Skip to content

1st March 1945

When I went for a haircut to my neighborhood barbershop I found it turned into an improvised office of the local neighborhood association. A bomb had fallen across the corner from its old quarters and the military had roped off the area. Meantime ration tickets had still to be issued and reports turned in and so old Sato had installed himself in one of the barber’s chairs to attend to the long queue of neighbors. He had a suppressed air of cheerful excitement as he crouched forward in the tall gleaming chair; the bomb had given his neighborhood an unexpected yet perfectly safe prominence that one could see he relished keenly. As chief of the association he felt a satisfying sense of personal responsibility for “our bomb”.

“Have you seen our bomb yet?” he asked me brightly and without waiting for an answer nodded to the next in line. There was so much business to be attended to and he, as one of the wealthiest landlords in the district, rich in years and the prestige of having lived abroad, English-speaking, poker-playing, yet withal a true sake-drinking kimono-wearing Japanese patriot, was so obviously the man to attend to it.

The gold-toothed office girl smiled at him as she came up. He had carried her on his shoulders when she was a baby and now she had more than once helped him home from a drinking bout. “Can I borrow some rice from our next month’s ration?” she asked boldly.

“No,” old Sato shouted, “You people are always borrowing, borrowing, borrowing. I tell you, it can’t be done. It is impossible, simply impossible. The government is not your neighbor. There are rules that must be kept. That is my responsibility.”

As he talked and roared the girl listened to him with a quiet mischievous smile. Finally he smiled too. “All right,” he said, “you can borrow some rice. From me. From your old grandfather.”

The neighborhood association never seemed to me so logical, so natural. As I listened to old Sato explaining, complaining, admonishing, comforting, upbraiding, wheedling, assuring, promising, I thought how well this system meshed into the fundamentals of the Japanese nature. What could be simpler indeed than a system under which the Japanese family, traditional unit of Japanese society, was enlarged into the larger family of the neighborhood, the still larger family of the district, then the ward, the city, the whole nation? The neighborhood association is the core of wartime Japan. It distributes the rations, sells bonds, reports strangers, spies on itself. It bends and softens regulations with neighborly consideration. It also stiffens them with neighborly jealousies and curiosities. No one can hide in Japan, and no one starves alone.

When I left Sato was explaining patiently to a sulking slatternly maid that the bean-paste ration had been delayed. He caught sight of me as I was putting on my shoes and he called out: “Don’t forget to see our bomb.” Then he shook his head ruefully. “You see,” he opened his hands, “what a lot of trouble for a little rice and bean-paste.”