My Japan

Audrey Sansbury Talks

Audrey Sansbury Talks on Japan, her family and her book, A Tale of Two Japans: Ten Years to Pearl Harbor

Cover of A Tale of Two Japans.

Cover of A Tale of Two Japans.

And Japan, I thought, I shall go back to Japan. So begins Audrey’s book.

Since leaving the country of her birth, as war approached in 1941, Audrey has never let the faint memories of her childhood fade. Author of A Tale of Two Japans: Ten Years to Pearl Harbor and a long-time supporter of the Sainsbury Institute, she has woven together a story from her memories, along with a wealth of letters, reports and diaries of her family and friends, to revisit the Japan she so loved. Yet her family’s time in the country was during one of the darkest periods in Japanese history, from its invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Audrey was born in Japan in 1936 to an English theologian and his wife, and her family were among the few westerners who witnessed Japan change from a peaceful nation to an ambitious militaristic one that would bring destruction on its enemies and on itself. While Japan was becoming a threatening force of global concern, the country was still home to the Sansburys, and they had many kind friends, some of whom felt like their extended family. At last they were forced to leave the country in May 1941 on the Hie Maru, the last Japanese ship to cross the Pacific before the outbreak of war, to start a new life in Canada. Audrey celebrated her fifth birthday aboard the ship.

Kenneth Sansbury and his wife.

Kenneth Sansbury and his wife.

It was not until 1990, some fifty years later, that Audrey set foot again on the soil of her homeland. And it was another twenty years before she completed A Tale of Two Japans. It took all this time, for hers has been a long and personal journey. ‘Japan was the only place we were together as a family’ she says, for what ensued in Canada were further losses. They had lost their home and livelihood and soon after they arrived in Canada their father left to serve with the Canadian Air Force in England. More difficult still, they now had to adjust to a culture where Japan was the enemy and talk of the Japanese was always of their cruelty. ‘It was all too much. I had to bury everything. It was only in adult life that I could start thinking and talking again about Japan.’

Their first house in Japan in the village of Numazu.

Their first house in Japan in the village of Numazu.

It is this sense of loss that frames the book, as Audrey reflects on what it was like to live in Japan during a very turbulent time through the experience of her parents, who always loved this island nation. Her parents first set sail for Japan on the SS Naldera in April 1932 and settled initially in Numazu in Shizuoka prefecture. The narrative gives a picture of what daily life was like in 1930s seaside town, from earthquakes and typhoons to the annual round of festivals, and what life was like in the summer resort of Karuizawa with western indulgences such as golf and tennis and delicacies like cheese. Despite the peaceful aspect of life, however, the undercurrent of military might clawing its way to the surface can be felt throughout.
Audrey’s father, Kenneth Sansbury, was a lecturer at the Shingakuin theological college for aspiring Japanese priests and chaplain at the English church in Tokyo. From 1938-1941 he was also chaplain to the British Embassy. His many letters and reports reflect his understanding of the socio-political climate in Japan. For instance on 26 February 1936 there was an incident, which the Emperor decried as mutiny, where some 1500 junior military officers occupied the area round the Imperial Palace and assassinated senior statesmen in anger at an attempt to weaken the revolutionary faction in the army. Her father wrote in his report:

Audrey and her family.

Audrey and her family.

‘The year 1936 will go down to Japanese history as one of the critical years in the life of the nation. The long continued depression in the agricultural community, the sense of isolation in the world and the extremely rapid growth population were at the back of what has come to be known as the “Incident of February 26th”.’

He saw how the government forced silence on its people and sent its young men to the front line in Korea, Manchuria and China to unleash brutality. He saw the government’s attacks on churches and its suspicions of Japanese Christians as spies. Yet he never lost faith in the ordinary people of Japan. In his final report he sums up his feelings after most of the ten years spent in the country. He expresses thankfulness for the opportunity to serve ‘in a land so beautiful, among a people so naturally kind and courteous’, anger that ‘a people so naturally kind and hospitable should have been led by military leaders with an unbounded lust for power into the present pass’ and ends: ‘it is indeed a sad day for those who have admired Japan’s fine achievements to see the disastrous course she is now following.’

While the Sansbury’s time in Japan as a family ended in May 1941, Audrey’s journey continues today. Her book was published in England in 2010. Now it has been translated into Japanese by Professor Matsudaira Nobuhisa of Rikkyo University. The Shingakuin, where her father taught, was once the university’s theological department, but was bombed in the war as was the Sansburys’ own house. Despite Audrey’s apprehension that her book would be difficult for Japanese readers, as relating to a sensitive period into her past, it has been welcomed by some as providing a rare glimpse into Japan’s immediate pre-war years. She is going to Japan again this year to visit places and meet people connected with the book, and will even meet a former student of her father’s who is now a hundred years old. For Audrey Japan will always remain her childhood home where her story continues to grow.

Audrey Sansbury Talks’ book A Tale of Two Japans is published by Book Guild Publishing. To purchase a copy (£8.99) please contact the Norwich Cathedral shop (01603 218323).