One of the major themes of the story is memory, particularly how memory influences the present and how individuals hold onto and let go of memories. The main character Makiko is preoccupied with retaining memories of the pre-war years, and she tries to recall specific events and feelings from the time her husband was alive. She also encourages Toshi to recall memories of his father, and she is disappointed by the fact that he only remembers one moment when his father was carrying him by a window. Makiko attempts to prod more memories of Yoshitsune out of Toshi by having him honor Yoshitsune’s memory in a prayer ceremony each evening and by asking him questions about his father. Makiko wants to instill positive images of Yoshitsune in Toshi’s mind, and she tries to preserve “good” memories of the past, while leaving behind less pleasant ones. For Makiko, memory is also tied to preserving a past that no longer exists, since Japan has changed so dramatically in the wake of World War II. In her eyes, the current situation compares unfavorably with her memories of pre-war Japan, in which traditions and cultural habits were strong. At the Tanabata festival, Makiko is at first distressed by the shabby appearance of the fair, since in her memory past festivals were so much more glorious. However, by the end of the festival, Makiko changes her mind, enjoying the new situation, and she believes that her pleasure derives from the fact that her old memories have given the present a kind of luster, even as those memories are dissolving. As she acknowledges the elusiveness of memory, Makiko wishes for Toshi to remember the evening and other pleasant memories from that time.
The story takes place in Japan right after the end of World War II, at the end of which Japan surrendered to the Allied forces, led by the United States. Following its defeat, Japan was occupied by American troops, who were part of the process of rebuilding the nation. The presence of U.S. Army personnel creates tension in the story, as the locals are warned to “Keep your young women indoors,” and Makiko observes the “American Army jeeps with beefy red arms dangling out the windows roar down Kagane Boulevard, the main thoroughfare just east of Toshi’s school.” She particularly resents how American soldiers give Toshi candy, when she can barely afford to feed him on the rations everybody is living on, and she scolds Toshi for accepting chocolates from an American soldier, telling Toshi that those men killed his father. She is likewise distressed by the fact that Toshi eats American food at school, as the school is being subsidized by the American government, and she fears that Toshi will become more and more Americanized, forgetting Japanese traditions. Throughout the story, the difficulty of life in postwar Japan is emphasized, as Waters highlights how scarce food is for Japanese civilians who live on meager rations and how their enemy had so quickly become their ally.
Related to the theme of memory, the theme of loss also informs the story, as Makiko grapples with several losses. Throughout the story, she grieves for the loss of her husband, who was killed during the war. In addition, she mourns the loss of the world and culture she knew before the war. Makiko’s obsessive efforts to preserve memories and traditional rituals such as the prayer ceremony are her attempts to overcome the sense of loss she feels in the face of enormous changes in her personal and social worlds. Unlike her brother Noboru who embraces the process of modernization as a way for Japan to get on its feet again, Makiko wants to hold onto her memories and the traditional ways, since they are what remains for her in the wake of loss.
Customs and Traditions
Several Japanese customs and traditions make an appearance in the story, including the Tanabata festival, the prayer ceremony, and the ball game Makiko tries to teach Toshi at the beginning of the story while chanting a traditional Japanese song. These customs and traditions serve to both illustrate Makiko’s desire to preserve the past and to show how much things have changed in postwar Japan. The Tanabata festival points up how impoverished the town has become after the war, with faded lanterns trotted out and makeshift barrels used for the festivities. However, the festival also highlights how old traditions and enjoyments persist even in the face of defeat and the process of Americanization.
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