“I was born in Showa 8 (1933), the same year as Emperor Akihito,” the head priest of Kairyuji temple tells me. “I have two mothers. My birth mother died when I was 6 years old. My father, a Buddhist priest, remarried and they had three children: one boy and two girls. One girl died young. My younger brother became a banker and lived in London for a long time. He’s now retired, living near Tokyo. My younger sister also lives in Tokyo. That left me to inherit the temple.”
We’re sitting in an improbable English garden located at a Buddhist temple on Shiraishi, an island of 463 people in the Seto Inland Sea. It’s a fine spring day, but when a mosquito buzzes past my face I am careful not to murder it in front of the Buddhist priest sitting across the table from me. His wife is off the island today at ikebana class and we’re currently just passing the time in this little cove of serenity, fenced in from the Buddhist world outside.
In truth, we’ve been friends for more than 20 years, so we are very comfortable talking to each other. Although most formalities between us were tossed out the window long ago, I still wouldn’t go so far as to kill an insect in front of him.
I was eager to tell the priest that only recently I learned that in Japan a soldier’s grave is markedly different from a common person’s. The obelisk of a soldier’s tombstone is topped with four triangular sides that come together at a point.
“Its like a sword,” says the priest, inferring the Japanese term “ken,” or sword, to describe this shape. “About 120 young men from this island have died in wars since the Meiji Era (1868-1912). But not all of them have these sword tip graves.”
Not only was it a personal decision by the family to elect such a gravestone, but during the American Occupation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur effectively banned the practice of using this shape on tombstones because of its militaristic connotations.
“You know we have a monument here at the temple for the soldiers who died in the wars,” he says. “The writing on it says “忠魂碑” (chūkonhi), a phrase that praises the loyal spirits of those who died in battle. These monuments were mostly destroyed after the war. But here on Shiraishi Island, we resisted this effort and for that reason it still stands today, preserved as a part of our history. If you look closely at the pillar, you can see where they started to fill in the engraved writing, the first step in disassembling it.”
At 85 years old, the priest is one of the few people who can remember what life was like during World War II.
“We elementary school students would walk with the other island people, forming a parade all the way to the harbor to see the soldiers off to war,” he recalls. “There would be a ceremony, and the new recruits would give a parting speech. When the boat disembarked, we all shouted, ‘Banzai! Banzai!‘”
As he shouts the rallying cry of the Imperial forces, the priest raises his fist in the air and then chuckles at the absurdity of the times.
There were about 2,000 people living on Shiraishi Island at the time.
“I didn’t have any brothers or sisters yet, so I played by myself or with my friends,” he says. “In 1944, when I was 11, we heard about Japanese planes hiding on the backside of the island so my friend and I went to see them. The pilots had dug holes in the beach and their planes were inside the shallow holes, the pilots sitting there too.
“Air attacks were very heavy at that time. We had air raids next door on Kitagi Island, from B-24 bombers. We could hear explosions on Kitagi and in the city of Fukuyama on the mainland. We were not bombed here, maybe because the attacks took place at night. Shiraishi is a small island with few lights. Kitagi is much bigger, so maybe they could see it at night.
“Also, each classroom’s students had to dig a very, very big hole. So if the Americans attacked, we could go down there. Not really a shelter, just a place to hide. We were afraid the school would be bombed. If our wooden schoolhouse caught fire, we would need to work quickly to put it out, so we trained for this by forming a human chain and passing buckets of water from the well to the school. The first person picks up the bucket by the handle (he stands up and demonstrates) and passes it to the next kid who receives the bucket with his hands grasping the bottom. He passes it to the next child who takes the bucket by the handle and so on, all the way down the line. This is the fastest and most efficient way.”
The people on the island didn’t have many items of clothing, not even socks, and there wasn’t much food to eat.
“Even very little boys and girls went together into the mountains where we cultivated plots to grow sweet potatoes or radishes,” he says. “We made salt from the seawater at the port. Even people on the mainland living in the mountains came down to the sea to take buckets of saltwater back to their houses to make pickles.”
The priest is suddenly joined by a tiny kitten who has just climbed up the leg of his pants and is now being cuddled in the crook of his arm. He rescued the abandoned newborn last week and I can already see a lifelong bond beginning to form between them.
“One day all us schoolboys were standing around when we saw a Japanese plane fly over our heads. It turned out to be one of our classmate’s father! He buzzed over his home island, dropped a letter down to his house, then rejoined his airborne group headed to Okinawa. He survived the war and came back to Shiraishi when it was over.
“Another time, my friend came here and shouted, ‘A plane has come! It’s in the port now, in the water.’ I said ‘Liar!’ And he said, ‘No, really!’ So we ran down the hill from the temple to the port. And sure enough,” the priest starts to laugh, “there was a plane floating inside the harbor! It had pontoons under it. I was astonished.”
The priest’s own father avoided conscription due to a problem with his lungs. But even he couldn’t escape the tragedies of war, since he had to perform the funerals for the fallen soldiers. There was a marked increase in fatalities the longer the war dragged on.
“Of course, all us students went down to the harbor to meet the remains of the soldiers when they were sent back,” he says. “Their families would walk carrying framed photos of their sons. Sometimes we had mass funerals at the school. All the island people gathered at the school yard where they lined up the soldiers bones for the ceremony.” Sometimes, they were the fathers of the schoolchildren.
Just then, I hear a ship’s horn blow and am brought back to the present day. A ferry has entered Shiraishi Island port. Although the harbor is a kilometer away, the sound of the horn rolls up the mountain side to us like smoke from a fire.
“Were there any Shiraishi people affected by the Hiroshima bombing?” I ask. The city of Hiroshima, which was bombed on Aug. 6, 1945, is 125 kilometers to the west of us.
“Hachiro Komiyama was in Hiroshima that day,” the priest recalls. “He was carrying two buckets on the ends of a bamboo pole that was balanced over the back of his shoulders. He was transporting water to his fishing boat. He saw a big flash of light, and was knocked into the sea. He was able to escape on his boat but as he hurried away, he watched flames roar up over the city.
“When he came back to Shiraishi, he told us this story. Later, he found out he had radiation sickness. There was another man who worked for the national railroad at Hiroshima Station. That morning while the employees were doing their morning exercises outside, they saw that very big light. He also got radiation poisoning.”
After the war ended, there were many American soldiers on the mainland in Kasaoka, Okayama Prefecture.
“In front of the train station there were rows of bars and entertainment places for American soldiers that were off-limits to Japanese,” the priest says. “I could hear the foreign music flowing out of the bars. It was the first time for me to hear jazz. Funny music, I thought.”
I hear a car drive up and park in front of the temple. The priest’s wife steps out of the vehicle, and I realize it has gotten late. So I take my leave and head off to the port.
Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).