My Neighbor, Mr. Tanaka

by Lawrence F Farrar

During the summer of 1995, not far from Kamakura, I rented a small house overlooking Sagami Bay.  It was a quiet place, somewhat secluded, the last house at the end of a gravel road bordered by chorus lines of wind-blown flowers.  Situated at the base of a hill abundant with maple and pine, it was a typical tile-roofed Japanese house, with tatami matted floors, sliding shoji and fusuma panels, and an understated tokonoma alcove.  The place afforded an exceptional view out over the water where, often as not, boats, some with sails and more without, speckled the surface; all of them rendered into miniatures by Mount Fuji, purple and cloud-wreathed, looming across the water.  It seemed a perfect location for a 30-year-old aspiring scholar engaged in a fresh study of the Kamakura Shogunate.  Although the required amount of key money strained my modest budget, I snapped the house up the moment the realtor showed it to me.  I was happy in my work and in the place.

It was while living there at the end of the Zaimokuza road that, one late August afternoon, I first encountered Heisaburo Tanaka.  I had ridden my bike into Kamakura to do some errands and while pedaling back I’d had a flat.  As a result, I ended up pushing the bike the rest of the way home.  The sweltering heat that lay across the Miura Peninsula like a breath-denying shroud made this unpleasant task even more unpleasant.  As I trudged along, I spotted an elderly man and a small white dog coming toward me.  I had seen the man once or twice before, but always at a distance. 

I had determined he lived in an unpretentious house up the hill above my place.  Screened by a bamboo fence and further obscured by a thick stand of trees, its red roof tiles barely revealed themselves through the branches.  Sole access up to the place appeared to be a winding path furnished with stone steps, each step worn down at its center from long use.  The house seemed to be that of someone who avoided the world and whom the world, in turn, avoided.  I had discerned no evidence of other residents or of visitors – as far as I could tell; only the man and his dog inhabited that hilltop retreat.

As he drew closer through the road’s shimmering heat, I was able to form a better defined picture of my Japanese neighbor.  He had short white hair that complemented a closely trimmed white beard and mustache.  His eyes, crowned with thick, vigorous brows, peered out through round horn-rimmed glasses of a sort popular in the 30s and 40s.  A bit stooped and slow-moving, he wore gray trousers and a white short-sleeved shirt that failed to conceal a slight paunch. 

His eyes firmly focused on the course ahead, the old fellow seemed determined to ignore my very existence. But, then the little dog, a terrier of some sort, strained on it leash and greeted me, uncertain as to whether it should bark or wag its tail.  It did both.  I put down the bike and extended my hand toward the eager canine.

“Yuki.  No,” the man said to the terrier in Japanese.  “I am sorry,” he said to me in accented English.

“I like dogs,” I said in Japanese and tried to pet the animal.

“I am sorry,” the man said again in English.  He tugged the dog back, bowed slightly, and continued on his way.  He had not been especially friendly.  But then meeting a tall, pony-tailed foreigner was likely a unique experience for him and one he probably didn’t relish.  In retrospect, I am confident that in those days I came across as a somewhat untidy, disheveled person.  Rather off-putting, I imagine.

I subsequently gleaned from my landlord that the man’s name was Heisaburo Tanaka and that he had lived there atop the hill for a long time.  That was it.  The landlord seemed disinclined to say much else, but, then, he struck me as being a reticent man.  I also inquired about Mr. Tanaka at the green grocer where I shopped.  Like my landlord, the proprietor seemed averse to providing information to an inquisitive foreigner.  In any case, during the days that followed two or three times I happened to glance out my window and spied Mr. Tanaka and Yuki on what I surmised to be their daily outing.  I soon discovered the time of their coming and going along the road was precise and predictable, like that of the trains transiting Kamakura Station. 

Once or twice more we came face-to-face on the road; each time the dog sought to greet me and each time his master sought to move along with only a mumbled salutation.  I suppose the fact he wished to keep his distance, both physical and social, should not have seemed particularly noteworthy.  When it came to strangers, never mind foreigners, I recognized this practice to be a feature of Japanese society.

            One early September afternoon, not long after my fruitless inquiries, I was lounging in my small garden reading and enjoying a pleasant breeze wafting in from the bay.  Rustling leaves murmured sporadically and a few birds twittered now and again, a pleasant tapestry of small sounds.  The serenity of the garden lulled me and, about to drowse off, I put down the book.  Just then, I sensed a presence beside my chair.  I looked down through half-open eyes and there sat Yuki gazing up at me, his tail flailing.

            “Yuki, what are you doing here?”  I reached down and delivered the pat on the head he seemed to anticipate.  “Your master must be looking for you.”  The dog cocked his head from side to side, as if trying to grasp my words.

            Almost immediately I heard Mr. Tanaka calling in Japanese from out in the road.  “Yuki.  Yuki.  Where are you?”  Concern laced his voice.

            I scooped up the little wanderer and carried him to the gate.  When he saw his pet, Mr. Tanaka went down to his knees and embraced his dog.  The dog responded by licking his face.  Clearly a strong bond existed between them.

            “Thank you so much for finding my Yuki,” Mr. Tanaka said in Japanese.  “Sometimes he likes to run away.  I think he wants to find a friend.”

            I replied in Japanese.  “My name is Marshall Conlon.  I am staying here while I study Japanese history.”

            “I am Tanaka.”    

            “I was about to have some tea.  Would you like to join me?”

            “No thank you.  I must go.  But I am very grateful you rescued my dog.”

            “I didn’t really rescue him.  He just showed up and . . .”

“I must go,” he said, this time in English.  Clutching the dog in his arms, Mr. Tanaka bowed and then went out the gate.

I had the impression he wanted to stay, wanted to talk, but then perhaps that was simply my own garrulous nature at play.  I returned to my book and gave the matter no further thought.

That is I gave it no further thought until the following morning when I became aware of someone rapping at the door.  Gomen kudasai.  (Is anyone at home?)  I recognized Mr. Tanaka’s reedy voice.

When I stepped down into the entryway and slid open the outer door, I found Mr. Tanaka standing there, a brown fabric bag extended before him in two hands.  The bag bulged with nashi, succulent Japanese pears.

Sober-faced, he said in English, “You were kind to my dog.  Here is small thank you.  These fruits are from my tree.”  He handed me the bag, bowed, backed away, and bowed again.  Once more he seemed torn, desirous of staying but reluctant to do so.

“Perhaps we can talk some time,” I said.  Mr. Tanaka’s face remained expressionless, but before he turned and disappeared through my gate I thought I heard him say, yes, perhaps.  I have to admit the old fellow intrigued me.  It appeared he wanted to be friendly; yet, for whatever reason, he held back.  And I suspected he knew even more English than he let on.  Wherever had he acquired it?

—–

            Ten minutes from my house and just off the Zaimokuza road, I had discovered a small shrine hidden among the trees.  The stone figures of the local gods were pitted, gray, and layered with moss.  A sanctuary of peace and serenity, the place provided a leaf-filtered view of the bay’s shimmering water and of Fuji-san.  Fortunately some unknown benefactor had provided two benches where one could sit and enjoy the quiet.  My writing had stalled; my prose lingered on the page like a leaden weight.  From time to time I needed to escape my desk, and that anonymous glade became the perfect place to collect and refresh my thoughts.  I found it to be restful, soul-affirming.  I also found it to be a place where my neighbor, Mr. Tanaka, too, passed time; I supposed for much the same reason as did I.

            Autumn had arrived and the heat of the sun I’d wished banished only weeks before now felt good, warming body and soul alike.  Mr. Tanaka obviously enjoyed the sun as well; the first time I chanced upon him at the shrine, his eyes closed and head back, he luxuriated in a banner of sunshine that dropped that day from a flawless sky.  Yuki detected my approach and set to barking with a welcoming, high-pitched terrier voice.

            “Do you mind if I join you?” I said.  I expected Mr. Tanaka would likely depart immediately, as he had been inclined to do whenever we met previously.

            Instead, he said, “Please stay. Yuki is happy to see his new friend.”  Mr. Tanaka unsnapped the leash and the dog rushed over to me, dancing and frolicking around my feet.  I took a seat on the bench opposite his master.  We were the only people present; indeed, I never saw another visitor in that rather out-of-the-way place.

            Long spells of silence passed between us.   What little conversation we had that day, was without substance, impersonal, space-filling.  How pleasant the weather; how peaceful the shrine; how historic a place Kamakura; how fascinating Japanese history; how clever Yuki–those sorts of things.  Then, after twenty minutes or so, Mr. Tanaka said he had to leave and, with Yuki bouncing along at his side, he did so.  But as he left Mr. Tanaka said, zya mata (until next time).

And, indeed, there came a next time, and more next times after that.  It was a spontaneous arrangement.  In the days that followed I never set foot in his house or he in mine.  But as if by prearrangement, we often showed up at the shrine at about the same time, mostly in the early afternoon.  Once or twice, with Yuki romping ahead like a furry little guide, we even strolled along a nearly overgrown path in the nearby woods.  On more than one occasion we ate osembe (rice crackers) one of us brought along in a small bag and drank ocha (green tea) one of us brought in a thermos.

            For a while our exchanges remained innocuous.  Mr. Tanaka rarely smiled, save for when he described Yuki’s most recent antics.  We continued to sit on facing benches, frequently saying nothing at all for extended periods.  In the meantime, I suppose I had set myself something of a challenge to draw him out, motivated as much by ordinary curiosity as by anything more profound.  But he responded slowly, his replies to my questions extracted piecemeal.  I simply thought of him as an old fellow living out his days sustained by memories.  But the question of what those memories might be provoked my interest.

            I especially pursued him, subtly at first and then straight-forwardly, about how he had come to speak such good English.  He finally divulged that, “My parents immigrated to America, to California.  I was born there.”  A day or two later I winkled out the fact that, “When I was 14 years old, my father died in an accident.  My mother brought me back to Japan.”  To some degree these statements answered the language question; but they raised others.  Why did he now live here in this particular corner of Japan?  Why, as seemed to be true, had he never returned to the US?  He ignored my further interrogatories and simply repeated, “I am Japanese.  I am old now.  There is nothing to add.”  I took these words to mean he considered his American life to be a life left behind.

            Reluctant to say more, he seemed sad, as if his youth in America had somehow left scars.  At least that was my interpretation of why he often seemed to have something on his mind.  I refrained from pressing for additional details after more than once watching Mr. Tanaka wipe a tear from his eye.  It would be an exaggeration to say we had become friends, but I do think we shared a kind of companionship as we passed time together on our benches.  And we shared affection for his little dog.  Yet, as I peeled back layers of information, he seemed uncomfortable and less and less eager to provide anything else.

            One day, while we stayed longer into the afternoon than usual, the sound of a distant temple bell reached us.  That somber resonance framed in silence has always seemed mournful to me, as if the bell was tolling for the emptiness of our human existence.  We sat without speaking until the tolling stopped.

            Absent-mindedly massaging Yuki’s ears, Mr. Tanaka spoke in a low voice.  “Conlon-san, you must know the meaning of the phrase mono no aware.”

            “Yes,” I said, “as I understand it, it means the pathos of things.  The fleeting nature of life.  Something like that.”

            “My own life will soon end.  I have much regret,” he said.  “Much regret.” A nimbus of sadness embraced him.  “If I say more, I fear I will disappoint you.”  An impenetrable scrim cloaked his meaning, leaving me baffled as to what he was trying to get across.  He seemed beset by some unexplained melancholy; or perhaps it was grief.

            I wondered what he meant, but I probed no further.  Perhaps I had already pursued matters best left unexplored; whatever they might be.

—–

            After that conversation, I suppose it was late September, Mr. Tanaka stopped coming to the shrine.  At least our paths no longer crossed there.  Fallen leaves carpeted the ground.  Perhaps, I thought, he had quit coming because the air had become too chill.  I suppose it seems odd, but I have to admit I missed our time together.  What, I wondered, had become of him?

            At that time I had a Japanese acquaintance I’d known from my undergraduate days and who was working as a journalist in Yokohama.  I had intended to contact him anyway and so I gave him a call.  A week later over a yakitori lunch I mentioned Mr. Tanaka and my encounters with him.  Perhaps, I said, there was some kind of human interest story there for one of his newspaper colleagues.  I gave him Mr. Tanaka’s name and address, and he promised to see what he could learn. Of course, my suggestion was not without an ulterior purpose.  A newsman could likely uncover details that I could not. 

            A few days later the journalist called me at home.

            “I am calling about your neighbor, Tanaka.”

            “Yes.  What can you tell me?”  I was eager to hear his report.

            “Your friend, Tanaka, is rather famous—or perhaps I should say infamous.”

            “Really?  In what way?”

            “It seems Tanaka, at least in the eyes of the American authorities, was a war criminal who managed to escape justice.”

            His words startled me.  “A war criminal?” I said.  “That kind old man who cherishes his little dog?”

            “He was indicted in absentia for executing American pilots in the Philippines in 1944.  Somehow, he escaped with a false identity, made his way back to Japan, and vanished into the post-war chaos.  Then, with the help of family members, he stayed on the run until well after the last arrests and trials were over.”

            Thunderstruck, I listened with incredulity.  It seemed impossible.

            “He was found out by one of our reporters in 1978.  Although there was some press coverage at the time, the Justice Ministry showed no interest in the case.  Too much time had passed and the question of jurisdiction was cloudy.  Soon after, he disappeared again, at least from the public eye.”

            “Do you mean nobody knew where he was?”

            “Oh, I expect the police knew.  Probably some family members.  Even your neighbors in Kamakura.”

            “But why was there no more publicity?”

            “The war had ended a long time before.  People did many things they did not wish to recall.  They wanted to get on with their lives.  Others simply did not want to be reminded of an embarrassing past.”  I thought of the landlord and the green grocer.  They were like the three famous monkeys in the Nikko Shrine who avoided seeing, hearing or speaking of improprieties. 

“So he was more or less forgotten?”

            “Yes, you could say that.  Certainly no one at my paper is interested in digging this all up again.”

            I put down the phone and sat in disbelief.  The man who had delivered pears to my door; the man with whom I had idled away afternoons; and the man who had been born a US citizen; this man had executed American flyers?  Why?  Under what circumstances?  How many?  I felt awash in a tide of daunting questions.  I simply could not believe this was the same person—my neighbor, Mr. Tanaka.  I felt ill.  With some amusement I had earlier wondered if Mr. Tanaka’s reluctance to talk masked a dark secret.  I had concluded there could be none.  And now came this devastating report.

            The mental picture of Mr. Tanaka wielding a sword and beheading some fear-filled kneeling American pilot–for that was how they often did it–sickened me.  That someone with whom I maintained a friendly relationship, with whom I drank green tea, could perform such a heinous act struck me with a force beyond imagining.  I remained by the phone, my stomach churning and twisting upon itself.  No wonder he had been avoiding me.  Perhaps my questions had lodged too close to the core of something rotten.

            But, in the confusion of war, might not the information have been wrong?  Perhaps the charge had been a false one.  An adversary settling scores?  An instance of mistaken identity?  There had to have been cases like that.  I wanted to believe some such theory, but realized I was likely deluding myself.  I said half aloud, Mr. Tanaka, could you really have done such things?

            For a time I halted my research altogether, preoccupied with Mr. Tanaka.  Sunk in a bubbling stew of emotions, I felt sullied, deceived and, I must say, saddened.

—–

            As I dwelt on the matter, I decided I had to know more.  I had to hear it from Mr. Tanaka himself.  And, so, one unseasonably warm autumn afternoon when I saw him pass along the road with his dog, I guessed he might be going to the shrine.   His life, past or present, was really none of my affair, but the impulse to confront him was strong and I went to the shrine myself.

            When I arrived, Yuki wanted to frolic as he always did.  Mr. Tanaka sat slumped on the bench and said nothing to acknowledge my presence.  He seemed shrunken, vulnerable, and more fragile than I remembered him.  Gripping Yuki’s leash, his hands were folded in front of him and his eyes blinked nervously.   I simply could not associate him with the horrors I witnessed in my mind’s eye.  Who, in truth, was this man?  His manner led me to suspect that somehow he knew I’d discovered his secret, the story of those long ago abhorrent acts.

            I could find no words for what I wanted to say.  I stammered something about not having seen him for a while.  How to begin?

            He solved the problem for me.  “I am told by my relative your newspaper friend has been making inquiries about me.”

            I nodded.  “Yes.  Is it true, then?”  How I hoped he would say no.  Offer some plausible explanation.  But he did not.

            “It is true,” he said.  “How I hoped I would never have to say these things to an American.  And now I must say them to one who had become a friend.”

            “If the story is true, as you say it is, then I am no friend.  Not now.”

            “I have no excuse.  I only feel shame.”  His eyes appeared to be wet behind his glasses.  “Still, I must tell you what happened.”

            The dog hopped up in his lap and lay with its chin on his knee.

            “Our life was hard after we returned to Japan from America.  My father was dead and, although my uncle tried to help, he had so little himself.  Our neighbors despised us because they said we had abandoned our homeland to go to America to get rich and because they found out my parents had become Christians.  At school I was the target of classmates who said I was an American devil.  It got worse when the war started.”

            I sat in silence as Mr. Tanaka described being drafted into the Imperial Army where he was often beaten and called an American spy.  He described the hardships of jungle combat in the Philippines for him and his fellow soldiers, the terror induced by the approaching footfall of American bombs, and the despair at having been abandoned by the Tokyo government.

            “Some men in our unit had died of starvation; I believed I, too, would soon die,” he said.  “I shook with malaria and my body was covered with sores.  My shoes were riddled with holes and my uniform had been reduced to dirty rags.”

            I had heard this kind of story before, but I found his first-hand telling credible and moving.  How could human beings exist in such filth and misery?  The soldiers’ torments and suffering he so vividly described rivaled those of the damned souls depicted in Akutagawa’s horrendous short story, “Hell Screen.”  Although I was absorbed in Mr. Tanaka’s account, I wondered when he would mention the executions.

            “We were deep in the jungle waiting to die,” he said.  Our captain, Nishimura, always a fanatic, by that time had become crazy.  And he hated me.  Most of what happened that morning is a blur.  But everything awful has stayed with me all my life.”

            “What did happen?” I asked with morbid fascination.

            “We had seen no Americans for weeks, but we knew they were getting closer.  In the meantime, Captain Nishimura had been treating the Filipino villagers with great cruelty.  He claimed they were all working for the Americans.  Perhaps to escape his wrath and to win his favor, the villagers delivered up three American airmen they had been hiding.  The three tried to be brave but they were greatly frightened.  I am sure they knew what was about to happen.”

            Mr. Tanaka paused and put down the dog.  Yuki came over to me and curled up at my feet, almost as if he didn’t like what he was hearing.

            “Captain Nishimura forced the three American men to kneel and then he drew his sword.  We expected he was about to kill them.  Instead he thrust the sword into my hands.  ‘Prove you are no weakling.  Prove you are a true bushi.’  Spittle spewed from his mouth.  I tried to give back the sword.  I told him they were helpless prisoners and could do us no harm.  My words only infuriated him.  ‘Kill one and I will spare the others, he said.’  He pointed his pistol at one of my Japanese comrades.  ‘Do it or he dies, too.’” His voice barely audible, Mr. Tanaka paused, troubled by the remembering.  Then he drew in a deep breath and said, “I did it.  I did it.  I cut the head of a living human being.”  He looked at me with pleading eyes. “I tried to resist, Conlon-san.  But I was too weak.  I was too frightened.  You must believe me.  I wanted to retch, but nothing came.”

            I sat transfixed, unable to speak.

            “It had not ended.  Our captain had lied.  He put his pistol to their heads and, one by one, shot the other two pilots.  Then he shot the village chief in the face.  He was screaming.  ‘You hid them, you hid them.’  I could stand it no more.  I swung the sword and slashed off the captain’s arm, and then struck him in the face with the blade.”

            There now followed a long silence.  Mr. Tanaka looked at the ground; I could see his body trembling.  “There was so much blood, he said.  “So much blood.”  Surely he had borne a life-long burden of shame and guilt.  Could it have been otherwise?

            How to react?  I confronted a dilemma.  No matter how long ago the incident; no matter how convincing the explanation (and it was only Mr. Tanaka’s version of events), what I heard that day colored my thoughts in frightening and dark hues.  My immediate impulse was to turn away, to hold the man in contempt.  At the same time this friend of sorts had in my dealings with him been a kind and decent person.  And the pain of awful regret I’d seen in his eyes seemed genuine.  I struggled to put my mind around a set of facts that, despite their seemingly clear-cut exposition, remained indistinct, nebulous in their implication.  Did a fear-driven act, one committed under extreme duress, make you a bad person?  And, if so, could there be no redemption?  Ever?

            Neither of us said anything further.  When I left the shrine that day, Yuki briefly followed after me and then turned around.  I glanced back once and saw Mr. Tanaka stroking the dog’s head.  God.  What troubling images must have preyed on Mr. Tanaka all those years?

            After that I stopped my visits to the shrine, in part because the weather had turned crisp and chilly.  More significantly, I did so because my experience there, once heartwarming and uplifting, now seemed tarnished.  Nonetheless, from time to time it still occurred to me that perhaps I should try to reach out to him, try to learn more, and try to understand more.  Perhaps instead of disgust I should show the man compassion.  But despite such musings I never met Mr. Tanaka again; in the end I suppose we both sought to avoid further contact.  Once, walking back from my bus stop, I saw him far ahead standing on a roadside overlook, a solitary figure gazing out at the bay in the dying light of day.  Like the solitary pine that confronted the sea on a cliff just beyond my house, he seemed utterly alone.  

            Huddled over the meager glow of a charcoal-fueled hibachi, I was unhappily reminded the house that so captured my fancy during the summer lacked central heat.  On cold November mornings I was not at all eager to crawl out from under the futon quilts to start my day.  It was, however, on just such a morning, almost three weeks after I last saw Mr. Tanaka; I awakened to the sound of whining, pitiful and persistent, at the front entrance.  I got up, slipped on a robe, and made my way to the door.

            There stood Yuki, his head down, his leash fastened to a door post.  He had a small bag hung around his neck.  When I opened it, I found a note laboriously set down in the style of the Palmer Penmanship Method, as if by the hand of a schoolboy in some long-ago California classroom.

            Conlon-san -You are Yuki’s only friend now.  Please treat him kindly and take good care of him.  I left some food for him by the door.  I am sorry from my heart for what I did on that island.  Perhaps at least you can forgive me.  Tanaka

                The policemen who broke into Mr. Tanaka’s locked house that morning simply confirmed what I already assumed had happened.

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