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My nanny holds me in her arms shortly after I was born.
Kenzo Takada

Kenzo Takada (2) Growing up at the foot of Himeji Castle

War arrives at the doorstep of a timid boy with a love of traditional fabric

| Japan

I was born in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, on Feb. 27, 1939, as the signs of an impending war in the Pacific were growing stronger.

We lived in Umegae-cho, just north of Himeji Castle, with its beautiful white towers soaring like a heron into the sky. Our home was in the red-light district, where my parents ran an entertainment establishment called the Naniwaro.

The refined strains of Nagauta music and the coquettish voices of the geisha would waft in from the various tatami rooms, riding the gentle breeze

The refined strains of Nagauta music, the sounds of a shamisen and the coquettish voices of the geisha would waft in from the various tatami rooms, riding the gentle breeze. I enjoyed playing with the brilliant cloth hidden away in closets and dressers -- the yuzen, the pongee, the silk crepe fabric.

My father had worked for a local power company, but about seven years before I was born he quit his job and opened the Naniwaro. I'm not sure why. He was a man of few words who collected antiques as a hobby and had a fondness for traditional performing arts. I remember him often sitting behind the counter, quietly drinking sake.

My mother, who was six years younger than my father, was both reliable and very sociable. She served as an officer in the neighborhood association and was known as an influential person others could count on. When she was young, she went to Tokyo to be with her older sister and her sister's husband, but following the Great Kanto Earthquake, she returned to her hometown in Hyogo. There, she married my father, who was from the same area. They had five boys and two girls.

The third boy in the family, I was many years younger than my two elder brothers and often played with my sisters, who were four years and two years older than me. I was never particularly good at sports, but I enjoyed playing games such as marbles and cards with my sisters.

We often played at Hiyoshi Shrine, which was close to our home. A girl my age lived at the shrine, and I recall catching killifish and small crucian carp in a stream that ran alongside it. On summer nights, dozens of fireflies would dance in the air, and I would gaze entranced at the magical spectacle.

Our home was also close to Himeji Castle. I always found the place frightening, because it was the setting for "Bancho Sarayashiki," a ghost story I knew from joruri puppet plays and Kabuki theater.

The tale tells the tragic story of Okiku, a maiden who is murdered for breaking one of 10 heirloom plates -- a crime of which she was innocent -- and her body thrown down a well. The story goes that her ghost can be heard from the well's depths, sobbing as she counts the plates. To this day, "Okiku's well" stands quietly within the castle grounds, surrounded by stone pillars. The story terrified me so much that I couldn't bring myself to go anywhere near the place.

I was a shy, timid boy. Once, when I was four or five years old, I threw a tantrum because the sweater my mother made me wear was scratchy and I hated it. As punishment, I was locked in our home's storehouse. It was pitch-black and completely silent, and I was scared stiff. I cried and cried.

A specter of calamity

After a time it became clear that Japan was losing the war. One day, my father began hurriedly digging a hole in the back yard. He had put our most precious household belongings inside hibachis and was preparing to burying it.

At the start of the war, Japan was in a jubilant mood, cheering one victory after another, but the situation grew worse with each passing year. Ultimately, the homeland itself came under attack by U.S. warplanes, and we were forced to put on hoods and race to air raid shelters with increasing frequency.

"There's no chance we're going to win. It's getting too dangerous in the cities." My father suddenly decided that my sisters and I would evacuate to my mother's home in what is now the town of Ichikawa in Hyogo Prefecture. This was a rural district located about 20km north of Himeji.

Being separated from our parents was very sad, but there was no other choice. I also had to transfer from the elementary school where I had just enrolled. But my father's premonition proved to be right.

The calamity that would rob Japan of so many precious lives and plunge the country into misery was rising before my very eyes like a thick, dark cloud covering the gray sky.

Kenzo Takada is a fashion designer known for his eponymous label Kenzo, which he left in 1999.

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