Just the Way Life Is

by Lawrence F. Farrar

Northern Japan, September 1935
The two men from the city had frightened her.  One of them had touched her in a way no man should.  Sixteen year old Kumiko Yamashita overheard only fragments of what they said to her father.  But, she knew they had struck a bargain.  The tall man, the one who limped, said they would return for her in three or four days.  A terrible awareness settled over the farm girl.  Just as they had done with her sister the year before, her parents had sold her to a brothel.  The men, who had come to the village in a large black automobile and in the company of a local policeman, were agents of a broker procuring girls in the North to be sent to Tokyo.  They roamed the countryside like rats let loose in a rice warehouse.
Kumiko understood her parents’ decision had been a desperate one.  Although they never said so–it was not their way–she wanted to believe they cared for her.  But, she also knew the impoverished couple recognized that winter, an ice-ridden demon, would soon fix its grip on northern Japan, with howling winds and layers of snow.  In this fourth year of the famine, one person fewer to feed and a bit of cash could mean the difference between survival and starvation.  For a daughter to sell her flesh for the family’s benefit constituted an act of filial piety.  Besides, the girl would probably be better off.  That was how they thought. 
            Conditions in their guttering little village were truly miserable.  During the worst of the previous winters, Kumiko’s family and their neighbors had dug under the snow for roots and acorns to eat; they even tried boiling bark from the trees.  Babies died.  Old people died.  A young woman they all thought to be strong died of pneumonia.  Kumiko herself nearly froze to death while foraging for food on the mountain; her chest still ached from coughing, and her stomach twisted on itself for lack of enough to eat.   
            Yet, the prospect of escaping these burdens in no way offset the terror she felt at being forced into a life of prostitution in far away Tokyo.  The family had heard nothing of Kumiko’s sister, although a rumor reached the village she had failed in an attempted escape and been severely punished by a brothel master wielding a bamboo sword.  The very prospect of being carried off to a city–Kumiko had never set foot in a real city–let alone being forced to sell herself to strangers, terrified her.  She had never ridden in an automobile; she had never entered a movie theater; she had never laid eyes on a foreigner; she had never gone into a department store–and she had never been with a man. 
            What sparked the thought of resisting her seemingly preordained fate she did not know, could not begin to fathom.  In her place, most Japanese would resignedly have said, shikata ga nai, it can’t be helped, that’s just the way life is.  Although her father sometimes criticized her as self-willed, like other village girls, she had, in fact, never made a significant decision on her own.  Now she made one–she would not accept the same fate as her sister.  She would run away before the men returned.
            But where to go?  She dreaded the police and trembled at the prospect of approaching any government official.  For rural folk like her such people were like demigods, to be feared and obeyed.  Nonetheless, in her distress, an unlikely notion crossed her mind and then took root.  Her cousin’s friend once told her that a foreign missionary living on the road to Akeyama was said to be a kind man who helped poor Japanese people like them.  The friend said the missionary lived with his wife next to the Akeyama road in a grand house surrounded by a white wall.  The idea of having anything to do with a foreigner frightened Kumiko almost as much as that of being taken away on a train by the two men from Tokyo.  She did not know how, but perhaps the foreigner could help her.  Her grandfather had told her that, despite their bulbous noses and buttery odor, foreigners possessed special powers, especially the priests, who could perform feats of magic.  He had heard they could even change wine into blood.
            In the darkest morning hour the girl spread her own thin quilt over her sleeping mother, and then crept out of the dirt-floored, thatched hut, the only home she had ever known.  Her heart thudded in her chest.  Fear of the night nearly overwhelmed her and she half turned, about to go back.  Who knew what demons and monsters lurked in the blackness?  But, the even greater fear of being taken away to Tokyo compelled her to go on.  Shivering in the chill autumn air, she stumbled along a path from the village to a rutted trail that, in turn, led to a gravel road.  She knew the road went to Akeyama.  The girl began to walk in that direction.  Sharp stones dug into the bottoms of her flimsy sandals.  She hardly noticed–without knowing it or being able to articulate it, she was seeking a kind of salvation.  She pushed on.
Peter McGowan and his father, Dr. Charles McGowan, sat at the family’s kitchen table drinking green tea.  Absent from Japan for ten years, Peter, a physician like his missionary father, had returned to his parents’ home a few days earlier.  The mood was somber, the conversation serious, for these were troubling times.  The senior McGowan had been describing the consequences of the depression still gripping Japan.  Nowhere did the rural folk suffer more grievously than in northern Honshu, the Tohoku region.  The McGowans had ministered there for nearly thirty years.  They had long lived in a house local people referred to as the Dutch Manor House because of its Western construction.  Peter had grown up there. 
            “Peter, this depression has been truly horrible, especially for the farm families here in the North.  We hear talk of starvation, or at least near starvation.  Their poverty and desperation have forced all too many farmers to make heart-rending decisions.”
Dr. McGowan stroked a white mustache that complemented white eyebrows and a shock of white hair.  When he hooked his thumbs in his suspenders, Peter’s father looked more like a New England storekeeper than a missionary on Asian ramparts for forty years.  He sounded like a New Englander too, even though he had lived almost all of his life in China and Japan.
            “Of course,” Peter said, “I was aware of some of it when I was still in the States, but . . .” 
            Peter realized Japanese farmers had been struck a staggering blow by the worldwide depression.  As the 1930s began, sericulture, an important income source, collapsed along with the tumbling international silk market.  On top of that, fluctuating production played havoc with rice prices, and in 1934 cold, wet weather created horrendous crop failures.  
            “It’s worse than you could have imagined, Peter.  Much worse,” his father continued. “Just last week two girls from that village right up the road . . . sold to brothels by their parents,” he said.  He shook his head in a solemn gesture of sadness and regret.  “I’m sure their poverty just overwhelmed them.” 
            Peter narrowed his eyes.  Anger welled up.  “It’s inhumane–what’s happening to those girls.  A rotten shame.”          
“And there have been others, Peter.  Too many others.”  Dr. McGowan briefly raised his eyes heavenward.  “Surely God must have His reasons.  Each year we pray for a better harvest and a milder winter, but . . . God must have . . .”        
“I know this sort of thing has been going on forever,” Peter said.  “But . . .” 
            He had not always demonstrated such concern.   As a boy, Peter pricked up his ears when he heard stories of girls being sold.  Yet, Peter devoted little thought to the implications.  Floating freely in a country where sexual license embedded itself in the social fabric, by the time they turned seventeen, Peter and his friend, Henry Whitfield, had availed themselves of the services of more than one accommodating professional. 
            So far as young Peter had been concerned, the girls simply materialized.  Questions of how or why had not lodged in Peter’s mind.  Like the butterflies in his parents’ garden, the girls were alluring but transient creatures–and ultimately of little consequence.
            His years at Oberlin had erased that insouciance.  Not that Peter had metamorphosed into a prude–far from it.  But, his involvement in an array of campus causes invigorated his social conscience.  And a residency in Cincinnati’s Riverview Hospital introduced him to lives ripped apart by the physical and emotional consequences of prostitution. 
              “It’s not right.  Just because they’re poor.”  Peter clenched his fists as they rested on the table.  The coercive exploitation of the beleaguered farm families violated Peter’s now burnished sense of justice.      
            “You’re right, Peter.  It’s a terrible, terrible thing,” Peter’s father said, his face smothered in resignation. 
            Those who knew him regarded Dr. McGowan as a decent, kindly, and even-tempered man–and an embodiment of the Social Gospel.  Peter had inherited or, perhaps emulated, these qualities growing up.  As with his father, these qualities made it difficult not to like him.  Colleagues and staff at the hospital had been struck by his consideration for others.  One nurse described Peter as a nice person, incapable of meanness.  But, he lacked patience for what he perceived to be tolerance of or inadequate responses to injustice.  When challenged by the incompatibility of duty and feeling, Peter tended to opt for the latter.  More than once he ignored hospital policies to treat destitute patients.       
            “Can’t the government help the farmers?  Give them loans?  Jobs?  Something?”  Peter was incredulous.  “Isn’t there something you–we–can do?  Someone to talk to?” 
            “It’s not easy, Peter.  It’s their country . . . and we have to avoid provocation.”
            “But, you’re a doctor.  Surely the medical and social implications . . .”
            “I’m afraid those are temporal issues, Peter, best left to the temporal authorities.”  Dr. McGowan lowered his eyes to avoid seeing Peter’s expression of disbelief.
            “Father, are you saying there’s nothing to be done?”  Peter displayed a flash of exasperation.  Had his father abandoned his humanity? 
            “I’ve tried to counsel people,” Dr. McGowan said.  “I’ve told them over and over that sending their daughters into that awful bondage is sinful.”  He sounded defensive.
            Peter took a sip of green tea and screwed up his face.  He had forgotten its soft bitterness.  It had been a very long time since he sailed for the United States on the Queen of Canada.
            “And what do they say?”  Peter probed for a more satisfying answer.
            “They seem to understand, but . . .” An openhanded shrug completed the thought.
            Like a lecturer striving for effect, Dr. McGowan lifted his spectacles from the table, polished each lens with a handkerchief, sighted through them, and then returned them to the faded, but spotless tablecloth.
            “But, they’re Japanese after all,” Dr. McGowan went on, as if summing up his studied point of view.  “They’re so resigned, so fatalistic.  I know what they’re thinking–even if they don’t say it–shikata ga nai, it can’t be helped.  That’s just the way life is.”
            “Shikata ga nai?  I don’t buy it.”  Peter dropped an open hand on the table.  “I suppose they think that way.  But . . .”
             Moving about in front of the old sink washing and rinsing dishes, Peter’s mother, Penelope McGowan, said, “Can’t you two talk about something other than how miserable things are?  After all, Charles, your son just came home.” 
            “You’re right, Mother, he’ll see it all soon enough.” 
            When Peter left for America he had been a teen-ager; he had come home a man.    Since his return, his parents had been taken with his maturity and the confidence of his voice.  The son they remembered had been transformed.  It would take some getting used to.   
            Approaching thirty, Peter had turned out a not bad-looking man.  He had dark brown hair, sharply parted on the left and combed over.  His brown eyes communicated sincerity and competency, just right for a physician.  He had broken his nose playing baseball, but it required close examination to detect the lump left by the healing.  The composite was an honest face, clean shaven and a bit longish–a sober and earnest face.  Yet, his serious demeanor could vanish in a microsecond, transformed by a disarmingly innocent grin as he and his father traded puns, the worse the better.
            “Looks like you’ve put on a little weight, Peter,” Dr. McGowan said, a teasing quality in his voice.
“You think so, eh?”  Peter smiled, flexed his arm and pointed to a biceps.  “I’m like Charles Atlas.”  Peter had no doubts, at 175 he was trim and fit as ever.  He was like the popular strong man of the day; no beach bully would ever kick sand in his face.   
            September twilight infused the kitchen with a glow that stirred comforting boyhood memories for Peter.  He looked fondly at his mother.  Her face, plain and stern, perhaps reflecting her hard-scrabble girlhood on the Kansas prairie, had always belied a sweetness of soul.  Whether comforting a bereaved mother or carrying food to a shut-in, Mrs. McGowan spilled over with love and compassion.  She was tall, still erect, her braided hair pulled back. 
              Mrs. McGowan dried her hands on a towel reserved for that purpose and joined her husband and son at the table.  “I’m afraid supper wasn’t what you’re used to, Peter.  But, we have to watch every sen.  Of course, we always did, but especially these days.”
            “The Board’s done its best,” Dr. McGowan said.  “But, they’re putting up with hard times too.”
            “Now, Peter, tell us about the hospital,” Mrs. McGowan said.  “It must have been wonderfully exciting.”
            “Not much to say that I haven’t already written.  A lot of fellows were taking up specialties.  I was awfully tempted.  But, I guess one more GP in the family won’t be too bad.”
            His father beamed.  “You made the right choice, Peter.  Maybe my prayers had something to do with it.    You’ll be a first-rate doctor . . . and a wonderful missionary.  I just know it, Peter.”
            “Well, there’s something I want to tell . . .”
            As a teen-ager, Peter pored over scriptures, prayed twice a day with his parents, and taught Sunday school.  But, the instinct for religion, let alone the instinct for a religious vocation, had flown out of him well before he went back to America for college and medical training.  Once in the United States, he’d cast off the trappings of religion like an old overcoat.  With his new education came new thinking
            He tried again.  “There is something I need to tell . . .”
            “I think it’s time we get some rest,” Dr. McGowan said.
            The three clasped hands and Dr. McGowan closed his eyes.
            “Thank you once again, Lord for the safe return of our son, Peter.  Like your disciple, for whom he is named, with your blessing and guidance, we pray he will advance our mission here in Japan.  These are difficult times, Jesus.  We need your strength.  Peter is your faithful servant, and we thank You for showing him this path.  Amen.”
Later, gazing up at the ceiling of his old bedroom, Peter thought, I have to tell them.  The words had nearly spilled out.  He heard no voice; felt no calling.  He could never be a missionary.  He had to tell them.   He and his father were reading from different scriptures.  Peter would honor his promise.  He would fulfill his two year commitment to the Mission Board that had paid for much of his medical education–but, nothing more.  Nothing more, he told himself. 
            Yet, try as he might, he could not push away the image of those farmers sending their daughters into lives of degradation.  Like a daruma, one of those round-bottomed Japanese dolls that always return to an upright position, the image of young women and girls being shipped off to Tokyo and even overseas to Shanghai asserted itself again and again.    His father’s passivity, his apparent acceptance of the fatalistic Japanese notion of it can’t be helped, that’s just the way life is, troubled Peter.  Peter did not subscribe to that notion–not at all.  There must be something they could do.  Something.
            At four in the morning, a sound at the gate stirred Peter to wakefulness.  Perhaps the wind had risen.  When he was a boy, he sometimes came awake in the night’s blackness, convinced he heard oni, Japanese demons, snorting at the same gate.  Propping himself on an elbow, he listened.
            “Please.  Please.”  He heard the faint voice of a woman or girl, speaking Japanese.
            Peter swung out of bed and took off the blue and white cotton yukata robe his mother had insisted he wear.  He hopped about in the darkness pulling on his trousers, crossed the downstairs parlor, grabbed a jacket, and, after slipping on his shoes in the entryway, went out the door.  His parents still slept.
            A chill fall wind snapped at his cheeks and scoured his body as he crossed from the house to the gate.
            “Please.  Help me, please.”  Anguish permeated the voice.
            Peter peered out along the road, the only illumination intermittent moonlight breaking through fast moving clouds.  In the vague blue light he barely made out a huddled form, sunk to the ground.  When he drew closer, he realized it was a young girl. 
            “I want to see the priest.”  She sobbed and, like a runner at the end of a long race, gulped for air.  “Are you the priest?”
            From her countrified way of speaking, Peter assumed she must be from one of the nearby villages.  He was at a loss.  Why had she found her way to the McGowans’ gate–and in the middle of the night?
            “Come with me,” he said in Japanese.  She shrank back.  “You’re safe here.  Come with me.”  She trailed him across the mission compound to the house.
            Awakened by the voices, his parents turned on the lights and came into the parlor.
            “She was at the gate,” Peter said to his father, who had put on an old flannel robe.  “She was asking for you.  At least, I guess you’re the priest.”
            Peter judged the girl to be fifteen or sixteen.  Her monpe trousers and jacket, tattered and dirty, hung loosely about her emaciated body.  Her sandal-clad feet betrayed no sign of recent bathing, and her hair was a mare’s nest.  She trembled with cold and fear, her smudged face animated by a mix of terror and relief.
            Mrs. McGowan, her braids hanging behind her, disappeared into the kitchen.  Still in her night clothes, she soon reappeared with a cup of hot green tea and a plate of rice balls.
            The girl greedily gulped the liquid and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
            “All we’ve learned,” Dr. McGowan told his wife, “is that her name is Kumiko and she wants some kind of help.  That and the fact she walked a long way to get here.  I gather she’s been on the road since yesterday.”   
“I see.”  Unlike her husband and son, Mrs. McGowan spoke little Japanese.
            Apparently comforted by Mrs. McGowan’s presence, the girl stopped crying and stared at them.  She ignored the chair Peter offered and knelt on the floor.
            “My father sold me.”  She had a low, cranky voice and a Tohoku accent thick as congealed rice.
            “What did she say?”  Although he had grown up speaking Japanese, Peter’s ear had not re-attuned itself to the North Japan patois. 
            “She said her father sold her.”
            “He sold me for money.”  There was look of pain in the girl’s eyes.  “Like my sister last year.”
            “She’s just a kid,” Peter said.  “It’s exactly what we were talking about.  There must be something . . .”
            “They promised I will be happy.  With plenty to eat.  But I don’t want to go.”
            “It’s not right,” Peter said.  “We’re not living in the seventeenth century.  It’s the twentieth century.  It’s 1935.”   
            For the moment, the girl seemed to feel secure.  She shoved the rice balls Mrs. McGowan offered into her mouth.
            “Men are going to take me away on the train.  I am afraid of the train,” she said, her mouth still half full.
            “Why have you come here?”  Dr. McGowan’s voice betrayed a flicker of incipient unease.
            “My cousin’s friend.  She peddled vegetables at this place.  She said the foreign priest could help.  So I came.”
            The girl’s eyes, like those of a frightened cat, darted about the room, from pieces of overstuffed furniture to oil paintings on the wall, from lace curtained windows to knickknacks lining a shelf.  She said with awe, “It’s all so pretty.  This is my first time to see such fine things.  Like a dream.”
            While the men huddled in the kitchen, Mrs. McGowan made up a bed for the girl on the floor of a spare room.  The girl promptly dropped off into an exhausted sleep.  Mrs. McGowan covered her with an additional quilt.
            Facing each other, the two Doctors McGowan leaned across the kitchen table talking in low tones until the first dim light of dawn.
            “What can we do for this child?  Her parents must be looking for her.”  Peter’s father, who had already prayed for guidance, displayed bafflement about what to do next.
            “We can’t just turn her over,” Peter said.  “I know this sort of thing is still going on.  But, isn’t it against the law?  At least if it’s not voluntary.”
            “I don’t know what to do, Peter.  I simply don’t know.”  Dr. McGowan pressed his hands against his mouth and chin.
            “I think we should keep her here,” Peter replied.  “Not say anything to anyone until we figure out what to do.”
            “Perhaps.  Yes, but . . .”
            “Isn’t there some kind of welfare agency that can help her?” Peter asked.
            “I don’t know.  But, if we keep her, we will be interfering in something that’s not really our affair.”  A shadow of growing apprehension touched Dr. McGowan’s face–and stayed there.
            “Father, she’s come for help.  It is our affair.”
            “But, Peter, the authorities . . .”
            “To hell with the authorities.  It’s the right thing to do.  The Christian thing.”
            “You used to have all kinds of connections.  At the hospital, the welfare office–even with the police.”
            “No more.  The officials are different now.  We mustn’t offend them.  We must think carefully.”
            “People who offend them are forced to leave Japan.  They’ll use it against us.”  Dr. McGowan was aware the rising tide of Japanese nationalism brooked no interference, especially on the part of foreigners.
             “It’s going on five o’clock.”  Peter battled unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn.  “Let’s at least get some sleep before we decide anything.” 
            Peter returned to his room and burrowed back under the covers of his rumpled bed.  Surely, we can help this . . . The thought melted, and he began to snore.
            Like a patient emerging from general anesthesia, Peter struggled to wake up.  He heard pounding–at first he thought it was the wind slamming the gate–then voices.  He swung his feet down, put on the robe, and made his way into the parlor.  A pair of uniformed policemen postured in the entryway, now lighted by the morning sun.  Outside, two men in street clothes lounged against a black automobile.  The frantic girl had dropped to her knees, clinging to Mrs. McGowan’s leg. 
            “What’s going on?  Who opened the gate?”
            “They’ve come for the girl,” Dr. McGowan said.
            “This girl is a runaway.  She stole money from her parents,” one of the policemen said.
            Her eyes blinking wildly, the girl cowered in the folds of Mrs. McGowan’s skirt.
            Peter stepped between the policemen and the girl.  “You can’t just come into our house and take . . .”
            “I’m afraid they can,” Dr. McGowan said.  “I called them.”
            Dr. McGowan placed his hand on Peter’s arm.  “Please, Peter, don’t interfere.  It’s for the best.”  Peter jerked away.
            Peter looked on dumbfounded as the policemen dragged the sobbing girl from the house and manhandled her into the back of the car.  Then the two men in civilian clothes also climbed in, one in the driver’s seat, one in back with the girl.
            “What’s happening?”  Peter chased after one of the policemen who was walking toward his bike.  “Who are they?”
            “Not your business.  Don’t interfere.”  The policeman waved him off, as the car drove away.  Then, the policemen swung onto their bicycles.  They too rode away.
            Peter’s agitation mounted.  The event astonished him.  “Those men in the car looked liked gangsters.  Father, did you really call the police?”
            Averting his eyes, Dr. McGowan nodded.
            “Why?  Why did you do it?”  Nothing seemed understandable.
            Mrs. McGowan twisted her hands.  “We’d best all go inside.  It’s warmer there.”
            Once in the kitchen, Dr. McGowan said, “Peter, I was on my knees after you went back to bed.  Most of the morning.  Asking for God’s guidance.”
            “Did God tell you to turn that child over to those thugs?”  Peter shook his head to the tea his mother offered.
            “The police would have found her anyway.  I called the police substation and told them she was here.  I said she came unbidden, that we did not know her.  I asked they treat her gently and return her to her parents.”
            “Just doing your civic duty, I suppose.”
            “That was how the policeman saw it.  Peter, my heart was breaking.  But, we must be pragmatic.  The police have already threatened to close our clinic because I treated a man they claimed was a labor agitator.”
            Pragmatic?  What about an expression of the human heart?  Peter stared at his father with ill-concealed unhappiness.  “What kind of place have I come back to?”  Nothing made sense.  Peter felt he’d entered a world constructed by Dali or Picasso and populated by friends of Alice.  Nothing was as it should be.
            “I had no idea those other men would come.  Surely you believe me.”  It was more a plea than a request for confirmation.  “In any case, the policeman I talked to promised that the girl would be returned to her family.”
            “Just long enough to wrap up the contract details . . .” After pacing about, Peter at last went into the parlor and settled down on the sofa.  He leaned forward, and dropped his chin into his hands.  “There must have been a better way,” he said half aloud.
            “What did you say, Peter?”
            “Nothing.  Nothing.  Just talking to myself.”  He was tired, full of all that had happened.

            On Sunday morning, Peter’s parents asked him to go with them to church services in Akeyama.  Peter told them he had a headache and would stay home.

            The plight of the girl who had come to them for help weighed heavily.  Peter’s mood remained serious, guilt-ridden, even though he recognized that once the police arrived there was probably little he could have done.  He regretted his outbursts, but, damn it, his father had been wrong.  He–they–had failed the girl.  As he thought about her, he searched for some characterization of what happened that did not require the use of the word betrayal.  He found none.

            After his parents had gone, sunk in an easy chair, Peter again mulled the justification his father offered for turning the girl over—a police threat to close the clinic.  Would it matter?  Only a handful of patients visited the clinic anyway.  A clinic without patients and a broken down little school—did his father really believe Peter, or anyone else, could inject new life into the place?

            At midday his parents returned from the church service.  One glimpse of their anguished faces and Peter could tell immediately that something had happened—something bad.  Dr. McGowan slipped off his top coat and let it fall to the floor.  His lips quivered, and his eyes glistened, moist with tears.   Mrs. McGowan threw her hands to her face and fled the room

            “What?  What happened?”  Peter sensed a tragedy.

            “Dear God,” his father said, his voice breaking.  “A detective told us after the service.”

            “Told you what?  What?”

            “The girl . . . she’s dead.  They took her back to the village.  But . . . then . . . today to the station.”

            Breathing heavily, Dr. McGowan struggled to regain the composure that eluded him.

“She tried to run away from them.  Jumped or fell in front of a locomotive.  Oh, I don’t know which.  It was the Aomori semi-express.  Either way it was horrible.  Horrible.”

            Peter placed a hand on his father’s shoulder and guided him to a chair.  Dr. McGowan slumped down and sat rubbing his forehead, as if trying to eradicate the demons of regret that besieged him.  “Oh, Dear Lord, forgive me.”  He mumbled something more, but Peter could not unravel what he was saying.

            That poor kid, Peter thought.  That poor kid.  We should have done more.  It could have been different.  I gave up too easily.

            Immersed in ineffable remorse, Peter McGowan vowed he would never let something like that happen again.  Never.

Editor’s Note on Just the Way Life Is:

Just the Way Life Is is not Lawrence Farrar’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are:

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