from the e-novel, Blossoms and Bayonets by J McBurney-Lin and HD Chai, available at Amazon.com – Kindle; Smashwords.com – iPad, etc. ; Barnes and Noble – Nook
Japan has done her utmost to prevent this war, but in self-preservation and for self-existence, we could not help declaring war, considering the past attitude and actions of the United States.
—Premier Hideki Tojo over Tokyo radio 1941
Monday, February 23, 1942—Seoul, Korea
“Lunch is postponed today.” Watanabe Sensei peeked outside our fourth-year upper school classroom and down the hall. Despite the cold, he took out his handkerchief and wiped sweat from his forehead. He turned back to our class. “For reasons you’ll soon appreciate.”
“I doubt it,” I muttered. I sat in the back of our class, kicking my feet from side to side. I pictured myself dribbling my red soccer ball from foot to foot just like my buddy Gong-Tae had shown me earlier. I couldn’t wait to practice for real. I leaned back, whispering to Gong-Tae. “You’d think Sensei was waiting for permission from the Emperor to dismiss us. Although why the Emperor would bother with the likes of him—”
“Haven’t you had enough for one day?” Gong-Tae nudged my arm, his eyes on Watanabe Sensei.
This morning, Sensei had slapped me on the head for doodling a picture of Korea on my language paper. He’d kicked me in the shin for mispronouncing my Jap name, “Hiroshi.” During Social Studies, when I’d asked how he really knew the Japs were in control of the thirteen countries they’d invaded, he’d punched me. Gong-Tae said that at the rate I was going Watanabe Sensei would strangle me by the end of the day.
I sighed loudly, at the same time scratching one of my sores. I had tiny sores all over, a rash from birth. Mother insisted I use her homemade salve—a mixture of baby He-Dong’s high protein piss with rice. Sometimes the piss-paste worked. But most of the time, like now, I itched.
“You’re just making it worse,” Gong-Tae whispered.
“Thank you, Mother dear.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking about my sores or my bad start with that fool of a Sensei. Probably both. I leaned down and scratched at my calf, muttering, “This is a total waste of our time.”
The mouse of a class monitor who sat in the front row let out a squeak.
“Uh-oh.” Gong-Tae sucked in a deep breath.
I sat up, expecting to see Watanabe Sensei in front of me, his bully fist aimed at my face. But he stood by the door, bowing so low I thought he would dust the floor with his flat nose. A soldier in a tight brown uniform and long brown shiny boots posed at the doorway, one hand on his black sword.
Forty chairs scraped the floor as everyone stood. I pushed myself up. My friend Jim from California had never bowed to anyone before living in Korea—not even to his own father. Jim had always pretended he was just stretching.
I reached for my feet while the rest of the class gave a perfect bow. Then I flopped back down in my seat. The rest of the class sat down as quietly as if the army man had assigned them to a secret mission.
“Class, this is Officer Matsumoto.” Watanabe Sensei stood erect, then bowed again and again as he ushered the man to the front of the room. “He has some special…some important news for us.”
Was Officer Shiny Boots going to give us a severed limb-by-limb description of the Japs most recent victory over the English colony of Singapore? Would he show us how he had conquered the Brits with his pretty black sword?
“This is a special moment in history.” Shiny Boots scrutinized each one of us with his dark, cold eyes. “We’ve annihilated the Americans at Pearl Harbor. We’ve humiliated the British in Singapore and Malaya. We are poised to take our rightful position as Ruler of the World.”
Rightful position? The only rightful position the Japs had was to take their interfering butts back to Japan. Quit telling us what flowers to plant, what religion to believe in, what air to breathe. I let out a disgusted sigh.
Officer Shiny Boots put his hands behind his back. “His Majesty, Emperor Hirohito has just informed the Imperial Youth Corps that we can allow fifth- and sixth-year boys to participate in our noble effort to bring peace to the world.”
“Wrong class,” I muttered.
Gong-Tae kicked the legs of my chair.
Officer Shiny Boots looked back in our direction. “His Majesty has also generously invited fourth-year students to share the glory, as long as they’re sixteen years of age.”
My birthday wasn’t until August, but several of the boys around me sat up taller. As if actually proud. Tough boy Kang-Dae who had pushed me in the shoulder one too many times and now knew better, that suck-up Duck-Young, the tennis boy Sung-In. They were all old enough. So was—I felt a tightening around my chest—so was my buddy, Gong-Tae.
But it would be ridiculous for him to join the Youth Corps. His lovely girlfriend Myung-Hae was here. Soccer was here. Life was here.
Gong-Tae’s knees bounced up and down, intermittently kicking my chair. I felt his tension like a heat wave on my back. Or perhaps that was my own tension.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Watanabe Sensei nodded so vigorously I thought his shiny ball of a head would fall off his neck. “The Emperor is including Korea in this noble effort.”
“Including Korea?” I snorted, perhaps a bit too loud. Officer Shiny Boots directed his attentions to the back row. I put my head down, whispering, “He makes it sound like a party invitation.”
Gong-Tae stabbed the end of his pencil in my back.
“A little to the left.” I wiggled against the back of my chair, pointing to my left shoulder blade. “Harder.”
Officer Shiny Boots looked directly at me, his eyes hard. “For those of you unfortunately too young to participate in this grand creation of our new world, don’t despair. You, too, can help.”
I expected Officer Shiny Boots to encourage us to tell our friends to leave their schooling and pick up the sword. I gave a quick shake of my head mostly for Gong-Tae’s benefit. I wouldn’t let him fall under the spell of this noble nonsense, even if they promised him the world, even if they promised him a rice field full of soccer balls.
“If you have older unmarried sisters,” the Officer raised his eyebrows. “Tell us. We need women for our factories. The Imperial Government not only pays well, but will reward your loyalty and your family’s with extra food rations.” He looked around the room, expecting a raise of hands.
I was tempted. I didn’t have sisters anymore, but I had lots of questions. If the Japs were so victorious, why did they need participation from the high schools? Korean high schools, at that?
“All of you honorable men interested in sharing the glory of the Imperial Army, come to the Principal’s office during your lunch period.” He gave a curt nod to Watanabe Sensei and headed out the door. We all stood and bowed. Watanabe Sensei followed Shiny Boots out the door, bowing up and down, as though his nose had gotten hooked onto the Officer’s backside.
The older boys—Kang-Dae, Duck-Young, Sung-In—did not look at one another. They did not talk. But I could see in the set of their faces that they were heading to the Principal as soon as Watanabe Sensei came back to dismiss us. I felt sick to my stomach.
“This is terrible.” Gong-Tae’s voice squeaked as he sank back into his chair. “What am I going to do?”
“Just what you planned all along.” I flopped down in my seat and turned to face him. “Teach me how to dribble with both feet, so I can impress Myung-Hae.”
Gong-Tae’s eyes widened. “She’s mine.”
“Well, she won’t be if you’re busy with Officer Shiny Boots.”
He punched me in the shoulder, the only person in the class who I allowed to do so. Because he was my friend.
“I wonder what Han-Joo’s going to do.” Gong-Tae’s legs bounced up and down again.
“Probably not a lot.” I gave Gong-Tae a look. Han-Joo was also old enough to join the Imperial party, but he’d stepped on a nail at the last soccer game. He’d been home ever since. “Besides, he can’t go anywhere. He’s our best forward.”
“What about me?” Gong-Tae protested. “Myung-Hae said she’d never seen anyone as fast as me.”
I laughed. That was more like it. In a falsetto voice I repeated, “Myung-Hae said—”
“Shut up.” Gong-Tae kicked the back of my chair so hard the legs skid out from beneath me. I grabbed onto his desk, stopping myself from falling to the floor. The sound of the desk scraping across the wooden floor filled the room. And obviously the hall.
“Hiroshi-san!” Watanabe Sensei came back into the class. His nostrils flared. He bounded over to my desk, reached out and cuffed my right ear, grunting with the effort. “What’s all this noise?”
My ear throbbed. My insides boiled. Sensei had wasted half our lunch time with this Japanese Youth Corps nonsense, and now he was beating up on me, again. I wanted to pummel his flat face into the ground. I looked up, wrinkling my nose at his foul tobacco breath.
I felt a tug on my shirt from behind. Gong-Tae. With great effort I bowed my head to Sensei, mumbling, “I was so impressed by the esteemed Officer’s visit, I lost my balance.”
“This is good news.” Sensei’s small black eyes bored holes into the top of my head for several long moments. He gave my arm a shove before he returned to the front of the class. There he leaned down and made a note on a piece of paper.
“What have you done?” Gong-Tae moaned.
I rubbed the back of my ear. “He’s an idiot.”
But I wondered. Did Watanabe Sensei with his pencil have enough influence to nominate younger students to the Emperor’s honorable party? How much time would pass before the Japanese God decided all fourth-year students were old enough? And what about spoiled babies like my 8-year-old brother, He-Dong? Now I wanted to be dismissed more than anything, not to learn how to dribble the soccer ball better, but to tell Father it was time. Time to re-join the resistance.