A picture taken on the morning of Aug 1, 1944, the day my father left for the war. (Photo courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto)

Mother's dressmaking shop in the ruins of war: Yohji Yamamoto (2)

My earliest memories began in a seaside town immediately after the war


On Oct. 3, 1943, as the Pacific War was becoming more intense each day, I was born to my father, Fumio Yamamoto and my mother, Fumi. My father owned a food wholesaler in Kabukicho, a district in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, that sold side dishes to department stores. My mother helped with the accounting and office work.

I was born in a hospital near Hanazono Shrine. A breech delivery and my large head made for a difficult birth. After the delivery, my mother ran a high fever and stayed in bed for about two weeks. My father named me Yohji. I do not know why. I recall later having difficulty writing the character for yoh in my penmanship class, as it is a complicated character with many strokes.

My father was a modern gentleman who looked like the very picture of the Taisho Romanticism aesthetic - the new culture and customs that flourished in the Taisho era. He was an amateur photographer. He loved using the Rolleicord, a German-made twin-lens reflex camera. Currently, this camera is buried in my father's grave instead of his remains.

The family wholesale business was doing well, and my parents led relatively prosperous lives.

However, by the time my father left for the war, Japan had already suffered a massive defeat at the Battle of the Philippine Sea against the U.S. The "absolute zone of national defense" had been pierced, and the main Japanese islands were exposed to air raids.

On the day of the Great Tokyo Air Raid, my mother, who was at our relatives' house in Sangenjaya, located in western Tokyo, put a futon over my head and we ran for our lives to the school, a shelter.

After the war, my mother reluctantly accepted my father's death and decided to raise me by herself without remarrying. The one job she could do while staying at home was dressmaking. I was sent to my mother's hometown in Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture, so she could attend Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo.

3 ri (12 kilometers) east of Mito, separated

Oarai - waves scatter like flowers on the wind

The picturesque beauty of Oarai, surrounded as it is by the sea, mountains and rivers, is captured in "Isobushi", one of the three major folk songs of Japan. There, looking out over the azure Pacific Ocean and cared for by my great grandmother and grandmother, I swam, fished and gathered shellfish along the Onuki coast and the banks of the Hinuma River until the sun was low in the sky.

My grandmother would carry me to and from the sea, the mountains and the rivers in a bamboo basket that would sway as she walked. My relatives and the neighbors doted on me. These days, like living in paradise, are the earliest memories of my childhood.

My mother would occasionally come to visit from Tokyo. My impression at the time was that she was a sophisticated, urban woman. A year or two before I started elementary school, my mother looked at me and said:

"Yohji, we're going back to Tokyo."

"Huh? No way! I'm always going to live in Oarai."

I remember crying aloud and resisting desperately, even though I knew my wish would not be granted.

My mother attended Bunka Fashion College, a dressmaking school that had existed long before the war started in the Taisho era. Many women went there to prepare for marriage, but right after the war many widows enrolled. The glass windows were blown out during the air raids, and instead they used thick paper to keep out the wind and rain.

My mother opened a small dressmaking shop in a row house in Kabukicho. She began working extremely hard as if possessed. She cut and sewed from early morning to late at night. She had no time to rest. She worked such that I was hesitant to disturb her.

It turned out that my paternal grandfather's second wife and my mother did not get along well. There should have been a larger plot of land nearby under my father's name, but the wife forced my mother and myself into that small row house.

After the war, my mother never remarried and raised her only son while running her dressmaking shop. Perhaps it was that she wanted to keep her faith in my father and to show the Yamamoto family, especially the second wife, that she could make it on her own.

It was not until spring 1977, when she finally had the financial resources, that she made a large donation to the temple with the family grave and separated my father's grave from those of the Yamamoto family.

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