SummaryIn 1935 Peter McGowan returns home to his missionary parents in northern Japan. Peter is appalled—farmers starving, daughters sold into prostitution, and sons swallowed up by Japan’s war machine. When Peter learns that Sumiko Yamada, a childhood tagalong, has been sold to a Tokyo brothel, he vows to free her, and so begins an obsessive quest. Amidst the tumult of war and revolution, Peter journeys through snowbound villages, Yoshiwara brothels, and the soul- consuming clubs and bars of Shanghai.
When he returned to Tokyo in mid-February, Peter entered a capital wrapped in foreboding. Over whiskey sodas at the Palace Hotel bar, Bigelow declared he expected a military uprising within days. Peter dismissed the idea. True, he had noticed soldiers in the streets, but units marching to and from reviews or to board trains had become common sights in recent years. And, so far as Peter could see, the citizens of Asia’s most modern metropolis were going about their lives in a perfectly ordinary manner. Bigelow, eager to dig up a news story, probably exaggerated the likelihood of a disturbance. Still, Kenji’s words and intense determination remained fixed in Peter’s memory.
Ultimately, none of this mattered to Peter. His interest in politics had withered. Political events concerned him only insofar as they might impinge on his search for Sumiko. Her image glimmered with mind-bending intensity. Impatient to resume his quest, he managed little interest in Bigelow’s political commentaries and none at all in his counsel to proceed cautiously when it came to taking Sumiko out of Yoshiwara.
“For all I know,” Peter said, “she’s already been shipped overseas.”
“Right. Then, why don’t you just give up the whole damn idea?” Bigelow summoned the barman and ordered another round.
“I thought you were backing me up.”
“I am. But, frankly, Peter, you’re getting to be a notorious character.”
“Especially since you decked that guy at the Imperial Hotel.”
“I guess I overreacted. But, he had it coming.”
“He probably did. But, honestly speaking, Pete, quite a few people think you’re off your noodle—chasing this girl.”
“It’s none of their damn business.”
“I know, but ...”
“It’s a commitment I made. I intend to follow through.”
“So what’s your next move?”
“I’m going to the address Sumiko gave me. See if I can find her. Try Miyazawa again. I don’t know.”
“Do what you will.” Bigelow shrugged and downed his drink.
Two nights later Peter stepped out of a taxi before the Kuruwa Arch. More brightly lighted than he expected, the streets of Yoshiwara sprawled before him. The most famous—or infamous—of Tokyo’s licensed quarters and centuries old, Yoshiwara had been one of the first areas reconstructed after the 1923 Kanto Earthquake. Sex claimed a high priority.
Standing before the arch, Peter hesitated. He turned up his collar, whether to hide his face or to protect himself against the cold he was not certain. Probably both.
Despite the late February chill and flurries of light snow, Japanese men—some in boisterous groups, some silent and alone—shuffled along and surveyed the human wares offered by brothels that lined both sides of the street. Most of the houses one- or two-story wooden structures, a few aspired to something more grandiose. Second floor balconies where, in warmer weather, girls appeared on display stood deserted. Whatever concerns Peter had about drawing notice as a foreigner dissipated. Intent on purchasing a few moments or a few hours of love, initially the prospective patrons of the Yoshiwara houses paid little attention to him.
Instead, they clustered around touts stationed at the curtained doors of the brothels trying to lure them in. The men gawked at photos of women arrayed in lighted windows. Like carnival barkers, the touts sang out: “The finest house in Yoshiwara.” “The loveliest girls. They know how to please.” “Don’t hesitate. A wonderful time awaits you within.” From time to time, they tantalizingly drew back a curtain to reveal the heavily made-up faces of one or more of the inmates standing just inside. The girls smiled mechanically and sought to catch the eye of prospective customers. Peter found the spectacle fascinating—and disconcerting.
After walking for five minutes, Peter turned into Sumicho, the street’s penciled name barely visible on the paper Sumiko had slipped into his pocket. He studied the identifying signs the brothels displayed. Then he sighted it—Under the Pine. It looked vaguely like a Mediterranean hotel. Uncertain, he hung back across the street, his hands plunged into his coat pockets, considering what to do next. His resolution faltered.
“Enter. Enter.” The hoarse-voiced tout at the door called out to him in English. “Girls here know many foreign language. Love foreign men. Make you happy, like in Heaven.”
Some of the men surveying the pictures in an amber-lighted window spun around and stared at him. Could one of those pictures be of Sumiko? Peter crossed the street. The men lining the window moved aside and gaped at him, temporarily distracted from their evening quest. Peter ignored them and ran his eyes back and forth over the pictures. Caked with makeup, the faces looked pathetically the same. He had expected the pictures would convey an aura of sensuality, of erotic enticement. In fact, they constituted a merchandise display in a show window—nothing more. The names, pseudonyms all, did not help in making an identification.
“Step in, Mister. Step in.” The tout again aimed his pitch directly at Peter.
Peter brushed past him and went in.
A maid helped him out of his coat, and an older woman, the establishment’s mama-san (or auntie as some girls called her), welcomed Peter into a purely Japanese interior. Women’s voices wafted out from behind a sliding door. Two vacant-looking women in kimono hovered near the entrance, but no clutch of whores swarmed over him as he anticipated. The mama-san, also heavily made up, ushered him down a corridor and into an anteroom. Peter could not rid himself of the impression the women wore painted on masks.
Seated on the tatami floor, his mind bounded from one stratagem to another as he tried to decide his next move.
Kneeling just inside the door, the mama-san said, “We have many wonderful girls. What kind would you like?”
“I’d like a girl from the North.”
“We have many pretty Tohoku girls. Nice skin. Do whatever you want. Please come with me.” It sounded as if she was reading from a menu.
He trailed her down another corridor with rooms opening off both sides. As he passed them, the cries and groans, real or feigned, of men and women in the throes of sexual congress assaulted his ears. The orgasmic voices blended in a discordant chorus unlike any he had ever heard. No concern here for the soul, no conception of sin. He had descended into a shameless world of the flesh.
The mama-san slid open a door and motioned for Peter to enter. The room’s furnishings included a thin mattress, a floor length mirror (propped on its side), a porcelain basin and metal pitcher of water, a stack of tissues, and some small towels. A naked bulb, the only source of light, glared from the ceiling.
“Please wait.” The woman disappeared.
A short time later the door opened, and a girl, perhaps eighteen, came into the room. Visibly nervous in the presence of the foreigner, she opened her light yukata robe and displayed her naked body. Then she knelt in front of him and began to unbutton his shirt.
“Don’t you want to touch me?” Her thick accent betrayed her northern origin.
“Close your robe,” Peter said. “I need to talk to you.”
Her face betrayed puzzlement. “But, I am ready. Don’t you like me?”
The moaning and panting from the other side of the room’s thin walls distracted Peter. The girl seemed unfazed by it.
“Do you know Sumiko Yamada?” Peter asked.
That fazed her. Even through the painted veneer, he detected the startled look on her face. The girl stood up, tied her robe, and started for the door.
“Wait. Please wait.” Peter’s voice carried with it his desperation.
The girl turned and said, “The master warned us a foreigner might come looking for Miss Yamada. He will be very angry.”
“Then she is here. You know her.”
“Yes. I know her. She has been kind to me.”
“I must talk to her. I will pay, I ...”
“Master Miyazawa is not here tonight. He would not have let you in. But, auntie is stupid. She did not remember.”
“Can you tell her I am here? I must see her.”
“Perhaps she is with a customer. She is very popular.” After all, Sumiko had become a prostitute. Yet, as much as he’d anticipated it, the picture the girl’s words conjured up distressed him.
“I am afraid,” the girl said. “But, I will tell her.”
She went quickly out the door, leaving Peter in a room he considered particularly vile. An almost physical sense of degradation seeped over and through him; he felt unclean. His parents would have been crushed to know to what a low level he had sunk. It sullied his parents to even think of them in this place.
Ten minutes passed. It might just as well have been ten hours. Peter shifted uncomfortably on the tatami floor, twisting his hands. His chest tightened and his breathing became shallow and hurried.
When the door opened, as when he first saw her at the teahouse, he could not be certain it was Sumiko, this time because makeup obscured her features. But, it was she.
“Mr. McGowan, you must leave. Master Miyazawa will be very angry to find you here.” She spoke with an empty voice, without conviction.
Peter ignored her appeal. “Sumiko, come away with me. Tonight.”
“It is impossible.”
“I have friends. Kind people. They’ve helped many girls like you.”
“My life is here now. You must go.”
“Only if you go with me.” On his knees, he made his way to where she knelt and took her hands in his own, then he put his arms around her. She did not resist.
“No. No. It is impossible,” she said again. But, she returned his embrace and clung to him with an intensity he had not expected. “Mama said you would come for us. We waited. Now I have waited again.” She pressed her face against his chest, against the back of his hand.
“Sumi-chan, you are ... very special to me. I ...” He groped for words, but found none. Uncertain of his emotion, how could he articulate it?
“You are a foreigner. But, you do not seem like a foreigner to me.”
“Sumiko, you must leave this place.” He said it with his lips in her hair.
“I like you very much, Mr. McGowan. I’ve waited every day since the New Year. First I thought you lost the paper I put in your pocket. Then I thought you changed your mind.”
“I’ll never change my mind, Sumi-chan. Never.”
He savored the warmth and softness of her body through her thin robe. Since he first touched her in Yukinoshita he had fantasized about this moment.
“Meet me—tonight. I will take you away.”
“It’s so hard to leave. They watch all the time.”
“But, there must be a ...”
“The back gate is left unlocked for servants. I looked at it many times when they brought me here. I wanted to run away. But, I was afraid.”
He resisted a desire to kiss her; it seemed unnatural in this place. An image of what she had been doing before she came to his room was an even greater inhibitor.
“They are sending me away soon. To China. To Shanghai. I think it is an awful place.”
Her words jarred him. He had already lost too much time.
“I’ll wait for you behind this house. I’ll find the gate.”
“Yes. I will come, Mr. McGowan. Please help me.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
“Now, you must go. Before, the Master finds out you were here.”
“Can you trust the girl?”
“Rumi is my friend. She will say nothing.”
Sumiko pulled away. Reluctantly, he allowed his hand to slide down her back, then fall free. “I will come to you, Mr. McGowan,” she said. Then she was gone.
Rumiko reappeared. “You must pay for me when you leave. Or the mama-san will become suspicious.”
He followed her back down the corridor. The sexual chorus persisted—fortissimo. At the entrance, Rumiko hung from his arm in her best professional manner.
Doozo, mata irrasshai, ne. “Please, come again,” she said. A maid delivered his shoes and then his coat. Peter, his heart pumping, squeezed through the knot of men outside the door. He had done it. A few hours and they would be at the Bonhams. After that ... he would deal with whatever the future held.
Peter strolled well up the street to create the impression he was leaving Yoshiwara. Then he doubled back along a lane that provided access to the rear of several adjacent buildings. In that unlighted alley, Peter stumbled over refuse containers and boxes. At one point, his foot skidded on a patch of ice and he landed flat on the ground. The frigid air nipped at Peter’s ears and cheeks, and he began to shiver. The snow was coming down more heavily.
In the darkness Peter found it difficult to distinguish one building from another, and he missed the back entrance to Under the Pine. When he realized his error, he retraced his steps. No one seemed to be about. Nonetheless, like a feudal ninja, he concealed himself in a cramped space between two sheds, intent on remaining unseen. And there he waited, occasionally stomping his feet, barely able to make out the wooden fence and gate opposite.
Once the shrill voices of women arguing reached him—after that, absolute silence. Snow-borne cold pressed against his eyelids and cheeks, stirring memories of the hellish experience in the Kurogawa snowstorm. He regretted he had not dressed more warmly. Where could she be? An hour crept by and then two. The cold seemed to penetrate the marrow of his bones and reside there. Occasionally a gate rattled or a door slammed. He emerged from his hiding place and paced back and forth, striving to keep warm. He stopped to urinate against a building, then stepped back between the sheds. Still she did not come.
At three o’clock in the morning, he made out muffled voices beyond the gate—angry male voices, a frightened female voice.
“No. No. Let me go.” She was crying.
“Take her back.” Peter cringed at Miyazawa’s guttural croaking.
Peter stood motionless, frozen in place, his back pressed against a wall. He was certain they would hear his chattering teeth. Someone flung the gate open, and two figures with flashlights rushed into the alley. Like probing swords, beams of light slashed through the falling snow.
“There’s no one here,” a man said.
“Only a fool would have stayed in this cold. Let’s go back.”
“Miyazawa will have some fun with that one. Did she really think she could get out.”
The gate slammed, and a lock snapped shut with a definitive metallic click.
He had failed—again. Devastated, his feet numb with cold, Peter hobbled back to the Kuruwa arch and, after a long and snowy wait, flagged a taxi. Sunk in the back seat shaking with cold, Peter was sick with emotional turmoil. He had exaggerated the prospect of success. He could not deny it. Yet, for a time, he really believed he had pulled it off. Heart-rending thoughts of the retribution likely inflicted on Sumiko tormented him.
Back in Bigelow’s apartment, consumed with hopelessness, Peter dropped onto the sofa, cherishing the warmth of a radiator. He wrapped himself in a blanket and tried to sleep.
February 26, 1936. Peter slept fitfully, ravaged by dreams of harlequin-like creatures with painted faces. Unable to stay asleep, he got up in the still dark early morning, exhausted and disoriented. He still wore the clothes he had on the night before, and he very much needed a hot bath. Peter rubbed condensation off a window with the side of his hand and peered out through the small opening he created. Still falling, soggy February snow blanketed the city. In the next room Bigelow talked excitedly on the phone.
“God! You looked like death warmed over,” Bigelow said. He’d had just put down the receiver when Peter, bleary-eyed and half-awake, wandered through the door.
“Feel like it too. Last night was a fiasco,” Peter said. He felt too exhausted to think straight.
“You can fill me in later. Something big is going on. Maybe I’ll need your help with some interpreting.”
“What are you ...?”
“When I came back to Tokyo this morning, I noticed the streetcars weren’t running,” Bigelow said. “Figured it was the snow. Then we ran into police at a couple of intersections—wouldn’t let my cab through. Took forever to get here.”
“Traffic delays. What else is new?” Peter said, miffed at Bigelow’s unconcern about his failed venture in Yoshiwara. Didn’t Bigelow understand Peter’s frustration, his utter disappointment?
“Something’s up. I tried to pick up a paper from that newsstand on the corner. No papers delivered. And, if I understood the guy right, none have even been published today.”
“That’s hard to believe. I’ll turn on the radio.” When Peter rotated the dial, he could only pick up music or—mostly—static. It was like trying to tune in a signal from Mars—unsuccessful.
The phone rang. Bigelow grabbed a pad and, with the instrument cradled against his ear, busied himself taking notes. He interrupted this endeavor long enough to say to Peter, “It’s a coup, some big shots assassinated.”
When Bigelow completed his note-taking, Peter asked, “Who? What?”
“According to Billy Pritchard, UPI, looks like soldiers from the First Division. They’re about to be sent to Manchuria. Maybe they don’t want to go.”
“That can’t be the reason.”
“Billy says people have seen tanks—in Kasumigaseki and near Tokyo Station. Also says troops are surrounding the Sanno Hotel. Different troops holed up inside. Who’s who nobody knows.”
Peter’s reactions jumbled together in an emotional hash. Coup or no coup, for the time-being at least, he could not return to Yoshiwara. But, neither could Miyazawa or his henchmen come looking for him—a worry that had raced about in his chest ever since he left the alley behind Under the Pine. Embedded among these thoughts also lay a stark recollection of Kenji’s declaration that he and fellow officers intended to take some kind of direct action. Kenji belonged to the First Division.
“Let’s go see what we can find out. You can be my interpreter.” In the corridor, Bigelow struggled to buckle a pair of overshoes. Peter reluctantly dragged himself along, his mind still fixed on Sumiko, not on some half-baked coup attempt—if that was even what it was.
Peter and Bigelow slogged along unshoveled sidewalks, heading toward the Diet Building. But, whichever street they attempted to use, they came up against roadblocks manned by nervous soldiers wearing great coats. At one such barrier, Bigelow flashed his press credential and demanded in English that they be allowed to pass. Two of the soldiers raised their rifles. Peter pulled Bigelow back.
“Harry, these kids are conscripts. That corporal has no idea what a press credential is,” Peter said. “His orders are that no one goes by. And he sure as hell isn’t letting any gaijin go down this street.”
Speaking in Japanese, Peter apologized to the corporal and steered Peter’s irate companion away from the barricade.
“Harry, they were trying to decide whether or not to shoot us. Next time, let me do the talking.”
But, Peter garnered no more success than Bigelow, and soldiers waved them back at three more check points. They finally abandoned the effort and trudged back to Bigelow’s office. Chilled by the perspiration trapped under their clothing and worn out by scuffling through the snow, they slumped on office chairs. Bigelow ransacked a desk drawer and ferreted out a bottle.
“Maybe this’ll warm us up.” He took a gurgling swig and handed the whiskey to Peter. Peter took a deep pull—and then another—before handing the bottle back. While Bigelow tried to phone some of his contacts, Peter’s thoughts returned again and again to Sumiko. He agonized about what Miyazawa might have done to her. He brooded about what he should do next.
As the day wore on, they collected rumors—of more tanks sighted in the streets, of soldiers with fixed bayonets at the entrance to the Imperial Palace, of the murder of the Prime Minister, and of the imposition of martial law. All their usual information sources dried up—War Ministry, Foreign Ministry, American and British embassies, Japanese reporters. Either they knew nothing or they were not talking.
For the reporters it was like the electricity had gone out of a generator. And so a disconsolate and frustrated gang of reporters including Billy Pritchard, Norton Kirby and two or three others came to roost smoking and drinking in Bigelow’s office. They shared collected fragments of information like little stones, but could construct no useful mosaic of what was happening. They also quickly gobbled the crackers and potted meat Bigelow came up with from the larder that was his desk.
Most of them considered Peter something of an odd duck—they had all heard stories of his obsession with the Japanese whore. Kirby had more than once doled out his opinion that, “Perhaps the good doctor is playing without a full deck.” At the same time, they were glad to have him there since none of them spoke Japanese. Whenever the phone rang they leaned forward, straining to hear what Bigelow or Peter said. When nothing new emerged, they fell back in their places. They perked up when Peter reached Henry Whitfield at the American Embassy. But, when he told them Whitfield only promised to get back to him later, they sank deeper into the cushions of Bigelow’s worn out sofa.
Peter manipulated the dial again, leaned closer to the radio, and raised a stilling hand.
“Quiet! I think they’re making an announcement.” Peter provided a running gist for Bigelow’s language deaf colleagues.
“It’s from the War Ministry. Early this morning some young Army officers—they don’t say how many—attacked at several places. They put the Asahi newspaper out of commission. Much worse—they killed Prime Minister Okada, Admiral Saito, and General Watanabe. They also wounded the grand Chamberlain, Admiral Suzuki, and Finance Minister Takahashi. The Cabinet is still functioning. The Army has captured or will soon capture the culprits. There is no reason for alarm.”
The correspondents spent most of the night trying to locate working phone lines or an open cable office in order to get out what scanty information they had. Whitfield never called back.