Ping Fan, Manchuria, south of Harbin
Lieutenant Colonel Ishii Shiro began construction of the Lumber Mill in 1936, almost as soon as he arrived in Ping Fan. That autumn, troops of the Japanese Imperial Army, under their new commander, expropriated two of the ten villages that made up the community of Ping Fan. They recompensed the peasants at 120 Chinese yuan ‑‑ about US$6 ‑‑ an acre. The peasants came to the Free Clinic to tell us that a soldier named Zhijiang Silang — Ishii’s Chinese nom de guerre, as it turned out — had stolen their land to build a lumber mill.
Manchuria had been under the heel of the Japanese for four years. The foreign imperialists had established the “sovereign” state of Manchukuo and proclaimed Henry P’u Yi, the last of the Manchus, our new emperor. This comic opera kingdom was, of course, a Japanese colony, and our masters intended to transform it into a model of Imperial development throughout East Asia. We assumed Colonel Ishii’s lumber mill was another exemplary project.
My father and I sympathized with the peasant farmers, but we knew that there was little we could do. We were only a pair of doctors running a clinic for the poor, and, as known members of the Chinese Communist Party, we had even less influence with our occupiers than an ordinary Manchurian bourgeois.
Still, the displaced peasants had petitioned us in particular for assistance precisely because we were Communists, and my father believed that we owed it to the Party at least, if to no one else, to make some display of resistance. We arranged to meet with Colonel Ishii and protest the Japanese robbery.
We met one evening in the Colonel’s headquarters in the city of Harbin, 24 kilometers north of Ping Fan. Colonel Ishii had confiscated a mansion in the old Russian concession for his personal use, and he held court in the library on the first floor. A Major Matsumo, Ishii’s aide, ushered us into the library office and introduced us. Matsumo was a small, officious man who took himself quite seriously, though he seemed to me nothing without his master.
The library smelled of old books, tobacco, and furniture polish, and all glowed softly in the yellow electric light of a chandelier suspended from the twelve-foot ceiling. Ishii sat behind a large desk of ebony inlaid with patterns of mother of pearl. His thick black hair was neatly combed, he wore round steel-rimmed spectacles and sported a well-cared-for goatee. He sat in a high-backed revolving desk chair upholstered in tan cashmere and held a swagger stick in his right hand, its tip resting on his knee. I thought him the image of empire.
“Honorable Colonel,” said Matsumo, “the Doctors Li from the Ping Fan Free Clinic. Doctor Li En-lai,” gesturing at my father, “and the young Doctor Li Lu-san.”
Ishii nodded and dismissed Matsumo with a wave of his stick. Then he smiled easily and said, “You are both graduates of the Medical Department of Kyoto Imperial University.”
We stood side by side before Ishii’s big desk. My father smiled back and said, “Exactly correct, honorable Colonel.”
Ishii now beamed with artificial good cheer. “Then we are brother alumni,” he said.
“I cannot imagine a more auspicious sign,” said my father.
“Nor I,” agreed the Colonel. “What can I do for my academic brothers this evening?”
Immediately, my father spoke up for the peasants: “Honorable Colonel, we understand that the needs of the Chrysanthemum Throne are paramount–”
“As indeed they are,” Ishii said.
My father nodded. “But surely the God Emperor believes in compensation for the properties seized.”
Ishii cast a stern look at my father, to intimidate him, I suspected, but the Colonel did not know Li En-lai. I had seen my father with Chiang Kai-shek’s officers, and those of other warlords, and he never kow-towed to soldiers. He had accomplished something inside himself that made him impervious to their abuse ‑‑ to torture and even threats of death ‑‑ and I knew that he could let Ishii glare at him all night, if necessary.
At length, Ishii spoke: “As the Emperor’s servant in this matter, I can tell you that He believes the compensation to be fair. More than just, in fact.”
“But surely,” my father said, “in the Home Islands, when the Emperor exercises eminent domain over the home and land of a Japanese family, He offers something more substantial than one-fourth of its actual worth.”
“This is Manchuria,” said the Colonel with an ironic smile. “The land here is not worth so much.”
“Then why do you want it?” said my father.
The Colonel’s eyes betrayed angry surprise, but after only a second’s pause he said, “Not for farming, I assure you, Doctor. Indeed, one of our first missions here will be to teach your peasants about husbandry, so they will not attempt to farm this unarable land.”
“These are the lands they have always lived on.”
“The Imperial Army needs lumber,” said the Colonel. “We are constructing a lumber mill on this land. The acreage is ideal for our purposes, not farming.” He waved his stick lightly through the air. “I remind you, Doctor, these peasants are Manchurian, not Japanese.” The tip of the swagger stick rested on his knee again.
My father said, “But their needs are the same.”
The Colonel shook his head once, sharply. “No,” he said. “Manchurian needs are not the same as Japanese. Not at all.” He laid his stick on the desk, sat forward, and drew two file folders toward him. My father and I both spoke and read Japanese, and we saw our names plainly on the files. Ishii opened one, as if he hadn’t already read it, and, without looking up, said, “You two are members of the Kungchantang.” He raised his eyes to my father’s. “Is this not so?”
My father nodded once.
“Communists,” Colonel Ishii said bluntly, closing the file and placing both of them on the desk before him. “We have come to do something about Communism.”
My father smiled very slightly and said nothing.
“Communist physicians,” Ishii turned to me suddenly. “Tell me, young doctor, how can a Communist minister to the sick?”
I said, “Disease recognizes no party, Colonel.”
The Colonel smiled at this reply, something in it pleased him. He said, “We will change that here, at our lumber mill.”
No more than my father did I understand these words, but later I recalled them often.
Ishii went ahead. “You cannot, as Communists yourselves, appreciate the significance of the presence here of the Kwantung Army. But mark my words, Doctors Li, the Manchus will thank us one day for saving them from your Bolshevism.”
My father sighed slightly, Ishii had worn his patience. “Honorable Colonel,” he said, “the people dispossessed by you now live in caves because they cannot afford other land with your ‘compensation.’ They eat grass and beg food because you have taken their land before the harvest.”
Ishii rose suddenly, surprising us with his height. His presence created a space for itself and filled it completely, towering over the whole room. The Colonel strode around the corner of his desk, the heels of his shining brown boots ringing soundly on the brightly waxed hardwood floor. His Sam Browne belt caught the soft light from the chandelier and I saw an empty scabbard-holder at his left hip. The red and gold tabs of his collar stood out against the khaki uniform like blood on wet sand. He drew himself up fully and said, “The issue is settled.” His breath smelled rank with the odor of periodontal disease. “The compensation is adequate, and even if it is not, it is all that can be spared from the Emperor’s many efforts in this realm of the New World Order. Do you understand me?” He glanced from my father to me and back again.
Neither of us said anything. My father calmly folded his hands behind his back.
Ishii said, “Tell your associates in the Kungchantang that officers of the Kempeitai will clarify this matter in the future with any other Communists who care to raise the issue.” He turned and walked back to his seat. When he turned again he seemed surprised to see that we still stood waiting. “The interview is concluded,” he said.
I turned and faced a huge mirror hanging on the wall behind us. My father and I were reflected in it but Ishii had vanished. A chill passed through me at this uncanny trick, and I looked back: Ishii had stepped beyond the mirror’s range.
Outside, we sat for a while in the car, and my father lit a cigarette. The street before the mansion was empty, though nighttime crowds swirled about beyond the corner of the block. My father had begun smoking Russian tobacco in the early Thirties, when the men from the Comintern had come and advised us to cooperate with Chiang Kai-shek. My father called this a mistake, and time proved him right, but the Russians had shared cigarettes with him, and he had grown fond of their tobacco. He lowered his window and blew the smoke outside. The sweetly bitter, pungent black aroma drifted back to me on the night’s cool breeze. I started the engine. My father sighed, he seemed tired. He said, “Well, the son of a bitch is a good bit bigger than the rest of these Japanese dwarves, isn’t he?”
Construction of the Lumber Mill began that fall of ’36, and Ishii seized more land as building progressed. By 1938, eight of the ten villages that composed Ping Fan had been taken by the Japanese ‑‑ eight hundred and forty acres of farmland, as well as thousands of acres of meadow and forest. Homes and farms had been expropriated and more than six hundred families left homeless.
Yearly, we made our ritual protest to the Colonel, each visit exacerbating the discord between us.
My father took it all more seriously than I did. The Revolution had been the organizing principle of his life; to me, it was an inherited obligation that sat well with my personality. My father embraced the ideology of the Revolution, he read Marx, Engels, Lenin, and, in truth, he was a better man than I, not only more committed to the cause, but stronger inside. He could bend, but he would never break. I lacked this ultimate will, I was not a fighter or a hero but, perhaps, a kind of politician or negotiator, always on the alert for some less aggressive way through life. I am a Communist by instinct, naturally distrustful of the rich and their money, and in sympathy with the poor and the peasants. Communism rationalized my feelings.
My true passion, though, lay with Sung, my wife of six years, and with opium, my mistress of many more.
Sung had come to the clinic as a nurse in 1931. Like my father, she was a dedicated Communist, a liberated woman who believed in the struggle of the classes and the irresistible will of history. In her scant free time, she wrote poetry and played the flute. She was an excellent nurse, and I was drawn to her immediately.
Rare among the Chinese, Sung had the reddish hair of the Manchurian Chunchuse, the bandits of the wild countryside, and I used to call her my wild outlaw of the flesh. Sung adored the passions of physical love as I adored the illusions of opium, and together we spent many long nights exploring the wonders of each other’s bodies.
The fruit of these joys was our son, Chang, born in the spring of 1933. The birth of my son marked my second experience of serious, adult responsibility ‑‑ the first had been my beginning in the practice of medicine ‑‑ and I felt the burdens of fatherhood intensely. I had no idea how to raise a child, how to teach him or guide him. I felt my limitations painfully, and only after confessing them to Sung, and to my father, did I learn that such was typical, that many a parent felt unprepared for the task of rearing his own child.
So I began to notice how much Chang understood of things on his own, how amazingly competent the human being comes already into the world. The boy delighted me then, as a marvel of creation, and I spontaneously began to partake of the marvelous, to discover it in myself, and along with it the care and skill necessary to father a small boy. Truly, I remarked to Sung one evening, the child teaches the parent how to be an adult.
These ‑‑ my father and my family ‑‑ were my good side. I had a private, even solitary one as well, periodically retiring to a divan in Harbin called the Patna, where I availed myself of the sublime joy of opium unique in my experience. In opium I became timeless, spanned eternities, recalled the hidden future, I burned in cool flames without being consumed, I lived through the stages of my own death to come and I stayed alive. Here, it truly seemed to me, I actually lived, though not without some trepidation in my sober hours, the concern of the good Communist over his foreign vice, and the misgivings of the husband and father about his fascination with what could all too easily become a morbid fate.
Still, some nights, in my study on the second floor of the Ping Fan clinic I engaged in subtle mysteries with the drug, lying and dreaming of Sung’s white thighs or the cinema wonders at Kaspé’s Magic Lantern, in Harbin.
On one such night, we were arrested at two a.m.
That night, after everyone else had retired, I had gone to my study on the second floor and smoked a half-pellet of Patna opium. Though quite tense and tired, I experienced only indifferent relief, mixed with inexplicable anxiety, and dreamed dreams unusually troubled: I delivered infants of peasant women, attending, one after another, the live births of deformed monsters, physical horrors which sent their mothers screaming into the darkness. A voice cried Nosferatu! and asked again and again: Was it he who brought the plague to Nimpo?
I awoke to the sound of Kempeitai policemen at the front door, shrieking obscenities about Communist spies. Coming to, I saw the crescent moon low in the night sky, I heard Bai, our medical orderly, calling me as he raced down the stairs. I trailed after him in a fog. From the stair, I saw him open the door to the screaming Japanese, a superior private of the secret military police. Bai tried to explain that the clinic was closed, but the private only shrieked at him in incoherent Japanese.
As I neared the door, drawing my robe closer in the chill, the lieutenant in charge reached over the private’s shoulder and seized Bai at the neck. His voice choked in his throat. The lieutenant drew him roughly out the door and onto the porch, where he kicked him to his knees. As I reached the door, the lieutenant drew his sword and raised it high, just grazing the ceiling with the tip of the sword. The steel blade flashed once in the moonlight.
I called out, ‑‑Stop! and the lieutenant gave a shout of war ‑‑ not a tenno banzai but a cry from his guts, like an animal in a fight to the death ‑‑ he brought the sword down in a single savage stroke that severed Bai’s head from his body. It rolled insanely down the porch. Blood gushered from Bai’s neck across the porch railings. The bloody lieutenant released his hold on the dead man’s nightshirt and the body fell to the floor with a wave of momentary spasms.
I stood in the doorway in shock. I felt I was still dreaming, an opiated phantasmagoria, or some surreal cinema, some Grand Guignol, a murder from Caligari. Time stopped, nothing felt real.
The blood puddled heavily, spreading across the porch, splattering the white railings, black in the light of the moon in a sky suddenly empty.
Sung reached my side, I felt the warmth of her hands on my shoulder, then heard her small cry as she saw the body on the porch. No stars shone. Only the slender moon.
The Japanese seized our clinic. We were compensated at the Empire’s rate, but as criminals in the custody of the Kempeitai, our payment, along with our other property, was held in trust by the Emperor’s representatives.
My mood cycled through bitterness, anger, and sarcasm, then fear swept me away, and all my self-righteousness withered. I huddled in the darkness of my cell like a lost boy in a fever dream. Everything rose and fell, up and down, a light toggled on and off by some lunatic simpleton.
I was kept in the cellar of the former Hotel Royale, a Russian concern in Harbin that the Kempeitai had seized. They had pressed Manchurians into work gangs and transformed the cellar into a dungeon of tiny cells framed with four-by-four timbers and walled off with inch-thick plywood. The cells were such that a man could neither stand up nor lie down in them. We could hear one another through the walls, and the guards beat us with hoe handles when they caught us whispering. There were no lights, no chairs or beds, only large tin cans for slop buckets. We lived on coarse black bread and water and never exercised, washed, or brushed our teeth. We lived in our own stink. Everything tasted foul.
I would sit on the floor in the dark with my arms folded on my knees. I ached in my bones and could get no relief in the cramped cellbox. I lay to one side or the other, weeping in the constant pain of my withdrawal from opium.
I nodded exhausted in and out of sleep, waking suddenly from strange, frightening dreams. Crushed in the darkness, without light and the sound only of my own choked breathing, I saw ghosts, they moaned and shook their chains.
People appeared, pale as corpses: Sung and Chang, my father, Party comrades, my professors at Kyoto, all pale, lips rouged by the undertaker.
Cinema films unwound in my dreams: Cleopatra, Modern Times, Die Büchse der Pandora. I had visions, voices spoke to me, I spoke to them.
Everyone wants my blood — my life!
Night descends, the London fog, Lulu likes the sensitive face of penniless Jack, somewhere a piano plays Onward Christian Soldiers, a slender smiling young man sits at the keyboard. Then, in the stillness, Silent Night.
I lost all track of time, these images melted together into long terrified stories. Time passed like a long, broad river. It passed without me.
The man in the next cell told me that Sung and Chang were somewhere in another jail nearby. For learning this, I was beaten. My unknown friend was beaten too, and taken away. I never heard from him again.
This is madness, my constant thinking. The Japanese are mad, anyone who deals with them is mad. I tried to think in Party terms: imperialist expropriators and capitalist reactionaries. A member of the Kungchantang, imprisoned, starved, beaten by tools of imperialism, themselves reduced to savagery by endless abuse. It made sense.
I wanted light, not sense, I wanted Sung and Chang, food, air, the sky, a glass of water, a bath, a toothbrush.
I wanted to scream all night long.
In the end, imperialism, capitalism, and the like were not even words, I thought with my bruised and broken flesh. Suffering and opium, these alone were real.
And at last, I grew to welcome these evil little men who came through the cells with bread and water: they were the only human beings I saw. I longed to see them, every day.
One evening they did not come, and I grew afraid. The Russians had returned, our keepers had abandoned us, no one would know where we were, we would starve, screaming and crying in the darkness.
Or they toyed with us, and today we would not be fed.
I squeezed into the corner of my cell and stared hard through the darkness toward the door. I saw nothing, imagined the Kempei seated upstairs at a long table, eating, drinking, laughing, as we waited helpless. I put my hands before my face and told myself that they would come. I sat in the dark and cried quietly for the little men. I whispered again and again: Please.
At the first interrogation, I asked the Kempeitai lieutenant about my wife, but he only laughed and said it did not concern me.
In the darkened room, I looked up at him from the wooden armchair where I sat confined. He was my age, or perhaps a little younger, with black hair cut close to the scalp and a smart, almost cocky sneer playing about his lips. I said, “My own wife does not concern me?”
He rapped his swagger stick across my face. My hands spasmed into fists and I tugged hard against the straps that bound my wrists tightly to the arms of the chair. The blow cut and burned, stung my cheek, the room blazed bright reddish orange as blood filled my eyes and spilled down my cheek to my dirty white shirt. I looked down, I remembered our arrest. I still wore the same shirt.
Through the fading colors I saw the Kempei officer smiling at my surprise and confusion. He said, “You’re a very naïve Communist, aren’t you? You must be one of these intellectual Reds. You think it’s a great idea, don’t you, chink?”
Blood flowed over my dirty teeth, mixed with the sour earthy foulness of my mouth. The cut burned on my cheek. The two Kempeitai privates who had brought me stood against the far wall, silent and indifferent in the shadows.
The lieutenant lit a cigarette and blew the smoke in my direction. He said, “You have engaged in Communist-inspired anti-Japanese activity, chink.”
I swallowed, tried to collect myself. “I am a doctor.”
He laughed, he smiled broadly and he mocked me: “Oh!” he cried, “a doctor!” He turned to the privates, and they smiled on cue. He turned back to me and said, “I will not call you chink, then, I will call you Doctor. No — Doc Tor.” They all laughed together, then the lieutenant went ahead, all business: “You are a Communist agent, Doc Tor — a spy.” He smoked his cigarette, it dangled from his lips as he tucked his thumbs into his wide brown belt and spread his feet to stand before me. He said, “We know that. For instance, we know that you do not bow to the Emperor in the morning.”
I looked at him, I flushed with contempt, I heard my father’s voice, I said, “Henry P’u Yi is the emperor of Manchukuo.”
He hit me again, cutting across my other cheek. I closed my eyes and bowed my head and felt the hot wound swell rapidly. He bent forward and spoke with the exaggerated patience of a schoolmaster, “Who did you think I meant, Doc Tor?”
This time I said nothing.
The lieutenant said, “Do not forget that your Emperor’s regal name is Kang Te.”
I thought again of my father, I tried to imagine what he might do, but I was afraid, I felt small and uncertain. I am divided, I am not at one with myself. I thought of opium, I feared death, feared pain.
The lieutenant paced back and forth with his thumbs hooked inside his belt, he studied me. I saw his white armband, the red characters, Law, Soldier. He said, “Today you will confess your many crimes against the Emperor.” He stepped closer and said, “I am Okishima. Do you understand Japanese regalia? Can you read my rank?”
“You are a chu-I,” I said, a lieutenant.
“I will be a tai-I soon,” he said. “You will make me a captain, Doc Tor.”
I said nothing.
“I am Okishima Yoshio, from Tokyo,” he said, and then he smiled. “But you will call me Captain Okishima. Say it.”
I bent my head some more.
He leaned close and I smelled saké on his breath. He whispered: “Say it, Doc Tor.” The smile in his voice said he would be quite happy if I remained silent.
I said, “Yes, Captain.”
“Captain who?” he whispered.
“Captain Okishima,” I said.
He smiled. “You smell the saké, don’t you?”
“Yes, Captain Okishima.”
“Saké is the secret policeman’s best friend, Doc Tor.”
He stood up straight, still smiling. The smell seemed to be everywhere now. He gestured for the privates to come forward, and he said, “You forgot to undress him, assholes. You’ll have to cut his clothes off.”
The privates unsheathed their bayonets and came to me, one knelt and cut off my trousers while the other worked on my shirt. They threw the rags aside, then stood on either side of the lieutenant, who made a sour face at my smell.
He said, “Doc Tor, why do you chinks all stink so much?’ He gestured to the private on his right. “Hose him down.”
The private walked to the far end of the room and tugged at something in the shadows, then dragged it out into the dim light: a hose. When he stood about three feet away, he aimed it, adjusted the nozzle, and then cold water struck my face hard like a fist, twisting my head back, blinding me, stinging in my wounds. He worked the heavy flow from side to side and up and down across my body. The shock left me breathless, and when the private stopped, I sat forward, soaked and beaten, my teeth chattering.
In a voice oily with sarcasm, Lieutenant Okishima said, “Agano, you have made Doc Tor cold! Don’t worry, Doc Tor, we’ll warm things up again.”
He stuck his swagger stick hard into my genitals and I cried out, my head rose and I looked into his face: a mask, contempt, hatred, spite, but eyes without any emotion at all. The sadism, the violence, was all an act: he was just doing a job. I grew more and more afraid.
I recognized him then. He was the Kempei who had decapitated Bai, who had arrested us. I sat still, I wondered what I would have seen in his eyes that night.
He said, “You asked about your wife. You have a kid, too, and an old man.” He paced, glancing at me when he turned. “Why didn’t you ask about them? Do you think you know something about them?”
I said nothing and the swagger stick came hard across my cheek again. Private Agano turned the water on my face, the force wrenched my neck around. When he stopped, Okishima said, “Answer promptly, please,” his voice even and flat, like someone explaining the bidding conventions in bridge. He bent to me with his hands on his knees, and he said, “What do you think you know?”
“A man in the prison told me he had seen them taken to another jail.”
Okishima stood. “That is a lie.” He turned away and lit another cigarette, he spoke over his shoulder, “You shouldn’t trust people in prison, Doc Tor. Why do you suppose they’re in jail, anyway?”
He turned and stepped toward me. “You can trust me, though.”
I shook my head a little, to clear it, and I swallowed once.
He said, “Do you believe me?”
I said, “Yes, Captain.”
The swagger stick flew out again and the hose came on. I hurt, I was cold and wet, I sat with my face bleeding, I heard the water dripping from my nakedness into puddles on the floor.
Okishima said, “Do not lie to me, Doc Tor.”
I cried: “What do you want?”
His face lit with surprise. He turned to Private Agano, and to the other soldier, standing still against the wall. He said, “We have a philosopher with us this morning!”
I said, “Is it morning?”
Okishima ignored me and smiled broadly, pacing in a small circle. “I like this!” he said. “This is all right. A chink with questions. Like in the newspapers — ‘the inquiring chink.'” He bowed in my direction with a grand sweep of his stick. “Private Agano, Private Shimoto — I give you the Representative Man!”
The privates laughed. I wondered how much they actually understood.
He stood up straight and said to me, “We will see just how representative you are, Doc Tor.” He studied me momentarily, then spoke again, softly: “You know what I mean, don’t you?”
I looked back at him and I nodded.
“You understand what I am talking about!” he whispered. He shook his head. “No one understands me, Doc Tor. That is why I drink so much saké! But you understand. An extraordinary day!” He stood still a moment, his cigarette burning in his right hand and his stick hanging limp from his left, he seemed struck with genuine wonder. He said, “I understand you, too.” He dropped the butt to the floor, it hissed in the puddled water.
He said to the privates casually, “We’ll use the water, and maybe we can get this over with before lunch.”
The privates freed my hands and lifted me backwards across the darkened room. My legs were weak and I went limp. The private on my left kicked me in the shin and said, “Walk, chink!”
They laid me roughly across a long table, slamming the small of my back against the edge and pushing me down. They manhandled my arms and legs into leather straps that bound me to the table. My heart began to race, and the sudden realization of helplessness left me breathless.
The Lieutenant crossed the room slowly. I heard his bootheels strike the hardwood. Finally, his lean face appeared over me and his black, impassive eyes looked down on me. He reeked of saké. He smiled around his cigarette and let the long ash drop beside my head. I flinched as the heat of it grazed my ear, and my breath came even shorter. Okishima whispered, “Scared, Doc Tor?”
I gasped to catch my breath.
The Lieutenant laughed. I heard the privates moving in the darkness, one of them dropped something and cursed.
“Don’t feel bad,” said Okishima. “This little trick scares all the chinks. Even the doc tors. I’ve been doing this since I came here five years ago, and I’ve never seen a chink who wasn’t scared.”
He dropped his cigarette and ground it out with a turn of his bootheel.
“And everyone confesses. Always. So don’t fight me, all right?” He leaned closer and smiled. “We don’t have anybody else to work on today, and we want to go see the Chom-Ps over at the Nanpuso ‑‑ the comfort girls, you know? ‑‑ take some comfort.”
He leaned over me with his face just above mine, smiling and smelling of liquor and tobacco, and he whispered, “But you have to find some comfort first. All right, Doc Tor?”
His face disappeared in a second and one of the privates threw a cold, wet cloth across my face. I gasped and water flooded into my face, drenched the towel, the water filled my nostrils, burned my eyes, I could not breathe, instinctively I held my breath but I had only a few seconds of oxygen and the water did not stop, I forced the air in my lungs out hard through my nose and tried to inhale but there was only water to breathe, I breathed it into my throat and my larynx seized, the muscles cramped shut and refused to let me drown, I groaned in the pain, but the water never stopped, my body began to seize, my arms and legs recoiling against the restraints, the muscles cramping, frozen, I lay in a rack, I thought my spine would break, my heart, they will not stop, my whole body was cold, my hands and feet tingled from loss of circulation, my back arched and the water poured into my nose, eyes, throat, I screamed, “Captain Okishima!” the words burbled in the water, he cannot hear you, I screamed again, “Captain Okishima!”
I heard his voice, faraway, strangely gentle, almost kind, “Yes, Doc Tor?” The water did not stop, I screamed, “Please stop!”
“Does it hurt?”
“It hurts!” I screamed and gagged.
“Are you crying?”
“I’m crying!” I tried to swallow, I choked.
“‘I’m crying, who?‘”
I spit, I rolled my head from side to side savagely, desperate. “Captain! Captain Okishima!”
“Do you want to confess, Doc Tor?”
“Yes, Captain, yes!” I began to weep. “I want to confess!”
I knew that my father would have died. I was not such a man. I no longer knew who I was. Li Lu-san would have died like his father. But he had died some other way: I was no longer Li Lu-san. I had no name.
I confessed to pages of anti-Japanese activities, spying, and acts of subversion carried out by the Kungchantang at the direction of the Russians. None of it mattered. I signed the name of one who no longer existed: “Li Lu-san.” I lost count of the heinous acts I admitted to. I confessed several times over about a week.
I admitted to being a Soviet spy and a saboteur: I had mined track on Mantetsu, the South Manchuria Railway, and spread seditious rumors concerning Emperor Kang Te and the sovereign state of Manchukuo. I had tried to poison the drinking water of the Japanese Imperial Army with cholera, with botulinum toxin.
I stood naked over a small desk in a corner of the interrogation room. A gooseneck lamp cast a circle of yellow light over my confession. Water dripped from me onto the floor, ran down into my eyes as I read, fell onto my confessions. A dull haze of pain spread through my body, I thought it was odd that they said botulinum toxin. Why not just some farmer’s rat poison? Where was a country doctor supposed to get vibrio cholerae?
But then I signed it.
Winter 1938 – 1939
Captain Okishima summoned me from my cell one evening. I saw the lighted city out the window behind him, the night shone like satin. He sat in a camp chair leaning over some papers on a small table, he initialed the pages with a gold fountain pen decorated in red enamel. I looked around the room. One wall was covered with shelves full of ledgers. Two figurines of women stood at the end of one shelf, painted white, with red and yellow skirts and blouses trimmed in silver. I thought of Sung, lonely, lost. One woman carried a red parasol made from folded paper and slender pieces of balsa wood. The glazed finishes shone in the glare of four bare bulbs in a fixture above Okishima’s head. My eyes hurt in the unaccustomed light, and my head began to ache.
I turned to Okishima, who laid his paperwork aside and spoke: “You’re being transferred to the Lumber Mill.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms and looked at me with curiosity, as if he wondered how some private joke might turn out. “What do you think about that?”
Still dazed by the light and colors, I shrugged. “I don’t know anything about lumber production, honorable Captain.”
He laughed shortly and rested his elbows on the table. “Colonel Ishii will teach you all about it,” he said. “He’s a real scholar of maruta. You know what I mean?” He gave me a look that said: You may speak candidly, but I could not comprehend his intent.
I said only, “Maruta is the Japanese word for log.”
He sat back, disappointed in my answer.
I said, “He’s a full colonel now?”
“Oh, yes, Colonel Ishii is a great leader in the New World Order. They call it the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere now. Ishii’s a doctor, like you, did you know that?”
“I had heard, Captain.”
He reached to a small drawer, withdrew a yellow pack of cigarettes, and lit one. Then he did a strange thing, sitting forward, he held out the yellow pack to me and said, “Care for a smoke?”
I blinked. I had never smoked tobacco, but the offer of something gratis swept through me like a soft breeze through a forest. My heart flooded with gratitude, with love for Okishima, somehow he understood me deeply, better than I understood myself. I took the cigarette.
He handed me a brushed chrome lighter. “That’s a Zippo,” he said. “Windproof. I won it last spring playing poker with an American in Haiphong.”
I had never worked one before, I used both hands to light the cigarette. I drew some smoke into my mouth without inhaling. It was the most wonderful taste, unlike anything else on earth. I expelled the smoke and put the cigarette to my lips again and inhaled.
I almost coughed, but I breathed deep instead. Giddiness overcame me as the nicotine hit my brain. I could walk on air, it was as marvelous as opium. I wanted a carton of these little yellow packs, a case. I would smoke every day for the rest of my life. I remembered my father’s Russian tobacco, I wanted to try that, too, I wanted to visit a tobacco shop.
I cleared my throat and said, “Is it still 1938, Captain?”
“That’s the old style,” said Okishima. “We have the Koki calendars now.” He pointed to the wall behind me and I turned. A calendar hung there, decorated by a pin-up girl. The Captain said, “Counting forward from the founding of the Japanese Empire by Emperor Jimmu at the order of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, the present year is 2598.” He wore a wry smile, the calendar was just part of the job. I wondered whether he believed in anything. “We went to war with the Kuomintang in August,” he said. “Your Chiang Kai-shek attacked our marine barracks in Shanghai.”
“He is not my Chiang Kai-shek, Captain.”
He laughed. “That’s right, it’s your Mao Tse-tung, isn’t it?”
He said, “Your Party name is Lüchá — Green Tea.”
I nodded and smoked my cigarette.
“Do you know Mao’s real name?”
“No one is supposed to know anyone’s real name in the Party, Captain.”
“Smart,” he nodded, “if you can pull it off. We’ve been fighting the Reds since ’32, but Mao and Chiang are so busy trying to kill each other they don’t leave much for us.” He paused. “Do you like the cigarette?”
The nicotine had blunted the edge of my constant hunger, I said, “It’s an excellent thing, Captain.”
He reached into his drawer again, came out with an unopened pack, and held it out for me. I looked at it dumbly until he said, “Go ahead ‑‑ it’s no trick.”
I took the pack and put it in the pocket of my dirty prison blouse. I took another drag on my cigarette and rose higher and higher above the world.
He said, “You know what the Lumber Mill is, don’t you, Doctor?” He called me Doctor without mockery, his voice soft and serious.
But I did not know what he meant. I said, “Colonel Ishii said the Imperial Army needs lumber.”
He studied me for a long moment, he was fishing for something. He said, “You really don’t know, do you?”
“Know what, Captain?”
He sighed with disappointment. “I think some of the prisoners know.” He stubbed his cigarette out in a red and gold ashtray beside his papers. “I thought a doctor might know.” He laid his hands flat on the table. “No one gets out of the Lumber Mill alive.”
I felt too weak to stand. I was going to die. I had confessed to everything they wanted, done everything they wanted, endured their torture, all to save my life, and I was going to die anyway, I was going to a place where everyone died.
Okishima said, “How does that make you feel, Li Lu-san?” I looked at his clinician’s face, a face not unlike my own.
I could not speak. I wavered as my knees began to buckle. I looked into Okishima’s face and then beyond him, out the window at the shining night, the darkness seemed palpable, as sensuous as a woman.
Winter 1938 – 1939
Two Kempeitai privates drove me to the Lumber Mill in the back of an old Dodge panel truck. I sat between them, my hands and feet shackled, while a third man drove and talked over his shoulder to his comrades. All smoked cigarettes. Now and then, I caught a glimpse of the world through the windscreen. The night hung heavy and luxuriant over the land, more stars came out as we drove away from the lights of Harbin. Judging from the moon, it was close to midnight.
I heard the howling barking of wild dogs. As the sound grew louder, one of the privates rose from his seat and made his way to the back doors. Drawing a pistol from his belt, he opened the left door and, as the barking grew louder, fired a shot into the darkness. Sudden silence followed, and the mewling of a hurt dog. The driver gunned the motor, and we shot forward.
We traveled in silence for about twenty minutes, and then I heard wilder howling, more savage than the dogs’: wolves. I asked the guard who had shot the dog, “Will you shoot these too?”
He shook his head. “They’re too smart to come so close.”
Again the driver sped up. We outran the animals, then rode on in silence. From time to time I looked out the windscreen. I saw the moon pass behind a mass of clouds, eerie bluish lights shone beyond the horizon, the beams circling like anti-aircraft beacons. We were near the Lumber Mill.
Ten minutes later I saw it: a red brick wall six meters tall, topped with rolls of barbed wire and a pair of electrified lines. White spotlights mounted at regular intervals glared down on the compound inside and out, and manned guard towers stood watch along the wall. From a central gate the wall stretched away for about a kilometer in either direction. Lights rose from within and put out the stars. There was no lumber mill like this: a brooding fortress commanding the plain amid natural gloom.
The gate opened as we drove closer, and we crossed a bridge over the moat. It was real. Panic seized me, I wanted to be sick, to run, to beg for my life. I wanted mercy. There was no mercy.
I turned to one of the privates and asked him where the lumber was kept.
He grinned and said, “You are the maruta.” The other private laughed softly.
I was taken to Administration ‑‑ so said a sign to the right of the building entrance. Inside, the privates removed my chains before the desk of a middle-aged clerk, who wore heavy glasses and a green accountant’s shade above a shock of graying hair. He never looked me in the eye.
The privates stripped away my prison garb. I received a pair of white pants and a white cotton blouse with the number 101 stenciled on its back and over the left breast. The clerk noted the number in a book. Still not looking at me, he said, “The sequence has just rolled over again, so you are One-Oh-One, understand?”
A series of X-rays were taken, my head, chest, and limbs, each one labeled 101 by the technician.
We went down a flight of stairs into a dark tunnel lit overhead with bare bulbs about every forty feet. The passage was broad and roomy, lined with concrete, but retaining the damp smell of the earth, of the grave.
My rotsu, the privates said as they hustled me roughly up another flight of stairs, was on the third floor of Building 7. They jogged me up a winding stairwell past doors marked 1 and 2, and then into a hallway that led to my cell block.
Outside the door to the cells lay a large white mat one meter square, smelling of disinfectant. A medical officer exited the cell block as we reached the door, he wore a white gown, and he wiped his shoes carefully on the mat.
We entered the cellblock and passed a caged holding pen. A dozen or so men sat inside listlessly, some sleeping, some watching us. They looked like ruffians, and they wore white numbered smocks like mine. One watched me closely as we passed, his hair had a reddish tint and I thought of Sung. He sat beside the far wall with his arms folded on his knees. His gaze held a resigned understanding I could not fathom, but I felt it, like a chill in the middle of a hot day. We proceeded down the hall.
My windowless rotsu — my cell — was whitewashed. A single electric light shone harshly in the center of the ceiling, inside a protective metal cage. The cell held a waste bucket and a pallet for sleeping, bare except for a rough cotton-wool blanket. I sat down on the pallet. Before the guards left, the younger private passed me the cigarettes that Okishima had given me. I looked around the room, dazed by the whiteness. I wanted to smoke. I crossed to the small window in my door and looked into the corridor, up and down the hall, I saw other doors like mine, but no guards or anyone who might have a match.
In a few minutes, another private, a member of the Medical Corps, brought me a bowl of rice mixed with some fish and a small bowl of milk. In a fog of amazement, I bowed and thanked him as he left. I sat at the foot of my bed looking at the food. I recalled what Okishima had said about dying, and I thought I must have already died and gone straight to Heaven. The capitalist priests are right! There is a Heaven. A Japanese Heaven. I wondered if I might still be in my cell at the Kempeitai prison, hallucinating food. I began to eat.
Time passed, and again I wanted to smoke. I looked up and saw the private who had brought the food watching me through the door window. I crossed the cell to him. I held up my cigarettes and said, “Honorable private, perhaps you would join me in a cigarette?”
He thought, then reached for his keys and opened the door. He stepped inside and said, “I can’t give you matches.”
“Of course not.”
“But I’ll give you a light.” He produced a small box of wooden matches from his blouse pocket and struck one while I opened the pack of cigarettes. I passed him one and he lit it. He took a long puff and exhaled appreciatively. For an instant I thought he might renege on his promise or take the cigarettes away, but he handed me the box of matches and watched carefully as I lit my own.
As I passed him the matches, he said, “You are Dr. Li Lu-san, One-Oh-One.”
“So they say,” I said. “Who are you?”
He said, “Call me Taka.” He gestured at me with his cigarette. “Where did you get the Red Suns?”
“A friend gave them to me just before I came here.”
“Red Suns are expensive. Captain Okishima smokes them,” said Taka. “Is Okishima your friend?”
I looked into his eyes. They were not like Okishima’s: crafty, but guileless and easily read. I said, “It is better to know the judge than it is to know the law, and better still to know the judge’s hangman.”
Taka smiled, nodding. “You’re not like the others.”
“Smalltime hoods and country bandits,” he said. “I used to be a cop in Chiba ‑‑ Chiyoda Mura. These are some really stupid guys here. They won’t be missed.”
“Will I?” I said.
Taka smiled thinly and said, “Thanks for the smoke, One-Oh-One,” then locked me in again and returned to his post. I went back to my pallet and sat smoking, finally feeling the exhaustion of the long months in the Kempeitai prison. I lit another cigarette from the butt of the first and walked around my cell. I lay down on the pallet and stretched out. After my old confinement I felt like the king of infinite space. I slipped into erotic reveries of Sung, finished my cigarette, and drifted into sleep.
I don’t know how long I slept or what day it was, but at some point, I was awakened by Colonel Ishii himself. He leaned over me smiling, and Major Matsumo stood behind him, taciturn and glum. “One-Oh-One,” said Ishii, “how are you?”
He extended his hand to me, and I lay looking up at him amazed. Mao and Chiang have joined forces and won the war. I took Ishii’s hand and he drew me into a sitting position. I said, “Better, thank you, honorable Colonel.”
His smile broadened. “The accommodations here are superior to those of Captain Okishima and the Kempeitai, eh?”
In fact, grown used to the prison’s diet of plain black bread and water, I now had a slight gas attack. I said, “Is it time for me to work, Colonel?”
He laughed gruffly. “Soon,” he said, and stood up with his arms akimbo. “We need you in proper shape. The work here is quite strenuous.”
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Matsumo held a small attaché case, and on the left side of his cap he wore a small yellow button. I had seen it on the other soldiers as well.
I turned back to Ishii, who seemed particularly pleased with me.
“It is a special occasion to have a scientist with us,” he smiled down at me. “Typically we receive only common criminals or uneducated peasants ‑‑ people who cannot comprehend our work.”
I rose slowly, remembering Okishima’s words. I wondered if he had just been doing his job then, or if something else in him had prompted him to warn me of the danger here, something like the gesture of the Red Suns. I said, “What is the meaning of lumber production here, Colonel?”
He laughed loudly, genuinely amused. He shook a finger at me and said, “You are a true prize, One-Oh-One, and you are going to be of invaluable assistance.”
I bowed slightly, and I wondered at myself, suddenly bold in the knowledge that I would never leave the Lumber Mill alive. Death freed me from all fear. I thought of my father. What had made his death both real and ordinary, and freed him to be what he wanted? I said, “I am honored to be of significance to the Co-prosperity Sphere, honorable Colonel.” I wondered whether my importance might spare my life and those of my family.
Ishii looked at me knowingly, he understood the game we had begun to play. He said simply and plainly, “It is a refreshing sort of challenge to deal with someone as intelligent ‑‑ as wily as yourself, One-Oh-One.” He turned to Matsumo. “Major, you remember One-Oh-One of the Kungchantang Medical Corps.”
The Major clicked his heels once and nodded slightly. The Colonel turned back to me. “If you need anything, ask for Matsumo.” The little man came forward, opening his attaché case, and spreading its contents on the edge of my pallet: a blank journal, several pens, and two bottles of India ink.
Ishii said, “We will have a writing table brought in–” he surveyed the cell, framing with his hands “–there! And you can record your impressions.” He turned to me again. “The comments of an expert medical professional will be of rare use in evaluating our experiments.”
Major Matsumo closed his case and again took his place behind Ishii.
I remembered my words to Ishii at our first meeting: “Disease recognizes no party.” We will change that right here, he had said. I thought I verged on understanding.
Malaise characterizes the onset of many conditions. Prolonged captivity induces lassitude and feelings of despondency: a form of stress-induced psychosis. In prison I grew deeply depressed, with all the symptoms of despair: loss of appetite and weight, insomnia, poor concentration, feelings of frustration and helplessness, a generalized flat affect.
Eventually, my condition merited the attention of Colonel Ishii himself. I was a valuable prisoner because of my medical knowledge, and the Colonel felt obliged to ensure my utility.
He came to my cell and sat beside me on my pallet, gave me one of his cigarettes and whispered earnestly, “You must eat, One-Oh-One! You must maintain your strength!”
I said, “What for?”
“For the life to come!” he said. “In the new world order of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The time of the Emperor’s triumph over both communism and capitalism, when we realize the Sphere in its fullness, and the Rising Sun shines forth on a land of eternal light, dispelling uncertainty with the revaluation of all values. A time when we men of science will know completely the wonders of the invisible world!”
I said, “Where are my wife and son?”
“Ah!” he said, laying a hand on my shoulder. “You will see them soon.”
He nodded. “We have an important experiment to conduct, and your participation is mandatory. We need your trained insights into the processes of a certain biological agent.”
I said, “A bacterial agent?”
Ishii said, “I do not wish to influence your perception.”
I smiled at this slipperiness. “We must remember the uncertainty principle.”
“Precisely,” he said. “We do not wish to prejudice the understanding of our own medical expert.” He moved his hand to my knee.
I did not trust any Japanese, least of all Ishii, but trust was not the issue. In the war films I had seen at Kaspé’s, imprisoned soldiers thought only of escape, revenge, justice. But in the Lumber Mill my hardest problems were: Do I want to stay alive today? Who will give me a cigarette, and who a match, and what will I do to get them? Such were my real concerns.
I said, “I will see my family after we perform this experiment?”
He backed off, shrugging and shaking his head. He said only, “We shall see.”
“When shall we see?”
“One-Oh-One,” he said, laying a hand on my arm again, “nothing is easy for anyone in this place.”
I said, “Easier perhaps for some than for others, honorable Colonel.”
“Li Lu-san,” he said, “do you remember your days at Kyoto?”
I said truly, “With fondness.”
“Did you not have to accept some things on faith?”
Sometimes, lying on my pallet at night, I heard screams on the cell block. Sometimes shooting, and then a wounded man would be taken away. I said, “That my wife and son are alive; that I will see them again; that I will survive your ‘experiment.’ All this is to be accepted on faith, n’est-ce pas?”
“Do not speak French to me, Li Lu-san,” Ishii frowned and waved his hand as if dispelling a foul odor. “It is a language of white degenerates.”
I laughed out loud, a bitter, life-sustaining laugh, but my black humor angered the Colonel, who stood abruptly and said, “The facts are simple and they are these, One-Oh-One: I have control here, and you will do as I say.”
I looked up at him, still smiling madly. I insulted him by remaining seated. For a brief, wild instant, I longed to provoke him into drawing his pistol and shooting me.
He frowned severely. “If you do not cooperate, I will carry out the experiment on your son and make the observations myself.”
My smile faded, my heart sank like a stone, I knew he would do it. His khaki collar fit snugly around his neck, decorated with golden stars, his face framed in the white halo of the overhead light. I rose slowly, my shoulders bent beneath the weight of the Lumber Mill. I said, “Yes, honorable Colonel.”
Two days later Major Matsumo led two privates, one superior and one first class, into my cell. All three wore white hospital gowns with black rubber gloves and goggle-eyed respirator masks, they looked like insect bipeds. The first class private carried a sealed test tube holding some brownish substance. The superior private stood behind the others, holding a Nambu pistol. The Major had a clipboard and a ready fountain pen.
I gazed at them from my pallet, listened to their breathing through the respirators. The Major told me irritably to extinguish my cigarette. He waved the smoke away and gestured for the first class private. The soldier stepped forward and knelt beside me. He laid the test tube on my blanket and retrieved a lancet from his kit. He gestured for me to hold out my right arm. This, then, was Ishii’s experiment. I glanced at my notebook on the small desk against the wall. The superior private would shoot me if necessary.
I held out my arm. Deftly, without pain, the first class private jabbed my forearm with the lancet. Rich, red blood burst forth. He set down the lancet and opened his test tube, upending it on my wound. The brown dust mixed with my blood.
Removing the test tube, the private took a bandage from his kit and applied it to my wound. He looked into my eyes and said, “Do not remove this covering, One-Oh-One.”
I tried to see his eyes behind the insect lenses of his mask. They stared back not without feeling. He was Taka, the ex-policeman from Chiba. Did he wish himself home in Chiyoda Mura?
I wondered how long I might have left to live.
Colonel Ishii came to see me that afternoon, smiling and joking, quite pleased with his maruta One-Oh-One. He slapped me on the back and told me what he wanted me to chart in my diary: four entries daily, at 0800 hours, 1200, 1600, and 2000. If I were to awaken in the night, I should note that as well.
After he left, I sat at my desk, smoking a cigarette — the Colonel had given me a pack and, amazingly, my own box of matches. Staring at the blank pages of my notebook, I felt like writing something obscene, but I thought of my father, and of Sung and of Chang, and I wrote: I do this for my family.
I looked at these words, and my heart filled with sadness, tears overflowed my eyes and fell, smeared the ink. The smoke of my cigarette curled about my face. I drew deeply on the cigarette. I still hoped to survive. These diaries, I knew, were not mine. I had no way to record what happened here except to remember it all. For this, then, I would stay alive: to recall the Ishii and his Lumber Mill as a ledger recalls a debt. I would become the book of Ishii, of the Lumber Mill, of the maruta. I gambled, then, that I would survive the experiment, and the war, and Ishii himself.
My tears dried coolly on my cheeks.