Posts Tagged ‘Battle of Okinawa’

A Memoir in Translation Opens a Hidden Door

By Malavika Nataraj, Singapore

Two years ago, I attended a concert where I heard an Okinawan all-women’s group sing melodious ballads about the rich, natural beauty of the Ryukyu Islands. The shaman-like lead singer, with her waist-length grey hair, played an ancient snakeskin sanshin. As the beautiful voices rose in song, I felt their pain and sadness vibrating within me.

From then on, I was fascinated by Okinawa with its waving palms and turquoise waters—Japanese, yet so different. I wanted to understand the pain of the Okinawan people, their pride and their plaintive cry for peace. It was at about this time that I came across The Girl with the White Flag, and feeling inexplicably drawn to it, began to read.

The book begins with Tomiko Higa’s recollections of an almost idyllic childhood, growing up on a farm in rural Shuri, the old capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom. After her mother’s death, she spends early childhood years with her father, digging up sweet potatoes from their field for lunch and listening to the wisdom he has to share. But soon, the threat of war looms large and seven-year-old Tomiko must prepare to flee with her siblings, when her father does not return from a trip into town. Hiding in caves that dot the coastline nearby, the children travel south with other refugees to find shelter, away from falling bombs and gunfire. Not long afterward, Tomiko’s brother Nini falls prey to a bullet-wound in his head, and little Tomiko becomes separated from her two older sisters.

Here begins Tomiko’s solo, nightmarish journey of survival. She spends weeks searching for her sisters, dodging the bullets and bombs that chase her very footsteps. Hiding in the tall pampas grass, ducking in and out of caves, she somehow lives on, all the while believing that her dead brother’s spirit is watching out for her. Throughout her ordeal, she also believes that her father’s voice is in her head guiding her and keeping her alive.

And maybe it is. For in this miraculous tale of survival in a land torn apart by war, a seven-year old child with no real survival skills finds raw carrots in an abandoned field, food in the haversacks of dead soldiers, and drinkable water where all the rivers run red with the blood of her fellow Okinawans.

After weeks of traversing this landscape, little Tomiko finally stumbles upon an underground cave, inhabited by an old, ailing couple. Grandma and Grandpa, as she calls them, become her family for a little while, before the old man sends Tomiko out of the cave, telling her that she is too young to die with them, that she must live. So into the sunlight she finally emerges, waving a white cloth torn from Grandpa’s clothing, tied to a stick.

At the end of the Second World War in 1945, a young American war photographer named John Hendrickson was documenting the surrender of Japanese civilians on the island of Okinawa, when he stopped to take a picture of a little girl holding a white flag.

This photograph re-surfaced in Japan decades after it was taken, and the girl in the picture became a symbol of strength, love and hope—an emblem of survival and peace in a place once devastated by war. The child, meanwhile, had grown up and re-built her life, burying her painful memories. It wasn’t until the discovery of the photo set off a chain of rumours about the girl’s identity, that Tomiko Higa thought of sitting down and penning her own true story.

Left: Dorothy Britton (

When Dorothy Britton—a well-known poet, translator and composer who spent a large part of her life in Japan—translated Higa’s book into English, she opened a door hidden behind a tangle of vines, and let the English-speaking world into a place it knew very little about.

In today’s world where terrorists, bombings and security threats are all a part of our lives, the desire for world peace is as close and as personal as it was—and still is—for the Okinawan people.

Dorothy Britton loved Japan and deeply understood the sentiments of Japanese people. She was often described as being “Japanese but in western skin.”  During her lifetime, she wrote poetry and articles about the country she loved and also translated several well-known works such as Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s famous memoir Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window, as well as A Haiku Journey (Oku no hosomich) by the famous poet Matsuo Basho. Britton also authored the historical work Prince and Princess Chichibu and translated The Japanese Crane by Tsuneo Hayashida. Britton passed away in 2015, at her home in Hayama, a week before her memoir Rhythms, Rites and Rituals: My Life in Japan in Two-step and Waltz-time was to be released.

In Memory of Dorothy Britton and Miyoko Matsutani

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Totto-chanInai inai baa

Recently the world of Japanese children’s literature lost two important figures. They are not connected—except perhaps in our hearts—but I would like to note their passing here and express great appreciation for their long careers.

Translator Dorothy Britton (February 14, 1922–February 25, 2015)

The Girl with the White FlagDorothy Britton was a translator known for her renderings of bestseller Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi (above left), as well as The Girl with the White Flag by Tomiko Higa (left).

Britton was British but born in Japan, a survivor of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake while an infant. She spent much of her life in Japan. The Japan Society in London had planned a launch (fully booked!) this month for Britton’s memoir, Rhythms, Rites and Rituals: My Life in Japan in Two-step and Waltz-time, but it was learned days beforehand that Britton had died. The launch became a memorial gathering. A Japan Society page provides more information on Britton’s eventful life and many accomplishments.

Author Miyoko Matsutani (Feb. 15, 1926–Feb. 28, 2015)

Little MomoAnyone who has raised a child in Japan since the 1950s will have read at least one picture book—and probably many—by prolific author Miyoko Matsutani. The titles perhaps most mentioned in Japanese media are Tatsu no ko Taro (Taro the Dragon Boy) and Chiisai Momo-chan (Little Momo, left), but many, many Japanese were introduced to reading as infants with Matsutani’s Inai inai baa (Peek-a-Boo, top right of post), published in 1967. My own children were! The Miyoko Matsutani Official Website offers photos and information about this beloved author, and the Goodreads website includes an English bio.

Matsutani enjoyed a writing career of some six decades, and dedicated herself to children’s literature. She opened up part of her home in Tokyo as a lending library, which she named Hon to ningyo no ie (The House of Books and Dolls). She was often on hand to read books to young visitors. The House of Books and Dolls remains open to the public on a regular basis.

A quick check online shows that many of Matsutani’s books have been translated into English. Many are no longer in print but available secondhand.

The works of Dorothy Britton and Miyoko Matsutani will enrich children’s lives for generations to come.

Dorothy Britton memoirThe Crane Maiden

The Sad Song of Okinawa~Life Itself is our Most Precious Treasure

by Deborah Davidson, Sapporo

The Sad Song of Okinawa~Life Itself is our Most Precious Treasure is the heart-wrenching story of the Battle of Okinawa, “World War II’s longest and fiercest battle,” as told from the perspective of two young Okinawan children. It is in the form of a picture book for young readers, but certain to stimulate discussion among all age groups about the nature of war and peace. The original Japanese version was meticulously researched, written, and brilliantly illustrated by Maruki Toshi and Maruki Iri, a husband-wife team of artists whose work is known and respected worldwide.

The story begins with a delightful description of the beauty and joys of life in Okinawa, with the impact of the text multiplied by the vivid colors and whimsical illustrations. Young Tsuru and her even younger brother Saburo live in this joyful land along with their parents and extended family.

After impressing this charming setting firmly in the reader’s mind, the text continues: “The war came to Little Tsuru’s house when she was seven years old.” In both great and small ways, the life to which the children had been accustomed begins to crack and crumble. The illustrations become darker and more chaotic. Though the text continues in a matter-of-fact tone, the scenes that the words describe make your hair stand on end. The desperate reality of the situation is enhanced by many innocent-seeming details, such as what the evacuees choose to take from their homes as they flee, and the color of the mud puddle that the children must drink from to quench their raging thirst.

The Okinawan language, particularly in the form of a song Grandfather sings to the accompaniment of the sanshin (Okinawan banjo), weaves through the text, adding further continuity to the story. “Ikusayun shimachi, mirukuyun yagati, (the war will pass and there’ll be days of peace and pleasure) Nagikunayo shinka, nuchidu takara ( Don’t cry my friends, life itself is our most precious treasure).” The story ends with a repetition of this last phrase (“life itself is our most precious treasure”), which also serves as the book’s subtitle.

The publication of the English version of the book was made possible by the efforts of The Sad Song of Okinawa English Translation Project. It took three years for the project team to raise the funds necessary to get it published. Project members Kinjo Haruna, Andrea Good, and Rob Witmer undertook the translation of the original Japanese (and Okinawan) into English.

I’m pleased to say that the book is finally in published form as part of the RIC Story Chest series. As all books in that series, The Sad Song of Okinawa comes with a CD recording of the story text to assist young readers and speakers of English as a foreign language. Two Okinawan folk songs performed by Nahgushiku Yoshimitsu are also included in the CD. The book can be purchased from RIC Publications.

Debbie is a gifted artist as well as a notable translator and educator. Be sure to check out her etegami blog and her work on Ainu folklore translations; one story is included in the upcoming Tomo anthology from Stone Bridge Press!