14 October 2004

My Sugar or Your Life!

THE REGIMENTAL SUPPLIES had not yet landed at Shanghai and were only now approaching its harbor. This meant that the front units could not rely on being replenished by the transport corps to their rear but were forced to improvise, requisitioning on the spot whatever they needed.

Rice and vegetables were relatively abundant, but spices extremely hard to find. The shortage was at its most acute during their stay in Wu-hsi.

The soldier in charge of cooking at the regimental headquarters was jealously hoarding a bowl of leftover refined sugar.

"Listen up! This is for the regimental commander, so nobody lays a finger on it!" Lance Corporal Takei wrapped it in paper and put it on a shelf. He used it only when cooking for the colonel, and then sparingly, but even so, the amount dwindled to a mere cupful. "There must be sugar somewhere."

Whenever free from kitchen duty, he scoured the city for sugar but found none. That evening, planning finally to use the last of the sugar in preparing the colonel's supper, Takei reached for it, only to discover it gone.

Vegetables were boiling in the pot; table legs and broken boxes blazed steadily underneath. Takei stood gaping in front of the stove.

"Hey! Where's the sugar I kept here?" Soldiers on duty chorused that they did not know. Some said it was there at lunchtime, some speculated that the wind might have blown it off the shelf. In the end the suspicion arose that the Chinese kitchen workers were most likely to have stolen it. Five Chinese, brought all the way from Chih-t'ang-chen, worked in the kitchen.

The lance corporal's face flushed with rage. Unable to speak to them, he slapped the Chinese nearest him, a youth of about seventeen. This one seemed to him to have done it. He ordered a subordinate to call the headquarters interpreter.

"Ah, what a lovely fragrance!" Interpreter Nakahashi sauntered in, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Takei quickly explained the situation and asked that he interrogate the boy.

The Chinese, industrious and obedient, had been doing kitchen work ever since Chih-t'ang-chen.
Nakahashi did not think him guilty but went through the motions of interrogating him. The boy said he did not know, perhaps a soldier had taken it.

"A soldier would never take it!" thundered Lance Corporal Takei, eyes flashing with rage. They decided to search the boy.

Deep in his pocket they found a crumpled piece of paper, clearly what the sugar had been wrapped in. Not a speck was left; the paper had been licked clean.

Lance Corporal Takei was sputtering with fury. He grabbed the boy and hauled him off to the edge of a reservoir sixty yards away. On the opposite bank First Class Private Kondo was washing rice in his mess tin, preparing to cook his evening meal.

Takei drew his knife and without a moment's hesitation stabbed the boy through the chest. With a groan the boy toppled into the reservoir, sending waves rippling thirty feet across to the bank where Kondo was rinsing rice. Kondo sprang up in alarm.

"What did he do?"

"That son of a bitch stole the sugar I'd slaved to get for the regimental commander, and licked it up!"

"I see." Limply holding the mess tin, Kondo stared at the boy's back as it floated in the water.

The lance corporal stormed off. With a sense of regret Kondo realized he would not be able to wash rice in this pond anymore. A human life could be taken for taking a lump of sugar. Once again, what was human life? Suddenly he recalled the words of Christ: "Though a sparrow be worth less than a penny, yet the Lord has made the sparrow beautiful." A sparrow's life was no different from a human's. Though their lives be worth less than a lump of sugar, yet the Lord has made the Chinese boys beautiful.... Kondo clamped down tightly on his sensibility and resumed his understanding with the battlefield. Dangling the dripping mess tin from his right hand and humming, he strolled back to the campfire.

When Lance Corporal Takei returned to the kitchen, the four remaining Chinese glanced up at him with anxious, searching eyes and began frantically to cook. Takei roughly washed his hands, marched up to the pot filled with boiling vegetables, and stirred them about. Nakahashi was still standing there.

"You killed him?" he asked.

"Yes, I killed him," Takei answered.

"What did you have to do that for? He was a good, hard-working fellow. Learn to control your temper."

"Try imagining how I feel!" Takei burst out and averted his face. Nakahashi started: The man was crying! Being robbed of sugar for the regimental commander's supper had triggered this much sadness. The interpreter silently left his side.

Presently Takei heaped the cooked food onto a plate and took it to Colonel Nishizawa's room. He had only one dish to serve him.

The colonel was seated at a soiled table, intently studying the list of men killed.

"Tonight we lost our sugar, sir, so the dishes are tasteless," said Takei, bowing his head. "Tomorrow I'll be sure to look for some."

"That's fine," replied the colonel without looking up.

"I'm sorry, sir."

He bowed once again and returned to the kitchen. Squatting before the stove, he stared into the swirling flames.

"Takei, aren't you going to eat?" called out a soldier. "Later," replied Takei, not budging.
SOURCE: Soldiers Alive [Ikite iru heitai, 1938], by Ishikawa Tatsuzo, translated by Zeljko Cipris (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2003), pp. 123-126

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