pon my return there was much festivity at the Onomichi Train Station. Teachers, students, close friends—all were there to congratulate the new champion. In addition, my family held a celebration and sumptuous dinner in my honor.
A few days later, however, my achievement was almost forgotten. Glider training continued, but for the first time in many months life had lost its vitality. I drifted rudderless upon aimless waters, steadily growing more restless.
In the evenings after training I wandered home with my friends, watching the sun settle beyond the mountains, a red cauldron turning the ocean westward to molten steel. Sunset was a special time—a time to have finished the hot bath, to have donned theyukata, a light-weight, casual kimono, to slide the windows open and gaze meditatively, or to sit in one’s garden contemplating the filigreed silhouette of a mulberry tree against the horizon, to savor introspection in the steam rising from a cup of ocha.
Such traditions afforded a tentative kind of relaxation and comfort, but they did not relieve my lethargy. Nor did they assuage our growing
uneasiness regarding the war. By now Guadalcanal had been lost to the Americans, and doubts had begun to form. Very subtly at first like early winter mists among the pines on our hillside, but gradually they swirled and swelled till even the rising sun could not dispel them.
We who were young spoke of the war more enthusiastically than many of our elders. My friend Tatsuno’s brother in the Navy Air Force had shot down an American plane, and many evenings such matters dominated our conversation as we strolled the road from school.
Young though he was, small and almost frail, Tatsuno Uchida reflected a special intensity in the way he observed the sky and spoke of his brother. At times, when planes passed over, he shook his head saying, fervently, “I know Kenji will become an ace. He will bring honor to our country and to the Emperor.” And of course, I always agreed. It was comforting to realize that our pilots were innately superior to the enemy, more courageous, bearers of a proud tradition, that they flew better aircraft. Did not our teachers and parents, our radios and newspapers assure us of these facts each day?
One of those evenings shortly after my return from school, a stranger appeared at our front door, and I heard his introduction clearly: “I am Captain Hiroyoshi Mikami of the Imperial Army Air Force.” Moments later he had removed his shoes and crossed our threshold. Having escorted him to our western-style reception room, our maid Reiko padded quickly off to inform my father.
My father, a well-known contractor and most affluent man in On- omichi, continued his leisurely bath and directed my mother to entertain our new visitor. Later he emerged to extend the formalities of introduction while mother retired to supervise the maid’s preparation of ban no
shokuji, our evening meal.
Meanwhile, I hovered furtively outside the guest room, certain that the visit signalled something highly portentous, listening nervously while my father and the captain exchanged the customary pleasantries, politely discussing the irrelevant, punctuating their sentences with a soft and courteous sibilance.
“Winter is at last upon us,” the captain observed.
“Indeed, that is so,” my father replied and slurped his ocha in a well bred manner.
After they had conversed at length on matters of little significance, it was time for our meal. Mother had planned sukiyaki, and the captain had, of course, been invited to dine with us.
As we sat upon our cushions surrounding the low, circular dinner table, the maid bustled attentively back and forth while Tomika, my sister, probed at the glowing coals with a slender pair of prongs. Mother, arranging and sugaring the beef slices with great care, half whispered, “Where is the shoyu” and Reiko hastened to the kitchen conveying much humility and murmuring plaintive, little apologies for her dereliction.
At times I peered at Captain Mikami, very covertly, always averting my gaze whenever his eyes fell upon me, eyes that reminded me of chipped obsidian. Penetrating, unnerving.
Throughout our meal only the two men conversed, the rest of us merely conveying our existence by faint, careful smiles and slight, courteous head bows whenever their remarks drifted our direction. In addition, however, I sensed an unusual atmosphere of restraint, of apprehension—especially on the part of my mother and sister Tomika. All of which only magnified my own.
Father and the captain spoke tediously about many things, and little of what was said held my attention excepting their comments upon the war, especially regarding the condition of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and other key islands. Speaking of Guadalcanal. My father reiterated the firmly entrenched conviction of many others at the time: that the departure of our troops from that area had not been a retreat but rather a “strategic withdrawal.” Most assuredly, it was not an enemy triumph!
Mikami strongly confirmed this view, discussing the great valor of our military men and their leaders at some length. As for the increased bombing of our homeland, he emphasized another common belief: our noble militarists had actually known from the onset that this would happen. Consequently, there was no need for dismay. Such an eventuality had been taken into account long before our assault on Pearl Harbor. Inevitable, yes, but we were prepared materially, in mind and spirit as well, for any form of retaliation to which the enemy might resort. Ultimately, unquestionably, our divinely ordained empire would triumph. The only alternative was unthinkable.
At last our dinner was over and I was invited to join the two men in our guest room. There, at last, our visitor’s courteous evasion yielded to military directness. For a moment his dark eyes searched mine. Then, turning to my father, he said, “Kuwahara-san, you have an honorable son.” I felt a sudden surge of pride. “Your son has already gained acclaim that few people his age, if any, have ever achieved.”
Father bowed slightly in humility and assent. “Domo arigato.”
“He is one of whom his esteemed father and our noble empire can be proud.” Again, I received his glance. “Indeed, he can bring great honor to the family of Kuwahara.” Something began to ferment inside me, a sensation much like that which I had felt at the onset of my national glider competition. I gazed at the tatami in great humility.
“So desu ka,” my father replied, attenuating the first word gutturally, feigning profound wonderment and modesty. Again the bow, one more pronounced than the first. “Domo arigato gozai mashita” he added quietly, expressing his thanks and acknowledgement in the fullest, most formal fashion.
“Our gracious and esteemed Emperor and our honorable leaders at the Daihonei,” Captain Mikami continued, referring to the Imperial Military Headquarters in Tokyo, “are seeking such young men, as you must know, young men with allegiance to His Imperial Majesty, with talent and devotion to their country. . . men who will fly like avenging eagles against the enemy.”
For an instant my glance flicked from the straw tatami at my feet to my father. His eyes contained a gleam I had never seen before, and he nodded. “Indeed that is so. It is good that we have such men, and the time has arrived for us to strike with our might—with great power like the winds from heaven.”
“Hai!” The captain concurred with marked force and abruptness then paused solemnly. “As you may have supposed, I am here at your most gracious and hospitable domicile as a special representative of The Imperial Army Air Force.”
Beaming once more with carefully calculated surprise, my father again replied, “Ah so desu ka!”
Throughout the conversation, Captain Mikami directed very few remarks at me personally, but I felt my insides begin to burn as he spoke of enlistment requirements for the Air Force and the various schools available depending upon one’s performance and qualifications.
During those moments, it was impossible to assess my own feelings. Ever since the war’s onset I had contemplated joining the Air Force. How many hours, days and nights, had I dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot, one of consummate skill and daring who knew no equal! How often had I envisioned myself plummeting from a golden sky to destroy and demoralize our hated American enemies! How many heroic air battles had Tatsuno and I conjured up together, battles wherein we inevitably sent our adversaries to a fiery death in the ocean! The sky, the water, the land—all waiting beneficently to help assure triumph.
But here now was reality, and in its abruptness my heart faltered. I had sensed my mother’s growing uneasiness all during our dinner, Tomika’s as well, and now I felt a great foreboding. It flowed over me like an icy wind.
Suddenly I realized that the captain was addressing me personally. My heart jolted. “So now, what are your feelings regarding this matter?” He waited, and I struggled to speak, faltered. . . and failed. For a moment I nearly gagged. Both men watched me intently, but I could not force out a single word.
“Take a few minutes to consider” Captain Mikami said at last. “I will wait.” His tone was stern.
A few minutes! Suddenly I felt ill. Running my hands over my face and hair, I felt the sweat on my palms, felt more strongly my father’s vexation and humiliation. The room had become stifling. Smiling wanly, I mumbled, “Please excuse me. I will go get a drink of water.” It was a feeble response, and my face was burning as I left the room. A part of me had wanted to assure the captain that I needed no time to consider such a request. No real man would waver, feel his throat freeze and experience such coldness of soul. In the tradition of bushido, the samurai code of valor and chivalry, he would celebrate the glory of death, saying, “I rejoice in the opportunity to die for my country. It fills me with intense humility to have been so honored by my Emperor.” But I was more boy than man. I wanted my mother.
Swiftly I went to her room only to find it empty. Softly I called her name but received no answer. Thinking that perhaps she was sitting outside in the cold by our garden, I slipped into the night and called again. A full moon was rising above the bearded hillside, its light flooding over the top of our garden wall in a silvery glow. Beyond, through the trellised gateway, the road was still in shadow, stretching away in darkness and mystery, flecked by the distant orange glow of a lantern. The night was cold and expectant as though awaiting snow, utterly silent.
Glancing upward, I saw a light in an upstairs window and quickly entered the house, ascending the steep stairway. There in my room, seated cross-legged on the futon, was Tomika. My photo album was opened in her lap, and she was examining it with marked intensity. “Where is Mother?” I asked.
She glanced up, eyes glistening. “Mother has gone out,” she replied, “for a walk.”
Curiously I gazed at her, momentarily forgetting the urgency of my situation. “Tomika, what’s the matter?” Gently I reached down and touched her lustrous, black hair. “Is something wrong?” Simultaneously I realized that she had opened my album to the photo taken when I won the glider championship—my own face warmed in a smile of triumph. Then a tiny tear drop spattered directly across that smile.
Whenever my sister cried, her round, rather moon-like countenance was transformed into something ethereal. “Tomika,” I half whispered. “What’s the matter? Why are you crying?” I sat down beside her, awkwardly placing my arm around her shoulders.
Thrusting the album aside, she seized my free hand, squeezing it almost painfully. Her gaze gradually lifted to meet my own, and she began shaking her head. “My little brother. . . my little brother.”
Something in my throat pained sharply, becoming very dry and large. It was as if a thumb were pressing against my windpipe. “Tomika,” I choked, “what can I do?” Suddenly I clapped my hands over my face, inhaling deeply. That way the tears wouldn’t come so easily.
Then her arms were around me, her cheek against mine. “No, no, no,” she repeated. “Not my little brother. They can’t have you—you’re only a baby!”
The final words jolted me, and I thought of my friends, especially Tatsuno. What would they think of me? Such a craven, maudlin display! Worse still, I thought of the captain and my father downstairs, waiting—most impatiently, my father suffering much loss of face. Both doubtless convinced by now that I was a sniveling coward.
“I’m hardly a baby Tomika” I replied angrily.
She sought to pull me closer, but I thrust myself free. A baby! For an instant I hated her. “I’m not a baby, Tomika—I’m a man! I’m fifteen years old! How can you call me a baby when I am the greatest glider pilot in Japan?”
“I. . . I didn’t mean it that way,” she murmured.
“Don’t you realize, Tomika, that tonight I am being greatly honored—by the Emperor himself?”
“Yes,” she replied softly, “I know that very well. You will even die for the Emperor.” Then we were weeping together.
Moments later I broke free, totally demoralized. Scarcely realizing what I was doing, I stumbled downstairs to the bathroom sink and began dousing my face and neck in cold water. When I looked at my eyes in the mirror they were bloodshot, my entire countenance weak and distressed. Horrified, I doused my face again, then gently patted it dry with a towel.
In a near agony of embarrassment, I returned to my father and the captain. As I entered the room, their gazes seemed to combine, appraising me sternly, fixedly, in utter silence. I forced a frozen smile, struggling to speak. Captain Mikami’s stare was unwavering.
Again, I struggled, faltering. It was as if I were on the brink of an abyss, hemmed in by countless enemies, knowing that there was no alternative but to jump or be hurled head-long.
“Well, my son?” Father said.
Bowing to the captain, I stammered. “I must apologize for. . . for such extreme inconvenience. I wanted to inform my mother of this extraordinary honor.” I groped for the words. “But, apparently she has gone somewhere.” No response from either of them, merely their combined, unrelenting stare.
“Please forgive me for this extreme inconvenience. . .” I struggled onward, ashamed that I was repeating myself, but finally the words came with more fluency and conviction. “I am greatly honored to accept your splendid and generous offer in behalf of our glorious Emperor.”
A muscle to one side of my father’s mouth twitched slightly, but I could see the relief in his eyes, in the very expansion and coloration of his pupils.
The captain gave a quick nod, face still expressionless. “That is good,” he said.
Immediately I felt a profound sense of relief. I had not betrayed my father, after all. Nor had I betrayed my country. Without further comment, Captain Mikami opened a leather case, producing the enlistment forms. “Please read these,” he said and laid them before us on the table.
“Hai!” Father spoke quietly, expelling the word in an abrupt little explosion, and began to scrutinize the document with great care. I tried to do so as well, but for some reason the words would not focus.
At length Father glanced up. “Do you find the terms satisfactory?” the captain inquired.
“Hai!” Father nodded.
“Very good,” the captain said. “So you will kindly sign here.” He pointed with a slender, tan finger. “Your son will sign there.” Father arose to obtain his personal, wooden stamp, returned and pressed it against his ink pad, then firmly in the spot designated, an indelible, orange oval with its special markings against the stark white of the document: “Kuwahara, Zenji.” Then I signed my own beneath it: Kuwahara, Ya – suo. And there they were—our signatures—indelible and irrevocable. The formalities were over, and there was no turning back, nor in reality had there been from the moment Captain Mikami appeared some two hours earlier.
“Hiro Air Base—desu ka?” Father noted.
Captain Mikami gave a single downward nod. “Hiro, yes.” For an instant he actually smiled. “He will be close to home—only fifty miles away. He will enjoy his days at Hiro immensely and receive a splendid education.” I had not even comprehended enough of the document to note my place of assignment, but it was comforting to realize that throughout my training I would be close to my family.
Now, however, it was time for the Captain to leave. “You have made a wise decision,” he said as we accompanied him to the door. Seconds later
we were bowing, exchanging sayonara, and he vanished into the night.
For some time afterward my father and I sat together, gazing out our window at the surrounding hills and moon-washed sky. Father had been a lieutenant in the army years before and related some experiences from his days in China that I had never heard before.
Shigeru, one of my older brothers, was with the Army Counter Intelligence in Java, while the other, Toshifumi, was a dentist in Tokyo and had not yet been inducted. “It is very good to have worthy sons in the service of their nation and family,” Father told me. “And you, Yasuo, will bring the greatest honor of all.”
“Domo arigato,” I replied, feeling very humble and surprised. A transport plane was crossing the sky, lights blinking from its wing tips, the alternations of red and green making it appear to move strangely along its course in immense skating motions. We continued to watch, listening, as its light and sound gradually faded into the distance. “A few months from now you will undoubtedly be flying a plane of your own,” my father observed and actually placed his hand on my shoulder.
“I hope so,” I replied.
“But not one like that.” His tone was commanding.
“No, not one like that. I have always wanted to become a fighter pilot.”
Father nodded vigorously. His hand gripped my shoulder. “Most definitely!” He squinted one eye as though sighting in on a star and continued to nod his affirmation. “Yes, a fighter pilot. . . .” he mused at length. “I always wanted to be one myself, even though that form of warfare was very primitive back then. “There is something unique about a fighter pilot. Even the pilots of our fine new bombers—like the Suesei—cannot compare. A fighter pilot is the samurai of modern times. His aircraft is his sword; it ultimately becomes his soul.” The very thought made my scalp tingle.
“The fighter pilot must work with others as part of a team,” Father continued, “but he also has the best chance of becoming an individualist. He can do more for our Emperor than a thousand foot soldiers. With courage he can gain great honor, perhaps more than anyone in the military. And you do have courage, Yasuo, my son.” Again his hand gripped my shoulder.
“I hope so,” I replied.
“You do have courage! You have courage!” This time his hand literally hurt. “The family of Kuwahara has always had courage. No one has more noble ancestors!”
“That is so,” I acknowledged, and glanced at his profile from the corner of my eye: a strong chin tilting slightly upward, a nose a bit like the beak of a falcon, eyes that seemed to glow from the moon.
“You will defend your home and country,” he assured me, “and you will see the day when the Western Powers are driven back in great ignominy across the Pacific. In time The Imperial Way will sweep like a mighty tide across that land. They will suffer a resounding defeat, and you will play your part in that defeat.” An inspiring thought, but one that also taxed my faith. I was, after all, only fifteen, a boy who an hour earlier had wept like a girl in the arms of his sister. The thought made me cringe.
“It may take many months,” I said hesitantly. “The West has large armies and navies, many aircraft.”
“That is true,” Father admitted a bit irritably. It will not be accomplished overnight, but you must always remember, Yasuo, that physical size and material might are secondary. It is the great determination and valor of Yamato damashii, the spirit of the samurai, that will prevail in the end.” I nodded, buoyed up by the power of his conviction.
“Consider, for example, the thousands of Americans we have already taken prisoner,” he persisted. “Thousands of them!” Turning, he stared directly into my eyes. “But how many of our men have surrendered to the Americans?”
How proud I was to have my father converse with me in this manner. How honored! Almost as though we were equals. “Very few,” I replied.
“That is correct. A mere handful! You see?” His chin jutted imperiously, lips forming a sneer. “The Americans lose a few men and they become terrified, utterly demoralized and surrender. Our prison camps are fairly bursting with cowardly, pitiful Americans.” He shrugged. “Of course, a few of them are brave. It is foolish to underestimate the enemy.” I nodded, attending to his every word, the slightest nuance. “But look at it this way. Suppose for a moment that one hundred American infantry men were pitted against a much larger force of our own men on a small island. How many of those Americans would have to be killed before the rest would surrender?”
“Not more than ten, I would guess.”
Father shook his head reluctantly. “Well, it would probably take more than that in most cases—possibly twenty-five or even thirty.” He paused, squinted, angling a reflective glance at the moon. It had risen considerably, changing from celestial white to a faint yellow. “On the other hand, supposing the situation were reversed. . . . How many of our own men would have to die before the rest surrendered?”
“They would never surrender!” I exclaimed, surprised at my on certitude.
“So you see?” Father replied triumphantly. Our only men ever taken captive are those who have been wounded so severely they cannot defend themselves—or those unconscious from loss of blood. Therefore, as I have explained, it is not merely a matter of physical and material strength. It is a matter of courage, determination, of spiritual strength! It is for this reason thatJapan will prevail, thatJapan will triumph.” Again the pause. Again, his gaze absorbed my own. “Do you understand, my son?”
In response, I nodded, half bowed. “Yes, my father, I understand.”