Three minutes into A Man, you already know that Rie (Sakura Ando), who is minding her mother’s stationery shop in rural Miyazaki prefecture, will be dating the guy (Masataka Kubota) who walks into her shop one depressingly rainy afternoon. Rie is a single mom, having divorced her husband some years ago and she’s living with her young son and widowed mother. You can tell Rie doesn’t have much joy in her life. You can tell that this guy – Daisuke – has even less joy, even emotionally stunted. Of course, they hit it off. Then it’s three years later and Daisuke and Rie are married, with a new baby in their family. Life seems to be going incredibly well for them until Daisuke is killed in an accident. At the one-year memorial, his estranged older brother turns up from Gunma prefecture, clear across on the other side of Japan. Rie shows him Daisuke’s photo and he immediately says: “Who is that? That’s not Daisuke at all. That’s a completely different man.”
Memo: Spoilers ahead. Read at your own peril but stay if you want insightinto the greater themes of the book and movie.
An occurrence like this happens more often than you may think, even in a super-ordered and family-oriented society like Japan. According to the Metropolitan Police Agency, between 80,000 and 90,000 people disappear annually in Japan, and those are just the numbers based on reports filed by their families. Many of these missing persons end up as suicides or like Daisuke, goes off the radar to live a completely different life. Legally, if a person has gone missing for 7 years the spouses and families become eligible for their life insurance. This is why some people opt to disappear instead of committing suicide, the reasoning being that after seven years at least their families will get a substantial payout whereas most life insurance policies have a suicide clause.
The reasons for disappearing varies but in many cases, money is a key factor. Debt, bankruptcy or sheer poverty. In Japan, once a person slips up financially, the odds of resurfacing are dismally low. It’s often simpler to disappear, change your name and assume a new identity, which is what Daisuke seems to have done.
Based on the bestseller novel by Keiichiro Hirano and directed by Kei Ishikawa, A Man explores the world of identity scams, imposter syndrome and the ‘oyagacha phenomenon (the notion that one’s birth parents are like a box of chocolates; you just don’t know what you’re getting until it’s too late) that has become a reason and excuse for many of the ills of the Japanese existence. Failed in the university entrance exams? Failed in multiple relationships and can’t get married? Failed to land a high-paying job and now life is screwed? It all has do with oyagacha and how, if you don’t have the right lineage, you may as well give up and wallow in misery.
Daisuke suffers from oyagacha on turbo wheels. His past is revealed in tragic, harrowing increments by Kido (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a lawyer whom Rie hired to look into her late husband’s past. Understandably, she wants to know the real identity of the man she married and loved for the past three years. Intriguingly, Rie’s mother and son, now a teenager, doesn’t oppose her in this quest to dredge up what is effectively a pile of dirty laundry. In real life if something like this got out in a rural area, Rie’s son will be bullied relentlessly at school and her mother will be forced to close down the family stationery store out of shame. Yes, it’s that bad.
But in A Man, her family is actually supportive of Rie and by implication, the lawyer Kido. This is because Hirano is an advocate of the ‘bunjin’ or the ‘dividual,’ as opposed to the individual. Every one of Hirano’s books have dealt with the ‘bunjin’ in one or another, as a way to survive in modern Japan. The idea is to have multiple personalities, each specific to dealing with people and situations in the outer world. Instead of being locked into a restricting and uncompromising ‘me,’ multiple personalities enables the person to become more relaxed and fluid in their approach to life. Hirano has argued that the ‘bunjin’ method could be the only means to escape from ‘oyagacha.’ And by constantly updating the many bunjin in your mental stable, you can finally tell fate, destiny and parents to go f#ck themselves.
After Kido’s investigations, it turns out that Daisuke was a young boxer named Makoto Hara. Hara was his mother’s maiden name. Makoto/Daisuke grew up in an orphanage because his mother abandoned him after his father was arrested for a triple murder and put on death row. If anyone had the right to complain about oyagacha, it was Makoto/Daisuke, for his upbringing was nothing short of a horror show. He got into boxing because he wanted to batter himself to the point of becoming unrecognizable. In one scene, Makoto weeps that he wants to tear off his face because it resembles his father’s visage.
The more Kido digs into Makoto/Daisuke’s past, the more dirt he shovels up about the thriving identity business where desperate people buy and sell their birth names as a means to escape their lives. Initially Kido is mildly repelled by the identity scam game before getting becoming inordinately fascinated. That’s because Kido himself is a victim in the ‘oyagacha’ game – he’s a third generation ‘Zainichi (Japanese Korean resident)’ – and likely to be reminded of his ancestry more often than he’d like to admit. His in-laws for example, have no qualms about making racist remarks right in his presence, then following up with “but you’re third generation so of course you’re practically one of us.”
The ending scene is both poignant and abrasive. Kido has finally put Makoto/Daisuke’s case to rest but in the process, discovers that his own reality has become skewed and uncomfortable, like a once-beloved jacket that no longer fits. The story however, doesn’t leave Kido stranded. Now that Kido knows the ins and outs of the identity scam game, he too, can choose to disappear and become a completely different someone else. Before the ending credits roll, we see that the temptation is already there.
Back in May when we had lunch, my sister Rinko – who is eight years older than me – fessed up about a guy in her life. “He’s working in the washoku diner around the corner,” she said. “He’s much younger than I am, maybe he’s in his twenties even. I can’t be sure since I’ve only seen him in the light in the diner. He’s always masked up and it’s dark in there.”
In his twenties.
I was so embarrassed for my sis. She looks young for her age but she’s pushing fifty and married for over a quarter of a century to my brother-in-law who is an extraordinarily decent guy. They have a daughter together. They have a grandkid together. I rolled my eyes so hard they were falling out of their sockets. “What are you, fucking crazy? You ARE crazy. I don’t even want to know you. We are not related, okay?” I said this in English because I was born in New York and came back to Tokyo when I had just turned eight and Rinko was fifteen. My sister remained completely bilingual while I had to relearn the language when I went off to Cali for graduate school. As we grew into adulthood, English became a private code to our interminable conversations. We pulled it out whenever we had news to share, was happy or sad, pissed off at each other or at the world. In other words, most times we talked. Rinko was much, much more adept at the language than I am which was embarrassing because I was the one who went to graduate school in the States and now teach economics at a posh university here in Tokyo.
Rinko looked at me, and I gotta say, my sister has these amazing eyes which nothing ever mucks up. Not all-nighters at work, various onenight stands her husband knows nothing about, the horrible crying jags when things go haywire in her life, her bipolar issues which have gone untreated and is most likely causing a lot of trouble that she will never admit to. Nothing pollutes those eyes. Every time I look into my them, so different from mine because I have the typical Japanese hooded slits instead of those dark, translucent marbles of hers. Whenever things go wrong in her life I look into her eyes like an optometrist and examine the damage, gauge her condition. This diner guy was bad news on steroids but – I could tell she’s going to be fine.
When I was 14 my teammates from the soccer club used to come over and hang around our kitchen in the hopes that Rinko, then a senior at university, would come home and open the fridge for a drink and banter a little, looking straight at them with her huge eyes, tossing her hair and swaying her hips a little as she padded out of the kitchen. Man, I could see them now, secretly drooling at the sight of my sister. When I was 17, my own girlfriend told me she liked talking to Rinko more than she liked talking to me. At the time, Rinko
2 was 25 and the mother of a 2-year old. To me, she was just an older woman who was settling down. Twenty five, that was OLD, right? My girlfriend had to be insane. But then, throughout her whole life people had taken to Rinko for reasons I never quite understood. I remember how, when we were living in Brooklyn, Rinko had a small cluster of guys who followed her around and called her ‘Rinnie.’ Sometimes one or another of them – twins from a brood of kids sired by a vicious Irish cop, Matteo from the Italian bakery, Benjie walking his huge German Shepherd – would spy me in the yard playing by myself and yell out, ‘Yo, baby bro, where’s Rinnie?’
Those eyes goddamn it.
According to Rinko this new guy seems pretty audacious and audacious always gets far with my sister. She said he doesn’t play games – because he has no time for mind fuckery. He’s a chef which means among other things, 14-hour days, six days a week. “He’s so nice,” she croons. “He always comes straight to my table and hangs around talking,” she says. “He’s always telling me that I’m adorable. Really, that just doesn’t happen at my age.”
“No kidding.” I lay the sarcasm on thick and say, “So he knows you’re a grandma right? I mean, he’s seen you around with family right? I mean, even I’ve gone to that diner with you guys. If he’s in his twenties, you and his mom could be the same age. You ARE aware of that right? And what would Mika (my niece, her daughter) think about it? I mean, get it together, sis. The diner is like, right there. You may as well be fucking the guy in the middle of your living room.”
My sister blinked, her long lashes briefly obscuring her pupils before they flared open. “Of course he knows the family! He’s paid me compliments with Shinji standing just a meter away. He’s always very solicitous around us. I’m not hiding anything from this guy and I’m not fucking him!”
Not yet you mean. But you will.
Shinji is my sister’s husband. He’s like, top-tier engineer in a company known as the Japanese equivalent of Space X and as such, he’s respected and solid in a way Rinko could never hope to be. She works in advertising and writes ad copy and columns on the web and gets paid peanuts for her trouble. Everything she earns, she spends on her daughter, her grandkid, food, clothing, trips, drinks, not necessarily in that order. Shinji has taken care of the mortgage, car payments and other big ticket items. He doesn’t drink and is very careful with money. Rinko always said that if they got divorced she’d be homeless in a month.
I give a disgusted sigh and turn away. It’s not nice to contemplate one’s own flesh and blood is a shameless middle-aged slut. At the same time though, I can’t help a tiny, almost indistinct wave of pride lapping at my insides. My sister – well, she’s different. She’s unlike any woman I’ve ever known and I’ve known my fair share of them.
As a teenager she was unpredictable in unpredictable ways – fearless and cowering and nasty and innocent: a combo that many in the male species found inexplicably alluring. Her homeroom teacher had a thing for her apparently. She consecutively failed every subject except English and he let that slide and kept her in his class for three years until graduation rolled around. In her report card, he commented on the “beauty and intelligence of her enormous eyes.” Yeah, he got it bad. Sometimes in the mornings when she was sprinting to get to the school gates before they closed (Rinko is chronically late, has been her whole life) this teacher would materialize out of nowhere and hold the gate open so she wouldn’t get into trouble. Men were like that around Rinko but she was 17 then. Of course they would fall over each other to get into a teenager’s pants. But now she’s pushing 50, I wanted to yell. Don’t fall for the eyes thing – this is a woman way, way past her prime.
When I was at university and Rinko turned 30, she asked me whether she would be okay from here on in. “So scared at gettin’ older, I’m only good at being young” she sang, from the John Mayer album which she loved. Then she said she didn’t think she could swing being middle aged. “I could stand being married to the same man for
5 years and years. I could probably stand having facial hair and wrinkles. I could handle being invisible to men because I’m old. But I can’t stand everything coming on at once. It’s starting to happen already. I’m not the same me anymore. I want to just disappear.”
Being a youngster and completely wrapped up in my own life, I scoffed at Rinko’s predilections and told her to put a lid on it. “Of course you’ll get old, everyone does. Get over yourself. You’re a mother for god’s sakes. Pull yourself together and think about your daughter.”
Two decades on I stick by my advice but I also realize I was being unfair. Because Rinko was a devoted and dedicated mother. Outwardly she was very loyal to Shinji. After Mika she had two miscarriages and she said she didn’t want the trauma of pregnancies anymore even though she loved babies and was very good around them. She redoubled her efforts to be present and aware as a wife and mom. She worked hard. She did all the heavy lifting as far as home and family were concerned and I never heard her complain.
Shinji left their apartment every morning at 7 and returned at midnight – the typical hours of an elite Japanese salariman – but he was around on weekends to be with his wife and daughter and help out around the house which surprised my parents to no end. “What a wonderful husband,” my mother told Rinko. “Make sure he gets plenty of meat meals and be careful some young woman doesn’t come along and snatch him up. Remember that you’re getting on. You’re not young anymore.” At every turn, my mother reminded Rinko of her age and ordered her to buy supplements and wrinkle cream and reading glasses. At 30, Rinko was told to prepare for menopause.
Rinko blinked and said nothing, as was her way of dealing with our mother. Privately, she said to me: “I don’t care about my workload, this way the weekdays are all mine. I think I have a pretty sweet deal. It’s a holy trinity of work, independence and freedom. It probably won’t get any better than this.”
Word got around that she slept with a client and then another. Someone told a friend of mine that he saw my sister getting soused at a bar in Shinjuku with a much older foreigner, and they were clearly on ‘more than friendly terms.’ ” And then the friend told me with a half smirk, “you know, you should reign in your sister a little. She’s not young anymore and she could get into real trouble.”
None of it reached Shinji because he occupied a completely separate space in society and was generally oblivious about personal issues to begin with. He loved Rinko but he just wasn’t interested about what went on in her head or how desperate she could get. He’s not a bad person, but as an engineer he had a hearty disdain for emotions. He just assumed, because my sister was functioning as an adult and a mother, everything was okay. He was and remains, an inordinately dense man. Which was all for the best. Anyone more sensitive or in tune to what Rinko was thinking would have chucked her out long ago.
Still, he broke down when she died. His grief was terrible to witness but then so was mine. In many ways, I know we blame each other for the way Rinko just upped and left us all. I haven’t spoken to him in years.
Rinko never tried to protect herself – she exposed herself to the raging elements and believed the universe would have her back. I told her time and again that she shouldn’t test fate like that because it was bound to catch up with her. She looked straight at me and said: “You know what the opposite of fate is? It’s freedom.”
After spending all my impressionable years with front row seats to my sister’s drama nothing much shook my equilibrium. We’re way different, I told myself. It’s not like I’m responsible for her, we just happen to be siblings that’s all.
I took off for a doctorate degree at UC Berkeley and didn’t come back to Tokyo for five years. Rinko and I kept in touch but it was all polite and familial. She could be like that when circumstances warranted, cut the drama and be a placid Japanese. I was relieved. There’s nothing like being a straight arrow 24-year old with nothing in the sexual escapades department to match one’s much older sister. She made me feel inadequate and disgusted, enraged and a little enthralled, all at the same time. I needed to distance myself, otherwise I was in danger of cutting off ties and never speaking to her again.
Meantime, Rinko was inwardly struggling in a blizzard of pain. I could see that now.
When Rinko was a teenager, our parents were too busy to think about her much. They just let her be, and then criticized and yelled at her later. One day when I was eight and Rinko was in high school, I overheard them saying to each other that she was man-crazy and they had better commit her to a mental institution before she wound up pregnant or worse. In the next breath, they agreed they couldn’t afford to pay for that institution and that Rinko had better get her act together anyway. I didn’t understand the conversation but I did vow to protect my sister. I didn’t care to be around our mother much but I adored Rinko. She could always calm me with a hug, or when I was really distressed, pull me on to her lap and pat my back upon which I would stop bawling and she would suggest getting ice cream. To this day I can remember what that felt like and the wonder of being loved and protected.
Rinko was never alluring in an obvious way. She was short and flat chested and her legs were too muscular to be sexy. Throughout her school years she wore sweats and jeans aside from her school uniform and made no attempt at girly-ness. On the other hand, she had a distinct look about her. Her hair wasn’t Japanese at all – they grew out of her head in big, bouncing curls and when we returned to Japan, none of the teachers in her middle school believed those curls were natural. My mother sat her down and cut it all off after which my sister cried for a week. Later, I would associate that haircut with WWII concentration camps – it was that bad. That was when I gleaned that deep down, our mother hated Rinko.
Thankfully, her high school was much more permissive. In the summers she couldn’t get her hair to stay down so she tied it up in the world’s clumsiest ponytail and let her succession of boyfriends brush it out after swimming practice (Rinko loved sports and was always entrenched in one activity or another.) She stood out like a weird plant or a sore thumb in a society where most everyone looked identical, as if they came off a conveyor belt. Other girls sported long, shiny hair down their backs and wore their uniform skirts right up above their thighs. They wore lipstick and foundation and went to karaoke with older men who paid them cash for the right to sit next to them and fondle their legs. Rinko wore her skirts knee-length and had her nose in a book when she wasn’t hanging out with one boy or another. She was always quoting Oscar Wilde and Antoine de St. Exupery, which no one understood or cared about and she seemed to live in a wholly separate world while firmly entrenched in the ranks of this one.
I don’t know how she pulled it off but Rinko wound up looking sexier and more interesting than the conventionally pretty girls. I observed how both these traits worked against her. Even before the terminology existed, she was one hot mess. She often came home with disheveled hair and swollen lips, on the verge of tears or wiping them away.
Death was always on her mind. “I warmed both hands before the fire of life. It sinks, I am ready to depart.’ I want that carved on my tombstone, okay?” she said to me though I was only in the third grade. Many years later, I found out that it was a quote from a guy named Walter Savage Landor.
What gave Rinko her particular power, and also that gaping wound quality which was part of it? Well, her youth, obviously. And because every straight male she ever came in contact with could sense she was crazy about men. And because she loved them, she hated disappointing them. She always gave in to whatever they asked provided they “had something” she really liked, a standard that included among other features, a passion for a school subject or a sport. Her boyfriends consisted of a math wiz who was also head of the kendo team, a wannabe novelist who taught her how to ski, a rich kid who rode a motorcycle and picked my sister up from wherever she happened to be, an extra helmet strapped to the back seat. My sister’s taste in men were to say the least, cliched. But they kept coming. And she almost always said yes. She fell for Shinji because he was tall and dark and lanky and taught her how to surf. He snatched her up while she was still in university and got her pregnant a few months after graduation. To me, he seemed like the sanest and most detached guy she ever dated which was a relief.
Fast forward to 2022 and this diner guy, Satoshi. He gave out he had apprenticed at a famed washoku restaurant in Ginza for six years. I could imagine her swooning as soon as he said the word “apprentice” because Rinko is a sucker for tradition and Japan-style machismo. Washoku is torturous and grueling and how I know is because at university, I had a job in a washoku restaurant and saw firsthand how the system abused the workers.
Like most guys in the business Satoshi started working right out of high school and endured the fist cuffs and yelling from his superiors, the all-night dishwashing and cleaning, peeling vegetables, soaking dry tofu, dried mackerel, shiitake mushrooms and whatever else that needed to be dipped in a basin of water at 2AM. He learned to function on three hours of sleep, often on the floor of the restaurant and subsisted on Red Bull and Kirin lager. He was also a smoker and apparently never thought to quit. A lot of cooks are like that, because a couple of minutes with a cigarette at various intervals during the day is the only down time they get.
After a couple of months of flirting whenever she showed up at the diner, Satoshi asked my sister outright for her number and then proceeded to text her, asking if she wanted to go for drinks.
At first she played it cool. She reminded herself of her advanced years – how could she take him seriously? And then in late May when the weather turned humid, she caved. By that time his texts had stopped coming but she would go to the diner and he would appear at her table and hang around making eye contact and smiling behind his mask. And then one night, he walked her back to her apartment building and asked “so when are we going out for drinks?” And that’s when she said, “okay, how about a week from tonight?”
It turned out that he was 41 – my age. Unfunny “brother” jokes whirled inside my head, thanks very much. And to her utter surprise, Satoshi was married with two kids, aged ten and four. A younger married guy with two small children was a first, even for my sister. “Pull out right now, while there’s still time and you have the will to do it. Don’t walk, just turn the other way and run,” I told her. But Rinko was already in it up to her small waist. The fact that he and she were so geographically close made matters much worse. She had to pass the diner to get to the train station and when she spied him clearing tables on the terrace or something, they would wave. Or he would drop whatever he was doing to walk over and talk to her. The entire neighborhood could tell they were close and it seemed like a matter of time before Shinji – dense as he was, finally caught on.
I didn’t want to be privy to any of it but my sister tells me everything and discounting the five years we were apart, I’ve always hung around and listened. Rinko ruined my relationship to women. We’re both surprised I’ve remained straight because most men would have quit on females long ago. “I feel kind of bad,” Rinko often said to me. “If not for me, I’m sure you would have been much happier with women.”
There’s no denying it. My own marriage fell apart in 7 years and I completely blame my sister for that. She turned me on women and then she turned me off. When I look at her it’s like I’m staring into an abyss of deceit and rampant selfishness offset by patches of motherly benevolence. I said this and she came back suavely with, “that’s just another symptom of Japan brand misogyny. “Don’t worry, you’re a man. Life goes in only one direction for Japanese women but you’ll still be out there when you’re 75. I foresee a long and happy relationship happening for you after you hit 45, with periods of infidelity that will have no bad consequences. Provided you follow my cue, of course. Watch and learn, little brother. Watch and learn.”
I’ve said that she’s different from any woman I’ve known but actually all Japanese women – give or take a few scratches off the surface are exactly the same. Don’t let claptrap like “Last Samurai” and the submissive geisha stuff fool you. Japanese women are ruthless, fearless and extraordinarily strong. The patriarchy is there and intact because it benefits women more than the men. For Japanese women, men are never the enemy. The enemy is age and their mother, which pretty much amounts to the same thing.
Once they get married, Japanese women will do pretty much everything they want, because age – looming on the horizon like Godzilla lurching closer with each passing year – justifies every misdemeanor and betrayal. Infidelity is fine because, as Rinko put it, “I need something to look back on in my old age when no one wants me anymore.” That pretty much sums up the morals of the Japanese woman for you.
On the other hand I knew where Rinko is coming from. Despite this being a super-aged society, any woman past 40 is seen as obsolete and as for the late 40s, she may as well be dead and buried. The news remind us at every turn that soon, one in two Japanese women will be over 50, as if this is a disaster on par with climate change. What about the men? No one comments on men getting old but apparently half the Japanese male populace are destined to die without ever once living with a woman. Rinko says this society is rigged so that women are blamed and made to feel like shit. “Whatever happens, it’s the woman’s fault. The falling birthrate is our fault. We get old, it’s our fault. Single men can’t get married, it’s definitely our fault.”
Japanese women are born with this deep knowledge that career ambition or railing against the glass ceiling ain’t going to turn the needle one millimeter in favor of their personal happiness. As soon as they learn to walk they want to be looked at and praised. As soon as they hit their teens they want to be desired. Then they want children, a house, nice things, money. Feminism wasn’t going to help attain any of that. Better to take control of the household finances, get some botox, and breast implants and go for some real happiness.
My ex-wife, like so many Japanese women, assumed control of our money right after our honeymoon, like it was the most natural thing in the world. My entire paycheck went into our joint account over which only she had access to, and gave me an allowance of 50,000 yen every month. She never failed to remind me that this was a very generous sum.
Rinko, sensing that I was short, often treated me to lunch and drinks, saying, “Hey bro, I need your advice about something,” like I was
16 doing her a favor. After I got divorced she treated me anyway. “I’m your older sister, I gotta do SOMETHING to show for it.”
“Satoshi says that his wife is the one in control,” Rinko told me, as if she found this bemusing to no end. “They have a house in Chiba. He says he doesn’t know what their mortgage is, because his wife controls everything. She gives him an allowance, but I don’t know how much.” I listened to all this, thinking I should maybe go for drinks with this guy too, in a yo, bro kind of way. After all, he and I were practically related. Hell, we were twins. Not that I bought that thing about not knowing the mortgage. He was only saying that to get on my sister’s good side, which indicated he wasn’t a fool and was reading Rinko pretty accurately. This made me nervous.
Rinko is that very rare Japanese woman who had no idea how much her husband made and was never much interested in money, which enraged my mother to no end. Her female friends thought this was bizarre and dangerous. Shinji’s own mother sat Rinko down and told her that to relinquish the household finances was inviting the devil in. “A man who controls the money will be up to no good in no time. And he will be unfaithful. Don’t be stupid, take control of his money, NOW before it’s too late.”
But Rinko never did. Contrarily, maybe that’s why their marriage lasted this long. Shinji always said his wife had absolutely no head for numbers or regard for money and he was fine with that. “She’s really good at what she’s good at,” was his way of putting it. Yeah, I guess. She could draw and write and had a natural flair for languages. She had beautiful handwriting and could churn out ad copy like a barista churns out espressos. She was wonderful with Mika and had a warmth and spontaneity that kids and young people found irresistible.
When Mika was little, Rinko made up songs and dances and the two of them would dance in their apartment where, despite its smallness had lot of floor space because – and this was SO like my sister Rinko hated furniture. She strove to give Mika the childhood she herself never had, and tried to have conversations with her that she never could with our own mother. They shared a real bond and Mika trusted Rinko completely.
“He says I give terrible blowjobs.” Whoa. This was end of June when she had slept with Satoshi twice. “Yeah, he said my teeth got in the way. But he’s so big.” Rinko has a very small mouth, like a flower petal. To the endless annoyance of her small circle of women friends (women tend to not like my sister very much. My ex-wife secretly hated her guts.) Rinko never uses make-up. She remembers to dab on sunscreen and that’s it. Her pores are non-existent and her lips are an amazing baby pink. Unlike the overwhelming majority of Japanese women she never thinks to hide wrinkles, freckles or blemishes and when she laughs her face spilts open, revealing perfect teeth. She treats her casual blasé as some kind of birthright and thinks its perfectly okay to show up in torn skinny jeans and one of Shinji’s shirts, with hair still damp from swimming in the municipal pool because Rinko dislikes Japanese gyms.
A hair stylist buddy (leave it to Rinko to have male friends in the hair and make-up industry, bartenders and cafe owners she knows by name, not to mention a certain chef with whom she’s on intimate terms) colors her hair but otherwise she doesn’t do a single thing to spruce it up and hates blow-drying with a vengeance. Yeah, if I were a Japanese female I would secretly hate her guts. Who the HELL does this woman think she is?
Rinko, you’re getting on and there. Now is not a good time to dive into an affair, especially when the guy lives in your neighborhood and cooks your meals. Surrender the ghost, turn in your woman badge and kneel at the altar of grandmotherhood.
“But he fills me with such a sense of well-being. And we have so much fun together. It’s so hard to resist. I want to be around him all the time.”
I suppress the urge to smack her face.
Looking back, I keep thinking that I should have been more involved in the conversation, pressed her for information, got mad and scolded her and physically barred her from seeing or texting Satoshi. But I was annoyed as hell and let her know. She blinked, laughed a little and apologized. “Sorry I’ve taken up so much of your time. I won’t talk about it anymore.”
And then a week later, she sent me a brief text saying it was over with Satoshi. I wasn’t surprised exactly, but it was kind of unsettling that she wouldn’t give out any details. It was the first week of August, exactly two months since their first date. “Wow, that was kind of sudden,” I cautiously texted back. “Yeah…like that Taylor Swift song, right? Suddenly, the summer between us was gone,” she wrote.
Two months seemed short but on the other hand, it was just the right amount of time. Speaking of Taylor Swift, that epic relationship she had with Jake Gyllenhaal lasted just three months and 13 years later, she made an MV about it which to be honest, I used to watch fairly often at night. Sister Tay is a favorite of me and Rinko and we used to send each other interviews and talk about her albums and sing snatches of songs when we met.
Two weeks after she said that the thing with Satoshi was over, Rinko asked if I was free for a drink. Over beer and wine in a little pub in Ginza, Rinko let her face crumple in pain. “I lost everything in one fell swoop. I loved that diner and now I can’t ever show my face there again because the staff could tell we were involved. Satoshi was a rock in my life – he made me feel secure and protected, and now he’s gone.”
“You knew this was coming, right? I told you it would never end well.” “Sure. But I thought I had a little bit more time.”
“So what if you did? The outcome would have been the same.”
“I keep asking myself what I could have done or said differently.” “Nothing. The outcome would have been the same. I warned you and warned you.”
I told her that she was getting off lightly. The consequences of getting caught would have been a monumental shitstorm but here she was, having drinks with her little brother, while her family was none the wiser.
My sister had lost weight. She never had much excess fat to begin with, but now she seemed boney and fragile. “It’s not the please god make it stop kind of pain. But the thorn is right in there. And I can’t get it out.”
Apparently, on their last meeting he had nailed Rinko so hard she gasped and screamed. “But he warned me he would do that. It was so weird, how he’s so hung up on sex. But he told me he and his wife hadn’t been intimate in years.” Another lie, and one so common I was floored Rinko fell for it. OF COURSE he had sex with his wife. Maybe he got her pregnant again, and they were expecting kid no.3. Guys like Satoshi were insatiable and traditional at the same time. In his scheme of things, it was only natural that he would sleep with his wife – she was his possession. Didn’t matter if the spark was gone or that maybe they didn’t like each other very much. Rinko on the other hand, was an object that caught his fancy for awhile. He could play it both ways – tradition at home and a slut in skinny jeans on the side. He was male and he could have both.
And because he was an old hand in the service industry, he could feed her just the right lines to make her feel special. And because he was a good chef, he knew just when to turn down the stove.
So on their last date they had sex, and he walked her back to the train station as he always did. But it was only 11, and usually Satoshi ran to make the last train. They would always stand around talking, touching and kissing and letting the night linger just a little bit more. But not this time.
“He told me he would be busy all next week,” said Rinko, who was letting the tears stream down her face. “And after that, the diner was closed for summer vacation. And during that time he would be visiting his parents. That was when I knew it was over. Usually we would never leave without setting a date for the next time we would see each other but this time he didn’t say anything. I could feel everything grow cold. He was saying goodbye.”
I was about to tell her that maybe she was paranoid, to have it out with the guy and ask him if this was really the case. But that was idiotic. Even from where I was standing, I could see whatever they shared, if they had shared anything in the first place, was gone.
Satoshi saw her, wanted her, hunted her down and now he was moving on. When a man is after a woman he would do and say anything in the world to get her to bed. He sifted through my sister’s marriage, family, the fact that her apartment building was not 30 meters from his workplace, the fact that she was pleasant and popular with every member of the diner staff, the fact that she saw him as a friend and trusted him. He sifted through all that and scooped up a woman he wanted to pin down and slice through like a mackerel and he did that exactly 5 times out of the 14 times they went out together. It seemed like a logical number, and a very logical outcome. He knew exactly what he was doing and he timed it so that every dish he handed to her looked great. And now the feast was over.
At the end of the night, Rinko looked at me hard. “Will I be alright, do you think? Will I get over this?” “Of course you will,” I told her though I was feeling a tiny bit panicky. Rinko actually looked sick, and her eyes held the kind of despair I had never seen. “Pull yourself together. The least you could do is not let him see you like this. Get some sleep, you look terrible.”
“Satoshi used to say I reminded him of a koi fish,” said Rinko. “That I was fresh, clean and free, swimming in his special pond.” Then she laughed. “If only that were true. I hate being a woman, it’s so demeaning. And defeating. As for being an OLD woman, I don’t want to fathom the indignity.”
That was the last time I had a real conversation with my sister. Three months later she was gone.
Rinko and Shinji had gone to Shimoda to for a last surfing session before winter set in and as was their way, went to separate parts of the same beach. Rinko had always been a good swimmer and a competent surfer but a swell gave way to an undertow and she hit her head on a rock. The doctor said that the bruise wasn’t too bad and she would have had a chance if she had climbed back on the board. Later, he took back that statement and said he was terribly sorry about the accident.
My mother went hysterical and told Shinji that he killed her daughter. “How could you be so stupid? Surfing at her age – it’s unheard of. I’ve never heard such stupidity. How could you let her?” She went on and on. My father had died 10 years ago so it was up to me to calm her down. Shinji couldn’t answer, he just looked down as his strong shoulders shook with his sobs.
“I warmed both hands before the fire of life. It sinks, I am ready to depart.” I hunted down Landor’s quote in an old book sleuthed in a used book store. Rinko loved those moldy brick and mortar places which were still around in Tokyo. I tore out the page and folded it into a square and placed it into her little hand as she lay in the casket.
My sister hated funerals so we made it just the family and sent the announcements out much later. Shinji later said that when the diner people heard she died, they sent over a wreath with a very nice letter. I never told him anything nor did I ever find out Satoshi’s last name.
Now, five years later, I always think of that summer as the summer of Rinko’s last affair. And it makes me realize just how I much I was living vicariously through my sister. Reckless and idiotic as she was, Rinko was on to something I couldn’t quite name, something that me and many others should probably aspire to, something to do with not sleepwalking through life and holding everyday close, like a cherished child.
In the end, she managed to cheat both fate and our mother and choose her own version of freedom, I guess.
Meanwhile, I’m getting closer to the age that she was when she died. And soon I’ll be older than her. Every now and then, I pull out my a photo I tucked into my wallet after her death. It’s of me and Rinko when we were living in Brooklyn. She was in the sixth grade and I was three or four, sitting on her lap. She’s in cut-off shorts and a t-shirt, wearing a Mets cap because the Mets had just won the World Series. Apparently, our neighborhood went berserk and everyone got caps.
She’s not looking at the camera but at me, and she’s laughing. I only hope I had said something, cracked a joke or made a remark, to get that laugh.
“Intimate Stranger” will be screened with English subtitles at 6:50 pm on March 17, and at 4:15 pm on March 21 at Shibuya Eurospace. On March 21, there will be a post-screening talk with Jake Adelstein, the journalist and author of “Tokyo Vice.” https://www.cine.co.jp/shinmitunatanin/eng/
In Intimate Stranger a razor blade – the old fashioned kind that you see barbers wielding in movies, with an open blade that folds into a scabbard – makes a frequent appearance. So often in fact, that its significance shifts from symbolic to menacing, and the film starts to feel like a horror story. It’s pretty sharp, this blade, enough to slash open the face of a yakuza but with the right pressure, will leave a photogenic wound on a young man’s face. One of the questions that came up during the Q&A session after the screening of Intimate Stranger held at the FCCJ, was whether the writer/director Mayu Nakamura went around with a razor blade stashed in her bag. To which Nakamura replied breezily, in English: “I keep a razor blade in my heart.”
Intimate Stranger is about a woman with a missing son, who connects with a 17-year old boy during a mask-clad, pandemic stricken winter in Tokyo. The woman works in a high-end shops that sells baby clothes, and at night she trawls the Net in search of a son who, in his photo that sits on her desk, looks incredibly unhappy. The teenager whom she takes under her wing (though the story reveals the circumstances are far less benevolent) is missing a family who cares about him. They strike up a relationship of sorts, each enabling the other to be what they want: a devoted mother, an adored and adoring son. Only the older woman is aware that this charade has a payoff.
The woman is Megumi, and she’s Nakamura’s creation as well as a bit of her altar ego. Megumi has no qualms about keeping a razor blade on her person: she uses it as much for self-defense as a source of sensual pleasure. An attractive, fiftyish woman played by veteran Asuka Kurosawa, Megumi is first seen as a lonely single mother looking for 17-year old Shimpei, who one day left their little home and never returned. The young scammer she befriends is Yuji (Fuji Kamio) who shows up to claim the reward cash promised for ‘any information’ about Shimpei. Yuji is one of the runners for a phone scam operation but he’s not very good. His boss is abusive and violent and Yuji sticks around because he has nowhere else to go. When he meets Megumi, he cadges a cafe meal and 5000 yen in return for fabricated information. “I met your son in an Internet Cafe. We played some video games together, and then he left.” He’ll probably feed her enough lies to string her along, and at the right moment another runner will call her up, pretending to be Shimpei, and ask for money.
Megumi however, surprises Yuji by inviting him into her apartment “just until Shimpei comes home.” And Yuji can’t resist the prospect of home-cooked meals and a warm bed, plus a maternal figure who scolds him for throwing his dirty jockeys under the bed. She promptly picks them up, launders them, hangs them out to dry and irons them out. Megumi is a great launderer as well as cook, cleaner and knitter of baby clothes. She revels in doing what other women may consider domestic drudgery, with a repressed, almost secret joy. This trait may be particular to Japanese women – they grow up expecting and expected, to spend their adult lives running a household, bearing and raising children and receding into a hard shell of domesticity. After years of doing that, a kind of demon may take up residence in her mind. “I feel like I’m in a pressure cooker,” says Megumi at one point. “The pressure mounts and mounts and one day, I snap.”
Sparse and minimal on the surface, Intimate…ispacked with a roiling, murky weirdness Nakamura feels is unique to Japan. In one scene, Megumi airs her views to Yuji: “Did you know that phone scamming happens only in Japan? Grown men calling up their mothers and grandmothers for money and expecting to get it…this would be unthinkable in the West. Why does this society pamper their males so much?” And Yuji, who earlier had scammed an old woman out of 200,000 yen by pretending to be her Covid-infected grandson, has no answer.
Intimate…is Nakamura’s second fiction feature, since 2006 when she made her debut with “The Summer of Stickleback.” Nakamura is not your ordinary Japanese filmmaker, meaning, she didn’t apprentice (read: slave labor) under an older, established male director or work in Japan’s tradition-entrenched, labor intensive studio system. Nakamura got her filmmaking experience and eye for frame composition in London, first as an undergrad at the University of London’s film society, and later in the graduate program of NYU film school. She made her first film at the age of 18, “on a Super 8” and 2 years prior to that, had quit high school in Tokyo to enroll in a London boarding school. “My father was a poet and my mother was a journalist,” Nakamura told me in a separate, private interview. “They never said ‘no’ to my plans. I’ve always been independent and competitive and I hate to lose.” You could say Nakamura benefitted from this upbringing but she also made paid a hefty price to be the person she is today. Her parents were so wrapped up in work that they left their 6-year old daughter to live with her grandparents in Kyoto, where she subsequently spent the rest of her childhood. “Kyoto is heavily conservative. They don’t take kindly to outsiders and since I was from Tokyo and couldn’t speak the local dialect, I was bullied.” It was the kind of intense and destructive bullying designed to break her spirit – everyone in school ignored her totally and pretend she didn’t exist. “As a result, I became very strong,” laughed Nakamura adding that whatever hardships came her way, they couldn’t match what she suffered through in Kyoto.
As soon as she could, Nakamura got herself out of Japan and spent the next 14 years of her life abroad. She even got a green card in the US (“I won it in a lottery”) indicating that there could be a god out there who evens up past misfortunes with a destiny jackpot.
That god, in the scheme of Intimate Stranger, is definitely female. Nakamura, who had waited a decade to make Intimate…, says that after her years abroad, she was floored by many aspects of Japanese womanhood and felt the need to unleash her bewilderment and rage. “I had a very tough time getting funding. I was told by male investors that it was disgusting for an older woman to be in a semi-erotic relationship with a teenage boy. I am sure that they wouldn’t have said that if the genders were reversed. In Japan, women past 30 are no longer women, they’re expected to become mothers and morph into asexual beings.” Megumi, for all her allure, clings to her identity as a mother. The apartment she shares with Yuji is a metaphor for her uterus, explained Nakamura, which account’s for the feeling of deep security, coupled with unbearable claustrophobia. They say that few people ever survive their mothers but my guess is that even fewer women survive the experience of being a mother.
At least it wasn’t a long, protracted goodbye. Ishihara would have hated that.
On February 1st, Shintaro Ishihara, long-time ex-governor of Tokyo and former Minister of Transportation (among other credentials) died. He was 89 years old. He was one of the last guardians of Japanese patriarchy as well as a charismatic politician. The unapologetic, racist, brash and chauvinist Ishihara had both supporters and opponents, including Yuriko Koike, the current mayor of Tokyo who was the first woman to hold the position. Ishihara referred to her on more than one occasion as ‘obasan (old woman)’ and Koike accused the man of running Japan’s capital city into the ground.
(Editor’s note: Even Koike can be right. Shinginko Tokyo, the bank created by Ishihara using Tokyo’s funds was a tremendous failure, leaving huge debts behind. However it did provide a windfall for Kanto yakuza).
Ishihara hated outspoken women and liberal men; he had no kind feelings for the US and refused to be enthralled or intimidated by western culture. Ishihara reserved his most acidic venom for China. For thirty years, he railed against the government in Beijing and demanded that Tokyo annex the non-populated Senkaku Islands (located several hundred miles north of the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa) instead of permitting Chinese fishermen to fish there.
In 2002, a group of Tokyo women tried to take him to court for inappropriate statements made on TV, in which he expressed agreement with a Tokyo University professor that “women who are past their child-bearing years should not live on until old age. Men can propagate the species until their 80s and 90s but women living into their 80s is a disease of civilization.”
But he also had an unmistakable, evocative allure, what in Japanese is known as ‘hana’. It was hana that kept him in the Governor’s seat for over a decade and hana that launched his bestsellers, like The Japan That Can Say No and Genius.
Ishihara had a bit of Donald Trump in him but unlike the ex-prez he had no interest in flaunting his women and stuck with the same wife he married in 1955. As Tokyo governor he wielded an influence on par with New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo, though Ishihara never got slapped with a harassment suit.
There were always rumors of shady doings going on inside his lavish office in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. A handful of young female aides quit with generous severance payouts. A male assistant tried to commit suicide because he couldn’t stand the Governor’s bullying.
Now that Ishihara’s gone, any dirty secrets will stay firmly bolted in the closet (maybe). Japanese political staff are for the most part, exceedingly loyal and any boss worth their salt knows it. Back in 2002, I was at Ishihara’s press conference and was struck by how his staff anticipated his every word and the slightest of head-nods, rushing to follow his orders before they were even given. Tall, imposing and suave, he made most of his contemporaries look like scrapings from a drain pipe. One thing you have to admit: he was well-bred, well-read and carried himself accordingly.
Born in Kobe in 1932 to wealthy parents, Ishihara was a novelist before becoming a politician, and a politician before becoming Tokyo’s longest serving governor. At the age of 21 when he was at Hitotsubashi University, Ishihara won the Akutagawa Award (Japan’s highest literary prize) for Taiyo no Kisetsu (Season of the Sun) which was adapted for the screen starring his younger brother Yujiro.
Editor’s note: That the book won a literary prize says terrible things about Japan in the 1960s. The book was later translated as Season of Violence and this review from GoodReads sums it up succinctly:
Heterosexual Mishima — which is to say not written with any grace or artful tact but with a similar vision of violent machismo and drama: erections breaking through paper (shoji) doors and young rapists clinging to life as they drag their cut apart bodies across the street, prostitutes at sea, cruelty as sport and pastime. Tatsuya in the eponymous novella is so terrible and frightening it made me sick.
‘What have I been to you all these weeks?’
“A woman,” he shrugged.
Together, the Ishihara brothers created a brand not unlike a powerful mafia family. While Shintaro sired four boys and did his best to dent what he saw as Nagatacho’s (Tokyo’s equivalent of Capitol Hill) slavish, pro-American policies. Yujiro formed his own film production company called Ishihara Gundan (Ishihara Army Corps), mimicking big bro’s penchant for strutting machismo.
He had no offspring but had a knack for gathering tall, muscular male performers into the Ishihara brand orbit. Yujiro was probably the first Japanese male to pull off a leather jacket over tight jeans and have sex on the beach in front of a camera. Shintaro was a badass nationalist with a big mouth. In his youth, he wore bespoke suits and palled around with Yukio Mishima. When the latter committed seppuku, Ishihara arrived at the scene to show his moral support and politely tell the press to f*ck off.
Shintaro outlived his little brother by 35 years but cancer got him in the end. On the day, his widowed sister-in-law (herself an actress who starred in Season of the Sun) appeared in the media to express her sadness.His four sons, two of whom are politicians, appeared in the news to attest to their dad’s astonishing vitality. “He kept writing, right up until a week ago,” said second son Yoshizumi Ishihara, who is a successful actor and emcee. His eldest, Nobuteru Ishihara who two months before had quit his position as advisor to Prime Minister Kishida, after losing in the general elections to the daughter of a vegetable seller and single mother, said tearfully that he hoped he could live up to his old man.
However, even Ishihara’s most vocal critics grudgingly admit that when the chips were down, he was someone you could rely on.
When the 3.11 disaster struck Northeast Japan he moved to send aid and resources to Fukushima and the Tohoku area faster than any other prefecture. He worked to remove almost 170,000 tons of rubble and trash from the tsunami-hit region and cart the loads into Tokyo for disposal, despite strong opposition from the capital city residents. When asked how the Metropolitan Office should respond to irate Tokyoites, he held a press conference to say “These people should be told to shut up. There’s nothing else to say to them. I mean, how selfish can these people get?”
He arranged housing for people who lost their homes and was also responsible for building shelters for domestic violence victims. Personally, I was always grateful that he banned diesel vehicles from Tokyo streets and delivered much on his promise to green up the city.
Ishihara was a monstrous mass of contradictions and in the end, he couldn’t keep up with newfangled notions of gender equality, BLM, diversity and tolerance and globalism. That being said, I know I’m not the only one who feels Tokyo has lost something. It’s probably for the better but all the same, we’ll never get it back.
Shintaro Says The Darndest Things
After Yoshiro Mori was fired from the Tokyo Olympics Committee for saying that women’s speeches tended to be too long, the same committee should have made clear the length of the speech(es) in question. Otherwise, it’s unfair.
Drive My Car which opened last August 2021, was one of the best things to hit Japanese theaters in years. Yet many Japanese cinephiles or people who footed it to theaters in spite of the pandemic, quietly gave it a miss. Two weeks later audiences were willing to sit through the new 007 movie with masks on throughout the nearly 3 hour duration, refused to pay the same tribute to what is effectively the first successful cinema adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story by a fellow Japanese. Shame on us. Drive My Car bagged three awards at Cannes including Best Screenplay, (the first such feat for a Japanese filmmaker) and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. It’s now firmly placed on track for an Oscar.
So never mind the box office beating. The careers of director/writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi and lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima went on a meteoric ascent as Hamaguchi picked up the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for Wheels Of Fortune And Fantasy months before Drive My Car and is now being inundated with offers from Hollywood and Netflix. Veteran lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima was all over the media in TV and film last year before giving his best performance yet in Drive...He was named Best Actor by the US Films Critics Award, the first for an Asian actor.
Through it all, the 43-year old Hamaguchi appeared unfazed. In interviews he has stated that Japan isn’t his only playing field though he has professed a love for its cinema industry and in early 2020, he crowdfunded over 330 million yen to save arthouse theaters from Covid bankruptcy. Hamaguchi discipled under Kiyoshi Kurosawa, another auteur whose international reputation has come to overshadow his Japanese notoriety. Under Kurosawa, Hamaguchi learned the ropes of competing in the film fest circuit, dealing with foreign distributors and grooming his stories for global appeal. Otherwise, Hamaguchi is a visionary filmmaker with a special flair for intricate and nuanced storytelling, which comes to the fore in Drive My Car. He took a 40-page Murakami short story and leavened it up to a running time of 3.5 hours, adding Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Korean actors and the Hiroshima City backdrop in the mix. Through Hamaguchi’s careful doctoring, Murakami’s original story was reborn with much more weight and muscle, able to grapple with emotions that have both urgency and relevance. This is some serious cinema alchemy we’re looking at here.
On the other hand, Hamaguchi is respectful of Murakami and makes sure the film has the author’s logo stamped all over it. There’s no mistaking the elegant lassitude permeating the storyline, the finicky intellectualism and inherent narcissism of the characters. The only factor that strikes a non-Murakami chord is the presence of Toko Miura, who plays a woman named Misaki. She’s a chauffer with a skeleton or two in the closet of her mind and she’s at once fragile and tough, capable and vulnerable. In Murakami’s story, Misaki serves as a young, female sounding board for the protagonist’s inner musings. In Hamaguchi’s film, her importance goes up several notches and she’s recreated into a women with her own agenda and personal demons, who’s not there to be sexually objectified or soothe anyone. Miura, who used to work part-time at a Tokyo gas stand when she wasn’t working as an actress, is now one of the most watchable performers in the Japanese film industry and Drive My Car owes a huge chunk of its success to her prowess.
Still, being a Murakami story, Drive My Car ultimately comes off as tale of male ego, or more to the point, the taming of it. Nishijima plays a slender, 50-ish man named Kafuku (an obvious play on the name ‘Kafuka’ from the Murakami bestseller “Kafka By the Sea”), a stage actor who discovers that his wife Oto (played by a splendid Reika Kirishima) has been sleeping around. Kafuku has been semi-aware of Oto’s infidelity but when confronted with the scene of her having sex with another man, his mind shuts down. That night, Oto is found dead from a brain hemorrhage and Kafuku retreats into a shell of wordless grief.
Two years later, Kafuku accepts a residency position in Hiroshima and he’s introduced to Misaki, who has been hired to drive him to and from the theater in his car (a Saab 900, of course). Through their brief conversations finds himself able to face Oto again, not as a wife who betrayed him but a woman in her own right. In the meantime he collaborates with Korean actors for the stage production of Uncle Vanya and builds a rapport with Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), who had been Oto’s last lover.
Murakami’s story is part of a compilation titled Men Without Women, a fate which, in the Murakami scheme of things is akin to death by torture. Men cannot exist without women or their fantasies and much of Murakami’s words are devoted to describing the subtleties of their allure. In his fiction the female is never objectified outright but she’s not to allowed to exist outside the confines of the male ego, either. Murakami always hands over the reigns of power to his women characters, making sure they will never abuse it. If she gets too much for the man to handle, she tends to make a fast exit. Like Oto. Or Naoko from his trademark novel Norwegian Wood.
This Murakami penchant is in perfect keeping with the Japanese literary tradition and reveals, that for all the Americanisms and western-liberal icons/props scattered across the pages of each and every one of Murakami’s works, the master is in fact, a traditionalist. The combination was dazzling and exotic back in the 20th century. Personally I likened a Murakami novel to a cool, fizzy drink ordered in a bar in an American military base, not that I could set foot in such a place. But two decades plus into the 21st century, the magic of Murakami’s words come off as nostalgic and quaint. It took an alchemist like Ryusuke Hamaguchi to filter out the antiquated grunge of the original short story and upcycle it into a masterpiece.
For all that, many of us who grew up on Murakami are not ready to cancel him altogether. Generations of Japanese owe him for showing us a world outside the archipelago, for writing about jazz and beer and summer afternoons spent swimming laps at the pool, for dedicating an entire book to marathon running as a pleasurable hobby, for girls who enjoy sex and own up to their sexuality, for boys who are clumsy about relationships but bafflingly knowledgeable about coffee. We owe him for being easily translatable and comprehensible to an international audience that would otherwise equate Japan with anime and karoshi (death by overwork). Maybe Haruki Murakami can’t carry the brand on his own anymore but that happens to every established business with a recognizable logo. And now that Ryusuke Hamaguchi has set the precedent, more Murakami adaptations are sure to follow. If you’ll excuse the slightly nationalistic tone, it’s a good time to be Japanese.
Editor’s note: If you’re a fan of Haruki Murakami, with a sense of humor, be sure to avail yourself of a copy of 村上春樹語辞典 (Dictionary of Haruki Murakami Words) which is tongue in cheek tribute and guide to his writings. Even if you don’t read Japanese, the great illustrations, the haiku-like use of English, and the pin-pointing of his common themes and motifs is a delight to read.
My first encounter with the ‘yakuza’ or the crooks and gangsters of Japan’s underworld, happened when I was 14 years old, on my way home from cram school. It was around 10 PM and having no friends who lived my way, I found myself walking alone through a deserted back street when a man in a loud red shirt and loose trousers seemingly materialized out of nowhere and stood blocking my way. In vain I tried to pass, and then brought my book bag up to my chest, probably to protect myself. “You’re out late,” he sniggered, edging closer. “Do you want to make some money? It will be so easy. Let’s go somewhere and we’ll talk about it.”
Could this really be happening? I felt the blood pounding behind my ears and my vision go black around the edges as I stood there paralyzed. After what felt like an hour but couldn’t have been more than a second or two, another voice came out of the dark. “What are you doing? Don’t waste time, we got things to do.” An older man drawing on a cigarette joined us. “What the hell are you playing at? Let’s go,” he said to the shirt and then to me, “sorry. Were you scared? You must have been. Be safe going home, your parents will be worried about you.”
Without a word, I fled and didn’t look over my shoulder until I was safely in front of my apartment building.
I learned later that this was an old yakuza tactic. There was always the younger guy who came on strong, and the older man who stepped in, seemingly to admonish him and then rescue you. But if you showed signs of hesitation at leaving, or showed up at the same spot the next evening, they would snatch you up. Later, they would blackmail the victim’s father into making cash payments in return for silence and the assurance that the incident will not crab his daughter’s chances of making a good marriage.
As anachronistic as this sounds, similar scenarios still play out all over Japan. Having any connection to the yakuza, even if it’s innocuous or remote, can spell disaster for the average, law-abiding Japanese. It could sabotage their chances of getting into private schools. Jeopardize their job applications to good corporations. And will likely botch up marriage prospects between respectable families. The yakuza are well aware of the fear and suspicion they trigger, and will milk it for all it’s worth. Blackmail and extortion continue to comprise a huge chunk of yakuza revenue. In 2020 alone, they made over 28.5 billion yen from just such practices, according to Asahi Shimbun.
That first encounter left a mark of some kind, subtly swerving my life in a certain direction. I longed to quit school and hang out in smokey coffee shops. I pined to get away from the boring, oppressive place called ‘home.’ My parents complained that I had ‘loose morals’ and would come to a ‘bad end’ unless I buckled down to my studies and became more serious about my future. “You’re not ‘katagi,” my mother would say, which means ‘solid citizen.’ In Japan, once you stepped off the rails of ‘katagi’ you were out of the game, and no one gave you a second chance. The opposite of ‘katagi’ of course, was ‘yakuza.’
In spite of my parents’ dire predictions, I somehow made it to adulthood, marriage and a baby. After about three years, my family and I moved into an apartment building in a town called Akasaka, famous for its criminally expensive real estate, high-end restaurants, exclusive bars, a lucrative sex trade and a sizable yakuza population. This was in the tail end of the 90s, when the Tokyo yakuza had the staunch support of right wing governor Shintaro Ishihara and were seemingly invincible. In Akasaka, they were the best-dressed people on the streets, with impeccably tailored suits and Italian silk ties. They were driven around in sleek German sedans and slurped their soba noodles in the same restaurant as the Cabinet Ministers who came down from the nearby Diet Building. Consequently the streets were perpetually crawling with security people, cops in uniform and police detectives. The combination of law enforcement, politicians and gangsters made it impossible for anyone to get out of line.
Akasaka was the safest place in Tokyo.
My neighbor, who lived on the same floor and whose daughter went to the same day-care as my own, was the son and heir to Tokyo’s most powerful yakuza clan. He drove a sparkling white Mercedes and would often give me a lift as I walked down the slope to the subway station. He was always elaborately polite with me and his wife and daughter often came over for dinner when he was “late at work.” By an unspoken agreement, we never talked about this “work” or even referred to him in conversation. One day when I suggested that we take a photo together with our girls, the wife looked uncomfortable and then refused outright. That night, realizing that I had committed an unforgivable faux pas, I couldn’t sleep. After that, she didn’t come around as much and a year later, announced that they were moving out of the building to a condo on the other side of Akasaka.
This thawed the ice between us and we laughed together like the old days. “We’re not abandoning Akasaka,” she said. “This whole town is just right for us.”
I too, found it hard to tear myself away from Akasaka even as I watched the oldest and richest properties being sold off to overseas investors, mainly from Hong Kong and China. From the early aughts to about 2012, the Japanese economy sank into the marshlands of a twenty year recession, and chipped away at the glamorous, old-money prestige of Akasaka. Companies went bankrupt. A famed record company downsized, and then moved away. Small businesses folded, and the premises were bought out by discount shop franchises.
I started working at a neighborhood cafe to supplement the dwindling income I made from journalism, for 900 yen an hour. It was a charming place, a real Tokyo coffee shop with Richard Ginori crockery and a little booth for roasting the beans, Fifteen minutes into my first shift, the owner/proprietor took a call on his cell phone and after a few words, hung up and told me to cordon off the best table in the place, because ‘an important customer’ was arriving in exactly 45 minutes.
At the appointed time, a black BMW drove up to the cafe entrance. Two burly men were already waiting, and opened the heavy glass door of the cafe for an elderly man who had been helped out of the vehicle by his driver. The man came in, wielding a walking stick, and sat down at the table. No one said a word. My employer quietly poured out a cup of ‘blue mountain’ coffee which at 1200 yen a cup, was the most expensive item on the menu. The man picked up his coffee and sipped slowly. The tension was so thick you had to hack it with an ice pick, and I could feel the blood pounding behind my ears all over again. After he finished, the man spoke a few words to the two burly men, and one of them got up and paid the bill as the other got on his phone. In a matter of a seconds, the BMW was parked at the entrance and the elderly man got up. The three men left, and after making sure that they were truly gone, the owner gave me a sickly smile and said: “this happens at least once a week. You’d better get used to it.” It turned out that the elderly man was a yakuza boss and the cafe was his favorite haunt.
After that, I discovered that while the boss might show up once a week, his underlings and his personal driver was there most days. They monopolized the terrace seating area, smoking incessantly and ordering innumerable cups of coffee, talking in undertones or laughing raucously. When they were there, the regular customers – salarimen from neighboring web design companies and editors from a jazz magazine, avoided the place like the plague.
There was no denying that the yakuza were the cafe’s best customers and when they were there I rushed around with trays of coffee and cheese cake, replacing full ashtrays with clean ones and refilling glasses with iced water poured from a stainless steel pitcher. The yakuza are very particular about the establishments where they take their coffee which is why you won’t see any of them at a Starbucks. I became a little chummy with the boss’s driver who lived in the neighborhood. He told me to ignore him if we met in the street. “Pretend you don’t know me. Believe me, it’s for your own good. But in here, we’re friends, okay?”
In the mornings, the Korean hostesses working in the cabaret club owned by the clan, would come in to nurse their hangovers and air their complaints. Though they spoke Japanese well enough, they couldn’t read the text messages sent by their clients and often asked me to do so. Some of the messages were disgustingly racy, others were declarations of love or modest invitations to go out.
“So what does this guy want with me?,” asked Jun, a pretty 24-year old girl from Inchon who had the unfortunate habit of grinding out her cigarette in her piece of half-eaten marmalade toast. “Says he wants to play golf with you before taking this relationship to the next level,” I read out loud. “Ohhh. Is he going to pay me to play golf?” “I don’t know and you probably shouldn’t ask that over a text message.” “Japanese men are such wimps.” “No kidding!”
I worked at the cafe for two and a half years before the owner went bust and sold the place to a Korean businessman who happened to be a distant relation of Jun. In the end, my employer disappeared, owing me two weeks wages. I heard that he returned to Akasaka six months later, and was working in a rotisserie chicken shop. By that time, the cafe had changed completely, its air of old world charm completely quashed by the new owners. The clan stopped frequenting the place, and moved on to somewhere else. The driver was gone too, and I never saw him again.
In 2018, my husband said that he had had enough of Akasaka and wanted to move. I was inclined to agree. The entire neighborhood was a shadow of what it had once been. Small, green plots of land and shrine-owned gardens were paved over and turned into parking lots or hideous houses. The once flourishing love hotels were torn down and Internet cafes went up in their places, with cheap private rooms catering to salarimen and prostitutes. Little dark bars went bankrupt and were replaced by glaringly lit convenience stores. Korean restaurants with plastic storefronts muscled their way into quiet alleyways. In the midst of it all, many of the yakuza moved out. The streets filled up with Chinese tourists and digital nomads toting backpacks.
The boss with a penchant for ‘blue mountain’ coffee was in a posh nursing home, or so I was told by the gossipy grandma working the counter at a tobacco shop, which soon closed down.
After we moved, memories of working at the cafe and my brushes with the Akasaka underworld went sepia toned like a sequence in a cheesy Hollywood movie. And then it all came back this August, as I followed the trial of Satoru Nomura, head of the notorious Kudo-kai. This is Japan’s most powerful yakuza clan that had terrorized Kokura City in Fukuoka prefecture where they had their headquarters, for the last 3 decades. On August 24 Nomura was sentenced to death by the District Court in Fukuoka – marking the first time in the history of Japanese law that a gangster boss received such a verdict. Usually the bosses are immune to societal rules and their crimes go unpunished since the clans always have a set number of young thugs in the ranks to shoulder the blame. They go to prison with promises of being welcomed back into the organization once they get out, with hefty salaries and underlings of their own to kick around. And in the meantime, their families will be well taken care of, nothing to worry about there.
This time however, the District Court made it clear that they were trying Nomura as an individual criminal and not as a clan head, thus severing the chain of command that would have placed all the blame on an underling.
I had met just such an underling in the cafe, during my second August of working there and the memory has a special poignance because this man had seemed so pitiful, He came in at around 5PM, dressed in a suit that was too big for him, with a tie frayed on the ends. He looked around with something akin to sheer, delighted giddiness, saw there was a female on the premises and immediately started talking to me. He had just gotten out of prison. He hadn’t seen a woman in five years. He was longing to touch a woman’s skin, and the desire was enough to make him scream. Can he touch me please? (The cafe owner intervened at this point, and asked him not to harass the staff.)
He complained that his legs were aching from sitting in a chair, since he had gotten used to sitting on a prison floor with his calves tucked under his knees, like a Buddhist monk or a tea master. He had an upset stomach too, from eating restaurant food after years of prison fare. “My god, but this all feels so good! It’s so great to be out!”
I brought his coffee, which he spiked with many spoonfuls of sugar and a dollop of cream. “You don’t know how I’ve been waiting for this moment,” he said, before taking a big swallow and coughing most of it up, all over his shirt. He laughed it off and started to sip slowly. “I’m only 30, I feel like an old man. Five years of my life down the drain. But I’m determined to have a woman, every single night for a whole year! Just watch me!” By this time, the only remaining customer in the cafe was the yakuza who had come in with him, obviously the caretaker, who looked none too happy with his charge.
After that, the ex-con came to the cafe several times. He never tried to talk to me again, though he always had a smile plastered to his face and wore a new suit that fit. I heard him say to my employer that prison caused him to shed 15 kilos and he always felt tired. “But I can still have sex! That’s great, right? That’s what counts, right?”
The last time I saw him, he had taken off his shoes and was sitting with his calves tucked under his knees, atop the hard backed chair of the cafe. He was smiling beatifically, humming out of tune to a Coldplay song coming over the speakers. A short while later, two men who I’d never seen before came in and said a few words to him. He nodded, still smiling and put on his shoes. After paying for his coffee, he bowed deeply to my employer and then to me, before turning his back and walking out.
Editor note: Japan had two different military programs working on developing an atomic bomb. The movie reviewed here only discusses one of the programs. Japan’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons was much more successful than imagined, click here and read What If Japan Had the Atomic Bomb First? For more details.
Review by Kaori Shoji
“Gift of Fire (Japanese original title: Taiyo no Ko)” proffers an unsettling view from an old and familiar window. Directed by Hiroshi Kurosaki, the gist of this story set in the summer of 1945, is this: just weeks before Japan’s surrender in WWII, a team of graduate students at Kyoto University were hard at work on the creation of a nuclear bomb. While this piece of information may not be news to many western historians, the majority of the Japanese are bound to feel baffled. For generations, the Japanese were conditioned – by our elders, by the media, by the education system and history itself, to feel that we were the victims of a war that very few in the populace ever wanted to fight. And now a Japanese movie is saying we could have been the perpetrators of the world’s first nuclear bomb attack? That’s an incredibly heavy load to process, and still more to confront.
After all, Japan had banked the struggle of the postwar years and the rapid growth era that followed it, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The horrors that happened on August 6th, 1945 in Hiroshima and then, a mere 72 hours later in Nagasaki, were recounted through generations and revived in the media more times than anyone could count. It was a legacy of suffering, a collective mantle of unspeakable sadness under which the Japanese toiled and labored for decades to come. At the same time, the two bombs exonerated the Japanese from having to explain and face up to wartime atrocities – the crimes committed in Korea, China, Singapore and pretty much the entire Asian Pacific Rim. Call it the a-bomb card, pulled out when the Koreans or Chinese got noisy about acknowledgement and reparations for war crimes. And whenever the Japanese people protested against the econo-centric measures of the government that irredeemably polluted oceans and mountains and quashed the livelihoods of millions of traditional workers. For seventy plus years, the a-bomb card served Japanese politicians, their politics and the national conscience. We suffered enough, now leave us alone.
But “Gift of Fire” says it may be about time to turn in that card.
The Kyoto University lab was under close scrutiny by the Imperial Army and the scientists were pressed for results. If and when they succeeded in splitting the atom, the plan was to drop the bomb on San Francisco. The students were plagued by doubts and filled with anxiety, and who can blame them. Nightly air raids, frequent power outages and utter lack of resources prevented their experiments from moving forward when all the while, they were listening to American news on a hand-crafted short wave radio. The Americans were closing in on the Japanese Imperial Army though the propaganda reports from the frontlines said otherwise. “Should we even be doing this, in the comfort of a laboratory? Shouldn’t we be fighting and giving our lives to this country?” says one anguished student, who eventually quits the project to enlist in the Imperial Army.
The truth was, the Kyoto University team lacked everything to build anything, let alone a weapon of mass destruction. Still, they forge on, fueled by a blind hope that an atomic bomb will change the course of the war or even end it. Besides, says Professor Arakatsu, the helmer of the project: “if we don’t build it the Americans will. And if the Americans don’t get there first the Soviets will. Why do you think this war started in the first place? It’s because the world is in a race to procure energy resources. Whoever gets control of the energy, gains control over the world.”
By saying that, Arakatsu has shifted the concept of war from ideology and nationalism to science and technology. Fittingly, “Gift of Fire” is mostly devoid of sentiment and righteousness, preferring instead to sanctify the scientist and all that he stands for. In Arakatsu’s laboratory, scientific advancement is a religion, and the god at the altar is Albert Einstein. The highest prayer of course, is E=mc2. The film marks the first time a Japanese film has addressed the atomic bomb from a scientific standpoint, and bringing in an American voice to the proceedings. Kurosaki persuaded Peter Stormare to appear in a voice-only role that defends, honors and ultimately glorifies the scientific mission.
Perhaps that voice belongs to Shu (Yuya Yagira) who is the most committed member in Arakatsu’s lab. Shu is responsible for procuring the much-needed uranium for their experiments, and turns to a local potter for his meager supply. The potter used to make beautiful things, but now he only makes funeral urns. “A lot of people dying,” says the potter matter-of-factly to Shu, pointing to the rows and rows of small white urns turned out in his kiln that day. Shu can only nod, bow and make his exit with the uranium powder stashed in his rucksack. Shu knows that Japan will hurtle toward a terrible defeat unless they can build the bomb before the Americans. At the same time he knows their chances of making that happen are practically zilch. Yet the thought of giving up never crosses his mind. A stubborn work-ethic and an obsessive regard for science dictates Shu’s actions and his MO, like the rest of his team, is to ‘ganbaru (do the best they can)’ until they drop.
Director/writer Hiroshi Kurosaki is a seasoned television director, best known for his work on the NHK morning drama series “Hiyokko, (2017)” which means ‘youngster.’ Kurosaki has a flair for portraying youth and innocence under duress. “Hiyokko” was set in the post war years, with a young female protagonist (Kasumi Arimura) searching for her missing father in Tokyo. Arimura teams up with Kurosaki again for “Gift of Fire” as she plays Setsu, who is Shu’s possible love interest. Setsu, perhaps as a nod to our times, is not the typical docile young woman of wartime Japan. In one scene she lectures Shu and his brother Hiroyuki (played by the late Haruma Miura who committed suicide last summer. The film marks his final screen appearance) about their tunnel vision, exhorting them to look beyond the war and envision a future without violence. In the post-screening press conference Kurosaki said: “I wanted to portray what a young woman must have felt in the final days before the surrender. She’s young and has an intense desire to live and experience life, but death is always there.”
“Gift of Fire” is not without redemption. What permeates the otherwise dark and spartan narrative is the sheer innocence of the characters, especially Shu and Hiroyuki. In their separate ways, the brothers seek closure to a war that had come to define their identifites – Shu by creating the atomic bomb, and Hiroyuki by flying a plane right into an American warship. Defeat may be imminent but neither of them are about to surrender peacefully. “They made mistakes, they’re not heroes,” said Kurosaki. “They are ordinary young men, blundering on and doing the best they can.” Sadly that’s never enough to right a ship gone horribly awry. END
Rikako, my wife, was staying with her best friend from university, the one that hung around her all these years and never got married. She was pretty attractive too, the last time I saw her, which was what, 10 years ago? Now I couldn’t remember what this friend’s name was. Something that didn’t end in ‘ko’ meaning ‘child.’ In Japanese, the ‘ko’ at the end of a name indicated that the person was female which in this day and age, can raise questions about misogyny or gender discrimination but let’s just put that aside for now.
In Rikako’s case, the written characters of her name stood for ‘wisdom,’ ‘fragrance,’ and ‘child,’ and Rikako said she often felt uncomfortable by the sight of her written name. “It’s a little demeaning,” she had said, wrinkling her nose as if she smelled something bad. “Makes me feel like a little girl.” Then Rikako would get that look on her face, which was supposedly a cue for me to say something like “but you are my little girl. You’ll always be a young girl to me.” And then she would pretend to pout which was another cue for me to massage the back of her feet, and then we’d head off to the bedroom or just fuck on the floor. But for years I hadn’t taken that bait. I mean, come on, we’re both 45. That kind of ritual just doesn’t work anymore, not that it did when we were in our thirties.
Back then we were just living together and not officially married. But Rikako loved planning what she phrased as ‘the inevitable event’ down to the last minute detail. She showed me sketched drawings of ‘my ideal dress’ and ‘the ultimate bouquet,’ and littered the living room with brochures from tons of wedding companies. She was adorable in her adoration of all things wedding and I would steal glances at her profile, poring over the menu cards or venue decorations. Not that it made any sense to me. All that trouble and fuss, not to mention the expense! It was horrendous. But if my little girl wanted to get married in a ridiculous white dress, then it was up to me to smile and nod approval and go along with it.
One of the things I least like about Rikako is how she continues to think and behave like a young woman when very clearly, she’s not. Not, not, not. The topics she chose to talk about, her gestures and her ‘weekend loungewear’ supposedly chosen to stimulate our sex life, ended up being embarrassing, especially during these past few months of a global pandemic. Suddenly, we were trapped in each other’s company for weeks on end, since both our companies mandated that we work from home. I didn’t know what to do with her, how to be with her and certainly not on a 24/7 basis in the confines of a cell-box Tokyo apartment. And she, on the other hand, was annoyed by every little thing I did, or didn’t. That’s not precisely why she left but I’m choosing to blame it all on Covid.
On the last Saturday of July 2020, Rikako announced that she was leaving “this life” with me, so she could “learn to breathe deeply again” in the house of her friend who didn’t have a ‘ko’ at the end of her name. She spent the morning packing, made some coffee which she poured out for the both of us, said something about the laundry and walked out the door with the big Samsonite, the one we both took turns using in the days when frequent business trips were the norm. I almost said, “Wait, I may want to use that” but I didn’t because I wouldn’t. Ever again, if the news was anything to go by. At this rate experts said, we would be lucky to start traveling again in late 2023 or thereabouts.
I knew what she was expecting. That I would turn up at her girlfriend’s place, looking worse for wear, abashed and contrite and promising to do better. That I needed her, oh so much. That we would go away to an onsen for the weekend, and tell each other that the last three months hadn’t done any damage to our marriage. Just thinking these thoughts made me ore than slightly queasy, or inclined to kick the toilet lid which stayed flipped open, thanks very much.
I didn’t. Go out to whatshername’s place, that is. I just stayed in our apartment for which I paid the mortgage every month and suddenly seemed airy and spacious. I worked during the day. Sometimes I did the laundry, otherwise I let my underwear pile up in the washing machine. I lost interest in mealtimes and ate whenever I felt hungry, on whatever tasted like something I wanted to eat. I played Assassin’s Creed until dawn.
Now, three weeks after Rikako’s departure I would go for nocturnal walks around the neighborhood and stand by the river to watch the surface of the water break into choppy ripples. I would cruise the convenience stores and stock up on packets of salami and cheese. It was so intensely pleasurable, so immensely liberating, that on these walks I would take off my mask to let out a silent scream of joy.
Marriage is hugely overrated. I was told it was the only route to happiness but I realize now it was a device that worked only when Rikako and I were putting in eighty-hour weeks at our respective jobs, and so burned out that self-reflection and long, winding discussions and bringing each other up to speed on what we wanted out of life I don’t know, all the stuff that married couples seem to do in Hollywood movies–seemed like an obscene waste of scant resources.
Then the pandemic whirled into our lives and presented a whole new playing field. I was fine with being married to Rikako, but I sure as hell was not prepared to be with her day and night. No man should be asked to do that, at least not in a one-bedroom condo with both of us trying to work and Zoom and use the toilet, sometimes all at once.
She claimed it was much worse for her and was relentless about letting me know it.
“I hate the sight of you in those sweats.” “
You’re playing games all the time, can’t you rent a car and take me out on the weekends?”
“I’m not your mother, don’t make me pick up your clothes.” “
The toilet’s dirty, you never clean it.” “
I’m not your mother, I can’t make your meals all the time.” “
I’m not your mother, stop acting like an overgrown kid.”
In the old days, Rikako and I were buddies most of the time, united in our shared lifestyle choices. Our own condo unit in a nice Tokyo neighborhood. Both of us were career driven, with a joint savings account. Overseas vacations, preferably twice a year. And no kids, never. That discussion was over and done with when we decided to make it all official, and hold a ‘resort wedding’ in Karuizawa. Rikako had said at the time, and I’m quoting verbatim here: “I have no interest in becoming a mother and sacrificing my career and my looks and identity to that undertaking. It’s so meaningless, it’s so thankless.”
Did I judge her for that? Hell no. My mother shook her head and told me I would be lonely in my old age and that it wasn’t too late to walk out of this relationship and find a nice girl who would give me a family. I told my mother it was none of her business and stuck by Rikako. We had shared too much of our lives together to call it quits. Besides, she still looked good at 35 and I wasn’t getting any younger. I doubted I would run into anyone so desirable again.
Mostly though, I was too exhausted from work to deal with it. I’m an aeronautical engineer and one of the core members of a government sponsored team that designs manned space vehicles. For the last 15 years, I was flying out to Houston to work with NASA every month or so, and deadlines popped up on my screen every 15 minutes. I was working weekends, past midnight, sometimes until dawn. Until the pandemic hit, I could honestly say that Red Bull was my dearest friend.
When Rikako and I finally tied the knot ten years ago, I was already looking forward to old age and some rock-solid downtime. Retirement seemed to me a glorious mirage of frosted cocktails, glimpsed in the burning desert of my work routine. I was Ralph Fiennes in “The English Patient,” trudging on the hot dunes forever and ever but knowing that eventually, Juliette Binoche would turn up to dress my wounds and whisper to me with a French accent that “everything was going to be okay.” We had the movie on Blu-ray. It was Rikako’s favorite and we would watch it on Saturday nights when I managed to be home. I kept losing the thread of the narrative because I always fell asleep but in the end, yeah, I got it. Ralph Fiennes: What an old dog. The guy is dying and delirious and he still can’t keep his mind off women.
These days though, I think about old Ralph a lot. I ask myself what images would parade through my brain when I’m ready to kick the bucket and I have to admit, it’s not work. Women. It would be women, whether they had the ‘ko’ on their names or not. No doubt Rikako’s face would be one of them but there would be others. My life isn’t completely barren. There are some unforgettable visages and bodies and they’ll all come back to me as I lie there on a hospital bed.
There’s one woman I’m sort of obsessed about now. I haven’t slept with her. I don’t know her name. She’s around 14, probably in her second year of middle school. Yes I know what this sounds like but I promise, this isn’t heading in that direction. This woman – this girl whom I privately named ‘Naoko’ after a girl in my neighborhood when we were both growing up – is someone I used to see in the subway station every morning as I commuted to work.
Naoko is tall for her age, lanky and lean and tanned, with short hair that’s carefully tucked behind her ears. She’s always carrying around a big sports bag emblazoned with her school logo, and printed underneath are the words ‘Track and Field Team.’ She’s a runner, and I’m betting by her physique that she goes for the 400 meter. I was an 800 meter boy myself and I see all the signs of a mid-distance sprinter: the way she holds her head, the snatches of conversation I sometimes overhear when she’s talking to her friends, the condition of her calves extending from her pleated uniform skirt and ending in socks and a pair of brown loafers.
The sight of her takes me right back to the days when I was training night and day to compete in the nationals and get a full-ride scholarship to one of the good universities. She even looks a little like my girlfriend of those days, whom I could see only once every three weeks because the rest of my time was eaten up with running and school.
Am I lusting after Naoko? To my utter relief, the answer is no. It’s a huge relief to be able to say that because otherwise I would be betraying the straight-backed, fresh-faced teenager that I once was. No, I just yearn to talk to her, encourage her, be a part of her life somehow. I think about how wonderful it would be if I had a daughter like her. We would share running stories and I could coach her on pacing and rhythm. I would tell her that mid-distance sprinting is the most intelligent of track sports and how rewarding it was to…
A buzz on my phone. I go take a look at it and it’s a message from Rikako. “I want to come home. I’ll see you in two hours or so. I’m sorry about having left but I think we both needed this break from each other.”
After about 10 seconds of rumination, I send back a smiley face and the words: “I’ll be waiting.”
My imaginary conversation with Naoko had already shattered into a million pieces and those pieces were floating around in the air. I sigh, turn off the air conditioner and go open some windows. I’m still trying to process the fact that Rikako will be back, marking the end of my days of freedom. I guess what this means now is that I have to do the laundry and clean the toilet before my wife gets back.
People have different ways of dealing stress and fear, especially during a protracted battle with a worldwide pandemic. Some Japanese are claiming that superstition saved us (as opposed to the two cloth masks per person promised by Prime Minister Abe), along with praying at Shinto shrines and guzzling detoxifying green tea.
As fears over a Covid-19 ‘infection explosion’ very gradually recede in the rearview mirror, more people are in a mood to agree with these theories.
After all, rural and traditional Japan remained largely unscathed by Covid-19, and these are the areas where people routinely visit local shrines, carry omamori (お守り・talismans), ask for ‘oharai’ (お祓い) –which is the practice of having a Shinto priest chase out bad spirits and demons lurking in one’s immediate vicinity, and down a lot of tea after the ceremony. If you get a Buddhist priest to do it, it’s yakubarai (厄払い). Add to that list, the drawing of an Amabie and posting it on social media. You may have just the armor needed for pandemic warfare.
A what? An Amabie (pronounced ama-bi-eh) is a yokai (妖怪）which can be translated as apparition, phantom creature or monster. She has the appearance of a three-legged mermaid with a beak in lieu of a mouth and she’s been around since the mid-19th century, according to Edo-Period documents. Though the typical Japanese yokai is often grotesque and loves to play pranks on humans, the Amabie is a beach chick that emerges from the sea to foretell epidemics. If you carry around her picture, she can ward off mass contagion and the effect is doubled if you draw it yourself. A lot of people in Japan and elsewhere have tried their hand at drawing Amabie, and she now has a definite presence on social media, on #Amabiechallenge and others.
Strangely enough, the Amabie has become a thing that may actually work. As of May 20th, the Japanese government has lifted the State of Emergency order for most of the nation, excluding the Tokyo metropolitan area. But the capitol city has been reporting less than 20 new infection cases for a week. Day care centers are talking about reopening as early as the 25th. Some local bars are welcoming customers again, even if masks are mandatory and draft beer is a thing of the past. Yes, the economy is in shambles and there’s nothing on TV but at least we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
This isn’t the first time modern Japan has turned to superstition and yokai for solace and guidance. The late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, creator of the mega hit yokai manga series Ge ge ge no Kitaro (Spooky Kitaro) had always held that the yokai was what kept Japan from teetering over the edge into the abyss of disaster. Without their presence and powers, he said, the archipelago would just be a dreary sinkhole of greed and corruption. The yokai is a familiar figure in Japanese folklore, and some date back a thousand years. Some function as avatars for Shinto gods. Others do mischief and love to disrupt people as they go about their lives. The yokai can be friendly too, and will make good companions, as long as you respect tradition, revere nature and refrain from harming others.
Mizuki hails from Tottori prefecture, a very traditional region that has racked up a total of three– count ’em three!–Covid 19 infection cases and zero deaths so maybe his take on the yokai was right. Mizuki’s own illustration of the Amabie has been posted on social media since mid-March, courtesy of Mizuki Production, and apparently this has been printed out and carried inside wallets or folded into omamori sachets. A friend of mine in Tottori reports that local reverence for Mizuki has soared, and the 800 meter long “Mizuki Shigeru Road” in his hometown of Sakaiminato, which is marked with yokai statues and merchandise shops, has seen a lot of (masked) tourist action. These people hang out bv the various yokai figuresto take photos, and leave little notes of prayer for the pandemic to end.
Shigeru Mizuki died in 2017 at the age of 93 but if he were around today, he would no doubt have had plenty to say about the government’s handling of the pandemic. Mizuki was a WWII veteran who lost an arm in combat in Papua New Guinea, and the harrowing experience shaped his views on authority and Japanese society. After the war Mizuki struggled to survive before settling down to write manga, which he continued doing right up until his death. For many years, he could barely make ends meet but his career took off when the Kitaro series hit prime time TV in the late 1960s. However, success didn’t turn his head or soften his judgement on what he saw as crimes committed by the Japanese government, be it throwing the nation into war, or going whole hog on nuclear energy. His manga was never cute or very accessible – they depicted the Japanese as desperate and conniving, with caricatured features like bad teeth, squinty eyes and terrible posture. His portraits of the typical Japanese male were so unflattering they resembled the Yellow Peril posters propagated by the US military during WWII. According to Mizuki, the only way these unattractive Japanese could achieve a slightly higher level of humanity, was to befriend a yokai.
Mizuki’s drawing of the Amabie though, is soft and friendly-looking. She really does seem concerned about the welfare of this archipelago. It’s not a bad picture to carry around, especially in a time when everyone is masked and avoiding eye contact as if the very act of acknowledging another person is a risky undertaking. If a picture of a three-legged mermaid is going to make people feel better about each other, it should probably be framed and put up inside the Diet building.
Japan Subculture Research Center is proud to present the latest addition to a series of short stories, by our resident book reviewer and social commentator, Kaori Shoji, on the often tragically mismatched marriages of foreign men and Japanese women–The Amazing Japanese Wife. If you see echoes of someone you know or yourself in this story, be rest assured that you’re a cliche—but take solace in the fact that misery is universal. This new story is apocryphal in the sense that the protagonist is unmarried–but seeking to be married.
In high school, Kimie read a novel about a woman who lived in a shack that was sinking into a sand pit. One day, sheer chance leads a man–an outsider–to wander into the woman’s shack. Initially, she’s kind and welcoming but she takes steps to ensure that the man can’t leave. Soon she sets him to work shoveling the ever-present sand out of her door, which she herself has been doing everyday for years. Otherwise, the sand will claim the shack completely and the woman will have no place to live.
At the time, Kimie was sixteen and was reveling in the power of her sexuality. She didn’t need to trap a man in the sand to get him to do anything–most of them were putty in the hands of a girl in a school uniform. When she stood on the platform of the train station she could feel the particles in the air around her change and shift, as men craned their necks to get a better look at the back of her knees and her neck and her long, perfect hair. A man in a neat, expensive-looking suit once gazed at her intently and pressed a 10,000 yen bill in her hand. “This is so you can kiss me later,” he whispered, before striding rapidly away.
For all that, the woman in the shack that was sinking into the sand, haunted Kimie. As she grew older it seemed she was turning into this woman, shoveling out sand alongside the man she had trapped. She knew exactly how this woman felt, and how earnestly she needed the man in her sand blown life. After she hit her forties, Kimie identified more with the man. She could picture him, desperately clawing at the sand, eyes darting wildly as he searched for a way to escape.
Kimie had turned 47, and was living with her mother in the same house she had lived in since childhood.
Three weeks into the pandemic shut-down, Kimie felt her synapses fraying, and then unraveling. Her hair was falling out in chunks and her skin was clammy to the touch in some places, while in others it was dry and chilly. The soles of her feet had the texture of old, cracked rubber. She would get up in the morning, and too distracted to open the curtains, would immediately turn on the news, mentally preparing for the day’s dreary horrors as if they were a mere extension of her fitful nightmares.
“Kimi-chan, Kimi-chan!” After half an hour of staring at the screen, the calls of her mother from the kitchen downstairs, would alert her to the fact that she had procrastinated long enough. It was time to face her mother at the table, over coffee and toast with synthetic butter and cheap jam.
The sight of her mother, aged 77, instilled a sense of silent panic deep within Kimie’s soul. This is where I’m going, this is what I’ll look like. She knew such thoughts were vain and unworthy but she had decided long ago that it was okay to have them. Until five years ago when her father was still alive, Kimie could convince herself that she valued her parents because they brought her up and sacrificed much for this life of hers. In her youth, this life had seemed to be the most enticing item in the whole shop. She had pointed to it with her finger and it became hers, gift-wrapped and bow-tied. The bill had been sent round to her father, who paid without complaint. But now the sand was getting into the nooks and nannies and crevices of her pretty little life.
On good days, Kimie would tick off her milestones in her mind, if only to remind herself that she was special, and her life was, if not completely wonderful then surely presentable. A semester in a high school in Missouri, courtesy of a school-sponsored home stay program. She had called her father collect to ask for 500 extra dollars to spend on a prom dress, subsequently torn in three places by her geeky, fumbling boyfriend as he frantically groped her in his parents’ car. A year in Pennsylvania during university because she had insisted to her father that she needed to improve her English in order to land a good job. Her father had wired 800 dollars into her account every month so she could eat well, go to parties and well, improve her English. (Which she did! She scored 900 on TOEIC!) A trip to Italy and France as a graduation present. At the time, all these things made enormous sense to her, and besides, her mother had encouraged her every step of the way. “I want you to have the life that I could never have, Kimi-chan,” she intoned, the closest thing her mother ever came to a prayer. She would also say, “The world is so different from when I was young. I had no choices, no options, nothing but the life that was put in front of me.” This was her mother’s mantra, pulled out whenever she got into a fight with her husband or daughter, knowing it would make them feel guilty enough to shut up and back off.
Kimie had allowed herself to buy into the myth that her mother, comfortably ensconced in their house in a Tokyo suburb purchased with a 30-year mortgage, had been abused and victimized by the Japanese social system. By embracing that myth Kimie took it upon herself–the brilliant girl who had studied in the US, could speak English and got a job in a bank–to be happy and successful. This would compensate for her mother’s apparently miserable and downtrodden existence. Kimie had believed she was doing the right thing, only to realize in middle age that she was trapped, a prisoner in the cell of her own bedroom.
Kimie’s younger brother had always rebelled against their parents and left home at the same time he chose a university in the northern tip of Japan–as far away from Tokyo as he could get without going abroad. Relatives had pitied her brother, he chose a national university with low tuition and turned down their father’s offer of a loan so he could rent an apartment. Instead, Kimie’s brother Youki spent four years in a cramped, filthy college dorm. Occasionally, he called to let his family know he was all right. After graduation, he stopped by to say he had found a job at a mid-sized electronics manufacturer. Youki had none of the privileges Kimie had taken for granted but he gained the kind of strength and freedom she couldn’t even fathom. Now, Kimie found it hard to wrap her mind around the fact that her brother had his own house, a family, even a dog–an elegant Dalmatian named Sabu whom she had seen only once. Youki had left and never came back. She had been the cosseted, dutiful daughter who stayed, and stayed and stayed at home. “At least I have you, Kimi-chan,” her mother liked to say. “As long as you’re still here, I have nothing to complain about, really.”
Kimie felt as if her insides had dried out and her blood vessels were clogged with sand. Did the woman in the novel die in the end? Kimie couldn’t remember but neither could she recall when she had her last period.
“Kimi-chan, are you working today?” Her mother, chewing toast, tossed the question in the air and Kimie nodded with a small grunt. There was a Zoom conference at 3PM for which she planned to turn the camera off. Until then she could pretend to do some paperwork, answer some emails, make a few calls. How long would that take? Maybe a couple of hours. Even with the Zoom conference slotted in, there were still ten or more waking hours that had to be whiled away somehow, secluded in her prison cell. Putting her dishes in the sink for her mother to wash, Kimie plodded to the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face. She saw no reason to change out of her pajamas, it wasn’t like she was going anywhere.
Kimie didn’t like life under the pandemic. At times, the strain of being cooped up inside a small house with her mother felt intolerable. But she hated her pre-Covid life even more, with a ferociousness that had her contemplating suicide at least three nights a week.
In late 2019 Kimie had an epiphany: instead of dying she would get married! Marriage would at least, enable her to leave her mother and the wretched house. In January, she signed up with a ‘konkatsu (marriage agency),’ dutifully paying the 300,000 yen registration fee and answering each and every match-up question. She understood from the hour-long meeting with the agency’s ‘counselor’ that these days, it was quite common for women in their 40s and 50s to look for partners, but the road to an actual wedding could take longer than expected. The 300,000 yen fee would cover her match-ups for up to one year. “What happens when a year goes by and I’m still single?,” Kimie had asked and the counselor, intimidating with her glowing skin and sleek hair, had chirped that most women found someone within 6 months. “Our advice is: try them out. Most of our clients haven’t dated in awhile and they’re all a bit rusty. We find that when the woman takes the lead, everything tends to fall in place. So don’t say no until you’ve tried them out!”
After screening a half dozen applicants, Kimie settled on the 56 year old Yamanishi-san, whose portrait photo reminded her a little of her father when he was that age. Yamanishi-san’s texts were charming; he seemed to know how to strike just the right tone between elaborately polite and paternally friendly. They agreed to meet for lunch in a kaiseki restaurant (his choice) in the posh district of Ginza, where he had booked an alcove facing a Japanese garden. “I love gardens in the winter. They’re so calm and soothing,” he texted, and Kimie felt a little thrill of anticipation. It had been a long time since she had been courted, on any level, by a man. Maybe she really was about to get a ticket out of the sand shack–her private nickname for home.
Exactly 24 hours before the appointed time, she had her roots done at an expensive salon in Aoyama. Two weeks prior to that, she had bought a dress at a department store, along with a fresh pair of panty hose and brown leather pumps. On the day, she scrutinized herself in the mirror and decided she didn’t look a day over thirty-nine. Saying nothing to her mother, Kimie went to the restaurant with as little anxiety as she could manage. If this worked out, she would break the news to her mother gently, and suggest moving to a house in the immediate vicinity so they could visit often.
Yamanishi-san turned out to be a bit heavier than his photo, and with noticeably less hair but Kimie was willing to overlook these minor flaws. What was much more jarring, was the rift between his digital texts and his real life persona. Yamanishi-san didn’t even look at the garden but kept his gaze firmly on Kimie’s chest, as if he were a chef contemplating the char marks on a grilled steak. “You have a good body for a woman of your age,” he said. “Have you done much sports in school? I like a woman with good muscle tone.” Kimie smiled and said no, not really, she had been too busy studying English.
“Ah, yes! I read that in your resume. You’re not some idiotic female with zero skills, you’ve been out in the world and you can speak English! My mother would like that. She used to be a teacher in her day. She likes women with knowledge and work experience. She can’t stand dumb girls.”
The conversation went on in this vein and Kimie could hardly bring herself to sample the meal, made up of exquisite morsels of food artistically displayed on polished lacquerware. All she wanted to do now was go home, and slip into bed with her phone. She stopped listening to Yamanishi-san altogether and thought about Spotify. She really should update her playlists.
Suddenly, in the middle of wresting a thin piece of radish from a tiny portion of soup, Yamanishi-san fixed her with an intense stare and said, “Okay, I seriously have to ask you this question if we are going to take this relationship any further. What color is your that?”
Kimie could feel her cheeks tingle, and then burn, and could only mimic the last word in his question. “That?” she blurted, like a fool, she thought. Yamanishi-san nodded vigorously and said, “Yes, your that. You know, I can almost tolerate black nipples though I would much prefer them to be a lighter color. But a woman’s, you know, that–should never be dark. If we are to have sex, I don’t think I can perform very well if your that is a dark color.”
After a full ten seconds of silence in which Kimie sat there, her face turned desperately to the winter garden which struck her as being dull and ugly, Yamanishi san said in a gentler tone, “I’m sorry to have to ask you. But this is…not love, it’s not dating, don’t you see? This is an arrangement preceding marriage. I think that you are a smart, modern woman and maybe we could come to an understanding, the two of us. But neither of us is young, and there’s no time for beating around the bush. I have my priorities and I am being honest about them. Won’t you give me an answer?”
“I don’t know. I don’t usually look.” With that, Kimie stood up, clutching her handbag, and walked clumsily to the reception area where she asked for her coat. As soon as she was out of the restaurant, she grabbed her phone and blocked Yamanishi-san’s number after deleting all his texts.
Kimie’s thoughts often wandered back to that lunch, but the memories were not of Yamanishi-san. Indeed, within hours of that experience he had felt like a figment of her imagination, spawned as the result of the meeting with the chirping counselor and her stupid advice.
What Kimie recalls is how, as soon as she had gotten home and climbed the staircase to her room, she stripped off her coat and dress and peeled off her pantyhose. She took a mirror from her make-up drawer and held it close to her vagina. For several seconds, she had to struggle to see, but when she got a good enough view, she let out a sigh of relief. Her ‘that’ wasn’t black. In fact, the color could even be described as being on the light side. “If we are to have sex,” she whispered to herself. Then she had put the mirror away, pulled up her panties and got into bed. She could hear her mother calling her name from the kitchen but she shut her eyes tight and willed herself not to hear. The sand was seeping into her room, gathering in mounds all around her bed, lulling her to sleep. She would shovel it out later.
Note: Ms. Shoji should be credited for coining the word WAM (Western Anglo-Saxon Men) also (White American Men)–a more understandable term for the Charisma-man type of entitled self-important foreigners that once flooded these shores but now mostly live in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Singapore. Also, it should be noted that Ms. Shoji has always been an equal opportunity misanthrope, as evidenced in her book review entitled 21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck.
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