Yuriko is used to the sirens and air raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the atomic bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s eyes that we witness the devastation and horror. Just in time for the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in WWII, The Last Cherry Blossom is based on the author’s mother’s own experience surviving the bombing as a young child in Japan.
THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM — CHAPTER ONE
“Imperial Japanese Army Continues Successful Attacks Against China.”
Showa 19 August 24, Thursday Edition
“Get under your desks—now!” Yakamura-sensei shouted above the lonesome wail of the air raid siren. The teacher’s voice did not waver as she barked this command. Her lips were pursed in a thin line, yet her hand had a slight tremor as she pointed toward the floor.
My stomach lurched. I could hear my heart beating in my temples, my legs wobbled as if made of cooked ramen. I was torn between wanting Sensei to review and grade my koseki project and wanting to run for cover. I froze.
“That means you, too.” Yakamura-sensei nudged my elbow to move me away from her desk and back to my own.
The familiar hum of the B-sans—what we called the American B-29s that flew overhead—thundered in my ears. The engines were so loud that the floor vibrated under my feet. I covered my ears and scurried beneath my desk. I pulled my knees up to my chin. I stretched my uniform skirt down over my ankles and wrapped my arms around my knees, clasping my hands together.
The air raid sirens blared at least twice a day now. You would think I would have been used to them, but my pulse still raced whenever the eerie siren sounded, followed by the rumbling of the B-sans. And, every time, I worried. Will we actually get bombed? What if the school collapses? Will this desk actually protect me? Is my papa safe? How will I find him if a bomb hits us? Is Machiko as scared as I am, in her classroom down the hall? Why do I always have to go to the bathroom when I am nervous?
I heard the scraping sound of a desk moving. I looked up to see one of my classmates rocking her body back and forth. Next to her I spotted one boy reading Shou-chan manga. How can he be so calm at a time like this?
I rested my chin on my knees and tried to think about something else. I blew away the stray hairs that fell out of my braid. My hair never stayed neatly braided like the other girls’ in my class. My stomach growled. I wonder what type of fish our maid Fumi-san will be serving for dinner tonight. I really hope that I can show my koseki project to Yakamura-sensei when this air raid warning ends. I want to impress her with what I learned about my samurai ancestors.
The all-clear siren soon interrupted my thoughts. The class let out a simultaneous sigh of relief. The cramp in my fingers made it difficult to unclasp my hands. When I did, I noticed my white knuckles had nail marks dug into them. One by one, we emerged from the shelter of our desks. I bumped my head on the desk as I moved. “Ouch!”
The most annoying twelve-year-old in my seventh grade class, Taro-kun, heard me. He shook his head and sang his all too familiar rhyme, “Yuriko dojikko.” He laughed. Did he really think I was unaware of how clumsy I am?
Yakamura-sensei announced that we would all need to go home, which we knew already—it was also a part of the daily air raid routine.
As the rest of my classmates gathered their books and bags, I went straight to my teacher’s desk and pleaded, “Sensei, may I please have my grade on the koseki project?” For a change, I had worked really hard on this week’s homework assignment. I wanted to hear what she thought of my ancestors from the Sugawara clan who fought in the famous Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Papa, Mama, and I were the last branch of the family tree. I had also added that my papa worked his way up to owning his own newspaper in Hiroshima after being raised on a corn farm. If Sensei praised my project while my classmates were still in the room, and if they overheard that, maybe they’d find me interesting enough to be their friend.
Sensei pulled out my koseki project from a folder on her desk. She nodded as she began reading about each ancestor. But then she raised her eyebrows and slowly moved her head from side to side. She bit her lower lip and said slowly, “That is not right.”
My smile disappeared. This was not the response I had expected. I almost blurted out the “arigato” I had planned, but instead, I stared at her. My cheeks were burning and I knew they were as red as the sun on Japan’s flag. My fists tapped against the side of my legs.
The room was unbearably silent. The students who had not yet left the classroom had their eyes trained on me. I knew they were listening and that this was my chance to impress them, so I cleared my throat a few times, hoping it would help push my words out.
“What do you mean?” My voice made a funny squeaking sound on the last word. At that moment I wished I had flown away with the B-sans.
My teacher stared at me. She gave me a quick, weak smile and then stood abruptly. “I am sorry. This is a wonderful project. Please excuse me, I am late for a meeting and must leave right away.” She hurried out the door. I was stunned at her response. The rest of my classmates who had witnessed the scene quickly filed out of the room.
I went to my desk to gather my things so I could run after Sensei. But as I lifted the books from my desk, my hands fumbled and all the books fell to the floor. Yuriko dojikko echoed in my head. I picked them up. By the time I left the room, my teacher was nowhere to be found so all I could do was head home.
On my walk, I kept repeating Sensei’s words to myself: “That is not right. That is not right.” The more I thought about it, the faster I walked, until I found my legs running toward home.
I went around to the side entrance of my house, sliding the shoji door open and shut with the stealth of a ninja. I braced myself against the door, trying to catch my breath. When I could finally breathe normally, I kicked off my shoes, sank into the western-style wicker chair, and sighed. The study was my favorite room in the house. It was where I went to be by myself. All along the walls were mahogany bookcases filled with books whose characters were my first friends. It didn’t matter if the books were children’s adventure stories, history books about our samurai ancestors, or reference texts for my papa’s newspaper articles—I loved reading them all. Sitting in there with a book on my lap, I was able to forget about being lonely and about the war.
But today I couldn’t concentrate on the words and sat fidgeting in my chair, my brain racing. My foot tapped the floor uncontrollably.
In my head, I still heard my teacher reviewing my koseki project. Her four words about the family tree—That is not right—played over and over in my head like the drip, drip, drip of water hitting pebbles in our fountain. What wasn’t right about the tree? There had been whispers about my parents behind my back—I knew that—but I never let it bother me as Papa had always said that people gossiped about our family because of our wealth and the fact that he ran his own newspaper. Whenever I questioned him about it, he told me that we were expected to be above gossip and to ignore any rumors. I never gave it a second thought, until now.
But this was the first time someone had said something directly to me. Why did Sensei leave so quickly? Why did she change her answer? Why did she nod in agreement and then suddenly say what she said?
“Joya, young lady, are you here?” my papa’s booming voice called out. He slid the door open and I jumped out of my chair into his outstretched arms.
“Welcome home, Papa!”
Even when I was only as tall as his knees against his six-foot frame, Papa would easily swoop down, pick me up, and hug me close. Even though he could no longer pick me up, he still held me tight. I breathed in the cologne he wore all the way from the top of his balding head down to his feet. I never felt safer than when I was in his arms.
“Joya, did you have a good day at school?” he asked me.
“It was a strange day.”
“Oh? Well, we will discuss that after my bath.” He released his bear hug and walked toward the stairway, turned back to face me, saying, “Yuriko, I want to remind you to finish your homework before dinner on Sunday. We will be having a guest.”
“Who is coming for dinner?”
I wracked my brain trying to remember who she was. “Is she the lady who brought us meals and shopped for us after . . . after Mama died?” My voice hitched, and I tried to swallow the lump in my throat.
Papa walked back to me and hugged me again. “Yes.” He cleared his throat. “She has returned to Hiroshima. We will be welcoming her back as well as thanking her for her kindness during that time.” He broke the hug and started to walk upstairs again.
“Oh, Papa, can I talk to you about what happened at school before you take your bath? It was so—”
Fumi-san interrupted me. “Excuse me, Ishikawa-san, but the copy department called. They need you back at the office.”
“I see.” Papa turned to me and said, “This can wait until tomorrow morning at breakfast, neh?”
I nodded. “Yes, Papa.”
He kissed my forehead and went out the kitchen door.
I headed upstairs to start on my homework. When I got to my room, I found my books scattered all over the floor. And this time, I hadn’t left them that way. In the corner, all my desk drawers were opened. I knew exactly who was responsible. My five-year-old cousin loved to mess up my room. Sometimes, he would hide my stuff. He was a menace. As I began putting my books back on their shelves, I muttered to myself, “You moved into my home and messed up everything. I don’t—”
I picked up my copy of Urashima Taro, about the famous Japanese folk legend. It was my very favorite of all the books I owned. I had read it over and over again since I was very young. But now I saw that the cover was torn! I marched out of my room and yelled, “Genjiiiiii! Genji, you are in big trouble this time!”