Loneliness in Tokyo

Original by Mauricio Palazzo, translation by Toshiya Kamei

1. They are often on board trains. Grown men, women, and even adolescents and children walk down the carriages repeating incomprehensible litanies. No one pays attention to them, ghosts in the city. The first one I saw was a “salaryman” at Shibuya Station, who was rolling his briefcase over his head and giving off-key shouts from time to time. Those who came across him simply stepped aside and let him pass. I know he wasn’t drunk, because he was too well dressed for that. The second one, a boy of no more than ten, walked up and down the car repeating the names of stations announced by the conductor. “Mamonaku, Ikebukuro.” “Mamonaku, Shinjuku.” Impeccably dressed, but with that unequivocal look of those suffering from a mental disorder, the passengers restricted themselves to cringing to keep the boy from grazing them with his backpack, or adjusting the white masks that covered their mouths, as if madness were contagious. The third one stands in front of the route map and studies it carefully, but he doesn’t decide to take any of the trains. Sometimes he screws up his courage and jumps onto one, but after two seconds he gets off and rushes to consult the sign again. The fourth one is sitting at the exit of Ebisu Station. He speaks to an invisible audience slowly in a low tone, and examines some yellowed papers he takes out of a shabby briefcase. Marie says he talks about geography, about the geography of Japan and the whole world, that he’s apparently a schoolteacher. It’s all she can understand.

2. At times the subway comes to a halt with a notice flashing across the screen: “Accident.” Once again someone has thrown himself before a running train and we will have to wait a long time or start doing mental math to see which route will take us to our destinations as soon as possible. None of the passengers seems to feel pity or compassion for the poor suicide victim. They glance at their watches, spit, and complain about the foolish soul who decided to kill himself during rush hour on a weekday. They push their way toward the exit. According to Marie, it’s something that happens every day on a different line, although suicide victims have their preferences. More than 30,000 people take their own lives every year in Japan, she tells me. One suicide every thirty minutes. To discourage possible suicides, since some time ago the railway company has been suing a miserable family member, who falls into disgrace and must pay a considerable sum for the damages and inconvenience the death of her husband, father, or son, has caused to the correct functioning of society in general and the railway network in particular. But that doesn’t scare them and some of them organize suicide groups on the Internet. One finally decides and warns that next Monday he will throw himself head first at Roppongi Station, say at seven in the morning, to complicate the day of as many citizens as possible. His virtual friends congratulate him and praise his courage, and promise to go see him on the day and at the appointed time. It’s not difficult to imagine them, among the crowd of onlookers, with bright eyes, enjoying his little revenge.

3. A man is sentenced to life in prison for throwing an eleven-year-old schoolboy from the fifteenth floor of a building and trying to do the same with two others. When the judge asks why he did it, he answers calmly that he felt envious of happy families.

4. What’s fashionable now is to drive a car, go to a busy crosswalk, run over as many people as possible, and get off to stab the wounded to death. The latest case happened in Akihabara a month ago. The perp, about twenty-five years old, didn’t resist arrest when the police arrived after killing eight. Marie and I happened to pass by an hour after the incident. We had gone to buy a video game for my son. We crossed as if in a dream the crowd that refused to disperse and photographers who were still flashing their cameras. The ground was covered with water, but traces of blood were still visible. The silhouettes of the fallen victims in their twisted positions, marked out in chalk, stood out on the pavement.

5. Some nights ago someone stole all the underwear Marie left hanging over the balcony. The same thing happened to me the first week I moved here, says our neighbor, a fellow “gaijin” (foreigner). Will the thief put it on himself or sell it? In Shinjuku, the sin district reserved only for the Japanese, there are vending machines selling used panties for only five dollars, and it’s known that a girl can make good money in that business. Days later, at the exit of the “konbini” on the corner from our house, I see a fat man in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals crying disconsolately, clinging to a beer can. No one pays the slightest attention to him and it’s feasible to deduce that this sad otaku is the night thief who lurks in our neighborhood. I’ve seen him before, a couple of times, always alone, always with a beer can in his hand, always crying. Sometimes, as a small gift, we leave a pair of panties hanging over the balcony.

6. Sitting against the railing, I wait for Marie outside Roppongi Station when I see a “hosto” come to say goodbye to a fifty-something lady who has rented his time at one of the many bars for single women in Tokyo. The young man, not more than twenty-five years old, wears dyed blond hair in a quirky Goku style, a fake suntan, pointed patent leather shoes, countless rings, a jacket covered with bright pins, and a wallet poking out of his back pocket, connected by a heavy silver chain to his tight pants. He functions as a vulgar appetizer tray: get drinks and food to these lonely ladies, who pay astronomical sums for an hour of conversation and company. The woman, dressed in an elegant manner and with an excess of makeup, slowly walks with her hand on the young man’s arm, looking down. Once at the entrance to the station, both bow repeatedly to say goodbye. Come and see me again soon, he tells her. I’ll do that, she answers. It was a lovely evening, he says. Yes, it was, she agrees. Arigato gozaimasu, he offers his thanks. Domo arigato, she replies. Then the young man turns and quickly returns to the bar where another woman waits for him and doesn’t (how could he?) notice the look in her eyes that follow him with unfathomable sadness as he walks away, clinging to those last seconds her money has managed to buy. Don’t go so fast, she seems to tell him, don’t leave me like this, so alone, in the midst of all these people. When he turns around the corner, the woman looks around, embarrassed, and melts into the crowd under the neon lights.

Mauricio Palazzo is a journalist based in Santiago de Chile. He is the author of Origami (2016). His work is forthcoming in Verity La.

Toshiya Kamei’s translations of Latin American literature include My Father Thinks I’m a Fakir by Claudia Apablaza, South Exit by Carlos Bortoni, and Silent Herons by Selfa Chew.

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1 Response to Loneliness in Tokyo

  1. Pingback: “Loneliness in Tokyo” – Toshiya Kamei

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