A Child of Two Empires in an Age of Nuclear War
By Mariko Terasaki MillerAugust 6, 2015
I AM A CHILD OF TWO EMPIRES, the Japanese and the American. My mother was born among the famed rolling hills of east Tennessee in the small town of Johnson City. Her great-grandfather had roamed the hills as an itinerant fire-and-brimstone preacher. My father was born in Tokyo, more than 6,000 miles away, the son of a prosperous merchant of the samurai class, and educated at the elite Ichiko prep school and Tokyo Imperial University. It’s hard to imagine two more culturally remote beginnings. They met at the Japanese embassy in Washington, DC, in 1930, and the remarkable union sparked by that chance encounter eventually led to the creation of a book, Bridge to the Sun, a memoir of love and war. And, of course, to my birth, which occurred, again quite by chance, as a typhoon scattered smaller ships to sea, breached the levies in Shanghai, and lifted enormous ocean liners onto coastal thoroughfares. My own beginnings had a touch of Fellini.
On December 7, 1941, my father, Hidenari Terasaki, was first secretary at the Japanese embassy in Washington, DC. As my mother recounts in her book, he opened an unauthorized back channel to President Roosevelt just a few days before the Pearl Harbor attack. Everyone knew war was imminent, and the only speck of hope left to avert war rested on a direct appeal from the president to the emperor. As a result of that initiative, Roosevelt sent a cablegram to Hirohito on December 6, 1941. The cablegram was held up for 10 hours by Japanese military authorities, and the last-ditch effort failed. My parent’s youthful dream of building bridges between their two countries came to an end.
We were interned at Greenbriar Hotel and repatriated to Japan in the summer of 1942, where we remained for the duration of the war. The stress for my father was immense: he knew that if military authorities and the Kempeitai, Japan’s secret police, ever learned of his role in the cablegram, punishment would be swift. He would be executed, and my mother and I would probably be killed as well. After Pearl Harbor, my mother noticed a slight quiver in his little finger that she’d never seen before.
US: Mako and Gwen Depart Embassy 1941. Mariko is second from the left, carrying a suitcase. Gwen Teraski is in the doorway. Photo was taken as they departed the embassy for internment at the Greenbriar.
I am still amazed when I think about the predicament my parents faced. The Washington Times Herald edition that publicized their wedding also reported on the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, an event viewed by many as the first step on the long path to the Pacific War. Fear that their two countries might go to war plagued them throughout the ’30s, when we were stationed in Shanghai, Havana, and Peking.
My father knew Japan did not stand a chance in a war against the United States. He had too much knowledge of America’s immense material resources to imagine otherwise. War against the US would inevitably lead to Japan’s destruction and unimaginable suffering for her people. But the embargo caused economic strangulation, giving militarists the upper hand, and that most dangerous of viruses, nationalism, swept the land. I would live to see many outbreaks of this virus during my lifetime, including the virulent and potentially terminal one that has plagued my mother’s country for more than decade.
The poverty, injustice, and human misery I witnessed in China as a child has remained with me throughout my life. We lived luxuriously cocooned inside the international section of Shanghai, with a dozen servants taking care of our needs and whims, while every night untold numbers of Chinese died of starvation on the streets of Shanghai. Carts scoured parts of the city in the early morning hours, picking up corpses. That daily harvest persisted for decades, while the imperial powers that dominated China reaped other harvests. Western imperial powers had been feeding on China for generations; the Japanese were relative newcomers to the feast.
In the spring of 1936, we prepared to leave Shanghai for Havana, where my father had been posted as Charges d’Affaires. Among the workmen who arrived to help pack and transport our possessions to the ship was a young man whose hands were raw and blistered. He was not yet accustomed to heavy work. We learned he was a scholar whose personal and family fortunes had been ruined by war. He had been reduced to destitution, and the odds of his survival in war-ravaged China were not good.
When lunchtime came the other workers left, but he lingered alone in the hallway, waiting for them to return. He didn’t have money to buy his lunch. Our cook had prepared our lunch, and my father invited him to join us. His raw hands trembled as he ate. Though half starved, my father took note that he forced himself to eat slowly.
Some nine years later I would be reminded of what we had for lunch that day.
When we finished, my mother casually remarked that she liked a ring the workman wore. It was a silver puzzle ring made of four separate bands adorned with silver flowers. She regretted the compliment, because he promptly took it off and gave it to her. She tried to refuse, but he insisted. “I want you to remember me,” he said.
In 1941 we visited Tokyo on our way to the United States from Shanghai. I was eight years old. I remember enormous crowds waving little Japanese flags. Japanese had been steeped from early childhood in their nation’s founding myths and taught obedience to authority. I imagine many readers have vivid recollections of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public school. Patriotic indoctrination begins when we are tiny children. It continues throughout our lives, often with lethal consequences. These crowds of well-meaning people cheered and waved little flags as Japanese militarists plunged them into a war that would kill millions and leave their country in ruins.
Today, most have forgotten the rage against the military that swept Japan after the war. A new generation of nationalist militarists led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is undermining Article Nine of Japan’s Peace Constitution. As we mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the drums of militarism are resounding once again in Japan. And the United States, which has garrisoned the globe with bases and undertakes military operations in countries on virtually every continent, is encouraging this awful development. There is strong opposition among the people of Japan. I support it wholeheartedly.
I was nine years old when the Pacific War began, a spoiled child accustomed to a posh existence as the daughter of a rising Japanese diplomat. The outbreak of war between my mother’s country and Japan was a terrible personal defeat for my father, one from which he never really recovered. It also marked the end of my idyllic childhood. By the time the war was over, I was a jaded adolescent who had seen enough human suffering and iniquity to last a dozen lifetimes.
Above: Cuba: Terry & Mariko 1937
Taken while Hidenari was Charges de Affaires in Havana.
© Mariko Terasaki Miller
Below: Shipboard — On the Gripsholm — 1942
© Mariko Terasaki Miller
By the summer of 1945, during the massive carpet-bombing of Japanese cities, we were clinging to survival on a mountainside near the remote village of Tateshina in the Japanese Alps. We had never before experienced hunger. Now every day was a struggle to get enough calories to keep ourselves alive. Famine stalked Japan, and unless something changed, we knew we would starve to death. Memories of starving people in China came back to me in sharper focus.
My father suffered from severe hypertension, the illness that would eventually kill him. His blood pressure was in the stratosphere, and there were no medications to control it. My mother’s fingernails were cracked and bleeding, and she was often too weak to get out of bed. In desperation, my father and I tried our hands at farming. We cleared a little garden plot near our cabin. He couldn’t bend over to pick up the stones because it would increase his blood pressure, so we went about clearing the rocky turf as a team. He would pry rocks loose with a shovel, and I would pick them up and put them in a burlap sack.
One day he stopped and gazed off at the mountains. He knew we were engaged in a hopeless task. Anguish and amusement played upon his features like the patterns of light and shadow drifting across the pines. He asked me whether I remembered the distinguished young man who had moved our furniture in Shanghai.
“Yes, I remember him. I wonder what happened to him,” I said.
“Do you remember what we ate for lunch?”
I drew a complete blank.
“No,” I replied.
“We had two salads, one western and one Japanese,” he said. “And warm bread, creamed vegetable soup, tomato aspic, poached salmon, rice, tea, and lemonade.” We smiled at each other, aching from the sensations his words evoked.
Japan was suing for peace, but during the second week of August my father received word that a mysterious new bomb had destroyed two Japanese cities. Japan had been immaculately defeated before the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was obvious to me as a 13-year-old child. One of my jobs was to gather wood. I loved to climb trees, and from my perches I could sometimes see silver birds flying in perfect formation. These gleaming silver birds flying over our cabin were stark visual proof that Japan was finished. They were American B-29 bombers, and they flew in perfect formation because they encountered no resistance of any kind. Japan’s undefended wood-and-paper cities were in flames. At night the horizon radiated a hellish crimson light. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ushered in the age of nuclear terror, were carried out against defenseless civilians. My uncle Taira Terasaki, a surgeon stationed at Kure naval base, led the first medical team to reach Hiroshima some three hours after the bomb struck. What he witnessed beggars description. He saw infants fused to their mothers. He saw people walking with flesh dripping off their bodies like candle wax. The atomic attacks on those two defenseless cities were unforgivably cruel and, despite notions cultivated by decades of propaganda in the United States, entirely superfluous.
As I said, I am a child of two empires, the Japanese and the American. The Japanese experiment in Western style imperialism ended in near-total destruction. I demonstrated against the Vietnam war. I supported the solidarity movement against US-sponsored death squads in Central America during the Reagan years. America is addicted to war and militarism, and today we terrify children with our drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq. The devastation we impose on other people is a disgrace, and simply cannot be tolerated.
Above: Mariko and Hidenari bound for DC — Spring of 1941.
© Mariko Terasaki Miller
Below: A painting by Mariko at the age of 14.
© Mariko Terasaki Miller
I first heard Roosevelt’s famous day that will live in infamy speech while sitting on the steps of the circular staircase at the old Japanese embassy in Washington. I was nine years old. I would encounter those words again in March 2003 in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece written by the esteemed establishment historian Arthur Schlesinger, who served in President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet. Schlesinger wrote, “Franklin Roosevelt was right, but today it is we Americans who live in infamy.” The occasion was the American invasion of Iraq, which initiated a war of choice against a country that posed no threat to the United States. The United Nations declared the invasion illegal. Secretary General Kofi Anan stated: “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN Charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.” The UN Charter was forged to create a bulwark against aggression “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” We have committed terrible crimes — aggression, torture, detention without trial, the use of chemical weapons and depleted uranium against civilians, continuous drone terror — yet no one has gone to jail and there are few signs that our rampage will end any time soon.
We’re now in late summer. The year is 2015. I’ll soon be 83 years old. My memories of the distant past grow ever sharper and more distinct, while finding my glasses is one of the day’s pressing challenges. Much as I would like to believe otherwise, the portents for those I must soon leave behind are not promising. Our “leaders” have again turned a blind eye to the dangers we face. Nuclear war continues to threaten our survival. Fukushima continues to bleed nuclear waste into the ocean. Japan was able to rebuild after the war, but we are fast approaching ecological and climate-tipping points from which our best scientists warn there will be no return. Vast resources are wasted on the “military industrial congressional complex,” to use President Eisenhower’s phrase, while the imperatives of empire and the corporate state threaten the liberties our massive armaments are theoretically intended to defend. War and aggression remain constants in international relations.
If left unchallenged, the institutional logic of the corporate state will destroy human liberty and our fragile planet. There is no magic leader who will step in to save the day. We must build people’s movements to confront these menaces to human survival. There are encouraging developments in Japan and the United States, and I hope that environmental and peace organizations in both countries will reach out to each other and join forces. Such bridges would be worth building.
Japanese and Americans are remarkably obedient to authority. “Go along to get along” is the standard American phrase; “the nail that stands up gets pounded down” is the graphic Japanese equivalent. Obedience to authority is a weakness we can no longer indulge given the dangers we face. We must overcome this weakness, or it may prove to be a death sentence for the human species. Only informed and determined public resistance to our destructive systems of power and exploitation can change our present self-destructive course. Time is running out.
When I turned 21, my mother gave me a precious gift: the puzzle ring that the Chinese scholar had given her in 1936. I have worn it at least once a week for more than 60 years, and every time I put it on I think of that scholar. My mother never forgot him, and I will carry his memory into my grave. I see acts of generosity and human solidarity every day. They give me hope. And so does the story contained within my mother’s book, Bridge to the Sun. She chose to return to my father’s country knowing that her own far more powerful country was poised to destroy it. She had every expectation that the three of us would die together in Japan. My father tried to persuade her to stay in the United States, but she refused to let the family be divided by war. Love triumphed over fear. That decision revealed her fierce devotion to the human bonds that make life meaningful. These bonds transcend the divisions of nationality, race, and creed that leaders exploit to divide the human family into warring factions. These bonds will continue to make life meaningful in the dark times ahead. I think this is what gives Bridge to the Sun lasting value. It is a celebration of love.
This essay is based in part on a series of interviews between Mariko Terasaki Miller and her son, Cole Miller, and will be published as the updated introduction for the new edition of Bridge to the Sun, a memoir written by Gwen Harold Terasaki.
Mariko Terasaki Miller is the first woman appointed Honorary Consul-General of Japan. She is the daughter of Hidenari Terasaki, a Japanese diplomat, and Gwen Harold Terasaki, a native of Johnson City, who met at the Japanese Embassy in Washington and were married in 1931.
Mariko Terasaki Miller is the first woman appointed Honorary Consul-General of Japan. She is the daughter of Hidenari Terasaki, a Japanese diplomat, and Gwen Harold Terasaki, a native of Johnson City, who met at the Japanese Embassy in Washington and were married in 193. Mrs. Miller was born in Shanghai, and spent her early childhood with parents in various posts, including Havana, Peking, Washington, and Tokyo. In 1941, her father was again posted to the Embassy in Washington, where he played an important role in desperate, last minute efforts to avert war between Japan and America. Mrs. Miller returned with her parents to Japan after Pearl Harbor, where they spent the war years. At war’s end, her father was appointed advisor to the Emperor and official liaison between the Palace and the Supreme Allied Commander, General Douglas MacArthur.
Seared by her observations of poverty, hunger, and brutality as a child in China, and the realities of war in Japan, Mrs. Miller became a political activist while raising her four sons in Wyoming. She served on the steering committee of the National Women’s Political Caucus, the board of Americans for Democratic Action, the Wyoming Commission for Civil Rights, and the Wyoming Commission for Women, and in 1976, was elected to the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee.
She has embarked on numerous speaking tours of Japan over the past 17 years, some of which were sponsored jointly by the American Embassy and the Japanese Foreign Ministry. In April of 1996, the Foreign Ministry invited her to Japan to speak at a luncheon hosted by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in honor of President and Mrs. Bill Clinton.
LARB Staff Recommendations
War-making states still build on the legacy of World War II bombers....
2014 saw a bumper crop in World War I commemorations....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.