Dr. Sadao Hoki lives in his childhood home in Japan, nestled between pine trees and a small beach. When he was a little boy, he used to climb the pines as if they were the palm trees he’d seen in his frequent visits to the islands of the South Seas. On every visit to the islands, Sadao’s father would say, “Those islands yonder, they are the stepping stones to the future for Japan.” Once, Sadao had asked his father, “Where shall we step from them?” His father had answered, “Who knows? […] Who can limit our future? It depends on what we make it.”
The story opens with a flashback from Sadao’s childhood, which immediately establishes his father’s Japanese patriotism and belief in Japan’s capacity for greatness. Sadao’s father also initially appears to be a warm, encouraging father figure, which the story will soon complicate.
Growing up, Sadao’s father never “joked or played” with Sadao but “spent infinite pains upon him who was his only son.” Sadao’s father’s “chief concern” was his son’s education. When Sadao was 22, his father sent him to school in America to become a doctor. Sadao returned to Japan when has was 30 and quickly became a famed surgeon and scientist.
Sadao’s father immediately transforms from a seemingly warm, compassionate father encouraging his son to reach for greatness to a cold, harsh man who pushes his son to be the best. The fact that Sadao’s education is his father’s “chief concern” also points to the story’s preoccupation with duty.
When World War II broke out, Sadao had been working on an important medical discovery. For this reason—and because he needed to be near the General, who “might need an operation”—Sadao was required to stay in Japan rather than join the war effort.
This passage introduces the many facets of Sadao’s identity and the different duties that accompany those identities. As a Japanese citizen, he has a duty to do whatever his country asks of him, and as a skilled surgeon, he has a duty to tend to his patients.
Back in the present, Sadao looks out over his expansive property and admires the mist “wreathing around the pines” and “creeping up the beach.” His wife, Hana, joins him outside, quietly wrapping him into an embrace. Sadao thinks back to how he met Hana in college in America, but “had waited to fall in love with her until he was sure she was Japanese.” Sadao’s father never would have approved of the marriage had Hana not been “pure in her race.”
Sadao’s father sees it as his responsibility to ensure his son is in a proper marriage, and he also considers it his duty as a Japanese man—a nationalistic one, at that—to ensure that the bride is “pure in her race.” The fact that Sadao waited “to fall in love” with Hana—not just waited to marry her—shows the extent to which he bends to his father’s will.
Sadao and Hana met at their college professor’s house. The kindly professor and his wife had been “anxious to do something for their few foreign students” and invited them over. Sadao had almost skipped the gathering—the professor’s house was small, the food was bad, and the professor’s wife was too chatty. He had gone anyways, though, and the moment he saw Hana, he “had felt he would love her if it were at all possible.”
The college professor is one of the many American characters that Sadao reflects upon ambivalently. The professor seems kind and well-intentioned in wanting to make his international students feel accepted, but Sadao meets this kindness with sharp criticisms of the professor’s house, food, and wife, revealing Sadao’s own arrogance.
Although they “had talked everything over beforehand,” Sadao and Hana waited to marry until they had both finished school, returned to Japan, and ensured that Sadao’s father could arrange the marriage according to “the old Japanese way.” They’ve been happily married for several years now and have two children.
Once again, the story illustrates the ways in which its characters cleave to their duties. Here, Sadao and Hana have a duty to their families and to their heritage, preserving “the old Japanese way” of doing things.
Back in the present, Sadao and Hana suddenly notice “something black” in the mist and realize it’s a man. He slogs through the breaking waves and stumbles onto the beach, soon falling to his knees and crawling across the sand before going unconscious. Thinking the man is a washed-up fisherman, Sadao and Hana rush down to the secluded beach.
The man—later revealed as a white American named Tom—is ironically introduced here as “something black,” even though his whiteness is the crux of his identity and the reason he is deemed an enemy. Meanwhile, Hana and Sadao’s impulse to run and help the man—whom at this point they assume to be a Japanese fisherman—shows the human impulse to be kind and helpful to others.
When they reach the beach, Sadao realizes the man is badly wounded, as his blood is already seeping into the sand. He turns the unconscious man’s head and peers into his face—with a gasp, Hana and Sadao see that he is white. The man’s soggy cap falls off, revealing a head of scraggly blonde hair. On “his young and tortured face” is an unkempt blonde beard.
The story subtly uses the word “tortured” here as a way of foreshadowing Hana’s later meditations on political antagonism and Japanese torture methods. Meanwhile, the details of the man’s long, disheveled hair and beard suggest that he’s been wandering on his own or kept as prisoner for a long time.
Sadao’s “expert fingers” look for the man’s wound. Sadao finds that the man has a gunshot wound in his lower back, and that the wound was inflicted only a few days ago. Sadao thinks that one of the jagged rocks on the coastline reopened the wound, which is why the man is bleeding so profusely now. Sadao wonders aloud what they should do with the man, “But his trained hands seemed of their own will to be doing what they could to stanch the fearful bleeding.” After packing the wound sufficiently with sea moss, Sadao turns to Hana and declares that “the best thing” would be to toss the man back into the sea. She agrees, but neither she nor Sadao moves.
Interestingly, there is a discrepancy between what Sadao says and does, which is a thread that runs throughout the story. This reveals Sadao’s divided loyalties—as a surgeon, he feels compelled to save the man, and his “expert fingers” and “trained hands seemed of their own will.” Meanwhile, as a Japanese citizen, Sadao knows that he shouldn’t have anything to do with the white man.
Sadao says that if they brought the man into their house, both Sadao and Hana would be arrested; however, if they turned the man over to the Japanese authorities, the man “would certainly die.” Hana agrees that the “kindest thing” they could do would be to push him back out to sea. Hana and Sadao remain motionless, peering down at the injured white man. Sadao thinks the man looks American and picks up the man’s cap. Stamped across the front in fading letters is “U.S. Navy.” They realize that the man is a prisoner of war who had narrowly escaped, and that is why he was shot in the back.
Even though the man is a political enemy, Hana is concerned with doing the “kindest thing” for him (throwing him back into the sea rather than turning him over to the police) while still preserving her own safety and that of her family. Once again, though, Hana and Sadao are unable to act on convictions, suggesting a deep, inexplicable pull to do something even kinder for the man.
After a moment, Hana says they need to put the man back into the sea, though she refuses to be the one to do it. Sadao feels he can’t do it either; he thinks that he could easily hand the man over to the authorities if he weren’t wounded. Sadao tells his wife, “I care nothing for him. He is my enemy. All Americans are my enemy.” He adds that the man is clearly just a “common fellow,” too, judging by his “foolish” face. However, “since he is wounded…” Sadao trails off, and Hana says the only thing left to do is take the white man into their house.
Here, Sadao voices the conflict between his duty as a surgeon and his duty as a Japanese citizen. His status as a surgeon means that it is his responsibility to save lives whenever possible, even if that life has a “foolish face” and is an American. As the story goes on, it’s clear that Sadao’s occupation is an inextricable part of his identity. Thus, his duty as a surgeon to save his patients’ lives is also largely a duty to himself, which is why his conviction is so strong.
Sadao wonders what they’ll tell the servants; Hana says they “must” tell the servants that they’re only bringing the man into the house to then turn him over to the police—“as indeed we must.” She says that they “must” consider what would happen to the children if they didn’t turn the man in. Sadao agrees, firmly declaring that he “would not think of doing anything else.” They hoist the man up and carry him into the house and through the many passageways.
Hana’s repeated use of the word “must” reveals that duty is also important to her. As the mistress of the house, she “must” be open with her servants and make sure they respect her. As a Japanese citizen, she “must” follow the law. As a mother, she “must” prioritize her children’s safety. And, as a wife, it’s her duty to recite all of this to Sadao, ensuring that her husband makes the proper choice.
Sadao and Hana bring the man to the room that once belonged to Sadao’s father. The room is still in immaculate condition, outfitted only with Japanese goods—“Everything here had been Japanese to please the old man, who would never in his own home sit on a chair or sleep in a foreign bed.” Hana pulls a delicate silk blanket from the cupboard but hesitates, seeing how dirty the man is. Sadao says he will wash the man, but Hana objects, declaring, “I cannot bear for you to touch him.”
Even though Sadao’s father doesn’t appear in the story outside of Sadao’s earlier flashbacks, the old man’s presence is palpable. His perfectly preserved room suggests that perhaps his nationalistic sentiments have also been preserved and will live on in the household. This seems likely, as Hana’s earlier compassion dissolves into racism when she tells her husband not to touch the white man.
Sadao and Hana agree that Yumi, the servant who tends to the children, should be the one to wash the man. Sadao stoops down to check the young man’s pulse; it’s fainter than ever, and Sadao announces that the man requires surgery this instant. Shocked, Hana cries out, “Don’t try to save him! What if he should live?” Sadao simply replies, “What if he should die?”
Sadao and Hana’s interaction succinctly sums up the theme of humanization, kindness, and antagonism. Although Sadao has nationalistic sympathies and is deeply racist, his status as a surgeon compels him in this moment to simply see the man as a life that needs saving. Meanwhile, the fact that this man is an outsider leads Hana to believe that his life has no value and is not worth saving.
Sadao swiftly leaves the room, and Hana follows, not wanting “to be left alone with the white man.” Although she went to college in America, this is the first white man she’s seen since, and “now he seemed to have nothing to do with those whom she had known there.” “Here,” though, the white man is “her enemy, a menace, living or dead.”
Here, Hana’s thoughts explore the geopolitical boundaries that frame the story. The word “Here” points to Japan and the climate of World War II, suggesting that time and place is what dictates the white man’s status as an enemy. Hana’s thoughts also seem uncharacteristically mechanical and cold here, implying that she’s parroting a political ideology that’s been drilled into her.
Meanwhile, Sadao tells the gardener about the white man. When Sadao is out of earshot, the gardener firmly tells Hana that Sadao “ought not to” help a white man, and that the man “ought to die.” He explains that the man was shot, and “Then the sea caught him and wounded him with her rocks.” If Sadao undoes the wounds that the gun and rocks inflicted, the sea will “take revenge” on their household.
Like Hana’s earlier repetition of the word “must,” the gardener’s repeated use of “ought” also reveals his commitment to duty. The old gardener suggests that it’s their duty to nature to not undo the wounds “she” inflicted upon the white man.
Hana and Yumi go to the white man, and Hana instructs the servant girl to wash him. She refuses, declaring that she has “never washed a white man” and will not start now. Hana yells at Yumi to do as she’s told, but Yumi still refuses and leaves the room. Enraged, Hana begins cleaning the white man herself, thinking, “Stupid Yumi […] Is this anything but a man? And a wounded helpless man!” She thinks these tender thoughts, “though not really liking the man.” She puts the silk blanket on him in case he gets cold.
It seems that Yumi’s blatant racism gives Hana a clear view of her own narrow judgments and opinions about the white man. Moments ago, Hana ordered Sadao not to touch the man, but she now compassionately thinks of the prisoner as just “a man,” “And a wounded helpless man” at that. She even willingly sacrifices the silk blanket, which she was previously concerned about soiling, just to make the man more comfortable. Hana’s attitude is ambivalent, as she feels this strong impulse to be kind to the man despite “not really liking” him.
Sadao enters dressed in his surgeon’s coat and carrying his tools. He tersely orders Hana to get towels, and she does so “obediently.” She also runs to get extra blankets with which they can protect the expensive floor coverings in Sadao’s father’s room. When she returns, however, the floor is already soaked with blood. “As if he did not care,” Sadao simply says, “Yes, it is ruined.” He instructs his wife to give the man an anesthetic, and Hana protests that she’s never done that before. As he pulls back the sea moss he had stuffed into the man’s wound, Hana begins to gag. Sadao crisply tells her not to faint, as his fingers swiftly tend to the wound.
Here, Hana’s duty as a wife—and specifically the wife of a surgeon—tests the limits of what she can stomach, as she steps in as an obedient assistant. Sadao’s indifference toward the ruined floor coverings in the otherwise immaculate room that once belonged to his father shows the priority he places on his responsibility as a surgeon and the wellbeing of his patients. It’s also significant that the expensive floor coverings in Sadao’s father’s room (in which every product is Japanese) are now soaked with an American man’s blood.
Hana runs out of the room, and Sadao hears her throwing up in the garden. He realizes that she’s never seen an operation before, but her reaction makes him feel “impatient and irritable with this man who lay like dead under his knife.” Sadao quickens his pace, feeling “ruthless.” He thinks that there is “no reason” that this man should live. The unconscious man groans in pain, and Sadao tells him to keep groaning: “groan if you like. I am not doing this for my own pleasure. In fact, I do not know why I am doing it.”
Sadao is volatile in this scene, as a reminder of his conflicting duties makes him “impatient and irritable.” As a husband, he should go comfort and support his wife, but as a surgeon, he has to be rooted to the spot and continue with the operation to save the patient. Sadao’s ambivalence toward the white man begins to take shape, as he speaks of the man’s life as if it has no value while simultaneously straining to save it.
Hana returns, and Sadao teaches her how to administer the anesthetic. As she brings the saturated cotton ball to the man’s nose, she wonders if there’s any truth to the rumors she’s heard about how the Japanese torture their prisoners of war. She thinks about how the media confidently claims that everyone loves the Japanese, and “that wherever the Japanese armies went the people received them gladly.”
Here, Hana reveals a whisper of doubt about her country’s perfect goodness and superiority, wondering if her beloved country is truly capable of committing atrocities like those she’s heard of through the rumor mill. As a historical note, the Japanese were notorious for their inhumane torture methods during World War II, considering torture a necessary means to gain intelligence from prisoners.
Hana also thinks of General Takima, who is now a celebrated war hero in public even though he beats his wife viciously in private. Ever since his victory at the battle in Manchuria, no one talked about the way he abuses his wife. Hana wonders, “If a man like that could be so cruel to a woman in his power, would he not be cruel to one like this for instance?” She hopes to herself that the white man has not endured such torture. At that moment, though, she notices dark crimson scars on the man’s neck, right below his ears.
The man’s scars, though not explained in detail, indicate that he has endured Japanese torture firsthand, forcing Hana to grapple with her dangerously wavering loyalty to a country that demands her wholehearted devotion. She also conflates the injured man with General Takima’s abused wife, depicting both General Takima and Japan more broadly as forces that are praised in public but inhumane in private.
Meanwhile, Sadao continues with the operation. Suddenly, his fingers hit something hard—it’s the bullet, and it’s lodged “dangerously close near the kidney.” Sadao’s American anatomy professor had meticulously trained Sadao so that he was intimately “familiar with every atom” in the human body. Sadao’s anatomy professor used to drill into his students that “To operate without as complete knowledge of the body as if you had made it—anything less than that is murder.”
Sadao’s anatomy professor is the only American that Sadao isn’t scathingly critical of in the story. It seems that the man’s impressive knowledge of medicine and surgery eclipsed his Americanness in Sadao’s eyes.
Sadao talks quietly to his unconscious patient during the operation. It is Sadao’s “habit” to talk to his patients as he operates on them, and he “always” calls his patients “my friend.” Completely absorbed in his work, Sadao talks to his “friend,” “forgetting that this was his enemy.” Suddenly, the white man sputters but then falls silent. Afraid the man has died, Sadao takes up the white man’s wrist, “hating the touch of it,” to check his pulse. The man’s pulse is faint, but it is “enough” if Sadao “want[s] the man to live.” He firmly tells himself he does not want the man to live.
In the context of the surgery, all political and racial boundaries fall away, as Sadao and the man become a surgeon and a “friend.” This speaks to the way Sadao becomes completely absorbed in his operations, placing his duty as a surgeon above all else. The man’s sputtering snaps Sadao out of his trancelike absorption in his work, and the boundaries between the two men return; Sadao “hate[s] the touch” of the white man’s wrist and affirms that he wants the man to die.
Sadao sharply tells Hana to stop administering anesthetic. Meanwhile, Sadao fills a vial with liquid and stabs it into the man’s wrist. The man’s pulse grows stronger, and with a sigh, Sadao announces that the white man “will live in spite of it all.”
Just as it seems as if Sadao is going to kill the man—administering what appears to be some sort of drug or poison—it turns out that Sadao is actually continuing to save the man’s life. Sadao’s sigh reveals how torn he is about fulfilling his duties as a surgeon versus as a Japanese citizen.
The white man’s eyes open, and he looks terrified. Hana feeds him by hand, since none of the servants will do so. As she lifts the spoon to his mouth, Hana tells the white man he will soon grow strong, “not liking him and yet moved to comfort him.”
Once again, Hana treats the man tenderly while “not liking him,” showing the conflicting impulse to be kind to a fellow human versus the pull to see him as an enemy because of his whiteness and Americanness.
Several days later, Sadao checks on the white man and finds him sitting up in bed, “his face bloodless with the effort.” Sadao commands the man to lie back down, lest he is trying to kill himself. The boy, who looks to be only seventeen years old, nervously asks Sadao what he’s going to do with his prisoner. After a moment, Sadao says he’s unsure, though he “ought” to turn the boy over to the police.
This is one of the smaller ways in which Sadao saves the prisoner’s life. The man—who appears as a young boy now that he’s been cleaned up—could accidentally kill himself by straining too hard after the surgery. Sadao could simply let the boy kill himself, but he chooses to save his life again by sharply instructing him to lie back down. Meanwhile, Sadao’s use of the word “ought” again brings the duty to one’s country to the forefront of the story.
Later, Hana anxiously tells Sadao that the servants have threatened to quit if the white man stays any longer. According to the servants, Sadao and Hana spent so much time in America that they “have forgotten to think of [their] own country first” and now actually like Americans. Sadao objects severely, affirming that Americans are the enemy and that he has simply “been trained not to let a man die.”
The harshest criticism the servants can muster is that Hana and Sadao actually are fond of Americans. Folded into this accusation is a criticism of the couple’s lack of patriotism, which the servants see as disrespectful and dangerous.
Snipping a bud off of bush, the gardener proclaims that his “old master’s son knows very well what he ought to do.” The old gardener has been dedicated to his craft and to the household for a long time. He once created “one of the finest moss gardens in Japan” for Sadao’s father, and swept it so frequently that not even a single pine needle touched its perfect surface.
The gardener’s old age and loyal ties to Sadao’s father suggests that the two are similar in their narrow, prejudiced view of the world. It seems as if the gardener feels he has a duty to his “old master,” more so than to his “old master’s son,” and is thus more critical of Sadao as a result.
The cook says that their “young master,” Sadao, is painfully arrogant—he’s “so proud of his skill to save life that he saves any life.” The cook skillfully splits the neck of a bird they will have for dinner, carefully saving the blood for the gardener to use, since “Blood is the best of fertilisers.” Meanwhile, Yumi says that Sadao and Hana are failing to consider their children’s wellbeing: “What will be their fate if their father is condemned as a traitor?”
The way that the cook and the gardener share the blood from the fowl links them to the “old Japanese way” of doing things, which Sadao’s father was so committed to. The phrase “Blood is the best of fertilisers” is ominous, suggesting that Tom’s blood spilt on Japanese land is a good thing for Japan’s growth.
Hana knows that her servants are right, but there’s also a strange part of her that feels differently. This impulse is “not sentimental liking of the prisoner.” Even the other day, when the white man bravely introduced himself as Tom, Hana purposefully ignored him and saw the “hurt in his eyes.”
This is the third time that Hana affirms she doesn’t like the prisoner—an internal argument that’s beginning to sound defensive. This is also one of two times in which Buck uses the word “sentimental” (meant to convey something that is overly emotional or saccharine), which is the very word Buck’s critics use to classify and criticize her work.
After a week, the servants band together and all leave on the same day. Hana is devastated but doesn’t show it. The servants are all crying—the cook and the gardener have been part of the household since Sadao was a child, while Yumi is distraught to leave the children—but Hana politely thanks them for their service and pays them off. That night, Hana asks Sadao, “Why are we different from other Japanese?”
The servants’ concerns are somewhat understandable, as they would perhaps be considered traitors and sentenced to jail (or even death), too, if Tom’s presence were made known to the authorities. However, the servants’ past jabs at Tom’s race and country of origin make it clear that they’re also leaving due to prejudice.
Later, Sadao permits Tom to spend a few minutes on his feet per day so that he regains his strength quickly. Tom nervously thanks Sadao for saving his life; Sadao tersely says not to thank him quite yet. Tom looks terrified, and the scars on his neck are flushed. Sadao wonders what they’re from but doesn’t ask.
Tom’s scars—evidence of his brutal treatment at the hands of Japanese authorities—appear throughout the story whenever Sadao and Hana are going out of their way to help Tom. In this way, the scars transition from signaling inhumanity to signaling human kindness.
That afternoon, a messenger in uniform arrives, sending Hana into a panic—the servants must have told the authorities about Tom. However, the messenger tells Sadao that he’s needed at the palace: “The old General is in pain again.” When the messenger leaves, Hana admits that she thought Sadao was going to be arrested. Looking into his wife’s “anxious eyes,” Sadao says he “must get rid of this man for [her] sake.”
Here, Sadao begins thinking further about his duty as a husband. Tom’s presence in the house is making Hana extremely anxious, and it’s Sadao’s responsibility to do what he can to alleviate her anxieties. However, this is at odds with his duty as a doctor, which is to care for the man. Over and over, Sadao finds himself in the position of having conflicting duties, which shows the absurdity of all the characters who define duty in a straightforward and ideological way.
After treating the General, Sadao confides in him about Tom. The General is sympathetic to Sadao’s plight, explaining, “I understand fully. But that is because I once took a degree in Princeton. So few Japanese have.” Sadao reaffirms that he “care[s] nothing” for the American, but that as a surgeon, he simply had to save the man’s life. The General says that this ability to “save anyone” only makes Sadao “more indispensable.” The General asks if he will be able to survive another “attack” like he had earlier that day, and Sadao says yes, but only one more. With this in mind, the General says that he must protect Sadao at all costs—“Suppose you were condemned to death and the next day I had to have my operation?”
Although the General says, “I understand fully,” and attributes his understanding to his American education, the narrative doesn’t reveal what, exactly, the General understands. It seems that Sadao has just explained why he felt compelled as a surgeon to save the man’s life. The General’s concerns about Sadao’s safety are almost comically selfish, as he reveals that he primarily wants to protect Sadao because he needs access to Sadao’s surgical skill.
Sadao tells the General that there are other surgeons who could perform the operation. The General admits that the Germans are skilled surgeons, but he doesn’t trust them. After all, they “would consider the operation successful even if [the General] died.” He wishes that it were possible for the Japanese to “combine the German ruthlessness with the American sentimentality.” If that were the case, Sadao could unflinchingly turn Tom over to the police, and the General could be certain that Sadao would take care of him while he was unconscious during his surgery.
Here, the General extends the characters’ racist sentiments to Germans, caricaturing and generalizing all Germans as smart but “ruthless” people with no value for human life. Meanwhile, he paints Americans as “sentimental” and soft, existing on the other side of the spectrum. He wants the Japanese to take the perfect middle ground but implies that it’s impossible for the Japanese to combine two elements from other cultures—a comment that points back to Sadao’s father’s overwhelming concern with Japanese purity.
Growing serious, the General says that Tom must be murdered, albeit secretly. He asks Sadao for permission to send a few private assassins in the night to soundlessly kill Tom and do away with his body. Sadao agrees and privately decides not to tell Hana about the plan, as the idea of having assassins in the house would only increase her already profound anxiety. He also thinks about how assassins are “essential in an absolute state such as Japan was. How else could rulers deal with those who opposed them?”
Even though Sadao has struggled to keep Tom alive, he now agrees to have Tom killed, undoing all of his hard work. Sadao’s thoughts about Hana reveal that he’s making this decision for her sake, trying to perform his duty as a husband to protect and care for her. Meanwhile, Sadao’s belief that assassins are “essential in an absolute state” so that people in power have a way to “deal with those who opposed them” reinforces the danger of Sadao’s decision to illegally shelter and care for Tom.
When he returns home, Sadao “refuse[s] to allow anything but reason” into his mind. Tom says that he’s feeling better, though the muscles on one side of his body are fairly stiff. Instantly “forg[etting] all else,” Sadao begins to examine the side of Tom’s body, muttering to himself that he thought he “provided against that.” He tells Tom that a combination of massage and exercise might help.
Sadao instantly loses himself when the conversation turns medical, emphasizing that his occupation as a surgeon is a deeply engrained part of his identity. Throughout the story, Buck implies that this is why Sadao’s convictions as a surgeon are so strong—he has both a duty to his patients and to himself to save lives.
Tom thanks Sadao again for saving his life, claiming, “If I hadn’t met a Jap like you—well, I wouldn’t be alive today. […] I guess if all the Japs were like you there wouldn’t have been a war.” Sadao curtly accepts Tom’s thanks and tells him to go back to bed.
Although he’s trying to be kind and demonstrate his gratitude, Tom uses the slur “Jap” to refer to Sadao and then insults Japanese people as a whole. This shows that prejudice runs both ways in this scenario.
Sadao tosses and turns all night, wondering if the assassins will come. In the morning, though, Tom is still there. On the second night, Sadao again listens carefully, but Tom is still there in the morning. On the third night, Sadao awakens to the sound of a loud crash; he sharply tells Hana to stay put and not investigate the sound. In the morning, Sadao peeks into the guest room, certain Tom will be gone. Once again, Tom is still there, happy and healthy as ever.
As Sadao waits for assassins night after night, his anxiety is palpable. Once again, he tries to live up to his duty as a husband by protecting Hana from the source of the crash—which he thinks is the assassins but the story never explains the cause of.
Sadao is exhausted and tells himself that he can’t just sit around and wait for the assassins—“not that he cared for this young man’s life. No, simply it was not worth the strain.” Sadao quickly formulates a plan and tells Tom about it: Sadao will fill his boat with supplies and leave it on the shore. Later tonight, Tom must take the boat out to the nearest island—it’s so close to the mainland “that it has not been worth fortifying.” The island is also uninhabited since it is fully submerged during some seasons. Tom is to wait at the island until he sees a Korean fishing boat, which will then take him to safety. Tom is hesitant but knows he doesn’t have much of a choice.
Like Hana, Sadao carefully affirms to himself that he does not like Tom. Sadao’s actions say otherwise, though, as he goes out of his way to protect Tom from the assassins and from the Japanese authorities by helping him out of the country.
At nightfall, Sadao drags his boat to the shore and fills it with supplies. He then returns home as if he has just returned from work. Hana serves him his dinner (even though she is “so modern,” she doesn’t eat with her husband). Afterwards, Sadao checks on Tom. The boy’s pulse is irregular, but Sadao attributes it to “excitement.” Tom is otherwise healthy, and “only the scars on his neck were red.”
Once again, the scars reappear at a moment in which Sadao is going out of his way to help Tom. Once a symbol of Tom’s torture at the hands of Japanese authorities, Tom’s scars now draw attention to moments of profound (if somewhat reluctant) kindness.
Tom tells Sadao, “I realise you are saving my life again.” Sadao sniffs that it’s merely “inconvenient” to continue to host the American. Sadao gives his own flashlight to Tom and instructs him to flash it twice at dusk if he runs out of food before catching a ride on a fishing boat. He should not shine the flashlight at night, as it will certainly be seen. Likewise, Tom should not try to cook any of the fish he catches over a fire, as that would also betray his location. Sadao dresses Tom in traditional Japanese garments and covers the boy’s blonde hair with a black cloth. The two men shake hands in silence, and Tom leaves.
Although Sadao haughtily says otherwise, it’s obvious to both Tom and the reader that Sadao is inexplicably committed to saving Tom. Sadao claims that Tom’s presence is “inconvenient,” and yet Sadao goes out of his way to gift Tom his own flashlight, boat, supplies, and clothing. If Sadao were truly worried about convenience, he could have just handed Tom over to the police and wiped his hands of the prisoner.
Soon the servants return to the household. Yumi insists on burning Sulphur in Sadao’s father’s room to purify it and get rid of “the white man’s smell.” Besides this, no one speaks of Tom.
Yumi rushes to rid the house of any trace of the white man, which is perhaps a way to cover their tracks after illegally housing a prisoner of war—or yet another racist moment and a way to preserve Japanese purity.
That week, Sadao is called to the palace to do emergency surgery on the General. His “gall bladder [is] much involved,” and, for twelve hours, Sadao is uncertain if the General will survive. The surgery is a success, though, and once the General begins to regain his strength, Sadao brings up Tom. He tells the General that Tom has escaped. With a sinking feeling, the General realizes that he forgot to arrange for the private assassins to kill Tom. The General hastily declares that it wasn’t “dereliction of duty” or a “lack of patriotism” that led him to go back on his word—he simply forgot, as he was selfishly caught up in his own problems.
The General’s explanation of why he forgot to send the assassins is longwinded, and his declarations of his own patriotism and commitment to his country and role as General feel over the top and insincere. Buck leaves this moment up to interpretation, challenging her readers to decide if the General really did forget to have Tom killed (wrapped up as he was in his own health) or if he, too, wanted to spare the young prisoner’s life.
Sadao insists that he understands entirely; privately, he feels relieved, knowing that the General’s own anxieties at appearing incompetent or unpatriotic mean that Sadao is safe, and that the General wouldn’t dare tell anyone about Tom. Sadao declares, “I can swear to your loyalty, excellency […] and to your zeal against the enemy.”
The interaction between Sadao and the General continues to feel inauthentic, suggesting that perhaps the General did intentionally let Tom get away.
That night, Sadao gazes out at the island at dusk and is relieved to see that it is completely dark; there is no flash of light, which means Tom is no longer on the island. Sadao thinks Tom is “undoubtedly” safe now, since Sadao had carefully instructed him to wait specifically for a Korean fishing boat.
Sadao seems genuinely relieved that Tom is safe—not because Sadao and Hana will no longer be “inconvenienced,” but because Tom has survived against all odds, living through the war, Japanese torture, being lost at sea, emergency surgery, and then escaping the country.
As Sadao looks out at the sea, he thinks about all of the other white people he’s known over his lifetime. There was the “dull” professor and his “silly talkative” wife who had hosted the foreign students at their home (the night Sadao met Hana), as well as his anatomy professor, who had been emphatic about “mercy with the knife.”
Strangely, Sadao lumps his anatomy professor in with all of the Americans he’s disliked over his lifetime. His one criticism of the anatomy professor—if it can even be considered that—is the professor’s commitment to “mercy with the knife.” Even though Sadao himself has shown Tom “mercy with the knife,” perhaps he considers this another reflection of American sentimentalism.
Of course, there was also the “fat and slatternly landlady.” It had been a struggle for Sadao to find housing in America, and this “ignorant and dirty old woman” was the only one who would accept a Japanese tenant in her “miserable home,” though she had been hesitant at first. Sadao thinks about how “Americans were full of prejudice and it had been bitter to live in it, knowing himself their superior.” He also thinks about the time that he caught the flu, and his landlady nursed him back to health—but “she was no less repulsive to him in her kindness.” Sadao then thinks about Tom’s “white and repulsive” face and wonders why he couldn’t kill him.
Sadao is most critical of his landlady in America, who was the only landlord willing to take on a Japanese tenant (though Sadao implies that she did have some initial hesitations). Sadao depicts the landlady as being generally kind, if somewhat unrefined, which makes her seem undeserving of his harsh and antagonistic words. It seems that Sadao hasn’t been changed profoundly. He thinks about Tom’s “white and repulsive” face and seems genuinely puzzled as to why he let Tom live. The story resists a clean ending, suggesting instead that Sadao is a deeply nuanced, human character with the capacity for both cruelty and kindness. Though he has returned to his prejudiced mindset, his actions over the course of the story give readers hope that he will turn toward kindness again.