writers' corner

Writers’ Corner // Excerpt from KAEROU Time to Go Home

By B. Jeanne Shibahara

Before any American soldiers could rape and kill them, most of Fusako’s friends had vowed to use chopsticks to grip their own tongues, bite them off, and bleed to death.

A few of those friends later married American officers. One moved to Alaska and sent Fusako a coin purse of baby seal fur with a silver clasp, a little difficult to open, forcing the comment—

They don’t make things as nicely as they do in Japan.

Fusako had never thought of marrying one of the officers who had smiled at her in the Sumitomo Building. Her parents would never have allowed it, and she had never thought of going against her parents’ wishes. Too much had happened during and after the War. They had kept her safe and fed, had stayed alive for her. She wasn’t alone and unprotected and forced to go to the brothels for the American soldiers. How she hated her government for sanctioning those brothels.

How could she go against her parents’ wishes?

Her best childhood friend Maki never married anyone, Japanese or American, and probably wouldn’t have married even if there hadn’t been the War and there had been plenty of men.

A pity, but her nose was flat and her jawbones slanted outward, like gills of a fish. Her head was attached to her shoulders, it seemed, without the graceful support of a neck. And when she wore a kimono, the collar stopped short at her earlobes. Her hair wasn’t lacquer black but had strains of copper mixed throughout, giving her the look of a country cousin.

A few months after the War started, when Maki and Fusako were almost nineteen, every girl from around age fifteen on up had to start training with a bamboo pole. The pole would’ve been sharpened into a spear if the Americans invaded.

Drills were held in neighborhoods, and on the first day, Maki started off with her right leg instead of her left, so her bamboo pole somehow ended up hitting the pole of the girl next to her…Fusako.

Their instructor—a rickety war veteran from a battle Fusako had never even heard of—blew a gasket, and at the decibel of a steam engine’s whistle, told them that if indeed the Americans invaded Japan, it would be because of Maki’s disobedient right leg. Maki was about to burst into tears, which was highly unusual. She was used to being yelled at and couldn’t care less why men got angry. Her five brothers were angry at her all the time.

Fusako didn’t understand why the instructor was making a big stink out of which leg to start with. After all, if an American were charging at her, she wouldn’t bother thinking about which leg to start from before she skewered him. She knew skewerwasn’t exactly the right word…though it sounded oddly amusing…One shouldn’t, however, be oddly amusing with a bamboo pole…but she was almost out of her mind with fear…and at the wrong times something inappropriate popped into her head. Skewer an American! Oh, the thought of it was terrifying. She was positive she would ditch her stupid pole, hightail it in the opposite direction, and pray the American had forgotten to load his gun!

Fusako couldn’t bear watching her friend being tormented any longer.

Maki’s nose had filled and was ready to run. She was too petrified to breathe; her face was as red as a sea bream’s—Fusako’s favorite kind of fish for sashimi—and she looked about to suffocate.

Fusako let go of her bamboo pole, and it landed on the feet of the girls standing next to her.

She expected the old tyrant to whack both her and Maki, but he only scowled, ranted and raved, spewing out words fast and curt, sounding like a grunting and snorting wild boar, albeit wizened and with some teeth missing.

The other women and girls went home.

Maki’s and Fusako’s punishment? Practicing with their bamboo poles until sundown.

“Eeechi!” Left foot, one step back. They were told they had to step back so they could see the angle the American was advancing. (The Japanese word for “one” is “ichi,” but in this exercise they said eeechi. Fusako never figured out why and no one ever told her.)

“Ni!” Right foot, one step back.

“San!” Left foot, one more step back.

“Shi!” Left foot, one step forward.

“Go!” Right foot, one step forward.

“Roku!” Raise the bamboo pole over your head.

“Shichi!” Lower the bamboo pole.

Scream “Eeeee!” and skewer!

Fusako knew they didn’t stand a chance. With all that stepping and screaming the Americans could enjoy a cup of coffee and still shoot them before they got their bamboo poles anywhere near the Americans, especially since they were supposed to spear the soft spot at the bottom of the throat. Even she knew that was impossible. The Americans were too tall. They should try for the center of their wide chests and maybe they would hit their hearts. But she forced those thoughts out of her mind and pretended she and Maki would be all right.

On their way home, out of earshot, Fusako couldn’t hold back her laughter any longer.

“Did you see how high those girls jerked their knees up when my pole hit their feet? Were they doing that to get me into more trouble?”

Fusako thought Maki would laugh too and maybe imitate how the girls had squatted down and rubbed their toes.

But she didn’t.

“I’m going to practice and be the best. No one will ever hurt you.”

And so, Maki practiced with her bamboo pole every day, believing she would spear the evil American hearts—Fusako later told her to aim for the heart—and keep Fusako safe. Fusako sometimes practiced with her, even though she had promised herself to bite off her tongue at the hour the Americans invaded Osaka.

About KAEROU Time to Go Home

“KAEROU is a testimony to the human spirit that bridges differences and overcomes divisions…”—Elaine Gerbert, Translator of Edogawa Ranpo’s Strange Tale of Panorama Island

“The humor and playful language in KAEROU belie the book’s deep engagement with life.”—Laurel Rodd, Recipient of the Japanese Imperial Decoration

Meryl—Vietnam War widow—misses her grown son, feels left out after her father’s recent marriage. A WWII Japanese flag falls into her hands. The gentle push of a love-struck professor starts her adventure—take the flag home. From the neon of Osaka, to the ancient capital Nara, to the forests of Akita, the trail follows British and US expats, a newspaper reporter, factory manager, ikebana teacher, a Matagi hunter and winds through Japanese culture, past and present, leading to the unexpected.

A novel that will make you think things you’ve never thought.

A story of shared humanity and love “in the simplest things.

About the Writer

B. Jeanne studied fiction writing from Mark Harris (Bang the Drum Slowly) and copywriting from Beth Luey (Editorial Consultant, Chicago Manual of Style, 16thEd.) in the MA program for creative writing at Arizona State University.

In Japan, she has taught English at a private university, written articles for research groups, and created jazz lyrics for composer Hajime Kitamura.

B. Jeanne married into a family of calligraphy, ikebana, and tea ceremony teachers, shamisen player, kimono fabric artist, business entrepreneur, and architect. Her home is in Nara City, an ancient capital of Japan.

Author website: https://bjeanneshibahara.com/

8 thoughts on “Writers’ Corner // Excerpt from KAEROU Time to Go Home

  1. Sophie! Arigatou, Ookini, THANK YOU! for shining the spotlight on Kaerou! 🙂 I’m so very honored. 🙂 And an extra-special thank you for this gorgeous, stunning presentation of Shinko Yamaguchi’s art! Sending a big, happy thank you to you and your followers!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Sophie,
    Bravo! You chose a poignant excerpt to showcase here. If I hadn’t already read (and loved) KAEROU, after reading your spotlight of it I would have gone straight to Amazon and bought the book!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you so much, Emma! A survivor of the Osaka firebombings, my mother-in-law, advised me on how to use a bamboo pole. She’s happy and going strong at 96. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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