Over rice and barbequed eel, Takeo Aizawa remembered the day the bomb fell on his hometown of Nagasaki. He was only six and sitting in his 1st grade classroom when the air raid signal went off. All students were told to go home at once. “Some of the older boys grabbed me by the collar,” he said, demonstrating with his hand at the back of his neck, “and they delivered me to my house.”
There, his mother took him and his three younger siblings into the garden where they sat out the attack in their homemade bomb shelter, a large hole dug into the dirt. Takeo’s father, an engineer, was working out of town. Many fearful hours passed before the family was reunited.
Before the war began, Takeo-san’s two uncles – his mother’s brothers – had died young but his mother defied the family odds – escaping the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki with her husband and children – living to the age of 95.
Recounted over lunch Takeo-san’s story at first seemed to come out of nowhere. Moments earlier we’d been talking about books and wondering why the eel we ordered was so expensive. But there was a point to this conversational side street that I would come to appreciate.
In 2010, my sister Lee and I traveled to Japan and wound up writing an article together about the Goodwill Guides, a program in which Japanese people who want to practice their English volunteer to be tour guides to non-Japanese speaking visitors. For the story, I’d interviewed an American who participated in the program and he suggested I speak Takeo Aizawa who had been his guide.
From that first call, Takeo-san and I hit it off. One conversation turned into many, we emailed and we skyped. Over the past two years he has been my researcher, producer and logistical coordinator on every story I’ve written about Japan; and there have been quite a few. So when an assignment for Times Travel required me to visit Japan once again in September, I had one personal priority, a face to face meeting with this friend I’d never met.
This past Sunday, Takeo took the train from his home in a Tokyo suburb to Narita, the town where I was staying. Together we visited Narita Temple and toured the expansive grounds. Takeo-san had never been to this complex of Buddist temples and Shinto shrines though he said his grandfather had come often to pray.
When the rain came, we ducked under the eaves of the big temple to wait out the storm.
When the skies cleared we sloshed through the puddles. We examined the sometimes unidentifiable foodstuffs for sale and we lit incense for good luck.
Finally, bushed, sweaty and really, really hungry we stopped for lunch and it was here, that I learned of Takeo-san’s experience during the war and how it became part of the circuitous path to our meeting 67 years later.
No one in Aizawa’s family was injured when the bomb fell on Nagasaki, but afterwards times were tough. No one had anything, he said and there was nothing to eat. At his house, they had only the yams that were growing in the yard. Then in 1946, through the Government and Relief in Occupied Areas organization, the Americans started bringing in food, an estimated $1 million a day gesture Takeo-san still remembers as notably generous.
“This is when I decided to learn English,” he told me, summing up his story. And that is what he did. The school boy grew up to become an English teacher and over the past 40 years he has shared the language with generations of Japanese children and happily for me, with visitors to Japan.
Today Takeo-san he is retired, but as I learned during our day together, he is still using his English to connect the past to the present, to bridge east and west and to make friends around the world.