At first, I was overwhelmed by the numbers, but later I became more numb to them. Some 4.5 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19 and 150,000 have died. What could I do? I grew used to it and lost empathy.
I open the newspaper, and my eyes happen to stop on the obituaries. This or that person “lost the fight against the virus.” I’ve seen many announcements like these since spring. Some people have survived the war, and some have been aiming for a new world from a foreign land. I think about the eras I imagine they have lived through.
It was the beginning of May when, through her obituary in the U.S. newspapers, I “met” Motoko Fujishiro Huthwaite, a Japanese American woman who fell victim to COVID-19 at age 92.
She was the last survivor of the “Monuments Women.” That was what the article said.
During World War II, American and British troops formed a unit to protect art and cultural assets and also to retrieve those looted by the Nazis. Researchers, curators and art dealers were involved, and they were called Monuments Men. A movie was made afterward based on their service, and in Japan, it was even performed in theaters. Twenty-seven women, called the Monuments Women, supported troops as clerks, collaborators and interpreters.
Even in Japan immediately after the war, a team was formed with George Stout, who served at the European front, at the center. The team worked as a division (the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section) in the General Headquarters for the Allied Powers. Fujishiro worked with that team as a typist for reporting documents.
Robert Edsel, the chairman of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, which is based in Dallas and honors the troop’s achievements, says that despite her young age, Fujishiro had already experienced a turbulent life, like a Hollywood movie.
She was born in Boston to Japanese parents. Her father was a dentist who taught at Harvard, and her home was a salon where Japanese people and American researchers on Asia congregated.
However, everything changed when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor. Anti-Japanese sentiment forced her to leave with her mother and return to Japan. Her father, who was detained as a foreign enemy, was also later deported back to Japan.
After the war, when Fujishiro was living in Tokyo, Langdon Warner, a researcher of East Asian art and a former student of Okakura Tenshin, called on her. He had been invited to serve as an adviser to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section at General Headquarters, and before the war, he had been a frequent attendee of her family’s salon.
She returned to America later and chose the path of an educator. Five years ago, Edsel sought her out in the Detroit suburbs. “This former educator had not lost her attention to detail, as she had her journals and photographs from the war years neatly assembled on the kitchen table, a temporary classroom waiting for the student to arrive,” he recalled.
That year, Fujishiro and her colleagues were awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal. Rihoko Ueno, an archivist at the Smithsonian Institution and co-curator of an exhibition on the Monuments Men, also attended the ceremony. She remembers Fujishiro’s elegant appearance upon receiving the medal.
In addition to protecting art, shrines and temples from occupying forces, the mission of the Monuments Men was also to pave the way for cultural assets to be made public at the source, not removed from their own premises (which had become something of a rarity by then), and to make them more accessible to the Japanese people. As Ueno puts it, they focused efforts on democratizing art.
According to Dr. Nassrine Azimi, the former head of the Hiroshima Office for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research who has written a book about their work, the Monuments Men found that cultural heritage could be a source of dignity and pride for people damaged by war. It is regrettable that the achievements that led to the success of postwar governance was not utilized in war and occupation policies in the Middle East, which America was also involved in.
Fujishiro also joined the all-women group “Raging Grannies’ and continued to raise her voice against war and nuclearization. She was angry at Japan’s surprise attack and also spoke about resentment of the U.S. military dropping bombs on citizens. University Professor Tim Moran, whom she had been close with into old age, recalls that her desire for peace was particularly strong.
It’s people who make history, not numbers. The stories that each and every person has told are more eloquent than any number.
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