Project 2

Creation of stories all around Japan

“You Lot” by Ueda Takahiro

Translated by Terry Gallagher

At the height of the day, she and I, in similar postures, looked out to sea from the yards of our respective Western-style houses.

I looked out from the shade of an umbrella, while she sat in the sun. With her back to me, gazing out to sea, she was quite a picture. Even more so if she had had a straw hat on her head. She wore a dress with a complicated pattern of green, orchid and black, and her long black hair was tossed by the breeze. The surface of the water sparkled restlessly, reflecting the glare of the sun.

She might have been in her late 20s, or she might have been in her 40s. Here in this resort area of beach houses, staring out at the sea, she seemed to be waiting for someone, or something, to come from across the water. I was sure her story was something like that. What was it? It seemed like the kind of thing you could Google, but I didn't. My "now" was to be here in this beach house that my friend was renting me for cheap, away from my regular life, away from my everyday routine. I had no desire to disturb this serenity by connecting to the half-assed hivemind. For the same reason, I didn't even look up the name of the sea we were looking out at. It is a bad habit of mine, to want simple explanations for everything. Or should I say, it was a bad habit of mine.

Something my ex-wife said to me just before we broke up crossed my mind.

"You always want simple explanations. You can't seem to wait for anything. It's because of people like you lot that they had to make up crazy names for the bombs, and then drop two of them."

My ex-wife was a research assistant in an international political science department. When she had too much to drink, she liked to talk about atom bombs. Because the dropping of atom bombs with crazy names like Little Boy and Fat Man on actual cities was the greatest of all crimes against humanity, it was her habit to associate that with everything bad that ever happened. Considering that the people who dropped the bombs felt compelled to drop two different kinds in less than a week, without a warning shot, it seemed reasonable to conclude they didn't think it was people they were dropping them on. Were they fools? Were they psychopaths? Were they incapable of love? Only those kinds of really bad people could do something that barbaric, and do it more than once. Somewhere inside her, my "lack of patience" was also something bad.

The fact that I thought the woman next door must be waiting for something, or someone, may have been connected somehow to that memory.

"Maybe Madame Butterfly? Yup. The other day, I saw the ballet adaptation by Kumakawa Tetsuya. It was just before the coronavirus hit. Somehow, everything before the pandemic seems weirdly long ago."

I was chatting on LINE with my friend, about the woman next door. He answered right away. His next message included a link from Wikipedia. "Madame Butterfly – Opera by Giacomo Puccini, based on a short story by the American lawyer John Luther Long, and a dramatization of that story with the same title by the playwright David Belasco."

Reading on, the story is set in Nagasaki. An American officer and a Japanese lady (Madame Butterfly) get married, but then the officer's assignment is up, and he goes home, promising, "I'll be back someday." But he doesn't keep that promise. He never comes back. It is a story about the sadness of a woman waiting for an American officer who does not come back. According to Wikipedia, it was originally a short story by an American lawyer, but it's likely it was based on real people. Toward the bottom of the page, there is a section "Who was the real Madame Butterfly?" Real people became a short story, which became a play, which became an opera. There must be something about the situation that really captures something pithy about human nature. "A woman waiting for someone who never comes." I myself seem to be waiting for something, or someone. Just the sight of the back of the woman next door sparked all these thoughts in me.

"The other house is better situated," my friend wrote, not having received any response from me about the Wikipedia article.

"From the other house, nothing blocks the view of the sea. From my house, the garden of that house gets in the way. I didn't see her when I was there. How long has she been there?"

"She's been here since I got here. Maybe it's her place, or maybe she's a close friend of the owner."

"Maybe so. If it was on Airbnb, there would be more turnover."

My friend uses Airbnb to get renters for his place. The house where I was staying was on the south side of Awajishima, the largest island in the big puddle of the Seto Inland Sea. This was a popular spot for rental houses. My friend bought it as an investment property. It used to be more profitable than a condo.

But then came all the fuss about the coronavirus, and everything changed. About half of his renters were non-Japanese, and the rest were Japanese. Of course most of them were not from the island. Customers had pretty much disappeared since the state

of emergency was declared for the Hyogo Prefecture region, which includes Awajishima. My friend had a bunch of rental properties in Tokyo and Saitama, but this was his first investment in a resort property, dependent on short-term renters. He was a pretty sharp guy, but even he had not anticipated this chain of events. Who had? Even the Olympics – which had never been canceled, except for wartime – were postponed. Who could have foreseen that? If there was anybody in the world who could have expected anything like this, and that person actually started talking about the novel coronavirus and what it would bring, before it happened, they would have been treated like a crazy person. No doubt.

I was changing jobs, and using up my accumulated vacation days. I had changed jobs once before. That was 10 years ago, so it's not like I've made a habit of it. I did not think my previous job-change had been a mistake. Years ago, people thought it was normal to work for one company your whole life. Even now, salarymen at big legacy companies still cling to that tradition. And that's a nice feeling, like gazing at a grand old edifice. But it's not for me.

It's like buying a new coat to replace one you never wear anymore. The first time, and the second time – this time – I quite naturally felt the call to a new workplace, and that is what I responded to. I might not like some article of clothing anymore, but somebody else might think it's the best thing in the world. Happens all the time. I had no complaints about the way I was treated, or about what I actually did at work, but it just didn't suit me anymore. No point in sticking to the same place. I was capable of sniffing out how to advance my career, and I had no reservations about seeking out opportunities within the company. So I had every reason to expect this job change would go well. Not just for me, but for my new company too. I thought it would work out well even for the company I was leaving behind.

The company I was going to work for was the Japanese representative of an Israeli software company. The company wanted to expand its business across all of Asia, and it wanted to have offices in all those countries. But that strategy had changed, and now the company was treating Asia as one big territory. It had to decide where to put its Asia rep office, and there was pretty stiff competition from a company in China. The company where I was going to work had been chosen as the Asia rep office. The executive who was going to be in charge of the business needed a right-hand man, and I was going to be that person. But then the pandemic hit, and wiped out the whole idea of the rep office for all Asia. In its place, somehow the company in China had been able to grab back its claim to that spot.

The guy who had recruited me found it pretty awkward when he had to explain this whole story to me.

He even felt compelled to add this excuse: "Even with the coronavirus keeping us from doing business, it seems we had promised to pay the fee to be the rep office."

He must have felt bad for me, because I was already doing the paperwork to quit my other job, so he said he would come up with some kind of a job for me, but of course

he would not be able to pay me as much as he had promised. It was starting to smell like a trap I should avoid. But I didn't give him an answer right away.

I had already decided on this trip to Awaji to use up my vacation time, so I thought I would just take that time and think about it.

"Did you see the Kannon?"

Another LINE message from my friend. The "Kannon" he was talking about was the "World Peace Giant Kannon." It was one of the sights of Awaji, a huge concrete statue that had been constructed by a real estate magnate in the 20th century, when Japan was burbling in the greatest economy the world has ever known. It was 100 meters tall. It was Japan's second-biggest Buddha, after the one in Ushiku. When it was built, it was the biggest. Since I was nearby, I had driven past it on the way to this house. It was weirdly tall, and it had a strange expression on its face. I remember seeing, at its side, a multi-story Japanese-style building.

"Yeah, I saw it."

"It's big, isn't it? Things like that, the bigger they are, the more they make me wonder about how much guilt that guy was feeling."

The size of the Kannon was equal to the size of the builder's guilt. That was the simple interpretation. I marked my friend's message "read," and I got a deck chair and a side table out of the shed and set them up in the shade of the umbrella. I slouched in the chair and drank a Corona beer.

My friend worked for a company, as an IT consultant, but really he did a lot of odd jobs for a lot of different departments. He likened himself to a kind of bad mold that wormed its way into the hearts of the key people in the company. All he was supposed to be doing was helping to move servers into data centers, but somehow he managed to take on responsibility for giving instructions to the person directing new hires straight out of university. I got to know him when he was in charge of a project for one of my clients. As the job was taking shape, and we were about to launch, he let slip that he was not a regular employee, but just an outside contractor. He went to the same college I did, and he was just one year behind me, and we had a lot of friends in common. He was a year behind me, but in fact he had stayed behind a year, so he was actually the same age as I was. We both felt like we were on the same wavelength, and we would often get together with our other friends for drinks. Over time, he came to be practically in the "friend from college" category in my mind. We called each other by first names, and treated each other more as friends than as work colleagues.

"I got some of that booze you like and put it in the fridge for you. Drink all you want."

I opened the giant fridge with a great sense of anticipation. The light inside illuminated the familiar amber glow. Corona Beer. Dozens of bottles of amber Corona. Choice! At eye level hung a letter-size sheet of paper, with "Beat Corona" written in my friend's handwriting. I counted over 100 bottles. I would be there two weeks. Could I beat this much beer?

All I had to do was drink beer and look out at the sea. Nothing else. I had not had that kind of free time in a long time. My 30s had been particularly awful. As my company grew, the founding members gradually quit, one by one, and it seemed I ended up with all of their work. My wife really wanted to have a baby, so she was getting fertility treatments, and I went along too. But she never got pregnant, and with all that stress our relationship kind of went downhill. When there was no ignoring it anymore, we split up. At least, that's the way I see it. She took me to task for always oversimplifying things like that. If we had had a kid when we were in our 20s, that would have been fine. We should have also been in agreement that if that was not possible, we would be fine with that too. But as she got closer to her "time limit," I think her state of mind really changed. She was just two years older than me, but that really started to cause her pain. Once she had been a cheerful sort, but she seemed to fall under a shadow. At some point we should have been able to fix our relationship. But stupid me could never seem to find that point. I felt increasingly irritable, like all I could do was watch things as they fell from a great height.

A little bit of the amber liquid Corona dribbled from my lips, and dripped from my jaw to my neck. There were several boats on the water. The beige umbrella could not fully block the summer sun. All around my body was an oppressive heat. The heat was making me sleepy. Draining the last of the Corona from the bottom of the bottle, moving was too much trouble, so I let the bottle fall to the ground, and then I closed my eyes.

---- Before my eyes was something black and round. Something with an almond shaped frame. An eye, I thought, and in the next instant I realized it was a puppet, with a flat white face. Its hair was deep black, fashioned in a traditional Japanese style. It was a Japanese puppet, in a pale purple kimono. The strange thing was, it had a cloth mask covering its mouth and jaw.

I thought I must be dreaming. If not, why was this puppet staring me in the face? But I could not recall ever having dreamed of a puppet before. Or maybe it was a funny thing to even be trying to recall past dreams. Dreams come of their own accord, unbidden, and then when you wake up they vanish. When you're really awake, most times you can't remember the dreams you were dreaming just moments before. I really liked the feeling I got when I was still drowsy, a sense of loss at the remnants of dreams I thought I should still be able to see.

That puppet, though, was a little too real to be a dream. It just stood there, not moving, staring at me. As I focused my gaze, I could see the hand that was controlling the puppet.

A long-haired girl, in a school uniform.

"Wooooo!" said the girl with the puppet, bringing its face close to mine, and shaking it reproachfully. This is no dream, I thought to myself, as I reached for the cooler to grab another Corona. This is really happening. It's just kind of incongruous. There are in this world things that are simply out of place. Or, when things seem incongruous, perhaps we simply don't have enough data about them. The beer bottle had fallen over, and I lost interest in trying to open it. I got up from my chair. And as I did so, the puppet too rose with me, matching my movements, and was still right in front of my face.

"Wooooo!" the girl said again.

Who the heck are you? I was going to ask, but then I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the woman from next door. Madame Butterfly, as my friend and I had come to call her, began to approach us.

The girl must be Madame Butterfly's daughter. The woman said she was in junior high, but she seemed somehow guilty saying so, and I had the feeling she didn't go to school.

I thought it strange even to realize the woman might have a daughter. Well, not strange, exactly. I had not really imagined that much about her.

"Sorry to have bothered you."

Letting on no more than she had to, the woman went to lead her daughter back to their house. But I was bored, and I was the one who had been bothered, so I thought I had the right to ask a question or two, just to satisfy my curiosity.

"Is that a joruri puppet you have there?"

The woman glanced in the girl's direction. She looked at the puppet in the girl’s hand and said, quietly, "It's for a club they have at school."

"You do joruri in a club at school?"

"It seems to be rather popular around here."

... Around here. That's not something she would say if she was from around here. Her intonation also seemed to be completely Tokyo. She couldn't be from Awaji, or even from Kansai.

"Do you live here?" I asked, without thinking, but then I thought perhaps I had crossed a line. I explained that this house belonged to a friend of mine, and that

ordinarily he rented it out, but with things the way they are now he wasn't able to find any renters, so he was letting me use it for a song. She listened, silently, and when I was finished, she remained silent for about 10 seconds.

"I'm really sorry my daughter bothered you in your own yard."

So saying she bowed her head, took her daughter by the hand, and once again started to go home. As they walked away, the masked puppet continued to stare at me.

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Project Participating Authors

  • Hyogo Takahiro Ueda

    Takahiro Ueda

    Born in 1979 in Hyōgo prefecture, graduated from the School of Low of Waseda University. Winner of the 45th Shincho New-comer Award with Sun (Taiyō) in 2013. My Lover (Watashi no Koibito) won the 28th Mishima Yukio Prize in 2015. Elected as one of the Best Young Japanese Novelists by Magazine GRANTA in 2016. Tower and Gravity (Tō to Jyūryoku) won the Geijutsu Sensho Shinjin Award in 2018. Other work: Friends from Foreign Land (Ikyō no Yūjin) (All published by Shinchosha). His latest work Nimrod published by Kodansha won the 160th Akutagawa Ryunosuke Prize in January 2019.

    You Lot

    A quiet beach resort area on Awaji Island, whiling away some time between jobs. An evening encounter with the mother and daughter from next door. The young girl acts out a Kabuki ghost story with her little doll, and the mom offers “simple explanations.” Wooo…

  • Fukushima Ao Omae

    Ao Omae

    Ao Omae was born 1992 in Hyogo Prefecture. Hailed in Japan as a rising star of gender-conscious literature since the 2020 publication of Nuigurumi to shaberu hito wa yasashii (People who talk to stuffed animals are nice), he debuted in 2016 with a short story that was eventually included in the 2018 collection Kaitengusa (Tumbleweed). In 2019, he released a collection of flash fiction called Watashi to wani to imōto no heya (A room for a crocodile, my sister, and me), and his 2017 digital-only collection is Nokemonodomono.

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  • Hokkaido Yuta Takano

    Yuta Takano

    Born & currently living in Hokkaido. Novelist & the winner of the 16th "Bocchan Literary Award" in 2020 for "Hagama."

    A Sunlit Table

    Since Chiyuki failed to eat the last breakfast her mother made for her, she has had trouble eating anything. She has managed to get by, helped by the food she eats as a bear in her dreams, but as the first anniversary of her mother's death approaches, her eating disorder worsens. Then she happens to cross paths with a classmate...