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Chapter 17

I had seen the Chairman during only one brief moment in my life; but I'd spent a great many moments since then imagining him. He was like a song I'd heard once in fragments but had been singing in my mind ever since. Though of course, the notes had changed a bit over time-which is to say that I expected his forehead to be higher and his gray hair not so thick. When I saw him, I had a flicker of uncertainty whether he was really the Chairman; but I felt so soothed, I knew without a doubt I had found him.

While Mameha was greeting the two men, I stood behind awaiting my turn to bow. What if my voice, when I tried to speak, should sound like a rag squeaking on polished wood? Nobu, with his tragic scars, was watching me, but I wasn't sure whether the Chairman had even noticed me there; I was too timid to glance in his direction. When Mameha took her place and began to smooth her kimono over her knees, I saw that the Chairman was looking at me with what I took to be curiosity. My feet actually went cold from all the blood that came rushing into my face.

"Chairman Iwamura . . . President Nobu," Mameha said, "this is my new younger sister, Sayuri."

I'm certain you've heard of the famous Iwamura Ken, founder of Iwamura Electric. And probably you've heard of Nobu Toshikazu as well. Certainly no business partnership in Japan was ever more famous than theirs. They were like a tree and its roots, or like a shrine and the gate that stands before it. Even as a fourteen-year-old girl I'd heard of them. But I'd never imagined for a moment that Iwamura Ken might be the man I'd met on the banks of the Shirakawa Stream. Well, I lowered myself to my knees and bowed to them, saying all the usual things about begging their indulgence and so forth. When I was done, I went to kneel in the space between them. Nobu fell into conversation with a man beside him, while the Chairman, on the other side of me, sat with his hand around an empty teacup on a tray at his knee. Mameha began talking to him; I picked up a small teapot and held my sleeve out of the way to pour. To my astonishment, the Chairman's eyes drifted to my arm. Of course, I was eager to see for myself exactly what he was seeing. Perhaps because of the murky light in the Exhibition Hall, the underside of my arm seemed to shine with the gleaming smoothness of a pearl, and was a beautiful ivory color. No part of my body had ever struck me as lovely in this way before. I was very aware that the Chairman's eyes weren't moving; as long as he kept looking at my arm, I certainly wasn't going to take it away. And then suddenly Mameha fell silent. It seemed to me she'd stopped talking because the Chairman was watching my arm instead of listening to her. Then I realized what was really the matter.

The teapot was empty. What was more, it had been empty even when I'd picked it up.

I'd felt almost glamorous a moment earlier, but now I muttered an apology and put the pot down as quickly as I could. Mameha laughed. "You can see what a determined girl she is, Chairman," she said. "If there'd been a single drop of tea in that pot, Sayuri would have gotten it out."

"That certainly is a beautiful kimono your younger sister is wearing, Mameha," the Chairman said. "Do I recall seeing it on you, back during your days as an apprentice?"

If I felt any lingering doubts about whether this man was really the Chairman, I felt them no longer after hearing the familiar kindness of his voice.

"It's possible, I suppose," Mameha replied. "But the Chairman has seen me in so many different kimono over the years, I can't imagine he remembers them all."

"Well, I'm no different from any other man. Beauty makes quite an impression on me. When it comes to these sumo wrestlers, I can't tell one of them from the next."

Mameha leaned across in front of the Chairman and whispered to me, "What the Chairman is really saying is that he doesn't particularly like sumo."

"Now, Mameha," he said, "if you're trying to get me into trouble with Nobu . . ."

"Chairman, Nobu-san has known for years how you feel!"

"Nevertheless. Sayuri, is this your first encounter with sumo?"

I'd been waiting for some excuse to speak with him; but before I'd so much as taken a breath, we were all startled by a tremendous boom that shook the great building. Our heads turned and the crowd fell silent; but it was nothing more than the closing of one of the giant doors. In a moment we could hear hinges creaking and saw the second door straining its way around in an arc, pushed by two of the wrestlers. Nobu had his head turned away from me; I couldn't resist peering at the terrible burns on the side of his face and his neck, and at his ear, which was misshapen. Then I saw that the sleeve of his jacket was empty. I'd been so preoccupied, I hadn't noticed it earlier; it was folded in two and fastened to his shoulder by a long silver pin.

I may as well tell you, if you don't know it already, that as a young lieutenant in the Japanese marines, Nobu had been severely injured in a bombing outside Seoul in 1910, at the time Korea was being annexed to Japan. I knew nothing about his heroism when I met him-though in fact, the story was familiar all over Japan. If he'd never joined up with the Chairman and eventually become president of Iwamura Electric, probably he would have been forgotten as a war hero. But as it was, his terrible injuries made the story of his success that much more remarkable, so the two were often mentioned together.

I don't know too much about history-for they taught us only arts at the little school-but I think the Japanese government gained control over Korea at the end of the Russo-Japanese War, and a few years afterward made the decision to incorporate Korea into the growing empire. I'm sure the Koreans didn't much like this. Nobu went there as part of a small force to keep things under control. Eate one afternoon he accompanied his commanding officer on a visit to a village near Seoul. On the way back to the spot where their horses were tied up, the members of the patrol came under attack. When they heard the horrible shrieking noise of an incoming shell, the commanding officer tried to climb down into a ditch, but he was an old man and moved at about the speed of a barnacle inching its way down a rock. Moments before the shell struck he was still trying to find a foothold. Nobu laid himself over the commanding officer in an effort to save him, but the old man took this badly and tried to climb out. With some effort he raised his head;

Nobu tried to push it back down, but the shell struck, killing the commanding officer and injuring Nobu severely. In surgery later that year, Nobu lost his left arm above the elbow.

The first time I saw his pinned sleeve, I couldn't help averting my eyes in alarm. I'd never before seen anyone who'd lost a limb-though when I was a little girl, an assistant of Mr. Tanaka's had lost the tip of his finger one morning while cleaning a fish. In Nobu's case, many people felt his arm to be the least of his problems, because his skin was like an enormous wound. It's hard to describe the way he looked, and probably it would be cruel for me even to try. I'll just repeat what I overheard another geisha say about him once: "Every time I look at his face, I think of a sweet potato that has blistered in the fire."

When the huge doors were closed, I turned back to the Chairman to answer his question. As an apprentice I was free to sit as quietly as an arrangement of flowers, if I wanted to; but I was determined not to let this opportunity pass. Even if I made only the slightest impression on him, like a child's foot might make on a dusty floor, at least it would be a start.

"The Chairman asked if this is my first encounter with sumo," I said. "It is, and I would be very grateful for anything the Chairman might be kind enough to explain to me."

"If you want to know what's going on," said Nobu, "you'd better talk to me. What is your name, apprentice? I couldn't hear well with the noise of the crowd."

I turned away from the Chairman with as much difficulty as a hungry child turns away from a plate of food.

"My name is Sayuri, sir," I said.

"You're Mameha's younger sister; why aren't you 'Mame' something-or-other?" Nobu went on. "Isn't that one of your foolish traditions?"

"Yes, sir. But all the names with 'Mame' turned out to be inauspicious for me, according to the fortune-teller."

"The fortune-teller," Nobu said with contempt. "Is he the one who picked your name for you?"

"I'm the one who picked it," Mameha said. "The fortune-teller doesn't pick names; he only tells us if they're acceptable."

"One day, Mameha," Nobu replied, "you'll grow up and stop listening to fools."

"Now, now, Nobu-san," said the Chairman, "anyone hearing you talk would think you're the most modern man in the nation. Yet I've never known anyone who believes more strongly in destiny than you do."

"Every man has his destiny. But who needs to go to a fortuneteller to find it? Do I go to a chef to find out if I'm hungry?" Nobu said.

"Anyway, Sayuri is a very pretty name-though pretty names and pretty girls don't always go together."

I was beginning to wonder if his next comment would be something like, "What an ugly younger sister you've taken on, Mameha!" or some such thing. But to my relief, he said:

"Here's a case where the name and the girl go together. I believe she may be even prettier than you, Mameha!"

"Nobu-san! No woman likes to hear that she isn't the prettiest creature around."

"Especially you, eh? Well, you'd better get used to it. She has especially beautiful eyes. Turn toward me, Sayuri, so I can have another look at them."

I couldn't very well look down at the mats, since Nobu wanted to see my eyes. Nor could I stare directly back at him without seeming too forward. So after my gaze slipped around a little, like trying to find a footing on ice, I finally let it settle in the region of his chin. If I could have willed my eyes to stop seeing, I would certainly have done it; because Nobu's features looked like poorly sculpted clay. You must remember that I knew nothing as yet about the tragedy that had disfigured him. When I wondered what had happened to him, I couldn't stop that terrible feeling of heaviness.

"Your eyes certainly do shimmer in a most startling way," he said.

At that moment a small door opened along the outside of the hall, and a man entered wearing an exceptionally formal kimono with a high black cap on his head, looking as if he'd stepped directly out of a painting of the Imperial court. He made his way down the aisle, leading a procession of wrestlers so huge they had to crouch to pass through the doorway.

"What do you know about sumo, young girl?" Nobu asked me.

"Only that the wrestlers are as big as whales, sir," I said. "There's a man working in Gion who was once a sumo wrestler."

"You must mean Awajiumi. He's sitting just over there, you know." With his one hand, Nobu pointed toward another tier where Awajiumi sat, laughing about something, with Korin next to him. She must have spotted me, for she gave a little smile and then leaned in to say something to Awajiumi, who looked in our direction.

"He was never much of a wrestler," Nobu said. "He liked to slam his opponents with his shoulder. It never worked, stupid man, but it broke his collarbone plenty of times."

By now the wrestlers had all entered the building and stood around the base of the mound. One by one their names were announced, and they climbed up and arranged themselves in a circle
facing the audience. Later, as they made their way out of the hall again so the wrestlers of the opposing side could begin their procession, Nobu said to me:

"That rope in a circle on the ground marks the ring. The first wrestler to be shoved outside it, or to touch the mound with anything but his feet, is the loser. It may sound easy, but how would you like to try pushing one of those giants over that rope?"

"I suppose I could come up behind him with wooden clappers," I said, "and hope to scare him so badly he'd jump out."

"Be serious," Nobu said.

I won't pretend this was a particularly clever thing for me to have said, but it was one of my first efforts at joking with a man. I felt so embarrassed, I couldn't think what to say. Then the Chairman leaned toward me.

"Nobu-san doesn't joke about sumo," he said quietly.

"I don't make jokes about the three things that matter most in life," Nobu said. "Sumo, business, and war."

"My goodness, I think that was a sort of joke," Mameha said. "Does that mean you're contradicting yourself?"

"If you were watching a battle," Nobu said to me, "or for that matter sitting in the midst of a business meeting, would you understand what was happening?"

I wasn't sure what he meant, but I could tell from his tone that he expected me to say no. "Oh, not at all," I answered.

"Exactly. And you can't expect to understand what's going on in sumo, either. So you can laugh at Mameha's little jokes or you can listen to me and learn what it all means."

"He's tried to teach me about it over the years," the Chairman said quietly to me, "but I'm a very poor student."

"The Chairman is a brilliant man," Nobu said. "He's a poor student of sumo because he doesn't care about it. He wouldn't even be here this afternoon, except that he was generous enough to accept my proposal that Iwamura Electric be a sponsor of the exhibition."

By now both teams had finished their ring-entering ceremonies. Two more special ceremonies followed, one for each of the two yokozuna. A yokozuna is the ............

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