My Life Story by Iseko Williams
Background to this story
Iseko Jenny Williams kept an occasional memoir of her life in Japan and Australia. Iseko’s interviewer and biographer, Hiromi Ogata, who interviewed her from August to September 2018, published the story of her life as 伊勢子ウイリアムスの自分史: Iseko uiriamusu no jibunnshi (My Life Story). The Japanese original was translated into English by Ms Ayako Takada and Dr Yuri Furuno. The following is an abridged version for the Nikkei Australian story series.
My maiden name was Iwasaki Iseko and I was born on the 29th September, 1921. I was the third female child to be born to my parents in Kurodori, in the Kawakami district of Okayama Prefecture. I had eight siblings, but none of them are alive now.
My father worked in the timber industry in America for two years and sent his earnings back to Japan every month. While he was there, he took night-school English classes. Later, in Japan, my father worked for a marble company and when foreign traders came to buy marble my father spoke to them in English. Maybe because of that I became interested in the language. So I later studied very hard at it in my high school days.
My mother was small-built, but very pretty, and she worked very hard. The house we lived in had seven rooms with a thatched roof. She used to collect night soil from the cesspool and used it for the field. She was not from a farming background, but from a fishing family, and she had to learn how to grow vegetables from her neighbour. She used to get up very early, and she told me to become strong.
As a child I had to study very hard, but I also worked growing vegetables. We tried our best, even though things didn’t always go our way. My school teacher used to tell me: “Even though you are very sad, don’t get defeated by it”. But we children in the village also played games and it was fun, skipping, racing, tossing beanbags (otedama) and so on There were about ten of us and there were lots of open spaces for us to run around.
I remember going to school with an apron on, a white one. I always came third in the class, but just one time I came first. I was really happy thinking “Hooray, I finally did it!’. At night, when I was studying hard at my desk, my brothers Tomo and Teru interrupted me by saying, “You can study and go to school, while we are working to support you.” They would tease me by taking away my pencils and rubber.
My sister Tai was a nurse, so I decided to become one too. It would give me an independent income, and I could support myself. After the fourth year of primary school, I passed an exam to be a trainee. When the war came I wanted to help my country, but before I had a chance to do so, Japan itself became a battlefield. Bombs were dropped from airplanes, so everybody wore padded headgear for protection. It was horrifying, as we did not know when the bombardment would start. We all went to hide in the air-raid shelters many times.
Iseko worked as a nurse throughout the war, and in 1945 she was working near Hiroshima. On August the 6th, she was visiting her family home in Okayama when the atomic bomb was dropped at 8.15 a.m.
There was a strong flash of light and then there was a long rumbling sound that we had never heard before. We could see a very black cloud swirling up in the sky. There was a radio broadcast saying an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima City. We didn’t understand what that really meant.
After Japan’s surrender and once the Occupation was established, Iseko worked with a group of nurses caring for 200 Japanese ex-combat engineers who were destroying military facilities under the direction of the occupying forces. It was here that she met Bob Williams, her future husband:
Bob was a Health Officer and he was a truly kind person. He was great with everyone. When Bob came to Japan he bought himself books to study Japanese. He was also asked to teach English and he became a very popular teacher. One day there was a notebook on his desk that he forgot to take home. When I looked inside notebook, I saw that he was single. He was 41 years old, but because of his grey hair, he looked about 60. However, he was youthful and energetic and he was a truly sweet and romantic guy for me. Bob patiently proposed to me for over four years. He said, “Other Japanese girls are getting married to Australian soldiers. Why is your answer ‘no’?” I replied “I like you, but your country is still under the White Australian Policy.” Bob said “Ah, you’re right.” Australian troops would go home and their Japanese wives were left behind with their children. Grandmothers were holding grandchildren with blue eyes. Bob didn’t give up and he used to bring fresh tuna to my mother, which was very expensive then. My mother then said to me “Iseko, everyone says it will be a lot more trouble if you stay at home as an ‘old miss’, so you marry that person”. Finally I said yes and within two weeks we decided we would have a wedding ceremony at the church in Hiro.
After the Occupation ended Bob was returned to Australia with his Army group, and because they were gone, I lost my job. My husband applied to the Australian Immigration office and I received a document from the government that said I was welcome. I was so happy! On the 1st June, 1955, I departed from Kobe Port to Australia. My two elder brothers came to farewell me. As the ship left they shouted their farewells to me from the dock. My last thought was, “When will I be able to come back to Japan?” Someone said to me, “There are many relatives sadly saying farewell, but you are smiling. Why aren’t you crying?” I explained, “We haven’t seen our husbands for months and years and they are waiting for us! That’s why I can’t stop smiling!”
When we arrived in Sydney, Bob came and met me. We went to places like Sydney Zoo to see kangaroos and koalas. After that, we went to a hotel where I met Bob’s Sydney relatives. The next day we took the train to Cooroy on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland where Bob’s family lived.
Our home was close to Coopers Plains Primary School. The land was divided into ¾ acre blocks, and the train ran next to our home. There were 81 trains a day. It was so noisy, but after a while I didn’t even notice it.
We were called Returned Soldiers’ Wives. About twenty of us made a club and we gathered with our children at the Coopers Plains RSL. Everyone was nice and we did things like visiting the Museum and playing with the children. I didn’t know much about Australia, so I followed what they did. Back then, we went to Church every Sunday.
When I was 32, I gave birth to our son Gordon. Bob’s mother, my mother in-law, was a midwife. She was such a nice person, and when Gordon was born, she came and visited us the very next day from Gympie. She came to our place every three months to stay for a couple of weeks. Gordon was a happy child and Bob was truly proud of him. He was the top student in class, you see. One day, Gordon said to me, “I want to be a doctor”. I replied “You have to be Number One in class”. He asked, “So, how many points do I need to get?” I said “95 points out of 100”. Every year from then on, he had 95 points out of 100! The night before Gordon was due to sit the entrance exam for Medicine he had a car accident and couldn’t complete the exam. That’s why he became a scientist instead.
Gordon doesn’t know Japanese at all. I didn’t wish to teach him Japanese because I wanted to raise him as a local child. I don’t think I was lonely because of not being able to communicate with him in Japanese. Because I had learnt English in Japan, I was not worried when I came here, but I felt I had to improve my English, so I studied via Distance Education through an immigration program where migrants were taught English for free for three months. Later I worked as a nurse at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.
Bob passed away when he was 84. After I went into a care facility, in 2016 I developed a serious infection in my leg and they told me that they needed to amputate to 15 centimetres above the knee to save my life. I was a bit sad, but it was sewed neatly and I am lucky I didn’t die. I turned 97 on 29th September . I reflect to myself: “I truly did live well. I, who was a poor child.”
Once before when I went back to Japan, I paid a visit to my family grave. The cemetery was located on high ground through a temple gate. The monk of the temple told me, “You go over the top of the hill, and the white one is your family tomb.” My mother is there with my father.
Iseko lives in an aged care facility in Brisbane. She celebrated her 99th birthday in September 2020 on Zoom with members of Wahaha no kai (group for senior support in Japanese language) which she is a member of.