Chapter 12

October 19, 1972

Dear Professor,

I’m sure you must be quite surprised to receive a letter from me, out of the blue. Please forgive me for being so forward. I imagine that you no longer remember my name, Professor, but I was at one time a teacher at a small elementary school in Yamanashi Prefecture. When you read this, you may recall something about me. I was the teacher in charge of the group of children on a field trip, the ones involved in the incident in which the children all lost consciousness. Afterward, as you may remember, I had the opportunity to speak with you and your colleagues from the university in Tokyo several times when you visited our town with people from the military to investigate.

In the years following I’ve often seen your name mentioned prominently in the press, and I have followed your career and achievements with the deepest admiration. At the same time, I have fond memories of when we met, especially your very businesslike, brisk way of speaking. I feel blessed, too, to have been able to read several of your books. I’ve always been impressed by your insights, and I find the worldview that runs through all of your publications very convincing-namely that as individuals each of us is extremely isolated, while at the same time we are all linked by a prototypical memory. There have been times in my own life that I felt exactly this way. From afar, then, I pray for your continued success.

After that incident I continued to teach at the same elementary school. A few years ago, however, I unexpectedly fell ill, was hospitalized for a long spell in Kofu General Hospital, and, after some time, submitted my resignation. For a year I was in and out of the hospital, but eventually I recovered, was discharged, and opened a small tutorial school in our town. My students were the children of my former pupils. It’s a trite observation, perhaps, but it is true what they say-that time does fly-and I’ve found the passage of time to be incredibly swift.

During the war I lost both my husband and my father, then my mother as well in the confused period following the surrender. With my husband off to war soon after we married, we never had any children, so I’ve been all alone in the world. I wouldn’t say my life has been happy, but it has been a great blessing to have been able to teach for so long and have the chance to work with so many children over the years. I thank God for this opportunity. If it hadn’t been for teaching I don’t think I’d have been able to survive.

I summoned up my courage today to write to you, Professor, because I’ve never been able to forget that incident in the woods in the fall of 1944. Twenty-eight years have passed, but to me it’s as fresh in my mind as if it took place yesterday. Those memories are always with me, shadowing my every waking moment. I’ve spent countless sleepless nights pondering it all, and it’s even haunted my dreams.

It’s as if the aftershocks of that incident affect every aspect of my life. To give you an example, whenever I run across any of the children involved in the incident (half of whom still live here in town and are now in their mid-thirties) I always wonder what effects the incident had on them, and on myself. Something as traumatic as that you’d think would have to have some lingering physical or psychological impact on all of us. I can’t believe otherwise. But when it comes to pinpointing what sort of effects these were, and how great an impact it all had, I’m at a loss.

As you’re well aware, Professor, the military kept news of this incident from reaching the public. During the Occupation the American military conducted their own investigation behind closed doors. The military’s always the same, whether Japanese or American. Even when censorship was lifted after the Occupation, no articles about the incident appeared in newspapers or magazines. Which I suppose is understandable, since it had taken place years before and no one had died.

Because of this, most people are unaware that such an incident ever took place. During the war there were so many horrific events, and millions of people lost their lives, so I don’t suppose people would be very shocked by what happened in our little town. Even here not many people remember what happened, and those who do don’t appear willing to talk about it. I’d say most people who recall the incident find it an unpleasant memory they’d prefer not to touch on.

Most things are forgotten over time. Even the war itself, the life-and-death struggle people went through, is now like something from the distant past. We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past, like ancient stars that have burned out, are no longer in orbit around our minds. There are just too many things we have to think about every day, too many new things we have to learn. New styles, new information, new technology, new terminology… But still, no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone. And for me, what happened in the woods that day is one of these.

I realize there’s nothing I can do about it now, and I would certainly understand if you are puzzled about why I’m bringing this up at this late date. But while I’m still alive there’s something I have to get off my chest.

During the war, of course, we lived under strict censorship, and there were things we couldn’t easily talk about. When I met you, Professor, there were military officers with us and I couldn’t speak freely. Also, I didn’t know anything about you then, or about your work, so I certainly didn’t feel-as a young woman talking to a man she didn’t know-I could be candid about any private matter. Thus I kept several facts to myself. In other words, in the official investigation I intentionally changed some of the facts about the incident. And when, after the war, the American military interviewed me, I stuck to my story. Out of fear and to keep up appearances, perhaps, I repeated the same lies I’d told you. This may well have made it more difficult for you to investigate the incident, and may have somewhat skewed your conclusions. No, I know it did. This has bothered me for years, and I’m ashamed of what I did.

I hope this explains why I’ve written this long letter to you. I realize you’re a busy man and may not have time for this. If so, please feel free to treat it all as the ramblings of an old woman and toss the letter away. The thing is, I feel the need, while I’m still able, to confess all that really took place then, write it down, and pass it along to someone who should know. I recovered from my illness, but you never know when there might be a relapse. I hope you will take this into consideration.

The night before I took the children up into the hills, I had a dream about my husband, just before dawn. He had been drafted and was off at war. The dream was extremely realistic and sexually charged-one of those dreams that’s so vivid it’s hard to distinguish between dream and reality.

In the dream we were lying on a large flat rock having sex. It was a light gray rock near the top of a mountain. The whole thing was about the size of two tatami mats, the surface smooth and damp. It was cloudy and looked like it was about to storm, but there wasn’t any wind. It seemed near twilight, and birds were hurrying off to their nests. So there the two of us were, under that cloudy sky, silently having intercourse. We hadn’t been married long at this time, and the war had separated us. My body was burning for my husband.

I felt an indescribable pleasure. We tried all sorts of positions and did it over and over, climaxing again and again. It’s strange, now that I think of it, for in real life the two of us were quiet, rather introverted people. We’d never given in to our passions like this or experienced such soaring pleasure. But in the dream, for the first time in our lives, we’d thrown away all restraints and were going at it like animals.

When I opened my eyes it was still dim outside and I felt very odd. My body felt heavy, and I could still feel my husband deep inside me. My heart was pounding and I found it hard to breathe. My vagina was wet, just like after intercourse. It felt as if I’d really made love and not just dreamed it. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I masturbated at this point. I was burning with lust and had to do something to calm down.

Afterward I rode my bike to school as usual and escorted the children on our field trip to Owan yama. As we walked up the mountain path I could still feel the lingering effects of sex. All I had to do was close my eyes and I could feel my husband coming inside me, his semen shooting against the wall of my womb. I’d clung to him for all I was worth, my legs spread as wide as possible, my ankles entangled with his thighs. I was, frankly, in a daze as I took the children up the hill. I felt like I was still in the middle of that realistic, erotic dream.

We climbed up the mountain, reached the spot we were aiming at, and just as the children were getting ready to fan out to hunt for mushrooms, my period suddenly started. It wasn’t time for it. My last one had stopped only ten days before, and my periods were always regular. Perhaps this erotic dream had stirred something up inside me and set it off. Naturally I hadn’t come prepared, and here we were in the hills far from town.

I instructed the children to take a short break, then I went off alone far into the woods and took care of myself as best I could with a couple of towels I’d brought along. There was a great deal of blood, and it made quite a mess, but I was sure I’d be able to manage until we made it back to school. My head was a complete blank, and I couldn’t focus at all. I had a guilty conscience, I imagine-about that uninhibited dream, about masturbating, and about having sexual fantasies in front of the children. I was usually the type who suppressed those kinds of thoughts.

I had the children go off to gather their mushrooms, and was thinking we’d better make it a short trip and go back as soon as we could. Back at school I’d be able to clean up better. I sat down and watched the children as they hunted for mushrooms. I kept a head count, and made sure none of them were out of my sight.

After a while, though, I noticed one little boy walking toward me with something in his hands. It was the boy named Nakata-the same boy who didn’t regain consciousness and was hospitalized. He was holding the bloody towels I’d used. I gasped and couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d hidden them far away, out of sight, where the children wouldn’t go. You have to understand that this is the most embarrassing thing for a woman, something you don’t want anybody else to see. How he was able to unearth them I have no idea.

Before I realized what I was doing, I was slapping him. I grabbed him by the shoulders and was slapping him hard on the cheeks. I might have been yelling something, I don’t recall. I was out of control, no longer in my right mind. I think the embarrassment must have been so great I was in shock. I’d never, ever struck one of the children before. But it wasn’t me who was doing it.

Suddenly I noticed all the children there, staring at me. Some were standing, some sitting, all of them facing me. It was all right in front of them-me, pale, standing there, Nakata collapsed on the ground from all the blows, the bloody towels. It was a moment frozen in time. Nobody moved, nobody said a word. The children were expressionless, their faces like bronze masks. A deep silence descended on the woods. All you could hear were the birds chirping. I can’t get that scene out of my mind.

I don’t know how much time passed. Probably not so long, but it seemed like forever-time driving me to the very edge of the world. Finally I snapped out of it. Color had returned to the world around me. I hid the bloody towels behind me and lifted Nakata up from where he lay. I held him tight and apologized to him as best I could. I was wrong, please, please forgive me, I begged him. He looked like he was still in shock. His eyes were blank, and I don’t think he could hear what I said. With him still in my arms I turned to the other children and told them to resume their mushroom hunting. They probably couldn’t comprehend what had just taken place. It was all too strange, too sudden.

I stood there for a while, holding Nakata tight in my arms, feeling like I wanted to die or disappear. Just over the horizon the violence of war went on, with countless people dying. I no longer had any idea what was right and what was wrong. Was I really seeing the real world? Was the sound of birds I was hearing real? I found myself alone in the woods, totally confused, blood flowing freely from my womb. I was angry, afraid, embarrassed-all of these rolled into one. I cried quietly, without making a sound.

And that’s when the children collapsed.

I wasn’t about to tell the military people what had really happened. It was wartime, and we had to keep up appearances. So I left out the part about my period starting, about Nakata finding the bloody towels, and me hitting him. Again, I’m afraid this threw an obstacle in your path as you investigated the incident. You can’t imagine how relieved I am to finally get it off my chest.

Strangely enough, none of the children had any memory of the incident. Nobody remembered the bloody towels or me beating Nakata. Those memories had fallen away completely from their minds. Later, soon after the incident, I was able to indirectly sound out each child and confirm that this was indeed the case. Perhaps the mass coma had already started by then.

I’d like to say a few things about young Nakata, as his former homeroom teacher. What happened to him after the incident, I don’t really know. When I was interviewed after the war the American officer told me he’d been taken to a hospital in Tokyo and finally regained consciousness. But he wouldn’t tell me any details. I imagine that you know more about this than I do, Professor.

Nakata was one of the five children evacuated to our town from Tokyo, and of the five he was the brightest and had the best grades. He had very pleasant features and always dressed well. He was a gentle boy and never butted in where he didn’t belong. Never once during class did he volunteer an answer, but when I called on him, he always gave the correct answer, and when I asked his opinion he’d give a logical reply. He caught on right away, no matter what the subject. Every class has a student like that, one who’ll study what he needs to without supervision, who you know will one day attend a top college and get an excellent job. A child who’s innately capable.

But as his teacher I will say there were a couple of things about him that bothered me. Every so often I felt a sense of resignation in him. Even when he did well on difficult assignments, he never seemed happy. He never struggled to succeed, never seemed to experience the pain of trial and error. He never sighed or cracked a smile. It was as if these were things he had to get through, so he just did them. He handled whatever came his way efficiently-like a factory worker, screwdriver in hand, working on a conveyor belt, tightening a screw on each part that comes down the line.

I’ve never met his parents so I can’t say anything for certain, but there had to be a problem back home. I’d seen a number of cases like this. Adults constantly raise the bar on smart children, precisely because they’re able to handle it. The children get overwhelmed by the tasks in front of them and gradually lose the sort of openness and sense of accomplishment they innately have. When they’re treated like that, children start to crawl inside a shell and keep everything inside. It takes a lot of time and effort to get them to open up again. Kids’ hearts are malleable, but once they gel it’s hard to get them back the way they were. Next to impossible, in most cases. But maybe I shouldn’t be giving my opinions on the matter-this is, after all, your area of expertise.

I also sensed a hint of violence in the boy’s background. Sometimes there’d be a flash of fear in his eyes that seemed an instinctive reaction to long-term exposure to violence. What level of violence this was, I had no way of knowing. Nakata was a very self-disciplined child and good at hiding his fear. But there’d be the occasional involuntary flinch, ever so slight, that he couldn’t cover up. I knew that something violent had taken place in his home. After you spend a lot of time with children, you pick up on these things.

Rural families can be pretty violent. Most of the parents are farmers, all of them struggling to make ends meet. They’re exhausted, doing backbreaking work from morning to night, and when they have a bit to drink and get angry, they’re liable to strike out physically. It’s no secret this kind of thing goes on, and most of the time the farm kids take it in stride and survive with no emotional scars. But Nakata’s father was a university professor, and his mother, from what I could gather from the letters she sent me, was a welleducated woman. An upper-middle-class urban family, in other words. If there was any violence taking place in a family like that, it was bound to be something more complicated and less direct than what farm kids experience. The kind of violence a child keeps wrapped up inside himself.

That’s why I especially regretted hitting him on the mountain that day, whether I did it unconsciously or not. I should never have acted that way, and I’ve felt guilty and ashamed ever since. I regret it even more since Nakata-after being dragged away from his parents and placed in an unfamiliar environment-was finally on the verge of opening up to me before the incident.

The kind of violence I displayed then may very well have dealt a fatal blow to whatever feelings had been budding inside him. I was hoping for an opportunity to repair the harm I’d caused, but circumstances dictated otherwise. Still unconscious, Nakata was taken to the hospital in Tokyo, and I never saw him again. It’s something I regret to this day. I can still see the look on his face as I was beating him. The tremendous fear and resignation he felt at that instant.

I’m sorry, I didn’t plan to write such a long letter, but there is one more thing I have to mention. To tell the truth, when my husband died in the Philippines just before the end of the war, it wasn’t that much of a shock. I didn’t feel any despair or anger-just a deep sense of helplessness. I didn’t cry at all. I already knew that somewhere, on some distant battlefield, my husband would lose his life. Ever since the year before, when all those things I just wrote about took place-that erotic dream, my period starting ahead of time, hitting Nakata, the children falling into that mysterious coma-I’d accepted my husband’s death as inevitable, as something fated to be. So news of his death merely confirmed what I already knew. The whole experience on the hill was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I feel like I left a part of my soul in those woods.

In closing, I’d like to express my hope that your research will continue to flourish. Please take good care of yourself.

Sincerely yours,