Sister Antonieta Ada of the Institute of the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz at Maturana on Navy Hill summoned enough strength to go back in time and retell fragments of her past.
For someone who saw death and had been in the claws of death itself, to relive the experience was painful and heart-rending. Yet, silver-haired and congenial Sister Antonieta did not have a trace of bitterness as she opened up and liberally talked about her childhood during the pre-World War II days in Saipan.
The 74-year-old nun, who had just celebrated her birthday in April, was Kimiko Nishikawa to her Japanese family and assumed the name Antonieta Ada soon after the war. She recalled with gusto how she lived with the family of Juan Ada and Ana Cepeda, her adoptive parents.
During her childhood, Sister Antonieta remembers going home to two families: the Adas of Garapan and the Nishikawas of Laolao.
“I remember going to this house maybe two or three days a week and I would go to another house after that. I had two places then. At a young age, I just wondered who they were,” Sister Antonieta said as she tried to recall her fondest childhood memories.
Waxing nostalgic wasn’t that easy for her. Although she has troves of good memories to look back to, it felt like she was grappling each time as she went back to retrieve a memory or two.
Sharing with IL Magazine bits and pieces, she remarked, “My real parents were Japanese and the Adas were so fond of me. At that time, their youngest and remaining son was going to get married and they didn’t have small children then.”
Although she wasn’t formally adopted yet, Sister Antonieta said the Adas, who were friends with her father, approached her father and asked him if they could take Kimiko to live with them. Out of friendship and knowing the Adas full well, her father allowed them to take her.
Sister Antonieta clarified she may have had two families before, but both of them loved her. “Both families are like my real families. I could not say this is my real family because they love me more. They both gave me the same treatment.”
During kindergarten, she stayed with her Ada parents. Sr. Antonieta liked to learn new things. Just as every child her age she wanted to learn drawing, writing and singing.
Although she went to an all-Japanese kindergarten where she was taught Katakana and Hiragana---or Japanese writing along with reading and counting, she felt “I was Japanese only when I was at school. After school, I became Chamorro.”
She recalled while in kindergarten, little by little she began to realize that she was different from the rest of the Japanese students in her class. “We were about 25-30 students in a class-- all Japanese.”
“The Japanese children looked at me strangely every time my father (Ada) would take me to school. They teased me, calling me ‘Toming’ [Japanese in Chamorro].” The teasing, Sister Antonieta said, would happen during recess. “When they started teasing me-- toming, I would fight with them. Most of the time it was the boys who would tease me.”
Asked by IL Magazine how did she take the teasing every single time, Sister Antonieta laughed and quipped, ‘I fought with them. I liked to fight and I didn’t want to lose.”
Engaging in brawls most of the time, Sister Antonieta remembered her teacher would often call her Ada parents to school to pick her up. “Sometimes I finished the class ahead of everybody because my Ada father would pick me up.”
According to Sister Antonieta, her Ada father was an influential member of the community of his time. She said he was the alcalde [mayor] of the Chamorros and the Refalawash. She said, “Even the teachers, they looked up to him.”
For most of her early childhood, before she went to grade school, Sister Antonieta stayed and lived with the Ada family. Having adapted herself almost completely to the ways of her Chamorro family, Sister Antonieta claimed that she could speak better Chamorro than Japanese at that time.
However, she had to go back to her real family when she was about to enter grade school.
To be Japanese, Again!
Going to first grade required that she live with her Japanese family, whose tapioca farm was closer to her grade school in Chacha, in Kagman.
Born to a Japanese lawyer father and a farm manager mother on April 24, 1934, Sister Antonieta is the fifth child in a brood of six.
Egged on by IL Magazine to talk in detail about her Japanese family, Sister Antonieta said, “We were six: three boys and three girls. The girls were more advanced than the boys. It seems to me that my two older sisters were having good grades in school. The oldest sister even went to college.”
Furthermore, she shared that her father—whom she described as tall and slender— would do business in Garapan the entire week and would only return to their Laolao home mostly during weekends.
“My father seems to have been a lawyer because many people came to my father to defend them.” Most of the time, Sister Antonieta recalled, their father would be busy the entire week and they didn’t see him as often as they should. But, when he would come home, he would bring a box of candies or mochi for her.
Claiming that she’s a spitting image of her mother, Sister Antonieta described her mother as “hardworking” and “a little bit fat.” According to her, her mother was the manager of their tapioca farm in Laolao. She said her mother managed their farm where they made sengri or a major ingredient for a Japanese alcoholic drink from grated tapioca. She shared with IL Magazine that tapioca would be soaked in water overnight, then ground the following day and put in the sun to dry. Once it dried, the workers would gather the dried tapioca in sacks and stack them in a warehouse where trucks would pick them up once or twice a week to be delivered to a Garapan store.
War came to Saipan
For grade school, “I would often walk from our house to the school. We would go up to Chacha-- where the Catholic church is now-- used to be the school grounds.”
With each memory as fragile and as important as a yellowed, crackling piece of old document, Sister Antonieta labored on to summon the details.
“When the Americans came, I was in fourth or fifth grade. We had just finished division and we had just begun studying fractions. I remember the last day of school was when big trucks came to the school yard. Then we were told that we were being moved out because the soldiers would be using the school and we were at war with America,” Sister Antonieta clearly recalled.
She shared with IL Magazine what they had been told about the invading Americans prior to the arrival of the Japanese soldiers. “We had to hide and they were going to kill us!”
Gesticulating as if she were surrendering, with raised hands Sister Antonieta mimicked the fear they felt and what they were told to do once the Americans caught them. “When the soldiers see us, we should raise our hands and just obey.”
She mentioned to IL Magazine how she remembered that fear and panic pervaded the island at that time.
By the time she got home and recounted to her parents what happened at school, she said her parents were just silent because they knew what was happening. Cognizant of the war, her parents had already been preparing, as had all the other Japanese in their community.
For a time they hid in a small cave not far from their house. Just as the war in Saipan was beginning, she witnessed an “enemy” plane shot down to the sea like a smoldering ember.
With the war escalating, the family had to relocate.
Sister Antonieta remembered the last dinner they shared together as a family. In a wine ceremony over dinner, using “high language” Japanese terms that only those well versed in Japanese could understand, Sister Antonieta’s father left his instructions to his family.
As a little girl who understood little Japanese, especially the Japanese used in official ceremonies, she could only understand that her father was telling them to bid each other goodbye as they didn’t know when they would be together again.
“We all gathered at one place. My father called for a cup of sake and he spoke his last [words],” Sister Antonieta said with furrowed brows. Asked what she deduced from what her father said, she replied, “The way I understood it, we will now know when we are going to say goodbye. If the bakudang [bomb] (hits us), we will have no time to say goodbye.”
She added, her father offered a toast of goodbye to all of them and said, “This is the cup of wine and say goodbye. So, be good to one another and to others and do not be lazy. When somebody asks you to do things, do not be lazy.”
With that, sorrow engulfed them as they wept at the prospect of not seeing each other again. She said, “I felt so sad. My siblings were crying and so did I. We cried because we didn’t know when we’re going to see each other again.”
Preparing to hide in the jungles of Kagman, Sister Antonieta said each member of the Nishikawa family had things to bring. The oldest son had to carry the bag full of important family documents, money, and insurance. The oldest sisters and the next older brother carried provisions. As for Sister Antonieta, she could not bring her toy, but she had three shirts and a skirt.
Before heading out to the cave, her father said they had to split up. Asked for the reason, Sister Antonieta said, “If we were together and the bomb hits us, we would all be finished.” According to her, her father thought it best to separate into groups with the hope that they could still see each other again.
So, the first to leave was the group of her older siblings. Her parents, eldest son, she and youngest sibling comprised the second group. Unfortunately, rendezvousing in Talofofo did not materialize as the first group failed to show up. And they were never seen or heard from again.
But the other group carried on and reached a cave with many other Japanese seeking refuge. After staying in the cramped cave for one night, they heard a plane was heading their way and would bomb the place. True enough, just as the others heard the whirring propellers of bomber planes and shouts of “It’s coming!”, they all scampered to safety behind the rocks in the cave.
A loud thud was heard and the bomb exploded. As soon as dust had settled, Sister Antonieta said she realized that had been thrown out of the cave, but luckily she survived and was found by her family.
When nighttime came, they moved about the jungle in search of a hiding place. At daytime, they had to remain stationary and avoided making noises to evade getting caught or worse, killed.
Hiding in the thick foliage of tangan-tangan and other trees in the jungles, Sister Antonieta said they witnessed how the American Sherman tanks and Japanese tanks slugged it out at close range. Shuddering in fear, they could only freeze in total silence behind trees and rocks only to make their stealthy moves again at night to foray for food and places to hide.
Trying to remember all the details, Sister Antonieta would recount their struggles in the jungle as if she were a ten-year-old girl again. She said, “It seems to me that my father had been looking for caves and places to hide and where the sugarcane and breadfruit were located long before the war came. I think my father studied the place.”
And the sugarcane field was where her father was shot just as they were fetching rain water and replenishing food to be taken back to the cave where they last hid together as a family.
She remembered clearly the night her brother brought back to the cave her father who had been shot in the leg while they were out foraging for food and water. She said her brother told them that just as they were finding their way in the sugarcane fields, they made noise with the rustling of the sugarcane leaves and they were pelted with gunshots coming from the pitch-black darkness.
That fateful night turned out to be their last reunion. Suffering from gangrene, her father failed to live through the night. The following day a Japanese soldier came to help her brother bury him while her mother saw the futility of hiding in the caves and decided to return to their home in Laolao.
It was dusk again and they were running as fast as they could to reach their home as they followed the railroad tracks in the sugarcane plantations. Ambulating surreptitiously and swiftly along the tracks, they heard gunshots released into the air and the next thing they knew their mother had fallen on the ground. Her brother was hit too. Motionless, her mother appeared dead so she and her brother had to run as fast they could for their own lives, back to where they had come from. Stricken with panic and fear made more difficult by the feeling of the loss of a loved one, they lost each other in the chase to safer ground.
Muffling her sobs in the jungle, she heard voices of Japanese—Okinawan—women who upon discovering her and learning of her mother’s “death,” took her and let her join their group. Believing her mother to be dead and her brother couldn’t be found, Sister Antonieta was resigned to her fate of being with the group of Okinawan women who had found her, until she and her brother ran into each other again in the jungle.
Their reunion was brief. Just as it was getting even more difficult to get provisions and with the American soldiers patrolling the jungle each day ferreting out Japanese survivors and enticing them in Japanese with food, they decided to turn themselves in.
They were all hauled off in a truck teeming with Japanese nationals who were then taken to the Japanese section of Camp Susupe.
In an early statement she issued to the media of her war experience, Sister Antonieta learned from a cousin long after the war that her mother had been laying on the ground for days, but was found still alive by the American soldiers who took her to the Camp Susupe. She also discovered that her mother was then taken to a naval hospital in San Vicente and had been trying to contact Juan Ada to find her.
Her hopes of seeing what was left of her family reunited were dashed when her mother later died. But her mother’s efforts of making Juan Ada look for her paid off, as he found her in the Japanese portion of the camp and had her transferred to the Chamorro section.
With the Japanese law preventing non-Japanese from adopting Japanese males, Sister Antonieta’s brother had to be repatriated to Japan after the war making her the only surviving Nishikawa child to remain on Saipan.
According to Sister Antonieta, it was years later that she was able to regain contact with her long-lost brother in Japan. Their much-anticipated reunion was fraught with both sorrow and joy. They reveled in the fact that they survived the war yet they could not express their outpouring emotions due to language barrier. Sister Antonieta barely spoke Nihongo anymore and her brother could not speak English.
Journey to forgiveness
Neither harboring pain nor ill-feelings, Sister Antonieta was asked again if she ever bore hatred for the Americans whom she once held culpable for the death of her loved ones, she replied, “In the beginning, yes (I felt hatred for them who killed my parents.) Sooner or later, I overcame that. My Ada family helped me. Prayers helped me.”
Counting her blessings, Sister Antonieta talked about how God works in mysterious ways. She wondered why the Adas took her as their own and treated her like their own flesh and blood. “They had so much love for me.”
Oftentimes, she would ask God, of the six Nishikawa children, “Why me?”
Of all the goodness she felt from the Ada family who adopted her, Sister Antonieta expressed her appreciation for them. “I am thinking I was lucky to have been adopted by the Ada family. I had no blood connection with them, but still they raised me like their own.”
Surviving the horrors of war and outliving her other siblings, Sister Antonieta thought that God had a special plan for her. “It’s really amazing how the grace of God works. He really wanted me to live,” uttered Sister Antonieta who has been so thankful to God that she’s still alive to this day, how she cheated death several times especially in one of the caves where a shrapnel ricocheted and nearly tore through the side of her face.
Reflecting on the lessons of war, Sister Antonieta said, “War is awful, painful. We cried a lot of times.”
In a message not only for the people on island, but also to the people of the world, she encouraged everyone to “appreciate this peace—this peace among nations.”
She asks everyone to “love one another. “By loving one another,” she reasons, “we’ll have peace.”
Choosing between hatred or love, Sister Antonieta said there is no doubt that choosing love is the right path to take.
True enough, by sowing the seeds of love, she was able to weed out the hatred seeping through her heart. With love, she finally found her peace.