By Paul Tan
A familiar voice called out. "Obaasan, I brought you some persimmons today. Our tree has borne so many fruit this year." I got up from the tatami, where I was mending an old coat for the upcoming winter, to receive my neighbour.
At the genkan foyer, I greeted Keiko with a warm smile and looked at the bamboo basket in her hand, filled with shiny fruit the bright colour of sunset. "Keiko-chan, you're always so kind. Oh my, so many! How can I finish them by myself?"
"What you can't finish these few days, just string them up and dry them and they will keep the whole winter. We still have many sunny days this autumn."
Keiko has been my neighbour since I moved here after selling the old house. That two storey house was sturdy enough and had survived the great earthquake with minimal damage. It was a beautiful house with airy rooms, a lacquered corridor that our maid then diligently polished and a western-style study at the back; that was where I had made a home with my husband and spent many contented years. But as a widow, it was simply too big for one person, filled with books I was never going to read and more importantly, memories that didn't seem to fade away.
"Well, Keiko-chan, then let me offer Ryohei-kun some red bean soup I just made. I'm sure he had a busy day at school." I darted into the kitchen and returned with a lidded bowl.
Homecooked food is always the best, I used to tell my husband. No matter what new modern technology they bring into Tokyo and beyond the noisy debates in the government and newspapers about where the country is heading, every man surely looks forward a dinner prepared in the familiar comfort of his home at the end of a long day.
Keiko's melodic voice chimed. "Thank you Obaasan for this. Nice and warm! Ryohei will love this."
Compared to my old house, I don't have a big garden here though. There's just a strip of land between the compact townhouse and the wooden perimeter wall for a few potted plants and a small maple tree left by the previous owners. The house itself is just the right size for me. But I suppose what is more important than physical space is that I have caring neighbours. This is especially true when one is a elderly widow living alone.
Keiko, sometimes with her adorable son Ryohei, drops by at least twice a week. She's a pleasant young lady in her early thirties, always in a practical, not flashy kimono. Keiko, like many in her generation, is taller and fleshier than me. I suppose it's a fact that the young have been better fed since the Taisho era.
Some may say my neighbours are nosy people and Keiko can be forward in her questions, even as she is kind and thoughtful. She has asked about my late husband, why we never had any children and how I manage to get by with the difficult economic situation in the country today. I have shared with Keiko many details about my past; there is nothing to be ashamed about, especially between women.
Of course, when I don't feel like discussing any matter, I just laugh and brush it off casually with "It's such a long time ago. Let's focus on the many things we need to do today" and Keiko doesn't press any further. She is like some of the modern girls these days, educated and had even worked before marriage but beneath that, in her heart, she has the manners of the old ways. From all I have observed, she is a dutiful wife, mother and daughter-in-law. Recently she told me, half-giggling, that she and her Shujin are planning for more children. Children are a blessing for the nation, she said.
One may imagine I live an idle existence, drawing down on my husband's savings and the monies I made from selling our house. But there is more than enough to keep me occupied. Aside from keeping the house tidy, preparing for the changing seasons and shopping for economical purchases along the marketing street, I have joined a women's group at the local temple. It's a nondescript temple with a curved green tiled roof and a modest-sized prayer hall just down the street. Every week, we meet to chant sutras, meditate and copy parts of the sutras, led by the chief priest's wife. She often ends the group activity by serving us tea and sharing her views on the world's problems, urging compassion and wisdom.
I must admit I don't really understand the sutras – I'm not as smart or well-read as my husband – but I do take pleasure in meeting the other women and feel a sense of healing after the intensity of the meditation.
I never thought I would be a regular at any Buddhist temple but moving to Kawasaki, at the outskirts of bustling Tokyo, must have forced me to change my habits. I didn't know there was something inside me that was disturbed, that could benefit from healing.
It has been some 25 years since my husband killed himself, leaving only the briefest of an apology letter and so many questions. In that period since, so many changes in our lives – a new Emperor, modern conveniences, Western culture. Surely, that is long enough for one to detach from any remaining embers of rage, those old wounds?
Today I had a surprise visitor, one of my husband's few friends, whom we fondly called Jiro-kun. He called my husband Sensei, even though he wasn't really a titled professor or anything like that. They had met in Kamakura while on separate holidays and developed a close friendship until my husband's suicide. In the difficult period following, Jiro did visit me regularly in the old house. He was a young man then, still finding his way around the modern world and trying a establish a career in education but I appreciated his company, the distraction of preparing a simple meal for another person and his help with dealing with Sensei's estate.
But after I sold the house and moved to Kawasaki, he came by less and less. When I reflect on his visits, it is true that I took much comfort in them in the first few years, especially when the fog of emotions obscured much of the beauty around me. Jiro was a thoughtful, young man who had exchanged many conversations about the world with my husband, as men do when they get together. So we had many shared memories, including the pleasant meals three of us used to have in the old house, and our conversations often returned to these happier times during his visits.
But over the years, I began to sense an increasing reserve in Jiro's demeanour. Perhaps it was always there, but I hadn't seen it. It was as if there was something grave he had to deliberately hold back. On one hand, his reserve could be a seen as the gap between the sexes, the need to protect and respect an older woman who had confronted certain tragedies in her life. Yet, I could not help but wonder if there was something more, that it was connected to a profound restlessness and isolation that I had felt in my husband in our married life. Was that why despite talk of an impending engagement with a fellow teacher, Jiro stayed a bachelor all these years?
When Jiro appeared in my genkan this morning, I took a few seconds to recognise him. His hairline had crept up and he had lost weight, compared to his last visit two years ago, which made his facial features stand out in more angular relief. His eyes, while still kind, seemed to have taken on a world-weary fatigue. I quickly recovered my composure but he surely must have noticed my initial response.
"Jiro-kun, it's been such a long time. Please come in."
"How are you Shizu-san? My apologies for dropping in so suddenly like this. I should have written to you."
"Don't be so overly polite, Jiro-kun. You know you're most welcome to visit anytime."
I ushered him to the zabuton next to the earthenware brazier and poured some water from the iron kettle to make tea. Jiro unbuttoned his woollen blazer, which ill-fitted his gaunt frame, and placed his scarf and a paper bag on the tatami as he sat down.
"Come catch your breath. Have some tea."
He proffered the paper bag. "I just returned from the countryside on the first morning train. These matsutake mushrooms were freshly picked from the hills near my mother's house."
"How is your mother?"
"She is well but getting on in her years. She sends her regards, and insisted I bring these matsutake to you."
"They are in season, after all. How kind of you and your mother. I am sure they'll be delicious. If you're free for lunch, I can make a nice chicken stew with these matsutake."
"Thank you. But I'm indisposed. I am afraid I have to start packing soon because –"
Jiro stopped mid-sentence and took another gulp of his tea. I let him take his time.
"You see, I am leaving tomorrow for Manshukoku to help train the Japanese language teachers there."
"That's surprising news. I assume you're following your superior's orders?"
"No, actually, I volunteered."
"I want to do my part for the country. I know life there will be harder than in Tokyo but I thought about it over and over again and decided I need to do this."
"Yes, many young people have a similar admirable spirit these days."
"Shizu-san, I'm not so young anymore." He allowed himself a modest smile, and relaxed a little. "You see, all these years, I keep thinking what a failure I have been, teaching literature in middle school, coaxing students to read books they are not really interested in."
"You mustn't say that, Jiro-kun. Teachers play such an important role in young people's lives."
The room was quiet, even though I had opened the sliding doors to let in the breeze. Through the opening, I could see my laundry and the two strings of persimmons I had tied up to air-dry on a wooden rack.
Jiro looked at me with an intensity that reminded me of my late husband. "Indeed. You know I still think often of Sensei."
"I'm glad you do. You were so close."
"I learned much from him; he told me about his life, including his youth and how he met you. Sometimes, I feel I carry part of him in my heart." There were tears in his eyes as he spoke.
I replied tenderly. "What were his most enduring lessons?"
"The importance to do the right thing. How love between two people is precious. How we need to protect who we love."
Jiro's words were so earnest I could not help but be deeply moved by how his Sensei had shaped his life. Yet at the same time I also thought they were the words of someone who had never been in love. I could not help but think: what kind of love was in his Sensei's mind when he decided to time his death with my trip out of town to visit my sick aunt?
Even if he had been inspired by General Nogi's example, what wrongdoing was Sensei making atonement for? Because it was reported in the papers, everyone knew the General wanted to make belated amends for the troops who died under his command and for losing the banner of the Meiji Emperor in the thick of battle. My husband never left a clue. Did he lose his mind?
If he did not lose his mind, then where was I in my husband's final considerations?
I took a sip of tea to calm my nerves. "Your Sensei had many thoughts. Remember we agreed he had a fastidious mind?"
"Yes, I remember our many conversations." Outside, the breeze was picking up, with the quilted bedsheets flapping and the persimmons swaying gently. Suddenly Jiro choked, "I'm so sorry. I…I…I –"
"What is it Jiro-kun? It's okay to speak your mind."
Jiro looked wretched, his mouth contorted as he spoke, spittle forming on the side.
"I am deeply apologetic for …everything." He lowered his head, then gathered himself. "I should have visited you more often and taken more care of you, Shizu-san. Please forgive me."
"Jiro-kun, there's no need to apologise. You helped me so much in the initial years; I will always appreciate that. Look at me, I'm fine now. I can manage. I may be old but I'm resilient like a pine tree!"
I had lightened the mood, in the way that we women know best.
"I'm happy to hear that Shizu-san. It gives me courage. It will be tough in Manshukoku with their long, bitter winters. But the suffering may do me good."
Jiro's words weighed heavily on me the rest of the day. A period of privations may be necessary for the greater good but there was something more to this I couldn't understand fully.
It was about 11am when Jiro took his leave. I remember the clock chiming cheerfully. As he sat down at the genkan to tie his boot laces, I quickly prepared a small package.
"It's such a small thing but please take some of these persimmons with you before you go. They aren't completely dried yet but will keep for many days. Just nibble on them if you get sea sick on the ship to Manshukoku. Jiro-kun, you must care of yourself while you're over there."
After Jiro's visit, I decided to call on Keiko in the late afternoon. I had found some of my husband's old books in a wooden chest, leather-bound translations of Russian and American literature which I thought her husband might find interesting. I had given or sold most of them away so these were the last of the books which had pride of place in the book cases in the study of the old house. The carpeted room had been the quietest part of the house and was my husband's refuge from the world on many long afternoons. Undoubtedly, it was his favourite room.
Keiko's house is considerably larger than my present home as she lived with her in-laws and of course, it has that majestic persimmon tree in front. I gingerly stepped into her genkan, carrying five books in a cloth wrapper. Noting the number of shoes all neatly arranged, I called out.
"I'm so sorry to bother you Keiko-chan. You must be busy preparing dinner?"
"No bother at all. It's a simple meal tonight for us. Shujin will be back late. He has to entertain clients again."
"He's so busy these days, isn't he?"
"Well, times are hard. Everyone has to do their part not just for our families but for our country."
"Ah yes, I found these old books of my late husband. I thought maybe you or Go-Shujin will enjoy them."
Keiko took a casual look at the well-thumbed books, yellowed with age. I suddenly felt a twinge of embarrassment.
"Thank you Obaasan. I don't read much these days but when Shujin has time, he may appreciate these reads." She knitted her brows slightly. "Oh these are translated foreign authors. I thought they're Japanese authors."
"Yes, my husband used to read so widely."
"Ah, Shujin tends to read only Japanese authors these days. He says we need to build a deeper understanding of the national spirit."
"Indeed." I was about to say I would take them back when she smiled.
"But thank you for this. It's very kind of you." Then a sudden expression came over Keiko and she exclaimed, "Oh I just remembered! Obaasan, since you passed me something to read, I realised I have something for you too. Please give me a moment."
She darted into the house. As I waited, I could smell the faint whiff of fried fish in the air.
She returned with a paper pamphlet Principles of our National Polity – the women's edition and pressed it in my hands. "I've started volunteering at this women's group. We distributed this outside the Ginza train station this morning. It's a very important message for our citizens."
"Oh, it's good you're volunteering despite your busy domestic duties. What does the pamphlet say?"
"Well, we want to get everyone's energy up by reminding all citizens that if we unite, we can build a new Japan. We must remember to put the nation before self. Only together can we drive out the social unrest at home and fight our enemies abroad!"
"Indeed, it's such an important thing to remind everyone in these difficult times."
"I think things may get harder before we see success though."
"More sacrifices than what we saw in China these few years?"
Keiko nodded. Her voice was full of cheerful determination when she spoke. "Sacrifices are to be expected. Women too can such play their part too. I only recently realised as a mother and wife, I have to be more responsible. I've grown up, no longer like those silly girls with their make-up and Western clothes."
"That's true. I will read this carefully at home. But I mustn't keep you from your cooking, Keiko. Please send my regards to Go-Shujin and his parents." With that, I slid their front door behind me and returned home.
Sitting on my zabuton, after a simple soba dinner, I reflect on the eventful day - Jiro's visit, which will probably be his last for a long time, and my conversation with Keiko.
I read the pamphlet she passed me with such pride. It is full of optimism and confidence, much like Keiko herself; it exhorts us to contribute to the larger community and not only think of our individual selves. This is the best way to advance into the future, I agree, especially when the present feels so uncertain, even dangerous.
Yet in contrast, Jiro's grim, almost fatalistic sense of duty, unsettles me. Perhaps this is what happens when ideals and expectations of society overwhelm the individual. I wish he was comfortable telling me what his deeper thinking is. I can't help but sigh: men and their unknowable motivations.
I do believe what I said to Jiro: women are stronger and more resilient than we appear. Both Jiro's mother and I outlived our husbands, after all. What are the truths we need to be protected from? Can a truth really destroy you?
My husband used to say this modern age with its freedoms and independence only led to loneliness. I would smile at him indulgingly, as one would to a child, when he would complain as such. Since his death, I keep thinking about this morose way of seeing the world and can't help but conclude he was wrong. At the risk of sounding like those young modern girls who these days are seen with disapproval, I wonder if there is some value in this Western idea of individualism. Was there a possibility that the truth could free you with new understanding and allow you to be a different self, perhaps your real self?
These days, as my country wages its war in neighbouring China, we're all asked to sacrifice for important national causes. It feels like we are returning to a familiar older Japan, the one that my husband had feared was being lost. His Majesty strongly supports our leaders with their grand ambitions for a new powerful Japan, and expects loyalty and utmost effort to the very end. This is the new thinking, drawn from traditional values, which I am sure I will understand more in time to come.
Still, when all is said and done, being a simple old lady allows me to retreat from the new society's stressful demands. I can always demur: what can I possibly know about the plans of the men in charge? And even if I am willing, what can I contribute as a childless widow of modest means?
I light an incense stick in front of the small Buddhist altar in the hall and place a few almost-dried persimmons. As the clock ticks in the background, I watch the ash from the incense stick fall beside the sake cup I have filled up for the enigma of my husband. Outside, it is quiet except for the autumn crickets. I say a little prayer for Jiro as he embarks on his new journey and imagine the leaves on my small maple tree in the chilly darkness and the silence surrounding them as they slowly give up their green shade for the final burst of crimson.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022