The author describes meeting a young Japanese woman who was terribly deformed during WWII

By Jan B Van Stolk | 1995-09-01 12:00:00

I could tell you stories about the war.

I could tell you stories about Uncle Edward: rich, good-looking and lazy--according to my father he never did anything worthwhile. When we were starving during the winter of 1944, he drove up in his big, black Graham supercharger--only Germans had cars. He threw several bags of potatoes into the house, shouted "Heil Hitler!" to some German soldiers in the street and roared off into the winter evening.

While we all felt immensely grateful for the potatoes, I heard my father murmur, "My God, Ed must be a Nazi." Later I learned that Uncle had been head of the underground movement in Eastern Holland, had hidden Jews and Allied flyers, had risked his life daily, and somehow had managed not to get killed.

I could tell you another one about my mother who, with huge hunger-edema disfiguring her body, managed to hide us and other fugitives from the Gestapo, while scraping morsels of food together--potato skins, nettles, sugar beets, tulip bulbs, and fish (out of the sewer). At the time I was in my late teens and irrationally confident that I would somehow survive, but I remember looking at my mother and being scared that she would die. Years later she said, "That was normal. Any mother would do that." She never mentioned it again. My mother was strong. She never cried.

But no, I don't want to tell you more about suffering and deprivation during the war. Instead, I'll tell you a story about myself. I feel quite awkward doing so, but I need to get it out of my system. It happened 12 years after the war, and there is certainly nothing heroic or self-sacrificing about it.

After the war I enlisted in the army. In general, I had a most wonderful time. There was enough to eat. We didn't have to think or make decisions. There was no real danger. Life was pretty healthy with lots of fresh air and exercise. I even earned some money. I looked great in my uniform; girls and women fell in love with me. Eventually I left the army, studied medicine, and qualified as a physician and surgeon. Life was fast and exciting. In the mid-fifties, I ended up attending a post-graduate course in surgery at Harvard. I met Happy and Nelson Rockefeller, who befriended me. I got invited to the Governor's mansion. I had friends to spend weekends with in country houses on Long Island. Occasionally we would dine at Club 22. Peter Krindler, the owner, liked me and introduced me to the rich and powerful.

I don't know why I am telling you all of this-probably to impress you, so that you will think what a lucky, clever, successful guy I must be. I became reacquainted with Norman Cousins, whom I had met in a leper hospital where I was doing further training and some experiments in plastic surgery. Norman was doing a story on leprosy for his Saturday Review. We arranged to have dinner together. This was several years before he became famous with his book, Anatomy of an Illness.

Norman had a speech impediment and with his lisping voice and choice of words, his tales became hypnotic spells, which I enjoyed immensely. He had visited Japan recently, but when he started to regale me with stories about their food and customs, I changed the subject. Although I had never really seen one, I hated the Japanese. They were easy to hate; I knew people who had suffered and perished in their putrid concentration camps. The Germans, whom I had seen daily becoming more and more pathetic, were a bit more difficult to hate.

Before we parted, he insisted I promise to visit him whenever I was in his neighbourhood in Connecticut.

It was nearly a year later that I decided to take him up on his invitation and contacted him. He suggested that I drive over that same afternoon. I had been wondering why he, a prominent journalist, had invited me. I was intrigued with the man and eager to see what kind of place he would live in.

I had difficulty finding his house. After many wrong turns on little country roads, I finally found it. Number 761 carved on a piece of wood, half hidden behind a tree. The lane curved through a deciduous forest and suddenly, in an open sunny clearing, there was his large Colonial house.

Norman welcomed me warmly. "I'd like you to meet a guest of ours." He lead the way through a big hall, with a hearth, comfortable leather and oak furniture, a table set for chess, and thousands of books lining the walls, into a small sun-room at the side of the house.

Mitsu Nakajima ... Dr. Jan van Stolk. Jan ... Mitsu." Then he added, "Dr. Jan is a plastic surgeon."

I had to sit down. I couldn't look. Opposite me was a human--female--monster. Without looking at her, I could see her hands on the table. All her fingers were contracted; her hands were like claws. I had to look. Her mouth twisted to one side and the same scar was twisting her right nostril up and open. Tears, which she tried to mop up with a handkerchief, were constantly dripping from it. Her hair was combed, not quite successfully, in such a way as to cover a large bald spot on her skull. Her skin, what I saw of it, was all blotchy, red, brown, and white.

To my surprise and relief, she spoke English quite well and not very nasally.

Somebody brought tea. Norman excused himself.

Twelve years prior--she had been eight at the time--her seven-member family had perished in the great fire of August 6, 1945. Mitsu somehow had survived and was taken by relatives to Kyoto, where she had grown up. Doctors tried to correct her deformities.

She had had 11 plastic surgeries (the last two in the U.S.) and more were booked. I remembered that day in 1945, twelve years before this afternoon in Norman's sun-room: I had recalled my joy and delight that the war would soon be over. That evening we had celebrated, laughed, and danced until the early morning hours. The Germans had already lost the war. Now the hateful Japanese had lost their war, too. I knew they deserved whatever they got.

I looked at Mitsu and for the first time our eyes met. That moment seemed eternal.

Will you show me your body?" I asked.

With some difficulty, but without any self-consciousness, she took her clothes off. I had given her the mohair blanket from the couch, which she draped around herself. Her neck, shoulders, and upper back were relatively without scars. The rest of her body was an uneven patchwork of different pieces of skin, with different colors and different thicknesses, red and white lines criss-crossing between. Skin from her buttocks and from the back of her thighs had been removed and used to cover the front of her body. Amazingly, her belly was unscathed--soft, vulnerable, and incredibly female. We both knew that she would never have children and I think we also both knew that, apart from making new ear lobes (which can be done now out of chopped-up cartillage) and perhaps slightly improving her hand and finger mobility and attempting once more to cosmetically correct her nose and mouth, there was little which could be done.

I had seen enough. I had seen too much. I wanted to run. I felt sick and stupid and hopeless, and immensely sad. I couldn't just run away from this naked, deformed Japanese girl. I didn't know what to do. That seldom happens to me; I loathe it.

I needed to cry, but no tears came. I wanted to say something--something appropriate, but no words came.

Mitsu's deformed hand touched me gently.

It is not your fault. It is not your fault," she repeated.

Jan Van Stolk is a retired physician living in BC and a former president of Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1995

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1995, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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