WARNING: This poem features intense topics that many readers may find disturbing. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It contains war imagery, reference to suicide missions and other suicides, nuclear issues, conflicted attitudes about disability and aging, serious illnesses, assorted medical details pertaining to same, corporate malfeasance, severe environmental damage, problematic attitudes about superpowers, issues with honor and shame, graphic descriptions of several failed suicide attempts, depression, and other challenges. If these are touchy topics for you, consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read.
So far sponsors include: ng_moonmoth
Amount donated = $85
Verses posted = 43 of 56
Amount remaining to fund fully = $30
Amount needed to fund next verse = $1.50
Amount needed to fund the verse after that = $4
Isao Kobayashi was keenly aware that
Japan's hardship was his family's fortune.
As the firstborn son, it had been his honor
to enlist in the military during World War II,
but he had not yet completed his training
as a kamikaze when Japan surrendered.
After the war, with much of the nation in ruins
under the boots of the Occupation, and
two cities bombed to radioactive glass,
demand for the Kobayashi Cleanup Company
soared so much that they pressed everyone
into service who was old enough to talk.
When the orders came down for Isao
to supervise a cleanup crew in Nagasaki,
he merely bowed and said, "Yes, Grandfather."
It did not take long for some of the workers
to start getting sick, even though the family
provided the best protective clothing they could.
When Isao asked to speak with his grandfather,
the old man was cold. "Have you come
to seek another assignment?"
Isao bowed. "No, Grandfather," he said. "I am
just concerned about the strong young men
getting sick. We have so few of them left.
I know that this is my duty, but the ones
on the cleanup crew are not Kobayashi.
I thought, perhaps ... we might ask among
the elders and see if any of them would like to do
something important with the last of their time.
It does not take much strength to push a broom."
The old man's eyebrows rose.
"That is a very wise idea, Isao.
I shall make inquiries."
Before long, Isao's healthiest workers
found themselves transferred elsewhere.
In their place came old men and women,
and surprisingly, also a long string of veterans
with missing arms or legs or other injuries.
They all smiled and bowed and thanked him
for finding such excellent jobs for them,
because Kobayashi had added hazard pay
after the first cluster of illnesses revealed
how deadly the Nagasaki work could be.
Those who died on the job would leave
a handsome pension to care for their families.
Isao felt a little sad about it, but glad that he
could help them find meaningful work and
fine coworkers, instead of leaving them
to waste away in lonely, barren rooms.
He focused on making what improvements
he could, like adapting the handles of brooms
and buckets to make the work easier for
people who were missing body parts.
Some of the modifications proved so popular that
Kobayashi began selling them outside the company,
for there were many crippled veterans now and
not all of them had chosen the path of honor.
Isao did so well that he earned a promotion in 1950,
and spent the next two years traveling around
to different places supervised by his cousins and
younger brothers, to see what could be improved.
He taught much, and learned even more.
Then in 1952, his grandfather summoned him
and said, "I am sending you to Minamata.
The doctors say there is disease there,
but I do not think it is a plague of germs.
I think it is some kind of poison. I want you
to go find it, and figure out how to clean it up."
"Yes, Grandfather," said Isao, and so he went.
Minamata was a handsome little village with
two primary professions: the fishermen and
the factory workers at the Chisso Corporation.
Unlike many other places in Japan, it had been
thriving after the war as demand for plastics grew
and Chisso's good fortune spilled over to its workers.
But now people were falling ill, and nobody knew why.
It had begun with cats beginning to stumble and shake,
sometimes even tumbling into the sea where they drowned.
Then people began to trip and tremble, had trouble talking
or hearing, fastening buttons or holding a brush to write.
Some took their own lives when their health failed.
The worst cases writhed and babbled even when
bound to their beds for the sake of safety.
It took Isao a year of embarrassing interviews with
victims so humiliated by their condition that they
did not want to talk about it, and pushing pins
into maps, and observing what happened to rats
caged in different places, for Isao to piece together
that something was fouling the water in the bay.
He handed his papers to the doctors and said,
"Go and figure out exactly what is causing this,
and how to help the sick people. I am going
to devise some way of cleaning up the water."
Isao tried sand filters and silk filters and
running the water through the roots of plants.
It still killed fish and sickened rats. Charcoal
worked barely better. He could purify it with
evaporation, of course, but one could hardly
evaporate an entire bay and in any case
that would not clean up the mud below.
It did not help that Chisso Corporation
refused to pull its own weight, even though
both Isao and the doctors agreed that
the factory's wastewater was the source
of the original contamination.
Isao implored them to render aid
at least to the families of their own workers
who had fallen ill, but they sent him away
with a stern admonishment that young men
should respect their elders and not meddle
in affairs above their own pay grade.
So Isao grumbled and went back to work,
but he advised the villagers to take matters
into their own hands and demand recompense.
They were reluctant at first, because of long loyalty
to the company that provided their livelihood,
but he had put the idea into their heads.
Then in 1954, doctors identified mercury from the factory
as the definitive cause of the "cats-dancing disease."
Abruptly the mood in the village shifted, and people
began demanding restitution from Chisso Corporation
as vassals would from a liege lord of old.
A group of men from Chisso descended on the village,
swept up Isao and the two most vocal of the doctors,
beat them nearly senseless, and flung them off the docks.
One of the doctors drowned, the other soon sickened,
and Isao seemed none the worse for wear after
the bruises and the broken ribs healed.
He turned his attention to chelating agents
and their potential for removing mercury
from living creatures and the environment.
Grandfather Kobayashi stormed into the village
in a high fury and delivered a scornful lecture to
the head of Chisso -- fully a decade his junior -- on
how keiretsu included corporate loyalty to employees
and the responsibility of businesses to operate
in an honorable and hygienic manner.
Shamed into compliance, Chisso installed
a cyclator to prevent the emission of more mercury,
and began making mimai to the victims or their survivors.
The consolation payments could not restore lost health,
but at least eased the burden of medical expenses and
provided support for those who could no longer work
as they had in the factory or the fishing boats.
Then one day when Isao came to work,
people gasped and shied away from him.
"What is the matter?" he asked.
"Your eyes," the villagers whispered
as they turned away. "Your eyes."
Isao ran to the nearest bathroom,
where he discovered that his eyes
were glowing silver as starlight.
Recoiling from the sight, he hurried
back to his room and unsheathed his sword.
There was yet one way out of this shame.
But when he drew the sharp blade
across his belly, it left no mark.
Isao flung it away in horror.
Then he went to an old man stricken
with mercury poisoning, whom he knew
to have a gun under the mattress in case
the pain ever became unbearable.
One look at Isao's glowing eyes
made the elder say, "Take it.
You have more need of it than I."
So Isao took the gun and went out
to a lonely place in the countryside,
where he shot himself in the chest.
The bullet, which should have gone
clear through him, barely made it
past his ribs -- he could feel where
it had lodged in his lung, not even
reaching his heart, and then every
agonizing inch as his body forced
the metal lump back out again.
The hole healed without leaving a mark.
In desperation, Isao resorted to the method
that Buddhist monks used for protesting violence:
he doused himself in gasoline and set it on fire.
Only the hottest part of the flames did him
any good at all, and by the time the fuel
burned away, the blisters had healed.
All he had really gotten out of it
was a great deal of pain.
Isao fell into a depression
that lasted for weeks, in which
he lay upon his sleeping mat
and rarely rose for anything
other than the necessities.
He felt as if a mountain of humiliation
crushed him where he lay, and at last
he understood why people spoke of shame
as the most powerful, master emotion.
At last Isao slunk back to his grandfather
in defeat and admitted, "I have become
a blight upon my family's honor, and even
the path to redemption is closed to me.
Since I am a monster that cannot die,
send me into the places where no human
could survive working. At least that way,
my shame will serve some use."
"So be it," Grandfather Kobayashi said
in his low grave voice, and so it was.
Isao learned that he could work in
smoldering rubble so hot that
his shovel melted in his hands as
he watched a few lonely blisters
form and heal before his eyes.
He could wade through sludge
so toxic that it killed the flies
in the air drawn by its stench.
He could vacuum asbestos
out of shattered buildings and
get nothing worse than a cough
that faded in a few days.
Isao kept working, and he
kept looking for a way to die,
although his hope faded
along with the trivial injuries.
He had become a pariah,
and the loneliness ate at him
in ways that made him wonder
what atrocities he must have done
in a past life to deserve such a curse.
On the good days, though,
Isao could see the improvements
that he made, and take comfort in
the fact that no matter how bad
his karma might be, at least he was
burning it off at a prodigious rate.
* * *
Isao Kobayashi -- He has golden skin and short black hair. Originally his eyes were brown, but they turned to luminous silver when he gained superpowers. He is small and unassuming. Isao has moved up rapidly through the family's business, a successful corporation which specializes in cleaning up hazardous materials.
Origin: Isao was given responsibility for some of the cleanup in Nagasaki, Minamata, and various other toxic sites related to Japan's urgent rebuilding efforts after World War II. His exposure to radiation, mercury, and unknown chemicals caused him to develop superpowers. The first sign was his eyes bleaching from brown to silver and beginning to glow. Isao then tried to kill himself, but failed.
Uniform: Business suits. He tries to dress nicely, but tends to look rumpled anyway.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Honorable, Good (+2) Businessman, Good (+2) Logical-Mathematical Intelligence, Good (+2) Teamwork
Poor (-2) I Am a Blight Upon My Family's Honor
Powers: Average (0) Invulnerability, Average (0) Regeneration
Motivation: Find a way to die.
* * *
Many of these links will be graphic and disturbing.
"Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It's the fear that we're not good enough."
-- Brene Brown
Japan played a primary role in World War II. Especially famous were the kamikaze suicide pilots, some of whom survived the war.
(These links are gross.)
The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left devastating effects, some of which lingered for decades. Reports conflict considerably about how much damage was done to people's health and, especially, reproductive potential. Consider that people had motive for hushing it up at first, and that detection methods for damage have improved subsequently; but in general, we know that radiation is bad for humans and many other lifeforms, so damage from exposure can have ghastly effects.
(So are these.)
Cleanup in Nagasaki and Hiroshima began very soon after the attacks. While some of the contamination faded quickly, enough remained to sicken some of the cleanup crews. Japan had a hard time caring for refugees and others impacted by the bombings.
Japan has complicated, slowly evolving attitudes about people with disabilities. Traditionally, elders in Japan expected care and respect from family members, but in recent decades that has broken down. A challenge in postwar Japan was that they had lost many strong young people, which left some senior citizens without family to support them. Kobayashi's solution, while appalling in comparison to making it possible for people to live fulfilling lives as expected in contemporary times, was still an improvement over the rather dire norm in that cultural context.
Adaptive equipment spans all the gadgetry which aids daily living, housework, and other tasks for people with disabilities. In Terramagne-Japan, Kobayashi remains a leading supplier of cleaning equipment and other non-medical gear in this field, exporting it widely.
Minamata is a famous case of environmental damage and corporate malfeasance. T-Japan handled it somewhat better than here.
Mercury poisoning is extremely dangerous, as minute amounts can cause minor symptoms and it quickly builds to devastating levels. Humans have unwisely used it in a variety of medical products and household items along with industrial uses, and while replacements are available for many of these, changeover can be slow and end consumers are not always warned of the risks or even permitted to make their own choices.
Chelation is a way to remove heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium.
Keiretsu is a complex concept including the ways that allied corporations treat each other, and the relationship between a business and its employees. It is sometimes translated as "corporate family."
Mimai, mentioned in the Minamata article, is money paid to compensate for misfortune.
Shame and honor are important, complicated parts of Japanese culture. Terramagne-Japan has very conflicted feelings about superpowers. At first the reaction was almost wholly negative, although when culturally favored things like Immortality and Dragon Shape emerged, those got a warmer reception. Most physical changes like glowing eyes are greatly disliked. This has been slowly improving over the decades, but the discrepancy between 'auspicious' and 'inauspicious' powers remains.
Karma is a premise that one's past actions (including in previous lives) influence current circumstances. This can lead to a destructive belief that people deserve all the bad things that happen to them.