3rd Quarterly, 2005 No.137

My Youth(2)

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

I continued to work on the mountain trail bus route. Sometimes I saw chestnuts on the roadside and would jump off the bus to pick them up. The poor coal engine would overheat by the time the bus struggled to the top of the mountain, so I had to take a bucket to get spring water from a nearby housing unit and return to pour it slowly into the radiator, taking care not to get scalded by the steam. It really was a battered old vehicle.

The bus was always crowded on our way down the mountain from Shohara to the bus depot at Akagawa. We put baggage on the roof, securing it to an iron frame with a rope, to make room for more passengers. I sometimes stayed on the roof to make sure the baggage didn't fall off.

One day when I was on the roof, a junior high school teacher asked me to help him up. "You shouldn't come up. If you lose your balance you'll fall off. I don't want to be held responsible for that," I answered. But, unrelenting, he solicited permission from the bus driver. "If a woman can ride on the roof, then why shouldn't I?" he said as he clambered up.

As it was rice-planting season we saw rows of stooped-over people at work in the fields. I sang and waved hello to them. Upon hearing me, some of them straightened up to look and wave back. The teacher was in good spirits and sang along loudly while stomping his foot in time. However, as the bus rounded a curve, his voice suddenly stopped. I looked back to discover that he had disappeared completely! Immediately I called to the driver, "He's gone!" Pale-faced, the driver quickly brought the bus to a halt and jumped out calling, "teacher, where are you?" Some passengers also exited the bus. One of them said, "I think I saw a black object fall past the window just a moment ago."

We all walked back along the road calling, "Teacher, teacher!" At long last we heard him call back, "I'm here." He dragged himself up from a rice paddy, soaked through with his head covered in mud and his wooden clogs in his hands. His appearance was beyond description.

He had been standing on the roof with his clogs in his hands and had not been holding on to the iron frame. As the bus rounded the curve he lost his balance fell off the bus. I could not hide my amusement at his barefoot and disheveled figure, exclaiming, "Teacher, you look like hell!" "Don't laugh," the driver scolded.

Fortunately, since the rice paddy he fell into yet to be planted, it was full of water and he did not get hurt. "You're lucky it wasn't worse," said the driver as he got back into the bus. The teacher, saying he lived nearby, decided to walk.

Some days later I saw the teacher riding a bicycle on his way home. He smiled and waved his hand.

My first year as a bus conductor, however, was not all roses.

Once as the bus was running along the river I saw an old woman walking in our direction from the bridge. She had her hair tied up and was shabby in appearance. I saw her walking from time to time when I was on duty, but she never rode our bus. I usually waved my hand in greeting, and she would bow to me in return. I couldn't put my finger on the reason why, but I felt a sense of warmth whenever I saw her. Her face was full of wrinkles, but she always smiled softly. I waved and she bowed.

One day a woman passenger asked me, "Ms. Inoue, do you know that old woman?" "No, I don't," I answered, "When I see her, I wave to say hello." She replied, "Ms. Inoue, you are young and inexperienced. You should know that some of the people out there have bad heritage. You should not get too familiar with them or be taken in by their glib talk. They are fearsome people." She held out her hand with four fingers pointing downward. I felt embarrassed at first, but quickly recovered and responded determinedly, "Why are you speaking like that? We are all the same human beings. I don't understand." Another old man then said, "You are young, so it's natural that you don't understand. But you shouldn't have contact with those people. Avoid them."

"Thank you for your advice. I will keep it in mind," I said, forcing a smile. But inside I felt deeply frustrated. I wanted to yell at them, "You're shit! Why do you discriminate against us like this? What have we done to you?" Along the route, they continued to talk to me, pointing out of the bus to say, "People out there are different from us. They are from a bad line." I pretended not to hear, but they would not stop. I almost replied, "So what? I'm one of them." But I knew I would lose my job if I admitted it. I was too ashamed to respond.

Since childhood I had been aware that the people in our Buraku were excluded from employment. Storeowners treated us very badly saying, "Recently, 'eta' have become cocky." I remember a woman from our village who went home weeping one day after being abused in this way. She told the village leaders about it and they held a series of talks with the person in question.

My father did not have a permanent job. He worked as a footwear keeper at a makeshift theater where the audience had to remove their shoes. I used to go to the theater to help him on days when I finished work early. While I suspected some of passengers knew where I was from, I used lie when they asked, telling them I was from a neighboring village. When my colleagues who were bound in the same direction suggested we travel home together, I would take an indirect route to prevent them from finding out where I lived.

I believed as long as I worked diligently, got along with everybody, and kept a smile on my face, then my real residence would stay secret and I would be okay.

1944 brought heavy snows, especially in the mountains. We had to fight against the weather every day. Driving up the mountain, the driver would carefully trace the tire tracks of previous vehicles where the snow had hardened. If the bus deviated from the ruts even slightly, the wheels would spin on the fluffy snow and the bus would come to a halt. When this happened, the passengers all had to get out of the bus and push it from behind until the wheels gripped the solid snow and the bus began to move forward once more. Sometimes, however, no matter how hard passengers pushed, the wheels continued to spin and the bus would not budge. Stranded for hours, some of the passengers decided to walk ahead to their destinations or back to where they had come from. Others remained with us until we could get the bus moving again.

The sun set early in the mountains and it became dark at around four in the evening. One day I had to leave the bus stuck where it was and walk down the mountain with some of the passengers. We took a narrow, winding and slippery shortcut, a so-called animal trail known only by local people. The man leading us had a flashlight and stopped intermittently to shine it at the ground around our feet so we could see where we were stepping.

The light from the moon and the white snow made walking easier after we passed through the bush. Eventually the distant dotted lights of the village at the base of the mountain came into view. Feeling relieved, I looked around and noticed a small nearby hut with smoke pouring out of it. One of the passengers said, "They are burning a dead old woman over there. She used to aimlessly walk around the area and over the bridge. She was a troublesome person." I immediately recalled the old woman with gentle eyes who bowed to us as she crossed the bridge.

The small house became more visible on the other side of the bridge as we walked. I wondered if the woman had been sick since I had not seen her for a while. I had never spoken with her. I felt sad that I would never again see the smile on her wrinkled face. She had died, but even dead, she was still referred to as a person from "over there." I was overwhelmed by deep sorrow and bitterness. Tears filled my eyes. Unable to hold back, I began to cry aloud. I could not stop weeping. The people with me did not know why I wept. They probably thought I was simply scared by the cremation.

Some time later I heard voices ahead and saw several people with lanterns in their hands waiting for us. Upon seeing my tears one of them said to me, "Did somebody scare you with a horror story?" He was a caretaker at the bus depot. He kindly took me to his house, which was also a shop. Five drivers and an engineer from our bus company in Fuchu city were waiting there for our safe arrival. They said to me, "Ms. Inoue, you did a good job. You must be tired. Have you been crying? It must have been an unsettling experience. Here, have some tea."

The caretaker's wife said, "Ms. Inoue, come and warm up," and led me over to the fireplace. I wondered if they would have treated me like this if they had known I was from the abhorred "over there"? Was I cynical to think this way?

My colleagues from Fuchu later took a car up the mountain to retrieve the stranded bus.

We had no holidays in 1945, not even on New Year's Day. I worked diligently without taking a single day off. My colleagues and the passengers were kind and compassionate to me. There were daily air raids around this time. We heard that Osaka was heavily hit with many civilians killed and injured. News like that arrived every day. It was around this time that I began working on a bus route to Fukuyama. One day on this route the company told us to pick up some soldiers when we arrived at our destination. We were warned not to speak to them.

When the train arrived at the Fukuyama station, many injured soldiers in white clothes came out and boarded our bus. Some had leg injuries. Some had their hands pressed to their stomachs. Civilian passengers helped them onto the bus. We could seat 42 passengers, but the bus was so full of soldiers that some had to stand. They had all been injured in battle. Since I was prohibited from speaking to them, I simply bowed silently to each of them.

Two months later, I again found myself on duty to the military hospital in Fukuyama. The uniformed soldiers formed an orderly line to ride our bus. They were being sent back into battle. Some were the same soldiers I had seen two months before. I wondered if they had fully recovered. They looked so pale. Why did the authorities send them back to war so quickly? My heart ached and nobody spoke a word.

A train was just arriving as our bus pulled in to the train station. The soldiers entered the station through a different entrance to the one used by ordinary passengers. I saw them off as they walked towards the station, bowing to each of them in turn. "Don't get killed. Come home alive at any cost," I said silently in my heart.

On August 15, 1945, I was on duty to Shohara. My companion was a young driver who had twice been called to arms. "If I get called again, I am afraid I won't come home alive. I don't want to leave behind a widow." For this reason, he was reluctant to marry. He did not want to make his mother worry, so he entrusted me with a white cloth and red thread for a "thousand stitch belt". For each soldier going to war, 1,000 women, including relatives, neighbors and friends, would stitch a piece of red thread onto a white cloth. This was a common custom during the war. Whenever we had woman passengers I would ask them to stitch a piece of red thread into the cloth. However, by August 15, I had not collected even half of the thousand stitches required.

When we returned to Kinoyama Bus Station at around 6:00 pm, a bus driver who had just returned from Fuchu said to us, "Big news, Japan has been defeated. The emperor announced the unconditional surrender on the radio today." Immediately, all of our passengers began to cry out, "No, it's not true!" and others, "Has this really happened?"

Those who had lost family members in battle were crying. Some were very upset, regretting upon our defeat that they had believed it to be a war for justice.

However, I was relieved. The war was at last over. Nobody had to die anymore. Those of us who had lived through it could all survive. I turned to my companion driver and whispered, "I am glad you will not need the thousand-stitch belt." He replied, "To tell you the truth, I always wondered who we were fighting and dying for."

I was only eighteen years old.


| Back | Home |