Japan 1933 – Set against the historical events of the Asia-Pacific war, the drama unfolds from the perspective of a young man caught up in the militarist ambitions of 20th century Japan.
The crackle of distant thunder rippled across the valley like an artillery barrage portending the future; it woke me with a start. I pushed aside the futon, went to the window and looked towards the Nishiyama Mountains jutting up through the swirling morning mists like rocks in a foaming sea.
Our Gassho-style house with its sloping thatched roof nestled against a backdrop of maples and tall beech trees. From behind the house came the gentle clucking of the poultry in their enclosure. As I slid open the fusuma doors, the sound alerted the chickens that breakfast was coming.
I rubbed my sleepy eyes, slipped my feet into tatami sandals, and stood for a moment breathing in the crisp air, admiring the mountain scenery. Droplets of morning dew glistened like pearls on the pine needles of the trees below the house.
After performing my Qi Gong routine of various stretches, deep knee-bends and swinging arms, I walked to the rear of the wooden house. I picked up a wicker basket, looped it over my left arm and scooped up a generous portion of rice grains. The squawking from the chickens intensified as I opened the gate to the pen and scattered the feed among them. In the dimness of the coop I spotted five fresh eggs nestling in the straw; putting them into the basket, I returned to the house.
From the kitchen, my mother Mieko called out,
‘Breakfast is ready Ichiro, come and eat.’ She carried the tray of food into the living room and placed it on the low table. I bowed to my parents, knelt beside them and ate the simple breakfast of miso soup, pickled vegetables and rice porridge.
My father Satoshi looked impressive in his ticket inspector’s uniform, which mother ironed every Sunday evening. We exchanged few words, preferring the silence and pretending not to notice, as my mother raised the sleeve of her kimono and dabbed away the few tears which had escaped. Every Monday she was saddened at the prospect of yet another five days of loneliness once her husband and son had caught the early morning bus to Kyoto.
‘Hurry and dress Ichiro, the bus will arrive soon.’
Mieko bowed to her husband and gave me a close hug.
‘Give my good wishes to your Uncle Tatsuo and, if you meet Naoko, ask her how she’s progressing with her university studies. Oh, and when she’ll be coming home for a visit.’
She straightened my military-style peaked cap and glanced up at me, admiring my black, high-collared school uniform, and flicked imagined dust off the shoulders.
She waved to us from the genkan as we walked along the path to the ancient gingko tree, where the bus stopped on its slow journey down the mountainside. With a blast of black smoke from the exhaust, the bus lumbered to a halt. As the wizen-faced driver swung open the door, he greeted us,
‘Good morning Satoshi and Ichiro, hope you’re well today.’
We boarded and returned the driver’s greeting. I suspected from his appearance, he must be the same vintage as his vehicle. The bus lurched and swayed on the tight bends, stopping at remote houses as it descended towards the city. I gazed out at the panorama, enjoying the pink blossoms of the sakura trees until my father spoke.
‘Well, another week of travelling and punching tickets between Kyoto – Osaka……..’
Unable to resist interrupting his litany of train stations, I continued,
‘Hiroshima – Fukuoka – Kagoshima.’
We both laughed.
‘Am I so predictable?’ said my father smiling at me.
‘On the return journey, the relief inspector takes over at Hiroshima, so as usual I’ll spend the night in the city. What are you up to this week?’
‘Oh, just my usual lessons, but two extra sessions of kendo before the contest on Friday night against Fujisawa junior high school.’
‘I finish my shift for the week on Friday afternoon, so I’ll go to your Uncle’s house and come with him to enjoy the competition. You and I can take the first bus home on Saturday morning; I’m sure your mother won’t mind.’
‘I can show you the bonsais that I’m taking care of in Uncle’s garden. He’s promised that in a few months, I can bring one home to display in our tokonoma.’
‘I’m so pleased you’re showing such an interest in our traditional samurai culture. If your great-grandfather could see you, he would be very proud.’
As a person who seldom gave much praise, his words filled me with a warm glow of pleasure. The bus negotiated its way through the busy morning traffic and arrived in central Kyoto. After saying goodbye to my father, I boarded the tram for my school.
Two years earlier, I had obtained excellent results in the entrance exam to this lower Officer Education School. The school provided a rigorous curriculum of general subjects including English, with an emphasis on kendo, and Japanese history. Every morning we drilled on the school playground under the watchful gaze of our PE teacher, a sergeant in the Imperial Army.
At 3.30 the boys poured out of the school gate. I walked the short distance to the bus stop and took the local bus to the suburb of Nishikyo-ku where Uncle lived.
Tatsuo, a wealthy textile merchant, supplied the many kimono workshops in the Nishijin district. His fine old house had an extensive garden at the rear, where he cultivated his prized bonsais. His wife had divorced him years earlier. According to a family rumour, she had found out about his frequent visits to the pleasure district of the city. She now lived with their son Kotaro, in her hometown of Osaka.
I walked along the tree-lined street mingling with the locals enjoying a late afternoon stroll. Everyone was admiring the pale pink of the profuse cherry blossom which formed an archway from one sidewalk to the other.
At Uncle’s house, I pulled on the cord beside the door and heard the bell tinkling in the garden. After a few moments, the old wooden door swung open to reveal the diminutive figure of Fumiko, Uncle’s young maid. She bowed, greeted me, and put her hand out to take my suitcase containing the few belongings I needed for the five days in the city. She closed the outer door and followed me across the garden towards the house.
As I stepped on the flat stones set into the well-clipped grass, I looked over towards the water cascading over the moss covered rocks into the koi pond. Nearby the fresh green leaves of the bamboo shimmered in the light breeze. Fumiko had set two cushions on either side of a low table on the wooden floor outside the genkan. She had set the teacups on a tray beside an Ikebana floral arrangement,
‘I thought you would enjoy tea outside today Ichiro-san so that you can view the garden. I’ll take your suitcase and satchel to your room and then bring the teapot.’
I returned her bow. The girl was lonely in the large house all day, and I suspected she looked forward to chatting with me before Uncle returned from work.
I sat and looked over the garden. Blossom from the overhanging branches of the cherry trees on the street decorated our high wall. Fumiko returned with the teapot and knelt on the cushion. As she leaned across to pour the tea, I saw that the neck of her kimono was loose, and as she bent forward, I had a full view of the creamy white tops of her breasts.
Fascinated I stared down her neckline until I realised she was following the direction of my gaze. I felt a blush coming to my face and averted my eyes as I raised the teacup to my mouth. I couldn’t be sure but thought a slight smile had hovered on her lips as I’d looked away.
A few weeks earlier, my school friend Toru, who was always getting up to mischief, had produced photographs of naked girls, which he furtively showed around the class. With great curiosity, we mulled over the photos at length, discussing the size and merits of the girls’ breasts, and now I’d glimpsed these tantalising charms. Still feeling embarrassed, I finished my tea, changed into my gardening clothes and immersed myself, working on the bonsais. The routine involved plucking out random weeds, removing the wire from remodelled branches, and misting the trees with a fine spray of water. The maid busied herself preparing the evening meal.
An hour later Uncle Tatsuo arrived home, his jacket slung over one shoulder and a newspaper under his arm. Both Fumiko and I came to the genkan, bowed and greeted him. He handed his paper to the maid, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his glistening bald head,
‘Welcome back, Ichiro. I’ll change my clothes then we can chat. Fumiko bring me a beer.’
When he returned he was wearing a black kimono; he knelt at the table outside and watched as the maid poured his beer. I couldn’t help noticing that Fumiko’s kimono was now modestly fastened under her chin. Tatsuo took a long swig from his beer glass. ‘Ah, that’s better, I was thirsty.’ He opened the morning’s edition of the Kyoto Shimbun.
‘There’s exciting news about the successes of our great Kwantung Army in Manchuria or Manchukuo as we now call the territory. You’ll remember I told you that last year the army was fighting Chinese guerrillas in various areas of Manchuria, well they’ve now been eliminated. So, in January, the Emperor approved a strategic operation against the Chinese on condition that the Imperial Army did not advance south of China’s Great Wall. Our forces have initiated Operation Nekka to bring the zone under our control and form a buffer between China and our new Empire of Manchukuo.’ He looked at me sternly.
‘But listen to this — today’s newspaper confirms that the military operations have been successful. But the League of Nations Assembly has voted to penalise Japan by not recognising Manchukuo. Forty-two of the forty-four nations in the Assembly voted for the resolution.’ Tatsuo took another drink of beer while I sat engrossed by the news from abroad.
‘This is outright discrimination Ichiro. In the past the British conquered India, and many parts of Africa; and France still controls its colonies in Indo-China, yet when Japan needs to expand, everyone objects. It's a European plot against Japan.’
Before he could continue, Fumiko sounded the gong to announce dinner was ready. As we ate, Uncle complained about the difficult economic climate and the effects on his business.
‘When women order kimonos these days, they’re buying cheaper fabrics, and there are fewer weddings now than before the war in China. With the crisis in rural areas, the government is even encouraging poor farmers and their families to emigrate to Manchuria with the promise of cheap land.’
My interest span had been exhausted and I was becoming bored with the politics, so I started to yawn.
‘Maybe it’s time for bed, young man; you need to sleep well if you have an extra kendo lesson tomorrow. When is the competition? You did mention it last week.’
‘It’s on Friday after school at the sports hall. This morning my father said he would come here after work and go with you to watch the bouts.’
‘Excellent, I look forward to that. In any case, I wish to speak to him about several matters.’
Rising, I bowed to Uncle. After washing, I went to my room, removed the futon from the cupboard and laid it on the floor. Dressed in my yukata, I slipped under the futon and, as I was drifting off to sleep, I again pictured in my mind Fumiko’s unexpected intimate display.
The next few days passed quickly. My coach, Sergeant Yuki, expressed his satisfaction with my level of kendo training.
‘With the advantage of your height and your kata skills you’re becoming an effective kendoka, so there’s a good chance you will win some of the bouts.’
Encouraged by his praise, I practised long and hard on Thursday evening and felt confident about the competition the following night. With my father and Uncle among the spectators, I wanted to perform well.