I guess I don’t always have to write about Kenya or Africa, so today is an American/Japanese story. In 1985 I moved to Nyack, New York, and attended Rockland Friends Meeting. As soon as I moved my membership from Pittsburgh Meeting to Rockland Meeting, I was appointed to the Ministry and Worship Committee. At that time I was 41 years old and I was the youngest resident member of the meeting! The meeting was then small with only ten to twenty people at worship on Sunday at a very nice meeting house in the woods. The elderly members were concerned that the meeting was going to die out. They were determined to survive. One of the methods was to have a person selected each Sunday to teach Sunday school. The members realized that if a family with children came to meeting and then one of them had to go out with their children, they would never return to meeting. Under the direction of the late Ruth Stern, each Sunday there was a prepared lesson and a designated teacher to lead the session. Since there were no children attending, there usually was nothing to do.
One Sunday I was the volunteer teacher, but had no expectations that I would do anything. A family showed up with two young girls. Whoops, I was on call. Ruth had the curriculum ready and on this day, the plan was to read a chapter from the book, Totto-chan: The Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.
Side note: Here are two sentences from Rockland Meeting’s current webpage: Current membership includes many young Quakers who are active in regular Meeting business… Rockland Friends Meeting has a vibrant and active First Day [Sunday] School. They have clearly survived the drought of children when I was there.
I had never heard of the book, but was so amazed by the chapter I read to the girls that I took it home to read the whole book. I learned that it was one of the best-selling books in the world. In the first year after it was published in 1981, it sold 4.5 million copies and has now been translated into at least thirty different languages. The English version, translated by Dorothy Britton, was published in 1984. I felt ashamed that I had never heard of the book. You can read it here.
Since so many of my American readers are isolated at home, it thought this would be a good recommendation. If you have children or grandchildren, you can read it to them as I did in that classroom or they can read it themselves. Like Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass or Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn, this is one of those books which can be appreciated by children in one way and adults in another way. I encourage adults to read it also.
Why was the book so popular? Tetsuko Kuroyanagi was the Orprah Winfrey of Japanese TV with her daily show, Tetsuko’s Room, the first talk show on Japanese television. I don’t usually read or like celebrities’ auto-biographies since they do not say much beyond how the author went from rags to success. This is not the case here since the whole book is about Tetsuko’s few years during World War II at a remarkable school named Tomoe Gakuen. If you read the book, whatever ideas you had about Japanese society and culture before the end of World War II will be blown away.
On her first day at school Totto-chan (Tetsuko’s name as a child for herself) meets a boy, named Yasuaki, who “dragged his feet.” When she asked him why, he said he had polio. In another chapter Tutsuko describes how each child had a tree to climb (OK, remember this is a most unusual school), but Yasuaki didn’t have a tree because he couldn’t climb one. Totto-chan gets the idea to invite him to her tree and gets a step-ladder to get him up into the tree. All is not roses, though, as near the end of the book, Totto-chan and all the other fifty students attend Yasuaki’s funeral.
Before the end of WWII, Korea was a Japanese colony and even today there is much bitterness between the two countries. Part of this was that the Japanese considered Koreans to be inferior and discriminated against them. This idea is challenged in the book – remember this is during WWII when Japan still controlled Korea. When Totto-chan interacts with a Korean boy, her mother comments as follows:
Drying her eyes, Mother said to Totto-chan very slowly, “You’re Japanese and Masao-chan comes from a country called Korea. But he’s a child, just like you. So, Totto-chan, dear, don’t ever think of people as different. Don’t think, ‘That person’s a Japanese, or this person’s a Korean.’ Be nice to Masao-chan. It’s so sad that some people think other people aren’t nice just because they’re Koreans.
Here is another incident that is difficult to process. Totto-chan’s father was a violinist in an orchestra. The conductor was a German Jew. In other words, the Japanese who were on the same side as the Germans during WWII were saving a German Jew from the Holocaust.
As the war continued, many members of the orchestra were drafted and anyway no one was able to attend a concert. The only option for work that Totto-chan’s father had was to play “martial music” at factories to encourage the workers. (During the Vietnam War there was a book titled, Military Justice Is to Justice as Military Music Is to Music.) He refused to do this. So he was a conscientious objector, something that one doesn’t think that the Japanese had. Also thinking that playing “martial music” is war resistance is an interesting concept, like taking a knee during the national anthem in the US.
What makes the book so remarkable in this time of Covid-19 crisis is its tone, its spirit. World War II was a difficult time for the Japanese and, even though her parents shielded whatever they could from her, this gets covered to some extent in the book. In reading the book, one can see what made Tetsuko such a good talk show host. It is charming, positive, encouraging, perhaps just what people need in these trying times. Download it here.
In 1945, the school, Tomoe Gakuen, was destroyed by American bombs.
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