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Novel Kenji: Son of the Water-Eaters

    Kenji:Son of the Water-Eaters is a coming-of-age, historical novel set in Japan in the years 1918 to 1945.
 The story follows two boys from childhood into early middle-age during the turmoil that gripped Japan in
the years leading up to the Second World War and the war itself.  The table of contents and sample pages
from chapter one are shown below.
                                                        Copyright © 2001 by Paul Roebling
                                                 1. I Lose My Family.......................................1
                                                 2. We Join the Kabuki Theater......................37
                                                 3. Reading, Writing and Rioting.....................78
                                                 4. A Child of Edo.......................................113
                                                 5. Our Own Foreign Devil...........................170
                                                 6. Kabuki for Everyone...............................214
                                                 7. A Visit to Yoshiwara...............................248
                                                 8. The Great Earthquake.............................290
                                                 9. Our Friend Leaves Us.............................337
                                               10. Tokyo Imperial University.......................369
                                               11. Graduation.............................................407
                                               12. Two Marriages.......................................447
                                               13. Trouble in China.....................................495
                                               14. The Real War Begins..............................550
                                               15. Assignment, The Philippines....................590
                                               16. The American Liberators.........................649
                                               17. Japan's Agony........................................690
                                               18. A Sad Homecoming................................733
                                                       Chapter  One
                                  I  Lose  My  Family
                                                                                 Page 1
      I was on my way to the great city of Tokyo to be sold.  That word sold kept surfacing in my brain and
I could not distract it back to its forgetting place.  The cart hit a deep rut in the road.  My father lurched
heavily against my stiffened body.  He looked down at me, his eyes sad, then guilty.  Then my father looked
away.  Was he trying to put that word back into its forgetting place too?
      We had walked for all of the previous day from our remote village in the prefecture of Shizuoka.  That
morning a farmer carrying live, crated ducks to market had offered us a ride in his cart.  It would have been
a kind gesture except for where the cart was taking us, but my father had kept silent about the purpose of
our journey.  The farmer, encouraging his boney horse from beside my father, did not know of my private
anguish.  Off in the distance, rising majestically above the morning mist, I could see the perfect cone of 
Mount Fuji; the blood-red sun reflecting, first crimson and then gold off its snowcapped summit.  This flood
of beauty kept the word from my consciousness for a fleeting second, but then it returned to crush my spirit.
      Closer to us, a farmer was bent to his morning labor; knee deep in his flooded paddy; encouraging the
slender, green shoots as a parent would care for a child.  Would his sprouting children bring the farmer the
harvest he so desperately needed after all the lean years gone by, or would he too be forced to sell a daughter
or a son so that the rest of his family could survive to hope for another year?
                                                                              Page 2
      The rising sun performed its golden dance between the orderly rows of rice stalks as the farmer turned
to notice our passing.  A crow waiting for the crop's ripening seemed to be laughing at my plight with its
mocking cry as we passed beneath its safe perch high in a gnarled tree that gave no shade.  The cart jolted
again, throwing me heavily against my father.  I clung to him tightly.  My father did not dislike me; that was
not why he would sell me.  He had been strict with me but never cruel or unkind.  It was because of the bad
harvest that I was being sold; that and my bad luck of being the middle of three sons.  Hiroshi, my younger
brother, was only eight years old and my mother's favorite, as is so often the case with the youngest child. 
I did not begrudge Hiroshi his favored place, for I loved him too.  Tadasu, my older brother, had the special
status of the eldest son in any Japanese family.  It was Tadasu who would inherit what little my father
possessed.  It would be Tadasu who would be responsible for my mother and father in their old age.  I was
an extra bit of insurance that my parents could no longer afford to keep.
      It had happened before in my family, this selling of children.  Tamaki, my older sister, had been sold into
prostitution the year before; another bad harvest year.  Before that, another sister had been sold, and before
that a girl baby had been smothered at birth.  I knew this was so because I had witnessed the killing through
the bamboo screen that separated my parents' sleeping platform from our children's platform.  Daughters
were the least valued because they would not always carry the family name, and they would leave one day
to live in their husband's house.  And the children born of such a joining would enrich another man's house.
                                                                            Page 3
      I knew that boys were sold into prostitution to provide services for those so inclined.  My father had
promised me this would not be my fate.  I would be hired out as a domestic servant to some wealthy family
in Tokyo, my father had assured me.
      I was distracted from these thoughts by the approach of an elaborately-decorated cart traveling in the
opposite direction, carrying a family dressed in bright kimonos.  A boy about my own age leaned out
precariously from the back of the cart, trying to impress his siblings with his daring acrobatics.  Dust kicked
up by the cart's passing drifted back over us, obscuring the happy boy from my view.  Surely he was not on
his way to be sold.  His day would be filled with the excitement of a family outing in the country or the less-
desirable visit with relatives.  But then, he was obviously not a Burakumin, an outcast, as was I and all my
family.  As a young boy I did not really understand the Burakumin stigma that I had acquired at birth. I knew
that it had something to do with the great god Buddha and the fact, somewhere in the dim past, my ancestors
had been butchers or tanners of leather.  This occupation had offended the great god in some way.  I thought
it to be unfair that we, would could afford neither meat nor leather goods, should be punished for so ancient
a crime.  What I did know in my early years that I was often forbidden the company of other boys by their
parents.  They would shoo me away, scolding their children for being so friendly to a Burakumin or Eta
Hinin as they called me with their wicked, hating tongues.  At school it was the same.  The teachers treated
me as an inferior student; one who could not be expected to learn or benefit from their teaching, so they
ignored me.  This unequal treatment ended when my father took me out of school so that I could help him
all day long on our tiny farm.
                                                                         Page 4
      School was a luxury we could no longer afford, he had explained to me.  And now my father could not
even afford to keep me.
      As the day wore on and we lurched closer to Tokyo, traffic on the road increased.  Now a few trucks
and automobiles came along, honking their horns in exasperation at our slow pace.  Whenever this happened
the farmer pulled his cart way over to the side of the road, bowing low to the angry drivers as they passed us
by, waving their fists in the air and shouting insults that I often did not understand.
      It was with obvious relief that our harried driver finally escaped the busy highway by turning onto a
side street to avoid the angry flow.  Here, in the jumble of narrow and crowded alleys, we joined the slower
pace of other farmers who were also making their way to the produce market in the Kanda district of Tokyo.
Some were bringing their produce to market in carts like ours.  Others had their goods strung on long poles
slung over their shoulders.  Some were pushing wheelbarrows.  Some carried woven baskets on their heads,
and all were merging into the river of humanity that stretched out before us, moving relentlessly toward an
unseen destination.  The squeals of a pig drew my attention to the two men just passing us, carrying the
unfortunate creature tied to a long pole between them.
      Surely, with all this food, no one could be starving in Tokyo.  Maybe being sold would not be so bad
if I had enough to eat every day.  Perhaps my father realized this too.  Better to eat as a slave than die of
starvation as so many had in our village.  Could it be that my father was doing something good instead of
something evil by selling his own son?  At least I would survive, and he must have known that.
                                                                          Page 5
      Just before we reached the Kanda produce market, my father jumped down from the cart, pulling me
after him.  He waved our thanks to the farmer before we joined the jostling crowd choking the narrow street. 
A group of boys, all dressed in military uniforms and carrying knapsacks on their backs, passed us on their
way to school.  It would be worth going to school if I could wear such a uniform.  If the boys' parents could
afford to buy them such splendid uniforms, then the people of Tokyo must be both well-fed and rich.
      My father paused in front of a red-painted building, seeming reluctant to enter.  Finally he took me by
my hand and pushed open the ornately-carved green door of the establishment.  A bell on a spring above
the door tinkled to announce our entry.  A man dressed in fine silks and sitting behind a jumbled counter
looked up as we entered.  My father stood at the door, hesitant.
      "You have some business to conduct?" the man at the counter asked, showing obvious distain for our
shabby appearance.
      "Mister Yamada, sir, last year came to you with my daughter," my father's voice squeaked, barely
audible.  "This year the harvest has been bad again..."
      "And so you bring me a son," Mr. Yamada interrupted.
      "Yes, sir," my father replied, bowing low.
      "You can't expect me to pay you much this year, old man," Mr. Yamada said harshly.  "You peasants
have been coming in from all over to sell me your children.  The market is glutted."
                                                                          Page 6
      "But Kenji is a fine boy," my father said.  "He is bright.  Kenji has been to school, and he is a hard
      "We shall see, old man...we shall see," Mr. Yamada said.  "Bring your son into the back room and we
will discuss the matter."
      Mr. Yamada ushered us through a curtain and into an inner room furnished sparsely with a table, a
few wooden chairs and a desk.
      "Is your son free from diseases and defects?" Mr. Yamada asked sharply.
      "He is as far as I know," my father answered.  "But I am not a doctor."
      "Come here, boy," Mr. Yamada commanded me.  As I stood before this rude man, he parted my lips
to inspect my teeth.  "Uh, huh," he muttered.  Then he roughly examined my head for lice.  "What's this...
what's this?" Mr. Yamada asked as he held up an infinitesimal speck under my father's nose.
      "We slept in a field last night.  I am sure it the only one," my father protested this degrading of the
      "Let me see if your limbs are sound.  Undress, boy!" Mr. Yamada commanded me.
      I undressed slowly, embarrassed to expose myself before this unfriendly man.
      When I got down to my loin cloth and hesitated, Mr. Yamada said sharply, "That too, boy!  I buy no
eunuchs here!"
      I unwrapped my loin cloth and dropped it onto the pile of clothes I had made on the floor.  Mr. Yamada
bent over and felt my kitama.
      "Well, at least you have those!" he snapped.  "Get dressed, boy!"
      "For such a boy..." Mr. Yamada said.  "I can give you fifty yen and no more."
      "But you gave me two hundred yen for my daughter last year," my father protested.
                                                                        Page 7
      "That was last year, old man," Mr. Yamada said sarcastically.  "As I have said, the market is glutted. 
Take your son elsewhere if you think you can get a better price."
      "My family will starve this winter if I cannot get more.  I must try another dealer," my father said as
he turned to leave.
      "Now don't get all upset," Mr. Yamada said as he moved to block our path.  "Let me take another look
at your boy." Mr. Yamada proceeded to examine me as one might a farm animal.  Then he took my chin
in his hand to examine my face more closely.  "He does not have that peasant look," Mr. Yamada said
cautiously.  "Perhaps I could hire him out to a wealthy customer who likes pretty faces.  One hundred yen
is my final offer.  Take it or leave it," Mr. Yamada said, pushing my head back down roughly.
      My father let out a sigh of resignation and I knew the bargain had been struck.  Mr. Yamada went over
to his desk and began scratching out a bill of sale.  My father came over to me, but I turned away to hide
my tears.  He placed a hand on my shoulder.
    "You must understand, Kenji...the bad harvest...food is so hard to come by...you must try to understand,"
my father struggled to explain my fate.  "At least here you will have enough food to eat and clothes to wear.
And when you are grown, you will be free to do as you wish.  Mister Yamada has assured me of this."
      I did not respond to my father's plea for understanding.  Then I heard my father shuffling over to Mr.
Yamada's desk to place his mark on the paper that Mr. Yamada had prepared.  Out of the corner of my eye
I saw Mr. Yamada hand over a sheath of notes that my father clutched tightly in his hand.  Then my father
turned to me again.
      "Good-bye, Kenji," my father said, his farmer's straw hat hanging loosely by his side.
      I didn't acknowledge his parting words.  Feeling the mixed emotions of hurt and churlishness, I avoided
his gaze.  The curtain swished as he went out to the front room with Mr. Yamada.  A few words were
mumbled, and then I heard the bell at the front door tinkle twice as the door was opened and then closed
again, ending a part of my life.
                                                      Copyright © 2001 by Paul Roebling