18 • SPOILS OF War
2 April, 1965
Sakyō-ku Kurama Honchō 1074
To: Gōda Keisuke
My dear friend, I have waited a year for your reply. I cannot be sure that you even received my first letter. If you did not receive it, then this letter will likely suffer the same fate and be lost. If you did receive it, then you chose not to write a reply. Your choice must have been motivated by great anger and deep feelings of betrayal. I’m sorry to have caused you such distress. I’m sorry for many things.
I don’t wish to burden you with more, but I feel compelled to finish the story that I began in the first letter. I hope that this letter finds you and that you have the strength to read on. Please hear me.
In the summer of 1944, I was transferred to the 3rd infantry division of the First Area Army in northeastern Manshūkoku, according to my request. We had joined with the 5th infantry division to repel possible Soviet incursions along the Mongolian border. My connections in the Kempeitai intelligence community kept me informed during my time in the northeast. The Red Army was preoccupied with the war in Europe and Stalin wouldn’t dare risk fighting on two fronts. However, Germany’s defeat seemed inevitable and we could do nothing but wait until the time came.
I was promoted to major per my father’s recommendation, but the position held little importance in my division. Most of my duties included filing meaningless reports and “approving” personnel and munitions transfers. Nearly all of our heavy artillery and mechanized units had been requisitioned by other forces throughout Asia and the Pacific and we were under strict orders not to cross or fire over the border. For a while, the unit conducted exercises and practiced shooting, but we were soon ordered to conserve ammunition and cease all unnecessary maneuvers. After that, the men spent their days playing music, fishing, smoking cigarettes and opium, gambling on mahjong, playing baseball, and watching the same three film reels over and over again.
During this period, my nights were troubled. Whenever I laid my head down in the dark and quiet of my barracks, the memory of my actions in Pingfang resurfaced in waking flashes and dreams. The ambitions to surpass my father in rank and prestige faded quickly in the wake of the listless life I led as a soldier waiting for a war. Every day was exactly the same. Nothing excited me. Nothing provoked me. We waited for orders that never came, watching our unit being slowly cannibalized.
The better part of year passed that way with no change until the following May when Germany surrendered. The news came along with orders to resume border patrols and exercises. After the allied victory in Europe, it was assumed that Stalin would redeploy to the Asian front. The commanders in Kiamusze warned that even though the Soviet Union was still bound by a cease-fire for another year, the Red Army might violate the agreement in order to establish interior strongholds from which to support their advance. We expected to receive reinforcements and additional munitions, but with forces spread so thin across Asia, we were simply told to make due with what we had.
There were rumors of Soviet forces massing along the Trans-Siberian railway near the eastern border. The 5th infantry division was ordered to Hailar to reinforce the main Kantōgun force stationed there and we were left to hold the border on our own. The plan was to split the 3rd infantry into separate platoons and spread out along the eastern border, using guerrilla tactics to delay and disrupt invading forces. My platoon was sent to a long section of the eastern border divided by the Usuri River. We set up a spartan camp in the dense forests along the river with only essential supplies. We did our best to minimize our detectable presence and stay mobile. The spring passed without incident and the summer seemed to come all at once. The air in the forest interior became so heavy and humid that it was difficult to breath. Unable to resupply, we were left to endure the summer heat in our wool winter uniforms. The days were long and my nights were troubled. My platoon had yet to enter the war, but I was fighting constantly. During the day, I fought against the elements. At night, I fought against my past.
I had a recurring dream about meeting Li inside a big house. The house was unreal, but it felt familiar to me somehow. Li never spoke a word to me. He would simply guide me through the rooms and hallways as if he was a realtor showing off the amenities of a modern home. I wanted to tell him I was sorry, but the air in the house seemed to swallow my voice as it emerged from my throat. I silently followed him through the house trying desperately to make sense of the house and its rooms. The dream always ended the same way. Li would take me into a small bedroom and show me my mother’s old vanity. When I stepped into the mirror, I would see my father’s face staring back at me. They were the same eyes that had watched with grim satisfaction as I murdered my best friend and the same mouth that had smiled and sucked every last bit of humanity out of me. I would run terrified from the mirror and to a closed door that was identical to the door to my father’s study in our home in Shinkyō. When I turned the knob the door burst open with a rush of water that filled the hallway. I always awoke just as the water reached the ceiling and I inhaled my first suffocating gulp, the cold of the liquid stinging my lungs and inducing panic in my fluttering chest.
I was having the dream again on an unusually cool August night when Sergeant Nakamura woke me and reported a Soviet force had been spotted gathering on the opposite bank of the river. We immediately mobilized the platoon and spread out over a wide position, preparing for the inevitable encounter. The invasion army was enormous. Our small guerrilla force was outnumbered and outmatched. Victory was impossible. Of course, we weren’t sent to achieve victory; we were merely fodder set in the path of a greater beast in order to slow it down. We were under orders not to surrender or take our own lives. A soldier’s death was all but certain. We silently watched for three days as the Russian soldiers prepared to cross the river. On the third day, a group of large steamboats and barges came up the river from the north and began loading troops and equipment on the Soviet bank.
The platoon was waiting for me to fire the first shot as a signal to open fire. I lined up my sights on a soldier near the front of the first landing barge and froze. I tried to pull the trigger, but everything in my being refused. I remember the thumping of my heart pounding against the hard wood of the tree limb on which I was perched. When I looked up at the night sky, it seemed different somehow. It looked artificial, as if I had unknowingly slipped into an alternate reality.
I lined up my sights and tried to fire again, but my fingers answered with the same insubordination. The sergeant tapped the butt of his rifle against the trunk of the tree and gestured frantically at the approaching barge. I shook my head in response, but the sergeant scowled and raised his rifle. He fired the first shot, which ricocheted off the front of the barge. The entire platoon subsequently opened fire, assuming that the first shot had been mine. The first volley of shots dropped a handful of soldiers standing at the bow. The rest of the soldiers on the barge immediately returned fire, though they were essentially shooting wildly into the trees. The ship continued toward our bank as more of the Soviets fell, nearly evening our numbers.
When the barge pulled up to the shore, one of our men ran into oncoming fire and threw a grenade into the group of soldiers standing on the deck. The explosion blew limbs and bits of flesh and bone into the surrounding water. Our man had taken a bullet in the rush, but was still moving. The sergeant and one other went to pull him back into the trees. I climbed out of my tree perch just as a volley of fire burst from the other side of the river. Two more of our troops were hit and fell to the forest floor clutching their wounds.
I watched all the chaos of combat unfold around me as if I was on the outside looking in. Our actions seemed so detached from the consequences, pulling the trigger of a rifle and killing another man 200 meters away. The muscles in the finger seemed so small and powerless, but they could take life as easily as flicking a lighter. We knew nothing about these men that had come to kill us and they knew nothing about us. We fought for the ideas of ambitious men. We had all convinced ourselves that dying for an idea was honorable, but we never considered whether or not killing for an idea was honorable. I could hear my father’s words echoing in my head, the same words that had convinced me to do the unthinkable. 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? Fear gripped me more than honor, more than duty, more than pride. Fear seized us and made us into its foot soldiers.
It was then that fear sank its teeth into me again. I took up my rifle and scanned the opposite shoreline for a target. Just as I lined up my sights, I heard a brief high-pitched screech followed by a massive explosion just behind our position. I instinctively dropped to the ground and covered my head. Two more explosions shook the ground and downed trees behind us, each one successively closer. I shouted for my men to retreat north along the river and regroup at the rendezvous as the shells rained down all around us, the continuous explosions completely drowning out my voice. I ran as fast as I could toward the sergeant and our wounded soldiers. Intense heat and thick smoke filled the forest interior like a viscous fluid through which it was nearly impossible to move. The smoke in front of me cleared just enough to make out the sergeant trying desperately to help the three wounded soldiers move. A brilliant white flash swallowed the four of them followed by an enormous sound that seemed to squeeze my head like deep-sea pressure. The blast lifted me off my feet and threw me ten meters in the opposite direction, clipping my shoulder on a passing tree and smashing my head against an exposed root.
That’s my last memory of the battlefield. The sergeant and 37 others were killed in the attack. The rest of us were taken to Karafuto, which was already being called Sakhalin by the Soviets after a successful campaign on the island. Six more of us died during the journey to Sakhalin, mostly from wounds sustained in the battle on the Usuri. Only four of us actually survived.
I awoke in a Gulag camp on Sakhalin, having been unconscious or semiconscious for the better part of a month. The remaining members of my platoon had carried me during the entire trek to the island, despite being injured themselves. The other prisoners cared for me. The Soviets didn’t want to waste any personnel or resources on Gulag workers.
Through the process of being continually harassed by the Russian inmates, most of whom were criminals that had nothing to do with the war, we ended up with our own Japanese compound within the camp. The prisoners essentially ran the camp. We distributed rations and cooked meals when we had ingredients to use, we ran a medical facility for injured and sick workers, we maintained supplies, we policed ourselves, and elected representatives to liaise with our Soviet captors. Most of the high-ranking Japanese officers had been sent to Khabarovsk to stand trial for war crimes, leaving me in command of the Japanese camp. After recovering from my injuries, I was asked to mediate issues between the prisoners and the warden.
The warden, a Red Army colonel, was a cold and even-tempered man, who took a strange interest in me almost immediately. He kept me out of the coal mines and held me in his quarters for hours at a time raising all manner of conversation topics in English. My English was quite poor as I’m sure you remember, but the warden and I developed a sort of spoken shorthand over the course of our many conversations. He was especially interested in Buddhism and Japanese spiritualism, about which I knew very little at the time.
The other prisoners started to resent me for the privileges the warden granted me. They labored in mines all day and the working conditions were horrific. They worked from sunrise to sunset on virtually empty stomachs. Toxic dust stung their eyes and clouded their lungs. Their muscles ached from being forced into contorted positions for long periods. Workers often collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration, vomiting a foul black liquid from overexposure to the dust. All of them had terrible coughs that regularly produced blood. I pleaded with the warden to improve the labor conditions in the mines, reasoning that it was in the best interest of both parties. He always answered with some ambiguous response, suggesting that he would take my request under advisement. When nothing changed, I would ask to be relieved of my position and sent to the mines along with the others. The colonel always refused.
“We are friends are we not?” he would always say with a sinister smile. “I don’t want my friend working in the mines. That is work best suited to my enemies.”
The other Japanese prisoners even submitted a request to the colonel to revoke my position as liaison, but he wouldn’t have it. He kept me as his pet, talking with me every day at length about death and human nature. We had the same discussions over and over again. Things went on that way for months. When the snow began to fall in Sakhalin, he told me something unexpected.
The conversation began as it always did. He asked, “Comrade Major, what will happen to me when I die?”
“In Japan, you would be given a funeral and your body burned.”
“And my soul?”
“I'm not certain that the soul exists, Comrade Colonel.”
He ignored my initial response and continued as he always did, “Don’t Japanese men have souls?”
“Japanese men are the same as Russian men. They bleed and endure, they love and hate, they succeed and fail, they live and die. We are the same.”
“I think my soul will live on in my children. They will inherit my strength, my will, my experience, and my love.”
“Will they receive your flaws, your mistakes? Or, has Comrade Colonel’s life been blessed with only perfection?”
“No, it has been far from perfect. I have much to answer for, in this war alone. Do we pass on our flaws to our children? Must children answer for their fathers’ sins?”
“I hope not. If so, I'm already lost. Maybe, I will never leave this camp. Maybe, that is the price I must pay for my father’s redemption. Even when the war is over, I'll…”
“…but the war is over, Comrade Major. Japan has surrendered.” he interrupted.
I was lost for words. It was the first I had heard of it. I didn’t know if I could believe what he was telling me. I muttered a few words of disbelief to myself in Japanese.
“It’s true. The war has been over for some months now. The Americans dropped a new type of explosive on two Japanese cities and reduced them to ash in an instant. The emperor issued an unconditional surrender a week later.”
“Which two cities?”
“I’m sorry Comrade Major, I don’t remember. Japanese names are so difficult to commit to memory. Shall I retrieve the report for you?”
I knew that Akita had no direct involvement in the war effort. It was an extremely unlikely military target, but still my heart sank at the thought of my family being burned alive in some kind of science fiction explosion. Some of my younger cousins were serving in the Naval harbors in Hiroshima, but it also seemed like an unlikely target. I figured that they were bigger industrial centers, like Osaka or Kure.
He took his time searching through a stack of files on his desk and returned to his seat with a bundle of papers in hand. “The names of the cities were…”
“Are,” I interjected desperately, hoping his choice of words had been a simple English grammar mistake.
“If this report is to be believed, ‘were’ is more accurate. However, I don’t wish to cause you more distress. The names of the cities are…Nagasaki and Hiroshima.”
I felt as though all the air suddenly went out of the room. I choked and hunched over. My cousins were dead; three brothers, the oldest barely 20 years old. I tried to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. I felt almost nothing, but a brief physical spasm in my stomach. It was as if all of my emotions were being crushed into the size of a single atom by some kind of internal gravity.
“What do you think happened to the souls of the people living in those cities?” he asked coldly, as if nothing had changed and we were having the same discussion we had had dozens of times before. “Tens of thousands of souls released in an instant. Can they all find their way?”
I said nothing, but stared at him intensely.
“Comrade Major? What do you think has happened to them?”
I remained silent and continued looking deep into his eyes.
“Major. Answer my question. We are not finished.”
I felt an unbelievable weight in my body. It wasn’t the feeling of an external weight hanging on me and pulling me down, it was something internal that had swelled and inflicted an unusual paralysis. My whole world had crumbled. Everything I had come to know about country, my friends, my family, and myself was being replaced by something new and unfamiliar.
Japan had lost the war, a war fought by peaceful men who had placed their faith and loyalty in the narrow-minded ambitions of a leader whose face was never seen and whose voice was never heard. What had we gained? My father had turned out to be a sadistic murderer, full of high-minded principles that were meant, as with any killer, to justify his savagery. Fear of this savagery had made my mother a prisoner in her own house. And, there was you. I felt betrayed by you. You had changed so much in our time together in Manshūkoku. You became unrecognizable to me. When you abandoned me at the Unit 731 compound in Pingfang, I decided to hate you. For a long time, I tried to blame you for Li’s death. The things I did that day changed me forever and my actions showed me who I really was, a killer like my father. Instead of denying my own nature, I had decided to embrace it. However, just as on the battlefield on the Usuri, a part of me still rejected this new disposition. The Colonel’s question was repeated in my head, do we pass on our flaws to our children?
The colonel was furious at my refusal to speak. He ordered his guards to throw me into the nearest mineshaft. They took me out into the freezing wind and snow and dragged me to the edge of a small opening in the Earth, barely large enough for a grown man. There was a rope ladder anchored to the mouth of the shaft, which the guards pulled up out of the mine in its entirety. They asked me mockingly if I wanted a cigarette before going in. Then, they laughed and dropped me headfirst into the hole. I fell for a long time, scraping against the jagged walls of the shaft and knocking loose large pieces of rock that fell after me. I finally came to a stop in a spot where the shaft leveled out slightly. My limbs were twisted around sharp protrusions and my head and torso were crushed against the cold walls of the cavern. The avalanche of rock that had broken loose during my fall came crashing down on me, closing off all light from above. My frantic breathing drew in huge plumes of dust that choked me and made my lungs burn inside my chest. I could feel a film of the dust settle over my face and neck. It went up my nose and inside my ears. I could taste it in my mouth. I was sure I would die there. I didn’t feel fear or regret. I was relieved. I deserved death for the things I had done and for the things I had not done. I wished for it, but despite my longing I was afraid. This ending was to be slow and desperate and hopeless.
I thought about many things while my body slowly surrendered and started shutting down. I gained incredible focus and clarity in that pitch-black hole in the Earth. The air was thin and it gave me a mild euphoria. When I slept, it was a deep heavy sleep that brought vivid dreams. Eventually, the dreams began to take over my waking hours as well. Soon, I was living in the dream.
I was in a strange house, the same house from the dreams that had troubled me in the border camp, but it was more real. Some of them were known to me. Some were completely unfamiliar, but they were adorned with relics from my lives in Akita and Manshūkoku. I passed my father many times in the halls, but I never spoke to him and he never spoke to me. I spent a lot of time in a circular study, which contained my mother’s phonograph and her collection of shellac discs. I always left the door open when I listened to symphonies and I watched my father pace up and down the hall like some mindless ghost. Things went on that way for a long time.
One day, he came in, sat down across from, me and said, “you may share my flaws, but that doesn’t mean you must share my mistakes.”
“I became you when I killed Li. You took something from me, the thing that separated me from you.”
“That is something that can’t be taken. It can only be given…or given up.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will. First, you must leave. You can’t stay here any longer. There is no purpose in this place. Purpose is all that matters. You will find it in people, the people you need and the people that need you. There is still much you need to do.”
He stood and led me down a long hallway. Along the way I noticed a door I had seen before, the one I had seen every night on the banks of the Usuri. I stopped, but my father continued on in front of me. I examined the door carefully. It was a perfect replica of the one in my dream. Every detail down to the grain of the wood and the nicks and scratches around the frame were identical to the one I had come to know and fear night after night. I knew what would happen if I opened it, but I reached out and rested my hand on the doorknob all the same. The wood moaned and creaked as if the minuscule weight of my hand was too much to bear in addition to the force that hid behind it.
“No,” my father shouted as he swatted my hand away from the doorknob. “That is not the way out.”
I nodded and stepped back from the door. He continued to lead me through the house to a small ornate door. He told me that I had to open it myself, but that it would require all my strength to do so.
He turned to face me, but he didn’t look up at my face when he spoke, “don’t become me. You may have given something of yourself away, but it is not lost. Find purpose. Find need.”
His manner of speaking was completely uncharacteristic of my father. It hadn’t struck me until that moment, but it was as if someone was speaking through him like operating a puppet.
I tugged on the door and as it opened, it seemed to drain all the strength from my body. The room was bathed in a white light that poured in from the outside. I was certain that what waited for me outside was death, final release. Knowing that, I closed my eyes and plunged through the doorway with the very last burst of strength that coursed through my body.
When my eyes reopened, I was in a small infirmary bed with plaster casts on both legs and my left arm. My torso was wrapped tightly with cloth bandages and there was a tube coming out of my side. My face was covered with a breathing mask and there was another smaller tube in my right arm. I could barely move without intense pain. I felt what I thought was dizziness from my injuries or the medication I was receiving, but it turned out to be the motion of the sea. I and the other Gulag prisoners had been liberated in accordance with some agreement between the Soviets and Americans and we were being transported by ship back to Japan. I was later informed that I had been buried in the mineshaft for over three weeks. The doctors didn’t believe the other prisoners’ estimation of the time, because three weeks in the situation they described to them would have been physiologically impossible to survive. I was buried with insufficient air, no food or water, and significant injuries including six broken bones and a punctured lung. But, the other POW’s assured me that they had kept track of the time accurately. Combined with an additional three weeks at the Gulag infirmary and another two on the ship, I had been unconscious and on the verge of death for roughly two months. The doctors called it a coma. Some of the more religiously zealous POW’s called it a spiritual intervention. I thought it was just a dream, a despair-induced delusion to ease the coming of death. The truth was I didn’t know what to believe.
It took me a long time to recover fully from my injuries and I have a limp that the doctor’s have told me may never heal fully. I tried my hand at few jobs during the American occupation, but nothing seemed to fulfill me. After that I went to Enryaku Temple for guidance and began to study Buddhism. Eventually, I entered the monastery and was subsequently sent to Daisen to continue my studies. I have found purpose in people, but the need in me still longs to fulfill one last promise.
There is more to the story, but this brings you up to date. It is my hope that you understand what has happened to me and that you will tell me what has happened to you so that I might understand as well. I have not seen you since that day in Pingfang and I don’t know what has changed you in that time, but I do know that there is something that bonds our fates together like brothers. I have learned in my search for you that you have become a monk in the Tendai School at Kurama. This could not be the result of chance. We have followed much the same path over the years and I long to know where your path has taken you in the time we were apart. Please write to me.
I wish you peace with every breath.
From: Okamoto Ryūji
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