A friend died. His 1400cc grey Honda crashed into a
six-ton dump truck, right between the tires, as he tried to overtake a car in
the wrong lane. A can of Ginger Ale lay crushed behind the brake pedal. Perhaps
he’d left the empty can rolling about in the car, and perhaps it was stuck behind
the pedal, and perhaps the brake didn’t work when he needed, so said the
police. An intern at a junior high school, he was on his way home from work. He
knew his girlfriend was waiting in his room.
Like a crushed Ginger Ale was his
body. Makeup couldn’t mend the damaged corpse. The small window of his plain wooden
coffin was covered by a white cloth, and we couldn’t see his face for the
farewell. All we could do was to make a pile of white chrysanthemums on the
Right about then we heard a thud.
Rei, his girlfriend, my close friend, fell down on the floor. Immediately the
black-clothed people formed a mountain over her. I pictured her under the tens
of faces, curling up, sobbing, moaning, whining, yet I couldn’t go to talk to
her. What would I say? Are you OK? I’ll be with you? Everything’s going to be
fine? Whatever I would say would sound fake, I thought. It wasn’t me who’d lost
my love. Speechless, I left the funeral.
“Thank you for the letter,” said
Rei to me a few weeks later. I’d written that I’d regretted I hadn’t said
anything to her at the funeral, and that I would be always there for her.
“You don’t know how much I
appreciated it. People who I didn’t even know came up to me and said I know. I mean, it was nice of them, but,”
Rei closed her eyes, “I just wanted to be left alone.”
“I know,” I said. She opened her
eyes and looked into mine, and we laughed.
“Now, I’d like to ask a favour of
you,” she said.
“I’d like to go to his Forty-ninth
Day ceremony in his hometown. Can you keep me company?”
The Forty-ninth Day: a Buddhist
ceremony for the dead to leave for the other world. Going to his hometown in Kagoshima prefecture meant
going to the most southern prefecture of the most southern island of Japan’s
four main islands.
He, she and I had all lived in
Tsukuba City which was about 50 kilometers northeast of Tokyo. We were students
of the University of Tsukuba. The city was built for the university and some
government institutions. An artificial landscape, boulevards crossed like a
grid, the uniformly tall trees lined the streets. Cheap diners,
Here, everyone was an outsider.
We’d all come here from different parts of Japan, or the world. The strong
dialect of the region didn’t exist in this city. We had our own language, our
own culture. In this heterogeneous space we had created a strange, para-familial
A university girlfriend, however,
wouldn’t have the same legitimate powers as a wife would. His corpse was
brought back to his home, and for Rei, c’est fini. I sensed her hesitation to visit his family in this
delicate time. I did quick mental arithmetic to see if I could afford flight
tickets from the month’s saving.
“Sure,” I said finally.
September in Japan is a typhoon
season. Flights were canceled and canceled, and we missed the Forty-ninth Day.
We finally had a chance to fly, though at the check-in counter we were informed
about a possible rerouting due to an approaching typhoon to the Kyusyu area.
“What do you think?” asked Rei.
“Why not take chances? We are here
anyway,” I said.
We landed, as expected, at Miyazaki
Airport in the neighboring prefecture, instead of Kagoshima Airport. We decided
to rent a car. As we lined up in front of a rent-a-car service counter, a gigantic
man behind us asked, “Where are you two going?”
We turned around. “To Kanoya City
in Kagoshima,” answered Rei.
“I’m going in the same direction.
Why don’t you let me rent one and give you a ride?”
Rei and I looked each other. Her
eyes implied yes. How could students decline such an offer?
“Sure, that’ll be great,” I said.
The driver’s seat of a white
Suzuki Kei seemed too cramped for the
man. I sat in the front seat, so I was the one who was to be social. “Were you
on the same flight?” I asked him.
“Yes.” He turned his face toward
“Where are you going?”
“Fuku – Fukuoka?” I stuttered. “That’s like a
half-day drive from here!”
“My flight to Fukuoka was
canceled, and ours was the only one available today. I have to go back to work
“What do you do?”
“I’m a prison guard on death row.”
Thousands of questions came up in
my mind. Still, I only asked, “What is it like?”
The man didn’t turn his face
toward me. “Well… I sometimes get chocolate boxes from their families.”
Silence fell. I gazed into the
view spread out in front of us. Trees had blown down, bowing over the highway
from either side.
“I hear it was really stormy
around this area yesterday. Some were even killed,” he said.
I tried to recall the map of the
area, though I only had a dim memory of our geographic whereabouts. Going in
the same direction, so he said, but if he was going to Fukuoka it was probably
a detour – well, anyway.
The tunnel of the fallen trees
swallowed us. The Suzuki drove on, carrying the silence.
Two hours later we reached Kanoya
City. Only once he asked the way, a grass-green sticky note in hand, and soon he
found the house of our deceased comrade’s house. He wouldn’t accept our offer
to split the cost of the car. And just drove off.
It was an old, traditional
Japanese wooden house. The teak walls had turned silvery grey over the years,
yet the black tiles of the gabled roofs still remained lustrous. No sooner had
the car left than the front door of the house opened. A graying, middle-aged
couple appeared. The woman craned her neck in the direction of the departed car
and said, “Oh, has the taxi already left? We wanted to pay the fare…”
“Oh, no. It wasn’t a taxi.” We explained
what had happened.
His mother was short and chubby,
his father tall and skinny. The pair looked just like those old couples in
images from Japanese folk tales. A traditional wife and husband, who called
each other “Otosan, the father,” and “Okasan, the mother.” They never forgot to put smiles on their faces.
The father led us to the living
room, while the mother made green tea for us. We sat down on the tatami floor.
Perhaps the tatami mattresses had just been changed; I noticed their fresh, mint-like
“We feel so bad for not picking
you up at the airport,” the father brought it up again.
“We didn’t know where we were
landing,” said Rei. “Really, please don’t feel bad. We were fine.”
While they make small talk, I looked
at photographs of the family on the shelves. A young mother and a boy. Three
boys and a dog. He was the middle child of three brothers, that I knew, so I
reckoned that the boy of the average height was him. I found a familiar
expression in the boy’s face. In another picture a boy was playing soccer. Both
he and his elder brother were soccer players at our university. Our university
was famous for its team; we had some national league players.
The mother came into the living
room, with a tea set on a tray, and noticed that I was looking at the pictures.
“Do you have any siblings?” she
“No. I’m an only child.”
“Oh, then…,” you must have been spoiled, was what I thought would follow
that, because I’d heard that millions of times. An only child usually doesn’t
wear old clothes or have old toys, but this doesn’t say anything about being
spoiled. People judge people by what they have, not by what they don’t have. “You
must have been so lonely.”
I raised my brows. “Yes.”
“I was still not satisfied when I had
two kids. Two was too few. We wanted to have one more,” she said, and half
The father told us that their
youngest son was also going to Tsukuba the following year. “They all have to
travel so far, just to play soccer,” he said, and half smiled.
“I think the bath is ready,” said
the mother. “You must be tired after the long trip. Please relax until dinner
Japanese family members share the
same water in the bathtub, and guests usually take Ichiban-buro, the first bath. Rei was too
tired to take a bath, so I was the first to go.
Sunk in the hot water until the
chin, I thought of the pictures I’d just seen. True, he was my friend, but I
didn’t have strong bonds to him like his parents and Rei did. I felt as if I’d
been peeping into someone’s history when that very person was absent. As if I’d
been an actor on stage without any role. I wiggled in the bathtub awkwardly.
“We’ll take you to a Satsuma-age restaurant tomorrow,” said the
mother in front of our guest bedroom. Satsuma-age, a deep-fried fish cake. Nothing fancy; there are
many such mass-produced items in the chilled section of supermarkets. But I got
a craving when she said that in this restaurant, cooks fried them in the open
kitchen in front of the guests. Satsuma was the medieval name of Kagoshima, I suddenly recalled.
I went to bed, dreaming of golden brown crispy skins and the spongy white fish
meat of a freshly fried Satsuma-age.
The restaurant was, however,
closed the next day. His parents decided to take us to the coast instead. While
we were waiting at the bus stop, I saw an old shed right in the middle of the
yellowing rice fields. On the wall that faced us hung a huge billboard. Jodie Foster
was smiling at us with a bottle of coffee beverage in her hand. An advertisement
from years before. It had been in the sun and rain the whole time, and had lost
its colour. It almost looked like a black
and white picture.
The bus went uphill, and downhill.
From the windows, far below through the darkness of pine tree woods, I saw the
seawater shine. The bus threaded through the woods, and reached a beach.
It was a sunny day, but the water
was grey. It wasn’t like white sand beaches on Phuket Island, or like black sand
beaches on the Canary Islands. It was a typical Japanese grey beach. We
strolled to the rockiest part which was exposed at the ebb.
“Where are you from?” the mother
“Oh, then, life here must be so
different to you.”
When I was about to answer, Rei
called me. “Hey, come over here, look!”
The mother and I went up to her.
She crouched down on the ground, her knees bent in her chest, looking into a
pool between the rocks.
There paused an inch-long, neon blue
“A tropical fish? I thought we
have them only in Okinawa!” I said, because Kagoshima still belonged to the
temperate zone. When I lowered my head toward the water in mild excitement, I
heard the mother shout. “Otosan! Where are you going?”
Rei and I looked up. The father was
a metre away from the shore, standing on a rock, his hands at his back, one
wrist holding the other. Looking down at his feet, his shoulder stooped. And
then he jumped onto the next rock, and onto the next.
“Otosan, don’t go so far! It’s
dangerous!” cried the mother, yet the father didn’t turn around. He kept
leaping, like a little boy hopping on one foot, and went farther and farther
from the shore.
“Otosan, Otosaaan,” she kept
calling. The father didn’t turn around. “Come baaack!” Her cry echoed in the
air. I looked at her. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. I looked at him. He
was still jumping over the rocks, hands clasped behind his back, his head drooped,
his shoulder stooped.
© Yoko Morgenstern 2011
Yoko Morgenstern has worked as a writer, editor
and translator in Canada, Japan and Germany. In 2011, her short story The
Man Who Sells Clouds was longlisted for Gloria Vanderbilt Short Fiction
Award by Exile Editions,
Toronto. She learned writing from Katherine Govier and
finished her first historical fiction, Double
Exile, set in Germany in the 1940s. Her columns on
Japan-related issues regularly appear in Nikkei Voice magazine. Yoko holds a B.A. in Political
Science from the University of Tsukuba and a Post-Graduate Diploma
in Journalism from Sheridan College, and is currently doing her M.A.
at the University of Bamberg.