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The Man Who Wasn’t There

By Mary Prager

May 5, 2016


My Chinese students didn’t know that I was Japanese. They looked up at me as I wrote English words on the blackboard. They repeated after me as we practiced saying letters and numbers. They stayed after class to ask questions about homework.

“Pei laoshi, you look a little bit Asian. Are you really from America?” one asked.

“Yes, I’m from America. I came here from Pennsylvania,” I replied.

It was the truth. They just didn’t know that I was half-Japanese. I wasn’t ready to tell them. Nor did I think they were ready, either.

If I told them I was half-Japanese, I would inevitably have to tell them about my Japanese mother, which would lead to questions about my grandparents, which could well lead to questions about my great-grandfather. He was a problem. How much of a problem I did not yet know.

I had gone to China to teach English for two years. I was ready to do something after several years of studying dense moral philosophy texts in college. I had grown up in Tokyo and in the suburbs of London. I had spent two summers in China during college. These summers and my childhood in Japan had convinced me that China was important to understand. That realization had led me to Tea House village. I was 22 years old.

The village was remote. Three thousand people lived there and thirty-thousand people lived in the surrounding area. All around the village were terraced fields of rice and tobacco. Trucks rumbled up and down the dirt roads. Dogs barked incessantly. Chickens ran amok. There were a handful of places to eat. Two were owned by the same family. The school was at the center of the village. Everyone hated the Japanese.

Their grandparents had stories about the Japanese, even though the Japanese had never made it as far west as Yunnan. Yet here I was, in front of their classroom. Their teacher.

It was bad enough that I was Japanese. But when I arrived in the village, I did not yet know who my great-grandfather was, or what he had done.

That began with a Skype conversation with my grandmother.

I was grading quizzes at my desk in my village when I noticed my Japanese grandmother attempting to g-chat with me from her apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo. For the first time in years, we were in similar time zones. Every now and again I would see her username — Nagasaki Beauty — pop up in my list of contacts.

“Skype?” The message said in Japanese, followed by a row of cheerful emojis.

“Ok!” I said. After a few minutes we were face-to-face.

My grandmother has large, deep-set eyes and high cheekbones. Her hair is dark and wavy, and her skin is smooth. She wears a pair of thick oval glasses with a chain around her neck. She is thin and petite. In the morning, she drinks one cup of coffee, a habit she picked up from her father. She is 84.

She asked me how I was enjoying my time in rural China, and I described it to her — challenging work, in a poor village, with wonderful students.

“I was in China too, you know,” she reminded me.

Yes, I said, that was right — she had spent some time living in Shanghai as a girl. We had visited the city as a family, and she showed us her old elementary school, with its abandoned courtyard and concrete walls. It was just in time, as the school was about to be demolished and replaced by more sky-rise apartment complexes.

“What were you doing there?” I asked.

“My father was a police officer,” she said, “and we lived in the International Settlement in Shanghai. We had French bread and coffee every day. We lived in a beautiful apartment, with a Chinese maid.”

“I didn’t know he was a police officer.” I also didn’t know that my grandmother had lived so luxuriously in Shanghai.

“He worked for the Japanese police force in Shanghai,” she said. “He spoke English, so he worked with the British, too,” she said.

“What was his name?”

“Ninomiya Kenkichi,” she said.

Ninomiya Kenkichi. The alliterative consonants felt foreign on my tongue. Ninomiya was less common than my mother’s maiden name. I had never heard it before.

“At the end of the war, he was the highest-ranked Japanese police officer in Shanghai,” she added, a tinge of pride in her voice.

How did my great-grandfather become the highest-ranked Japanese police officer in Shanghai in 1945? How did he learn English? Where did he come from, and where did the Ninomiya family come from? Why were they in China to begin with? When did they leave?

But most of all, why did I know next to nothing about any of this?

On my American father’s side of the family, there is an almost obsessive preoccupation with genealogy. Extended family members have traced the family lineage back along its multiple branches — from Viking feudal lords millennia ago, to Jewish farmers and tradesmen in Ukraine, to the Armstrong clan of Scottish border raiders, and Norwegian farmers — and at every family reunion in Kansas, the uncles bring out the family tree, a sprawling network meticulously sketched out across a giant piece of poster paper.

But on my Japanese mother’s side of the family, the history was always a little murky. There was a war. Japan lost, and life was very, very difficult. “In post-war Japan, people were so poor they used rice for glue,” my mother would say when we would complain about the half-dry glue-sticks she refused to throw away, “and if they didn’t have scissors, they used their teeth.” Nobody ever spoke of my grandparents’ childhood, or how it came to be that they met in Nagasaki in the fifties. That history remained shrouded in silence. Nobody offered information, and nobody asked. I had never even bothered to ask for my grandmother’s maiden name. I had long attributed this silence to the language barrier. Although I had grown up in Japan and was fluent in Japanese, I had never felt comfortable enough with the language to casually broach a sensitive issue. But neither was anybody particularly forthcoming.

Arigato,” my grandmother said as our call came to an end.

“No. Thank you,” I said.

I closed the Skype window and gazed at the excel spreadsheet where I tracked my students’ academic progress. There was a towering pile of ungraded quizzes on the left side of my desk, and a meager pile of graded quizzes on the right. But my mind kept wandering to the story of Kenkichi. The more I thought about it, the more mysterious Kenkichi seemed.

An English-speaking, coffee-drinking, early 20th century Japanese man living in the International Settlement? Among the French, British, German, Chinese, and other Japanese who shared colonial Shanghai?

My great-grandfather didn’t seem like an ordinary Japanese man to me, although I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant to be ordinary at that time. Kenkichi seemed to have more in common with me, his great-granddaughter, than he did with people of his time who never left mainland Japan — and I was a half-Japanese woman who’d grown up in Japan and England, studied in the United States, and then gone off to work in China. He just didn’t fit into any of the easy categories I had in my head about who a Japanese man was supposed to be.

Just who, exactly, was this guy?




Yunnan is the southwest-most province of China, sharing a border with Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. It is mountainous and tropical, with terraced hills of rice and tobacco and fields of corn. Translated literally as “South of the Clouds,” Yunnan felt magical: I would wake up early in the morning to roosters crowing, step outside of my room in the middle school dorms, and look out at the mountains and fields around me through mist that shimmered with light. Although the village was poor, I often thought that the students were lucky to live in an area that was so beautiful.

Before I left for China, a few friends had asked me whether I was worried for my safety.

“Why would I be?” I scoffed.

“Because you’re Japanese,” was the response.

“Well, half,” I would say to myself.

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but they were right. I was Japanese — sort of — and relations between Japan and China were frosty. Every other day on the news, one prime minister or another would visit Yasukuni Shrine, or question the number of casualties from the “Rape of Nanking,” or do or say something to set back Japan-China relations by ten or more years.

During summer training before the teaching portion of the fellowship began, I considered whether to tell the administrators, teachers, and students at my school. I discussed this with a former teaching fellow whose judgment I respected.

“It’s up to you,” he said to me. “It’s completely up to you.”

My mind flew to the worst-case scenario.

I would be living essentially alone in a village, hours away from the nearest airport. And that airport was just one tarmac where one flight shuttled to and from an international airport in Kunming. If, heaven forbid, anything happened to me, it would be difficult to escape to safety. All it took was one angry person to hurt me: a student, a parent, a teacher, someone in the village.

But the more I thought about it, the more absurd this seemed. Regardless of whatever private ill-will anybody had towards me based on my heritage, nobody would actually act on it. The war had ended half a century earlier, and I had nothing to do with it.

Still, it might be distracting to my students if I presented myself as Japanese. Maybe they wouldn’t want to learn from me. Or, they might spend their time thinking about that in class, rather than the grammatical structure of the present simple tense.

In the end, I was only half-Japanese. That was to say, I didn’t look full Japanese, and I could easily pass as not Japanese at all. In some ways, I felt as though I had a secret. I was a secret Japanese person with an American name.

If it scared me to be exposed, or if I felt that the risks outweighed the benefits, then all the more reason not to share. Nobody needed to know at all.




My great-grandfather, on the other hand, was full Japanese — sort of. He was this multilingual, multicultural, cosmopolitan boot-strapping continent-hopper, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Kenkichi Ninomiya.

I googled him.

Within 0.27 seconds, I had 2 results, both irrelevant. I reversed the order of the first and last names and tried again. Within 0.22 seconds, I had 4 results, but these were also irrelevant.

Why did I expect to find anything there at all? It was highly unlikely that a person who was, objectively speaking, a random 20th century Japanese man, would be on a website on the English-speaking world wide web.

I removed the quotation marks and added the word “Shanghai.” 883 results, 0.42 seconds.

“Shanghai Municipal Policemen,” the top link read.

I scrolled down.

Random names. Dates. Words. Nothing rung a bell. Nothing jumped out at me.

Scroll. Scroll. Scroll. Nothing.

And then — there it was.

In the middle of several hundred rows of names and details was a simple entry for my great-grandfather:

Surname: Ninomiya

Forename:  Kenkichi

Joined: 1926

Previous Employment: Unknown

“Unknown.” Despite this inch of headway, my great-grandfather remained an enigma.

I scoured the rest of the site. It contained a directory of employees of the Shanghai Municipal Police on the website of a Robert Bickers, a history professor at the University of Bristol in England. An expert on Chinese history and British colonialism, Professor Bickers had created a database dedicated to the British police force that had policed the International Settlement in Shanghai. While there were hundreds of photos of police officers and of Shanghai in the 1930s, there was not a single further piece of information on my great-grandfather.

But I did find Professor Bickers’s contact information. I shot him an e-mail.
“The Shanghai Municipal Council annual report for 1931 lists him as a Sergeant in the Police,” Professor Bickers responded, “who joined 17 May 1926. He was a Sub-Inspector by 1937, and an Inspector by 1941.”

Professor Bickers didn’t have much more information about my great-grandfather — he was an expert on the British side more than the Japanese — but his e-mail was enough to make me optimistic. There could be more information about Kenkichi Ninomiya out there in the world. The main source, of course, would be my grandmother. But maybe there would be more out there — things that my grandmother didn’t understand about his life and his work in Shanghai, and things that he never told her.




My two-year fellowship began with a training program. Several hundred foreign and Chinese recent college graduates descended upon Lincang, a prefecture-level city in Yunnan. At the end of training, principals and vice principals from each host school came to meet the teachers they would host for the next two years. My principal, several administrators, and a friend of the principal took me out to a restaurant. When we arrived, the principal waved the others ahead and walked me to the restaurant.

“Teacher Pei, thank you for coming to our rural village,” the principal said. “Tea House is very backwards, too backwards.”

“No, no,” I stammered. “This area is beautiful.”

“Where in America are you from?”

“Oh, I’m not really from America.”

“You’re not? But you’re American?”

“I’m American, but I grew up in Japan.”

“Oh!” The principal looked at me more closely. “Oh, I see it now, you have Asian features. You’re hunxue, of mixed blood. I can see it now.”

When we got to the restaurant, the others were already seated. The table was set with plastic-wrapped tableware, cups of warm chrysanthemum tea, shot glasses, and bottles of baijiu. I slid into the booth next to one of the administrators.

Each gave a toast of baijiu to welcome me, and after each toast, we all had to take a shot.

“Teacher Pei, thank you for coming to Tea House!”

“Teacher Pei, welcome to Tea House!”

“Teacher Pei, welcome to Lincang!”

The conversation soon became loud and boisterous.

“Teacher Pei,” the principal’s friend said, looking at me. His cheeks were cherry red. The principal slapped him jovially on the back. “Teacher Pei, welcome to Yunnan!” He raised another glass of baijiu, and everyone followed. By that time, I had lost count of the number of baijiu shots we had taken.

“Drink!” he urged me. I hesitated. It was a little rude, but I didn’t want to be too sloppy on my first day meeting them.

“Drink!” He gestured for a server to fill my glass. I reluctantly threw back the shot.

“Where is Teacher Pei from?” The principal’s friend asked the principal.

“She just told me… was it… Taiwan?” The principal guessed.

“No, I’m from Japan.” The other politically sensitive country.

“Oh, Japan….” He frowned. “We don’t like Japan. We really don’t like Japan.”

“Yeah, we really don’t,” a couple other voices echoed.

“Your mother or your father’s Japanese?”

“My mother.”

“Well, you should be more like your father, and less like your mother,” the principal’s friend advised.

There were nods around the table.

I could feel my neck and face turning hot. I wondered if my cheeks looked as red as they felt.  “No,” I said stiffly. “I don’t think so.” The principal stared at me. “Anyways,” I continued quickly, “I’m here to help kids learn English — I’m not here for political reasons. History’s history, and it’s not relevant to what I’m doing here.”

“But Japan—,” the friend started, getting to his feet. His eyes bore into mine. “Japan…”

I couldn’t hear the rest of what he said, because the principal interjected.

“Yes, yes, ha ha ha ha!” he said loudly, forcing a laugh. “History is very important, but the education of children is more important, isn’t it? Yes, yes,” he nodded around the table, “Ha ha ha ha ha!”

His laughter cut the tension of the room, and soon we were talking about something else.




At the height of the Japanese empire, there were millions of Japanese people living across Asia. Farmers, industrialists, soldiers, policemen, teachers, families, artists — whether they had left pre-war Japan in search of opportunity, or had chosen to emigrate to a colony to support the imperial project, these expatriates left everything they had known to create pockets of Japanese life in the regions that Japan sought to lead, control, and exploit.

I can’t tell a story about Japanese people in Shanghai without also thinking about the legacy of Japanese imperialism in Asia. The “Rape of Nanking”, Unit 731, forced labor in China, forced labor and comfort women in Korea: the list is long and painful. The emotional and political repercussions of these actions have lingered and festered, never adequately addressed through political means. Again and again, Japanese politicians do or say things suggesting a reluctance to take responsibility for wartime atrocities.

With this history in the back of my mind, through months of conversations with my grandmother, I learned more and more about Kenkichi.

My great-grandfather was a young man who sought an opportunity to make his own life. He was born to a middle class family in Tokyo. His mother died when he was a teenager. His father then married a woman with a child from her first marriage. He and his new wife favored the new child and even sent him to college, something they would not do for Kenkichi. Kenkichi no longer believed he could be a member of that family, and he left. And not just to anywhere, but for Shanghai, that foreign-but-familiar city just across the sea.

In Japanese culture, the concept of the family, or ie, is fundamental to a person’s identity, determining not only one’s social status but oftentimes also one’s profession. To be expelled from, or to voluntarily leave, one’s family is drastic; for him to have done so had to mean that the conflict was exceptionally difficult or that he was extraordinarily headstrong.

Was he angry? Or bitter? Perhaps he believed that there was no longer a place for him in his family, town, or even his country.

“He was stubborn and confident, my father,” my grandmother said. “And brave.”

Shanghai was a destination for people like my great-grandfather. For ordinary people, it was a place to go if you didn’t feel that you had a place in Japan. But in Shanghai, Japanese settlers recreated the structures of Japanese life. Some settlers bemoaned that they had left Japan to find freedom in Shanghai, only to arrive and discover that they had returned to Japan.

When Kenkichi went to Shanghai, he did something that most Japanese didn’t do. He learned English. And that would prove to be very, very useful.

My grandmother remembered waking up in the middle of the night for a cup of water and seeing a dim light from underneath his closed door. Her father was still awake, squeezing hours out of the night, to do the one thing he knew he could do to alter the course of his future: learn.

“He would sit there for hours, studying and studying,” my grandmother said in another Skype chat. “He was a very dedicated student. His desk was lined with a thick set of legal books. He studied all the time for his advancement exams, so he could get promoted.”

Sergeant to sub-inspector to inspector. His hard work had paid off. I couldn’t help but admire my great-grandfather’s diligence. But the more I researched wartime Shanghai the more I realized that there was another, darker explanation lurking behind his hard work.

The year of my great-grandfather’s first promotion was also the year the Japanese Imperial Army launched its first major attack against the Chinese National Republican Army. The Battle of Shanghai lasted three months, and it was bloody and intense. By November, it was over, and Japan had taken control of the parts of Shanghai that were still run by the Chinese.

In December of 1937, a 23-year old man from Shandong province threw a bomb into a Japanese military parade along Nanjing Road in Shanghai. Three Japanese soldiers were wounded. Two Chinese constables were killed. This act convinced the British Shanghai Municipal Police and the Japanese Military Police to collaborate more closely and expand the police force. Two Japanese sergeants were promoted to sub-inspectors as a result. Perhaps one of them was my great-grandfather.

As Japan gained control of Shanghai, my great-grandfather’s star rose. What did he have to do to accomplish this? The Japanese Imperial Army was notorious for being ruthless and unmerciful, for even reveling in cruelty. But he wasn’t part of the army. He was a police officer. What did he do? The occupation of Shanghai by the Japanese has been described as a nightmare. As Professor Frederic Wakeman, Jr. describes in Shanghai Badlands, in Shanghai, “killing was in the air.”

By that time, Kenkichi had created a family of his own. His wife Shizuyo was from Nagasaki. Her parents had died when she was very young. It is unclear when she moved to Shanghai, how they met, or in what year they married. By the time of his promotion, they had four children — a fifth would be born later — and they lived well. Although a war was going on around them, Shizuyo created a safe world for her children. The family enjoyed privileges and comforts that would have been the envy of any Japanese.

“My mother, Shizuyo, always dressed me and my sister Kazuko in matching clothes,” my grandmother recalled. “A tailor would go to our home and measure us to make our matching outfits and hats to size.” She would make donuts at home, and knit sweaters for her daughters. While the children were at school, she would take typewriting lessons.

They had household help, who did most of the cleaning and laundry. Ama, their Chinese housekeeper, lived with them and went home once a week. She was a young woman whose room was near the front entrance of the home. She did most of the cleaning and laundry, and she made cloth shoes. There was also a boy who worked for the family. “We called him ‘Boy’,” my grandmother recalled. He was probably young, and unrelated to Ama. He likely drove the children to work, and was an integral part of their lives, but his real name is lost to history.

For a time, they lived in Hongkow, close to the Jewish Ghetto. “We had Jewish neighbors,” my grandmother remembered. “They were doll-makers. And whenever they would see me, they would say, ‘Hello, small girl!’”

My grandmother’s memories are selective, but the children were not completely shielded from what was happening around them.

“In Shanghai, my brothers and sisters went to school by bus, but I would sneak out early in the morning, and I would walk to school. I would walk across the garden bridge on my way to school. There were magnolia trees by the gate of the elementary school, which was guarded by an Indian man, a Sikh, who usually wore a turban. But in the morning, I would race to school before the gates opened because I wanted to collect as many magnolia petals as I could, before the other kids arrived. The petals were large and lovely, thick, a mixture of pink and white. Sometimes the guard wouldn’t have his turban on yet. And I could see his long hair that went all the way down to his back, tied in a very simple tail.

“I liked walking to school. I walked everywhere, with my mother. It wasn’t always safe, though. I remember a homeless beggar sawing out the tooth of a dead comrade using the jagged edge of a can. I saw him in Shanghai. I saw other corpses and near-corpses on the street on the way to school,” she adds. “I stepped over them.”

In 1941, the collaboration between the Japanese and British in Shanghai ended. After the Pearl Harbor attacks in December, the Japanese Imperial Army took over the parts of Shanghai controlled by the Europeans and Americans. Europeans and Americans in Shanghai were placed in work camps, some tortured and maltreated as badly as Chinese citizens had been throughout the war. That year, according to Professor Bickers, Kenkichi was promoted to inspector. What did he have to do as an inspector in the Shanghai Municipal Police? To the Chinese people who resisted them? To the Americans and Europeans who were rounded up?

My grandmother was a child, then. She did not know, and she could not tell me.

As time went on, even the Japanese children of Shanghai were mobilized for war. “We didn’t go to class anymore,” my grandmother recalled. “Instead, we made war supplies. We stuffed gunpowder into bullet casings and sewed bandages for wounded soldiers. We dug trenches and practiced hiding under our desks for aerial attacks.”

By early 1945, Kenkichi knew that Japan would lose the war. But instead of sending his family back to Japan as many officers did, he did something else. Perhaps he believed that Japan would not only lose the war, but also be completely destroyed. For instead of sending his family back to Japan, Kenkichi sent his wife, their four children, and the newborn to Dalian, in northwestern China. And he did not go with them. He stayed in Shanghai and then, when the war ended, returned to Japan. His family would pay dearly for his decision.




I was waiting for a meal at a restaurant in town when I noticed what the owners’ son was watching on the television hanging on the wall.

Soldiers were tearing through a village, breaking open wooden doors with their shoulders, and pointing bayonets at trembling women and children. The camera was angled from below, making the soldiers seem all the more formidable.

“Is this about the revolutionary war?” I asked the kid. His eyes stayed glued to the screen. His little brother sat at a table nearby, entertaining himself with a flyswatter while taking a break from practicing his characters.

“No,” the kid said flatly.

“Food’s ready,” his mother said. The restaurant was small and cramped and it served the best food in town. I would always get the same dishes. Eggs with tomato, spicy pork, beef jerky.

That same show was always on. One of the main characters was a child — a brave little boy who had the courage to stand up to the soldiers. I wondered if the kid saw himself in this boy.

“What’s that show that’s always on the TV?” I asked Sylvia, my friend and colleague.

“It’s a World War Two show,” she said, adding, a little apologetically. “It’s really popular.”

“So the soldiers are Japanese, then,” I said. “What’s the general story?”

“Japanese soldiers kill a boy’s grandmother for standing up to them. So the boy decides to join the fight against them, and he becomes a hero.”

“It’s always on TV at the Hui restaurant,” I said.

“People in Tea House and in all of these villages watch this show a lot,” she replied. “There aren’t a lot of shows anyways.”

As I learned more about my great-grandfather, the more I realized one thing. If the people around me knew who he was, and what he had to have done, they would surely hate me.




Dalian is a port city on the southern tip of the Liaoning peninsula in northeastern China in a region that has historically been known as Manchuria. And at the end of the war it was perhaps the worst possible place for my great-grandfather to have sent his wife and children. He likely sent them there because there was an established community of Japanese people who lived there. But the Imperial Japanese Army ordered Japanese people to evacuate Dalian on August 9, 1945. The soldiers fled with their families without completing the evacuation, leaving civilians to fend for themselves.

When Shizuyo and her five children arrived in Dalian, there were other Japanese people there. The family carried with them suitcases full of precious things: kimono silk, jewelry, watches, the trappings of wealth and privilege. Kenkichi would send them packages of food and goods from Shanghai, but when the war ended, the packages stopped coming. All of a sudden they were refugees, stuck in a region now owned by a people who hated them, soon to be raided by the fearsome soldiers of the Red Army.

“Dalian became chaotic, with violence on the part of the first wave of undisciplined Russian soldiers, and no way for people to earn a living other than selling their belongings on the street,” Professor Lori Watt writes in When Empire Comes Home. “The Russian prisoner troops were withdrawn and returned to Dalian. But then the regular Russian occupation troops came and turned the Japanese out of their homes. Moreover, groups of refugees — Japanese from the settlements — poured into Dalian, with nothing to eat and nowhere to live.”

When the packages stopped arriving, my great-grandmother began to sell their things on the street. First went the beautiful silk kimonos, then the jewelry and the watches; the family heirlooms, then her elegant Shanghai dresses. As fall became frigid winter, she would send my grandmother and her sister to the shed for coal.

“When the Soviets would come by,” my grandmother told me, with a tremble in her voice, “my sister and I would blacken ourselves with coal and hide.”

“Which sister?” I wondered. I had never met any of my grandmother’s sisters. I had met her younger brother and his daughter. He lived in the Philippines, and his daughter was multicultural and multilingual like I was.

“My older sister,” my grandmother said. “She was beautiful. But she died young.”

“Did she die in Dalian?”

“No, much later. In her thirties, in Japan.”

My grandmother had mentioned her to me once, when I was little. I had a headache, and I had asked my grandmother for medicine.

No, she had said. Never take aspirin, or any medicine when you just have a headache. It’s not natural, and it’s not safe. Her sister had taken medicine for a headache, and she fell asleep and never woke up. Aside from the headache she had been perfectly healthy beforehand. You should just drink some water and go to sleep, she had said.

As a child I thought it was sad that my grandmother’s sister had passed away, but she didn’t make much of it, and neither did I. Had something worse happened? I didn’t know. Nor would she say.

What should have been a temporary refuge in Dalian lengthened into a two-year nightmare, although my grandmother never describes it that way.

“I had to study Russian in school, but I sat in the back of auditorium,” she said. “And I would fall asleep! So I hardly learned a word of Russian. Although I can still say – Adeen! Dvah! Tree!

In 1947, they finally had a chance to escape Dalian. But it was a long march from Dalian to the port where they would board a boat to take them to Japan.

“It was cold. Maybe it was winter. My mother strapped the baby to her back, and sometimes she would slip on the ice, and fall backwards. And the other women would criticize her for falling, because the baby would hit his head. But there wasn’t anything she could do about it.”

The walk took a few days — or was it a few weeks? For my grandmother, who was 15, it was a miserable, endless hike. There was little to eat. There wasn’t much in the way of toilets. They stopped at the side of the road and used newspapers instead of toilet paper, and their bottoms and hands would turn black with ink.

When they arrived at the port, the ship that was waiting for them was American.

“It was called Liberty,” my grandmother recalled. “U.S.S. Liberty.” Covered with lice and rashes, the refugees were packed into those ships. “Like sardines,” she added. “We were filthy. Typhus, lice, all kinds of disease, rashes.” My grandmother doesn’t remember much from the ship, but her friend described it vividly to me: The hull of the ship was dark, cold and damp, with an acrid, metallic smell. People coughed in the night. Babies cried. Babies with fevers died and their bodies were thrown overboard. The wind was cold and unforgiving.

The sea itself presented dangers. There were mines in the water, leftover from the war. My grandmother’s ship crossed over to Japan, but others were not so lucky.

“There was a ship behind ours, a ship like ours. It blew apart. There was a huge spray of water, 20 meters into the air. The deck filled up with other passengers who heard the explosion and came out to ask what happened. ‘What happened?’ they asked. ‘Did you see it? Will it happen to us, too?’ I was frightened, but it wasn’t my first encounter with death,” my grandmother said.

When the ship arrived, the passengers disembarked and as they walked into a tented area, their clothes were pulled off and they were sprayed with white powder, which was rubbed into their skin, under their armpits, in-between their legs.

“It was DDT,” my grandmother said. “For the lice.”

Back in Nagasaki, they lived on the second floor of a relative’s house until, by luck, they were selected by lottery to receive temporary housing set up for repatriates. My grandmother was now 16.

As soon as Kenkichi heard that his family had returned, he rushed from Fukuoka to Nagasaki to meet them. The American government orchestrated much of the repatriation effort, which was on a massive scale — over six million people were repatriated from the dismantled Japanese empire between 1945 and 1950. In Fukuoka after the war, Kenkichi had worked for them. His English skills had once again been of use, and they continued to be of use in Nagasaki. There, Kenkichi began to work for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission.

The ABCC was an American government organization. The atomic bombs had never been used on humans before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so scientists had didn’t know their immediate and long-term effects. The ABCC was formed to survey and medically examine survivors of the bombings to figure this out.

The organization was not popular among the Japanese, who regarded it an impersonal data collection agency that had no mandate to help them. Nevertheless, Kenkichi worked there. And he got his daughter, my grandmother, a job there, too. She interviewed atomic bomb survivors to record the extent of their injuries and their proximity to the bomb at the time of the explosion.

Compared to most people in post-war Japan, my grandmother and her family were fortunate. Working at the ABCC, she was paid more than most. Life simply went on.

“In those days, I loved going to the movies,” said my grandmother. “And I loved watching Western movies. There weren’t a lot of Japanese movies. My friend ran the theatre so sometimes I got to go see movies there for free.

“Many men approached me, wanting to marry me. I was a little plump. They would tell me the kind of work they were doing, their plans for a stable future, and I would consider them, but none of them felt right. In the end, my uncle introduced me to a young man who was a neighbor, who was industrious and decent, and I married him.”  She was 24, and two years later, she had her first daughter — my mother.




When I finally did decide to tell my students that I was half-Japanese, it was after months of teaching. My co-teacher Sylvia and I had launched the village’s first school newspaper. It was student-produced, and we were proud of it. I had developed a reputation for being hard-working, for tutoring students outside of class hours, for printing hundreds of quizzes and worksheets for my students to complete. I hoped I had developed enough of a relationship with my students that they wouldn’t associate me with the barbarous soldier on television who had thrust a bayonet through a defenseless grandmother.

I stood on the dais in front of my classroom of fifty students, took a deep breath, and told them.

They responded the way I think kids in most countries would respond to that kind of news.

“How do you say ‘idiot’” in Japanese?”

“Can we watch anime in class?”

“Do you read anime?”

I may have been the first Japanese person in the village, but Japanese culture had already made it there long before I did.

A month or so later I approached my class’s homeroom teacher about setting up a penpal exchange with a middle school class in Japan.

“I understand if you’d rather I didn’t,” I began, “but I thought it would be really interesting and educational for the students.”

“I approve of it,” he said. “The issues between Japan and China are political issues. They don’t matter here. This is about education, and it’s personal.”

Not everybody felt the same way. A couple of second-year teaching fellows in the Lincang area shared that, while drinking baijiu with some local teachers, one of them had said that if he were the leader of China, he would nuke Japan.

In late 2012, a Japanese governor threatened to purchase the Senkaku Islands, which were located just off of Japan. The Japanese government stepped in and purchased the islands instead. China bristled. It claimed that the Diaoyu islands were theirs. People across China rioted, breaking storefronts of Japanese brands and destroying Japanese cars. It was during my second year of teaching.

I walked in on the groundskeeper watching a video about it in the media room. I must have startled him; he jumped a little and turned around. He had a strange look on his face.

“What’s the matter?”

He pointed at the video screen. “I don’t like Japan,” he said.

The Diaoyu-Senkaku conflict truly touched a nerve across the country. Traveling north in Yunnan to Lijiang, a popular tourist destination, I passed by a clothing store with a sign: “No dogs or Japanese.” I walked into the store, almost to prove to myself that it wasn’t real. It goes without saying that the storekeepers likely had no idea I was Japanese.

During my second year, I was responsible for a whole new cohort of students. I told them as well, and they reacted similarly to my students from the first year. Delight. Curiosity. Mischief. A crowd of them would stay after class and ask me to show them how to write various words in Japanese script. I showed them the differences between Chinese and Japanese characters — Japanese characters, adopted almost wholesale from Chinese characters, are closest to Chinese traditional characters. I compared pronunciations of ideographic homonyms: tofu in Japanese, doufu in Chinese; denwa in Japanese, dianhua in Chinese.

When I left Tea House at the end of my second year, while I mostly hoped that I had done a good job of teaching them English, inspiring them, and expanding their horizons, I also hoped that whatever opinions they had or would come to have about Japan, they would remember that their 7th grade English teacher was from Japan, and that they liked her.

In the end, I couldn’t tell them, or anybody, about my great-grandfather, or what he had done. What he had to have done, to have been a police officer in Shanghai, to have been promoted several times, to have been useful. But perhaps they already knew, or assumed. After all, I was Japanese. And to the people in the village, that is largely what it meant to have been Japanese. 




My grandmother had never lived in Japan before the U.S.S Liberty carried her across the cold, dangerous sea. And the Japan she returned to was not the Japan she would have grown up in had her father never decided to leave Fukuoka decades earlier. A once-divine emperor had announced that Japan had lost the war, and that he was no longer divine. A small country mobilized for war had to face a new world order. As film director Akira Kurosawa depicts in “Stray Dog,” food was rationed, crime was rife, poverty was everywhere, and one stroke of bad luck could turn a good man into a desperado.

When the children of the Japanese empire returned to the homeland, they were treated with suspicion. They weren’t ordinary Japanese. There was a name for them. They were hikiage-sha: repatriates.

The hikiage-sha were from the outer lands of the empire, the gaichi. People who had stayed in Japan were from the inner land or homeland of the empire, the naichi. The people of the naichi viewed the people of the gaichi with suspicion. They hadn’t suffered the same way. They were the ones out there, waging this war that led to Japan’s loss. They spoke differently. They dressed differently. They had different customs. Institutionally they didn’t belong. People tended to maintain lifelong friendships with their elementary school classmates, cherishing the ties from that innocent time in life. But the children of the empire had gone to school with others like herself. In Japan immediately after the war, the hikiagesha were an inconvenient group of people for the country to deal with as it rebuild itself. Before the war, Japan tried to create a pan-Asian empire. After the war, Japan was one thing: Japanese.

“Empires tend to facilitate multi-ethnic identities, but the nation-state really needs people to be one thing, at least at critical turning points. At least Japan from 1945-1989 needed people to be Japanese,” Professor Watt said to me. “Your grandmother’s family was part of this whole broader conversation about Asians and pan-Arianism that ceased when, all of a sudden, everybody was supposed to be part of a nation.”

But the hikiagesha were different from the rest. For some, the return to Japan was complicated. Many, like conductor Ozawa Seiji, went on to lead international lives.

“The colonial Japanese really were a more cosmopolitan group of people because they lived outside of metropolitan Japan. They had more, broader cosmopolitan experiences, and they interacted with a far greater number of people,” says Professor Watt. “[W]hen people came back to Japan, it was harder than they expected to re-integrate into Japan.”

Then there was the fact of Soviet occupation and the suspicion of tainted blood. The Soviets re-took Manchuria and raped Japanese women. Some Japanese men raped Japanese women. Any woman who returned to Japan from Manchuria was potentially suspect of being tainted. Some women had abortions upon arriving in Japan. Some had had multiple abortions while abroad. Some ended their lives later. But my grandmother was lucky. She returned to Japan unscathed.




After teaching in China, I lived with my grandmother in the suburbs of Tokyo.

That year was the 60th reunion for my grandmother’s elementary school classmates from Shanghai. The reunion was in Tokyo, at a restaurant in Chinatown. She asked me to accompany her to it and I agreed. She and I met a friend of hers and we walked from Yokohama-Chukagai station to the restaurant. At check-in, my grandmother and her friend picked up their name tags and several pieces of folded paper. I glanced at one of them. Song lyrics.

The reunion was in the restaurant’s banquet hall. When we arrived the room was filling up with people. Some used walkers and canes, others had daughters and sons escorting them. Some my grandmother knew personally from her class at the all-girls’ school in Shanghai; others were from different schools nearby, or in higher or lower grades. Most spoke Japanese; a few were fluent in English or Mandarin Chinese. My grandmother greeted those that she knew.

“This is Junko-chan,” my grandmother introduced me to a stout, cheerful woman who sat at the same table as us. “Junko-chan sat next to me in class. If you want, you can ask Junko-chan questions about her past, the way you’ve been asking me,” my grandmother offered. “Maybe she’ll remember things that I won’t. Junko-chan is impressive – she wrote her own book.”

Several people stood up and gave speeches. The food arrived, Chinese style, with a variety of shared dishes placed on a rotating platform in the middle of the table. It reminded me of the way I had eaten in China.

“There’s fewer and fewer people every year,” someone at the table said.

“So-and-so-san is sick, and couldn’t make it,” another said.

As the reunion came to a close, the organizer asked everyone to sing one of the songs they had learned in their childhoods. They all stood up, some with the lyrics in their hands and many without, and they sang.

Central Japanese elementary school, where the cherry saplings grow,

in great Shanghai, where all the cultures of the world gather.

The Yangtze River, which flows for three thousand kilometers without taking a breath,

is a friend of the heart as it progresses, polishing every day the intellectual virtues.

It is the pride of our campus to follow the path of teaching,

standing against the deepening clouds of war, amidst flying bullets.

The students and teachers have taken a firm vow, before the shrine in Shanghai,

not to bring dishonor to the name of the people of the empire, each in his own way.

After the reunion, we went home. It was the last time these children of the empire would meet, their last reunion. The organizers were getting too old, and they simply didn’t have the energy to gather anymore.


Mary Prager is a dual-degree candidate at Columbia Law School and Columbia Business School.

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