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Chapter 28

n Japan we refer to the years from the Depression through World War II as kurotani-the valley of darkness, when so many people I lived like children whose heads had slipped beneath the waves. As is often the case, those of us in Gion didn't suffer quite as badly as others. While most Japanese lived in the dark valley all through the 19305, for example, in Gion we were still warmed by a bit of sun. And I'm sure I don't need to tell you why; women who are mistresses of cabinet ministers and naval commanders are the recipients of enormous good fortune, and they pass that good fortune along to others. You might say Gion was like a pond high up on a mountaintop, fed by streams of rich springwater. More water poured in at some spots than others, but it raised the pond as a whole.

Because of General Tottori, our okiya was one of the spots where the rich springwater came pouring in. Things grew worse and worse around us during the course of several years; and yet long after the rationing of goods had begun, we continued to receive regular supplies of foodstuffs, tea, linens, and even some luxuries like cosmetics and chocolate. We might have kept these things to ourselves and lived behind closed doors, but Gion isn't that sort of place. Mother passed much of it along and considered it well spent, not because she was a generous woman, of course, but because we were all like spiders crowded together on the same web. From time to time people came asking for help, and we were pleased to give it when we could. At some point in the fall of 1941, for example, the military police found a maid with a box containing probably ten times more ration coupons than her okiya was supposed to have. Her mistress sent her to us for safekeeping until arrangements could be made to take her to the countryside- because of course, every okiya in Gion hoarded coupons; the better the okiya, the more it usually had. The maid was sent to us rather than to someone else because General Tottori had instructed the military police to leave us alone. So you see, even within that mountaintop pond that was Gion, we were the fish swimming in the very warmest water of all.

As the darkness continued to settle over Japan, there did finally come a time when even the pinpoint of light in which we'd managed to keep ourselves suddenly went out. It happened at a single moment, early one afternoon just a few weeks before New Year's Day, in December 1942. I was eating my breakfast-or at least, my first meal of the day, for I'd been busy helping to clean the okiya in preparation for the New Year- when a man's voice called out at our entrance. I thought he was probably just making a delivery, so I went on with my meal, but a moment later the maid interrupted me to say a military policeman had come looking for Mother.

"A military policeman?" I said. "Tell him Mother is out." "Yes, I did, ma'am. He'd like to speak with you instead." When I reached the front hall, I found the policeman removing his boots in the entryway. Probably most people would have felt relieved just to note that his pistol was still snapped inside its leather case, but as I say, our okiya had lived differently right up until that moment. Ordinarily a policeman would have been more apologetic even than most visitors, since his presence would alarm us. But to see him tugging at his boots . . . well, this was his way of saying he planned to come in whether we invited him or not.

I bowed and greeted him, but he did nothing more than glance at me as though he would deal with me later. Finally he pulled up his socks and pulled down his cap, and then stepped up into the front entrance hall and said he wanted to see our vegetable garden. Just like that, with no word of apology for troubling us. You see, by this time nearly everyone in Kyoto, and probably the rest of the country, had converted their decorative gardens into vegetable gardens-everyone
but people like us, that is. General Tottori provided us with enough food that we didn't need to plow up our garden, and were instead able to go on enjoying the hair moss and spearflowers, and the tiny maple in the corner. Since it was winter, I hoped the policeman would look only at the spots of frozen ground where the vegetation had died back, and imagine that we'd planted squash and sweet potatoes amid the decorative plants. So after I'd led him down to the courtyard, I didn't say a word; I just watched as he knelt down and touched the dirt with his fingers. I suppose he wanted to feel whether or not the ground had been dug up for planting.

I was so desperate for something to say that I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Doesn't the dusting of snow on the ground make you think of foam on the ocean?" He didn't answer me, but just stood up to his full height and asked what vegetables we had planted.

"Officer," I said, "I'm terribly sorry, but the truth is, we haven't had an opportunity to plant any vegetables at all. And now that the ground is so hard and cold ..."

"Your neighborhood association was quite right about you!" he said, taking off his cap. He brought out from his pocket a slip of paper and began to read a long list of misdeeds our okiya had committed. I don't even remember them all-hoarding cotton materials, failing to turn in metal and rubber goods needed for the war effort, improper use of ration tickets, all sorts of things like that. It's true we had done these things, just as every other okiya in Gion had. Our crime, I suppose, was that we'd enjoyed more good fortune than most, and had survived longer and in better shape than all but a very few.

Luckily for me, Mother returned just then. She didn't seem at all surprised to find a military policeman there; and in fact, she behaved more politely toward him than I'd ever seen her behave toward anyone. She led him into our reception room and served him some of our ill-gotten tea. The door was closed, but I could hear them talking for a long while. At one point when she came out to fetch something, she pulled me aside and told me this:

"General Tottori was taken into custody this morning. You'd better hurry and hide our best things, or they'll be gone tomorrow."

Back in Yoroido I used to swim on chilly spring days, and afterward lie on the rocks beside the pond to soak up the heat of the sun. If the sunlight vanished suddenly behind a cloud, as it often did, the cold air seemed to close about my skin like a sheet of metal. The moment I heard of the General's misfortune, standing there in the front entrance hall, I had that same feeling. It was as though the sun had vanished, possibly for good, and I was now condemned to stand wet and naked in the icy air. Within a week of the policeman's visit, our okiya had been stripped of the things other families had lost long ago, such as stores of food, undergarments, and so forth. We'd always been Mameha's source for packets of tea; I think she'd been using them to purchase favors. But now her supplies were better than ours, and she became our source instead. Toward the end of the month, the neighborhood association began confiscating many of our ceramics arid scrolls to sell them on what we called the "gray market," which was different from the black market. The black market was for things like fuel oil, foods, metals, and so on-mostly items that were rationed or illegal to trade. The gray market was more innocent; it was mainly house-waves selling off their precious things to raise cash. In our case, though, our things were sold to punish us as much as for any other reason, and so the cash went to benefit others. The head of the neighborhood association, who was mistress of a nearby okiya, felt deeply sorry whenever she came to take our things away. But the military police had given orders; no one could do anything but obey.

If the early years of the war had been like an exciting voyage out to sea, you might say that by about the middle of 1943 we all realized the waves were simply too big for o'ur craft. We thought we would drown, all of us; and many did. It wasn't just that day-to-day life had grown increasingly miserable; no one dared admit it, but I think we'd all begun worrying about the outcome of the war. No one had fun any longer; many people seemed to feel it was unpatriotic even to have a good time. The closest thing to a joke I heard during this period was something the geisha Raiha said one night. For months we'd heard rumors that the military government planned to shut down all the geisha districts in Japan; lately we'd begun to realize that it really was going to happen. We were all wondering what would become of us, when suddenly Raiha spoke up.

"We can't waste our time thinking about such things," she said. "Nothing is bleaker than the future, except perhaps the past."

It may not sound funny to you; but that night we laughed until tears beaded in the corners of our eyes. One day soon the geisha districts would indeed close. When they did, we were certain to end up working in the factories. To give you some idea of what life in the factories was like, let me tell you about Hatsumomo's friend Korin.

During the previous winter, the catastrophe that every geisha in Gion feared most had actually happened to Korin. A maid tending the bath in her okiya had tried to burn newspapers to heat the water, but had lost control of the flames. The entire okiya was destroyed, along with its collection of kimono. Korin ended up working in a factory south of the city, fitting lenses into the equipment used for dropping bombs from airplanes. She came back to visit Gion from time to time as the months passed, and we were horrified at how much she'd changed. It wasn't just that she seemed more and more unhappy; we'd all experienced unhappiness, and were prepared for it in any case. But she had a cough that was as much a part of her as a song is part of a bird; and her skin was stained as though she'd soaked it in ink-since the coal the factories used was of a very low grade and covered everything in soot as it burned. Poor Korin was forced to work double shifts while being fed no more than a bowl of weak broth with a few noodles once a day, or watery rice gruel flavored with potato skin.

So you can imagine how terrified we were of the factories. Every day that we awakened to find Gion still open, we felt grateful.

Then one morning in January of the following year, I was standing in line at the rice store in the falling snow, holding my ration coupons, when the shopkeeper next door put out his head and called into the cold:

"It's happened!"

We all of us looked at one another. I was too numbed with cold to care what he was talking about, for I wore only a heavy shawl around my peasant's clothing; no one wore kimono during the day any longer. Finally the geisha in front of me brushed the snow from her eyebrows and asked him what he was talking about. "The war hasn't come to an end, has it?" she asked.

"The government has announced the closing of the geisha districts," he said. "All of you are to report to the registry office tomorrow morning."

For a long moment we listened to the sound of a radio inside his shop. Then the door rumbled closed again, and there was nothing but the soft hiss of the falling snow. I looked at the despair on the faces of the other geisha around me and knew in an instant that we were all thinking the same thing: Which of the men we knew would save us from life in the factories?

Even though General Tottori had been my danna until the previous year, I certainly wasn't the only geisha acquainted with him. I had to reach him before anyone else did. I wasn't properly dressed for the weather, but I put my ration coupons back into the pocket of my peasant pants and set out at once for the northwest of the city. The General was rumored to be living in the Suruya Inn, the same one where we'd met during the evenings twice a week for so many years.

I arrived there an hour or so later, burning with the cold and dusted all over with snow. But when I greeted the mistress, she took a long look at me before bowing in apology and saying she had no idea who I was.

"It's me, mistress . . . Sayuri! I've come to speak with the General."

"Sayuri-san . . . my heavens! I never thought to see you looking like the wife of a peasant."

She led me inside at once, but wouldn't present me to the General until she'd first taken me upstairs and dressed me in one of her kimono. She even put on me a bit of makeup she'd stashed away, so the General would know me when he saw me.

When I entered his room, General Tottori was sitting at the table listening to a drama on the radio. His cotton robe hung open, exposing his bony chest and the thin gray hairs. I could see that his hardships of the past year had been far worse than mine. After all, he'd been accused of awful crimes-negligence, incompetence, abuse of power, and so forth; some people considered him lucky to have escaped prison. An article in a magazine had even blamed him for the Imperial Navy's defeats in the South Pacific, saying that he'd failed to oversee the shipment of supplies. Still, some men bear hardships better than others; and with one look at the General I could see that the weight of this past year had pressed down upon him until his bones had grown brittle, and even his face had come to look a bit misshapen. In the past he'd smelled of sour pickles all the time. Now as I bowed low on the mats near him, he had a different sort of sour smell.

"You're looking very well, General," I said, though of course this was a lie. "What a pleasure it is to see you again!"

The General switched off the radio. "You're not the first to come to me," he said. "There's nothing I can do to help you, Sayuri."

"But I rushed here so quickly! I can't imagine how anyone reached you before I did!"

"Since last week nearly every geisha I know has been to see me, but I don't have friends in power any longer. I don't know why a geisha of your standing should come to me anyway. You're liked by so many men with influence."

"To be liked and to have true friends willing to help are two very different t............

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