Tokyo will always remember the night of the 25th May. It started out so quietly. The moon was still out. People told one another that Mr. B-29 would not come tonight, he would be resting from his labors, so it was safe to go for a little walk. It seemed such a pity to waste that moonlight and the playful teasing little wind. I went out to dinner in the suburbs. But we had not yet finished coffee when the alert was sounded; the actual alarm was almost an echo; I had no longer time to make the train home. “Why don’t you stay up with me until morning?” asked my host. He was rather worried and wanted company.
The fires and explosions were rather closer than they had been the last time but we could still sit in the garden edge of his Japanese house, counting the bombers as they came in, one by one. The wind had blown up into a gale by now. The trees about us were in a tumult. The anti-aircraft fire was active and fragments of shell and bomb came whistling overhead. Six or seven buried themselves in the ground about us. There was nothing to be done about them but still quietly and take our chances. The neighborhood was tense. The members of the neighborhood association were patroling their houses and their yards. Only one man was slightly hysterical; he shouted to us to put out our cigarettes although the sky all around us was already bright with fire.
It did not look like a heavier raid than usual. Still it was tiring to sit up through the night and I was more annoyed than disturbed when, after breakfast in the morning, I found I would have to walk back to the embassy, a matter of four or five hours, because the suburban railway line had been cut. But there no help for it. My host was kind enough to accompany me to show me the way it but it turned out that he need not have done it; there was such a steady crowd going to Tokyo that I need only have followed them. Afterward I was glad enough to have his company. The scene of desolation in the dawn of an air-raid had grown so familiar and monotonous that I thought it had lost its power to horrify me. I did not count on the effect of accumulation, horror stretched out after familiar horror, until the total became a new monstrosity. All the way from Nishi-Ogikuboto Kudan, block after block was razed flat in that utter way that only Japanese blocks can be razed flat, for the closely-packed wood-and-paper houses leave scarcely a stone upon a stone. There was no trace or memory of beauty in this only featureless waste, gray, sultry, pitiless.
Only the overheard talk of the people as we passed by gave it meaning and nearness; without them it might have been a vista of the craters of the moon. They were only snatches of conversation as we went by but they told a story of the human heart. A young girl asked who had started the war. A shabby man with a bristle mumbled over and over to himself: “But this is cruel, too cruel!” and in his accents there was neither hate nor the desire for revenge but only an anguished surprise. Most of them however were concerned with petty tragedies of everyday life. They spoke of some prized possession burnt, of a little hoard of food accumulated at unspeakable sacrifices now gone up in smoke, of where they would spend the night. Once again there would be no light, no water, no gas for all of us, and for those who had been caught in the trap of ruin, there would be no place to sleep, no clothes to wear, no food to eat. We passed a ration center giving out small balls of cold brown rice; another center’s warehouse was burning and the people were snatching out handfuls of burnt beans. There was an incredible, brutal, greedy sense of waste; the beans ran in quick rustling streams into the gutters as the gaunt people snatched at the smoking bags, tore them, fighting over handfulls that spilled and were crushed under their hard scuffling wooden slippers.
Yet by themselves, how admirable and infinitely pathetic was their patience. They were already scouring the ruins of their homes for some pot that could be salvaged and their faces, drawn, streaming with sweat, seared and scarred by smoke, were yet clear of despair. Was it serenity or stupidity? An ox can be a hero.
but perhaps there was something in the Japanese soul that steeled them against catastrophe, some atavistic acceptance of sudden ruin in a land of earthquakes and famine. By the side of the road there were two blackened and twisted corpses, a large one clasping a smaller body. A scrap of bright red and orange cloth had somehow escaped the flames and it fluttered greasily from a charred crease of crusted flesh. I felt that if I had lived there I would not have stayed a moment longer; I would have fled in horror and despair. But what was there to run to? An old woman was hobbling along beside us, leading a howling child by the hand. “Never mind, never mind, darling,” she said, “we are still alive and that is most important.” What had the child lost? I wanted to stop and ask. A doll, a pet, a mother? Whatever it had been, it seemed to that child so infinitely more important than life.
It was hard to find my way home. All the familiar landmarks from Shinjuku to Yotsaya Mitsuke were gone and only the dusty road, cluttered with the wrecks of streetcars, remained in a strange and trackless desert. How many were there that morning, lost like myself in an unexpected wilderness! I turned the corner I had turned to many times and it was almost no surprise to find the house gone with the rest of the neighborhood. There was little trace of it left except for a half-burnt shirt near the air-raid shelter. I was overwhelmed by melancholy. This was a personal, an intimate, square of debris. I understood now why people poked about in the ruin of their homes. I myself felt the irresistible compulsion of their emotion and I kicked desultorily at the fallen tile and the charred sheets of tin, my eyes searching restlessly. What was I looking for? What did I expect to find? Nothing; my old razor, perhaps, which I had bought in a tunnel on Corregidor; or the old shoehorn that always hung at the entrance because shoes must be taken off when going into a Japanese house; anything that might identify this heap of rubble as the place I had known so well and made my own, a sight of recognition from the chaos of universal and anonymous desolation, a scrap of memory.
I felt the eyes of someone upon me and I looked up. The landlord’s daughter, our neighbor, was cooking her breakfast over the ruins of her house and she was watching me. Her eyes were bloodshot but she seemed endowed wuth the same tenacious patience which I had seen everywhere. My colleagues had gone to the embassy for refuge, she said. No, there was no one left here. Her family had gone off somewhere to look for lodging or buy a railway ticket. Abruptly she burst into tears, rose, and caught my hands. “There is nothing left here, nothing left. When shall we see each other again?”
I answered her as reassuringly as I could. Then I said I must go. The sun was out and it was uncomfortable to stumble through the debris, choking with smoke, cinders in my eyes, tired and sleepless. Turning into the main road a solitary car overtook me slowly. I stopped to look and inside I caught a glimpse of sad old man. I recognized the tired sagging face. It was Suzuki the premier. The people on the road did not seem to recognize him or, if they did, they did not seem to care. There were, for once, no armed escorts or guards. Apparently it was not thought necessary to take any precautions against a mob of malcontents or a chance fanatic; how well the Japanese leaders knew their own people. No one cheered as they would have cheered Churchill in London, fingers raised in the V sign; but also no one hooted or raised a clenched fist. The Japanese were too busy with their own troubles; only one or two stared curiously at the shiny automobile as it rolled smoothly past.
There had been no fires near the embassy; there was nothing left to burn. Some incendiaries had fallen into our compound but they had been put out with comparative ease and no visible damage. One incendiary had burst outside the window of the ambassador’s office and the heat outside had dried up the glue on the maps on the walls so that the maps had snapped off their rollers and were on the floor, but that was all. White chemical stains were scattered in the lawn and gravel walks. A few tiles had been bashed in on the roof. But considering everything, the embassy had been very lucky. Vargas, who was out of town, would find little harm done.
I found my colleague Sy-Changco disconsolate. He had placed most of his clothes in the air-raid shelter and covered them up with earth but somehow the fire had crept in and he had lost many of his clothes. The house had gone up in flames only in the closing hours of the fire. Several incendiaries had dropped into the garden but no damage had been done until the house in the corner opposite caught fire and the terrific wind scattered it throughout the neighborhood. Throughout the day refugees trooped into the embassy. We put all of them up for the night but it was difficult to feed them. As usual there was neither light nor water; the gas-range was dead; and all we had to eat was an unsavory mess of Japanese noodles and rice, half-cooked over a wooden fire, and eaten by candle-light.
Vargas was due to return that night and we were to pick him up at the Tokyo station. But we were told that the heart of Tokyo had been destroyed and that Tokyo station had been hit at last; the Imperial Hotel was in flames; there were stories that even the imperial palace had caught fire. We were too tired to go out and see during the day and the small car in the embassy had broken down with the cheap alcohol we were using as fuel. However Vargas had to be fetched and Sy-Changco and I took out the big car. The chauffeur was on leave in Hakone and we had to do the driving ourselves. The alcohol was so bad that the big Buick kept dying under us. It was a weird ride –Maranouchi and the Ginza were a ghostly graveyard with the skeletons of skyscrapers still flickering with flames at the windows. Tokyo station was in ruins and we went on to the next stop at Shinbashi. It was tense and strained work, driving in pitch darkness with dimmed headlights. The streetcars were dangerous with wreckage and heavy streetcar cables dangling overhead. At Shinbashi there was a light burning in the station-master’s office and when we asked about the train from Nara we were told that it would not go beyond the next station, Shinagawa. Off we went again on the main road to Yokohama. There were parties of refugees strung all along the road, some trudging patiently along with huge bundles on their backs; others, more fortunate, jammed into rattling open trucks that the army and the navy had put into an emergency bus line.
The Buick kept stalling and we had to ask the help of passers-by to get it started again as it was too heavy for one man to push while the other worked the gears and clutch. The atmosphere of common disaster made everyone helpful. Two trucks also stopped when we flagged them and took their turns pushing the car but it all came to nothing in the end and we had finally to give up the idea of getting to Shinagawa. Then one of our interpreters came riding by on a bicycle. Vargas had arrived and the interpreter had borrowed the station-master’s bicycle at Shinagawa to fetch the car. We told him what had happened and decided to let him go back to the embassy to see if the small car had been fixed up in the meantime –which as it turned out, it had.
The alert sounded again as we were on our way back to the embassy and somehow, moving through the graveyard that had once been Tokyo, it had the sound of wailing and lamentation, a thin and distant sound and, because most of the sirens had been destroyed, lonely and forlorn. It had a note of remembered sadness, pursuing the ghostly fugitives along the road.