Authors: Will Ferguson
All languages have their blind spots. The Japanese can distinguish between
hotel, but they cannot suggest
hotel. English speakers can’t describe
without slipping into French, and the French can’t say hot dog without sounding silly:
Certain words just fit. The Americanism
, with its many varied uses and easy-tripping rhythm, has been adopted by all but the most remote tribes in the world. Go to a bazaar in Istanbul or a village in Tierra del Fuego and you will hear native residents using
among themselves, making it the most common word in human history.
The Japanese, meanwhile, can’t distinguish between shame and embarrassment; in Japan, to be embarrassed
to be ashamed, the two are inseparable, which may or may not signify something about the Japanese value system as a whole. Yet at the same time, the Japanese have a pair of words,
, which together signify the beauty of the ephemeral and the fleeting; the aesthetic of decay, asymmetrical detail, and natural colour; and an appreciation of the incomplete, the impermanent, the imperfect. It takes a mini-essay in English to sum up what can be said in four syllables in Japanese.
“My father,” said Yoshi, with the affection of a son who has given up ever trying to reform his father, “is
“Australia was genki,” said Mrs. Nakamura. “I liked it. Very big. Very wide. And lots of koalas.”
“Enough with the koalas already,” said Yoshi.
Saké had appeared and we were exchanging drinks. “Your parents are world travellers,” I said to Yoshi.
“It is their time to travel. My mother worked as a nursing instructor at the Woman’s University in Kumamoto; my father is retired from his work at City Hall. It’s their chance.”
“We must see many countries, to see their ideas, to learn,” said Mr. Nak. “Me and my terrible wife.”
“Together?” I asked.
Mr. Nak was genuinely surprised by my question. “Of course, together,” he said. He would be lost without her, to be apart was as inconceivable as to be alone. She touched his hand gently, in a gesture that was both soft and steadfast.
Chiemi and Ayané had gone to bed and Yoshi’s eyes were at half-mast, but Mr. Nakamura was wide awake and so was I. We started in on a second round of saké. We sang a couple of songs, with Mrs. Nakamura giving a haunting rendition of a traditional ballad and me replying with “Blue Suede Shoes.” I tried to talk Yoshi into a reprise of the “Gamora Monster Theme Song,” but he was too tired, so I performed an encore of “Blue Suede Shoes” instead. Then it was back to the albums and a photograph of a nondescript beach and a dull blue ocean. “Guam?” I guessed.
“Why would you want to go to Saipan?”
The smile on Mr. Nak’s face shifted ever so slightly. “To see my old place. I go to Saipan before, many years ago. In the war. American army captured me, in Saipan.”
“Well, look at the time,” I said, turning to Yoshi for help, but he had nodded off. “I really should be going.”
“I am only guy alive from my platoon. Imagine. Everybody dead in Saipan.” He spoke with the same blithe voice he used to describe his lonely mama fish coming home to a house without children. “Have some more saké,” he said.
Yoshi woke up with one of those sudden body jerks that are
always so disorienting and frightening. He looked about the room, smacked his lips drowsily, and then stumbled off to bed. Mr. Nak filled my glass. The tenor had changed.
“We said, ‘Die for the Emperor.
Banzai! Banzai!’ You
know banzai? It means, ‘Live ten thousand years, Emperor.’ We study to be soldier. Everybody promise, ‘Die for Emperor!’ I thought it’s just to be polite, you know? But no, the other men, they believed it. Imagine. They said, ‘Now we must die.’ We are in a cave, you know, like a hole. Almost no trees. Everything fire, only ash.” He kicked back his drink and his face became flushed. “We had no bullets. So I thought, time out. It’s over. We tried hard, but we are lost. My friends”—he cleared his throat—“they began to sharpen sticks. They want to charge machine guns. Sticks against machine guns. Imagine.
“I saw Hell,” he said. “Not in other world. On this world. In Saipan. Eight hundred American ships made a circle around the island. Every day, the bombs falling. We hid in caves. A baby was crying and a Japanese soldier took it away—so Americans don’t hear it. Killing a baby. Can you imagine? On the cliffs, families—soldiers, mothers, everybody—jumping into the rocks. Now they call it Suicide Cliffs. Many people die. Today, it is popular for tourists. Nice sunsets, that cliff.”
He filled his cup. “I remember,” he said. “I remember Hirotsusensei, a schoolteacher. He was captured early, in the village. The Americans bring him out at night over loudspeaker. He says to us, ‘Come out. Nothing will happen. Come out. Don’t do the suicide.’ But soldiers inside the caves are angry. They say teacher is a traitor. And they … they began to make circles. Small circles, close together, around a grenade. Then they pull the pin.”
Another drink, sloppier than before, another quick toss back, and another wipe of the mouth. “I stayed behind. I didn’t charge. I didn’t do suicide. I surrendered.” Suddenly his face wrenched in pain and the words came out in a cry of anguish.
Then a smile. “Just like that. That is how I say it. I surrender.”
His wife sat in perfect silence, her eyes on her hands, her hands on her lap.
“Bobby,” he said to me, “I wasn’t ready to die that day, you know? On such a little island, far away from home, my family. I was eighteen years old. Not even a man, and now die?” Another drink, the same
ritual. “In school, back in Japan, I study to be architectural engineer. So they send me to Saipan, to make barracks and schools—and prisons. Only eighteen. I wasn’t ready to die that day. You understand?
“I cleaned my uniform but still it was dirty. In Japan to be dirty is the most bad thing. We must be clean, for our pride. I was Japanese, but my clothes were dirty. We ate weeds. No rice to eat, just weeds and sugar cane. Maybe sugar cane save my life. Maybe sugar cane should be Nakamura Family Symbol!” Big smile. “I became skinny, you know, like a stick.
But the laugh wouldn’t come. It turned to wind somewhere in his chest. “I was young once. Before. In Saipan.”
“I really should be going,” I said.
“I expect they will do bad things to me, the Americans. We hear they are demons, like how Momo-taro fought, but real. You know Momo-taro? He is a little guy, he is born from a peach. Little guy, but he fights big demons on an island. It is very popular story, Momo-taro. But it is just a story for children. The Americans are not demons. And we—we are not Momo-taro. Nothing. I came down with a white flag, alone. They push, like this, not so hard. They are yelling, ‘Don’t move, Jap! Don’t move!’ But they never hit me. Nothing. They gave me some little food. Later, shoes. They are kind, not like us, not like what we did, not like—” He reached for the bottle, his hand shaking as I have never seen a human hand shake before. He spilled the saké as he poured it. “I didn’t die in the POW camps. I didn’t. I didn’t die. I woke up.”
“I should be going. It’s very late.”
“I didn’t die.”
“I should be going.”
Mr. Nak spoke again, almost in a whisper. “I woke up.”
“I should be going.”
He swallowed the past like hot saké. “In the POW camp is where I first learn English. From Bobby. You know, Bobby?” He had had too much to drink and was slurring his words and time frames. “He is a private, D-Company. He the same age like me. You know Bobby? Sure, Bobby. From Oklahoma.”
He was waiting for me to answer. I had trouble forming sounds, and when I did, my voice came out like smoke. “No, I don’t know Bobby.”
“He taught me English: ‘How are you? How are you?’ Bobby always smiling guy. One time they bring candy, our officers make a line, they
think to eat first. ‘No,’ Bobby says. ‘No. First child. Then woman. Then private. Officer last.’ Our officers were humiliated. I study that word:
, you know? Like ashamed. The women try to give their candy to the officers, but the officers say no. Very sad, the officers don’t speak, just look away. ‘Our world is over,’ they say. But not me. I woke up in the camps. I didn’t die.
I didn’t die
. Bobby teach me, ‘Hello, mister. What time now? One o’clock, two o’clock, half past five. Hey, buddy, how are you today? Chow time, lights out, fall in.’”
He stopped in mid-recitation. “I will show you something.” He pulled out the bottom photo album in the pile. He opened it to the last page and carefully took out an envelope from a pouch. He unfolded it in layers: tissue paper wrapped in wax paper, wrapped in soft white cloth. At the centre of this was a photograph, small like the palm of a hand, without a crease on any corner. A black-and-white image, turned sepia over time: a teenager in a GI’s uniform, dog tags, short hair, and a huckleberry grin. Across the bottom was written, in printing too careful to be anything except that of Mr. Nakamura: “Robert. Oklahoma, U.S.A. My friend.”
“He look like you,” said Mr. Nak.
He didn’t look like me.
“He have your eyes,” said Mr. Nak.
He didn’t have my eyes.
“I don’t know where Bobby is any more. One day, just gone. Maybe,” said Mr. Nakamura. “Maybe he is old man like me.” He carefully refolded the photograph into its wrappings and put it back.
“I think,” I said, more to myself than anyone, “I should go.”
“Ha, ha!” roared Mr. Nak. “I sing you a song! A very good Japanese folk song, but together with a dance. My dance. I make this dance.” He lurched to his feet and pushed the low table to one side, toppling glasses and rattling plates. His wife moved the cushions out of the way and cleared the dance floor, as though a drunken jig at two in the morning was a perfectly normal occurrence in their household. I think she was happy for the change of mood.
“You must clap,” he said. “Like this.” I caught the simple rhythm and his wife helped me out. Mr. Nakamura took down the sword hanging over the entranceway. “Very old sword,” he said, pronouncing the
. “My family sword. My father, next father, and so forth. Time and tide. You like this dance, Mr. Will. This dance is a samurai. He is
too old to fight. He is not strong so much any more. He must use his s
ord like a walking stick, because he is too weak to hold it high.”
Mr. Nakamura, awakened, turning slow circles in his bathrobe, his sword like a cane, his body bent in dance, a stylized posture representing old age: hand on lower back, shoulders stooped. A samurai too old to fight, he was also too drunk to stand, and he stumbled and bumped into the cabinet, knocking over a few knickknacks, staggering like a sailor. He stumbled back into the cabinet, but this time he held on to it and didn’t move. I could hear him breathing, in effort. The dance was over.
With great dignity, Mrs. Nakamura rose and helped her husband steady himself.
“I should be going,” I said. She nodded. I had stayed long enough as it was.
Mr. Nakamura stumbled over to see me off. “Come on, Bobby. We drink some saké with my lovely wife, you never met my wife, I want you meet my wife. Don’t go.” He reached out and held on to me. “Thank you come my home. I am an old man. Thank you.”
I slid free of his embrace and stepped off the entrance platform into my shoes. They had been turned around for me, facing the door, in that ambivalent gesture of hosts in Japan.
From the entranceway, Mr. Nak looked at me, his expression no longer Chaplinesque. “Why?” he said.
I understood the question, but I had no answer. How could I? Me, a milk-fed pup who has never cowered in caves with a sharpened stick, who never surrendered anything, never died and was never reborn every dawn.
I couldn’t even say goodnight. My throat tight, I bowed deeply. When I came up, Mr. Nakamura had straightened himself into a perfect soldier’s stance. He looked at me from across generations, from across oceans. His jaw was set like a man’s fighting back fear. He raised his hand.
“No,” I said. “No. Don’t.”
He saluted me. Crisp and precise, and I fled, fumbling with the door, bowing hurriedly a few more times, stepping on my shoe heels, pulling the door closed behind me. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t.
I hurried through the streets blindly, and for the first time in years, I began to cry.
a cherry tree in the village of Asamimura they call
, the Milk Nurse Cherry Tree. It is said to blossom on the same day every year: the sixteenth day of the second month of the old lunar calendar, the anniversary of the death of O-sodō, a devoted wet nurse who offered her soul in place of a sick child’s. The child survived; the nurse died. Her spirit lives on in the tree. In
Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things
, Lafcadio Hearn writes, “Its flowers, pink and white, were like the nipples of a woman’s breasts, bedewed with milk.”
Another tree blossoms on the anniversary of a samurai’s ritualistic suicide. Yet another contains the soul of a child. Another, the soul of a young man.
The imagery of the sakura is problematic. It has long been entwined with notions of birth and death, beauty and violence. Cherry blossoms are central to the Japanese worship of nature, a mainstay of haiku, flower vases, and kimono patterns, and yet … the sword guards of samurai warriors also bore the imprints of sakura as a last, wry reminder of the fleetingness of life just prior to disembowelment.
But the starkest image of sakura is that of the
, the Stone-splitting Cherry Tree, in the northern city of Morioka. Here, a cherry tree took root and grew in a small crack in a very large boulder. Over the years the tree has grown, splitting the vast boulder in two and emerging from it like life out of stone-grey death. The power of beauty to shatter stone; as brutal and sublime as any sword.