I was eight years old when I first fell in love with aeroplanes. Although I never got to fly, witnessing a seaplane skimming across the channel of water between my island and the mainland of Kyushu changed my life forever.
In those days it was unheard of that a child with my background would dream of becoming a pilot. My father was a fisherman and expected me to take over when he became too old to work. I learnt to clean octopus sitting on the deck of his boat. If it was a large octopus, he would push a spike into its brain to kill it. Smaller octopuses were less trouble; I killed those myself by slipping my thumb under a flap at the base of their necks and flipping their heads inside out. After they stopped thrashing, I rubbed their bodies against a disc of rough stone to remove the grit from their tentacles. Thinking about this now, I try to find that part of me which should be ashamed. No doubt they died in excruciating agony. But that was life back then. We lived, we died, and in between our horizons were limited by the mountains at our backs and the sea before us.
Five millennia ago a god called Hakudo Maru came to Japan and showed us how to build ships. Since that time, we have shown our gratitude to this god by adding the suffix “maru” to the names our boats. Even my father’s vessel, which resembled nothing more than a bundle of twigs floating on the water, was rather grandly called the Night Rain, or Amaya-maru. It was another boat, the Wakamiya-maru, that brought planes into my life, and it arrived on a perfectly calm day in autumn, when the sea was the same ash-grey colour as the sky and the boats seemed to hang suspended between the two.
My father and I were fishing with lines in the deep channel. I liked this kind of fishing best, as it did not involve hauling the net in and out of the water the way we had to do for fish that swam close to the surface, like mackerel or amberjack. Instead we sat cross-legged under the bamboo awning and waited for the deep-water fish to tug on the lines.
We had skewered small crabs onto our hooks, piercing their shells in such a way as to secure them without killing them, and lowered them into the water with their mouths opening and closing in outrage. It seemed to me that my father’s whole being, from his frown as he watched the line to the tips of his fingers as he felt its play and tug, was concentrated on those helpless creatures waiting for a fish to appear out of the gloom and devour them. At times like this, when a task preoccupied him, I could admire my father; his compact strength, how he could sit perfectly balanced on the gunwale, his legs folded underneath him and his feet, muscular and wrinkled, sticking out from the tattered hem of his komon.
He was annoyed to be fishing for tai, or sea bream. He thought it a waste to spend so much time catching a single fish when there were other, more plentiful fish we could scoop out in our net, fish we could eat ourselves or barter for useful things like pickled vegetables and shoyu. However, my mother had insisted. Her sister was coming to visit from the village around the headland, and she wanted a fresh tai for the table. She knew how to slice and skewer its succulent red flesh so as to make it look as if it were leaping out the water. The fish is beloved of the god Ebisu, who brings luck and prosperity to fishermen, and it would give my mother enormous satisfaction to pass on Ebisu’s blessing to her sister, whose husband was a tofu-maker and who so far had given to birth only to daughters.
My father swore—Chei!—and pulled on his line.
I received a grim look in return.
He hoisted his bait aboard and showed me that the fish had bitten the legs from one side of the crab’s body but missed the hook. He looked around him as if getting his bearings. “We’ve drifted,” he said. “We need to be further to the west.”
I wedged my line into a crack on the side of the boat and clambered to where the oar was mounted on the stern. While my father threw the half-eaten crab overboard and baited his hook with a new one, I sculled us towards the middle of the channel. A boat from the mainland was already there. I recognised it by its rectangular sail, which was striped indigo and crimson. It was larger than our craft and had a wide, flat-bottomed hull rising to a high prow that gave it a look of pride, even of hauteur. We had tangled with this ship in the past, so I changed course slightly, favouring the oar towards the starboard side so that we would pass it on the diagonal.
To my dismay, my father, who had learnt to listen to the sea as well as watch it, called to me without turning. “Bring us in over there,” he said, pointing to a spot off our port side, in front of the other boat and closer to it. I had no choice but to obey him, and I steered our boat in front of the mainlanders’ high prow.
Although the channel between our island and Kyushu was narrow, we seldom mixed with mainlanders. Trade existed between the villages on our island, and whatever we could not produce ourselves could be found up and down the coast. Only when someone was gravely ill and our local remedies failed did we sail over to Kyushu, a journey of slightly less than ten kilometres, or, to my father’s generation, a distance of two and half ri.
Three men were on board with their backs to us, pulling in a net, and I knew it would not be long before we became the objects of their amusement. We could have found tai anywhere along the deeper part of the channel, but my father’s obstinacy did not give him the option of discretion. If there had been ten boats full of mainlanders, he would have sailed into the middle of them and fished as if nothing were amiss. This sea was like his back garden, with its herds of fish grazing upon the seaweed. His father and grandfather had made their living on it, and if anyone had the right to harvest its bounty, it was he. Our boat might be small and poorly equipped, but it was older than this painted interloper and surely knew this sea better than any other.
We had hardly taken up our lines again when one of the men shouted across to us.
“What are you fishing for?”
I did not need to hear the guffaws that accompanied this remark to know the man was mocking us. We would not have come out this far and fished with lines if we hadn’t been looking for sea bream. He wanted to goad my father into using the dialect word for tai, so that he could pretend not to understand him. I burned at this insult, but my father continued to fish peacefully. They shouted the question again.
“Hey! Eel brains! What are you fishing for?”
I looked over my shoulder. They had gathered at the side of their boat and were passing a flask of shochu among them while they waited for his reply.
“Tai,” I shouted to them in my high-pitched voice.
But they ignored me and continued staring at my father’s back.
“There’s no point talking to him,” one of them said, loud enough for my father to hear. “He doesn’t speak Japanese. He’s from China.”
“Say something in Chinese for us,” another one shouted.
It is true that amongst ourselves we spoke in a rough and ready way. However, it was a grave insult to call someone Chinese, and I implored my father with my eyes to say something in return.
He looked at me and raised his eyebrows, as if to acknowledge for the first time the mainlander’s insults. He had never gone to school yet had managed to acquire a trove of clever sayings, and I was sure he was thinking of one now.
“You can’t run after two hares and catch both,” he said, and paused for a moment to make sure I had understood him before returning to his line.
“Love” is a word valued in Western culture. In Japan, we place duty above all things. I was expected to respect my parents and grandparents and to serve as an example to those younger than myself. At this moment, however, I felt something like love for my father, something warm and reassuring, something that would endure hardships and make light of them.
It took me years to realise that he had something I did not—the strength of his convictions, even if those convictions could be dismissed as obstinacy. I learnt to emulate my father, to sail into the middle of a problem rather skirt around it, only when it was too late to make a difference, when my actions no longer mattered and the lives I was responsible for had already been lost.
But this was all in the future. In the meantime, the men on the boat continued to hurl comments in our direction.
“Looks like you’ve caught a kappa!”
They were referring to me. A kappa is a water sprite, halfway between a man and a frog, and by calling me this the men were drawing attention to my long limbs and to my head, which was too large and out of proportion to the body it rested on. Not that this needed saying. My grandfather regularly called me Kobudai-chan, after a fish with a high forehead and a look of continual dissatisfaction, which he thought I resembled.
We had drifted with the current and lay parallel to them, close enough that I could count the teeth in their grinning faces. I couldn’t understand what made them so special. Maybe their boat was nicer than ours, their clothes newer and more meticulously stitched, but they had the same lines at their wrists and necks where the sunburn stopped and the pale, milky skin began, the same hands shaped by labour; they celebrated the same festivals, ate the same rice.
My father must have sensed my hurt because he called to them without taking his eyes off his line, delivering the words like a smack across the face. “If a dog barks, should I answer?”
He frowned, spat into the sea, and settled within himself for the long wait for a fish, the argument in his mind already won.
The mainlanders, taken aback, were scrambling to react when the low grumble of a powerful engine reached us across the top of the water and drew our attention. Only my father continued to watch his line.
A ship was emerging from behind the headland. Its prow was tapered in the style of an oil carrier, rounded at the top and narrowing to a point at the water line. It would have towered even over the mainlanders’ ship. I had difficulty making out her details, as she was painted the same grey as the sea she rode on and the sky that framed her, but as she slid further into view, I saw a large gun on the foredeck, sitting in a nest of shields, ladders, and winches. Her nose disappeared behind a rocky islet even as her body rolled into view—the aerial mast, the bridge, the funnel, the portholes cut into her flank. As her prow reappeared on the other side of the island, with her stern still hidden behind the peninsula, she reminded me of a sinuous dragon, endlessly long and endowed with a deadly elegance.
One of the mainlanders shouted to my father, but he did not stir, even as the ship rounded the islet and set a course in our direction, the hum of its engine becoming more distinct, so that we could hear the rhythmical thump of the turbines driving its propeller shaft.
Although we had not been touched by the Great War, we had followed it in the newspapers. Like the other boys in the village, I had memorised the names of the rifles and cannons and ships that our army and navy used, and we had spent hours arguing over our favourites. It was only now, after getting over the shock of seeing a warship in our backwater, that I recognised the ship coming towards us. I had pored over its photo in the Asahi Shimbun, memorising its every feature, from the 79mm dual-purpose gun on its foredeck to the rising sun with its sixteen sunrays on the ensign that fluttered from the stern. I knew its top speed, its crew numbers, everything about it.
“The Wakamiya-Maru,” I whispered, as if in the presence of a god.
Who knows how my life would have played out if the ship had steamed past me? It would have become a happy childhood memory, an instant when my life intersected with history and left only one of us unchanged. But the ship did not churn onwards. Instead it drifted to a stop, cut its engines, and dropped anchor with a rattle of chains and a splash like a whale fluke slapping the water.
Even my father stopped fishing then, compelled by the silence to turn and look. By this time people had gathered on the shore, and more were walking quickly from their houses and places of work. Even the villagers who seldom came to the sea—the tatami-maker, the school-teacher, the carpenter—were standing at the waterline, their robes pulled above their ankles while the waves lapped at their feet. I felt proud for being on the water, in the scene rather than watching it, my physical closeness to the ship giving me moral rights over what we were witnessing.
We heard orders being shouted and saw sailors going about their tasks on deck. They paid us not the slightest bit of attention, and we were left wondering what they were doing. The mainlanders discussed the ship amongst themselves; had my pride not prevented me, I would have asked them what they thought was going on. My father, meanwhile, returned to his line, and from the slope of his shoulders I could tell that he was incurious about the ship, wilfully so, as if wanting it to steam away as quickly as it had arrived.
One of the mainlanders looked over his shoulder at us and shouted, “Chinaman, look!”
My father refused to acknowledge him.
Then another engine whined into life on the stern of the ship, and a hook and line were lowered from a boom. The line flapped and went taut, and then it hoisted something from below deck which, on first inspection, looked like a collection of empty crates dangling from a hook. Looking more closely, I recognised it for what it was: a seaplane, with her pilot, wearing a leather flying hat and goggles, seated in the cockpit. Someone stepped behind the aircraft and heaved on the propeller. The engine caught, stopped for a second, then burst into life with a low chuntering sound, making the propeller spin so fast it became a blur.
The boom lifted the plane clear of the gunwale and swung it over the sea, turning it towards us so that we could make out the floats hanging from spindly supports under its lower wings, the box-like cockpit, and the longer top wing held aloft on a latticework of struts. The plane descended over the side until it was released on the water. It bobbed there, drifting on the current, until the pilot opened the throttle and the plane pushed away from the ship, coming towards us before veering onto a parallel course and showing us its airframe and tail.
When it reached the end of its run, the plane turned and faced us again. It paused there, until the waves it had created had flattened back into the sea. Every eye was on the pilot as he stared motionlessly over the nose of his plane, his face unreadable behind his goggles and back-lit by the sun. What thoughts did he have then, with the ship’s crew lined up to watch him, or did he have any at all? Was he experiencing nushin, the undisturbed detachment sought by warriors of old when facing battle, waiting for the moment to arise when he would spring spontaneously into action?
The wind picked up. I felt it against my cheeks and in my ears. Someone shouted encouragement from the shore, and the shout was taken up by other villagers, their voices muted by the distance. The mainlanders had fallen silent and huddled shoulder to shoulder at the side of their boat. And still the plane did not move.
I thought it would be impossible for the plane to wrench itself away from the pull of the sea. Despite its wooden frame and paper-like wings, the engine was surely too heavy and too weak to haul the machine into the air. I couldn’t imagine it doing anything more than floundering in the waves, the way a cicada does when it falls into a bowl of water, and I braced myself for disaster.
The sea seemed very big and the sky very wide and the horizon, as much as we could see of it, very far away. Then the engine’s note went up a notch, and the tail of the plane dug into the water as the plane sprang forward, a spume of foam in its wake. The wings lost their balance, leading first with the left tips and then the right as the pilot over-adjusted before drawing them straight again. As the plane picked up speed, the floats started to bounce, skimming from wave to wave like a flat stone spun across the surface of the sea, each leap longer than the last.
The seaplane lifted from the water when it was almost in front of us—a final heave, and the back of the floats clipped the water, pushing the nose upwards and the plane into the air. I shouted in excitement, along with the mainlanders and the people on the shore, willing the plane higher on the breath of our exclamations.
Only my father refused to watch. I could not look away, nor stop my heart from soaring with the plane as it floated into the sky, already higher than the mountain at my back, the roar of its engine growing faint as it became a dark silhouette against the clouds. Perhaps I should have followed his example, and yet as I watched that plane take off, I felt that the gods were showing me a sign, maybe even giving me a command to become a pilot and perform some special service for my nation under their guidance. I felt this to the very depths of my being. Why else had I come out on the water that day? Why had I been allowed to watch the plane so closely, if it wasn’t a message for me?
I knew that following this sign would require a sacrifice. When the time came, I would not take over my father’s boat. There would be no easy old age for him or my mother. Instead I would have to leave, and there would be no coming back. But I would be serving a higher cause. This was my destiny.
The kanji 空 has a certain resonance in Japanese. Read as sora, it literally means “sky,” an appropriate title for a novel about a boy who dreams of flying. Sora also speaks to the ephemeral nature of life. As the folk song goes, “Sakura, sakura / Yayoi no sora wa”—”Cherry blossoms, framed against the April sky,” to be swept away, the listener assumes, at the height of their beauty. After this comes kū, the kanji’s other reading, denoting the Buddhist idea of emptiness, the state we attain when our last illusions are torn away.
I did not set out to write a Second World War story, but a real-life prostitute called Yokohama Mary led me there. She appeared on the streets of Yokohama during the American occupation, her face caked in white make-up, her hands hidden in white gloves. An article I stumbled across described her as a pan-pan woman. Wanting to find the origin of this Japanese word (it is borrowed from the English “pom-pom”), I strayed into the world of post-war Japan, where mobsters extorted the starving for food, demobilized kamikaze pilots carried out bank robberies, and poets were tortured to death for writing the wrong sort of haiku. It was so fascinatingly at odds with my own experience of Japan that I had to write about it.
After studying Japanese language and culture at university, I lived for two years on a small island in Japan, where some of the older people still remembered catching and eating wild birds to escape starvation after the war. It seemed natural to start my story on an island quite like it, a place where history seldom visits, where seemingly nothing happens. I wanted to take an innocent from this island, expose him to the nationalist forces that launched Japan as an imperial force, and see what he would do when he held the life of an enemy soldier in his hands.
Interwoven into his narrative is the story of Jake McLaughlin, an American counter-intelligence officer ostensibly in Japan to hunt war criminals but longing to see if anything of his old life in Japan has survived the ten years since he left. Tying these and other stories together is Yokohama Mary, standing on the corner of the 5th Chome in the Naka Ward, her chin tilted up, her face caked in white make-up, looking at a secret only she can see.
Matthew Wake owns an independent English bookshop in Lausanne, Switzerland, and runs the Swiss Creative Writing Prize for high-school students. He holds a 5th dan in kendo, the Japanese art of fencing.
Embark, Issue 8, April 2019