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https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2024/6/13/profound-silence/

A Profound Silence

One of the most famous—if not the most famous—works in classical music is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. The opening of that masterpiece is iconic. There’s silence, and then those explosive four notes: ta, ta, ta daaannnnn! When I first played the symphony, our conductor emphasized that the most important part of that dynamic opening is the silence (the anticipation) before the notes, and not the notes themselves. And that’s exactly how Beethoven intended it to be because those four notes start on an upbeat. In other words, this renowned work purposefully starts in a perfect moment of silence—the utter absence of sound—before the eruption of those fiery four notes.

Hayashi and his mother in 2006.

Over the years, I have grown to appreciate the sheer power of silence, mainly as it pertained to the many secrets kept by my Nisei mother. Only as an adult did I learn that, not only was she and her family incarcerated in a concentration camp in Arkansas during World War II, they were also sent on a ship to Yokohama in a hostage exchange between the United States and Japan, two countries then engaged in a bitter, brutal war with each other.

My mother was a teenager and U.S. citizen by birth, but that didn’t seem to matter to the U.S. State Department, which desperately wanted the return of Americans who had been stranded in Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia that were then occupied by Japan. Thus the hostage exchange. In essence, my mother was traded like cattle for another American but of a lighter skin.

I knew only the barest of details of her deportation to Japan. I knew that she and her family had taken a train from Arkansas to the East Coast, and from there they boarded the MS Gripsholm, a Swedish ocean liner that the U.S. government had commissioned to deport hundreds of civilians.

From my own research, I learned that the ship had traveled south along North and South America, stopping in Rio de Janeiro to replenish food, water, and other supplies. It then crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, before heading to Goa, India, the site where the actual hostage exchange took place.

My mother never talked about that harrowing journey. Was she terrified as the Gripsholm traversed dangerous waters with enemy submarines? Did she feel betrayed by her own country, unsure of whether she would ever set foot on U.S. soil again? And, as her ship made its way closer and closer to Japan, what did she think about having to live in a country she had never been to?

I longed to know so many things about my mother’s past but she made it abundantly clear to my brothers and me that that time in her life was a topic never to be broached. As far as she was concerned, it was all ancient history and, well, shikata ga nai (it can’t be helped).

My mother died in 2013 and in the days, weeks, and months following her passing I suffered a relentless regret along with my intense grief. She took so many secrets to the grave with her and I was so terribly saddened, realizing that I had only a superficial understanding of her tumultuous past. She had buried so much of that pain and suffering deep inside of her that I literally did not even know what I didn’t know.

Then recently, through the magic of Facebook, I had the good fortune of meeting Sharon Oda, a fellow Sansei with a shared family history. We discovered that her father (and his family) were on the same ship as my mother (and her family), similarly deported to Japan in the fall of 1943. What incredible serendipity!

Sharon was kind enough to send me articles that her father and uncle had written about their traumatic experiences during WWII. Her uncle had kept a diary, and he remembered that, after the hostage exchange had occurred in India and the U.S. hostages were transferred from the Gripsholm to a Japanese ship, the Teia Maru, teenagers had to sleep on bunk beds on the open deck.

He specifically recalled having to bunk next to a girl from Hawaii who was fifteen or sixteen years old at the time. My mother, who was born in Honolulu, was sixteen then, and when I checked the ship’s manifest I found that there were only two teenaged girls from Hawaii who were around that age aboard the Teia Maru.

Sharon and I were floored, thinking about the possibility that her uncle and my mother might have known each other on that long journey eight decades ago, as the Teia Maru sailed from India to Japan, with stops in Singapore and Manilla. Her uncle described how chilly it was, having to sleep on the ship’s deck for a month. Bananas they were given never ripened, even after he kept them in his pocket for additional warmth. He remembered always being hungry and having to pick out worms that were in the rice that the passengers were served.

These were the sorts of details that my mother never talked about, and hearing them from someone else made her silence on the subject all the more profound. Her unwillingness—or, perhaps more accurately, her inability—to tell me about that painful journey, as she was expelled from the U.S. and shipped to Japan, spoke volumes.

Now, when I reflect back on my mother, I realize that her silence about the war was always a large, looming presence in our household. In fact, the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve realized that the secrets she kept (and the accompanying silence) were perhaps the most important aspects of my relationship with her.

Hayashi and his mother in 1969.
I don’t mean, however, to imply that my mother was an uncaring, unloving, or distant person. Quite the opposite. She devoted her life to her four sons, making countless sacrifices to ensure that we would have all the opportunities that she never had.

Growing up in Honolulu, I had a cherished childhood, blissfully unaware that, at times, my parents had struggled financially to provide their children with a secure, comfortable middle-class upbringing. My earliest memories are of my mother reading to me, her sweet, gentle voice lulling me to sleep with captivating tales of Momotaro and Urashima Taro, along with Aesop’s Fables and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. She read countless stories to me, but when it came to talking about her past she had no tales to tell.

All that silence for decades. And then, when my mother was in her eighties and dementia began to impair her mind, the explosions came. One night, in a fit of aggressive paranoia, she came storming out of her kitchen, moving so unsteadily with one hand on her walker and the other hand brandishing a hocho—her sharp Japanese knife that could easily chop through chicken bones. She accused my brothers of trying to take her home away from her and threatened them with the hocho, a wild look in her eyes as if she were a trapped animal.

Years after our mother had passed, my brother Randall and I went to the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles to stamp the Ireichō in remembrance of her and her family. We later toured through the JANM exhibits and stopped at a reproduction of a barracks from one of the U.S. concentration camps. Randall and I stared at that exhibit, our minds deep in thought. Finally, I told him, “Can you imagine Mom’s family—all seven of them—living in that cramped room? There would barely be enough space for the seven cots, let alone anything else.”

There was silence between my brother and me as we both thought the same thing: How would our own family have weathered being similarly incarcerated. Later, as we were leaving the museum, Randall said, “If that had been us caged up like that, we would have gone crazy and we would have killed each other.”

Hayashi and his mother in 1993.

As for Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, people might be familiar with those famous opening notes but not necessarily the entire work. The exhilarating first movement is followed by a lyrical second and moody third, after which the work ends very triumphantly with the brass blaring in a rousing, exuberant flourish of a finale. Of particular importance is the fact that, although the symphony begins in a minor key, it ends in major mode. In Beethoven’s own words: “Many assert that every minor piece must end in the minor. Nego!...Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain.”

I do wish that my mother’s life had been filled with more joy and sunshine, following the painful sorrow and rain of her childhood. Unfortunately, the trauma she suffered during the war was always a dark cloud in the distant horizon, hovering too large. Still, I do believe that, throughout her middle-aged and elderly years, she did derive much pleasure watching her children and grandchildren lead lives far less encumbered, with infinitely more opportunities than she ever had.

Interestingly, Beethoven wrote his last symphony, the 9th, after he had lost his hearing. That is, while living in a world of silence, he composed a colossal work that resonates with the fundamental truths of humanity and is considered to be of even greater genius than his famous 5th symphony. I now realize that in my mother’s own world of profound silence lay the deepest, most complex truths of her life—all there for my brothers and me to hear, but only if we listened closely enough.

 

*This essay was originally published in Kioku (February 2024).

 

© 2024 Alden M. Hayashi

Arkansas generations Hawaii identity Ireichō Irei (project) Japanese American National Museum (organization) mothers MS Gripsholem (ship) Nisei ships trauma United States World War II
About the Author

Alden M. Hayashi is a Sansei who was born and raised in Honolulu but now lives in Boston. After writing about science, technology, and business for more than thirty years, he has recently begun writing fiction and essays to preserve stories of the Nikkei experience. His first novel, Two Nails, One Love, was published by Black Rose Writing in 2021. His website: www.aldenmhayashi.com.

Updated May 2024

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