Authors: Sujata Massey
This book would not have been possible without help from wonderful people on both sides of the Pacific, and any mistakes are mine and should not be attributed to the people listed below. In Japan, I offer thanks to Carmen Nicolas and Perlita Young for a peek into hostess bars; to Margaret Uyehara of the American Embassy in Tokyo for prison protocol; to Takenori Seki for a behind-the-scenes look and history of St. Luke’s International Hospital; to John Visher for sharing the trials of an expat lawyer; and Superintendent Naoto Yamagishi for insights into the National Police Agency. Thanks also to the prison visitor volunteers from Tokyo Union Church and the helpful staff members at the Tokyo American Club and Isetan department store. My long-time friends Hikari Ban, Koichi Hyogo, and Satoshi Mizushima were great fact-checkers. I make an especially deep bow to Atsuko Suzuki and her family, who took such good care of me during my 1995 visit.
In the United States, I’m grateful to Malice Domestic Limited for awarding me their Grant for Unpublished Writers in 1996. More thanks go to Carolyn Marino and Robin Stamm at HarperPaperbacks for sensitive editing, and to my agent Ellen Geiger for believing in a new writer. Gordon Watson gave the best Scottish brogue on Wall Street, Masoud Javadi helped with legal language, and a number of friends offered important criticism and encouragement, especially Manami Amanai, Matthew Roshkow and Helaine Olen, Dorothy and Sarah Baker, Hikari Ban, In-Hei Hahn, Susanne Trowbridge, and my House Blend writing pals. Most of all, I thank Anthony Massey for taking me to Japan, and for all that came afterwards.
English teacher with antique dreams
Roving American tourist
Innkeeper at Minshuku Yogetsu
Scots lawyer working for Sendai Limited in Tokyo
Elegant wife of
Glendinning’s boss at Sendai
Junior salary man who assists Hugh Glendinning at Sendai, along with the office lady
Engineer who shares an interest in ancient crime with his wife
Captain Jiro Okuhara:
Police chief in Shiroyama
Rei’s Canadian roommate and fellow English teacher
English language program director at Nichiyu
Tokyo convenience store proprietor
Tsutomu “Tom” Shimura:
Rei’s doctor-cousin who lives with
A Tokyo lawyer
British diplomat married to
Young hostess who toils at a bar operated by mama-san
Aged antiques dealer
Tokyo marketing executive
U.S. Navy veteran
Plus an assortment of students, sailors, hostesses, and gangsters who call Tokyo home
I suppose there are worse places to spend New Year’s Eve than a crowded train with a stranger’s hand inching up your thigh. A crowded train undergoing a nerve gas attack? That could mean true death instead of just an emotional one. I tried to be mature about it. After all, I’d almost convinced myself that what had been pressing against me since we’d left Nagano was somebody’s suitcase handle.
He’d crept up behind me when a crush of skiers boarded and the tiny space I’d staked out had grown so tight I couldn’t even move my arms. Packed
—as tightly as rice balls in a box lunch—I began worrying about what might come next. I’d heard stories about the chemistry whiz who used a fluid to melt holes in clothing, and the gum-chewer who left a big wad in your hair as a memento. More than one man was known to express his pleasure deeply in your coat pocket. But those were cretins I’d
assumed were native to the Tokyo subways and not long distance trains climbing the Japanese Alps.
The hand, which had been almost imperceptible at first, was becoming audacious. Exploring with my heel, I encountered a shin, slid my foot along its length and stomped the ankle underneath. A foot kicked back and a woman snapped at me to be more careful—for goodness sake didn’t I know it was an overcrowded train? I ground out an apology. The hand stayed.
It was dark outside, turning the train door’s glass into a mirror. I saw myself as I always appear: small, Japanese-American, and with the kind of cropped haircut that’s perfect in San Francisco but a little too boyish for Japanese taste. I wished I’d had time to change into a butch pair of jeans instead of the skirt that had provided easy access for someone. I concentrated on the reflections of the three men closest to me: a young white-collar guy buried in a sports tabloid, an ancient grandpa, and a working-class tough wearing a sweatshirt with the improbable slogan “Milk Pie Club.” The latter two appeared to be sleeping, but you never knew for sure. I remembered the last weapon I possessed.
Hentai! Te o dokete yo!
” I said it first in Japanese and then in English—
pervert, get your hands off me
I felt the hand hesitate, then depart.
“It’s the guy in black! Oh, no, you aren’t getting away!”
I craned my head to see a tall, stout American woman beating the thuggish-looking man’s shoulders with her umbrella.
“I have done nothing! Stop it, please!” The man’s apology in Japanese did no good with his foreign attacker. The formerly drowsy passengers were tittering.
“That’s enough! If you keep hitting him, you could be arrested,” I warned the woman as the man twisted away from us.
“I didn’t have to understand what you were saying to know what was going on,” the woman grumbled as she settled into a suddenly-vacated seat. “Men are bastards. All of ’em. There oughtta be a law.”
As I shifted nearer, I checked her out. This was no gray-haired feminist in a patchwork jacket and peasant trousers, the kind of soul who peered enthusiastically at Japan from wire-rimmed glasses. My rescuer wore a leopard-print parka and purple Reebok sneakers. Her hair was a shade of apricot I’d never seen before.
“So, where’d you learn your good English?” she asked.
“California.” That usually brought a blush to Caucasian faces, but not this one.
“You don’t look it.”
I let that pass. Once I would have said something, but after three years in Asia I had become too polite. Too Japanese.
“Are you going to Shiroyama?” she continued, stumbling a bit with her pronunciation.
I nodded. I was going to the 200-year-old castle town in search of antique folk art and a break from the unrelenting grayness of my life in North Tokyo. I had planned carefully, following my boss’s recommendation
to stay at a
, or family-run inn. The one I’d chosen was particularly famous for its country cooking and decor. Decamping to snowy mountains while all of Japan was celebrating New Year’s—the biggest party week of the year—was pretty eccentric. In fact, I couldn’t believe anyone else would want to do it.
The woman was fairly clueless about rural Japan, so I explained a little about what she should expect at a Japanese inn. By the time we were talking mineral baths, I realized she was booked into the same place, and we might as well share a taxi. My solo trip had morphed into something else. I thought ruefully about the Japanese belief that there are no coincidences, that everything is part of a great cosmic plan. Considering how things turned out, I am inclined to agree.
My first view of Shiroyama was a jumble of old-fashioned shops and houses, tiled roofs loaded down with snow, and windows glowing with welcoming golden light. An old woman in a kimono bustled past, holding a parasol aloft to keep off the lightly falling flakes. I would have lingered had I not been playing bellhop for my new companion, rushing to flag down a cab before it made it to the taxi stand.
“Don’t mind the Vuitton. It’s fake from Hong Kong,” she boasted as I lifted her pair of heavy cases into the trunk. “I didn’t catch your name, young lady.”
“Rei Shimura,” I said slowly, as I always did growing up in the United States.
“Is that Rae with an
, or Ray with a
“Neither. It’s a Japanese name that rhymes with the American ones.”
“Hey, Rei! It rhymes. I’m Mrs. Chapman. Marcelle,” she added as an afterthought. Still, there was no question I was to call her Mrs., just as I knew she wanted me to carry her bags. She chatted all the way to Minshuku Yogetsu, which turned out to be considerably less poetic-looking than its name, which meant “night moon.” Pollution had stained its stucco exterior, and windows covered by dark brown shutters made the house look like its eyes were closed to the world. Part of the garden had been converted into a parking lot holding two Toyotas: one a rusty Town Ace van, and the other a sleek black Windom. Given the high price I’d paid for my room, I could guess which one belonged to the innkeepers.
Mrs. Chapman strode past me and flung the front door open. “Yoo-hoo! Anyone around?”
A slender woman in her forties with short hair and an equally no-nonsense expression emerged from a side room and slid onto her knees, bowing her head deeply to the floor.
“Welcome. It was so rude of me not to be here to open the door for you.” I recognized the voice as that of Mrs. Yogetsu, the innkeeper I had made the reservation with. Behind the courteous words, I sensed a reproach to us for having barged in. When I apologized and told her about the late train, her face tightened even more; she’d caught my slight American accent.
“You are traveling together? Surely you will prefer to have adjoining rooms?” Her offering was bland,
but having experienced it many times before, I caught the sentiment underneath:
Keep the foreigners together, separate from the rest of us
“There’s no need, absolutely no need at all.” I was falling over myself. “I actually met this lady on the train.”
We exchanged our shoes for house slippers, at her direction, and Mrs. Chapman painstakingly filled out the guest register while I glanced around. The place was immaculate and Zen simple, its walls hung with a few exquisite scrolls. The floor was covered by straw
mats ending at a sunken hearth where a fire burned with a low blue flame. Above it dangled an antique cast-iron kettle. Late nineteenth-century, I thought, peering at it.
I was impressed again as Mrs. Yogetsu led us past a handsome
chest decorated with a slightly unbalanced-looking New Year’s arrangement of pine and flowering plum.
“How beautiful. Do you study flower arranging?” Maybe I could flatter her into a friendlier mood.
“As a matter of fact, I teach. I’m a
I was startled.
was an honorific title used to describe teachers or physicians, but was too pompous to use when introducing oneself. In describing my own work, I always used
, the humble word meaning tutor.
The bedroom Mrs. Yogetsu offered me was simple and extremely small, decorated with little more than a tea table and two cushions for sitting. The closet held all the bedding plus a fresh blue and white cotton
, the guest robe I could wear to
the communal bath. The back wall of the closet had another sliding door opening into the next room. How the next-door guest and I would keep our possessions separate, I wasn’t sure.
I was dying to soak my tired, stiff body. Mrs. Yogetsu pointed the way down a back staircase. As I gathered together my toiletries, I heard new arrivals downstairs: a low-pitched woman’s voice speaking decorously and the more forceful growl of an older man. Another male interrupted, speaking some variation of British English, his vowels more drawn out than the BBC accents I’d grown accustomed to on the short-wave.
I hung a
sign on the blank bathroom door and entered a tidy dressing room with a glass door leading to the long, wide, sunken bath. Hefting the large plastic covers off the tub, I dipped a foot in. Like all baths in Japan, this one was oppressively over-heated.
A shower area including soap, water buckets, and wooden stools was an unspoken command to wash carefully before entering the tub, which would be shared by others. I knew all about public bath etiquette because my apartment had no bath, forcing me to travel to a public facility when I couldn’t stand my trickling shower anymore. My neighborhood bathhouse was always crowded and had just a partial wall between the men’s and women’s sections; hearing old men talking two feet away did little for my relaxation.
This bath was mine alone and was big enough to swim in. I rested my head on its smooth wooden
edge, remembering childhood summers at the pool, races from shallow to deep end that left me breath less. My body was something I didn’t think about then. I wasn’t a girl, I was a streamlined fish. Looking down at my small breasts breaking the water’s surface, I evaluated how life in Japan had changed me. My legs had become sinewy from endless walking, and not being able to afford cheese or wine had flattened my stomach. The deprivation diet really worked.
A fuzzy feeling warned me I was close to overheating. I hauled myself out and rested until my dizziness subsided. I poured a few buckets of cool water over myself before slipping back into the cauldron. It was still blistering hot, so I cracked open the window over the bath for a rush of frosty air. I heard the bath door opening and turned around, drawing my knees together modestly and preparing to nod hello to the newcomer. I was hoping for the Japanese woman with the lovely voice.
The person who came in was a tall, athletically-built man with reddish blond hair. Also naked, but now fumbling to cover himself with a hand towel. His green eyes appeared stricken in the brief moment they met mine, just before I scrambled deeper underwater for protection.
“Wrong bathroom, please leave!” I realized after the fact that I was screaming in Japanese.
, excuse me!” he shouted back in the strange, textured accent I had recently overheard. “It, ah, doesn’t say anything on the door—”
“It says women!” I shouted in English.
“I thought these baths were communal—”
“That doesn’t mean coed! What do you think this is, a soapland?”
His face reddened, giving every indication that he knew the sleazy sex baths where prostitutes used their bodies like sponges.
“I’m sorry, I meant nothing—” The man’s continuing apology was cut off in midstream as the door banged shut.
My heart continued to jackhammer as I heard sounds of dressing going on in the other room, some stumbling and the zip of a fly. When I was sure he had left, I shot out of the bath and tied on my
. I exited just as Mrs. Chapman came down the hall tied up like a giant package in a yellow chenille bathrobe.
“Be careful while you bathe. The door doesn’t lock.” My voice shook.
“But the manager told me it would be ladies only.” Mrs. Chapman scrunched up her forehead. “That sign on the door. What does it mean?”
; it looks like a woman kneeling, doesn’t it? In Japanese, the word for woman is written as one who serves.”
“A pictogram.” At her blank expression, I tried again. “The Japanese took their system of writing from China, using pictorial symbols to represent word meanings. This is the man’s symbol.” I picked up the wooden sign the intruder should have known about. “What does it look like to you?”
“A blockhead on legs.”
I stifled a laugh and explained, “The square is supposed to represent a rice field, and the legs underneath it represent power. So it literally means power in the rice field, which is what men did in the old agrarian culture.” Next, I showed her the sign for family and explained that mixed-sex bathing was considered healthy within the family unit.
“People are perverted here,” Mrs. Chapman said with a hint of excitement. “Did you ever notice you can see straight into the men’s toilet at the train stations?”
“You’re supposed to look away and pretend the urinals aren’t there,” I scolded, feeling like a hypocrite. The man had offered rather good views during his struggle to get out of the bathroom. Views I should have closed my eyes against, but didn’t.
An hour later, I sat with Mrs. Chapman in the living room waiting for dinner. She had a scrapbook out with postcards of Asia. As she droned on about her favorite capital cities, my attention wandered over to the hearth where a middle-aged Japanese couple were warming their hands.
The man was pure Tokyo, wearing an expensively-cut navy suit and what looked like a permanent sneer. I dismissed him instantly as a salaryman, one of the essential office executives who filled urban Japan with an aura of cigarettes, Scotch, and exhaustion. The woman kneeling beside him was perhaps a decade younger, her long curtain of glossy black hair tied back with a silk scarf. Her eyes were rounder than
mine, maybe she’d had super-expensive “Fresh Eyes” plastic surgery.