Bemoaning Ghost of War
By Akira Odani
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Ghost has never been in my vocabulary. I am a scientist devoted to exploring the frontier of nuclear physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My mind follows natural laws of cause and effect. I do not dwell on speculative hypotheses, mysteries, or notions that trample logic or reason. However, I recently faced a bizarre episode that forced me to stretch my imagination beyond normal.
It began one morning in December at work. When I arrived at my lab on campus and greeted my assistant, Dr. Dennis Chang, a sudden piercing pain assaulted my head. I checked the air in the laboratory but found no toxic fumes or any element that explained my pain. I invited Dennis that day for lunch, but the same debilitating pain struck my head as we stepped into the car. I had to cancel the date abruptly. No other person in the laboratory triggered such a reaction. I had hired him, a California Tech graduate from Taipei, Taiwan, about two months ago.
I consulted my primary care doctor, who promptly dismissed Dennis as a factor for my migraine. She referred me to a neurologist at Massachusetts General. MRIs and other advanced brain scans followed. They observed something abnormal in the trigeminovascular system (neurons that innervate cerebral blood vessels), causing neurologic inflammation. But they had no clue why or how to treat or cure it.
The symptoms worsened. I couldn’t come within three feet of Dennis without experiencing pain. He’s a model scientist, intelligent and dedicated. He doesn’t wear any offensive cologne. I tried to push away the notion that he had anything to do with my migraines.
A troubling new malady surfaced. Whenever I smelled the cooking oil for Egg Foo Young or Sweet and Sour Soup, which I used to love, acute pain twisted in my temple like a corkscrew; I had to bypass the take-out joint on Main Street. Even the simple storefront sign induced nausea and vomiting.
My troubles multiplied. Even at home, I couldn’t escape the sharp discomfort when I heard any news related to China, like reports of Beijing’s potential ambition over Taiwan. I could no longer bear to watch TV and avoided newspaper articles about China. Could I have developed a China-centered allergy, with severe reactions to the people, the food, and even the simple mention of the country’s name? Is that even possible? I questioned my sanity. How? And why?
Amid my confusion and restless sleep, an image of my deceased father, suffering from migraines, massaging his scalp with his prosthetic hands appeared. I called my ninety-year-old mother in Tokyo to ask if she knew anything more about his illness.
Hiroshi Sakakibara, my father, was an optimistic, physically strong, yet gentle youth from the countryside of Akita prefecture. Even though he was a newlywed, the Imperial Army conscripted him in early 1937. He served as a foot soldier in China. According to the veterans' organization, he played a critical role in the battles over Shanghai and Nanking in December 1937.
During the peak of the Japanese offensive, my father returned home with both of his upper limbs amputated. The War had changed my father into a prematurely old and lethargic man. His spirit was sucked out of him, my mother used to tell me. Not only did he lose his arms, but his once-sparkling eyes turned dull, his shoulders slumped. As a toddler, I remember being scared of his artificial arms; they looked menacing. My father rarely smiled and talked little. His health deteriorated, and the poor man died of stomach cancer before he reached the age of fifty.
My father kept the details of his war experiences close to his chest, perhaps because he wanted to forget them. His hardships in China must have contributed to his physical and mental deterioration. Even though it wasn’t logical, I wondered if his trauma-infused blood passed onto me and was causing my migraines. I decided to dig deeper into his past heroic acts.
Casual research produced a wealth of information. The archives of local newspapers, magazines, and scholarly research at the Harvard East Asian Research Center referred to atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers on the continent. Some liberal media in Japan in recent years began referring to a hitherto taboo tragedy called “The Rape of Nanking,” the holocaust committed by Japanese soldiers in China in December 1937. Over 350,000 lives perished in a matter of days.
An alarming article stood out about the looting and torching of homes. It had graphic descriptions of random killings of civilians, grandparents, children, babies, and women raped by the thousands.
There emerged a contest among the foot soldiers to see how many heads of Chinese prisoners they could lop off using the legendary sharp samurai swords. Black and white photographs of severed heads rolling on the ground and the headless bodies, arms tied behind their backs, crumpled down nearby in the ditch, accompanied the article. The gruesome images were overwhelming. I had to avert my eyes from the pages. My stomach churned in the acidic fluid.
A newspaper article of December 1937 listed the top winners. “Lieutenant Yoshida counted over 100 on one day!” The same reporter celebrated three officers the next day, each exceeding 120 victims. The executioners carried a hint of grins on their faces.
Those barbarians! I thought. Am I from the same evil species, only a generation apart? Insane? Blood-thirsty? I was dismayed, exhausted. I had to take a break from my research for a few days before recouping energy to push on.
Sakakibara, my father, was not listed among the “winners” of the head-chopping contest. Still, the disturbing speculation at the time was that some Chinese villagers organized underground resistance, captured stray enemies, punished them by chopping off their arms, and then released them as a warning. Could my father have been one of the captured?
Nineteen at the time, my father was thrown into hell by the crazed military leaders. He came out alive but, alas, seriously damaged. Based on what I saw of the man at home, he relived his crime repeatedly. My father ended up one of the victims of the War's insanity. He could not escape the nightmare for the rest of his life.
I did not fight in a war. I never witnessed the cruelty of War. I discovered, however, the possibility that my father’s trauma, due to its magnitude, could have been passed on to me through epigenetic changes. The memories of tragedies within his DNA survived in me, his offspring. If true, his remorse is now mine. My episode began in December of 1997, the 60th anniversary of the massacre. My migraines are an echo of the crying voices of victims.
Born in Tokyo and educated at ICU in Japan and Brown University in the United States, Akira Odani wrote for many years for the Japanese media. Today, his interest has turned to writing in English and subjects related to his experiences interacting with the two cultures. He is a member of the Florida Writers Association (FWA) and Taste Life Twice
Writers’ group. Some of his recent works have appeared in the pages of FWA Collection, Volume 8: Hide and Seek (2016) and Volume 10: Where Does Your Muse Live? (2019), and Editor, Randell Jones Personal Story Publishing Project, Twists and Turns, Sooner or Later, and Lost & Found (Fall 2022 – Spring 2023).
About the host
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.