The narrator, Masuji Ono, describes his home and how he acquired it. Ono is not, nor has he ever been, rich, and he acquires his large and elegant house in an unusual way. Akira Sugimura, a respected and influential man in the city, built it. After his death, his family decides to sell his home to a buyer whom they feel will do the home justice. Ono is approached by Sugimura’s two middle-aged daughters, who present him with a low price for the house and tell him they will investigate his background to see if he is worthy of it. The sisters add that their father was an art appreciator and knew Ono’s work as an artist.
Ono’s wife Michiko is offended by the Sugimuras’ “high-handedness,” but Ono reminds her that they will be investigated in a similar way in the coming years when their children start the process of finding spouses. Part of the reason the family wants to buy the Sugimura house is bolster the family reputation and improve the children’s marriage prospects. Ono himself finds the idea of an “auction of prestige” appealing. He thinks that more things should be awarded to people this way, instead of to the highest bidder. Still, he feels that the Sugimuras are rather rude to him: when they encounter him they often ask only about the state of the house, instead of making polite inquiries about his family.
While Ono feels flattered by the Sugimura family’s attention, his wife finds the Sugimuras’ investigation into the Ono families’ reputation to be intrusive and somewhat insulting. Still, realizing that owning such a house will raise the family’s stature, she is convinced that this investigation by the Sugimuras will ease later investigations into the family when her children are preparing to marry.
Years later, Ono reflects that after the “surrender” the younger of the two Sugimura sisters came to visit the house. Miss Sugimura hardly paid attention to Ono’s news that Michiko and their son Kenji had been killed. She only seemed to care about the state of the house. Ono was annoyed at this, but, upon learning that she had lost most of her family during the war and was overcome by emotion, forgave her rudeness and showed her around.
Ono is referring to the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II. For Miss Sugimura, the damaged house is a reminder of all that she has lost during the war. Ono can understand is expressing her grief by focusing intensely on the house, which she sees as a physical legacy of her family’s prominence.
The house was damaged during the war, especially the very beautiful corridor running alongside the garden to the eastern wing. Miss Sugimura was near tears at the sight, but Ono reassured her that he would repair it. However, supplies remained scarce for a long time after the surrender, and Ono had to dedicate all available supplies to repairing damage to the main house. With only himself and his daughter Noriko living there, he felt less urgency to open the eastern wing. Today, Ono reports, the corridor is covered by sheets of tarpaulin and full of dust and cobwebs. Ono has, however, repaired the damage to the veranda, where his family had often spent time chatting before the war.
Ono recalls his married daughter Setsuko’s visit the previous month. On the morning after Setsuko’s arrival, Ono and his two daughters sit on the veranda, chatting as they used to before the war. Noriko tells her sister that their father has become much gentler and less tyrannical but needs a lot of looking after, because he spends his days moping around the house. Ono contradicts Noriko but does so with a laugh to communicate that he knows the jabs are in good humor. Noriko adds that she won’t come back to look after him after she marries. Setsuko appears to grow uneasy during her sister’s remarks and shoots Ono an inquiring glance. Eager to change the subject, she scolds her son Ichiro, who is rowdily running back and forth on the veranda. Setsuko calls to Ichiro to come sit down, but he ignores her.
Because Ono gives very little insight into his family life before the war, Noriko’s comment that Ono used to act like a tyrant gives a rare glimpse into how Ono is viewed by his family. It suggests that, since the war, Ono sees himself as having lost in an intergenerational conflict and no longer tries to strictly control his children. It also suggests that Ono is an unreliable narrator, because he never describes aggressive aspects of his personality like this “tyrannical” attitude Noriko refers to.
Ono calls to Ichiro to come sit with him so that they can discuss “men’s things.” Ichiro obeys and asks his grandfather whether “the monster is prehistoric.” Ono has no idea what Ichiro is talking about, but Setsuko explains that Ichiro saw a movie poster with a monster on it that sparked his curiosity. Ono tells Ichiro they would need to see the movie to find out if the monster is prehistoric, but that he isn’t sure the movie will be appropriate for a young child like Ichiro. Ichiro becomes insulted at this remark and shouts, “how dare you!” Noriko diverts Ichiro’s attention, saying she will not be able to lift the heavy table without his help.
Seven-year-old Ichiro is impatient with anyone who treats him like the child that he is. He is endeared to anyone who treats him like a strong, powerful man, and instantly enraged at being treated like a little boy. By taking Ichiro’s interest in the monster movie seriously, Ono can bond with his grandson. Ono’s suggestion that Ichiro will be scared by the movie, however, outrages his grandson.
Left alone with her father, Setsuko asks if Noriko’s marriage is imminent. Ono tells her it is not and recounts how Noriko has spoken indiscreetly in the same way about her marriage in front of strangers. Setsuko falls into thought, and Ono looks at her face. He thinks that she has gotten better looking as she has gotten older, just as her mother predicted she would. When Setsuko was young, Noriko had teased her and called her “boy.”Setsuko says that she imagines it was a terrible blow for Noriko when, the year before, the Miyake family had cut off marriage talks at the last minute. Setsuko asks her father if he ever heard anything about why the proposal fell through, explaining that her husband Suichi believes there must be some secret reason behind it. Coldly, Ono tells her he would have told her the reason if he knew it.
In the present, Ono explains that it may seem like he was short with Setsuko, but this was not the first time she had questioned him about the Miyakes’ withdrawal and he was frustrated by the suspicion that he was keeping something from her.Ono provides his own analysis of the Miyakes’ withdrawal from marriage talks, saying that the Miyakes likely pulled out at the last minute because they felt that their social status was inferior to the Ono family’s. Perhaps they waited until the last minute because they were confused about the right thing to do. Jiro and Noriko claimed that it was a love match, but in the end, they decided it wouldn’t be right to marry above their station.Digressing further, Ono says he gives little thought to status and is often surprised at how highly he is esteemed. For instance, on a recent evening, he was drinking in Mrs. Kawakami’s place (a bar), when Shintaro advised Mrs. Kawakami that Ono could help her relative get a job. Ono realizes that Shintaro is remembering a time in 1935 or 1936 when he had given Shintaro’s younger brother Yoshio a recommendation. The two brothers had come to his home to thank him, promising him their eternal gratitude. Ono says this visit showed him how far his status had been elevated through all his hard work, something he never would have noticed otherwise because he is unconscious of status. Ono tells Shintaro and Mrs. Kawakami that he now has fewer connections, but he wonders if perhaps he does in fact still have influence that he himself is unaware of.
Even this early in the novel, Ono’s claim that he does not notice his own status seems suspicious in light of his desire to describe winning the “auction of prestige” for his house. Instead, Ono seems to be deceiving himself into believing that he often underestimates his own status, because he hopes that he is actually mistaken about how much his status has been diminished in the years since the war. In the mid-1930s, Ono believes his work as an artist had earned him influence among decisionmakers and gratitude from those who looked to him for help.
Ono says that, even if Shintaro seems naïve, it is nice to spend time with someone who is not bitter like most people these days. It is pleasant to visit Mrs. Kawakami’s and find Shintaro at the same bar he has been visiting for the last seventeen years. Shintaro, who was once Ono’s pupil, still treats him with great respect and asks him questions about technique, even though he no longer works as a real artist.
Mrs. Kawakami often teases the gullible Shintaro, tricking him into thinking she is serious when she is kidding. Shintaro also sometimes believes people are joking when they are serious. For instance, once Shintaro wondered aloud what had become of a general who had recently been executed as a war criminal. Other customers in the bar disapproved of Shintaro’s admiring attitude towards the general, but when Mrs. Kawakami told him the general’s fate, Shintaro thought that she was joking around.
Mrs. Kawakami has been aged by the war, and she has very little business at her bar. The pleasure district where her bar is located used to be full of many bars and people strolling, but now all the other businesses are gone. In the old days, many artists and writers spent their time talking and drinking late into the night.
Ono’s favorite haunt in the area was called Migi-Hidari. He helped the bar become the most prominent one in the neighborhood and had been provided with his own table, where his best students would sit and talk to him.
Ono recounts how he once told his students assembled at the Migi-Hidari about the incident with Shintaro and his brother Yoshio. Shintaro had not been one of the top students. Ono’s protégé Kuroda had mocked Shintaro for his extreme gratitude at Ono’s intercession to help his brother get a “mere white-collar job.” Ono said he was surprised to see, based on his ability to get Yoshio a job, how far his stature had grown. Kuroda replied that Ono was extremely modest and had no idea how respected he was by the public and his students. This kind of praise was common when his students became drunk, and Kuroda was often the one to give these speeches. Ono says he usually ignored these outpourings but found Kuroda’s praise very gratifying on this occasion.
In the present day, the atmosphere in Mrs. Kawakami’s place feels to Ono like it has never changed, but the rest of the pleasure district is unrecognizable. Right after the war, many of the buildings were still standing, and Ono hoped there would be repairs and activity would return to the district. Instead, bulldozers came and tore down the buildings. There has been nothing but rubble in the area surrounding Mrs. Kawakami’s place for the last three years. Ono recalls recently looking back at the pleasure district from the Bridge of Hesitation, which leads from it to his house, seeing smoke rising from the rubble, and feeling melancholy.
Ono returns to his account of Setsuko’s visit of the month before. Leaving his daughters talking on the veranda, Ono goes to find Ichiro, who is impersonating a man on horseback, yelling, “hi yo silver!” and other words Ono cannot understand. Ono asks Ichiro if he is pretending to be a samurai or a ninja, but Ichiro replies that he is pretending to be Lone Ranger. Ono tries to explain to Ichiro why it would be more interesting to pretend to be a Japanese hero, but Ichiro ignores his grandfather. Ono becomes frustrated, but then gives up on trying to explain to Ichiro and instead apologizes to him.
Ono picks up a sketchpad that he gave to Ichiro as a gift the night before. Ichiro does not want his grandfather to see his sketches, but Ono holds the sketchpad out of Ichiro’s reach. He sees that Ichiro has made several unfinished sketches of trams.
Ono offers to help Ichiro make his drawings better, which interests Ichiro. He asks his grandfather if he used to be a famous artist, and if it’s true that he had to retire because Japan lost the war. Ono tells Ichiro that everyone retires once they get old like him and want a rest. Ichiro says that he wants to see one of his grandfather’s paintings, but Ono diverts his grandson’s attention. He tells Ichiro to draw something he saw the day before. Ichiro begins to draw the skyline of a city with a large reptile standing on top of a building and tiny people fleeing in fear on the streets below. Ono says the drawing is good and asks Ichiro questions about it.
Ono tells Ichiro that, as a reward for his good work on the drawing, he will take him to see the monster movie. Ichiro says his grandfather may be scared, but Ono says that Ichiro’s aunt and mother are more likely to be scared. Ichiro laughs uproariously at this. Ono encourages Ichiro to continue with his drawing, but Ichiro excitedly scribbles on the drawing before running off to find Noriko, yelling “hi yo Silver!” Ono sits for some minutes, thinking about nothing in particular, as he often does.
Eventually Ono goes out to the veranda and finds Setusko sitting there. Noriko and Ichiro are in the garden below. Ono sits with Setsuko and tells her about Ichiro’s game. Setsuko explains that Ichiro was playing cowboy and pretending to speak English. Ono reflects that Ichiro would never have been allowed to see a cowboy movie only a few years before, and Setsuko replies that her husband, Suichi, thinks that American heroes are a good influence on their son. Ono tells Setsuko that he promised Ichiro to take him to the movies and hopes they can all go together the next day. Setsuko says that this is kind of him, but she thinks Noriko may have other plans for the next day. Ono says that he knows nothing of Noriko’s plans and he is sure Ichiro will have his heart set on seeing the movie.
After supper that evening, Ono tells Noriko about his plan to take Ichiro to the monster movie. Noriko says they already have plans to go to the deer park the next day. Ono counters that the deer park can wait, but Noriko says they also plan to visit Mrs. Watanabe. Setsuko thanks her father for his generosity towards Ichiro and suggests that they go to the cinema the following day. Ono asks Ichiro if he wants to go to the deer park or to the movies, but Ichiro won’t reply. Ono persists in asking him what he wants, and Ichiro runs from the room. Ono tells Noriko that she has upset Ichiro. Noriko says that Ono is being ridiculous: they already have plans and, besides, Ichiro won’t enjoy such a scary movie. Ono goes looking for Ichiro, but when he finds him, Ichiro does not respond to Ono’s words of consolation.
Ono rejoins his daughters. Setsuko asks him gently if he will accompany them the next day, but Ono replies that he has things he must do. Annoyed, Noriko says to her sister that their father has nothing to do but mope around the house. Setsuko says that she will stay at home the next day with her father to catch up. Noriko says that Setsuko should not let Ono spoil her trip, but Setsuko says that it will be very pleasant for her to spend time with her father, and Ichiro will enjoy spending time alone with Noriko. Ono is glad about this outcome, because he looks forward to speaking to Setsuko. It does not occur to him that she has something in particular she wishes to discuss with him.
The next day, Setsuko enters the reception room to find Ono standing there lost in thought. Ono explains that this would have been unusual for him before his retirement, because he had made a practice of only entering the reception room on special occasions. In his own father’s home, he had not been allowed to enter the reception room until he was twelve. He believes that some of his talent for capturing a scene after only a brief glimpse of it comes from the days of his childhood when he would try to reconstruct what the reception room looked like based on only a brief glance.
The narrative jumps back to Ono’s childhood, in Tsuruoka Village. Ono is twelve when his father begins to summon him to the reception room once a week to discuss business. Ono’s father shows him his ledgers and talks to him for a long time about his profession. Ono does not understand the things his father tells him but is afraid to let on about his ignorance. Looking back on these “business meetings,” Ono is still unsure why his father put him through this experience. Perhaps it was to show him that he was expected to take over the family business, or perhaps it was to make a show of involving him, so that Ono could not later complain that his father had mishandled the business without his knowledge.
The narrative skips ahead to a moment in Ono’s adolescence. One night when Ono is fifteen, his father calls him into the reception room. Ono is struck by the presence of a large ashpot, usually reserved for use by guests, which sits in front of his father. Ono’s father had asked him to bring all his paintings to the room, but now he questions whether Ono really brought every one. Ono admits that there may have been a few paintings he left out, and Ono’s father says he imagines these are Ono’s favorites of his paintings. Ono’s father tells him that his mother is under the impression that Ono would like to become a painter. Ono’s father says that Ono’s mother must have been mistaken about this, and, when prompted to reply, Ono concurs that his mother must be mistaken.
Ono’s father says he hears his wife in the hallway, but Ono hears nothing. Ono’s father commands Ono to ask her to step into the room, and to fetch his remaining paintings. Ono goes out into the hallway, which is empty, as he expected it would be. When Ono returns to the room with his mother, he thinks he smells burning, although the ashpot looks untouched.
Ono’s father tells Ono that when he was only a baby, the family was visited by a wandering priest who claimed to have insight into Ono’s character. Ono’s mother says in a whisper that it is best not to take to heart what such men say. But Ono’s father continues, recounting how this wandering priest told them that Ono would tend toward slothfulness and deceit. Ono’s mother counters that the priest also said many good things about Ono. Ono’s father concedes this point but says that he has also observed Ono’s laziness and weak will as he has grown up.
Ono’s father picks up his paintings and again asks his son if his mother is wrong in her belief that he wants to be an artist. Ono is silent. His mother tells his father that Ono is young and will outgrow the idea of becoming an artist. Ignoring this, Ono’s father tells Ono that artists live in a depraved, impoverished world. Ono’s mother says that some artists surely rise above this fate, and Ono’s father admits that some artists do. But, he says, Ono is unlikely to be the exception to the rule. He says that his duty as a parent is to protect Ono from growing up into someone who will shame the family. Ono’s father says he wants to speak to Ono’s mother and tells Ono to leave.
Later that night, Ono is walking through the darkened hallway when he runs into his mother. He says that he smells burning, but she says he must be imagining this. He asks his mother what his father is doing, and she says he is working on something in the reception room. Then Ono tells his mother that he does not care what his father is doing and that “the only thing Father’s succeeded in kindling is my ambition.” Ono’s mother expresses her approval, but Ono says she has misunderstood him. His ambition is not to be a businessman like his father, but to rise above a petty interest in money. Ono’s mother tells him that when he is older his priorities will change. Ono tells his mother that his business meetings with his father disgust him. His mother says nothing, and Ono repeats that his father has kindled his ambition.
In the present, Ono says that he sees he has digressed. He returns the narrative to the second day of Setsuko’s visit, when she found him in the reception room. Setsuko is arranging flowers in front of a Buddhist altar. Speaking very indirectly, Setsuko says Ono may want to take certain precautionary steps to ensure Noriko’s marriage negotiations progress as planned. Ono says he doesn’t know what she means. She says that she is concerned about the families’ investigations into one another’s pasts. Ono says that they will hire the same detective they hired last time. Setsuko replies that she is concerned about the other side’s investigation of their family. Ono says he doesn’t think they have anything to hide.
Setsuko laughs nervously and apologizes for being so bad at expressing herself. She says Suichi would be much better at expressing her meaning and that they do not want any misunderstandings to arise about the past, since Noriko is almost twenty-six and they cannot afford another failed marriage negotiation. She says that she is sure that her concern is unwarranted and that her father has already taken all the necessary steps to ensure Noriko’s marriage goes through. Looking at her floral arrangement, she says that she has little skill at these things. Ono says the flowers look splendid. Setsuko laughs self-consciously.
The narrative shifts to the present, and Ono describes how, reflecting on this conversation he had with Setsuko, he feels irritated. He realizes that his irritation is not directed at Setsuko so much as it is at Suichi, her husband. Ono knows how much Suichi suffered in Manchuria and tries to show tolerance when Suichi shows signs of bitterness towards members of Ono’s generation. But Ono feels resentful all the same that Setsuko seems to share Suichi’s perspective and that this perspective has spread to Noriko. During Setsuko’s visit, he noticed that the two sisters would sometimes break off their conversation when he approached.
Ono recalls how, a few days before, Noriko told him about running into Jiro Miyake. She told Ono that she had asked Jiro if he was going to be married. Ono was shocked at Noriko’s indiscretion. She reported that Jiro had been embarrassed but had admitted that he was going to be married soon. Noriko said she almost asked Jiro why he and his family pulled out of the marriage negotiations the year before, and Ono replied that it is good she did not ask, saying that the Miyakes had explained at the time that they felt Jiro was too inferior in status to marry Noriko. Noriko said that that was just a formality, and she never learned the true reason that the courtship had ended. When Noriko said that perhaps she wasn’t pretty enough, Ono replied that it had nothing to do with her. Pointedly, Noriko said that she wonders why the Miyakes pulled out if not for any reason having to do with her.
Ono says that this exchange with Noriko reminded him of the time he ran into Jiro outside of his workplace. Jiro had looked shabby in his work clothes and had acted awkwardly as he and Ono walked to the tram and then waited for their respective trams. A week later, the Miyakes had withdrawn from marriage talks. Ono tries to analyze his encounter with Jiro for signs that it had something to do with the Miyakes’ decision to withdraw from talks. He wonders aloud to Setsuko, who is visiting again, if Jiro seemed awkward because he already knew that his family would be ending the marriage negotiations. Setsuko asks if Jiro said anything that hinted at this, but Ono cannot remember.
Ono says even a week after the conversation, he could hardly remember it. He explains that he had been preoccupied with trying to put Jiro at ease and had not paid much attention to what was said. Ono suggests to Setsuko that perhaps Jiro was self-conscious about his workplace in front of Ono and this was why he ultimately decided his status was too low to marry Noriko. Setsuko treats this theory skeptically.
Setsuko seems to have new theories, instilled in her by Suichi, for why Noriko’s marriage fell through. Since her recent visit, Ono has been thinking over his encounter with Jiro again, even though he could hardly remember it as little as a week after it occurred.
Ono recalls part of his conversation with Jiro that he hadn’t previously seen as significant. While waiting for their respective trams, Jiro told Ono that the president of his company had died. After Ono expressed his condolences, Jiro explained that the President had killed himself as an apology for the company’s activities during the war. Ono argued that such a suicide is a shame and a waste of life, and that people shouldn’t be blamed for supporting their country during a war. Jiro said that there was relief in the company and a feeling that the President’s suicide would allow the company to move on. He said many men who were responsible for the mistakes of the war were cowards compared to the President. He continued that some of the men who made the most consequential mistakes had failed to admit to their mistakes, and that this was “the greatest cowardice of all.”
As Ono reflects on that conversation now, he wonders whether Jiro really said those words. They sound much more to him like something Suichi would say and, indeed, he reflects, since he considered Jiro to be his future son-in-law at that time, he might have confused his words with something his actual son-in-law, Suichi, had said. As he reconsiders this, he becomes sure that it was Suichi who used the phrase “the greatest cowardice of all” on the evening after the ceremony for the burial of Kenji’s ashes.
The narrative turns to the day of the ceremony for the burial of Ono’s son Kenji’s ashes. The ashes do not arrive until a year after Kenji’s death and are mixed together with the ashes of other soldiers who were killed charging across a minefield in Manchuria. During the ceremony at the cemetery, Ono sees Suichi walk away looking angry. After the ceremony, Setsuko explains to Ono that Suichi has been to many similar ceremonies, and they make him angry. Ono is puzzled about why the ceremonies would do so.
Later, with the guests gathered in the reception room, Ono approaches Suichi, who is standing alone, to ask him why the ceremony made him angry. Suichi says that he is angry at the waste of life. Ono counters that Kenji died bravely. Suichi stares at him in silence, which unnerves Ono. Then Suichi says that half of his high school class died a similarly courageous death for a stupid cause. He says the people responsible for all those deaths are still alive now, enjoying great success and getting along with the American occupiers.
Looking back, Ono thinks that it was at this moment that Suichi used the phrase, saying that those who have not admitted responsibility show “the greatest cowardice of all.” Ono thinks that it was because he was drained by the ceremony that he did not try to challenge Suichi. Instead, he talks to him about his work and Ichiro. He only came to realize later that Suichi’s mood that evening was typical of him and that he no longer behaved as he had when he married Setsuko, two years before the war. Ono agrees with Suichi that too many members of his generation died in the war and understands that his experiences in Manchuria were terrible. Still, he finds it worrying that he feels such bitterness and even maliciousness towards members of the older generation.
Ono sees something of the same bitterness in the fact that the Hirayama boy has recently been beaten up for singing old military songs and chanting slogans. The Hirayama boy is actually a fifty-year-old man with developmental disabilities. He used to wander the old pleasure district during its heyday, singing patriotic songs and receiving food or money as a reward. The Hirayama boy doesn’t understand that these songs are no longer popular in the post-war period and still sings them. Ono thinks that the current climate of bitterness in the country lead people to beat the Hirayama boy. Reflecting on this, he thinks that perhaps Jiro really did make the comment about “the greatest cowardice of all.” Perhaps, he thinks, Jiro was and is just as embittered as everyone else in his generation.
Ono turns his narrative to the trip he took the day before on the tram to the Arakawa district. With its residential atmosphere Arakawa hardly felt like part of the city, and was only connected to the city in 1931, when the current tramlines were laid down.
Digressing again, Ono explains that the introduction of these tramlines stretching all the way to Arakawa gave those living in the crowded city center a way to get some space and fresh air. The expansion of the tram also led to the blossoming of the area he calls “our old pleasure district.”
Ono had been coming to the bars in the Furukawa area for twenty years before the expansion of the tramlines brought many more people to the neighborhood. In 1933 or 1934, when the authorities were in the process of shutting down decadent establishments, Ono wrote to them advocating for the transformation of a bar owned by an old veteran named Yamagata into a patriotic bar where artists and writers who supported the government could gather. The authorities responded to Ono’s idea enthusiastically, and Yamagata renovated and expanded his bar. Soon after opening the bar, which he called the Migi-Hidari, Yamagata told Ono to pick a table to be reserved for his sole use.
Ono explains that, in 1933, he had been coming to Yamagata’s place for twenty years already, starting in 1913 when he arrived in the city. In 1913, the Furukawa district was ugly, full of abandoned warehouses and shabby homes. Ono lived in an attic room where he hardly had enough space to stand up as he painted at night, causing him to splash the walls and tatami. Still, Ono was so thrilled to be making a living as an artist that he didn’t mind the squalor. During the days he worked with fifteen others in a long room above a restaurant. Master Takeda, the owner of the art firm Ono was accepted by, pressed his employees to quickly produce large numbers of paintings on a deadline. Often, they worked on two or three hours of sleep.
A year after Ono started working for Master Takeda, an artist named Yasunari Nakahara joined the firm. Nakahara never gained any reputation but went on to teach at a high school. It is a position he still holds today, because the authorities did not see any reason to replace him. Ono remembers Yasunari by his nickname, “the Tortoise.” He still has a self-portrait the Tortoise painted. The painting honestly depicts the Tortoise’s timidity and earnestness, but also gives an inflated sense of his intellect. Ono says that he has never had a colleague who could paint an absolutely honest self-portrait, since it is impossible to see oneself as others do.
The Tortoise got his nickname because he painted very slowly. In the rushed climate of the Takeda firm, the other workers became frustrated with the Tortoise’s low productivity. One day, two men began to accuse him of laziness. The Tortoise asked for their patience, but they continued to insult him. At this point, Ono stepped in and defended the Tortoise, saying he had more artistic integrity than the others because he did not rush in his work.
Looking back, Ono cannot be sure that he defended the Tortoise exactly as he has said he did. He says it may seem like he is giving himself too much credit for making an obvious point. He explains that the work produced at the Takeda Firm was meant for foreigners who wanted things that looked Japanese but who would be unlikely to notice lapses in style. Most of the employees cared only about speed, so he thinks he is not taking too much credit when he says that standing up for the Tortoise showed that he was able to think independently even if it meant going against those around him.
The narrative jumps to a couple of months after Ono intervened on the Tortoise’s behalf. Ono and the Tortoise run into one another on the grounds of the Tamagawa temple, and the Tortoise tells Ono how grateful he is for his support. Ono tells the Tortoise that he has been thinking of leaving Master Takeda’s for some time. He tells the Tortoise that he has been invited to become a pupil of the painter and printer Seiji Moriyama, who is a true artist. Ono tells the Tortoise to show his own work to Moriyama in the hopes of being accepted as a pupil.
The Tortoise is uncomfortable at Ono’s suggestion that he leave Master Takeda’s firm. He says that he got the job because of the influence of a friend of his father’s, and he could not be so disloyal. Then, realizing he has implied that Ono is being disloyal, the Tortoise becomes embarrassed. Ono says Takeda has not earned their loyalty, and he does not want to live his life blindly following others in the name of loyalty.
Reflecting on this in the present moment, Ono says he is not sure that he expressed his thoughts on loyalty to the Tortoise exactly as he says he did. He has often repeated the story of his decision to leave Takeda’s firm and his memory of the occasion may have changed over the years.
Ono says he often told the story of leaving the Takeda firm to his pupils gathered at his table at the Migi-Hidari. Ono’s brilliant pupils would get drunk around the table but always turn towards him when they thought he might impart some wisdom. On one occasion, Kuroda asked what Ono had learned from the experience at the Takeda firm, and Ono replied that he had learned the importance of questioning authority. He said he has encouraged his students to “rise above the sway of things” and evade the “undesirable and decadent influences” that have weakened the country in recent years. He said that those around the table have a right to be proud of spearheading a new “more manly” national spirit.
Ono reflects that the Migi-Hidari became a patriotic hub, where people got drunk and were merry, but with dignity. He still has a painting of Kuroda’s entitled “The Patriotic Spirit” that depicts a night of drinking at the Migi-Hidari. The painting challenges the expectation that the patriotic spirit is represented by soldiers, suggesting that there is patriotism in the way people live their daily lives. Back then, Ono reflects, Kuroda believed in such things.
These days, Ono and Shintaro often reminisce about old times as they sit drinking at Mrs. Kawakami’s place. One night, Mrs. Kawakami tells Ono he should encourage people to bring the old pleasure district back to its former glory. Ono enthusiastically supports the idea, hopeful that he can bring people back to start drinking in the area again. He hopes that perhaps Mrs. Kawakami’s place can expand and begin to serve the same function that the Migi-Hidari once served. He says that he will give this serious thought once Noriko’s future is settled.
Ono says that he has only seen his former protégé Kuroda once since the end of the war. It was in the first year of the occupation, before the pleasure district had been torn down. Ono was walking through the remains of the district in the rain, when he saw Kuroda. Kuroda’s face looked aged. He did not bow to Ono, but turned and walked away.
Ono says he would not be giving Kuroda any thought if his name had not come up when he ran into Dr. Saito last month when he took Ichiro to the monster movie. On that day, Noriko and Setsuko do not accompany them to the movie, and Ichiro says that it is because they are too scared. Ono is puzzled when Ichiro insists on bringing a rain coat with him to the theater, even though it is unlikely to rain, but he concludes that it is another of Ichiro’s ways of pretending to be an American pop culture hero. On the walk to the tram, Ichiro says to his grandfather that he has asked Noriko to show him Ono’s art, but she has refused. Ono says that the paintings are tidied away. Ichiro says that Aunt Noriko is disobedient.
On the tram, Ono and Ichiro run into Dr. Saito, the father of Taro, the man with whom Noriko is in marriage negotiations. Ono gives a little information about the Saitos: unlike the Miyakes, the Saitos are a family of stature. Ono says that he and Dr. Saito have been slightly acquainted for many years, because they both knew one another’s reputations in the art world. When they run into each other on the train, both Dr. Saito and Ono praise Mr. Kyo, who is serving as the go-between for the two families. Dr. Saito asks Ichiro questions in a friendly manner and praises him to Ono.
A little before his tram stop, Dr. Saito tells Ono that they have a mutual acquaintance: a Mr. Kuroda. Dr. Saito says that Kuroda mentioned Ono’s name. Ono says he has not seen Kuroda since before the war and asks how he is. Dr. Saito reports that Kuroda has been appointed to teach art at the new Uemachi College. He says that he himself advised the college on the appointment. He has not talked to Kuroda at length but says he will tell him that he saw Ono when they next meet. After exchanging a few more pleasantries, Dr. Saito exits the tram.
At the theater, Ono and Ichiro see the poster Ichiro copied in his drawing. Ichiro laughs and says that it is clear the monster is made up and it isn’t scary. During the film, however, Ichiro buries his head beneath his raincoat, telling Ono that the film is boring and to alert him if anything interesting happens. Ono now understands that Ichiro brought the raincoat to hide under it. But at dinner with Noriko and Setsuko that night, Ichiro says it was the best movie he has ever seen. He says that his Aunt Noriko would have been terrified. Ono mentions that they ran into Dr. Saito and that Dr. Saito had met Kuroda. He notices his daughters exchange a glance and has the sense that they have been discussing him behind his back.
After dinner, Ichiro is having trouble going to sleep. Noriko blames her father’s poor judgment in taking Ichiro to the monster movie, then goes to sit with her nephew, leaving Setsuko and Ono alone together. Setsuko says how good Noriko is with children and how sad it is that she is still unmarried. Ono agrees that the war has interrupted the normal course of Noriko’s life. Setsuko brings up Dr. Saito, and then Dr. Saito’s acquaintance with Kuroda. She says she remembers when Kuroda used to visit them and spend long hours in the reception room with her father. Then she suggests that Ono may want to visit Kuroda and certain other acquaintances from his past before the Saito’s detective does, to prevent any misunderstandings. After this, Ono and Setsuko do not discuss the matter for the rest of her visit.
The narrative again shifts to Ono’s recent tram ride to Arakawa. Ono noticed many changes to the neighborhoods he passed on the way, where new apartment blocks were being built and old factories are being abandoned. The suburb of Arakawa, however, looked the same as before the war. When he arrived at Chishu Matsuda’s house, a woman of forty answered the bell and showed him into the reception room.
Ono tells the story of the first time he met Matsuda. At the time, he had been living at Seiji Moriyama’s villa for six years. On the morning that Matsuda came to the villa and asked for him, Ono and some of the others who lived at Mori-san’s villa were drinking and playing cards. Even though they would have defended their lifestyle if they had been questioned on it, the sudden arrival of a stranger made them feel guilty about their drinking, sleeping late, and general lack of routine.
That day, Matsuda arrived at the villa and asked to speak to Ono. He told Ono that he represented the Okada-Shingen Society, which Ono explains was an organization that put on exhibitions for artists in the city. (After the war, the Society was shut down by the Americans.) Matsuda had written to Ono to invite him to participate in an exhibition, and, after consulting with his teacher, Ono had written back to decline. When he arrived at the villa, Matsuda said that they should forget the exhibition. He had not come to represent the Okada-Shingen Society, but as a true lover of art. He told Ono that he wished to discuss ideas that may benefit Ono’s development as an artist and then left Ono his card.
The narrative shifts back to the present, thirty years since that first meeting. Matsuda is helped into the reception room by the woman who answered the door. He is very ill and weak. He expresses his surprise to see Ono, saying they didn’t part on the easiest terms. Ono says he didn’t think they had quarreled. Matsuda says of course they had not quarreled, but it has been three years since they last saw one another. Ono says he has been meaning to come to visit for some time.
Matsuda apologizes for having missed Michiko’s funeral and begins to reminisce about when Michiko and Ono first came together. Ono says that Matsuda facilitated their match, since his uncle was too awkward to do it, and that Michiko was always grateful to him for it. Matsuda says how cruel it was for Michiko to be killed right at the war’s end, then says he must be making Ono sad with these reflections. Ono says it is nice to remember her with Matsuda, because it brings him back to the old days.
The woman who answered the door comes in with tea, and Matsuda introduces her as Miss Suzuki. He tells her that he and Ono were close colleagues once and tells Ono that Miss Suzuki is his nurse and housekeeper. She exits the room, and for a few moments after she leaves, Ono and Matsuda sit in silence. Ono has an urge to go look at Matsuda’s garden, which he remembers as beautiful, but realizes that Matsuda is too ill to accompany him and stays seated. Matsuda breaks the silence, saying he truly owes Miss Suzuki his life.
Matsuda says he has been lucky not to have lost his savings and assets in the war, although he has lost his health. He says he would share with an old colleague in need, especially since he has no heirs. Ono laughs and says this is not why he has come. Matsuda tells the story of a colleague of his who is now reduced to begging from old friends.
Ono tells Matsuda the reason he has come: his daughter Noriko is in marriage talks and someone may approach Matsuda to ask about the family. He asks Matsuda if anyone approached him last year, and Matsuda says he was very ill and wasn’t seeing anyone, but he would only have had nice things to say then, and only has nice things to say about Ono now. Still, he says, he is glad that this concern of Ono’s brought them back together. Matsuda says that Ono still looks uneasy.
Matsuda tells Ono that he has already assured him that he will only say good things. Ono repeats how delicate the marriage talks may be. After a pause, Matsuda sighs and says that he understands that there are some people these days who would condemn what they had tried to do, but he believes that they have much to be proud of. Still, he says, he will exercise delicacy in discussing the past. Matsuda asks who else Ono has visited. Ono tells him he is the first person he has come to see, because he doesn’t know where the rest of their old colleagues are. Matsuda says that, if Ono is concerned about the past, he should probably seek out Kuroda, even if it will be painful for them to meet again. Ono says he has no idea where Kuroda is. Matsuda replies that he hopes the detective is equally unable to find him. Then he says that Ono looks quite pale. Ono says that he is just worried about his daughter’s marriage. Matsuda says that he wonders if he made a mistake in never marrying and having children, but children seem to bring mostly stress. Ono agrees. Soon after, Miss Suzuki comes in to tell Matsuda it is time to rest. Waiting for the tram from Arakawa after this visit, Ono is comforted that Matsuda will speak positively about him. He feels it was worthwhile to reestablish contact with his old colleague.