by Lawrence F. Farrar
Yokohama. A summer night in 1972. Little Jiro was bawling again, and Saburo Suzuki did not know what to do. His eighteen month old boy, hungry and wet, had driven Saburo to his wits’ end. He tried feeding the child some rice gruel, but he spat it out. Jiro needed his mother, but Toshiko had abandoned them and run away to the American sailors in Yokosuka.
Two days earlier, after almost a month’s absence, she had stopped by their tiny apartment only long enough to retrieve some clothing. During her brief stay; when, as he had before, Saburo begged her not to leave, she had berated him for interfering with her life. She laughed at him, and denounced him as a weakling and a fool.
“What are you?” she said. “Thirty-five years old and still a tailor’s apprentice. And not even a good one at that.”
“I have given you all I could.”
“Given me? What have you given me?” she said. “Nothing. Not even the brat.”
“What do you mean?” He stumbled over the words.
“Can’t you tell, you fool? Who does he look like? You or Yamaguchi?” Yamaguchi operated the snack stand where she worked when Saburo first met her.
Saburo, a slight and timid man, looked at his twenty-five year old wife with an expression of helplessness that seemed to validate her ridicule.
“I have a nice apartment in Yokosuka, two rooms with a bath,” she said, exuding blatant self-satisfaction. “Not a six mat monk’s cell like this one. And a television set, nice clothes, fine dinners at the Petty Officers’ Club.”
“But, you are my wife. And the child needs you,” Saburo said, his voice plaintive.
“You and your mother like the kid so much. Let her raise him. I have to look out for myself.”
“You will ruin your life. You should stay away from the Americans.”
“You’re just jealous. They’re not like you. The Americans make me hot. Do you hear me? Hot.” She laughed, showed a mocking face, and went down the three flights of narrow stairs to the street. Awash in a tide of chagrin and rejection, Saburo watched through a window as she climbed into a taxi. He knew she was returning to Yokosuka and to one of her American boyfriends.
Those cities like Yokosuka, he thought, with their American bases, those red cities, as many Japanese referred to them, should be wiped off the earth. Without such places to lure her away, Toshiko would have stayed with him and Jiro; she would have behaved as a good wife–or so he told himself. The American base towns glittered with the false promise of a better life, enticing desperate young women, selfish young women, vulnerable young women into a world populated by the worst sorts of people, a depraved world that chewed people up and spat them out like Jiro spat out his gruel. Base towns–Misawa, Yokosuka, Atsugi, Iwakuni, Sasebo, Naha, Kadena, and others–tarnished the face of Japan like unhealed pock marks.
Saburo failed to focus on the fact there were licentious, low class districts in cities without bases throughout Japan, places where the sex trade was part of the social fabric. But, it was the Americans who concerned him. In Saburo’s eyes, the Americans were crude, rough people, immoral alien occupiers destroying the nation and the souls of its people, especially its young people. The Americans spread a kind of moral plague wherever they went, corrupted everything they touched. One could only detest them. Japan’s people paid an exorbitant price for the “security” the Americans provided.
A man with limited education, Saburo could not easily have articulated these thoughts; but they shaped his perception of matters he had really not considered until Toshiko abandoned him for the foreigners. He seethed with anger and cursed his country’s leaders who allowed such a situation to fester. He wanted to lash out, to strike someone, to harm someone; instead, his eyes moist with tears, he picked up the child and sang fragments of the only lullaby he knew. The child continued to cry.
Toshiko and her friend had ridden the train down to the navy base town together, and found employment as hostesses at the Club Black Rose. Emulating her work mates, Toshiko prepared for her new vocation by dying her hair–in her case, to auburn; donning false eye lashes; splashing her mouth with bright red lipstick; and shimmying her less than lithe body into a tight red silk dress slit up the side. Toshiko had been lucky to finish middle school, and she could barely speak English. But, she quickly acquired the essentials for dealing with her American clientele: “You buy me drink? I like dance. Can I have cigarette? You want touch me? You handsome boy. I think I love you. You want I give you bath? You take me hotel? The sailors did not need to know she had a husband and a kid in Yokohama. Most of them probably would not care anyway; just so they got what they were looking for.
The first time Toshiko took an American sailor to the Kanko Hotel, when they had finished she asked him for taxi money. Quite drunk, he handed her ten thousand yen, an amount greater than she had earned in a month at the snack bar. Her girl friend, Hiroko, had been right. Even after the club manager extracted his cut, it seemed you could make money working as a bar girl in Yokosuka. And if you could find a steady boy friend assigned to the base or one of the home-ported ships, all the better.
She rarely gave much thought to her husband, Saburo, and, when she did, it was with derision. They had met when he wandered into the snack stand to slurp noodles. He had smiled and stuttered when she teased him. She had played games with all the customers that way, but the pathetic little man with a limp and slightly crossed eyes believed she intended her coquettish behavior for him alone.
When she told Yamaguchi she was pregnant, he told her to get lost. So, casting about for a safe haven, Toshiko easily seduced Saburo, and he happily married her. He had never expected anyone would want to marry him. He failed to realize, however, she had no plan to stay long once the kid was born. She told her friend, Hiroko, “I am still young; I want to have fun, excitement, nice clothes, plenty to eat, and money.” She added that Saburo, the dumb clod, offered none of these things.
Yet, when Toshiko told him she intended to move out, the fool had been surprised, pleaded that he loved her, and implored her to stay. But, he had served his purpose; she meant to get on with her life. The warren of bars, cabarets, and clubs outside the base constituted a world that suited her perfectly. There was money to be made, few rules to mind, and the excitement of immersion in an environment populated by American men. She liked them. She liked their nonchalance and easy ways. She had been dubbed a bad girl, a wild girl, growing up in Yokohama. She did not care. The bastards had it right–she was a bad girl.
In no time she made herself a proficient hustler of drinks and of American pillow partners, most of them young, some not so young. When the ships sailed into port she arrived early and stationed herself at the door of the club. She blew kisses to the throngs of sailors cruising the street, called out in a throaty voice, and grabbed their arms if they approached the club’s entrance. Once a customer set foot inside she hustled him into a booth and was all over him, letting his hands explore her body while she ordered drink after drink from a waiter circulating among the tables. And as a saxophone wailed and an undulating Filipina stripper crouched on the edge of the stage, Toshiko allowed her own hands to roam. Along with running up the sailor’s drink charges, when it struck her fancy, this all served as prelude, in that sailor town vernacular, to either a short time or an all night.
Toshiko had latched on to Boatswain’s Mate Chief Richard Morgan as her patron, the second in the six months she had been ensconced in Yokosuka. Although she remained infatuated with a young Marine security guard at the base, Toshiko deemed Morgan to be “rich,” and the Marine lance corporal “poor.” So, while she shared her bed with each of them, she exhibited genuine enthusiasm for the Marine and fraudulent enthusiasm for the chief. Moreover, she complained that Morgan did not bathe often enough and that he abused her, especially when he had been drinking–which was most of the time.
But, Chief Morgan proved to be living cornucopia, generous in delivering BX and commissary goods. Treasures purchased or filched from the base crammed the shelves and corners of her apartment: bottles of Johnny Walker Black, cartons of Marlboros and Salems, tins of Folgers coffee, boxes of Hershey bars, cans of Campbell soups, packets of Kleenex tissues, and much more. Underwear, makeup, stockings, a watch, purses, even toilet tissue, all materialized courtesy of Chief Morgan–or other benefactors. And his special gift, a color television set, dominated one wall like an electronic shrine. The totality of Saburo’s beneficence–she snickered telling her friend–he had once given her a kewpie doll and another time a cheap hanging scroll with a Chinese poem she could not read.
On a muggy evening soon after Toshiko’s last visit home, Saburo brought Jiro to stay with the child’s grandmother. Saburo spoke with imprecision, but the old woman sensed what he had in mind.
“It’s best you not chase after her. She is not a good person. Yokosuka is a red city; all manner of things go on down there, none of them good,” she said. “Only last week, a foreign sailor stabbed a taxi driver to death. Shameless women, thieves, perverts of all descriptions . . .” Her catalogue went on.
Growing up in nearby Yokohama, Saburo had heard this kind of talk all his life–unless they had some compelling reason to go there, decent people avoided the base towns. Although he had paid only passing attention to such assertions, he too had never ventured as far as Yokosuka. Now he intended to go there. Saburo, a simple man, saw things in simple terms. Consumed by heartache, he had determined to try one last time to find his wife and bring her home. He did not know how he could do this; but he had to try.
“Normal Japanese do not set foot in such places,” Saburo’s mother said.
“I am going,” Saburo said. “Please take good care of Jiro. I have left a little money.”
His mother warned him again. “Yokosuka is a malign place. I fear it has swallowed your wife. Do not let it swallow you.”
Saburo took the bus to Yokohama Station, and then boarded a blue and yellow second class rail coach on the Yokosuka Line. He had put on a clean shirt and trousers, both patched and re-patched and ready to disintegrate from utter exhaustion. He had also rubbed camellia oil pomade into his hair, this followed by a careful combing. Toshiko had once remarked she liked the aroma of his hair oil.
Saburo sat rigidly in his seat as the train rocked south, down the Miura Peninsula and toward the old navy town on Tokyo Bay. Perspiration cascaded down his head and neck. Under assault by the wet heat and beset by a stomach churning case of nerves, Saburo dabbed repeatedly at the relentless moisture with a soggy handkerchief. He wished he had a fan. He wished for many things.
When he stepped out of the train at Yokosuka Station he saw them–Americans. He had, of course, encountered them from time to time in Yokohama, but almost always at a distance and singly or in pairs. Now there seemed to be so many of them. Other Japanese in the station appeared to be going about their business, paying no attention to the foreigners. Saburo supposed they had become accustomed to them. But, he was not accustomed to them–white faces, black faces. He felt lost among them. His heart leapt ahead of him, his resolution seemed about to fail. The foreigners laughed loudly, jostled each other playfully, sprawled on benches. He did not feel good being near them, as if they carried some contaminating disease.
He asked an elderly Japanese man at the bus stop, “How do I reach the place where the drinking establishments are that serve the foreigners?”
“Take the next bus to the base entrance. It all begins across the street from there. You can’t miss it. The neon is everywhere. The foreigners are everywhere.”
The old man looked at him quizzically. He seemed to wonder why this down at heel Japanese man should want to go to the American bar district? Was he seeking work?
Ships jammed the port, and when Saburo exited the bus, throngs of American sailors spilled over the curb waiting for the light to change. They did, indeed, seem to be everywhere. Some wore white uniforms and some wore civilian attire, short sleeved aloha shirts the apparent favorite. Across the street, cabarets, bars, snack stands, souvenir shops, and girls–lots of girls–awaited them. Outside the gate, rules and inhibitions disappeared, gone like a puff of smoke from a ship’s stack.
Fixed in their purpose, like pilgrims streaming to a religious shrine, when the light turned green they crossed the street and flowed into the Honcho bar district. Saburo flowed with them.
The shadows of night had already crept into the sky, and, as the man at the station had said, neon lights crackled and hummed–another night in “Thieves Alley.” Bars dominated the Alley and the maze of streets that intersected it. Enlisted bars, officers’ bars, submariners’ bars, base sailors’ bars, country and western bars, three stool bars, and large cabarets–all lured the pilgrims.
It was too much. The streets bristled with foreigners. Saburo felt as if his head would explode. Hats askew, the foreign sailors seemed a rowdy lot. Twice carousing groups of them bumped into him or pushed him aside. Saburo wandered for some time without direction or clear purpose, caught up in the strange milieu in which he found himself. At last he asked a shoeshine boy, “Can you please tell me where the Black Rose is?” The boy looked at him as if to say, Why do you ask? What business could you have there? Then he said simply, “Further up the street.”
Saburo shuffled along, like a man sleepwalking through a waking dream. The sweet aroma of sizzling chicken yakitori, the salty odor of soy sauce laden noodles, and the oily smoke of grilling fish emanated from dilapidated snack stands and vendors’ carts. The stink of open sewers and uncollected garbage added a malodorous element to the stew, all of it overlain by the smell of salt and brine wafting in from the harbor.
Japanese merchants welcomed the mobs of sailors, as if they were their closest companions and allies. Tattoo establishments, tailor shops, sex toy stores, and jazz clubs contended for their business. Why did they curry favor with the Americans? Why did they debase themselves in this way? Saburo found it all disconcerting.
While the Imperial Navy’s Warship March blasted from pachinko parlor speakers, Saburo threaded his way through the crowds–bar boys, drug peddlers, flower sellers, tour guides, and the advanced guard of the street walkers whose main bodies arrived after dark. He watched sailors deciphering bar signs rendered in fractured English: We Love Navel Man, Many Hot Josan Waiting for You, Come On For Free Drink.
Like models in a neon-lit fashion show, painted girls hung out the doors of bars and cabarets. Outfitted in evening gowns, slit skirts, cocktail dresses, or kimono, they laughed, smoked, chewed gum, and chatted among themselves. Hands on hips, like carnival touts they called out–coarsely, cheerfully, seductively: “Hi sailor come on in.” Special floor show just going to start, Filipina dancers.” “Hi, Joe. I lonely, waiting for you.” The more brazen pushed into the street and tried to tug sailors into their places of employment. They seemed at once comic, pathetic, and obscene.
Toshiko must be such a girl. The thought of it troubled him greatly. Saburo had to find her. He would do his best to make her happy, to help her become a good mother. He shut out all of the malevolent things she had said. He blocked from his mind the likelihood he was the victim of a pernicious delusion. If only he could convince her.
At last he located the place. He could not read the neon-lit English words, Black Rose, but he recognized the illuminated flower that accompanied them. He loitered across the street watching raucous groups of sailors surge in an out. They seemed so tall, so strong, and so arrogant. Monsters in human form, they frightened him. How could Japanese girls sink so low as to consort with them? Yet, many did, to the extent of being dubbed amejo, (American loving girls).
Apprehensive, overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, Saburo hesitated. He stood there for a long time–watching. He felt his skin crawl. The newspapers told the truth. His mother told the truth. These malignant red cities were not really part of Japan. Swarming with foreigners and corrupted Japanese people, they belonged someplace else. He felt he had alighted on one of the alien moons in the manga comics that absorbed him.
He finally marshaled his courage and trailed a pair of sailors through the curtained entrance into the dim interior of the club. Like predatory birds, a gaggle of hostesses descended on the sailors, and two of the quickest steered them into a booth. The rest of the girls drifted back to the door.
Saburo hovered uneasily just inside. He stared at Japanese girls, under spinning silver orbs, dancing languidly with American sailors, bodies pressed together. Could one of them be Toshiko? In the meager light he could not tell.
One of the hostesses noticed him. “This place is for Americans, you know. Are you looking for someone?”
“Yes. Toshiko Suzuki,” he said like a supplicant schoolboy, his head lowered and his hands folded in front of him.
“Who? You are mumbling,” the woman said. “And the music is so loud.” The unfamiliar strains of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face had yielded place to the equally alien Me and Bobby McGee.
“Toshiko Suzuki. She is from Yokohama.”
“Oh, Toshi. She’s not here . . . Hey; I think the manager has his eye on you. Maybe you should leave.”
“Where might she be?”
“I’m not sure. I think she has a new boyfriend. He’s a chief on the Oriskany.”
Uninvited, a Japanese man, bald and thickset and wearing a coat and tie, joined the conversation. “Why are you here?” he said. “You look like a tramp. Our customers don’t like Japanese men coming in here. Try the New Hakone. It’s Japanese only.”
“But, I am looking for Toshiko Suzuki. She is my . . .”
“I told you to leave.” The manager signaled a bartender and a man who emerged from a back room. “Get him out of here.”
“But I’ve done nothing; I am just looking for . . .”
One on each arm, the two men hustled Saburo backwards out the door, his heels skittering along the ground. With a final push they sent him sprawling in the street. “You heard what the boss said. Stay out.”
As he retrieved one of his sandals that had slipped off, Saburo wondered, why? Why were they so cruel?
“Hey, you.” He looked up and saw the woman he had asked about Toshiko. “You seem like an innocent type. I’m sorry you got a little roughed up.”
“Thank you. I did not intend to make any trouble.”
“The truth is Toshi went home early with her Oriskany Chief. I think his name is Richard. Her old boyfriend was a Marine. But, he’s TDY in Okinawa.”
Saburo knew she did these things, but he hated hearing it, especially stated so matter-of-factly. “Where does she live?” he said. “I have a message for her.”
“Are you a relative or friend?”
“Yes, something like that. I lost the paper with the address. I have no phone.”
“Twelve Hinode-cho. First apartment on the first floor. Most of us live there. Same owner as Black Rose. Too far to walk. You’ll have to take a cab.”
“Thank you very much.”
The woman declined his offer of a pack of Shinsei cigarettes he had brought for Toshiko, unaware the Yokosuka girls only smoked American brands.
“Nothing to it,” she said. “Oh, by the way. If you go in, shut the front door firmly. The latch is broken.” The woman disappeared back into the club.
Saburo did not have enough money for a taxi. He set out on foot.
After asking a policeman for directions, Saburo wended his way through the darkened town. He wished he had arrived earlier. Already bartenders pulled down rattling metal shutters and extinguished neon signs. Late night clientele sucked up soba in noodle shops, laughing couples fell into cabs, near-empty all night bars served people with nowhere else to go, and shore patrolmen in white helmets and leggings collected a sailor passed out in the doorway of a darkened cabaret. And there were fights, fights between sailors from different ships, fights between sailors and Marines, fights between sailors and bar boys.
Like figures in a phantasmagoric shadow play, spectral forms of charwomen, whores, and night shift workers floated past lighted windows–then vanished into the darkness. Office workers after a night of bar-hopping, hustled along toward the station trying to catch a last train. A sweet potato vendor pushed his cart through shadowed streets, his face half lighted by the glow from the conveyance’s charcoal brazier. His haunting, high pitched call of yaki-imo hung briefly in the air, then faded away. Seeing and hearing the vendor reminded Saburo how hungry he had become.
Here and there sailors searched for bars still open or snack stands; some negotiated with cab drivers who promised they could find girls; and others dickered with street walkers of uncertain gender who welcomed them into the darkness.
Eventually Saburo left the bar district’s labyrinthian alleys behind, then walked for a long time through unwelcoming, unlit streets until he reached Hinode-cho, a narrow alley lined by one and two-storied wooden structures. Here and there lights burned, but most of the buildings loomed above him as ominous forms shrouded in darkness. A couple climbed out of a cab, slid open an entry door, and went inside one of the buildings. A woman in a yukata robe slipped past him and hurried into another. Except for occasional muffled voices and the whining of a dog somewhere, he heard only his own breathing. He had come this far but–as it had at the Black Rose–his courage faltered. He stepped into a narrow lane, and, standing there in the darkness among the refuse bins, he anguished. What would he do if the American had not left yet?
And, indeed, the American had not left yet.
“Hey, Toshi baby, let me have a cold one.” Chief Morgan, clad only in under shorts, perched on the edge of Toshiko’s bed staring at late night Japanese news coverage of battle scenes from Vietnam. He couldn’t understand a word, but watched anyway. “And turn that fan over this way.”
Chief Morgan was a large, beefy man, his once blond hair edged with gray. His stomach protruded over the elastic of his shorts. A twenty plus year Navy veteran with pasty white skin, he sported no tattoos. He believed they poisoned your system.
He and Toshiko had spent the evening trying to stay cool. Despite all the appurtenances he had cumshawed, a window air conditioner was not one of them. Ever since Japan’s stifling summer heat arrived she had, like an insistent child, pestered him for a cooling unit.
“Some things even I can’t get,” he said.
Toshiko, clad in her underwear, delivered the beer. Morgan responded, only half in jest, with a sharp swat to her seat. “You forgot to turn the fan.”
Joining him on the bed, she said, “That hurt. Why you so mean?”
Before he could respond, a soft rapping at the apartment door distracted them both.
“Who the hell could that be? It’s pretty late.” Morgan said. He put his beer bottle on the floor. “It’s not that damn Marine is it?”
“No. He go Okinawa.”
When the rapping persisted, Morgan slipped on his trousers. Toshiko put on a yukata robe. “Go ahead, open it,” Morgan said.
She slid open the door.
Saburo stood in the glow of a flickering florescent light, beads of perspiration covering his face, his hands dangling at his sides.
“You? Why are you here?” Toshiko said in Japanese. She glared at him with undisguised belligerence. “How did you find this place?”
“Toshiko. Jiro wants his mama. Please come home.”
She looked at him with a mixture of utter surprise and contempt. “You idiot,” she said, her voice laced with anger, “I told you to leave me alone.”
“Who’s he?” Morgan said. “What are you two saying?”
She reverted to English. “He is nobody. He is person who trouble me.”
“Oh, one of those guys, huh.” Morgan took a step toward Saburo, an unambiguous threatening gesture.
“Please, Toshiko. Do not be a whore for the Americans. Come home.” Fear insinuated its way into Saburo’s voice. But, although he retreated a step, he continued. “Leave this evil town. Come home to your baby.”
She laughed. “Go away before my boyfriend hurts you.”
The dimness of the corridor disguised the mortification that swept Saburo’s face.
“Why are you laughing? What’s so funny?” Morgan said. “What’s going on?”
Toshiko said again in English, “He is nobody.”
“Quiet,” someone called out in English from another apartment.
“Come home,” Saburo said.
“Shove off, you little prick.” Morgan clenched his fist.
Toshiko restrained Morgan with her hand. “Please not talk loud, Richard. Neighbors not happy.”
Saburo tried one last appeal. “Your baby is sick. He needs his mama.”
“Take him to see a doctor. I am staying here. This is my life. Leave me alone,” Toshiko said. She slid the door shut and locked it.
Saburo remained in the hall. He repeatedly rapped on the door. Toshiko’s muffled voice penetrated the thin wood, “Go away.”
The American shouted something else. The words meant nothing to Saburo, but he recognized the hostility with which they came laden.
Hopes crushed, Saburo felt completely defeated. It was no use pretending, he had nothing to offer. And so he went away. He walked down the corridor and out into the street. He had no watch, but he guessed it must be well after midnight. He hoped he could make it to the station in time for the last train to Yokohama. She was right; he was a weakling and a fool. He would not try to bring her home again. The red city had claimed her.
The next afternoon, with Jiro in his arms, Saburo stood next to the track. Watching the Atami Express hurtle toward them, he hesitated, still trying to decide. Perhaps it would be best for both of them if . . .
Editor’s Note on Red City:
Red City is not Lawrence Farrar’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are: