Crashing Japan
The Scribe

by Jonathan Tarbox, Aug 24th 2006
I had known the man for some time. He came to a small cake shop that was around the corner from my house in Ninomiya. Stretching from Flower Road to the Ikuta River, Ninomiya was one of the easily ignored neighborhoods of Kobe. Apart from the Kobe Union Church and Ago's Cake shop, it was full of old two-story wooden houses that had been hastily constructed after the war. There was no point in time when one of the buildings wasn't being torn down and replaced by a six or seven-story glass and chrome monstrosity. Although usually I hate it when they tear down a beautiful old building to put up some new synthetic thing, the tacky, jury-rigged structures in this neighborhood were not ones whose passing I would mourn. At the rate they were going, this neighborhood would disappear in five years.

The old man lived somewhere in the neighborhood; I never knew precisely where. I would meet him in Ago's shop. He had retired quite a few years ago, and now seemed at a loss as to how to fill his time.

That day we were talking about all the construction in the neighborhood. A new building was going up just across the street from the shop, and Ago and I were both complaining about the noise. I asked the man what the area was like before the war, and the conversation turned to his memories of those days.

“I was in Taiwan during the war—in the records department. We had no word processors in those days, and anything written in Japanese had to be written by hand with a brush and ink. You Young people have no idea what it was like to keep records back then.

“We knew that the Americans were stronger than us, and so were the Russians. We knew the only way to win was to be more organized than the enemy. So everything was recorded. When a soldier died, we recorded what crematorium he was brought to. We recorded the date and time of cremation. We recorded the weight of the ashes collected afterwards. We recorded everything the army did. And all these records were kept in triplicate. In Taiwan there were huge buildings entirely full of people like me writing all these documents by hand. It was in this way we hoped to win the war.

“Before we established bases in Asia, I worked at a base in Kobe. The Army knew that we would be bombed once the war had begun. So in preparation, we copied all the documents that the city had on file. Most important among these were the family records and the property deeds. We copied all these in duplicate, again by hand with brush and ink. The army went into the mountains behind Rokko, drilled tunnels into the rock, put in the documents, and sealed them up with concrete. Every city in the country did the same. Although munitions factories and airplanes got more attention, we in the records department believed that ours was one of the most important preparations for the war.

“At the end of the war, Tokyo was flat. Osaka was flat. Kobe, flat. The homes were destroyed. All records were gone. So we went back to the tunnels and brought out the records. We could reconstruct the property rights and family lineages. For instance, such-and-such a piece of land belongs to Sato. Sato is dead. So it belongs to his wife. His wife is dead. The next of kin is her uncle. Her uncle is dead. So it belongs to his nephew who lives in Himeji. What land belonged to whom, who was related to whom, all was accounted for.

“If no surviving owner was found within five years, the plot became city property. If you walk through a neighborhood and see a small piece of land that has been made into a park, that was such a plot.”
The man paused, and a slight smile crossed his lips. “It was because of those records that we were able to rebound so quickly from the destruction of the war,” he stated with the quiet pride of an old man who feels his life work has been well accomplished.

I sat looking at the man, imagining him and thousands of others sitting at desks in their military uniforms, copying documents, saving Japanese society from the ravages of war, doing their duty, occasionally glancing up at the Emperor's portrait which must have hung on the wall. I imagined all those people as they would be now, senior citizens, satisfied in the knowledge that they preserved Japan and saved it from anarchy.

It is true that those records helped rebuild Japan. It is also true that those records helped preserve the structures of feudal Japanese society. Who was samurai, who was burakumin, who lived in which part of town—all were preserved. It occurred to me that the end of the war had been a unique point in history. Saving Japan from anarchy also meant saving it from social change. In a country where your family background can be as important as your college diploma, the work of those scribes has in a way shaped post-war Japan. I thought about the calloused hands and weary eyes of the people who collect garbage, or drive the toilet vacuum trucks, or pull carts loaded with cardboard, and I wondered just how grateful they would be to this old man sitting in front of me.
I left Ago's shop and headed back home. As I walked past a small park, the same one I'd walked past every day for a year, I stopped and wondered who had lived there.

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