World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
My eyes fell on the only other item in the room, a Kami Dana, or traditional Shinto shrine. Something was on the floor beneath it, I guessed a suicide note. The wind must have blown it off when I entered. I didn’t feel right just leaving it there. I hobbled across the room and stooped to pick it up. Many Kami Dana have a small mirror in the center. My eye caught a reflection in that mirror of something shambling out of the bedroom.
The adrenaline kicked in just as I wheeled around. The old man was still there, the bandage on his face telling me that he must have reanimated not too long ago. He came at me; I ducked. My legs were still shaky and he managed to catch me by the hair. I twisted, trying to free myself. He pulled my face toward his. He was surprisingly fit for his age, muscle equal to, if not superior to, mine. His bones were brittle though, and I heard them crack as I grabbed the arm that caught me. I kicked him in the chest, he flew back, his broken arm was still clutching a tuft of my hair. He knocked against the wall, photographs falling and showering him with glass. He snarled and came at me again. I backed up, tensed, then grabbed him by his one good arm. I jammed it into his back, clamped my other hand around the back of his neck, and with a roaring sound I didn’t even know I could make, I shoved him, ran him, right onto the balcony and over the side. He landed face up on the pavement, his head still hissing up at me from his otherwise broken body.
Suddenly there was a pounding on the front door, more siafu that’d heard our scuffle. I was operating on full instinct now. I raced into the old man’s bedroom and began ripping the sheets off his bed. I figured it wouldn’t take too many, just three more stories and then…then I stopped, frozen, as motionless as a photograph. That’s what had caught my attention, one last photograph that was on the bare wall in his bedroom. It was black and white, grainy, and showed a traditional family. There was a mother, father, a little boy, and what I guessed had to be the old man as a teenager in uniform. Something was in his hand, something that almost stopped my heart. I bowed to the man in the photograph and said an almost tearful “Arigato.”
What was in his hand?
I found it at the bottom of a chest in his bedroom, underneath a collection of bound papers and the ragged remains of the uniform from the photo. The scabbard was green, chipped, army-issue aluminum and an improvised, leather grip had replaced the original sharkskin, but the steel…bright like silver, and folded, not machine stamped…a shallow, tori curvature with a long, straight point. Flat, wide ridge lines decorated with the kiku-sui, the Imperial chrysanthemum, and an authentic, not acid-stained, river bordering the tempered edge. Exquisite workmanship, and clearly forged for battle.
[I motioned to the sword at his side. Tatsumi smiles.]
[Sensei Tomonaga Ijiro knows exactly who I am seconds before I enter the room. Apparently I walk, smell, and even breathe like an American. The founder of Japan’s Tatenokai, or “Shield Society,” greets me with both a bow and handshake, then invites me to sit before him like a student. Kondo Tatsumi, Tomonaga’s second in command, serves us tea then sits beside the old master. Tomonaga begins our interview with an apology for any discomfort I might feel about his appearance. The sensei’s lifeless eyes have not functioned since his adolescence.]
I am “hibakusha.” I lost my sight at 11:02 A.M., August 9, 1945, by your calendar. I was standing on Mount Kompira, manning the air-raid warning station with several other boys from my class. It was overcast that day, so I heard, rather than saw, the B-29 passing close overhead. It was only a single B-san, probably a reconnaissance flight, and not even worth reporting. I almost laughed when my classmates jumped into our slit trench. I kept my eyes fixed above the Urakami Valley, hoping to maybe catch a glimpse of the American bomber. Instead, all I saw was the flash, the last thing I would ever see.
In Japan, hibakusha, “survivors of the bomb,” occupied a unique rung in our nation’s social ladder. We were treated with sympathy and sorrow: victims and heroes and symbols for every political agenda. And yet, as human beings, we were little more than social outcasts. No family would allow their child to marry us. Hibakusha were unclean, blood in Japan’s otherwise pristine genetic onsen. 1 I felt this shame on a deeply personal level. Not only was I hibakusha, but my blindness also made me a burden.
Out the sanatorium’s windows I could hear the sounds of our nation struggling to rebuild itself. And what was my contribution to this effort, nothing!
So many times I tried inquiring about some manner of employment, some work no matter how small or demeaning. No one would have me. I was still hibakusha, and I learned so many polite ways to be rejected. My brother begged me to come and stay with him, insisting that he and his wife would take care of me and even find some “useful” task around the house. For me that was even worse than the sanatorium. He had just gotten back from the army and they were trying to have another baby. To impose on them at such a time was unthinkable. Of course, I considered ending my own life. I even attempted it on many occasions. Something prevented me, staying my hand each time I groped for the pills or broken glass. I reasoned it was weakness, what else could it be? A hibakusha, a parasite, and now a dishonorable coward. There was no end to my shame in those days. As the emperor had said in his surrender speech to our people, I was truly “enduring the unendurable.”
I left the sanatorium without informing my brother. I didn’t know where I was heading, only that I had to get as far from my life, my memories, myself, as possible. I traveled, begged mostly…I had no more honor to lose…until I settled in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido. This cold, northern wilderness has always been Japan’s least populated prefecture, and with the loss of Sakhalin and the Kuriles, it became, as the Western saying goes, “the end of the line.”
In Sapporo, I met an Ainu gardener, Ota Hideki. The Ainu are Japan’s oldest indigenous group, and even lower on our social ladder than the Koreans.
Maybe that is why he took pity on me, another pariah cast out by the tribe of Yamato. Maybe it was because he had no one to pass his skills along to. His own son had never returned from Manchuria. Ota-san worked at the Akakaze, a former luxury hotel that now served as a repatriation center for Japanese settlers from China. At first the administration complained that they had no more funds to hire another gardener. Ota-san paid me out of his own pocket. He was my teacher and only friend, and when he died, I considered following him. But, coward that I was, I could not bring myself to do it. Instead I simply continued to exist, working silently in the earth as the Akakaze went from a repatriation center to a luxury hotel and Japan went from conquered rubble to economic superpower.
I was still working at the Akakaze when I heard of the first domestic outbreak. I was trimming the Western-style hedges near the restaurant, when I overheard several of the guests discussing the Nagumo murders. According to their conversation, a man had slain his wife, then set upon the corpse like some kind of wild dog. This was the first time I had heard the term “African rabies.” I tried to ignore it and get on with my work, but the next day there were more conversations, more hushed voices across the lawn and beside the pool. Nagumo was old news compared to the much more serious outbreak at Sumitomo Hospital in Osaka. And the next day there was Nagoya, then Sendai, then Kyoto. I tried to push their conversations from my mind. I had come to Hokkaido to escape from the world, to live out my days in shame and ignominy.
The voice that finally convinced me of danger came from the hotel’s manager, a stiff, no-nonsense salaryman with a very formal manner of speech. After the outbreak in Hirosaki, he held a staff meeting to try to debunk, once and for all, these wild rumors about dead bodies coming back to life. I had only his voice to rely on, and you can tell everything about a person by what happens when he opens his mouth. Mister Sugawara was pronouncing his words far too carefully, particularly his hard, sharp consonants. He was overcompensating for a previously conquered speech impediment, a condition that only threatened to rise in the presence of great anxiety. I had listened to this verbal defense mechanism before from the seemingly unflappable Sugawara-san, first during the ’95 quake, and again in ’98 when North Korea had sent a long-range, nuclear-capable “test missile” streaking over our homeland. Sugawara-san’s articulation had been almost imperceptible then, now it shrieked louder than the air-raid sirens of my youth.
And so, for the second time in my life, I fled. I considered warning my brother, but so much time had passed, I had no idea how to reach him or even if he was still alive. That was the last, and probably the greatest of all my dishonorable acts, the heaviest weight I will carry to my grave.
Why did you run? Were you afraid for your life?
Of course not! If anything I welcomed it! To die, to finally be put out of my lifelong misery was almost too good to be true…What I feared was, once again, becoming a burden to those around me. To slow someone down, to take up valuable space, to put other lives in danger if they tried to save an old blind man who wasn’t worth saving…and what if those rumors about the dead returning to life were true? What if I were to find myself infected and awake from death to threaten the lives of my fellow countrymen? No, that was not going to be the fate of this disgraced hibakusha. If I was to meet my death, it should be in the same manner as I had lived my life. Forgotten, isolated, and alone.
I left at night and began hitchhiking south down Hokkaido’s DOO Expressway. All I had with me was a water bottle, a change of clothes, and my ikupasuy, 2 a long, flat shovel similar to a Shaolin spade but which also served for many years as my walking stick. There was still a sizable amount of road traffic in those days—our oil from Indonesia and the Gulf was still flowing—and many truck drivers and private motorists were kind enough to give me a “ride.” With each and every one, our conversation turned to the crisis: “Did you hear that the Self Defense Force has been mobilized?”; “The government’s going to have to declare a state of emergency”; “Did you hear there was an outbreak last night, right here in Sapporo?” No one was sure what the next day would bring, how far the calamity would spread, or who would be its next victim, and yet, no matter whom I spoke to or how terrified they sounded, each conversation would inevitably end with “But I’m sure the authorities will tell us what to do.” One truck driver said, “Any day now, you’ll see, if you just wait patiently and don’t make a public fuss.” That was the last human voice I heard, the day before I left civilization and trekked into the Hiddaka Mountains.
I was very familiar with this national park. Ota-san had taken me here every year to collect sansai, the wild vegetables that attract botanists, hikers, and gourmet chefs from all over the home islands. As a man who often rises in the middle of the night knows the exact location of every item in his darkened bedroom, I knew every river and every rock, every tree and patch of moss. I even knew every onsen that bubbled to the surface, and therefore never wanted for a naturally hot and cleansing mineral bath. Every day I told myself “This is the perfect place to die, soon I will have an accident, a fall of some kind, or perhaps I will become ill, contract some sickness or eat a poisoned root, or maybe I will finally do the honorable thing and just stop eating altogether.” And yet, every day, I foraged and bathed, dressed warmly and minded my steps. As much as I longed for death, I continued to take whatever measures necessary to prevent it.
I had no way of knowing what was happening to the rest of my country. I could hear distant sounds, helicopters, fighter planes, the steady, high-altitude whine of civilian jetliners. Perhaps I was wrong, I thought, perhaps the crisis was over. For all I knew, the “authorities” had been victorious, and the danger was rapidly fading into memory. Perhaps my alarmist departure had done nothing more than create a welcome job opening back at the Akakaze and perhaps, one morning, I would be roused by the barking voices of angry park rangers, or the giggles and whispers of schoolchildren on a nature hike. Something did arouse me from my sleep one morning, but not a collection of giggling students, and no, it wasn’t one of them either.
It was a bear, one of the many large, brown higuma roaming the Hokkaido wilderness. The higuma had originally migrated from the Kamchatka Peninsula and bore the same ferocity and raw power of their Siberian cousins. This one was enormous, I could tell by the pitch and resonance of his breathing. I judged him to be no more than four or five meters from me. I rose slowly, and without fear. Next to me lay my ikupasuy. It was the closest thing I had to a weapon, and, I suppose, if I had thought to use it as such, it might have made a formidable defense.
You didn’t use it.
Nor did I want it. This animal was much more than just a random, hungry predator. This was fate, I believed. This encounter could only be the will of the kami.
Who is Kami?
What is kami. The kami are the spirits that inhabit each and every facet of our existence. We pray to them, honor them, hope to please them and curry their favor. They are the same spirits that drive Japanese corporations to bless the site of a soon-to-be constructed factory, and the Japanese of my generation to worship the emperor as a god. The kami are the foundation of Shinto, literally “The Way of the Gods,” and worship of nature is one of its oldest, and most sacred principles.
That is why I believed their will was at work that day. By exiling myself into the wilderness, I had polluted nature’s purity. After dishonoring myself, my family, my country, I had at last taken that final step and dishonored the gods. Now they had sent an assassin to do what I had been unable to for so long, to erase my stink. I thanked the gods for their mercy. I wept as I prepared myself for the blow.
It never came. The bear stopped panting then released a high, almost childlike whimper. “What is wrong with you?” I actually said to a three-hundred-kilogram carnivore. “Go on and finish me!” The bear continued to whine like a frightened dog, then tore away from me with the speed of hunted prey. It was then that I heard the moan. I spun, tried to focus my ears. From the height of his mouth, I could tell he was taller than me. I heard one foot dragging across the soft, moist earth and air bubbling from a gaping wound in its chest.