a+ a- print

A Mirror

(This essay was first published in the November 1978 issue of My Life, a Japanese women's magazine1 )

I have a mirror. I always keep it with me. Actually, it's nothing more than a piece of broken glass about the size of my palm. The back is covered with little scratches, but that doesn't prevent it from reflecting whatever is put in front of it. A piece of broken mirror, somewhat on the thick side, the kind you could probably find on any trash heap.

It's anything but trash to me. My parents were married in the fourth year of the Taisho era (1915), and my mother as part of her trousseau brought along a mirror stand fitted with a very nice mirror. How many times it must have reflected the face of the young bride, casting back an image clear and undistorted. Twenty years or so later, however, the mirror somehow or other got broken. My eldest brother Kiichi happened to be home at the time, and he and I sorted over the fragments and picked out two of the larger ones to set aside as keepsakes.

Not long after that, the war broke out. My four elder brothers one by one went off to the front, some to fight in China, others in Southeast Asia. My mother, her four oldest sons taken away from her, tried not to show her grief; but she seemed to grow suddenly old. Then the air raids on Tokyo began and soon they were a daily occurrence. I could hardly bear to look at my mother's face. As though it might somehow help to protect her life, I kept the piece of mirror always with me, sticking it carefully inside my shirt as I dodged my way through the incendiary bombs that fell all around us.

Eventually, when the war ended, we received notification that my eldest brother had been killed in the fighting in Burma. I thought at once of the piece of mirror I knew he must have carried in the breast pocket of his uniform. I could imagine him, during a lull in the fighting, taking it out and looking at his unshaven face in it, thinking longingly of his mother at home. I know how he must have felt, because I have a piece of the mirror too, and when I look at it, it brings back memories of my brother.

In the dark and troubled times after Japan's defeat, I left home and moved into lodgings. The room was small, bare, and ugly, but I was too poor to do anything to fix it up. Of course it had no mirror, but fortunately I had my piece of broken mirror with me. I kept it in a drawer of my desk. Every morning before I went to work I would take it out and use it while I examined my skinny face, shaved, combed my hair, and plastered it with pomade to make it stay in place. Once each day, when I held the mirror in my hand, I couldn't help thinking of my mother, even if I hadn't wanted to. Almost unconsciously, I would find myself thinking, Good morning, Mother!

Thinking of his mother once a day--I guess it's the best way for a young man to keep from going wrong. Japanese society at that time was in a state of moral and psychological collapse. Fortunately I managed to avoid falling into the kind of despair and hopelessness that might have led me to do anything self-destructive. I owe it to that battered piece of mirror.

There were times when the mirror told me that the color in my face was not good, that I wasn't looking well. With this as a warning, I would use a few extra rice rationing stamps and get two servings when I went to the lunchroom to eat. There were other times when I stared at my reflection in the mirror, noting the sinister way my cheekbones stuck out, and shuddered with disgust. And at still other times, when I happened to be in a good mood, I would smile to myself in the mirror and break into a soft whistle. In a sense, my mother's care and concern were always with me those days, though they didn't come to me in words. The piece of mirror showed me how I was faring day by day and kept me going on the right path.

When my teacher Josei Toda was nineteen years old, he made up his mind to leave the little village in Hokkaido where he had been born and go to Tokyo. At that time his mother gave him an embroidered jacket. As long as he had the jacket, as long as he wore it when he was working, she told him, he would be able to overcome any difficulties he might encounter. It was white with a dark blue pattern, an intricate embroidery stitched with great care, and all his mother's love and devotion seemed to be stitched in with it. He kept it all his life.

He was imprisoned during the latter years of the war, but in 1945, when the war ended, he was finally released and allowed to return to his home. They say that when he discovered that his house had escaped being burned down in the air raids and that the embroidered jacket was still safe, he told his wife that they need have no more worries. Since the jacket had escaped harm, he knew things would be all right from then on.

An old jacket, a broken mirror, but both of them capable of conveying a mother's prayers. They have a strange power in them that can support and buoy up the human heart when it falters. No doubt many of you will laugh and say, what old-fashioned sentimentality! But to me there is nothing the least bit old-fashioned about the feelings. The jacket and the mirror, they are the only things that have gone out of date.

In 1952, when I married, my wife brought along with her a brand-new mirror stand, and from that time on I looked at my face in the new mirror. One day I came upon my wife with the piece of old mirror in her hand, examining it with a look of puzzlement on her face. She was probably wondering why anyone would keep such a worthless piece of junk around, one which wouldn't even do to amuse a child with. When I saw that the mirror was likely to end up in the trash basket if I didn't speak up, I told my wife about the history attached to it, of the link it formed with my mother and with the brother who had been killed in the war. Somewhere she managed to find a neat little box made of paulownia wood and stored the piece of mirror away in it. The mirror is still safe in its box today.

Even an old fountain pen, if it happened to have belonged to some great writer, is looked on with awe and reverence by the people of later times, for they feel that somehow it is capable of revealing the secrets of the great man's masterpieces.

The piece of broken mirror, whenever I look at it, speaks to me about those hard to describe days of my youth, my mother's prayers, and the sad fate of my eldest brother, and will continue to do so as long as I live.