DRAWING THE LINE

On returning to Japan, to marry, Mr Kato became Mr Ando.

The couple came back from their honeymoon in Hawaii, back to his work, Mr and Mrs Ando; and the very next month he'd refused a promotion.

Promotion to deputy section chief - kacho-dairi — of the hides business: an important post within this branch of the Company.

Yet Kato-Ando had declined to accept it - expressing sincere gratitude,of course for his selection; but declining it, firmly and repeatedly.

Barry Nolan thinks on these matters as he slits the paper wrapping from a small carton of name cards; new cards for a new name. He opens the carton and checks the top card, turning it over; English on one side, Japanese characters on the other.

Ando Kyusaku, they announce. Barry wonders whether Ando Kyusaku has much of a future now, with the Company ?

He drops the carton of cards into his out-tray. From his desk, these would find their way to the desk of Kyu Kato-become-Ando. Ordering of stationery is one of the small duties which Barry has accumulated in his years in administration at this office,

It is five p.m. on a Friday, drinking time; and tomorrow the industry picnic day. He sighs; the Company holds this picnic jointly with the other trading houses involved in the business, each year. Once each year, their commercial rivalries are put aside - or channelled into sporting competition. Barry Nolan groans at the prospect, but cannot avoid it; a duty. All Company staff are expected to attend, to take part with their families or friends. He has been able to shuffle his access weekend so Kelly can come.

His daughter is fifteen. He'd be busy on the day, but it would make a change for her, she'd enjoy it, anyhow…

~ ~ ~

 

This year the weather has been kind; not too sunny, and low-moving clouds warn of its uncertainty; but the day is warm, and a cooling breeze comforts the first-arriving families, emerging. From their cars - squeezed sweaty now from the baking interiors, unbending from the clammy seats, the children exploding across the grass, they invade trees to heights already frightening to their mothers; they dabble at the river's edge with careless feet as fathers rush to their restraint. It is eleven-thirty; the locals begin to arrive, and unlike the Japanese already congregated into familiar groups, they strike out for vacant corners of the park, waving at recognised friends in the other groups.

"Barry !" He squints across the grass, toward the calling of his name, waves at a drinking friend from Marubeni.

Barry Nolan struggles with a gas bottle beneath the portable barbeque - one of his duties. Kelly is important in her father's old apron, sorting the steaks, chops, sausages, slicing the onions. From a group of Nissho-Iwai people, his friend Graham approaches, opened beer-can in each hand; Barry accepts one, and waves toward the carpark where Kyu Ando and his wife are unloading bags of ice.

They smile,returning his wave,

"So what's it all about, then ? Our old mate. Kyu ?" asks Graham.

"Thanks, Gray, Jeez, that first can of the day is hard to beat, old mate - I do thank you,"

"What about Kyu, but ? Changes his name, and now I hear he wants to knock back a promotion ? Bet the Little Mates just LOVE that, eh ?"

"Yeah, It shook them up a bit, didn’t know WHAT to make of it - even asked ME about it, the little buggers. But I hadn’t a clue, of course …"

"Strange, very, very strange for one of them, I mean,"

"Shh, they're coming over, now -"

~ ~ ~

 

Kneeling on their spread rug, watchful for ants or something worse, Mrs Komata and Mrs Homma are friends. Not close friends - merely playing golf and tennis each week - but grateful for each other on an occasion like this. Mrs Homma fends flies from her face with a bamboo fan, as they
silently watch the arrival of the newly married couple. They see Ando Kyusaku accept a can of beer from one of the locals: he quaffs it directly. Mrs Komata
shakes her head and sips neatly at a paper cup; Mrs Homma's mouth is a taut line of disapproval. She offers her companion a plastic dish of pickles and dried fish, with small wooden forks.

Mrs Komata smiles, gesturing toward the open ground where Mrs Homma's husband, the branch manager, stands ready to organise the day's first sporting events.

Their smiles matched in both timing and restraint.

Across the grass, children churn about Mr Homma: first, a three-legged race. He blows a whistle in short warnings as the entrants form a ragged line. Comic in his golf shirt, a much-stained fishing cap, shorts and knee-socks. Some local parents help to organise the start, and a fierce blast from his whistle starts the race.

The events are interrupted; little Yamada Tanjuro must be rescued from the river, canoe-capsized already in his latest flirtation with drowning.

His mother seems unable to choose her emotion - between relief at his deliverance, or remorse at this interruption of the day's program. She will spend the rest of this day bowing to any who might have been inconvenienced; but her young Tanjuro is already in dry clothes, urging her toward the next event - a tug-of-war.

A column of smoke climbs into the sky from the barbeque area; arrays of meat are ruined to varying degrees by the local husbands, cherishing their custom of doing this cooking. Their wives resignedly give out paper plates, plastic cutlery, and other implements of doubtful aid in the conquest of this food.

Behind the barbeque, Ando seems affected by its smoke – or becoming drunk ? His face is very red. Near him, Barry calls out to Kelly as she throws herself into the next cluster of bodies heaving at a weighty rope.
Homma mock-solemn, holds his fan above the centre, over a fluttering red marker ribbon — one burst from his whistle collapses this contest into a heap of bodies, with protests, tears, and laughter.

Kyu Ando stumbles against Barry: "Your daughter, Barry-san ne ? Now so quickly growing up. ne -?" Barry nods. He is proud of her, and of what she is becoming. He scoops up two fresh beer-cans, "Ready for a-nother, Kyu old mate ?" Ando shakes his head, grinning. He pats the side of his face; "Maa, Barry, too much, Already over... exceeding quota, ne ?"

They laugh together,

"Real glad you could come along, Kyu, You and the little woman. It's a nice day, too, For everyone here, I reckon."

"So ne, thank you so much. For inviting … us. Even if I have some, ah-problem with kaisha, with the Company, ne ?"

Barry scratches his head,

"Look mate, it's none of my business, I know that. But the Company is'nt bloody well God now, is it ? I mean, well good on you I reckon - too few of you blokes seem to be willing to draw the line with them. They treat you like a whole lot of ants - yeah, ANTS!" He likes this simile; turning its image over in his mind,

"Like a heap of ants, that is what it looks like, sometimes Kyu old mate, Hope ! don't seem rude, but well …more of you blokes should stand up for yourselves. Right ?"

Ando twists his head, seems perplexed,
"Ahh, thank you Barry, so thoughtful, however - not so easy for us to stay here now, Rather difficult situation, ne ?"

"Well, you can at least - look around. Wool. You're our acknowledged expert, there. Bet you could find another job here, easy.

If that's what you want, of course …"

"Ah, Barry, TOO kind, ne, But wool business – now NOT so strong, I think, Very little prospect for jobs here now, I think …" Barry knows he is right. Ando really is out on a limb.

 

Another tug-of-war collapses in noise, complaint, and laughter.

Parents bustle about, organising and reshaping; short blasts from Hornma's whistle bring order as the rope tautens again. Barry drains his beercan, throws it toward a rubbish bin and misses, "And another thing, Kyu old mate — y'don't mind me calling you that ? I mean to say, this Kato-Ando change, well - it takes some - getting used to, for me, you understand ?"

"No-worries, Barry mate, No-worries, ne ?" Ando grins at him,

Barry laughs, "Seriously,but -,"

"What …?"

"Well, I mean. This name business, anybody who knocks back a job - one that they don't really want - that I can understand. But the name change, if you'd rather not tell me, say so. But I just can't put a handle on that one."

Ando bunches tissues to wipe at his face and neck, He is silent for a little while. Then he answers Barry, in a lowered voice;
"Kato, ne, Kato is only a name, rather a common name, I may say,"
He glances over his shoulder at the noise of an adult team forming at each end of the great rope; "- Also, I may say, to take name of wife's family ne …this is NOT so unusual, in some of our situations.

Part of marriage -ah, agreement, ne ?"

"Part of the package, like -?"

"So -," Ando giggles, smiling as he repeats the phrase; "Part-of-the-package, so ne, Barry san, You see, if I am younger brother, and if wife's family has no
sons, ne ? Then THEY may adopt ME. Wife's family adopts husband - so he takes their name."

He nods to affirm this, in the face of Barry's incredulous look; "Jee-zus, we live and learn, we live and learn. So that's why you stopped being Kato. But what about that family - your own family ?

The Katos ? what do they think of it all ?"
Ando seems to avoid this point; his wife is walking towards them across the grass.

He only says: "Not so unusual, Barry. Not unusual."

~ ~ ~

The great rope again swings heavily, above the grass as if with its own life; adults, teenagers are drawn to clasp at its ends - it becomes its own creature, drawing at the people trapped into its tension. Each pair of straining legs balanced in thrust by an opposing pair of legs, grinding for footholds in the ruptured grass. This equilibrium of effort imparts the rope a quivering life; the red marker ribbon hovers between the teams, edging left then right; but gradually, steadily, more left than right; more west than east. The eastern team fights against the rope's demand, and the sun, now in their eyes. Homma the referee, crouched across the ribbon on the now-solid rope, as anchoring pairs of feet scour their opposing furrows - slowly forward for the eastern team, against their groans and grunts. Screams of the smaller children as they rush to any vacant gap in the rope, to insert their small increments of thrust. Now the western team counts one-two-three-washoi ! and falls backward in their final effort; both teams lie collapsed in winded, laughing heaps. Homma, ceremonious, upright as he flicks his fan open toward the western end to a chorus of merged cheers and booing; among the sprawled bodies the children's drink brigade dashes with beer, with lemonade. And they are most welcome.

Across the ground under shading trees, Mrs Komata abandons her scorched steak; she nibbles at some home-made onigiri - complimenting Mrs Homma on them - the compact neatness of each strip of paper-like seaweed wrapped about a ball of rice, each with its own centre of dried fish or pickle. They do not look at, nor speak of, the Ando couple.

In her role as convenor of their tennis club, Mrs Komata has decided against inviting the newcomer Mrs Ando to join.

Suddenly children - Japanese children and local children, surround them, demanding that the two women join in with the next event; a three-legged race, for wives, girlfriends, mothers. Kelly is running around the park to find Mrs Ando, as her partner.

~ ~ ~

 

"Look, you'd tell me, Kyu - if this is none of my business, riqht ?" Ando smiles at his companion. Sitting side by side on the qrass, they watch Kelly dragging his wife toward the starting line, "It is good, sometimes, to talk, Barry san,"

Barry turns to him, "You sure now ?"

"Honto, yo - rather difficult for me to talk, of these things with my Japanese, ah – friends. They may have rather rigid views on these questions, as you know,"

"Yeah, I've noticed, Well … tell me all about — if you feel okay about it," says Barry, crumpling an empty beer-can in one fist.

"So, ne, Sometimes Barry, we meet doors - in our lives. Some doors are to enter - for advantage, ne ?"

"Okay, I can see that," Barry nods.

"But … some other doors, we may wish to close them. Or better never to open them, for our own benefit, of course,"

'"Of course."

They see the women and girls being aligned into their pairs for the three-legged race: their ankles are bound,

"The Ando family was happy to adopt me - and I, to adopt their name"

"A nice gesture, too, For your wife, I mean -."

Ando Kyusaku shakes his head, "Not for my wife, Barry. For me. I changed my name - for myself.

My own interest, ne ?"

For once, Barry is silent; a fresh beercan halfway to his mouth. Ando goes on;

"Barry san, Barry san, ne, For me it was a doorway, to escape - my old past."

"Your old past ? But why – what … ?"

Ando looks around the picnic rounds, and at the groups closest to them.

"In English, you have a word,

Un-touchable, ne ?"

"Untouchable ? You mean like in India ? The lowest classes …"

"So, exactly, But such a system, not only India, ne ?"

"You mean, Japan too ? They have it there too ? You amaze me." Barry sits up; he wonders if Kyu is joking;

Ando looks up at the sky, still filled with rolling grey clouds; he looks again at the people closest to them, then to Barry Nolan; "You will NEVER hear of it - even many Japanese, the younger ones, are truly ignorant of it. But the others, most people, they do not wish to know, Or to admit that they know, ne." He looks carefully around again, and whispers; "Buraku. You must tell nobody, of course, NO-body. My family was - is buraku-min."

Ando explains the separation, the otherness, from generation to generation of those families involved in 'unclean work: animal slaughter, tanning, many facets of the meat industry; buraku, the unclean community.

"You amaze me," Barry slowly shakes his head, "- in a modern country like that. It’s almost - feudal, bloody feudal.

How do you - they, survive ?"

"But we are not all poor Barry san," laughs Kyu, "Our family business, in Akagi - near to Osaka, ne ? My brother, elder brother... he runs it, tanning and making leather goods. Very profitable — good business, ne,"
"Does the Company know ?"

Ando shakes his head, "No, not officially. After my graduation, I studied about textile science — I moved to Nagoya. So to wool — so to Aus-tra-lia,"

"Well, you're certainly seen as the wool expert round here,"

"So, better to stay in same area, ne ?"

Barry sighs, rubbing at the top of his head, "So that's why you refused the new job, The promotion. The hides section -"

"So, exactly ne ? Too many people in that business - they might connect me, as one of Kato family."

~ ~ ~

After one false start, Homma is reorganising the women and girls.

"Does she know - and her family ?" asks Nolan. Ando nods, "So. She understands. That is okay — we had a 'love marriage', ne ? Not arranged by families, so her family does not know, yet."

Barry grasps Kyu's shoulder. Kyu does not pull free from his grip;

"- But when they DO - what then ? Jeez, what a business!"

"They will, they will, ne, Then some trouble, I guess, But by then, perhaps - well, perhaps we have some children," he smiles, "As security, ne ?"

You poor buggers, you poor screwed-up buggers, thinks Barry.

They both leap to their feet at the shrieking blasts from Homma's whistle; laughing at the sight of fourteen females, various in age and height, staggerinq across the grass in their awkward embraces and bound legs.

Grimly striving, and none more so than Mrs Homma and Mrs Komata, united in a neat cohesion of legs and swinging arms; well ahead of the others, until some small mistiming has them sprawled across the grass. Kelly Nolan and Mrs Ando squeal as they thump over the finish line to repeated bursts from Homma's whistle. They jump in shared joy, till their still-bound legs bring them giggling to the ground. Ando and Nolan run to help, and to congratulate them.

 

Barry Nolan laughs, but thinks of the new name cards on his desk. Ando Kyusaku, Kyu Ando, Living on a knife-edge, in so many ways, What if her family found out soon ?

What if the Company knew, old Homma for instance ?

Living on a knife-edge, yet - for today, at least - they are living.

He thinks to send Kelly for some beer - but she has already returned to where they are resting on the grass, without asking or being asked; she brings back four cans dripping from the ice.

Her father grins as she expertly opens them: One-two-three-four.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

© Geoff D Bolton

This story was included in the anthology ‘Encounters with Japan’ published in 1994 by Harper Collins and the ANU.

 

(ISBN: 0 207 18559 X)

 

However a translation of this book, entitled ‘Watashi ga Aitta Nippon’ (20 Extraordinary Stories) and published by Simul Press in 1995, omitted this story because of its subject. More detail may be found in the appendix to this collection A Company of Men.