The Past Present

Everyone knows there is a dark side to journalism. If they don’t, they just haven’t worked the job long enough. It’s even darker when you work for a Japanese newspaper that still has morning and evening editions. That means six deadlines a day, since each regional version has its own deadline. I don’t miss those days.

When you’re on the police beat, you essentially live within the police press club. There’s at least one 24-hour shift a week, in which you may or may not catch a couple hours of sleep between 2 and 5:30 a.m., when you have to check the papers to see if the team has been scooped and notify the boss and the reporter in charge of the division.

You’re never home. You’re never not on call. Most of us end up divorced or legally separated. You will not be able to avoid hounding the friends, families and victims of a horrible crime for their statements and photos of the deceased. It’s a hyena-like task that I still do and will always dislike.

The darker side of the police beat or investigative journalism in Japan, especially when covering the yakuza, or as the police call them boryokudan (暴力団), or violent groups, is that eventually you’ll meet with violence. And I have several times. It’s left me with a litany of injuries – a weekly regimen of physical therapy, chronic post-traumatic stress and some brain damage.

As it stands, the head injury I suffered in 2010 has been both a blessing and a curse. It has resulted in temporal lobe seizures, less frequent as time goes on. I have a lesion in my brain, located around the temporal lobe – the product of a two-story fall, I suppose that was the initial injury (1986). In January 2010, an angry source – an ex-yakuza high as a kite on some very good crystal meth – kicked me in the head after I set him off and what was a conversation turned into a knock-down brawl. I believe he was in the midst of meth psychosis so it was hard to hold it against him.

It took a few days to realize that I wasn’t quite the same after that. I think that’s when things started going wrong on the temporal level; time was out of joint.

You might think that being able to relive the greatest moments of your life would a wonderful thing. You would be wrong. A few times a week, I have the displeasure, usually at random, but sometimes triggered by a sound or scent, of re-experiencing a past event in my life. Often they are very mundane. I wouldn’t call them memories, they’re stronger than that – they’re more than flashbacks. For me, they constitute a temporal dislocation; a disruption in the chronology of life; identity; of who I am and how I feel.

These re-experiences are things like laying down on a futon, beside a window on a rainy day. A woman I used to love, putting her hand on my neck and whispering something into my ear about the growth of oak trees in the summer. I lose myself for a minute, maybe just a few seconds. When I sleep, it’s worse. Sometimes, I relive violent events in my life—with all the fear, adrenaline, anger and pain that came with it. I feel the glass in my feet and I can’t stand up. When I calm down and check the soles and see that there’s nothing there–then I’m fine. It feels just as real as it did back then. I know that there’s no threat but my body doesn’t listen, so going back to sleep isn’t really much of an option. I could take a sleeping pill but that’s also another world of troubles.

I write a lot at night. I know many cafes and bars that are open at 3am; it’s good to have a place to go when it happens.

Generally, I’m very good at covering up my temporal disorder. I slip up now and then. I used to buy picture books for my children and then realize it has been years since they read books without words. My daughter when she was ten once horrified me by telling me that she was going to need a sports bra. Because in my head, I can remember reading to her Alice in Wonderland, the pop-up book, just last night. That was probably six years ago at the time. Everything seems like yesterday.

At least I’m blessed with faculties that tell me my sense of time and chronology is out of whack. But when I’m tired or sleep- deprived, it’s much harder to remember what was past and what is present. After a flashback, I have this strange feeling that time should have stopped where it was; that I should be walking into work at The Yomiuri Shimbun and filing an article on the latest hit- and-run. Right after one ends, I feel myself right back where I was at the time. It’s as if the world had been rebooted and put back to factory-shipped state.

After my temporal clock resets, I find myself feeling about a person I once loved exactly as I did – at what were wonderful little moments in the relationship. Weren’t we dancing together last night in a seedy bar in New York? Why can’t we just start at that point in time again? Because what happened after that doesn’t feel like it happened. It feels for a few moments as if that’s where time stopped.

I feel like I could go back to any point in time and pick up where things were. The rest of the world doesn’t function like that.

I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years. My mentor and sort of second father, Detective Chiaki Sekiguchi died of cancer in 2008. A colleague at the newspaper killed herself. People who were good friends and sources have gone missing. In 2010, lawyer and mentor, Toshiro Igari, was probably killed in the Philippines after taking on my case against the publisher of a yakuza boss’ biography. After obtaining the autopsy report from the Manila police, it’s clear that suicide was not the cause of death. A source, but not a friend, was shot to death in Thailand in April of 2011. I miss him as well, despite myself. My BFF, Michiel Brandt, passed away due to complications from leukemia in 2012. She was 30. I’m now 50. I keep waiting for the pain of that loss to be a little less but it stays. Even when you are well aware that life is impermanent and death comes to us all, sometimes it just seems too soon. There’s a part of you that doesn’t expect you to outlive your friends, especially when they are so much younger than you. Sometimes, I see her in dreams as well.

Sometimes, I have flashbacks to moments where I was a total jerk. Where I was rude or insensitive and I feel the same pangs of regret in the present that I felt in the past. I relive the mistake with no possibility of correcting it.

I have keys to apartments to where I can never go back in the physical universe. But in my own mindscape, I was just there and will be there again. Everything should be just where it was. The peanut butter in the cupboard, my toothbrush in a drawer, the balcony door open. The computer would be on the desk where I used to keep it. My desk in the Metro Police Headquarters should still have my stack of yakuza fanzines on top, stuffed into a cheap cardboard box. I wish I could throw away the old keys but I have this irrational belief that I will need them—even though the locks must have been changed and there is no reason to go back and no one there I know anymore.

Some of the memories are horrific. And they come with all the pain and horror of the time: photos casually shown to me that I never wanted to see; the smell of rusty iron from a bloody body, laying cut to shreds on a train track; or the sensation of burning, when a thug stubbed out his cigarette on my shoulder.

In general, maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Japan, I try to take a stoic approach to things. The idea of seeing a psychotherapist to resolve mental issues seemed like a waste of time. But I finally went to see one in 2010, to try and do something about my insomnia. After a couple of sessions, the diagnosis was chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. He recommended anti- depressants to deal with the hyper-vigilance issues. I didn’t take them. I stopped going. I need to be hyper vigilant at times. It’s a survival mechanism.

I don’t want to turn it off; I just want to control it better. Meditation helps. Sleep helps. Exercise helps.

I thought that diagnosis would explain the strange flashbacks that were happening, but all I could find in the literature were references to people having flashbacks to traumatic events, not mundane or pleasant moments. It took a scan of my head and a visit to a neurologist to finally get diagnosed correctly.

There has to be a reason why we forget things. If we could recall the past too vividly, the present might pale in comparison. If we can’t forget, we can’t move on. Maybe our minds would explode with the complications of retaining memories of the past and awareness of the present at the same time.

I have anxiety about sleeping. I never know what time of my life I’ll wake up in. The persistence of the past both helps and hinders my relationships in the present. It helps because I get to relive mistakes and am thus reminded not do them again. It hinders because I’m able to forgive and then forget I’ve forgiven someone in the first place. Or forgive myself.

I’d like to walk on; I just keep treading water.

There’s a weariness that comes with covering violent crime, fraud, and human trafficking. There’s a sense of futility. You keep covering the same story, over and over – only the characters change. The narrative remains the same. In recent years, I’ve moved away from crime reporting and covering the yakuza. Bitcoin, politics, social issues, corruption, financial news. There’s a whole other world of things to report on–and just as important to know as well.

These days I’m in a good place mentally and physically. I am, if not happy, quite content with where I am and what I’m doing. But sometimes when I wake up, especially after having a disorienting flashback, I find myself strangely detached from life itself. I can only explain it by borrowing the words of Qoheleth, in the Book of Ecclesiastes:

What has been is still happening now

What has been will be again and be as it is

just as it was

There is nothing new under the (Iand of the rising) sun.

2 thoughts on “The Past Present”

  1. Wow, Jake, that doesn’t sound like much fun. I have occasionally experienced dreams that were vivid enough that I actually felt a physical sensation to go with something in the dream, but for the most part my memories stay clearly memories and many have faded so that experiences that seemed unforgettable at the time seem hazy now. I believe it was the earthquake in Fukushima that introduced me to you and your work and I’ve admired the way you’ve tried to be an advocate and defender of people in Japan with little voice or power of their own. I’m sorry for the toll it’s taken on you and I hope you will continue to find peace and healing.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I wish that I could make some memories fade out but there are always things beyond our control. I guess there is the stoic freedom in how to react to those things and that’s helpful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *