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04 September 2014
When I was a little girl, I lived out in the country by a dairy farm. The closest town was a teeny-tiny place called Pittsford, MI. And in that teeny-tiny town was a teeny-tiny library run by two middle-aged ladies who were usually engrossed in watching the soaps whenever I came in on my great book search. Small though it was, I loved that library. It had a pretty nice collection of books. One shelf was groaning with the weight of the complete works of Sir Walter Scott. What a combination–soap operas and Ivanhoe! Anyway, every summer, the ladies found the wherewithal to put aside their soap operas long enough to run a summer reading program for the kids. That first summer, I read enough books to qualify for a grand prize. Spread out on a table was a large collection of books I was allowed to choose from and take home. Among them was The Girl With the White Flag. Possibly because I was being urged to hurry up and make a decision, I picked it out over the other fictional options available. I don’t think I even read it for a couple of years as it didn’t look that interesting to me. But once I did read it, it’s themes stuck with me and made quite an impact.
Written in Japanese and translated by Dorothy Britton, The Girl With the White Flag is narrated by Tomiko Higa, and relates her childhood fight for survival in Okinawa during the final days of World War II. After losing her mother to natural causes, Tomiko and her brother and two sisters lived with their father on a farm. Charged with providing food for Japanese soldiers, he left on business shortly after American ships assembled off the coast of Okinawa and began a sea and air bombardment of the island and sent 60,000 troops ashore. When their father did not return, the four children hastily gathered the few belongings they could carry with them and headed south, trying to get away from the fierce fighting. Only a few days into their exodus, Tomiko’s nine-year-old brother, Chokuyu, took a stray bullet in the head and died. The girls were forced to bury him right where he lay and continue on. In the panicked crowds of refugees, six-year-old Tomiko got separated from her older sisters and wandered alone. Foraging for food in the knapsacks of dead soldiers, escaping death by narrow threads, and facing horrors that we can barely imagine, little Tomiko not only survived, but faced her situation with a bravery that’s hard for me to comprehend.
One of the many things that touched me about this book was how Tomiko often tried to comfort and help other people even while she ran for her life and searched for her sisters. She writes of one instance, “After walking a long time, I found myself on a wide road where I could see the sea on my left. I had no idea where I was. The road was muddy, and the canvas sports shoes I was wearing kept sticking in the mud. It was hard going as I picked my way, trying to avoid the worst places, and then right in front of me I saw a soldier lying in the road. Poor man, I thought, as I started to walk past him, he must have been killed by one of those bullets. By that time, I had seen so many dead bodies here and there that I had become quite used to the sight and was not frightened. But the soldier I thought was dead suddenly reached out his hand and grabbed hold of my ankle. As I let out a scream, he looked up at me with a grim expression and said, ‘Little girl, how’s the war going?’ I thought for a moment, and then replied, ‘I think Japan is winning.’ Whereupon, the terrible expression on his face gave way to a gentle smile. ‘So we’re winning. Thank you. Banzai!’ he said in a rather hoarse voice, letting go of my ankle. Then his face fell forward into the mud and he did not look up again, nor did he move any more. I did not really know whether we were winning or losing the war. I was simply doing as my father had taught me. ‘Tomiko,’ he had said, ‘it doesn’t matter what you hear or who tells you, you mustn’t ever say that Japan is losing, even if you’re wrong.’ But even if my father had not told me to do so, I don’t think I could have had the heart to let down a dying soldier with bad news. Although I was in a desperate situation myself, I still wanted to comfort him.’” Her life reminds me of Proverbs 20:11, “Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.”
It’s a story that reminds me of the kind of courage and kindness of which even the littlest people are capable. Every time I read it, I am inspired and also thankful for the relatively peaceful life I’ve experienced. I pray that if hard times should come to the United States, I would have the courage of Tomiko.