The Frog

   Shortly before taking to my bed for good, I visited the hot spring resort of Shuzenji. I was already much debilitated at the time but did not, myself, think it was so serious. All little rest, I felt, and I should soon be well again. Hot springs as such were, if anything, bad for a wasting illness like mine, and my only aim was to be alone amidst quiet surroundings. My previous acquaintance with Shuzenji was limited to a single night’s stay; I had no special brief for the place, having decided on it solely because word had come from the inn at my original destination, saying that they could not take me.
       Arrived at the inn, I was utterly disillusioned before the day was out, and regretted ever having come. The room I was put in was abominable. Near the farthest end of the third floor, it was utterly innocent of sunlight from morning to night, and with the paper screens shut I found it strain, even during the brightest hours of the early afternoon, to read the pocket editions I had brought with me. There was a chill in the mountain air, though it was barely mid-autumn. I must have had a touch of fever, for each time the dank breeze struck my neck it sent a shiver through my body. Worse still, from time to time a change in the wind brought an insufferable stink of the privy. In me―as, I imagine, in everybody―physical weakness quickly renders all odors worthy of the name, fragrant as well as unpleasant, intolerable. So I had, perforce, to close the screens and shut myself up all day in the gloom within.
         From time to time I would get up, open the screens, and gaze enviously at the bright, sunny rooms opposite, my eyes dwelling on the people stretched out on sofas on their spacious verandahs. The inn was clearly not overcrowded. I was no sudden, unheralded guest, but had arranged things by letter before my arrival, I summoned the maid and tried to negotiate a change of room, but got nowhere for my pains.
           The unaccompanied staying guest, the bête noire of this type of inn―that was what I was. However many better rooms might be vacant, they were served for the guests who brought their women, had their fun, and left again immediately. I remembered a hot spring resort I had visited spring, during a tour of the rural areas of Fukushima Prefecture on business for a broadcasting company. One of the locals had taken me there, and we already had our shoes off and were inside the inn before they found that only one of us was staying. “In that case, no rooms are available,” I was promptly told, and was swept out of the place like dust before bloom. The new rich, the armaments boys, lorded it everywhere; the person who wanted to be alone to read, or to nurse a bruised mind and body, had no chance. For all that, the journal of the hot-spring innkeepers association, which they sometimes sent to us, was urging innkeepers at hot springs to awake to “their new responsibilities toward the nation’s health in these changing times.”
             I had been telling myself repeatedly of late that I should not get angry over trivialities, that one of my failings was getting excited over nothing, that nothing, was more harmful to mind and body than anger. But rage welled up in me uncontrollably. Illness, I suppose, had weakened my resistance to it. The thought of how I had pinched and scraped to make the trip possible and how I had looked forward to it made me irritated by the mere sight of the books I had brought with me to read. Ill temper was, transcended and something almost vicious insinuated itself in its place. I had absolutely no appetite. At such times as she saw fit, a stony-faced, surly maid would enter without a word and silently thrust at me a board on which the menu had been written, and in silence also I would stub my finger at one of the items, without even the pretence of examining them.
               Even the effort to look for another inn was too much for me. Nor, on the other hand, could I summon the resolve to get out and go home.
                 It came about naturally, thus, that on most days my time, save at meals, was spent outside. I visited a hill on which stood the tomb of a famous historical personage, a park, a plum blossom garden, and other such places, where I would pass the time squatting aimlessly in some sunny spot till it was time to go back.
                   One day, I walked upstream along the Katsura River. I went some distance, then came back again. Feeling tired, I was looking for a place to sit when I saw, lying by the roadside at a spot directly overlooking the river, a large stone. It was about half the size of at a tatami mat, and its top was perfectly flat. I sat on it and wiped the sweat off my forehead. It was a bright autumn afternoon with not a soul in sight. With a vague, almost light-headed sensation, I gazed idly down at the river. At a point just equidistant from both banks a sandbank broke the water. It was neither very long nor very broad, and the waters soon closed their ranks again beyond it.
                     The river was deeper on this side of it, and a large number of rocks caused the water to form small still pools or to rush by in a flurry of white foam.The river bed was invisible. The water near the opposite bank was shallow, and the rock of the riverbed smooth as a board, so that the stream there ran swiftly and silently.
                       I was gazing at the scene absent-mindedly when suddenly, on the sandbank, I sighted a living creature. At first it looked almost like a lump of earth, but it moved sluggishly, and I realized what it was. More careful inspection showed it to be a reddish-colored frog, and a particularly large specimen at that―at least as big as a small toad. Perhaps it was warming its back in the sun? But its back was wet, its reddish-brown color showing clear and bright. Raising its hindquarters ponderously, the frog started to walk slowly, very slowly, towards the stream on the other side. He reached the edge of the sandbank, then halted. He appeared to be resting when, quite suddenly, he plunged into the shallow but swift current.
                         “Plunged” is the right word for the way he dived. His long, springy looking hind legs kicked against something―whether earth or air there was no time to tell―shot out straight again, and before I realized it he had jumped a considerable distance out into the stream. Nothing could be more different from the heavy-hindquartered, sluggish impression he had given a moment before. Something in me seemed to awaken; a draught of fresh air seemed to blow away not merely the faintness I had felt from walking so far, but the low spirits of the past few days with it.
                           The frog was swimming ahead for all he was worth, trying to reach the opposite bank. The stream was not very wide, but the current, as I have said, was swift. With his head thrust against the current he had swum about half the distance, to the point where the pull of the water looked the strongest, when, in an instant, he was swept away. He struggled for a moment as he went, then in a flash disappeared from view, swallowed up under the waters. Startled, I reverted my eyes on the surface. Then, to my surprise, he bobbed up again in a different, unexpected place. He had attached himself to the tip of the sandbank, scrambling up onto it with difficulty at the furthermost point, where it disappeared again into the water.
                             He climbed up onto the sandbank, where he sat resting. It seemed to me that I could see his large belly heaving as he panted for breath. Soon, he started walking. At an infinitely leisurely pace, he walked to the place where I had first spotted him, and sat crouched there.
                               Time spent gazing at one spot, waiting for something to happen, always passes slowly. It seemed an age, thus―though it was probably less than five minutes in fact―before he moved again. He moved toward the stream, as before. Just as before, he leapt in. He swam for all he was worth, was swept away, disappeared under the water, reached the tip of the sandbank, scrambled up, returned to his starting point, and squatted down again―everything an exact repetition of his previous behavior. Then, as I watched intently, obsessed by now with curiosity, he set off yet again in the direction of the stream.
                                 I remembered how his back had been shiny and wet-looking when I first caught sight of him. That meant I had not witnessed the beginning. There was no telling how many times he had repeated the process before I saw him.
                                   “The fool!” I thought, bursting out laughing.
                                     The frog wanted to get to the opposite bank. Yet there was no need for him to single out the point where he was now trying to cross. There were other places besides this particular spot where the flat, board-1ike bed of rock made the water flow so fast. Immediately upstream from this rapid stretch, the river was slow and stagnant, as though it were resting there, piling up its waters in readiness for the shallow rapids to follow. There was even a largish willow tree trailing its branches over the still pool thus formed―surely, an ideal setting for a frog. Why should he make no move to cross by the pool?
                                       Even as I was thinking these things, the frog came back from yet another failure. I began to feel bored. I picked up some stones from the road and began to throw them at the sandbank―not wanting to hit the frog, but to startle him, to give him occasion to look about him and use his wits. Many of the stones landed around him. Some fell into the rapid waters. Some fell into the pool, with louds plashes that seemed, almost, to be trying to attract his attention. The frog raised his head as though startled; he halted briefly in his tracks; but in the end he continued on his predetermined course. He went on diving in and swimming.
                                         I gave up throwing stones and sat down on my rock once more. The autumn sun had grown dimmer, and the shadier parts of the hills and woods were acquiring an almost bluish look. I ought to go home before it began to get chilly. Yet still I lingered.
                                           Gradually, wonder was stealing over me. Quite obviously, the frog was perfectly aware of everything he was doing. He was motivated by a will, an implacable will, of his own. A small animal, with its delicate instincts of self-preservation, could hardly fail to be aware of the easiest place to cross, which was the small pool of still water just upstream. He was plunging wide-eyed into difficulty, with a particular aim, a conscious intent. He was tackling something beyond his powers, struggling with it, in the attempt to conquer it. It occurred to me that beneath the waters of that small pool there might lurk some creature that would gulp down a frog swimming over it, that the shadow of the great willow might harbor a snake that would swallow it up from above. But it seemed more natural at the time to ignore such possibilities, and go on thinking as before. That fitted in much better with how I felt.
                                             The frog was still repeating the same action. At first it had amused me to count―“six times, seven times”―but I soon gave it up. As the shadows began to draw over the sunlight on the water, the frog’s actions seemed to acquire an almost desperate quality. The brief rests before he tried again seemed to be getting shorter each time. Then, just once, it seemed he was almost at the other bank; but he was carried away again, nonetheless. Perhaps it had been a final rallying of all his energy, for from then on his strength waned visibly and he let himself be carried away feebly by the stream each time. His energy seemed to drain away with gathering moment, like a cart running downhill.
                                               The breeze had suddenly turned chilly; I got to my feet in disgust: this particular frog would never make it. I stood up and straightened the hem of my kimono. I gave a last glance at the river.
                                                 My eyes widened in surprise. In those few brief moments the frog had disappeared from sight. I waited for him to surface again, clinging to the tip of the sandbank, but this time in vain. I could not believe that he had at last succeeded in reaching the opposite bank. Reluctant to leave without knowing, I scanned the river again and again before finally moving from the spot.
                                                   I had barely gone ten yards downstream when I came across him again in unexpected place. This time he was directly below my eyes, close to the nearer bank. The water there was deep and studded with countless rocks, between which water sidetracked from the foaming torrent shook and swirled. The frog had fallen into a deep pool in the shadow of one of these rocks. The process was clear: he had lost the strength to cling to the tip of the sandbank when the water washed him away, and had let himself be carried downstream. The flow where the waters converged again beyond the sandbank was broad and strong, and had swept the frog up against the bank on this side. His situation by now was pitiful. He was completely at the mercy of the rocking waves. He seemed to be keeping above the water with difficulty, and it was evident, from the way he was being drawn ceaselessly toward a whirlpool not far from where he floated, that I was witnessing a life-or-death struggle. There was only one course left to him―to clamber up the rock. But the surface was almost sheer, and slippery with slime into the bargain. In the water, his long hind-legs were useless for jumping; all he could do was flex them feebly. Occasionally he would get his front legs into a small hollow in the rock, only to be flipped over immediately, his red-spotted yellow belly writhing helplessly. I thought of thrusting a long stick or something out to him, but none was to be found in the vicinity. There was nothing for it but to stay where I was and watch the outcome.
                                                     Soon, the frog made what seemed a final effort to fling himself onto the rock. He flopped over and, yellow belly uppermost, slipped out of sight with no sign of resistance, gently almost, swallowed up in the whirlpool. I trotted down by the stream, my eyes fixed on the water where I thought he might reappear. But this time he came to the surface no more.
                                                       Everything about me seemed suddenly hushed, as though it had died. The dusk had, in fact, grown suddenly deeper. I walked, still dwelling as I went on the events I had just witnessed. The fate of the frog, sunk beneath the waves, his energy spent after that incomprehensible autumn evening’s battle, struck me as tragic rather than comic. What was the implacable force that had driven him on? I still did not understand. Nor was it likely that I should do so. Yet I could not but believe that there was something more in it than the instinctive urge to live. The way he had crouched quite still before acting, the way he had plunged headlong into the swift current, his appearance of relief as he clung to the tip of the sandbank―in all these I detected the expression of an inner purpose, of a thinking mind even. They affected me as they would have done, observed in a human being. Such an effect could only derive from a being acting with a sense of clear-cut purpose. Even more was this true of that last moment as he sank beneath the waters. There was something of the despair of the warrior who sees his sword broken, his arrows spent; of the submission to fate of one who has fought to the limit of his powers; of the peace, even, that can come only in such circumstances. All this, not in a horse, a dog, a cat, or one of the other beasts that share their lives with human beings―but a frog. Even a frog, the thought struck me forcibly, could produce such an effect.
                                                         A scientist studying the habits of animals might well give a surprisingly simple explanation. He might explain it in terms of the practical exigencies of a frog’s life. The explanation might even have the nature of an exposure, mocking my stupidity in ever thinking that the act of tackling the impossible could in itself be a frog’s conscious aim. I do not believe that my view is necessarily correct. I do not care, even, if the zoologist’s explanation is right. The fact that a small animal such as a frog could produce such a deep impression―the deep impression itself―is in all likelihood something no scientist can ever completely explain.
                                                           I was filled with a strong sense of the mystery of the natural world. It was something which I had not felt for many a long day. It is true that my thoughts occasionally dwell on the heavenly bodies, or the universe, that I try reshaping my ideas in relation to them; it may be a form of escapism, but it invariably produces a sense of enlightenment, of salvation. This time was different. Yet it had something in common, in that it induced a solemn, pious, invigorated frame of mind, and with it a sense of some invisible will in which I could trust.
                                                             I returned to the inn in a completely different mood from when I left. Neither the dark, cold, smelly room nor the unhelpfulness of the people there troubled me any longer. For a while at least I could forget the vulgarities of the world and of life.
                                                               The next day I left the area, without having read even one of the books 1 had brought with me, taking nothing with me but the memory of the frog, locked deep in my heart.
                                                                 Even after illness had sent me to bed for long to come, I still encountered the frog in my dreams. It is rare for me to see color in my dreams. Yet the frog's red belly with its yellow spots, upturned as he sank beneath the water, had an almost uncanny vividness.
                                                                                      Translated by John Bester

                                                                      “Aka gaeru”(The Frog) first appeared in January, 1946 in Ningen (Human) magazine. Published after his death, this is among the works written towards the end of the war while he fought with his lung tuberculosis. The protagonist observes a frog during his stay at a hot spring for recuperation in Shuzenji Onsen. The frog tries to reach the farther bank of a rapid current from a sandbar, jumping in vain time after time into the running water. The frog ends up dying in the wave showing the yellow belly. The author mirrors his inner feelings of himself as he was forced to politically convert as the protagonist of this novel watches the frog.
                                                                        “Aka gaeru” was translated into English and published by The Japan P.E.N. Club in December, 1962. (From The Japan P.E.N. News, No.10, 1962)

                                                                            SHIMAKI Kensaku
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                                                                            SHIMAKI Kensaku

                                                                            SHIMAKI Kensaku Novelist. September 7, 1903 - August 17, 1945. Born in Sapporo City, Hokkaido Prefecture. His father deceased, Kensaku was raised by his mother. Leaving college before graduation, Kensaku joined a leftist agrarian movement. He was stricken by pulmonary tuberculosis from which he suffered all his life. Triggered by his arrest by the police, he renounced his earlier political beliefs in 1929, and in 1934 the publication of his first work, Rai (Leprosy) was published, which set “conversion” as a theme of his literature. His representative work, the novel Seikatsu no Tankyu (Quest for Life), appeared in 1937. From 1942 until his illness felled him, he continued his creative activity and in 1945 passed away after two days of defeat. Together with NAKANO Shigeharu, HAYASHI Fusao, and others, he is known as a writer of Tenkou Bungaku (Ideological Conversion Literature), which reveals varying degrees, under pressure from the authorities in the war years, of abandoning leftist thought and approving fascism and ultra-nationalism.

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