The life of Goro Sakamoto part IV

The distinguished antique dealer recounts how he became a black marketeer


Goro Sakamoto, the distinguished antique dealer, now seventy-five years old, is recounting the story of his life in successive issues of The Art Newspaper. Unhappily apprenticed to a fish merchant, Mr Sakamoto’s attempt to run away was foiled. Now the Sino-Japanese war and World War II bring many changes to his life.

The new recruit

I worked as an apprentice to the fish merchant Kozukaya for about ten years. Meanwhile, because of the Sino-Japanese war, which had broken out on 1937, all distribution in the fisheries industry was nationalised.

I failed to meet the standards for second rank of the military service. In 1944 I was commandeered and ordered to spend three months undergoing professional training at a centre in the town of Kodaira, Tokyo. The head of this operation Kato Kanji, had been a leader of the settlement effort in Manchuria and Mongolia. At the end of this training I was dispatched to the Tachikawa aircraft plant, where I worked on the assembly of aircraft wings. Then in February of 1945, having grown accustomed to the work, I received my call-up papers.

To prepare for my entry into the army I went back to the home of my mother, whom I hadn’t seen in almost nine years. How happy I was during the two or so weeks that I spent in my old house! At that time, mother was over sixty years- old, but she was as strong as ever and held the post of neighbourhood chief, looking after those in her charge. This was a time of great scarcity, but my mother procured vegetables, fish and sake, and she assembled all the people of the neighbourhood to give me a send-off party. It was wonderful to be surrounded by all these familiar faces from long ago, and before long I was loudly singing, “I will return victorious!” as the song went.

When the party was nearing its close, my mother suddenly sat down before me and said in a loud voice, “Goro! You must give everything for your country, but promise me that you won’t die! Whatever happens, even if you should find yourself alone, I don’t want you to leave with any crazy idea of wanting to die for your country. I don’t want to meet you again at Yasukini shrine, where the souls of dead soldiers are worshipped as heroes. I will not allow it!” I was surprised that she said this to me in front of all those people.

On the first of March 1945, I entered the Yokosuka naval corps and was immediately transferred to the base in Takeyama, in the middle of the Miura Pennisula, to undergo two months of military training. As we trained aboard ship, we slept in hammocks. When these were rolled up into a sausage shape, they were incredibly heavy, and besides, the hooks from which they were suspended were placed to high for me to reach. When I was slow in setting up my hammock, I would all of a sudden receive a blow from one of the senior officers with the “discipline rod”, which would fall on my back with a loud crack.

Before long I got the hang of it. At the first sound of the ship’s whistle I would climb atop a chair which I kept nearby and from there I was able to reach the hooks. Thus, I was spared the beating. However, when I then got into my hammock I itched incessantly and couldn’t sleep. If I squirmed about restlessly, the senior officer on patrol would catch me and give me a lashing.

This itching happened every night and I remembered that when I had roundworms as a child, my mother had given me a certain medicine from Toyama which was famous for curing such an affliction. In the middle of one night, I frantically felt around my rear-end and discovered two insects.

Believing for sure that these had come from inside me, the next morning I went to the officer in charge of the infirmary. Telling him the whole story I asked to be given medicine. When I revealed the two insects that I had wrapped up in paper as proof, he slapped me across both sides of my face. I was dumbfounded. Seeing that I was at a loss for words, he told me that these bedbugs were well known the Navy, and were called “Nanking” bugs.

At the end of my training I was sent to a unit posted at the town of Wada on the Miura Peninsula. This was the birthplace of Wada Yoshinori, who was the head of a powerful clan in the Kamakura Period, and was known as the source of Miura radishes. Before long I became head of the platoon, stationed in part of a pickle merchant’s warehouse.

Within the woods adjacent to this warehouse, there was a farm where an old couple lived with their two grandchildren. Having a great fondness for children, I quickly became close to the family. When they invited me to come over for a bath, I allowed myself to indulge in a little luxury and would occasionally steal away from headquarters to steep myself in this momentary pleasure.

Once I carelessly stayed too long soaking in the bath. I was surprised to learn that two or three senior officers, thinking that I had deserted, were searching all around within the woods. As I stealthily crept back into headquarters, I was caught by a petty officer and confessed the whole story to him. I was scared to death, but he only scolded me. “A second breach will not be forgiven!” he warned, and the night passed without further incident. The next morning during cleaning I was kneeling on the ground by my bucket rinsing out a cloth when the same officer walked straight over to me and screamed, “What the hell are you doing? In that posture do you think you would be able to take action in an emergency? You’re too soft!” And with that he gave me a sound beating.

I think this was probably punishment for the night before. But ever since I have tried to avoid any work that required kneeling in such a posture, and I try not to make those which work for me do so either.

After the war: black market connoisseurship

I remember the hot summer of 1945. The night skies above Tokyo and Yokohama were illuminated with a red glow by the incessant bombing raids of the B-29s. Even in the middle of the night the air-raid sirens blared in warning and kept us in a constant state of alarm. On 1 August there came a report that my home town Hachioji was to be bombed. I was beside myself with worry and prayed fervently for the safety of my family.

On 15 August all the men of the platoon were called together in the yard at headquarters. As we listened in disbelief to the emperor declaring that Japan had lost the war, we fell into despair. We couldn’t believe what a disaster had befallen us. When night fell, the platoon leader wept, and it was painful to see. A college-educated reserve officer, he was younger than I. In the midst of this situation I didn’t know how I should react.

The first order to come was that all active service personnel were to be demobilised and returned home by the end of August. I walked to Yokuzuka station and somehow or other managed to board a train heading for Hachioji. The city of Hachioji had been completely levelled by the bombing. My mother and family had been holding out in an air-raid shelter. When I saw them I breathed a sigh of relief, but there was bad news.

In the last bombing raid my younger sister had picked up the small child from the sake seller and had tried to run for safety. They told me that she had been struck by an incendiary bomb and killed. Miraculously the child had escaped unharmed. My mother faced this loss stoically in front of others, saying that the child’s survival was a happiness in the midst of tragedy, but inwardly the sadness and despair were deep and she appeared worn to a shadow by the grief. At night my mother would weep, recalling my dead sister, and cry out to her, “Why did you have to...?” Seeing her suffer thus, I felt completely helpless and at a loss for what to do.

In spite of this tragedy, somehow we managed to pull ourselves together, and I decided to go to Yokohama to look in on the house of Kozuka Magojiro. The house had been destroyed in May during an air raid, but I was relieved to find out that everyone was safe. The nationalised distribution of goods continued and so Kozuka served as the director of the company, managing the dispensing of goods. At the moment business was in ruins, he told me.

Imagining that I must be in need of work, he suggested that I come and work for him, but after thinking about it, I said, “For a long time you have taught me this business, and now I want to put this knowledge to use. I want to buy marine products and sell them on the black market.”

Kozuka replied angrily, “That’s shocking! The world is different now. You would soon be caught by the police. Dealing on the black market would besmirch the reputation of this store.”

I racked my brains thinking what we might be able to sell, and then, remembering the old clothes lined up at the black market, suggested, “Master, a second-hand clothing business?” Kozuka first frowned in displeasure, but then said, “You really think so?” With that it was decided.

After ten years spent working in the fish markets, I could tell at a glance the quality of different goods, but I had no experience of clothing or textiles. I thought that once I started I would get the hang of it, but then realised how difficult it was. I would buy something that was soft and felt like silk only to find out that it was rayon or a man-made composite, and I was continually plagued by the fakes which seem to infest the market. I didn’t know at the time that this was the beginning of my battles with the “fake.”

I would buy garments at one market and then bring them to another to try to sell, but all the merchants lined up there were veterans as well and we were no match for them. As amateurs, Kozuka and I misjudged much of the merchandise and kept losing money.

Meanwhile I got wind of the news that the army was liquidating vast quantities of uniforms and undergarments that would surely bring a profit. I investigated and found out that they were to be sold at the black market at Tennoji temple in Osaka. This was a time when information was so scanty that new merchandise could sell well even in the very next town at a profit. Making up my mind to go, I secured a black market ticket and boarded the night train for Osaka.

Thinking back now, it is almost unbelievable how peaceful and content the public was at that time, when ordinary citizens were brutalised by ruffians that, unchecked by the police, acted as if they owned the country.

We climbed aboard the train through the window and there was a total absence of order. Once aboard the train I got involved in a scuffle with two horrible youths. I first thought that there were only two of them, but it turned out to be a whole group. If I had fought seriously with these brutes, I might have been killed, but an old man nearby urged me, “Apologise! Apologise!” Surrendering to them, I narrowly escaped with my life.

This was my first time in Kansai. Gathering all the money I had in the world to acquire some of the surplus undergarments, I got another black market ticket and returned that evening on the night train. Repeating this routine three or so times a month I turned a good profit. It seemed to me that there was a greater supply of goods in Osaka than in Tokyo. The sights, sounds and even people’s cries seemed different here, and I was convinced that Osaka was indeed the city of the merchant.