e to a serious shortage of gasoline, the use of wood gas generators for public transport was encouraged in Japan before, during and just after WWII. According to the burning condition, the system was only able to generate 10 – 45 hp.
Going down south on a wide main road Route 206,
only few people would notice a small Ojizō-sama,
at the side of the road.
Michio Onizuka was born in Kagoshima Prefecture on the 20th of March, 1926. He had an elder sister and a younger brother. His father was often ill and his mother did sewing to top up the family income. Michio was weak and often ill when he was very young. At age two, he nearly died of pneumonia. His sister Keiko, then aged six, remembered that her parents repeatedly applied poultice on Michio’s chest, determined not to let him die.
In primary school, he became healthier and grew into a quiet but loving, good-natured boy. He loved singing and would not stop smiling even when he was being told off. Leaving compulsory education at the age of fifteen in March 1941, he started working in a factory. The Empire of Japan had already invaded China. Then in December, the Pacific War broke out. Everything became rationed and scarce. As Michio’s factory was an arsenal, he was sometimes given extra food. Despite being told to do so, he would not consume it by himself and always shared it with his family and neighbours. His father died in 1943. As his elder sister had married and left home, Michio was to provide for the family.
After losing his classmate who perished as a Kamikaze pilot, Michio became eager to become a soldier himself, but was rejected for his mild hearing impairment. He cried in deep disappointment, but his mother was grateful for the rejection as she could not bear the thought of losing Michio as well.
After the war, Michio got a job at a bus company in Nagasaki. It was because his brother-in-law was working as a bus driver and he invited Michio to join him. Living in a tiny room above the local office, Michio’s new life away from his family started. As a conductor, he rode a bus which made a round trip a day between Ōseto and Nagasaki. Due to the gasoline shortage, the bus was powered by a wood gas generator, which meant that he had to burn charcoal hours before the departure and adjust the burning. During the journey, the engine could get into difficulty or even stop and he had to quickly take care of the burning. Because of its weak horsepower, going uphill was particularly difficult. It was not a rare sight that passengers got off the bus and pushed it in order to help it go up a slope.
The main road through Uchizaka does not look steep nowadays, but it was a different story before the cut was made. In Michio’s days the road at Uchizaka Pass was narrow, winding and steep with a cliff of over 20m on one side. Therefore drivers used to call the slope “The Hellish Slope”. The name of Uchi-zaka (Whip-slope) originated from the fact that people had to whip their horses and cows harder there as the steepness scared and slowed them down.
On the 1st of September 1947, Michio’s bus left Ōseto at 8AM. Only one service in the morning and afternoon, the small bus was full with about 30 passengers who were going far to the black market for food, old and young who had been exposed to radiation in the atomic bombing going to the hospital, etc. The bus had to leave some people behind as there was no more room. At around 10AM, the bus reached Uchizaka Pass and started ascending slowly at a walking pace. With the peak of the pass approaching, everyone was relieved that they were spared of pushing the bus.
All of a sudden, there was a loud noise under the bus. The bus started to move backwards. The shaft had broken. The driver braked, but in no avail. The driver put the gear into forward, but the gear itself was broken too.
In panic, the driver shouted, “Michio, get off and wedge the tyre!” Michio jumped off, picked up big stones and sticks and threw them under the tyres, but the bus full of people easily went over them and would not even slow down. It seemed that nothing could save the bus from falling off the cliff…
Suddenly the bus came to a halt, to everyone’s amazement and relief. But the conductor did not return. “What is he doing?” Tut-tutting, the puzzled driver disembarked – only to discover Michio crushed under the tyre. “Oh my gosh!!” Hearing the driver scream, the passengers came out of the bus and gasped at the sight.
A man on a bicycle rushed to Togitsu Office of the bus company to raise the alarm. Sadasuke Takamine jumped into a truck and hurried to the scene. The bus driver, completely pale and in tears, was trying to lift the bus with a jack. Eventually releasing Michio from under the bus, they put him on the truck. He was barely alive. There were marks of tyres on his back and legs, but his front was clean.
Frustrated by the slow speed of the wood/gas generated truck, Takamine leaned over Michio in an attempt to block the scorching sun and kept calling to him. On the way to the hospital, Michio inhaled the hot air for one last time. He perished at the age of 21. Seeing Michio as a quiet and obedient young man, Takamine was startled to learn how brave Michio actually was inside.
Michio’s mother Tsuru was living with Michio’s younger brother Teruto. That night she was waken up by loud knocking on the door. Reading the telegram fearfully under the dim light, she burst into tears in despair.
MICHIO DEAD COME AT ONCE
So much did she wish that she had not sent Michio to Nagasaki. She wished that she had kept Michio by her side and cherished him. He was such a loving and caring son. There is only darkness in this world without him. I will kill myself so that I can be with Michio in the next world. He would be happy too… She then thought of her other son. Like Michio, Teruto is my son too. For Teruto, I must live on…
The bus company handed Tsuru little money of condolence and that was it. Learning how little money she had received, a furious journalist offered to negotiate with Michio’s employer, as the company had saved a lot of money thanks to Michio’s self-sacrifice. Had the bus gone off the cliff, killing most passengers if not all, the company would have needed a lot of money for compensation, for the loss of the bus, etc. However, Tsuru declined the offer with gratitude. Her son-in-law was still working as a driver for the company and she did not want to cause any trouble for him. With no financial support from Michio any longer, Tsuru quit sewing and worked outside to earn enough money for Teruto and herself. Day after day she worked; under the scorching sun in summer and in the freezing cold of winter.
Over twenty years passed and Tsuru was now a grandmother of three. Mitsuo’s heroic act seemed to have gone into oblivion. No one at the bus company knew about it. The idea of Michio’s bravery being gone forever saddened her.
* * * * * * * *
A former soldier Shigeru Akiyoshi survived the war and became a teacher. On the 2nd of September 1947, he was browsing the newspaper before going to work; a headline caught his eye.
“MOMENT BEFORE FALL USING SELF AS WEDGE / BUS CONDUCTOR SAVES ALL PASSENGERS”
Reading the details, his sight became blurred with tears. He had never been so moved by reading. I wish I could write like this. He quit teaching and became a journalist. Over the years that followed, he felt compelled that he should discover exactly what had happened at Uchizaka Pass. It took him a few years to even just discover Michio’s name. He then had to find out where exactly the accident had happened and where his family lived. As he had to do his research in his own time, it took him over twenty years.
On the 13th of March 1974, Akiyoshi spoke about Michio’s brave self-sacrifice on the radio. On the 21st of that month he was invited to a news show as a guest and again talked about Michio. Twenty-seven years after the incident, Michio’s bravery was finally recognised by the public. The whole nation was moved. Akiyoshi asked the bus company that the president visit Tsuru to offer his gratitude and condolence with a sum of compensation, and that a memorial be built for Michio. The president readily agreed, as he was moved and proud that there was once such an employee in his company.
Six months later the Ojizō-sama was ready for unveiling. Tsuru was startled and thrilled when she received an invitation. She left for Nagasaki with Teruto, Mitsuo’s younger brother. It was rainy on the 19th of October 1974. Tsuru was greeted by Akiyoshi whom she met for the first time. Overwhelmed by emotions, she could hardly thank him for his effort. The president of the bus company greeted her too. Facing the Ojizō-sama filled Tsuru with happiness and joy; she felt as if Michio was smiling at her in the figure of Ojizō-sama. When asked how she felt, she replied: “For a long time I was feeling sad that Michio’s death had been forgotten. With such a beautiful Ojizō-sama erected in his memory, I feel as if Michio was revived. I am so grateful; there is nothing more I wish in this world.”
Every year on the 1st of September ever since, the bus company has been holding a ceremony to pay tribute to Michio.
Young children from a nearby playschool pay regular visits too, to learn about Michio’s bravery and how precious one’s life is.
The inscription on the monument explains what happened here.
The Ojizō-sama seems to have company across the road, in the shape of Colonel Sanders. (^-^)
We can only imagine how steep “The Hellish Slope” had been before the cut was made.
So, this is the similar incident I came across while googling about Shiokari Pass. To be honest, since writing about Shiokari Pass, I have become more and more sceptical that Masao Nagao intended to sacrifice himself. It is not because I doubt his readiness to sacrifice himself, but because I cannot convince myself that he knew his body would be able to bring the carriage to a halt. Had he been unsuccessful, he was killed instantly but the carriage would have kept running down, and most likely, derailed and crashed. Would he have gambled on that? Had he had the slightest doubt, wouldn’t he have remained aboard and kept trying to stop the carriage? As my husband suggested, didn’t the carriage stop by the emergency brake, thanks to Masao’s effort, but Masao was unfortunately jolted off by accident…?
I think that in a sense Michio’s bravery is more significant. He was much younger than Masao and was no Christian. He did however save everyone else on the bus, instead of himself. He was off the bus and was therefore safe. After trying his best to stop the bus, he had two ways to act at the last moment. ONE: Let the bus fall off the cliff. TWO: Use his own body to stop the bus. And he chose TWO. Did he weigh his own life against the others’ lives? Or did he act by instinct? Deep down, had be been carrying a sense of guilt for having survived the war…?
I am glad that I learned Michio’s story. Thanks to the internet, more and more people will hopefully learn it in the future – and it is well worth learning, in my opinion. Nagasaki Bus introduces Michio’s bravery on their web page.