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Want to avoid war? Listen to my grandma’s story

Courtesy of Natalie Newcomb
Natalie Newcomb (right) with her Achan, her grandmother Kazuko Nita, in Japan.

Recently I was visiting my grandmother, Kazuko Nita, in Japan. 

Achan, as I call her, knows that I’m not good at cooking and that my knife skills are horrible, so she decided to teach me how to thinly slice cucumbers. It was very difficult to cut them thin and quickly, but as Achan says with everything, I need to do it over and over again, then I will get it.

After eating the cucumbers I cut for breakfast, we turned on the TV to news about the war in Syria, showing horrible scenes of people suffering.

In Japan, there is a common phrase: The best way to avoid another war is to learn about past wars. The best way to learn is to listen to a survivor's story. 

This year my grandmother will be turning 86. She survived World War II.

I talk with Achan all the time, but she doesn't talk about the war often. Most of what I know is through my American history classes, and watching Japanese TV. So I pulled out some of her favorite chocolate cookies and tea and I asked her to tell me her story.

This is the latest of KUOW's RadioActive Youth Media stories, created by young people age 16-20ish. You can stay in touch on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and subscribe to the RadioActive podcast to hear all of our stories.

Achan was a teenager at the time World War II started, only a few years younger than me. On Dec. 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor — she was sitting in front of the radio with her parents. 

"I was horrified," she told me. "If you get into a war with a country that big, you know you are going to lose. What chance would we have to win?"

As the war heated up, there were many soldiers dying on the front. In Kobe, where my grandmother lived, they would "welcome" the dead home, she explained.

"When we would get a box, it didn’t really have their body or ashes in it because they didn’t know where they actually died," she said. "Then we would come together and sing." 

My grandmother started singing this song:

Over the big oceans, the young soldiers

But your life was the best sacrifice

Tears streamed down her cheeks. I had never seen Achan cry before.

"The mom held the box so tightly," she remembered. "That’s how the soldiers came home. I really don’t think they wanted to die."

Achan’s everyday lifestyle began to change. Classes were canceled and she was told to help the war effort by gathering supplies.

“We didn’t think about whether it was good or not," she said. "We just did what we were told.”

The most I worry about is my grades. Achan worried about bomb raids.

One day, school ended early because of another American fire bomb alert. Achan’s friend went home and hid in a bomb shelter in her yard. When the bomb raid came, the bomb hit Achan’s friend in the head.

It killed her.

"Everyone was used to it," Achan said of the bombings. When students left school each day, "we said be careful so a firebomb won’t hit you."

[asset-images[{"caption": "Achan (bottom right) in her high school uniform, with classmates.", "fid": "138826", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201708/20170707_184301-2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Natalie Newcomb"}]]Achan's parents were worried for their lives, so they moved from big city Kobe to the countryside where there were fewer bomb raids. 

Still, as the war was almost over, they began to do firebomb drills, even in the middle of nowhere. They would pretend a house was on fire and relay buckets full of water to throw onto the house. 

Achan explained: "My father said once you start doing this in the middle of nowhere, that's when you know you will lose."

Soon after, the war ended. The American government came to Japan. Drastic changes were made to the constitution, and created the democratic state that we know today.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Natalie Newcomb chops cucumbers at her Achan's home in Japan.", "fid": "138827", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201708/Natalie.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Natalie Newcomb"}]]I got up to boil some water as my grandmother’s cup of tea was almost empty, and she shared thoughts that stuck with me. 

She told me, in a world where war is becoming more dangerous and more common, you have to remember something: “Don’t do war; it's the children and the woman who hurt the most. Never do war.”

Another phrase people say in Japan: There will never be enough paper to properly explain what happens in war. 

People in Japan refer to the generations after World War II as the “generations that know no war.” I worry this may change soon. With so many wars to learn from in our history, couldn't we avoid another one? 

So we need to listen to survivors' stories.

We finished eating up our favorite chocolate cookies and tea, and Achan asked me what I wanted to eat for lunch. I wanted cucumber salad, so cutting practice began again. I had to hurry because our favorite comedy show was going to start soon.