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Bridge to the Sun

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By Gwen Terasaki

Reviewed by Craig Loomis

In the winter of 1930, twenty-three-year-old Gwen Harold left Johnson City, Tennessee, to visit an aunt in Washington D.C. for what she thought would be no more than two or three months. Little did she know that within a year, she would fall in love and marry Hidenari (Terry) Terasaki, a diplomat with the Japanese Foreign Office, and thus guarantee herself a “front row seat” to the approaching juggernaut of World War II.

Bridge to the Sun is Gwen Terasaki’s record of how she, as an American married to a Japanese, along with their daughter, Mariko, make their tortuous way leading up to and through the chaotic war years. And yet, what makes Bridge to the Sun such a fascinating memoir is not simply the author’s unique vantage point but also, and perhaps more importantly, her perspective on the life and times of war-torn Japan through “American eyes.”

In brief, the first seven chapters offer a detailed account of Mr. Terasaki’s service in the Japanese diplomatic corps, as he and his family hopscotch from Tokyo to Shanghai, to Havana and finally back to Washington D.C., where they are stationed when Pearl Harbor is attacked. During these early diplomatic wanderings, Gwen Terasaki does not hesitate to share her joys and victories as well as her fears and frustrations with readers. For instance, when she first encounters life in Shanghai, she is appalled by the devastating hunger and poverty that surround her. She wants to help, but what can one person do when so many are in need? And yet, she does come up with a viable solution: instead of trying to assist the many, which she comes to understand is both physically and financially impossible, she gives money, food and clothing to one, a little beggar girl.

While still in Shanghai, another incident occurred on February 26, 1936, that captured the intensity and uncertainty of the times. We are made privy to an early morning phone call from Tokyo, informing Terry that there had been an insurrection; a group of junior military officers of a Tokyo regiment had assassinated a number of liberal statesmen. This, of course, became known as the infamous February 26, 1936 Incident. What frightened Gwen about this situation was not simply the turmoil within the Japanese government, a turmoil that would only serve to help pave the way to World War II, but how “those distinguished men had been killed for believing as I knew my husband believed.”

Once the U.S. declares war on Japan, we then follow the Terasakis into internment, along with other Japanese and German diplomats, as they are sequestered in Hot Springs and White Sulphur Springs, Georgia, until June of 1942 when they sail back to Japan. As an American, Gwen could have stayed in the U.S., but she decides that as a family they should stay together.

In the remainder of the book (some eight chapters), spanning 1942–7, Gwen Terasaki records the events, situations and emotions that she and her family must cope with as they struggle to survive in wartime Japan, and its aftermath. This portion of the book is, I think, the most insightful and intriguing, for it gives readers a first-hand account of what life was like in a Japan that was poor and starving, as well as misinformed and mislead by its government.

Once back in Japan, the author gives us glimpses of the Japanese mindset during this troubled period. One of the many stories she passes on is how she often wore “dark glasses” whenever she went out shopping or walking, and how at that time the “accepted idea of a saboteur was anyone who always wore dark glasses”; as a result, it was not uncommon for someone to yell at her, supai (spy). She goes on to mention that as the war persisted the food problem became so profound that all pets and even the animals at the zoo were killed. There was simply not enough food for humans, let alone animals. And then there was the time of the neighborhood meeting when instructions were given that “every person of adult age must provide himself with a bamboo spear of certain length with which to meet the enemy [the Americans] when they came to invade the islands.” These are the sorts of anecdotes and mini-tales that serve to capture the essence of Gwen Terasaki’s personality. Towards the end of the war, with an American invasion seemingly eminent, the Terasakis escape the city and the American bombers and move to the hills where, once again, their primary concern is food—how to get it and how to keep it.

First published in 1957, Gwen Terasaki’s Bridge to the Sun is a rare treat not only because it is history made personable, as time and time again she gives readers a behind-the-scenes perspective of the war, but more importantly, for students who may know nothing more than some basic facts about World War II—the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, along with the assorted bits and pieces of information that they might have gleaned from Grandma and Grandpa’s dinner table stories —this book affords all students the opportunity to visit Japan and the Japanese during World War II. While many of our history books often present a general overview of life and times in America during the war years, few offer even a general commentary on what life was like during this period for the Japanese. To the best of my knowledge, there are very few first-hand accounts from Americans who actually lived in Japan during the war years. This in itself makes Bridge to the Sun a valuable document.

This being said, Bridge to the Sun is not just about World War II and one family’s fight to survive. In many ways it is larger than that, for it is the story of every family that has ever been entangled in the jaws of war.