Scarsdale station area

Kuniko Katz's essays, articles and letters to the editors

A sweet memory: My first encounter of an American soldier:  Scarsdale Inquirer, Jan. 19, 2001

I am in the supermarket in Scarsdale for my weekly food shopping. In the candy section, I overhear a conversation between a little Japanese girl, about three, and her mother. The girl complains in Japanese that she is hungry and wants some candy. Her mother tells her she mustn’t eat anything now because it will be suppertime soon. The girl whines harder and says she is really starving. Her mother finally gives in. “All right,” she says reluctantly, “you can have some, but only a small piece.” The girl beams triumphantly and quickly picks one of the chocolate bars. She looks so happy I can’t help but smile at her.

Suddenly, I remember the first time I’d ever tasted chocolate. I was around this little girl’s age, but circumstances were quite different. It was when the war between the United States and Japan had just ended.


Aunt Otama dashed into our hut one afternoon, shouting, “Did you hear the news?” She was panting and perspiring profusely.

“What news?” Mom asked nervously. She was just about to kneel down on the wooden floor to serve us a breakfast. My sister, brother and I were all sitting around the small table eagerly waiting our meal. The smell of the steamed wheat and hot miso soup was so inviting to our empty stomachs that we were annoyed by Aunt Otama’s untimely visit.

“Just as I thought,” Aunt Otama said with a touch of mockery in her voice. She wiped her sweaty face with the wrinkled towel she wore around her neck and said, “As usual, you are the last one to know anything.”

She then sat at the edge of the room and took a deep breath, as if to calm herself down. “I’m glad that I dropped by before going home,” she said, “I just don’t know how you people survive without me.”
“What’s the news, Auntie? My brother asked impatiently.
“Shigeru!” Mother scolded him, “That’s not the way you speak to your aunt.
“Gomen nasai, Sorry.” Shigeru lowered his head discontentedly.
Aunt Otama ignored Shigeru and leaned forward. “It’s terrible news, ” she said lowering her voice. Then knitting her brows, she whispered, “Americans are coming!”
Americans? I gasped. I knew that word. How could I forget it? It wasn’t long ago that they destroyed our house. Why are they coming back? Are they going to bomb us again? Suddenly I was seized with fear and quickly dashed into Mom’s arms to be held.
Mom rubbed my back gently and asked Aunt Otamta suspiciously, “How do you know?”
“How do I know?” Aunt Otama snapped, “I just came back from the marketplace where everybody is talking about it.”
She then told us that General MacArthur’s occupation forces were coming to our town in a few days. Apparently, the city government had announced it that morning on the radio and asked the townspeople to receive them in an orderly manner.

Aunt Otama said people were terribly worried about Americans who were their enemies until a few months ago. What could they expect from these people who tried to kill everyone randomly from the sky? They were nervous about their safety and some were particularly afraid for their daughters. They talked to each other about sending them to the countryside to hide them.
“You never know what they will do to us, now that they’ve won the war,”
Aunt Otama said bitterly. “After all, these are the people who tried to kill us by bombing our country.”
There was silence. Nobody seemed to know what to say. Mom’s hand stopped rubbing my back. I felt her uneasiness. Aunt Otama looked at my twelve-year old sister.
“You must be very careful, Chiyoko,” she warned. “Soldiers are especially interested in a young girl like you.” Chiyoko nodded nervously, fumbling with one of the braids that hung halfway down to her waist. Her eyes opened wide, she looked terrified. Aunt Otama continued authoritatively, “Never, ever talk to the soldiers. If they come near you, you just run away, understand?”
Then she looked at my ten year old brother who sat quietly next to Chiyoko, “You too, Shigeru. You don’t talk to anybody. They are all barbarians and you don’t know what harm they can cause you. Shigeru also nodded. His freshly trimmed hair, clipped by Mom a few days ago, was so short that it made him look like a Japanese monk.
Aunt Otama then told Mom that she must be vigilant all the time for her children. Then she finally stood up. “I must go now,” she said, as if she were pleased with her performance. “But remember everyone, you must be very careful with those barbarous Americans.” And with that she left our house as quickly as she had come in.

On top of the table was our soup, untouched and cold. We were still very hungry, but nobody would eat. We sat quietly in our dingy, small room about nine feet by twelve. The room had no windows except for the light coming in from the front door, and it was very dark, even during the day. Without any ventilation, the room was unbearably hot once the sun rose. There were no electric appliances in the room except a bare light bulb hanging down from the ceiling by its wire.

In the corner of the room there were a few neatly folded thin futons lent by Aunt Otama. During the day, the room was our living room and at night, we spread the futons out and all of us slept there while jostling each other. In the other corner, there were some apple crates we’d picked up from the street to use as a desk and storage boxes. Except for a few summer clothes that our cousins, Aunt Otama's children, gave us, there was almost nothing in them. On the ground near the front door, there was a tiny hibachi used as a cooking stove, and unmatched pots and pans and chipped dishes were piled in the apple crate that was used our kitchen cabinet.

Our house used to be Uncle Manjiro’s storage place. He was a lacquer artisan who specialized in varnishing Japanese sword scabbards and had built the storage place behind his house to store the lacquer materials. When Aunt Otama found us at the place where we took refuge after our house was burnt down by the bombings, she urged Mom to come home with her.

Fortunately, the area where her family lived was saved from the fire, and she said she had already persuaded Uncle Manjiro to empty his storage place. She said, “You can live there until your husband comes home or you find your own home, whichever comes first.”

At first, Mom was hesitant to move in so close to her sister. Although it was obvious that she cared about us, Mom didn’t want to depend on her sister, whose strong, overbearing personality often annoyed her. She had no other choices, though. She knew she had to leave the temple sooner or later.

Most of the people had already left and were living in barracks they’d built on the land where their houses used to stand. Without her husband around, it wasn’t easy for Mom to do that. So she accepted her sister’s offer, thinking it would only be until her husband came home.

It had been two months since the day we moved. We were just about getting used to the smell of lacquer and living in a place where we had almost nothing. Although the smell and stuffiness were unbearable at times, it was still much better than running away from B 29s. We could sleep peacefully in the night knowing we wouldn’t be awakened by the fierce sirens. Do we have to go back these awful days again? The thought of Americans coming back and Mom’s nervous looking face made me terribly frightened and I began to cry.

“You don’t have to worry,” Mom said gently, “No one will harm a cute baby like you.” Then she pointed to the cold meal on the table as if she just remembered how hungry she was. “Let’s eat,” she urged her children,” We can worry about this later.”

A few days later, Chiyoko and I were walking toward the house. Mom asked her to buy charcoal at the store nearby and told her to take me with her. She wasn’t worried about Americans then because it seemed that they hadn’t arrived yet in town. Just before we turned the corner to our street, we heard quick footsteps behind us. We turned and to our great surprise and fear, there was a young soldier in uniform standing behind us. Chiyoko held my hand tight and motioned me to run with her but neither of us could move. We were petrified.

Then the soldier came in front of us and bent his knees so that his eyes met mine at the same height. He smiled and took something from his pocket and tried to give it me. I refused but was taken with his beautiful blue eyes and his friendly manner. He had soft looking blonde hair and very fair skin with lots of freckles under his eyes.

When Mom told me that Americans could hear us even though they were high in the sky, I used to think they looked like monsters with huge pointy ears. They could smell us with their large aquiline noses and see us through scary, deep-set eyes. The soldier who was kneeling in front of me wasn’t like that at all. Is this an American who tried to kill us? I was confused. He didn’t look like a monster! No, he seems to be a nice person.

Still suspicious, I didn’t take what being offered. I shook my head vigorously. The soldier smiled gently, unwrapping a small box showing me its insides. There was a brown bar in his big palm. I didn’t know what it was. “Chocolate!” Chiyoko screamed excitedly, “That’s chocolate.” I had no idea what chocolate was and still wouldn’t take it. He then broke a tiny piece from the corner and put it in his mouth. “Ummm,” he said smiling as if to say, “Delicious!” and gestured for me to do the same.

“Don’t take it” Chiyoko warned, “Remember what Auntie Otama told us.” I nodded to my sister and stepped back. The soldier didn’t give up. He broke another tiny piece and put it in his mouth and again said, “Ummm.” It looked so delicious that my perpetually hungry stomach ordered me to do something. I could no longer refuse. I didn’t care about what Aunt Otama had said. I was hungry and someone was offering food. I grabbed the bar quickly from his hand and nibbled at it the way he showed me. He gave another bar to Chiyoko who was soon eating it, too.

The sweet taste spread through my mouth. “Waaa!” I said to myself, “This is delicious!” Whatever it was, it was so good that I knew I had never tasted anything like it in my life. I finished the rest of the bar in no time.

The soldier laughed good-naturedly and ran to the jeep where another soldier was waiting. Then they both waved to us and quickly drove away. We stood there unable to believe what had happened. The wonderful, sweet taste was still in my mouth.
“Don’t tell Mom what happened, all right?” Chiyoko told me, “She’ll be very angry if she finds out what we did.”
I nodded in agreement. Keeping a secret with my big sister made me feel grown up. As soon as we arrived home, though, I told Mom everything. What happened to us was too much for me to keep secret from anyone. Mom immediately scolded Chiyoko and in turn Chiyoko gave me a reproachful look.

Despite Aunt Otama’s warning, it didn’t take long for the Occupation forces to become very popular among the children in our town. We waived to them enthusiastically when we passed their jeeps and they often gave us candy or gum. I learned such words as, “Gimmigum or Gimmicandy,” in no time. Within a short time after their arrival, their well-disciplined manners also changed the townspeople’s perception of them. People soon realized that the G.I.s were not the barbarous people they’d anticipated and stopped worrying about them. A few years afterwards, newspapers began reporting some incidents that G.I.s raped Japanese girls in some towns but the first impression they’d given to us was so good that it didn’t become much of an issue. For us children, they were always the nice guys who came from the land of wealth.


The little girl is now at the cashier with her mother. They seem to have finished their shopping and her mother is paying for all the food and telling the cashier to add in the amount for the chocolate that her daughter was already eating. The cashier looks at the girl and asks if it tastes good. The girl nods satisfactorily and looks at me, at the next cash register. “Aren’t we lucky?” I want to tell her. “We can eat chocolate anytime we want, and we can live peacefully in the country with which our nation was once at war.” But knowing full well she won’t understand this, I don’t say anything. I smile at her again and leave the supermarket, wondering what happened to the soldier who more than a half-century ago introduced me to the wonderful, sweet taste of America

   Letters from Scarsdale