Kees van Beijnum – Sacrifice
It’s Thursday, he’ll be seeing her tonight. One hour a week, a gentle intermezzo between dossiers and court sessions. It’s all he expects. It’s all he wants. Brink closes his eyes, picturing the shadow of her shoulders, her small breasts, which, as he has now come to understand, are part of the traditional Japanese ideal of feminine beauty. He finds it hard to concentrate on what Keenan is saying. She rises up out of the violent images evoked by the American chief prosecutor’s words, the smouldering ruins of Nanking, like a shining lily.
A resident of Nanking takes the stand. The voice of the young Chinese is so soft and fragile that Keenan has to ask him to speak up twice before the interpreter can understand him.
With his eyes cast down, the witness tells them how he spent hours hiding in a mountain of bodies.
Brink takes notes and observes the accused, twenty-eight in total. They sit opposite him in rows, one behind the other, like the audience in a small theatre. Their smooth faces, pale from months of confinement in Sugamo Prison, are bleached to a ghostly white by the bright lights on the ceiling. Inscrutability as their first and only defence against the judges, prosecutors and court officials, lawyers and journalists, photographers and cameramen. The Japanese in the public gallery are seated apart from the Westerners.
The Chinese relates that a Japanese officer swapped his boots for rubber ones and walked over the piled up bodies shooting survivors in the head with a pistol. The accused listen to the translation through headphones. Or pretend to. Until the verdict is passed, their world, besides being menacing and uncertain, is above all limited and monotonous. They are kept alive in prison so they can appear here every morning. The days of generals’ uniforms and ministerial positions, of myths and doctrines, are over. They exist only as “Class A” defendants, responsible for twelve million victims – give or take a million. For the duration of the tribunal, their lives are linked to his, Brink’s, the youngest of the eleven judges.
After the session he doesn’t leave immediately for Ginza, where he has arranged to meet her. He likes to do things in a fixed order and lives according to the daily programme he has built up over the six months he has spent here so far. More from routine than necessity. As it’s Thursday, he starts with a whiskey on the rocks at the bar of the Imperial Hotel, a single glass, no more. Time, the amount allocated to you and what you achieve in it, is the basis of all plans, big and small. Two weeks ago a new element was added to his regular, disciplined schedule. It was the day his self-imposed period of abstinence expired. He had been in Tokyo for exactly half a year. He allowed himself a woman.
Higgins, a fellow judge with a shrewd, narrow face, sits down beside him and reaches into his inside pocket for his cigarette case. He lights a Lucky Strike.
“I’m returning to Boston next week.’ Higgins blows the smoke out past his protruding lower lip.
“I’ve being doing some calculations,” the American explains. “Going by the speed of the prosecutors, it will take at least six more months before the defence gets a turn… Twenty-eight lawyers each trying to undercut every scrap of evidence… Add in adjournments, cross-examinations, the prosecutor’s closing speech and the oral pleadings, and it will be a year easy. And that’s not even including the verdict. It might sound a little disloyal, but the standard of some of our colleagues and the egos of others do not bode well for the collaborative process.”
“You can’t wash your hands of it now, surely?”
“They told me it would take six months.”
Back in the Netherlands, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had told Brink too that he would be away from his wife and daughters for just six months.
“You know, Brink, it took me fifteen years to build up what has become one of Boston’s most successful law firms. I refuse to ruin myself. And if I were you, I would follow my example while you still can.”
“But the very reason we accepted this task,” Brink demurs, “was because we wanted to be responsible for more than just ourselves, our firm or country.”
Higgins nods slowly and grins. “The only thing worse than associating with the naive is being naive yourself.’
He both hates and admires that in Americans, their sharpness and lack of timidity. “It’s our job,” he says.
“What?” Higgins smirks. “Ruining your career?”
“No, judging the Japs who caused the deaths of millions of innocent people. Bringing hope where there’s only despair, justice where injustice rules.”
The smile playing over Higgins’s thin lips makes Brink’s words sound even more bombastic, but, as preachy as they may be, he really does mean it. Making the guilty accountable is a prerequisite for civilisation.
“I never said I’m opposed to the tribunal.” Higgins’s eyes drift across the room, which is slowly filling for cocktail hour. Sometimes it’s like the bar and lobby of the Imperial Hotel are the real heart of the tribunal. Every day, sessions are discussed here, defendants considered, advance judgements made by judges, prosecutors, legal experts and American staff officers from GHQ.
“I’m going to stick around for Saturday’s trip to the mountains,” says Higgins. “I don’t want to miss that. Do you have waterfalls in Holland?”
Brink shakes his head.
“No? Mark my words, you’ll be stunned.”
His room is horrifically hot. He turns the ceiling fan up to maximum, but it makes no impression on the oppressive heat. In his underwear and with clammy fingers, he types out the day’s notes and puts them away in one of the grey folders he keeps on his desk in front of the window. Then he turns on the radio and starts doing his squats in the tepid stream of air. At seven he goes into the bathroom. It’s very spacious, with marble and mirrors and a tub that would fit all three of his children at once. All much more comfortable than the rather Spartan fittings in his own house in Doorn, the villa that used to belong to his parents-in-law. He has grown accustomed to the luxury of his accommodation, the double suite with heavy leather furniture made of dark tropical wood. The colonial-style hotel was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright – according to some, the reason the American air force spared it while bombing Tokyo. Shaving in the mirror after his shower, he’s still surprised by Higgins and his nonsensical decision. In contrast to the American, Brink is convinced this tribunal will advance his career.
At seven thirty, with tingling, clean-shaven cheeks and dressed in a summer suit, he climbs into the back of the Packard waiting in front of the hotel. There is a small red-white-and-blue flag on the front wing and his driver, Sergeant Benson, is at the wheel. Brink leans back on the leather seat and luxuriates in the longing, the shimmering, that strange sense of hope that took him to Ginza exactly one week ago.
He gets out early and walks the last bit to the old, poorly maintained town house she took him to. It doesn’t seem too great a risk in this reasonably respectable neighbourhood, especially now, when it’s still light. He doesn’t want to give away too much to Sergeant Benson. Rumour has it the drivers report directly to American intelligence.
Unlike last week, she’s not standing at the door to welcome him. He hesitates and looks round. A thin man wearing a pointy straw hat and carrying two baskets on a long stick walks past in front of him. An uncovered American army truck with a white star on the door stops in the road, members of the occupying forces sitting smoking and chatting in the back. One of the soldiers gestures in his direction and suddenly all eyes are on him. He turns and steps into the house. In the hall, bare-nosed shoes are pointing at the front door. An aristocratic skeleton appears in a threadbare shirt with his pinstriped trousers held up by a piece of rope, socks on his feet. The old man bows while his wife appears behind him, bent and grey.
As he only saw the woman during his previous visit, Brink addresses her.
“I have an appointment with Yuki,” he says in English. The moment he speaks the name, he realises it’s probably an alias.
The woman bows and glances quickly at his shoes. He remembers Yuki kneeling before him to help him out of them. Is he expected to take them off himself now? The woman exchanges a few words in Japanese with her husband, who thinks for a moment, says, “She is gone,” then falls silent again.
Brink feels the sweat running down his back. It is so horribly muggy in the hall. The wooden floorboards gleam in the light of the low sun behind him. He doesn’t know anything about Yuki, or whatever her name is, nothing beyond the physical interaction between them. Maybe she rents a room from these modest people, as a boarder. It’s also possible that she only comes here in a professional capacity and pays by the hour.
“Is she coming back?” He is very aware of himself as a big, white man in an impeccable linen suit. Aware of his leather shoes as an ostentatious symbol of violation, of trespassing.
“No, not back,” the man replies.
“Not today?” he asks.
“Not ever,” is the answer
Never? “Where has she gone?” he wants to know.
The man bows, disappears into a room and returns a little later with a dictionary that is almost falling apart. Calmly he lets the pages flick past under his bony thumb until he’s found what he’s looking for.
“Girls disappear. Nobody knows where.”
He gets Sergeant Benson to drive up and down the main street twice before directing him into the much darker, impoverished side streets with their ruined houses. He doesn’t see her anywhere in the increasingly decrepit and threatening neighbourhood with its shabbier and shabbier bars and restaurants. No other girls either. Sergeant Benson keeps an eye on him in the mirror. He feels caught out and orders him to drive him back to the hotel. Being upset annoys him. He has arranged his life to leave little room for disappointment and that makes it all the more painful that someone he scarcely knows, a girl who resorts to a “stage name”, can influence his state of mind. They pass the tall, brightly-lit GHQ building where General MacArthur governs Japan. In his hotel room Brink keeps a copy of the Stars and Stripes with a photo of him standing next to the general, taken at a reception for the judges. They drive past the extensive gardens of the imperial palace, ringed by a dark stone wall, and start on the last straight to the hotel. He knows that the sensible thing to do is forget the girl and their failed appointment, put it behind him. Instead he asks Sergeant Benson to take a left at the crossroads and drive to Tokyo Station.
Michiko gets off the Ginza line and follows the stream of passengers to the ticket gates at the end of the platform. Liberated from the crowd, the sweat and the lice, she feels like she’s suddenly recovered from a disease. Shuffling in front of her is an exhausted old man. One of many passengers returning from the countryside: knapsacks, bags and bundles filled with the last remnants of food – rice, beans or fruit – that the farmers were willing to let go for family heirlooms or famine prices.
The war finished one year ago to the day. Instead of victory for the imperial army, the people now pray for food at the temple shrines. Everything revolves around food. Michiko is one the blessed few who is assured of at least one decent meal a day, a privilege she owes to her voice. Her life has been determined by just two choices, both of which seemed important for very different reasons at the time they were made: her parents’ decision to move to Tokyo from their mountain village in Nagano when she was a toddler and her decision at seventeen to do all she could to gain admission to Tokyo conservatory. Her voice has been her salvation.
Whole families are sitting on the filthy steps of the train station. In tattered rags they lean against walls or sit slumped over their bags. In front of the station, shaven-headed boys beg American soldiers for chewing gum and cigarette butts.
At the stalls in the park, children with big insatiable eyes stare at the sweet potatoes and dried fish on display under rush-mat shades. Sitting on the side of the road, in the burning sun, a barefooted man with boils on his unwashed face. A torn rice sack covering his naked body. As Michiko passes, the man holds out a cracked bowl for alms. Straight-backed and without giving him a glance, she carries on. A few yards further along, the next one has taken up position. A motionless man with a hat on, dressed in a worn suit that’s much too warm for the weather. Resting on his lap is a piece of cardboard with “administrator seeks work” written on it in neat characters.
She is approaching Asakusa, her old neighbourhood, where she used to live with her parents in a simple wooden house. Now it’s an endless wasteland of charred ruins that still give off clouds of dust, where the few trees that are still standing have been reduced to black, leafless silhouettes against the sky. The warm wind carries the smoky smell towards her. On the edge of the scorched plain, workmen with hammers, drills and saws are busy erecting barracks. For the survivors. For the future.
She comes to Asakusa a few times each month. A journey to the world of spirits, down a dusty street with weeds and potholes. This street that is no longer a street, where the people are no longer people, leads her back to her childhood, to her family, to neighbours’ faces and small wooden verandas with plants in pots, to small shops and workshops and back yards with chicken coops.
The bright sun is fierce on her face and shoulders as she approaches the scrap-wood structures. A modest woman in her mid-fifties, with grey skin and sunken eyes, is waiting for her. She is as skinny as a stray cat, her cheeks hollow because of the teeth she’s lost.
“Welcome, Michiko.” In her faded kimono, Mrs Takeyama, her former neighbour, kneels down in the doorway of her hut. She bows. Michiko bows too and Mrs Takeyama welcomes her again. As usual, her greeting is accompanied by an apology for the beggarly state of her dwelling, with just enough room for a futon to sleep on, a cupboard, a few pots and pans, and nothing else. Receiving someone inside is impossible.
Next to her hovel, in the shade of the rusty metal plates that serve as a wall, she has spread out a rug. They sit cross-legged and drink tea, probably made from the leaves Michiko brought last time.
“Your dress is ready,” Mrs Takeyama says, “I had to shorten the lining a little.”
“When is your performance?”
“It will be beautiful.” Mrs Takeyama’s skinny, straight neck creeps up out of the opening of her kimono.
Mrs Takeyama used to be a seamstress at a studio that enjoyed a degree of fame for its artistic kimonos. During the final years of the war, in the valley of darkness, they sewed parachutes instead of kimonos. Now she does mending at home. It’s not much; every Japanese housewife has become her own seamstress and people wear their old civil defence corps uniforms and whatever clothes they have left until they’re fit for rags. From a neighbouring hut, where old Mr Kimura lives with his cat, comes a soft weeping. A very slight elevation of her thin eyebrows betrays Mrs Takeyama’s discomfort, but she doesn’t say anything. Michiko too pretends not to have noticed it.
Mrs Takeyama gets up and goes inside to fetch Michiko’s dress. She shows her the almost invisible repairs to the lining then swiftly plucks a minuscule thread off the black velvet. She folds the dress carefully and precisely and gives it to Michiko, before bowing and thanking her for the one hundred and fifty yen. Michiko then hands her a paper bag with rice, two boiled eggs and a few slices of bacon. The leftovers from Mrs Haffner’s house, which Michiko managed to secure in the kitchen when the cook popped out for a moment. Mrs Takeyama bows very deeply with the bag of leftovers in her hands. She has nothing left to lose but her dignity and it is more honourable to receive food or money for a service than be forced to rely on charity. That’s why Michiko keeps finding small jobs for Mrs Takeyama. She knows that what’s left of these leftovers will go to Mrs Takeyama’s neighbour, who in turn will give what he saves from his own mouth to his cat. The chain of leftovers is long and merciful. “Where might this evening’s performance be?” Mrs Takeyama asks. “At Mrs Haffner’s?”
“Yes. And tomorrow I have been engaged for a recital in the Imperial Hotel.”
Mrs Takeyama nods approvingly. “The Imperial Hotel? Not everything’s gone. That used to be full of very distinguished people. But the distinguished people from those days are not the distinguished people of today.”
Their conversations are predictable. They know what they want to hear from each other. They give each other the same words over and over. Michiko tells Mrs Takeyama about the things she experiences. Initially she was fairly reticent and limited herself to facts: the part she had sung in an oratorio, the role in an opera, a performance with Mrs Haffner for the radio. She was scared that this woman who had to live in such pitiful, distressing circumstances might be offended by her stories of soirees, musicals, performances at embassies and receptions where French wine was served. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Mrs Takeyama actually looks forward to her detailed reports from that other world. She wants to hear what was said, played and sung at the dinner at Mrs Haffner’s house, who was there, what was served. She doesn’t want to miss a single fresh strawberry. And while listening to Michiko with every fibre of her emaciated body, she absorbs it all word after word.
It is mutual, this curiosity about what they can tell each other. Michiko in turn is insatiable when it comes to Mrs Takeyama’s account of the bombing that night in March when constant air-raid alarms made it impossible for Michiko to get back home after performing at Mrs Haffner’s. The enemy bombers approached. Nobody knew which part of Tokyo the B-29s would be targeting this time. Not here, she begged. In the dark at Mrs Haffner’s, cowering in a wardrobe under a mountain of coats, she heard the sirens wailing, the A.A. guns crackling, the heavy engines of the planes flying overhead, followed by the impact of bombs, one after the other. The dull thuds of the pressure waves making her whole body shake. Not here, she begged the darkness inside the wardrobe. It wasn’t until the all clear had sounded that she thought of her parents.
Mrs Takeyama was home that night. Together with her husband, her daughter and her seven-month-old granddaughter. The incendiary bombs made the houses burn like straw. Men, women and children raced in all directions, nobody seemed to know where they were going. Mrs Takeyama followed her husband through the strengthening red-hot wind that scorched their faces and lungs. They stumbled over old people who hadn’t got out of their homes fast enough and were rolling around in the street with their hair on fire. She followed her husband until another bomb landed and everything around her turned black. Astonished that she was still alive, she struggled to dig her way up out of the earth and rubble, towards the shouting and the footsteps.
When she emerged she was back in the fire and heat and smoke. Burning, smouldering bodies were everywhere. She searched for her family, but couldn’t find any of them. A man from the civil defence corps grabbed her by the arm and led her through the flames and over the bodies to the river. People were jumping into the dark water in front of her. She hesitated but another woman took her hand and together they jumped. With the water slopping back and forth just under her chin, she watched entire streets burning up in the night like enormous torches. She felt the heat and smoke searing her lungs. Like the rest, she let herself be carried along by the current. Until someone dragged her up into a boat and a voice said, “You’ve made it.”
More wailing comes from Mr Kimura’s hut, quieter now and barely audible. This time Mrs Takeyama doesn’t ignore her elderly neighbour’s sorrow.
“Today it’s one year to the day.”
“A year already,” Michiko says, staring ahead. When the war had just ended, time seemed to stand still. As if the country and the people and the future had been sucked into a whirlpool that was impossible to escape. That might have been the greatest miracle, that life finally started up again, that days became weeks; weeks, months.
“The emperor,” Mrs Takeyama nods at Mr Kimura’s hut.
Who can still imagine the emperor as he was before that day, one year ago? When he was still a god, inaccessible, untouchable. He was allowed to remain emperor on condition he surrendered his place amongst the gods. His voice, which no one had ever heard, came to them over the radio as a human being’s. Without the heavens crashing down on the earth. Surrender, he had said, capitulation. For men like Mr Kimura, the emperor speaking as a human being was sadder than all the dead combined.
Arm in arm, Michiko and Mrs Takeyama walk over the scorched earth, where only weeds grow, and the occasional wildflower. After the night of the bombing, when the progress of their neighbourhood was put back a few hundred years, Michiko had hurried to Asakusa at first light. On this plain where only ash billows up, she had searched and searched through the smouldering, smoking debris. The bodies lay piled up in the sunlight. Of all the faces, she can only remember one clearly. A girl on the side of the road. Her cheeks and mouth covered with marks and blisters, her hands and knees black, her glasses and clothes melted onto her skin. She had asked herself how this girl could be so alone, where her mother was, her father, brothers and sisters.
Michiko and Mrs Takeyama are the survivors. They stop and stare into the distance at the pile of bricks and molten metal that was once the textile mill where her father worked. The only life Michiko sees here is birds of prey high up on the thermals, tracing small circles above the land and the sky of the defeat that rises up from the hill, the mass grave of the nameless victims. She doesn’t know if her parents rest in this grave. No more than Mrs Takeyama knows if her husband, her daughter and her granddaughter lie there. Most of the bodies were mutilated, charred, unrecognisable. They were driven off in the back of trucks or carried downstream on the tide that carried them to the sea. All Michiko and Mrs Takeyama could do was light candles in the temple and recite sutras.
“We survived,” says Mrs Takeyama, just like every other time they’ve stood here.
“Yes, we were lucky,” Michiko agrees, like she always does when Mrs Takeyama says her ritual words.
“The lucky ones,” Mrs Takeyama adds.
“The lucky ones,” Michiko repeats.
Very vividly she remembers the way her father stepped out the door early in the morning on his way to work with his lunchbox under one arm and a perfectly straight part in his hair.
When they return to Mrs Takeyama’s hut, Mr Kimura, small and emaciated, is standing in his doorway, chewing something that looks like a reed stem. She’s glad that he’s no longer sitting inside moaning. When people still their hunger with something that’s actually inedible, when they stop crying about the emperor and dry their tears, when they do things they had, in their own simple way, once considered impossible, there must be something deep within them that makes life worth living.
“Mrs Haffner has a silk blouse with a torn cuff,” she says. “She caught it on the clasp of her gold bracelet. It’s a three-corner tear, you might not be able to repair it…”
“I would like to try.”
On the butsudan, the house altar, not much more than an orange box, Mrs Takeyama lights a candle for Michiko before she leaves. Mrs Takeyama has written the names of her husband, daughter and granddaughter on a card. Behind a dry pine twig, a photo of her daughter with the baby in her arms is lying on the altar.
From the doorway Michiko gazes at the candle flame.
“There was a young man here this morning,” Mrs Takeyama says, “in an old army uniform. He’d just been discharged from hospital. His face was mutilated on one side and he walked with a crutch. He stood here for at least half an hour staring at what’s gone.”
“Was he from Asakusa?” Michiko asks.
“No, he didn’t say much, but I could tell from his accent that he’s from the north. He said he was going home to his village.”
They bow to each other one last time before Michiko leaves again in the burning sun. Draped over one arm she holds the dress her parents gave her for her birthday long ago, now mended. Together with a pair of shoes, it’s her only possession from before the bombing.
The tramp with the torn rice sack over his shoulders is still sitting on the street. Slumped over and dazed by the heat. She straightens her back and passes him with her chin up.
Get up, she thinks. Get up.
Translated by David Colmer