Part 1: Sawako’s Story
The war made me an orphan, then a whore.
I suspect my story is a common one, one of the very many stories of post-war Japan that were never openly spoken, just known. Whispered gossips of bored housewives, slipped tongues of drunken men.
All of us survived the war. We have kept our heads down, worked hard, put our best foot forward. And here we are. But as long as we live, as long as I live, the war does not end.
You want to hear my story, you say.
Would you still want to hear it, if the story I tell is a love story? Because that is my story – nothing more, nothing less.
August 1942 – December 1943
The night Mother died giving birth to my baby brother, Father told me to go play outside as if I was still a little girl. I remember the beads of sweat on his forehead, his body shaking despite the sticky August heat. As I slid open the front door, I heard a roar from upstairs.
“Is that Mother?”
“It’s nothing. Don’t worry. Just… play.”
Father pushed my back, and the door slammed closed behind me. I glanced up at the sky. It was pitch dark except for the full moon.
“The full moon will bring me a baby,” I said to myself, repeating what Mother and I had been saying to each other over the past months. An only child, I had been waiting for almost fifteen years to become an older sister. There had been many “water babies,” those who slipped away. With each miscarriage, Mother and I planted a small pot of morning glories. I walked over to the far corner of the front yard where nine pots of morning glories stood – unopened – and sat down. Hugging my knees, I glared at the full moon, on a dare. By the time the morning glories opened, I was motherless, and the baby that the moon brought was just a reflection.
There was very little of Father left after Mother died. It was as if Mother had taken him with her when she passed. Father was reduced to his mere frame, walking around without his feet touching the ground. The small children in our street grew scared of him, while the older children called him “ghost” behind his back. Our next-door neighbour, Auntie Reiko, helped me to keep house, occasionally scolding Father back to this world.
One morning that winter, a young man from townhall came to the house. I recognized him as the older brother of one of my classmates. He got off his bicycle, wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and cleared his throat.
“Is your father home?”
He looked nervous. When Father came out, the young man took out a pink slip and handed it to Father. His arms stretched out and his back straight, as if he was made of bamboo. Seeing the pink slip, Father came back to life again.
“Thank you,” Father said, and he accepted the pink slip with both hands, bowing down his head. The young man bowed back, his acned cheeks red with what looked like relief. Years later, he would tell me that Father was the only one who thanked him during all the years when he had to deliver those pink slips that drafted men – young and old – to the Pacific War.
There was less than a week until Father had to leave. With renewed energy, he went through the house, making two piles: one big and one small. Once done, he called me over.
“Sawako, these are the most valuable things our family owns. You can see it is not much, but you might still be able to get something for them when things get tougher.”
In the small pile, I saw a wooden box with the “good” china that Mother had used only for the New Year’s celebrations but had cleaned every month; Mother’s favorite brooch with jade and small pearls; Mother’s best kimonos, carefully folded in washi paper; silver cigarette case he got from his employer before the war; and, his wrist watch. My eyes went to his right wrist, where the watch had been.
“I won’t be needing to know the time at the frontline. Time will pass as God’s intends, not by those two thin hands of the watch.”
“I will guard it for you, Father, until you return.”
Instead of responding, Father reached out for my arm and fastened the band around my wrist. It was way too loose, so Father found a nail and hammer from his old toolbox and punched an extra hole.
After dark, Father dug a shallow hole in the garden, under the pots of morning glories, and buried the valuables.
“They will be safe here, Mother will protect them. Protect you. If you are ever in need of money, or anything, you shall sell them. Ask Auntie Reiko to help negotiate a good price for you. She is young but very solid.”
“We can dig them up together, when you are back from the war, Father.”
I said, knowing it was in vain. I had seen the content of the big pile he had made: his clothes and other belongings that were not worth much. He had sold them all to the man who recycled garbage for a pittance. He then put the money he got into an envelope with my name on, in the drawer under the altar where Mother’s black and white photo smiled down upon us. There was nothing in the envelope except for the money.
The next morning, I found him shaving his head in the backyard, as required by the military. When he saw me, he beckoned me over.
“Sawako, can you help me get the back?”
I walked over, wearing Mother’s outdoor wooden sandals. As I spread the lather of soap at the back of his head, Father closed his eyes. I placed the blade gently and carefully moved it down his head.
“Shizuko…” Father murmured, his eyes closed. I kept silent. I also felt Mother behind me, her hand covering my moving hand. I followed the lead. My hand felt weightless, and I felt tears rolling down my face. Father still had his eyes closed, and I prayed for the task to never end. When the last drop of soap was cleaned off with a warm towel, Mother left us, again. Father opened his eyes and turned back. He saw me and nodded lightly. I wanted to apologize to Father: sorry, it’s just me.
Auntie Reiko urged me to partake in making him a Thousand Needles Cloth, stitched by a thousand women to protect our soldiers from enemy bullets. I followed Auntie’s instruction on how to stitch but left a thread loose at the back. I knew that was what Father wanted, and as a daughter I felt it my duty to respect his unspoken final wish.
At the platform of the train station that took Father to war, the neighbours and old classmates gathered:
“Banzai, banzai, banzai!”
Three cheers to the Emperor.
I was pushed in front of Father:
“I will pray for your safety,” I said, not meeting his eyes.
His classmates were shouting into his ears:
“You will return. You must return.”
Their voices cracked. I looked up and saw in Father’s eyes that he did not intend to return. There on the platform, I became an orphan. And three months later, I officially was.