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Akio Konoshima

"Plaster Mermaid"

For a moment, I thought I may have gotten off on the wrong side of the Shimbashi Station in downtown Tokyo. I was used to seeing the station at night, and in the daylight, the square and the streets in front of the station looked empty.

I saw no sign of the peddlers with their assorted wares -- American cigarettes; GI socks, shoes and underwear; Eighth Army shoulder patches; sugar, toilet soap and coffee, all from the PX via the black market, and Japanese costume jewelry, plastic toys, wooden kokeshi dolls and even kimono with brightly colored obi and dainty red geta and slippers. The noodle man and his mobile stand were absent. The "Basha -- Horse Carriage," a half Westernized bar, was hardly recognizable with wooden amado -- rain doors -- covering its wide glass windows. The aroma of bits of chicken, pork, beef and shrimp dripping over hot charcoal was missing, as were the loudspeakers which nightly blared the latest popular Japanese and American songs.

It was only when I saw the plaster of paris mermaid in front of the "Oasis," a taxi dance hall where I and my fellow GIs often spent Saturday nights, that I regained my bearings. In the sunlight the mermaid, without the soft glow of yellow, blue and orange neon lights which bathed it at night, could be seen for what it was -- a shabby bit of plaster of paris, the pink and rouge paint on its face flaking, the pastel blue-green of its scaled torso faded.

I reread the directions in my address book -- off the main street by a tobacco stand, follow the dirt road, make a right... I was soon lost and about to return to the corner when I noticed a young woman approaching from the opposite direction.

"Gomen nasal...," I said in my politest Japanese as she came near. But the woman, in a Western-style, light beige suit and a matching pill-box hat, did not stop. Instead, her face turned red and she started walking faster, ignoring me.

"Anne...," I said, starting to cross the unpaved, narrow street, and the woman began to run.

Damn it, all I wanted to do was ask her if she knew where the Kramers lived. There couldn't be more than one or two Occupation families living in the area -- almost anyone from the neighborhood would know about them.

As the young woman, now walking, turned onto the main street, I shrugged. I wondered, what sort of monster did she think I was? Was it my American uniform? That I was a soldier? Or, worse yet, a nisei soldier?

Back at the corner, I went to the glass-enclosed tobacco stand. "Gai jin ... a foreign family, with the Occupation." The woman knew immediately.

"Anata... it's not just you," she said. "Happens all the time with you Americans. Distances here in Tokyo are short, not like in your country. Go back the way you came, but don't go quite as far. Look carefully, the turnoff is half hidden by bushes."

As she spoke, slowly and deliberately, using elementary Japanese, there was a playfulness in her voice. I, despite his Army language school training, still spoke Japanese with a foreign accent.

"Arigato," I said, and the woman, round and ruddy-faced, bowed, her clean white apron crinkling over her plump body as she did so.

"Do itashi-mashite," she said, again smiling broadly.

I returned her smile. I could laugh with her at my accent.

Following the tobacco woman's directions, I found the house quite easily. Beyond some bushes I saw a high, old cement wall with vines and beyond that, a cedar tree, two pines and an oak -- all of which showed that the real owners, before the house was requisitioned by the U.S. Army, must have been moderately wealthy. On the gate, of solid oak, was a small white sign with heavy black print, both in English and Japanese, which said: "U.S. Army Property, Unauthorized Personnel Keep Out."

A maid in kimono and a long-sleeved white apron bowed as she opened the gate. "Konnichi-wa," she said -- so nice of you to have come.

"Hajime mashite," I said, returning her bow. Her graying hair, done in a bun, reminded me of my mother.

I was mildly surprised as I was shown into the living room. Though it was a Sunday, Neal Kramer wore a suit; his wife Carol a silk dress. Their other two guests -- a tall gray-haired man in a seersucker suit, and a younger woman wearing a broad-brimmed white hat and a dress with bright flower designs -- were Don and Wilma Sheldon. Don was section chief in a civil government branch of the Occupation and Neal's boss. Wilma, Don's wife, said she wasn't working, "just enjoying life in Japan."

"Such a coincidence...hadn't seen Jo since Madison; then Carol bumps into him in a coffee line at a snack bar in Tokyo," Neal said as he introduced me.

"Oh, a nisei then," Don said. Looking at the stripes on my sleeve, he asked, "And what's your assignment here in Tokyo?" He spoke with a Boston accent; lines in his face indicated he frowned a lot.

"I'm at ATIS," I said.

"Ah, yes. Are you a translator then?"

"I type and proofread."

"Oh," the man said, and in his eyes I could see the loss of interest. A corporal, what else should one expect -- the expression on his face seemed to say. Then, turning back to Neal, the man continued, "As I was saying regarding the coming elections, I had to tell Nozaka no matter what..."

The man went on talking as if I did not exist. After Nozaka, the man mentioned Yoshida, Hatoyama, Asanuma and other Japanese political leaders of the day. I recognized the names and knew generally where they stood politically, though I was not up-to-date on the latest issues. I managed to read the English language Nippon Times only occasionally while the Stars and Stripes hardly covered Japanese politics.

Interesting, I thought, Don sounded as if he dealt directly with all these political leaders, maybe was even their personal friend.

"You speak Japanese, then?" I asked.

"Well...no," the man said, "don't know the language."

"But Nozaka, the others you talk to?"

"Oh, we communicate," the man said.

"You see," the man went on, turning back to Neal, "democracy is new to these people. They don't have a full grasp of the concept. We have to teach..."

We? He?

"Take for example, the Eta, who..." Neal was saying when his wife, Wilma, pulled me away.

"Pooh," she said. "Don's always talking shop." Then winking at Neal, she said, "Let him talk shop with Neal. Neal has to listen; he works for him. But you, sit with Carol and me. I've got lots of things I want to ask you."

"Forgive me," Carol said as the three moved to a rattan couch and chairs. "I told Wilma you probably know a lot about Japan, or at least I thought you did. Now that I think about it, though, we sat together in all those classes at J-school and I don't know if you even speak Japanese."

"Speak some, but at a third grade level," I said.

"Even that's something," Wilma said. She said she was fascinated by things Japanese --the art, the theater, literature, dance, music, even calligraphy, which she obviously couldn't read but could sense a delicate discipline. She and Carol took courses at the Officers' Wives Club; just finished a wonderful course on Japanese art; covered various masters like Hokusai and Hiroshige. "Who was your favorite?"

I studied Wilma's face as she talked, noticing the differences between her and Carol. Carol had brown hair, a broad face with freckles, and a heavyset body; Wilma, a small pointed nose with pale, almost translucent skin; a small, sharp chin; blue-green eyes always intent; light red hair showing in curls below the brim of her hat. Wilma reminded him of someone, somewhere, years back though he could not quite recall who.

"Who's your favorite Japanese artist?" Wilma repeated.

"Don't know any too well," I said.

"I love Hiroshige," Wilma said. "His water colors, you know, of his times, so... Our instructor said any Japanese would know about Hiroshige."

"Well...," I hesitated.

"He's probably more interested in their literature," Carol said, filling a pause in the conversation. "I remember, he had short stories published in the school literary magazine."

"Oh," Wilma said.

I told her that I had just finished reading a translation of a short story by a new young writer, Mishima.

"You don't read him in his original?" Wilma asked, disappointed. She still reminded me of someone, somewhere.

"No," I said. I knew that even the simplest Japanese terms often lost their nuances in translation, but that I was able to read such fiction in their original Japanese only by tediously using a Japanese to English dictionary. Besides, Mishima, like other Japanese writers, contended that only the Japanese could understand the Japanese; that you had to be one to understand one, a category I did not quite fit.

I read other translations -- of Tanizaki, Shimazaki, Nagai, Soseki -- and said the translations left me unsatisfied.

While we were talking, Carol, who had gone into the kitchen, returned to the hallway and beckoned to me.

"Could you help?" she asked. "Mr. and Mrs. Sato are such willing workers, but sometimes they can't understand my English. This roast -- I like beef on the rare side. Mr. Sato, though, seems to feel that if the beef is red on the inside, it's not done."

Mr. Sato, who immediately wiped his hands on his apron and bowed as I entered the kitchen, was in his late 50's, gray-haired with a ready smile.

"Ah, sore de... " he said, then laughed in relief after I explained what Carol wanted. Mrs. Kramer was such a nice person to work for, Mr. Kato said, but he had never cooked a roast before coming to work for her. "Re-ru," he said she said. He found the word in his English-Japanese dictionary -- it meant unusual, infrequent, something like that. However, he couldn't figure out how it applied when cooking meat. Sukoshi nama -- a little bit underdone, he understood.

What Mr. and Mrs. Kato did before, I didn't know, but they reminded me of my own parents, who, forced by circumstances, did domestic work but maintained a dignity while doing so.

"I was going to ask you about Saikaku," Wilma said as Carol and I returned. "From what I've read of his translations, I think he's great."

"He's one of my favorites, too," I said. "Even the Japanese don't read him in his original, though -- wrote too long ago, his language has to be translated into modern Japanese."

Must be like the ballads at the Kabuki, those sung by the shamisen players, Wilma said, or at least that was what she was told.

Kabuki -- and then I recalled who Wilma reminded me of: Mrs. Davies -- the same color hair, the unusually pale skin -- my fifth grade teacher at Jefferson Union Elementary School in a what was then a farm area outside of Sunnyvale. League of Nations Day...each student was to bring in a phonograph record of music of the country their parents or grandparents came from. In a last minute rush, I borrowed a record from his father's music album, not even sure of what it was.

In class, Mrs. Davies praised the lively Spanish dance music Nino Gomez brought; she thought the German polka a lot of fun; the Slavonian songs haunting. When she put my record on (I could remember Mrs. Davies bending over to wind the crank on the phonograph), there was a complete silence as the off-key guttural sounds came from the machine. After a minute or two, a student here, another there, began to titter, then laugh; soon it seemed the whole class was laughing.

Mrs. Davies turned the record off before it was half over. The red of her face almost matched that of her hair as she rapped on the desk with a ruler. But when the class was quieted, she couldn't find anything to say. The music was as strange to her as it was to the students. I learned only later that my father's album was a collection of ballads from the old Kabuki-za.

"You've had such an advantage, a chance to know the culture of two worlds," Wilma said.

The dinner was fine. Everything on the table came from the Army commissary -- the roast, sent frozen from Kansas; the lettuce, radishes, cucumbers and celery grown hydroponically; the potatoes, onions and carrots, sent by ship from California.

"The vegetables I see in the stands along the streets, are they the same as ours back home?" Wilma asked. "The carrots and cucumbers, for instance. They must be a foot or more long."

"They taste the same," I said.

"Ah, but you mustn't eat them," Don, her husband broke in. "Dysentery, worms -- you don't know what you might get. They use night soil."

"You can cook them," I said. "For salads, just run some boiling water over them."

"Still...," Don said. He recited Occupation rules -- don't eat in any but Occupation-designated "Class A" restaurants, don't stay in any but Army-authorized hotels, don't drink untested water, don't buy any food from street vendors, don't..."

"Don't...don't...don't. Seems the only word the Army knows," Wilma broke in. "How am I ever going to get to know Japan, meet some genuine Japanese?"

As she finished, she caught my eyes. "Wasn't implying anything about you," she said. "It's just that..."

"No problems," I said. I looked at Neal and Carol, Don and Wilma -- aliens in another people's land; they so much more than me. Genuine Japanese -- I had a whole list of relatives and family friends my mother and father had given me, many of whom I had visited; even Mr. and Mrs. Sato in the kitchen. I wasn't sure of what Wilma was looking for.

"Have you ever tried the food vendors with their mobile stands along the streets near the rail stations?" Wilma asked.

"They've got about everything," I said. "Onden, yakitori, tempura, sushi, hot rice dishes, noodles, what have you."

"Sounds wonderful," Wilma said. "Don, though, won't have anything to do with them."

"You know the rules," Don said.

"Yes," Wilma said, "don't...don't...don't."

"You've been on the Army tours," her husband said. "You've been to Nikko, Karuizawa, Hakone; the theaters, the temples. We've gone to Kyoto twice."

"Still," she said, "the only people we seem to really meet are others with the Occupation. I envy our friend here. He's got such a wonderful opportunity."

It was dark and things looked more familiar as I made my way back to the Shimbashi station. The street peddlers were back; more than half of the stools at the bar in the Basha were occupied; the smell of cooking spiced the air; the plaster of paris mermaid was in her cloak of colored lights.

I glanced at my watch; it was too early to return to my billets. Down the street I could see a new Tokyo-style coffee house. The building, painted a garish reddish-purple with a neon peacock of purple, blue and red, on its roof, hovered over the rest of the structures on the block. Curious, I decided to go in.

"Komban-wa," a young girl in a short-skirted, light blue uniform with gold braid greeted me. "Are you alone?"

I nodded. She looked like a majorette in a high school band.

The girl led me into a dimly-lit, large ballroom-like hall. Tables and chairs crowded the main floor. Small booths lined the sides, and as I looked up, I could see tiers of booths reaching almost to the three-storied ceiling. From the center of the ceiling, a mirrored, multi-faceted ball reflected red, yellow, purple and blue colored spotlights as it rotated slowly on its axis.

I asked for a side booth away from the flickering lights and settled back to wait for my coffee. I recognized the song in the background music -- a Japanese song about a white flower, a flower of love. Though the hall was smoky and crowded, the upholstered walls muffled the sounds.

As the waitress brought my coffee I noticed two girls being escorted to the booth behind me, one wearing a pill-box type hat like that worn by the young woman who, earlier during the day, ran when I tried to ask her for directions to get to the Kramers.

Later, after the two had given their orders, I heard one of the young women say, "Anon -- a really scary thing happened to me today. Really." -- she kept repeating to add emphasis. An Occupation soldier, looked like a nisei, tried to approach her. Didn't know what he wanted, but she ran. He couldn't have been up to any good. It was horrible.

"So ne," her companion agreed. The nisei...bad types. Loose women, sake, the black market -- seems that's all they're interested in. She said she had never met one, hoped she never would.

I was tempted to stick my head around the partition and tell the girls that all I had wanted were simple directions. But I did nothing, feeling that rather than changing their minds, I might just upset them further.

Later, on my way back to the station, I walked by the "Oasis" again, saw the make-believe mermaid in its colorful flood of neon lights. Somehow, even with the darkness again shrouding its reality, it no longer seemed becoming. I wondered, were my experiences in Japan as superficial?


 
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