o now, at last, my basic training was over. On the one hand it seemed that time had evaporated, as though I had only arrived a few days ago. On the other, in light of all that had happened, it seemed that I had been at Hiro for a great while, an entire year at least.
More importantly, one way or another, I had done it. They had not broken me. At times they had come close, admittedly, but somehow I had clung on through worse trials than I could have previously imagined. I had prevailed.
On the morning our leave commenced, Hiro’s Commanding Officer assembled us on the parade ground for a brief graduation address. He spoke quite generously of our accomplishments, what we had learned and why. We had been drilled daily in the basics of combat, and we were no longer the timid, whimpering juveniles of the first few weeks. We could withstand pain, and now we could not be defeated in battle without great difficulty. It was, he admitted, unfortunate that some had died, but those deaths had served a good purpose, all been part of the grand design to toughen the rest of us. Those deaths had also helped us to realize that the weakest were always the most expendable.
A light mist was lacing the base that morning, but as our commander spoke, it dispersed, revealing the rising sun. The rising sun! Surely it was an omen. Our commander was a small man, but vigilant and intense, like a finely honed razor, and his entire bearing reflected confidence and power. Each gesture was unique, memorable, emphatic.
We watched as the sun gathered about him, gleaming from the eagle insignias upon the visor of his cap and upon his lapels. When he had finished, fifty basic trainees chanted the main precepts of the Imperial Rescript without error. As our words poured forth I could hear the throb of planes in the distance—the two sounds merging and expanding, a symbol of our new-found strength. Suddenly I was part of something grand, something of immense and indescribable significance. There in the rising sun, I knew that the Imperial Way would not fail. I knew that it was destined to encompass the earth.
So now, it was over. I was returning to Onomichi on my two-day leave before flying school. My family and several friends were gathered at the train station for the long-awaited welcome. “Toshifumi will be here this evening to see you!” Tomika babbled joyfully.
“Toshifumi? All the way from Tokyo, just to see me?” I exclaimed.
“Well, perhaps your brother will at least say hello to the rest of us,” Father said. That was the closest he ever came to levity, and we all laughed heartily. Life at that moment was too good to be real. Two whole days, blessed days, with my family, my relatives, my friends. And upon my return to Hiro, it would not be as a green and helpless shinpei. I would be prepared.
Our home had never looked so beautiful. It was nearing the end of April, and the cherry trees in our back yard were blossoming—ev – erywhere throughout the entire area, tiny celestial explosions of white blossoms. The garden walls were wreathed in multi-colored azaleas, and the fields were turning bright green. It was difficult to believe that we were at war, under attack, and that soon I would be a participant.
Upon entering the house, I visited briefly with my family, talked in general, rather evasively, about life at Hiro. Then I headed for the bath. Minutes later I was seated on a short-legged stool in theyudono vigorously
soaping myself when Tomika called to me outside the door. “Brother,” her voice chimed, “Do you want to have your back washed?”
“Yes!” I called. It seemed more fitting than ever that a woman should wash my back now. After all, I had become a man. I hunched over, hugging my knees as she entered, exposing only my rounded back. What occurred next was totally unexpected.
Tomika gasped, crying out. “Yasuo, what have they done to your back?” I had momentarily forgotten about the lash marks, but it was good to have her make something of the matter.
“Oh, that’s nothing at all. Those are merely reminders of a little game we learned,” I replied.
Unfortunately, my words were not to be passed off so lightly, and I had not anticipated their full effect. Concern, certainly, but my sister softly traced her fingers over the wounds then burst into tears. “My brother, my own little brother!” she wept.
“Tomika, I’m all right,” I insisted. “Stop crying, it’s all right!” The weeping continued. “Stop, I can barely even feel them. I hardly even flinched when they—” The wrong words, and I had cut them off too late. Tears flowing down her cheeks, Tomika stumbled into the adjoining alcove and cast herself onto the tatami wailing.
Hearing the commotion, Mother rushed into the room with an expression of great alarm. “What’s wrong?” she exclaimed.
“It’s nothing Mother,” I replied, almost angrily. “Just a few sores on my back.” Mother cautioned Tomika to be silent, peered in at me in shocked silence. Upon entering, she began soaping my back very gently. Then she scooped a little water from the steaming bath with the wooden dipper and cautiously poured a small amount on one shoulder.
“Atsui?” she asked.
“Hai” I admitted, “a little hot,” and caught my breath as the water trickled down my back into the drain. The scars were still very new and tender, a blend of pink and gray-blue, the color of earthworms.
Gently mother laid a scented towel over my back, pouring the water through it with even greater care. “All right? Better?”
“Hai!” I nodded, “much better. It was a procedure she had followed many times before when I was a child, and it brought me great comfort.
By now Tomika had regained her composure, but her cheeks still glistened. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “It was just that—”
“I understand,” Mother intoned. “Everything’s going to be all right. Just be very careful, getting into the bath, Yasuo. It may be too much for those tender, sore areas.” A tear sparkled in her own eye. Shortly thereafter they left me to my bath. “Just be very careful getting in,” Mother repeated.
Cleansed and rinsed, restored to complete privacy for the first time since I had departed that winter, I eased into the waiting cauldron. I gasped as the water accosted my first lash mark. The scar seemed to writhe and cry out with a life of its own, almost renewing the pain of its origin. But, after all, I told myself, I had learned to withstand much worse trials, and I refused to be denied my bath. It was something I had dreamed of almost every night after our punishment was over.
Grimacing, and gritting my teeth, I lowered myself with utmost care, inch by inch, lash by lash, feeling the pain renew itself then dissipate. Eventually, after several minutes, I was in up to my neck, the pain ebbing, replaced by pleasure. . . bliss, euphoria. Langorous. . . exhausted beyond measure, I entered my own little nirvana.
Half an hour later, I emerged, barely able to drag myself from the water, lying there for a time, half in half out, as the cold floor restored reality. Weakly, I dried myself, donned myyukata and slippers and shuffled up the stairs to my room. For a moment I gazed from my window at the mountains. My eyelids closed as I kneeled there, clinging to the window ledge. I blinked, seeing a great gyrating flight of starlings, light glittering along their wings. Or was it merely dancing spots, a visual aberration, or hallucination?
No matter. My family and friends were gathering, and there was so much to say and do. So little time. But not now, for I was barely able to crawl beneath the futon, barely able to feel its caressing warmth, its infinite softness and lightness. Sleep was a dark and slowly whirling vortex that carried me irresistibly downward.
When I revived, the sun was beginning its descent, infusing my room with gold For a while I lay there blinking, yawned and stretched. The gold welled, achingly beautiful, and unexpectedly, without the slightest forewarning, I began to sob.
An instant later I heard my door glide partly open on its rollers. No mistaking Tomika’s excited whispers, but who was with her? Someone. Wiping my eyes against the futon, I bolted upright. And there he was, handsome and smiling, his hand on Tomika’s shoulder, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Toshifumi!” I cried. “You came! All the way from Tokyo!” I greatly hoped that he could not detect the moisture in my eyes.
Grinning more broadly, he squatted beside me and roughed my head. “Hello, hage channuf he said, referring to my ragged, close-cropped hair. “So now. . .” He was eyeing me quizzically, “You’ve changed. You’re almost a man.”
The word “almost” hurt, even made me a trifle angry, but I beamed back. “I hope so,” I said. Toshifumi again, after two whole years. He was not the same person who had so often grappled and cavorted with our brother Shigeru before the war. Now, dignified and handsome with a hawk-like profile, he looked more like father than ever. There was even a faint white streak in his hair—rare for a Japanese his age.
Following a brief visit, he went downstairs, leaving me to dress. An hour or so later my uncle and aunt arrived from Innoshima. My return was becoming quite an event, and despite the scarcity of food, Mother and Tomika had prepared a feast with all my favorite delicacies.
How touched I was by their devotion. Again, I struggled to restrain the tears. Never before had I felt such emotional fragility. In 1944, food was heavily rationed, and Mother and Tomika had walked two or three miles into the country the day before my return to obtain whole, polished rice from a farmer—a precious commodity which he refused to relinquish for mere money. Instead, Tomika had given him one of the beautiful and costly kimono which was to have been a part of her dowry. Then they had trudged all the way home, carrying the bags of rice on their backs.
An exceptional act of devotion, and I thanked them most earnestly. When I mentioned Tomika’s sacrifice she smiled and replied. “It is nothing, nothing at all. Anyway, by the time a man takes me for his wife I will have accumulated dozens of kimono”
“Oh come now!” Toshifumi chuckled, trapping a small pickle with his chop sticks and popping it into his mouth. ‘There are plenty of men
who would be elated to have you. Just wait!”
Tomika smiled wistfully, and her gaze fled to her lap. “I am waiting,” she said, “and I am already twenty-six years old.”
“Tomika shall have a husband in due course,” Father declared and proceeded with his food. “When we find one worthy—one of proper station.” He chewed methodically, sipped his tea. “But I refuse to consider that fawning. . . ah, what’s his name? For one thing, his gestures are effeminate in the extreme. I find them highly exasperating. Furthermore, his voice—”
“Must you humiliate your daughter before our relatives?” Mother chided. Her words reflected much courage, but before Father could reply, Tomika arose, hiding her burning face, making swift little steps toward the door.
“Tomika, come back here!” Father commanded. “I merely speak the truth—don’t be so touchy.”
After a moment Tomika returned and sat staring at her plate.
This was hardly the mood I had hoped for, and for the first time I actually felt vexed with my father. It was not my place to speak out, however, so I changed the subject. “By the way, where is Reiko?” I inquired.
“Oh, we had to let her go,” Mother answered quietly. She smiled at my aunt and uncle a bit ruefully. “Well, I mean it just seemed an extravagance with the war going on and on like this. . . and only the three of us at home now.”
“Yasuo,” my uncle said, “why don’t you share some of your experiences at Hiro with us? How did you like your training?”
I hesitated. “My training. . . .” I groped for words.
“My training was. . . challenging—highly educational.” Something of an understatement, of course, and everyone laughed as though we all shared an amusing secret.
Afterward, while our women attended to work in the kitchen and their own private concerns, the rest of us talked further of my training, of the war, the military experiences of my father and uncle, of Toshifumi’s dental practice in Tokyo.
That evening when my relatives had departed I received a visit from Tatsuno. During our separation he had sent me two letters, neither of
which I had answered. Obviously, there had been little opportunity for such things, but I certainly could have sent him a brief note. Somehow, though, each time I considered doing so something had stopped me. Probably it stemmed from my feeling that Tatsuno, despite his courage, was too sensitive for such an environment. He seemed too much like poor Miyagame, the recruit who had hanged himself in the latrine.
Nevertheless, he would soon be there and would have already arrived had he not torn the ligaments in his arm during a glider training mishap at school. Consequently, I felt obliged to offer him some advice. “It will be very hard,” I confessed, but remember that the first two months are the toughest, so start getting in condition right now. The stronger you are the easier it will be.”
“Hai!” he exclaimed and nodded vigorously.
“Seriously,” I said, “it will make a big difference. As soon as your arm’s better, start doing push-ups. Do them about five times a day and build up to at least fifty each set. And how’s your endurance? If you can double-time three or four miles when you go in, that will help a lot too.” I then stressed the importance of being respectful to his hancho and avoiding actions that would attract unnecessary attention.
“Remember not to make any noise no matter what when they hit you in the rear with a ball bat, or you’ll just get more. And don’t move. Just cling onto the rail and grit your teeth. And when they start to slam your face against the wall, just tilt your head forward a little. Not so it’s noticeable, though, or they’ll do it again twice as hard. “Just do it a little,” I persisted. That way you’ll get a bump on your forehead, but it won’t mangle your nose and mouth very much. And another thing. . . tell everybody in your barracks to write home and warn their families not to bring them special treats when they come to visit. If even one recruit gets something and tries to hide it, believe me, your hancho will find out, and there will be serious trouble.”
I decided to avoid the details, for suddenly Tatsuno’s face was gray. “I’m sorry,” I said, and felt guilty. On the other hand, I’d have felt far more guilty had I failed to prepare him in some measure. “You’ll get through it all right,” I assured him, trying hard to believe my own words. “Just take it one day at a time.” I shrugged. “After all, what about me? Don’t I look all right?”
“You look terrific,” he said. His tone sounded slightly envious. “But your face has quite a few sores and scars.”
“A few,” I admitted, “but I’m perfectly all right, and if I can make it through and come out this well, so can you. Besides, when we’re flying those fighter planes we’ll be tough as sumo wrestlers.”
Tatsuno laughed. “But not as big and fat.”
“Right—lean and hard, muscles from our toes to our nose! Seriously, we’ll be ready for anything.”
Tatsuno’s smile became mournful, the expression in his eyes uncertain. “Yasuo,” he said, “remember how we used to dream of flying together—fighter pilots, in the same squadron?”
“Of course,” I said, “and we will.”
Tatsuno shook his head. “I doubt it. You’re already too far ahead of me.”
“Well, we might not end up in the same squadron,” I admitted, “but we’ll both be flying—that’s what matters most.”
Again he shook his head. “Yasuo,” he said, “I’m afraid. I really wonder whether I can make it through that first three months.”
“You’ll make it,” I insisted. “Don’t you think I was afraid at first. Everybody is; I don’t care who. And three months seems like a long time in the beginning, but now I can’t believe where it’s gone. “You’ll make it through as well or better than I did. Then before you know it, you’ll be in fighter school.”
“It sounds good,” he said.
“It is good,” I persisted. “Besides, we’ve always been a winning team, haven’t we? We’ll be flying together yet, Tatsu-kun, I can feel it.”
“I hope so,” he said. “Well, I’d better let you get back to your family.” He gave me a pat on the shoulder and I clasped his forearm. “Thanks for coming, tomodachi.” I said. “You’re my best friend ever.”
“Arigato,” he said, “the same to you,” and started down the stairs. “See you later.”
“Right,” I nodded. “In the morning. I’ll be coming by the school.”
The sudden attention of family, relatives and friends was most gratifying, and I was fast becoming a hero. During my first day at home I had uttered all the patriotic platitudes that were expected. I had felt a powerful surge of determination and courage, and I was viewing the hell of basic in a different light.
Later that night, having talked again at length with Father and To- shifumi, I went to my room tingling with pride and elation. From my open window, I gazed at the rising moon. It hung there in the sky as it had the night of my first departure—evanescent and faintly glowing like a thin, silver bracelet. As I lay back and drifted off to sleep, Hiro seemed very remote, strangely unreal. For the moment I was totally at peace.
The following morning my school friends greeted me as though I had already performed deeds of great valor. Daily before classes a general assembly was held in the auditorium. During my visit, however, the announcements were dispensed with, and I was asked to address the students. The thought of speaking extemporaneously was frightening, but several insistent teachers ushered me forward amid much loud cheering and laughter.
To my surprise, I spoke rather easily for about ten minutes. I never mentioned The Pig, taiko binta, the deserters, or suicides. One simply did not refer to such things in public. Instead, I described the rigors of combat training, of the great conditioning, and talked of the classwork. I spoke of our divine heritage as sons and daughters of Nippon, of our future, and of the obligation of all able-bodied young men to serve their country. Closing, I bowed to a rousing ovation.
Our weathered old principal Hori-kacho then addressed us briefly in his familiar, quavering voice as follows: “This school is honored and proud to have helped mold such outstanding citizens. We will follow Yasuo Kuwahara’s future accomplishments with constant interest, and we will all rejoice as he continues to discharge his sacred obligation to our Emperor and to the glorious nation of Nippon. May all of you here today note with care his stellar example and follow in his path.”
I left Onomichi High School unaware that my next and only return would be under very different circumstances.
The remainder of that day I visited a few friends, one of whom was soon to enter the marines. Then I spent the final hours with my family, and we spoke for some time about my brother Shigeru. No word from him for weeks, and our concern was increasing. As a captain in the counter-intelligence in Java, he could reveal little regarding his work. A few months earlier, however, one of his rare messages indicated that he was well but also concluded as follows: “If you should not hear from me again, I will await your visit to the Yasukuni Jinja”—the national shrine for Japan’s military dead.
Shortly after supper we saw Toshifumi off on his train for Tokyo. My leave had vanished with inconceivable speed. I had barely found time to relax and breathe normally, and now it was over. Just before midnight I bid Tomika and Mother sayonara—for the third time in three months. Even though I was returning with greater confidence, the anxiety was mounting again, and I concluded that farewells never become much easier.
Father accompanied me to the station where, to my amazement, a crowd of some two hundred and fifty students were awaiting me, a brass band playing. Shouts arose at our approach, and a cordon of friends pressed in to clasp my hand and offer their best wishes. Father had never looked more proud.
I was also presented with gifts including the school pendant and several autographed flags of Japan. Some of those students had actually cut their own fingers and signed their names with blood in a token of eternal friendship. I was to wear these mementos as scarves into battle, and now only minutes remained.
“Well,” I said and glanced at the train nervously. “Maybe I’d better. .
“Yasuo!” someone called. It was Tatsuno, there on the crowd’s fringe, wriggling toward me. In a moment we were clasping each other like brothers. “I’ll be seeing you soon, Tatsuno-kun,” I said. “Don’t forget what I told you.”
“Speech, Kuwahara, speech!” someone bellowed, and several others chimed in.
“I gave my speech already,” I told them. “This morning!”
“Yes, but we need one now!” The band was playing “Light of The Firefly”—a bit blatantly and off key, but it brought back a tide of memories, and my eyes began to smart. Watching their smiling faces, I mumbled, “I hope many of you will follow me. Until then—sayonara”
The conductor’s voice was a plaintive, nasal twang, sounding departure amid the flurry of goodbyes from my friends. Moments later the train was click-clacking toward Hiro, gaining momentum, and I was still hearing my father’s parting admonition: “In all things be sure to conduct yourself with honor, my son. Remember now that your life is no longer your own. If you should ever fall into dishonor, do not return to bring unhappiness and shame upon us. Live proudly, fight gloriously. Should you die. . . I will have a grave prepared.” Gripping my hand fiercely and gazing into my eyes, he inquired, “Do you know my heart?”
As the train tunneled onward into the night I watched my own reflection in the window— a transparent ghost of myself through which I could see the receding lights of town. Suddenly I felt a profound need to remember everything, to lodge somewhere in my mind and heart a picture of the past. Family, friends, places. . . the ocean on a wintry day, fishermen with their nets, the sunlight and lofting winds of Mt. Ikoma, greening rice fields, the moon balanced upon our trellis, and the smell of azaleas. All that and much more—a poignant need to store it all away in some special place, safe from the ravages of war and the erosion of time.