Today in flower, tomorrow scattered by the wind – Such is our blossom life. How can we think its fragrance lasts forever?
Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi, Imperial Japanese Navy
The day you bring your family to the new home in the new country, your daughter Yuri is in a frenzy, running in and out of the rooms, into the front yard, out to the back, circling the kitchen. Together with your wife – a woman with soft curves and a rolling laugh – they fill up the house with female exuberance. At first you retreat from the shrill air, but you too are quietly excited at the prospect of so much space.
That evening, you show Yuri the Australian moon.
‘Back home, the rabbit in the moon is busy pounding rice cakes. But down here, the rabbit is napping. See how its back is slumped along the edge of the moon?’ you explain.
Yuri is attentive; her face luminous in the moon’s reflected glory, her upturned chin white and delicate like the underbelly of a lily. You might have hugged her then.
Would she have grown up to despise you if you had?
You remember holding her as a newborn. You did the clichéd counting of toes and fingers. You had hoped for a son though and had picked out only a boy’s name, Junichi. Jun meaning pure, and ichi meaning number one, first son. But your wife Michiko, with her gift of foresight, or was it her reluctance to trust her husband’s single-mindedness, had already chosen Yuri, made up of two kanji characters; the first meaning gentle, because she’s a girl, and the second, truth.
You were the first son, so your parents named you Hajime, meaning ‘beginning’. Great anticipation was built into that name, implying other sons to follow. There weren’t any. In the diary you began the day you went to war you wrote, ‘As the only child, I assume I was raised with great care.’
But you wrote to silence that doubt, persistent as a whispering shadow. Had the great anticipation soured to disappointment? Perhaps that’s why your parents allowed you to be ‘volunteered’ to join the Imperial Japanese Navy. To train to be a pilot in the Divine Wind Special Attack Force. You were sixteen.
You did not fly into death but does the divine spirit still live inside you? Is that what prompts you to recast the past, to hurt your way into history?
As you held your baby daughter in your arms, you tried out her name. Your lips formed around the gentle yu then ri, truth, and you realised her name was a kiss. You felt relief that she was a girl, that she would never go to war.
You might have cried then. You have shed so few tears in your life. Maybe one day the unshed will coalesce into one big tear that breaks and washes over everything.
You become a loyal company man, a clean-cut, suit-and-tied foot soldier of the magnificent narrative that is the post-war Izanagi economic boom, named after the male creationist deity. You think of yourself as a corporate warrior.
You are an outward looking internationalist, a man of commerce conquering new territories for a welcome brand of colonisation – trade. Japan has turned over a new leaf, and you, Hajime, are one of the vanguards of a repurposed, peaceful Japan.
When you move your family into what was once enemy territory barely twenty-five years before, you feel as though you’re entering an inevitable cycle of renewal.
The pathway I marked
when last year I made my way
into Yoshino –
I abandon now to visit
blossoms I have not yet seen.
YURI UNDERSTOOD NOTHING of what was being said in class those first few weeks. But that’s not what terrified her. It was the children, with their blonde locks and blue eyes.
She’d only ever seen such features on dolls, the ones her father brought back from his business trips. Sometimes she startled herself when they started talking to her. Yuri’s dolls never spoke in a language she didn’t understand, said things she didn’t want them to say.
She was also unsure of the meaning of freckles, never having seen them before. Two children in her class, a boy and a girl, had prominent smatterings on their cheeks and noses, like carefully laid veils of stencilled brown circles.
One day, she saw the boy pick his nose and eat it. No Japanese kids ever did that, thought Yuri. A few days later, she saw the girl pick and eat too. Yuri concluded that once ingested, they end up as permanent stains on the skin.
This was an important discovery for seven-year-old Yuri. She had peeled back a veil of meaning and a truth had been revealed. She felt she could now formulate her own thoughts, order the world around her. Luckily, she wasn’t the kind of girl to believe that once a truth is revealed, it is a truth forever.
MICHIKO SAW HERSELF as the quintessential Japanese woman, demure on the surface, unyielding in the core, the kind of woman held firm by tradition. Perhaps that’s why she missed the seasons. It was now mid-autumn but the backyard was drenched in sunlight, devoid of shadows. The gardener was out there mowing the lawn in his shorts and navy blue singlet.
He amused her, the gardener, Mick. He came once a week smelling of warm sweat and roast lamb. To Michiko, all Australians had the faint whiff of meat about them. The Japanese were supposed to smell like miso. At least it wasn’t fish, she thought.
She was surprised to see the persimmon tree standing so resplendent in suburban Sydney, much like the one in her childhood garden back in Tokyo. But what was this vine called passionfruit? Mick had shown her how to scoop out the wrinkly purple shells of their fish egg-like pulp, a burst of tangy yellow, such comical fruit, thought Michiko, like an involuntary laugh that didn’t require a joke.
The vine stayed green all year, fruited twice. Perhaps she could get used to living season-less. She’d gotten used to the arranged marriage to a typically brash Kansai man from Osaka, though his casual reticence seemed cold at first. But would she ever get used to her daughter changing so fast, into a gaijin, a little foreigner?
Shortly after starting school, Yuri asked her mother to pack Vita-Weats with butter and jam for lunch. Until then, it had been rice balls with salted fish wrapped in dried seaweed or sweet fried tofu pockets filled with sushi rice. One of her classmates had turned her nose up at the fried tofu, calling it ‘chicken skin’ prompting Yuri to abandon culinary aesthetics for culinary conformity.
Crackers for lunch? How unappetisingly bland. Michiko sighed, realising her daughter was only moulding herself to her milieu. Around this time she turned her attention to the persimmons.
The tree hung heavy with glossy, teardrop shaped fruit that were the pucker inducing astringent shibugaki that tasted like dry fur sprouting inside the mouth. To make them sweet, Michiko steeped them calyx-side down in saké for two weeks to exorcise the culprit tannins, just like her mother had done, before the firebombing of Tokyo incinerated the tree and their house, five months before the other bombing that ended history.
Unlike her mother’s, Michiko’s persimmons never sweetened. She threw them out. The following year, she did the same; a ritual to punctuate the year, much like the seasons.
HAJIME LIKED TO record everything for posterity. His prized possession was a Canon Auto Zoom 518 Super 8 movie camera. With it he shot the house, the garden, the dog down the road chasing cars. He went to the beach to shoot the waves. He fancied himself as an amateur documentary filmmaker.
One day, he decided to film Australian history, so he dragged Yuri to Botany Bay. No one was around so he filmed her waving. It looked like she was patting the horizon. A few weeks later was Anzac Day. Hajime imagined the march of straight-backed Australian veterans, World War I stoicism on parade. Surely that was worth filming.
The crowd was smaller than expected. Hajime found a good position very close to Martin Place. The marching men had puffed-up chests, like eagles. A boy, about Yuri’s age tried to push in front of him, but he was so engrossed in movie making, he quickly lost his balance, falling sideways, protecting his camera. He hit the ground hard, his glasses cracking, his face bleeding. The boy stared with big clear eyes. The curiosity of the innocent.
A man moved through the crowd and helped him up. Someone else was brushing him down, asking if he was okay. Yuri was crying, the march moved on. As he walked away, Hajime thought he heard someone mutter, ‘He’s a bloody Jap.’
YURI THREW HERSELF into school work, leaning her whole body into the pursuit of knowledge like a torpedo levelled at a target. In fourth grade, she was placed in class 4A, with the smart kids who could spell big words like ‘sovereign’ and ‘responsibility’. In 4A she met her first best friend, Alison. A skinny girl with sharp features, more fox than bird, Ally was the one to set Yuri straight about the freckles. ‘They’re caused by the sun, don’t you know?’
Yuri liked to imitate Ally – the way she wore her uniform tunic with the belt pulled tight and her affectations, like clucking her tongue to express disapproval, or rolling her eyes in mocking contempt, mostly at boys. That was the core of their pact of friendship, a dedicated antipathy directed at the other sex.
Yuri’s favourite class was social studies. She especially liked the big project books with the faintly lined page on the left and the blank page on the right for drawings. When she opened the page, she felt like she had the full respect of its crisp blankness. Yuri also believed in very sharp pencils.
For her project on Japan, she got nineteen out of twenty. Yuri was in her element, drawing a woman in a kimono with multi-petalled gold chrysanthemums cascading down the long sleeve. She made sure the left side of the kimono was wrapped over the right; many people make the mistake of right over left, which is the way dead people are dressed. The kimono-clad woman was holding a fan adorned with pink cherry blossoms. For a rhetorical flourish, she let the blossoms fall off the fan and onto the lined page.
She wrote about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘Japan is the only country in the world to have been a victim of the atomic bomb.’ She drew a large mushroom cloud in smudged charcoal on the unlined page.
For the same project, Ally got twenty out of twenty and the teacher, Miss Young, asked Ally to present her assignment to the class. ‘The Japanese eat boiled rice every day,’ she began and showed the class her drawing of a rice bowl with chopsticks sticking out of it. Yuri recognised the distinctive spiral pattern on the bowl as the one she had at home.
Ally had also drawn a picture of the Buddhist altar at Yuri’s house. Ally had been fascinated the first time she’d seen it. She had wanted to burn some incense and ring the cup-like bell resting on its own embroidered silk cushion, but Yuri’s mother said it was not a toy. Ally had peered inside the black wooden cabinet with its miniature lofts and platforms for offerings and tablets, a faded golden Buddha sitting in the top alcove. She said it was like a doll’s house for ghosts.
In class, Ally explained that the altar was a Shinto shrine and that the Japanese emperor was the Shinto god. Then she told the class about the kamikaze – pilots who flew their planes into the enemy on one-way suicide missions. She called them ‘crazy fanatics’ for killing themselves for the emperor.
‘Luckily, Japan surrendered before the kamikaze got to Australia.’ Almost as an afterthought, she added, ‘Yuri’s dad was a kamikaze pilot. But the war ended before he got to go on any missions. That’s why he’s still alive and so’s Yuri.’
When Yuri had told Ally about her father’s role in the war, she was bragging a little. Her father was brave to willingly sacrifice himself for his country. He was a hero, wasn’t he?
A boy in the back row asked if that made Yuri’s dad a failed kamikaze and sniggers rippled through the class. Miss Young explained that a lot of unthinkable, horrible things happened during the war. Many ‘atrocities’, she said. That was a new word for Yuri.
She learned two new words that day. The other was ‘barbaric’, though that wasn’t a word she’d heard. But she tasted its meaning, heard its resonance, saw its contours in Ally’s drawings, which were drawn deliberately crudely, Yuri imagined by dark-skinned primitives who’d never seen coloured pencils or paper before. In the crudeness, she sensed Ally’s contempt for a backward, amoral, cruel Japan. The niggling discomfort she’d often felt inside Ally’s familiar refrain, ‘Don’t you know that Yuri?’ emerged, took shape, slowly sharpening like a Polaroid. The image was of a fox, the cunning, shape shifting Shinto god.
HAJIME WAS A little taken aback when Yuri wanted to ask him a question. She usually addressed all queries about him (what’s Father doing? where’s he going? when will he be back?) to Michiko. But the question Yuri asked was one he couldn’t answer, ‘What was it like to be a kamikaze pilot?’
He told her he wasn’t even a pilot, he was just in training.
He told her he was brainwashed, like a lot of people during the war.
He told her she would never really understand because she was a girl.
She looked at him then with such searing intensity, he could see himself reflected in the pools of her eyes. But she was looking straight through him at a point beyond time he didn’t want to remember. He had to avert his eyes.
YOU DO REMEMBER. It was April, 1945 and the lightest pink cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Relatives, neighbours and school-mates came to farewell you. Your mother handed you your favourite daifuku, a freshly moulded sticky rice cake with sweet red bean filling to eat on the trip, though it wasn’t very sweet. She had left her fingerprint on the surface of the rice cake, a stunted half whorl. It made the daifuku look unclean.
You were one of twenty boys, the bravest looking boys from the district. Seven were chosen from your school ‘to volunteer’. The school principal had lined the boys up along the gymnasium wall and tapped the shoulders of the tallest and the sturdiest, including you.
The final destination was Urado Naval Preparatory School on the Pacific Ocean side of Shikoku Island, the very last aviation school ever built by the Imperial Japanese Navy. You were in the sixteenth naval aviator trainee program, the very last lot of trainees. After graduation, you were expected to join the Divine Wind Special Attack Force. There was no greater honour.
Training involved hours of crawling on the sand at Katsurahama beach, famous for its picture-perfect ocean vista. ‘Was Hawaii like this? Pearl Harbor?’ you wrote in the diary you kept well hidden.
Then there was the digging of trenches and the bayonet moves, teenage boys screaming in unison as they charged the imaginary enemy, expected to land any minute. Invading Americans you didn’t know enough to hate, to kill, to touch. You edged yourself towards the water’s edge, armed with wooden hand grenades to throw under enemy tanks, the responsibility of being Japan’s last line of defence clammy between your fingers.
But most days hunger preoccupied you and the beatings. If you spoke back, you got beaten; if you didn’t speak up loud enough, you got beaten; if you dug a good trench, you got beaten so you’d dig a better one next time. ‘The truncheon to instil military spirit’ was long, made of oak, imbued with an other-worldly power. It was wielded with such skill by the flat-faced commander it rarely broke the skin, just left bruises which were worn with gritty pride, like elaborate tattoos, eventually dissolving into the skin like moonlight into water.
Days went on like this for months, but by far the hardest day for you was 15 August, 1945 when the emperor surrendered. You heard his voice, measured yet surreal through the radio. You felt like the truncheon to instil military spirit had pierced your stomach, ripped out your guts and with them, your purpose. While the other trainees wept, you went to the toilet and evacuated your bowels.
It is well that war is so terrible,
otherwise we should grow too fond of it.
Robert E. Lee
WHEN HER HUSBAND was away on his frequent business trips, Michiko made Yuri’s favourite omuraisu, paper-thin omelette wrapped around chicken fried rice, flavoured with tomato ketchup. Yuri was such a fussy eater, hated spinach (too green), cheddar cheese (texture so soapy), the sulphurous smell of boiled egg and raw onion.
In a bid to instil in her a better appreciation of food, Michiko often recounted stories of wartime hunger. Refusing food was unthinkable to Michiko. Hunger and the fear of real starvation had been her milieu.
In the final months of the war, the children from Michiko’s school were evacuated from central Tokyo to the safety of the pristine foothills of Fukushima. For the first few weeks, there was rice, albeit brown rice, even snacks and lessons. But soon provisions ran out and classes were replaced by full-time foraging for anything edible: wild bracken, chives, ferns, clover.
She will forever hate clover. A huge mound of it, as tall as the tallest child, was collected regularly, dried and ground down to make a greyish sticky flour, which was turned into greyish sticky dumplings that tasted like dirt and abandonment and smelled like damp futon. She knew that smell better than anyone because she shared her futon with a girl who wet herself every night. She was homesick she said, as if that was any excuse.
‘I was so thin, I looked like a walking coat hanger,’ Michiko told Yuri.
YURI RELISHED HER mother’s stories about the war. To a little urbanite like Yuri, Michiko’s chronicles of survival seemed like sepia-coloured grand adventures and she reimagined them as manga, nostalgic scenes in each captured frame, speech bubbles floating out of the mouths of sparkly eyed characters stolen from her mother’s childhood. Yuri had a taste for picturing narrative.
So she saw great manga potential in the story about the boys who were so hungry they started eating frogs; how they snuck down to the hot spring, tied a piece of string to the frogs’ springy back legs and watched as they slowly breast stroked their way to a nice, tender boil. Or the girls grilling their dolls on a fire and sucking on the chewy warmed plastic to ward off growling tummies. Yuri could see them circling the bonfire like witches around a cauldron, deep in respectful silence as the dolls’ faces slowly melted away, their features dissolving into an empty frame.
HAJIME WAS RATHER fond of the uniquely Japanese obsession with formalising even the most casual of alliances. The obsession was about affirming group belonging. So soon after arriving in Sydney, Hajime became a member of The Year of the Horse Club, for those born under the equine zodiac; the Waseda University Alumni Association; and the Kansai Circle, for ex-pats hailing from the Osaka area, who spoke in the boisterously casual Kansai vernacular, the Japanese equivalent to ocker.
Then there was the Imperial Navy Club, made up of former commissioned officers as well as student trainees like Hajime, by far the youngest member. They met under the deliberately prosaic title ‘Thursday Get Together’, because they met on Thursday nights, though barely monthly.
Just as The Year of the Horse Club didn’t restrict social interaction to merely horse talk, the ‘Thursday Get Together’ was usually a chance for busy businessmen, mostly trading company representatives like Hajime, to loosen up over alcohol. Inevitably, the men indulged in random reminiscing, often breaking out into a nostalgic war song or a sentimental, melisma-infused enka ballad. The venue was always Sakura House, the only Japanese restaurant in Sydney with a private room.
The presence of high ranking ex-naval officers, some of whom were now high ranking captains of industry and public officials like the ambassador, gave the gathering a decidedly auspicious air. Hajime thought he could sense an elusive undercurrent, as if these once important military leaders, now steeped in the flat ordinariness of complementary bilateral trade, weren’t quite convinced of their fall from historical grace. But it was Hajime who remained unconvinced. He just wasn’t aware of it until he met Ken Tokugawa.
Tokugawa was a wool buyer who could divine the value of wool by just caressing a few strands between his fingers. He was short, but somehow had the imposing stature of a much larger man, as if the pure power of his intent filled out his aura. He was a polymath and enigmatic, in possession of a rare stillness that Hajime found disquieting at first. Being with him was like being in a room full of ninja assassins with knives concealed in the folds of their garments. It was hard not to sharpen in his presence. Yet Hajime was drawn to him.
Tokugawa had joined the Imperial Japanese Navy as a youth, shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. With his crisp reflexes and fearless stamina, he became a dive bomber, training under the famous Lieutenant Yukio Seki, the commander of the first special attack mission against Allied forces in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October, 1944. By the time Hajime was joining the eleventh hour war effort in April, 1945, Tokugawa had volunteered for his one-way mission from Kanoya Air Base on the southern island of Kyushu, the main launching pad for the intense bombardment by special attack units in the Battle of Okinawa.
On his first sortie, engine trouble forced him to return to base, mission unaccomplished. Weather conditions cancelled the second. Flying was always exhilarating, wherever the destination, but the lull between missions felt like protracted torture. Like many of his colleagues, whose mission to save Japan with suicidal intent had been thwarted by the emperor’s surrender, Tokugawa felt guilty for surviving.
Tokugawa’s declaration was this. ‘During the war, we were treated with respect and awe, cast as brave heroes. Then almost overnight, we were the source of national shame. The whole country turned away from us. We’ve never had a chance to honour those who were sacrificed for the future of Japan.’
Most of his life, Hajime had felt there was something knocking around inside him reluctant to face the light of day. In Tokugawa’s words, he sensed a truth that set that feeling free. Cleansed by the purity of Tokugawa’s claim to justice, Hajime recovered his purpose.
It’s been such a long time since I last wrote you. I hope this letter finds you well. In your New Year’s card, you mentioned that your first son is now in high school. You must be proud.
It’s already nearly three years since I received my transfer to Sydney. How time flies. My daughter now speaks English like a true Australian!
Let me get straight down to the business of why I’m writing you. It is about our collection of memoirs left by special attack force pilots.
Saburo was from Kobe, a Kansai man like Hajime. They had been bunk-mates at the Naval Preparatory School and after the war’s end, Hajime often visited Saburo, the last of three sons. All three brothers had joined the Imperial Japanese Navy. The second brother had died in a munitions factory bombing and the eldest, Ichiro, in a special attack mission codenamed Operation Kikusui – Falling Chrysanthemums. Understandably, their mother was sick with sorrow. The epitome of maternal grief, a frail, dishevelled woman, to Hajime, she looked to be folding into herself, as if caught in a deferential half bow and had forgotten how to straighten up. She fussed over Saburo, out of fear that he too might be taken from her.
That’s how she came to ask Hajime to take away with him her eldest son’s memoirs. Ichiro had been a conscientious writer and there was a box full of letters, delicate poetry, strident essays, dusty photos and his final will. Hajime wasn’t surprised she didn’t want to have them around anymore. There had been persistent rumours that the American-led occupation might seek out and punish families of men who had been in the Divine Wind Special Attack Force. So Hajime did as he was asked. When he returned home, he read Ichiro’s testimony and was moved by the precision of his anguish, the clarity of his resolve, the loneliness of his will.
Hajime was barely eighteen then but he’d experienced the surge of self-importance that comes with feeling responsible for the fate of a nation. Once they were on the other side of fate, Ichiro and others who died like him were in danger of becoming unknown soldiers. So Hajime embarked on his own mission to collect similar wills and letters of men who’d flown with the Divine Wind, before these documents were destroyed out of fear, or forgotten in neglect. He convinced Saburo to help him write to hundreds of families:
The deaths of men who died in the Tokkotai special attack missions must
not fade from our memories. In time, the words they
left behind will become national treasures to be passed down to future
In the flux of the immediate postwar period, when collective memory was still soft and pliable, there was real concern that the image of ‘suicidal zealot’ might harden around the men of the Tokkotai. Within a few years Hajime and Saburo had in their possession over one hundred documents sent to them by bereaved families.
When Hajime left Japan for Australia he had given the collection, including Ichiro’s writings, to Saburo for safe keeping. And Hajime would never have imagined that a chance meeting in, of all places, Sydney, would lead him back into time, to unite his youthful idealism with a certain wool buyer’s determination to revive the ‘kamikaze spirit’.
TOKUGAWA LAMENTED HOW easily the noble self-sacrifice of the Tokkotai was dismissed as a wartime illusion in much the same way as the emperor’s pre-war status of divine was downgraded to merely human. No wonder so many young men of the once Divine Wind force fell into a postwar malaise – a kind of devil-may-care despondency involving drinking, drugs and delinquent petty crime.
But Ken Tokugawa held fiercely to the warrior ethic, maintained his samurai cool. He did not join the ranks of the Tokko kuzure, degenerate ex-Tokkotai. Instead, Tokugawa joined the ranks of the business elite who were spearheading Japan’s revival. As he travelled the globe in the pursuit of commerce to far-flung places like Australia, he grew convinced that Japan would eventually be the victor of a new global economic order. Why else would young countries like Australia welcome trade with the once enemy alien, willingly scarifying the landscape to dig up fuel for Japanese industry?
Tokugawa shared this view of Japan’s destiny with certain men, some belonging to grassroots organisations with names that oozed with self-righteousness: The Society for the Recovery of Historical Truth, The Association for the Reinvigoration of Japan. Other groups had more esoteric titles: The Association of Men of Wa, Authentic Japanese Spirit. They all had a boisterous enthusiasm for their homeland, a ruthless nostalgia directed at the future.
Tokugawa was ambitious for Japan. In his eyes, there was no place for a masochistic version of the past that crippled the Japanese with a never-ending debt for the fifteen year war. He wanted to debunk revisionist history, which recast the men of the Divine Wind missions as unwitting victims of rampant militarism. And Tokugawa made Hajime’s collection of letters the centrepiece of this mission, co-opting Hajime into a war of words, a war that would have no end, no surrender, and ultimately, no escape.
Thoughts still linger – but will those who have parted
return once again?
Evening is deep in the hills
where cherry blossoms fall.
‘HA-JEE-MAY,’ ENUNCIATED DON, examining Hajime’s name card. ‘How about we just call you Jim?’ Garrulous and corpulent, with a head like a boulder mounted on a footballer’s neck, Don was the kind of man who might inspire the moniker ‘Tiny’. He had recently been hired to explore new opportunities in Australia for Hajime’s trading company, a mere minnow among the long-established giants of international trade: Kanematsu, C. Itoh & Company, Mitsubishi, Marubeni.
Don had grown up in a dusty country town, the son of the local pastor but bettered himself by marrying the great-granddaughter of a prominent grazier who’d been a pioneer in the wool trade with Japan in the nineteenth century. Don was an assiduous networker and his ability to oil connections was a precious resource.
Don did most of his work at the pub and the first task he set himself was to introduce Jim to the rules of the shout and how to get a head start on the six o’clock swill at three in the afternoon. Hajime was a keen drinker, but he thought Don too full of chummy good humour. He had to admit though, Don always delivered on his promises.
Thanks to an introduction to one of Don’s old RAAF mates, Hajime’s firm won its first commission brokering a steaming coal contract between a Japanese utility and an Australian mining giant. Till then, the big Australian had dealt with only one Japanese trading house, so cracking this cosy clubbiness was not only seen as bold but was revered, envied. Resented.
On Michiko’s insistence, Hajime invited Don and his equally garrulous wife home for frequent dinner parties and barbecue lunches. ‘The best tempura we’ve ever had Jim,’ they gushed. Michiko’s cooking was indeed superb, and Yuri was becoming the regular little hostess, even doing the dishes, hoisted higher on a phone book to gain full command of the sink while the adults indulged in a few for the road. Hajime was pleased with how his family had adapted to this new life. He considered them every day ambassadors of Japan.
Boozy predilections aside, Hajime was loosening up to Don’s charms when he heard a rumour that Don was being wooed by another Japanese trading company, on a much better salary. Hajime sacked Don as a pre-emptive strike. Don seemed neither surprised nor upset. He just laughed, though a little too sheepishly, so to Hajime it sounded more like a plaintive bleat.
Don epitomised everything that was wrong with this country according to Hajime. First, he didn’t even bother to pretend to work hard. Second, he had no loyalty to company, or otherwise. He’d no notion that individual honour is predicated upon working for something larger than the self, a greater, collective good. He probably wasn’t even committed to his family. He married his third, much younger wife shortly after walking out of Hajime’s office. Typical. When there’s too much freedom, people lose the will to commit and morality falters. Hajime convinced himself he was glad to see the back of Don, even though he had been instrumental in boosting Hajime’s career.
Fifteen years later, a Japanese consortium led by Hajime’s company bought a controlling stake in a coal mine in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales – the first time Japanese interests had grabbed a majority stake in an Australian coal mine. The original owners had been drinking mates of Don’s.
Hajime remembered well standing on the undeveloped site, kicking around the dry soil, shielding his eyes from the relentless sun and dreaming of an open-cut mine. He had joked that maybe he could lay claim to the resource lying beneath by pissing on a gum tree, the way kids bagsed biscuits on a tray by licking them.
The investment was historic – the beginning of increasing Japanese control over Australian resources, leading to an increasing Australian suspicion of Japanese economic power. By then, Don had died of cancer. Hajime had often pictured Don drinking endless shouts of bottomless drinks, his back slumped along the edge of a sinking moon.
YURI CALLED HIM Don ojisan, Uncle Don. He called her a little rubber ball because she was always bouncing up and down, like she was impatient for her life to begin. She liked Don ojisan because he always remembered what year at school she was in and that she played netball, played centre. He also knew she was excellent at tennis and that she went to Victor A. Edwards tennis school, where Evonne Goolagong trained for her grand-slamming career.
‘Did you see Evonne volleying again this week?’ he’d ask every time he came over, his eyes wide and dewy as if he too was thrilled at being in the proximity of such a star. Yuri showed him her Evonne volley, short swing back, swift lethal punch.
She also liked how Don ojisan helped her mother by clearing the table, manning the bar even though he was a guest. She liked his laconic breeziness and the ease with which he joked with her mother.
‘You’re a naughty girl,’ he’d say to her when she kept offering him his favourite homemade gyoza dumplings, feigning a blokey punch to Michiko’s shoulder then rubbing it gently for ages after, as if to atone.
He once saved Yuri from a bee sting by removing the barb swiftly and applying his cold beer can to soothe the skin while her father stood next to her, hollering for her mother at the top of his voice. Michiko said later that Don ojisan might’ve saved her life.
The last time Yuri saw him was at a tail end of a business dinner at her house some time in winter. The bar heater was on in the bathroom. Yuri was not quite twelve then. She was already in her nightie and about to go to the toilet when he walked in the door. She stood quickly, her underpants already half way down her thighs, though he didn’t seem to notice. She had on her long nightie.
Don ojisan was a little tipsy, the broken capillaries on his cheeks flaring like a neon sign. He sat down on the edge of the bath, settling into conversation. Yuri just stood there, way too conscious of her arms dangling aimless at her sides.
‘You’ve really grown into such a nice young lady, just like your mother,’ he began. ‘I hope your father appreciates how lovely you’ve become.’ There was a pause before he asked, ‘Do you think that your dad likes me?’
Yuri was taken aback, not so much by the content of the question, but because he was talking to her like her opinion mattered. ‘I think so. He thinks you’re funny. He always laughs at your jokes.’
‘Yes, he does, he does indeed, that’s the truth.’
And that’s how it began, Yuri’s introduction to Don’s truth.
DON WAS GENUINELY troubled that Jim didn’t seem to trust him. Don had often wondered if it was because he’d confided in Jim his own experience of the war.
Don had spent the final days of the war in the Pacific in a POW camp in Nagasaki, toiling in the Mitsubishi shipyards. He weighed fifty-five kilograms, less than half his current weight. He was there when the Fat Man fell. He witnessed the brilliant blue-white flash, the grape-sized muddy raindrops, the illusory silence before the finality of nuclear devastation.
In the time it took for him to be repatriated home after the surrender, he met many Japanese who treated him and the other POWs as anything but the enemy. He felt the depth of their suffering, but with no way to express their anger and betrayal, they had turned the hate inward. He met people who’d been defeated by their own country. Yet magnanimously, they had extended their hand of friendship to him, a friendship motivated by a sense of justice.
Back home in Australia, Don recounted a different version of the war than the one in circulation. He was called a Jap lover, traitor and much worse. But after being immersed in a culture of hate for so long, he’d had enough. It was no coincidence that he ended up working for Japanese interests.
When Don told Jim of this experience, he just looked solemn. He said, ‘My brain was washed too,’ and nothing else. Around that time, Don had sensed that perhaps Jim was warming to him, becoming more appreciative of his lewd jokes, his raucous laugh. But rather than becoming closer, Hajime became colder, as if contempt had seeped in, taking up permanent residence between them.
Don ojisan abruptly ended his soliloquy, as if prodded awake from a trance, splashed water on his face and patted Yuri on the head on his way out of the bathroom. ‘Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs and all that,’ he smiled wearily. Yuri was sitting on the toilet seat, the heater blaring at her face, no longer aware of her underpants.
She never saw him again and her parents never spoke about him. She never asked why. She also never told her parents what had transpired between them that night, that Don had been the first man to ever break Yuri’s heart.
…no-one knows what perversions can develop once aesthetic considerations
are allowed to dictate its choices.
EVERY CHRISTMAS HAJIME and Michiko attended the consul general’s cocktail party. It was the only time Michiko wore a kimono. The weather was too warm to wear anything other than the cool, open-weave kimono with the black and white crane motif. Despite being bound up so tightly with the sash, Michiko always managed to appear serene.
Hajime preferred his wife in traditional dress. At their first meeting, chaperoned by the go-between, she wore a fashionable young woman’s furisode kimono in purple and yellow, a gold floral pattern splashed on the ankle-length sleeves. As a married woman, she couldn’t wear such flamboyantly long furisode sleeves anymore.
Michiko laughed easily, always an attractive quality in a woman, but over the years Hajime noticed she laughed less in his presence. At first he thought it was a sign of a husband and wife’s mature, muted contentment. But more recently he’d felt as though she were consciously withholding her laughter and a sullen darkness emerged muddying the mood in his home.
Some of her protests were what every husband expected from a wife – too many late nights at the office, ‘Do you have to drink so much?’ But she complained most vociferously about Yuri: ‘Spend more time with your daughter, she needs a father too.’
Hajime contributed very little to child rearing. His wife was a capable mother and self-sufficient so he saw no point in interfering. He knew her to be a resilient woman. After all, her life had not been easy. Michiko’s family had lost everything in the war, but what seemed most tragic was how her father had been killed just after the war’s end. He was on a bicycle, run over by a drunk American GI in a huge American jeep. The family did not seek justice for his death. How could they? How could the vanquished protest the almighty power of General Douglas MacArthur?
With her father gone and her mother working, Michiko had brought up her three younger brothers. Despite excelling at school, she began working in a department store immediately after high school (in the glove section, she had delicate yet capable hands) so her brothers, total no-hopers as far as Hajime was concerned, could all attend university.
Michiko never seemed embittered by her losses. But Hajime saw in the protective way she doted on Yuri, like forbidding her ever to ride a bicycle or in the way she enthusiastically encouraged her daughter to strive beyond herself, that Michiko was assuaging her past with the bright hope of her daughter’s future.
In this, Hajime saw a woman who knew the true value of sacrifice. He could see it in the curve of her neck. Framed by the yielding back of the kimono collar, Michiko’s neck was an organic gesture of supplication, a willow branch bending into fate, both vulnerable and willing at the same time. As for her protests, Hajime would just let the natural passage of time take its course as he had always done and Michiko would slip back into her usual sanguine resolve. When it came to his wife, her hold on him was stronger than love. It was loyalty. In return, he expected nothing less than the beauty of her sacrifice.
MICHIKO ENJOYED THE challenge of cooking with the limited Japanese ingredients available. When her husband rang to say guests were coming for dinner, the first thing she did was mix the powdered tofu so it would set by evening. Vile stuff really, and the one brand of miso that was available was not much better but she managed to compensate with finely chopped shallots, rinsed and rinsed obsessively under cool running water to remove the pungent sliminess, before adding them to the miso soup. The shallots served as a bittersweet counterpoint to the substandard miso while offering just enough resistance to the bite, a counterpoint to the slippery texture of the tofu.
Only a few men appreciated her efforts at adaptation, reinvention. One man who did was Ken Tokugawa, an unlikely gourmand and, Michiko felt, an unlikely friend. Then there was Yoshida san, vice president of one of Japan’s largest paper manufacturing firms. ‘Saved by the shallots,’ he once commented.
An endless parade of Japanese executives like Yoshida san came to dine at Michiko’s table. Some were luminaries, men credited with revitalising Japan’s postwar economy like Okumura san, who built Nomura Securities into an international financial powerhouse, or Kikawada san, president of Tokyo Electric Power Company, who brought nuclear power and jobs to his home prefecture Fukushima. Michiko’s record of dinner-party menus and guest lists, kept diligently so she’d never serve the same dish twice, read like a Who’s Who of Japanese business.
By Michiko’s reckoning, the ability to recognise her small gestures of culinary ingenuity was the measure of a man. Such an arrogant proposition, but she thought she could pretty much draw a clear divide between men according to the quality of their palates. Those who were discerning
tended to be men of ambition, usually inhabiting the higher echelons of the corporate world, like Yoshida san. One summer, he flew to Australia regularly while overseeing a massive industrial plantation in the soon-to-be independent Papua New Guinea. He insisted on dining with Michiko and Hajime.
She served him takigawadofu one evening as an appetiser, soy milk tofu transformed into barely there jelly with agar agar, sliced into delicate ribbons and arranged more artfully than skilfully to resemble a waterfall cascading into a river. The pleasure of this dish was figurative rather than literal. Suitably impressed, Yoshida san presented Michiko with a double strand of Mikimoto pearls the next time he visited. They felt refreshingly cool against her skin, like bare toes dipped in a waterfall.
Unfortunately, her husband was not of the same culinary calibre as Yoshida san. One time when Michiko served chasoba, green-tea flavoured buckwheat noodles, as the final course, Hajime had asked, ‘Where’s the tea to pour on the soba?’ igniting a bout of hearty laughter around the table. Hajime saved himself by guffawing to the tune of his own mockery, but Michiko wasn’t the only one who knew.
That’s why he needed her. Her mother’s words of advice at her wedding were simply, ‘Your duty is now your husband.’ Duty was easy. She’d been groomed all her life to be the consummate wife. She made Hajime look good. But when Yuri came along things became complicated.
She was a spirited child and Michiko could already foresee problems. Michiko had grown up in the cloying bosom of tradition with a hand-me-down script to follow. While her world was reduced to the minutiae of cosmetically enhancing the appearance of grilled mackerel by brushing the fillets with mirin for extra shine, Yuri was growing unbound, exploring the airiness around her with outstretched limbs, her head held fearlessly high. She was already displaying signs of disappointment that her mother was well and truly drenched in domesticity.
Exposed to the blindingly sunny disposition of this faraway country, Yuri would inevitably write her own life script. And that narrative may not include her father, who was conspicuous by his absence, maybe not even her mother. Michiko knew that to be enclosed in impenetrable cultural distinctiveness had its drawbacks, but tradition was always a little elastic. She knew how to blur the edges. What could hurt Yuri most was the tyranny of possibilities.
Michiko tried to imagine what it might be like to dream without borders. When she was in high school, she had imagined a life in the movies, not the dark, stylised, broody movies of Kenji Mizoguchi or Yasujiro Ozu but Hollywood: Shirley Temple, Gene Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire. Michiko didn’t want to be an actress, that was too pedestrian a dream. She wanted to be a director or a screenwriter, a visionary.
The idea was so preposterous she had never told anyone. Once she had wanted to make a movie starring the soft spoken Gregory Peck. Not a morality tale, but still a little intellectually turgid and uplifting. She had written to him in English, ‘Dear Mr Peck.’ She had forgotten the rest but she remembered he had written back, or at least she thought he had. What was it that he’d said? Surely nothing so uninspiring as ‘saved by the shallots’.
THEY WERE AT it again. Yuri knew what it was about. It was about him. He was always out late, away for important occasions like Yuri’s tennis tournament, speech day. ‘When are we going back to Japan? We have already been in Sydney for nearly six years, a lot longer than the usual three years expected of Japanese ex-pats.’ How was Michiko to plan Yuri’s education when there was no certainty?
Next year was high school. Yuri’s best friend Edwina was going to the local public school but Yuri couldn’t bring herself to tell Edwina she might be heading back to Japan. Yuri sometimes fantasised about being adopted, what child doesn’t? But it wasn’t The Partridge Family or The Brady Bunch she wanted. It was Edwina’s perfectly symmetrical family. The two older brothers, one a cool, blue-eyed surfer, the other bookish, with a melancholic brilliance Yuri found alluring. The two girls, Edwina and Ellen were a year apart and like pretty little bookends in their matching seersucker frocks in primrose and lime, hand sewn by their mother. They all had straight white teeth.
Edwina’s dad was tall and upright, an engineer but previously in the army. There was an overexposed photo of him in uniform hanging on the living room wall, standing by the ocean, a modest row of medals in stiff relief on his chest, a handsome smile softening his suntanned face.
She had never seen any photos of her father or other Japanese fathers she knew in their military garb. Shame and scurrying in the shadows was what she associated with Japanese men. Dishonour was what separated the defeated from the victorious, Yuri surmised. The thought that men like her father were once destined to kill men like Edwina’s dad seemed abhorrent. She liked that word, abhorrent, how it gained momentum along her tongue.
Edwina’s mum worked as a nurse. She’d been a teenage beauty queen, Miss Avoca Beach, 1952. There was a picture of her in a swimming costume with pointed breasts and a sash over her shoulder between the army photo and a wedding photo. Yuri was amazed at her vanity, her brazenness.
There weren’t even any wedding photos of her parents on display at her house, let alone one of her mother semi-nude. The wedding photos were kept in a yellowing envelope stamped Hakone International Hotel, the wedding venue. In fact, the only two photos on display in Yuri’s home were of her father’s parents, in their separate but identical thick, black frames above the Buddhist altar. They weren’t smiling, Yuri assumed, because they were dead.
One morning, after Yuri had stayed over at Edwina’s, she saw her dad part her mum’s fringe with the tip of his finger and kiss her goodbye on the forehead. Edwina explained that this was her parents’ morning ritual. ‘Dad doesn’t want to get mum’s toast crumbs on his lips.’
From what Yuri had experienced of Japanese marriages, a display of such overt affection was usually a drunken joke, a point of ridicule that stuck out like a bright red polka dot in a sea of white. She had seen her parents’ friend Toyota san kiss his wife once after a weekend-long game of mahjong. He had lost and a wet peck on his wife was his penance. The kiss did look funny though, like two teenagers grasping in the dark, their teeth clashing, their noses bumping.
Edwina’s parent’s kiss seemed so seamlessly a part of their domestic landscape that Yuri felt warm from the inside, just like that cosy fullness she’d get after swallowing a mouthful of hot cocoa. It was the most romantic thing she’d ever seen.
Where everything is bad
it must be good
to know the worst.
YURI HAS ONLY just started high school and she is refusing you your usual scotch and water, your preferred drink with dinner. She’s seething at you, eyes aflame with her new-found power of righteous belligerence.
‘Get it yourself. I’m not old enough to be handling alcohol.’
At thirteen, Yuri is at that perilous precipice, her lukewarm tenderness giving way to sleek curves, cheekbones and a thickening will. Just a few weeks before, you had come home to your new house in Yokohama to find sticky rice with azuki beans steaming for dinner. Had you missed someone’s birthday? You asked your wife, ‘What’s the happy occasion?’ and Michiko whispered that it was Yuri’s first time to bleed.
Yuri just looked angry. Mortified, no doubt and screeching at her mother, ‘Why should we celebrate such a colossally vile event in my life? And with of all things, osekihan, red rice!’
You look at your daughter, really look at her for the first time in a long time. She is no longer the frisky, excitable girl you couldn’t control. Her defiance is now wilful, dark, foreboding. It scares you a little. You are clueless about women after all. Your mother had been dour and uncommunicative, always hunched over something – cooking, cleaning, kowtowing to her husband. When you were a small boy, maybe five or six, you saw a row of white cloths drying in the sun. They looked too frayed to be handkerchiefs so you stole a few rags and tied them to sticks, parading them as flags. You waved them high in the air, a triumphant little soldier boy, or were you a prince? When your mother realised what you had done, she whacked you so hard with the back of her chilblained hand that you fell down. You remember you were too stunned to cry. You never stole anything again.
It would be easy for you if Yuri had been a boy, wouldn’t it? Then you could just hit her. Beat her until she understands, until you both understand, until there is no space between father and daughter.
THE SUMMER AIR in Yokohama was thick and grey. Yuri was suffocating. There wasn’t enough oxygen to go around. Her legs and arms felt shorter. She worried she’d end up with daikon legs, legs like thick white radish.
She’d always loved school. Now she dreaded it. Even though Yuri had attended Japanese language classes on weekends while living in Sydney, she found it hard to keep up. She went from being top of the class in Sydney to the bottom of the class in Yokohama. But by far the worst thing about school was catching the train. She had a thirty-minute train ride every morning and every afternoon. The carriages were always overcrowded. Riding the train was like stepping into a jar of stale breath. Rank. Stifling. Cloying. One day Yuri caught sight of herself reflected in the window as the train went through a long tunnel and got the fright of her life. She looked like everyone else, black hair, small eyes, yellow skin, the same cloudy expression of earnest self-containment.
In Sydney, being the odd one out had been hard at first, but once she had accepted the expectation of difference, it became part of her, like a physical disability you can’t wish away that is integral to the self, a double-edged specialness. In the tunnel on the Yokohama Line, she was invisible, empty like a stranger, an alien. She blamed her father. His company had sent him to another country with no regard for how it might affect his family, then sent him back again, on a whim. And now she was left with this throb of emptiness.
Yuri took it out on her mother, who tried to placate her by saying how lucky they were to have had the opportunity to live abroad and in a beautiful country like Australia. But she wasn’t happy either. There were no lavish parties to prepare for, and she had cut her hair and permed it so it didn’t move anymore. It looked like Sergeant Schultz’s helmet in Hogan’s Heroes. Yuri decided she was in denial.
Yuri bundled every possible injustice she could think of into her blooming angst and railed at her parents. She screamed deep inside, a scream she imagined could only be heard in Australia.
MICHIKO WAS COOKING tempura for dinner guests and Yuri was helping. Hajime’s Kansai friend, Saburo and Ken Tokugawa were coming over to ‘discuss important business’.
Michiko showed Yuri how to cut the onions and to hold them together with a toothpick so the rings would stay together while frying. Then she showed her how to peel the prawns leaving only the tip of the tail, then to devein them, clean them in salt and cornflour, rinse and pat dry and finally break the backs of the prawns so they’d stay straight while cooking.
‘Otherwise they end up curling into Harbour Bridge,’ she explained. Then Yuri clipped the tail where the water tended to pool so they wouldn’t splatter in the hot oil.
Saburo arrived early and Hajime greeted him in his full-on Kansai accent. Yuri wondered why her father was more jovial, more amiable when he spoke his native dialect. By the time Tokugawa arrived about an hour later, Hajime and Saburo were well and truly drunk.
Yuri had met Tokugawa many times in Sydney but her memory of him was hazy. There had been so many arrogant Japanese men with their shuffling gait and crimson drunken faces traipsing through her parents’ house, leaving behind an orgy of half empty beer cans and barely smoked cigarette butts, so pointlessly long they seemed to defeat their own purpose, and Tokugawa was just one of them.
He greeted Yuri with a piercing look so imbued with the promise of meaning that she had to stifle a giggle. He was close enough for her to see the open pores on his unctuous skin and count the few whiskers on his chin, already too much information. When she returned his gaze, he rotated his head away from her, as though panning the room. Yuri shivered a little, though it was more like an involuntary shudder that accompanies a long, warm wee in the cold ocean.
Yuri hadn’t realised at what point the jocular mood between the men had turned, but when she brought the third batch of fresh tempura to the table, her father was holding a plastic bucket close to Saburo’s face. ‘Just come with me to the bathroom,’ he was urging. But Saburo was like a spinning top losing momentum, and just as Yuri put the tempura on the table, he spewed forth spectacularly. Specks of vomit ricocheted off the edge of the bucket and onto the table. Yuri watched the trajectory as if in slow motion. She bolted, out of the room and up the stairs but by the time she slammed the door to her bedroom, the sticky warm stench had already infected the straight-backed prawns and had started to make them curl.
When Yuri was troubled or if sleep didn’t come, she drew. Sometimes it was manga scenes with pithy, minimal dialogue, or sometimes she just drew people, expertly capturing the facial nuances that gave them away. She was good at that. She felt safe inside her drawings, sheltered from the external world.
After Saburo spoiled dinner, she drew for hours. She felt bad for her mother, who probably had to clean up the mess, but when Yuri sketched the scene of what she imagined was going on downstairs, she instinctively depicted her mother as a colourful butterfly, exquisite and glamorous, untainted by the monochrome ominousness she drew of the three men hunched over each other in grubby conspiracy, their shaved monkey features contorted in drunken stupidity. The picture made her hopeful for her mother at least.
But she worried that she couldn’t draw her father’s face. She didn’t care about Saburo or Tokugawa, they could be monkeys or cockroaches. But her father. She rubbed out his face and tried again and again. Her pencils failed her. Eventually she rubbed out the whole drawing, including the butterfly. She carefully collected all the eraser dust and threw it in the bin. This became a kind of game she played from then on, meticulously drawing forgettable scenes from her life, then just as meticulously erasing them to a pure blankness. She imagined she might reshape memories this way.
TOKUGAWA WAS PROUD of his new book, When Blossoms Fall, featuring selected letters and wills from Hajime and Saburo’s collection. Similar compilations of kamikaze testimonies had appeared since the end of the war but Tokugawa was convinced this was different, because he had injected his own intimate commentary. Populist author Shintaro Ishihara was already rumoured to be adapting the book into a film script.
Tokugawa had segued seamlessly from corporate elite to public intellectual. He was now on the board of meritorious public institutions like colleges, publishing houses, think tanks and foundations. Tokugawa always knew that his connections in the corporate world would come in handy one day.
Possessing the kind of physical self-awareness rare in a man, Tokugawa knew how to maximise the fine cut of his jaw and the angular tilt of his face to full advantage and had become a seasoned television performer, often appearing on news commentary programs, chat shows, even quiz shows. On screen, he intentionally wore only kimono, which gave him an air of graceful solemnity, not to mention a touch of straight-laced quirkiness.
Tokugawa spoke with the confidence of a rising media star of a particular ilk. Mellifluous in tone and eloquent of content and with the legitimacy of first-hand experience on his side, he promoted himself as the accessible expert on a part of Japanese history left opaque, considered taboo. ‘It’s that kamikaze guy,’ people would say. But as was often the case with personalities on television, Tokugawa could obscure his real self from the populace with the illusion of his ubiquity. And now there was the new museum honouring the men of the Imperial Japanese Navy special attack forces, already in construction near the old Kanoya Air Base where Tokugawa had been based towards the end of the war. The first museum dedicated to the memory of the navy Tokkotai. The collection of documents would be permanently housed there and Hajime and Saburo would become honorary patrons.
Like many Japanese, Tokugawa found the crassness and impudence of Kansai people annoying. But he felt that Hajime and Saburo wore the scent of the common man well. His association with them helped soften his sharp edges. They made good sidekicks.
We cannot get rid of war because war has captured the habits of our imaginations.
YOU ARE A hardworking man, decent, dependable; the kind of man who accepts things at face value. You were merely a boy when the war touched you. It’s only natural that you seek remembrance for those who perished needlessly, a place to rest the past so that death is made meaningful. No one deserves to be entrapped in fear of dying without ever being known, in misunderstanding, in loneliness. There are no grand designs inside your head, yet this desire for remembrance will make you a player in reconstructing an ambiguous truth, history as profound self-deception.
Do you have any idea what the consequences will be?
MICHIKO WAS UNSURE of Tokugawa. He was indeed impressive, but there was something about his eyes. Looking into them was like being sucked into an indecipherable subterfuge, forced to perform a role in a ghost story of the classical Noh tradition but with a hint of the grotesquery of modern Butoh and some frenzied samurai action thrown in for good measure. The performance had intrigue and violence and mute epic drama. But the characters remained unresolved and multiple plots conspired against one another, winding their way to a never-ending conclusion.
Michiko understood her husband’s need to mourn the loss of his youth, Saburo’s youth, Japan’s youth. Yet she worried that he was being dragged into something he didn’t fully intend or comprehend. Perhaps the fact that he was untroubled by intellectual complexity was a good thing, it might save him. But what Michiko knew of war was that there were no innocents, just victims. In Tokugawa’s eyes, there lurked the promise of infinite victims.
The only way to put an end to it would be to take a short sharp sword and stab them, rip them clean out of their sockets. Then she would wipe the blade clean with fresh, white kaishi paper, place the blade back into its scabbard until she heard it click into place.
PEOPLE CALLED IT the kamikaze museum but her father told Yuri that was wrong. It was definitely catchier than ‘The Old Kanoya Air Base Memorial Peace Museum for the Imperial Japanese Navy Special Attack Force’. Yuri thought the Japanese were prone to going overboard when it came to nominative accuracy.
They had sat down together as a family to watch the program about the new museum on the public broadcaster NHK. Tokugawa spoke at length about the battle strategies of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the legendary aerial manoeuvres of its fighter pilots. At one stage, these pilots were considered some of the best in the world, the most revered and the most feared. The documentary featured grainy black and white footage of kamikaze planes, plunging into their targets from on high, like arrows shot from heaven. But the image that stayed with Yuri was the one of the young pilots, boys really, playing with a little dog. They were revelling in puppy love, surrendered to joy, their faces cracked open in unselfconscious delight. The voiceover explained that these boys flew out on their missions just a few days later.
Before departure, they were all given a shot of sake and a final cigarette. The cigarette was a special gift from the emperor bearing the royal crest of the chrysanthemum flower with sixteen petals. It probably didn’t matter, they were flying to their deaths, but Yuri couldn’t help wondering if there was something not quite right about the emperor encouraging boys to drink and smoke.
Her father had attended the museum opening but Yuri had stayed home with her mother. She was glad of that. She found all this battle talk tedious. Her father seemed proud though, happy even, almost hand-clappingly gleeful. An interview with him was included in the documentary. Just a few minutes long, and his message was simple. ‘Lest we forget.’ Yuri thought he was just rehashing a cliché to appear profound. Her father could be so painfully earnest sometimes, a diligent nerd, so majime. Yuri and her mother often made fun of him. ‘Majime Hajime’ they teased.
The program lasted barely half an hour but Yuri couldn’t wait until it was over. Something was gnawing at the back of her mind and it had nothing to do with the documentary. Just prior to the broadcast, they’d caught the last few minutes of a long-running popular soap.
A young woman charges through the front door with a torn blouse and tear stained cheeks. She disappears into the bathroom. A door slams. A long close up of discarded panty hose, the silhouette of the leg that once inhabited it hinted at in its crumpled mass. It turns out she was raped by her boss. Her parents are discussing what to do. They don’t want their daughter’s fiancé to find out in case he calls off the wedding. He’s a good catch.
Yuri was incensed. ‘Why don’t they call the police? What about seeking justice for her?’ She saw a bead of saliva fly out of her mouth and land on her mother’s knee. Her parents just shrugged their shoulders. ‘It’s just a story on television. No need to take it too seriously,’ her mother said.
Yuri felt rage boil up inside her to press up against her trembling chin. ‘What if that were me? What would you do then?’ She was prickly all over with self-made haughtiness.
Yuri worked on this haughtiness over the years, developing it into a higher art form, to be worn like a cloak, maybe a uniform. Or a weapon.
After only three years in Yokohama, Hajime’s company transferred him back to Australia for a second posting, much to Yuri’s delight. She finished high school in Sydney and went on to complete an arts degree, studying routine humanities subjects, eventually becoming a card carrying indignant feminist, equipped to do little else but to appropriate the moral high ground in the morally ambiguous ’80s.
…in order not to change, everything has to be changed.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
ON 7 JANUARY, 1989, Hirohito, the Showa Emperor died. He was eighty-seven. Japan slipped into mourning. Australian exports to Japan of celebratory foods like abalone and lobster plummeted and the Japanese honeymoon tourist market suffered a downturn. Later that same year, Yuri made a big decision. She would try living in Tokyo for a while. It would be an opportunity to explore her roots. Both her parents encouraged her, which surprised Yuri. They had attempted to veto everything she’d chosen to do, including the mandatory backpacking around Europe, moving into a ‘mixed’ shared house and becoming an artist, an illustrator instead of a teacher, her mother’s wish, or an interpreter, her father’s choice of vocation for her.
When she arrived in Tokyo with her parents’ blessing and a ludicrously highly paid job as art director for a glossy English-language business magazine, Japan was still neck deep in the excesses of the giddy bubble era. Her new life was not quite what she’d expected. The air was not heavy and oppressive like she remembered, but alive with a kinetic buzz. Yuri could almost smell the brashness, the effects of over-moneyed confidence, she assumed. Yuri was still in her twenties after all, how could she resist the temptation? Parties, discos, designer fashion, designer drugs and a rapid turnover of boyfriends ensued.
None of the boyfriends broke her heart but one broke her resolve. He was an up-and-coming architect and for a time he was Yuri’s access to the most lavish parties, the most sought-after openings of chic restaurants, swish bars, art exhibitions, even illegal gambling dens.
One night he took her to a bar, dank and dilapidated, located down an impossible-to-navigate maze of back alleys, fragrant with accumulated urine. The customers were mostly designers and architects Yuri had met before. The incongruence of a bunch of well-heeled hipsters hanging out in this down-and-out venue was intriguing enough, but some of them were wearing their underpants on their heads, smoking and drinking as if nothing was out of place. Yuri felt like she’d found a tiny anthropological window into the soul of the ‘real Japan’. The scene was poignant in its bizarreness, rich with the promise of a hidden truth and could’ve been a picture in one of those Day In the Life of Japan-type books.
Yuri never went to that bar again. When pressed, her architect boyfriend made unconvincing excuses and they never returned. Some weeks later, he gave her a gift of organic daikon, white radish from his mother’s farm. They broke up a few days later. Why a gift of a seasonal root vegetable should make her feel so disappointed in him she couldn’t really say. But it was at this point Yuri realised that getting to know the architect boyfriend was as pointless as her mission to ‘explore her roots’. Both activities left her feeling disheartened, disillusioned, lost.
She was considering heading back to Sydney when she spotted an ad for a voluntary translator at a women’s group. Involvement in the Asian Women’s Association gave Yuri a renewed purpose. A grassroots organisation founded by the indefatigable Ms M, a newspaper journalist and prominent Japanese feminist, the group was originally formed to protest Japanese sex tours to South-East Asia. But just recently, Ms M had taken on a new opponent, Ken Tokugawa. She had just launched her first attack in what would become a drawn out battle for history against a most formidable opponent.
THERE WAS A growing library of a startlingly popular series of manga all with ‘war’ in the title. The War Manifesto was the first and had sold over a million copies. The second, The War Within, was about how the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanjing was depicted in school textbooks. Was it a massacre, or were the alleged atrocities fabrications? The most recent release focussed on military prostitutes or ‘comfort women’, entitled The Necessities of War.
A manga artist had actually drawn the pictures, which Yuri reluctantly found aesthetically pleasing, but the stories were undeniably Tokugawa’s. His dogmatic tone, his sure-footed wit, his sweeping generalisations were all there. Yuri had no idea that Tokugawa had moved into the popular cultural medium of comics, but on reflection it seemed a natural progression for a man so instinctively adept at exploiting the media. He was quite old now but his words still bristled with vigour. Yuri pictured him as a crumpled figure slumped in a wheelchair, a rug on his lap, but with eyes that glowed loudly, like a siren in the dark.
What shocked Yuri was his blinding glorification of the military and his almost flippant wholesale whitewashing of Japanese wartime atrocities, like Unit 731’s record of human experimentation, the forced sexual enslavement of Korean women in military brothels, or the culpability of political decision-makers for sending young men to commit suicide. His views weren’t just about remembrance anymore but about rewriting collective memory and this was Ms M’s and Yuri’s objection to Tokugawa’s manga. The comics had great emotional appeal, the power to move hearts before logic. A dangerous power indeed, according to Ms M. One of Tokugawa’s stories featured the final hours of a nineteen-year-old pilot Taro.
Honourable Mother, thank for looking after me these nineteen years. Please forgive my premature departure from this life you gave me. When you hear of my passing, I hope you will not feel too much sorrow. For I fly today with the wind at my back knowing that I am serving the Emperor and for the future of the country.
This was kamikaze Taro’s final letter. With his iconic white scarf trailing behind him, he manoeuvres his plane towards the enemy. At one stage, he flies over his village and he imagines he can see his old high school through the shifting fog. He begins to sing the school song, but can’t recall the lyrics. As he hits his target, the cherry blossom logo on the side of the plane is visible. The plane dissolves in a spray of smoke. His final cry is, ‘okasan!’ The last frame of this manga is left blank, the caption reading: ‘The kamikaze pilot’s last word was invariably “mother”. Most were so young, they had experienced no other love, only the love of their mother.’
Even Ms M found it hard not to cry.
Yuri was inclined to agree with everything Ms M said. Ms M was a passionate polemicist and Yuri was attracted to her uncompromising tone, her unforgiving analysis of Tokugawa’s rhetoric. And just like Ms M, Yuri felt herself viscerally cringe from Tokugawa’s claim that the essence of Japan could be found in the kamikaze spirit.
In The War Manifesto he called on all Japanese people to awaken the ‘unconscious patriotism’ that lies dormant within. The manifesto was a call to arms, to fight the laziness, the moral decline, the unfocussed desire to consume and be consumed, the vacuousness of the bubble mentality.
‘Remember the kamikaze? Those heroic young men who sacrificed themselves for our nation? This kind of spirit is what Japan desperately needs to revive right now!’
Was this what her father meant when he said, ‘Lest we forget?’
WHY DOES SHE sound so aggrieved, so high and mighty? Why is she treating you as though you’re a perpetrator? She wants to know if you knew about the comics. Yes, you knew, but they have nothing to do with you. You tell her this but she’s not convinced.
‘There’s a character in the manga that even looks like you, has your eyebrows. He’s a young trainee who collects kamikaze letters. That’s you.’ Her accusatory tone down the phone line ricochets like a bullet inside your head. Saburo is rather delighted to be included in Tokugawa’s manga. But you’re not sure. Then again, maybe you are. Aren’t you in fact angry? All you’ve ever wanted is to properly mourn those who died for what they thought was a just cause, not the glorification of that cause. You’re appalled that you’re now also guilty by association for the fresh atrocities he’s committing, denying the truth of Japanese crimes against humanity, evacuating meaning from historical events.
You object to being subsumed into his overblown, slippery, neo-nationalist discourse. You detest him for sacrificing your truth. But these sentiments remain unformed inside you, an amorphous mass of barbed wire and stone and dirt and blood that threatens to choke you. You just don’t have the words to express them, do you? You do know what this means though. It means he wins, you lose.
Why do you so earnestly seek
the truth in distant places?
Look for delusion and truth in the
bottom of your own heart.
IN THE AUTUMN of 1991, Kim Hak-soon, a South Korean former ‘comfort woman’, broke her silence. ‘For nearly fifty years, I have lived, bearing the unbearable. Even as I speak now, my heart pounds against my chest.’
In the same year, a Japanese academic discovered documents directly linking the Imperial Japanese Army with the management of military brothels or ‘comfort stations’. For half a century, the Japanese government had systematically disavowed any involvement in these brothels, denying the truth of many other former ‘comfort women’s’ testimonies. The conflation of the events of 1991 meant the Japanese could no longer feign disinterest. The first prime ministerial apology to Korean women was issued shortly thereafter.
Yuri liked to think she played a role in these events. The women’s group organised a working party to translate documents into English, send out newsletters, organised a symposium and Yuri was at the frontline of this feverish grass roots activity. Everything seemed aflame with acute significance then, as if laden with the urgency of profound history making, tension held so tightly before it too would dissipate over time.
The women in the group reminded Yuri of her mother: neatly coiffed housewives, mothers, secretaries, shopkeepers, teachers, writers who were so unlike the strident feminists Yuri knew in her university days. No factions or interminable debates about worthiness or political correctness, these Japanese feminists just got on with it. Tireless and gentle, true to their cause. Being with them felt like coming home to a clean house, a freshly made bed and a well-lit hearth.
She would come to regret taking sides, but not for a many years. Her aim was true at the time. She wanted Ms M to defeat Tokugawa. Yuri had told Ms M about her father’s kamikaze letters, the museum, his friendship with Tokugawa. She had also confided in Ms M her confused feelings about her father’s ominous silence. Why had he said all those years ago that Yuri wouldn’t understand because she was a girl? Why hadn’t he told about Tokugawa’s manga?
Ms M wrote her column, the last in a series critiquing Tokugawa. She quoted Yuri’s story selectively, launching into a scathing indictment against her father as a way of getting at Tokugawa, accusing Hajime of concealing memories from his daughter. ‘How can the next generation of Japanese make amends for atrocities committed in the past if the previous generation continues to hide historical truth? It encourages active forgetting.’ And with this, both Yuri and Hajime became collateral damage in a verbal enmity that would be bitterly contested for many years to come. The one immediate outcome was this: the quality of silence between father and daughter continued to deepen. The quiet strangely resembled the hollowness of peace.
Stricken on a journey
my dreams through withered fields,
go wandering still
I’M TRYING TO write my father’s eulogy, but the words don’t come. Nor do any images. In life, he was unknowable and in death he is abstract. Five weeks ago I left my husband and seven-year-old daughter in Melbourne to drive up to Sydney. I was to look after my father while my mother was in hospital. ‘A routine hysterectomy,’ she’d said on the phone. ‘But I’m worried about your father. He can’t even boil water for his tea.’
‘Well, whose fault is that, you do absolutely everything for him.’ We laughed then, mother and daughter, a breathy laugh tinged with the humour of regret.
A few days after the operation, I came back from visiting my mother in hospital to find my father collapsed on the bedroom floor. He’d been complaining of digestive problems for a few days but he’d whinged so often after some polyps were removed from his intestinal tract a few years ago I hadn’t taken this bout of complaining seriously.
‘Help me up onto the bed,’ he was pleading.
‘I can’t lift you, you’re too heavy. I can support you but you have to help yourself.’
We carried on this almost push-me pull-you routine for a few minutes until, exasperated, I called for an ambulance. By the time it reached the hospital, he was unconscious.
He never woke up. Ten days later, he died in the ICU, a body linked into a web of machines and tubes that made swishing and gurgling and bleeping noises doing the work his organs refused to do. The utter soundlessness that embraced me after the machines were turned off was the worst thing about his death.
My mother was horrified that his mouth remained open, as if to accentuate his wordlessness. ‘He looks exactly the way he looks when he snores in front of the television,’ she said. We looked at him then and almost laughed. We should’ve laughed. My father always liked the sound of my mother’s laughter. This I knew about him.
He died ostensibly from pneumonia, but the good doctors at the ICU couldn’t figure out how the infection had found its way into his lungs. His chest had been clear on admission to hospital but there seemed to be a small intestinal blockage, and they guessed that perhaps he had aspirated faecal matter, leading to pneumonia.
The diagnosis hardly mattered. Medical explanations wouldn’t bring him back. We also have our own ideas about why he died. My mother says he simply ran out of life. After his retirement five years ago, he was lost, not knowing what to do. My father had asked his company to extend his posting in Australia so he could retire here, for the lifestyle. But he didn’t have a lifestyle. He was a fit seventy-year-old, and apart from the polyps and creaky knees, he had no medical issues, unlike my mother.
Her arthritis had disfigured her once elegant hands into gnarled lumps of driftwood, and osteoporosis was causing her to shrink into herself, vertebrae by vertebrae. She joked that all the prawns with their broken backs were now out for revenge. The hysterectomy meant one less organ to worry about. She still had high blood pressure and cloudy lungs.
My mother claims that her failing health was his tipping point.
‘Was he afraid you wouldn’t be there for him?’ I ask.
‘No, I think he just didn’t want to burden me with the job of looking after him anymore.’
I prefer to think I killed him. He was in my care while my mother was in hospital and I didn’t do enough. It’s better than thinking that he somehow willed himself to death, sacrificed himself so he would no longer be a millstone around my mother’s stooping neck.
FOR A MAN so intent on documenting for the sake of posterity, my father left nothing behind, no diaries, no memoirs. Did he destroy them? Maybe he didn’t want to burden me with his real memories? He may have left me unencumbered, but I also feel untethered, as if afloat in space without the gravity of identity. I wish I had something of my father’s to touch, to hold, to behold.
My daughter Lily is teaching me to hug. ‘You’re hurting me mama,’ she yells at me sometimes. It’s still hard for me to know how much to hold on and how much space to leave between us.
Lily has a special gift. She has a photographic memory. I fret about her constantly, worry that she might see something she’ll never be able to un-see. I also wonder what it must be like to know that every razor-sharp memory is reality.
She has another gift, my gift. She draws beautifully. But her drawings come straight from her imagination with barely an inkling of realism. Her skies are never blue, her buildings have curves, no corners and she never draws people, only cryptic animals. The only thing she depicts with any nod to the truth is flora.
On the day my father died, she gave me a picture of a gardenia flower in full bloom but with a tinge of yellow on the petals suggesting decay. She told me, ‘It’s grandpa in the garden.’
There is a gardenia bush in our backyard, which should flower in obedience to the seasons but the bush is yet to bloom. I realise now the flower Lily drew for me is her memory of the future. Exquisite for being so imbued with the imminence of death.
Edited by Sally Breen