"It was the most lethal of any of the bombings during that war including Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

“It was the most lethal of any of the bombings during that war including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

[from A Certain Distance, 10]

Eventually I was able to afford a modest house just down the hill a ways from Yotsuya in a quaint old neighborhood called Arakicho. The main boulevard, which ran the rest of the way down to Shinjuku, was lined with affordable public housing units for middle class families. My job was to handle shipping documents, write business letters (occasionally in English), and to translate. In a word I was a paper shuffler. I would place my official seal on each document, firmly pressing the ivory onto the vermilion red ink cushion, and then carefully apply the stamp in the space made available for it next to my name. Then the document would be sent on its way. Life was fairly uneventful. The morning paper brought news of the geopolitical posturing going on in the world, but it all seemed rather distant and somehow unreal. Artists and writers could still pursue their activities more or less unhampered as long as it was not overtly political. I could still enjoy the city more or less the way I used to with only a few restraints. Occasionally I’d drop by the Lupin for a drink with my old writer friends, but gradually that part of my life grew more distant. Mostly I’d stick closer to home, in Arakicho. The neighborhood seemed to have everything I needed. In 1935 I published a thin volume of surreal poems, but all in all I had come to accept my new role as a failed writer.

I love this city – its endless turns and sudden shifts, dead-ends and narrow, meandering back streets. Its circularity. Endlessly frustrating and fascinating, the city’s shape was formed by two opposing forces – the need to keep things out, mainly potential dangers to whoever was in power at the time, hence the castle walls and the system of inner and outer moats, the puzzle of streets, canals and thoroughfares via which there is no direct route to anywhere since all ways must avoid the forbidden core of the city; and yet the need to promote trade and communication on these same routes, requiring a vast web of increasingly complex means of transportation including the trains and subways which would appear along with the sudden shock of modernity. The main boulevards form a series of concentric circles around the palace (routes which, if followed, always bring you back to the same place), and then finally, once outside this maze, for the first time you hit a good straight road, one of the traditional trading routes which take you out to the provinces. But here still there are limits, for the old trading routes ran unimpeded only through the territory of the shogun’s most loyal vassals, and oddly enough, these same routes and these same limits still exist in modern times.

Tokyo was destroyed twice in one century. First in the earthquake and fire of 1923 and then in the firebombing of 1945. Each time it rose from the ashes like a phoenix and each time it retained its traditional shape and its traditional limits. The upper class occupies the same neighborhoods – the hills encircling the palace moat – which it did during pre-modern times, and in one of the horrible ironies of that century of violence, the homes of the wealthy and powerful largely escaped the worst of the destruction. General Curtis LeMay’s strategic incendiary bombing targeted the working class districts along the Sumida river, and was designed to create a firestorm so that the raging fires would do the rest of the B-29s’ work. Over 100,000 people died in one night of bombing, most of them old men, women and children, most of them poor or working class. It was the most lethal of any of the bombings during that war including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Most of the city lay in ashes after the war, but its basic shape remained. Structures like the elevated girders supporting the main commuter train lines had survived, and it was beneath these where the first yakitori stalls and bars opened up. At first there were only corrugated iron shacks and encampments dotting the landscape, but soon new neighborhoods and settlements began sprouting like weeds.


Consider Sharing

[from A Certain Distance, 2 (August 15, 1945)]

On the day of the broadcast I was asleep. I slept a lot in those days. For one thing there was the sheer exhaustion from lack of food, and then the general mood of apathy which had taken hold in those final weeks. Just before noon I was awoken by the landlady running excitedly up and down the halls of the boarding house exhorting us all to come down to the common room. The Emperor himself was to address his people over the radio at noon.

During those days I boarded in a ramshackle house not far outside the city. “Don’t bother coming back to work” is all we were told. Not much else was necessary. We all knew what was going to happen. Already most of the capital was laid to waste and only essential government functions remained near the palace. Most people stayed with relatives in the country, but people like myself, a middle-aged bachelor without those kind of family connections, had to go a different route. So I came to this little town out west of Tokyo.

Some people call me a cynic. Maybe they’re right. Or maybe it’s something else, a disease unknown till now, one that lacks a name or even a diagnosis – a malady of the times.

Nietzsche said the most monstrous thing is human society itself, and that a person can attain freedom only insofar as they can transcend their social conditioning. Since I had always been an outsider, standing at somewhat of a distance from the society around me, including even my own family, these words of Nietzsche seemed only natural to me.

Consider Sharing