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Manoa 13.1 (2001) 94-101

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Mary Yukari Waters

In Imamiya Park the boys are playing dodge ball, a new American game. Behind them tall poplars rise up through the low-lying dusk, intercepting the last of the sun's rays, which dazzle the leaves with white and gold.

Makiko can hardly believe her son, Toshi, belongs with these older boys. Seven years old! Once, his growth had seemed commensurate with the passage of time. These last few years, however, with the war and surrender, the changes have come too fast, skimming her consciousness like pebbles skipped over water.

Makiko is grateful the war is over. But she cannot ignore a nagging sense that Japan's surrender has spawned a new threat--one more subtle, more diffuse. She can barely articulate it, even to herself; feels unmoored, buffeted among invisible forces surging all around her. As if caught up in these energies, her son's thin body is rapidly lengthening. Look! Within that circle in the dirt he is dodging, he is feinting; his body twists with an unfamiliar grace, foreshadowing that of a young man.

Toshi's growth is abetted by a new lunch program at school that is subsidized by the American government, which has switched, with dizzying speed, from enemy to ally. Each day her son comes home with alien food in his stomach: bread, cheese, bottled milk. Last week, in the pocket of his shorts, Makiko found a cube of condensed peanut butter--an American dessert, Toshi explained--which he had meant to save for later. It was coated with lint from his pocket, which he brushed off, ignoring her plea to "get rid of that dirty thing."

And each day, Toshi comes home with questions she cannot answer: Who was Magellan? How do you say "My name is Toshi" in English? How do you play baseball?

Makiko shows him the ball games her own mother taught her. She bounces an imaginary ball, chanting a ditty passed down from the Edo period:

yellow topknots
of the Portuguese wives
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spiraled like seashells
and stuck atop their heads

hold one up, to your ear
shake it up and down

a little shrunken brain
is rattling inside

In the old days, she tells him, they used to put something inside the rubber balls--maybe a scrap of iron, she wasn't sure--that made a rattling noise. Toshi, too old now for this sort of amusement, sighs with impatience.

Just four years ago, Toshi's head had been too big for his body--endearingly out of proportion, like the head of a stuffed animal. Even then he had a manly, square-jawed face, not unlike that of a certain city-council candidate appearing on election posters at the time. Her husband, Yoshitsune, nicknamed his son "Mr. Magistrate." Before going off to war, Yoshitsune had developed a little routine with their son. "Oi, Toshi! Are you a man?" Yoshitsune would prompt in his droll tone, using the word otoko, with its connotations of male bravery, strength, and honor. He would ask this question several times a day, often before neighbors and friends.

"Hai, Father! I am a man!" little Toshi would cry, stiffening at soldierly attention as he had been coached, trembling with eagerness to please. His short legs, splayed out from the knees as if buckling under the weight of his head, were still dimpled with baby fat.

"Maaa! An excellent, manly answer!" the grownups praised, through peals of laughter.

Makiko had laughed, too, a faint constriction in her throat, for Yoshitsune had remarked to her, "When I'm out fighting in the Pacific, that's how I'm going to remember him." After that, she began watching their child closely, trying to memorize what Yoshitsune was memorizing. Later, when her husband was gone, it comforted her to think that the same images swam in both their minds at night. Even today, Toshi's three-year-old figure is vivid in her mind. On the other hand, she has not fully absorbed the war years, still shrinks from those memories and all that has...