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Translated by Thomas Brook
Another year, another birthday. Another year since my great uncle passed away. For nineteen years now, and forever more, we share this anniversary.
The day my great uncle took his last breath, I, having just turned twenty, was absorbed in a monologue about my grandfather. My grandfather used to boast to me about how he had once been Japanese. My great uncle, on the other hand, lectured me about how he’d been turned Japanese. The two were not brothers.
My grandfather was my mother’s father; my great uncle my father’s uncle.
− Granddad’s Japanese was so fluent, I said, not pausing for a moment to think of my great uncle. − He spoke it so much better than my mum and dad, who both still speak like foreigners even though they’ve lived here so long already.
I kept chattering on about my grandfather, almost giddily, buoyed by the idea that I alone possessed a rare insight into the world.
− Granddad learnt Japanese long before I was even born. That’s right, in Taiwan, back when it was a Japanese colony.
Mr Shiraishi enjoyed encouraging me to do this talk. I, for my part, was quite aware of my ability to choose a topic he liked and speak about it in a way that would please him. I enjoyed it too, back then. Mr Shiraishi made me feel like I was the most sensitive and intelligent girl in the world.
It was about half a year before my great uncle passed away that Mr Shiraishi and I grew close.
− My mother’s cousin used to call the neighbourhood stray dog “Tanaka”, and would beat it with a stick. She couldn’t forgive the Tanaka Kakuei government for betraying Taiwan and getting cosy with China, so she gave the poor dog hell. And so my mother, after coming to Japan, would think of that cousin whenever she met a person called Tanaka.
The classroom sank into silence. I looked across to the students opposite me, and a few of them looked down at their desks. The entire room went chilly. I’d said the wrong thing. Ever since I was a child I had the habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, no matter how hard I tried to fit in and avoid making a scene. I’m just glad – to this day in fact – that none of the ten or so other students in the room had the name Tanaka.
− You should all listen carefully to what Shū san has to say. She knows what she’s talking about, and she talks about it well.
It was Mr Shiraishi who broke the uncomfortable silence. He was just fulfilling his duty as the teacher in the room, doing his best to save one of his students’ misjudged words from giving rise to unneeded animosity. But from the very start I could already feel him undressing me with his eyes.
“Shin-ee.” That’s how Mr Shiraishi called me. The Chinese pronunciation, with the “ee” at the end reaching upwards.
Whenever Mr Shiraishi called me by my name in Chinese, I felt like I’d been put under a spell, as if I was somehow special. Ever since I started school, I’d always introduced myself with the Japanese reading: “Shū Kin’i” for 周欣怡. Mr Shiraishi was the first Japanese person to say my name the Chinese way.
− You know, Zhōu Xīn yí, you’re an extraordinary girl.
Mr Shiraishi’s compliments never failed to give me the flutters. From around that time, my friends, few to begin with, became fewer still, but I didn’t particularly care. So long as Mr Shiraishi was beside me, people could say whatever they liked. Mr Shiraishi himself seemed aware of the influence he had on me, and I don’t doubt for a moment that it gave him pleasure too.
Within weeks of our first intimate contact, I was well versed in the workings of the love hotel. I lived with my parents, and Mr Shiraishi with his wife and children, so it was only in those compact rooms, shut off from the outside world, where the two of us could get the privacy we needed.
Once again on that very afternoon – on the day my great uncle was to pass away – I set off with Mr Shiraishi towards one of our rendezvous spots.
Dusk is the love child of day and night, Mr Shiraishi whispered in my ear, and I purred back in his: When the wild things come out. It was the perfect time of day for us to be walking together outside, side-by-side with our fingers entwined. Our destination was a place down an alleyway at the end of a long sloping road that ran alongside a Shinto shrine. Had it been an auspicious day, there would have been far more passersby, but on that day we had the entire street to ourselves.
Almost, that is.
There was a single man on the road, dressed in dirty rags, with his head hung low; by his side was an old bowl into which a few coins had been thrown. He was sat, it appeared, with his legs crossed, but as Mr Shiraishi and I noticed more or less at the same time, one of them was missing. He took a glance at us, but then quickly averted his gaze, and mumbled something incoherently. Mr Shiraishi was ready to keep on walking, but I stopped him and motioned with my eyes towards the sign propped up next to the man.
I FOUGHT FOR THE JAPANESE EMPIRE, BUT THE GOVERNMENT WON’T HELP ME NOW. SPARE SOME CHANGE FOR THIS POOR OLD SOLDIER.
It was my first encounter, I think, with a so-called “wounded returnee”. Actually, I can’t be sure. As I stood there vacantly Mr Shiraishi drew close to me and said in a hushed voice: If he was for real he’d be a lot older; he’s way too young – but he didn’t go so far as to stop me from giving the man some of my “charity”. I dropped a one-hundred-yen coin into the old, cracked bowl on the ground by his side. He murmured something but didn’t look up. I saw the underside of his only foot glinting a dull gold colour in the remaining light.
− What if he’d been Taiwanese…
As I lay upon the bed, staring at the ceiling – some of what was left of the daylight filtering through the single, sealed-shut window – my thoughts drifted back towards the one-legged man.
Only a few days prior, I had been walking alongside an imposing wall, which was taller than me and seemed to go on forever. Here and there, posters had been plastered onto its grey surface. Probably due to long exposure to the elements, the writing on them had begun to expand, and it looked as if they might fall down at any moment.
DEAR GOVERNMENT OF JAPAN. PLEASE PROVIDE FAIR COMPENSATION TO TAIWANESE VETERANS OF THE IMPERIAL JAPANESE ARMY WHO DO NOT POSSESS JAPANESE NATIONALITY!
—ASSOCIATION FOR COMPENSATION FOR TAIWANESE VETERANS OF THE IMPERIAL ARMY
I stopped in my tracks as I glanced up and saw the bold, handwritten letters. On the other side of the wall were the inner grounds of the shrine dedicated to those who had martyred themselves for Japan. Taiwanese veterans of the Imperial Japanese Army. Until that day, only days before my twentieth birthday, it had never occurred to me that there had been Taiwanese who fought for the “Japanese Empire”; who had given their own lives to protect the Emperor of Japan.
Another echo of my own voice.
− You get it? Up until he was twenty years old, my granddad was Japanese.
My grandfather was always eager to talk with me in Japanese. He liked to show off to the rest of his family that the Japanese buried deep within his memory still made sense to his granddaughter now being raised in modern-day Japan. He especially liked it when I called him “Ojī-chan”: “Granddad” in Japanese. My paternal grandfather passed away before I was born, so it was only my maternal grandfather who I could directly call “Ojī-chan”. I was talking into Mr Shiraishi’s chest. I waited for him to nod before continuing. Once, I asked him: How come your Japanese is so much better than Mummy and Daddy’s? He thought for a while and then replied: A long time ago, before your mother had even been born, Ojī-chan was Japanese. “Ojī-chan” is how he referred to himself too.
I could see Mr Shiraishi smirking in the dim light. − Well, if you ask me… He, on the other hand, always referred to himself as “ore”, the most masculine Japanese pronoun. He cleared his throat and then sneered. − Anything’s better than a Japanese.
That was one of his sayings. Mr Shiraishi was always mocking Japan and Japanese people.
− Even though you’re Japanese?
− It’s because I’m Japanese! He laughed, his mouth opening at one side. − Back when I was a boy… he continued, while stroking the inside of my thigh. Mr Shiraishi was eighteen years my senior; a massive gap for me at the time. − …I often saw veterans playing harmonicas and accordions outside on the street, whenever there was a festival at the local Shinto shrine, among the stalls selling toys and junk food. All of them wearing white robes, every time. There was always at least one who was missing an arm or a leg. If they were real veterans, my father would say, they’d be receiving proper compensation, they’re all just fraudsters; but my mother still gave them her change. Even if they’re not telling the truth, they’re still amputees, she’d say. My mother was just like you, Xīn yí – way too sentimental.
Mr Shiraishi was always revealing to me a me I never knew existed. Telling me how kind and sentimental I was. As if he’d forgotten that he’d just compared her to me, he continued to badmouth his mother.
− She’s a country bumpkin, so whenever it’s a national holiday she hoists up the Japanese flag. Just because that’s what everybody’s done since as far back as she can remember. That’s the kind of person my mother is. No ideas or beliefs of her own. That’s the problem. It’s always people like that you’ve got to watch out for, those are the real dangerous ones. And the easiest for the state to control…
I didn’t say anything in return. I’d learnt from our half a year of liaisons that that was the best way to make Mr Shiraishi feel like I was giving him my undivided attention.
− I’ll put it plain, she’s a dumbnut, he said, his tone growing ever less sympathetic. − If the Japanese government ever said to me, you’ve got to do service in the armed forces, I’d get out of this hole without a moment’s notice. Whose life is worth giving up for a country like this?
A country like this, I say to myself, the words not reaching my mouth. I feel Mr Shiraishi’s gaze, and say the words again silently. A country like this. I FOUGHT FOR THE JAPANESE EMPIRE. The words from the man on the street’s placard spring back up in my mind. So what did he give up his leg for? What if in fact he was “for real”? But I couldn’t bring myself to start this conversation with Mr Shiraishi, and I remained silent. Mr Shiraishi lifted up my legs, and I felt all of my strength slipping away. As I felt my breath seeping out, I closed my eyes shut, and suddenly noticed the backs of my eyelids were brighter than usual. That’s when it hit me. I’m twenty years old. If the Showa era hadn’t ended, what year would it be now?
− Your granddad was born in the first year of Showa.
As always, my grandfather was referring to himself as “Ojī-chan”.
Every year in the summer my parents took me on a trip to Taiwan. My grandfather would look over my shoulder as I worked on the homework assignment for my Japanese class. He followed the hiragana characters I had written on the page, reading out the sounds one by one – he-i-se-i, ga-n-ne-n – and then he must have remembered the year of his own birth – sho-u-wa, ga-n-ne-n. He said to me:
− Now it’s “Heisei gan’nen”, the first year of Heisei. Granddad was a “Showa gan’nen” baby.
At the age of nine, my grandfather’s expression delighted me no end and I repeated it again and again.
− Now it’s “Heisei gan’nen”, Granddad was a “Showa gan’nen” baby. Granddad was a “Showa gan’nen” baby, now it’s “Heisei gan’nen”.
To put it another way, during the summer in which the emperor’s voice was broadcast on radio for the very first time, not only in Japan but in Taiwan too, my grandfather had been just twenty years old.
− So Granddad, until he was twenty, had really been Japanese.
Which means that this would be the seventy-fifth year of the Showa era.
Mr Shiraishi stroked my face by the corner of my eye. − What are you thinking about?
− Why do you ask? I reply, and he touches my lips.
− Another man?
− Don’t be stupid – well… actually yes. Maybe I was. I was thinking about my grandfather. And the Japanese Emperor. When my grandfather said to me: Your granddad remembers the day when His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Japan was born, I was just nine years old.
− Granddad was the same age as you are now. When I went to school that day, my teachers all said that today is a truly magnificent day…
My grandfather’s Japanese, as he reminisced to me about his youth, was far more fluent than that which my mother and father spoke, and it sounded far more refined. I remember thinking, in a mixture of adoration and pride: Granddad is just like a Japanese person.
− But now I realise of course it was only because I never really thought of my granddad the same way I thought of Japanese people that I could think something like that in the first place. Just like the way I thought of my parents, I only ever saw my granddad as Taiwanese, never really truly Japanese. But for Granddad it was different. As he saw things, he really had been Japanese. He told me so that day, several times. Before I turned twenty, I had really been Japanese, he said. So when I said to him, you’re just like a Japanese person, how must he have felt?
The more I worked myself up, the more infantile my voice and body language became.
− So what about me? Am I a real Japanese? Or am I just a fake? Come on, tell me! Which am I?
It wasn’t enough for me to just plead with Mr Shiraishi; I started to flap my legs up and down as though I was having a tantrum, until he extended his arms and stroked my tummy, the way someone might try to settle a small child. I took a few deep breaths, as if to show him he had succeeded in calming me down. It wasn’t that I was faking my emotions. But if I had really tried to, I could have managed to keep them in check. However, I knew that Mr Shiraishi liked it when I lost control. As if that was irrefutable evidence that there were things I could only ever confide in him; that there was nobody except he himself who had the capacity to accept me fully for who I was – to feel like that gave Mr Shiraishi an elusive high. And that’s why, at the time, I also needed him. I needed a place where I could expose myself completely without reservation. − Granddad… I started to say again, but was cut short by Mr Shiraishi’s unaffected tutting. − Just another dumbnut.
− Taiwan was Japan’s first colony. Your granddad, Xīn yí, he was a victim of Japanese imperialism.
I felt my voice catching in my throat.
Outside, the sun must have set completely; the window was pitch black. I quietly patted my thighs, now damp with sweat, to which Mr Shiraishi, who kept talking, seemed oblivious. For a while, I continued to lie there saying nothing.
I arrived home just before it struck midnight. Somewhat deterred by the fact the lights were still on – it was unusual for my parents to be up so late – I peered into the living room and saw my mother and father both sat up wide awake. As I braced for a scolding, I heard my mother say to me:
− Goh-dyuu-gon died.
My mother’s voice was almost placid; it took me a while to register what she had said.
− What happened to Goh-dyuu-gon?
− He finally passed away, my father replied, his voice just as flat.
According to my aunt, who lived with my great uncle, earlier that afternoon my uncle had been nodding on and off in his rocking chair as usual, but when she went to call on him after preparing dinner, she noticed he’d stopped breathing.
As I remained silent and still, my father smiled at me. − There’s no need to be so tense. He’s gone to the Pure Land, he added, his voice a bit brighter.
We all know how old Goh-dyuu-gon is, my mother and father had often said.
− He’s the same age as the Republic of China!
My great uncle was born the year after the Xinhai Revolution, in other words the same year in which the Republic of China’s calendar begins. The year I turned twenty was the eighty-ninth year of the Republic of China.
Eighty-nine years old.
Certainly, there’s no denying that he had a good running.
As I soon learned, the notice of my great uncle’s death had arrived little more than half an hour before I had, and my parents had stayed up to discuss what to do about his funeral and all of the associated travel arrangements. As far as I could tell, neither of them was particularly fazed by my great uncle’s passing away. To think of the state my mother had been in back when my grandfather died of lung cancer, the difference was palpable. My grandfather, who was my mother’s father, passed away when I was ten years old.
− Your granddad was born in the first year of Showa.
Which means, it must have been the last summer I spent with my grandfather. I remember him coughing heavily. Don’t get your granddad so excited, my mother chided me. Despite having been told by his doctor in no uncertain terms that he was to ease off his smoking, my grandfather, much to the consternation of my onlooking relatives, would reach for another cigarette, while saying in Japanese, “Mō ippon dake” (Just one more). And as he puffed away, the very picture of contentment, he would always announce:
− Wa ga ringon, tabako shi, rippun ei meekyah za hoh! (You can’t beat a Japanese cigarette!)
Every time my mother travelled back to Taiwan, she would take a carton of Mild Seven with her for my grandfather. Later she admonished herself, saying if only she’d known how bad her father’s lungs were she would’ve never encouraged him to smoke. And then she’d remark, sadly shaking her head: Why did your grandfather have to pass away so soon, when your great uncle keeps on going…
My great uncle was born fourteen years before my grandfather and managed to outlive him by a whole ten years.
− Just like always, he smoked a cigarette before taking his nap. Even now, the stub of Goh-dyuu’s final cigarette is lying in his ashtray.
That’s how my aunt announced my great uncle’s death to my father.
I can picture the yellow box of cigarettes that my great uncle always had by his side. My great uncle was even more of a heavy smoker than my grandfather. And a lot more talkative.
− Come along, young lady.
Among all of my cousins on my father’s side, I received the biggest share of my great uncle’s affection. It’s because he can speak Japanese with you, everyone would say. As soon as he saw me a smile would reach across his face, and he’d call to me in Japanese, “Oide!” (Come over here!) He’d sit me on his knee, one arm around my waist, the other holding a cigarette, and the words would flow out of his mouth.
− Kin’i. You hear? Japan turned its back on Taiwan twice. Twice! First it was the Emperor. Then Tanaka Kakuei. You understand? We were abandoned.
My great uncle also referred to himself as “ore”. Though I didn’t really understand even half of what he was saying to me at the time, I can still hear his voice now – ten’nō heika, tanaka kakuei. I also remember thinking at the time that it sounded just right when he said “ore”. Although my grandfather could speak Japanese just as well, he would never call himself “ore”. It wouldn’t have fit his character. The more formal “boku” would have suited him far better, but he didn’t call himself “boku” either. At least when he was talking to me, he always, without exception, referred to himself as “Ojī-chan”. My grandfather liked it when I called him “Ojī-chan” too, but my great uncle was different. Although his Japanese was completely fluent, he much preferred it when I replied to him in Taiwanese.
− Kin’i. You’re a smart girl. You live in Japan. But you’re also Taiwanese. Even if people say to you that you’re like a Japanese person, don’t you forget that you’re Taiwanese. Okay, Kin’i. You understand what I’m saying, don’t you?
− Wa tia oo. (I understand.)
− Hao guai. (Good girl.) Kin’i, you’re such a bright young lady.
My great uncle ruffled my hair and then lit up another cigarette. Although I couldn’t read Chinese I could read Japanese, so when I looked at the writing on my uncle’s cigarette I could imagine the name of the brand: “chōju” for 長壽. I was good at reading Chinese characters. The grown-ups all used the Chinese pronunciation: “zhǎng shòu”. Unlike my grandfather, my great uncle only smoked Taiwanese brands. Once my uncle had finished talking to me and let me go, my mother and father, even my aunt, would discreetly praise me for putting up with him for so long. My cousins too would thank me, as though I had sacrificed myself for them. I myself was more than happy to listen to my great uncle’s stories. One day, I realised, when my great uncle said “ore”, although sometimes he was indeed referring to himself, some of the time he was actually meaning Taiwanese people in general.
− When we went to school, they told us to become Japanese. Kin’i, you understand what I’m saying? We were taught that we should live for Japan, that we should live for His Majesty the Emperor. That’s what our Japanese teachers told us. So that’s what we did – that’s what I did – we tried to become Japanese. I had to – we had to – become Japanese.
My grandfather used to boast to me about how he’d been Japanese.
My great uncle, on the other hand, lectured me about how he’d been turned Japanese.
− So what about me? Am I a real Japanese? Or am I just a fake? Come on, tell me! Which am I?
As I soaked in the bath that night, it occurred to me that it might have been at the very moment Mr Shiraishi was stroking my tummy that my great uncle passed away. The more I thought about the possibility, the more convinced I became of the fact. Actually, I’m sure beyond an inch of a doubt. Even if there’s no sense in me banging on about it now when there’s no way to prove it, for some reason, and I can’t explain why, at that moment it was as clear as day to me. I hear Mr Shiraishi’s voice. Your granddad, Xīn yí, he was a victim of Japanese imperialism.
− If the Japanese government ever said to me, you’ve got to do service in the armed forces, I’d get out of this hole without a moment’s notice.
I lay submerged in the bath, eyes closed, picturing the ashtray with the stub of my great uncle’s last cigarette. I took a few deep breaths. Mr Shiraishi doesn’t understand. To think that you can throw something away is just proof that you believe with your body and soul that it belongs to you entirely. In other words, Mr Shiraishi really is a bona fide, hundred percent genuine Japanese. Whether he wants to admit it or not, it’s a fact. I slowly opened my eyes, and was struck by how seductive my own naked body looked. As I flailed my arms, splashing the water around, and pinched myself, I suddenly saw again the golden light reflecting upon the sole of the one-legged man I’d passed earlier that day. Watashi no ojī-chan tachi – My granddads. What am I thinking, I thought to myself. I felt like I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. So maybe, in fact, I hadn’t really wanted to cry in the first place.
The characters for Heisei – 平成 – had been crossed out with two diagonal lines.
− We’ve got heaps of documents in the old format; better than throwing them away, isn’t it, the office worker said to me with an awkward smile. It had only been one week since the new era had officially begun. A colleague standing next to me muttered that it was about time they just had done with it all and switched everything to the Western calendar. She wasn’t alone; it was quite common for my work friends to show disdain for Japan’s “unique” calendar – to use it was to show your support for the Japanese imperial system. I myself, however, can’t deny that I still have a soft spot for “Showa” and “Heisei”.
− Your granddad was born in the first year of Showa.
My grandfather looked over my shoulder as I wrote the characters for “Heisei” on my homework sheet.
− Your granddad remembers the day when His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Japan was born.
Could he ever have imagined that the Heisei era would end like this, on a day decided far in advance, while the previous Emperor, his junior in age, was still in good health and of sound mind?
Conscious of the crossed-out characters at the top of the page next to the new era name, I filled in today’s date. And then I remembered that it was my birthday. Although in recent years it hadn’t always occurred to me, today, for some reason, it struck me that it had been exactly nineteen years since my great uncle passed away.
− It’d be such a waste for someone like you to just live an ordinary life, Xīn yí.
Once I’d realised that I wasn’t actually so different from my peers, neither in my kindness nor my sympathy, I also noticed that the words of my lover, which had previously made me feel so special, began to feel a lot less sincere. Mr Shiraishi was just looking out for himself. He always had been. He was never going to leave his wife for me. Even had I not made this discovery, by the time I reached my mid-twenties I was already drifting away from Mr Shiraishi.
− What happened, Xīn yí? You’re not as cute as you used to be.
I took those words as my cue. I made up my mind and left him.
…What am I wasting my time thinking about? I handed in the paperwork and headed back to my office. The graduate student I was using as a teaching assistant was waiting outside; she passed me the reaction sheets from the class I’d just finished. Back inside my room, I leafed through the fifty-odd sheets of paper.
− Whenever I go abroad, I always come back feeling more Japanese than I felt when I left. It may have its flaws, but Japan is the country where I was born and raised, and I feel at home here. For me, and for most Japanese people, “patriotism” is just a natural emotion.
I had to stop myself from grimacing and remind myself that the comments I had my students write were just a reflection of my teaching. At the start of term, over eighty students had signed up for my class on “Japan within East Asia”, but the number present seemed to dwindle each week.
− I want to be able to feel pride in my country as a Japanese.
All of the comments were in the same vein. At first, I was despondent, but the more I read the more I felt my resolve hardening. This is really how the majority think, and that’s why I’m here to teach history – why I have a duty to teach my students how to face up to history themselves, even if it means, at times, demonstrating my own lived experience in front of them. Finally I came across the odd one out.
− I would never call myself a patriot. Nationalism is just the final stronghold of the ignorant.
In the name column, as expected, was “Shiraishi Takahiro”. I had to chuckle to myself. Some things really do run in the family.
The young Shiraishi called over to me at the end of my first lecture, after I had finished explaining the schedule and contents of the class and was preparing to leave the room. I turned to face him and was met by an intense gaze. I’d never seen him before.
− My name is Shiraishi Takahiro…
Later, I realised. His father had probably told him in advance that all he need do was say his name. But I assumed he was just another student with a question about the class, and simply encouraged him to continue. Caught off guard, he explained:
− When my dad saw your name in the syllabus, he said it brought back lots of memories.
He straightened himself up and announced his father’s name. I swallowed. The boy was around the same age I had been during my fling with Mr Shiraishi. He didn’t seem to have any ulterior motives; if anything he seemed to want to befriend me. I quickly tried to calculate what was going on. Does he really not know? Or is he just pretending?
− My son is the spitting image of me. Not just in looks, but in character too. Fortunately, my wife seems to have found her purpose in life by doting on him. For an ordinary woman like her, that’s about as good as it gets.
Mr Shiraishi would talk about his wife the same way he talked about his mother. I took a deep breath and looked the young Shiraishi in the eyes. Even for a first-year student, he had a baby face.
− Well it’s certainly been a long time. Sorry, I took a moment to remember. And how is Mr Shiraishi these days?
A wide smile beamed across the young Shiraishi’s face, and I knew instantly. The boy has no idea.
− He told me to pass on his best wishes. My dad said that I absolutely have to sign up for your class, Ms Shū. I’m really looking forward to learning a lot.
The boy certainly has a lot of respect for his father. That’s probably why I couldn’t help myself from issuing what was probably an unnecessary warning.
− Well, whatever your father says, you don’t need to feel an obligation to come to my class. You can make your own decision, please.
Whether out of complacency or a genuine interest I cannot say, but a month later Shiraishi Takahiro was still attending my class. Once, as I was tidying up my things at the lectern, he waved at me like he might to one of his classmates, and called over: See you next week, Sensei! Although there was something charmingly innocent about a young student who clearly wanted to show off to his friends that he was on friendly terms with his teacher, I just nodded, lightly so as not to encourage him. A few days later, Shiraishi Takahiro came knocking on the door of my office.
− Sensei. To tell the truth, before I came to your class I’d never really took an interest in Asia. But I realised after hearing your lecture that I have a duty to make myself more knowledgeable. And so, you see…
Unable to conceal his excitement, the young Shiraishi began to unfold a world map he had brought with him. “Republic of China” and “Manchukuo” – written in the old, pre-war script – flashed before my eyes, and I instantly recognised it as a replica of the 1936 atlas produced by the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun. It was a map I had introduced in the class a few weeks prior, and although it may not have been titled “Empire of Great Japan”, it highlighted all of the Japanese “territories” – Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan – in the same crimson colour as the Japanese archipelago.
− When I searched online, I found there were a few print versions for sale on auction, so I decided to put in a bid. I’m going to make it my mission to visit as many of the red locations on this map as I can. First, in the summer vacation, I’m going to visit Taiwan.
Shiraishi Takahiro spoke with a glint in his eye. Perhaps he had forgotten that he was talking to his teacher – for he was referring to himself as “ore”, too. Again, I nodded slightly to indicate my understanding, but this time with a smile. Encouraged, he continued with his declaration.
− Sensei. I remember you telling us all in the very first class. Your granddad was Taiwanese but spoke Japanese fluently, right? But half the population of Japan today doesn’t even know that Japan used to possess its own colonies in Asia. And building relations with other countries in Asia has to begin with an understanding of that fact…
My own mind was drifting elsewhere; to the large yellow area on the map marked “Republic of China” and the smaller characters written just below it, reading “China Proper”. The eleventh year of Showa. Back when my grandfather and his friends were just young boys, the Japanese and Chinese “territories” were more expansive than today. Before I knew it, the young Shiraishi had crept up to my side. I heard his voice right beside my ear.
− What a map, eh? When I look at this map, I feel like I can really grasp that Japan is just a part of Asia. You told us in class, Sensei, about how your granddad was forced to learn Japanese; that that’s how they tried to turn him into a Japanese person. But no matter how perfect his Japanese became, he would never be treated as a true Japanese. When I heard that, I got so angry. It’s just stupid to think that Japanese people are special, when we’re all the same – we’re all Asian.
The young Shiraishi’s impassioned speech and burning gaze began to make me feel uneasy. I had to interrupt him when he started to talk about his father again.
− I’m sorry. I haven’t time.
It doesn’t matter who his father is; Shiraishi Takahiro is just one among my many students. I don’t have any inclination to become more familiar with him than I absolutely need to.
But what a nerve his father has – sure, it was a long time ago, but what makes him so cocksure that I’m not going to tell his prized son about the way he treated me twenty years ago? Or better yet, that I’m not going to try and tempt him myself? If I were to return that impassioned gaze, how would the young Shiraishi – so much more innocent than his father – react? I felt a chill run down my spine. As if I was going to waste my precious time like that.
− I don’t want to be held back by my Japaneseness.
Even the handwriting seemed to run in the family. I put the reaction sheets in an envelope and left my office. Outside, to the east, I saw the clear white shape of the moon in the sky. The sky itself was still light.
− Xīn yí, please just promise me that you’ll follow your own path. You don’t need to get trapped trying to live somebody else’s dream, stuck in an ordinary marriage with an ordinary man.
I began to picture the world map that the all too innocent son of that oh so arrogant man, so convinced of his own extraordinariness, had just spread out in front of me. I wasn’t thinking of the crimson areas, but the area shaded yellow. I was thinking of the Taiwanese men who had fought as Japanese imperial subjects against the Republic of China Army; and who, despite managing to emerge from that conflict with their lives intact, had failed to return to their homeland and were now reduced to begging for the charity of strangers in a foreign country.
The twentieth year of the Showa era. The year of Japan’s defeat, in which Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China.
That’s when my grandfathers ceased to be imperial subjects of Japan.
The thirty-fourth year of the Republic of China.
My grandfather was twenty years old. My great uncle thirty-four.
That’s when it hit me. Today is the anniversary of my great uncle’s death. Since the day he passed away nineteen years ago, my birthday and the anniversary of his death have been, and will be forever more, the very same day. My students and I don’t really have so much between us. When I was their age, before I turned nineteen, I didn’t know anything, almost anything about my place in the world. And then, another revelation. Without me even noticing it, I’d managed to live longer than the entire period that not only my grandfather, but also my great uncle had lived as “Japanese”.
− So what about me? Am I a real Japanese? Or am I just a fake? Come on, tell me! Which am I?
Wanting to stamp out that needy voice, rising up from the depths of my memory, I strode forward with a newfound determination, a spring in my step.