Kuniko Katz's essays and articles
The Westchester Review, 2008
“Koga-san?” the operator asks in Japanese. When I tell her yes, she informs the
person on the other end of the line in English that the requested party is here.
After a mechanical noise, I hear a voice. My heart leaps up. I turn to face
the wall so my colleagues at the hospital can’t see me blushing.
“Hi Jeff,” I say, as nonchalantly as possible, “How are you?”
“Not well,” he says.
“What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
“No, I’m not sick physically,” he laughs, “I’m just lonely. I miss you too
much.” I feel relieved and want to say that I miss him, too. But I don’t. What
good is it to say such a thing? For all I know, he may be calling me to say
“Kuniko,” he says, “How would you like to be called Mrs. Katz?”
Me? Mrs. Katz? What does he mean by that? What is he trying to say? I try to
unravel his meaning. Then it dawns on me that he is asking me to marry him. I
am so happy I want to tell him that this is the moment I have been waiting for.
But I can’t. Tears well up in my eyes.
I was in a hospital in Manhattan when I met Jeff. I had been hit by a car three
weeks previously and was confined to bed. Trish, my roommate at the time, came
to see me every day after work, and one day she brought a young man with her.
“Kuniko, I want you to meet my friend,” she said while leaning over to kiss my
cheek. “This is Jeff,” she said. “He teaches at the same junior high school as
He soon became my regular visitor. Later he told me that he came to see me
often because his Chinese language class was held near the hospital and he had
time to kill before going to classes. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed having him
around because he made me laugh. After my discharge, we began dating. He
showed me around the city and took me to the movies on the weekends. I never
met anyone so kind and funny and it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with
him. I didn’t tell him my true feelings, though. I expected to go back to Japan
in a year or so. The hospital in Nagoya where I used to work as an orthoptist
had sent me to New York Eye and Ear Infirmary for two years to study American
methods. Knowing that my stay was limited, I persuaded myself that I should
not get overly involved with anyone.
I always knew that we would part someday. Still, it wasn’t easy to say goodbye
when the time actually came. I remember crying hard in the plane going home. I
hated him. I wished he had asked me not to leave.
When I came back to Japan, I realized that how tense I'd been in New York always
feeling different from others. As soon as I landed in Japan, I began feeling
all the stress in my body melting away. Everyone had black hair and skin like
mine, and nobody questioned where I was from. Nobody asked me to repeat what I
said or commented on how small I was. I blended in. At the hospital, I was
promoted to chief orthoptist and in addition to seeing patients, I taught what
I’d learned in New York to other orthoptists and doctors and often traveled
around Japan giving lectures about American orthoptics. Everything was going
well except I missed Jeff. I tried to write him to tell how I felt about him but
each time I started, I tore up the pages. We corresponded through occasional
casual letters or postcards, yet I’d never been able to figure how he felt about
About a year or so after I came back to Japan, I finally concluded that we
weren’t going to get back together. I decided to go out with a Japanese man
whom Mrs. Mizutani, my American English teacher, introduced to me.
“Forget about a guy who can’t even ask you to marry him,” Mrs. Mizutani said to
me one day, “I have a very nice student in another class.”
After going out with him on several occasions, I grew to like him. I wrote
Trish that I’d decided to settle down in Japan. Trish immediately called me
from the States. "What!" she shouted on the phone. "Jeff hasn't asked you to
marry him yet? Oh, that fool! He loves you!”
Mother is upset. So are my siblings. They all look at me dumbfounded. I am
annoyed. What’s wrong with these people? I ask myself. Can’t they at least
pretend that they are happy? It isn’t that I expected them to exultantly
congratulate me, but somehow I anticipated that they would at least share my
enthusiasm. I feel my rapture withering away.
Mother breaks the uncomfortable silence after a while. She says, “I was so happy
when you called last week.” She is looking at me from the head of the low
rectangular dining table located in the center of the tatami room in my
brother’s house where she now lives. There is a Buddhist altar behind her and
our father’s memorial tablet is visible through the opened folding doors. The
incense sticks are still burning and the faint smoke is floating through the
air. On the table, there is a huge plate of assorted sushi and sashimi that was
delivered by the nearby restaurant and a few Japanese dishes my sister-in-law,
“When you told me that you are coming home to tell us your wonderful news,”
Mother continues, “I was sure that you had found your future husband in Nagoya.”
“We thought so, too,” my brother, Shigeru, says. His wife, who sits next to him
with their three month-old daughter in her arms, nods in agreement. “That was
exactly what I thought,” my sister Chiyoko joins them. She says she left her
two children with her husband because she wanted to hear about my fiancé without
being interrupted by them.
Who cares what you thought? I grumble, anger simmering inside.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised by their reactions because when I called them
last week to say that I was coming home to announce my engagement, I didn’t say
that my fiancé was an American and that I was leaving Japan soon.
"Since you seem to have already made up your mind about this, I don't know if my
opinion counts,” Mother says. “Really though, how can you marry an American? You
know what they did to us during the war. They not only destroyed our town but
tried to kill us all by dropping bombs everyday.”
Shigeru takes over. “They almost killed me,” he says and asks me, “You remember
the time I was chased by an American fighter, don’t you?” I do remember
hearing his awful ordeal when I was a child. Shigeru was about ten at the time.
One day he and his friend were digging for mud snails in a stream running
through the rice field. They knew they shouldn’t be there because they were
warned about planes called Grummans. These planes, they were told, came from
nowhere and shot people randomly. But they were hungry and didn’t want to pass
up the opportunity of a free meal. They knew that if they brought those snails
home, their mothers would boil them with a little salt.
Standing in the stream, Shigeru heard the sound of machine guns from the planes
in the distance and saw one of them flying toward them. They ran as fast as
possible to a nearby night soil reservoir to hide themselves - in those days,
the farmers used human manure as fertilizer and kept it in large holes in the
fields – but the plane was too fast and it began shooting at them. Shigeru knew
they could be killed. Bullets could easily penetrate the roof of the reservoir.
But to his surprise and relief, the plane left without pursuing them further.
They slowly crawled out and looked at the sky where the plane had disappeared.
Then they realized how awful they smelled. They had been grabbing the edge of
the hole that was filled with human night soil.
“The plane flew so low that I could see the pilot’s grinning face while I ran.”
Shigeru says pouring sake into his empty cup. “It was pure luck we survived”
"But that was a long ago!" I protest. I didn’t realize that after more than a
quarter century, he still kept a grudge against Americans.
"You can't blame every American for what happened during the war. Besides, that
has nothing to do with Jeff. He wasn’t even born when Americans bombed our
"I know he has nothing to do with the war, but still, I can't take an American
as my son-in-law,” Mother says, ’’It will always remind me of our hard times. I
really wish that you'd marry your own kind. "
"Mom, I am sorry, but I’m not here to ask you if you want to take him as your
son-in-law. I am just telling you about my future plans."
"It's so nice of you not to include your mother before you make such an
important decision,” she says sarcastically. Then as if to change her tactics,
she tells me that she is afraid
I will end up like ChoCho-san.
Is she joking? I look at her to see if I should laugh. If she is serious, I
don’t want to offend her by laughing, but she looks stern. I even see her lips
begin to twitch. Her facial neuralgia is beginning to act up. She’s had this
disorder since I was an infant, but it is unnoticeable when she is calm. Now
the entire right side of her face looks slightly contorted. I feel pity.
"Mom," I say with a smile, "Please don’t worry about me. I am not ChoCho san and
Jeff is certainly not Pinkerton."
"Listen to this impetuous modern woman. This is what happens when a young girl
goes to an immoral country like America. ChoCho san may be a fictional
character, but we know lots of Japanese girls who ended up being abandoned. You
remember our neighbor Yoshiko, the panpan, don't you? "
I know whom Shigeru is talking about. During the American occupation after the
war, from 1945 to 1953, a large number of dance halls, cabarets and bars were
created to entertain American forces in our town. Many women worked there and
became GIs’ “girl friends” to earn their livings or to support their poverty
stricken families. They were called "panpan" and those who chose to be kept by
one person were called "onlies." Our neighbor Yoshiko became an "only" when she
was around twenty. She had to support her war-widowed mother who had to raise
her family. When Yoshiko worked in the cabaret in the center of the town, her
mother desperately tried to hide her daughter's occupation, but all the
neighbors soon found out about it because Yoshiko went out every evening in
heavy makeup and a gaudy dress. The grownups nudged each other as if to say,
"Look, there goes our panpan,” when she passed by our houses. One day, I heard
my mother whispering to one of our neighbors that she’d heard Yoshiko had moved
away from home because she became a GI's "only" and now lived in an apartment
where he came when he was off duty.
About a year or so after she moved away, Yoshiko threw herself into a nearby
river. There was such a commotion in the neighborhood afterward that she was the
topic of conversation for months to come. Nobody knew why Yoshiko had decided to
die, but rumor had it that she was abandoned by her G.I. boy friend when he left
"What does Yoshiko have to do with me?" I ask my brother angrily.
"It has a lot to do with you because Yoshiko's fate may be yours. Americans had
no respect for Japanese women. They used our women as if they were toilet
paper. How many Yoshikos do you think they simply threw away?"
How can Shigeru generalize about Americans this way when he only knew them
through the American forces that occupied our town? As a boy, he might have seen
many arrogant American soldiers or heard more sad stories such as Yoshiko's.
Still, that happened so long ago. Where has he been all these years? I ask
“What about children?” Shigeru asks suddenly. “What about children?” I repeat
his question harshly.
“Do you realize that you will produce ainoko if you marry a gaijin, foreigner?”
“So what if I produce ainoko? We are not going to raise our children in Japan,
anyway. Besides, who told you that we are going to have children?” I shout.
“You will have them someday and you know how they will be treated. Don’t you
remember those ainoko who used to live in Tensien-orphanage?”
“Of course I remember.”
During the occupation period, a large number of out of wedlock babies between
American service men and Japanese women were born throughout Japan. Many of
them were abandoned when their American fathers went home. I first saw such
children when a group of first graders from an orphanage enrolled in our
elementary school in April of 1953. I was in the fifth grade then and remember
the commotion at school that day. “Hey, look at those gaijin children!” someone
shouted in the schoolyard when they, accompanied by two nuns, entered the gate.
They stood out because their hair color was completely different from that of
ordinary Japanese children. Some were brunettes and others were blondes. “They
are not gaijin,” someone said, “They are ainoko.” Then I remembered overhearing
one of our neighbors talking to my mother a few days earlier. “I heard the
children of Panpan from Tenshien-Orphanage are enrolling in our school this
year,” she said.
The word ainoko literally means a child of two things put together, regardless
of whether human or animal. In this case, it meant that the children were born
of American GIs and Japanese women, mostly the prostitutes they called panpan.
Ainoko were a natural target for prejudice and discrimination not only because
of how they looked but also because of their birth origin.
"Mother is absolutely right," Shigeru says putting sashimi in his mouth. "Why
risk your life? You should stay in Japan and marry a nice Japanese man and make
"What good is it saying such a thing when Kuniko has already decided to marry
Jeff?" my sister Chiyoko snaps at Shigeru. From her initial surprised look, I
know she isn’t keen on my engagement either, but after listening to Mother and
Shigeru, it seems that she has decided to take my side. "Kuniko knows what she
is doing,” she says. “We should congratulate her instead of giving her a
lecture." Then she looks at me with a smile. "Omedeto, congratulations," she
says, “I am sure Jeff is a wonderful man." After suppressing my anger for so
long, I am moved to tears by her words.
“Chiyoko is right,” Mother says quietly after a
while. “This is Kuniko’s life after all. I hope she knows what she is doing.”
"Let's toast her happiness," Chiyoko says raising her cup of sake and everybody
follows her lead grudgingly. Facing my family, I am consumed with sorrow by
their inability to share my joy.
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