Authors: Akira Yoshimura
Tags: #General Fiction
The boy's eyes were no longer on Takuya.
Each time the train lurched, the boy's head, covered in ringworm, was buried in the gap between Takuya and the middle-aged woman standing in front of him. Takuya would lean back to create enough space for the boy to breathe. The boy looked up at Takuya repeatedly. There was a shadow of resignation in his eyes, a recognition of his powerlessness in the mass of adults, as well as a flicker of light, an entrusting of his well-being to this man who kept shifting back for him. Before long, however, the boy's head dropped. The strain of leaning to one side may have been too much for him, for now he hardly moved his head when he was pressed between the adults. The woman standing in front of them seemed to be the boy's mother, and Takuya could sense that he was holding on to the cloth of her work trousers.
The carriage was packed with people and baggage. Some had pushed their way in to stand between the seats, others perched on the seat backs, clinging for support to the luggage racks. No one spoke, and all that could be heard was a baby's intermittent hoarse crying.
The train slowed down. The sound of the wheels jolting over a joint in the tracks began at the front, rattled their carriage and clattered on to the rear of the train. There was a hum of voices as the passengers realised that they were approaching their destination, Hakata.
Takuya turned to look out the window. He wanted to be delivered from the suffocating atmosphere of the train, but at the same time he felt reluctant to step onto the platform in this city.
The train slowed more, shuddered slightly and came to a halt. The air filled with voices as people transformed the carriages into a bustle of activity. The boy winced as he twisted round to face Takuya. Resisting the human tide, Takuya held the boy's gaze until he saw that a space had opened in front of him. Satisfied, he forced his way between the seats next to him to jump out the window and on to the platform.
Takuya looked around the concrete platform. The station was more or less as it had been when he left the city seven months ago, but scorched iron girders stood here and there, and the crossbeams of the roof 's steel skeleton were exposed. He shuffled with the crowd across the platform towards the ticket gates.
Leaving the station, Takuya saw people milling around and peering into a cluster of makeshift wooden stalls. The
hawkers' voices were animated, but the people on the street moved lethargically from one stall to the next.
The thought that someone in this crowd of survivors might recognise him made Takuya take the path that ran along the railway tracks for a short distance from the market to a stone bridge over a little stream.
A desolate expanse of charred buildings opened up in front of him. Once again he was astonished that so many homes could have been reduced to ashes in a single night.
Takuya set off along the road through the charred ruins. Though he had spent the last two years and four months of the war here, he had not expected ever to set foot in this city again. He knew deep down that it was unwise to go anywhere near the place.
The reason Takuya had left his home town to come here by train, ferry and then train again was a postcard he had received three days earlier. It was from Shirasaka Hajime, a former army lieutenant. Shirasaka had been born in the United States, but returned to Japan with his parents before the war, graduating from a private university before joining the Imperial Army. He had belonged to the same unit as Takuya, the Western Region Anti-Aircraft Defence Group, under the command of Western Regional Headquarters, and his knowledge of English had led him to stay on after the war as part of the staff winding up headquarters affairs in liaison with the Allied forces. The postcard, scrawled in his typescript-like handwriting, had mentioned that he was keen to see Takuya again, and suggested he come to visit soon.
Takuya was bewildered by the message. He had been in
the same class as Shirasaka as a military cadet, but they hadn't been particularly close. In fact, at times Takuya had felt something akin to repulsion at the occasional manifestations of Shirasaka's foreign upbringing. In those days Shirasaka had seemed keenly aware of Takuya's feelings and made no attempt at friendship. Having been born and raised in America, a hostile country, Shirasaka was mocked and berated for his strange accent, and he was often on the receiving end of disciplinary action. Takuya didn't think this at all strange, in fact it mildly pleased him. Shirasaka was a tall, well-built man. These were certainly desirable attributes in an officer, but when Takuya thought of how this was the result of an ample American diet, he saw it as proof of an insidious disassociation from the Japanese people.
On orders from the commander of air defence operations at headquarters, Shirasaka had served as interpreter in the interrogation of captured American B-29 pilots who had bailed out when their bombers were shot down. Takuya had also been present, and had been surprised at Shirasaka's fluent English, which only aggravated his ill feelings towards the man. Shirasaka's English was completely different from what Takuya had learned as a student, and for the most part was unintelligible to him. Takuya could tell that the years he had spent in America had profoundly affected his character, and his natural way of conversing with the American fliers made Takuya doubt Shirasaka's trustworthiness. He would shrug his shoulders and shake his head without saying anything, and the Americans would look at him imploringly, appealing to him in muffled tones.
Takuya's feelings about Shirasaka had not changed since they had parted ways. And his impressions gained credence from the self-importance he had detected in ethnic Japanese American military interpreters on two other occasions. He imagined that Shirasaka would have used his English skills to ingratiate himself with the American military, and would doubtless be leading the same uninhibited life as those Japanese American interpreters.
Takuya tried to read between the few short lines on Shirasaka's postcard. Since the start of the Allied occupation, all mail had been censored by the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers in Japan (SCAP), and mail and documents from the staff handling the affairs of the now defunct headquarters would surely be strictly monitored. That Shirasaka had sent such a deliberate message to Takuya, to whom he had not been particularly close, must mean that he wished to see him urgently. As an interpreter, he would be in a position to assess developments on the Allied side, so it was possible he had come across information which concerned Takuya and was trying to pass it on.
After reading the card over and over again, Takuya had headed for Fukuoka, where Shirasaka was helping to wind up the affairs of the Western Command.
Walking along in the spring sunshine, he looked down at the road under his feet. He could see hairline cracks from the searing heat of the fires that had raged after the incendiary attacks. In places, holes in the asphalt exposed the soil beneath. Scorched roofing iron and rubble were piled on both sides of the road, and the occasional ruins
of square concrete buildings and the tops of underground warehouses were all that was left standing.
In stark contrast to Takuya's parting impression seven months earlier, Fukuoka had acquired the settled desolation of a wasteland. Maybe it was because the burnt ruins were starting to return to the earth, or because all projecting objects had been removed, but this huge scorched plain seemed almost to shimmer in the heat. The sound of a piece of roofing iron that had come loose would approach on a gust of wind, then disappear into the expanse beyond the road. Here and there windblown piles of sand stood out in the arid lifelessness. Then, to the south, came the ominous sight of two gently sloping verdant hills. The hills were split to the east and west of a central ridge called Abura-yama, a vantage point from which the distant islands of Tsushima and Iki could be seen on a fine day. According to legend, during the reign of Emperor Shomu a monk named Seiga established a temple there and became known for the extract he made from the fruit of trees in the surrounding forest. The thicket where Takuya and his companions had executed the Americans, near the crematorium at Sanroku and not far from the hills in view, was linked inextricably to his memory of this city.
Shifting his gaze out to sea, he caught sight of a convoy of four US Army trucks moving along the coastal road, the beams from each set of headlights dancing in the clouds of dust thrown up by the vehicle in front. Some people said that the Americans drove with their headlights on during the day to flaunt the US military's affluence, and there was no denying the compelling nature of those shafts of light.
Ahead of him Takuya recognised a watchtower protruding
from the burnt-out shell of a fire station. The building, or what was left of it, had a rough whitish look not dissimilar to that of unglazed pottery. Most of the outer walls had crumbled away, and rusty, glassless window frames hung loosely from the surviving structure.
Beyond the ruined fire station Takuya was stopped by the sight of a bank of pink cherry blossom. At the top of the road, up a gentle slope, was the former regional command headquarters building, encircled by a belt of cherry trees in full bloom. After the scorched desolation he had just walked through, Takuya found the vibrant pink of this hill strange to behold. Perhaps because it was surrounded by blossom, the old headquarters building radiated elegance rather than foreboding, as though it were a stately western manor. This gentle hill seemed somehow removed from the passage of time.
Takuya glanced to either side of the building. Sitting on the ferry and swaying inside the train, he had felt a faint distrust of Shirasaka's motives. It was easy to imagine Shirasaka, in the course of working with the occupation forces, developing a relationship which went beyond tending to the affairs of the former Western Command. Takuya thought that the postcard might even have been sent on the instructions of the Americans, to lure him into the open. He had decided to come here despite his apprehension because he assumed that, even if there were some basis for his fear, the situation would not have reached a critical stage.
Since the middle of the previous November, the newspapers had been full of reports of Japanese servicemen
being tried and then executed by military tribunals for crimes committed overseas against prisoners of war. Even so, Takuya surmised that if the occupation authorities were suspicious of him they would have instructed the Japanese police to arrest him by now. And even if Shirasaka's card had been sent on the orders of the Americans, it was likely that they only wanted to carry out some routine preliminary questioning.
Moreover, Takuya felt sure that what they had done could not have been discovered by anyone on the outside. They had planned everything so carefully and so secretly that no civilian could have witnessed, or even been aware of, any part of the proceedings. There was no way, he thought, that this deed, carried out within a rigidly closed military system, could ever leak to the outside world. If the fact that executions had taken place was discovered, the headquarters staff would be culpable to varying degrees, and almost all of them would likely be implicated. That in itself, Takuya thought, would keep their lips sealed.
He concentrated his gaze on the low hill. It seemed deserted. There were no people or vehicles in sight anywhere around the building, nor on the road chiselled into the front face of the knoll. His eyes rivetted on the hill, he started walking forward. To one side a bent and broken water pipe protruded from the ground. Water flowed down the road, filling a hollow in an exposed patch of dirt and spreading out in a fan-shaped arc. Faint signs of moss could be seen just below the surface of the little pool, and at the bottom grains of sand glistened as though washed to perfection.
Takuya walked up the slope, stopping at the stone pavement in front of the building. The cherry blossom was just past its peak, and petals covered the ground.
The reception desk was unattended and the utter lack of sound suggested that the building was deserted, but a message on the wall, written on straw paper with an English translation typed beside it, invited visitors to make their way directly to the first floor.
Takuya stared ahead down the corridor. Hardly any of the windows had panes of glass and many had been boarded over completely, leaving the corridor dark and forbidding. The room Takuya had used was on the left, at the end of the corridor, but he felt no desire to go that way. He walked up the stairs to find the first floor bathed in sunlight. From there he followed an arrow drawn on a piece of paper stuck to the white wall. It pointed towards the section of the building where the offices of the regional commander and chief of staff had been located, and where the remaining affairs of the regional command were likely being attended to.
He paused before a door marked with a piece of paper bearing the word âEntrance'. This room was connected directly to the chief of staff 's office and had been used as the tactical operations centre. Worried that members of the Allied military might be inside, Takuya stood glued to the spot, trying to sense what was on the other side of the door. He could just make out voices, but couldn't tell whether Japanese or English was being spoken.
He reached for the knob and opened the door. Some old desks had been brought in and arranged in an L-shape on
the right-hand side of the room. A man wearing a navy blue suit and an open-necked shirt was sitting with three men in uniform behind the desks. They hadn't noticed Takuya's presence and seemed to be poring over some documents. The man in the suit lifted his head and turned to look at Takuya. Immediately he stood up and walked round the desks toward the visitor.
He had longer hair now, so for a moment Takuya didn't recognise Shirasaka. Distracted, the three uniformed men turned as one to look toward Takuya, who recognised them immediately as non-commissioned officers from the old headquarters staff.
Gesturing as though to push him back, Shirasaka ushered Takuya out of the room and into the corridor, then guided him in the direction of the staircase before opening a door and beckoning him in. Shirasaka's hand movements and facial expression were new to Takuya. Evidently, in his association with the occupation authorities he had regained his American mannerisms.