A TALE OF TWO WIDOWS

Påle’ Eric Forbes, OFM Cap

Summer 2020

If stereotypes need be shattered, then when it applies to the Japanese Occupation of Guam (1941-1944), no better hammer could accomplish the task, perhaps, than the story of Nao Sawada and Riye Dejima.

If stereotypes need be shattered, then when it applies to the Japanese Occupation of Guam (1941-1944), no better hammer could accomplish the task, perhaps, than the story of Nao Sawada and Riye Dejima. The two women were almost duplicates of each other. Both were Japanese; both had married Japanese merchants who set up shop on Guam; both were widowed by the outbreak of war, continuing the businesses their husbands had started. But the similarities between the two women begin to fade after this.
Two different choices were made as the Stars and Stripes were lowered and the Rising Sun flown in their place. Should the Japanese residents of Guam, some having lived on the island for almost forty years, welcome with joy their homeland’s victory and support Japanese rule? Or should they live the remainder of the war avoiding anything that would antagonize the Chamorro community among whom they lived, and refrain from doing anything that may put them in danger if the Americans should return and reclaim the island? One Japanese widow chose the former, and the other chose the latter.
Nao Sawada became Japan’s biggest cheerleader on Guam while it ruled the island. So visible and vocal a supporter of Japanese rule was she that she was called Japan’s Fifth Column on Guam and the local Queen. She became a member of the Japanese Governor’s “kitchen cabinet,” an informal advisor. She formed and headed the Ladies Patriotic Society, made up of Japanese women new to Guam, usually the wives of Japanese employees of the Minseibu (or civil administration) or the Nanyo Kohatsu Kabushiki Kaisha, a Japanese economic development company.
Sawada also ran a club of sorts for Japanese officers, which also offered temporary sleeping quarters for new Japanese arrivals. She became a mother figure for many Japanese coming to the island for the first time. She coached them on what to do, and what not to do, so that they could convince the Chamorros of Guam to forget the United States and to look from now on only towards Japan.
But it was fear and resentment that Sawada mainly engendered in many Chamorros. Although she had personally assisted a handful of Chamorros for whom she had a liking, she was known to make reports to Japanese authorities if she overheard a pro-American remark or believed someone could be hiding a radio. Chamorros who had a reason to be afraid, such as those secretly assisting George Tweed, the American fugitive hiding from the Japanese, avoided being near Mrs. Sawada.
On the other hand, Riye Dejima walked a fine line during the Japanese Occupation designed to keep her from making any enemies on any side. Naturally, the Japanese authorities could assume that they had the support of Dejima, and she avoided anything that could suggest otherwise to those officials. But she also refrained from becoming the champion of Japanese supremacy as Mrs. Sawada had become. As long as there was war, it meant that the contest could go either way. If the Americans return, she could be denounced and be punished. Her destiny lay in Guam, and among the Chamorro people whose sympathies were with the United States and not Japan. She was careful not to toy carelessly with these facts.
Working in her store was a Japanese-Chamorro, Tomas Santos Tanaka, who was taking canned goods and other effects off the shelves and secretly bringing them to Tweed. Dejima knew it all along but turned a blind eye to it and even told Tanaka at one point to help himself to whatever he needed, being careful not to mention Tweed’s name. When she was put in the stockade after the American return, a Japanese yelled at her, “You supported Americans!” Tweed himself praised Mrs. Dejima as a hero who helped save his life.
Two different choices, and two different ends. Nao Sawada was never found after the war. Was she killed by a stray bullet? Or did she take her own life? Riye Dejima, however, was released from the stockade, her innocence confirmed by Chamorro voices. She retrieved a large amount of American dollars she had carefully wrapped and buried, an indication who she felt might have a fighting chance to win the war. With that money, she opened her business once again and lived the rest of her ninety-two years on Guam, where she is buried.
On her head stone is written, “I am at peace forever on this island I love and the people I treasure.” Whenever I hear someone is tempted to paint all the Japanese on Guam in World War II with the same brush, I always have Mrs. Dejima at the ready to erase the brush stroke.

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