When I first met Mr. Masaomi Chikamatsu in the town of Y, I must say he was not exactly friendly toward me.
True, I was just a writer on the lookout for a story. I interview many people in the course of my work, and find the level of respect accorded me inevitably depends on the subject’s image of a writer—and as you may imagine, older people generally tend to be more respectful than the young. Yet they all, without exception, wear an expression of distaste, as if gazing upon some peculiar creature.
In the case of Mr. Chikamatsu, I further detected a faint trace of obdurate hostility in his manner. The reason I write this account using his real name is that the rumors about him and a certain incident were not confined to the local area but were broadcast on national television. His name consequently became so well known as to obviate any need for a pseudonym. This incident—if indeed you could call it such—was a mere ghost story of the sort that has been around from olden times. It once occurred in association with palanquins, although now it most commonly involves taxis—influenced, no doubt, by the introduction of modern taxicabs in large cities from around 1921.
These days the impact of ghost stories has been greatly reduced by dramatizations on television. The more lurid they are made for the sake of commercialism, the less scary they become. Such dramatizations are apparently called “simulations.” Some simulations, such as those made by a flight simulator, are sufficiently realistic as to be used for training, but those produced for television and other such media and aimed primarily at children simply portray a fantasy dressed up as reality.
When I was a child the only moving pictures were in black and white, and we used to look forward to seeing them a few times a year, at most. That was an age when ghost stories were still common. Summer thunderstorms would cause power failures on almost a daily basis, and the adults would light candles and vie with each other to scare us with their tales.
The story in question was so well known that even we kids doubted the originality of whoever was telling it so exultantly, although we would nonetheless listen both out of courtesy and to while away the time. Strangely, however, I can still recall how, in the brittle air of the thunderstorm, it was equally vivid and frightening on every retelling. There were any number of versions, but the general gist of the story was as follows.
One midsummer night, in a balmy breeze, a cab passing through some desolate spot was hailed by a lone woman. It should be remembered that this was soon after the end of the war, and there were few automobiles around, let alone taxicabs. Consequently the very presence of such a vehicle already made an impression on an audience who had never ridden in one. Furthermore, there was no such thing as the automatic doors you get in cabs nowadays, which meant that the driver either had to get out and walk around to open the door for his passenger, or otherwise leave the passenger to open it for himself. Later on, this detail came to bother me somewhat.
In any case, once the woman was in the cab and the driver asked her destination, she would supply a place name in a barely audible voice. Exactly where it was depended on the storyteller’s own background or imagination. In the more well-to-do Yamanote side of Tokyo where I grew up it was invariably Aoyama, which has a famous cemetery. In the downtown Shitamachi area, it would no doubt have been Yanaka for the same reason. As for the woman herself, she generally had long hair and was wearing a light summer kimono that was either plain white or had a pattern of morning glories. She huddled in one corner of the back seat with her face averted, her expression scarcely visible in the dark.
The cab driver attempted to strike up a conversation (they were humanists in those days), but she either failed to answer or gave a noncommittal, monosyllabic response in a subdued voice. She might not have been there at all were it not for the fact that the driver was constantly checking her presence in the back mirror.
It was at the very end that the story got exciting. “We’re there, Miss,” the driver announced, turning around to collect the fare—only to find the passenger seat empty save for a puddle of water where she (she?) had been sitting! Upon which the driver fainted, his legs buckling and his eyes rolling up into his head, until he was brought to by his nose being tweaked by a fox (although I cannot see how a fox can pull anyone’s nose with such paws as they have), or something of the sort. Then he bolted out of the cab and into the nearest police box, where a sympathetic patrolman inquired, “I don’t suppose she looked like this?” as he drew his hand over his face to reveal at a stroke the blank, featureless mask of a ghost. And so on and so forth. Any number of embellishments were possible, but this was pretty much how the story went.
Even though we knew the ending, we kids were always deeply affected by it on every retelling. Especially the bit about the seat being wet, which we took as incontrovertible evidence. The seat was wet because something had made it wet. The story hangs on this detail, but only because there must have been something there. Just looking at the plush velvet trims in those expensive automobiles, how could we believe otherwise?
Besides, the tinge of eroticism about the young woman’s wet body and clothes was not lost on us, and secretly set our hearts racing. Thus I must confess to having felt a certain nostalgia when Masaomi Chikamatsu’s account of his experience was sensationally splashed over the media, and once the dust had settled I went to find out more about it.
Mr. Chikamatsu came from an eminently respectable background as a clerk in the local branch of a major bank, and owed his celebrity entirely to the furor occasioned by his uncanny experience. He perhaps had good reason, therefore, to feel annoyed by yet another writer covering the story. Even so, once he saw how sincere I was and how far I had traveled to see him, he agreed to talk to me.
Being a novelist, I made sure to observe him carefully. He was in his thirties, a ruddy-cheeked fellow typical of the area, yet he did not strike me as either a compulsive liar or the type to play up his fame.
Mr. Chikamatsu took me to a coffee shop. As soon as we had seated ourselves he commented with a self-deprecating chuckle, “I suppose you want me to go over all the details again?” before embarking on his story.
That night he had set out late by car from a neighboring town, and was on his way home. Located on either side of a mountain range, the two towns are connected by a brand-new highway. However, Mr. Chikamatsu had opted to take the old road. As if anticipating my query as to why he had not used the new highway, he drew a rough sketch of the route on a paper napkin.
“As you can see, the quickest way for me to get home was to take the old road over the mountains.” He paused as the waitress brought our coffees and waited until she had departed before continuing, “I set off around ten o’clock. There’s only one tunnel on that road, and it took me a little over an hour to get to it. The incident—that is, when I picked up that person—happened just before it, right here.”
While studying Mr. Chikamatsu’s diagram, I also checked out his behavior and speech. He spoke levelly, but his voice caught slightly on the word “person.”
“You said ‘person,’ but I heard it was a woman?”
“Yes . . . ” He hesitated for a moment before continuing, “I think it was a woman, not a man.” Again seeming to perceive that my doubts had not been entirely dispelled, he added, “Young people these days all have long hair and wear the same clothes, so you can’t always tell anymore,” and smiled, as if inviting my sympathy.
“So what was that . . . person . . . like?”
“She was standing by a gap in the guardrail, about here. There’s a bus stop there, by the way.”
“So it’s not altogether strange for someone to be standing there, is it?”
“That’s what I thought too. But then it occurred to me that there were no buses at that time of night. It was already past eleven.”
“There must be some houses around there?”
“There aren’t any that you can see from the road, although there is a wasabi plantation with a farmhouse not too far away. But the bus stop’s mainly used by hikers.”
“So you didn’t feel even remotely suspicious seeing someone there at that time of night?” I asked, and then immediately regretted having been so indiscreet.
His expression immediately hardened, his lip curling as he said merely, “You too, huh?” Whatever I asked after that elicited only the vaguest of responses until I too eventually lost enthusiasm. Finally he pulled a magazine out of an envelope lying beside him and handed it to me, saying, “I’m not much good at talking, and there are some things I can’t explain well. You can read about them in here.”
I was disappointed, but nonetheless took it from him. Returning to my cheap lodgings—as always, I was staying in a publicly run hostel—I sprawled out on the tatami floor and ran my eyes over the pages.
Indeed, the case was not entirely straightforward. Mr. Chikamatsu’s story had hit the headlines, but in fact two or three people had had the same experience in the same spot previously. Of the many opinions expressed on the case, the most authoritative was perhaps that of a specialist in psychoneuroses, a young associate professor at Y University Hospital who had commented drily, “In psychiatry we consider cases like these to be hallucinations. The person concerned will insist that he was compos mentis, but his self-diagnosis is unreliable. If we accept the premise that ghosts are unscientific and as such do not exist, no other explanation is possible.” He certainly did not mince his words.
Mr. Chikamatsu had disputed this with surprising vehemence. I could understand his feelings, too. His account had been the flavor of the month, and everyone seemed satisfied with his model ghost. For his part, he had answered all questions without holding anything back. No doubt many people had childhood memories like mine, but any lingering suspicions they might have harbored had been largely dispelled.
If he had been a cab driver some might have suspected a case of fare dodging, but as it happened nobody had lost out. As the rumors flew, sightseers had come pouring in and at one point the atmosphere had been so festive that even night stalls selling snacks had got in on the act. But to get back to the professor’s comment, what was it that had so angered Mr. Chikamatsu? Was it the suggestion that he had lost his mind? Or that he was lying? This would certainly have been hard to bear for a bank clerk whose job depended on his good reputation.
First to get wind of Mr. Chikamatsu’s indignation was a fairly well-established local magazine, the Happy-Go-Lucky, which organized a face-to-face debate between the two parties under the headline, “Ghost Spotter Hits Back!” This was the article Mr. Chikamatsu had given me to read. It first outlined all the developments in the story to date and gave a simple introduction to the two opposing points of view, and then went straight into the discussion. First up was the issue that most concerned Mr. Chikamatsu—that is, the question of his sanity.
Chikamatsu: I’ve been driving for years. I’m used to driving on mountain roads at night. Nobody can say that I wasn’t in my right mind when I took that route.
The Happy-Go-Lucky : I’m sure it’s perfectly natural for you to think that. Professor Kidokoro, what do have to say on the matter?
Kidokoro: Nobody’s denying that. Of course one does not normally lose one’s senses driving through mountains at night, but you can’t say that it never happens. People’s minds are not all that strong. If unfavorable conditions mount up, one can easily lose one’s wits.
The Happy-Go-Lucky: Is that really what sanity is about?
Kidokoro: Psychiatry professionals have only recently come to understand it. This may be something of an exaggeration, but the mind is rather like a raft going down a mountain stream. At times the raft is level, and that represents sanity. Sanity is merely the limited period between one abnormal state and the next.
Chikamatsu: Even so . . . you’re basically saying I’m a liar.
The Happy-Go-Lucky: Mr. Chikamatsu is upset about the slur on his character.
Kidokoro: A hallucination is not the same as a lie. I am not suggesting he is lying. What I am saying is that the human mind is generally weak, and if several negative circumstances coincide unpredictable things often occur.
Chikamatsu: Stop making it sound so difficult and explain yourself clearly.
Kidokoro: As you know, there is no lighting on that old road, and there’s not much traffic there since the new highway opened. A winding mountain road with no houses and no other traffic, driving alone in the middle of the night . . . these are abnormal conditions.
Chikamatsu: You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not scared of things like that.
Kidokoro: I see, so you’re brave as well as confident about your driving. But when you drive a car, especially in the mountains at night, ninety-nine percent of your attention is concentrated on what is before you—that in itself is already abnormal.
Chikamatsu: I’d say it’s normal. Anyone would be looking where they were going, even if they were on foot.
Kidokoro: That’s right. But a person’s field of vision covers about 180 degrees and unconsciously they are paying attention to what is around them. Whether or not something dangerous is behind them is a particular concern. If there was something behind them, that is, in their most vulnerable spot—for example, if they thought they were being followed—then at that moment they would lose their presence of mind.
The Happy-Go-Lucky: But he wasn’t being followed—
Kidokoro: That’s not what I’m saying. On a dark, dangerous mountain road, a driver’s attention is almost exclusively concentrated on what he can see in the headlights. Even under such circumstances, though, a tiny part of his mind will still be concerned about what is behind him. However much he is focused on what lies before him, he still unconsciously fears the dark behind him.
Chikamatsu: But a car is an enclosed space, like a sort of room, so you feel safe in it—
Kidokoro: You just don’t understand, do you? [Smiles wryly] A car has a space behind you in which someone else can sit and travel together with you—which in your case proved to be an extremely unfavorable condition.
Chikamatsu: Oh, very funny.
Kidokoro: It’s no laughing matter. While you were staring so intently at the road before you and focused on keeping your grip on the steering wheel, that dark space behind you was scaring you out of your wits.
Chikamatsu: That’s ridiculous. It’s nothing but academic theorizing.
Kidokoro: It’s simply human nature. You were so scared of what was behind you that without realizing it you longed for a passenger to appear—anyone would do. You were no longer compos mentis.
Chikamatsu: Do you [chuckles] seriously believe I would lose my mind so easily? To the extent that I would see something that wasn’t there?
Kidokoro: Yes, I do. In fact, your type of hallucination has a long history. Think of all those fairy tales and children’s stories that warn against looking back . . . there are plenty of examples. “Don’t look now—the bogeyman’ll get you!” It’s a kind of phobia. Incidentally, men driving under such conditions normally have a female appear.
The Happy-Go-Lucky: Why female?
Kidokoro: If, for example, a strong, potentially dangerous male were to appear on a lonely mountain road at night, you would think twice about picking him up. People generally create illusions to suit themselves. A woman—especially a young woman—doesn’t pose much of a threat even seated behind you. If she’s a beauty, all the bet—
Chikamatsu: Now just a moment! Do I look like the kind of guy to go around picking up women in my car?
The Happy-Go-Lucky: I’m beginning to understand what the professor is trying to say. It’s got nothing to do with your character, Mr. Chikamatsu. It could happen to anyone under similar conditions.
Kidokoro: Precisely. There are numerous cases. As I was saying, the passenger is always female for those reasons. It’s not that the hallucination happens the moment the thought occurs to you—there are even cases, such as in the old days when taxis didn’t have automatic doors, where the driver gets out of the car and goes round to open the door for her. So then she’s there in the back seat, you can see her in the back mirror, and she also answers your questions. But it’s all in your mind. So when you reach a safe, well-lit place, the woman who was there a moment ago has suddenly vanished. [Laughs]
The Happy-Go-Lucky: So what’s the lowdown on the white clothing, long hair, and downcast eyes?
Kidokoro: Ah, now here we see some variations. You also get the flower-patterned summer kimono, but it’s always in pale colors. After all, if it was a dark color it would be difficult to see in the headlights, wouldn’t it? Let alone in the dark back seat, which would make you feel too uneasy. Long hair is symbolic of a woman’s persona—that is, it shows she is from a good family, reserved, with a sedate, affluent lifestyle. There are all types of women, and from a man’s point of view a woman with long hair and wearing a kimono, which restricts her movement, is the least threatening. Isn’t that so? [Laughs]
The Happy-Go-Lucky: You’re being very quiet, Mr. Chikamatsu. Do you have anything to say?
Chikamatsu: No, not really. There’s no way I’ll ever beat the logic of such an eminent scholar.
The Happy-Go-Lucky: In that case, perhaps I may ask another question. Why is it that the woman averts her face so that it’s not clearly visible?
Kidokoro: Because only the minimum of detail is necessary for this type of hallucination. It’s enough just to have an idea of her. On the contrary, if you knew that she had large eyes, a big nose, or a wide mouth with bright-red lips, wouldn’t it be more scary? It’s better to have her featureless, like one of those old paper dolls. The mind selectively edits details to suit itself.
The Happy-Go-Lucky: I see. So that’s why she doesn’t talk much either?
Kidokoro: That’s right, she never says anything more than is needed. After all, it’s really the driver talking to himself.
The Happy-Go-Lucky: Is there anything you wish to add, Mr. Chikamatsu?
Chikamatsu: No, nothing.
The Happy-Go-Lucky: In that case I’ll end this contentious debate here. Thank you very much to both of you.
After reading this, a number of things occurred to me. Far from being the “Ghost Spotter Hits Back!” of the title, the ghost spotter in question had rather been served up as a snack for light entertainment. They had not gone so far as to brand him a liar, but still they had passed judgment on him as a foolish man who had fallen prey to his own cowardice. I felt sorry for Mr. Chikamatsu, but I was also considerably impressed by the professor’s insight into the human mind.
Thus I decided on my next course of action. Wishing to make the most of my time and money while researching the story locally, I called up the university hospital and asked to speak to Professor Kidokoro.
The response from his department, however, was less than satisfactory. First I got a nurse, followed by the chief nurse, and finally a male voice, apparently fairly senior, informed me that the professor was out at present and thus unable to meet me. When I persisted, he asked with studied formality, “May I ask who you are and what business you have with the professor?”
Not wishing to go into details, I made out that I was an old friend down from Tokyo and that I was hoping to take the opportunity to meet up after a long time. I could hear a muted discussion at the other end of the line, after which the man came back on the line to reiterate that in any case the professor was not available and it would not be possible for me to see him on this visit, before hanging up.
Not having anything else to do for the rest of the day, I went for a stroll around the town center. There was a busy shopping district with an arcade, much like you would find anywhere, and as was my wont I browsed the junk shops. A decade ago, provincial shops were virtually giving their wares away, but now wherever you went everything was expensive, as though prices had been officially fixed across the board. All the same, I did buy a fairly old, yellowing clay doll of the type for which the area was known.
Back in my lodgings, I was lying on the slightly damp, musty tatami floor when the telephone suddenly rang. To my surprise, it was Mr. Chikamatsu.
“Good evening,” he said affably. “I’m sorry I was so short with you earlier. I was wondering if you had read that article yet?”
“Yes, I read it. I don’t wish to be impertinent, but it was hardly a rebuttal—”
He laughed. “Quite. That scholar was too clever for me—or rather I should say he was too good at arguing his case. I didn’t stand a chance. But I’m sure you understood the issue better by reading that article than by talking to me.”
“Yes, I understood very well.”
“By the way, did you call Professor Kidokoro?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“I assumed that’s what a writer would do. Did you speak to him?”
“No, he was out.”
“Is that so?” He paused before continuing, “Are you free tonight? How about I show you that mountain road?”
“You’re offering to drive me there?”
“Sure. You’ve come all the way from Tokyo, so I’m sure you want more than just to hear the story, don’t you?”
Mr. Chikamatsu was now every inch the cordial banker. I must confess to being somewhat tempted by his proposal, but instead I quickly responded, “No, not tonight thank you.”
“Why not? It won’t take up much of your time. We can take the new highway to get there.”
“No, I don’t reckon I’d like that mountain road at night. I’m a driver too, you know.”
“Are you afraid of the dark?” Mr. Chikamatsu asked rather mischievously.
“Indeed I am. I’m just the coward to see a ghost. I’ll be glad to accompany you in the daytime, though.”
I could hear him laughing at the other end of the line for a while, before he said with a chuckle, “You’re certainly frank, aren’t you? Well, then, tomorrow’s Saturday and the bank’s closed, so I’ll come and pick you up just before noon.”
The next morning a fine drizzle hung in the air. True to his word, Mr. Chikamatsu turned up a little before noon. He motioned me to the front passenger seat, but I preferred to ride in the back. His raincoat was slung over the backrest. I do the same—it’s common sense, after all, to keep an umbrella or coat in the car as a precaution in case of breakdown. I sat in the center of the seat to avoid crumpling it.
“Oh, is that in your way? Please pass it over here.”
As I handed it him, I noticed it had been concealing a book entitled The Best 100 Ways to Checkmate, which he also had me pass to him and placed together with his coat on the front seat. After he had treated me to lunch at a well-known soba noodle restaurant, we headed in the persistent drizzle to the mountain road. The terrain did not seem all that rugged and the landscape was less spooky than beautiful, although it was clear that not many cars passed this way judging by the weeds poking here and there through the paved surface. Nevertheless, I could easily imagine that it would feel entirely different in the middle of the night. We drove slowly along, hugging the guardrail and mountainside by turns.
“What a great pace of life you’ve got here. We’d never be able to go on such a peaceful drive in Tokyo,” I ventured by way of conversation.
Mr. Chikamatsu shot back, “But that’s the problem. The population here’s declining, and employment opportunities along with it.”
“But you’re one of the elite, aren’t you? Coming from a big bank like yours.”
“You must be joking. There’s an elite group within the bank, but it’s at saturation point for those of us who only graduated from vocational school. This car is nice enough, but it belongs to my parents. Most days I get around by motorbike on the bill collection rounds.”
“Is that so?” Despite Mr. Chikamatsu’s polished manners, I thought I caught a glimpse of something like resentment seething beneath the surface.
“Professor Kidokoro and yourself—an author—are in altogether a different league from me.” Sure enough he’d gone on the attack. I brushed it off with a laugh. “In fact, I came back here one night after that magazine debate.”
“And I invited the professor to accompany me.”
“I suppose he agreed? He would have wanted to test his theory.” Then it suddenly occurred to me, “And he’s still young, isn’t he?”
“That’s right, he’s still young. Not like you. I had my work cut out to convince him, but in the end I had the last laugh.”
“Well done, I suppose . . . ” I responded, prompting a chuckle from him. Meandering along at an unhurried pace, we gradually drew closer to the spot where it had taken place.
“I had Professor Kidokoro sit in the front, and I was driving at pretty much the speed I’m driving at now. Of course it was pitch black outside, not like now. The conditions were worse than before, too, with a light rain falling.”
“Just right for a ghost to appear, then. In the old stories, it was usually raining.” It was daylight, so I was quite relaxed. The effect of the flask of saké at the soba restaurant no doubt contributed.
“They call it ‘ghost weather’ don’t they?” He laughed. “This was where it happened. You see over there where the road widens?”
“That’s the bus stop?”
“Yes. That’s where it was standing.”
It was an ordinary bus stop, typical of the sort you get in rural areas. The only way it differed from those in Tokyo was the small shelter next to it, no doubt on account of the changeable mountain weather. I looked around, but could see nothing but trees. It would indeed be bizarre to come across a lone woman waiting here. And if he really had stopped to give her a lift . . . perhaps he really had lost his mind as Professor Kidokoro claimed. “A woman was here in a place like this?”
Maybe my skepticism was showing again, for Mr. Chikamatsu seemed to see right through me and he raised his voice, “She was there, all right. And she was there again when I came with Professor Kidokoro.”
“What?” I exclaimed, pressing my face up against the car window. Mr. Chikamatsu slowed almost to a halt. The rain seemed to be getting heavier.
“Over there by the shelter. She was standing in front of it, getting wet. ‘There she is!’ I yelled, but the professor commanded me to drive on without stopping. I myself was scared half out of my wits, so I changed down a gear and stepped on the gas—like this,” he said, suddenly speeding up. We went around the corner and immediately the tunnel was in front of our eyes. “It was just about here. I checked the rearview mirror and saw her sitting there on the back seat—right where you’re sitting now.”
“Here?” I shifted uneasily in the seat.
“That’s right. Just behind Professor Kidokoro. I nudged him with my elbow to warn him, and he spun round and screamed. And then, still gripping the seat with his body twisted around, he went stiff and passed out.”
“I panicked, and drove as fast as I could—just like now!” As he said this, we entered the tunnel. It was not so long, and a thumbnail of light was visible at the far end. “I just looked straight ahead and kept driving.”
“Was the woman still there?”
“No, after the professor screamed I no longer saw her in the rearview mirror. But it was difficult to drive with the professor frozen there clinging to the seat.”
“Which means that unlike the previous time, she disappeared almost immediately?”
“That’s right. This time there were two men, and when the professor cried out I guess she must have been shocked and went away.”
He slowed down again. As we pulled out of the tunnel and entered the sleepy outskirts of the town, the drizzle finally lifted.
“What about Professor Kidokoro?”
“I stopped the car somewhere around here and tried shaking him. He was alive, but was stiff as a board and his fingers were still digging into the seat. Look here, where it’s all flabby—he must have torn the stuffing inside.” He indicated a spot on the right of the backrest. The surface fabric was intact, but it did indeed look as if the inside had been torn.
“The professor was in quite a state, so I went straight home and called the university hospital and the police. It took all of us to remove him from the seat and finally get him out of the car. They were dumbfounded when I told them what had happened. The hospital representative in particular looked appalled that such an upstanding scientist would even have ventured such an experiment.”
“So, what happened to Professor Kidokoro after that?”
“Well, it’s a bit hard for me to say this, but he’s been weak-kneed—as we say in these parts—ever since. I’m sorry to say so, but he hasn’t yet recovered his sanity.”
As I listened to him talk, I recalled the professor’s comments on sanity in that magazine article. If, as he claimed, the mind was like a raft going down a mountain stream, with sanity comprising the occasional moments that the raft was level, you could probably argue that regaining it would be a matter of time. But the emotional impact—I couldn’t say how long recovering from that might take.
“It really is awful. I’m afraid it’s not so much a case of Professor Kidokoro not being at the hospital, but rather of the hospital trying to cover it up. He’s probably receiving treatment. I do hope he recovers soon.”
Mr. Chikamatsu talked as though he had forgotten he was partly responsible, although this of course was something he would never admit to. Since we were close to his home he invited me back for dinner, but I was in a hurry to get back to Tokyo and turned down his kind offer.
“Really? That is a shame. Well, if you’re leaving, I’ll give you a ride to the station. We can drop by your hostel to pick up your suitcase. If we go now you’ll make the four-thirty express.”
Seated comfortably on the train, I savored the box lunch I had bought on the platform, accompanied by a little of the exceedingly dry local “Sword Brocade” saké Mr. Chikamatsu had recommended. I couldn’t help feeling that, all things considered, the tragedy of this story outweighed its interest. According to what Mr. Chikamatsu had told me, and recalling the evasive response I’d gotten from the hospital, it would seem that Professor Kidokoro’s condition was extremely grave.
Should he fail to recover his sanity, a promising scholar’s future would have been jeopardized. And if he had a wife and children, it would be all the more lamentable. He should never have undertaken that experiment armed with nothing more than his youth and self-confidence! With these thoughts, I dozed off for a few minutes—or maybe it was half an hour. No doubt it was the effects of the saké, and I was also probably more tired than I had realized. Besides, all I could do was sit there until I reached Tokyo, and so I was less alert than usual.
When I woke from my nap, my brain felt as strangely clear as the air right after those evening thunderstorms of my childhood. I had not caught the bullet train but a plain old express, and its rocking rhythm seemed to stimulate my thoughts, for wild fancies floated up one after the other in my mind. Professor Kidokoro’s argument had naturally been a strong one. He was an expert in his field, and it was no surprise that Mr. Chikamatsu had been unable to argue against him.
Then again, Mr. Chikamatsu himself was in an anomalous situation. For someone like himself, an ordinary bank employee, to have been thrown into the limelight by this curious affair was all very well, but, living as he did in a small town, after that magazine debate he would probably have been branded a nut, a liar, or a fraud. What if . . . ? I mused, swayed by the movement of the carriage. What if he not only felt affronted, but actually felt cornered, goaded into having to restore his honor?
Thus he had devised his plan. A man is not to be judged by appearances, so they say, for he may possess a hidden talent. In Mr. Chikamatsu’s case, he was uncommonly good at reading people’s minds. Oh yes, and he had that book, The Best 100 Ways to Checkmate.
For those of you who don’t know Japanese chess, it is a magnificently cerebral game. In the Edo period, there was even one madman who lived solely to create just one checkmate game in two hundred-odd moves. Engaging in a battle of wits with anyone in possession of a book on Japanese chess strategy is most certainly best avoided.
Mr. Chikamatsu, with his fine brain, must have determined that the best strategy to restore his honor was for Professor Kidokoro to undergo the same experience for himself. But there was no way he could have been sure that the apparition would appear again—in which case, was it not possible that he had meticulously devised a scheme to ensure its reappearance?
Come to think of it, at our first meeting Mr. Chikamatsu had been in a sour mood, but when he invited me out for the night drive he had been positively cheerful. I had just read about his humiliation in the magazine debate, so why was that? He had apparently invited me on a whim, and I had refused. Young Professor Kidokoro, however, had accepted.
Seeing the apparition for the first time, Professor Kidokoro would naturally be shocked. However, even if all the conditions were the same, how could Mr. Chikamatsu really be certain that it would materialize once again to suit him? Yet materialize it did—just a little too conveniently.
How was it that Mr. Chikamatsu had been one hundred percent sure that it would reappear? He must have set up some device inside the car . . . Of course, now I remembered! That raincoat on the back seat, maybe that had something to do with it? As I said, it’s natural to keep some old clothing on the back seat in case of an emergency. It had been there again today, although he moved it to the front seat since it was in my way. And that chess book had been there, too, by way of a hint.
Mr. Chikamatsu told me he had nudged Professor Kidokoro to warn him of the woman’s presence. What if, at the very moment the professor had reflexively turned round, the raincoat had suddenly risen up and floated toward him? That kind of trick is right up my alley—and to think that he might even have had the nerve to try it out on me!
But would such a childish trick have worked on a rational scientist? As I said, a man is not to be judged by appearances. All Mr. Chikamatsu had to do was to use the professor’s own theory against him: at night, a driver’s attention is focused on what lies ahead, and he is unconsciously afraid of the empty space behind him . . . . Listening to this, a clear-headed Mr. Chikamatsu had been able to deduce the professor’s weak point.
This university professor was pretty much one hundred percent focused on his specialty. That is rather like holding a lighted candle up to your face in a confined space—the closer the candle, the bigger your shadow grows on the wall behind you. People who apply only logic to their reasoning may not discuss the irrational, but that does not mean they do not fear it. This was the theory that Mr. Chikamatsu had tested, and succeeded in proving.
With a brain like that he could easily have gone to university, but must have been unable to do so for some other reason.
Upon my return to Tokyo, I penned a note to Mr. Chikamatsu thanking him for all his assistance with my research. I concluded by posing him a chess problem.
The King: a promising young university professor The Challenger: a vocational school graduate stuck as local bank clerk Pieces in hand: the dark, a raincoat (white), a fishing line (black)
Mr. Chikamatsu’s reply arrived almost immediately. After the usual meaningless platitudes he had written the following words.
You do speak your mind, I must say. I am looking forward to seeing the finished work. However, I’m afraid there are too many flaws in your game to ever achieve checkmate.
Translated from “Compos Mentis,” in Akumu hyakuichi ya (Tokyo: Uchiyama Shuppan, 2006). By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Ginny Tapley Takemori. All rights reserved.