A Tale Worth Telling (Part 4)

This is a story as yet unpublished, which the author has offered to Ipoh Echo’s readership, with the hope to keep alive some eminent Perakeans’ history, hopes and memories for the younger generation.

*This is Part 4 of a 5-part series. 

A Tale Worth Telling (Part 4)

by Prema Arasu

“From 1941, we went through just over three years of the Japanese regime. The Chinese, for the most part, hated the Japanese given the historical tensions and conflict between China and Japan. On the other hand, most of the Indians didn’t mind the Japanese; in some ways, they felt that ‘when the British were here, we listened to them’. And my father said, ‘The British ran away, concerned for their own lives and safety, and they didn’t think of us and left us here alone. The Japanese have now come so we don’t have much choice but to follow the Japanese rule. We are not going to fight either the British or the Japanese. They are now the stronger force so continue studying, go to school in Penang.’ 

“Since my father insisted, I went back to school. The Japanese teachers actually were sent from Japan and they taught us at the Light Street Convent. During this time, I only had completed my Standard 7. I started studying Japanese, which I found to be a very musical and beautiful language. 

“I studied hard and passed the Japanese exam after two years and was qualified to become a Japanese school teacher. Remember I was just 17 then. I taught Japanese for one year before the war ended and the British came back. 

“During this time, while the Japanese were in Butterworth, there was a soldier; he was not an officer but a very nice man. His name was Aoyagi Masau-san. In Japanese, they say Mister at the end which is san

“One day by chance, he was passing and stopped at our house and said ‘Moshi moshi…Mizu,’ while he pointed at his mouth and looked very thirsty. We understood that he was asking for water and my father invited him to come in. We were frightened to let a Japanese soldier in but my father was kind.  After that, Aoyagi Masau-san returned to visit us often and grew to love our family and my mother’s Indian cooking.  He loved our fermented Idli rice cakes and Thosai pancakes and he said he had never eaten this in Japan. 

“The Chinese were not happy that he often came to our house and said, ‘Why are you all entertaining this Japanese fellow?’ And my father firmly responded, ‘Look, the British just left us and now the Japanese are here. We have to adjust to them being the rulers. Let them rule, they are stronger.’  My father took that attitude. 

Aoyagi Masau-san came often because he liked us very much and he spoke Japanese to us as he couldn’t speak English or Tamil. I found it difficult to understand him, and so I asked him to teach me to speak Japanese. So we started with greetings and he taught me to say “Ohayo gozaimasu, Konnichiwa, Konbanwa, and Oyasuminasai for Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening and Good night.” 

The Japanese words just flowed easily and effortlessly from Aunty’s lips. And she continued, “I then asked him how to say ‘school’ and he taught me ‘Gakkou’ and then ‘Sensei’ and ‘Seito’ for teacher and pupil. There were six of us children, 3 boys and 3 girls, but I spent the most time with him as I was so interested in learning Japanese. I was now learning Japanese at school but I learned more from conversing with him.” Aunty went on with several more phrases fondly remembering the melodious sounds of his language and all of the Japanese she had learned from him and at school and that she later taught to her students.

“Aoyagi Masau-san used to walk to our house from his barracks, the Kempeitai unit, which was near the sea. Our Chinese neighbors would stare and be scared to see him come. We would give him food but he couldn’t and wasn’t allowed to bring anything from his office. He was a very nice man, as far as we were concerned. He was always in his khaki-green uniform and cap. He didn’t carry a big gun but he did wear a small pistol. I was the only one who was closest to him because I went to Japanese school and knew and liked the language, as well as the culture and people from what I was learning. I didn’t associate any of this with the horrors of war. The Japanese were very polite. For instance, a man would keep standing if a woman was sitting, and I thought that was very polite. 

“He got along well with my mother too. We had an ural at home which is a stone grinder used by Tamils to grind rice into flour before it is then fermented as a batter to make Thosai pancakes. He saw my mother doing it and he would say, ‘Okaa-san, Mother, I can help,’ and she would say, ‘No, no, I will do it.’ But he would invariably take over and pound and grind whatever she needed. He would say to her, ‘If you can do, I can do also. You are a lady, surely I can do.’ He liked to help.

“He told us that his parents were in Tokyo and that he was keen to go back, but he was sent by the Army to Malaya. He was trained to be a soldier and had trained as a pilot as well.

“When the British came back, we lost contact with Aoyagi Masau-san. But before he left, he did come to our house and said, ‘Sayonara, I will come back to see you all.’ He also added, ‘You are part of my family.’”  

To be continued…


About Prema Arasu:

Author with Uncle and Aunty (Datuk and Datin Selvamany), circa 2017

Prema was formerly a student at the Ipoh Main Convent. She retired as a biomedical research scientist and professor from the U.S. academic system. She currently enjoys yoga, being out in nature, and doing short term projects related to science and global health.

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