Morito Hirabayashi

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,

  • 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.

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