Okamoto Iron Works Shop Boy

Toranosuke, Eitaro, Toshi and Eitaro in Momijigaoka Yokohama


E.S. White

Amakusa Minoru was most commonly addressed by his surname Amakusa by those not related to him in his childhood at school. The same was true years later in his adult life working as a repairman in Kumamoto before the Pacific War, and also after the war when he started his own small business selling hardware and small appliances in the central ward of Kumamoto City just east of Kumamoto Castle. However, for the first five years of the Showa Era he was almost always addressed by his job title, Kozo, meaning “apprentice” or a little more indecorously put, “shop boy.” This was usually followed, of course, by the polite but perfunctory suffix “san.” When he was offered the opportunity to apprentice at age fifteen at the Okamoto Iron Works in Furocho in Yokohama City he accepted this humble moniker, “Kozo-san.” Or, by his thinking at that time as he grumbled to himself in the bath each night, perhaps not unjustifiably, he was always addressed by every member of the Okamoto family as “Kozo-san Do This.”

Minoru had been born in Nagasaki into a Christian family that had survived the persecution of three hundred years earlier, and that had proudly, and for most of those three hundred years, secretly, claimed distant blood relations with the Japanese Christian martyr Amakusa Shiro. At some point before entering school his father had been given an opportunity through his church to move to Kumamoto prefecture in order to take up potato farming along the Shirakawa river between Kumamoto city and the large smoking volcano Mt. Aso. It was a life of hard work but his father managed to make a go of it with the help of Minoru’s mother and four older siblings, three boys and one girl. However, in Minoru’s early teens it became apparent to all that the land would provide them all a living, but in that period of nationwide recession, not really a future career that could support a fourth son, and certain not his potential family.

Fortunately for Minoru, even though his family wasn’t particularly devout, his father had kept up his Christian connections and activities and the family’s pastor in Kumamoto was well-connected to Christian ministers in various cities throughout Japan. One of these ministers, although a Lutheran, had connections with Catholic Priests, one of which was ensconced within the leadership and faculty of a certain Catholic girls school in Yokohama. This happened to be the girls school that the oldest granddaughter of the owner operator of Okamoto Ironworks attended.

Through this coincidence of Christian serendipity, Amakusa Minoru of Kumamoto, became Kozo-san Do This, and sometimes, when he was being buttered up, Minoru-san Do This. Of course, when Minoru’s father was first presented the opportunity to have his son apprentice in Yokohama he was grateful for the opportunity, but also apprehensive of the many unknowns. Kumamoto was a big city, but it wasn’t internationalizing and modernizing like Yokohama. He had moved the family from the big city of Nagasaki a dozen years earlier, and he had been happy to move to a more rustic setting. Still, he later realized that that decision had not solved all the family’s monetary problems.

However, since the 1850s in Japan, the words “internationalization” and “modernization” had taken on many new, fascinating, as well as problematic meanings. The Americans who parked their frightening smoke belching, steam powered warships in Yokohama harbor demanded a meeting with the Japanese government, and insisted on opening up Japan to trade and other means of exploitation. 

The Japanese soon realized that they had no choice but to open up to the Western powers, but they also knew that they had to internationalize and learn how to beat their new “trading partners” at their own game. After several decades of study, hard work, and change, when the Japanese defeated the Russians in war in 1905, they felt they had arrived. Of course, they still weren’t recognized as equals by Europe and America. In the Western opinion, despite their victory over a European nation of white people, they were still a nation populated by as inferior yellow race. Nonetheless, these inferior yellow Japanese did manage to carve out their own empire in Asia. They proved they had learned how to be imperialist and colonialist just like their Western teachers. On top of that, it can be argued that they put their own Japanese twist on just how cruel and oppressive a imperialist master could be.

Anyway, by the first year of the Showa emperor when Minoru arrived in Yokohama, what greeted him was a thriving metropolis that boasted commercial enterprises that were the most modern in Japan. It was a very different place from the countryside lying between Kumamoto Castle and the largest volcanic crater adjacent to the beautiful country town of Aso, lying in the mountains in the Eastern region of the prefecture. Minoru, in his small way, had arrived to become a small part of the building of modern Japan, or so he thought when he got off the train after a couple days of uncomfortable travel on hard seats in smoky and stuffy cars. He didn’t yet understand just how small a part that would be.

Stepping off the train at busy Yokohama station, he was greeted by his new boss. The head of Okamoto Ironworks was one Okamoto Toranosuke, a man in his late fifties born just before the ascension of the storied Emperor Meiji. He was a stately looking old man with short and thinning white hair, and a white bushy mustache that drooped down slightly on the sides. In Japan of that time period, only men with pretensions of success would dare wear such a mustache, and Toranosuke had such pretensions. He also carried a walking stick, even though he didn’t need one, to enhance what he thought was his European-style look. Although he liked the Western haircut and facial hair, he always wore Japanese clothing, mostly because he felt that pants seemed to confine his genitals in a way that was uncomfortable, and perhaps, he thought might prove harmful to his male vitality, as unused and unnecessary as it was at his age.

The Okamoto property was a half-acre of land, with living quarters and attached bath house. Next door with its own double doors with a sign over them was the small foundry workshop. Having their own bath was a sign of middle-class success, as was their indoor toilet, basic indoor kitchen plumbing, radio, electric lighting, and telephone. Their place in Furocho-District in Naka Ward in Yokohama  was near the bustling Isezaki-cho mall containing, among other entertainment attractions, the ever-popular Odeon moving picture theatre, which Minoru would soon frequent every Saturday evening. A later version of this early tribute to Westernization and modernity still stands today in its original location. 

Yokohama was accurately described as a sleepy fishing village by the American Naval Officer Commodore Perry when he first arrived there in 1853. Commodore Perry was the American naval fleet commander credited with being the man who opened Japan up to trade with the West. Of course, Perry just started the ball rolling. For those averse to reading history books, John Wayne’s movie The Barbarian and the Geisha can give the layman a Hollywood explanation of the extended process involved. Japan had been existing peacefully for over two hundred years of self-imposed seclusion since expelling all Westerners, so their re-introduction took some getting used to. 

Nagasaki, the city of Minoru’s birth, is famous in Japan as the only city allowed to house Western foreign residents for most of the period that the Tokugawa shoguns had been in charge of Japan, that is from about 1600 to the 1860s. This policy of isolation in order to protect Japan from foreign aggression and covetousness was the basis of the shogunal decision to open to foreign residence only a small island connected by a bridge to the city of Nagasaki. Only a small group of Dutch traders were allowed to live and work there year round. Business traffic along with social intercourse, even foreign language books, were strictly regulated when allowed at all.

This policy was imposed by the head of the ruling Tokugawa Samurai clan. This was the clan that several years earlier had consolidated hegemonic power in Japan after decades of conflict between would-be contenders among the most powerful Samurai families in Japan’s version of a warring states period. The reason for the drastic expulsion action was that certain competing European nations had shown themselves eager to support and raise up their own chosen contending Samurai clan by supplying them with weapons and money in order to gain for that particular European nation an economic a political foothold in Japan. Naturally this seemingly benevolent support was provided with the intent of later taking full control of Japanese labor and resources. Perry’s arrival reawakened such suspicions of avaricious Western intentions.

The Japanese government had been acutely aware of European imperialist activity that had been on display in India, China, and many Asian nations, and Japan was lucky to be one of the few Asian nations that, having seen the results of welcoming Europeans, managed to avoid that fate, that is, until 1853. Some Japan apologist have argued that it was imperialist and colonialist forces initiated by Europe that brought Japan into military conflict with Europe and America. The result of which was the Pacific Theater of World War II, or the Pacific War as the Japanese preferred to call it. In other words, these same apologists would suggest, that Japan, even having initially avoided the fate of India and China, eventually became another victim of Western colonialism. Of course, the alternative and popular American explanation was that the Japanese on their own caused the Pacific War, because the sneaky bastards, taught navigation by Toranosuke’s son Eitaro, by the way, bombed Hawaii because they wanted to colonize it for themselves.

For the Okamoto family, the initial importance of the so-called opening of Japan starting in 1853 by the arrival of the so-called “Black Ships” of Commodore Perry’s American pacific squadron, was that Yokohama started changing quickly into Japan’s most international port city. At first it was rivaled only by the Western Japanese city of Kobe, which is now known in America for its delicious marbled beef steaks that gave their name to an NBA superstar. For a time, a small section of the fast growing city of Yokohama was one of the few places foreigners were allowed to live in Japan. Certain neighborhoods of Yokohama still display and tout the foreign influence shown by the fusion of cultures that typify most of Japan currently, but certainly are more prominent in these specific locales. Being born in this place with this history was essential and fateful in crafting and determining the Okamoto family’s future in Japan, as well as elsewhere in the world in the twentieth century.

Beginning in the Meiji Era of the late nineteenth century, specifically 1868, Japanese government initiatives established mandatory education for all children, and provided stimuli for advanced studies in foreign language and modern Western technology. Included among such cultural initiatives was an emphasis on teaching European “high culture.” Middle class Japanese families were suddenly urged to develop an interest in gaining Western refinement. They were urged to require their children to study Western classical music, art, and literature. Another nascent motive for such studies was a bourgeois impulse not just to keep up with the neighbors, but to prove they were better than any average Tanaka or Sakamoto. In other words, they Westernized to gain bragging rights, and also entry into would-be blue nose or blue stocking social circles. 

The relative prosperity of the merchant classes also brought with it an interest to indulge in traditional Japanese cultural practices and values. Such ambitions had previously been limited to the hereditary nobility who hobnobbed within imperial circles, or else had been limited in practice to the recently abolished Samurai class. This societal trend meant that the Okamoto family children learned high Western culture, and also showed off their skills in arts unique to Japan. The earlier Meiji Era Japanese generations rush to Bunmei Kaika, “Civilization and Enlightenment,” the praising and adopting of all things Western often at the expense of all things native, was being tempered in the early twentieth-century by a recognition and valuing of traditional arts accompanied by a trending nationalist theory of Japanese uniqueness. This new nationalist identity required a reassessment of the culture and traditions that were being left behind only a generation earlier for what often seemed like comical mimicry of Western refinement. 

For example, in the early Meiji Period beef eating was shown off as a sign of refinement. The new nationalist trend of the early twentieth century still praised meat eating, but included the caveat that steak wasn’t really any classier than sushi. Furthermore, a uniquely Japanese steak, wagyu, invented though it was after Western contact, showed the Japanese ability to adopt and improve products made originally from only foreign elements. This supposed innate Japanese essential ability had been touted by nationalist demagogues centuries earlier as a unique element of the Japanese spirit that established a case for native ethnic superiority. This was clearly an argument specifically aimed at Western cultures, also serving to lessen the initial fear of the advanced technology that stood as the main evidence for Western superiority. Later examples that would be used to support this stubbornly continuing nationalist argument include the examples of the transistor radio, the compact car, and the Sony Walkman. The Okamoto family bought into this self-aggrandizing argument and therefore had no qualms about learning everything they could about Western practices while still being fiercely proud of their Japanese identity.

In that same spirit, nothing seemed to be able to dampen the residents of Yokohama’s desire to thrive in their Japanese style practice of international modernity leading to domestic prosperity. Even the Great Kanto earthquake that occurred on September 1, 1923 couldn’t stop them, though it did slow them down. This epic disaster leveled many of the structures of Tokyo as well as the Okamoto’s Yokohama home, which lay to Tokyo’s immediate south. The ensuing fire virtually destroyed every wooden and paper structure for a thousand square miles. However, the next day many residents of Yokohama, the Okamoto family included, began the hard work of clean up and rebuilding. They soon realized that the earthquake helped them start rebuilding everything better than before.

By 1924, two years before Minoru arrived at Yokohama station, Toranosuke had rebuilt the Okamoto home bigger and better than before. In fact, his capital reserves allowed him to buy the land surrounding his family’s small house expanding his family land holding to a half acre. Fortunately for the Okamoto family, Toranosuke had been making a better than good profit for years, and then socking away most of it in the family safe. After the earthquake, he retrieved his cash filled iron safe from ashes and shrewdly bought the surrounding land from his discouraged and cash strapped neighbors at a song. The neighbors used the cash to build back in another part of town. They didn’t feel cheated, they felt relieved that clever old Toranosuke had the cash to make a deal that helped everyone.

Toranosuke’s eldest son and heir, Okamoto Eitaro, worked at a nearby naval base teaching navigation to young officers. In this way, he might well have had a hand in making sure Japanese aircraft carriers were able to park unseen in the Pacific Ocean just in range of the Hawaiian Islands in early December 1941. His wife, Okamoto, nee Ishikawa, Toshi was a daughter of a prosperous merchant family that had provided lumber for the Westernizing Japanese during the the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. In essence, both sides of the Okamoto family were indirectly assisting in the imperialistic and modernizing endeavors of the Japanese nation. 

One other perk of Eitaro’s teaching job with the navy was that he made friends with certain procurement officers. The Washington Naval Treaty in 1922, which while limiting Japan’s naval tonnage, gave credence to Japan status as a major power in the Pacific. As a result, the building of new capital warships, especially the recently developed aircraft carriers that would prove so decisive in future warfare, became even more important than it already had been. This meant that even small Ironworks could hope for contracts for seemingly infinite orders for thousands of different iron and steel parts. Eitaro’s steady teaching salary was then greatly supplemented by naval contracts that enriched Toranosuke’s small shop, and filled the Okamoto’s homemade iron safe with even more cash, at least for while.

“Okamoto Ironworks,” the name of his father’s business had been made up by Eitaro. When he found he had the opportunity to get a small contract from the Japanese Navy, he thought, quite correctly it turned out, that an impressively named business would be necessary for the pencil pushers, who wouldn’t actually check out the status and condition of the tiny business establishment. Until receiving that first small Navy contract, Toranosuke had hung up a three character sign over the doors of his small barn-like workshop containing a forge and a workbench. The sign read kajiba, meaning smithy, or foundry. The family name wasn’t even included on that first humble sign.

Previous to that first government contract, Toranosuke had repaired bicycles, made hoops for barrels, and even shod horses for his customers. When he had been busy, that kind of work more than paid the basic bills, but it wasn’t anything close to the money that the growing power of the militarists in the government were willing to pay him. When it came to the Ironworks, Eitaro, for his part, had never seriously considered taking over the family business, as was usually the lot of a merchant family’s eldest son. He had shown a talent for math and science in his youth, and Toranosuke shod a lot of horses and fixed a lot of bikes to pay for his son’s Engineering degree. Eitaro did help out around the foundry while growing up, and was quite capable of doing any of the work that his father did. Eitaro also had a passion for mechanical devices and electrical systems, and so early on the Okamoto house was electrified, and one thing that electricity powered were handmade radios. Eitaro, by himself, connected a phone line leading to their house from the nearest telephone pole. It was a while before the Okamotos had to pay for any electricity or telephone service.

Therefore, even when Japan fell into recession during the twenties, the Okamoto family still managed to scrape by better than the majority of Japanese society. The four children all attended private Catholic schools and they all took extracurricular activities practicing traditional Japanese arts requiring the hiring of special teachers. The Okamotos went to Catholic School not because they were Catholic, but rather because it was a popular option for families with upper middle-class pretentions. They studied Japanese traditional arts for the same bourgeois reasons.

Eitaro’s oldest son Haruo would eventually graduate from college and become an officer in the Japanese Imperial army. He would be stationed in Manchuria until the war ended, after which he was captured and imprisoned by Chinese forces. When Minoru arrived, the two boys were the same age, but Haruo’s job was to attend school, and after school practice the martial art of kendo and the theatre art of Noh drumming and chanting. The two boys weren’t expected to develop a friendly relationship, and they didn’t. There was no animosity between them, it was just that both of them realized their differing roles in the Okamoto household.

There were three younger daughters ranging in age from eight to four when Minoru first arrived. At the time of his first introduction, all of them were too young and too shy to attempt to say even one word to Minoru. Instead, they all bowed slightly and then looked at the floor at that first introduction. This shyness would eventually wear off as they became aware of Minoru’s position in the hierarchy, that is, being on the bottom rung of the ladder having to answer everyone’s request for assistance. It turned out that his status was even lower than the twenty-year old maid, who only came in the afternoons and evenings to help when the children returned from school or their extracurricular activities. She was also needed for the evening activity when Toranosuke’s workshop closed down and Eitaro came back on the train from the big naval base where he taught down the coast in Yokosuka.

This maid was a local girl who lived walking distance from the Okamoto home so she didn’t eat in the kitchen or help heat up the nightly bath. The last thing she had to do was to set up Minoru’s dinner in the kitchen after the family had finished their dinner together in the main room. Eitaro’s wife Toshi took care of feeding the bath house fire for the adults and Haruo, and then Minoru took over for the three girls. He himself took the last bath having stoked up the flames enough to last him for his ten minutes of cleanup and relaxation. That was usually his last family duty and after that he could sit with Toranosuke as he listened to the radio, or read the newspaper, or just as often he would go off to his small room to read, sleep, or plan his free Saturday night and Sunday activities.

Minoru’s first few months were filled with efforts to learn exactly how to use the foundry equipment and keeping the tools clean and in good condition, as well as making sure everything Toranosuke needed to complete his work with was in good supply. Toranosuke was a patient teacher. He was always even-tempered, and slow to get excited about anything. He believed in giving responsibility slowly and so Minoru spent months in boring anticipation of actually learning how to work with iron. The work that they had with the navy was actually as a subcontractor whose job was to supply random parts such as a hundred irregular sized handles or fifty custom made rods. Nothing was too specialized, and nothing too difficult. They also continued the practice of repairing iron fittings for the occasional drop-in customer.

In those first years when work was slow, Toranosuke and Minoru would go about making new iron structures for the foundry or the house. For those projects, Minoru didn’t just learn to work with iron, often Toranosuke had ideas for home improvement that involved carpentry, plumbing, or electronics. Inspired by Eitaro’s example, the old man was always looking into new gadgets and devices, and was quite willing to learn how to make and use those things himself. The only project he balked at was his wife’s suggestion that he work to reclaim land from nearby Yokohama Bay. The reward for that kind of effort was that the city would recognize ownership of any reclaimed land. However, without the use of heavy equipment or several men with shovels and wagons, reclamation work would be beyond the strength of one old man and one teenage boy.

Minoru signed up for a five-year contract when the apprenticeship was first arranged for him. In the first two or three years the work kept coming in steadily from the navy and the neighborhood drop-in traffic, but as the twenties progressed, the Ironworks’s economic fortunes slowly declined. As the work slowed down and Toranosuke closed in on age sixty, he stopped looking for productive ways to fill their days. The home improvement projects nearly ceased and most days the activity in the workshop was over by noon. Toranosuke didn’t seem to care that much about whether or not Minoru kept busy. The old man was becoming more easily distracted and lethargic. He grew to enjoy sitting and smoking more than any other activity.

Still, Minoru now in his late teens felt a responsibility to earn his room and board and his weekly allowance/salary. He started asking Toshi for things to do to keep himself busy. The young maid from the neighborhood had found other work by this time, which was all for the better since the Okamoto family fortunes were clearly in decline. Toshi knew that Minoru only wanted to be useful so she would send him on shopping errands. Soon she became less mindful of using him for her convenience so that she even started sending him to deliver forgotten lunches to the girls, or to convey message of family convenience to her husband and son. Soon much of Minoru’s day was spent walking to and from stores to schools, or else riding trains on errands to Yokosuka or Tokyo. This was when he really started to realize that his name was actually “Kozo-san Do This.”

He did not resent his condition because he hadn’t learned anything about forging and manipulating the shapes of metals as he had hoped to when he first received the contract. The fact was clear that he had learned many practical things. He realized that, especially in the first couple of years, he had been excited to learn how to hook up electricity and plumbing, as well as the basics of carpentry. The lessons came complete with experience with the newest electric powered lathes, drills, and saws. He knew he had learned enough of the basics to work as a contractor, or at least as a salesman of construction tools. 

Still, he was bothered that his education and practice had now become so limited. Worse than that, he was now an errand boy for a soon to be formerly upper middle class family on the way down the ladder of success. And maybe even worse than that, he felt that they looked down on him for allowing himself to assume that errand boy role. It seemed the worse they felt about their declining fortunes, the more they needed to condescend to Minoru, a person who would work for such people.

To assuage his sense of despair, Minoru dedicated more energy to his recreational pass times. Since work had become scarce, and even when he was being used as the Okamoto errand boy, he found he had a lot of free time on his hands. He didn’t have much money to spend, but he was thrifty, and the Okamotos had been generous to him. Perhaps because they were so keenly aware of their declining fortunes, they worked extra hard to act as if they weren’t short of money. As a result, when Minoru was sent on an errand he was always provided with money for a special treat of his own.

On his free time running errands in the afternoon he would mostly visit parks, where he would sit enjoying the scenery, or imagining the lives of the other park visitors. He found he could spend hours dreaming of his own future, and then munching on some inexpensive snack from the selection of food carts that had popped up in public parks. He was frugal and determined to spend as little of his extra errand allowance as possible, but he still had to have a snack. 

There was one beautiful small park not far from the Mitsubishi Dry Dock facilities, a place which he had visited often in the past few years delivering the specialized parts Okamoto Ironworks forged for new warships. This park named Momijigaoka Koen featured beautiful trees and ponds, while up on a hilltop there was an impressive statue of the mid-nineteenth century reform hero, Ii Naosuke. Lord Ii’s warrior clan was somehow connected to the Yokohama locale, even though he was politically active in a more radical part of Japan. Moving from that park, Minoru could then walk up Nogezaka to some heights where rich families had built grand modern houses, and where he could get a 360 degree scenic view of the surrounding area for miles around. From the top of those heights, when the sky was clear, he could even see the snowy volcanic peak of Mt. Fuji located way off in the next prefecture. 

The newest park within walking distance of the Okamoto Ironworks was called Yamashita Koen. This park abutted the bay with wharfs for ships of all sizes and purposes on both sides of it. The construction of this park’s beautiful outdoor gardens began soon after the great earthquake of 1923, not that long before Minoru first arrived. It had been created by filling in acres of Yokohama Bay with massive amounts of debris created by the earthquake and the ensuing fire. The result was an outdoor expanse of acres of flat grassy plain for beautiful gardens replete with planned floral displays, tree-lined walks, and areas for outdoor activity or simply lounging and enjoying the ocean view. And of course, as it attracted many visitors it also attracted food vendors and outdoor entertainers, all of which served as a pass time that assuaged Minoru’s disappointment and sadness as he spent desultory days both wondering and eventually worrying about his future prospects.

Minoru’s favorite day of the week was Saturday. When he had first arrived he had been introduced to the Odeon Theatre by Toranosuke on his first weekend in Yokohama. Toranosuke was concerned about the new boy’s happiness in a strange new environment, but he was actually also motivated by his own ability to show off his modernity in order to impress this ignorant country boy from Kumamoto with an old man’s superior knowledge and life experience. 

Toranosuke acutely remembered that he, himself had been similarly unfamiliar with Western culture and technology when he was the same age as Minoru. In other words, being able to introduce Minoru to this strange new world made Toranosuke feel accomplished. Daily, his own son and grandchildren’s attitude and treatment made him feel old fashioned and out of touch. Treating Minoru to the moving pictures allowed Toranosuke to nostalgically reminisce about how much his Japan had changed in the last half century, not to mention himself along with it.

Toranosuke’s plan succeeded in two ways. Minoru was impressed and grateful that his new Iron Sensei was such nice man with knowledge of the modern world. More important than that, Minoru had discovered a new hobby, a new pass time, and a new passion. From his first silent comedy he fell in love with the movies. That first night when he saw his first foreign comedy starring Buster Keaton, he kept and cherished the handbill that came with the ticket. The paper handout gave a brief description of the movie and the actors, and provided some provocative information about moving pictures in general, as well as teases about coming attractions. 

From that time on Minoru looked forward to every coming Saturday night. He would look through every newspaper and magazine he could get his hands on for free to find any tidbit of gossip about movies and movie actors. He carefully pressed and protected the movies handbills. He read them over and over until he had every fact memorized. He would sometimes organize them by date, and later when he started to develop favorite and less favorite categories, he would temporarily rearrange his collection by category. For a while he might want them separated into genres, and then other times he would group them by actors, or some other category that would suddenly strike his fancy.

This hobby was also one of the few ways that he could develop a social life among young people his own age. It was at the Odeon where he would recognize the regular movie goers. He couldn’t just go up and meet a strange fellow ticket holder in the lobby, and he certainly couldn’t sit down with a stranger, but on occasion he would recognize a couple of other shop boys and apprentices who worked in the area. In the early years when he made foundry item deliveries or when he was sent out regularly to buy supplies he would be greeted by or attended to by shop boys from similar social circumstances. In those instances, while waiting on each other he could engage in short conversations about his favorite stars or favorite recent pictures. Sometimes the other shop boys would have new gossip that he hadn’t heard, and this interaction would make him feel more connected with Yokohama society. Still, most of the time his hobby consisted of sitting alone in silence watching a world which would always in some way make him feel disadvantaged and backward.

His feeling about his relationships with the other residents of the Okamoto home was not actually alienation, as such, but he didn’t often feel warmth from them. The one exception was Toranosuke, with whom he had developed a warm relationship. To a much lesser extent Toranosuke’s wife Asa was occasionally mildly concerned with Minoru’s welfare. Eitaro would acknowledge Minoru’s existence every morning, but he rarely felt the need to address him. Toshi would be the woman actually in charge of his welfare, his room, his clothing and his food, and so she would actually inquire about his needs and his interest on almost a daily basis. But he didn’t feel like she actually liked him.

The Okamoto children though were a completely different matter. Haruo, the young master, was treated as the future of the family. He was successful in his studies, and if he was not at the top of his class, he was always close. Furthermore, if he wasn’t in school or studying then he was off somewhere practicing baseball, kendo, or traditional Japanese theatre. Minoru noticed that when Haruo was home he was always working in his room, when not in the bath or having dinner. In short, although Haruo acknowledged Minoru’s existence they almost never went anywhere together. The exception was on national holidays or festival days when the business would close down and the whole family would attend a community festival or have dinner with extended family. On these occasions the Okamotos would also include Minoru, since he could rarely return home, even for New Year’s or the summer Obon memorial day festivals.

The three Okamoto sisters were far too young to have any interaction with Minoru. Every morning he would greet them, and they would nod without looking at him. Every night he was responsible for stoking the fire for their baths, but this required no conversation and sometimes not even a nod of acknowledgement of his efforts on their behalf. However, one day in the fourth year of Minoru’s stay at the house, the oldest of the girls being of the age of about ten built up the courage to do something that took Minoru aback. As mother Toshi was instructing Minoru about his shopping errand for the next day, just after he finished his supper in the kitchen, the oldest girl Natsuko walked into the kitchen and addressed her mother by saying,

“If Kozo-san is going to the mall for you couldn’t he also go to the knitting store to buy some yarn for me?”

Then the always precocious second daughter Akiko rushed in and, purposely not looking at Minoru, said to her mother,

 “If you make him go there for her, then make him go to the stationery store to buy some ink and paper for me.” 

Then the youngest daughter Fuyuko rushed in and stared at her feet. Toshi then smiled and asked her, “OK, what would you like Minoru-san to buy for you?” Notice she called him Minoru-san.

Fuyuko asked for some jacks and a rubber ball from the new toy store on the mall. Toshi laughed out loud, smiling at Minoru. From that day forward, the girls often had orders for Kozo-san Do This. It wasn’t long before they stopped going through Toshi to give him their instructions. Minoru became more and more miserable and disgusted with his position at the Okamoto Ironworks. His last nightly task of stoking the bath fire for the three little girls was followed by a litany of cursing when he entered the bath and thought no one would hear him. But he was heard. Still, his anger only became an inside joke the Okamoto girls shared among themselves and with their mother. They seemed proud of the fact that they could drive the shop boy to that level of ineffectual anger.

Months passed, and Minoru’s situation grew worse. Every day the orders at the Ironworks grew fewer and fewer. Some days there was no work there for him at all. Toranosuke was growing more depressed and more socially distant. Part of the problem was that he was now over sixty years old and obviously in declining health. Fifty years of breathing in coal smoke during the day and tobacco smoke whenever possible had damaged both his heart and his lungs. Besides that, his relationship with his wife Asa, which had been contentious for years, was only made worse by his declining health, his depression about his failing Ironworks. The formerly even-tempered and slow to anger Toranosuke was becoming more overall impatient. His obvious depression was only made worse by the constant nagging and complaining from his similarly disappointed and depressed wife.

One day Toranosuke and Asa had an argument that led to a rolling pin raising a knot on Asa’s head. She packed a furoshiki and left that afternoon for their married daughter’s house in Chiba. In order to relieve the family tension, which had been building due to the Eitaro and Toshi’s growing awareness of the inevitably of the closing of the family business and resultant downsizing that would soon have to take place, Eitaro came up with a plan for a type of pressure-drop, that would also serve as a farewell gesture to their upper middle-class pretensions. He announced that the family was to take a trip to the resort town of Atami in the next prefecture to the south. Due to a national holiday that came on a Friday, they would be gone two nights and three days, and Minoru would be in charge of the house for the weekend.

When Friday morning rolled around, Minoru started to realize that he was getting sick. He was sniffling constantly and his body was starting to ache. He managed to put up a strong façade of health as he helped carry the family’s luggage to the train station a kilometer away. After he saw them board the train, he shuddered with cold and had an uncontrollable thirty second fit of sneezing that left him with what seemed like a river of cold snot running out of his nose and down his chin. He had permission to close up the Ironworks whenever he saw fit, and he was determined not to even attempt to open up today. Besides, there hadn’t been a customer for a week and they hadn’t had a contract for almost a year.

On the way back to the Okamoto home he decided the best course of action was to set up his bed immediately and get in it, in hopes of sleeping the cold away. However, the best laid plans of mice and Minoru didn’t go his way. When he arrived home there were two men waiting for him impatiently. One was holding what looked to be a broken pump handle that he said he needed welded in a hurry. The other man seemed to be a delivery man who had resorted to pushing his wreck of a bike. 

It took Minoru a half an hour to set up his acetylene torch apparatus to weld the pump back into usable condition and it took another hour to repair some broken spokes, bent wheel frame, and broken forks on the delivery cart bicycle. It could have been done faster if he hadn’t had to stop so often to wipe his nose and try to stop his fits of sneezing. By the time he had taken care of the two customers he was shaking and every part of his body ached. He put the tools away, locked up the workshop and headed into the house.

He immediately headed to his room, laid out his futon, and crawled underneath the covers. At first when he was told the family was going on vacation earlier in the week, he had been excited about having two days of freedom from being “Kozo-san Do This,” but then he realized that being alone in the house also meant not being able to leave it empty for a few hours on Saturday night to go to the Odeon. Still, he thought, he could listen to the radio alone, and he could buy some sake and get good and drunk without anyone judging him. Now that he was sick, he realized that being home alone meant no one would help him with meals or clean sheets or fever reducing medicine, or even ice packs, or even cough powders. Before on the few occasions he had gotten sick Toshi had always been there to take care of him, even better than he remembered his mother had.

The welding work in the foundry on the pump handle and the bike forks should have heated him up, but his sweating just seemed to make him colder with shivering that he couldn’t control. He heaped as many blankets and quilts on him as he could find. After what seem like an eternity of tossing and turning, he fell asleep exhausted, or perhaps he just passed out. Then the next thing he knew he awakened with a start and everything was dark. He had a coughing fit and groped around for some paper to spit into, and to wipe his nose with. He also felt around for anything handy to dry him off because he was soaked with sweat. Then after another eternity of coughing, spitting, and shivering he mercifully passed out again. This process repeated itself for a period of time he had no way of measuring.

The next thing Minoru knew, he was slowly waking up coming out of a nightmare in which the Okamoto girls were grabbing him, cursing, and berating him. When he realized he had been dreaming he opened his eyes and they focused on Toshi and Toranosuke sitting beside his futon. His bedding had been changed, or so he assumed since it was now clean and dry. He realized that he too was also clean and dry and he wasn’t cold anymore. Neither was he coughing and sneezing anymore.

Toshi smiled at him and said, “Thank goodness you’re awake now! You look much better than you did when we found you in a heap of wet bedding this morning. You must be hungry! I’ll go bring you some rice gruel. Oh, and drink the water that Father has for you!”

Toshi got up quickly, felt Minoru’s forehead, patted his shoulder gently and told him he was going to be ok, he had nothing worry about now that she was there to look after him. She added that he should stay in bed for the rest of the day. Minoru smiled weakly at her and apologized for causing all this trouble. Then he took the glass of water that Toranosuke was holding out to him and drained the whole thing noisily.

Toranosuke smiled at him and promised to keep him company for a while, but then he suggested he should try to sleep some more until he regained his strength. Then his face took on a sad look, and he said, “I have some bad news for you.”

Minoru imagined that it would have something to do with the poor state of business and the future of Okamoto Ironworks, if there was to be a future. He braced himself for the news that he was going home to Kumamoto. But he was wrong. It was worse, since he had actually been hoping to be sent home where he would be free of being ordered around by little girls.

Toranosuke looked at a wooden box of crumpled up wet papers, and then looked sadly at Minoru’s face.

“It seems that while you were sick and feverish you used almost all of your movie playbills to spit into and wipe your nose. I tried to clean a couple of them, but they really can’t be cleaned up and returned to any kind of presentable state, I think. I put them all in that box over there and you can decide for yourself later what to do with them.”

Minoru smiled at Toranosuke and said, “Thank you Sensei for all your efforts. I’m sorry I caused you all of that trouble. I’ll see what I can do about them. I really was tired of collecting them anyway. I was going to throw them out anyway, that’s why I used them.”

But he was lying. Minoru listened to Toranosuke talk about the trip to Atami, but how he hadn’t really missed anything worth seeing by staying at home. Then after Toshi brought Minoru’s rice gruel, he patted Minoru’s shoulder and slowly got up and left. As soon as the Okamotos left and closed the sliding door, tears welled up in his eyes and he cried silently. He felt as if the only good thing that he had experienced in his five years in Yokohama had been lost to him forever. The best of his memories of fun times in the big modern, international city had been soiled by his sick snot and spit. He was heartbroken, and he wished with all his heart that he could go home as soon as possible.

Minoru found out that sometimes wishes come true. The next day when he rose full of fresh energy, but with a deep sadness in his heart, he walked into the kitchen to see Toshi sitting at the table sipping tea with a grave expression on her face. It seems that late last night Toranosuke had become seriously ill. The doctor had been there and was already gone. The doctor said that Toranosuke, who had been in poor health to begin with, was probably not strong enough to fight off the flu he had contracted. He was already seriously dehydrated, and the doctor had suggested immediate hospitalization. Toranosuke had resisted that suggestion vigorously saying that if this was his time then he wanted to die at home. Two days later that is exactly what he did.

The fact was that Eitaro had planned the vacation to Atami in order to break the news to the old man that he had found a buyer for their current property. He had also arranged to buy a new smaller property in nearby Hanasaki-cho, not far from Momijigaoka Koen, one of Minoru’s favorite parks. Toranosuke had actually given Eitaro the order to start looking a month earlier, he just couldn’t bring himself to become involved in the process that would officially pronounce him a failure.

Before he died Toranosuke called Minoru into his room for a private conversation. He apologized to Minoru for ending the apprenticeship early, but he promised him his full wages and a train ticket home. When Minoru started to cry and apologize for giving him the flu, Toranosuke stopped him short. He confessed that when he heard from Toshi that Minoru was ill he purposely offered to help clean him up and then sat by his side in hopes that he would catch it. Toranosuke then apologized to Minoru for using him in this way and staining the memory of their relationship by this final selfish act.

After the funeral, Minoru boarded the train and headed back home to Kumamoto. He found he wasn’t as happy about this return as he had thought he would be. His thoughts turned to the remaining Okamotos, and knew they would survive well enough. The Navy wasn’t about to start downsizing and the need for qualified navigators would only increase for the next fifteen years. Selling the large property left the Okamotos with enough money to send Haruo off to higher education. After that, Haruo’s first job was as an officer in the Japanese Army. The three girls all completed their education at the snooty Catholic school, with two out of three going on to higher education, that is, until the labor needs of the wartime economy superseded their needs for more Western cultural refinement. 

Minoru too went to war, and ended up being captured by the American army in the Philippines. Over the years, his memories of his time with the Okamoto family in Yokohama changed becoming sweeter and dearer to him. Even the memories of the Okamoto sisters gave him joy.  As a successful old man, Minoru loved to laugh when he told the story of the snotty movie playbills. However, it wasn’t often that he added the details concerning Toranosuke’s death to the story. In his last years, the thought of Toranosuke always brought a smile to his lips, but also tears to his eyes.