Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Nine-year-old Sato Matsuki swung his imaginary sword left and right. “Timu fought his way across the bridge, cutting down Chinese one…two…three…”
“Sato-kun!” Mr. Takashi’s voice was sharper than a samurai blade. “You cannot write if you do not have a brush in your hand.”
Sato turned forward in his seat and bowed his head. “Yes, sensei,” he answered, calling Mr. Takashi by his customary title.
Then Sato pushed his hair away from his eyes, picked up his calligraphy brush, and began to draw the first character in today’s lesson. His classmates smiled. A teacher scolding Sato Matsuki had become as much a tradition as removing their shoes before entering the classroom.
But today Sato’s interruption of class was followed by another, more unexpected one. The Battleship March! The music made Sato and his classmates sit up straight. Big news was coming. Sato’s gaze, like his classmates’, turned to the speaker on the wall behind their teacher’s desk.
When the music stopped, the announcement began. “News special! News special!” The speaker’s voice was high-pitched, his words rapid. Sato’s heart raced.
Timu! Sato’s brother had joined the Imperial Army soon after the Marco Polo Bridge incident four years earlier. Sato, his family, and their neighbors had celebrated Timu’s departure with shouts of “Banzai!” The girls from the neighborhood made a belt for Timu that had one thousand stitches for good luck.
A few weeks later, the family received a letter from their oldest son. Timu’s unit had been sent to China to make the great Japanese empire even bigger. Timu’s family had not heard much from him since. Had Timu succeeded? Sato bit his lower lip. For the first time in weeks, no one scolded him for fidgeting in his chair.
The next voice on the radio was the voice of Prime Minister Tojo. The prime minister told how the United States and England were helping China take over Asia. He told how the Emperor had tried hard to bring peace. He told how Japan had to go to war to defend itself, to destroy the enemy, to construct a new order. He told of Japan’s great victory over the Americans at Honolulu and warned of more battles yet to come.
“For 2,600 years since it was founded, our Empire has never known a defeat,” Tojo-sama said. “It is time for the one hundred million of us Japanese to dedicate all we have and sacrifice everything for our country’s cause.”
Sato’s class applauded when the announcement finished. Mr. Takashi stood and led the class in a cheer. “Long Live the Emperor! Long Live the Emperor!” They shouted over and over, louder and louder, until they could no longer hear their teacher’s voice.
That afternoon, the boys practiced their kendo with more enthusiasm than they had all year. Sato wielded his bamboo sword like a samurai. With each clack of the bamboo, another American fell. Sato’s army won every battle.
When Mr. Takashi dismissed them, the boys poured out of the school and sprinted for home. No one felt the cold in the air. Sato raced through the streets of Tokyo, dodging bicycles, cars, pedestrians, and buses. At every streetcar crossing, he yelled “Banzai!” as he jumped over the tracks.
“Papa-san! Papa-san!” Sato kicked off his shoes and bounded up the steps into the house. By the time he reached the living room, his backpack had also been discarded. “Did you hear? We did it! We beat the Americans! Some place called Hono—” He stopped short when he saw his father. Then he took off his school cap and took a tentative step forward. “Papa-san?”
Mr. Matsuki sat on a bench, his face in his hands. “I heard, Sato-kun. Our bombers attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.”
“And we won. So, why do you look sad?” A frightening thought started to take shape. Sato’s dark eyes traded mischief for worry. “Did something happen to Timu?”
Papa looked up and took a deep breath. “No, nothing has happened to Timu. And yes, we won the battle at Honolulu. But I fear that we cannot win the war.”
“Of course we will win. The Empire has never been defeated. Tojo-sama said so.”
“Yes, and the prime minister also said we will have to sacrifice. But I think the prime minister does not realize how much we will have to sacrifice.”
Sato was horrified. The prime minister spoke for the emperor and the emperor was a living god. He knew everything. But Papa always told the truth too. Sato sat on the floor and crossed his legs. “What do you mean, Papa?”
“You know where I work?”
“Yes, Papa-san. In the Navy Ministry.”
Mr. Matsuki nodded. “Right. Yet we knew nothing of the attack on Honolulu. If we had known, we would have counseled against it.”
“Because Japan cannot win a war against America.”
“But the Emperor…”
Papa leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Sato, the planes that attacked Pearl Harbor. Do you know where the parts for those airplanes came from? America. The fuel for those airplanes? Also from America. How can we fight a war against the country with whom we trade the most?” Papa shook his head. “How can we win?”
Sato moved next to his father and put his arm around the older man. “The prime minister answered that, too. We win by having faith in victory.”
Mr. Matsuki looked at his son. “Faith? Yes, we will need to have faith. Perhaps more than we ever had before.”
Within months, Sato and the other boys at school began daily military training. They forgot about baseball and soccer and all the other games they used to play. They marched in formation. They saluted the emperor. They learned to fight, hand to hand, with kendo sticks, with toy guns. They became small soldiers, ready and willing to defend their emperor, their homes, and their families.
Then Mr. Takashi left. He was drafted to serve in the Imperial Army. The school gave him a big send-off, much like the one Sato’s family had given Timu. Mr. Takashi’s replacement, Miss Noruko, became the love of Sato’s young life.
A year later, in March 1943, Sato and all his schoolmates were sent to the countryside, away from their homes and families. Under the supervision of Miss Noruko and the other teachers, the children worked in the fields, pounded rice into rice-cakes, and built balloon bombs in makeshift factories. When Miss Noruko wasn’t looking, they got into fights with the local children, who teased them about their city looks and city ways.
For Sato, the days blended one into another. His arms grew stronger from the hard work, but his belly grew smaller. There was never enough food. Nearly all of what they grew went to the army.
Sato distracted himself from his hunger by thinking about Timu and about his parents. He imagined that every rice cake he pounded found its way to Timu, that other rice from the harvest fed his parents, that the balloon bombs protected his home from the Americans. He heard about bombs and fires in the cities. He even saw smoke plumes on the horizon, in the direction of Tokyo, but he ignored what he saw, told himself that the bombs and fires were only stories, that his home and his family were safe.
That changed in the spring of 1945. Sato had been in the countryside for more than two years. He did not recognize the man and woman who approached him. They looked old. They shuffled instead of walked. Their shoulders seemed stuck in a permanent hunch. Their clothes were worn out and torn. Their faces were wrinkled and dirty. They smelled of smoke and dirt and grease.
The man put his hand on Sato’s shoulder and uttered a single word. “Sato-kun.”
And Sato knew these old people were his parents. They told him that Timu was dead, that he had given his life for the emperor in a kamikaze mission the past autumn. They told him that his school and his house and all the buildings in between had been destroyed by bombs. Papa had lost his job. Now they had no money for food or clothes or a place to live. Even if they had money, there were no food, clothes, or homes to buy.
That’s when Sato realized. His family had done exactly what Tojo-sama had asked them to do. They had sacrificed everything for their country. And Papa had been right, too. They had not achieved victory.
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