The Glorious Awkwardness, in Which 26 Letters are Arranged in Praise of Being Ourselves
(A response to a prompt from Jon Batiste, who said as he accepted his Oscar, all musicians work with “the same twelve notes.”)
One evening in Evanston, Illinois, I went to a small gathering at my friend Linda’s place. I remembered what her elegant home looked like, so I didn’t bother to look at house numbers when I parked my car on the street. In fact, I was so sure I had the right house, I knocked lightly and walked right in the front door.
I called out “Hello! Linda?” and started looking around at the colorful art in the foyer. It didn’t look familiar. A petite, white woman appeared. My friend, Linda, is tall and Black. It turned out it wasn’t Linda’s house.
“Hello,” the stranger said warmly. “I’m Anya. Are you looking for Linda? She lives down the block.”
Embarrassed, I said, “Oh, my gosh, I just waltzed right into your house and it’s the wrong house. I’m so sorry!”
But you know what? Anya was so articulate and kind, I was soon introducing myself and having a lovely conversation with her. Such a gracious hostess to me, her unexpected guest, she even got my address in order to invite me to her annual winter party. Eventually, I left and found my way to Linda’s house, where we had a good laugh about my mix-up.
I attended Anya’s party in December and enjoyed getting to know her and her guests. One of the guests was Tony, who then invited me to his annual party, which involved sitting in his basement with our beverage-of-choice, taking turns reading Walt Whitman’s entire poem, “Song of Myself,” aloud. Which takes two hours. My kind of get-together! As Walt wrote in his poem, “In all people, I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,/And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them,” adding, “I exist as I am, that is enough.”
You never know where our awkwardness and curiosity will lead when we are being ourselves. Now that many of us are vaccinated against COVID, daring to show our bare faces, and venturing out to socialize again, it feels awkward at times. It’s an adjustment. But being awkward is not always a bad thing.
(With thanks to Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste for the topic suggestion.)
“It’s morning, swan, wake up, climb in the air, follow me!” Kabir
“Will the highs ever be as high as the lows are low?” asked a woman who had been dragged under the waves once too often.
There are many reasons to feel down and out lately. The lows can feel very low indeed. Yet, is it our goal to always be riding a wave? When I reframe the question from ease and pleasure to one of learning, I see value in whatever I experience, because I can learn from just about anything. For instance, I like sweets, but I don’t eat pie and pudding all day long. It may be pleasant for a while, but sometimes I need garlic, broccoli, and wild rice. It’s a matter of nutrition. I choose what nourishes me in the long run and allows me to grow.
In a similar way, suffering can help me grow, as it carves out space in my heart for more compassion. I’m not always in a place of light and peace. My friend sent me a beautiful essay she’d written about her aunt. Then she sent me a note, regretting it. She worried I’d be troubled by the account of her aunt’s brutal cancer treatments. Yes, the story evoked emotions and yes, it did remind me of how weak and ill chemotherapy made me feel when I had treatment. But I assured my friend that she need not hold back in sharing such things. These stories are about my people; they are where I find fellowship with those who know what I’ve been through. It is not a morbid interest; it is a kinship. And it’s not just cancer. We’re all struggling with something.
I’ve read that the densest clumps of matter in the Eagle Nebula become stars. The cloudy bits become bright, shedding light that will reach the Earth in a millennium or so. I’m learning through all the highs and lows, days and nights. They can all be useful to me. The black pumice stone of sorrow polishes my rough spots until I glow once again – softer this time, with ears to listen and tears for your pain.
When I’m feeling cloudy, I know it’s time to call on my Better Self. Her resources are fresh air, loved ones, and prayers. Sunshine, when available. Naps help, too. I recharge both my super and subtle powers. How do I reactivate my hope muscle? Sometimes with quiet breath and sometimes with noisy dancing. And by visiting the trees. You come, too. The morning star is up.
Recurrence of cancer can be hard to predict and difficult to detect. Some doctors do follow-up tests and scans after cancer treatment to look for new, spreading, or recurring cancers. Mine do not. Since my first breast cancer treatments three years ago, they send me on my way with a quick check-up every six months and a mammogram of my remaining breast once a year.
But then I was diagnosed with a regional recurrence of cancer a year ago, requiring radiation treatments. Now my oncology team wants me to have a CT scan of my chest. Specifically, they want to look at some nodules in my lung that showed up on my last scan about a year ago. If the nodules grew, that’s a bad sign. The scan is also a chance to look around my entire chest and see if there’s any sign of cancer in there. I’m grateful to have this CT scan as a follow-up to my latest cancer scare.
As I wait my turn in a little room at the medical center, I look out the open door at a life-size Elvis in the hallway. The cardboard cut-out wears hospital scrubs that inexplicably have HANGRY written all over them. Is the King hungry and angry? I try to think of one of his song lyrics that would make this relevant and can only think of hound dogs and blue suede shoes. Elvis is also sporting green beads and a fuzzy, red Santa hat, which are at least somewhat seasonal. I appreciate a little hospital humor to ease the tension.
Once you’ve had cancer, any scan can be a cause for anxiety, or “scanxiety,” as it is sometimes called. How do I handle my fear during this cancer journey? Strangely, it’s not the tumors I dread most, it’s the treatments and their damages and side effects. I’ve never felt even a twinge from the cancer itself, not at this stage, though there is always the knowledge that it can kill me at some point.
I remember a horse in Tucson, Arizona named Checar. He was a little wild and could probably kill me in certain circumstances, but I was not afraid of him. Part Palomino and part quarter horse, he took my breath away when I saw him in the stables at a resort. I signed up for a trail ride in hopes I could get to know him or at least stroke his long, white mane. Before heading into the sagebrush and saguaro, we gathered in the barn for instruction. The trail guide, Nina, asked, “On a scale of one to ten, how scared are you of horses?”
“Eleven,” proclaimed a young man. I was surprised that he would rate his fear that high. With nervous laughter, all the other riders said high numbers as well.
When it came to me, I wanted to say zero. I’ve been around horses off and on all my life and I knew you had to be careful not to get kicked or thrown. In fact, our daughter Emily had recently had an accident when she and her horse went over a jump. They both fell. Emily broke her arm, requiring surgery and a metal plate. That was scary. But am I afraid of horses? No, I have a healthy respect for them. That’s different.
I said, “One.“
Maybe Nina assigned horses based on those numbers. For whatever reason, she gave me my favorite, Checar. I settled into the saddle in a dream-like state and savored that ride into the desert. Allowing a little distance between me and the other riders, I crooned songs of awe and gratitude to my horse. Patting his warm, strong neck, the color of butterscotch, and running my fingers through his frothy mane, I was enchanted and content. The cacti along the sandy trail saluted as we walked by and the sky went on forever above us. At the end, I dismounted and Nina took the reins to lead the horse back to his stall. He lingered by my side and resisted her pull. She harrumphed that he’d never done that before.
“It’s because I sang to him,” I said.
What is my cancer song? I do not love this sneaky disease. But I don’t have to let it overtake my life with anxiety. Cancer has its power and I have mine. I have a friend, an extraordinary man in our community, who found ways to communicate with his brain tumor with peace in his heart. Perhaps my song, in honor of Checar, can be about the power of life, love, and courage rather than death, defeat, and despair.
The scan I had almost a year ago showed a “metastatic enlarged lymph node” under my right arm. That was alarming! But this scan doesn’t have to be. I try to keep my nerves in check and focus on my breathing until I am called into the imaging room. I lie on my back and let the machine slide me through the donut hole of the scanner.
I was told the results would show up as a message from my doctor in a week. They came in that very day when we got home. The nodules hadn’t grown and there were no signs of cancer or other concerns. I’m all clear at the end of the year. The work to stay clear lies ahead.
Barbara Terao is a tree hugger and people hugger living with her husband on an island in Puget Sound in Washington. Their two daughters and their families live nearby. Barbara’s writing about nature, psychology, and life appears in magazines, journals, and on her blog, Of the Earth. She began treatment for HER2 and hormone-positive breast cancer in February 2017 and had a recurrence in 2019 which was successfully treated.
More Posts on the I Had Cancer website by BarbTerao
I feel a lifelong connection to the United Nations because of the book, Three Promises to You by Munro Leaf (1957). It summarized, at a child’s level, the purpose of the United Nations. The Three Promises of the book’s title are: No war, Fair treatment for all human beings, and Better living for everybody by sharing what we know. With Leaf’s cartoons, we learn that “whatever you look like, YOU are an important human being – a person.”
Inside the front cover I wrote in childish print, “Do not take this Book. Please because it is Barbara’s Book. Thank you.” The irony of my less than generous request and my tight grip on a book about sharing and caring only occurs to me now. Later in life, I happened to formally begin my Buddhist practice, with its goals of both inner and outer peace, on October 24, which is United Nations Day.
How are the global promises of the United Nations fulfilled? We can make progress toward peace, equality, and shared knowledge day by day. Perhaps the promises are a direction more than a final destination. This simple book is the primer we need right now, getting back to the basics of compassion, science, and democracy. “The United Nations belongs to YOU as much as it belongs to anyone else in the world.”
With my father, who gave me the book, I marched against war and stood up to bulldozers. Now that I am an adult, I can, at the very least, open my tight little fist to share the wisdom of the book’s message. This is the legacy of my parents and my promise to my children. We can work together for peace, happiness, and a more healthy, harmonious world.
Shio lived in the seaside village of Nakanohama, Japan. Her husband was a fisherman and she expected her three sons to become fishermen, too. Her two daughters would become wives of fishermen and stay close to home.
That’s how it was in Japan two hundred years ago.
Could Shio see a different destiny for her second son, Manjiro? Ever since he was born, Manjiro glowed like a firefly and he was always curious.
“Manjiro,” she’d say, “it’s up to you.
There’s nothing you can’t do.
If you keep trying, you’ll see it through.”
When Shio’s husband died, nine-year-old Manjiro started going to work every day. With no father and an older brother too sick and weak to work, it was up to him to provide for the family. Little Manjiro may have looked skinny as a rice stalk, but he became strong as bamboo. He helped empty the nets on fishing boats and brought home fish for the dinner table. At least they had something to eat with their rice.
Every morning, Shio told her little son,
“My dear Manjiro-chan,
try your hardest again today
and remember: Gaman!
Gaman means to stay strong
like a tree stands in a storm.
Don’t give up and don’t give in.
Have patience and go on.”
Manjiro’s two brothers and two sisters depended on him. Sometimes they called out to him as he left for work,
You can do it.
You’ll get through it.
At this time in 1836, Japan had hundreds of rules, like the rule that children always grow up to work in the same jobs as their parents. No Japanese citizen could leave to visit other countries, and no person from another country could visit Japan. People who broke the rules were punished and imprisoned. That’s how it had been in Japan for a long time.
When Manjiro was fourteen-years-old, he was working on a small fishing vessel with four other fishermen when a storm came up and blew their boat far away from Japan. When her son did not return, Shio had to accept that he was either drowned or shipwrecked somewhere. After a while, the family even had a funeral for him. Shio was very sad, but she told herself, “Gaman. Stay strong like a tree in a storm.” She had to keep going and take care of her family.
Manjiro’s family didn’t know he was still alive.
Almost twelve years later, on October 5, 1852, they got a big surprise. Guess who was coming to their door! Shio heard someone calling “Okasan” and went outside her little house. A man who seemed somehow familiar was coming towards her, walking very fast. “Mother, I’m here! I’m here!” he said. Then he stopped and bowed his head low. “I’m sorry I left you for so long.”
“Manjiro? Could it be you?” Shio said. Tears came to her eyes. Then her son hugged her and cried along with her. His brothers and sisters came running to see what was happening and stopped short in surprise. Shio drew herself up and said, “It is your brother. He has come home.”
Their shock gave way to joy as they shouted, “You’re back! Hurray!” And then, “Manjiro! Where have you been?”
“Yes, Manjiro, what happened to you?” asked his mother. If she had known, she would have been a wreck herself.
The family gathered outside on straw mats with cups of tea. It was a warm autumn afternoon in their village between the mountains and the sea. “Manjiro, we thought you were dead. You left here a boy and now you’re a man. Where did you go?” his mother asked.
“I’ve been around the world and back,” Manjiro said. Then he realized that his family would not understand what that meant. They knew as little of the planet as he had twelve years ago when he was shipwrecked. He decided to start at the beginning of his journey.
“I was fishing on a boat with four others. A storm broke our mast and oars. The cold rain and winds lasted for seven days and blew our boat far, far out in the Pacific Ocean. All we could do was hang on.”
“Gaman,” said his mother, glad that her son had remembered what she taught him.
“Then we used planks of wood to row ourselves toward a tiny island. Our boat broke to pieces on the rocks, so the five of us swam to shore.”
“Oh,” said Shio, with a sharp intake of breath. “You didn’t give up.”
“There were no people living on the island, only albatross birds. We ate their eggs. We also found shellfish to eat. We saved rainwater and allowed ourselves three sips a day. That’s how we lived for five months! At night we slept in a cave.”
A tear rolled down Shio’s cheek as she thought of their loneliness. “So much for a boy to endure!”
Manjiro’s sisters remembered the words they’d shouted to their brother as he went to work. Now they chanted them again in order to cheer up their mother and to help Manjiro continue telling his story.
You can do it.
You’ll get through it.
Manjiro laughed, remembering how their high spirits had lifted his mood so many years ago. He decided not to dwell on his trials as a castaway, such as the earthquake that almost buried them in their cave, and jumped ahead to a happier part of the story. “We always looked for boats to come take us home. One day while I was looking for food on the shore, I saw a ship. I shouted and the others came running, waving their clothes until the sailors on the ship saw us. We were rescued!”
Manjiro’s mother, brothers, and sisters leaned toward him with their eyes wide. “By Japanese?” asked his sister.
“No, they were Americans from far away, hunting for whales in a big ship. They rowed a small boat to our island and picked us up. Then they took us on board the big ship and fed us rice and soup. They gave us sailor clothes to wear and washed our old things for us. But they could not bring us home, because Japan does not allow foreign ships to enter its ports.”
“Weren’t you scared, Manjiro?” asked his littlest sister.
“My four fellow fishermen were very scared. They expected to be killed. I was too curious to be scared, so I followed the sailors around to see what they were doing. Some of the men were friendly even though they laughed when I tried to repeat the words they said. Then one of them touched the tall tree trunk holding their sail and said mast. I repeated it and this time I knew what it meant. I learned new words every day and soon I could talk with the crew and even the captain.”
“The whaling ship took us to the island of Oahu where there were many good people. The four other fishermen decided to stay there. The ship’s captain, William Whitfield, asked me if I’d like to go home with him to America. I said yes.” Manjiro took a chopstick and sketched a map in the dirt to show how far he traveled. “In America, in a place called Massachusetts, I lived with Captain Whitfield and his family. I went to school and learned many things.”
“You learned another language?”
“Hai, Okasan. Yes, Mother, I learned to speak, read, and write in English.” Manjiro scratched in the dirt to show them. He wrote John Mung, the name the Americans gave him because it was easier for them to say than Manjiro. Then he continued with his story. “Some people did not like me at first because I was different. I was the first Japanese person they’d ever seen, so, of course, I was strange to them. But I made many friends and learned from everybody. I even learned to ride a horse.”
This was astonishing to Manjiro’s family, because the only people who rode horses in Japan were samurai who served the shoguns and nobility. They did not expect a boy from a poor fishing village to ever have that privilege.
His mother looked confused. “How did you get back to Japan from the other side of the world?”
“There was something called a Gold Rush on the west coast of America. I went there and found gold.”
His brothers and sisters pumped their fists in the air and cheered him again. “And what did you do with the gold?” his mother asked.
“I sold the gold and made enough money to buy my own small boat, the Adventurer, to put on a big ship. The captain of the ship brought me close to Japan and I went the rest of the way in the Adventurer.”
“Where is your boat?” asked his younger brother. After all, a boat is a good thing to have for a fishing family.
“Naturally, I was arrested when I got here, because I have been out of the country. Local officials took my boat away. Then they locked me behind bamboo walls and questioned me for more than a year. Finally, I was released so I could visit you. I hiked ninety miles to get here.”
No one could speak for a few moments as they thought how far Manjiro had come. His brother patted him on the back a few times. Then Shio wiped her eyes on the cotton sleeve of her yukata. She was so grateful her boy who was lost at sea was alive and well. With a smile for Manjiro she said, “I must get you something to eat.” She hurried to the cooking fire. Her son, the firefly, was home at last.
Manjiro stayed at his childhood home for three days. After that, he was taken to a castle in Kochi for questioning and then to Edo (now called Tokyo) for more questioning.
Fortunately, he did not have to stay in jail again. The more Manjiro talked to officials, the more they realized that he could be a valued advisor to the Shogun and other leaders of Japan. A scribe wrote down and illustrated what the traveler told them. Those writings and pictures became a book called Drifting Toward the Southeast that is still available today.
Manjiro became a teacher and taught English and other subjects to samurai.
In December 1853, Manjiro was given the rank of samurai himself. The young fisherman from Nakanohama received payment, two special swords and a new name, Nakahama Manjiro. (Only high-ranking people in Japan had second names. Manjiro named himself after his village.) He could finally help support his family as he’d tried to do as a child.
Manjiro was often asked to tell people about America. He told the Japanese leaders how helpful and friendly the Americans had been to him. Manjiro’s words helped the leaders consider being friendly, too, and in 1854 Japan entered into a treaty of peace, friendship, and trade with the United States. They opened two ports to ships from the United States of America and other countries. After 250 years of closed doors, Japan was open to the rest of the world.
Manjiro had gaman, guts, and grit. He did more than endure his difficulties. He took action, made friends, and changed the world.
JAPANESE WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS
Gaman = Endurance, strength, and perseverance
Hai = Yes
Okasan = Mother
Oni-chan = Brother (informal)
Oniisan = Brother (formal)
Samurai = Warrior in service to the shoguns
Shogun = Head of the samurai government
Yukata = Cotton kimono
Bernard, Donald R. The Life and Times of John Manjiro. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.
Blumberg, Rhoda. Shipwrecked! The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Hirasuna, Delphine. The Art of Gaman: Arts & Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.
Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. Humanity Above Nation: The Impact of Manjiro and Heco on America and Japan. Honolulu: The Joseph Heco Society of Hawaii, 1995.
Manjiro, John and Kawada, Shoryo. Drifting Toward the Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways. Told in 1852 and translated by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai. New Bedford, Mass.: Spinner Publications, Inc., 2003.
Rosenbach Museum and Library, Nakahama Manjiro’s Hyosen Kiryaku: A Companion Book. Philadelphia: Rosenbach Museum and Library, 1999.
It’s all about territory and who lays claim to it. Moles dig tunnels underground and live generally solitary lives. If the tunnel of one mole breaks into the tunnel of another, a fight to the death ensues. As Marc Hamer wrote in his surprising memoir, How to Catch a Mole, “Fighting is in the nature of things with territories.”
That sentence got me thinking about habitat destruction and its role in the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world the last few months. What is an animal’s habitat if not a territory? Every species, and every community within each species, needs a territory, a place to call home. Looking under “W” in our World Book Encyclopedia, I read, “Conflicts over resources are the most basic and enduring causes of war. Resources include land, minerals, energy sources, and important geographical features. The world’s first wars probably were fought over resources.” That’s about as basic as you can get. When we violate the homes of our fellow creatures, they may not consciously go into battle with us, but the environmental and health consequences can be as dire as any war. After all, humans aren’t the only inhabitants of this planet, though we sometimes act like it.
Many of the worst viruses affecting humans are transmitted from bats, birds, and other animals. Epidemiology research shows that COVID-19, the source of our current contagion, with new fatalities every day, can be traced back to bats and possibly pangolins. We encroach on their environments or capture them for market, and thereby expose ourselves to new combinations of germs to which we have no immunity.
There is a story called Who Speaks for Wolf that has stayed with me for two decades now. In the face of our COVID-19 pandemic, it comes to mind once again.
The story begins as some people outgrow their living space and seek out a new one. In Paula Underwood’s way of sharing this oral history, she wrote, “Long ago Our People grew in number so that where we were was no longer enough.” Runners “were sent out from among us to seek a new place where the People might be who-they-were.” (I have added punctuation here and there to Paula’s words. She used very little.) A site was found that had space for the longhouses and for the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash. After much discussion, it was decided to move the community to this site.
As work began on the new site, a man called Wolf’s Brother returned to the village. “He asked about the New Place and said at once that we must choose another” because, “You have chosen the Center Place for a great community of Wolf.” Further, he warned, “I think that you will find that it is too small a place for both and that it will require more work then- than change would presently require.” This man was well known for understanding the ways of wolves and his words were respected but overruled, because the establishment of the new village had already begun.
“The People closed their ears and would not reconsider,” Paula wrote. When all was prepared and the people moved in, the People, as Wolf’s Brother predicted, had to constantly contend with Wolf. It was a challenge to protect their children and their food. “They soon discovered that this required so much energy that there was little left for winter preparations.” After trying this and that, they came to the question of the final solution, which was to kill off the wolves.
This is an ongoing question for human beings right now. Do we need to take over every corner of Mother Earth? More species become extinct or endangered every day. Is this the kind of people we want to be? Is this the kind of world we want?
In the story, Paula put it this way. “They saw that it was possible to hunt down this Wolf People until they were no more.” Such a thought gave them pause. “They saw, too, that such a task would change the People: they would become Wolf Killers, a People who took life only to sustain their own, would become a People who took life rather than move a little. It did not seem to them that they wanted to become such a people.”
In hindsight, the People wished that Wolf’s Brother had been included in the decision-making from the beginning. They admitted, “To live here indeed requires more work now than change would have made necessary.” From that time on, they included a question in every discussion, before a decision was finalized, “Tell me now, my Brothers. Tell me now, my Sisters. Who Speaks for Wolf?”
Wisdom comes from such challenges as these, when we take an honest look at the chain of cause and effect in which we have participated and make new decisions. We can broaden our perspectives and listen to a diversity of data, putting our heads together for better solutions.
Paula Underwood preserved the tale taught to her by her father and wrote it down as one of Three Native American Learning Stories (2002, A Tribe of Two Press). Before Paula’s death in 2000, many people studied with her in the high country of New Mexico or among the redwoods of California. She was a mentor to me and reminded us, through her stories and aphorisms, to listen to all species, not just our own. She invited us to listen to trees and wind. And our own minds.
How did I not know about the inspired and inspiring 2011 book by Patrick Ness? Inuit people sometimes call a storyteller isumataq, “the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.” That is what the author, and thereby the monster in A Monster Calls, does. He tears open the known world, at the worst time in a boy’s life, to make room for the kind of truth that leads to wisdom. Illustrated by Jim Kay and based on an idea from the late author Siobhan Dowd, the book won both the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal, and then was made into a movie. Which is what brought it to my attention: I caught the last half of the movie on HBO and was enchanted from my first glimpse of the yew tree “monster.” (I love trees! Also, taxotere, the medicine from yews, helped me overcome cancer.)
In this book, Conor O’Malley’s mother has cancer and it keeps getting worse. Conor is beside himself and it doesn’t help that he is often visited at seven minutes past midnight by the yew tree that’s come walking down the hill from the cemetery, bursting into his room uninvited to tell him tales.
What he needs, Conor insists, is medicine to cure his mother, not stories. The monster tells him, “The yew is a healing tree. It is the form I most choose to walk in.” Yet the monster offers no clear answers to the boy, challenging him, “You still do not know why you called me, do you? You still do not know why I have come walking. It is not as if I do this every day, Conor O’Malley.”
“It wasn’t just to hear terrible stories that make no sense,” Conor says.
“Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth,” the monster says before departing in a gust of wind.
Without giving away the stories within the story, just know there are no easy answers here. The book, intended for “Age 12 and up,” has been lauded by many adults. What is life, at every stage, but a cycle of needing to hold on and having to let go? Between yew and me, I’m holding on tight. To life. This story, my story, and your stories are all part of the healing journey, to live life and to let go when the time comes.
When one’s world is torn open, one’s own truth can lead to wisdom and a heart that can be reconciled, if not consoled. In this book are words and pictures to tell the tale.
Lily with twins David and Donald (my husband) in Chicago, 1949
Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law, Lily (or Yuriko) Terao. She was mugged by a purse-snatcher near her home in Los Angeles and died from her injuries November 8, 2005. As a nisei (second-generation) Japanese-American, Lily was born in Seattle in 1920 and returned to Japan many times in her life. In fact, she went to high school in Japan, then returned to the United States to work.
Due to the events of World War II, Lily was sent to the desolate Gila River internment camp in Arizona in 1942. She was imprisoned there merely for being Japanese and had to destroy her Japanese items, including her high school diploma. Anything Japanese was suspect at that time. Fluent in both Japanese and English, Lily was soon recruited to go to the University of Michigan and teach Japanese to intelligence officers and others. She saw her chance to get out of the crowded, makeshift camp and she took it.
Gila River barracks 1942
“I took a loyalty test to get out of camp,” she said in an interview transcribed by our daughter, Stephanie. “Then I was sent to Michigan to help teach soldiers Japanese. The student soldiers would come [for one year] and we would speak nothing but Japanese to them. I mostly taught military intelligence.”
I once went to the University of Michigan and got a copy of a document written in 1943 by Marine Major Sherwood Moran, Intelligence Division. It revealed what Lily was working on back then at the University, along with revealing a stark contrast between Moran’s approach and our recent treatment of prisoners, such as at Guantanamo Bay. Moran’s attitude toward interrogation, or “interviewing” as he called it, was more about befriending than brutality.
A June 2005 Atlantic Monthly article, “Truth Extraction,” by Stephen Budiansky explained the impact of Moran’s work, revealing that “abusing prisoners is not simply illegal and immoral; it is also remarkably ineffective.” For instance, James Corum, an expert on counterinsurgency warfare, noted that the cruelty of Abu Ghraib personnel was not a case of the ends justifying the means. “The torture of suspects did not lead to any useful intelligence information being extracted.”
Moran’s attitude was, “I am a human being talking to a human being.” And, he noticed time and again, that human being wants to tell his story. He believed that “those interrogators who tried the hardest to break down the morale of POWs were actually revealing their own fear.” Such “hard-boiled” tactics rarely yielded results.
What was effective during WWII was following Sherwood Moran’s suggestions, recruiting second-generation Japanese Americans, including Lily, and having them teach both language and culture to interrogators. The interrogators could then get to know the prisoners and help them open up to the point where they’d share important information.
Lily made friends with the other nisei women in Ann Arbor and enjoyed teaching the young men how to speak a new language. According to James Corum, “the graduates of this course were among the most effective interrogators in the Pacific Island campaigns of 1944 and 1945.” For instance, it only took Marine interrogators 48 hours to obtain the complete Japanese battle plans in the Marianas in June of 1944. Perhaps some of them were Lily’s students.
Medal honoring Lily (Kobayashi) Terao’s service to Military Intelligence, received by her sons, David and Donald.