I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
“Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six … .” The girl lay supine on the narrow wooden bench, spooning her left arm in a seamless arc while her legs fluttered to a steady rhythm. Her right arm lay still, wedged between her body and the wall. In the women’s isolation room on the second floor of the immigration barracks—a closet, no more than five by six feet, stinking of new paint and green lumber, no light save that filtering through the latticed portal of the locked door—Hana Kuruzaki was practicing her backstroke.
“Sixty-nine, seventy, seventy-one … ,” she panted softly. Her right arm was falling asleep, and she feared that this unnatural technique would ruin her form. Still, it was with no small pride that she noticed how easily her slender body fit on the narrow bench.
For three weeks she had been locked up in that stuffy hole. Her meals—usually cabbage and rice, boiled to mush—were brought to her on a metal tray. Twice a day—morning and night—she was allowed out to use the bathroom, accompanied by one of the barracks’ matrons. This arrangement was her only consolation: because the Americans deemed her trouble, they cleared out the bathroom for her, and thus she was able to shower with plenty of hot water and use her pick of any of the uncloseted toilets in solitude.
“One hundred!” She sat up and wiped the sweat off her forehead. Her black, Western-style dress clung to her body. She rubbed the pleasurable ache in her left shoulder. Then she reversed her body, took three deep breaths, and recommenced her strange routine. “One, two, three, …”
She had tried running in place once, but the unvarnished and uneven floor proved to be a torture to her bare feet (they had taken away her shoes), and when she stepped on the nail that was sticking up, invisible to her in the dark, she was fortunate that it only grazed the fleshy outstep.
She stared up at the block of light on the wall opposite the door. Normally she would see dark forms of people who were housed in the outer room passing by, but at the moment the square was undisturbed. They were out in the exercise yard between the barracks and the infirmary, enjoying the sun and sea air. Involuntarily she quickened her pace, flailing her arm wildly and kicking her feet.
Fatigue forced her to slow down and thus regain her form. Missing along with the usual shadows was the din that poured in through the door—wailing children, scolding mothers, women fighting over territory in the small overcrowded room crammed wall to wall and up to the rafters with bunk beds. In this respect, her confinement was not so terrible: at least she did not live in that crammed squalor outside. “Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, …”
Moreover, with her door padlocked at all hours, she was safe from the hakujinconvicts who were housed at the other end of the floor. Hana remembered the day she cut her foot, when the matron escorted her to the clinic, past the prisoners’ room: the leering white faces crowding in the doorway, the hooting and jeering in their foreign tongue, unintelligible yet unmistakable in tenor.
She dipped her hand too low, jamming her fingertips hard into the floor. Pain shot up her arm, and she cried out. The spell of exercise was broken, so she held her right hand to the light, to see if any of her nails were cracked or bleeding.
Better to be outside and take my chances with criminals, she thought. The cell was no more bearable than the stinking hold on the steamship in which she had been stowed away.
And all I did was ask for a private room, she thought as she lay on her back. But she knew that was not all. She should have known right away that she was bound for trouble, back in the port at Kobe.
There the agent of the labor contractor had led her down to the cargo hold of the ship and pointed to a narrow space, no more than four feet wide, behind a wall of crates and luggage. The agent, a mousy fellow with slicked-back hair by the name of Kumagai, relieved her of her suitcase and beckoned her to sit.
“Why?” she asked.
“It’s for your protection. The American sailors are animals, barbarians; they especially like to prey on Japanese women. And when they’re done with you, they’ll throw you overboard. You must remain out of sight. Don’t worry; once the ship is under way, someone will move you into more comfortable quarters.”
For all his warnings about the Americans, it was a green-eyed, red-haired American sailor (bribed by Kumagai) who took care of her, sneaking her scraps from the mess and changing her slop bucket at every opportunity. He never spoke to her, and if he had any lewd designs, they were not terribly urgent; in fact, he rarely bothered to even look at her. Hana would have inquired why she had to hide among crates like so much contraband, but her English was too poor to ask.
Hana sat with her back against the wall and drew her knees up to her chest. In that tiny closet, she wondered for the first time whether running away from home might have been a mistake.
Her father, Nobuyuki Kuruzaki, was a labor recruiter for the Toyo Boseki plant in Osaka, part of one of the great manufacturing conglomerates spawned by the Meiji government’s sale of state-owned factories and mills back in the 1870s. Nobuyuki made a more than comfortable living (a salary plus commission) traveling from town to town to hire women to work the cotton spinning machines. The last of a struggling, undistinguished samurai family that had lost everything in the Restoration, he had formerly worked as a low-level clerk in the municipal office. Before Hana was born, he and his wife lived in a tiny, three-room house, which was all he could afford on his salary and his share of his late father’s meager pension.
His fortunes turned dramatically when he chanced to run into an old middle school classmate while running an errand. No sooner had they exchanged pleasantries when the fellow, whom it must be said Nobuyuki never liked, began crowing about his family’s purchase of five large cotton-spinning plants from the government for less than cost, adding with a wink that he understood finally why his father had bought so many expensive gifts for men he hardly knew. So pleased with himself was he—and no doubt noticing Nobuyuki’s mean attire—that he magnanimously offered him a job on the spot. “You were always the charmer,” his friend said, though Nobuyuki could not recall ever exchanging more than five words with the fellow. He considered telling him what he thought of him and his corrupt family for maybe half a minute before gratefully accepting.
A job was a job, after all; and it must be noted that Nobuyuki’s compromise was largely motivated by concern for his then-pregnant wife and unborn child. In fact, one may attribute Hana’s decidedly spoiled early upbringing to her father’s distaste for both his employers and his job. The more he dwelled on his livelihood, the more he showered favors and gifts upon his child, as if to make amends for what he did during the day.
He also hired a full-time nanny—a needless extravagance, by his wife’s reckoning, and, as it turned out, one fraught with unforeseen consequences.
The nanny, a woman by the name of Také, was a spinster, heavyset, and in her middle age, with a rough-hewn face that could not be considered attractive. It was rumored that she had been engaged once, when she was 22, only to have the wedding canceled at the last minute by her groom-to-be, who ran off with a teenage barmaid of striking good looks and decidedly easy virtue.
Disconsolate, the story went, Také gave up any hope of marriage and briefly flirted with the idea of shaving her head and becoming a nun. But after three or four occasions on which she was called upon to care for the children of her two younger sisters, she discovered that she had both an aptitude and an affinity for child rearing, and so hired herself out as a nanny instead.
Upon joining the Kuruzaki family’s household, Také heard time and again Nobuyuki crow about his good luck. Hearing of the coincidence between the girl’s birth and the rise in the family’s fortunes, she was reminded of the fairy tale of the poor farmer who discovers a tiny baby inside a bamboo shoot that has turned to gold. One can only imagine the unhappy woman’s state of mind as she went about her mischief.
“The baby was so small it fit in the palm of his hand,” she would tell Hana at bedtime. “He brought her home to his wife and, because they were old and childless, they were very happy, and cared for her as if she were their own.”
Hana lay down on her side on the rude wooden bench and curled up with her knees against her chest. The sound of Také’s low, throaty voice seemed to fill the dark cell.
“In three months she was of normal size, and quickly grew to be a most beautiful child.
“The farmer kept on harvesting his bamboo patch and kept on finding gold inside the shoots. In no time at all he became the richest man in the land. He built a huge mansion, hired hundreds of servants, and loaded his storehouse with treasures from around the world.
“But his wealth didn’t spoil him or his wife, and they treated their adopted daughter with kindness, love and gratitude.
“When she came of age, she was renowned throughout the land for her beauty. Soon an army of suitors swarmed down on the mansion. Lords of the highest rank showered her with love letters and expensive gifts.
“But she would have nothing to do with any of them. Those lucky enough to hear back from her were baffled by her strange replies. ‘I want thunder from the sky,’ she wrote one. ‘Find a drum that beats itself,’ she bade another. ‘Bring me a flower from heaven,’ she commanded a third. And so on.
“The lords, though all of them haughty and vain, tripped over themselves to oblige her. They traveled far and wide, asking priests and shamans how they might accomplish their impossible tasks. Some wandered the coasts, others through the mountains, only to lose their minds, or die homeless vagabonds.
“Finally, the emperor heard of the woman and her unlucky suitors and decided to take her for himself. He visited the old couple’s mansion with his train and met her face-to-face. Like the others, he fell madly in love with her.
“‘Come back with me to my palace,’ he said. ‘You’ll be my empress.’”
“‘I’d be happy to,’ she said, ‘but I can’t. I’m not of this world, you see.’”
“The emperor thought she was mocking him. ‘What madness is this? Are you a demon? Or a goddess?’” he asked, insulted.
“‘Neither,’ she said. ‘But I have to go now.’ Then, to the amazement of all present, a throng of beings descended from the sky and bore her away. The emperor was desolate, but there was nothing to be done. Not even he could follow her.”
Také told her many stories, but it was this one, of the beautiful maiden not of this world, that Hana insisted on hearing most often. To her mind—which, like those of most children her age, would brook no mystery—the tale was incomplete. Where did the pretty lady go, she wanted to know, where no man—not even the emperor—could intrude?
Hana could hear the women and children returning from the exercise yard to the barracks, where they would remain until lunchtime. She craned her neck, hoping to hear the sounds of girls squealing and laughing, but there was little of that there. Everyone seemed to carry themselves in a sullen daze. She lay back down.
Soon Hana outgrew bedtime stories, and forgot the beautiful maiden. She grew not only into a handsome young girl herself, but a strong and athletic one also—too much so, for her parents’ liking. By the time she was eight, she was not only the fastest runner of any age in her all-girls’ school, but faster than any local boy her age as well. And while her parents could understand, and even tolerate, the occasional hair-pulling and kicking skirmishes between her and some of her classmates, they were mortified when other parents began complaining to them of Hana roundly beating and humiliating their sons.
“This is all your fault,” Nobuyuki grumbled to his wife. “You’ve let her grow up wild and undisciplined.”
“And what about you?” Mrs. Kuruzaki rejoined. “You’re always away on business or drinking with your buddies. Anyway, don’t blame me; it’s that nanny’s fault—the one you hired. I told you she was a mistake.” To that Nobuyuki had no reply; he simply threw up his hands and stormed out of the room.
Though he secretly agreed with his wife, Nobuyuki did not fire Také—not so much out of compassion, but simply because he did not want to acknowledge his error; and besides, it was such a bother. In any case, his wife took on the job of raising their daughter herself.
Hoping against hope to instill an iota of feminine refinement in her daughter before it was too late, Mrs. Kuruzaki sent Hana into a whirlwind of private lessons—music lessons, tea lessons, flower arranging, brush writing, etc … —but alas, to no avail. The young girl still bellowed when angry, guffawed when amused, spoke the blunt truth to anyone, and made unseemly, transparent faces; wolfed down three helpings at every meal, and stomped heel-to-toe through their house, swinging her shoulders like a drill sergeant on parade.
Then Mrs. Kuruzaki began receiving puzzling reports that her daughter had been absent from her lessons—puzzling, since Hana had been returning home at her usual hour. She began watching Hana arrive at the house and noted that on fair days as well as foul, her hair was invariably wet and her clothes damp. Mystified, she dispatched one of the maids to follow Hana from school and observe her from a distance.
The answer to the mystery almost caused Mrs. Kuruzaki to swoon: Hana had been spending her afternoons swimming alone, naked, in the inlet on the other side of town.
“Do many people swim there?” Mrs. Kuruzaki asked the maid, distraught.
The maid shook her head. “Nobody swims there; it’s too dangerous. People say it’s full of sharks! And that if they don’t get you, the undertow will!” she squealed hysterically.
But Mrs. Kuruzaki was partly relieved: at least Hana was by herself. The last thing she wanted was some lecherous fisherman getting an eyeful of her daughter’s young body.
Even that fact proved to be small comfort, though, when Mrs. Kuruzaki tried to rebuke Hana sternly for her conduct and was nearly floored by her daughter’s reply:
“Why not? I see boys swimming naked in the river all the time. Why can’t I?”
What pained Mrs. Kuruzaki all the more was the girl’s beauty, which grew more luminous with each passing year. By the time Hana was 12, Mrs. Kuruzaki was certain she could marry her daughter off to any man she chose—if only she could restrain her from swimming naked, climbing trees, shouting and belching, terrorizing the help, or wrestling with boys.
Mrs. Kuruzaki was already at the point of despair when Hana came home from school one day reciting lines from a translation of an English play her class had been reading. “Amadera ni makase,” she intoned.
“If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Amadera ni makase. Go, farewell. Or if thou wilt need marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Abayo.”
For a month thereafter, whenever she was cross Hana would point her finger at her offender and shout “Amadera ni makase” in an imperious—and, to some ears, deranged—voice.
Mrs. Kuruzaki became increasingly concerned, and her fears were hardly assuaged when she procured a copy of the strange English play that had left such an impression. She read of the mad maiden’s scandalous death by water with dread. To compound her distress, she learned that Hana continued to swim in the inlet despite her strict injunction.
“You call this discipline?” Nobuyuki hectored his wife. “You take over for Také and now the girl thinks she’s a pearl diver or something.”
Mrs. Kuruzaki decided to take no chances. She hired three burly women away from her husband’s factory as lifeguards. Unlike the maid, who had espied Hana from behind a dune, these women stood on the jetty like statues, watching Hana cavort in the water. In time, at the girl’s good-natured cajoling, they were stripping down themselves and joining her.
The precaution was unnecessary, as Hana was hardly inclined to drown herself, and the dangers of the inlet were largely a myth. Hana had become so adept that the older women, though stronger than her, could not keep up. In the water, she was not ungainly, flat-flooted, or loud, but a picture of grace, native and apt in that element.
When she was 14, just as her parents had resigned themselves to her swimming habit, Hana greeted them with yet another shock. One morning a maid walked into her bedroom and screamed: the beautiful girl was taking her father’s razor to her lustrous hair. The entire household was alerted and, after a tense and perilous struggle, Hana was relieved of the blade, though not before the damage was done: she had shorn the hair on the left side of her head up to her ear. While her mother wailed at the sight of her, Hana calmly announced her intention of becoming a nun.
“Are you still reading that damn play?” her father grumbled.
As half her hair was already chopped, her parents had no choice but to let her cut the rest. Mrs. Kuruzaki wrote a letter to the school to excuse her indefinitely, and kept her quarantined until her hair grew back to an acceptable length.
It was a difficult time for the entire household. Hana began to recite prayers and sutras, incomprehensible to her, from dawn to dusk until her throat was raw. She ate nothing but two mouthfuls of rice a day, and refused to drink anything but water, and even that sparingly. She gave up baths for ice-cold water ablutions, and wore the same dingy white kimono for an entire month.
“All day long, all she does is pray,” Nobuyuki complained in the cups one night with a co-worker. Hana’s rituals were forcing him to avoid the house as much as possible. “If I hear the Lotus Sutra one more time, I’ll pull my hair out,” he said.
“Eh, then you could be a priest yourself—a real ‘shaved head’!” his colleague cackled, but Nobuyuki was not amused.
To her parents’ relief, after three months or so of prayers, cold baths, and fasting, Hana gave up the holy life. Her regimen seemed to have had little effect on her, save a pair of aching knees, a nagging flu, and a ravenous hunger.
By then her hair had grown back to more or less normal length, and with timid hope Mrs. Kuruzaki allowed her to return to school. She hired three more women from the factory, doubling Hana’s bodyguard. The six women followed her everywhere, even into the classroom, much to the amusement of Hana’s classmates.
To Mrs. Kuruzaki’s surprise, Hana forsook her daily trips to the inlet to stay after school in order to catch up. The principal reported proudly that Hana was being personally tutored by the school’s newest teacher, a brilliant young woman come all the way from Tokyo.
At last Mrs. Kuruzaki began to feel that her beautiful daughter would grow up normal after all. But her complacency was short-lived. By the time of Hana’s 15th birthday, Mrs. Kuruzaki was already fretting at the apparent lack of interest in her daughter among the families of eligible young men.
“She’s the prettiest girl in town and no one seems to notice her,” she lamented one night.
“Of course not,” her husband cracked. “She’s beaten up every boy at least once. Who wants a wife like that? What a fine monkey you’ve raised her to be!” Mrs. Kuruzaki stormed out of the room.
One day one of the maids anxiously presented Mrs. Kuruzaki with a dog-eared copy of a magazine she had found in Hana’s closet. It bore the unlikely name of Bluestockings.
Mrs. Kuruzaki flipped through it quickly, perusing the articles. What she saw shocked her: “Men and Women Are Equals,” “The New Woman,” “The Liberation of the New Woman.” There was also poetry, the likes of which she had never seen before:
All the sleeping women
Are now awake and moving.
“What kind of nonsense is this for a young girl to be reading?” Nobuyuki growled after his wife showed him the magazine.
“Where could it have come from?” Mrs. Kuruzaki wondered. They stared at each other for but a second when it occurred to them: the new teacher.
With distaste, Nobuyuki called on his old classmate once again for help. He asked him to use his contacts in Tokyo to investigate both the scurrilous publication and the young teacher.
The answers to his questions about Bluestockings were not long in coming; in fact, he hardly needed the help of a professional investigator, as the magazine had become quite a sensation up in Tokyo (a fact that, when pointed out to him by his classmate, made him feel provincial). The detective sent him a dossier full of newspaper clippings about the magazine and its publishers, one of which nearly caused Mrs. Kuruzaki to swoon:
SEITO NEW WOMEN, SEEKING EQUAL RIGHTS WITH MEN, SPEND
NIGHT OF PLEASURE WITH YOSHIWARA PROSTITUTE.
Against her will, Mrs. Kuruzaki listened as Nobuyuki read the detective’s official report: Bluestockings (Seito) was a literary magazine propagating all kinds of wild stuff and nonsense about the so-called new women—who believed themselves equal to men and that they should be treated as such, and displayed utter disregard and disrespect for basic values about family, marriage, society, and even the emperor. The more radical elements of the Seito group were suspected to be Communists. The leader of the group and the magazine’s founder was a woman named Hiratsuka, an unmarried woman of questionable morals, said to have a fondness for five-colored liqueurs and young men half her age.
The teacher in question, the report went on, was a minor member of the group. She was formerly employed by a primary school in Tokyo but was forced to resign in disgrace when her affiliation with Seito became known. (There were unconfirmed stories, the report noted, of an amorous affair between her and the husband of another member—a much older man, whose once-promising career as a man of letters was thwarted by drink and debauchery.)
“Ah ha!” Nobuyuki cried out triumphantly. “I bet she was the one who made Hana read that stupid play. Don’t worry, I’ll fix everything,” he boasted. Mrs. Kuruzaki was not so sure, but knew there would be no reasoning with him.
The next day after work Nobuyuki visited the school principal at his home and revealed the teacher’s sordid past. Invoking his family’s name (which, alas, drew a blank with the fellow), Nobuyuki loudly demanded the teacher’s termination, on pain of his daughter’s immediate withdrawal from school and any scandal that might ensue. The principal, in truth wishing for the former possibility but dreading the latter, quickly acquiesced. As an after-thought, Nobuyuki demanded that the Englishman’s play, Hamuretto, be removed from the school’s curriculum; the principal agreed to that as well, mainly to get him out of his house, but never carried out the promise.
Though Hana appeared quite unmoved at the news of her teacher’s departure (for “reasons of health,” the principal had announced), Nobuyuki was quite proud of the way he handled the matter, much to his wife’s annoyance. A month later, however, Mrs. Kuruzaki greeted her husband from work with more bad news: “Hana wants to get a job—a laborer’s job.” Scarcely able to conceal her glee, she jeered at her husband. “I thought you were going to fix everything! You call this discipline? Now she wants to be a field hand or something! What a fine monkey you’ve raised her to be!”
Nobuyuki was apoplectic. “A job? Outrageous! Out of the question! I didn’t raise my daughter to be a factory girl!” As soon as those words left his lips, he was struck with yet another brilliant idea. “Don’t you worry: this time I’ll really fix everything!” Mrs. Kuruzaki walked out of the room, laughing to herself.
The next day Nobuyuki caused quite a stir at the factory by bringing his daughter. He wanted to show her the wretched conditions in which the women workers had to live and work, and thus rid her of her latest whim.
One must appreciate the difficulty of Nobuyuki’s position: whereas his job normally entailed gulling women into working in barbarous conditions with just the right mix of honeyed words, gloss, exaggeration, and outright lies, Nobuyuki found himself trying to impress upon his own daughter the squalor and the degradation of life in the factory—in short, for a change he had to tell the truth.
Yet he was nothing if not persuasive. Besides, the ugliness of factory life was readily apparent to anyone with eyes to see—or so he thought.
“See this tiny room?” he whispered, opening a door to a darkened room not much bigger than her own. “Twenty women sharing ten mattresses. The women sleeping here now work on the night shift. When they go to work, the women from the day shift take their place.”
“And look at this bath,” he said later. “The water is changed maybe once a week. Look how cloudy it is; the women say it sticks to your skin after you get out.”
He took her onto the plant floor. “Look at the machines, how big they are! Each woman runs a machine all by herself. Noisy, aren’t they? Really hurt the ears. They never shut down, not even a minute, unless they get fouled or break down, and if that happens, the operator loses a full day’s wage. Look: everybody has to stand; there are no chairs for sitting. No, on your feet for the full 12 hours—we don’t want our workers to get too comfortable. Oh, there’s a bathroom upstairs, but most women won’t use it until the end of their shifts, because it’s too much time away from their machines.”
At lunchtime he took her to the mess hall and they sat down at one of the long tables with the workers. “Listen to these women talking: what gibberish! They’re mostly from the country, and quite a few are Okinawans. It’s like a barn in here! I can’t imagine spending a whole day with them.”
He examined his tray. “Whew! Cabbage again! That’s the third time they’ve served it this week. I bet it’s been cooked a dozen times! And this rice! It looks like glue! Oh well, it can’t be helped, I guess. Come on, eat up; you’ll need your strength. I’ve got lots more to show you.”
Nobuyuki might have accomplished his goal had it not been for an untimely and, as it turned out, disastrous interruption. As the two were picking at their respective trays of slop, one of his underlings, a fellow by the name of Takeshita, bustled to their table to whisper a message in his ear.
One of the workers, who owed the company 30 yen from her advance, had tried to make a run for it, he reported. She got as far as the train station when the local police, whose chief duty seemed to be tracking down wayward employees from the factory, apprehended her. She was being held at the police box on Jusanchome.
Now there was a dilemma. Returning escapees to the factory was a humiliating chore, as they invariably took him to task for their distress, usually in a most scandalous fashion. He did not want his daughter to witness him being dressed down by a laborer, and a woman at that; on the other hand, he could not very well leave her to her own devices. He decided, finally, to leave her in the care of Takeshita.
Though eight years Hana’s senior, Takeshita could not help staring at the boss’ beautiful daughter, whose looks far exceeded her years. Sitting beside her, he tried mightily to put up an aloof, indifferent air, but after a minute or so he was reduced to a sweating, trembling wreck. By contrast, Hana seemed scarcely aware of his presence.
The women sitting around the unlikely couple did not help matters with their giggling and carrying on; he blushed an angry red and stumbled up from the table. Furious at the women, and at his boss for putting him in such a shameful predicament, Takeshita began to pace up and down the rows of tables with his hands behind his back, as if he were a supervisor.
As soon as Takeshita left the table, two women sidled up to Hana and sat down on each side of her. One, who was not much older than Hana, leaned over and hissed: “So, the snake’s found himself another bird?”
Hana did not reply but simply picked at her unappetizing fare. The other woman, who was closer to Hana’s parents in age, chided her companion: “Don’t talk like that to her; she’s just a kid.” Then she spoke to Hana: “You’re Kuruzaki’s daughter, aren’t you.”
Hana nodded. “Why’d you come here?” the younger woman challenged. “You come to laugh at us or something?” Hana said nothing.
“You didn’t come here to work, did you?” the older woman asked. “He didn’t bring you here to work, did he?”
“Oh excellent!” the younger woman sneered. “He’ll even sell his own girl to these pigs—and probably pocket a fat commission for himself, too!” She laughed venomously. “Hmmm—such a pretty thing, too,” she said. “What’s the matter—some guy break your heart or something?” She put her arm around Hana and squeezed her shoulder. “I’d never do that,” she said.
Her companion slapped her hand away from Hana. “Enough of your jokes!” The younger woman shrugged and turned back to her food.
The older woman gave Hana a thoughtful look. “Listen to me,” she said. “Everything your father’s told you about this place is a lie. You hear me? I know he’s your father and I can tell he takes good care of you—such fancy clothes, neh!—but he’s a liar. That’s his job. He’s lied to everyone in this room—including you.”
But Hana was not listening. She was looking around the mess hall; it was packed entirely with women—of all ages, all dressed in the same drab gray, their heads covered with white kerchiefs. She observed them laughing, cursing, exchanging elbows and sly glances. Her father was right: their dialects, their vernacular, were unfamiliar to her. And yet, she could fathom what they were saying, by the sounds of their voices, the looks in their faces.
“Hey, are you listening?” the older woman nudged her. “Remember what I said: don’t believe him, don’t let him talk you into anything.”
“He’s her father,” the younger woman said. “What’s she going to do? Run away from home? Maybe she can go to America and get rich!” She laughed.
The older woman glared at her, then turned to Hana. “Just remember what I said.” A horn sounded, and when Hana looked up, the two women were already gone.
Nobuyuki returned an hour later in a peevish mood; as he had expected, the woman insulted him roundly—in front of two patrolmen, no less. He dismissed his underling, announcing that he was taking his daughter home.
Hana was not sure when she had made up her mind to leave him and her mother, or exactly what persuaded her. Maybe it was the speech her father gave her on their way home from the factory.
“What a terrible place it is,” he clucked, shaking his head. “Awful conditions, grueling work, trashy women … brrrrr!” He shuddered. “But I feel sorry for them, I do. None of them will ever get married; they’ll become old maids, working till they die. They have a tough lot, they do.
“But you’re not like them: they have no schooling, no prospects; most of them are lucky to have their jobs. But you—that’s no kind of life for you. You don’t want to end up haggard and worn out in five years, do you? Iya; better to get a husband and let him do all the work, while you stay in a nice house like ours, raising beautiful children.”
She snuck out of their home three months later, with a suitcase and whatever money she was able to scrape together. The woman who called herself Oshichi found her at the train station and quickly took her under her wing. Hana almost laughed when the old woman gave her pitch, which sounded nearly identical to her father’s—challenging work, good pay, generous bonus, educational opportunities, room and board—the only difference, a crucial one, being the promise of America. “A woman can be anything she wants to be over there,” the clever crone wheezed.
Hana had a good idea what the woman was about, she knew now, and yet it did not matter to her at the time. Or perhaps it did, she reflected: perhaps it could not have been otherwise.
She stood up to stretch her legs and yawned loudly. She could hear the heavyset barracks matron approaching her cell, a ring of keys dangling, jangling from her hand.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.