By Jenn Doane
SPECIAL TO THE NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
On June 27, 2020, my dear Obaachan (grandmother), Yoneko Mochizuki, will be turning a cool 100 years old. She will become a centenarian—a title reserved for less than 1% of the world’s population, and a milestone that most of us can only dream of reaching.
Her birthday comes at an unprecedented time—in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, as well as during arguably one of the world’s largest social justice movements. Circumstances are such that our family will be unable to throw the sensational centenarian birthday bash we had been anticipating and ideating over the past few years. However, as one way to honor her in lieu of a huge in-person celebration, we are hoping to share some bits and pieces of her incredible journey to turning 100 years old— a story of independence, perseverance, and grit—qualities inextricably linked to her longevity.
Yoneko was born in 1920 in San Francisco to owners of a music shop in Japantown. In 1925, her mother moved her and her older brother back to their hometown of Nagasaki, Japan in order to receive a Japanese education, with the hopes of one day returning to the United States. Her father abandoned them around this time, and her mother became a single parent, supporting their family of three on her seamstress wages and some additional support from friends and family.
After graduating from high school, Yoneko immediately went to work at the Mitsubishi Shipyards reading blueprints, where it is speculated that they were developing plans for the World War II battleship “Musashi.” Yoneko proudly worked as one of only two women among over 250 men in their division.
In the summer of 1945, two weeks before the atomic bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, Yoneko and her family were fortuitously given a tip from a trusted friend to pack their belongings and head to the countryside. They took shelter with a family friend who lived on a farm roughly 10 miles from the city center.
Yoneko has vivid memories of the day the bomb dropped. It was a warm summer day when she noticed an irregular flash of light while doing laundry in the house. She ran outside and witnessed a miles-high mushroom cloud sprouting up over the city in the distance. She remembers being summoned to the local train station the following day to help the injured and dying—those who could were crying for water and begging to be shielded from the hot sun. There was black rain that evening, and the city continued to smoke for days.
In the months following the atomic bombing, supplies were scarce (toilet paper was a luxury), and Yoneko recalls sweet potatoes growing to the size of watermelons, likely due to the radiation. Food shortages left them no other choice but to eat whatever produce they could acquire.
Move to the United States
Yoneko was fortunate to land a coveted role as a housekeeper for a wealthy American family living in Nagasaki, and credits her dual citizenship for playing a part in this. When the family decided to relocate back to Seattle, they offered Yoneko the opportunity to come along to help with child care. In her hopes to learn English (which would increase her job prospects), she jumped at the opportunity. Her plan was to send money home to continue supporting her family and eventually return to Japan.
In Seattle, Yoneko went on to work for various families doing housework and child care, and took English classes in the evenings, all while sending half her income to her family back in Nagasaki. She eventually found steady work at a grocery store bakery, which led to her long-term career as a cake decorator. She continued to financially support her family in Japan, and eventually brought her mother to the United States to care for her in her old age.
Yoneko retired from the baking industry in 1980 and though it marked the beginning of a new chapter for her, she continues with her active lifestyle and her never-ending pursuit to learn, stay physically active, and socialize. She learned how to golf in her 70s, completed her first half marathon walk in her 80s (most recent half marathon completed at age 95), and volunteered at an adult day care program well into her 90s. Throughout her retirement, she has also been able to flex her artistic muscles through water color, acrylic painting, and silk screening, and has been revered for her culinary expertise—keeping up a yearly tradition of preparing and distributing hundreds of Christmas cookies to family, friends, and neighbors.
Secrets to longevity
Yoneko was raised by a single mother, financially supported her family from an early age, and has witnessed and endured some of history’s most horrific and unprecedented events. Her determination to create a better life for her family and for herself demonstrates her selflessness and grit, which has ultimately defined her character and has guided her through a century of life. Though her longevity can observably be tied to maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise, what sets her apart is her continued desire to learn, to grow, and to give. We’re all looking forward to what the next century brings for her— or rather, what she will bring to the next century.
Happy Birthday, Obaachan.
Jenn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.