three pairs of lovers with space

AN ANGLO-JAPANESE LOVE STORY

 

The following story was twice recounted by English journalist Michael Davidson, first in his autobiography The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), and then, at much greater length is in Some Boys (1969), a memoir more narrowly focused on his Greek love affairs. The longer account is given here first, as the other is more valuable for what it says about the aftermath.

Davidson was fifty-three when he moved to Japan from Korea in 1950, having "decided that the best place to cover the [Korean] war from was Tokyo."

 

Some Boys

The text is taken from pp. 97-107 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), which in this instance is the same as in the British edition.

 TOKYO

THE SWIMMING-POOL in Hibiya Park in Tokyo, as I recall it, was a spirited and apt construction whose vaguely classic mood chimed in well with the verdant formality of its surroundings. It must have escaped the bombardments: even Japanese enterprise and ingenuity couldn't have built such a delightful luxury so soon after the catastrophe of defeat; and at a time of political bewilderment and economic despair and while their every action was ruled by the American "occupationnaires," as the soldiers and officials and camp-followers of General Douglas MacArthur's army of occupation were known.

At one end of the pool, I seem to remember, there rose from the greenery of the gardens a tall screen of masonry or concrete, concave in design, resembling perhaps the postscaenium of a Roman theatre and giving to the whole plan something of a sense of ritual. But while the postscaenium of antiquity concealed the dressing-rooms behind the stage, here the changing area was at the other end of the bath and not concealed at all; it was a wide, airy shelter opening straight on to the water and in full view of the public who daily, in summer, gathered along the barriers of netting which enclosed the pool, to watch the boys disporting themselves on the diving boards like sleek, swift, black-headed darting arrows. Here in this shelter, as if on a brightly lighted stage, with any passers-by for audience, plus the girls splashing in the pool (the girls had, I think, a separate shelter to change in, scarcely less public), the boys arriving for a swim stripped their clothes off and meticulously wound about themselves—in between the buttocks, under the scrotum, round the waist and down again—the length of flimsy scarlet sash which they twisted about their person with the dexterity of an Arab wrapping his turban; until, naked except for this trim whisp of scarlet enveloping their genitals, these boys resembled delicate slim-boned versions of the classical Japanese wrestler depicted in so many traditional prints.

Outside one never knew quite what one's eyes might catch. One breathless afternoon, a short way from the bathing place, I came upon two sylph-like youngsters, slender and elegant as Tanagra figurines and with gleaming wet skin as white as daisies' petals after rain: they were standing, still dripping from the pool, on a diminutive knoll, contrived with the cunning of the landscape gardener, from whose summit rose a kind of Nipponized Palladian pagoda in miniature, a charming piece of ornamental nonsense which added to the formal lawns and walks and shrubberies a pleasant touch of eighteenth-century fantasy. The boys, I suppose, had come there to dry themselves in the sun and bask: the dressing shelter had been in shadow. And there, beside the toy edifice of monumental concrete, perched upon this endearing little theatrical hillock, the two of them slowly unwound their scarlet fig-leaves with all the titillatory dilatoriness of the deliberate strip-teaser—until they stood stark naked on the municipal sward, for all the world as if two cockney boys were surprised nude beside the Albert Memorial. The effect was wonderfully felicitous: a blend of the classic, and the rococo: an eighteenth-century engraving of an Arcadian romp, with a touch of what one might call the chinoiserie so popular at the Courts of Europe during the last decades of the seventeen-hundreds.

                                                         Tokyo in the 1950s

I met Kishi in this park. I couldn't guess, that first day, that this meeting was to be the inauguration of one of the four great loves of my entire life: I had supposed, at first, that fate had found me an exceptionally attractive ephemeron—but it turned out to be bigger than the entire universe. Mine has been a peripatetic life: it has generally been my aim, and sometimes my achievement, as I moved about the map, to discover as soon as possible after arrival in a new place a boy companion whom I could be happy with as long as I stayed there, and even longer—thus satisfying that insistent need to love (much more important than being loved) and saving all the bother of searching. This, by the grace of Izanami and the rest of the Shinto gods, is what happened to me in Japan; and consequently I found out nothing about the paedophilist world of Tokyo—although, I believe, there was plenty to be found out, and a great deal right under one's nose. I therefore saw no boy-brothel, though I don't doubt there were numbers to be found; in the frenetic and tinselled Ginza, that surprising thoroughfare of rich shops and cheap-jack street stalls, I saw no red-mouthed and sunken-eyed boy-whores; I exploited none of the homeless war-waifs who haunted the subterranean mysteries of the central railway station. Nothing of that sort did I look for (I often wondered what a wealth of thrills I may have missed!); and saw nothing to demonstrate, what I'd been assured, that Tokyo was the gayest city in the East. But what was shown by my meeting with Kishi was this: in Tokyo there was love for the boy-lover; and even sexual frolics with ordinary boys like Kishi's friends were entirely free of corruption. I was lucky, surely: Tokyo to me—this teeming, hideous city of millions, suffering from the neuroses of despair, demoralized and depraved by war and defeat and submission to foreign occupation—Tokyo to me meant love, and no breath of corruption. Indeed I was lucky; but I had to pay a high price for my luck—the agonizing cost, which the boy-lover so often has to pay of saying goodbye.

*            *            *

In the evening, after I'd filed my story for the day, I'd go to his mother's restaurant for fried rice and beer: I always asked for fried rice there—it became a joke that sent her into eddies of toothy chuckles. Perhaps "restaurant" is a name rather above its station: it was a small eating-house for working men, very cheap but always clean, where one ate a good simple meal—rice, soups, and simply done fish and meat. The place seemed to thrive; the destruction of war was being busily succeeded by reconstruction—and, besides, the Japanese economy was by 1950 working for the Americans in Korea. I ate in the family rooms above the shop, while Kishi's little brothers and sisters played on the floor beside me. Then, after supper, we'd drive to our home—"our" home, because his mother had "given" him to me. "Do you want him?" Mama-San had asked, "I'll give him to you"; while Kishi translated in his schoolroom English. At first, until we found our house, we stayed in a small Japanese hotel: a tiny place possessed of a sort of fairyland charm for one whose ideas of Japan came from childhood picture-books and stories—here, in real life, was the Japanese house of my childhood: a place of such delicacy and refinement that one wanted to speak softly and be gentle in all one's movements. Our room was of the usual elegant simplicity: the sliding walls, tapestry-hung and mute; the piles of downy, silky, voluptuous bedding stowed in noiseless, invisible lockers, the inches-high table for our tea or meals; the steaming delicate food in fragile cups and bowls and the wooden Japanese chopsticks, to be thrown away after the meal. And, above everything in my memory, the tatami flooring: that paragon of matting, mossy and springy and warm, blissful to lie on or to walk over barefooted; inviting and restful to look at; the quintessence of comfort and refined and imaginative practicality; the symbol of that good taste and style, of the elegancies and felicities of an exquisitely miniature manner of living, which were uniquely old Japan's and which, God forgive the West, are being obliterated by the sweep of Western vulgarization that started after the war with the American occupation.

       Tokyo shoeshine boy 1951

All was hushed and effortless: flower-like girls, unreal and impersonal as show-window waxwork, waited upon us with smiles like confetti and low bows that seemed the caresses of a graceful humility. Down a shadowed stairway, muted with tatami, was the bath where, if need be, one of these silken maidens would vigorously scrub your back (they must surely be inviolate, these vestal creatures, so remote from all fleshliness did they appear); Kishi and I dispensed with this service, assisting each other's ablutions without the need of female help. In our room, before a bath, we would undress and put on the kimono provided by the hotel and the hotel slippers of plaited rush, silent and sybaritic, and descend to the bath where soap, brushes, towels and the rest were being laid out by one of the smiling maidens in whose mouth butter wouldn't melt, even at the sight of our nudity. It would be an indefensible breach of manners to use soap, or rinse it off, in the steaming, almost scalding, cauldron in which one did one's breathless soaking, immersed up to the neck, after soaping: all washing and sponging was done on the tiles and wooden gratings beside the bath proper—and that done, we sank together up to our chins and, gasping, watched the sweat beading upon each other's crimsoning visages.

In this manner one lived in Tokyo, staying in a very modest and small hotel: more luxuriously in some ways, and especially in the way of feeling luxurious, than in any Hilton-Astoria: too softly comfortable, perhaps, after a while—too indulgent and ornamental, as life was supposed to be, and probably wasn't, in ancient  Sybaris—one came to feel one was eating too many sugary cakes. There was basically the same elegant comfort in Mama-San's upper rooms, but less yielding, less mellifluous; tatami covered the floor, and there was a pretty alcove for the ancestors; but the bare plastered walls seemed cold and austere. We moved, for a week or two, to a much grander hotel: though Japanese owned and managed, it was done in the European style—there were taps and running water and we slept, raised from the floor, on a bedstead —one hilariously frightening night we were tipped out with a bang on to the floor—whether the earthquake had caught us clasped together or whether sheer terror made us clutch each other, I can't say: but had we that night become corpses, we should have been found by our rescue party naked and locked in the closest embrace. How we laughed after that sharp little earthquake—and how frantic was my terror when, bumped into consciousness, there were still a few seconds of heart-stopping tremors to come.

And then we found our house, where we were to live for many more months to come: in some leafy outskirt of Tokyo, on a small hill, looking out at horizons embroidered in a multitude of greens; with the geometrical exactitude of Fuji-San, white-necked and pink-tipped, like an ethereal mine-tip, cast spectrally against the sky at dawn.

At neither of those hotels, where perfect manners were a part of the general excellence and urbanity, was the slightest hint of surprise shown when I, a foreigner, shared my room, and indeed my bed, with a fifteen-year-old boy. Nor did the elderly university professor who became our landlord and lived with his wife in the main wing of the house, show any surprise—and still less any displeasure; and retained, whenever I met him or called to pay the rent, the same smiling benignity of manner even after Kishi's cousins and friends had begun arriving in the mornings to cavort naked, like a line of animated sculptures, down the long colonnaded passage which connected our rooms with our bathroom (the house had an odd and ramifying layout). Our landlord was exactly like the caricature of a Japanese professor drawn by a cartoonist who didn't like Japan: smiling with a comic mask's teeth, and slit-eyes further hidden behind thick steel-rimmed spectacles; he always, indoors and out, wore a kimono with a Western trilby hat; in winter, for the street, he tied a black muslin veil over mouth and nostrils, to keep out the germs. But behind this illusion of sly shyness, there was plainly evident an acute and liberal mind and what one at once knew to be a wholly charming personality. Just what he taught, I didn't find out; his principal private interest, I discovered, was the study of vulcanology.

The house, in style, was neither Japanese nor European but attempted a synthesis of both. Our enormous room was stone walled, or of stuccoed brick, and had a couple of large European windows; but we lived "on the floor," on the exquisite civilization of tatami. The bathroom, too, was a kind of compromise between the Western and the Niponian: the tub itself was a huge European affair of unusual length and girth, while it stood in a large expanse of tile and duckboard for washing and rinsing it à la japonaise. But the most delightful feature of our apartment was the dais which, like a Shakespearean stage, stood out from the long back wall and looked down on three sides upon a humbler level, as if it were built for the throne of a medieval king. On this our bedding was spread, while on the "ground floor" we ate and played and read and wrote—cross-legged on the tatami, and the typewriter on a foot-high lacquered table.

I was a newspaperman accredited to the American forces, and was consequently an "occupationnaire" (what eyesores of words get invented these days!)—a member, that is, of a highly privileged aristocracy. We were socially superior to all Japanese, including former prime ministers, admirals, members of the old House of Peers and so on: the humilities of defeat required from them to us an obeisance deeper even than ordinary good manners enjoined.

This aristocracy of conquerors gave us a great variety of good things which the Japanese weren't allowed, like petrol and the hire of taxis and hotels and entry to bars, cinemas and so on (a Japanese who owned an automobile, if he still owned it, had to cook himself a gas in a kind of kiln rigged behind the boot); a form of apartheid was the rule. We also—very valuable concessions these, and most useful to Kishi—were exempt from various taxes which the Japanese had to pay, and could buy things like cameras at about one-third the public price; and we had the run of the PX and later the British NAAFI—which between them sold everything almost one could think of, at wonderfully low cost. One of the laws of this apartheid was that severe penalties—expulsion from Japan, perhaps—awaited an "occupationnaire” who gave as a gift to a Japanese any "occupationnaire" goods: some privileged petrol, for instance, or anything bought at the PX.

So on a certain day of each week Kishi and I visited the PX, and on another day the British NAAFI (Kishi in the role of my porter); and we bought all the comestibles and household goods that Mama-San wanted (there was a great shortage at the time of things like sugar). And we bought too, clothes for Kishi and toys for the children—the family's delight over an electric train remains for ever vivid in my mind. On some of these expeditions, Kishi brought his cousin Suki: a simple stocky lad of Kishi's age, with a round, close-cropped head and a slight limp which gave him an individuality his features perhaps lacked. Then Suki, by invitation, found his way one Sunday morning to our house; and next week brought a friend of his and Kishi's; and each Sunday seemed to add another until a half-dozen boys would be arriving, bringing trays of delicacies and Japanese forms of "small chow" which Mama-San and other mothers had cooked specially; we'd have ready beer and orangeade, with cigarettes and sweets from the PX. The youngest of our visitors, I'd say, was thirteen; the eldest three years more: they were sweet-natured boys and full of fun; with lively minds and beautiful manners; skin like parchment and fiery black, interested eyes peeping narrowly from their deep settings. Only dear Suki was a bit dull-minded; but none was sweeter-natured: it was he, always, who stoked the furnace for the bath, and he who looked after food and drink for everybody.

These morning's ran usually the same way. First, the bath; and then upon the splendid stage of our room, with the soft, springy, luxury of its tatami flooring, the play-acting and miming, the wrestling and gymnastical frolics, the romps and the fooling with the help of the Monkey Masks I'd brought from the island of Bali.

Suki would cram the old-fashioned iron stove with wood and light it; in no time the water in the tank over the bath would be bubbling hot, and the boys would be ready undressed in our room and jumping about excitedly. Then would come the dancing procession down the arcaded walk to the bathroom: a charming file of gyrating naked figures like a design on a Greek vase—which the Japanese professor, were he in the mood, could watch from his study-window. There followed the scene which, improving on Three Men in a Boat, I called "Six Boys in a Bath": I wish I still possessed the photographs I took that provided such perfect illustrations of this theme: photographs of all six, splashed with soap-lather like badly whitewashed statues, or with their soapy hair twirled into horns or spirals or contorted and weird antennae; photographs of six pairs of legs hanging from the knee down over the lip of the bath-tub, with six urchin faces grinning at knee-level; of a mêlée of wet limbs and fragments of anatomy, through a spray of splashing and thrashing water; of each in turn under the shower, caught in some fancifully contrived posture, while the rest queued up behind assuming naughtily comical attitudes; of vague incorporeal faces seen eerily in a haze of steam—I must have photographed them all in a score or two of posturings, groupings, and fanciful ablution, occupations.

Bali is an island of dance; every child grows up a dancer, and there's a large tradition of dramatic ballet (much too snobbish and sophisticated a term for a form of expression as natural to the people as speaking) inbred in the people and born of their history. The Monkey Dance, in which fifty to a hundred men and boys take part, is one of the most exhilarating and spectacular of the whole repertoire. They wear masks, and when I came away from Bali after a month there early in 1950, I brought three of these masks with me. They're the masks of real monkeys, cured and mounted; perfectly fitting the average boy's face and transforming anybody, when the human eye from behind gives life and intelligence, into the semblance of a flesh-and-blood ape; a naked boy they transform into Pan or Silenus, into a humorous gargoyle of eighteenth century baroque, into god or devil or hobgoblin; into some fascinating if slightly nightmarish visitor from outer space. The effect of this bizarre hybrid is excitingly and extravagantly sexual—the hairy animal face seems to bring out all the eroticism of the glabrous naked body as sunlight brings out the richness of colours: even a Priapic effect, though without that deity's travesty of dimensions—one feels in the presence of an almost frightening virility.

There was a bit of squabbling over the masks but they all had a turn—three goblins at a time, and the others making faces in the wings with their own pliant features. Sometimes they'd be miming monkey habits: scratching under their armpits, searching each other's scalps; or they'd be wrestling on the soft tatami in a pantomime of the Japanese manner, an imbroglio of white contorted limbs and straining muscle; or their antics would become more stylised: they'd ape the formalism, perhaps, of old Japanese dance or the Noh theatre; or else, statuesque with sword or spear, they'd seem to be taking as their models old prints of the Samurai. Later in the morning, they'd sometimes be using another kind of Japanese print as a model (or so one might suppose): those graphic portrayals of erotic exercises, conceived with superb ingenuity and exquisitely executed, for which Japan is famous. . . .

To the spectator, myself, all this was beautiful and disturbing: one had the impression of a breath-taking antithesis—Beauty and the Beast—between the white and touching innocence of these boys' bodies and the grotesque animality or fiendishness of their brutalized heads. It was like watching oleander buds blossoming into the likeness of Gorgons. I always felt that the boys of Japan, of Tokyo and the main island that is, seemed more tender, more fragile, than most other boys, in spite of their impishness and wiry strength; perhaps this feeling came from their dramatic contrariety: the purple-black heads of hair and raven eyes, against the almost death-like pallor of their skins and a glabosity that wrenched at one's heart: even the oldest of these six hardly had a hair on his body.

*                *               *

The happiness I enjoyed in Tokyo was of a quality and volume so rare that when the break came, as it had to come, the pain seemed beyond bearing; but—a privilege that comes seldom in the peregrinant boylover's life—my friendship with Kishi continued into future years and even into Europe.

 

The World, The Flesh and Myself

I find it's impossible to write about Keibo: [Note: Eikivhi Suzuki, nicknamed Eibo] because, I suppose, he's too close to me—though it's eleven years ago now, I feel he's in the room with me. Of all the loves I've had, his has lasted longest; of all the boys I've loved, he, more than any, was the 'divine friend, much desired'—the perfect one. He was 15 when I met him in the Hibiya gardens in Tokyo; today, at 26, his affection is as perfect as ever; and mine for him, though changed in structure, is unalterable in strength. After I had had to leave him behind (his adoring mother, sweet little Mama-San, had said to me: 'Do you want him for your own, I will give him to you'; and thereafter he had begun his letters: 'My fatherly Michael'), he wrote to me for ten years, and sent me presents from Tokyo; and when, at the age of 23, he became converted to the Catholic Church, he had himself baptized after me—'Now I'm Christian so my name is Michael of course after yours,' he wrote to me. I have many of his letters written down the years, and when I re-read them I am humbled to the point of shame by the fierceness of their naively expressed devotion: ' . . . we were always together. You came every day for lunch and dinner to my house and I was stay with you every day and night, first we were hotel then you found our house in Satagaya. . . . My dear Papa, since you left Japan I felt very lonely and sorrow then I became very norty boy but I have grown now. Mon père, I was hard to live alone, I thought I'm going to mad, you can't imagine how I was missed you so. Oh I wish I can look after you. It will be very nice isn't it? . . . ' Love, which should be always kind, can be as cruel as torture when arbitrarily wrenched apart; I've often felt, during the many harrowing partings of my life, that one has no right to love when one knows that circumstances must brutally cut it short; by loving and being loved, one is storing up pain.

Yes: our house in Satagaya . . . the perfect simplicity of life on the yielding kindliness of the tatami floor, the softly sliding doors; the gliding grace of a Japanese house and the steaming luxury of a Japanese bath. And how we laughed afterwards, that night in the European-style hotel (our window looked full out to the blue-white immaculacy of Fuji-San) when an impudent earthquake rolled us out of bed with a bump. The shopping expeditions to the PX and the Australian canteen to buy luxuries like sugar for Keibo's family (it was a grave offence even to give 'occupationaire' provisions to any Japanese). I suppose, in all my life (since the perfection of my childhood), those six months with Keibo were the happiest; and his incomparable goodness made even the grim inhumanity of the Korean war seem worth while. We said good-bye twice: in October 1950, the war in Korea seeming to be near dubious conclusion, I was sent to Hanoi, in northern Vietnam; not knowing that in six weeks' time I should be back with Keibo, after the Chinese 'hordes' moved south. ...

In the first week of December I was back in Tokyo, and a week or so later in Seoul, the capital of South Korea already being threatened again. I recall chiefly the agonizing cold, and Christmas at the front with the Middlesex Regiment, who were cheerfully entombed beneath ice and snow in the wild hills some dozen miles north of Seoul.

I left the Korean war for good on 17th January 1951. I can't remember, I'm glad to say, the actual parting from Keibo; I know that I sobbed for half an hour after take-off: saying my prayers for his sake to Fuji- San's white pile on the starboard beam. I've howled so often and so much in aeroplanes during the last twenty years and more, that I no longer care about appearing an ass in the other passengers' eyes.

In 1961 I saw Keibo in Europe: the same incomparable person; but a decade older than boyhood.