Updated: Feb 4
In the soupy, leech-infested jungles of Burma, her father, a captain of the Imperial Japanese Army, had fought in one of WWII’s most gruesome close-quarter battles, and the largest defeat in Japan’s military history: The Battle of Imphal. Even before her meek, smiling face filled the screen, I knew the petite retired lady wouldn’t talk to anyone but me about officer Yoshiaki-san’s experiences in Burma. After all, a long time ago, I had met him in person.
My video call goes through after a few unsuccessful attempts. The angle is rather unflattering, but it reveals an impressive bookcase reaching all the way to the ceiling, behind Mrs. Reiko Motoki. I am somewhat annoyed at the poor connection, but she tells me it is a welcome distraction in this semi-lockdown, as she mostly stays at home, reading Atsuko Suga, and, along with her husband, religiously using a pedometer to work out inside the house.
They have been married for 42 years; “Torturing each other throughout!”, she says, as she laughs quietly in a way that makes her look childlike. It must be an inspiring love story, but probably one less dramatic than her parents’.
Yoshiaki Motoki and Utako Fujita were both born in 1921. They came from upstanding families and were freshly out of university when they met and deeply fell in love, while working as educators. “Back then, going to university, especially as a woman, was very uncommon. Not having an arranged marriage, however, was practically unheard of”, says Reiko-san with a proud smile. The implication is that Yoshiaki and Utako could literally afford marrying out of love, since they were of equally high social and economic status.
“But my father left nothing to luck”, says Reiko-san mischievously. In 1943, when the war was going so horribly that even teachers, traditionally left behind to educate the next generation, were being drafted and the red draft paper came for Yoshiaki, the 22-year-old warned his parents: “If you don’t approve of this marriage, I will die in the war. I will not return alive to Japan”.
He almost didn’t. The Japanese strategy in Imphal was suicidal. The operation’s logistics, abysmal. The Japanese offensive was to capture Imphal in order to use it as a base from which to conduct air attacks against India and interrupt air supplies to China. However, everything depended on capturing the enemy’s supplies within a month, as the Japanese Army wouldn’t be able to maintain its own supplies lines as soon as the monsoon rains would start overflowing the Chindwin River. The operation ended up lasting from 8 March to 3 July 1944.
“They had told them that food and ammunition was coming, but nothing was going to come. They sent the army there to starve to death and fight without bullets. They were sent there to die”, says Reiko-san, her voice raising for the first time.
Believing that it was his destiny to win the decisive battle of the war for Japan, Lieutenant-General Mutaguchi kept ordering the Japanese troops to continue attacking long after the operation ought to have been broken off. Without food, ammunition, and anti-tank weapons -since they had mistakenly assumed that the British wouldn’t be able to use their tanks in the steep slopes-, the Japanese desperately charged again and again, until they were defeated.
What followed was an excruciating retreat through unforgiving terrain. 4000km away from Japan, over half of the Japanese 15th Army was decimated in malaria-infested, monsoon-drenched jungles from disease, starvation and exhaustion. Back home, the news quickly spread: anyone sent to Burma was probably dead now.
Don't forget me
Reiko-san makes a small exhaling sound. “When the war ended, not even my father’s parents believed their son would come back alive”, she says. At the time, Utako-san had moved in with them, taking care of her fiancé’s younger siblings. “Utako-san… go back home. Find someone to marry; You are waiting in vain. Yoshiaki won’t come back”, they pleaded heartbroken, with their own daughter-in-law to be.
She hadn’t seen her fiancé since the silent train ride to Matsuyama port, at the end of which he simply said “I will be leaving now”. She hadn’t received any letters from him. No letters could come through. “When he went to the front, the situation was tragic. There wasn’t even food or water for the people”, says Reiko-san, as she goes on to narrate a harrowing incident that happened during the war.
One night, someone from Yoshiaki’s unit crawled out into the pitch-black jungle in order to find water without being detected by the enemy. He succeeded, and, when he came back, they all drank thirstily in the darkness. On the following day, they passed the mud puddle from which the soldier had gathered water. There were corpses lying all around. The mud puddle wasn’t filled with water. In the previous night, they had been drinking blood.
“But… couldn’t they tell?”, I ask, dumbfounded.
“Nothing about it was normal. Endless, freezing rains all the time, malaria, tropical heat, hunger; everyone was sick. They didn’t know what they were eating and drinking -what it tasted like, anymore. They drank blood without realizing. They couldn’t even register the taste anymore.”
I can tell Reiko-san feels deeply for her father. She only heard these stories as a kid and, at the time, thought of them as fairy tales, not understanding that they were real. And yet, after all these years, long after her father has passed away, the horror of his suffering stays with her, in the way she vividly conveys it.
In the end, her mother dejectedly returned to her parents’ house, without ever having received a line from, or about, her fiancé. But there, something unexpected happened. Out of the blue, her self-made, iron-willed grandfather said: “Yoshiaki is alive. He will certainly return. Do not lose hope! Do not get married to anyone”. “Wait!”, he insisted, inexplicably. Utako-san waited.
“I don’t know what she actually believed at the time”, says Reiko-san, letting out a small laugh. I get the feeling she probably has some idea, but she doesn’t want to unnecessarily upset me, in typical Japanese fashion.
In 1946, a year after the war ended with Japan’s surrender, a bedraggled, sick man showed up at the Motoki residence. Having no help to look forward to from his country, which was in complete chaos, he had traversed the jungles of Indochina alongside the pitiful remnants of his company, by carefully advancing at nighttime and negotiating daytime shelter with local villagers, for months.
When this haggard, malnourished officer knocked on their door, the old couple was puzzled. His parents literally didn’t recognize Yoshiaki. His mother had to rinse him by the well in order to soften his military uniform. In the end, she cut it off of his body.
“My father survived everything because his motivation was my mother. Coming back to Japan to marry her. I really believe that”, says Reiko-san seriously. The way she says this makes me feel that this conviction has been very important for her. A powerful message of hope, amidst the wretchedness of war, inspiring her to pull through her own life’s hardships.
Something like a shame
“There are so many things I would like to ask my father about Burma”, says Reiko-San thoughtfully. When he was alive, her father didn’t like talking about the war. “He buried everything in his heart”, she says. Nevertheless, her older brother caught on to something, as they were growing up.
“My father felt tremendous guilt for returning alive. Him, being an officer and almost all of his men dying, seeing the wounded, sick Japanese soldiers lying on the sides of the road, crying, begging to be taken back home during the retreat, and being unable to do anything for them, as he could barely move himself from sickness and exhaustion, it was a source of great sadness for him. It was something like a shame”. Reiko-san removes her glasses to dry her eyes.
What he did say, however, was that he saw tragic, non-human events, atrocities committed by both sides, the local population suffering, unspeakable things that he never wanted to talk about. “If things were normal and people reasonable, there was no way they would behave like that. Only monsters could do such things”, she remembers my grandfather telling her.
“War must never, ever happen”, he would repeat, over the years.
Ms. Reiko Motoki standing next to her parents in the Motoki residence's garden.
The two kids in front of her are her nephews.
First photograph: Ms. Utako Fujita and Mr. Yoshiaki Motoki
Second photograph: Yoshiaki Motoki in China (Zhongshan, Guangdong province)