Yoshio sped to the Wasayama house with Kimiko Kasai’s brassy pop-funk hit “Felt You Glancin’ ” cranked all the way up on the radio. He parked the motorcycle a mile out from town and walked in with his hands in his corduroy pockets, hair slicked back, sunglasses on, favoring a modest white oxford shirt. He smoked a cigarette slowly and with a deep pleasure that reminded him of his first butt on the streets of Tokyo, sometime before the country’s bubble burst.
He’d greeted the collapse of Japan’s furious growth with delight; now the rest of them could practice his slumdog habits. Post-war Japan, after all, had been a busy pustule: suits and suites and fashionable specs. A business effort to reduce the terrors of war to a nub on someone else’s body. Then the system lagged, and all that wealth spiraled into other wallets. He remembered goggle-eyed salarymen let go from their jobs, wandering around Asakusa like a plane had dove into their houses.
Hidari’s windows were dark. Yoshio thumbed his chin, sank his teeth into his lip, and waved hello to an old man shuffling up the other side of the street.
“Good evening,” said Tatsuo. “Are you looking for Ms. Wasayama?”
Yoshio said, “No. My mother used to live here.”
“She did? Well, what was her name? I’ve lived here all my life.”
Yoshio cast his gaze out over the ocean. He let the man wait for a good thirty seconds. Then he lit a cigarette and offered Tatsuo the pack. The old man shook his head.
“I forget,” said Yoshio. He walked off into the darkness, leaving Tatsuo to scratch his head in mild but good-natured uncertainty.
Hidari gathered up the husks of her willpower and lifted her tan, made-up face to the expectant team. Behind them, two wide, spotless windows reflected the meeting room, dark as it was beyond the community center's walls. “Very good, then. For the next item: Petition for Secession of Okinawa from Japan. I have collected four hundred and two signatures so far, but I wish to present this document to the distinguished councilmembers now, in the hopes that they will agree. The floor is open for discussion.”
The nine other members of the Okinawa Peace Society heard her argument. Every point they treated with the same importance. Every time they accepted her words with perfect poise, although it was clear they could not see the benefit. Too radical a stance.
“Gentlemen,” said Hidari when they recessed, “we must ask not only for the governor’s resignation, but reaffirm our desire for total Okinawan independence.”
Silence greeted this statement. The stage-like, wooden room with its tatami mats soaked up even the rustle of cloth, the slow shudder of breath.
Finally, Daisuke Inamane said, “We must review how this helps our agenda, Chairwoman. Many people will not agree with us; it will be hard to garner support for so extreme a plan.”
“There is a vocal minority of Okinawans who wish to be free of bases and Japanese cronyism.”
“The rich ones,” said Kawada Karimo.
A low murmur of assent rose up.
“You,” said Kawada, emboldened, “you’re well-off; the outcome doesn’t affect you like it does us. How will we stand alone as a separate country? We are in a depression as it is, with subsidies and the business from American bases. We don’t like these things, but they are necessary evils.”
“They are so many grams of opium, keeping us docile,” said Hidari. “I’d be interested in pursuing a relationship with Japan if they didn’t continually throw us under the table like garbage.”
Nods and low vocalizations.
“Japan, flatly, does not care about us. Perhaps while they sleep in their beds, or sit at the table for breakfast, they pity our situation, but they do nothing about it. Simple politics. They are not motivated to help us, because we do not have the requisite power to force them to change, so they do not help us.”
“But we have fought them with diligence,” said Daisuke. “We created change through our persistent efforts. We helped elect a mayor who is right for Nago, and for other towns.”
“That is true, but the governor we elected on the same platform of closing Camp Furusato and removing 8,000 Marines to Guam. Like the Americans were supposed to fifteen years ago. But of course he reverses his position once he is secure.”
“Chairwoman, how else could he play it?” Kawada pressed. “You are not in his position. He must interface with the Japanese every day; he is only trying to help us. Of course you can sit here, apart from the political process, and judge his actions, but the truth is you would do the same thing if you were governor.”
Hidari sat up straighter, pressing her mouth into a formal line, and touched the sapphires at her throat. “I would not.”
Kawada followed his train of thought. “Someone so committed to the people may wish to run for governor.”
The corner of her mouth twitched; she seemed flustered, despite effort to remain controlled. “My place is among the people, fighting for their rights.”
“Yes, yes, but that does not give them money.”
“I have lost my land,” she said, softly enough to draw the ears of the men around her. “My family’s property on Runio Island is a live-fire site now. I refused to accept any money for the theft of that land, because I never gave my consent for them to use it. I have used my personal resources to help this committee attend peace conferences, and I have given much to sexual violence groups and homeless shelters. I myself was homeless. Forced to work for slave wages for a bowl of rice to feed my brother, may his soul rest peacefully. With all due respect, Mr. Karimo, do not instruct me on how to live my life.”
Kawada flushed purple and fell to grumbling to the man beside him.
Back at the table, the question the group tried to define was: “What is the best future for Okinawa?” Logically, the answer would present itself.
Hidari listened to the sizzle of fluorescent lights underneath their voices. She prevented a frown from marring her presentable demeanor.
Even so, it was overwhelming “no’s” at the end. A chorus of teeth-sucking and inscrutable grunts, like after Governor Ikazawa broke the news that the base relocation wasn’t going through. Hidari smiled inwardly at this irony, then accepted her fate. It was her fault, anyhow, for losing her composure with Kawada.
“Very well. That is all for tonight, gentlemen. Let us celebrate with what remains of the day.”
From the shadowy parking lot, Yoshio watched the procession leave. He stood with fists in his pockets, loose of limb, yet pincered by this underground discomfort. Still missing the crinkle of a cigarette, he picked out Hidari as she climbed into a car with several men in loose, shabby suits.
He followed on the bike, watched her enter a house with the others. Communal dinner. He smiled and lit the Seven Stars and sucked the tobacco, but the flavor lacked the relaxing rush he’d hoped for. He finished the roll anyway.
After dinner, Daisuke dropped off Hidari at home, and she left some old fishbones outside for Seishin.
“Hidari,” said her neighbor, through the side window. “Would you care to say hello to Aomi? My granddaughter, you remember. She’s just come from Tokyo.”
Hidari struggled to remain upright, but she smiled anyhow.
“I would love to.”
Tatsuo nodded and called back into the house. He paused. He called again and said, “Please wait one moment,” and puttered off. Hidari counted fronds on the cycads, petals on pink hibiscus. It was difficult to see with only moonlight. Upon returning, her neighbor offered a tolerant shrug and cocked his dusty, square head to the side. “She’s sleeping. You know teenagers and their irregular habits. I apologize; she was up just a little while ago.”
“It’s no trouble at all, Tatsuo. Tomorrow, then.”
“I should go to bed soon, anyway. I was at Ishikawa, earlier, for the bullfights. I made out okay—a few thousand yen richer, nothing to scoff at. Even got a picture with the champion. But I forgot! There was a man looking for you earlier. Young. He said his mother used to live here, but he didn’t tell me who. Just thought I’d let you know. He was well-dressed.”
“Perhaps he was a volunteer.”
“I’m sure he was. Well, good evening, Ms. Wasayama! Happy Keiro no Hi.”
Inside she drank tea alone, contemplating the bones in her hands. That cloud still battered her spirit. She picked up her phone to call the Governor’s office, but found she was too tired to dial. It was late, anyhow—the office wouldn’t pick up. Not for an old crazy woman who wanted change.
At the party, the other members had avoided her. They offered excuses when she sidled up and added her view to a topic. Too fiery and independent, they said when she was gone; such traits were downplayed in the peacemaking scene. Okinawa strove for cohesion, not self-importance.
But didn’t it broadcast its difference from the mainland? Proudly, with eisa drums and food and festivals? On a larger scale, the island singled itself out, even if its people desired to blend in their daily lives. Separate together. But it was difficult to form a stable nation with Chinese dress, Thai spices, and Japanese taxes.
“Tonight we celebrate those who have achieved a most respectable age! Ms. Wasayama, would you care to share a few words about what time and history mean to you?”
Microphone in hand, a squeal of feedback that sent chuckles through the audience. She stood in her sundress and gold bracelets and sandals, hair pulled neatly back into a tail, lips chalky from the lipstick and the flour-heavy pastries she’d eaten out of nervousness.
“Why me?” Hidari would pine, crumpled in a room off Kokusai-dori and dreading the scratch of the paper screen sliding open.
Nayu would say, only ever said, “It is simply our duty at this time.” The woman never cried, didn’t draw attention in selfish ways. Hidari attracted all the bad spirits they could ever need; hence the mabui-gumi, the sugar cane, the danger of caves.
Marines used to waltz up and wink, jab each other’s ribs, gibbering in their blocky language.
“What history means to me is…”
Her husband swinging a hoe into fresh earth. Sweaty, grinning at her like a kid with a flask of liquor, ecstatic around his elegant wife. Her tact and reserve were famous in the village, it made her a model for the other women. A supreme wife, he had said once. And beautiful.
No light shone in the still, red-shingled home. The radio replayed her speech from September 4, although she couldn’t recall when she had turned it on: “Eighteen years ago today a vile act was perpetrated against an Okinawan. The survivor of this incident deserves our support even as she deserves her privacy, especially because the two Navy service members who assaulted her went to great lengths to take her privacy away. Today we recall the slights and insults against us with fresh perspective; we seek out the ways in which we have been strong, and the ways in which we have been betrayed by our government.”
A crowd of a hundred thousand, filling the streets. Signs and megaphones and thronging people of every age, people in suits and people in paint-spattered khakis, people from Itoman and others from Ishikinazaki. She did not speak for the fame or the power, for these things meant nothing to her. Only the message. She could feel all hollow inside, loosened from the fixtures of connection, but still carry the message. In this way she served a purpose. She was honored to serve it. What did her heart matter against the million and more who shared her island, scheming and suffering, wanting only to live without a foreign threat? Except they didn’t want independence.
Avoid caves, Nayu had said. She hadn’t entered one in years. Tunnels in the limestone where refugees had been buried or butchered. Imperial officers folded over the hilts of their katana. Two women who stood in the emptiness, touching hands, ignorant of the chill brought in by the sea.
Tonight, with the tea warming her palms, Hidari felt the chill. Her ancestor breathing over her shoulder, perhaps.
She stood at the back window. The sea fumed but she could not see it. Her article was slated for Friday’s post, which meant she must act tonight, before Reiko read it. A failure. Her petition and efforts. Since the September 4 protests, she’d felt utterly drained of will. The endless, grinding nature of her work perhaps unclasped some catch in her mind. Or just getting old.
She listened to the surf without distraction, hands folded, conscious of every book and flower in the room. A well-swept chamber for thinking and eating and planning the next rally, the new vehement speech. Indomitable energy, they wrote in the papers. Woman beyond her age, transformed by passion. She felt only fatigue.
At the butsudan, she prayed to her children to protect her. She prayed to her brother and parents. To her husband. And to Sho Norito, that kink in her genetic line, she prayed most fervently, trying to work out why he had chosen to drive her into the earth.
She passed into the kitchen. She picked up a knife and cradled it thoughtfully, running her finger along the edge. She set down the weapon and went to bed.
Yoshio stood outside Hidari’s house in pitch darkness, no streetlamps, a taste of smoke on his tongue. His phone buzzed.
Sub-Boss: Not today.
Sub-Boss: Customer request.
He shrugged. Respect for the Aged Day.