Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Reflections on war and childhood on a Tokyo train

The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Oba-san and the two schoolgirls had never met before their paths converged that afternoon. There was, as well, a very high probability that their brief encounter would be the only meeting of their lives.

In a city the size of Tokyo, it had been sheer chance that propelled the silver-haired woman to that particular seat in that particular carriage on that particular Ginza Line train at that particular hour. And it had also been mere happenstance that brought the little girls to the same carriage of the same train at the same time.

Only two seats were empty when the children — aged 10, I guessed, and clearly classmates just out of school — stepped on board. Although they no doubt would have preferred to sit together, neither hesitated for a moment before claiming the only remaining vacancies in the carriage. One seat was across the center aisle from Oba-san, but the other was right next to her.

Conversation with her friend being impossible amidst the crush of riders, the schoolgirl on the far side of the train dozed off almost immediately. But the other remained wide awake, and to distract herself from the tedium of the commute, she pulled from her pocket a loop of string. Tangling her fingers in the twine, she then began to fashion one of the many figures of ayatori — the game Westerners know as cat’s cradle.

I must admit that I had not really noticed Oba-san when she got on the train a few stations previously. She was merely one of the silent majority of riders — perhaps 70 years old, with the practiced frozen mien of a Metro veteran who is either willfully lost in thought or doing her best to ignore the pressing crowd around her.

Until, that is, the seat next to her was occupied by a little girl with a piece of string.

Watching the hands of the ayatori player as she formed figures with the simplest toy imaginable, I began to notice that the older woman beside her was looking on as well, sneaking sideways glances at her diminutive seat-mate. Oba-san — or so I had dubbed her in my head — was obviously intrigued, and soon her face relaxed into a smile.

After about a minute more of surreptitious spying, she could control herself no longer. And although I could not hear the words she spoke to her new companion, the content of her remarks quickly became obvious.

“I used to play that game when I was your age,” she must have said. “May I borrow your string for a moment, to see if I can remember a figure or two?”

Dutifully respectful of her elders, the schoolgirl handed the string to Oba-san. Then she watched, wide-eyed, as the older woman tentatively entwined her fingers in the proffered loop and began to manipulate it.

Shadows of concentration, puzzlement and mild frustration passed over Oba-san’s face like clouds across a landscape. She struggled to recall the patterns and finger movements that once must have been second nature to her, and she berated herself quietly at every failed attempt.

At last I saw her nod and say “So, so, so.” Then she held up her hands and showed the little girl the string figure she had created. By now Oba-san was smiling broadly, seemingly delighted to find herself beguiled again by a childhood passion that would produce, if only for a moment, some of the shapes and images she recognized from so long ago.

It was at this point that I was struck by a curious thought.

I stumbled upon the little drama of Oba-san and the schoolgirl in March of 2005 — the 60th anniversary of the fire-bombing of Tokyo, one of the deadliest and most destructive acts of World War II.

If I was correct in my assumption about Oba-san’s age, she would have been about 10 years old at the time of the Tokyo raid — roughly the same age as the schoolgirl who sat beside her on the train that day. And if she was indeed a native of the city, she would have lived through the roar of B-29s overhead, the shaking of the earth from manmade rather than natural forces, firestorms, fear, chaos and death. No doubt she saw more misery than any child should have to see, and no doubt those experiences had hardened her to a degree that I could never fathom.

I was neither present at, responsible for nor even born during the period of that raid, but I understand the importance the Allies placed on ending the war as quickly as possible through whatever means were deemed necessary. My own father was in uniform in March of 1945, so I also have to be thankful that he was never called upon to participate in an invasion that might well have ended his life and thereby precluded my own. Still, there are moments in this country when I get what I think of as the “expat twinge” — a feeling that is not exactly remorse, not exactly conscience and not exactly contrition, but some strange mixture of emotions that usually leaves me in a daze.

I could not imagine what Oba-san felt when she saw Westerners in her city — the city that had been nearly razed and then occupied by individuals from far across the sea. Yet as I watched her play ayatori on the train that day, the past — her past, however painful it may have been — seemed to melt away from her before my eyes. The difficult times through which she had most likely lived simply disappeared, and for those few moments she was transformed by child’s play into a child again.

Before long we approached the station of Oba-san’s seat-mate, who rose to disembark. The older woman seemed reluctant to return the loop of string that had given her so much pleasure, but she finally did so with a wistful smile and whispered thanks. Then the train came to a halt at the platform, the doors opened, the schoolgirl was gone.

Chance, happenstance — sometimes they conspire in ways more fortunate than we could dream possible. Because although it cannot be said with certainty, I can well imagine the ultimate outcome of the moment in time and space that circumstance had presented to two denizens of the city.

The little schoolgirl went home and told her mother, “Today on the train something strange happened.”

While Oba-san went home and told her grandchildren, “Today on the train something wonderful happened.”

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