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
As the 1930s gave way to the 1940s, the people of the United States thought little of the Empire of Japan. Americans worried about their economy, which had wallowed on the brink of collapse for a decade, and wished to stay out of the world’s problems. ….Roosevelt endeavored to curb Japan’s expansion by a series of economic and diplomatic measures backed up by the U.S. military—the smallest and least-equipped force of any industrialized nation in the world.
—Hugh Ambrose, Historian
Monday, February 23, 1942—same day
I sat in my second-grade class, wondering when our new teacher Ito Sensei would announce Class Monitor for the year. Last year, my sensei had smiled at me, walking toward me with her hands folded in front of her. She had told us first thing.
Ito Sensei was different. She didn’t look much older than my eldest brother He-Chul. She wasn’t even as tall as my second brother, He-Seung. But she talked fast, held her cane all the time, and frowned at the slightest noises.
The boy next to me made lots of noises. He fidgeted and tapped his pencil on the side of his desk. He was new this year.
I’d seen him reading during lunch time. I wondered if I’d see him soon at church. Father always said the smartest boys went to church.
Surely this new boy wanted to be the revered leader of the class, too, and that caused all his anxiety. But there was only one position, awarded at the beginning of the year to the smartest, most helpful, most obedient of the sixty-four boys in our class. Last year, I was top in my grade, but then maybe this boy had better marks from another school.
“It’s hard to wait for the announcement,” I whispered.
“The brain can only hold so much information,” he whispered back. “And my brain is overflowing. Besides, I don’t understand her Japanese.”
So maybe he didn’t have such good marks. I would be it. I would be the new Class Monitor. I couldn’t wait to tell Mother and Father. Lately they’d been worrying about what people said about them and the church. They would be proud to say I was leader of the class.
“She’s talking about how, during winter break, the Japanese occupied British Hong Kong and Singapore.” I leaned over to explain in Korean. “In celebration of the victory, Emperor Hirohito has sent us each a red rubber ball. This will make the twelfth. No, the thirt—”
“Yoshimitsu?” Ito Sensei stood near my desk. “What is all this talk? In Korean, no less. Stand up and move to the front of the class. Now.”
I moved to the front, smiling, knowing that when I got to her desk she would say, “Class, stand and bow to your new Class Monitor.”
She followed behind me, tapping her cane. That made me feel strange. When I reached the front, I turned to the class, my head bowed in humility.
Sensei whacked my wrists. “Hold your hands up.”
What? Why was this punishment happening? What had I done?
My whole body burned with shame as I held my arms out in front of me. I felt tears welling in my eyes and quickly glanced out the window. Just beyond the school wall was the path that led home. I only had to walk ten minutes to our house, twenty-five in the autumn time when I stopped to pick persimmons along the way. I could imagine the soapy smell of Mother, could see her pushing her hair out of her eyes, squinting as she threaded a needle. I wanted to be at home, sitting and looking through one of my brother’s comic books about the strongman Jangsah while Mother sat nearby and sewed.
Every other student I’d seen holding their arms out in front of them for three minutes as punishment, never made it and ended up getting a caning. I would not suffer the double humiliation. I was used to sitting still in church for hours. I could do this. I started counting. I had only gotten to seven seconds when my arms started wobbling.
“Putyour arms back up.” Ito Sensei’s voice came from my right where she stood beneath the picture of the Emperor of Japan, a man who was younger than my father.
I raised my arms in front of me. Higher. Ten seconds. Eleven. Twelve.
“I heard you were a smart boy.” Ito Sensei tapped her long bamboo stick on her hand, as though ready at any moment to reach out and whip my hands. “But you can’t obey the Emperor. You can’t obey your teacher. You can’t do anything. You can’t even hold your skinny little arms up.”
That wasn’t true. All last year, people had expected me to lead them, just like my real name suggested. He-Dong: Brightness in the East. Father said some families had even joined All Holiness Church hoping their children would be like me. I opened my mouth to explain this. I imagined Mother nodding at me in encouragement. Sixteen seconds. Seventeen. My arms floated down.
“Keep those arms up.” Ito Sensei flicked her bamboo stick at my arm. The tip stung my skin like a red hot coal from our kitchen brazier.
I clenched my lips together and raised my hands, my eyesight blurring. Father always said that our behavior reflected on his character, on the character of All Holiness Church, on the name of the good Lord. My punishment was certainly not something God would be proud of. Twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four.
“You will never speak Korean in school again.” Ito Sensei turned her attention to the entire class.
I waited for one of my classmates to raise his hand, confused. Korean was the language we were born to speak. Ever since I could remember, we’d also learned Japanese. But, it had never been wrong to speak our own language. Besides, all I’d done was translate into Korean what Ito Sensei had said about Japan’s victories. Thirty-four seconds. My arms trembled.
“Do you understand?” She tapped the cane on her wooden desk.
“Hai,” our entire class of seven- to nine-year-old boys said in Japanese. Yes.
“Now that His Imperial Majesty is assuming a larger leadership role in the world, there is no need to learn or speak anything but Japanese. For anything. Do you understand?”
“Hai,” the boys said, including Mr. I-Can’t-Understand-What-The-Sensei-Is-Saying.
I did not respond, though. Did this rule apply only to us students or everyone? If it was everyone, what would Father do? Would he have to preach his sermons in Japanese? He would never do that. My classmates shuffled in their seats, trying not to exchange looks.
“Say it louder.” Ito Sensei turned to watch me speak. “In unison.”
Ito Sensei smiled and nodded as though enjoying a radio concert. Then she walked over to the blackboard and wrote what looked like hen scratches.
Was this what my brother He-Seung had meant when he said the Japanese were tightening control over us? I always thought control was a good thing. A strong thing. Father had said it was important to be in control of your emotions and your actions. In fact, yesterday when he found He-Seung playing soccer on the Lord’s holy day, he’d shouted all day long about self-control. I decided, as my arms quivered, I didn’t like Ito Sensei’s kind of control.
My outstretched arms trembled as if I were holding two giant sacks of rice out in front of me. I had lost count of where I was in this three minutes of agony, as my mind worried about Father. But, surely, I must be finished soon. I swayed, losing my balance, and bumped against Ito Sensei’s desk. My arms fell to my sides for one wonderful moment of relief.
I shut my eyes tight, certain I’d feel the burning sensation of her cane against the back of my calves, on my disobedient arms. Instead, I heard a bark of laughter.
“What are you snickering about, Taiji-san?” Ito Sensei cracked her cane on the side of a desk.
I opened my eyes. Ito Sensei had moved away from the board, not noticing my disobedience. I quickly put my arms back up, as she pointed her cane at that bully Kee-Wok. Taiji was his Japanese name. We all had Japanese names now. Another new rule. Mine was Yoshimitsu, meaning something silly like ‘shining good luck.’ Besides, Yo-shi-mi-tsu was such a mouthful of sounds, I hated to say it.
“Is there something funny about the Japanese alphabet?” Ito Sensei leaned over Kee-Wok.
“I’m sorry, Ito Sensei.” Kee-Wok pulled his mouth into a frown as he glanced up at me. “I just thought of something funny, that’s all.”
He’d been laughing at the old class monitor stumbling like the neighbor who drank too much. I hoped he wouldn’t say anything. I didn’t want to be punished further.
Ito Sensei frowned. Kee-Wok smiled back.
He was one of the older boys. He reminded me of the Japanese flag pole—tall, skinny, tough as iron. He stole homework and called it his own. He pushed classmates out of his way as if they were just leaves in the wind. He took the best food from their lunchboxes. He gave orders like a lieutenant, and my classmates obeyed him like sergeants.
He’d never bothered me before, though. I had always been Class Monitor.
Ito Sensei moved closer. She was waiting.
Kee-Wok glanced up at me again. “I was just thinking about a boy who dared his little brother to touch a bunch of chili peppers, then touch his eyes. The little brother took the stupid dare, and those chili peppers made his eyes burn. The fool rubbed harder and harder to try to get the burn to go away, each time making the pain worse.”
I held my breath. I wondered what he was up to.
Ito Sensei tapped her cane across her palm. Certainly she’d heard this story before, although the Japanese didn’t eat spicy foods like we did. “What bearing does this story have on our Japanese language lesson?”
Kee-Wok nodded in my direction. “Yoshimitsu-san looks as if he ate a thousand chili peppers.”
Ito Sensei rested her stick on top of Kee-Wok’s wooden desk as she turned to look at me. Sweat ran down my forehead. My eyes stung. My arms shuddered as if they were limbs from the cherry tree in our backyard shaking in a winter storm. I watched them flail up and down, helpless.
“Go sit down.” She waved her cane at me, then marched to the board at the front of the room. “You’ve wasted enough of our lesson time.”
I dropped my arms and bowed to Ito Sensei. My arms pulsed with pain, my fingertips throbbed. I must have held my arms up at least two and a half minutes. Maybe I’d held them up so long I’d broken my shoulders. I hurried back to my seat…