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Shibaraku: Experiencing World War II in Japan

Updated on February 20, 2020
Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle's journalism experience in college led her into writing feature stories and human interest articles for several newspapers.

Shibaraku is available on Amazon or from the publisher, Outskirts Press, Inc.
Shibaraku is available on Amazon or from the publisher, Outskirts Press, Inc.

The Early Years

Author, Lucille Apcar, can still visualize details of her grandmother's Victorian style house where she grew up in prewar Japan.

She remembers the carefully tended outdoor gardens, the turret room with it's lush potted ferns and the broad wooden banister that she and her siblings used for speedy transit to the lower floor .

"Shibaraku - Memories of Japan 1926-1946" published by Outskirts Press, recalls the author's happy childhood in Japan and the contrast of that time to her family's subsequent struggle to live through the war years.

In the early 1900s her Armenian grandparents started a prosperous import/export business in Japan. At one time, at least six company cargo ships traded in antiques, fine art, and quality goods from around the world.

Diana Agebeg Apcar

The author's grandmother, Diana Agebeg Apcar ran the  import/export business  after her husband passed away. She also was also a humanitarian, writer  and the first woman to enter diplomatic service as Consul for the Republic of Armenia to Japan.
The author's grandmother, Diana Agebeg Apcar ran the import/export business after her husband passed away. She also was also a humanitarian, writer and the first woman to enter diplomatic service as Consul for the Republic of Armenia to Japan. | Source

The Good Years

There were servants, social gatherings, lots of books, music lessons, and occasional excursions to the nearby colorful markets. The elegant home stood on a bluff overlooking the harbor at Yokohama, with its park-like waterfront.

Neighbors in their international community were in business or diplomatic service. Children attended a convent schools where the local priest skated across polished hardwood floors in his protective shoe coverings, much to the dismay of the teaching sisters who hoped he would set a better example.

Picnic outings to the countryside and visits to the seashore separated days of serious study in the steadfastly regimented school, where Apcar admits she had a reputation as a bit of a mischief maker.

Life Changes

"My passion was music," she says, and she still enjoys her piano . "I was also the bookworm of the family. Still am, but I hated math."

She and her brothers and sisters were taught certain subjects in French, others in English or Japanese.

But all of that was before the war.

Nationalistic fervor began to grow in the island nation during those years. The agreeable life the family had known in earlier times, began to slip away as their export and shipping business went into steep decline.

Things changed drastically in December, 1941. Within hours of the Pearl Harbor attack, her father and scores of other non-Japanese men were imprisoned.

Homes were ransacked. Wives and children were left to fend for themselves. Personal restrictions were imposed on anyone who was suspected of opposing Japan's nationalistic cause. Food medicine and other necessities were rationed, especially for the foreigners.

Without a Country

Many non-Japanese families returned to their own countries, but the Apcars had no country of their own.

Armenia, their ancestral home, no longer exited as a political entity, after the Turkish genocide and annexation by the USSR.

Their family, like other surviving Armenians, had fled their decimated country to live in countries like Burma and India many years before.

Even so, they had clung to the traditions of their homeland, retaining their Christian religion, their devotion to family, their predisposition for hard work, and their determination to survive.

The Outcasts

By August 1943, Apcar's father was released from jail to be relocated with his family and other non-Japanese residents to a hilly, isolated region, about 100 miles north of Tokyo.

Restricted to an area called Karuizawa, they were among Danes, White Russians, Norwegians, Finns and others who were caught in what Apcar describes as "a kind of limbo".

By nationality they were not exactly enemies, and not quite neutrals in the global conflict. They were isolated and almost forgotten in an area designated for foreigners, some of whom had been their former neighbors.

Most, including the Apcar family, were only allowed to go in and out of the village by strictly regulated permits.

Japanese authorities forbade the gathering of wood for fuel or even the killing of a pigeon for food. Everyone dealt with plagues of crickets and rats.

Winter brought below zero temperatures and several feet of snow mixed with the grimy lava ash of a nearby erupting volcano.


Even newsprint to use as toilet paper or for stuffing worn out boots, was scarce. Water needed to be hauled in and was only available by inching down a treacherous ravine, and climbing back up with heavy buckets. Her father was severely injured in a fall during one of these excursions.

At first they were provided with a meager ration of oatmeal. They ignored the accompanying worms.

Sometimes there was one slice of bread for the day, but finally there was almost nothing to eat but a little cabbage, without even salt to season it.

The End of War

Surviving the miserable conditions with little food or fuel, minimum shelter and no medical attention, the family's health was painfully damaged. They suffered sickness and chronic sores because of malnutrition. Despite the hardships and deprivation, Apcar says that those from "enemy nations" in the internment camps were in even worse shape, by the war's end.

Finally, in August 1945, rumors of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki reached the remote area where the family lived. A few days later an announcement was circulated that Japan had finally surrendered.

Apcar believes that the atom bombs certainly saved her family as well as many others. If the Emperor had not been convinced to surrender when he did, they would not have survived another hard winter. The family celebrated by committing an illegal act --they cooked a chicken.

One of the hard realities of the war's aftermath was learning that their house, along with most other homes, businesses, and public buildings in Yokohama did not survive the fire bombing. "In one way, I suppose we were lucky that we were not allowed to stay." says Apcar, recalling the horrible destruction of the once beautiful city.

Author, Lucille Apcar with a piece of silver that belonged to her beloved grandmother.
Author, Lucille Apcar with a piece of silver that belonged to her beloved grandmother. | Source

A New Country

The Apcar family eventually came to the U.S. and settled in the San Francisco Bay area. Apcar and a friend formed a tour and travel agency. She spent 35 years guiding tours throughout the U.S. and Asia. Her personal travels covered most of the rest of the world, as well.

She became familiar with the Sierra foothills while escorting tours to Yosemite. She liked the area so much, she bought a home where she still lives. She has been active in the local Master Gardeners club and keeps up with community affairs in the small historic town .

Getting involved in a freelance writers group, she found great encouragement to complete her unique memoir. The group members were amazed at Apcar's ability to to recall details of the devastation that her family lived through, and said the group found her story to be both unique and captivating.

She has also published an earlier book transcribed from her grandmother's manuscripts. It is a collection of short stories from the Armenian culture.

Apcar describes herself as "a tough, opinionated old dame, somewhat crabby at times," though her elegant manner and genuine laugh seem to belie that image. She is not shy about expressing ideas that come from experience.

While she has several fond recollections of her early years, Apcar says it was hard to revisit the horrible experiences her family survived during World War II.

"The thought that going to war is a glorious ideal, is wrong . It's mean and cruel, disrupting homes and lives." she says, "Most people have no idea what war is, it is no fun. The people who suffer most are NOT the ones who deserve it."

She speaks with the conviction of someone who has been there.


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