Yoko Kawashima Watkins was born in 1933, in Japan. Her family lived in Manchuria, a region in northern China, where her father was stationed as a Japanese government official. The family eventually moved to Nanam, North Korea, where Yoko's father was overseeing Japanese political interests. The family lived in comfortable surroundings in North Korea until the events of World War II threatened their safety.
In the summer of 1945, as it grew obvious, that Japan was nearing defeat in the Pacific arena, eleven-year-old Watkins, her mother and her sixteen-year-old sister were forced to flee their home to avoid advancing Russian and North Korean communist forces. Their escape route included trains, a forty-five mile hike to noncommunist Seoul, South Korea, during which they were constantly threatened by straggling bands of soldiers and bombing raids, and the sea voyage back to Japan, where they found their family homes, reduced to rubble by Allied bombers. Yoko and her sister were joined by their brother, Hideyo, several weeks later after their arrival in Japan. Meanwhile, their mother died about the same time and their father languished in a Siberian prison camp, unable to rejoin his family for several more years.
With only the most meager of possessions, and saddened by the tragic death of their mother shortly after their return to Japan, Watkins and her sister, Ko, managed to keep themselves fed and alive.