It is now already a thing of some fifteen years ago. In those days, when my circumstances seemed to improve with each month, my wife had begun to press me to find a new house. With her usual foresight, she had argued the importance of our having a house in keeping with our status — not out of vanity, but for the sake of our children's marriage prospects. I saw the sense in this, but since Setsuko, our eldest, was still only fourteen or fifteen, I did not go about the matter with any urgency. Nevertheless, for a year or so, whenever I heard of a suitable house for sale, I would remember to make enquiries.
Besides, there was surely much to admire in the idea of 'an auction of prestige', as the elder daughter called it. One wonders why things are not settled more often by such means. How so much more honourable is such a contest, in which one's moral conduct and achievement are brought as witnesses rather than the size of one's purse. I can still recall the deep satisfaction I felt when I learnt the Sugimuras — after the most thorough investigation — had deemed me the most worthy of the house they so prized.
Coming out of Mrs Kawakami's now, you could stand at her doorway and believe you have just been drinking at some outpost of civilization. All around, there is nothing but a desert of demolished rubble. Only the backs of several buildings far in the distance will remind you that you are not so far from the city centre. 'War damage,' Mrs Kawakami calls it. But I remember walking around the district shortly after the surrender and many of those buildings were still standing. The Migi-Hidari was still there, the windows all blown out, part of the roof fallen in. And I remember wondering to myself as I walked past those shattered buildings, if they would ever again come back to life. Then I came by one morning and the bulldozers had pulled down everything.
"We took him once to the cinema to see an American cowboy film. He's been very fond of cowboys ever since. We even had to buy him a ten-gallon hat. He’s convinced cowboys make that funny sound he does. It must have seemed very strange.”
“So that’s what it was,” I said with a laugh. “My grandson’s become a cowboy.”
Down in the garden, a breeze was making the foliage sway.
Noriko was crouching down by the old stone lantern near the back wall, pointing something out to Ichiro.
“Still,” I said, with a sigh, “only a few years ago, Ichiro wouldn't have been allowed to see such a thing as a cowboy film.”
Setsuko, without turning from the garden, said: “Suichi believes it's better he likes cowboys than that he idolize people like Miyamoto Musashi. Suichi thinks the American heroes are the better models for children now.”
My respect for reception rooms may well appear exaggerated, but then you must realize that in the house I grew up in — in Tsuruoka Village, a half-day's train journey from here — I was forbidden even to enter the reception room until the age of twelve. That room being in many senses the centre of the house, curiosity compelled me to construct an image of its interior from the occasional glimpses I managed to catch of it. Later in my life I was often to surprise colleagues with my ability to realize a scene on canvas based only on the briefest of passing glances; it is possible I have my father to thank for this skill, and the inadvertent training he gave my artist's eye during those formative years.
But as I say, there is a different mood in the country these days, and Suichi's attitudes are probably by no means exceptional. Perhaps I am being unfair if I credit young Miyake, too, with such bitterness, but then the way things are at present, if you examine anything anyone says to you, it seems you will find a thread of this same bitter feeling running through it. For all I know, Miyake did speak those words; perhaps all men of Miyake's and Suichi's generation have come to think and speak like that.
I have still in my possession a painting by the Tortoise — a self-portrait he painted not long after the Takeda days. It shows a thin young man with spectacles, sitting in his shirtsleeves in a cramped, shadowy room, surrounded by easels and rickety furniture, his face caught on one side by the light coming from the window. The earnestness and timidity written on the face are certainly true to the man I remember, and in this respect, the Tortoise has been remarkably honest; looking at the portrait, you would probably take him to be the sort you could confidently elbow aside for an empty tram seat. But then each of us, it seems, has his own special conceits. If the Tortoise's modesty forbade him to disguise his timid nature, it did not prevent him attributing to himself a kind of lofty intellectual air — which I for one have no recollection of. But then to be fair, I cannot recall any colleague who could paint a self-portrait with absolute honesty; however accurately one may fill in the surface details of one's mirror reflection, the personality represented rarely comes near the truth as others would see it.
You may perhaps think I am taking too much credit in relating this small episode; after all, the point I was making in the Tortoise's defence seems a very obvious one — one you may think would occur instantly to anyone with any respect for serious art. But it is necessary to remember the climate of those days at Master Takeda's – the feeling amongst us that we were all battling together against time to preserve the hard-earned reputation of the firm. We were also quite aware that the essential point about the sort of things we were commissioned to paint — geishas, cherry trees, swimming carps, temples — was that they look ‘Japanese’ to the foreigners to whom they were shipped out, and all finer points of style were quite likely to go unnoticed. So I do not think I am claiming undue credit for my younger self if I suggest my actions that day were a manifestation of a quality I came to be much respected for in later years — the ability to think and judge for myself, even if it meant going against the sway of those around me.
“I realize there are now those who would condemn the likes of you and me for the very things we were once proud to have achieved. And I suppose this is why you're worried, Ono. You think perhaps I will praise you for things perhaps best forgotten.”
“No such thing,” I said hastily. “You and I both have a lot to be proud of. It's merely that where marriage talks are concerned, one has to appreciate the delicacy of the situation. But you've put my mind at rest. I know you'll exercise your judgement as well as ever.”
“I will do my best,” Matsuda said. “But, Ono, there are things we should both be proud of. Never mind what people today are all saying. Before long, a few more years, and the likes of us will be able to hold our heads high about what we tried to do. I simply hope I live as long as that. It's my wish to see my life's efforts vindicated.”
Mrs Kawakami was quiet for a moment, as though listening for something amidst the sounds the workmen were making outside. Then a smile spread over her face and she said: 'This was such a splendid district once. You remember, Sensei?”
I returned her smile, but did not say anything. Of course, the old district had been fine. We had all enjoyed ourselves and the spirit that had pervaded the bantering and those arguments had never been less than sincere. But then perhaps that same spirit had not always been for the best. Like many things now, it is perhaps as well that that little world has passed away and will not be returning. I was tempted to say as much to Mrs Kawakami that evening, but decided it would be tactless to do so. For clearly, the old district was dear to her heart — much of her life and energy had been invested in it — and one can surely understand her reluctance to accept it has gone for ever.
Nevertheless, whenever I find myself wandering around Kawabe Park these days, I start to think of Sugimura and his schemes, and I confess I am beginning to feel a certain admiration for the man. For indeed, a man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if in the end he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions. It is my belief, furthermore, that Sugimura did not die an unhappy man. For his failure was quite unlike the undignified failures of most ordinary lives, and a man like Sugimura would have known this. If one has failed only where others have not had the courage or will to try, there is a consolation — indeed, a deep satisfaction — to be gained from this observation when looking back over one's life.
You may gather from such recollections that our devotion to our teacher and to his principles was fierce and total. And it is easy with hindsight — once the shortcomings of an influence have become obvious — to be critical of a teacher who fosters such a climate. But then again, anyone who has held ambitions on a grand scale, anyone who has been in a position to achieve something large and has felt the need to impart his ideas as thoroughly as possible, will have some sympathy for the way Mori-san conducted things. For though it may seem a little foolish now in the light of what became of his career, it was Mori-san's wish at that time to do nothing less than change fundamentally the identity of painting as practised in our city. It was with no less a goal in mind that he devoted so much of his time and wealth to the nurturing of pupils, and it is perhaps important to remember this when making judgements concerning my former teacher.
'No. He wasn't a bad man. He was just someone who worked very hard doing what he thought was for the best. But you see, Ichiro, when the war ended, things were very different. … after the war, Mr. Naguchi thought his songs had been — well — a sort of mistake. He thought of all the people who had been killed, all the little boys your age, Ichiro, who no longer had parents, he thought of all these things and he thought perhaps his songs were a mistake. And he felt he should apologize. To everyone who was left. To little boys who no longer had parents. And to parents who had lost little boys like you. To all these people, he wanted to say sorry. I think that's why he killed himself. Mr Naguchi wasn't a bad man at all, Ichiro. He was brave to admit the mistakes he'd made. He was very brave and honourable.'
I have learnt many things over these past years. I have learnt much in contemplating the world of pleasure, and recognizing its fragile beauty. But I now feel it is time for me to progress to other things. Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.
'Did you have authorization to bum those paintings?’ I asked.
'It's our policy to destroy any offensive material which won't be needed as evidence. We've selected a good enough sample. The rest of this trash we're just burning.'
'I had no idea', I said, 'something like this would happen. I merely suggested to the committee someone come round and give Mr Kuroda a talking-to for his own good.' I stared again at the smouldering pile in the middle of the yard. ‘It was quite unnecessary to bum those. There were many fine works amongst them.'
'I've no doubt your new leaders are the most capable of men. But tell me, Taro, don't you worry at times we might be a little too hasty in following the Americans? I would be the first to agree many of the old ways must now be erased for ever, but don't you think sometimes some good things are being thrown out with the bad? Indeed, sometimes Japan has come to look like a small child learning from a strange adult.'
‘Father is very right. At times, I'm sure, we have been a little hasty. But by and large, the Americans have an immense amount to teach us. Just in these few years, for instance, we Japanese have already come a long way in understanding such things as democracy and individual rights.
'Noriko hasn't told you about the miai? Well, I made sure that evening there'd be no obstacles to her happiness on account of my career. I dare say I would have done so in any case, but I was nevertheless grateful for your advice last year.'
'Forgive me, Father, but I don't recall offering any advice last year. As for the matter of the miai, however, Noriko has indeed mentioned it to me a number of times. Indeed, she wrote to me soon after the miai expressing surprise at Father’s . . . at Father’s words about himself.’
'Let me assure you, Setsuko, I wouldn't for a moment consider the sort of action Naguchi took. But then I am not too proud to see that I too was a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end.'
My daughter seemed to consider this for a moment. Then she said: 'Forgive me, but it is perhaps important to see things in a proper perspective. Father painted some splendid pictures, and was no doubt most influential amongst other such painters. But Father's work had hardly to do with these larger matters of which we are speaking. Father was simply a painter. He must stop believing he has done some great wrong.'
'But there's no need to blame ourselves unduly,' he said. 'We at least acted on what we believed and did our utmost. It's just that in the end we turned out to be ordinary men. Ordinary men with no special gifts of insight. It was simply our misfortune to have been ordinary men during such times.'
And all the while I turned over in my mind what might occur when I came face to face with Mori-san once more. Perhaps he would receive me as an honoured guest; or perhaps he would be as cold and distant as during my final days at the villa; then again, he might behave towards me in much the way he had always done while I had been his favourite pupil — that is, as though the great changes in our respective status had not occurred. The last of these possibilities struck me as the most likely and I remember considering how I would respond. I would not, I resolved, revert to old habits and address him as 'Sensei'; instead, I would simply address him as though he were a colleague. And if he persisted in failing to acknowledge the position I now occupied, I would say, with a friendly laugh, something to the effect of: 'As you see, Mori-san, I have not been obliged to spend my time illustrating comic books as you once feared.'
It is hard to describe the feeling, for it was quite different from the sort of elation one feels from smaller triumphs – and, as I say, quite different from anything I had experienced during the celebrations at the Migi-Hidari. It was a profound sense of happiness deriving from the conviction that one's efforts have been justified; that the hard work undertaken, the doubts overcome, have all been worthwhile; that one has achieved something of real value and distinction. I did not go any further towards the villa that day — it seemed quite pointless. I simply continued to sit there for an hour or so, in deep contentment, eating my oranges.
I smiled to myself as I watched these young office workers from my bench. Of course, at times, when I remember those brightly-lit bars and all those people gathered beneath the lamps, laughing a little more boisterously perhaps than those young men yesterday, but with much the same god- heartedness, I feel a certain nostalgia for the past and the district as it used to be. But to see how our city has been rebuilt, how things have recovered so rapidly over these years, fills me with genuine gladness. Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well.