In Between East and West

Essay: A Dream Unforgotten –My Grandfather’s Untold Philosophy of People are Nation, but Nation is Not People

September 13, 2013

        Everybody wonders why I decided to live and work in Moscow. The first question I receive from new friends and colleagues here is always, Why Russia? Why leaving Japan behind? Why not enjoying lake and chocolate in Switzerland? Some think that I am very much fond of snow and cold weather. I am not. The others guess that maybe I am a vodka-lover. Well, maybe, sometimes yes. But it is not these allusions or fascination of mysterious Russia that dragged me into this great country. Rather, my first contact with Russia began with humiliation and mistrust.


        My grandfather was a slavery worker in the Soviet Union. I am aware that the term “slavery” may sound politically incorrect or even disrespectful for personal dignity. But, after hearing my grandfather described what it was like to be a forced labor there, tasteless expressions like detainee or prisoner of war sound too untruthful to the memory of untold truth.


        It was 1944 and he was nobody more than a normal farmer. As a stubborn but clam and silent man, the only person he could really hurt was himself.  But these characters did not matter at all in Japanese Empire’s dire desperation to turn a continuing war into decisive victory. He was barely twenty years old, just at an age he was dreaming of his opening future. I am not sure what he wanted to be, a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer, or something more audacious, but one thing I am pretty sure is that, being a solder was the last and least in his dream-list.


        Japanese Empire was quick to take him, and when he realized, he was already somewhere in China, fighting the legendary Red Army. But, fight was not his fate from the beginning. Japanese Empire at last declared its defeat in 1945, and his hope ballooned that finally he could go back to his normal life where he shoots bears in mountains, not communists in the fields. After the Soviet Army captured all Japanese solders including my grandfather, trains were arranged to send them back home. I imagine he was already starting to plan for a life after the return on the train. But, his hope swiftly turned into despair when he saw the train heading towards sunset. “Nothing was sure, except the evident fact that the train was not heading towards my islands in the East,” later he recalled.


        Soviet Tashkent welcomed the Japanese detainees with severe weather and harsh life. He kept telling to my family that the only meal he was given for a week was a piece of black bread. Many died, of hunger, of sickness, of freezing, or of despair. Dead corps were sometimes buried with minimum respect, or otherwise just piled next to the train tracks. My grandfather’s extraordinary talent as armature engineer helped him survive, with rewards given for extra technical works he could provide besides his daily duty of baking bricks. Despite the harsh working condition, Japanese detainees never made any compromise on construction. “Building a theatre is especially a work of daunting responsibility. If the only person comes there is Stalin, we would build it with half-baked bricks. But there comes citizens, families, and kids. How could we make any compromise? It doesn’t matter how they treated me; I have my own way of treating people.” After a several years of unspoken life, he finally managed to come back to his hometown, a mountainous Yamagata city in northern Japan. When he returned home, everybody looked at him as ghost standing at the doorstep.



Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre in Tashkent, a remaining grandpeice build by the detainees.



        After hearing all these, you cannot be surprised to hear that my family is infected by excessive xenophobia since his unexpected return. The life he lived was unimaginable. One day when I was small, I told my grandfather that he must really hate Russian people. Although I was too small to know where is Russia and what is it, I could assume that very easily. But interestingly, he never told us that he hates Soviet people. Instead, the story he always told was a tale of challenge, not a tale of antagonism.


        He was just like a rock. He spoke only when necessary, and once he spoken, his mind is determined and nothing could change afterwards. A glass of beer or whisky was the only thing that could ease his closed mouth. He told and retold the same story of humiliation again and again, and after half an hour of listening, my family usually concluded with a remark that the Soviet people are just terrible. But what I recall most vividly is that, as soon as any antagonistic word comes out from my family, he began to talk about the other side of the hidden history. He began to describe, like one day on way to “home,” a small space like cell given to detainees in Tashkent, he ran into a Soviet person on the street. When he or she left, my grandfather noticed that he has some small food in his pocket. Yes, the Soviet Union took him, but also, the Soviet people helped him survive in that.


        People are nation, but nation is not people. He never said that in this way, but this is what I learned from him. Many say that Russian people today have somewhat positive impression of the Japanese, while Japanese people still thinks that “the Soviets” are as cold as Siberian ice. Living in Moscow made me notice that, maybe my grandfather’s personality was shaped in the Soviet Union. Every time I describe him, I bring up a story: one day when I was around eleven-year old, I came to grandfather’s room and asked him to drive me to a bookstore, I wanted to buy the Harry Potter.  Lying on the mattress like an old bear, he looked at me and just turned away. Sad small Kazu took it as “No. I am busy for resting.” I went upstairs to take a nap. Twenty minutes later, suddenly I woke up by a sound of car engine starting. I came down to find my grandfather standing on the doorstep with his emotionless face, saying “Are we going, or not going.” It was not a question. It was his own way of expressing affection towards his grandson. He was always like that. He never replied me with bright smile but I always knew that he loved me more than anybody.


        It has been five years since he passed away. But on the corners of Russian streets, I always find my grandfather. A young, huge Russian guy with punk hair holding metro entrance door for me, though he looks like the last person who does such thing; an old grandmother telling me a way to metro with bad mood but never let me go until she is sure that I understood correctly; a friend of mine who told me that “Sorry man I am busy and can’t help you moving out.” but came there anyway on the day saying “Whatever, let’s make it quick.” True, maybe Russian people look like rock; but you never know what they have inside unless you get very close to them. Some says the Russians speak harshly. The others say they are just too honest. Some describe the Russians as rough and unpredictable. The others describe them as emotional and unyielding.


        Today, I see my global endeavor and deference to cosmopolitanism have been shaped and driven by the philosophies from my grandfather. Now, I am feeling that my mistrust towards Russia has somehow melted into my warm experiences in this great country. Just a week before I came to Moscow, my family was reorganizing his room and found a “NHK Basic Russian Conversation Learning” textbook dated in 1989, the year I was born. This was such a great surprise to my family. Today, I carry the book with me. But I carry something much more than that, something invisible yet much more profound. I am not sure why he wanted to study Russian, maybe because he was simply missing the sound of Russian language or having nostalgia for his extraordinary experience. But one thing I am sure is that, he never hated anybody in the Soviet Union. He even came to have affection for them.


        Today, I am walking on a road of the dream unforgotten; this journey is not about finishing something unfinishied, or keeping old memories from temporal decay. It is about moving forward with the untold philosophy, probably the last and greatest legacy from my grandfather: People are nation, but nation is not people. And yes, behind all faces we keep, everybody's got a story that keeps them moving forward.

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