This just in from Mother:
I read the short story you posted below, but I’m afraid I don’t know enough about Okinawan history to understand it. Can either you or Tom Kain explain it to me?Mother, I forwarded your message to Tom, and this is what he sent:
In the years leading up to World War II, the Japanese government made concerted efforts to reinforce national solidarity in hopes of achieving swift and effective mobilization for war. Okinawans, who had only lived under Japanese rule since its annexation in 1879, were eager to prove their worth to Japan, which had by that time become the preeminent power in the Pacific. Mainland Japanese, however, continued to think of the islanders as essentially “backward children” of the empire. When the Battle of Okinawa began in 1945, Japanese military officials conscripted “backward” teenage girls to work as battle nurses on the front lines. Of the 297 who were enlisted, 211 died, many by suicide. Girls were given grenades for this purpose because the soldiers had warned them that should they be captured by Americans, they would be raped. During the battle many civilians hid in tombs, choosing to commit mass suicide to avoid being captured. Near the end of the fighting, Okinawans willing to surrender to the Allies were shot by Japanese soldiers. After the Americans won the battle and the occupation began in August, Okinawa found itself in a quandary: they certainly did not trust the Japanese, by whom many felt used, and it was naturally quite difficult for citizens to immediately open their arms to their occupiers. Nor could they accept that they, too, had somehow willingly participated in their own destruction. In short, postwar Okinawa did not know what to believe, who to trust, or even if assumptions about their circumstances could ever again be sure.
The story I translated below, “The Carnival Bullfight,” was published in 1976 and written by Matayoshi Eiki, an Okinawan writer. Matayoshi was born in Okinawa in 1949, and is, as author Steve Rabson argues, the “most prolific and successful Okinawan writer of his generation” (Rabson 286). He has won the Ryukyu Shinpo Short Story prize (awarded for “The Carnival Bullfight), the Kyushu Arts Festival prize, and the prestigious Akutagawa prize. The story to be examined in this essay emerges from the postwar context and speaks to the insecurity of presumptions and expectations and the loss of innocence one experiences when such assumptions do not reflect reality. In this essay, I would like to show that the story illustrates a dramatic process of disillusionment in which supposed heroic defenders of honor are absent, other assumed heroes are inadequate, and the world sheds its black-and-white simplicity to assume much more ambiguous tones.Absent Heroes
The central figure in the work, from whose point of view the story is told, is an unnamed Okinawan boy. He finds himself one hot July day in 1958 at a festival at an American base, where he is excited about attending the day’s main attraction: a bullfight. Having never set foot inside the base, the boy is overwhelmed by how alien the grounds seem – there are no trees, the clean grass shimmers in the sun, and items he had previously only seen from outside the fence look completely new; essentially, life on the base bears absolutely no resemblance to life in the countryside. The observations the boy makes in the initial stages of the story establish a common framework that colors the entire narrative: a kind of binary perception of the world in which old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, coexist mutually exclusive of each other, the division of which is symbolized by the chicken wire fence that separates civilian Okinawa from the base world.
The effects of this sort of binary world-view become especially evident in cases where the boy must make value judgments about the main conflict in the story, a disagreement between an American and a bullfight bridle-holder about damage to the American's car. In these scenes, the reader is provided opportunities to witness the boy’s way of thinking at work, as well as its disastrous consequences.
The American suspects a bull of attacking his car. The vehicle bears a large dent in its side, and from what the boy can gather, the man is convinced that the bull had rammed the door and that someone, perhaps its bridle-holder, perhaps its owner, perhaps the bull itself, deserves to be punished. This scene at the center of the bullfighting ring – the car, the bull, the American, and the bridler – becomes the canvas for the boy's black-and-white palette of reasoning. First, as the American launches an attack at the bridler, the boy feels the urge to seek a resolution: “What's wrong? the boy thought, looking around. One of our people is getting laid into out there! Alone! Why don't we do something? he thought” (Matayoshi 3). He then determines that for the crisis to find a solution, something would have to be done to eliminate the foreigner from the scene, be it by physical means or by negotiation. Because the American is small (in the Japanese, he is consistently referred to as chibi gaijin, which I have translated as “little foreigner”), the boy figures that the quickest means of resolution would likely be by force, and he actively seeks out tougher members of the crowd that might contribute to a solution. His first candidates are two Okinawan men, one a carpenter and the other a military employee:These men, with their protruding cheekbones and jaws and the marks of razor blades still evident on their tanned faces, their big shining eyes and their fat lips and big, tall noses, were countless times more imposing than the little foreigner in the middle of the ring. And you didn't need to think twice about which side was better built. There was no way the men would lose to the little guy. Even though they were strong, the boy wondered, why wouldn't they fight? Even though they had more than 100 allies behind them. (Matayoshi 5)
Though to the boy these men present an almost surefire, might-is-right solution to the problem, they remain inactive throughout the story, fading quietly into the swarm of people surrounding the ring. Their inefficacy brings the boy to two realizations: first, that the foreigner's small size belies the evident control he exerts over the situation; second, that regardless of the size and strength of a given onlooker, disparity in power does not alone generate automatic action. For the boy, this is the beginning of the failure of his dichotomous naiveté. He begins to see that the model hero he has constructed in his mind does not behave so heroically in real life.
Disappointed, he then moves on to alternatives, this time privately imploring those with more refined skills to act. The most obvious target for the boy is the bridler himself, whom the boy respects for being able to maneuver the bull so deftly. As the boy knows that the well-trained bull will remain essentially motionless unless his bridler instructs him to move, the boy realizes that the bridler’s skilled hand is the key to producing the most effective solution: a violent, reckless outburst that would scare the foreigner away: Like the burly carpenter and military employee, though, the bridler cannot be coaxed into action - he remains fixed in place, motionless, and the bull does, too. The boy gradually gives up on the bridler and later perceives another skill that may bring an end to the fight: English. As the onlookers stand mystified by the unintelligible ranting of the American, the boy thinks that if he could find someone who could speak English to the foreigner, at least some means of communication might be secured and a solution might be reached. He finds Mr. Miyahira, a taxi driver for Americans, who even makes trips to and from the base facilities. Still, Mr. Miyahira does nothing, choosing just to stand with his arms folded. As the boy's simplistic construction of heroic traits continues to tumble, the image of a man with his arms crossed becomes a persistent reminder of the fractured equation that favors power over weakness and equates skill with decisive action. The boy, however, seems most disillusioned by the third group of possible agents, the bull-raising cattle men.
Many of the people surrounding the ring are bullfighting enthusiasts, several of whom are invested in the business, whether by operating bull stables or trading cattle. The breakdown of the boy’s assumptions about motivation and action is in this case actually a twofold process. First, the boy projects onto the cattle men the motivation of love, as he cannot comprehend any other reasons for raising bulls:He couldn't understand how an owner, who raised his precious bull, tending to it day and night, could turn it into beef just because it lost or got hurt. Didn't the owner have any second thoughts? The sheen of that hair, the warmth of that body. How could he forget about that? Bulls aren't toys. They aren't machines. Not fashioned by human hands. At times, a bull might be the only creature to which an owner could express his deepest feelings. (Matayoshi 4)
Having convinced himself that the bull raisers are committed emotionally to their stock (maybe most effectively by the story of the man who essentially filled the void caused by the loss of his wife and child with care for his precious cattle), the boy creates another doomed binary value judgment: love, he feels, must be able to neutralize the foreigner, who continues to rant and rave at the bridle boy. Again, this equation fails to produce a solution, as the men's arms stay permanently crossed. It is through the uselessness of this group of people - the men who, to the boy, are driven by love - that the boy most painfully confronts the uselessness and naiveté of his own innocent view of the world. If simple devotion could not impel these men to act, it seems, nothing could.
By looking at the boy’s views of and assumptions about the predicament at the center of the bullfighting ring, his approach to conflict resolution is clear: first, determine the basic characteristics of the actors. Then, establish a cleanly two-sided power structure based on who holds – and often who lacks – these characteristics. Finally, let the strong simply defeat the weak, the skilled defeat the unskilled, devotion defeat indifference, and the conflict is resolved.
When these three binary arrangements of the boy’s world-view collapse, he is left surrounded by a cast of characters completely devoid of a hero. In fact, not only are the heroes absent, but they are replaced by a host of rather horrifying villains: “[the men in the crowd had] sunburned faces, faces hidden by the thick shadows of straw hats, all faces with unclear expressions. The coarse tracks of razor blades on their cheeks and necks looked savage. The men's oily eyes, like those of cats, glowing in the darkness – what were they staring at, the boy wondered; what were they thinking about” (Matayoshi 7)? Perhaps even more telling of the boy’s resentment towards his imagined heroes is the fact that the boy considers the onlookers not only to have fallen to the little American, but have also sunk beneath the boy himself. In his eyes, the “powerlessness of the crowd paled even in comparison to a bunch of children. The only one the boy could place any hope in was the bull” (Matayoshi 9), which, of course, can only be brought into action by the powerless bridler. The absence of the heroic characters that the boy had formed with his youthful logic marks the first stage in his gradual loss of innocence.
Two important questions to ask are first, why the boy needed to enter the conflict with such simplistic assumptions, and second, why his naive view needed to have such catastrophic effects. The answer to the first question can be attributed to the boy’s youth. As Matayoshi notes in an introduction to one of his short story collections, he writes fiction, but his works are largely autobiographical. Should this story too be part of his own recollections, the boy (Matayoshi) would be about 11 at the time of the bullfight. Boys of this age, especially those unaccustomed to the physical and ideological landscape of the American base, are probably in no position to make subtle assessments of motivation, action, and inaction. More important, however, is the question of why the boy's judgments are so traumatically affected by the events of the day. In my opinion, Matayoshi’s upbringing as a child of the American occupation, which began two years before his birth in 1947, sets up an unusually wide gulf between innocent views of life and, as mentioned earlier in this essay, the extraordinarily intricate workings of history, politics, and economics in which postwar Okinawa was couched. In this kind of environment, no young boy, I believe, would be ready to understand Okinawa's delicate position in a world at that time dominated by Cold War rhetoric. These unfortunate circumstances explain the boy’s extreme frustration at the onlookers and may also suggest the writer, and perhaps others of his generation, became so disillusioned with the idea of a kind of autonomous justice, as he especially resents the inability of the Okinawan people themselves to act on their own behalf against oppression.Inadequate Heroes
As explained above, the spectators surrounding the bullfighting ring trigger the first phase in the boy’s transformation. The second stage is prompted by the two Americans in the story: the little foreigner and Mr. Mansfield. Through the little foreigner the boy begins to notice a sharp disconnect in his surroundings. Mr. Mansfield causes the boy disenchantment not unlike that brought on by the onlookers, but even more agonizing; the boy’s image of Mr. Mansfield had been formed not by hearsay but by much more personal, friendlier bonding.
The figure of the little foreigner, like most of the boy’s surroundings at the base, is unusual. Of course the man’s English is a mystery, but his visual appearance also strikes an unnerving chord with the boy. First of all, the foreigner does not look foreign: the boy almost thinks he is Okinawan (Matayoshi 2). The man’s open, gaudy Hawaiian shirt reveals his sunburned chest and bony ribs, surrounded by “sparse patches of hair.” As the white heat of the sun mixes with the onlookers’ white shirts and the black shadows cast by the bull and "the people's eyes," the foreigner’s shirt and red skin become all the more incongruous (Matayoshi 3). This passage fits well into the narrative, fusing the boy’s “black and white” judgment patterns with visual imagery: the boy's customary surroundings, represented by the onlookers, the hot Okinawa sun, and shadows, stand in sharp contrast with the red, flowery, and unfamiliar, represented by the little foreigner. Matayoshi thus uses the foreigner as a channel for intensifying the boy’s mental changes. Overwhelmed by the foreigner’s strangeness, for most of the story the boy considers the man a vile, selfish weakling.
Unlike the little foreigner, however, the boy sees Mr. Mansfield, the American who eventually emerges from the crowd to resolve the conflict, as a trustworthy and gentle sort of father figure. The boy devotes a great deal of time to describing the Mr. Mansfield of old. Images of the big man putting boys atop his shoulders and letting others dangle from his hulking biceps; his wide, gentle face; his incomparable comic timing; his habit of handing out exotic candies to young Okinawan boys; all of these helped foster in the boy feelings of awe and trust towards Mr. Mansfield, essentially making him larger than life. This glowing perception of Mr. Mansfield allows the boy to forgive the man’s poor Japanese ability and praise him for his excellent voice and command of English (Matayoshi 10). Essentially, Mr. Mansfield could do no wrong. But things do not go as planned.
Mr. Mansfield’s sudden tumble from the lofty reaches of the boy’s imagination and assumptions comes in the very last scene of the story, in which Mr. Mansfield eventually convinces the little foreigner to stop ranting. I will comment on the conversation between Mr. Mansfield and the little foreigner in the next section, but what I will devote my attention to here is another example of the disconnect between assumptions and reality that plagues the boy’s understanding of the world around him. When Mansfield enters the ring, the boy immediately recalls another bullfight at which a bull lost its horn, causing blood to flow profusely from the wound. At that time, the boy's idolization of Mr. Mansfield had gained a new element:Sitting close to the boy, Mr. Mansfield distorted his face and dumbly cried “No, stop it, look at him!” With a sound like a mother cooing her baby child, he sunk his face into his hands, grabbed his trusty folding chair, and disappeared quietly into the crowd behind him. The boy knew that there were still several bouts on the card and was consumed by the current match, but the image of a teary-eyed Mr. Mansfield lodged itself into his memory. Although he realized that the fight was not an ordinary one, the boy, who had always been awed by Mr. Mansfield’s giant body, now thought of the man as a bit of a coward – perhaps his toughness was just a guise. The boy felt that that experience made him even fonder of Mr. Mansfield. (Matayoshi 11)
In this passage the boy convinces himself that Mr. Mansfield, like the cattle men in the previous section, has an emotional attachment to bulls, one strong enough to move him to tears. Not only, then, is Mr. Mansfield's body a looming example of his outer strength, his actions at the previous bullfight make his heart a looming symbol of his human decency and sensitivity to injustice. This event serves to so dramatically inflate Mr. Mansfield’s personality in the boy’s eyes that any behavior short of godliness would seem basically incomprehensible. When Mr. Mansfield strides into the ring to confront the little foreigner, we do not know exactly what the boy expects or wants him to do, but when the big man becomes irate at his counterpart, the boy is thrown for a loop, thinking that “today, Mr. Mansfield was an entirely different person. It couldn’t be the same man” (Matayoshi 10).
Before I look at the actual conclusion of the tale later in this section and in the next, it is important to look at the progression of the boy’s expectations of conflict resolution. For the boy, the silent onlookers create a yawning heroic void which by the end of the story was impossible for anyone to fill, even the mighty Mr. Mansfield. In the opening parts of the story, as the boy seeks in vain possible solutions to the conflict at the center of the ring, he initially desires thugs - the carpenter and military employee - to charge into the ring and intimidate the foreigner. When this plan fails, the boy becomes more desperate, hoping that Ichirō, a hotheaded young man that has a history of acting quickly against injustice, might enter the ring – even though Ichirō is not even present at the bullfight (Matayoshi 6). When that plan too fails to come to fruition, the boy resorts to even more desperate dreaming and tries to force the bridler, through some sort of telepathic communication, to kick the bull and somehow spur it into a violent frenzy. (Matayoshi 9). With all alternatives gone, the boy dreams of a mass riot in which he would gladly participate: “The boy wanted everyone to just go crazy. If they did, he would too. He wanted to whip a big rock into the foreigner's flapping mouth. Right, he thought, he could just throw a rock at the bull to rile it and get it to destroy that black car. If he could get it to thrash the car to bits, the foreigner wouldn't have anything to complain about anymore" (Matayoshi 9).
As explained above, the anticipations of action get more desperate and more violent, and at their peak, Mr. Mansfield, with his giant frame and dedication to poor bulls, comes in at just the right time for the boy to place perhaps his most desperate hopes in the giant. That is why, I think, the boy and the rest of the onlookers feel strangely disappointed at the conclusion of the story – the last chance hero, when everyone else had given up, does not deliver the decisive cathartic blow that had been boiling in the collective mind of the bullfight spectators. This disappointment, then, despite the conflict having come to a peaceful end, recasts the figure of Mr. Mansfield not as a benevolent hero, but as a nasty enigma that has betrayed everything the boy thought he was and should be: "Mr. Mansfield and his usual exaggerated shoulder-shrugging and hand-waving seemed like a fraud. Something seemed off. His small reddish lips began to seem venomous… the boy thought that surely this massive audience, too, found Mr. Mansfield a bit eerie, somewhat ominous” (Matayoshi 12). With the boy's image of Mr. Mansfield thoroughly soiled, the boy projects onto the man the same kind of incongruity that so permeated the character of the little foreigner: in the last paragraph of the story, Mr. Mansfield furiously wipes the sweat from his body (Matayoshi 12), a practice which the boy notes in the middle of the narrative as particularly counterproductive, something that real Okinawans know never to do. At the same time he is reimagined as an unfulfilling hero, Mr. Mansfield, in the boy’s mind, might even become a traitor against Okinawa itself, as “the boy started to think about Mr. Mansfield's beloved palm-leaf summer cap, which was currently perched atop his head, and how bad it looked. It didn’t seem made in Okinawa anymore” (Matayoshi 12).
While it is difficult to say that the story presents as unified the boy’s perceptions of Americans or that through these characters Matayoshi is attempting to make a political commentary on Okinawa-U.S. relations, it is clear that Matayoshi uses the little foreigner and Mr. Mansfield to expose the boy to a different dimension of disillusionment. The little foreigner personifies the disruption of the boy's dichotomous black/white, good/evil mindset. The wounds Mr. Mansfield unwittingly inflicts on the boy, however, cut deeper than the damage done by either the onlookers or the little foreigner because the boy respects the man and thinks he knows him well. The boy could write off the immobility of the spectators because he had very little emotional investment in the thugs, the cattle men, and the bridle boy. The fiercest attacks on the boy’s innocent assumptions come from the beloved Mr. Mansfield, for whom the forsaken boy reserves his final bitterest, most incendiary barbs.Ambiguous Scenery
With the boy’s assumptions devastated by both absent and unexpectedly disappointing heroes, he is relegated to a sort of limbo of belief where nothing behaves as he was convinced it would. Matayoshi masterfully complements the boy’s ideological defeat by surrounding him at all times with ambiguous imagery.
There are numerous examples of this imagery, and they begin early in the story. The boy, walking on a large paved street, notices a series of giant boxes on the side of the road. He had seen them before from outside the base, but now, they assume a much different character: “Until now, they had just been part of the scenery. The boy was surprised that these boxes that had once looked so small from outside the chicken wire fence were really this big” (Matayoshi 1). The passage is especially jarring as it appears in the narrative quite abruptly, and the boxes do not return again. I think that Matayoshi uses this incident chiefly to delineate the differences between life outside the base and the world inside it, but it also helps establish a sense of foreboding ambiguity; even though the boy discovers the boxes anew, he still has no idea what they contain. This is the first in a series of symbolic question marks that the boy encounters. He then comes across the gymnasium, a setting Matayoshi uses to highlight another ambiguity. The building, as it roasts in the oppressive, bright heat, appears initially as a mirage to the boy (Matayoshi 2). However, interestingly, the boy claims to be sitting in the only spot from which the building can be seen normally. It is in this scene, as the boy hunkers in the shadows of the gymnasium, that I believe Matayoshi isolates the boy's confidence in his abilities to perceive things honestly and correctly, an assurance that upon meeting the uproar in the bullfighting ring is systematically obliterated.
Once the boy finds his way to the bullfighting ring, images of ambiguity become much less obvious, but more numerous and confusing. The boy comments regularly on the size and shape of shadows produced by the onlookers, their oversized sunglasses and their hats; as the bystanders become less dependable, actually, they assume an increasingly ominous collective darkness. Also common are images of clouds of dust that billow around the action at the ring. The sole occasion the onlookers show any sign of action - a man's "let's kill that American" rally cry - is muffled. No one can really make the words out exactly, nor can they identify the source. Thus at the bullfight, Matayoshi again expands the story's ambiguity with hazy imagery.
One of the largest clouds of vagueness is produced by the boy’s inability to grasp the English spoken by the Americans. The words of the little foreigner at the center of the ring come in unintelligible streams, like the words of “a live news reporter, the way his words coursed forth” (Matayoshi 3) and the boy can only make out simple phrases such as “Hey! Come on" (Matayoshi 3). Near the end of the story the boy chooses to characterize the little foreigner's ranting and raving in terms of its changing pitch (Matayoshi 9). More importantly, the boy cannot understand the words of Mr. Mansfield which eventually bring a semblance of conclusion to the conflict, able only to guess at the eloquence of Mansfield's speech by the “power and fluidity of the big man’s delivery” (Matayoshi 10). More than just to demonstrate the difficulties a young boy faces in a multilingual situation, Matayoshi here uses the language barrier to set even higher the precipice from which the boy’s assumptions eventually fall. Not knowing English means the boy's take on the situation is left entirely to speculation, speculation rooted firmly in his assumptions. His assumption that the little foreigner is weak leads the boy to mentally emasculate him to the point at which he is reduced to a “squealing,” pitiful figure. His assumptions of Mr. Mansfield’s innate heroism, too, are exaggerated by the fact that the boy cannot understand him. When Mansfield comes to the ring to negotiate with the foreigner, the boy, guessing at the words of the conversation, puts glowing words into Mr. Mansfield’s mouth:Mr. Mansfield had most likely made this mistake clear to the foreigner: you should know, he probably said, that fighting bulls want to fight so bad that they are itching to get going; these animals come all the way here to do battle. It’s your fault for putting your car here. A bull wouldn’t give two hoots about a car, no matter if it was an American’s, no matter whose it was. Maybe the bull did it on purpose just because it was an American’s. They’re pretty smart, you know. It might have even been acting on someone else’s behalf – maybe its owner hates Americans. That had to be it. It must have been trained, Mr. Mansfield had probably said. (Matayoshi 10)
Imagining the conversation by both drawing on Mr. Mansfield's history of sympathizing with bulls and by also inserting bits of his own feeling, the boy simply sets himself up for a more dramatic fall. In other words, when Mr. Mansfield finally persuades the little foreigner to abandon his protests and the crowd seems unsatisfied with the conclusion, the boy encounters even more confusion. English, then, gives Matayoshi another ingredient for the swirl of ambiguity surrounding the boy.
As explained above, the narrative contains several individual examples of ambiguity, but maybe the most impressive of all uncertainties is the story as a whole. One could say that “The Carnival Bullfight” itself walks a tightrope of ambiguity – on one hand, it can be read as a simple childhood narrative about tense events at a bullfight, filled with colorful characters. The boy's transformation can be interpreted as a powerful right of passage from childhood to young adulthood; the little foreigner can be read as a mysterious villain, and the figure of the bull as the helpless victim in need of salvation. At the same time, the story can resonate as a historical allegory. Upon my first reading, in fact, I took the story as a commentary on postwar Okinawa, with the onlookers as the civilian Okinawans who acted as complicit agents in Japan’s efforts to repel the allied forces' invasion of the mainland, the bridle boy as those mainland Japanese who earned a reputation of forcing others to fight against their will, and Mr. Mansfield as America, apparently coming to liberate Okinawa but in the end leaving its people wanting more. Just like the tale’s imagery, the line dividing narrative and allegory hovers in an indeterminate state, and Matayoshi works masterfully to keep it that way. By refusing to draw naked comparisons between characters and historical forces (such as the bridle boy and the mainland Japanese) and at the same time conducting the entirety of the storytelling within the mind of a small boy (without speaking moralistically from above), the author preserves another kind of ambiguity, this time an interpretive one.Conclusion
People’s assumptions regularly fall victim to contradictory realities. For the boy in “The Carnival Bullfight,” postwar Okinawa was a place conducive to a wholly different pattern of redefinition. Fellow Okinawans, strong, accomplished people motivated by love and devotion, transformed before his eyes into helpless children. The Americans he had idealized as righteous, sensitive heroes also betrayed his assumptions. In the end, the boy inhabits a vague and unsure world. For him, maturation becomes synonymous with a debilitating vacuum of faith populated simultaneously by native Okinawans, American occupiers and the lingering vestiges of Japanese imperialism. Matayoshi Eiki skillfully constructs this ambiguous world as both an attempt to exorcise his personal childhood trauma and also to brush away the thin layer of dust that had settled over the inescapable, confusing realities of postwar Okinawa.