The protagonist of this story, Tamae, is my grandmother, who recently passed away aged 92. The story is based entirely on true events.
Tamae Mitsufuji had just turned nineteen. It was the sixteenth of December, 1946.
Tamae and her grandfather had just spent the night at her aunt’s house on Shikoku, one of the main islands in southern Japan. They were returning to Hakatajima, a small island with a population of about a thousand, on which they lived.
She stepped out into the dry and dusty road. It was cold outside, and she could see her breath condensing when she exhaled. The sky was a clear, deep blue, and the air was still. She was wearing trousers and a shirt, in the Western-style, but her grandfather, her ojiisan, was wearing a kimono. Since the war had only ended the year before, there were signs of poverty all around.
“Oh, remember these,” her aunt said, handing some shashaki flowers to her father, as they were going to visit his wife’s grave the next day. Tamae’s eighty-year-old grandfather took them, without knowing their significance. With each small petal, he was carrying his unmei, his destiny.
Ojiisan was walking very slowly, so Tamae urged him on. Otherwise they would miss the boat, and there was only one a day.
The boat was absolutely packed. It was full of men, women and children of all ages, who had just been doing their shopping; there were no shops on the small islands. People were sitting with big bags of rice, near to bursting, or with newly fitted kimonos, draped across their laps. The boat was very old, and should have been replaced many years ago. As they walked along the plank, Tamae could hear creaking noises coming from the bottom of the boat, as it groaned under the weight of so many passengers. The maximum number of passengers allowed had been exceeded, but in 1946, in this isolated group of small islands, safety regulations didn’t take a priority. She stopped hesitantly.
“Ojiisan, maybe we shouldn’t get on. It looks like there are already far too many people onboard.” Tamae was frightened.
“It’s fine, I’m sure we can fit in. Besides, if we don’t get on this one, we won’t be able to go back until tomorrow,” Ojiisan said.
The bottom deck was completely packed, so they climbed up the steep steps to the top one. There were two spaces next to the window, where they gratefully sat down. Ojiisan dozed off into sleep. An intelligent-looking young boy was sitting beside Tamae. His mother was knitting. He was staring out of the window with a worried expression.
“Look there!” he said, pointing into the distance. There was a strong current. The water was churning from underneath, as if someone were stirring it with a giant spoon. There were treacherous currents, as the water passed through the narrow gaps between the islands. Depending on the weather conditions, these caused deadly whirlpools. About half an hour later, the boat approached the whirlpool, without any choice but to navigate its way across. There was a terrifying moment when the boat began to swing wildly back and forth. It then heaved violently and landed on its side. The unforgiving currents seemed to suck the boat into their midst.
There was a huge panic, as everyone rushed to get out. There was no hope left for the people on the bottom deck, but Tamae was lucky. Sitting adjacent to a window, she was able to climb out. She scrambled out, and fell into the icy water. Oil had spilled from the boat, and the dense, black liquid was floating in pools over the surface of the water.
The boat was rapidly sinking downwards, as the whirlpool devoured it. People tried to swim away from the perilous currents, but the slower, older people were dragged into the destructive whirlpool. One woman, who was carrying a baby, placed it on a buoyant piece of debris.
The plank which they had walked across only minutes before came floating over. It was strong and sturdy and big enough for a good number of people to hold onto. The survivors swam over, and clung onto it. Then, one man decided to climb up onto the plank and stand on it, hoping that it would help him stay afloat.
“Get off!” they all protested against his selfish behaviour.
However, he refused to get off. Suddenly, he was dragged backwards by the furious current, and both the man and the plank were drawn under the foaming water. The stricken expression of fear frozen on his face was the last they saw of him. No-one uttered a word, but it was easy enough to guess what they were thinking: Hotebachi, God’s Punishment.
Tamae looked around and saw that she was alone. She could not see anyone else. Had they all died? She then saw that they had all been carried away somewhere else by the current. She noticed a single geta (traditional Japanese sandals for wearing with kimono) being tossed about in the waves. The saying “a drowning man will even hold onto a straw” best describes how she was feeling at this moment, as she paddled over and desperately held the shoe in her grasp. She wondered who might have been wearing it as they had stepped onto the boat earlier. What would they be doing now, were they still alive?
However, the sandal did little in the ways of help, and she soon let go of it. As she watched the current drag it underneath the murky waves, her hopes disappeared with it. Certain now that she would die, she begun to think of all the things she would never do. She would never get married, have children or get a job. She would never learn how to make a suit, as the teacher at the sewing college she went to had promised. She wondered what her funeral would be like. She wondered if anyone would cry. She wondered if anyone would miss her. She hoped they would.
She then realised that she hadn’t seen ojiisan since the boat had sunk. She looked all around, but couldn’t see him. Suddenly, she felt a slight movement beside her. It was as if he had known what she had been thinking. Ojiisan was floating on his back, and his soaked kimono was puffed up around him. The shashaki flowers were clutched to his breast, and he wore a peaceful expression that could only belong to the dead.
“Ojiisan’s dead.” Tamae kept whispering the devastating fact to herself, trying to make sense of the situation. No matter how long she desperately clung to his body, nothing happened, and she knew that she would eventually have to let go of him. She couldn’t just stay here forever. Otherwise she would die too. His corpse had come to say one last farewell, and Tamae despairingly let go. Although she could see his body floating away with the current, she could not face the reality that he had died. She was too shocked even to cry. That was the last time she ever saw him.
Hana Mitsufuji glanced impatiently at the clock hanging in the hall. Her three youngest boys were complaining of hunger, and she needed help making dinner. Her daughter, Tamae, had promised to be back hours earlier. This always happened when she went out with her grandfather.
Tamae was looking at her watch. The hands had stopped at two thirty. She wished that time had also stopped. She wished that she had not listened to ojiisan. She wished that they had never got on that boat in the first place. If they hadn’t, ojiisan wouldn’t be slowly sinking to the depths of the seabed, and she wouldn’t be trapped in the middle of the ocean with only minutes left of her short life.
Suddenly, Hana heard a knock at the door. The door didn’t have a lock, so there was no reason why her daughter would need to knock. She walked to the entrance, with her youngest child, still only eighteen months old, on her hip.
“What time do you think it is?” she asked with irritation. However, when she slid open the wooden door, the sight that greeted her on the other side was very different from the cheeky expression she expected to see on ojiisan’s aged face.
“Mitsufuji-sama?” There was a surprised expression on the man’s young face.
She nodded, slightly embarrassed.
“I am terribly sorry to inform you, but the boat that left the harbour at Imabari earlier this afternoon didn’t make it across due to the strong currents there. It sunk, but a rescue ship has just been sent out, and they are doing their best to see if they can find survivors.”
“My father and my daughter were on that. Do you have any news?”
“Yes, that’s why I’m here. Please come with me to the school.”
Hana understood immediately. The only telephone in the whole village belonged to the school, and that was where everyone went to hear news like this. She called out to her husband, who was sitting on the floor reading last week’s newspaper, to look after the children. She stepped out into the yard, still carrying the baby, and slid the door closed. She followed the composed young man, who would lead her to the place where she would discover the fate of her daughter and father.
Tamae was staring at a spot on the horizon. She had been staring at it for quite some time now, and it was gradually growing bigger. She then realised that there was a big ship sailing steadily towards her. She knew that she had to get on that ship. She needed to go home and tell everyone what had happened to ojiisan.
In the school building, there were crowds of families waiting in nervous anticipation, whilst the person at the desk was reading out names of people who had been rescued and were currently on the ship.
“Watanabe Michiko, Murakami Satoru, Tanaka Keiko,…..”
Hana waited fretfully, desperately hoping to hear the names Mitsufuji Tamae, and Mitsufuji Yokichi.
The ship took what seemed like a long time, even to come remotely near. When it eventually approached her, Tamae could see that they had let out many ropes for people to climb up to the ship. She snatched at a rope, but her hands were completely covered in the oil, and she couldn’t hold onto it. Instinctively looping it around her wrist, she waited to be pulled up.
All around her, people were shouting to be rescued. The first people to get up were the men, because they were stronger. Tamae was left till the very end. The attendant on the ship helped pull her up, and she stepped weakly onto the deck, filled with relief, thinking that the worst was over.
The school clock was already showing four o’clock, and Hana was still waiting. The background noise that had been present earlier had gone with the many relieved families who had already gone back. It had been replaced by an empty silence which had begun to fill the room. The woman who had been reading out the names looked at her sympathetically.
“I’m very sorry, but those are the only names we have,” she told Hana, and the few other people who were left. “You’d better go home.”
Her baby began to cry, and his penetrating screams echoed around the hall. She gripped onto his small body, grateful that she still had something that was most definitely alive.
Hana cried hysterically all the way home. Her and her baby’s crying together must have been a disturbing sight, and many people glanced at her, but she was far from caring. Her eldest son had already died a few years earlier in the war. She did not want to lose another. Tamae was the only girl in a family of seven; she was special.
There were bodies lined up all along the length of the ship’s deck, and it took Tamae very little time to realise that they were dead. She saw the baby from earlier – the one which had been placed on the debris – crying feverishly. The black oil covering its face was smeared with tears. Its mother was lying dead, not far away. The boy who had been sitting next to her on the boat was lying motionless. His mother was wailing whilst she clutched his corpse, her head bent over. She overheard a young woman telling someone next to her that she had lost her baby. She had had no choice but to let go of it. If she hadn’t, she would have died too.
Everyone was shivering. The lucky survivors had gathered around the ship’s funnel where steam was coming off, and people were fighting for a place to stand and warm their hands.
Tamae didn’t even have the energy to walk to where the funnel was. Her body was already so numb from the cold that she couldn’t feel anything. Slumping against the side of the ship, she could see that her new Western-style clothes which she had been so proud of were now covered in black oil, and in rags. She would never be able to wear them again.
“Tama-chan?” she heard a quiet voice beside her, and turned around.
“I thought it was you, but I couldn’t be sure. Our faces are all so black from the oil that we look the same,” he said.
She vaguely recognised the boy as her neighbour, but both of them were too exhausted to make further conversation.
The sun was sinking reluctantly in the crimson stained sky. The colour had seeped into the black sea, giving it a sinister glow. Nature had already wreaked havoc that day and was showing that it would always have the upper hand.
The ship dropped them off on the nearest island. Tamae and a few others walked ten miles from the south of the island to the north. Her shoes had gone, so she had to walk barefoot. They had then made a crossing by boat to Hakatajima, and she walked a further mile until she reached her house. She returned home at around midnight, to find everybody awake and sitting around in a state of agitation.
Hana screamed and ran over to Tamae, almost crushing her.
“Ojiisan’s dead,” was all Tamae could say.
Tamae sits in the back of the car with her family as her son drives it smoothly along the road. She stares at the stunning new road bridge, elevated between the islands. If only that bridge had been there in 1946. She knows that if it had, the catastrophe on that ill-fated winter day would never have happened.
She remembers the miserable days after the sinking. Whenever she had stepped out of the door, all she had been able to see and smell was thick, black smoke from the funerals of the seventy people who had died that day. Most of all, she remembers ojiisan’s funeral, and the straw doll they had made to replace his lost body.
She gazes out at the perfect cobalt blue sea. She wonders whether his bones are buried in the seabed, somewhere under the huge expanse of water.
Her granddaughter, who is visiting from Britain, asks why she is crying. She is making up for the tears that she had been unable to shed when she saw her ojiisan’s body being taken away with the waves. It has been seventy-three years.