YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Found in Translation : History: A Japanese diplomat's writings about Emperor Hirohito fill in some blanks in World War II records.


For Mariko Terasaki Miller, leafing through her father's diaries and looking at the pages of Japanese characters was a longtime ritual.

Miller and her mother, Gwen Harold Terasaki, could not read the writing, but they were content to study the simple ink sketches of mountain ranges and family photographs and to point out the only Japanese words they knew--their names.

Translation was out of the question.

Hidenari Terasaki, Miller's father, had been a Japanese diplomat and head of Western intelligence stationed in Washington when the United States entered World War II. The family was interned and sent to Japan six months later. The diaries were Hidenari Terasaki's personal account of the war years, and the women feared that translation might reveal sensitive political information or that his recollections might be too personal for even his family to read.

But in 1987, Gwen Terasaki fell ill and Miller, encouraged by her son Cole, started to contemplate translation. Three years later, Miller was finally able to read her father's journals, and she discovered that her family treasure was a missing link in 20th-Century history.

Among Hidenari Terasaki's poems, sketches and musings about his family is the only known record of Emperor Hirohito's opinions on what started the war. And the documents have added to the historical debate over whether the emperor could have intervened to prevent the fighting. (In interviews before his death in 1989, Hirohito said he was powerless to stop the conflict.)

"This diary is interesting to anyone curious about Japanese history and the 1,500-year-old Imperial system," said Gordon Berger, an Asian history professor at USC.

"It is in a very informal style, and one has the feeling of hearing the emperor, who was considered a supreme being, talk in his living room as he remembers the war."

Hidenari Terasaki spent the 10 years before that war immersing himself in American culture. He was a graduate student at Brown University. He met Gwen Harold in Washington in 1930 and married her the next year. Miller said her father loved the United States and was devastated by the outbreak of war and his family's subsequent exile. Miller, an only child, was 9 when the family arrived in Japan in 1942.

Soon after their arrival, Miller was taken out of grade school and hidden so she would not be conscripted to manufacture weapons. Gwen Terasaki's fingernails stopped growing because she was malnourished, making her fingertips bleed. Family pets were killed to save food. Miller and her parents suffered frostbite on their hands and feet. Hidenari Terasaki had several strokes, but he continued to write.

After the war, Hidenari Terasaki was Hirohito's interpreter and liaison for the Imperial Court, the Japanese government and Allied Occupation headquarters. He recorded the emperor's words before the war crime trials started at the end of 1946.

In 1949, Miller and her mother returned to Gwen Terasaki's birthplace in Johnson City, Tenn., to enroll Mariko in college. Gwen Terasaki's attempts to return to her ailing husband were thwarted by the outbreak of the Korean War, and he died in 1951.

It wasn't until 1958, when Gwen Terasaki was on a book tour in Tokyo for "Bridge to the Sun," an account of her family's war experience, that she collected her husband's diaries from her brother-in-law, Taira Terasaki.

For years, Gwen Terasaki kept the diaries in an engraved Chinese trunk in her Tennessee home. They were wrapped in two furoshikis, the cloth she placed around her husband's shoulders on chilly afternoons in Japan.

"We talked about (getting translations) all the time, my mother and I," said Miller, 58, from her home in Casper, Wyo., where she lives alone.

"I was just so busy being a mother to my four boys. But mother felt (the journals) were a part of my father and they belonged with her. Every time I would say let's do this or that, she would say, 'No, let's just keep them here.'

"My mother was the wife of a diplomat, and she was careful of not commenting on anything. (My father) could have written down something official that we would not have wanted to come out, and we assumed they (the diaries) were very private. . . . She belonged to another age where caution was her training. . . . The caution of my mother was just something I respected."

In the summer of 1986, Gwen Terasaki suffered a series of small strokes and moved into Miller's Wyoming house. Miller carried her father's diaries on the flight to Casper.

Two years later, Miller's son Cole, who lives in Los Angeles, provided the impetus to get the diaries translated.

"When I went home that Christmas," said Cole Miller, "I said, 'I want to find out what's in these.' Otherwise I'd never get to know (my grandfather). So my mother entrusted them to me. . . . I took them to ( one) I thought was the best in East Asian history."

That person was Gordon Berger, and he did the initial translations.

Los Angeles Times Articles