[from A Certain Distance, 12]
I remember little of the months that followed accept for isolated images of the daily effort to stay alive. In my mind’s eye I can see the veranda overlooking the garden, and now suddenly it is fall, and the lone persimmon tree is laden with fruit, the dull orange color of the persimmons doing little to relieve the landscape of its essential barrenness. I remember the conversations with Mrs. Hagiwara and the other boarders seated on the tatami mats in the large public room, the shoji – the sliding paper doors – open onto the veranda providing a view of the garden, and the persimmons, now picked, and several of them placed on a small oval tray in the center of the table and arranged as if in imitation of a painting, provided the accompaniment to afternoon tea. It was nearly impossible to get one’s hands on a decent package of green tea so soon after the war’s end, but Mrs. Hagiwara had stocked up on a good supply of basics long before things got so bad, and stashed them away in the cavernous pantry of the old country house. I look back on these afternoons with a certain nostalgia. We had little but friendship and a cup of green tea, and our talk had as its inevitable background the devastation that was now Japan’s unavoidable reality. And yet there was a human warmth that would become more and more rare as time went on and the country became increasingly prosperous. Our conversations were punctuated by periods of silence, but these silences were more meaningful than words can express.
Few of us were left at the boarding house by the end of the year. Those who still had hope of finding family members somewhere, whether in Tokyo or in the countryside, had all left, and there were only a few men like myself who were either bachelors or had lost all of their family in the war. First there was Taka, younger than the rest of us he was still energetic. There was a certain youthful quality about him and he had what was a rare asset in those days – hope. More aggressive than the rest of us, he managed to score a carton of Lucky Strikes at the black market in town. It was these that we held ruminatively between our fingers during our lengthy conversations at afternoon tea, drawing the tobacco in leisurely, taking the acrid smoke into our lungs and watching as it was dispensed, rising toward the ceiling and circling around the vintage 1930 lamp. And then there was Tanimura-san (nobody knew his first name or much of anything about him) who was one of those who had suffered so many personal losses during the war that he had been rendered speechless, a vague look of absence in his eyes which, despite the emptiness there always remained wide open. Despite his suffering from the widespread condition of exhaustion and despair, Tanimura-san could be quite gentle and responsive to the needs of others. He was always available to help around the house, and would be the first to jump up from the table and refill the teapot with hot water, then in an almost ritual gesture refill the cups of the other guests. Apparently, he had lost his wife and daughter in the bombing. He had lost his house and all of his belongings save the clothes on his back. There were rumors of a son serving in the imperial army, but he had no idea where he was or whether he would ever return.
Within days after the surrender the black market opened just outside the main exit of Shinjuku station. There was ample space available for building since the bombings had left the area completely barren. So the Yakuza gangs moved in and set up corrugated iron shacks and stalls which could house vendors selling their wares. It wasn’t long before we got our own local black market in Machida set up adjacent to the train tracks just outside the exit from the station. And along with the stalls built for vendors came the inevitable bars and food stalls – everything from ramen noodles to grilled chicken (though more often it would be fried innards with onions or sweet potato steak). Most often tucked away in the narrow, labyrinthine back alleys, right next to the stalls where grandmotherly old women sold vegetables and sundries would be the neighborhood brothel.
When the war ended it was like a movie suddenly switching from black & white to color. Strangely, despite the cynical and even dangerous aspects of the black market and its collection of adjacent bars and brothels, the thing was that they had lights – electrical lights went up around the market, and there were signs in front of the bars that lit up at night. Some of the lights were even colored or would blink on and off, a precursor to the famous neon signs that would later line the streets of the Ginza and Shinjuku. Color, in all its beauty and irony, had returned to the ashen landscape which until now had been nothing but a vast, empty expanse of grayness and destruction.
Japan was completely defeated. Its cities lay in ashes and the men who had exercised absolute power over us were gone. And yet the strange thing is that now, though we had nothing, and almost nothing to eat, it was only now that for the first time we experienced life completely.