When I wrote my novel, I didn’t know her. But because I wrote my novel, I got the opportunity to meet her in Kobe, Japan.
Tiny, humorous, endearing, Koko Tanimoto Kondo told her story to ninth-grade students inside the Canadian Academy auditorium. She was just 8 months old the day the Enola Gay did what it was sent to do over her hometown of Hiroshima. At just 1.2 kilometers away from the epicenter, the Tanimoto house crashed around Koko and her mother. When Mrs. Tanimoto regained consciousness, she heard a baby cry.
Koko was too little to know what was happening to her city at that moment, but over the years, she heard the story and now tells it to audiences across Japan and the U.S. “My mother made a hole (in the debris) and was able to make it out,” she said. “Our house was on fire.” Her father was working at his church that morning, but desperate to find his family.
Koko grew up angry. She wanted to get back at the people who had destroyed her city. She wanted to punch and kick those who had disfigured the faces of the older girls who came to her father’s church after the attack.
Authors always have their characters and novels close by in their hearts. As I listened to Koko talk, I briefly made a mental note: It’s in line. What I meant was how I portrayed my characters following the attack. In my World War II novel, “Under the Silk Hibiscus,” I let my characters (Japanese-Americans living in Heart Mountain, a Wyoming internment camp) be devastated by what the U.S. had done to their country of origin. Papa Mori had family in Hiroshima – his home town before coming to California to raise his own family – and getting letters about relatives dying from radiation tore him up inside. He was only a shadow of the man he once was when the war finally ended.
Koko’s words brought another scene from my novel to mind as she continued her talk.
When she was in fifth grade, she and her family (after their story had been documented in John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”) were invited to be on the American show, “This is Your Life.” Koko lifted a fist into the air, told us that at that time she was ready to punch and kick the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, also a guest on the show. She wanted revenge.
When the host of the show asked Captain Robert Lewis how he felt after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, the co-pilot said, “Hiroshima disappeared. And I said, ‘My God, what have we done?’”
Instantly, Koko saw the “bad evil” in herself. “If I hate, I should hate war itself. Not this person,” she recalled. Slowly, she walked over to Captain Robert Lewis. She just wanted to touch his hand. When she got close to him and reached out her hand, he took it and squeezed.
It’s up to you. Will you help me to spread peace in this world?
Koko Tanimoto Kondo
Nathan, my main character, forgives an American soldier from Heart Mountain, the camp where Nathan was interned. Was the forgiveness realistic? As I listened to Koko’s rationale for forgiveness, I knew that forgiveness for a act so grievous could be granted. For like Koko, my fictitious Nathan realized he was just as wretched in his own heart as the soldier was. He desired to be forgiven and, in turn, knew that he wanted to forgive his enemy. God’s grace.
Again, I made a note: It’s in line. Check!
Koko, now 71, promotes peace. “It’s up to you,” she told the students in the auditorium. “Will you help me to spread peace in this world? I want you to be the ones to change the world.”
After her talk, I was invited to eat lunch with her and Bob Hengal, a teacher at Canadian Academy who helped bring me from my home in North Carolina to the school as an alumna author.
It was an unexpected day of inspiration coupled with a wealth of history for this missionary kid born and raised in Osaka. It was one of those experiences that you feel you don’t deserve, but you are graciously given.
And gratitude dances in your heart.
Alice J. Wisler, born in Osaka, Japan, was invited back to her old high school in Kobe to be the alumna in residence. She has written several inspirational novels, including “Under the Silk Hibiscus.” She has lived in Durham for 28 years.