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Pilgrim’s Progress, by Robert Kostuck (Part 1)

Butterfly, The Pilgrim's Progress, By Robert Kostuck

The Pilgrim’s Progress

(Part One of Two)

By Robert Kostuck


Thursday, July 6th, 1944

The Emperor’s decree: all civilians who commit suicide before the arrival of American troops on Saipan will be assured equal spiritual grace in the afterlife, same as soldiers who die in combat.


Friday, July 14th, 1944

Thousands of men and women—NOT soldiers—took their own lives. Thousands. One era ends but nothing supersedes what has gone before.


Sunday, November 26th, 1944

I thought to keep a journal but everything is moving too fast. War, food; dying, food; family, food. It comes down to having something to eat. Can’t write with an empty belly. Time to leave the city—all ‘loose ends’ will be left unresolved. Where will I be welcome? There is really no future for us—for our country. Everything is changed.

Today I look to nature for my writing inspiration. A butterfly, still alive in the midst of autumn. I watch it—glistening and at the same time a bit shabby. A warm day, the door to the hospital kitchen open to the grounds, and this yellow and orange butterfly on the bush near the door. I sit on the step and I am inspired—until I realize the insect is dead. Touch it—it flutters to the ground, brittle, broken. I am like these butterfly wings—wanting to fly but no longer of this world. I told my sister Kuri everything. She begs me to come home and stay there. I will return when I have decided who I am. Who will read this?


For future generations: I am Yuriko Suzuki, the well-known author. I was born in 1902 in Hashikami on the northeast coast of Honshu, some miles south of the city. I had an excellent education for a girl, considering the cultural expectations for women in Japan at the turn of the century. Part of my education came from six years attendance at the Catholic Missionary school in Hachinohe. Both of my parents converted to Catholicism before my birth and the Catholic faith is something I will reject and embrace for the rest of my life. I have one older sister, Kuri, with whom I maintain an intimate and intense relationship.

The early years of my career began with a prolific output of short stories. Subsequent success and popularity owe much to the traditional subject matter of this early work. For example, “Shitakiri Suzume” (The Tongue-Cut Sparrow) is a traditional folk tale updated to reflect contemporary society. My modern version seems traditional—up to a point. There is nothing to indicate the time period or place, until the old man in my version of the story takes the smaller basket from the sparrow and brings it home to his greedy wife. In a traditional telling, the basket turns out to be filled with gold, silver, diamonds, rubies, coral, and coins. It is precisely at this point in the story that I introduced my twist on this traditional tale. “The basket was full of treasures—a razor with steel blades, dresses of the newest American fashion, leather shoes, a pearl necklace, lottery tickets, chewing gum, English cigarettes, and a black and silver camera.”

I love quoting myself. Like the American Nathaniel Hawthorne my “twice-told tales” had a built in audience since one would be hard pressed to find a Japanese reader who lacked knowledge of these folktales. At the same time, a gentle humor, picaresque characterizations, and social satire were the very elements that led to my success as a novelist.

In the early 1930s I gained a degree of notoriety due to my involvement as one of the cosmopolitan members of the literary and artistic avant-garde of Tokyo. In 1934, two decisive things occurred in my life. My first novel, Chrysanthemum was published; and I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. After that I wrote in a frenzy. My published writing after 1934 consisted of no less than an average of two novels each year for the next six years. One critic favorably compared Season of the Cranes to the English author Jane Austin, “—because of Miss Suzuki’s formal and mannered approach to delineating adult relationships in a socially stratified society.” I quote from the newspaper and magazines clippings my sister has saved in a large photograph album. Myself, early on I learned to feign indifference to fame and fortune. It does one no good to expose one’s desires, even to so-called friends.

I differed from my peers in the use of the romance novel (everyone wants to experience love!) as an expressive vehicle and by the obvious fact of my being a woman. While authors such as Tatsuzō Ishikawa, Ashihei Hino, and Shirō Ozaki had a decided influence on my work, Catholicism and the folktale tradition also had a great effect on her view of the human condition.

In 1941 war deprivations in society finally caught up to the publishing industry, severely curtailing the publication of new work not related to the war effort. That year I took an assistant editor job with the Tokyo magazine Chūōkōron. Contributions were limited to occasional articles and essays on games, cooking, history, and anonymous book and film reviews. None of my journalistic work was even remotely political in nature except for “My Childhood,” a series of essays that sharply contrasted an idealized national past with an uncertain national future. I wrote these essays during the winter of 1942-43. After that I felt I had nothing left to say. War controls destinies. I was no exception. I left Tokyo for the small fishing village of my youth. For ten months I lived a withdrawn life, solitary and self-contained. I questioned my actions in this life. I wondered, and constantly doubted, whether or not I had done anything worthwhile.

In November of 1943 I relocated to Hiroshima.

For one year I have worked as a volunteer in the military hospital. Days I attend to injured soldiers, nights are spent revising the notes for my new novel, The Shell God. It is decidedly a roman á clef, quite the opposite of my previous belles lettres. Realism, not romantic fantasy. There is too much of life and death here in the hospital for me to imagine anything else. I will tell the soldier’s story. He is Everyman, and in his limitless wandering he makes solid our nation’s torn and dying soul. His name is Ando; the woman he loves, Matsuko. Like the traveler of old he will make a pilgrimage through the rural world of the past.

The hospital is filled to the roof with fear. Fear smells like pus and hydrogen peroxide, night soil and ether. Days the men spend bragging. Nights are for nightmares and screams. The volunteers—me and the other women and girls—have sleeping quarters in the same building. Quiet only comes before dawn. In the past year three men have committed suicide. Two with knives, one jumped from a window on the third floor. That one broke his spine and did not die for two and a half days. There is immense difficulty in feeling sympathy for the injured and frightened soldiers who take their own lives. Yet some days I pity them enormously. Some days I envy them.

My own health deteriorates.


Saturday, December 9th, 1944

The village sits close to the sea. Pine trees spread down the slopes and line the streets, almost reaching the beach. On foggy days, the village and huge pines vanish in the mist. On these days I wander the enclosed beach, hearing only the splash of unseen waves, and the muted sound of my own footsteps in the wet sand.

The pines are dull aches in the fog. With effort I recall sentinel duty, passwords, and sharp voices. Slow my pace as memories seek and find me; then walk on firmly, resolute with even steps, pacing like an acolyte. My boots scrape the sand. Waves scratch the shore. I think it is home. It might be anywhere.


Monday, December 25th, 1944

Today is the Christian holiday of the birth of Jesus Christ. Rumor has it that there will be no attacks or bombing nationwide. The Americans take a day of rest. Our only doctor has been called to another hospital. He left today, hoping for an uninterrupted train journey. We wish him a safe trip. It is almost impossible to keep the sheets and bandages clean without soap. One of the older women, Shizuko, ordered two of us to bring heavy flat stones from the river. We hauled them in a cart. She put the stones in the bottom of the basins and showed us how to rub and clean the fabric on a rock, like long ago.

My sister Kuri writes:

Yuriko-chan, forgive me. I was not able to hide your fine city clothes. Our house was searched and all available clothing was taken. What would the army want with fashionable western dresses? Mother dear was heartbroken. The fishing boats lie in disrepair. The men stopped going out soon after you left for Hiroshima. They say there are demons and ningyu in the water. Superstition, but who can blame them? The men spend all day in the forest digging bamboo shoots and trapping songbirds.       

We had to kill the goat and now all that is left are a few chickens and ducks. We all soon will be vegetarians like Obāsan!—you know how she was confirmed Buddhist all through her life. I often wonder how mother and father ever converted to the faith Catholic. Although I know you are helping the war effort I miss you and I wish you would return. Love, your sister, Kuri.

My own physical pain from the complications of the tuberculosis is exacerbated by these hospital experiences. Perhaps by sublimating personal experience within fiction I will finally be able to have something to say, will be able to say it well.


Tuesday, January 2nd, 1945

I sleep in my clothes. No fuel for any type of heat. Coal, oil, gasoline—all gone. Wood is for cooking and sterilizing medical instruments. One young man, a boy really, a city boy with a Kyoto accent. His left leg was amputated one week ago just below the knee. Now gangrene sets in. His body flames with fever and the air in the ward so cold you can see your breath at noon. Burning and freezing at the same time. And moldy rice. Moldy rice! Me, who used to stay up until dawn at wild parties. Writers, artists, actors. The endless tables of food—the saki, beer, and gin and tonics. Now I am happy to share roots and weeds with my fellow volunteers. Kuri-chan, when did we ever go hungry?


(To be continued next Monday…)

[The Pilgrim’s Progress was originally published in Roanoke Review, fall, 2013, Vol. 38.]


About Robert Kostuck, Writing for Peace Adviser

Robert Kostuck, Writing for Peace AdviserRobert Kostuck is an M.Ed. graduate from Northern Arizona University. Recently published fiction and essays appear in many American and Canadian literary journals. He is currently working on short stories, essays, and a novel; his short story collection is seeking a publisher. Learn more about Robert Kostuck and his work here.


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