Northern Japan – October, 1935
As Dr. Peter McGowan told his friend, Taro, he wanted to see for himself. Recently returned to Japan, the thirty-four-year-old doctor wanted to see first-hand the conditions in the villages and hamlets, away from the towns and cities. He wanted to better grasp the reason mutinous army officers cited the plight of rural villagers as inspiration for their actions. He wanted to better understand what circumstances drove a young farm girl to plea for help at his father’s gate and, turned away, to her suicide between the wheels of the Aomori Express.
These questions concerned Peter deeply. He had grown up in Northern Japan, and he spoke Japanese with a Tohoku dialect. He was not a bad-looking man, his brown hair parted on the left. Clean-shaven, he had a sober face, an honest face. His dark eyes communicated sincerity. He’d once broken his nose playing baseball, but it required a close examination to discover the lump left by the healing. Outfitted in a crew neck sweater, he seemed more the college boy than the experienced physician he’d already become.
For more than a decade, Peter’s missionary father had restricted his own medical practice to patients who made their way to his Akeyama compound. But, in earlier years, he had engaged in a kind of rural outreach. As a boy, Peter sometimes accompanied his father to the villages. He remembered vividly that, even in those good times, many people in the deep countryside had grappled with poverty. What must it be like now, with the collapse of the silk market, catastrophic harvests, and the lingering effects of the depression? What must it be like with sons sent off to the Army and daughters sold to urban houses of prostitution?
Long on missionary front lines, Peter’s father was a slightly stooped man in his early seventies. Resistant to comb or brush, his white hair sprouted, it seemed, in all directions. Wrinkles criss-crossed his face, and he needed new glasses. After decades in Asia, he still spoke with the New England accent that signaled his New Hampshire birthplace.
They were seated at the kitchen table in their Akeyama house drinking green tea when Peter broached the idea of a trip to some of the farm villages where his father had once ministered.
“Sorry, Peter. I’m afraid I’m not up to it, ”Dr. McGowan said. “I’m not sure the Ford is up to it either.”
“Are the Andersons still over in Aomori?” The Andersons, Peter had heard, were among the few missionaries still holding on in the rural areas.
“I’m sure they are. They’d be delighted to see you.”
“I’ll send a telegram. Tell them I’m coming.”
Four days later, physician’s bag stuffed with medical supplies, Peter stood on the Sendai Station platform. His fellow third-class passengers paid little attention to the lanky, young American. And, when the night train bound for Aomori City arrived, they swarmed by him, a human avalanche burdened with bags, wooden boxes, cloth-wrapped backloads, and all manner of straw and paper-bound parcels.
By the time Peter squeezed into the coach, passengers jammed the benches, and jostled for space in the aisles. An unshaven fellow crammed into his face, muttering something in the Tohoku dialect. The train’s steam-powered locomotive jolted, jolted again, and finally rolled forward.
In Peter’s experience, the Japanese bathed daily. Consequently, the stench of unwashed bodies astounded him and, combined with the pitching of the coach, made him queasy. His fellow passengers spoke little among themselves. Most stared out the windows or directly through whoever happened to be in front of them. Two women unconcernedly gave breast to their babies. The passengers were gaunt, shabbily dressed, and beaten down, their faces like those Peter had seen in magazine photos of Oklahoma farmers driven off their land by drought and foreclosures.
Smoke swirled in around the windows whenever the train passed through a tunnel, instigating coughing bouts among the riders and coating their clothing with sooty grime. Dampness pervaded the coach. Peter had to squeeze by and over bodies to reach the toilet at the end of the car. Waste discharged through a hole in the floor, the place reeked. The train halted frequently, jerking and jolting its passengers. And there was no food. So much for the romanticized notion of rail travel in Japan that Peter had sustained in America. He feared other notions that had nurtured his nostalgia would come undone just as easily.
Red morning light pushed up against the purple black eastern sky when the train disgorged its Aomori passengers. The remoteness of the place seemed palpable. Aomori was where people caught the ferry for the five hour trip across the choppy and frigid Tsugaru Strait north to the island of Hokkaido. The platform emptied quickly. Peter tugged up his fleece-lined jacket collar against the chill air and stood trying to decide what to do next.
“It’s not really godforsaken–just looks that way,” someone said in English.
Startled, Peter wheeled around to encounter the hand of the Reverend Mr. Arne Anderson thrust into his own. “You must be Peter McGowan. Welcome to the capital of Aomori Prefecture.”
“I’m sorry my telegram was so cryptic. I surely didn’t expect you to come to the station.”
“Was lucky we just got the telegram yesterday. Service ain’t so good where we live. Anyhow, you’re the son of my friends. I hope they’re getting along fine over there.”
“They are. They send you their greetings.”
Peter glanced about. He saw no taxies. “I thought perhaps I’d find an inn . . .”
“Oh, you’ll stay with us,”Anderson said. A Norwegian-American from Minnesota, Anderson had passed most of his adult life in Japan. He wore a short-brimmed dark blue cap and heavy gray sweater. Once blonde hair gone to gray poked out below the cap, and blue eyes set in crinkled skin seemed to promise mischief. Peter liked him right away.
“I have my car outside the station. She’s kind of a relic. Needs to be cranked. But, as they say, she gets you where you want to go.”
Once they had Anderson’s rattletrap car running, Peter settled into the seat next to the Lutheran missionary.
“Hang on. Here we go.” Anderson gripped the wheel tightly with both hands, as if he feared it might escape his control, and squinted through a bug-smeared windshield. “My wife says I drive just like Barney Oldfield. He’s a famous racing driver, you know. I told her that’s not possible on these washboard roads.”
Maybe not, Peter thought, as he clutched the edge of the seat, but he’s sure as hell trying. Despite the car’s shuddering and bouncing on the rutted gravel roads, Peter repeatedly nodded off.
Ignoring the inattention of his half-awake passenger, Anderson maintained an ongoing patter of conversation. Peter vaguely heard, “It’s not too bad now. You ought to be here in winter. Sometimes, we just can’t use the road for days. So we do a lot of walking, to get out to folks. Ever try Japanese snowshoes? They’re round.”
Peter had never tried snowshoes of any type.
An hour later, the car lurched to a halt. The would-be Barney Oldfield and his drowsy companion had arrived safely.
Anderson tapped Peter’s shoulder. “It ain’t much, but, like Bertha says, it’s where God put us down.”
They had pulled up before a shabby little Japanese house and what Peter guessed passed for a chapel, equally run down. Both structures had white plastered exteriors gone to gray and dark tiled roofs. Thesmall buildings pressed against a muddy lane that led to an adjacent village of a dozen or so thatched huts.
Unlike her effervescent husband, Bertha Anderson struck Peter as being like one of those dour Scandinavian women he’d seen in the Swedish talkies. Her gray hair pulled back in a bun, she wore a dark skirt and a tired brown sweater. Footgear left at the outside entrance, Bertha guided Peter to the cramped room where he would stay. It belonged to the Anderson’s daughter, herself on a mission somewhere in Africa.
As Anderson intoned grace over the midday meal, Peter recognized the Andersons were having a hard time of it. The meal put before him consisted of a cup of brown rice, a bit of dried fish, and a portion of turnip. Dinner would be the same. “Thank you, Lord, for this food we are about to receive. Amen.”
“We are truly thankful,” Bertha Anderson said. “We don’t have much, but so far we’ve been able to keep some food on the table. Lots of folks haven’t been able to do that. You’ll see worse when you go further west and more into the mountains.”
“It’s this depression in America that’s behind it,” her husband declared. “We hardly get any money, you know, from the church at home ‘cause the folks are so pinched. And the people here–the ones who still come to services–don’t have anything they can give either. But, somehow, we just keep hanging on.
The question drove through Peter’s mind like one of Oldfield’s racing cars. Why? Why did they keep hanging on?
As if reading Peter’s thoughts, Anderson said, “We feel like we have an obligation to these folks–quite a few of them stayed by us in the early years up here. Now it’s our turn.”
Anderson scraped the last grains of rice from his bowl, then looked at his wife.
“We figure if we can help at all, we’ve just got to stick it out,” she said.
“We try to pitch in where we can,” Anderson said. “When we can get gas, we use the car to pass along what little food and medicine we can scrounge up. We help tend the old folks and the kids when the grown-ups are away searching for work.”
Peter drained his teacup. Mrs. Anderson offered no refill.
“And we try,” Anderson went on, “to convince the really desperate people not to sell their daughters.”
Eyes downcast, Mrs. Anderson contemplated her empty tea cup. “I guess we haven’t had too much success with that lately. We’re hoping this will be an easier winter.”
The story was a familiar one, a story of young women sold into prostitution by their desperate parents. One less mouth to feed and a bit of cash in hand; it had become an increasingly common bargain struck across Northern Japan. Peter could only imagine the degradation, health risks, and obliterated chances for a normal life.
“It’s heartbreaking. Sometimes they ask us, ‘where is God?’ It sounds terrible, but when we see all the suffering, we ask the same thing,” Anderson said.
“Oh, Arne. Don’t say things like that,” Mrs. Anderson said.
“Well, it ain’t all bad,” her husband said. “Some girls land jobs working in the textile mills.”
“Yes. Fourteen hours a day, Mrs. Anderson said. “Lucky them.”
“I’m sure God is working through you.” What else could Peter say? But, he did not doubt these decent people grasped, as he did, that it was human intervention–not God’s intervention–that was called for. It was true the Japanese government had implemented economic reforms. Yet, why hadn’t it done more directly to help its people?
“Been four or five girls from this village alone in the last three years. I think the youngest was fourteen.” Mrs. Anderson’s eyes reflected as much anger as sadness.
The image of the girl his father turned away and who’d been crushed beneath the Aomori semi-express plagued Peter’s mind. He had mended the victims of terrible accidents and dealt with the remains of others in Ohio morgues. But, none of those victims had first come to his door, pleaded for help, and been sent away to die. Peter’s father had feared that, if he gave the girl shelter, the police would close his mission. The girl’s fear-wracked face haunted Peter. But, thinking of his father’s ties to the Andersons, he said nothing to them about the incident.
That night Peter tried to record his impressions by the light of a flickering kerosene lamp. His mind resisted. Mrs. Anderson’s words insinuated themselves into his thoughts, and he dwelt on the plight of farm girls sold into prostitution. What must it be like for parents to be so miserable, so degraded, that they could send their child away to an even more degrading life? And what about the girls themselves? What did they feel? Were they simply like dumb animals, obedient and unthinking?
The next day, Peter helped Anderson pack every available space in his car with boxes of beans, dried fish, rice, evaporated milk, cooking oil, and soy sauce. Accumulated over months, the hodgepodge of food items had been paid for, Anderson said, with the pennies and nickels children stuffed into Sunday school envelopes in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. That Peter had brought along medical supplies delighted the missionary. Anderson’s inventory had dwindled to three or four bottles of Bayer aspirin.
They cranked up the laden vehicle at six in morning and made their first stop three hours later. Outfitted in a thread-bare cotton yukata, the village headman received them outside his shabby house. Anderson doled out food and clothing. It was a pittance, but they had four more villages to visit over the next three days.
When Peter explained he was a doctor, the headman at first could not understand. No doctor had come before. Most of the people who presented themselves to Peter were malnourished, some emaciated. He treated boils, inflamed gums, and an infected leg wound. He puzzled over what to do for a man he suspected had cancer. Many of the villagers suffered from respiratory ailments, and wheezing and coughing children appeared one after another. Peter administered vitamins to several people showing signs of incipient beri beri.
“Why aren’t there any women or older girls?” Peter asked.
“They’re afraid of foreigners.” It took some convincing by Anderson to bring them out of their huts. Outfitted in baggy, trouser-like mompe, the women only reluctantly submitted themselves to the ministrations of the foreign doctor.
The pattern repeated itself at each stop.
Cold air shrouded the valleys, but no snow had fallen yet. The snows swept in early in northern Japan, and those who had struggled to survive the 1934-1935 winter dreaded what the new winter might bring. Peter found some of the villages to be in such remote locations he could only wonder why people settled there in the first place and, even more puzzling, why they stayed. For each stop, Anderson would drive as far as possible, then they would hike in. Villagers, in turn, came out and carried in the boxes of supplies.
As the Ford chattered over roads little better than rocky tracks, Anderson said, “It ain’t so bad now, Peter. Like I told you, most of these roads turn to frozen mud or get buried under the snow. Then it’s really get’s to be hard going. Some of these places you just can’t get to.”
The thatched roof villages belonged more to the days of Tokugawa feudalism than to those of the twentieth century. So did the people living in them. Indeed, they seemed like creatures from some far away place lost in the stream of time. Peter swallowed hard at the sight of the children. Unlike the kids in urban areas, who romped around and called out when they encountered a foreigner, the village children, scrawny, dressed in tattered clothes, and dirty from face to bare feet, simply looked at them with blank eyes. The girl who’d sought refuge at his father’s house,he thought, had likely come from such a place.
Peter and Anderson had to work hard to get the villagers to talk. But, when they did open up, they shared consistent stories of deprivation and misery. During the worst of it, people had been on the edge of starvation, reduced to scratching under the snow for something edible, plants, roots, anything. School children – if they went to school – ate acorns for lunch, while teachers sacrificed their own small supply of food for their students. Malnourished babies died.
Peter probed: why had local officials not done more to help? One toothless old fellow clenched his fist. “Bureaucratic lords. What do they care for the likes of us. Treat us like animals.” His fist dropped, and so did his head. Shikata ga nai. Nothing to be done–it had always been that way. In another village a woman said “They only want two things. Taxes and our sons for the Army.” And in a third, an exhausted man declared, “They’re in cahoots with the landowners. They just squeeze us.”
Anderson summed it up. “Peter, these folks just ain’t got no power. Don’t count for nothing with the big shots down in Tokyo.”
Over the next three days, village headmen reported that government trucks did appear occasionally. However, they delivered an insufficient amount of rice, and it often tasted old. The cooking oil gave people diarrhea. One headman told Peter and Anderson that the previous spring some Japanese university students and city ladies in “nice kimono” had come to his village. But, the ladies, disturbed by the appearance of the children, shrank back from being touched by them, and left quickly. Still, because they gave the village a little cash, he liked those people better than the officials who looked down on them.
At the end of the third day, as they made their way back to Anderson’s place, Peter spoke of almost nothing but the misery of the people. It astounded Peter that many of the villagers had not seen a doctor in years, a goodly number of them never. In the course of his trip he’d treated close to seventy-five people. Appalled at their poor health and the unsanitary conditions, he told Anderson he probably could have treated almost everyone they encountered for something.
“What amazes me,” he said, “is that the government in Tokyo doesn’t do more to assist these folks. Even if they lack concern for them as human beings, this is where they get their conscripts for the Army. I’ll bet a lot of them can’t pass the physical.”
“Well, I heard the Army people want to change the government so they can help the farmers. That’s what I heard.” Anderson shifted gears for, it seemed, the hundredth time that day. “I think this clutch ain’t going to last long,” he said, as if it were part of the same thought.
“The government ought to appreciate what you’re doing here,” Peter said.
“Nope. I expect they don’t trust us. Be happier if we left,” Anderson replied.
“That’s just not right, I think . . .”
“But, so far they put up with us. About all we can hope for these days.”
“You haven’t talked much to these people about Christ,” Peter said.
“Oh, don’t tell that to Bertha. These folks up here don’t need messages about salvation. They need saving right now. I don’t hardly preach anymore. Just try to give them a helping hand. We’re so strapped though, I can’t do much.”
“I wish I could do more myself.”
“You done plenty, Peter. More than their own folks do.”
Peter had come to see for himself. And he’d encountered people whose hope and dignity had been stripped away by hunger. The filth, the empty eyes, the despair, and the inarticulate bitterness had been manifest in village after village. As if he had bathed in a fetid stream, Peter felt soaked through by the malodor of the farmers’ circumstances. And angry. . . angry at the indifference of those in a position to deliver the farmers from their pain. The naysayers probably had it right–one person could not make much of a difference. But, Anderson was trying.
And he could try, too, Peter thought. Just how, he didn’t know. Perhaps he was reaching for something out of reach. But, he could try. Taro’s warnings about the perils of intervening in Japanese affairs drifted away like bubbles from a child’s soap wand.
Lawrence F. Farrar is a former American Foreign Service officer, with multiple postings in Japan, as well as assignments in Germany, Norway, and Washington, DC. Short term assignments took him to places as diverse as Beijing and Tehran, Caracas, and Muscat. Farrar’s work has appeared in literary magazines more than 90 times (https://www.northoakswriter.com). Many of his stories derive from events he experienced and people he encountered during 20 years living outside the United States. Farrar and his wife, Keiko, now live in Minnesota where he is a member of the Loft Literary Center. His personal statement appears below.
During 30 years as an American diplomat, I lived in interesting times, in interesting places, and among interesting people. I had a front row seat on international events and witnessed the antics, high and low, of our American countrymen abroad.
I spent a great deal of time climbing in and out of airplanes in places I’d barely heard of growing up in Minnesota. When I left government service, I knew I had stories to tell. But storytelling was a new endeavor, one for which drafting all those government reports had not prepared me.
What better place to learn something of the craft than the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Of course, we learn by writing, but the Loft experience provided a launching pad and pointed the way. Two of my first published stories had their genesis as pieces for a Loft class. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to publish 100 or so stories. For a sampler, see https://www.northoakswriter.com. As for authors influencing my short story writing, the candidates are many. Tobias Wolff, Tim O’Brien, John O’Hara, Wallace Stegner, Ellen Gilchrist, and Ernest Hemingway all come to mind.
Over time, I immersed myself in the work of these and other writers and absorbed what I could while retaining my own voice. I have also been influenced by films. One of my favorites is Ikiru (To Live), a Japanese classic about a little guy who takes on the system to do something meaningful for society. Having spent 17 years in Japan, many of my reading favorites are by Japanese authors (too many to list). Two contemporary fiction favorites are Viet Thanh Nguyen and Colson Whitehead. Two recent non-fiction favorites are Facing the Mountain and Bridge to the Sun, both of which describe the WWII heroics of Japanese-American soldiers while their parents languished in US concentration camps.