Lexington woman recalls Pearl Harbor, war from her childhood in Japan

In Japan, young Hinako Regier feared the worst

jwarren@herald-leader.comDecember 6, 2011 

Hinako Regier was 9 years old, living with her family in Osaka, Japan, when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. "I thought we were all going to die," she said. The war left her family financially ruined. Regier moved to the United States in 1957, and she said she has spent much of her life working for peace.


  • Kentucky Remembers Pearl Harbor

    For the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the Herald-Leader asked readers to share their memories of Dec. 7, 1941. We will feature many of those stories this week.

  • Coming Wednesday

    Personal accounts: For the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the Herald-Leader asked readers to share their memories of Dec. 7, 1941.

    Marking the day

    11:30 a.m.: Free showing of Twelve O'clock High, Kentucky Theater

    Noon: Luncheon honoring Pearl Harbor survivors, Oleika Shrine Temple, Southland Drive

    6-8 p.m.: Reception for World War II exhibit at the Lexington History Museum.

Hinako Regier was shocked, as millions of others were, when she first heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

But for her, it was different. It was her country that launched the attack.

Regier was 9 years old, living with her family near Osaka, Japan, when the announcement came. It was Dec. 8, 1941.

"I understood what was happening; I was old enough," she said. "I still remember the expression on my father's face. He was so grim and ashen. I thought we were all going to die."

Regier, 79, survived the war that followed. But her family, affluent before the conflict began, was devastated. Regier, horrified by what she saw, has spent much of her life working for the cause of peace. Now an American citizen living in Lexington, she continues to apologize for the attack that ignited the war.

At first, the war went well for Japan, its forces victorious in Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Burma, the Philippines, Sumatra, Wake Island. Japanese newspapers trumpeted the successes, never mentioning crimes that Japanese troops were committing, Regier said.

"They had stories about glorious victories, and how we were going to beat America and Britain," she said. "Japan was going to be the savior of Southeast Asia and unite all the countries there. 'Asia for the Asians' was the motto.

"But the atrocities the Japanese armies were doing in Nanking (China) and all that, we didn't have the slightest idea. Anything bad, we were never told."

Regier said the first public hint that the tide of war might be turning against Japan came in 1943, after Japanese forces were overwhelmed in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska.

Then, food and other supplies became scarce. The Japanese government began exhorting people to conserve and persevere for the "honor of Emperor Hirohito," she said.

"Older students, anybody over 15, were sent to work in factories," Regier said. "My school had a big interior courtyard, and part of it was dug up so that we could plant rice to show how self-sufficient we could be."

In 1945, waves of B-29 bombers began nightly raids on Japan, dropping incendiary bombs that created firestorms and leveled entire cities. One such attack destroyed Regier's school.

"They had placed sewing machines in some of the rooms, and in the afternoons we were supposed to sew buttons and pockets for soldiers' uniforms. The morning after my school was destroyed, I saw those sewing machines on the ground like black tombstones. Everything else had burned, but the sewing machines survived."

Regier said her own home was destroyed in another fire attack on the night before the world's first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Japan surrendered a few days later.

"I remember seeing pictures of people crying," she said. "But I was glad that it was all over ... and so mad at the grown-ups for the stupidity of going to war. After that, I became active in peace movements."

With Japan in ruins and under American occupation, Regier's family suffered. Her father, who was a sales director for a large locomotive manufacturing company before the war, opened a small candy shop to make ends meet.

"My grandmother gradually sold off all her possessions," Regier said. "For a while, we lived like an onion, slowly shedding each of its layers.

"My cousin went to a school that taught English and became an interpreter at Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo. She was sort of my role model, so I studied English very hard."

Regier came to the United States in 1957 to attend college. Two years later, she met and married a Methodist minister who had been a conscientious objector during the war. She became an American citizen in 1963, and she moved to Lexington in the 1980s to work for Toyota.

One day about 20 years ago, Regier heard that some Pearl Harbor survivors were having a meeting across town, and she went there.

"I met these gentleman and apologized for what happened," she said. "Ever since I came to the States, I felt like I was a goodwill ambassador for Japan. Anytime I had a chance to talk to a church group or any group, I went and told about my experiences and how I wished there was no war."

Regier's husband died about 10 years ago, and she has since remarried. Retired from Toyota, she remembers Pearl Harbor Day each year, and she continues to speak out for peace.

"I think my life accomplishment was that I studied English, which allowed me to get a scholarship and come to the United States. I feel like I've contributed to America in some small way."

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397 Ext. 3255.

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