My mother was an ordinary Japanese woman like many other women born in the late nineteenth century. She devoted herself to her somewhat difficult husband, and raised eight children, seven boys and one girl. I was the fifth son. There were also two adopted children, making a total of ten. Her life was by no means an easy one. My father, who died in 1956, was so hardheaded and obstinate that he was known among his relatives and neighbors as “Old Diehard.” I know my mother must have needed enormous patience to stick with him until the end of his life.
Mother also helped with the family seaweed business. Producing seaweed takes a fearful amount of time and hard work. During the harvest season she went out every day in a small boat during the early hours of the morning, dipping her hands into the freezing saltwater to reach the seaweed—her hands were always sore and chapped. On top of that she had the cooking to do and the children to look after. Still, she always kept the house clean, dusting throughout, sweeping and finishing by carefully wiping each tatami (rush) mat with a cloth. She often carried a baby on her back as she washed clothes by hand, or patched up our clothes late into the night.
I never saw her take a break or a nap once. I assume that she was too busy to even stop and think about what she lived for. But she excelled as a homemaker. She couldn’t possibly have done the huge amount of housework she did and keep us fed and neatly dressed if she hadn’t been well-organized and methodical. She was so efficient it was almost artistic. There was no movement wasted, and nothing was put in a certain place without meaning and purpose. She was not exceptional in any way, but I consider my mother to have been a great woman.
Life was hard for women in those days. Men dominated society, allowing women few opportunities and choices. However, my mother drew on her inner strength and endlessly gave for the sake of her family in an extremely tough environment. She used to call us “the champions of poverty,” and she always stayed cheerful, never complaining. Whatever I was going through, her presence gave me great hope and courage.
My mother’s words are permanently engraved on my heart. At times they seem to shine like the light from a diamond. I can still feel her warm and caring voice within me—it heals me mentally and physically. It encourages me to do the right thing and helps me determine what is right or wrong. The words that I remember most are not extraordinary. “Don’t do anything that causes others trouble,” and “Don’t tell lies.” When we began school she added, “Once you decide to do something, take responsibility for it and carry it out yourself.”
I also learned from her actions. In spite of the large number of children she had to cope with, in everything, from the dividing up of food to the settling of quarrels, she showed fairness and impartiality. She was in fact a highly skilled judge and arbitrator.
One incident that showed me her great inner strength took place during the war. In March 1945, as the bombing of Tokyo intensified, we were ordered to evacuate the house in which I had grown up. The house had to be torn down to make a fire break. Just as we had managed to move all the family belongings into my aunt’s house and were ready to move ourselves, an air raid targeted her neighborhood. Flames shot up all around us. My aunt’s home took a direct hit and burnt to the ground. The only thing my younger brother and I managed to pull from the flames was an old trunk. In the hazy light of the next morning, we opened this trunk, our sole remaining possession.
Inside was a single umbrella and some of the large decorative dolls usually displayed in Japan on the day of the Girls Festival, March 3. Of all the useless things to survive the flames! We moaned in disappointment. Even though she must have shared our deep frustration, my mother refused to give in to it. “I’m sure that we will come to live in the kind of home where we can display these dolls properly. I’m certain of it . . .” Her words provoked a smile, then laughter. In that laughter we found hope.
Another wartime incident is engraved in my memory: I remember watching an American B-29 being shot down by antiaircraft fire. I stood transfixed, as the young pilot parachuted to the ground. I later heard that he was attacked by some people in the crowd that had gathered, before being dragged away by the military police. When I told my mother about this, she replied with genuine feeling, “How terrible. His mother must be so very worried about him.” It was irrelevant to her whether the pilot was an enemy or not. Her response impressed me greatly.
My mother was a very ordinary person who seemed content to live a quiet life in her own small corner of the world. And yet, from the plain, unassuming way she lived, I learned many important things about life. From her example, I strongly feel that there is no reason for a mother to feel at a disadvantage or think badly of herself just because she doesn’t have a high level of education. A woman who tries to learn from everything and has the confidence to fully use the wisdom she gains in her daily life will give an irreplaceable example to her children.
My mother was able to say to me, just a week before she died, “I have won in life.” How many people can say that with confidence?