An extract from “Shig”
They walked among the tall, moss-speckled poplars, stepping into the sun again onto a wide stretch of parched grass. In the distance, there stood a small temple.
“It’s dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy.”
He pointed to the priest who was raking weeds out of the gravel in front of the temple’s steps.
He was a tall, bony, round-shouldered old man, with a shaven head and white bristles on his chin.
“They drafted him when the war started, but he refused to fight because he’s a priest. They gave him a hard time, but in the end assigned him to a body-bag detail. After the big Osaka air raid, he was reassigned to the Ambulance Corp.”
His gaunt, hollow-cheeked face crumpled up into a merry grin when Shig introduced Buscemi. He took his hand in both of his own and pumped it up and down.
“I want to show you something,” Shig said.
He spoke to the priest, and Tanigami led them to a pagoda hidden in the trees in the rear of the temple. He unlocked the heavy door with a key he kept tied by a cord around his neck, and his hand felt in the dimness for a switch. A weak electric bulb came on, and Shig took Buscemi inside.
It smelt of stale incense and moldy copper. The stifling humidity made Buscemi’s skin prickle. They were facing a large glass-covered panel bordered with intricate Buddhist designs. In front of it, there was a long table of polished oak on which stood votive candles. Behind the glass, faded photographs were pinned up on the panel—more than a hundred of them—photographs of young foreign servicemen.
In some, they were posed proudly in photographers’ studios before going off to war. In others, the camera had caught them relaxing off duty at camp, surrounded by pals and beers and poker games, or on R&R in exotic locales. A few were actual childhood snaps that must have once graced a mantelpiece or a side table.
“There were more than a hundred thousand allied soldiers held in POW camps around Japan and an awful lot of them died.”
He waved a hand toward the photographs.
“These men died, too. But they are the unclaimed. Either their families couldn’t be contacted in the confusion after the war, or they had no families. Or they just got lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, and because they were dead, couldn’t stand up and have themselves noted. Tanigami-san became their spokesman.
“He collected the remains and keepsakes of about a thousand and stored them in the temple. There are still about eight hundred guys left there. Every evening since 1946 Tanigami-san has recited sutras for their souls.”
Shig bent down to open a cupboard beneath the oak table.
“He sends letters out every year. I translate them into English for him. Most of them are returned, address unknown, but sometimes he gets a letter back. A few months later a family shows up to collect the remains of a lost son. And they leave these photographs as a token of their thanks. I interpret whenever a family comes.”
He put two thick bound volumes on the table. One contained visitors’ messages. In the other were the details of the thousand souls Tanigami has in his charge, all neatly written in faded blue ink and divided by country: the US, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, India, and Norway.
The columns contained name and rank, the POW camp he had been interned in, the cause of death, and his last-known address. Buscemi ran his eyes down the Cause of Death column:
Injuries sustained in air raid
Shot while trying to escape
Buscemi read some of the messages the families had left in the other book, but the sorrow of it all was too much to take in, so he closed the big book, and Shig put both books away.
They followed the priest back to the temple and knelt on the polished floor, wrapped about by clouds of incense, as he prayed for the souls of the dead boys. Buscemi could feel the gaze of their helpless eyes in the sweltering darkness.
When the sutra finished, they came out into the blinding light and the muffled roar of the overhead traffic and the smell of Osaka’s dirty air. Buscemi shook Tanigami-san’s hand again, and they left the temple, their shoes moving heavily through the shingle as though it were deep sand.