Hitomi Shibazaki remembers being stunned when she found her grandmother’s name in a poem in her textbook during a Japanese language class at her junior high school.
The poem, titled “Bowing Person,” was accompanied by a photo of Liu Guiqin in March 1985, bowing deeply at Narita airport, before boarding a return flight to China.
Liu had visited Japan along with other war-displaced Japanese — who, as children, were left behind in China in the aftermath of World War II — to find relatives. She found none, but bowed in the photo to show her gratitude to the people who had helped her search.
“What did she have on her mind when she was bowing,” Shibazaki, 30, wonders, still unable to hold back tears.
Throughout her youth, Shibazaki had wanted to hide her background as the granddaughter of a war-displaced Japanese, afraid of being different from her friends and other people around her.
But she said that as she got older, memories of her grandmother, who had led a difficult life, made her feel ashamed of hiding that past.
In August 1945, Liu was separated from her family amid the confusion and chaos created by the sudden Soviet invasion of Harbin, Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province. Liu, at 6, was taken in by a couple who became her Chinese foster parents.
Liu married at 22 and gave birth to six children, including Shibazaki’s mother, her eldest daughter.
But she lost her husband in a traffic accident when she was 37. Afterward she struggled to raise her children, and her life was made even during China’s Cultural Revolution when, for instance, she was accused publicly of being a Japanese spy.
Liu, who used to say “I want to die in Japan,” eventually was able, at age 46, to come live in Japan under a government repatriation support program.
In 1991, Shibazaki came to Japan with her parents to live with Liu in a city near Tokyo. She was 7 then and did not understand a single word of Japanese on her first day at a local elementary school.
She was greatly helped by her classmates and teacher. “I was fortunate because I met lots of good people,” she recalled, now speaking perfect Japanese.
As Shibazaki quickly fit in to social life in Japan, her parents often relied on her. “I couldn’t depend on my parents though I was their kid,” she says laughingly.
Embracing her family’s connections to China began when, as a university student, a teacher encouraged her to speak about her background and grandmother in class.
Liu died of cardiac disease only 10 years after resettling in Japan. Shibazaki was 11 years old, and now regrets not asking her grandmother whether her life had been a happy one.
Shibazaki remembers Liu in her small apartment, and enjoyed watching cherry trees in full blossom from there.
Whenever she watches cherry trees, Shibazaki says to herself: “I’m happy thanks to my grandmother.”
Shibazaki is now married and has a 2-year-old daughter. While her daughter was born in Japan and will grow up as Japanese, Shibazaki intends to talk to her about Liu sometime in the future.
She also plans to take her daughter to Harbin, once the home of both her mother and grandmother, to help the girl understand her connection to China.