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Dianne HighbridgeAn honest work -- humane in intent, generous in spirit and movingly rendered.
— New York Times Book Review
Ships from: acton, MA
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A World War II novel on the experiences of a Japanese pilot who is the son of a Japanese diplomat and an American woman. The novel includes a description of his father's last-ditch negotiations in Washington to avoid a conflict.
"Banzai!" the crowd roared, and a hundred little rising-sun flags fluttered together. Women in black kimonos lined the front of Karuizawa Station, alongside old peasant men in the ancient uniforms of the Russo-Japanese War and schoolchildren in gray summer shorts, all raising their arms in unison and crying out, again and again, "Banzai! Tenno heika banzai!" Long life to the Emperor, victory on the battlefield!
On a wooden dais a slim young man stood in a crisp new Imperial Army uniform. At each shout of "Banzai!" the young recruit bowed deeply to the crowd, his shaven head gleaming in the harsh afternoon sunlight. On a wall behind him hung a long banner with bright red Chinese characters that said: "CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR DEPARTURE FOR THE FRONT." This was one of a thousand identical ceremonies repeated that August day in 1941 in front of railway stations all across Japan.
Suddenly the crowd parted for a Western woman in a long white pleated skirt, a lace blouse, and an enormous hat with a rose on the brim. For the locals in the international resort of Karuizawa, Western visitors were a familiar sight, but as Alice Kurushima made her way out of the station and through the crowd, the presence of this foreigner in her exotic attire still seemed to astonish them. They forgot their "Banzais" for a moment and stepped back as she passed through.
"Tanaka!" Alice called back to her cook in English, oblivious to the solemn ceremony she had just walked into. "Get us a taxi!"
"Oui, madame,tout de suite ..." Tanaka bowed to her, tipping his white beret, and looked around the little square. There were no taxis. All he spotted were two rickshaws. "Madame, allez-vous en rickshaw. Board yourself, please!"
"But what about the luggage?" Alice said, turning around. The porters had piled more than a dozen trunks and wicker suitcases in front of the station. Her husband Saburo stood there, dwarfed by the mountain of belongings. Beside him stood their daughters Eri and Anna—one in American-style slacks, the other in kimono—and the maids Yoshiko and Asa. They all looked a bit bewildered.
"Madam," Yoshiko said, speaking an English that was as fluent as Tanaka's was broken, "Asa and I will carry the luggage. Why don't you and the master go in rickshaws?"
"But how can you carry it all? We brought so much."
"Don't worry, madam. We can borrow a wagon from the Peony Inn." Yoshiko pointed to the inn across the square.
Just then the sun burst forth from behind the clouds. Alice quickly covered her arms with a scarf, believing the sun up here in the highlands was harmful. She was glad she'd worn a large hat and long skirt to protect herself.
Yoshiko walked over to the Peony Inn. Instead of a wagon she returned with a wooden oxcart, a relic from another era. When the family had piled all their luggage in, the cart looked absurdly top-heavy, but there was nothing they could do about it. Absurd or not, they set off. Alice and Saburo rode in the rickshaws, followed by Tanaka and the two maids pulling the cart, with Anna and Eri pushing from behind. The rickshaw drivers were both elderly men who moved at a snail's pace, so the others had no difficulty keeping up as the procession made its way down the main road through Karuizawa.
Alice looked around. The highland resort hadn't changed in the five years they had been away. Here and there in the larch woods stood the villas of the foreigners and wealthy Japanese who spent their summer here, each house painted a different color. Beyond the forest she could see the yellowish brown slopes of Mount Asama. A white trail of smoke rose from its crater into the blue sky.
They reached the livery stable and turned onto a dirt path that led through the rice paddies. At the end of the path was the Kurushima family villa. When they saw the house with its red roof and whitewashed panels, Eri shouted, "We're home!" and started running. Tanaka and the maids, luggage in hand, traipsed after her across the leaf-strewn yard.
Alice stepped down from the rickshaw and started toward the house. Turning to Saburo, who was following slowly behind, she called out in English, "It's slippery, be careful!" Then to Tanaka, who was crouching in front of the main door, she called out in Japanese, "Why don't you take the luggage in?"
"Because, madame," Tanaka answered, reaching with his index finger to tip his beret slightly over his forehead, "the key—it does not work. Rien à faire."
"There are so many keys," Yoshiko interrupted him. "We don't know which is the one to the front door."
"Let me try," Saburo said. But before he could try them out, he stumbled over a pile of larch leaves. Tanaka barely caught him in time.
"Oh Papa, you're so helpless!" Eri snatched the keys from him and tried each one in turn, but to no effect. "They must be rusty."
"Why don't we go in from the veranda?" Anna proposed.
"Madame Arizumi," Tanaka said, bowing to her, "I already tried, but it is locked from inside. C'est impossible. There is simply rien à faire."
"Maybe you've got the wrong bunch of keys," said Yoshiko. "I'm going to see if the caretaker has another set." Yoshiko ordered Asa to keep an eye on the trunks and suitcases and ran off to find the caretaker, who lived in a farmhouse behind the villa.
"The house really is in terrible shape," said Alice. She had intended the remark for Saburo, but when she turned around her husband wasn't there; he had already made his way to the archery range at the bottom of the garden. It was Anna who answered her.
"Of course it is, Mama. We've been away for five years. And then there was that terrible typhoon that came in the middle of the summer. They say even the station was flooded with muddy water."
It seemed the monsoon had lasted an inordinately long time this year, and on top of that the town had been hit by a typhoon on the night of July 22nd. Rain came flooding down from the mountains, turning the roads into rivers. The square was inundated and water rushed into the station, causing a panic. Even in Tokyo, houses had flooded in the low-lying districts near the bay. All across the Kanto plain the trains had stopped running one after another.
The Kurushima family had been waiting for the rainy season to end, and it wasn't until the beginning of August that they finally left Tokyo to come up to their villa.
But the huge pile of leaves couldn't have been the result of just one typhoon. Evidently the caretaker had neglected the place all the years they were away. The paint had started to peel, the windowpanes were clouded with dirt, and the rooftiles were invisible under a thick layer of leaves. Even the bicycle and its trailer were weather-beaten and red with rust. The entire house would have to be repainted and given a thorough cleaning. Alice peered through the window, frowning at the mess inside.
Yoshiko returned from the caretaker's house with a new key, which immediately opened the door. The maid went in first, followed by Tanaka, Alice, and Anna. The air smelled of mildew, and everything was covered with dust. Alice shrank from the sight.
Suddenly Anna screamed and grabbed her mother. "Bugs! Look, it's full of bugs!"
"Where? Oh my goodness, Mama!" cried Eri, grabbing onto her mother as well.
The floor was covered with black spots which were beginning to come alive. Some were tiny, others over five centimeters long. With their black sheen, they looked like crickets. Aroused by the light that suddenly shone in on them, they began to hop about like seeds in a box that someone had shaken, and gave off an eerie hum.
"Do something!" Anna screamed, covering her eyes. "I can't stand them."
She looked as though she was going to be sick, so Eri and her mother, stroking her back, led her to the sofa; but just as they were about to get her to lie down they noticed that the sofa was covered with insects too. Even the ceiling and lintels were twitching with them. Eri took her older sister outside instead.
"We're just going to have to get rid of these things," Eri said. Recovering from the shock, she slapped the dust from her hands and told the maid to come inside with her. Then she called out, "Papa, come --quick—we've got millions of bugs!"
The sound of Eri's voice seemed to rouse Alice. "Let me help," she said. She didn't like insects, either—they were repulsive, filthy, disgusting things—but they couldn't just leave them there.
Saburo came to the doorway and peered in. "Aaagh!" he cried, recoiling at the sight. But then, obviously embarrassed at having reacted like that in front of the family, he picked up a broom and marched into the house like a samurai. "This is war!" he declared.
Everyone joined in the attack. They used flyswatters, newspapers, mops, and brooms. They whacked at the floor, the walls, the furniture. The insects hopped and skipped around them, but they were stupid things and were crushed with ease when their attackers crept up on them from behind. The problem was that the remaining insects then took refuge on the ceiling and at the top of the pillars.
"I've got an idea," said Saburo, who went outside and soon returned holding a souvenir from his trip to America in January. It was a General Electric vacuum cleaner. The vacuum cleaner, with its long neck and a bag attached to the base that swelled with air, was still a novelty in Japan. He switched the machine on, and with a great roar it sucked up the insects from the ceiling, the pillars, and the walls.
"Papa, it's wonderful," said Eri, clapping her hands in delight, as the others all gazed at the amazing machine. "Mama, is this a special machine for catching bugs?" she asked.
"Yes, it is, dear," her mother said with a straight face.
"No, it's not. I don't believe it."
"Oh, but it is. There are lots of insects in America. You don't think we catch them all by hand, do you?"
Once this problem had been dealt with, it was time for a thorough house-cleaning. Under Alice's direction, everyone wrapped washcloths over their noses and mouths and then set to work. Leaving Anna in charge of the cleaning downstairs, Alice went up to the second floor. In the bedroom where their son Ken had stayed during the family's last visit, she found his clothes strewn about exactly as he'd left them five years ago, when Ken was a teenager. Seeing them made her wonder how they would look on him now, a young man of twenty-two—too small, of course, and probably too flashy. She wasn't sure. That summer in Karuizawa five years before was the last time Ken had lived with them. While the rest of the family went overseas—to Belgium, and then to Germany—Ken stayed on in Japan alone. Alice had felt terrible about leaving him in Tokyo with only the servants while he went to school. Then, when she had finally returned to Japan, delighted at the prospect of taking care of Ken herself, he had disappeared into the Army.
Alice could hear her daughters laughing and went to the stairwell to see what was happening.
"Hey, look at Papa!" Eri shouted. Catching sight of her husband when she went downstairs, Alice found it hard not to laugh as well: Saburo Kurushima, the former Japanese Ambassador to Germany, was decked out in heavy working gear, but was settled on the couch on the veranda. He had on brand-new overalls—bought in Tokyo to wear while working in the field behind their villa—and in addition to a gauze mask was wearing a straw hat. Knee-high boots completed the ensemble.
Anna shook her head. "I'm amazed he can even move in an outfit like that."
"He's not moving," Eri laughed, "—His Excellency is tired already."
After applying the mop to half the floor, Saburo had put it down and gone out to the veranda for a break. He was about to light his pipe, when he realized he had to remove his gauze mask first. His two daughters smiled.
"It must be from using that vacuum cleaner," Alice said, smiling too.
After a while Saburo closed his eyes in the cool breeze that came drifting from the woods, and dozed off.
In a few hours of feverish work the others managed to make the house respectable again. Alice stood beside a jumble of rugs and futons and blankets hanging to air, and scribbled in the notebook she always kept with her:
1. Completely repaint panels.
2. Seven broken windows—replace.
3. Get handyman (or caretaker) to sweep leaves off roof.
4. Replace zinc lining in sink with stainless steel—completely rusty.
Realizing she had forgotten about the garden, she stepped down from the veranda and inspected the grounds.
The Kurushima villa had once been known for its moss garden, which carpeted the area between two larch groves. The autumn leaves and the winter snow posed the greatest danger to the moss, and the Kurushimas had asked a local gardener to look after it throughout the year. But they had been away for five years now, and the old gardener's son had taken over the job. Their messages apparently had not gotten through to him, for the garden had been totally neglected. Under a heavy blanket of rotting leaves, the moss had died.
Alice added another item to her notebook.
5. Redo moss garden with turf.
Eri had wanted a lawn to play tennis on. In order to create the space for it, they would have to cut down two trees, no, more like four. It would be expensive. Alice had her doubts. They would have to get the gardener to make an estimate first, and then think about it. But now as she stood there, somewhere in her mind's eye she could see her daughter hitting a tennis ball across a bright green lawn. She decided they would have a lawn, no matter what it cost.
Alice walked to the edge of the garden. There was a shallow pond there, surrounded by rocks, which they had built as a pool for the birds. The water itself was clear. If the leaves were raked away, it could still be used. Just beyond the pond was a fence, similar to the white picket fence at Alice's country home in Connecticut. In Japan most houses had stone walls. Occasionally one saw a fence around a neighboring villa, but it was never painted, for the Japanese preferred to leave the wood plain. Alice's white picket fence was half buried under the tall grass.
6. Repaint fence.
On the archery range some of the grass had been uprooted. The target with its triple bull's-eye stood uncovered. The wooden stand had rotted, and the target, bearing the scars of numerous arrows, tilted to one side. Saburo had taken to the sport back in the days when he was head of the Trade Bureau, before he was appointed Special Envoy to Belgium. He was a physically awkward man not given to athletics, but he had nonetheless tried his hand at golf and tennis like everyone else. These, however, had soon lost their appeal, and it was only archery that held his interest. Japanese archery was an austere exercise, more like a Zen ritual than a sport. It was done in a ceremonial kimono, each shot preceded by elaborate bowing. The Kurushima family had built a small archery ground behind the main house in Tokyo, and Saburo had practiced there religiously. But when he was posted overseas he had given it up, and now hadn't shot an arrow in five years.
7. Repair archery range.
Saburo had brought his bow and arrows with him, so Alice wanted that done for him. But there were so many other things to do as well. She sighed, then crossed out "6. Repaint fence." She thought some more, then crossed out "4. Replace zinc lining in sink with stainless steel." They would have to economize.
Japan had been at war with China for four years now. When the Kurushimas returned to Japan at New Year's, the first thing that struck them was how everyday items like food and clothes were now in short supply. Before they left Germany, Alice had scolded Tanaka for buying up huge stocks of canned goods and wine, telling him it was silly. She had had to apologize. Germany had also been under wartime conditions, with food severely rationed, but it was nothing compared to Japan. Alice couldn't buy meat or eggs, and there was no cheese or butter to be found. Imported wine had completely disappeared from the shops. If anything, she should be grateful to Tanaka: the cook had secured them enough canned goods and wine to last a year.
Alice placed a blanket over Saburo, peacefully dozing on the veranda, then began sorting through the luggage with Tanaka and the maids.
She had planned to get the house in order in three days, but it ended up taking ten. The roof was covered with a thick crust of rotten leaves, which stank. Alice really needed several strong men to clear the roof, but the local handymen who did that kind of work were all away at the front in China. In the end, she found one retired laborer to do it. It was all the old man could do to climb up there, and his heart just wasn't in it; after three days he was still crawling slowly around the roof.
"Well, damn it, I'll do it myself," said Saburo, leaning a ladder against the wall. Alice talked him out of it. After the workman finally managed to get the leaves cleared off, they found the tiles badly damaged; at least half of them would have to be replaced, but finding someone to do this was quite a job in itself. Yoshiko, who was from a nearby village, asked her mother Toku to inquire among the locals, and after a great deal of negotiation they finally got someone to come and work on the tiles. To plant the turf, Toku also found them an old field hand, but this wasn't a time in history to be planting new lawns, and the fellow had to bring some grass from a corner of his own pasture with him. As for windows, the glassmaker was off at the front, and his wife was unable to handle the order for seven by herself. And no house painter would come at such short notice. The town was simply too short of men to accomplish all the things Alice had scribbled in her notebook.
It was Alice's habit to jot down her thoughts in her notebook immediately. She did this because too many ideas would crowd into her head at once, and she was afraid that if she acted on one she would forget the others. But when it came to implementing her various plans, she tended to forget the tiresome details that were involved: negotiations, payments, paperwork. It was Yoshiko who took care of this. Yoshiko had been with the Kurushimas for more than ten years, since Saburo's stint as Director of the Trade Bureau, and she had lived with them all the time they were abroad. She had become indispensable to Alice, and she alone had the privilege of reading her mistress's notebook. Clearing the leaves, fixing the roof, planting the lawn, replacing the windows, repainting the house—it was Yoshiko who turned all of her mistress's dreams into reality.
When the house itself was ready, Alice turned her attention to the interior. She changed the wall hangings in the hallway and repaired all the torn mattresses in the bedrooms. Then she inspected the large area in the center of the house, which served as both a living room for the family and a parlor for entertaining guests, and decided to redo it in a style she called "Flemish."
They would take out the Italian china cabinet and bring the Dutch ornamental chest down from the second floor. The rattan table would go out on the veranda, and the old-fashioned dining table, hewn from a single piece of wood, would be brought in from the kitchen and set in the center of the room. They would replace the chairs with the wooden ones from Brussels. The carpenter and painter were recruited to help move the heavy furniture. After much fuss, when everything was finally in place, the Dutch chest somehow looked wrong next to the table, so out it went and back came the Italian china cabinet. Now everything looked perfect. Alice draped the room with some lace she'd found in an antique shop in Karuizawa Old Town, placed a flowery centerpiece from Brussels on the table and, as a final touch, added a little model windmill they had picked up in Rotterdam. In Alice's mind at least, the room was now "Flemish."
After four days spent redoing the parlor, Alice was ready for guests. There was no need to send out any invitations, though, for open house on Saturdays at the Kurushima villa was an old tradition. Once word had gotten around that Saburo Kurushima had brought his family up to Karuizawa for the first time after five years abroad—three and a half as Special Envoy to Belgium, and a year and a half as Ambassador to Germany—old friends summering at the resort began to arrive.
They came one by one and they came together: Alice Grew, the wife of the American Ambassador, with her youngest daughter Elsie; Kazuo Yoshizawa, the former Japanese Ambassador to Great Britain, with his only daughter Wakako; the Wolffs, who owned a German trading company in Yokohama, with their son Peter; and Father Hendersen, pastor of the local Anglican church, his wife Audrey, and daughter Margaret. Alice, who loved to entertain, showed them into the "Flemish Room." Tanaka, who had cooked for the Kurushimas since their time in Berlin, was sensitive to the tastes of each guest, and planned his meals accordingly. Usually he liked to serve a Japanese meal, with sashimi and tempura, to Westerners, and treat the Japanese to the petite cuisine he had mastered in France and Germany. But while the Kurushimas had a plentiful stock of canned goods and wine, it was hard to come by fresh meat and vegetables. Especially vegetables. The weather had made for an unusually poor crop this year, and vegetables weren't be found in the shops. The Kurushimas managed to obtain enough fresh food for their dinners only because Yoshiko's mother approached the farmers in the surrounding villages.