Issue #11 |

Womanly Words

My father’s first wife had died giving birth to Utaka, the youngest of my three older brothers. She had done her duty, my father often joked, giving him an abundance of sons. Therefore he could afford to be less stringent when it came to selecting his next wife. He had settled for Hanako, the mother of my older sister Fumiko and myself. He would make this disparagement seated at the head of the table, his legs folded beneath him, the charcoal-burning kotatsu warming his feet. My older brothers would laugh at the insult directed toward their step-mother, my mother, who would smile back silently and bow deferentially, as if being offended so was an honor. She would empty the shochu bottle into my father’s cup and retire to the kitchen where she would busy herself supervising Fumiko and our servant, Naomi.

I once pretended to laugh at my father’s joke. It was a regular part of our family meals, this sense that my mother was a disappointment, was inferior in every way to her predecessor who had delivered three consecutive sons, all of them strapping and strong, taking after my father with their tall foreheads and jutting jaws, while my mother had delivered that greatest disappointment of all, a daughter, before managing to proffer me. It was my misfortune to resemble my mother in every way, to be spindle-shouldered and bespectacled and prone to rash around my armpits. When I laughed at my father’s mockery, my older brother Utaka turned to me and said, why are you laughing, she’s your mother.

You should be ashamed.

I stopped laughing and felt not for the first time the acute difference between the three sons of that fertile, deceased woman and myself. My sister, Fumiko, had withdrawn from the dinner table and gone into the kitchen the year before, leaving me to sit with the other men. It was understood that Fumiko would now need to learn to supervise the cooking, cleaning and sewing.

For years Fumiko and I had taken the train to Osaka Station together and walked to the Daishoyo Academy every morning, six days a week, running sticks along the fences, catching frogs in Shirokita Park, guessing at the names and occupations of the pedestrians walking toward us. She made up stories about everyone we passed: Mr. Kobayashi was worried his breath smelled of fish and garlic; Miss Urabe was in love with a French pilot who had promised he would leave his wife for her; Mrs. Ota refused to burn coal in the winter and so had frozen her son to death and he was still in her house, the cadaver stiff like a cedar plank. One afternoon last winter, Fumiko had brought along enough money for each of us to buy a roasted sweet potato from the vendor who drove a charcoal-fueled cart. We sat in the park and ate them, steam escaping from our mouths, and she acted out a scene from a puppet show, imitating the movements of the puppets. I laughed so hard mashed potato came out of my nose. Then, one evening last fall, my father announced Fumiko had completed her formal education. She was twelve and would be enrolled at a finishing school where she could learn wifely tasks.

Now I took the train by myself every morning and evening. I never stopped at the park. Never caught another frog.

My oldest brother was to inherit the family business. He already worked with my father at the textile factory. My second oldest brother went to Kyoto University where he studied business. But it was Utaka who I admired the most. He was the best baseball player in our family, and had pitched at Koshien last summer, my father and my brothers and I seated in the hot stands, beneath the sheet metal eaves, eating dried squid and watching as Utaka bravely faced a lineup of players from a high school in Sendai who looked old enough to be fathers themselves. That he had survived three innings against these brutes was considered the height of nobility and courage. Despite his losing, while he had filled his jersey with Koshien infield dirt as a memento, I had felt so proud of Utaka that I told myself I would follow him everywhere. He gave me a pinch of the dirt in folded white rice paper that I brought to school to show my classmates. They all agreed that Utaka was a hero.

When he announced that he was going to take the Imperial Japanese Army Academy entrance examination the following spring, I was sure he would succeed. Utaka succeeded at everything. I immediately announced that I too would take the entrance examination. Fumiko, who was seated behind my father, immediately looked up at me as if concerned but I intentionally avoided her glance. My father and my older brothers all laughed, as if I had told a joke.

My father grunted, as he did when he didn’t want to reply but had to acknowledge a statement, and instead turned back to Utaka and raised his glass of shochu. He and my brothers said three banzais and drank to the Emperor and the Imperial Japanese Army Academy.


Fumiko was seated on the back veranda, her legs dangling over the carp pond, dropping kernels of barley for which the fish jostled each other. It was hot, the long summer afternoon loud with the buzz of cicadas and the sun baking the tatami mat so that the straw smelled as if it was roasting. She asked me why I had said I wanted to go to the military academy. I told her that anything Utaka did I wanted to do. She pointed out that we were different people, that Utaka was bigger than me. I believe she was about to say he was stronger than me, but then she thought better of it. You are not Utaka.

I took that as an insult. Why could I not be Utaka? I accused her of being jealous of me, because I was a boy.

She ignored that, instead saying I shouldn’t join the army. There were so many other things a boy could do.

Like what?
There was music, and dance, and art.
I thought about it for a while, watching the carp, their dorsals ropey with muscle, their orange spots on white scales making them colorful but not beautiful. I knew them to be brutes, to be gluttons. They had one thought: food.
Dance was for women. I had watched Fumiko and Naomi practice with Miss Tango, their dance teacher. My father paid her to give lessons to Fumiko, as Fumiko would need to know traditional dances for her wedding day. Naomi joined in these lessons as well, though she was just a servant girl, so that Fumiko would have a partner. They practiced in the large tatami room off the entrance that my father used, on special occasions, to host guests. The room was kept immaculate, dusted daily by Naomi. Before the lessons, Naomi would bring the record player into the room, a brown Bakelite box with a wooden lid. There was a crank on the side that I had once broken as a child. A repairman had come to the house from the record player company and had fabricated a replacement out of part of the old crank and new piece he had carved from wood. You could see the difference between the original part and the new.
I had sat and watched the girls practice, their stockinged feet making brushing noises against the mat as they turned, practicing steps a few times without the music. Miss Tango had skin so white that her pink lips were almost shocking in their verdant bloom, a patch of color in a sea of pallor, like our national flag. When I was small, I had considered Miss Tango and her white skin to be terrifying, imagining her face was comprised of rice flour and pickled plums. As I got older, I realized that Miss Tango was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
The dance lessons were repetitive, drilled instructions to bow, turn, lift the neck, swing the arm, bend the knee, point the toe. The girls concentrated and if I began to giggle because of how serious they looked, I was ordered out of the room. I desperately tried to maintain my composure because I knew that at the end of the lesson, Miss Tango would remove the traditional Kogaku record and replace it with Western music. Instead of whining strings, gnashing drums, the high-pitched chanting of a monk, we would hear the horns and reeds and crashing cymbals of an American jazz band, the sound reminding me somehow of a mouse trapped on a beam, running this way and that as it sought to find a way out of its predicament, making a pattern in its scurrying unbeknownst to itself. Miss Tango would lift up the hem of her kimono and dance a Western dance, her knees wobbling, her legs kicking, the pace so manic and frenetic that I would giggle uncontrollably and without fear of being asked to leave the room because, somehow, giggling at this music and this dancing was considered appropriate. Fumiko and Naomi would get up and imitate Miss Tango, the three of them dancing in a line with their skirts and kimonos lifted above their knees, the room becoming warm with their sweat and the smell of talc. The frenetic music, the cacophony of trumpets and saxophones, made the room seem more crowded than it was, so that instead of just four of us it seemed like there was a whole Western city in here with us, trains and buses and automobiles and dirigibles clamoring to and fro.
No, I wasn’t interested in dance. Or music. I wanted to go to the military academy.
Like my older brother Utaka.
Fumiko looked at me and nodded. You don’t know what you want.
For the first few weeks after she had been removed from school, I had smuggled home some lessons for her to do, as I wanted someone to do my assignments with me. The first afternoon she sat at her desk while I worked but after a few days she had told me not to bother her with school assignments. Instead she asked me to recount to her what we were learning in history. I had told her history was my favorite subject, and that Mr. Kono was the best teacher I had ever had. He taught the subject as a story, and asked us each what we would do if we were the Yongle Emperor, if we were Hideyoshi Totomo, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Admiral Togo. For the first time I understood that history was the story of men, each of them making decisions as he went through life, wondering if he had done the right thing. I repeated the day’s lesson to my sister while she flipped through a colorful pamphlet she had gotten from Miss Tango. La Mode was a sewing guide to various Western styles and patterns, ostensibly to help Japanese women recreate the fashions popular in Paris and London. But actually, I realized as I looked through it, the patterns were given just a few pages while most of the space was given over to lavish illustrations of women wearing gowns far too intricate and grand to be hand sewn by a servant girl or even by Fumiko.
There was something forbidden-feeling about the pamphlets though I couldn’t have explained precisely why. The illustrations were bright and lively and the women revealed their calves and ankles. Their elongated necks and shoulders were bare, but I had seen women in swimming costumes more revealing. It was the subject matter of the illustrations that felt illicit, the women drinking champagne on plush settees, men in top coats and tails bending over to light cigarettes in long black holders. When I studied the pages, it felt as if I was being overfed sweets, was gorging on a rich pudding to the point where I would feel as if a worm were wiggling in my rectum. I told my sister that she shouldn’t look at these pamphlets. She shrugged and said there was nothing wrong with them.
But if so, why did she hide them in her room? Why did she never look at them in front of my father?
She and Naomi would study them carefully during the day, turning the pages in reverent silence, when my father and brothers were away and my mother was in her bedroom, taking an afternoon nap.
Every afternoon I would tell my sister what Mr. Kono had taught us that day, the stories of Mongolian horsemen on a caravel crossing a stormy Sea of Japan while the Daimyo’s army waited in a rainstorm, their horses’ breath rising through the torrent. The ships would land, the great draw-bridges would drop from their bows, and a thousand warriors on hoof would stampede ashore on Tsushima. And who had defeated them? Yes, there had been the legendary storms, but it was also Toshimi, the female archer and warrior who could loose a dozen arrows in the time it took most men to fire a pair. The exploits of Toshimi and her repelling of the Mongolian invasion was a favorite of Fumiko’s and each day I added more to the history.
Of course, I was making up the story so that my sister would sit with me and I wouldn’t have to study alone in my room, hunched over my lessons, my life reduced in scope. I had once felt a member of a family of five siblings, then I was one of two offspring of the second wife, and now I was the only member of the family still in school.
One afternoon I returned home and found the house empty. My mother was asleep in her bedroom. Naomi and Fumiko had gone to the market. I went to my sister’s bedroom and found one of her pamphlets, this a glossy blue cover with exotic roman lettering on it in a horizontal slash. (I knew where my sister kept the pamphlets, in a drawer in her closet, beneath some old calligraphy textbooks.) I opened the pamphlet and studied the image, a woman in a sheath-like, shimmery gown that hugged her hips and at her crotch went almost imperceptibly concave, the artist indicating the inversion of the fabric with a few strokes. For some reason I couldn’t help but bend down and sniff the illustration, though I knew it couldn’t smell of anything other than paper and ink.
You woman, I heard my brother Utaka say. He had been standing at the door, watching me in silence. In shame I closed the pamphlet.
He entered the room, his massive bare feet making soft splats on the tatami, and took the pamphlet from me. He looked at a page or two and then dropped the folio as if it disgusted him.
He scoffed once and shook his head and then slapped me on the cheek so violently my head rocked sideways hard enough that my opposite ear hit my shoulder. He didn’t reprimand me or say anything more. He didn’t have to.
Utaka had scored the fourth highest in Japan on the Imperial Army Academy entrance examination. He would depart for Ichigaya after the winter holiday. My mother, Fumiko, and Naomi prepared an elaborate New Year’s feast of roasted eel, smelt bursting with eggs, mackerel, fried tofu, and a half-dozen different kinds of pickles. My father ordered a case of his favorite sake and he and my older brothers seemed to stay at the dining table for three entire days, taking breaks to sleep for a few hours. In the evenings, my father would throw open the shoji and the cold air would rush in and the four of them would sit with their legs under the kotatsu and smoke cigarettes. They didn’t have conversations, my brothers and my father, not the way Fumiko and I would talk. They didn’t make up stories or talk about what they would do in the future. They didn’t imagine what other people might be doing, what our neighbor Mr. Ohara and his preposterous toupee might be doing, for example. Instead, they seemed to be in a state of tacit agreement about the world. In such dignified silence, I imagined, was the greatest masculine virtue. To be able to understand with a nod and a grunt all that was necessary to understand. That is how men communicated, by not communicating.
Utaka excelled at the Academy. We visited Ichigaya once to watch him participate in an equestrian competition against Todai. The students from both universities wore uniforms, as that had become the fashion and everybody who had even the slimmest justification wore a uniform instead of traditional clothes or western clothes. My father and my oldest brother had designed for themselves company uniforms that resembled military khakis, with a narrow belt at the waist and epaulettes, Naomi, Fumiko, and my mother furiously trimmed and fit the costumes before our departure for the train station. At the last minute, my father surprised us by announcing that Fumiko would be joining us on the train to Ichigaya. My father, I believe, consented to her journey as he hoped she might make a favorable match at the military academy.
The campus centered around a modern building erected next to an old wooden castle, similar to Matsumoto castle but one pagoda shorter. We entered through then old oaken gate with the Ichigaya family crest on it. Inside, there was a terrace of hastily trimmed shrubbery, the bushes cut too severely, shorn down to the branches. The whole garden was poorly tended, as if to show that those who resided and studied here had more important things to do. To demonstrate the true focus of the campus there was an old canon with spoked wheels set up in a dirt circle with cannon balls piled next to it in a pyramid. Beyond that was an archery range on one side of a path and a wrestling pit on the other. The modern, colonnaded granite building loomed up behind the wooden castle, which had been converted into administrative offices and dining hall while the classrooms and dormitories were in the modern building. The cadets I saw walking about were bruised and scarred, bloody scrapes on the side of their faces and necks. They stared back at us as we walked toward the athletic field with dull, uninterested eyes. As this was nominally an educational institution, I had expected there to be professors or at least grown-ups of some kind, but there were only these beaten-up looking young men who wandered about as if in a daze. The feeling I had visiting this place was that that it was run by the young for the young, that this was a world where the rules of society, the elderly commanding the respect of the young, did not apply.
There was a grandstand in which junior officers’ families sat in the shade. The competition took place on an intricate steeple chase course with numerous fences and water hazards. My brother was the third to the saddle for the Academy. He wasn’t as natural a rider as some of his classmates, who had appeared almost effortless as they leaned forward into their horse’s frightfully vertiginous jumps. Utaka remained more upright, so that I was acutely aware that he was a man riding a horse while his peers seemed to almost join with their mounts. But his obvious effort, the great act of will and courage it took to take this deadly course when he wasn’t as natural a horseman as some of the other competitors, is what made his chase so thrilling. Each time the horse rose and Utaka with him, we held our breath for it seemed that Utaka would certainly fly off the saddle and the two of them, man and beast, would come crashing down. But he held tight and somehow completed his course. When his score was posted, it seemed the judges had also overlooked his form for his effort. It reminded me of his performance as a high school baseball pitcher: Even in a losing effort he would inspire in observers a sense of his own personal accomplishment.
There was a jockey from Todai who was the most obviously talented of those who took the traverse that day, a tall, thin, almost effeminate man who rode with an insouciant air and took each obstacle with such nonchalance that I expected him to check his wrist-watch in between hazards, as if he was late for a date with one of the women in my sister’s pamphlets and would immediately after the event be joining her at a sidewalk café in Paris. After his run, I saw him at the side of grandstand, standing with a few of his classmates. He had removed his helmet and had obviously pomaded his hair, though one forelock had escaped its pasting and drooped down over his face, requiring that he stroke it back over his head. I observed him smoking and talking with his classmates. They pointed to something on the course and nodded, bursting into staccato giggles and covering their mouths. At that moment I felt they should have been disqualified from the competition.
My sister had been leaning forward in her seat the entire competition, more rapt than I had seen her at any event, even the bunraku she had adored as a child. When my brother had completed his run, she turned to me and said, that is what courage looks like. To know you are not the best, yet to put yourself forward as if you are, to be beautiful, even in defeat. I wondered how she already knew he had been defeated. I believed he could still win.
Yet when the final totals were announced and the Academy lost, nobody expressed any surprise or chagrin. I realized that anyone watching closely could have simply added up the individual scores and determined the victor before the judges announcement. My sister seemed particularly moved by my brother’s performance, and as the great silver cup was awarded to Todai and the Academy had to accept their second place plaque, she joined with the rest of the cadets’ families in refusing to bow in the direction of the victorious team. This was in violation of competition norms. I noticed the dandy who had caught my eye shaking his head, as if to shame us for rejecting their victory.
We stayed overnight at a ryokan outside Tokyo. My father and my brothers drank with the innkeeper well after I had gone to bed, while Fumiko went over several orders of salted fish and sake barrels my father had ordered and wanted delivered by trunk road back to Osaka. Somehow, when I woke, they were already awake, glassy eyed and stiff and, as usual, unspeaking about any deleterious impact from the previous night’s imbibing.
Utaka came to the station to see us off and then the four of them slept the entire return journey to Osaka.
At home, waiting for us in the entry way was Naomi’s father, a short man in black trousers that reached only to his calves, the kind of pants usually worn by rice farmers—though the ragged condition of his clothes made me doubt he owned any significant property.
My father didn’t bother to invite him into the living room, instead letting him stand in the genkan, with his wooden sandals still on. Straw hat in hand, he explained his dilemma. As I would later come to understand from Fumiko, what the man had come here to tell us was that his family’s circumstances had been so reduced that they had no choice but to sell Naomi to a Geisha house in Gion. Naomi was given room and board by my father but little more, a few sen perhaps. But Naomi, as anyone could see, was not beautiful enough to become a maiko, so it was understood that this was a euphemism for the what her father actually meant: She would be sold to a brothel. This was a common fate for younger daughters, and not noteworthy in itself. Normally, we would find another servant girl, but after Naomi’s father had departed, my father surprised us and announced we must keep Naomi, that she was a good servant and irreplaceable.
I asked Fumiko why we were keeping Naomi. Servant girls were sold to Geisha houses all the time, I reasoned, and we could find another, perhaps cheaper. She agreed that we could find another servant, but that we wouldn’t. When I asked why, she didn’t respond to me and not for the first time I realized that we now inhabited different worlds.
My father soon arranged with Naomi’s father a large enough salary for his daughter so she could continue living with us.
Fumiko and Naomi went back to gaily flipping through their pamphlets and practicing dance with Miss Tango. Soon, a sewing teacher began making appearances so that Fumiko might begin to prepare her wedding dress, but, as was the case with Miss Tango, Naomi and Fumiko soon subverted the sewing teacher so she was also working on the patterns from their fashion pamphlets, secreting away silk and cotton for imitations of these French sheaths.
Fumiko lost interest in my interpretation of the day’s lessons. We further retreated from each other as I began to change. I would no longer dare to enter her room or look through her drawers, as I felt my own body to be repellent and full of surprises: Hair sprouting in unlikely places, my face exuding red, greasy mounds, my armpits stinking. I couldn’t bathe frequently enough.
My sister also grew phlegmatic after my brother Utaka came back the next winter, after completing his first year at the Academy. After initially being pleased with the arrangement at our house being unchanged, he grew impatient with Naomi. He increasingly found fault with her cooking and cleaning, insisting that as a military man he now demanded a higher standard of hygiene. Utaka, ruddy with health and the brass buttons of his uniform glistening, declared the extra expenditure on Naomi to be wasteful, pointing out we could hire three girls for what my father was paying Naomi’s father.
My sister told me Utaka had grown bored with Naomi.
So she was sent to her fate.
It took me an entire year and three attempts, but eventually I passed the entrance examination for the Academy and would be following in my brother’s footsteps. I was so proud. My brother had graduated, of course, and was now a Lieutenant stationed at Tama, the largest infantry barracks in Tokyo. He was part of a cadre of young officers who were famous for their patriotism and insistence that Japan take a greater hand on the continent. When he visited us, he brought us dried pork and tangerines from Manchukuo, where some of his classmates were stationed. He promised it was only a matter of time before we took over the rest of China. He negotiated an export deal for my father to provide fabric to the Mukden police department, a lucrative arrangement that benefited my family and now allowed for Fumiko to entertain any number of suitors. She had taken to rejecting western fashion, dismissing it as moga, preferring instead the modern kimonos in auburn and yellow that had been seen that year on real Geisha. My mother took to sewing ornate thousand-stitch belts for Utaka and his friends, the military garment that every solider carried with him into deployment. Fumiko had taken the train to Osaka several times to have tea with a prominent landholding family, it being understood that the oldest son was interested in her. Such a match, pairing the daughter of a merchant family with the oldest son of a landowning family, was viewed very favorably. In the evening, she attended a tea ceremony class with a prominent master in Tenma. This past year, as I had been studying for my entrance examination, we had almost completely stopped speaking. We passed each other in the hall, turning sideways so we wouldn’t see each other. That was the extent of our interactions.
It mattered not to me. My father and I went to the Hankyu Department store so that I could buy a wooden sword, chest padding, a leather embossed trunk, and the rest of the kit I would need for my first year at the academy. We would be sleeping eight to a room, each room a squad, and were made to understand that our squad would do everything together. My brother’s squad had comprised the corps of the young officers cadre that was now so popular. Just being his younger brother afforded me some stature so that when I arrived at Ichigaya, my classmates already knew my last name.
I came to understand why the cadets I had seen were so bruised and bloodied. From the start we were pitted against each other, squad versus squad and cadet versus cadet. When I fell behind on a 20-kilometer run the first week, my squad mates whipped me in the shower with their belts so that I would run faster. When I finished at the bottom of the table in my wrestling weight class, I was woken up in the morning being beaten about the head with rice sacks filled with books so that I would be stronger. When my squad finished at the bottom in total points, we were forced to stay awake for 36 hours with our arms extended, holding a brick in each hand, so that we would fight harder. The Emperor countenanced no weakness. One man’s failing would undermine his squad, one squad’s failing would undermine its company, and so on, all the way up to the Emperor himself. We were, each of us, a filament of the weave that held together this great Empire. What were a few bruises and scrapes in the service of our God?
But no matter how hard I worked and fought, I wasn’t as strong as my fellow cadets. I continued to accumulate bruises and scrapes until my urine was pink with blood. Because I had been defeated in my weight class in the boxing ring, I had been punched repeatedly in the kidneys to make me better able to absorb the punches.
I was so ashamed of being in the hospital I didn’t tell my father or Utaka, and so was denied any supplemental ration to the standard 250 grams of rice-mixed-with barley that was given to each patient every day. Any additional food would have to be purchased from the orderlies. My kidneys soon corrected themselves, but I was losing so much weight in the hospital the doctor prescribed me iron pills and vitamin injections. These kept me alive but didn’t do anything to assuage my hunger. Still, the doctor urged me to begin some conditioning exercises, but with no food in my stomach I found it difficult to sit up for very long, much more stand for extended periods. I lay in bed most days, in a kind of daze, unable to focus on anything, aware of the clatter of the patient next to me struggling out of bed and attempting his own rehabilitation. He was a cadet from the junior officer program at Waseda, so we never spoke or exchanged even a greeting. His family brought him chirashi in a wooden box which he offered to share with me and I, of course, refused.
At one point I woke up and several doctors were standing over me, murmuring as they measured my rib cage and the diameter around my thighs. I had apparently shrunk to a state where I was worth documenting.
So I was stunned when I woke one evening to see my sister standing there, several department store bento boxes in her hands, gaping at me. By her expression I could see she was clearly worried at my condition.
I was so hungry that I took the first bento she proffered and consumed the salmon, pickles, rice, burdock, and egg in almost one long slurp, shoveling the food in with chopsticks.
She said she had heard from my brother that I was here and so had taken the train from Osaka.
Seeing my sister reminded me of myself, that I was not just a junior cadet second class, the slowest runner, the weakest wrestler, that I had enjoyed watching dance, had told stories, had flipped through the pages of a colorful fashion pamphlet.
I told her I had to leave this place.
Instead of answering she handed me another bento.
That’s your hunger speaking, she said. Your body betraying your Yamato spirit.
She told me I could never leave. I could never shame the family in that manner. I would ruin her prospects, and here she had made such a promising match. I should eat, regain my strength, and rejoin my squad. That was my duty.
She gave me a rice paper parcel.
She departed, but before doing so, she must have given the orderlies some payment because I began to get fish, chicken, eggs and vegetables with my rice. I was regaining my strength and soon would soon be able to return to my unit.
When I unwrapped her parcel, I found a thousand-stich belt with a short, bland exhortation to sacrifice for the nation. My sister had apparently stitched it herself.
The day I was to be discharged, Utaka came to my ward, his uniform resplendent with numerous decorations I failed to recognize though I did discern his equestrian badge. I remembered that day well, as well as the rider from Todai who had made such a bad impression on me.
Utaka told me that our Empire was in crisis. That there were forces in the government that would have us revert to being a weak state, a vassal of the Western colonialists who would exploit our natural resources and give us scraps in return, would rape our raw materials and return cheap goods to placate the masses. These traitorous elements in the government were afraid of the West, of the British and Americans and their decadent democracies who lacked the steely will and fighting spirit of the Japanese. One Japanese warrior, Utaka told me, was worth ten Americans. And these Japanese politicians who were most opposed to us taking our rightful place among the great powers of the world were those who had visited America, who had seen for themselves American industry and commerce. They were a nation of shopkeepers, Utaka said, not a nation of samurai.
I agreed, of course. What he said was what we at the academy were taught. Personal bravery and spirit are the indomitable virtues. Fighting spirit triumphs over mass produced machines. At the academy, we were mass producing fighting spirit.
Utaka told me to visit him at Tama during my next furlough. We were given three hours off on Sunday mornings to do our shopping and write letters. Most of us were so exhausted we would sleep the entire three hours.
I returned to my squad where I was welcomed with stony silence. They had performed better in competitions during my absence, winning the kendo tournament and finishing second in a 40-kilometer march. Now that I was back, I could see, they were worried our squad would revert back to the bottom of the tables. I swore I would do my best, but I was still depleted as I had just been hospitalized, and so at the next obstacle course run, where we were to climb ropes, crawl through mud beneath barbed wire, scramble over several wooden climbing walls, carry a 40-kilogram duffle 1000 meters and so on, I finished dead last, barely stumbling over the finish line, the entire academy watching as I collapsed.
That night, the squad wrapped me in a sheet, dragged me outside, and then dumped me in a horse trough of freezing water, submerging me for 60 seconds at a time and then allowing me to take a breath. They repeated the process a dozen times and then left me in the freezing water all night so that I would become better at serving the Emperor.
By morning, when I was allowed to go back to my barracks, I was running a high fever but didn’t dare report back to the medical officer. As it was Sunday, I determined to overcome my fever through fighting spirit and dried myself by the wood stove, wrapping myself in a quilted blanket. I ate a few slices of dried fish my sister had left me and drank hot tea. I dressed myself in my pressed cadet uniform, wishing I had more badges certifying completion of various of the physical challenges but the only ribbon I had won was for essay writing, for a description of the battle of Tsushima that my professor had found stirringly patriotic.
I was given a ride to the station on a supply wagon drawn by a pair of mules.
There were always rail cars reserved for servicemen, while the rest of the train was crowded with civilians, so I took a seat and slept as we passed the millet fields until we pulled into Yotsuya where I transferred to the underground.
The Tama barracks were a pair of Western-style buildings, each four stories, rising up from between parade grounds and sports fields. The guards at the gate late me pass when I told them my last name. I felt once again that swelling of pride at my brother’s accomplishments.
His office was at the rear of the second floor, his desk in the place of prominence, so that it faced the dozen who would be seated facing him on a busy day. Today, only he was working, reading a political magazine that I knew to be considered decadent. I wondered at his choice of reading material until he told me a good officer must always know his enemy.
Beyond him, outside the window, was our national flag. It was certainly the most beautiful of the various pennants representing the various states. The prevailing Easterly wind blew the flag almost to its full extension, a stirring sight making for a patriotic tableau: my brother seated before this symbol of our Emperor.
My brother asked how I was.
I lied and said much better.
He observed me a moment. Are you sick again?
No, I insisted, just a cold wind had left me with a clogged nose.
He stood and walked around the desk, handing me the political journal, commenting that the Academy was not for everyone. It was the intention of the military to weed out 50% of the first-year class, for only the strong must lead our soldiers in battle.
I felt profound shame at what he was implying. That I was too weak. That I would never lead. Then what would become of me? Of what use was I to the Emperor?
He pointed to the magazine, to the article to which it had been opened. I could be of use to the Emperor in other ways. There was more than one route to heroism.
I wondered what he was proposing. That I write an essay rebutting this one?
He laughed. He had no interest in essays. What we needed, what the Emperor needed, was for such essays to stop, for such defeatism and pacificism to be eliminated, for the parasites producing such filth to be eradicated.
From behind his desk he produced a narrow wooden box with a character on it I didn’t recognize. The top slid open and inside, nestled in soft rice paper, was a sharpened katana, short bladed but lethal looking.
He knew that first-year training at the Academy included swordsmanship, the various killing thrusts, practice fights with other cadets using wooden swords and then with combat steel against stuffed dummies in Chinese uniforms.
The enemy within was even worse than the enemy without, more insidious for his ability to influence the minds of our youth, to undermine our fighting spirit. If we let such dangerous minds spread their cancerous thoughts, then the whole of Japan, the corpus of our Imperial father, would itself whither from within.
The blade was lovely, a ridge of steel down the middle tapering to the immaculate blade, a single molecule of sharpened steel, glistening in the late morning light. The crest on the box was that of a master forger who had poured this steel, folding it over and over until it made this perfect weapon. I was drawn to it immediately, overwhelmed by a desire to lay my hands on it, to feel the soft, leather wrapping of the grip, to hold it and sense its balance.
He told me when and where the writer of this essay would be appearing. When his car would arrive at the Diet building, at precisely what time.
He asked me if I had my sister’s thousand-stitched belt. I said I did. I was wearing it.
I would wait there at the red brick Diet building, a cadet in my first-year uniform, my blade in a shoulder duffle, pretending to admire the structure in which our political leaders equivocated and appeased and spouted their lies while our Emperor demanded action. The intellectual who had written the offending essay would soon arrive in his sedan. I imagined him to be the rider for Todai who had ridden so beautifully that day against my brother. Who had then laughed as if the entire competition were some kind of joke. Who had spoken with his friends like they were women at a café.
Men communicated through force, through deeds and action. So much more effective than womanly words.
Photo courtesy of Ray in Manila; view more of his work on Flickr.

Karl Taro Greenfeld is a journalist, television writer, and the author of nine books, most recently the novel The Subprimes. His writing has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Plowshares, the Best American Short Stories 2009 and 2013, and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, and has been awarded a Pushcart Prize …

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