Authors: Ben Byrne
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright Â© 2015 by Ben Byrne
The right of Ben Byrne to be identified as the author of this Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988
First publication 2015 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Cover photo by John Florea/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
To my mother and father
Not quite dark yet
And the stars shining
Above the withered fields
In early 1945, the United States Army Air Forces began a campaign of low-altitude incendiary bombing against Japan. The raid on Tokyo, on the night of March 9, destroyed sixteen square miles of the city. An estimated one hundred thousand citizens perished in the firestorm.
On August 6, a single uranium bomb was dropped over the city of Hiroshima. Approximately seventy thousand people were killed, with at least as many dying of their injuries and from acute radiation syndrome by the end of the year.
On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war upon the Empire of Japan. Russian forces invaded Japan's colony in Manchuria later on that night.
On August 9, a plutonium bomb was dropped over the city of Nagasaki, killing at least forty thousand people. Associated deaths reached an estimated eighty thousand by the end of 1945.
On August 14, a radio broadcast was made in which the Emperor Showa (Hirohito) announced Japan's capitulation to the Allied powers. It was the first time the Japanese people had heard his voice.
he sun must have just passed its zenith when I looked up. Everyone had already left the workshop except for me and Michiko, who was holding a shell casing, smiling at her warped reflection in the polished brass. I realised that His Imperial Majesty was about to make his unprecedented speech, and so I called to Michiko, and we hurried outside into the bright sunshine of the yard.
The other workers were already kneeling in the dust, facing a rickety table where Mr. Ogura, our foreman, stood fiddling with the dial of a radio which was making piercing whistles and strange whooshing noises. He scowled and waved us angrily to the ground, but just then, a loud blast came from the speaker, and he dropped to his hands and knees with a little whimper, pressing his forehead into the gravel.
The grit stung the scars on my palms as I leaned down, and I stole a glance at the others. Mr. Yamada, the frail student, was staring at the ground, his hair as wild as ever. His fingers were twitching, and I could tell that he desperately wanted to light a cigarette but didn't dare. Behind him was Mr. Kawatake, his lips moving as if he was praying. He looked just like a monk, I thought, the sweat glistening on his shaved head.
The crackling sound stopped, and the signal became clear. A high, reedy voice began to speak, and Michiko sniggered. In fact, I had to stifle a smile myself, because it was trueâit sounded like some funny boy speaking, not the voice that anyone would have expected from the Son of Heaven.
I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on what the Emperor was saying. But it was difficult to understand. His language was formal and ornate, and his words floated in and out of the radio, drowned out every now and then by roaring clouds of static. At one point, I understood him to say that “the trends of the world did not blow in Japan's favour,” and I thought that this was certainly true, as I looked around at the crumbling factory walls, the handcarts piled high with refuse in the yard. Then, His Majesty said that he had “accepted the declaration” and my heart gave a leap, as it had sounded so hopeful. But Mr. Ogura gave a hideous groan, like a dying actor at the kabuki. His body sank to the ground, shaking with sobs, and it was then that I understood that Japan had lost the war after all.
Mr. Kawatake really did look like a monk nowâhe was rocking back and forth on his heels, muttering the name of the Buddha under his breath. Old Mrs. Miyasaki was bent almost double in front of me, and I saw from the little shudder of her hips that she was weeping. I noticed how frayed her uniform belt was, the blue threads unravelling from the hem.
The emperor was speaking now about the soldiers “far away on the field of battle,” and I pictured Osamu, sunburned and hot on some island far off in the South Seas. In his final letter, he had written that his unit had been gorging themselves on the bananas and tropical fruits that grew down there, and I'd imagined him lying on a hammock beneath the palm trees, stroking the thousand-stitch belt I'd sewn with ten-sen coins to protect him from the bullets and bring him good luck.
The sun was burning my forehead now, and I wondered if His Majesty would carry on speaking for much longer. He was mumbling now about a weapon the Americans had used, a cruel modern weapon that might “annihilate the entire world,” though I, for one, had no idea what he meant. He told us that we would face many hardships, that we must endure the unendurable, and that he hoped we would understand. There was a crackle of static, and then silence.
We carried on kneeling for some time, not saying a word. The old ones quietly wept while the rest of us simply stared into space. Finally, Mr. Yamada stood up, strode over to the radio and turned it off with a loud click. He lit a cigarette and then offered them round to everyone else. For some reason, even I took a cigarette, though I had never smoked before in my entire life.
There was the strain and whir of a cicada somewhere nearby and the scuffle of a rat amongst the rubble. I worried that we should all be getting back to our work fairly soon, but then realised that, in all likelihood, it would no longer be necessary.
ried victory chestnuts! Lieutenant Koizumi pressed them into my hand that morning, the mad bastard, out of sight of the burly blond American guard, just as if we'd been samurai, preparing our weapons and armour on the eve of battle. I rubbed my thumb over their shells now, hard as the skulls of mice, as we stood in a ragged line within our barbed wire enclosure, facing the field radio our captors had brought out. Half a dozen of usâall that was left of our unit. Heads bowed, necks burning in the livid sun, straining to listen to that wooden oracle, whirling now with our fates.
The emperor's voice was barely audible above the crash of surf, the hiss of insects in the malignant jungle beyond and the screech of the emerald parrots the American captain kept. As His Majesty spoke, a fragment of poetry echoed over and over in my mind.
Je me crois en enfer, donc j'y suis .Â .Â .
I believe I am in hell, therefore I am.
The voice slowly dwindled into faint static. The volume of the jungle seemed sharply to increase. Loud, sudden cheering burst from the guardhouse bunkroom; there was the sound of fists thudding planks and the unearthly caterwauling of victory.
An odd gurgle came from behind me. Wetness touched my neck, and I spun around to see Koizumi stagger, a sharp glitter in his fist. His gashed neck squirted crimson blood onto the yellow sand, as with bulging eyes, he clutched the wound, as if to staunch the flow. Horror seeped along my spine as he toppled, like a drunken sacrificial horse, blood leaking through his fingers. A shout came from the guard as he aimed his rifle.
Je me crois en enfer, donc j'y suis.
I believe I am in hell, therefore I am.
he plane twinkled like the morning star in the sky above Fuji-san and I stopped in our tracks and stared.
I shielded my eyes from the sun.
No. Hold on .Â .Â .
The plane sailed towards me with a blast of wind, and I clapped my hands over my ears as the engines roared right over my head.
No machine gun turrets at the back of the fuselage. A black “F” mark on the silver tail.
Reconnaissance. I smiled in triumph as it floated off over the charred ruins of the city. They'd never flown low enough to spot properly before.
I carried on trudging northward along the road.
Japan really has lost the war, then,
America and Britain have thrashed us.
It was a shame to think that the planes wouldn't be coming anymore. Night after night, whenever the sirens had started blaring across the city, and the red light had flashed on the telegraph pole outside our bedroom window, I'd leaped from my bed to watch, as wave after wave of silver Hellcats and B-29s thundered past, the bombs drifting down through the night like blossoms. It was as exiting as being at the cinema, I thought, until Satsuko yelled at me to cram on my air defence helmet, and forced me down to the shelter to join our mother.
They were both gone now, though, after the big fire raid back in March. Ever since then, I'd been free to watch the planes whenever I liked. I slept in the ruins, scavenging for tins of food in old houses. The burns on my face had turned squishy with pus now, and my ribs were sticking out from my chest. I was heading to the countryside in the hope of finding something to eat.
The countryside was enemy territory for a fourteen-year-old boy like me. I was an Asakusa kid, fierce and loyal to my noisy neighbourhood and to the Senso Temple, no matter how “tawdry and downmarket” the ward had become, according to my father, since the Pacific War had begun. As for country bumpkins, with their sunburned faces and wooden lunch boxes, well, I'd come to hate their guts during the six months my school had been evacuated from Tokyo to the rural villages two years before.
That night I crouched in a ditch for hours, as a farmer patrolled back and forth across his muddy field. Finally, as night fell, I wriggled out on my belly, and rooted about feverishly in the crop. My hand grasped a withered bunch of leaves, and I urgently tugged at it, my mouth already watering as a spindly shoot slid out from the soil.
A clammy hand fell upon my own.
I leapt up, petrified. Before me in the darkness stood a pale silhouette: a ghost child, I thought, or a gruesome kappa troll! I screamed. The thing screamed back. For a second, we stood there, howling together, until, as my eyes adjusted, I saw it was another boy like me, around twelve years old and sickly thin. A smile crept over his face as he reached out his hand toward me .Â .Â .
I jumped forward and smashed my fist into his nose. He fell down with a whimper, and I leaped on top of him, shoving his face into the mud. Then I grabbed the daikon shoot, biting off big chunks as I scrabbled away across the field. I didn't feel especially proud of myself afterward, that was for sure. But I told myself that I hadn't any choice. That he wouldn't have lasted much longer, in any case.
In the days that followed, I hid in the ditches and woods during the day, then slunk out like a fox at night to steal whatever I could from the fields. It wasn't much fun. Farmers patrolled the crop nonstop, beating off vagrants with thick oak staffs. Rats twitched about in the stubble, scuttling over my bare feet, and horseflies bit at my skin with agonizing fury. One evening, as I lay soaking wet in a half-drained paddy field, a hissing sound came from the sprouting stalks nearby. I froze. A moment later, a diamond-shaped head appeared.
A Green General
. It looped toward me in sickly coils as I squeezed my eyes shut in terror. It slithered right over my back and slipped down into the water beside me. I splashed out of the paddy, moaning. I ran into a wood and fell to the ground, crying and sobbing with fear.