Sharing Memories of a Yokohama Childhood After Making the Journey Home Decades Later


Many years later, when my mother told me of the night when most of Yokohama perished in flames, I realized that my childhood nightmare had really happened.

The firebombing of Yokohama took place in May, 1945, a few months before the end of World War II. I was 2 years old. My mother grabbed me and, with my sister and brother in tow, ran toward the breakwater at low tide, away from the inferno that destroyed most of our neighborhood and city--although it miraculously spared our home.

I do not remember the deafening drone of 500 B-29s or the sound of exploding bombs that destroyed more than 400,000 homes, but in my nightmare a little boy wailed on the shore with flames all around him. “Itaiyo, itaiyo!” he cried (“It hurts, it hurts!”). My mother, too, remembered him, a neighborhood boy.

I seldom dream of Yokohama now, but my memories of childhood and youth are snugly tucked away. As bedtime stories I occasionally tell my son and daughter about the times my brother or my neighborhood pals and I explored the tunnels (dug during the war as shelters), hills and woods near our home that led to a secret opening to Sankeien Gardens.


That was our secret garden--with its three-storied pagoda, teahouses, ponds full of colorful carp and crayfish and tadpoles and water lilies, the rich hues of spring and fall, of cherry blossoms, azaleas and maples. It was secret because it was still closed to the public in those days after suffering extensive war damage. We were told by our elders that there lurked cunning badgers and foxes who could transform into humans and try to deceive us. “Look for their tails,” they told us. “That’s how they always give themselves away.”

Not long ago I went back to Yokohama--to Sankeien and to other sites of my childhood.

Sankeien (“garden of three glens”) on the southeast side of the city is now a meticulously groomed public park with several temples and buildings designated as national treasures. During my recent visit I walked the grounds with an old neighborhood pal who still lives near the park.

This was once the private garden of a rich merchant, Tomitaro Hara, who made a fortune in the silk trade almost a century ago. Hara bought several temples and teahouses in Kyoto and had them disassembled and rebuilt here, perhaps in an attempt to create a garden reminiscent of those built by shoguns and emperors in the ancient capital of Kyoto. Though it pales when compared to the imperial gardens of Kyoto, Sankeien is nevertheless Yokohama’s finest.


Up on a hill behind the pagoda, past the wind-swept pine trees, just before the steep cliffs, there used to be several signs that read: “Stop a while, think it over,” signed by the Kanagawa Prefecture Police Department. There’s no way to know how many suicides those signs thwarted, but during those desperate postwar years there were many who hurled themselves down to the rocks and the crashing waves below.

The signs are gone and for good reason: You still can plunge down and get yourself killed, but the sea is no longer there. The once scenic shoreline with its ocher-colored cliffs reminiscent of a Hiroshige print has been filled with dirt, and the sea is a mile away.

Now there is a concrete highway and, beyond it, an oil refinery bellowing smoke and fire, blocking the view of the sea. The fishermen who ruled the neighborhood shore for centuries were bought out by such industrial giants as Toshiba, Ishikawajima Heavy Industries and Nippon Oil Co. And it is a story repeated all along the shorelines near Japan’s industrial centers: beauty bulldozed for the sake of economic progress.

Today Yokohama is a megalopolis, the second largest in Japan, with a population of 3.2 million. When I left Japan in 1963 to study in the United States, Yokohama’s population was half what it is now. With the phenomenal growth of Tokyo, the neighboring city of Yokohama became a convenient suburb.


Meanwhile, with increased international commerce, Japan’s largest port continued to grow in importance and its manufacturing base expanded. The city is the capital of Kanagawa Prefecture, which includes Kamakura, Japan’s ancient capital, and the beaches of Shonan.

Last year Yokohama had a double celebration: its centennial as a municipality and the 130th anniversary of the port opening. The Queen Elizabeth 2 was docked here for more than two months. According to a front-page story in the June 5 Wall Street Journal, the ship was awash with yen from tourists who snapped up expensive jewelry, European scarfs and more than a ton of seashell-shaped Swiss chocolates; some paid $350 to $2,658 to spend a night in a QE2 cabin.

A huge exposition--YES ’89 (Yokohama Exotic Showcase)--opened in early spring and attracted tens of thousands of tourists by the time it closed in October. Now the expo area not far from the waterfront is being converted into a futuristic city center. The Yokohama City Museum, Japan’s second-largest, is already built on the site, and by the end of the decade, if all goes according to schedule, shopping centers, hotels and parks will be completed.

One of the exposition’s most popular attractions, the world’s biggest Ferris wheel, remains on the site. It is 100 meters in diameter and also serves as a clock. Its 15-minute ride is timed to the millisecond, and as the wheel moves higher and higher, the panoramic view widens to include various parts of the city, the highly industrialized harbor and a new Bay Bridge.


The exposition served as a jolting contrast to my childhood memories of Yokohama. I remember riding the streetcar through town to Yokohama Station and seeing miles and miles of bombed-out ruins. The homeless lived along its streets in makeshift shacks or took refuge at night in one of many dilapidated houseboats on the canal; they gathered around trash bins to fight for partially eaten cans of food. Orphaned children begged on the streets; pan-pan girls (prostitutes) plied their trade near the American soldiers’ compounds.

During the ‘50s and early ‘60s Yokohama had one of the largest American populations in Japan. Under American military occupation from 1945 to 1952, Japan was a logical place from which to develop the defense of the Korean War. Not far from where we lived along the beach at Honmoku were rows and rows of pink, blue and yellow houses, nothing fancy by American standards but luxurious in postwar Japan.

The compounds were surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire; inside were tennis courts, wide paved roads, the Bill Chickering movie theater, the PX, a bowling alley. Off limits to most Japanese, the compounds housed American military personnel and their dependents.

All of it was razed almost a decade ago. In its place is a parking lot, a sparkling shopping center called Mycal Honmoku and a deluxe housing project that seems to match the color of yen. Gone too are the streetcars that clanged merrily through the area, giving way to paved roads, highways and the much faster Japan National Railway trains.


With the exception of a few landmarks still remaining from the Kamakura Era (1185-1333) and earlier, Yokohama’s history begins with the arrival of Commodore Perry and his fleet of black ships in 1853.

Until then Yokohama was a small fishing village, cut off from foreign contact (Japan had kept itself in isolation for more than 200 years). But Perry’s arrival prompted American demands that a port be opened to American vessels, and Yokohama was chosen by the shogunate as one of the first five ports to accommodate the West.

Today the harbor front remains the city’s primary center of attraction. Yamashita Park runs along the harbor and is a favorite rendezvous for young lovers. In the center of the park is a fountain with a statue, the Guardian of the Water, given by Yokohama’s sister city, San Diego. There is also a statue of a little girl wearing red shoes, built to honor a popular melancholic song from prewar days: “A little girl who wore red shoes, she’s been taken away by a foreigner from Yokohama harbor. . . .”

In front of the park is the New Grand Hotel. Rudyard Kipling stayed there in 1895, and later Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin; then in 1945 the hotel became Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s temporary headquarters. It is no longer new or grand, but the view of the harbor from the top-floor Starlight Grill is still one of the finest.


The most famous section of Yokohama is Yamate, known by Westerners simply as the Bluff. Here the British, French and Americans established their little colony soon after the opening of the port--with churches, a hospital, schools, private clubs and mansions commanding the best views of the city.

Immediately below the Bluff is Yokohama’s most famous shopping center, Motomachi. Until about 1960, ships were the main mode of international travel in Japan, so the port of Yokohama thrived and along with it such shopping centers as Isezaki-cho and Motomachi.

Now after a decade-long slump, Motomachi has revitalized itself with trendy boutiques, jewelers and restaurants, more than a hundred shops along its main avenue, catering mostly to the affluent.

But the busiest part of the city is the immediate vicinity around Yokohama Central Station, where there are hundreds of shops both underground and above ground, including Japan’s single largest department store, Sogo. It is an area almost indistinguishable from those around other major Japanese train stations.


My nephews and nieces who live in Yokohama are amazed by the stories my brother, sister and I tell about our childhood. In fact, the years after the war were quite a struggle. We ate rationed oats instead of rice, stale biscuits that would break our teeth, and vast amounts of pumpkin. But the sea in front of our house yielded treasures: clams, crabs, eels, sand dollars. At low tide the still unpolluted shoreline extended almost half a mile out, and my dog Sheba and I would prance about or dig for clams or live bait; when the tide rolled in, we would go fishing in rowboats.

Last summer, as I walked along the narrow streets in my old neighborhood with my mother and sister, I met a group of men, all dressed alike in blue and white yukata (summer kimono), all carrying lanterns. We stopped to introduce ourselves. “Of course I remember the Tanabes. You lived just around the corner,” said Mr. Suzuki, fondly recalling the exotic sound of harp music coming from our house (my grandmother practicing for concerts in Tokyo).

“Yes, the bon-odori festival still goes on,” another man said. “It’s held at the Shinto temple grounds nearby.” Bon-odori is the traditional dance to appease the souls of the departed; I remember everyone dressed in summer kimono dancing in unison around a tower, with drummers rhythmically beating to the joyous songs of hot days and moonlit nights.

One of our old neighbors hasn’t abandoned fishing. Now he takes groups of businessmen out into the bay of Tokyo on fishing expeditions. And he related another piece of encouraging news: In August the neighbors still take out the ancient festival boats (although now they have to carry them on trucks out to the sea) to perform a ritual many centuries old. After a ceremonial boat race, the young men of the neighborhood set adrift a straw horse to help them predict how next year’s catch will be.


Trains run frequently between Tokyo and Yokohama. For more information on transportation, accommodations and the city in general, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 2640, Los Angeles 90017, or call (213) 623-1952.