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Family Histories in Seattle’s Nikkei Community

The Pulling Strength from the Past to Build a Better Future — Fujii Family History

Minoru’s grandfather Chojiro Fujii (1877-1937) was an Issei pioneer who moved to Seattle in 1894 with his father Kojuro Fujii (1844-1921). After saving money as a farm hand, Chojiro invested in a dairy business in the White River Valley and then hotel businesses in the International District. He build Fujii Hotel in 1902 (the building in the photo) as Seattle’s first Ryokan (Japanese inn) on the corner of Maynard Avenue and King Street where Hing Hay Park exists today. (Photo: Wing Luke Asian Museum)

When Aiko and Nellie Fujii walked into the room I was instantly taken by the warmth that exuded from them. We introduced ourselves, smiling all the while and I was comfortable in their presence. Leading them into a conference room with Minami, we sit down and immediately Aiko Fujii begins telling us about her father and her family’s history. From her first words I am captivated by her story and am honored to share it here today.

Aiko Fujii was ten years old when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and killed thousands of people. Thankfully, she was miles away, but her father, Katsuro, was there in Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945 when history would be changed forever. Katsuro worked at city hall in Hiroshima and was a well-known leader in his community. The night before on August 5th, Katsuro stayed late at work. There was a policy at his office that said if he stayed late the night before, then he didn’t have to come in early the next day. Due to this Katsuro was at home when the bomb dropped; if he had gone to work that morning, he would have died. Instead of being in the heart of the city, Katsuro was at his home which resided behind a mountain. When the bomb exploded, the mountain shielded Katsuro’s home and kept him alive. However, the shock wave was still strong enough to blow an old iron sewing machine from the hallway of his home out into the yard. Recovering from the initial shock of the blast, Katsuro’s first thought was that he must get to city hall in order to see who he could help or what there was to be done. At this point, he did not know that city hall was gone.

Katsuro made his way out of his home and towards the city center only to find that the bridge that connected him to the city had been blown away in the blast. He tried to find his way across the river but eventually he had to turn around and return home due to a headache caused by radiation from the bomb.

Days after the attack, Katsuro returned to work. He was in charge of finding and sorting the dead so that their families could look for them. Among these families, he heard of a woman who was going to Fukuyama, the place where Aiko, his daughter, and the rest of the family was living. He asked her to take a card to his wife Masue who had not heard yet whether her husband was alive. A week after the bomb dropped, his family received word that he survived.

To sustain himself during this time, Katsuro had a vegetable garden that he tended to next to his house. He grew pumpkins and tomatoes among other vegetables and ate only these vegetables during this time, with a cup of sake every night. After the bomb, there was a food shortage and rice was rationed out to each family. Katsuro however, saved every grain of rice that he received in order to feed his family when he saw them later. At this point in the interview, Aiko shed a tear and I was emotional myself. The thought of surviving such an event is unimaginable to me but to survive and then spend all of your time helping those around you and working tirelessly to provide for your family is truly inspiring. The courage and strength that Katsuro and his family had in those days and the days after is unlike anything I have ever heard of and I felt grateful to be in a room with a family like Katsuro’s. Continuing with the interview, Aiko explained how important it was that Katsuro had the diet he did. The vegetables were fresh and gave him vitamins which kept him strong and warded off radiation sickness. Additionally, alcohol was later found to also help protect against radiation poisoning and so with each sip of sake Katsuro took, he protected his body a little more from the danger that floated in the air.

Aiko’s husband Minoru Fujii (right) and his brother Hisashi, who was killed by the Hiroshima bomb. (Minoru & Aiko Fujii family photo)

After a while, Katsuro was reunited with his family and Aiko and her four siblings adjusted to life postbombing. Food was short and people were doing anything to find something to eat including trading kimonos to farmers and eating teriyaki sparrow. One story that was especially meaningful took place on a streetcar with a tin of Almond Rocca. One day, Katsuro was on the streetcar and there was an American soldier passing out Almond Roca to each passenger. Each passenger got one candy which he/she ate immediately. However, when the soldier got to Katsuro, instead of eating his candy, he put it into his pocket. Confused, the soldier asked Katsuro why he didn’t want to eat his candy. Katsuro’s response; “I’m taking it home to give to my children”. The soldier was so taken by Katsuro’s commitment to his family that he gave him the rest of the candy along with the Almond Roca tin. Today, Aiko and Nellie still have the tin that the candy came in and have since written to Almond Roca to tell them how meaningful that story is to their family.

Ten years after the bombing on Hiroshima, Aiko came to the US herself with her new husband, Minoru Fujii. After recounting the miracles that kept Aiko’s father alive, it is a reality check to remember that not all Japanese families have such stories. 

Sitting for a moment, I reflect on how surreal it is to hear all the things that ensued after the bombing of Hiroshima. It is sometimes easy to distance yourself from history in America. All throughout school I have taken US history classes, world history classes, and American government classes. But in all those history books and lectures, the most coverage this monumental event ever got was maybe a paragraph. Thousands of people died. My high school history book gave it half a thought. Hearing Aiko’s history, sitting in that room and being so close to someone who lived through an experience my schooling taught me little of, brought about strong emotions. Sadness that the event happened at all, anger that it was being forgotten, but most importantly, determination. If nothing else I am going to tell her story, I thought, as Aiko shared her life with me and Minami. It is too easy to pave over the atrocities that history holds, too easy to say it was a different time or it was justified in the end. I want to help write histories that honor the lives of those that were lost and holds future generations accountable so that they may do better than we did in the past. I want to start that with Aiko’s history, because as I sit here I am inspired by the strength, perseverance and courage her family had to turn horrifying circumstances into a meaningful and beautiful life.

 

*This article was originally published by The North American Post on May 18, 2018.

The story of the Fujii family, written in Japanese by Minami Hasegawa, can be read here >>

 

© 2018 Sharon Ideguchi / The North Ameircan Post

a-bomb hiroshima oral history

About this series

This series explores family histories from Seattle’s Nikkei community. Two Seattle University students, Sharon Ideguchi and Minami Hasegawa, worked together to record the families’ stories.

Ideguchi’s articles about the families are presented in this series in English. The family histories written in Japanese by Minami Hasegawa are also available in a separate series.

* This series was originally published in the North American Post in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii.