While gazing out at his secluded property on the coast of Japan, Dr. Sadao Hoki notices a strange shape crawling out from the ocean. Realizing it’s a man, Sadao and his wife, Hana, rush out to the beach to help. They are shocked to realize that the man, who is covered with blood and is now unconscious, is white and looks no older than seventeen. From the gunshot wound in the boy’s back, the ominous red scars on his neck, and his U.S. Navy hat, they deduce that he is a prisoner of war who has recently escaped from the Japanese authorities. Sadao, a famously skilled surgeon, can’t help but pack the man’s wounds with sea moss to stop his bleeding, even while proclaiming his hatred for Americans. Sadao and Hana can’t bear to turn the man over to the authorities, as they will surely kill him, but they can’t leave him stranded out at sea either. They know that bringing the man into their house is illegal and dangerous, an act that could deem them traitors and lead to their own arrests. After much deliberation, the couple decides to bring the wounded American into their home despite the risks.
After properly examining the man, Sadao decides that he’s surely going to die unless he undergoes surgery immediately. Sadao quickly loses himself in the operation, talking to his patient and calling him “my friend” as Sadao removes the bullet lodged in the boy’s side. The surgery is messy, and Hana is forced to act as her husband’s assistant. When she politely excuses herself to throw up, her husband is cold and unsympathetic, forgetting that she’s never witnessed an operation before. The surgery is a success, and over the course of several days, the boy—who introduces himself as Tom—improves dramatically. He’s warm and grateful, showering the surgeon and his wife with praise for saving his life. Sadao and Hana always respond coldly, implying that they’re still going to turn him over to the authorities.
The servants are shocked at Sadao and Hana’s decision to help a white man—their “old master,” Sadao’s father, would have never done such a thing. After a week, all of the servants quit—even though two of them, the cook and the gardener, have been an instrumental part of the household since Sadao was just a little boy.
Sadao pays a visit to one of his most powerful patients, the General, who struggles with a critical health problem. The General is fiercely loyal to Sadao, believing him to be the best doctor in Japan. Because of this bond the men share, Sadao confides in him about Tom. Like Sadao and Hana, the General also attended college in the United States, so he understands Sadao’s impulse to help the American even though he is an enemy. The General is mostly concerned that Sadao will be sentenced to death and thus be unable to operate on the General in the future. The General comes up with a plan: he will send his private assassins to Sadao’s house sometime in the next week. Sadao is to leave the door to Tom’s room unlocked; in the middle of the night the assassins will silently kill the white man and dispose of the body, lifting the burden from Sadao’s shoulders.
Several days pass, and the assassins never show up. Tired of waiting, Sadao sends Tom to a nearby island in the middle of the night, where he is bound to be picked up by a Korean fishing boat. He tells Tom to flash his flashlight at dusk if he runs out of food before being picked up.
A few days later, Sadao tells the General that Tom has escaped. The General guiltily realizes that he forgot to send the assassins in the first place—he had been so wrapped up in his own fragile health that he forgot to help Sadao. The General hastily makes sure that Sadao doesn’t think him any less patriotic or dutiful for forgetting to have the white man killed. The two men both promise to keep quiet about the whole situation.
Things return to normal in Sadao’s household, and even the servants come back. At dusk, Sadao looks out over the sea. There are no flashes from a flashlight; Sadao knows Tom has fled to safety. Sadao thinks bitterly about all the “other white faces” he’s known in his lifetime and wonders why he couldn’t kill Tom.