A Photo of a Hand

By Amy Saeki-Zhai

While cleaning up my great-grandparents’ house, I accidentally found a newspaper clip with a photo of a hand.

“Why did they keep this?” I asked my mom.

“Oh, that is grandma’s hand,” she said.


“Yeah, I remember that she mentioned that her hand once appeared in the newspaper. So this must be it.”

I became curious to know more about my great-grandmother, so I asked my mom what kind of person she was.

My great grandmother was my age in the early 1900s. Born and raised as the eldest daughter in a Buddhist temple, where her father served as a monk. At that time, most women got married after graduating from middle school. Few women in Japan went to university, but she was one of them.

Her parents sent her to flower arrangement school, tea ceremony lessons, and cooking school after she finished university to prepare for marriage. Nevertheless, according to my mom, my great grandmother seldom attended those lessons. Instead, she often went ice skating or dancing without saying anything to her parents. She was a sort of flapper.

Then, one day, she started a strike at home against her parents. She asked her parents to let her go to work instead of mastering tea or sewing. Despite her parents’ reluctance, she found an advertisement and applied for a job at a newspaper company. She passed the interview, became the only one hired out of 60 applicants, and started working as a typist. Back in the 1920s, there were no computers, Windows or Mac; it was letterpress printing. Her job was to move and change around a combination of letter grids of Chinese characters every time she typed a sentence.

She quit her job after marrying my great-grandfather through an arranged marriage. But after a while, the Pacific War started. Then, the universal conscription began, and all citizens, if they were young males, were forced to become suicide bombers in honor of the Emperor and for the sake of the nation. The government censorship banned the freedom of speech, gathering, and publication. Those who said anything against the government or the negative things about the tide of the war were immediately arrested.

But a woman stood at the neighborhood’s corner, shouting, “Those who listen to the government’s words are stupid. The nation would not do anything to help us. It is ridiculous. Why do we need to send our kids off to become kamikaze? DO NOT.” The woman who was making such a speech was my great-grandmother. The people in the neighborhood warned her that if some government officials heard that, she would be taken away to jail. My great-grandfather, who heard of these  rumors, panicked and dragged her away.

My great-grandmother was also very fashionable; her kimono collection and clothes tell her super modern taste. When her daughter’s elementary school had a parents’ observation day, almost all students poked their heads out of the windows, pointing out a woman. “Whose mother is that? The lady dyed her hair golden, wearing a black kimono with big red polka dots. Nowadays, many people dye their hair into lighter colors for fashion, but at that time, hardly any Japanese women ever dared to. Her shy daughter was so embarrassed and told my great-grandmother to never come to her school anymore, as people whispered, “She’s a whore.”

“So that’s the short story of your great-grandmother,” said my mom.

“Oh my goodness, what a history!” I shouted, and I looked into the photo of her hand again.

The photo of her hand in the newspaper was far from the perfect image of a soft, gentle, and elegant feminine hand, which we are familiar with in the advertisement for a diamond ring. Her hand was somewhat rocky; some blood vessels were visible on the back of the hand. Thick fingers look clumsy, and nails are not trimmed well either.

But after I heard the story of her life, I now know why a photographer wanted to take the picture of her hand. He was sick of the regular image of the feminine hand with perfectly polished and smoothly moistened nails. He tried to photoshoot the hand of a working woman, whose hands’ skins were peeled off with dryness and dirty with printing ink. That was the hand of a woman with self-assertion.

My great grandmother went to find a job, not for the family, but for herself. She wore fashion not for men but for herself. She wore what she wanted, not caring what others were wearing. She spoke out her opinion in public because she thought she was right. I can’t believe she lived a century ago and makes me think to myself, “ What am I doing here now?”. If she saw me now, what would she say? I suddenly felt so embarrassed and cowardly for being too nervous about my class presentation tomorrow. “Live dynamic,” I think that hand was talking to me.