He was a man of principle, Masaharu told himself. After all, he’d kept his head, even in the midst of that nonsense war, which had gone much too far—anyone could’ve told anyone that by the dismal end of it. Even the Emperor, the coward, sacrificing more lives just to save a good patch of his own skin. And now in this burnt-out clutter of defeat, his head was still screwed on tightly, despite the rationed-out years no one could justify now. Only when the Americans made their appearance, dotting the wasteland with their trucks and jeeps, did he become aware of a coldness at the center of his being, a coldness that momentarily tugged at him before sliding away like a silver fish, back into the black depths of his soul. Then again, maybe it was his principles that had compelled him to do what he did. At least Masaharu had to admit that.
That morning, they’d had breakfast as usual, he and his wife: thin barley gruel and half of a sweet potato. And, as usual, he picked up his chopsticks, imagining a magnificent breakfast he, like everyone else, had once considered plain: white rice, salted samma fish, miso soup. He slurped the gruel, snatching hints of the sweetness of white rice, the bitterness of the samma, relishing it. The potato, however, was an emaciated stump, unsalvageable even by imagination. He ate it in one bite.
“Would you like mine too?” his wife asked, finishing her smaller bowl of gruel.
Last night he’d watched her from the window of their rented room, carefully roasting the potato, its purple skin blistering in a nest of flames—much like a boy’s leg. He speared her untouched potato and swallowed it whole, choking on it.
“Do you want anything else before I go?” she asked, gathering their bowls, avoiding his eyes.
Masaharu set down his chopsticks and gazed at his wife. She was a year older than he, an elegant woman he’d chosen for himself—and for his parents, who’d been anxious to see him married. Of course, like everybody, she’d thinned out considerably over these years, but she’d done so evenly, with none of the sinking and hollowing he saw in the flesh of others. Still, she barely held the shape of her clothes now, no matter how often she took them up. Masaharu lay back on the grimy tatami floor, wondering why she still bothered asking after his wants when, clearly, every want had to go unfulfilled. Possibly it was habit, fifteen years of being a wife, although Nishi Masako—as he still thought of her sometimes by her maiden name—had never been the subservient type. She’d always made sure he knew exactly what she minded and what she did not. She was a resolute woman, certainly a match for himself.
Tucking her hair behind her ears, his wife wiped the counter that contained the sink where they also kept their toiletries. Every Sunday, it was the same; his brain withdrew into its stony vault, while his wife prepared for work—a typing job, secured by an acquaintance of his. It had bothered him already that she was the one who now left for work every day, but for her to have to pick up the extra day—it would have felled any man. But, actually, that wasn’t true, Masaharu thought; Sunday or not, they’d never been short of talk, until, one night, four weeks ago, she’d come home refusing to speak. Her silence was unprecedented, so when the next morning she still didn’t explain herself, he’d made every effort to respect it.
“Well, if there’s nothing else.” His wife pulled on her sandals, and this time it was Masaharu who didn’t look at her, even though he could feel her eyes boring into the side of his face. She picked up her cloth bundle and closed the door behind her.
Listening to his wife’s footsteps as she clanked down the metal stairs, Masaharu wondered again when the idea had come to him—or, rather, when it had taken hold of him, this concrete need to be acted upon. It couldn’t have been long after that silent night, their first in their fifteen years of marriage. But, actually, that wasn’t true either, Masaharu thought now. For there was a precedent: one other silent night five months earlier.
That time, it was May, warm and blustery, the sky empty of the planes that now evoked one of the worst nights in the history of Japan: the March 10th air raid, when Tokyo, built mostly of wood and paper, had burned, an urban jungle of thick smoke and raging fire. Like most people ignorant of the mechanics of incendiary bombs, all they’d done was crawl into the shelter they’d dug, he and his wife and their thirteen-year-old son, Seiji. If the wind had shifted slightly, or the bombers had swerved off course, and a stray spark had alighted atop a house a few meters nearer, their amateur dugout, two meters deep and covered with corrugated tin, wouldn’t have withstood the conflagration. So they revised their plan, charting out the quickest route to the neighborhood shelter, the community swimming pool, the concrete school building—after all, who would’ve guessed that the shelter would be cut off, that the school would blow out, that the pool, boasting its Olympic size, would catch fire and boil? What Masaharu and his wife could not reconcile was that Seiji wasn’t in the house when the siren went off that May night and that afterwards he never turned up, not at the shelter where they’d taken refuge, nor at the school where they’d promised to regroup, nor in the form of the things scraped and salvaged from the gummed up pool.
A hollow clomp resounded on the concrete landing. In a minute his wife would pass under their window, heading towards the train station. Masaharu got up. All month he’d asked himself why—why that silence?—and a nameless dread had coalesced in his chest. For he knew that his wife had had a choice: She could’ve lied, evaded answering, or simply carried on with their domestic routine. She’d done it during the war, done it well—they both had—to evade political persecution and survive.
At the corner of the building, his wife paused, and Masaharu drew back, knowing she’d sensed his presence. They were synchronized in that way. More so than he and Seiji, who’d resembled one another, casting the same determined shadow when they walked, or showing the same propensity for irritation when efficiency was thwarted. In fact she’d connected that way with Seiji as well, the two of them orbiting each other, as if their umbilical cord had never been cut. Often, sitting with them at the table, Masaharu couldn’t help marveling at how well they functioned, their little unit moving together, his wife at the fulcrum managing them. He’d vowed to do what he could to keep them intact, even if it meant a little personal compromise.
Masaharu reached for his jacket and cap. Patting his pockets for his keys, he closed the door and quietly descended the metal steps.
To account for the unpredictability of the world, his wife had taken to leaving early, and she stood there now, on the platform, over half an hour to spare, gazing out at the wooded hill studded with scaffolding twenty-five meters high, the framework for what was to become an enormous bust of the Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Sixteen years ago, in 1929, a volunteer group had begun building the structure, only to be interrupted five years later when conflict with China became imminent. Like everything else, the Kannon, ally of the common people, was sacrificed for war. When Seiji was born, they’d taken a trip to Shizuoka to visit Masaharu’s brother, and it was then that they’d glimpsed the construction from the train window. It seemed anachronistic to build such a monument at a time of relentless modernization and militarization, and they were moved. It was one of the reasons they’d decided to flee here two months ago, when they learned that a second “new type” bomb had razed Nagasaki. If the Americans were willing to obliterate that Christian city, Tokyo’s fate seemed precarious.
“At least they had the foresight to build Her with Her back to Tokyo,” his wife had said then, clutching their few, salvaged belongings, gazing up at the abandoned scaffolding. “I heard the Justice Minister who supported the project studied in America, at HarvardUniversity,” she chattered on brazenly and slightly dazed. “I think he must have foreseen this from the start. This defeat,” she added, the word popping the air.
Masaharu quickly glanced about them; the station was noisy, crowded mostly with refugees like themselves, but there was no telling who might be listening. He took his wife’s arm. Looking around for the exit, he steered them toward it. “You don’t think it was the Kannon who forsook Tokyo? Maybe She’s the one who refused to be built,” he said.
A prickly light gathered in his wife’s eyes. “But the Kannon renounced Her ascendance for humanity. She wouldn’t forsake us. Of course She wouldn’t.” Her steadfastness, tinged with desperation, shamed him.
“Well, we’re better off here anyway, you’re right about that,” he said, even though he knew that this city was home to one of the most brutal POW interrogation centers in the country; with defeat tightening around their necks, he didn’t want to consider the ramifications of living in proximity to such an institution. “I suppose we better see who we can convince to let us a room,” he said, but his wife, brooding now, refused to brighten even after they secured a room and slumped down onto the tatami floor. After all, it was she, Nishi Masako, who’d finally given the word to flee, turning her back on the raining bombs and pitted streets, which had refused to yield even the bones of their only son.
Masaharu wondered what she saw in the ugly scaffolding now. Did she still see promise? Redemption? Or was it regret she saw, the guilt of choosing to move on?
But his wife, a mask of serenity, betrayed only that the shade had begun to chill her.
The train screeched to a stop. Masaharu moved through the crowd to the car he saw his wife board. Would she sit or stand? Even fifteen years of marriage couldn’t help him predict that. He slipped into line, lowering his cap, preparing a few reasonable explanations in case he happened upon her.
To his relief, he spotted her right away, sitting at the opposite end of the car, her coat folded neatly on her lap, her cloth bundle perched above it like an oversized mikan. He swiftly maneuvered himself behind a spindly but tall man, only to be jostled by a throng of katsugiya smugglers transporting rice on their backs. Cooing and swaying, they eddied around him, their precious bundles—wrapped rather convincingly, he thought, in the kind of obuihimo his own mother had once used to carry him—pressing him into the aisle. Two more seats, and sure enough, his wife’s eyes fastened onto him.
“Are you on your way to Tomita-san’s?” she asked, amused by his contortions.
Masaharu grunted. Tomita Yoshiaki was a fellow journalist, a diehard Communist who’d been released from jail when the Allied Forces abolished the Peace Preservation Law, once exploited by the government to suppress unpatriotic activity. Tomita, initially censured for questioning the legitimacy of the Japanese presence in Manchuria, had been arrested for criticizing Japan’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. He was detained for ten years, a light sentence compared to the hundreds who’d been incarcerated for upward of twenty. Masaharu took off his sweaty cap. “I forgot we were meeting today. On a Sunday,” he muttered, grateful for the pretext.
“Tomita-san is a zealot, but if you weren’t so busy brooding, we could’ve left together,” his wife said, handing him her handkerchief.
Masaharu wiped his face, ignoring her gentle jab. “Actually, Tomita needs to be careful. We don’t know how open American-style democracy really is.”
“I’m sure even Tomita-san isn’t eager to go back to jail. Besides, he might have some leads for you,” she said, turning to acknowledge the young woman next to her, who’d accidentally elbowed her, attempting to unscrew her canteen. She had a small child strapped to her back, a sizeable bundle on her lap, the verdant fragrance of tea rising from it. She smiled at Masaharu, including him in her apology.
“May I?” The woman facing them reached for the canteen. She was wearing a Western-style dress, a pair of Western-style shoes, and her nails were painted to match them. Oddly, though, she’d left her face bare, perhaps in consideration of this train ride, or perhaps simply to minimize hostility. Next to her, an elderly woman sniffed. She was clutching her own bundle, possibly some kimonos she hoped to barter on the black market. The tea peddler glanced nervously around her but handed over the canteen. The elderly woman looked away. Masaharu turned to his wife.
“What Tomita needs to realize is that it’s not Japan, but we men, who were defeated.”
“Well, it’s true.” His wife suppressed a smirk. “You men have made quite a mess.”
“That’s right,” a woman behind Masaharu piped up. “All men do is make war.”
“And lose it too,” another chimed in.
“You know,” a man behind Masaharu said. “I heard a rumor they’re opening the government to women. Pretty soon women will be running this country.”
“Oh you poor man, you’ll never lose another war ’cause we won’t make any,” a third woman cracked to the others’ approval.
Masaharu wondered what these women would be saying if Japan had won the war; victors could justify anything, and hadn’t they thrown themselves into the war effort just months before? The man behind him clucked but didn’t reply.
His wife said, “But didn’t we all contribute to this war? I certainly didn’t do enough to prevent it.”
A rueful silence fell on the crowd, the train’s rhythmic clatter unpleasantly marking their progress. Of course she was right; no one was exempt. Even them, Masaharu thought. Sure, they’d done their part, boycotting send-offs, contesting propaganda, but these were small individual acts with no collective reach. Maybe if Seiji hadn’t been a factor—but ultimately they hadn’t been convinced that jail was the better option. Still, it rankled him, these righteous people flip-flopping overnight, blaming others for what they’d had a hand in.
Surprisingly, it was the pan pan prostitute in the Western-style dress who broke the silence. “But we were deceived. We were tricked by the Emperor.”
The elderly woman shrank at the blasphemy, but the crowd murmured their consent. Even the Occupation pushed this logic: that they were simply all misguided children in need of a little re-education—this time to obey the American Father. A thoroughly colonial attitude, thought Masaharu.
“Well, if we were all deceived, we’re one stupid country, aren’t we? No wonder we lost the war.” This time it was the tea peddler with the small child who spoke, once again attuning them to the train’s fitful clatter.
The doors rattled open. Masaharu gripped his wife’s seat. A few passengers pressed their way out, more pushed their way in. Among them were two GIs, who despite the Occupation’s segregation rules, had decided to experience “native” life. Unlike the many who strutted around like roosters, though, at least this pair seemed well-meaning, if revved by the thrill of disobedience.
“Konichiwa,” they said, their well-fed faces bright with optimism. “How are you today? My name is Jim,” one said, looking at a group of schoolgirls. “What’s your name?”
The schoolgirls tittered. A few men turned away. A weighty silence hung in the air, low grumbles of displeasure rising. The soldiers extended their hands. “Name?” they asked again. “Nah-meh?”
The schoolgirls giggled nervously. A few women averted their gaze. The man behind Masaharu clucked. “They occupy our country; do they have to occupy our car too?”
“Maybe their car’s full,” a woman said.
“Ever see more than five in their car?” the man retorted.
“They’re just kids,” someone else snapped.
That was true, Masaharu thought. “That’s the problem with war. All these kids. What do they know about consequences? Even Seiji—” He swallowed his words; Seiji wasn’t a topic they mentioned freely. In fact the last time he accidentally mentioned his name, they’d ended up in a storm, pointing fingers at each other for all kinds of things they’d kept to themselves. He glanced at his wife, expecting that doleful smile he found especially withering.
His wife, though, was gazing out the window, the platform beginning to glide; wrapped in sunlight, she didn’t appear to have heard him. Masaharu wiped his face with the back of his hand. Sitting there half-turned like that, she looked exactly the way she did that night, her closed face and unfocused eyes making him want to shake her. He’d been careful to remove himself, gently sliding the paper doors behind him.
“Let me see that handkerchief,” he said.
His wife automatically handed it to him. Shortage had brought a new edge to her face, the kind of hardness he might have mistaken for the strain of indigence, if he didn’t see her hands, white with nervous pressure. She’d long since disciplined herself to stop fidgeting, but here she was doing it again. A few years ago, when some Kempeitai underlings raided their home, she’d almost undone the family. Fortunately the soldiers were too green to notice, but it was the first time Masaharu had seen her betray herself. It was also the first time he understood how much his dissidence was wearing on her. Glancing at her hands, he wondered whether she’d fidgeted that night as well. She’d sat at the table, legs folded on the tattered hassock, her face frozen in a stare, but her hands? He wiped his face with the handkerchief.
At the front of the car, a schoolgirl pushed forward. Despite her group’s discouragements, she faced the soldiers with teacherly impatience. “Na-ma-e. Kon-nichi-wa,” she said sternly.
The soldiers exchanged a glance. “Nahmeh! Konichiwa!” they said, grinning.
“Na-ma-e. Kon-nichi-wa,” the girl repeated, frowning.
“Nahmeh! Konichiwa!” the soldiers cheered.
A loud slam stilled the air. “Think this is a game? Think you’re welcome here? Go back to where you belong.” The words were Japanese, but the tone was clear. For a moment the soldiers’ faces wavered with teenage panic, but their bodies hardened, their hands instinctively gripping the straps of their rifles. Masaharu felt his wife look up. From her seat, he knew she couldn’t see much, but he didn’t turn to her. The soldiers trained their eyes on the crowd. “What d’you say?” one of them shouted. The tea peddler bounced her stirring child. The car swelled with apprehension as the soldiers spoke to one another, their rapid back- and-forth a reminder of how decisions were made these days: from on high and in a language as inaccessible as the Emperor’s had been.
“Hey America!” A young man stood up. “Haro! Gooddo-bye! Mo-nay? Ga-aru? Bo-oy? Chocolaito? Ingurish prease!” He cupped his ear in humorous apology.
The soldiers swiveled.
“Haro? Oh-rai? Ingurish?” the man tried again.
The soldiers did not move. Their faces were tight, unamused.
“Oh-kay.” The man finally shrugged. “USA!” He pumped a thumbs up.
A few women tittered. The crowd watched with amused curiosity. The soldiers slowly softened and smiled warily. “OK. Tomodachi.” They returned a weary thumbs up.
Tomodachi. Friend. What a word to use, Masaharu thought. Turning to his wife, he opened his mouth to say as much, but he caught an odd expression crossing her face, the soft light he knew well skewed by it. He glanced at her hands. They were resting on her bundle as still as polished stones. A chill climbed to the base of his head.
“Will you be late tonight?” she asked, startling him.
“You know Tomita,” he grumbled and pulled on his cap.
They parted at the gate. Masaharu took a few steps, then darted into the milling crowd, looping his way back. For an instant he wondered at himself, his wife’s familiar back reassuring him of his foolishness. He wondered if he shouldn’t visit Tomita after all. He picked his way after his wife, picturing Tomita’s room, trapped in the quiet of a house its widowed owner had begrudgingly let him. There was no way Tomita would stay cooped up in there on a clear Sunday. He briefly wondered what he’d do if his wife ran into Tomita. His wife disappeared into the day. Masaharu quickened his pace.
Despite the early hour, business was in full swing, the sundry peddlers vying to draw GIs in search of cheap souvenirs. Melted green glass, uniforms looted from military stockpiles, pipes assembled from anti-aircraft shells. These days anything and everything sold as “defeat” curios—even missing limbs, thought Masaharu, ducking an ex-soldier displaying his stump for alms. Around him, groups of gaudy women in Western-style dresses lit their cigarettes no doubt supplied by their American customers. One of them languidly appraised him as he passed. The unglamorousness of the woman’s life was evident on her skin, rough with makeup that did little to mask her plight, but even for Masaharu, who’d never been one to buy his pleasure, the knowledge that he’d been stripped of that choice rankled him. He looked away, fixing his gaze on his wife’s head bobbing this way and that as she searched the faces of sooty orphans for Seiji. He thrust his hands into his pockets, resisting the urge to shout to her.
They’d searched for him for weeks in the broken streets strewn with dead wires, glowing cinders, clumps of huddled bodies stinking of burnt hair and cooked innards. At first he was hopeful, his wife’s certainty encouraging him. He was even grateful for his own training, his ability to angle and dig for information, a skill that had done little except get him into trouble. But as the days lengthened into weeks, and the damages became clearer, he found himself wavering. True, their son’s missing body was a hopeful sign in the midst of the dead and dying who continued to fill up the school grounds where they’d begun to volunteer, stoking the pyres and gathering the bones, but unlike his wife, Masaharu couldn’t subsist on hopeful absence, savoring stories of unlikely reunions and the words of Seiji’s teacher, who’d once come running, claiming to have spotted him, blistered, but alive.
Soon June turned into July, and the sun, unimpeded by roofs and trees, began pressing down, and Masaharu found himself caving. The maddening buzz of the flies, the ripening stench of the bodies, the dips and flares of hope—all of it was unbearable in the sweltering heat. Even his wife sank into a stupor, the edge of desperation showing in her new, unfocused irritability. And yet, for her, the future continued to hover like an open road; that Seiji could appear on it haunted her. They stayed on, the unadmitted skipping away like a stone.
Then, one night, watching the bonfire consume the latest B-29 carnage, his wife slipped in beside him, her face lit by the heat of the dead. “Do you believe Mori-sensei actually saw him?”
The question startled him; this was the closest she’d come to expressing any doubt. He picked up his bamboo rod and poked at a waterlogged body. It was hopeless to try to burn these, these corpses that had gorged on a river or pond, disbelieving they’d roasted to death. “I suppose,” he said slowly, “anything is possible. But in terms of Mori . . .” He didn’t rehash the teacher’s recent disappearance, her madly shorn hair, scattered like a parting gift in front of their makeshift tent.
“And you?” his wife asked. “What about you?”
Masaharu gazed at glowing pyres crackling all around them. “I suppose, all I can say is that I’m glad it wasn’t you.”
Instead of shunning him, his wife touched his arm and left to pack their things.
Drawn back into the noisy street, Masaharu noted with a start that the distance between them had shrunk. He slowed, wiping his face with the handkerchief he realized he’d taken from his wife. He wondered again whether he shouldn’t seek out Tomita. After everything, he felt sheepish slinking after her like a mole.
His wife stopped at an intersection. Looking left and right, she turned onto a narrower street, flanked by shuttered businesses. Only one store bloomed with prewar colors. Masaharu flowed with the throng, depositing himself behind the small crowd that had gathered in front of the display window.
Lacquered mirrors and combs, elaborate entertainment kimonos—he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen such luxuries openly displayed. No doubt they were props consigned for resale by high-class geishas, but he couldn’t imagine who could afford such things. Perhaps yopan prostitutes catering to foreign servicemen, he thought. Why his wife had to gawk like every other woman, he had no idea, but the thought of her possibly coveting such things annoyed him. Behind him, a camera clicked. He turned to see a GI scribbling in a notepad. He could already see the headline—War-torn Women Seduced by Cosmetics—and he bristled at the thought of his wife’s face accompanying such an article. He craned his head impatiently over the crowd to see what his wife was looking at. To his shock, his eyes locked with hers in the window’s reflection. He ducked, lunging into an open doorway behind him.
Had she seen him? He flattened himself against the wall of what must have been a confectioner, its counter once full of delicate sweets. The bell above the missing door tinkled. Masaharu peered around the windowless window frame. The crowd was shifting, its edges swelling with newcomers, but his wife was gone. He rushed out into the blinding street.
Would he have pursued her had he known the consequences? This was a question Masaharu would find himself asking from time to time for the rest of his life. In retrospect, there was always that chance that he could’ve turned back, or behaved differently.
But here was the end of the intact street, the open wasteland stretching beyond it, towers of rusty girders grazing in the ruin. Masaharu took out his wife’s handkerchief. Wiping the grit from his mouth, he watched her tottering figure negotiate the narrow path cutting through the rubble. He wondered how far he could go undetected. His wife disappeared behind a half-crumbled building. Masaharu hurried after her.
To his surprise, he emerged onto a busy street, one of the thoroughfares of the city’s amusement district. Once closed by the government, the district was bustling again, its shuttered storefronts gaudily made over in Western style, the now-segregated bars and dancehalls thriving despite postwar shortages. Garish gangsters, inebriated GIs, rich businessmen profiteering from the war: the streets were taut with tension, small skirmishes constantly in the making. Despite himself, Masaharu found himself gaping at the puffed up youths, hollering or haggling, some openly groping a struggling woman. Training his eyes on his wife, he picked up his pace, swatting back a pack of street kids, willing himself not to run. Ahead, his wife also picked up her pace, slipping in front of an old, emaciated rickshaw bearer, deftly avoiding the hands of a swaggering soldier whose height and girth reduced even Masaharu to the size of a teenager. Masaharu hurried to cross the street.
At first he didn’t see her. Then he spotted her, stopped by two MPs, their skin so black that for a moment Masaharu froze. He’d never seen a black person before, and in a district off-limits to them, their presence was startling, drawing the attention especially of the soldiers, whose pale sunburnt skin suddenly looked delicate, almost foolish. Masaharu wove his way closer. What were they saying? He couldn’t see their faces. When he saw them again, he realized with a start that they had seized his wife.
What had she done? Even in his panic, he knew the question was irrelevant, yet he found himself struggling for clues. He pushed his way through the thickening crowd. Her face looked tiny, her expression creased by what he guessed must be fear. The MPs began escorting her down the street. Masaharu lunged forward. When he surfaced again, he saw that two white servicemen had staggered into the street in front them. They were shouting, both of them snatching out at the men. The crowd stirred, excited voices rising above the din. The MPs kept walking. The servicemen tightened their movements. Masaharu felt his back blossom with greasy sweat.
He began to run at the sound of scuffling boots. He broke through the first knot of people and saw the soldiers facing off in earnest, the white pair shouting and snatching at his wife. When he broke through the second knot of people, he caught the first exchange of fists. As he broke through the third knot of people, he found himself in the clearing that had opened around the soldiers. They were still fighting, whipping out their fists and palms, but he couldn’t see his wife. He darted to one side. His wife was not there. But there was a movement, a glint in the alley. When he turned to look, he saw a door closing behind a figure he was sure was his wife. He sprang after her, but the next moment he found himself blocked by the soldiers who had momentarily united to halt him.
Never had Masaharu imagined pacing this alley, slimy with urine and vomit, looking for his wife. He rounded the corner to the entrance for the third time. The same MPs, the same line of bawdy GIs. He glanced up at the grandiose sign: Oasis.
It took a moment for the pieces to connect. When they did, he stood there for a moment, rooted, staring at the line of GIs, the two towering MPs, the alley into which his wife had disappeared. When the front doors swung open, he glimpsed the smiling proprietor, the row of women seated along the wall behind him. Their faces were too far to see. The doors slammed shut. Masaharu rushed forward.
“No Japs,” the MPs told him, clamping down on him. Their faces were neutral, betraying none of the hostilities of a moment ago, but their proximity was overwhelming. Masaharu glanced at their hands, their pale nails. How could he explain? He looked up, his dim collection of English words scattering like beads. The doors reopened. He twisted around, shouting for the proprietor, the English word for “wife” suddenly coming to his tongue. He repeated it, pointing at the doors. The doors slammed shut again. A few GIs snickered. The MPs tightened their grip. “Da-me,” they finally told him in Japanese, emphasizing each syllable, pushing him firmly away.
Back on the street, Masaharu had no idea what to do. A different man might’ve risked the back door, stormed the facility, stripping the curtains to all the cubicles until he found her, smelling of sex, humiliated. But Masaharu was not a hysterical man; even now, a part of him expected her to emerge, her face blooming with surprise before curling, guessing at his fears. He couldn’t imagine her spread on the bedding, her thin body mounted and speared like a pig.
Tethered to the doors, Masaharu circled the district, returning again and again to check them. The canned goods, her shoulder-length bob. How could he have missed these telltale signs? He could still picture the requisitioned building, the barbed-wire fence, the armed checkpoint to which he’d accompanied his wife when she began her typing job. It had angered him then that they’d barred his way; now he was bitter. Unlike Tomita, he’d banked on Japan’s defeat. Each year another year closer to Seiji’s conscription, he’d hoped for a different life. When the bombings began, Masaharu, if briefly, felt the thrill of hope. It seemed possible that his son, too old to be evacuated to the countryside, might still escape the draft. He never imagined Seiji, so close to the war’s end, disappearing on them.
Looking around at the squalid glitter, Masaharu marveled at what the world had come to. Japan’s own soldiers had plundered and raped, decimating a whole continent as if it were their noble right, but they were hardly unique. What mattered was which side of the line one fell on, the victor or the defeated. He pictured the burning streets, the massacred bodies, all the pyres he’d lit. He wondered how anybody could be expected to get past it. He looked at the facility, the ever-growing line snaking into it, his wife’s body opening to take every inch of it. He was filled with so much loathing, he had no idea how he would endure it.
It was almost midnight by the time he got off the train and walked the fifteen minutes to the intersection from where he could see their boardinghouse, a single square of light illuminating it. Framed there was his wife, arms on the windowsill, her upturned face girlish, as if scrying the stars that were abundant here, unlike Tokyo, whose spoilt sky showed nothing but a dim smear. But Masaharu knew his wife was merely waiting for him, their best dinner of the week covered by a cloth, the rewards of her labor. Despite himself, his stomach gurgled, and he marveled bitterly at his body’s tenacity, its dogged will to survive.
Behind him the Kannon’s hill loomed unrealized in a dark that hovered there as if by a new curfew. It occurred to him that he could turn back, disappear as many were doing, but after everything, leaving her would be an apostasy. He could not deny that.
Passing under their window, he looked up and met his wife’s eyes. There was nothing in them to suggest her feelings, but he could feel her consternation, its pitching current blocked by her ever-unbending will to spare him the inquisition. He rounded the corner and climbed the steps, his shoes loud in the chilly air. It reminded him of the coming winter, the thousands who were expected to freeze and starve, and he realized ironically that the two of them would not need to worry.
Loosening his keys from his pocket, he stepped into the shadowy corridor and was once again assailed by images of her, her wet mouth, sweaty thighs, opening for the pleasure of others. It was an image so shattering that for a moment he stood still, struggling to recall the person he knew was waiting on the other side of the door, readying his meal, unbegrudgingly. Of course, this was what she’d tried to spare him, he saw that now. And just as she’d tried, he’d try to spare her the knowledge that he knew—that was only fair. After all, they’d chosen to survive, and they had a whole life ahead of them now to live, both in their own silence, separately.