Author’s ‘sense of mission’ shines on through the flames


At age 13, in total despair after losing her parents and two sisters, Toshiko Takagi tried to kill herself. But now, 60 years later, she stresses she never consciously tried to commit suicide.

Back on that night in August 1945, she explains, it was only when she was knocked over by a wave and fell down on the beach in Ninomiya, Kanagawa Prefecture, that she awoke to what she was doing.

“I cannot swim,” Takagi says, “and when that wave hit me I came to my senses and realized I was walking into the sea in order to die.”

Ironically, that day should have been the best one for Takagi since she lost her mother and two younger sisters in the Great Tokyo Air Raid five months before. She survived because she was evacuated to Ninomiya, while her sisters hadn’t wanted to leave their mother and stay far away with strangers. Takagi’s brothers, meanwhile, had joined the army as volunteers.

Joyous reunion

Just the day before she walked into the sea, Takagi had been joyously reunited with her father when he was finally able to come from Tokyo to pick her up and move together to Niigata.

Ninomiya is a country town, but as Takagi waited for the train with her father the next morning, a U.S. warplane suddenly appeared and started raking the area with gunfire. Right there in the station, before her eyes, her father was killed.

Takagi, whose best-selling book “Garasu no Usagi” (“The Glass Rabbit”; Kinnohoshi-sha; 1977) recounts her wartime experience, talked very clearly in a recent interview with this writer, but occasionally fell silent with tears in her eyes.

“How much regret my father must have felt,” she said. “He was an artisan who specialized in Edo cut glass. He created chandeliers, too. Once the war started, though, by order of the army he had to make syringes in his factory instead.

“But even in those days, he often got up early, at 4 or 5 in the morning, and created Edo glass works secretly to maintain his skill so that he could resume his real work as soon as the war ended. He made lovely glass objects, too. He made rabbits, birds and turtles.

“He was only 47 when he was killed.”

The beautiful glass works her father created were also lost in the infamous firebombing raid on Tokyo on March 10, 1945, that took the lives of her mother and sisters. Later, when Takagi found the melted and deformed remains of a glass rabbit in the ruins of the house, she realized her mother and sisters had perished in heat of around 1,000 degrees that it takes to melt glass.

It was after all those losses in her young life that, still in shock and without knowing what she was doing, Takagi had walked into the sea.

As she came to her senses on the beach, though, she knew she must not die yet because she had to take her father’s body to a crematorium. Also, she thought that if she were to die, there would be no one to visit her parents’ and sisters’ grave.

Deep delight

So, there and then at age 13, Takagi said she determined to live by herself and wait for her brothers to return. Though so many servicemen never did make it home, Takagi — already burdened with so much grief — was to be spared any more. To her deep delight, within months of the surrender, she had been able to greet her two brothers in Tokyo after they returned from Taiwan and Tokushima Prefecture respectively.

In the 60 years since that terrible time, and despite several serious illnesses, Takagi said she has had “a sense of mission,” a duty to tell people just how tragic the war was. Although she often does so through her public speaking, she reached her widest audience through “The Glass Rabbit.” To date, the book has sold about 2.2 million copies and been translated into nine languages.

“When I was 20,” she said, “I encountered the phrase sensai oushi, meaning ‘an unfulfilled life cut short by war.’ Then I understood clearly what happened to my parents and sisters, and I cried all night long. They didn’t directly harm anyone, but they were killed. Their future and their future hopes were just cut off.

“War is about things like that. I truly want people to know that fact. I don’t want there to be such deaths in the world ever again. Never.”

But now, with the passage of time in a Japan that has been at peace for 60 years, World War II and all that preceded it are fast becoming distant memories.

In fact, Takagi said, she has noticed that children today often find it very difficult to understand the words and terms used during the war. So, to make her original story easier to read, for a new edition published in 2000 she re-edited her book, adding furigana to show how to pronounce some of the dated kanji and footnotes after every chapter to explain “period” terms such as gakudosokai, meaning “evacuation [of children] to remote rural areas safe from bombing attacks.”

Heartfelt advice

Meanwhile, Takagi’s story has been made into a film and television programs — and just this year into an animation film as well.

“I didn’t want the story to be animated at first,” Takagi said, “because I didn’t believe it could be simplified in such a way. But my teenage grandsons suggested that if it became an animation, more elementary school children would see it and some of them would want to read the book — and my wish would be fulfilled. Now, I thank my grandsons for their heartfelt advice.”

In granting permission for the animation to be made, however, Takagi insisted on two conditions: that the scenes of air raids must be accurately and precisely drawn; and that her reaction to the new pacifist Constitution introduced on May 3, 1947 — “which looked like rays of sunshine to me,” as she writes in the book — must be included.

“They say history repeats itself. But the Constitution declared that Japanese people forever renounce war. I was so moved to know that fact.”

Takagi speaks gently but with quiet confidence, often skipping back in her memory to when she was a 13-year-old girl with a strong sense of responsibility as the eldest daughter to survive the tragedy of war.

At the end of the interview, in a somber vein she said: “Once a war breaks out, it just rolls on downhill. I always say when I give a speech that ‘your mind may cause a war, and your mind may also prevent a war. We have to be united firmly in our minds to prevent war in Japan and in the world.’

“I will keep telling people this as long as I live.”