“Aftermath” begins with the protagonist Makiko watching her seven-year-old son Toshi playing dodge-ball in Imamiya Park. As she watches Toshi play the “new American” game, Makiko thinks about how fast Toshi is growing and worries about how quickly Japan is becoming Americanized in the years after Japan’s defeat in World War II. She particularly worries about how Toshi is being influenced by this process of modernization, including eating American food at school, which is provided by the American government that is now supporting Japan’s recovery from the war.
As she continues to watch her son play, Makiko also recalls Toshi’s toddler years, when her husband Yoshitsune was still alive. With sadness, she remembers a playful routine Toshi and Yoshitsune used to enact. As she reminisces, Makiko compares days gone by with her current life, which is marked by the presence of American Army jeeps and soldiers, who are occupying Japan. She thinks about how the day before, she had gotten angry with Toshi for accepting candy from an American soldier and how she’d struck the pieces of candy out of Toshi’s hand, reminding him that American soldiers had killed his father. Feeling remorseful, Makiko comes to the park with caramels for Toshi in an effort to redirect his desire for sweets toward her. When Toshi is finally hit in the dodge-ball game, Makiko thinks about how easily the children switch sides in the game, without allegiance to a particular team.
The next section of the story begins with Makiko encouraging Toshi to remember his father in a nightly prayer ceremony. She lets Toshi light the incense before a family altar that displays photographs of Yoshitsune and other things that belonged to her husband such as letters and scented silk bags. Makiko rotates the items on the altar in an effort to engage her son’s interest in memories of Yoshitsune. Although he enjoys lighting the matches, Toshi resists his mother’s attempts to get him to think about his deceased father, and Makiko scolds him. Makiko thinks about how Toshi’s only memory of his father is of being carried by him on one arm before a sunny window.
After quickly finishing the prayer ceremony, Toshi heads for the dinner table. Since her previous reprimand of him is so recent, Makiko resists scolding Toshi again and allows him to eat his dinner, which is meager. Like everybody else living in Japan during the postwar years, Makiko receives food rations that are given out by the government, since food supplies are scarce. At the end of dinner, Toshi asks Makiko a question about forgetting the past, and Makiko assures him that from now on, he’ll remember everything.
In the next scene, Makiko wakes from a dream in which Yoshitsune is hitting her with a flyswatter. Disturbed by the dream, Makiko thinks about how since his death, she has recalled other small injustices from her life with Yoshitsune, and she wonders what to do with those memories. She struggles with the need to create a positive legacy of Yoshitsune for Toshi and her ambivalent feelings about the past.
Following the dream scene, Makiko and Toshi anticipate going to Tanabata Day, a traditional Japanese festival. Also called the “star festival,” Tanabata takes place once a year on either the seventh of July or August and is celebrated throughout Japan with colorful activities. The festival honors the Chinese legend of two stars, Altair and Vega, which though usually separated by the Milky Way, are allowed to meet on the day of Tanabata. One custom is to write names on pieces of paper and hang the paper on bamboo trees in the hope of having wishes come true.
On the evening of the festival, Makiko’s younger brother Noboru comes by to accompany Makiko and Toshi to the event. A student at the local university, Noboru teases Makiko about her place being too clean. As they walk to the festival, Makiko is struck by a mixture of nostalgic odors that come from a neighbor’s open door, and as they walk, Noboru talks about how Japan needs to reinvent itself to keep pace with the modern world and free itself from the American occupation. Makiko warns Toshi to not run too far ahead. As Makiko comments that the changes are taking place too quickly, they pass Mr. Watanabe, an elderly neighbor watering his plants, who mistakes Noboru for Yoshitsune. Mr. Watanabe’s mistake makes Makiko recall a pleasant memory of strolling with her husband on a summer evening. Makiko again tells Toshi to slow down and ruminates about her future.
Upon arriving at the festival, Makiko is disappointed to see how different the festival appears from those of her youth. Unlike the colorful festivals of her childhood, the current Tanabata festival sports tattered lanterns and makeshift canopies and grills for roasting corn. The surroundings make Makiko feel ashamed about Japan’s defeat in the war. As Toshi tries to run off to meet a friend, Makiko grabs him. Noboru applauds the festival’s efforts, as his date, a young female classmate from the university approaches them. Buying two small ears of corn with her ration stamps, Makiko finds herself crying as she eats the corn, which tastes exactly the way it did during previous festivals. After Toshi devours his corn, Makiko gives him the rest of hers, and Noboru teases Toshi for being a piglet. Noboru and his date discuss the legend of the stars honored by the Tanabata festival.
After the festival, Makiko stands on her veranda at home, fanning herself with a paper fan.
While Toshi sleeps, she thinks about what a pleasant surprise the festival turned out to be. In spite of its shabbiness, Makiko enjoyed the event more and more as night descended and children lit sparklers over the water, and she attributes her enjoyment of the festivities to her memories of previous celebrations’ charms. She hopes that Toshi will remember the festival fondly and recall other memories from his childhood as well.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Mary Yukari Waters, Published by Gale Group, 2010