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Saiichi Maruya: 笹まくら (Grass for My Pillow)

Shokichi Hamada is an assistant clerk in a registry office in a Japanese university. He works fairly hard and hopes but does not expect to be promoted, not least because his rival, Nishi, has longer service than him. He is married to a younger woman and, though they have no children, the marriage seems relatively happy. Early in the novel, he has to deal with two deaths. One is an assistant professor at the university and he has to work out how much the university should contribute to the funeral. The other is a woman he knew in the past, Akiko, who seems to have died of cancer. He had planned to visit her but had not had time, as it was the university’s busy season. We follow his life, but it is only after a while that we learn that he has a past, a past which he thought was a secret but which, it seems, many of his colleagues know about and hold against him.

Though we know him as Shokichi Hamada, he used to be known as as Kenji Sugiura, an assumed name. During the war, he declined to serve in the armed forces and, instead, ran away and hid out from 1941 till the Japanese surrender in 1945. The rest of the novel intertwines the two stories, his present life at the university and his wartime experiences. Naturally, Akiko was very much part of his wartime life. Indeed, it was she who sheltered him and they were lovers till the end of the war, when her family contracted an arranged marriage for her.

Hamada had studied radio engineering at college and it was his plan, when he fled home in 1941, to wander around Japan, repairing radios, always keeping on the move, so the authorities would not be aware of him. Japan had no conscientious objector status and, indeed, for those who did desert or refuse to serve, the punishment was death. He was not a coward, he maintained. Indeed, as he points out, had he served, with his engineering background, he would have almost certainly been in the Signal Corps and thus well away from the action. He quite simply did not like the idea of war and killing. He does manage to get to relatively remote parts of the country but his plan of repairing radios does not work out too well. He even manages to pick up another skill, that of clock repairing, by working as the assistant (and servant) of a clock repairer for a few months. However, he finds that the country people are reluctant to entrust their most prized possessions, their clocks and radios, to an itinerant vagrant.

He shares a room in a hostel with another man, called Inaba. Inaba takes ill and it is Hamada who looks after him, gets a doctor and, eventually, accompanies him to hospital. He even accompanies Inaba to hospital by bus when he has to go on a regular basis for treatment. In return, Inaba points him to his own, more lucrative activity, sand painting. He teaches Hamada how to do it, what materials are needed and even how best to sell them. Hamada is more successful at sand painting than at repairing radios and clocks.

Meanwhile, in the present day, he is out walking to a conference. He sees a man running and people chasing him, screaming at him. He quickly realises that they are calling out Stop, thief! He is somewhat surprised, as the fleeing man is well dressed while the chasers are not. However, he also realises that he knows some of the chasers, as they work for the university. However, by the time he has processed all this information the running man has passed him and he has done nothing. Fortunately, another man tackles the running man and holds him till his pursuers catch him up. Later that day, he overhears two of his colleagues talking and saying It’s only natural that a squirt who was scared of Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek should have been afraid of a burglar. Others make similar remarks. He realises that his secret is out.

Maruya gradually shows the effect of his draft resistance on his life and his career. Nishi, in particular, is keen to do him down and make sure that he does not get a promotion. Nishi himself did serve in the army but without any distinction whatsoever. But how much will Hamada’s draft resistance hinder his career, not least because some people, the current students, think it was a very brave and worthwhile thing to do? And how will he react to it?

Hamada more than once rationalises his behaviour, his contempt for the military, particularly the cruel Japan military, his contempt for what he sees as an unjust war and his horror of killing. Indeed, before the war and before he runs away, he discusses the issue with his friends and they are of similar views, though accept the fact that they have little choice, and both serve. Despite this, he does more or less stay in the country (he has a brief stay in Korea but does not like it and comes back) nor, afterwards, does he show any interest in pacifism or anti-war activities. Indeed, his decision seems to be primarily personal, rather than part of a larger moral or political stance. His concern, after the event, is the effect it had on his family (which is ambiguous) and the effect that it is having on his current career.

Maruya tells a superb story, giving us considerable detail about Hamada’s war-time travels around Japan (with a helpful afterword, outlining his itinerary) and about his narrow escapes and his survival mechanisms. We also learn a lot about what happened at the end of the war and when and how he returns to his family in Tokyo. However, the main thrust of the novel is on the present day and Hamada’s having to deal with the consequences of his war-time draft resistance and its effect on his current position. Hamada clearly feels that it should not be of consequence; others have different views.

The title, by the way, comes from a poem of the thirteen century, written by a woman known only as Lord Shunzei’s Daughter:

Again this fitful
slumber bamboo
grass for my pillow
one night of dreams
alone to bind us.

Publishing history

First published in 1966 by Kawade Shobo Shinsha
First English translation by Columbia University Press in 2002
Translated by Dennis Keene