The Parting of Miyagame
evere though it had been, the punishment of the first two weeks was negligible compared to what came later. As our conditioning improved, the daily running regimen increased from two or three to five miles. Eventually we were running over eight miles, and those who fell behind were bludgeoned with rifle butts.
During taiko binta, instead of exchanging fist blows in the face, we now used shoes with hob nails, and the face of every trainee bore lacerations and rips, especially around the comers of the mouth. One man in the adjoining barracks nearly lost an eye. Except for Sundays, the torment was almost incessant.
By the first month’s end many in our group were breaking emotionally, beyond remedy. Continual pain, continual humiliation, continual pressure. Endless stress! It could not be endured forever. The two remaining months of basic training loomed like centuries. I did not believe it possible that all of us could survive. And I was right.
Early in the second month six men from our original group deserted. They scaled the barbed wire enclosure and fled only to be captured a short while later. One of them remained free for several days, hiding in the mountains, stealing vegetables from the farms by night. Then he was apprehended by the civilian police near his home in Hongo City. In order to verify his identity, they delivered him to his family. What ignominy! “We are sorry,” the police explained, “but this man has betrayed his country, and we have no recourse but to return him to Hiro.” He was then led away in handcuffs.
Deserters from all branches of the military were sent to army stockades where they were at the mercy of the vicious MP’s. Reports had reached us, in fact, that prisoners were often tortured to death with no recourse whatever to justice and a fair trial. Stockade authorities simply lied with impunity fabricating reasons for the demise of those they killed. They were rarely questioned.
For all of us, time squirmed by with the speed of an earthworm, but those who didn’t collapse under the ordeal were gradually becoming tougher, hardened in both mind and body. Somehow we made it through the gristmill of the second month. Two thirds of our basic training was behind us now, and that imparted encouragement.
During my weeks at Hiro I had grown a bit and was grimly satisfied, even proud, that I had withstood some of the worst they had to offer. I was one of the best in calisthenics and endurance running, and I continued to excel at glider practice along with my other training classes. I had now acquired several friends who seemed impressed with my former accomplishments as national glider champion, and the news was being spread. No denying, I enjoyed the recognition, and my general outlook was rapidly improving. Then came a shock that left me demoralized for days. One evening, having just polished my boots, I strolled to the latrine. As I approached the door, however, a recruit informed me that it was locked. “Out of order, I guess,” he said and wandered off.
Feeling an urgent need to enter, I seized the door knob, turning it and giving a vigorous shove. “Anybody in there?” I called. No answer. Maybe, I decided, The Snake had locked it simply to create a little more confusion and discomfort. It was definitely the sort of trick he might pull.
I called again. No answer, but the lock was a flimsy one, and my need for relief was quickly increasing. Glancing about to insure that no one was watching, I reared back on one leg and crashed my boot heel against the lock. It creaked and the door shuddered. Once again,
I glanced about, then assaulted the lock even harder. This time it gave, and the door fell open.
I entered hastily, leaving the light off, Almost simultaneously, I collided with someone. . . something. “Pardon me,” I mumbled. No answer. Something, a presence, seemed to loom before me in the dark. Backing toward the door, I blurted, “Who is it? What’s wrong?” Someone was there. I had touched someone, felt human flesh. Yet he simply remained there in frozen silence like a madman. Roiling darkness, the stench, the silence. . . all mingled ominously.
Groping for the wall switch, I flipped it on. The light exploded revealing a limp figure, dangling from the rafter by a rope. The rope was knotted around his neck, and he was still swinging slightly from our contact.
This was my first direct encounter with death. The face was purple and bloated, the eyes bulging slightly and egg white with no sign at all of the irises. In my shock I failed to recognize him. Then the realization enveloped me. Miyagame, a recruit I had talked to more than once. Yes, I remembered now. . . always quiet and withdrawn, rather frail. Yes, Miyagame! The one that idiot hancho had cuffed before his family on visitors’ day.
He was still swinging, and I stared in horrified fascination. Stupefied, mesmerized. . . paralyzed in the clutches of a nightmare.
Back and forth. . . back and forth. . . . Then came the panic. Maybe, maybe, by some remote possibility he was still alive. Somewhere in that graying flesh there might be a tiny pulse of life. I was wasting precious time! Stumbling backward, I whirled and rushed into the nearest barracks. “Quick, give me your trench knife!” I commanded a startled recruit.
“Nani?” He blinked at me stupidly. “What is it?”
Seizing the knife in its sheath on the pack atop his locker, I shouted, “There’s somebody in the latrine—a dead man! Hanged himself!” The recruit arose from his seat on the cot, looking as though he had accidentally swallowed arsenic. “Come on,” I ordered. “Help me for god’s sake!” Dumbly he followed, and I had the quick impression that he thought I’d gone mad.
Then he saw Miyagame and began to exclaim and mumble incoherently. “Cut the rope,” I said, and he complied as I hefted the limp body. An instant later the rope was severed, and Miyagame collapsed over my shoulder, staggering me. “Help me lay him down.” The recruit complied.
Feverishly, I turned the body on its stomach, straddled it, and began artificial respiration pressing rhythmically on his back as we had been trained to do. Minutes passed, how long I didn’t know. “You’re wasting your time, Kuwahara—he’s dead and gone,” a voice said. It was The Snake, and a dozen men were clustered about us.
Almost inaudibly someone murmured, “Anyway, he is happy now.”
Swiftly the news spread, and the following day I learned through Nakamura that Miyagame had left a letter addressed to his family, an apology for having dishonored them and begging their forgiveness for “dying ahead of you before my rightful time.” His final words read, “I await you in the next world.”
This was another breaking point for several in our group. Now only the fittest would survive. Miyagame’s suicide had evoked a terrible psychological effect. My own special glow of hope, pride, and strength vanished. What good would it do to grow strong, anyway? After basic there would simply be more punishment, more harassment, more humiliation. More and more and more. Then what, provided it ever ended? I would probably die for an Emperor who had never even heard the name Kuwahara, who would never have the faintest inkling of my existence.
My naive conception of heroism soured, putrefied. In its place was the bloated face of Miyagame with its blind, egg-white eyeballs. . . always swinging. Visions began to assert themselves, flashbacks of Miyagama being cuffed before his family, all of them burning with fear and shame. And always, after that, the dark, stinking latrine and the lifeless body. After Shoto Rappa, the inspections and ongoing punishment, I would lie face down on my cot, gripping my mattress, trying to exclude the visions I knew would come.
At times, I would jolt to wakefulness in the night as though falling.
At times I would cry out, bolting upright, staring wildly into the dark. Always the corpse that had once been Miyagame—swinging, swinging. . . always swinging. Tossing, moaning, clutching my mattress as though it were a raft on the waves, I would clamp my eyes desperately, only to embrace the vision more fiercely.
Eventually it began to fade, enshrouded in the mist of time, partly because others had decided to follow our friend. Watanabe, a recruit from my own quarters, went next in the same way. Then others, not only with ropes but also bayonets. One leaped off the water tower, crushing out his life on the asphalt assembly area below. Nine men from our original group of sixty took their own lives during my basic training.
Suicide! It was a way out, perhaps the only answer. Could it hurt any more to hang than to be bludgeoned with a rifle butt? Could it hurt more to impale one’s self on a bayonet than to hug a tree naked, clinging to the cold, rough bark while your back was lashed? Surely the bayonet, used properly, would be far more swift. Irresistibly, I began to toy with different possibilities, then to plan more seriously. Slashed wrists, I decided, would probably be the best way. Or maybe the jugular vein. Hone my trench knife to a fine razor edge. Then. . . . My obsession with Miyagame was being replaced by an obsession with Kuwahara.
Yet each day I could feel my body toughening, feel the swelling in my biceps, triceps, and deltoids as I performed my push-ups. I could now do one hundred push-ups perfectly. Perfectly, because anything less laid us vulnerable to the whip. I could do twenty perfect pull-ups—sit – ups indefinitely. Each day I felt the growing strength in my legs as we ran. Ten miles a day now, and always I heard my father’s voice calmly commanding me to return a man, a samurai.
No, I could not dishonor my father by taking the easy way out. Not my family, not the illustrious name of Kuwahara. Only two more weeks now, and spring was coming. The sunlight increased, daily, dazzling our eyes as we ran, transforming the distances into tantalizing patches of blue. Tiny lakes and ponds as blue as the sky that evaporated enchantingly as we drew near. Frustratingly . . . yet I felt that I could run forever. I could keep right on through life, the life that fate or the gods had decreed. Nothing could stop me now until my appointed time.
One week left. The punishment had reached its zenith, but the fittest had survived. We could not be vanquished, and The Pig had attained his grand objective. The end was nigh at hand, and we who had prevailed felt a powerful camaraderie. Nakamura was like a brother—frank, sometimes outspoken, courageous, yet also highly empathic. How I admired him. Oka and Yamamoto invariably lifted our spirits. Irrepressible, they always rallied, seeming to take strength from each other, then imparting it to the rest of us, even in the face of disaster. Gokudo—great pranksters, both of them—the ultimate extroverts.
By now, strangely enough, some of the punishment itself had become humorous. Occasionally, when our hancho were in their more mischievous moods, they would put us through routines that were far more ludicrous than painful. One of Sakigawa’s favorites was to have a recruit climb atop his wall locker where he would squat, legs crossed, arms folded like a meditative Buddah. He was then expected to maintain that position while one, sometimes two, hancho shook the locker violently, jarring and teetering it erratically with greater and greater energy. All this to the accompaniment of loud, almost deafening, metallic clanging and raucous laughter from everyone present. Sooner or later the hapless recruit would tumble to the floor, and anyone not agile enough by now to light on his feet was offered no pity and spared no scorn.
Occasionally also we were ordered to climb a tree near our barracks. We then had to roost there for ten or fifteen minutes, making high – pitched humming sounds like those of a cicada. This undertaking, like the preceding one was not only amusing to our hancho but also to the rest of us. I remember especially Oka laughing hysterically and slapping his leg while Yamamoto hummed piercingly away in the branches above.
"Ah jo!” The Snake growled, unable to stifle his own laughter, and the cuff was half hearted. “If you like it that much, you’d better try it yourself.” Oka promptly went up the tree like a squirrel, then perched near Yamamoto, wildly trying to out-hum him. It was indeed hilarious, and those unable to contain their laughter were also ordered up the tree. Soon the branches were clustered with recruits, myself included, all emitting the weirdest sound I have ever heard.
And now, as the end drew nigh our punishment diminished. Our initial trial by fire was over, and it was also rumored that the base commander wanted us to look hearty and healthy during our coming leave.
Remarkably, The Pig—Hancho Noguchi—whom many of us had sworn to kill, invited the men from the most outstanding barracks to his home in Kure for a sukiyaki dinner! Remarkably also, that barracks was my own! What a weird reversal! The man we had most dreaded, the man who had been largely responsible for our constant fear and misery, for the suicide of nine of our comrades, was now honoring us in his very home. We were respected guests!
Noguchi’s wife was surprisingly young and very lovely—a perfect hostess-and his two children, a boy and girl, ages five and seven, were charming. For nearly two hours we sat there on the tatami around a large, oval table while his wife filled our bowls again and again with her cuisine or replenished our sake cups.
Throughout it all, The Pig chatted pleasantly, occasionally cracking jokes at which we laughed most dutifully. Vainly I strove to comprehend this strange turn of events, the man’s new persona. For once he seemed perfectly genuine, and in none of his conversation could I detect the faintest sarcasm or sinister nuance.
When The Pig spoke of punishment, he addressed us as if we were confidantes who not only empathized but fully concurred. Wiping his mouth politely and sipping his sake, he confided “In one respect it is unfortunate that our trainees must undergo such duress. However—” His sigh seemed one of honest regret. “I myself have no recourse but to obey our commanding officer, while he, in turn, must obey those above him. And so it goes all the way to our Imperial Military Headquarters, to the Daihonei. The very foundation of a successful military operation is obedience, all along the chain of command.”
Pausing, he glanced down obliquely across his cheek bones, thrusting his chin out truculently. “Loyalty! Performance of one’s duty! No matter how formidable the requirement may appear. Even to the forfeiting of life itself. Indeed, the forfeiting of life becomes our grand and ultimate privilege.”
All of us nodded sagely. Then, in a somewhat lighter tone, he recurred to his earlier reflections regarding chain of command: “The Diahonei becomes unhappy with their commanding officers and reprimands them, the commanding officers become unhappy with those under them and do the same. And so it goes, on down to the hancho and non-coms. The hancho take it out on their trainees. . . and what do the poor trainees do, Kuwahara?” Firing an unexpected glance my way, he actually winked! I grinned bemusedly, shaking my head. “The trainee goes home on leave and kicks his dog!” he explained.
The Pig slapped his thigh, laughing uproariously, and the rest of us joined in. His beautiful wife tittered, a sound of enchantment, and glanced down shyly, placing a tiny, exquisite hand to her mouth. “So. . . .” he continued chewing a mouthful of sukiyaki rigorously and swilling in half a cup of sake to wash it down. “So, my friends, obviously punishment is indispensable. Indispensable! It is the oil that makes the machinery work.” Another great mouthful with the chop sticks, another draught of sake. I was beginning to understand, in more ways than one, how The Pig had acquired his name.
“Sad to say, very few are born with the true spirit of Yamato. His eyebrows leapt, eyeballs swelling in mock amazement. “Ah hah! Does that disturb you?” Noguchi continued to devour his food for some time without further comment, and it appeared that he had lost his trend of thought. But not so. “You acquire that spirit! You earn the samurai spirit through much hardship! By responding to that hardship with grand and glorious fortitude, until ultimately you attain. . . .” The dramatic pause this time was most marvelous to behold, extraordinarily impressive.
The word was like a thunder clap, a revelation, and suddenly the blood in my veins had turned to liquid fire. “So now,” he continued very quietly. “Have I been cruel to my shinpei!” Or have I rendered them an inestimable service?” For a long time he stared into the dark, lacquered surface of the table, lips pursed in profound introspection. What he sought there, what he might descry, I did not know.
Then to my utter and ultimate astonishment, I detected a tiny drop of moisture coursing down his cheek. A tear? Could that possibly be so? Or merely a drop of sweat? The night was exceptionally warm and humid. “You must be the judge.” His voice was scarcely audible. “The manner in which you answer that question will determine your future. . . your destiny.”
Noguchi discussed the matter no further that evening. Instead, he spoke of philosophy, poetry, of music. His home was filled with books, also what appeared to be costly paintings, and he expatiated upon a wide variety of subjects with impressive ease and insight. His wife then graciously played the koto, singing in a quivering, haunting, at times exquisitely lyrical, voice that caused my skin to tingle. First, the popular Kojo-no-tsuki then an ancient song I had never heard before.
There in that dimly lit room, the flowers on her kimono seemed to glow with enchantment and mystery, and the shadows on her face and hands had turned to quiet green. Half closing my lids, I watched the curve of her cheek, the delicate nostrils, how her brow vanished in the ebon flow of her hair. By squinting, I could make her hair blend with the darkness, leaving only the face, the moving lips, and line of her neck.
Glancing at the others, I realized that they too were spellbound. I watched the woman’s graceful fingers moving along the koto strings as it lay on the table before her like the coffin of a young child. And by wishing very hard, I could obliterate everyone else in the room. Noguchi, my comrades. . . all gone. Now we were alone together, and soon, I would draw close, looking into those liquid eyes. And when the songs had faded, she would slowly gaze at me, her face full of sorrow and immense longing, of tender inquiry. Then. . . then, her lips would flow and arch in welcome, barely exposing the white of her teeth. Her hand, her heavenly hand, would reach out across the still-vibrant strings of the koto to touch my own, and the intonations would blend within us.
But now, the music had ended. It was time to go, and we were bowing to The Pig, our gracious host, thanking him profusely. . . bowing, bowing. His wife, in turn, was bowing to us, laughing with the shrill, tinkling notes of a little girl, notes that were also ripe and womanly. Her laughter was not of amusement but rather the laughter of graciousness. Again, she acknowledged each of us with a bow as we filed out—each of us exactly the same.
She was unaware of how close I had sat beside her, how she had reached out to me when no one else was there.