Ko Un - Headmaster Abe

Headmaster Abe Sudomu, from Japan:
a fearsome man, with his round glasses,
fiery-hot like hottest pimentos.
When he came walking clip-clop down the hallway
with the clacking sound of his slippers
cut out of a pair of old boots,
he cast a deathly hush over every class.
In my second year during ethics class
he asked us what we hoped to become in the future.
Kids replied:
I want to be a general in the Imperial Army!
I want to become an admiral!
I want to become another Yamamoto Isoroko!
I want to become a nursing orderly!
I want to become a mechanic in a plane factory
and make planes
to defeat the American and British devils!
Then Headmaster Abe asked me to reply.
I leaped to my feet:
I want to become the Emperor!
Those words were no sooner spoken
than a thunderbolt fell from the blue above:
You have formally blasphemed the venerable name
of his Imperial Majesty: you are expelled this instant!
On hearing that, I collapsed into my seat.
But the form-master pleaded,
my father put on clean clothes and came and pleaded,
and by the skin of my teeth, instead of expulsion,
I was punished by being sent to spend a few months
sorting through a stack of rotten barley
that stood in the school grounds,
separating out the still useable grains.
I was imprisoned every day in a stench of decay
and there, under scorching sun and in beating rain,
I realized I was all alone in the world.
Soon after those three months of punishment were over,
during ethics class Headmaster Abe said:
We're winning, we're winning, we're winning!
Once the great Japanese army has won the war, in the future
you peninsula people will go to Manchuria, go to China,
and take important positions in government offices!
That's what he said.
Then a B-29 appeared,
and as the silver 4-engined plane passed overhead
our Headmaster cried out in a big voice:
They're devils! That's the enemy! he cried fearlessly.
But his shoulders drooped.
His shout died away into a solitary mutter.
August 15 came. Liberation.
He left for Japan in tears.

Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé