Puppet: an Earthquake Memoir by Toshiro Saito

New Work

Translation and Introduction by Sally Ito

On Friday, March 11, 2011 a severe earthquake followed by a massive tsunami hit Japan, destroying vast areas of northern Japan and claiming thousands of lives. Although the worst of the damage was in the north, the quake was also felt in Tokyo, where millions of citizens experienced a severe shaking of buildings followed immediately by train stoppages and highway and airport closures.

If any country can be said at all to be prepared for earthquakes, it is Japan, yet who really can be ready for such a disaster?  Each major quake, unique in its own way – whether by location or by its after effects (in this case, a deadly tsunami) – leaves an indelible mark on every citizen who experiences it.

Toshiro Saito in 1930

In 1923 my grandfather Toshiro Saito was sixteen years old when the Kanto Great Earthquake hit Tokyo. It measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and killed over 100,000 people.  In high school at the time, my grandfather had just started a literary magazine with some of his friends.  The young men named their fledgling journal Puppet based on the line “Humans are only puppets strung up and manipulated by the gods of fate,” taken from a story by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. The line appears in my grandfather’s memoir as a factual detail but in reading the memoir many years later, I can’t help but feel its ironic resonance.  That earthquake changed my grandfather’s life in significant ways that even he – an atheistic realist to the core – could not have ever imagined or anticipated at that juncture in his life.

The following is a translated excerpt from my grandfather’s memoir beginning with his interest in literature and the founding of the magazine.  I have titled the excerpt Puppet for the reasons already mentioned.


In 1919, Spanish influenza hit Japan and spread throughout the country.  Unluckily, I contracted the disease as well as pneumonia, so I was absent from school for a long time.  Obviously, I had to give up sumo practice.  After graduating from grade eight into grade nine, I got pneumonia again.  The last time I had been hospitalized but this time I was treated at home by a hired nurse and a doctor who came to check on me periodically.  I got well sooner as a result.

Because of these two bouts of illness, I lost confidence in my health and was no longer interested in sports.  At that time, there was in my class a literary minded boy named Hashimoto Souji.  Through his influence, I became enlightened about the world of literature.  This may sound rather pompous, but he had memorized the poems of Shimazaki Toson and Doi Bansu, and himself wrote beautiful poetry.  And so I too began to write poems.  However, Hashimoto’s criticism was quite sharp so my inspiration withered.  After that, I no longer had any interest in Japanese poetry.  This was not only due to Hashimoto’s criticism.  Although Bansui’s five-seven verse pattern has rhythm, poetic sentiment, and may be a ‘prose poem’ if you may call it such a thing, it still does not appear to be true poetry to me in the way he cut apart verses and arranged his lines.  Even in English and Chinese poems, there are rhymes, and so they are poems.  If there is no rhyme, there is no poem, I believe.

Hashimoto died at the end of his third year.  We became friends through poetry and at his funeral at his house in Mukojima, I lined up with the other mourners as our class representative.  I think because he was a highly sensitive boy, he died young.

Now, aside from poetry, I also began reading novels.  I had a taste of Tokutomi Roka’s story “Nature and Life” from my school textbooks.  I then read another story by him, and after that read his autobiography A Record of My Memories and was moved.  Then, I entered the world of Russian literature through the translations of Noborishomu.  I received many different impressions from this literature.  Now in my old age, the feelings I had when reading those books are like a faint dream, and have faded from memory.  However, at the time, the feelings were of a burning passion, and in some way needed to be expressed.  A group of us got together and decided to start a literary magazine of our own.  I became its chief editor.  Takeyoshi Masanori, Imai Tomoaki, and Okamoto Yoshitake were on the editorial board.  We all agreed on the name of the magazine which was Puppet.  We took it from Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s story “The Puppeteer” in which there was a line Humans are only puppets strung up and manipulated by the gods of fate.  The line reflected Akutagawa’s fatalist philosophy and it was in this context we used the name for our magazine.

The first editorial meeting was held after school in a classroom.  Before anything, we needed to make a pamphlet about the magazine for its readers.  When this was decided, I hastily volunteered to do the work.  I might be considered a little too enthusiastic at times, but I was always quick to act on decisions and did not mind being used as the instrument of other people’s wills.  I knew there was a mimeograph machine owned by my relatives, the Hayakawas, at Enrinji Temple, so with the approval of the others, I took the manuscript over there to use their machine.  I had never used such a device before and did not know that you had to write using a special metal stylus.  When I used this stylus, I did not press hard enough (I used a handwriting method more suitable to calligraphy), and so the copies thus came out unevenly and sometimes, illegibly.  When my older brother-in-law saw this, he laughed.  He redid it in a special style of writing that was very neat and clean in format.  Not only did he fix up my print job, but he told me the words ‘Christmas Eve’ in the manuscript were not spelled correctly, and fixed that too.  This made me embarrassed.

I took the manuscript to school the next day.  Everyone was pleased with it and so I saved face.  By the time I was in grade eleven, the magazine’s content was substantial.  No longer the outlet of the initial editorial group, it also contained work from outside contributors.  The editorial group was now choosing the best of the submissions made to the magazine because it had developed into quite a phenomenon by then.  However, our magazine did not have the authority of the printed journals that were in the bookstores that were also edited by editorial boards.  We ourselves chose the materials to print and for the truly talented person, this state-of-affairs in the way items were selected might seem unfortunate.  The magazine was free though, and not of great print quality, so this could not be helped.

And then came the fateful day of Sept. 1, 1923.  After summer holidays, Yoshitake, myself and Imai met at Imai’s house for an editorial meeting.  Yoshitake and Imai read submissions, and I worked on writing the foreword.  It was 11:58 – I will never forget this – and just as I had finished writing one letter of a word, IT suddenly came.  Tokyo had a lot of earthquakes so I wasn’t too surprised.  “Oh, an earthquake,” I said nonchalantly.  Continuing with the next letter of the word, I felt my body suddenly jolt upwards.  The walls began shuddering violently, the rafters creaking – gii-ko, gii-ko – followed by a roaring sound like GOH-GOH.  Without even looking at the other two, I sprang up and tried to get to the stairs, but my body shook and tossed at the same time.  All around me the plaster on the walls was coming off in a shower of chunks that blocked my view.  The stairs were heaving like a wave.  I barely managed to grab the handrail.  With my legs quivering, I stood there, petrified.  After a minute or maybe several minutes passed – I do not know – the shaking stopped.

I looked back towards the room.  Yoshitake had gone out the window onto the roof and had been holding onto the sill.  He was now coming back in.  A large bookcase behind Imai had fallen and the glass in it had shattered.  I feared Imai was underneath the rubble, but I couldn’t see him there.  Suddenly Imai, looking very relieved, poked his head out from a futon he’d covered himself with inside the bedding closet next to the window.  Thinking of how close it was for all of us, we burst out laughing.  Then things began to shake and shudder again in violent aftershock.  This time, we ran down the stairs and went into the spacious garden below.  There we met others of Imai’s family and after being assured of each other’s safety, Yoshitake and I left, entrusting the work of the magazine to Imai.

When we arrived at the Ushigome streetcar stop, I was surprised by what I saw.  People had brought their things out of their homes and had lined them up on the rails where they sat to wait out the quake.  Crowds of people were milling about in the street.  I saw a woman with a bleeding lip being carried out from a row of houses.  She’d probably been rescued from a house that had collapsed.  Earlier, Imai had said, “This is going to create a huge fire,” and just as predicted, when we arrived at Iidabashi there were red flames of fire and black smoke billowing everywhere.  I don’t know why, but for some reason, I do remember seeing someone throwing household goods and tools into the flowing Edogawa River.  This seemed odd, but then he probably meant to save the items from burning in the fire.  The river was shallow and the flow light, so maybe he thought he could retrieve the things later.  During this time, there were many aftershocks.  When this happened and the houses would shake, there was a great sound – GOH!  GOH! – coming from either the aftershock itself or the buildings.

Crossing the bridge into Koishikawa, I was surprised at how quiet the area was.  There was no shaking of houses here.  Even if there was an aftershock, only a few women and children came out here and there.  There wasn’t such an uproar.  The neighborhood had a few shops but was mostly residential and I thought this was why the area seemed unaffected, but I was wrong.  It apparently had something to do with the ground of the place.

Without eating lunch, I walked the six kilometres to my house in Sugamo where the only damage was a faint hairline crack in the wall.  Everyone in my family survived and in the following days, we provided refuge to anyone who asked for help.

My school though had burnt down.  When it would be rebuilt and when students could return was all in doubt.  The city was in a state of emergency.  A law was quickly passed by the military that although it was permissible for victims to seek refuge outside of Tokyo, it was illegal for others to come in.  This law was strictly enforced and was designed to prevent the city from being looted and vandalized, and also to protect food sources.  My older brother, Kyotaro, who had recently enlisted and was an ensign, wore a uniform and was thus able to pass through the checkpoint to come and visit us.  Having moved to Osaka awhile back, he urged us to move down there, at least temporarily, to avoid the further possibility of more earthquakes and aftershocks.  So my mother and I packed our things to depart.  I left before my mother with a school friend, Ogawa Koichi.  Koichi was from Oyama-shi in Saitama and was boarding in Tokyo at the time of the quake.  His father came from a wealthy family who were famous in Japan for their latex balloons; his father was the owner and manager of a condom factory.  Koichi did not get along with his father’s wife (who was Koichi’s stepmother) and thus he was boarding away from home.

Koichi and I put on our knapsacks and got on the Chuo line train at Shinjuku station.  Yono tunnel had collapsed and trains could not go through, so passengers had to get off and walk over the mountain to the other side and board another train from there.  Early the next morning when we stopped at Tajimi station, a lot of people thrust fresh milk at us through the windows.  This was done in sympathy for us quake survivors who were fleeing Tokyo.  We tried to drink quickly so we could return the containers but the people who offered them up to us waved their hands and told us not to worry.  But, of course!  I thought, for the area was famous for its ceramics and it was likely the containers were cheaper than the milk.

We arrived in Osaka at around noon.  As I’d been to the city before, I knew how to get to my brother’s place of work.  He took me to his home and Koichi was put up in a spare room at my brother’s office.

Because of the disruption in my education, I barely managed to finish high school.  My maths were particularly weak so when I sat the exams for the Kobe commercial school (now the economics department of Kobe University), I failed the exam because of the math questions.  I tried also to test for Tokyo Commercial School (now Hitotsubashi University) not expecting to pass, but instead to at least experience the examination hall atmosphere in preparation for the next round.

And so I became a ronin, the so-called ‘masterless samurai,’ a student with no school.  My mother, my other brother Jojiro, and I moved back to Tokyo where my maternal grandfather Tatsugoro was ailing in his old age.  How happy I felt when my feet touched the ground at Tokyo station!  Tokyo really was my hometown.  I met my two editor friends of “Puppet” – Imai and Takeyoshi.  They were also ronin, so we didn’t feel ashamed in front of each other.  However, I did not have the means to commute to a year long prep school like them, but had to find some sort of job.  The children’s benefit portion of my late father’s pension was to be cut off on my birthday in April and I could not depend on my mother’s limited widow’s pension income to support me.

The Post Office was recruiting temporary office workers so I applied at once and was accepted. At this job, I could make 30 yen a month, which was a good wage.  I was surprised at what I saw my first day.  In the large workroom, over 80 percent of the workers were women.  On that day, there were about ten of us high school graduate boys.  We were given a long explanation of our duties in the supervisor’s office and were taken and introduced to each section head and to all the women working there too.  Beautiful or not, the women, all young, looked us over at once.  I probably turned red.  I took my place among the women and sat at my desk.  Calming myself, I listened to the instructions.  Soon office supplies were brought to me.  Thinking that this job might belong to another person, I looked up to see a slight, pretty woman hovering behind me with an explanation on how to do my task.  She was so close to me, I could feel her breath on my cheek, and that cheek blushed.  How strange to remember this detail!

Takeyoshi and Imai still felt strongly about Puppet so we decided to bring out another issue.  However, this time we didn’t go the handmade mimeograph route but sent it to a professional print shop that took care of everything from beginning to end.  It was expensive but with my color-printed cover design, the magazine looked very handsome.  I picked a woman I’d met at the post office as a partner for the magazine’s distribution.  I distributed it at cost and the issues went quickly as I expected they would.  Not only that but the magazine’s distribution created interest in others to submit their work.  A male employee at the post office, Isaka, and another boy brought me their manuscripts and asked if they could be included in our editorial collective.  Amongst the women there was an older one of twenty-five named Nakamura, who even if one was polite you could not say was attractive, but who also wanted to be in our editorial group.  When I spoke with her, she had great knowledge of things literary and talked about things I didn’t know.  Without telling me her educational background (I didn’t ask), I could tell she had been to a women’s high school and guessed that she had chosen to work in the post office rather than marry.

In early fall, I went on a picnic with this group of friends from work to Lake Teganuma in Chiba.  Anyone from present day Lake Teganuma could not have imagined such an outing.  There were no houses at all.  The water in the lake was clear to the bottom.  You could see funa and medaka fish swimming in it.  There wasn’t a person to be seen anywhere.  We went on a boat that was moored near the shore and had our picnic in it.  Then I took a stick and played with it on the boat.  Isaka got tired of this and suggested we go exploring on the other side of the marsh.  He hopped on shore and asked me to come, but I was feeling full and sleepy, and lay down instead to have a nap.  The ‘cerebral’ Miss Nakamura – as we nicknamed her amongst ourselves – I thought had gone with Isaka.  Basking in the warm autumn sun, I slept.  All of a sudden, I awoke to the smothering odor of a woman nearby.  It was Nakamura hovering over me.  “I was just looking at your sleeping face,” she said leaning back.  Her face looked a little red.  A shrike perched on a nearby branch shrieked noisily.  I’d known before that her body odor was strong, but this time it was captivating.

In November, I quit my job at the post office and received a bonus severance amount that I gave to my mother.  Then I returned to Osaka to my older brother’s place.  Puppet understandably was discontinued.  I spent the rest of my time preparing for the entrance exams in February.  However, I failed.  It was to be expected.  For eight months in Tokyo I had worked in the distracting company of women and didn’t study at all.  I lightly attributed my failure to this, but when I heard that Takeyoshi got into Keio University and Imai into Waseda, I felt wracked with regret and frustration.  They had gone faithfully to prep school and did not put the same kind of energy I had into Puppet and so they had both passed their entrance exams.  In Osaka, I could not afford prep school.  Since the next exam period was a whole year away, I would have to find another job to make ends meet.

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Sally Ito

Sally Ito is a writer and also a translator of poetry. Recently she has been working on translating the Japanese poetry of Misuzu Kaneko and the German poetry of Catharina Regina Von Greiffenberg. Sally’s last collection of poems is Alert to Glory (Turnstone).