母の背中 / On Mother's Back
In every sense, Uncle Ken’ichi seemed to have been born in order to be sacrificed to the war effort. He was born more than a decade after my father, and so the entire process of his personal development coincided with the process of Japan’s descent into conflict. In the end, his young flesh and fragile soul were placed as burnt offerings upon the altar of war.
He finished the first several years of his grade school education as class president. His grades were good enough that the principal called Grandfather in and asked him to let Ken’ichi go on to middle school, but Grandfather simply shook his head. “As soon as a day laborer’s son graduates from school, he’s gotta start working to earn some cash.” The truth is that my grandparents were not lacking the money to send my uncle to the local middle school if they had just wanted to do so.
Uncle Ken’ichi just quietly obeyed his parents. When he was quite far along in his studies, he took the test to apply to the National Railways, and he got first place. He was sent to the railway training institute at Moji for half a year before being dispatched to the railway yard at Naokata. Whenever Mother and I would pass the railway yard on the way home from town or somewhere, my uncle, who was wearing his navy blue uniform, would jump down from the line of cargo cars and wave his white gloved hand in the air for us. Mother would pick me up in her arms and make me wave back.
Uncle Ken’ichi was tall and had a masculine, attractive face. Such looks were unusual in our family. He was still only seventeen or eighteen, but fate — the same fate that would eventually send him to war and make him breathe his last on the battlefield — gave my uncle’s face and body the dignity of an adult. To put it differently, he was forced from his mother’s back into the cruel world, and so he had no choice but to grasp dignity for himself. I cannot see Uncle Ken’ichi as anything other than a full-fledged adult, a man who possessed a certain gloomy dignity in both flesh and soul.
I have three memories of him being sent off to war.
The first memory dates from the day before his deployment. Mother and Uncle Ken’ichi went to the photography studio in town in order to have a commemorative picture taken together. By this point, he had quit his job at the railroad and completed his preparations. All he had left was a single day, which was as precious as a jewel to him. No doubt he wanted to spend several of those final hours with Mother; that way, he could have some pleasant memories to carry with him.
He was still only seventeen or eighteen, but fate… gave my uncle’s face and body the dignity of an adult. To put it differently, he was forced from his mother’s back into the cruel world, and so he had no choice but to grasp dignity for himself.
Doing something memorable, however, was not necessarily easy. Times were rough for everyone in those days; plus, there were few places two adults might go in a country coal-mining town to do something memorable. In the end, he came up with the idea of taking a photo together. When Mother heard his suggestion, she had no reason to refuse. If anything, she was probably secretly grateful that he had come up with an idea she would have no reason to rebuff.
Dressed in his finest clothes — a slate-colored sweater with neatly pressed trousers — Uncle Ken’ichi was the first to leave the house. A little later, Mother hurriedly rushed outside. She was also wearing a slate-colored sweater and a dark gray skirt.
“Mommy, where are you going?”
She did not answer me and walked quickly away. She walked by the rowhouse where the Kawaharas and the Kanekos lived, no doubt trying to catch up with my uncle somewhere between the company housing and the Hashimoto’s house. The path went around the pond and appeared again on the other side of the Hashimoto’s. For a while I watched her and Uncle Ken’ichi hurrying along like two spring butterflies moving back and forth and tangling in the air. I watched them for the few moments before they disappeared into the shadow cast by the bank of a hill. I doubt I cried that time as I watched them go.
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