From Hardship to Affluence

ARE the Japanese rich? My country is continually criticized for being too tight with its money.

But I recall the dark days of my childhood some 40 years ago and the constant hunger, the days of terrible devastation before and after the defeat of Japan.

For me and other Japanese like me, the speed of change and the imbalance of development is overwhelming.

When I was 8 years old and in the third grade of elementary school, my entire class was evacuated from Tokyo to a safer spot in the country. There our schooling continued, despite the war.

Indiscriminate American air raids on the city were, of course, one of the reasons for the move, but shortage of food was another. Toward the end of the war, food was rationed by the Government. Naturally the food situation outside the city was slightly better.

Despite the pain of separation, parents felt there was no alternative to sending their offspring to a safer spot away from air attacks and with a better chance of getting food. The severe economic conditions meant that no parent could afford to leave his work in the city.

WE were transferred to a village in the suburbs of Tokyo. First we were hustled to a small village hotel. Then we were moved to a nearby temple.

It was a strange existence -- teachers and children living together, sharing the fears of war. Not only did we face the loneliness of being separated from parents but we also experienced painful attacks of hunger.

We managed to live with the money sent from home and government subsidies and, although we fared better than children in the city, it far from satisfied a growing child's needs. Daily meals consisted of two or three sweet potatoes or a watery soup boasting a solitary dumpling.

There was no serious threat of malnutrition, but the monotonous and insufficient meals put the children into a state of serious and constant psychological hunger. Our clothes crawled with lice, and poverty hung over the country like a dark cloud.

Once a month, the mothers paid a scheduled visit, bringing along specially prepared lunch boxes. During and after the lunch the children and our mothers had a precious time being together in a nearby field. Even so, my mother still says how pitiful I looked gobbling up the lunch without so much as a glance at her.

During those visits the time flew. When the mothers returned to the city by train, we children would wave and shout frantically until the train was out of sight. The mothers all wept on the train.

Although I heard of no deaths among us, there were many, many children starving throughout Japan. Even today, I'm still unable to shake off the memory of those days. I feel guilty expressing a dislike of food or criticizing a restaurant.

The change in Japan's economic status came so rapidly that it gave birth to a serious generation gap between those who experienced the poverty and starvation of the era of defeat and those who have never suffered any hardship.

Those who experienced hardships have not consciously labored to make Japan prosperous; they have merely struggled to make a decent life for themselves and their families. They grew up in days when people felt guilty if they didn't work hard. So everybody worked hard, unknowingly transforming Japan into one of the world's richest countries.

Today it would be hard to find many Japanese children who know what hunger is. I sometimes feel a strange pity for these children. No one who has not known the real feeling of hunger can know the bliss of eating in times of widespread hardship.

Abandoned or forgotten bicycles, perfectly good baseball gloves and other expensive toys are a common sight in my neighborhood park. And they have no takers; they are simply left there.

A baseball glove thrown away in the darkening playground with no child coming back to fetch it.... Something is wrong in this society.

ON certain days the city administration sends a truck to collect abandoned tools from designated street corners. In one such place today, among a large heap of broken television sets and other electrical appliances and furniture, I counted more than 20 bicycles. Many of them were children's bicycles, outgrown but not passed on to smaller children.

Apparently in need of little repair, these bicycles were thrown away by owners who couldn't take the time or trouble to fix them.

``Don't cycle shops do repairs these days?'' I asked my son.

``They do. Why?''

``Why do people throw away bicycles?''

``You have to pay $40 to $50 or even more to get them fixed,'' he said. ``I'd rather buy a new one for $160.''

I hadn't realized that bicycles had been added to the already long list of disposable items.

Today the older generation finds that it has built an affluent society where young people talk mainly about cars, fashion and restaurants. Those who built this society are now aging and derided because we do not share this interest in cars, fashion and restaurants. An old friend of mine once said to me: ``I never worked to create a society like this!''

Trying to convey stories of hardship and suffering to a generation far removed from them seems futile. I talked to my nephew the other day about my wartime experiences, about monotonous meals of sweet potatoes day after day after day.

``I envy your experience,'' he said. That almost struck me dumb.

``You were living so close to nature at that time,'' my nephew went on. ``That's an experience I would pay money for.''

``Well, you've got to know that it was not something we chose,'' I protested.

He replied that the younger generation had no choice either. It had not chosen to be thrown into ``an environment which certainly is rich but has lost contact with nature.''

The land problem perplexes these young people. Because of outrageous land prices, they have no idea how to plan for the purchase of a house. Many have abandoned the idea of ever owning their own homes. They have decided to live in apartments and spend their money on other things like cars, clothes and restaurants.

I sense that young people are not necessarily enjoying this affluent environment. They have their own starvation.

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