Editor’s Comment. A testimony to elemental courage, and the gruesome challenges, that such courage overcomes.
The Second World War is a dark and disturbing chapter in human history. Japan in particular faced the indescribable horror of nuclear bombing for the first time in the history of mankind. The nuked remains of the Genbaku dome (Atom Bomb dome) in Hiroshima still stands as a grim reminder of the abyss of violence humans are capable inflicting upon each other.
The survivors of war have their tales of trauma and survival which are important to be heard and preserved, not only for historic record, but also to learn the lessons they hold for the present and future generations. Violence is a disease that creeps into the mind and soul, paralyzes all reason, shreds all humanity and brings about physical, emotional and mental wreckage, often of the irreparable degree.
When we talk of wars, it is the leaders of states that decide to charge ahead with the attack. Ironically, the damage is suffered by civilians, wildlife and nature, who have no say in the decision-making process.
The Girl with the White Flag is an autobiographical account of Tomiko Higa from her childhood in war-torn Okinawa. Okinawa in the present geopolitical scenario is an island prefecture under the jurisdiction of Japan. Its modern capital Naha was earlier a part of Shuri, which was the ancient capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Tomiko was the youngest of the nine children born in the Matsukawa family. The Matsukawas had served as Samurais to the Ryukyuan kings. Tomiko’s memoir provides insight into the Okinawan way of life, evoking a tropical sunny happiness with palms and perky blossoms in the backdrop of pristine sea coast and clear skies. She was raised in a strict yet loving environment at home. But grief visited her when she was barely six years old. Her mother died of acute meningitis. It wasn’t possible to reach out to elder siblings due to geographical constraints and the prevailing wartime situation. Tomiko, with her father and three other siblings bid farewell to her mother, though she did not quite understand what her father meant when he said that it was ‘fortunate’ that her mother had died before Okinawa turned into a battlefield. But her recollections in her memoir pierces the veil of memory and touches the hard surface of that grim, desolate time.
She recalls the grief and loneliness that gripped her father in the course of tragedy. Her father’s struggle with personal loss and constant effort to provide utmost care to his children deeply impacted her own psyche. He played with her, took her out to the fields and taught valuable life lessons. Her happy childhood with her siblings and friends, frolicking in the natural abundance of Okinawa fill the reader’s heart with something akin to happiness. However, the gray clouds soon gather as the Second World War approaches. Her father was responsible for providing food to a Signal Corps unit. There, Tomiko made friends with a kind soldier. But this soldier-friend of hers dies soon after they get to know each other. Fear and dread take its toll on the Okinawans. The little seven year old child realizes that the war had finally come to Okinawa with the entry of American troops on the island.
The warplanes rumbled through the skies. Bombs exploded all around in incessant air raids. The village ration was delivered to the Japanese army, while the local civilians starved. During this time, Tomiko’s father goes missing, and the four kids of the Matsukawa family have to flee down south for safety, resembling refugees in their own homeland. Tomiko then loses her brother to an air raid. She buried him herself. It is a gruesome tragedy – in a world of adults at war, we see, children losing their innocence.
It makes us question, what battles are we winning when the future of the earth, of humanity, is suffering under such duress?
A seven-year-old orphan, separated from the rest of the siblings wanders among the lifeless bodies strewn across the island. She endures extremities – both natural and man-made. She hides in caves during daytime and searches for food by night.
On the tragic road of life , she unfortunately becomes indifferent to tragedy itself. She feeds herself from the leftovers in bags of dead soldiers and keeps running for life, till she resigns herself to fate, remembering her father’s words “if you are fated to die, it does not matter where you go, you’re bound to die. And if you’re meant to live, you’ll survive all sorts of dangers.”
Tomiko, as a child who barely knew the world outside the premises of her home, was maddened with thoughts and visions of death and inhuman suffering, often thinking to herself, “War makes people crazy”.
Notwithstanding the macabre violence reeling in front of her eyes, the warmth of life and humanity stay alive in her heart. She cares for animals and comes to the aid of an elderly couple.
The trio sticks together and forms a support system. In the last days of the war, when Japan is defeated by the American forces, the elderly couple sagaciously advises Tomiko to head out with a white flag (made out of the old man’s loincloth).
As the girl moved out of the hiding cave, she was photographed by an American soldier. The photograph was taken in 1945. But it was only in 1987 that Higa penned her story down, when she accidentally discovered the photograph of herself heading out with a white flag.
The photograph, which also features as the cover picture of the book, triggers a tsunami of emotions. It puts the world up grownups to utter shame for making innocent children suffer. However, in a diametrically opposed space, it lights up hope and optimism- a little human bravely holding up the torch in the face of death, leading the way forward to a peaceful path. A path for adults to follow, a path for the future generations to walk on.
The book is a heart wrenching account of how wars scar all dimensions of existence. It makes us question the fundamentals and logic of civilized societies. The pieces of Higa’s memories serve to remind that it is ultimately humanity that suffers in course of battles and wars.
No matter who wins on the battlefield, the fabric of life, nature and humanity lies tattered in the aftermath of conflict. Her life stands as a testimony to this fact. Despite the horrors of the violence, Higa’s memoir, is also a tale of triumph of the human heart and spirit of resurgence.
A story that needs to be read to hear voices that were drowned in the sea of violence, and also those that survived against the tide to narrate it.
Aditi Yadav is a public servant from India. She is also a South Asia Speaks fellow (2023). Her works appear in Rain Taxi Review of books, EKL review, Usawa Literary Review, Gulmohur Quarterly, Narrow Road Journal, Borderless Journal and the Remnant Archive.