Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 102 in 1999.
The sun was hot, even though it was December.
Kunihiko watched his comrades, and he squinted through the bright light as he observed. Among them was a corporal who was showing initiative as he directed a group of soldiers against the last Chinese who continued to fight on further down the street. Even as a golden globe burned into the cloudless sky, and dozens of his fellows scurried over a nearby building's ruins, the rising sun of Japan's flag flew over Nanjing, and Kunihiko was amazed to be a part of it.
He was a private in the 6th division of the 1st army group, an anonymous worker ant, but now he found himself one of a few thousand victorious and commanding troops, with an entire neighborhood of China's capital city at his mercy.
He moved from the center of the street to the curb, and there he leaned against a pole to gather himself and smoke a cigarette. He had not done much fighting that day, no, Japanese tanks had taken care of the stubborn Chinese who defended Chungsamen Square, but still he was physically and mentally exhausted. So he rested at the street pole, took out a handkerchief, and wiped first his wire rim glasses then his face. He was tall, taller than nearly all his comrades, and so thin they called him Bong, Japanese for stick. His hair was black and thick and quite unruly, his skin a dark, tanned yellow, and his front teeth had a space between them that made his face look comical. Just then, his friend Yutaka approached.
"Bong, you're still alive." His friend was a corporal but really a wasted soldier who was fat and lazy, but he had a good heart so Kunihiko liked him.
"Yes, I'm alive," he answered, "most of us are."
"I can't believe we're here in Nanjing and it is ours."
"I can't believe it either."
"Now we'll see. The Chinese are helpless, and the boys want to have fun."
Kunihiko knew what his friend meant. It had been a long and hard campaign from the coast to the great walled city, and the men of the 6th division had fought bravely. Now they wanted to enjoy the victory.
"To the victors go the spoils," Kunihiko said and he meant it.
And even then, around him, his comrades gathered in growing masses. Many Chinese had abandoned their capital city as news of the Japanese victory at Shanghai arrived, but many more remained within Nanjing's walls, and the foolish general Zhen had allowed a third of his army to be surrounded and trapped inside. Now that the fighting was sporadic, Chinese soldiers and civilians alike were being herded like cattle by smiling soldiers of the rising sun.
¤ ¤ ¤
Now, some sixty years later, Kunihiko's great grandson, whose name is also Kunihiko, is at a Japanese restaurant in downtown Manhattan. It's a cool evening and outside New Yorkers are hurrying to the many places they hurry to. From his seat inside, the young Japanese American student smokes a cigarette and watches. With him is his girlfriend Betty, a bright girl of Irish and Spanish descent, who like Kunihiko is a student at NYU. She brushes her black hair away from her eyes.
"You're not eating," she says to him.
"I'm not hungry," he answers and drinks some rice wine.
"But you're thirsty," she adds and she leaves it at that. Kunihiko knew what she meant: sushi was expensive and they were students and she had offered to buy dinner, the least he could do was eat.
"I'm sorry but I don't feel well," he explains to Betty. "I had those weird dreams last night and didn't sleep."
Ah, the dreams. For several weeks Kunihiko had been bothered by disturbing dreams, ones that made little sense when described in words, restless visions of a burning city and fighting soldiers and the cries of many people. In the dreams he is always an observer, not really present at the scene, but watching from a distance through smoky, hazy skies. And loud, the dreams are so loud he has a headache in the morning when he awakes.
Betty looks at him sympathetically. "It's from tv," she offers by way of explanation, "you're watching too much late at night." Betty was a practical, I-say-what-I-think person. She paused a moment, then continued in a softer tone. "Maybe it's history class, the debates about the war, that paper you're writing, but I'm sure it's nothing, just ordinary dreams." She was well intentioned but wrong. His dreams were not ordinary, but Kunihiko didn't feel like talking: "I'm sure you're right," he says.
¤ ¤ ¤
It was late afternoon and Yutaka was already drunk. By chance the platoon had entered the city at a gate near a wine manufacturer, and so the first order of business after subduing the enemy was finding the best things to loot. Now Yutaka was dancing near a group of Chinese prisoners, while nearby several officers were talking privately.
Kunihiko also stood nearby, his rifle at the ready. There was an acrid smell in the smoky air in Ninpo Square that morning and he instinctively snapped at his nose with his fingers, a nervous gesture. For a reason he couldn't yet understand, he felt distant from his comrades and the surroundings. It was chaos: Japanese soldiers mingled and roamed, seemingly no one in charge. This bothered Kunihiko's sense of order. But he also wondered why he didn't feel like Yutaka and the others. After all, the army had captured the capital of China, it was a great victory for the emperor, and yet ...
Just then an officer's command disrupted his musings. Kunihiko was too far away to hear the command, but other soldiers did and reacted: they raised their guns and with a staccato burst they shot several Chinese who stood near the officer. And just like that, the captives were dead. Oddly, a second officer reacted angrily. He was a popular man named Satahuro, a short and very energetic career soldier.
"Stupid," he began loudly, "you waste ammunition and opportunity." With that he moved to another group of helpless, bound Chinese.
He drew a sword, his tsurugi, as he approached, and before anyone could comprehend what was happening, the officer swung at a man kneeling in the dirt and in one clean motion beheaded him. Off came the head entire, and into the air it flew. Did it move in slow motion? Then it fell to the ground and rolled to a stop. There was momentary silence, then Japanese cheered, and Chinese let out a groan. Kunihiko neither cheered nor groaned. He stood transfixed, able only to witness what was unfolding.
¤ ¤ ¤
A professor of modern history at NYU notices a student staring out a window onto Washington Square Park. It's a beautiful Spring day and from his seat the student sees sunbathers gathered on the grass, but still the professor doesn't think that reason enough not to pay attention to class work.
"And what do you think, Kunihiko?" he asks.
"I would agree with you," the student answers after a moment's hesitation. That gets a laugh from other students because it was apparent Kunihiko didn't know what the question had been. The professor laughs too.
"But seriously though, what do you think?"
Kunihiko smiles because he knows the professor and all the other students know what he thinks. The topic had been World War II and specifically Japanese war crimes. There had been several heated discussions in previous classes and Kunihiko had been in the middle of all of them. Though he had been born in America, like his father, his roots in Japan were strong, and it was his considered opinion that while the Japanese were wrong to be aggressors in war, they were not criminals. And the fact was they were victims of the only nuclear attack in history. In Kunihiko's mind that was the real crime. "History is written by the side that wins," he had told the class, "and Japan lost." But that day he was spared giving his well known opinion, as just then the bell rang to end Modern History 450 - an analysis of World War II.
Betty was in class with him and as the professor and the other students leave the lecture hall she moves to him. "Hey," she says. She puts an arm around his shoulder and he hugs her back because he sees she's worried about him and he appreciates her concern. Betty's large eyes train on her boyfriend's face.
"How'd you sleep last night?" she asks.
"Much better," Kunihiko says, lying.
¤ ¤ ¤
Kunihiko and Yutaka stood side by side, watching a scene of developing barbarism. It had been several hours since officers gave orders to kill all prisoners of war. Now the streets around the Ningpo Guild Building were covered with dead Chinese and everywhere was the sound of gunfire and screams, and the line between captured soldier and civilian had first been blurred, then erased. Everywhere Chinese were dead or dying. Men were killed quickly, they were lucky. Near where Kunihiko and Yutaka stood, two Japanese soldiers were holding a woman down while another raped her. She was screaming her protest, yelling she was pregnant, please have mercy, but the soldiers holding her laughed and smoked cigarettes and the one raping her finished his work.
Then a call came from another group: "Bong, come join us," a voice said and Kunihiko saw another assault in progress. A sergeant was on top of a young girl, and the two friends looked at each other: they knew that after soldiers were finished with the women, they killed them, and it shocked both to see how young some of the victims were.
"I didn't bargain on this," Yutaka said. The violence had sobered him, and in fact his eyes were welling with tears. Kunihiko agreed. "There is killing, and then there is useless killing," he said. And so it went, Chinese were beheaded, shot and raped. It was a mad dream. It wasn't long at all before severed heads were placed in a row at the curbside. Yutaka and Kunihiko could not watch, but they could not stop watching.
¤ ¤ ¤
Some sixty years later, Kunihiko's great grandson was dialing a telephone number. He was back at his dormitory room at NYU and he listened attentively to the ringing at the other end of the line until someone picked up.
"Hello," a frail voice said simply.
"Great grandmother, this is Kunihiko." Her name was Harue and her husband had served in the Japanese army during the great war. Over ninety years of age now, she lived alone in San Francisco and talked with her great grandson whenever she could.
"Dear Kunihiko," she began, "So good to hear your voice, I was thinking about you just this morning." She was a woman with an acute, intelligent mind, and the clarity of her thoughts transcended the frailness of her voice. Kunihiko immediately felt relaxed, and before he even knew it, he talked about his unsettling dreams.
"Describe a dream," she said.
"Last night I dreamed I was near a river, and it was a beautiful day but the river's water was bright red, and on the shore I could see men playing with children, they would throw them in the air and catch them and the laughter was very loud. But as I got close I understood the men were throwing the children into the air for others to catch on their bayonets on the way down, and I could see the men were soldiers and the children were their victims and the loudness was not laughter but cries of terror."
"Did you recognize anyone?"
"In fact yes, there was one man, a soldier, and he'd been in my dreams before."
"What did he look like?"
"I don't know, he was tall, very tanned, he wore a small cap on his head and wire rimmed glasses."
Harue nodded and continued to listen and she understood something though she didn't immediately tell her great grandson. She knew what his dreams were for.
"Dreams can mean nothing," she said, "or they can mean everything."
"It depends what I make of them, doesn't it?" Kunihiko said but expected no answer from his great grandmother.
"Do you know what I think is important?" she asked.
"You know I do," he said.
"Every day we must be ready to challenge our own beliefs. Accept nothing for very long."
Her words were spoken slowly and they were soothing and even over telephone line it was as if Kunihiko was drinking tea with honey. Accept nothing, he didn't know what Harue's words meant to him exactly. But somehow they were what he needed to hear.
¤ ¤ ¤
For five weeks Kunihiko's division remained in Nanjing. There wasn't much to do, the city had been secured, there were few threats, and so some Japanese continued to murder Chinese when and where they saw fit. Kunihiko did not participate in any of it, nor did he try to stop anything. He was only what he was, a witness. At this point, he was numb: Yutaka had been killed a few days earlier when a woman, so old and ugly the Japanese paid her no mind, plunged a knife into his back for no apparent reason. Other soldiers, including Kunihiko, immediately shot her dead, but too late to help Yutaka.
"Why did that woman kill me?" he asked as Kunihiko held him in his arms.
"I don't know."
"I thought I had it made, it seemed so easy for us here."
"Don't talk, you need energy, a doctor is coming."
"I think no use." With that the dying friend pulled the living one's face close to his lips.
"Will we win the war?" Yutaka asked.
"I'm sure we will," came the reply and with that Yutaka smiled and died. Kunihiko held him tight until the doctor arrived. It was a tender, useless gesture. Kunihiko rose from his position in the dirt, the front of his uniform stained with blood. He picked up his rifle and joined some comrades on patrol. His friend's dying words echoed in thoughts: "Will we win the war?" Kunihiko knew he didn't know the real answer. At this point in his life, he felt he didn't know a thing.
He left Nanjing early in 1938. He served with his division in China for two more years, until Japan had a new enemy, the United States. Then he was sent to Okinawa. When the war started to go badly for Japan, his army prepared for an American invasion. And it came.
The Allies landed on the island in April of 1945, and a fierce and bloody 3 month campaign followed. Many of his comrades were killed, and Kunihiko was again a worker ant, he did what he could, he fought, he was wounded twice, trying to serve his country, but inside himself he was already dead.
When it was apparent the Americans would win the island, many Japanese killed themselves rather than surrender - some by ceremonial bisembowelment, hara kiri. And when Kunihiko's time came he had a decision to make. The American's were closing in, only four men of his original platoon of 30 were still alive, and he made his decision. He surrendered and was taken prisoner. Why did he do it? He had a young wife back in Kobe, a beautiful girl name Harue, and a beloved father and mother, but it was more than that. Why should he die for his country, had his country earned loyalty like that? He had been changed by the war, gone from a young man who wrote haiku to a tired and bloodied cynic. He blamed his country for that.
He returned to his wife in 1946 and they started a family in post-war Japan, and slowly his soul regained its life. Years later they moved to San Francisco when Harue was offered a job teaching.
They had two sons and a daughter and the family evolved from Japanese to American. He had a great grandson (named Kunihiko in his honor), who was born in 1980.
The elder Kunihiko died that same year. He'd had a happy enough life, but kept a sadness in his eyes that belied any smile.
¤ ¤ ¤
Young Kunihiko is standing in front of the great library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. He had talked with Harue for an hour, and not once did she tell him she thought the spirit of her husband was visiting him in his dreams. No, that was a fanciful notion and really beside the point. Instead, she counseled him that something was on his mind, a voice inside, and he needed to listen to what it was saying.
Now he is inside the library, at the reference desk. He sits at a computer and searches its data base. On the screen appears information about a book, the object of his search. "The Rape of Nanking," the book is called.
Kunihiko had heard of it, he was a student of history, and the historical event was discussed in class. His position had been that facts were exaggerated, that war was a terrible thing, but that Japanese had committed no crimes worse than those committed by any nation's soldiers. Now he held the book in his hands: he had never sat down and read it, with a clear mind, page for page.
He finds a table in an isolated spot in the library, and sits. Next to him is a window, and warm sunlight spills into the room. It feels good. He reads.