16 • ROMULUS AND Remus
23 March, 1939:
Today was Li’s birthday. At least, that’s what he told us. Me and Keisuke took him to the bakery and bought him a sweet roll. He was so happy. He stuffed the whole thing in his mouth and ate it in one bite. We laughed a lot. It was like he’d never had a sweet roll before. When my grandfather found out, he shook me and yelled at me. He said I shouldn’t be so friendly to our servant. I told him that it was Li’s birthday, but he said that Chinese don’t have birthdays. He said Chinese babies are spawned like demons. They aren’t born like normal people. But, I don’t think Li is a demon. He makes us laugh and he’s always been nice to me. He’s my friend. I wanted to ask dad about it, but mom said he was too busy and I shouldn’t bother him. He’s hardly ever home anymore. Mom says that’s why we have such a nice life in ManshūkokuT11. Dad works all the time. When he is home, he’s usually in his study. Mom says I shouldn’t go in there, but I do sometimes. One time, Keisuke and I found a golden pistol in a case inside one of his desk drawers. We took it out and played with it for a while. Then, Li came in and warned us to put it back before Miss Leong found us. He always gets us out of trouble. That’s how I know he’s not a demon. I wonder why dad didn’t put the pistol on the wall? It seemed like he was hiding it, probably from me.
I think it’s great that Li’s birthday is so close to mine. My birthday is next week. We’re like brothers. We’re the same age right now, but next week, I’ll be 13. My parents will buy me a chocolate cake and Keisuke will come to my house. I’ll keep a piece of the cake for Li. I don’t care what my grandfather says. Mom says that grandfather wants me to join the Junior KempeitaiT22 Corps, but I don’t want to. I said I would only do it if Keisuke could join too. Grandfather called Keisuke’s parents to talk to them about it and Keisuke got mad at me and didn’t talk to me for two days. I guess that means we’re going to join. I asked if Li could join too, but grandfather laughed and said that the Kempeitai would never allow a Chinese boy in their ranks. I don’t understand why we’re living in China if everybody hates the Chinese so much. What is so different about them?
28 April, 1939:
I wish I was back home in Akita right now. It’s Cherry Blossom season, but there are no Cherry Blossoms in ShinkyōT33. We used to have picnics under the Sakura trees and mom would buy me Manjū. It seems like all I do these days is go to Junior Kempeitai meetings. I don’t really like it. All they do is talk about how the Chinese are like animals. They give us stupid missions where we have to go to Japanese-owned shops and listen to people talk. Then, we have to tell our sergeant what we heard. He writes everything down and tells us if we did a good job. Sometimes when my mom is reading the newspaper in the morning, she tells me about a shop owner getting arrested for treason and conspiracy and they’re usually the same shops from our missions. I don’t know what treason and conspiracy are, but mom said it means they were planning to do something bad, something bad for all of us.
I’m still a Junior Private, but Keisuke is already a Junior Corporal. The sergeant says he’s the best at remembering important information from the conversations in the shops. His missions have already gotten 16 traitors arrested. Traitors are people that do treason and conspiracy. I guess it’s good that we’re helping, but I don’t have as much fun as Keisuke does. I was happier when me and Keisuke and Li spent our afternoons playing baseball or ChambaraT44. Grandfather says that we’re not children anymore and that we need to help the empire. I want to help, but I don’t want to hurt anyone. Life was so much simpler when I was 12.
1 September, 1939:
Dad was really angry when he came home today. I heard him and mom yelling really loud and then mom started crying. She came out to talk to me and she had a big bruise on her cheek. She said we were going back to Japan soon, because it’s not safe here anymore. She said the Russian and Mongolian armies beat the Japanese army near the northern border. I asked Keisuke about it and he said his parents were going to stay. I want to go back to Japan, but not without my best friend. I’m scared. I wonder what will happen to Li. I hope he comes with us. Or, maybe this is good for him. I don’t understand any of it.
10 September, 1939:
I’m really happy. I don’t have to go to Junior Corps anymore. Grandfather said the Kempeitai have more important things to do in the north, so we have to wait until things are back to normal. I don’t care why, I’m just happy things will be back to the way they were before. Me and Li and Keisuke are going to play baseball tomorrow. I got a new glove for my birthday, but I haven’t used it hardly at all. I can’t wait.
3 April, 1940:
I wish I was back in Japan again. We came back, because dad said he couldn’t abandon his post. I’m not sure what he meant by that. I don’t really know anything about his work. He said he’s not allowed to talk about it. I know he’s an important person, because we always get invited to special dinners at the Manshūkoku emperor’s house. There are always lots of men in uniforms with big medals on them. They always tell dad what a good job he’s doing and ask me if I’m proud of my father. One time, I said I didn’t know if I should be proud, because I don’t know what he does and everyone laughed. Mom got mad at me and said that I embarrassed her. She told me to just say “yes” next time.
Me and mom went back to Japan for six months last year. Dad was supposed to come back a month after us, but he never came. Then he sent a telegram and said we should go back to Shinkyō, because it’s safe now. I was happy to see Keisuke and Li again, but now I have to go to the Junior Corps again. Keisuke is already a Second Lieutenant. I don’t understand why he likes the Kempeitai so much. Everybody else hates them and my mom is scared of them. I guess it’s because he’s good at it. He gets to organize the teams of recruits now, so he always puts me on his team. That’s good at least. I don’t know what changed, but there’s something different about Keisuke now. For some reason, I can’t look him in the eyes when we talk anymore. There’s something strange about his eyes. I want to talk to mom about it, but I’m afraid she won’t believe me. I think I’ll talk to Li.
22 July, 1940:
A lot of terrible things are happening lately. First, I never get to see Keisuke outside of Junior Corps anymore. We used to be inseparable and now all he thinks about is his missions. Me and Li haven’t played baseball with him for almost three months. Mom says he’s growing up and becoming a man, but he seems like a totally different person. He’s completely forgotten about me. Even when we pass each other in the hall at Junior Corps it’s like he can’t see me. He looks at me, but he can’t see me. All he sees now is the mission. Grandfather told me about brainwashing once. He said it’s when a person gets trained to be totally obedient like a dog. He said that when a person gets brainwashed, they only do what they’re told to do and only think what they’re told to think. Keisuke only does and thinks what he’s told to by the Kempeitai, so I think that’s what happened. Me and Li are thinking about a plan to save him.
There have been a lot of problems between Japanese and Chinese in Shinkyō too. Last week, a Japanese policeman beat a Chinese boy and killed him. Then, the Chinese blew up a Japanese school. We can’t go to school now, because everyone’s scared it will happen again. I saw a fight in the street the other day between a Japanese man and a Chinese woman. He was yelling that she stole something from his store and he attacked her. When she slapped him, the police came and took her away. I don’t know why dad told us to come back. Things are worse than ever.
12 August, 1940:
Mom and dad are so mad at me. Me and Li got arrested when we tried to save Keisuke from being brainwashed. We snuck into the Kempeitai base at night, because Keisuke had to go there after the Junior Corps meeting. We thought that was when he was getting brainwashed. I don’t know what it looks like when someone gets brainwashed, because grandfather wouldn’t tell me. The base was really big and we got lost looking for Keisuke. We found a room where a Japanese man was strapped to a chair and getting yelled at by Kempeitai policemen. I thought it was brainwashing so I tried to stop them and they took us away in handcuffs and called my parents. The strange thing is that the Japanese man in the chair was the owner of sweets shop that I went to on a Junior Corps mission. We never found Keisuke and dad wouldn’t listen to me when I asked him about the man strapped to the chair. He told me not to talk about what I saw.
Keisuke is mad at me too. He said Junior Corps recruits aren’t allowed to go to the Kempeitai base. But, Keisuke is one too and he goes there all the time. Why did he get mad at me? I was trying to save him. Everything is so screwed up now. I hate it here.
7 October, 1940:
I haven’t gotten in trouble for a while. I’m trying to make mom happy, so I’m just doing what she tells me. I go to the Junior Corps meetings and do my missions and study hard. After we got arrested, mom sent Li away, but I still see him sometimes in the market. Nothing’s fun anymore. I feel like a soldier. All I do is what people tell me to do. I don’t do anything I want to do anymore. The strange thing is that since I stopped thinking for myself, I’ve been promoted twice in the Junior Corps. Maybe I got brainwashed and don’t know it. I asked my grandfather, but he said it just means I’m a good recruit now. I don’t like this feeling. It’s like the part of me that could think and dream died and now other people can control me. I’m missing something. And, I keep having these weird dreams about being trapped in a big library that’s filling with water. I can read the titles of all the books, but I can’t reach them. They swirl around in the water as it rushes in and I can’t grab them. The library looks like dad’s study, only bigger. I always wake up right as the water reaches the ceiling.
I want things to go back to the way they were, but I don’t think they will. I got lost. It makes me think of a story that grandfather told me about Siberia. His platoon got lost after they lost a battle and they couldn’t decide which way to go. It was a big flat empty place covered in deep snow and everything looked the same. When they ran out of food, they split up and each of them walked in a different direction from one point to look for food. That night, they would follow their tracks back to the start point and share whatever food they found. After they set out, a heavy snow came and covered their tracks. None of them could find their way back. Grandfather and one other man survived, but the rest of the platoon was never found. That’s how I feel now. I remember the way things used to be, but I’m lost and now I can’t find my way back. My tracks are gone.
11 February, 1941:
I saw Li in the market again today and I told him about the library dream. He said that the water means “change” or “trouble.” We talked for a long time and I finally told him about Keisuke’s eyes, how something has changed in him and I can see it in his eyes. It’s like looking into a big empty room. Li told me that he knows. He said he’s been meeting with Keisuke at the Kempeitai base almost every week to help with some kind of test. He said he meets with a tall skinny man that looks like a skeleton and wears round spectacles in a small room and the man asks him a bunch of questions. Most of the time the questions are the same, but sometimes he asks new questions and sometimes they ask Li to take some medicine first. They told him it would protect him from diseases that rebels spread. I asked him what a rebel was, but he didn’t know either. He said that sometimes the medicine makes him feel weird or throw up, but he gets a bag of rice every time he goes, so he wants to keep going. He doesn’t have much food or money now. I want to help him, but I don’t know what to do.
I was so shocked to hear all of it, because Keisuke never said anything about it to me. Li said he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but that I’m his friend. I’m glad he told me, but I don’t understand what’s happening. I can’t ask Keisuke, because I don’t want Li to get in trouble and not get his bags of rice.
What should I do?
I told Li we should play baseball tomorrow, but he said he had to sell his glove. I’m going to buy him a new glove and I’m going to get Keisuke to play too. I’m not going to let our friendship fall apart. I’m sick of feeling helpless.
14 May, 1941:
Things are good. Keisuke agreed to play baseball with me and Li every week again. Me and Keisuke bought Li a new glove and we even had matching uniforms made for the three of us. We’re the Shinkyō Dragons. It’s been great to have everyone together again, but there’s still something weird about Keisuke and we still can’t talk about the tests at the Kempeitai base. It’s a little awkward having to pretend like I don’t know about it, but so far I haven’t slipped up. Everything is so fragile and I don’t want to ruin it all.
One weird thing did happen the other day though. After Keisuke went home, Li and I walked back along the river together and he told me that he saw my father at the Kempeitai base last week. He was talking to the skeleton man in the hall outside the room where Li has his tests. He was holding one of the medicines that they give to Li. I can’t believe dad was there. Is he a Kempeitai? I don’t want him to be one of them. Li said he wasn’t wearing a uniform, but I need to figure out a way to know for sure.
30 May, 1941:
I thought the weird dreams about the library would stop when everything was back to normal, but they’re getting worse. I have the dream almost every night now and it’s more intense than it was before. I want to talk to Li about it again, but he didn’t show up for baseball last week and I haven’t seen him since. I asked Keisuke about it and he said he hadn’t seen him either, but I can’t tell if he’s lying or not. He has to keep secrets for the Kempeitai. Maybe he does know what happened to Li and he’s just not telling me because it has something to do with his missions.
I couldn’t handle all the secrets anymore and I told Keisuke I know about Li’s tests. He didn’t get mad. He said he was glad I knew and then he took me to base to talk to his commander. It was the skeleton man that Li had told me about. He had to be. He looked exactly the way Li described him. He told me that what I knew was very important and very sensitive and that I shouldn’t tell anyone else about it. He promoted me to lieutenant and told me that I would be working with Keisuke at the base from now on. He said Keisuke would explain the tests to me and that Li was okay, but they had to send him to another base in the north for a short time to help with another test. I guess I was sort of happy. Li is alright and now I get to work with Keisuke in the Junior Corps. Mom and dad will be happy that I got promoted. Maybe the Kempeitai aren’t so bad after all.
I didn’t ask about dad. I’ll wait to see how he reacts to my new assignment.
4 July, 1941:
Li finally came back from the North today, but I wasn’t allowed to see him. The Kempeitai doctors put him in a small room with plastic curtains all around and only people wearing masks go in and out of the room. I asked the skeleton man and he told me that Li was infected by the rebels. I asked him what a rebel was and he told me that a rebel is a person who hates the Japanese and wants to destroy everything we created. When I asked why, he said they hate us because they want to be like us, but they never can be. I don’t understand why someone would try to hurt Li. The skeleton man told me that Li will be okay, because they have some new medicine to help him. I wish I could go see him, but the doctors said that I could get sick too.
Me and Keisuke got a strange mission from the skeleton man later that day. He sent us to a small Chinese village on a truck and gave us some big white sacks with “731” printed in English. The sacks were full of food and candies. He told us to distribute all of it to the farmers and their families as a gift from the Japanese people. If we had any leftover, we were supposed to bring it back to base. The skeleton man told us three times not to eat any of the food or candy ourselves. The people in the village acted really scared around us, but they took the food after a while. I felt pretty good after our mission. Maybe some of those people were rebels and they’ll change their minds about the Japanese now.
When I got home, dad asked me if I ate any of the food we distributed. I asked him how he knew about my mission and he said that it didn’t matter. I told him I didn’t eat any of the food or candy and he just walked away without saying anything. It doesn’t make any sense to me. The skeleton man said that we’re not ever allowed to talk about our missions outside of the Kempeitai. We’re not even supposed to talk to our families about it. How did he know about it?
Who is my father?
21 August, 1941:
Li was allowed to leave the Kempeitai base today. I was so happy to see him, but he looked too tired to smile. I took him home and he went to sleep right away. I’m worried about him.
9 December, 1941:
Mom and dad have been acting really strange for the last few days and the Junior Corps canceled their meetings and missions for the rest of the month. Yesterday, dad told me that a new age was beginning for Japan and that I was lucky to be living in the greatest empire in the world. Today, he was totally changed. He’s looked scared ever since he and mom listened to the radio this morning. He won’t look at me or talk to me at all. Mom keeps saying that things are going to be okay. If I ask her what happened, she just says it’s nothing for me to worry about. I asked Keisuke about it after school and he said that America is going to attack Japan. He said that America wants to take away the spirit of Japan. I don’t understand what he means. Grandfather told me that Americans only care about wealth and possessions and entertainment and that they don’t have the spirit of a warrior. He said that they would never attack Japan. I don’t know if I should be scared? Dad still won’t talk to me. He left a little while ago.
Will the Americans come to Manshūkoku?
14 May, 1942:
I haven’t seen dad for months. He’s so busy with work that he hardly ever comes home anymore. Mom tries to pretend that everything is fine and that she’s proud of him, but she never smiles anymore. She has the same look on her face all the time. I don’t know what it means. It’s not sad. It’s not scared. It’s not worried. Her face is blank. She still gets up and cooks and cleans and does laundry and goes shopping, but her face never changes. At least it’s the same every time I see her. I haven’t been home much lately either. I have Junior Corps every day and school is only half day now. I’m not working with Keisuke anymore. He’s been promoted again and he’s working in a different division. I heard a rumor that he graduated from the Junior Corps and is a real Kempeitai now. I hope that’s not true. I don’t want to be scared of my best friend.
I listen to the radio a lot. There is a lot of news about Japanese victories in other places, but almost nothing about Japan. There was one report last month about the Americans dropping bombs in Tōkyō, but the radio said that the unskilled American pilots missed all of their targets and caused almost no damage at all. I guess grandfather was right.
I don’t have any time to play baseball with Li anymore. I still see him sometimes in the market, but he told me that he stopped volunteering for the tests at the Kempeitai base after he got sick last time. I was happy to hear that. I don’t trust the skeleton man. Sometimes I take leftover rice and bread to Li when we meet.
We still talk about dreams.
23 August, 1942:
Keisuke came to talk to me today. The rumors were true. He is a member of the Kempeitai now. He told me more than I wanted to hear. He said that my father is working for the Kempeitai as a doctor, but I can’t tell anyone that I know, especially my father. Even though I had wondered about it for a long time, I was so shocked when he told me that I couldn’t speak. I just sat on a bench in silence and stared into the ginkgo trees outside. Keisuke sat next to me and waited for me to say something. I asked him about my dad’s work, but he said he didn’t know anything about it. Apparently, dad works at a different base in the north. I hate him. Why did he have to join the Kempeitai? Even mom is scared of them. Does she know what dad does?
Keisuke came with some good news too. At least, he called it “good” news. He said that I’m being considered for graduation from the Junior Corps to join his unit in the Kempeitai. He recommended me for the promotion. I know he thinks he’s helping me, but I don’t want to be a soldier. I didn’t even want to join the Junior Corps. This is all too much. I want to talk to Li. Keisuke makes me uncomfortable now. It’s not just the emptiness in his eyes, he wears this neutral expression on his lips all the time now like he’s constantly hiding something. It’s not a frown and it’s not a smile. It reminds me of the skeleton man’s mouth. I don’t want to think about what he’s had to do for the Kempeitai to earn his promotion. What will I have to do?
13 September, 1942:
I shot a gun for the first time today. It was fun. I’m still not allowed to carry one with me, but I spend all of my free time at the practice range. My sergeant says I have natural talent. I’m going to be the best shot in the Kempeitai.
I like the way the pistol feels in my hand. I like the weight of it. It feels more real to me than a pencil or a book or a scythe. Keisuke says I found my path, but he still had that unsettling expression. I don’t like the idea that my fate is with the Kempeitai. What kind of person does that make me?
2 April, 1944T55:
Li is dead…
I killed him…
2 April, 1964:
Sakyō-ku Kurama Honchō 1074
To: Gōda Keisuke
I am deeply sorry for my silence. I have thought of you often since we parted ways in Shinkyō and I have wondered how and when I should contact you again. I want to tell you all of the things I have thought about over the many years following our time in Manshūkoku, but now that I sit down to write this letter, my thoughts seem far away from me. I hope that the sting of my parting words has worn off and you can forgive me for the things I said that day.
I’m not sure when this letter will find you, but the day I write it is exactly 20 years after the day Li died. This day has been hard for me every time it comes. The week leading up to it consumes my every thought and the week after leaves me spent and lifeless. It has been difficult to find the strength to write to you and I hope you receive this letter in the spirit in which it is written, hope. My hope is that we can meet and start our friendship anew by confronting our past instead of running from it.
In the event that you decide you cannot rekindle our friendship after reading this letter, I feel I must tell you how I have come to see the circumstances of Li’s death as well as what happened to me after that day. If you reject my proposition, I hope that you will at least read what I have to say. It’s important for me to tell someone and there was once a time when we told each other everything. Do you remember?
The memories still feel fresh like they were formed in a part of my mind that is somehow shielded from the passing of time. The year leading up to that day was a confusing time for me. My days were spent on obligations and responsibilities that felt forced upon me. At the time, I envied you your focus and determination. You seemed to know that what you were doing was important and you followed your assignments without question or hesitation. Every order I was given resonated questions in my mind that only complicated my motives. I wanted so much to make my father proud. Although, now when I look back at my time in the Junior Corps and Kempeitai I see that all I really wanted was his attention. I wanted him to know that I existed. I didn’t care if he felt pride or disgust; I just wanted him to know that I was his son.
When he finally opened up to me about his work, I thought things would be different, but it seemed he only wanted to use me to further his own career. That was the first time he told me that he was a proud father, but, even at the time, I knew it was a lie. Lie or not I let myself believe it, because it got me what I wanted, acknowledgement. That’s when I started taking the Kempeitai more seriously. I’m sure you remember the day I came to you and asked you to recommend me for promotion. You were more surprised than I’d ever seen you before. I realize now that the promotion request was the turning point in which I lost sight of who I was. I crossed a line on that day and my motives became imbued with a false sense of purpose. After the promotion, I worked hard on my assignments and tried to position myself for a transfer to my father’s division. When I tried to find information about his unit from within the Kempeitai, I couldn’t turn up anything about the unit or my father. That was when I went to you and asked for help. You used your sources and found out that my father’s unit, Unit 731, was no longer a part of the Kempeitai at all. Rather, it had been taken over by the KantōgunT66 and served as the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department in PingfangT77. My father had told me that he worked in a secret strategic division of the Kempeitai. He lied to me. He wasn’t developing new strategies. He wasn’t treating wounded soldiers. He wasn’t even working in a tactical division. He was wiping noses and filtering drinking water. I felt betrayed. I was ashamed of him.
From then, my intentions in the Kempeitai shifted from attaining my father’s attention and respect to surpassing and humiliating him. I worked twice as hard on missions and trained twice as much at the practice range. I used my father’s name at every opportunity so that I might subliminally mark myself as his protégé in the eyes of my commanders. This strategy worked surprisingly well and I was soon offered a transfer to the Kantōgun. It wasn’t my father’s unit, but it was a step closer to my goal. I remember what you told me when I was considering the offer. You said, “the empire is like a maple tree. The emperor is the mighty trunk that supports the tree and gives it purpose. The Kempeitai are the unseen roots of the tree that work under the surface and hold the empire together. The Kantōgun are the leaves. In the spring, they are celebrated and they are the first to taste victory. But, when winter comes, they are the first to wither and die.”
I should have listened to you. I should have trusted my friend. The truth is that I worried that something had changed in you and you couldn’t be trusted. At the time, you had an emptiness in your eyes that scared me. The change happened around the time you got your first promotion in the Junior Corps. I told Li about it too and he agreed that something was different about you. Now, I realize that what I saw in you was a reflection of my own emptiness that I was trying not to see in myself. I don’t know what Li saw in your eyes. I wish I could ask him now.
As you know, I accepted the transfer and joined the Kantōgun later that year. I was put in an administrative position, probably at my father’s order. I submitted countless requests for a transfer to an active combat unit, all of which were denied. I finally confronted him directly and asked him if he had intentionally encumbered my progress. That night was the first time he raised his hand to me. He was furious at my impertinence and ungratefulness. My shame turned to hatred and my desire to humiliate him was compounded. I said horrible things to him after that and we didn’t speak again for three months when I was selected for a special operation in conjunction with Unit 731 and the Kempeitai.
It was a lucky coincidence that you were assigned as the Kempeitai liaison for the operation, or so I thought at the time. Now, I believe that there was nothing coincidental about the circumstances surrounding the project. I’m certain now that we were only pawns in a bigger game. I’m ashamed that my father included you in his schemings. I should have been a stronger person and put a stop to the operation, but at the time I could only see with vengeful eyes. We were ordered to the outlying villages to screen and collect Chinese volunteers for the Kantōgun medical division. Even at the time, you and I both understood the command’s definition of “volunteer,” but we followed our orders with a soldier’s convenient ignorance. As you know, I was assigned to your Kempeitai unit to assist in the screening and recruiting processes and keep my commanders in the loop. What you might not know is that the volunteers were sent through a further screening process at the Kempeitai headquarters where they were conditioned for research. After conditioning, they were sent to the Kantōgun medical center for a full physical examination. Finally, they were shipped by train to the Unit 731 facility in Pingfang. We both came to know what went on there, why most of the volunteers never made it back to the villages.
The command at Unit 731 issued an order to requisition the patient records from their time under the Kempeitai and locate surviving former volunteers. That was when we stumbled on to Li’s file and had our first opportunity to spare him the suffering we both knew he would endure at the hands of the researchers in Pingfang. We could have, either one of us, simply made Li’s file disappear, but we followed our orders motivated by our own selfish ends.
Neither of us had seen Li in months and I can still remember the surprise and happiness on his face when we both showed up to see him. He had taken a job as a butcher’s assistant in a small village outside Shinkyō. He smiled at us in a blood-soaked apron as we explained how he could help Manshūkoku by volunteering for one last round of tests. The look on his face soured and he said that he would do it for his friends, but not for Manshūkoku. This was our second chance to save Li. We could have easily told Li to stay hidden for a while and report to command that we were unable to locate the subject. I was foolish and arrogant enough to think that I had the power to protect Li and when we submitted him for conditioning, I explained to the Kempeitai officers that Li was not to be treated as the others had been. I also alerted my father that Li had volunteered and asked him to see to it that he was returned to his village unharmed. My father responded with reprimand and explained that he did not take orders from me. Realizing that it was a fight I would never win and out of concern for Li, I apologized and asked if I could oversee Li’s participation. My father agreed and you accompanied me to Pingfang.
My father cleared us for access to the Unit 731 facility. At the time, neither of us knew what kind of experimentation was really going on at the facility. With a designation like Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification we had assumed it was something benign such as vaccine research, potentially dangerous, but done with good intentions. The reality was far more malevolent. My father’s assistant gave us a tour of the facility. I see the horrors we witnessed that day every night in my dreams. I imagine you have relived your share of them as well. The first experiment we saw was the live vivisection of a Russian prisoner with no use of anesthetic. My father’s assistant snorted a laugh when we turned away from the observation window; that laugh echoed in my head for years to follow. We saw weapons tests on living subjects, grenades, incendiary devices, and biological and chemical bombs. We watched experimental surgeries, limbs removed and reattached in different anatomical positions or to other subjects, organs removed and transplanted to other subjects, and the study of blood loss during conscious amputations. Doctors studied the effects of various kinds of torture and environmental extremes. I remember seeing a subject that had been hung upside for days while doctors waited to see how he would deteriorate. His head had swollen to the size of a watermelon and he couldn’t speak at all. All of the things we saw that day showed me a new side of cruelty that I had only previously seen in my childhood nightmares. In those dreams, the perpetrators had always been monstrous creatures gleaned from old folk tales and campfire legends, but the horrors in Pingfang were committed by men. Men are the real monsters.
When my father joined us, I nearly retched in disgust. His presence made me feel sick. He was not a doctor researching disease control and hygiene for the good of the state; he was the sadistic commander of a rabble of so-called scientists that tortured innocent people in order to gain the advantage in the war. Upon meeting my father, my thoughts immediately turned to Li and I demanded to know where he was. My father dismissed his assistant and took us to a small observation room where Li was restrained and held upright on a metal fixture in the shape of an English letter “T.” He was completely naked and looked exhausted as he hung lifelessly from his restraints. I slammed my fists on the glass of the observation window and screamed his name, but he didn’t react. I grabbed my father by the lapels of his doctor’s coat and shook him, demanding Li’s release. He slapped me to the floor and you drew your pistol on him. I protested and he explained that the penalty for murdering a superior officer was death by firing squad. I begged you to stop. You dropped your weapon and ran from the room.
I was furious with you for leaving me alone, but my concern for Li took over my emotions and I again pleaded for his release. My father explained that Japan was facing defeat and that the only way to change the course of the war was to develop more destructive weapons with which to threaten America and its allies. He told me that his research would yield such weapons, but that sacrifices had to be made in order to achieve results.
“Li is my friend,” I said. Father said that I was being shortsighted. He said my loyalty to my friend was admirable, but that loyalty to emperor and empire must come first. I didn’t understand what the empire had to do with our circumstances, but before I had the chance to ask him, he elaborated further.
“The Americans are bloodthirsty and there is no limit to the horrors they will visit upon us if they invade Japan. They will kill the men and rape the women. They will make slaves of the children and dispose of the infants and elderly in grotesque ways to amuse their macabre inclinations. They will cut down sakura trees and burn rice fields in every town through which they pass. They will deface our flags and erase Japan from the history books. Our beloved emperor will be dethroned and murdered and the unworthy American elite will take his palaces for vacation homes. Think of your mother being forced to serve the savage whims and urges of their soldiers. Think of your young cousins in Akita bound like animals and forced to labor in camps, naked and starving. Would you see to that end? Would you allow it…all for the life of this Chinese boy?”
I tried to steer my mind away from the images my father’s words conjured, but I couldn’t avoid them. My head flooded with the terrible scenes. My mother, a lovely and honorable woman, had suffered enough at the hands of my father and the obligation to family. I could not subject her to the tortures and indignities that the Americans would surely subject her to. Even then, I understood that Li’s single sacrifice would not turn the course of the war. Rather, it was the concept of loyalty and the sacrifices that it necessitates that my father was trying to impress upon me. I hated him and I felt disgust at the idea that we shared blood, but he was right. At least, that’s what the fear in his words motivated my young, naive mind to believe.
I nodded my reluctant consent and started to leave when my father stopped me and told me that it wasn’t enough to simply condone our actions. He said I must be willing to make the sacrifice myself. He directed me to a control console in front of the observation window and pointed to a circular valve handle locked in the closed position by a padlock. He produced a key from his pocket and forced it into my hand. I couldn’t look at Li. My hands became sweaty and shook uncontrollably as I clumsily removed the padlock and dropped it on the console. My body became stiff and my stomach churned violently. I pictured playing baseball with Li and you, the three of us pitching and batting and catching without a care in the world. It was a time before the war. I rested my hand on the valve. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling, but I held the cries silent in the bottom of my throat. At that moment, and still now, I wondered whose war we were fighting. Who were we sacrificing for? In whose name did we commit such violent acts? In that moment, I considered for the first time that Japan was in the wrong. We were the aggressors in a war in which the only goal was to increase power. I was no traitor, but I just couldn’t see the reason for our sacrifices. I couldn’t see the reason for Li’s sacrifice.
All the same, my hand slowly turned and the valve handle loosened, signaling a hissing sound and the release of a soft white haze from a vent in the floor of the holding chamber. I remember examining my hand in disbelief as if it didn’t belong to me. My father stepped behind me and placed a proud grip on my shoulder. I closed my eyes as I looked up toward the observation window, hoping that he wouldn’t notice. The tears streamed down my cheeks and dripped from my chin. I could feel a coldness creeping over me, starting in my chest and expanding slowly from within. When it reached my stomach, a violent spasm sent me reeling. I fell to my hands and knees just over the pistol you had dropped. The coldness engulfed me while Li’s groans and gasps filled my ears. My hands took hold of the pistol, chambered a round, and pressed the barrel against the temple of my head. I pulled the trigger, but the firearm produced only a metallic click. My father ripped the pistol out of my hands and pulled out the magazine; it was full. He drew back the slide and ejected the bullet from the chamber, holding it up between his fingers in disbelief. It was a live round. The pistol had simply misfired.
The odds against a misfire are extremely high and my father claimed that I was under the divine protection of our emperor as we all were. Why didn’t such a power protect Li from me or me from myself? I never truly believed in divinity or in supernatural forces.
The last thing I can remember about that day was Li’s body being carried out of the room on a stretcher covered by a white sheet stained yellow and red where it made contact with his skin. My father held me up and forced me to see the results of my actions. Despite all of his manipulations, I know that I was the only one responsible for Li’s death. I had a chance to “misplace” his file. I had a chance to hide him. I had a chance to stand up to my father and refuse the chain of command. I did none of these things. I carried out my orders like an obedient soldier, showing me a side of my heart that I didn’t know existed. From that day on, I could feel something dark and inhuman growing inside of me. I felt helpless against it. It began to consume me and I lost control of my fate. My great plan to surpass and humiliate my father became an abandoned ambition, replaced by an emptiness.
My father offered me a promotion and choice of assignments, probably expecting me to choose Unit 731. I had to get as far away from him as I possibly could and I accepted a command on the northern front near Mongolia. This was also the point at which you and I lost contact. I don’t know if you knew about what really happened to Li. I have worried that you blamed yourself for playing a part in his death. You must know now and forever that you did nothing wrong. I was the one solely responsible for Li’s death. It was never my intention, but I am the one who saw to it from conception to execution. I regret nothing more in my life and I pray daily for the strength to forgive myself.
Forgive me old friend. Recalling the events of that day has left me feeling very weak. I can’t write any more today. I will write you again soon with rest of the story. I hope that the confessions in this letter have lifted the burdens of misplaced guilt from your shoulders. I hope you will write me a reply.
I wish you peace with every breath.
From: Okamoto Ryūji
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