Seventy-five years ago today — Aug. 16, 1945, was a Thursday — Japan was as near dead as a living nation has ever been.
The war was over. Now what?
Chaos, ruin, numbness, despair. The facts are familiar. Descriptions abound. Here’s one, chosen more or less at random. It’s from a short story titled “The Idiot” (1946) by Ango Sakaguchi (1906-55). It describes the last days of the war:
“War — this vast destructive force in which everyone was being judged with fantastic impartiality, in which all Japan was becoming a rubble-covered wasteland and the people were collapsing like clay dolls — what a heart-rendering, what a gigantic love it represented on the part of nothingness! Izawa felt a desire to sleep soundly in the arms of the god of destruction.”
There are times when history is simply too much for us. It’s inhuman. Its violence is limitless, its strength irresistible. It grinds us into dust. The wonder is that we refuse to crumble. Dazed, dumb, torn and battered, we stumble on, we know not where. Izawa, Sakaguchi’s protagonist, is past caring. On he stumbles nonetheless.
The will to live is a curious thing. It is strongest when everything seems to conspire against it. And how does it manifest itself? “The sirens started to shriek out their warning. Instinctively Izawa knew that the final day for his neighborhood had come.” Suddenly, “he was for some reason inspired to brush his teeth and wash his face.”
How dare a man be so trivial, so petty, so stupidly, stubbornly everyday — so human — with rampaging History bearing down upon him breathing fire? Well, he does dare — and it’s the daring, not the trivia, that leaves the lasting impression.
For thousands of years, war has pounded the life out of us, our cities, our civilizations — without, however, destroying us. We survive to marvel at our survival — only to go back and do it all over again; history repeating itself. World War II was uniquely horrible in its destructive power, but so was the Battle of Sekigahara in its time — 1600.
This was the decisive battle in the long struggle to unify Japan. Cannons, imported from Europe, were used en masse for the first time in Japanese warfare. A woman named O-An, who died in her 80s sometime between 1661 and 1673, left a record of wartime recollections from her childhood:
“When they fired those cannon, it was horrendous; the (castle) turrets would shiver and sway, and the very earth seemed as if it would split open.” She might almost be describing an atomic bombing. “At first I was utterly terrified, so frightened I hardly felt I was alive. But after a while, it didn’t bother me at all.”
“The two of them” — Izawa and the “idiot” woman who gives Sakaguchi’s story its title — “rushed through the wild flames.” The road “was no longer a road but just a deluge of people, baggage, and screams…” They stop to rest in a field. The woman falls asleep, leaving Izawa to his thoughts: “The Americans would land, and there would be all kinds of destruction in the heavens and on earth; and the gigantic love extended by the destructiveness of war would pass impartial judgment upon everything. There was no longer any need even to think.”
There was, however: “He wondered whether the trams and trains would be running…. For it was a very cold morning.”
That’s all we’ll ever know of Izawa. Did he survive, fling himself into the reconstruction of Japan, reap the economic benefits? Maybe he became an artist — he had leanings in that direction. He was 27 when the war ended. He may be still alive; he’d be 102 — a scarcely imaginable old age then, but almost commonplace now.
A woman named Ryo would be 100. She’s also fictional, brought to life by Fumiko Hayashi (1904-51), whose short story, “Shitamachi” (“Downtown”), was published in 1948.
The bombs are silent now, the destruction over. Ruins everywhere are reminders of it, but the future beckons, though tentatively, and people like Ryo, however shell-shocked, must move forward. She has a 7-year-old son to feed. Her husband is in Siberia, a prisoner of war. She’s from the country, boarding at a friend’s place in what’s left of bombed-out Tokyo. She sells tea door to door.
One door she knocks at is opened by a man who is friendly. Yes, he’ll buy some tea. He invites her in. She warms herself at his fire; they have lunch, become friends. He too was a prisoner in Siberia, recently repatriated.
She comes again. She brings her boy. The friendship deepens. It becomes love. They’re like a family. They go to a movie, a restaurant. Perhaps life isn’t hopeless after all. There’s her husband — what of him? Well, he’s far away. He’s the war, the past. Ryo must live here, now. Her son needs a father. And doesn’t she deserve a little happiness? Hasn’t she suffered enough?
She does, and she has — but it is not to be. The man dies suddenly. It’s crazy — to have survived history’s worst assault on the human species, only to die in a trivial, everyday traffic accident.
What can she do? If war teaches anything, it is resilience. She resumes her rounds: “Tea for sale! Would anyone like some tea?”
A woman invites her in. “In the small room four sewing-women were sitting on the floor around an oil stove, working on a mass of shirts and socks. They were women like herself, thought Ryo, as she watched their busy needles moving in and out of the material. A feeling of warmth came over her.”
And somehow, life went on.
Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu,” is an anthology of the best “Living Past” stories.