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Behind the Paper Screen / Lament for lost community

Daily Yomiuri Online, September 17th, 2007

Behind the Paper Screen / Lament for lost community

Sawa Kurotani Special to The Daily Yomiuri

When something significant disappears from one's life, it does not suddenly go away. Instead, its presence gradually fades away, until it is so slight that one no longer perceives it. I learned this in the past few months, since my cat disappeared in May. Signs of her presence continued to linger for weeks and I still have spots on the carpet and other reminders of the five years that she spent with me. But those reminders are becoming few and far between now and her presence will soon disappear from my daily life.

Japan's sengo, or postwar era, has also been "ending" for a long time. The end of the Allied Occupation (1952), Tokyo Olympics (1964) and Osaka World Fair (1970) are among the important landmarks in Japan's long postwar history, which demonstrated to the world and the Japanese people how far Japan had come from the aftermath of World War II. In the 1980s, the unprecedented affluence of middle-class Japanese also triggered the widespread acknowledgment that Japan's sengo was well and truly over.

I was a child in the kodo keizai seicho (rapid economic growth) era, when Japanese were intent on pushing the memory of the war away and putting an end to sengo. In a way, the frequent reference to sengo during that era was itself a reminder that Japan's postwar period was not quite over yet. After all, the war and its consequences left indelible marks on my parents' and grandparents' generations and, regardless of the nation's miraculous economic recovery, sengo could not be put to rest as long as their memories were alive in people's minds.

As I grew up, the stories of wartime and the period immediately following the defeat often came up in casual conversations. Grandparents would use wartime phrases like kichiku beiei (savage Americans and British), zeitaku wa teki da (living in luxury is the enemy) and daihonei happyo (news release from the Central War Office), which were readily understood, and told us how they went on kaidashi (food shopping trips) on a packed train. My parents' childhood recollections were often related to food shortages and the hunger that they experienced in the immediate postwar period, as well as their encounters with GIs and the unfamiliar food that they brought with them.

Even then, marks of the war do disappear one by one with the passage of time. This year, one of the major reminders of sengo will disappear from my family history.

My family has lived in a small house that was built several years after the war. It was one of 15 houses in a small complex of public housing for low-income families who lost their homes during the war. Many of the original families were headed by widowed mothers; all of them lost their properties during the war, either to the bombings, or when they escaped from Manchuria, leaving their entire livelihood in Japan's former de facto colony. My father was 19 years old when he moved into the house with his mother and two sisters, and has lived there ever since. My mother moved in at age 22, when my parents got married; my father's mother died in this house, when I was 19; both my sister and I lived there throughout our childhood, teenage years and during college.

Because it was developed as a public housing project and all the residents were newcomers to the area, this complex always stood apart from the surrounding neighborhood. Residents formed their own neighborhood association and operated as an informal system of mutual support. If there was a death in one of the households, women from all the other families would help with the funeral arrangements, for example. Older kids walked younger ones to school, and we'd claim the unpaved driveway through the complex as "our street" against other neighborhood children.

We knew each other well--perhaps, too well. They knew every family's history--both good and bad--and gossiped about comings and goings of everyone in the complex. My mother, when she came as a new bride, was promptly updated of all the peculiarities of the Kurotanis. Later on, she discovered that very little of our household matters escaped her neighbors' eyes. For example, how many gift deliveries our family received during the traditional gift-giving seasons. We, as children, had to be on good behavior at all times, because, if one of the neighbors saw us causing trouble, she wouldn't be wasting any time reporting it to our mothers, as well as sharing it with everyone else. Over the years, residents got old, some died, and some moved on. But the complex stayed more or less intact.

A few years ago, the prefectural government, which owned the housing complex, decided to relocate all the remaining residents from the complex and reclaim the land for other public projects. Residents who cooperated and vacated their homes promptly were promised units in brand-new apartment buildings adjacent to us. The majority of them took the government's offer and a few moved away to live with their children.

When I went home this August, all the other families had already moved out, and my parents were living in the midst of empty little old houses, the last neighbor having left a couple months ago. It was a strange scene, to say the least, a familiar place suddenly looking strangely unapproachable.

Our neighborhood had never been pretty. This was definitely a "lived" place, where aesthetics gave way to function, where you saw telltale signs of daily human activities everywhere. The original houses were not particularly well built, and six decades of random make-do repairs and renovations turned them into a motley cluster of oddly shaped, multicolored architectural conundrums. The main driveway was never paved, and modern plumbing was never put in place.

On a fine day, one could see laundry drying on the line in the front yard and hear women chatting at the corner. But as plain as it was, the place was also well cared for. Trees and plants were trimmed and the driveway was swept regularly; the empty lot was divided into small patches, where some of the residents grew tomatoes and cucumbers in summer.

What I saw this summer was a different place altogether, an abandoned place. Houses just stood, motionless, and the robust summer growth of plants and weeds--which had already taken over much of the yards and gardens--was an unsettling contrast to the ghastliness around it. Families came here 62 years ago to rebuild their lives after the war. Now, not only their children but also grandchildren have grown up and have their own lives elsewhere. When these little oddly shaped houses are razed by the bulldozer this fall, another small piece of sengo will disappear.

Kurotani is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands in California.

 


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