oil tanker.
On the island, Iwatake’s English skills were put to use listening in on U.S. military communications, and keeping watch over a handful of captured American pilots whose planes had been shot down on their way to and from bombing raids on Tokyo.
One day, he was in the hills digging bunkers when he heard that a plane had just been shot down. He saw a lone pilot on a bright yellow life raft paddling furiously away from the island. American planes provided cover, and the submarine USS Finback surfaced and collected him.
The aviator was 20-year-old George H. W. Bush, who would later become president. Iwatake met him years later and went back with him to the island. Signed photos of the two, smiling, are placed prominently about Iwatake’s apartment.
But another American left a deeper impression on Iwatake’s life.
Captured POWs were forced to monitor U.S. radio traffic. One of them was Warren Vaughn, a Texan.
“One night after a bath we were walking back and I fell into a bomb pit,” Iwatake said. “It was pitch black and I couldn’t get out. He reached to me and said to take his hand. He pulled me out.”
Vaughn was monitoring the day Iwojima fell. Japan’s defeat was virtually assured. Soon after, several naval officers called Vaughn and took him to the beach. “He turned before he left and gave me a sad look,” Iwatake said.
For no apparent reason, Vaughn was beheaded, and his body dumped into the sea.
The atrocities committed against the POWs — which included acts of cannibalism — remained largely a secret for the next 50 years. But Iwatake said he did not want Vaughn’s memory to die.
“I thought the best way of remembering him was to adopt his first name,” Iwatake said.
Japan surrendered in August 1945, and Iwatake returned home in December.
“I used to think of those joyous days in Hawaii at Christmas, when we had food and treats,” he said. “On Chichijima, we were starving.”
But Hiroshima was even worse.
“Everything was bad, nothing was left,” he said. “I couldn’t even think of the joys of what I experienced in Hawaii.”
Iwatake’s younger brother Takashi had been in the center of the city attending school. His body, like their father’s, was never found.
The Iwatake home was in the eastern part of the city, behind a small hill that provided a buffer from the blast. The front end was crushed and burned, but the back stood largely intact.
And that was where the tree was.
“Japan had surrendered, there was no food, nothing to celebrate,” he said. “Everybody was in shock and a sad state, but we put it up. My mother put it up.”
After the war, Iwatake became an interpreter for the U.S. government. He moved to Tokyo, and from 1950 he took responsibility for the family tree.
At first, putting it up was more of a simple tradition than anything else.
His family was once again spreading out. At one stage, four brothers, including Iwatake, worked for the Occupation forces as interpreters and translators. He eventually went back to Tokyo, while his brothers returned to Hawaii. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, three brothers volunteered, and one served in Korea.
The Iwatake family remains scattered.
One brother lives in Chicago, another on Maui. Another died of cancer, possibly the result of radiation from the atomic bomb.
But each year, the tree has gone up. For those not in Tokyo to see it, including Vaughn’s cousins in Childress, Texas, Iwatake, now 84, sends photos. And each year, it becomes more poignant.
“Gradually, Christmas has become more meaningful again,” he said. “Peace, good will toward your fellow man, you know? After the war, there was no such thing.”