2nd Quarterly, 2005 No.136

My Youth

by Hatsumi Inoue
The 24th Buraku Liberation Literature Award Winner (Literacy Division) - 1998

In June 1942, I began working as a bus conductor. It was right in the middle of the war when the young men had all left to fight. Many young women worked at munitions factories, as I had previously done, and enjoyed being called "true Japanese women" for their loyalty to the State. They did not want to work anywhere else.

Inhumane treatment, however, led me to quit my job at the munitions factory, so I asked an acquaintance who was a bus conductor to find me an opening position. I was told that even if I could not read or write I could still work as long as I was able to read the names of bus stops and calculate bus fares. I immediately went to the bus company for a job interview with a manager, who told me to start work the next day.

At 6:00 the next morning, I arrived at the bus garage and began my new job by cleaning the bus and fueling its generator with charcoal. I quickly washed my face and hair, and boarded my bus without checking how I looked. The passengers laughed at me because I had a charcoal smear on my face. This was how my first day as a bus conductor began.

Buses were fueled by charcoal because gasoline was not available during the war. Attached to the rear of each bus was a generator big enough to be stoked with three or four sacks of charcoal at a time. A radiator on the front of the bus cooled the engine. Two or three sacks of charcoal and spare tires were stored in the narrow space between the generator and the passengers' seats. The door was on the left side of the bus, and the conductor stood while on duty. The body of the bus was painted dark blue to obscure stains and dust. I greatly enjoyed my first six months of service.

In November it took almost 90 minutes to warm the engine due to the cold winter weather so we had to report to the office before 6:00 every morning. Senior workers who lived far from the company slept on the second floor so they could wake up early enough to warm the engines and clean their buses.

I still commuted from my house but sometimes overslept and had to rush to work without breakfast. On these occasions I frantically worked to warm the engine by placing charcoal on the iron sheet of the generator.

Being afraid of oversleeping, I would clean the bus each day after returning to the garage to save time the following morning. However, sometimes the engine would not ignite in the morning because it could not be heated quickly enough, so my bus would run behind schedule by 10 minutes or so.

One day, when one of my senior colleagues was waiting for the start of her shift, our boss came over and said to her, "Today Ms. Inoue will be on duty on this bus in your place." Then, he turned to me and said, "Ms. Inoue, you will take the bus bound for Shohara today." Embarrassed, I immediately approached my senior colleague, but, displeased at the order, she turned her eyes away from me.

The colleague I replaced was highly organized and professional. She could repair a flat tire with a jack and even brought the bus in and out of the garage. She was highly appreciated by many drivers. I was very puzzled at our boss's decision.

I was very tense that day since it was my first service for the Shohara mountain route. On the bus, I asked the driver and even some of the passengers several times for bus stop names. I heard passengers telling each other that the bus was crowded because of a village fair. There were no houses at the bus stops. Passengers would wait for the bus at the foot of a bridge and other such places. Once, a man walking on the side of the road raised his hand to stop the bus. When he got in he said, "The bus did not come on time, so I started to walk expecting the driver would stop when he saw me." I understood people had no choice but to do so when the bus was late so I sold him ticket and punched it.

My tension on that first ride to Shohara endeared me to the passengers, who talked to me to help me relax as the bus continued up and down the road. We drove along a flat stretch for a while and then began to climb once more. From the top of the rise, I saw with surprise that there were no trees. "Oh no!" I said, "There are no trees to stop my body if I tumble down the mountain. I'm risking my life!" One of the passengers laughed and said, "Don't worry conductor! The driver is an expert. Take it easy, you will be alright."

We left at seven in the morning and arrived Shohara at eleven. I had lunch at the restaurant that doubled as the bus terminal. We left Shohara at two, and returned to Fuchu at six in the evening. I returned my conductor's bag containing the colleted bus fares to the office, and went to clean the bus. In the midst of cleaning, I was called to the office. The president and three clerks were there. They asked me what had happened since the total of the collected fares was unusually high.

"Today was my first ride on that route, so I don't know how it usually is," I replied, "but I heard some passengers saying that the bus was crowded because of a fair in the village today." The president said, "We have never seen such a large fare total for this route in any circumstances over the years. I have to assume that the bus drivers and conductors have conspired to carry out clenched hand. Ms. Inoue, if any driver asks you to do clenched hand, immediately report it to us." The president clenched his hand in emphasis.

Wondering what "clenched hand" could be, I walked back to the bus garage where five drivers were waiting for me. They said, "Ms. Inoue, what were you told in the office?" I answered, "I don't understand what this means, but the boss told me to report to him if a driver asks me to do clenched hand." The drivers said, "You don't know anything at all. We cannot be angry at you." In the past, only experienced conductors had taken the route to Shohara. But my senior colleagues had to leave the company after it was discovered that they sometimes stole money for fares by not issuing tickets. Now, I took the duties for most of the services going to Shohara.

Later, I felt sorry to hear that experienced conductors had stolen the money because of their low wages. I was paid 80 sen a day for 12 hours' work. I had only been paid 53 sen a day for 10 hours' work at the munitions plant, so I thought it was a good salary. I was contemplated with it.

There were six experienced conductors in the company. When they got together, they used to say to me, "You are disliked by all drivers," but I did not feel angry with them. I usually arrived late at work. I was clumsy, and sometimes caused problems with my drivers. I was not a reliable conductor. I was prepared for any criticism or assessment from the drivers. All I could do was pay attention to our passengers, especially to the elderly and small children.

One day, on our way up the mountain, I saw somebody standing on the middle of the road waving her hand to stop us. She boarded the bus and gave us rice-balls, saying, "Today I cooked special rice. Here you are, try some." Later, an elderly lady gave us lunch boxes, saying, "I cooked this for you today. Please eat it." We were also occasionally given steamed sweet potatoes, which we shared with the passengers. This often happened on our route, and passengers would laugh as they disembarked, joking, "I expect to be attended by you on my way home too!"

Most of the passengers were traveling to buy food in the market or returning home after visiting relatives. I gradually became acquainted with many of them. They often gave me seasonal vegetables, for which I was very thankful because of the wartime food shortage. Slowly but surely, my companion drivers came to accept me.

<to be continued>

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