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Morito Hirabayashi | faulty vision

Chujo (Lieutenant General) Morito Hirabayashi is listed online in a dozen places as an officer in World War II. The picture we have of him is that of a genial-looking old man, whom my grandmother resembles to an astonishing degree. He has a faint smile that looks almost like a smirk, as though he’s thinking up mischief that he isn’t ready to spring on you yet. He looks like a man who’d have interesting stories to tell, and who would be a hell of a lot of fun late at night in a bar. great-grandfather-morito-hirabayashi

On the Internet, a google search brings his name up a good dozen times in war records of the 1930s and ’40s. In a karmic sense, it isn’t a recommendation: he was the chief military advisor in Manchuria in 1937, and commanded the 17th Infantry Division when war broke out in the Pacific. There are many curtains that can be drawn over the sins of that era, a period that Japan has worked hard to blot out in the textbooks of history.

Given that he was in active service during World War II, retired to become mayor of Matsumoto, and was then recalled to active service again during the same war, it’s something of a miracle that he lived as long as he did. His records mark him as born in 1887 and dead in 1969, a few years after my mother came to the United States. My mother’s recollections of him are a lot less two-dimensional than the bullet points that are listed on the military biographies that you can find online. Take this dryly academic example from the interesting site, http://www.generals.dk.

  • 1933 – 1934 Attached to 4th Division
  • 1934 – 1936 Commanding Officer 8th Regiment

  • 1936 – 1937 Chief of Staff 16th Division
  • 1937 – 1939 Chief Military Advisor to Manchukuo
  • 1939 – 1940 Provost Marshal
  • 1940 – 1942 General Officer Commanding 17th Division
  • 1942 – 1943 Attached to the General Staff
  • 1943 Retired
  • 1944 – 1945 Mayor of Matsumoto
  • 1945 Recalled
  • 1945 General Officer Commanding 54th Depot Division
  • 1945 General Officer Commanding Nagano Divisional District

The photographs I have of him start from the days after he was in the military, when he had returned to civilian life. In those, he is a contented family man, surrounded by his wife and children and friends. He had nine children, which perhaps explains his wife’s somewhat pinched appearance, as though she has been sucked dry of vitality from the effort of bearing them all.

Hirabayashi family photo

Hirabayashi family photo

Takiko, my grandmother, was the oldest, followed by Wadako, Hinami, and Shizuka, all girls. Then there was Yukio, the first son, followed by Kanae, my great-aunt the bird-watcher who lives in Chicago. Then in an astonishing, final burst of dedication to the cause, my great-grandmother Satoko had twin boys, Tamao and Isao.

Whatever his wife’s travails, he had enough vigor to run for mayorship of Matsumoto in 1958. If his family and friends alone voted, I imagine that his election was a landslide. As it was, he was voted in — again — and he remained mayor until 1962.

Nov 29, 1958 - Last day of campaign for Matsumoto mayor

Nov 29, 1958 - Last day of campaign for Matsumoto mayor

From my mother’s recollections, he was a well-loved and popular figure, with an astonishing sense of morality and a keen sense of right from wrong that often served him in poor stead given the times and the exigencies of real life. In the military, he took responsibility for and cared for those who served under him to a degree that would be unheard of today; though the details of the story are not clear in Mom’s head, she recalls that he went to prison because of some criminal actions of his subordinates. Though he himself was not involved, he was ultimately their superior officer, and therefore claimed responsibility for them, going to jail for a period of 7 months and losing his pension as a result. Ironically, those who went to jail for only 6 months or less were able to receive their pensions in full.

Apparently, his wife, Satoko, suffered a great deal from the loss of that money — not astonishing, given the incredible fertility of the couple. Of their nine children, all survived. In fact, all of them are still living today, an astonishing statistic even in Japan where long lives are common.

He wrote a book during his time in prison called Wagakai koroku, which translates more or less to “My Memoirs.” Even today, officers from his regiment come to pay their respects at his grave.

“What was he like?” I asked Mom.

“You said his biography was on the internet,” she said.

“Well, what he did, sort of,” I said. “This year to this year he was serving here, this year to that year, he was doing this — but nothing about what sort of man he was.”

“Oh,” she said, and furrowed her brow.

Mom says he was an interesting man, a fascinating storyteller with a broad knowledge and many experiences. When he told stories, everybody nearby would gather to hear him speak and come away with new thoughts or ideas.

She remembers that every morning, no matter how cold, he would strip down to just his bottoms and go outside to greet the sun. The Japanese form of reverence is one bow and two claps; he would perform this and scrub down his body with a dry cloth, taking in great breaths of air.

Further Notes:

Mom’s father: Chusa (Lt. Col.) Soichi Yamaguchi

In progress…

 

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