Translator’s Note: As everyone knows, the March 11, 2011, earthquake that shook northeastern Japan also released a devastating tsunami that devastated the northeastern Tōhoku coast of Japan and precipitated the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl. By the time that the dust had cleared, the losses were staggering. A tally from the Japanese National Police Agency stated that 15,886 people had been killed, 6,148 people had been injured, and 2,620 people were still missing as of May 2014. The government estimated that the physical damage was 16.9 trillion yen, thus making March 11 the costliest natural disaster in human history, but Standard & Poor estimated that the even greater number of 20-50 trillion yen might be closer to the mark.
Although relatively few deaths have been attributed directly to the Fukushima nuclear reactors, the meltdown left an especially enormous impact on the psyche of the Japanese—a people who know better than anyone else the long-lasting nightmare of radiation poisoning, given their experience with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Local residents living anywhere near the Fukushima reactors were evacuated, and as of November 2014, many still remain in tiny, inadequate temporary housing never designed to support long-term habitation. Japanese everywhere continue to monitor the source of their food, and many refuse to eat or drink anything from Fukushima Prefecture, thus irreparably damaging the agricultural industry there. Although the initial 2011 spikes in radiation levels detected throughout central and northeastern Japan have subsided, the ruined reactors continue to spill poison into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean. Clean-up crews are desperately searching for ways to dispose of the radioactive water used to keep the nuclear reactors cool; meanwhile, other workers are doing their best to take the lethal reactors apart, one piece at a time, within the short few hours per day that regulations permit them to remain in the toxic environment. Current estimates say that it may take until 2017 to deal with the worst of the contamination, but the question of how the meltdown will shape Japan’s future remains largely unanswered.
Needless to say, the meltdown has compelled Japan, a relatively resource-poor nation, to rethink its massive reliance upon energy, and nuclear energy in particular. There has been a strong swell of anti-nuclear sentiment among the general population, and several important writers have produced literature that questions the nation’s past tendency to sweep health concerns under the rug while relying increasingly upon nuclear energy. Among these authors is the leading novelist Yoko Tawada, who was born in Tokyo but currently resides in Berlin. Although she is primarily known for her postmodern, border-crossing, surreal stories that are rich in linguistic play, since the 2011 disasters, she has started writing a more straightforward brand of science fiction, including several short stories that describe a dystopian future in which Japan experiences massive nuclear catastrophes. For one of these stories, see “The Island of Eternal Life,” translated by Margaret Mitsutani, in March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown (NY: Vintage, 2012).
“The Far Shore” (Higan), first published in Japanese in the literary magazine Waseda bungaku (Waseda Literature) in mid 2014, is another of her dystopian science fiction stories. Although the story is a piece of fiction born out of her unusually rich imagination, “The Far Shore” reflects her concern about what could potentially happen if post-Fukushima Japan continues to produce energy in the same ways that it did in the past. In particular, the story shows Tawada’s strong criticism of Japanese politicians and scientists who speak about nuclear plants as a form of safe energy, barring “unforeseeable” circumstances. In fact, politicians and scientists frequently used the word “unforeseeable” in the press after March 11 to describe the events that precipitated the Fukushima meltdown, but this word choice led to an uproar among citizens who criticized them for their massive lack of imagination. Indeed, as Tawada points out in this story, it is not terribly hard to envision that something could go wrong—tsunamis might hit the reactors or planes might fall out of the sky.
One also does not have read much between the lines to realize that Tawada also is critical of international security policy, which allows the American military to operate with relative impunity within Japanese territory, and of Japanese politicians, who have been known to say disparaging things about Japan’s next-door neighbors. Tawada seems to be suggesting that in our increasingly globalized and potentially dangerous world, countries need to do better in working together. After all, who knows what problems might come along to compel us to work and live together in unforeseeable ways?
The man on the ground watched as the fighter plane tumbled over and over, falling like a leaf in its downward trajectory. He no longer lived in the area, but for many years, he had taken care of a small vegetable patch there. Even now, the tiny garden still had a special place in his heart, and he would get on a train and go out of his way to come take care of it.
His hand had paused in mid-air, right as he was reaching to pick a thin, curved cucumber. The fuselage disappeared behind a camel-humped hill on the horizon. It had probably fallen into the ocean, but from where the man stood, the water was not visible. The entire hill had been off limits since he was in elementary school, thus making it impossible to get to the ocean directly from the village where he had lived. It probably didn’t matter anyway. It wasn’t as if there was any place to swim or take out a fishing boat. There was just a broad concrete slab built out into the sea, and on top of it stood a cone-shaped building with the top cut off—the same shape as Mount Fuji. The surface was smooth, but inside, it was a monster with countless hidden spines. When he was younger, he thought about the building fairly frequently, but over time, it came to mind less and less often. Now, as the plane fell, the memory of the building started to wake from its long slumber and find its way back into his consciousness, but it was already too late. As the roar of the explosion ripped through his eardrums, his brain melted and the life within him was snuffed out.
The pilot was surprised to realize that such an enormous building had appeared overhead, but almost immediately, a thought flashed through his mind. Wait, that’s not up, that’s down. I’m falling headfirst. It was almost as if the accident were happening to someone else. He had no time to react, yet the flow of time seemed to slow down. He probably didn’t even have a full second left until impact, but a torrent of words surged through his mind. It looks like a munitions factory. Could they really have an arms factory here? When those Japanese kamikaze pilots plummeted to their deaths all those years ago, I bet time slowed down like this for them too. But this is an accident. It’s not like I’m a terrorist or something, trying to blow myself up. A sparrow flew into my motor, and the propeller stopped. That’s all. What a stupid way to die. I wish I’d never joined the military. I should’ve just stayed in the hospital and lived out the rest of my life there. So I’ve got problems with my lungs. Why couldn’t I have seen that as a good thing? I wanted to do a man’s work—real, dangerous work—and now here I am on some stupid chain of islands in Asia that doesn’t have anything to do with me, crashing to my death on top of some factory. It’s so stupid I can’t even laugh about it. What a meaningless way to die.
But the building the eighteen-year old pilot thought was a factory was actually a nuclear reactor that had just been reactivated a month ago. The newspapers had stated, “Engineers have been working with an outstanding French company to employ the best technology to finally bring the nuclear reactor back online. Every effort was made to check on the safety of the reactor and earn the approval of the local citizens.” But to tell the truth, no one could figure out whose approval the newspapers had been talking about. The reason was that there was only a single person left living in the area—a former poet named Sachio Yamano—and he was dead set against reactivating the reactor. Other families had lived in the area too, but the anti-nuclear movement had turned family members against one another, and eventually, everyone grew weary of the tension and left the area.
Three months ago, an international conference was hastily convened in Paris to discuss the safety of restarting the Japanese reactor. Their conclusion: “It is absolutely safe to restart the reactor as long as nothing unforeseen happens.” The participants were all experts who had gathered from twenty-two nations. They were known to have divergent views on the project, so it was hard to imagine that someone had bought them all off. Even so, their conclusion hardly seemed objective or scientific. Anymore, political decisions seemed to happen of their own accord without any regard for individual will. True, political corruption nowadays was not like in the past. Back then, politicians, scientists, and businessmen would huddle in a restaurant and whisper quietly to themselves while nibbling on expensive seafood. The reasons it was no longer that way were simple: there simply was no longer any more expensive seafood to be had; plus, the lady who ran the restaurant was arrested on suspicion of being a spy, and rumors had started to spread about whether her restaurant was safe or not. A new form of global economics had taken root. Invisible signals flew from brain to brain, and before anyone knew what was happening, people began to assume identical opinions. Once they had, a certain amount of money was automatically deposited into their bank accounts. To this day, biologists and economists have not been able to offer positive proof of this new mechanism of corruption, but there are many people, especially among poets, who cannot help suspecting that is how things work.
“It is absolutely safe to restart the reactors as long as nothing unforeseen happens”—that is what the experts at the conference had said when sharp-eyed journalists stuck their microphones like truncheons in their faces. But there had been an accident. A plane had crashed on top of the reactor. You could hardly get more unforeseen than that. Wars are not unusual in today’s world. If a fighter jet had crashed during a battle, no one would have considered that “unforeseeable,” but in this case, there had been no war. Authorities said a military plane had simply been transporting special rations—things that one could only get in America—when it had an accident and had fallen out of the sky. Soldiers have to eat, even during times of peace. No one distinguished between transport planes and fighter planes any longer, but according to the old military standards, the airplane that had crashed would have been classified as a fighter. In any case, no one was entirely sure what had happened. Was the reason for the crash really a sparrow caught in the motor? Perhaps there had been some other cause?
Although the military said that the plane was transporting rations, in reality, it was loaded with prototypes of a new kind of bomb. It would have made more sense to transport them by other means, but as circumstances would have it, they were stacked on board the unlucky plane.
The pilot was a young man from New Jersey. He was a healthy, young man—so much so that if a novelist had wanted to depict an average, simple personality, he would have served as an excellent model. Of course, the pilot himself was hardly thinking about himself. The day of the accident, he was in good health, and the weather was clear as he flew the plane.
When one stops to think about it, it should be obvious that there is always a chance that something unforeseen might happen. Just look back over the last century—lots of military planes had crashed even during times of peace. Fortunately, most of them fell into mountains or far-flung fields and caused few casualties. Sometimes people would wonder to themselves, “What if a plane were to fall on my house?” But usually, they shoo away those dark thoughts like flies that had landed on the tasty piece of cake that was their daily life. Still, once the flies of distrust had been shooed outside, they started clinging to brown piles of manure lying in the road, and every time someone passed by and startled them, they flew into the air, forming a black, buggy cloud. Ultimately, what was so horrifying were not the flies but the brown piles of manure outside. All the pets and stray dogs in town were dead, so it was anyone’s guess where those piles, as big as human skulls, might have come from. Clearly, unforeseen things do happen.
Not just fighter planes fall out of the sky. Passenger planes sometimes crash too. When pilots grow exhausted from overwork, they nod off in the cockpit. When that happens, the ghosts of the kamikaze pilots that circle the sky to this very day possess them, pointing their planes downward at the large buildings visible on the land below. The pilots are not at fault. Airline companies don’t give them enough time to sleep between shifts. Still, no one blames the airlines—they are merely trying to survive in a world of increasingly fierce global competition. The real problems are the ghosts of the kamikaze pilots who didn’t know World War II ended ages ago.
Overworked pilots are not the only reason a passenger plane might crash. Aviation-lovers can cause problems too. Before the disaster, there was a young man who loved to buy model planes on the Internet and fly them outside, but one day, he found that models were no longer enough. No longer able to suppress his desire to fly the real thing, he hijacked a domestic passenger flight and finally achieved his long-cherished dream of soaring through the skies like a dragonfly. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but all the passengers on board were fired from their jobs and never worked again. If they weren’t responsible, then why did they have to pay the price? That part of the story didn’t quite make sense. Perhaps it had to do with some ancient custom. In olden times, if a person committed a crime, he would not be the only one held responsible. Shame and disgrace also fell upon the victims, and their communities would ostracize them too.
In subsequent years, there were lots of young, unemployed men who loved model planes and who were arrested for attempting to hijack airliners, but the authorities feared that if anyone heard about them, that might lead to even more copycat crimes. As a result, the news never broadcast a word about the attempted hijackings.
A group of nine women belonging to an environmental protection group were practicing tai chi on the roof of their building in Shinjuku when the roar of an explosion ripped through the air. From the direction of the blast, they saw a blizzard of white powder begin to fall like snow. When they realized the roofs on the horizon were turning white, they dashed into the building, ran into their office, and showered off. Meanwhile, a passenger seated next to a window on a flight that had started its decent toward Narita saw two enormous wheels of flame rise from the surface of the sea and tumble inland. One of them rolled southward along the Japanese archipelago, while the other rolled north—both scattering deadly powder all the way from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific as they tumbled forward. In Inokashira Park, two high-school sweethearts were eating a snow cone when the loud shock of the explosion slapped them across the face. They looked up to see an enormous brown umbrella open slowly overhead, so big that it blocked out half the sky. A group of pensioners hiking in Mt. Takao with a mountain-climbing club looked up to see orange and turquoise dragons intertwining in a bed of clouds. In Kiyosato, the sound of the explosion shook the mountains, causing a cliff to crumble. Dozens of tall cedar trees tumbled down and lodged in the earth below, their roots sticking up at the sky. All at once, silence fell, and the trees grew still. A ninety-year old painter watched this happen, and long after the day had passed, he took out his oils and painted the scene that had unfolded before him. In Ibaraki, a man was leaving his house for his peanut fields when he was enveloped in a cloud of white powder and could not see. The powder choked him. He broke into a fit of continuous coughing and couldn’t breathe, but the coughing was so severe that it prevented him from passing out. He coughed so hard that he thought the pain would rip his ribs apart. In desperation, he planted his face in the dirt of the front garden, thus becoming part of the earth as his nephew watched from inside.
But those terrifying scenes lasted only a few seconds. After that came painful burns that inflicted great, lingering suffering on the victims. The skin itself did not look that different, but the burns hurt terribly. The victims felt like their arms and legs had been pierced all the way to the bone with long skewers, and their flesh was being roasted over hot coals. These were strange burns, unlike any that anyone had ever experienced before. Some people survived because their burns were less severe. Afterward, they said that the burns were not visible at first, but their flesh continued to cook from the inside over the course of days. Before long, the burned areas swelled and blistered until they looked like fish eggs pickled in red peppers. Fortunately, there was a type of Chinese medicine made of the roasted skin of a water snake that proved effective in treating the burns. People who applied it to their skin were saved, but it took years for the pain to disappear and the stretched, reddish purple, glistening skin to return to normal.
That day, tens of millions of victims stretched their burned arms before them and staggered toward the nearest rivers and lakes, trying to find relief in the water. They didn’t notice if they lost their shoes along the way. Their bare, blood-soaked feet didn’t feel pain when they stepped on the broken window panes scattered all over—they just kept tottering along as they searched for water, heads lowered and stuck out in front of them like fighting bulls. Countless people fell along the way. It was as if the roads were exerting some powerful force and sucking them down, face first. The dead lay motionless, kissing the asphalt. No one drove anywhere. All the cars had grown so hot that it was impossible to touch the metal on their doors. All the busses and trains had stopped, with the outlines of incinerated drivers and train conductors burned into the seats.
Those who managed to reach a river splashed into the water still wearing their clothes. All of the strength went out of their lower limbs, and the current knocked many of them over. Many people drowned in shallow water, even when the riverbank was right nearby.
The expression “there is more than one way to weather a crisis” had been popular at the time of the disaster, but afterward, the opposite was true. There was only one way to survive, and that was to leave Japan. It was no longer possible to live anywhere on the Japanese archipelago. The nuclear reactor was a monster whose brains had been bashed in, and in its fury, it burned the flesh of anyone that drew near. It would take millennia for its anger to subside.
People began heading instinctively to the nearest ports. They crowded onto the boats they found there—not just passenger ships, but fishing boats and cargo vessels as well—and set off for the Asian mainland. Some who had lived near the Sea of Japan were able to reach the continent relatively quickly. Those who lived along the Pacific Ocean were tossed about by angry waves and spent day after day in terrible conditions, without enough water or food. Some were barely conscious by the time they reached the continent. In cabins and on deck, the younger passengers kept glancing at the tiny displays on the small electronic devices they held in their hands, but there, they only found deep darkness.
The Yukiwakamaru left Niigata and headed toward China, burdened with far more passengers than it was meant to hold. It received permission to land earlier than many of the other vessels because the captain, a native of the island of Sado, had studied in Hong Kong and spoke Chinese well. None of the ships from Japan were ever denied permission to land in China; however, bureaucratic problems sometimes bogged down the permission process and produced long delays. Many ships also applied to Russia for permission to come ashore, but the Chinese were the first to grant permission. Eventually, Russia also gave landing permits to all boats that had requested them, but those responses came slowly. The reason was that the Russian president had been fishing off the coast of Sakhalin when the nuclear blast took place and exposed him, and so he needed to spend time in the hospital to recover.
People were crammed into every corner of the cabin. When folks began to suffocate from the overcrowded conditions, they would debate with themselves before going out on deck. If they stood up, they would lose their spot, and there would be no place to return. Even so, people often started to feel like they would pass out if they didn’t get a breath of fresh air. Once out on deck, however, there was no shelter, and the cold wind would cut through their clothing like a knife. The waves were not high, but they seemed to have an uncanny weight to them, as if they were made of melted black stone.
Below the mast, a group of sunburned men were sitting cross-legged in a circle and intently discussing something. By the prow of the ship, three women were huddled together. Just a short time ago, they had been carefree young women, but they were now refugees. The nail polish from their manicures had worn off, and their gestures—the nervous rubbing of their hands, the repeated touching of their hair—betrayed their anxiety.
One man in a suit stood alone on deck, his back turned to everyone else as he gazed at the sea. His name was Ikuo Sede, and he was a former member of the House of Councilors, the upper house of the Diet—the parliament that represent the Japanese people. Perhaps the word “former” was not really entirely appropriate, but no one could really say. He had not resigned, but it was hard to imagine that the Diet would ever reconvene. In fact, no one even knew if the country the Diet represented would even continue to exist. When night fell, Sede quietly called out to a nearby sailor, and the two negotiated for a few moments in hushed voices. The two of them went together into the machine room, but when they emerged shortly afterward, Sede had shed his suit and was wearing the sailor’s gray work clothes and navy blue cap.
For some time after the ship left port in Niigata, Sede sat next to the refreshment vendor inside the ship. He didn’t know what to think. Several hours later, there was an announcement over the boat’s loudspeakers that the Chinese government had announced that they would accept the Japanese refugees, regardless of whether they had passports or not. The news brought a smile of relief to all of the exhausted faces onboard. Sede was the only one whose breath caught in his throat. He grew pale, leaped up, and rushed onto deck.
Over the course of the previous few years in politics, Sede had made numerous disparaging and rude remarks about China, and these had invited a good deal of criticism from both Japan and abroad. There was a personal reason for his insults. Over the last several years, he had been troubled by a particular physical condition that only afflicts men, but one day, completely by chance, he happened to discover a method of escaping those troubles. He knew he had to keep it up, no matter what happened. He didn’t care about politics anymore—or, to put it more precisely, he realized how little he had cared about politics to begin with. In fact, when he was younger, he had wanted to be a movie actor. After graduating from university, he had auditioned four times in a row for different roles, but each audition ended in failure. Despondent, he was drinking in a bar when someone recommended he go into politics. That was how he got started, but looking back on it now, he couldn’t help feeling he had made a terrible mistake.
One day, Sede was at the same infernal press conference he always attended when a sharp young newspaper reporter began grilling him about a faux pas that Sede had made in some of his recent remarks on foreign policy. As the reporter tried to clarify what Sede had meant, it became obvious that the reporter was not only more informed about the subject than Sede, but was also much smarter too. The reporter had such a baby face that it was hard to imagine he could even be out of college, yet he clearly had the upper hand. Like a mouse that had been backed into a corner by a cat and had no choice but to leap out and bite its assailant, Sede did the first thing that leaped into his mind—he said something nasty about China. The reporter was so astonished at the stupidity of Sede’s answer that words failed him. The other reporters in the hotel room for the press conference left the room; in fact, they made such a quick exodus that it looked almost as if they were fleeing an attacker.
Sede withdrew into a back room. He collapsed heavily into a chair, worried about how he would dig himself out of the hole he had just created. He usually crossed his legs out of habit, but as he went to cross them now, he found the position strangely uncomfortable. Something was different about his lower body. He took a breath and sucked in his bulging belly. It was at that moment he realized that the problem that had troubled him for all those years was gone. He moved his right hand from his knee to that part of his body and touched it. He couldn’t believe it. He stood up, rushed down the hallway, and disappeared into the men’s room.
It was not only the opposing political party that censured him for his remarks that day; he was harshly criticized by his own political party and by ordinary citizens too. His phone rang off the hook, and so many e-mails flooded his inbox that it would have burst if it could. Some people thought that his political life had come to an end, but quite the contrary. In the next election, he got more votes than ever.
All Sede had to do was remember the things he had said that day, and he felt a small tremor in his hips, and his groin grew warm. He had never even imagined that making nasty remarks would free him from his impotence. Easiest cure ever. It doesn’t cost any money, and there’s no need to worry anyone will ever find out. That’s right. Asia is like a mother that’s too big, too strong, too beautiful. Or maybe it’s more like an older, smarter brother who is always making fun of me. Or maybe it’s like a strict father with unreasonably big expectations. In any case, this just goes to show that I’m not really a man unless I’m on the offensive. I’ve got to act like I’m going to take down any big thing that stands in my way. He was thrilled to have found the solution to his long-standing problem. Sometimes, he was sitting in the backseat of his car, headed to work, when before he knew it, a self-satisfied smirk would appear on his face. If he looked up at the rear-view mirror and saw that the driver was glancing at him with a strangely wry expression, Sede would break the tension with a cough.
The following year, Sede realized that one of his younger colleagues had stolen his insults. That didn’t bother him at first. The young man was just a skinny young upstart with nothing to recommend him, but as time went by, he began to appear on television more and more often. Whenever Sede saw his face on TV, he could sense the young man’s feelings of inferiority. It was as if they were leaking from between his nose and his upper lip. At the same time, the young politician’s eyes were full of life—they began to shine wildly, and he would become short of breath. Before Sede knew it, he would have to avert his own eyes. There was no question in his mind. The young politician was a despicable human being who would do anything to attract attention. Whenever the media began losing interest in him, he would make remarks similar to Sede’s to get people talking again. Why was that? Perhaps the young politican’s statements were a subtle, yet shocking way of confessing his own impotence. If so, people might eventually begin to suspect Sede was making inflammatory statements about China for the same reason. He grew more and more nervous. At the end of one of his public appearances, one member of the audience shouted out, “We don’t need to be afraid of big countries! We need to be men, have balls, and speak out!” These were meant as words of encouragement, but Sede broke out in a cold sweat when he heard the man say, “We need to be men.”
Sede was so wrapped up in his personal concerns that even though he was out on deck, he didn’t feel the cold wind blowing off the sea. When we reach the continent, what will happen if the Chinese government realizes I’m the same politician that insulted them so often? If I tell them the real reason I did it, will they laugh it off and forgive me? Maybe it would be better to die quickly and painlessly by jumping into the sea right now. The lights on the mast reflected off the black undulations of sea. The sea and the boat were rocking so much that he couldn’t pull his thoughts together. He turned slowly and looked at the handful of young couples that were sleeping, snuggled up against one another. They look so damn happy. They don’t seem to care that they’re wearing cheap clothes, or that they were fired from companies where their fathers are just subcontractors, or that their mothers only earn a thousand yen per hour at part-time jobs, or that their older sisters only work for a temp agency. These folks never doubt their self-worth. They never commit crimes. They have adorable little faces and live nice lives. China is going to welcome them as brand-new citizens—even the people who scraped by in Japan by hopping from part-time job to part-time job. China’s even going to take the people who didn’t have jobs and didn’t go to school. No doubt they’ll find better living conditions there than back home, and over time, they might even forget there once was an island country named “Japan” where they used to live. They’re still young and impressionable. Maybe years from now, they’ll just think of themselves as a minority, and “the Japanese race” will be just one more of the many minorities in China—a huge, multicultural country. Maybe that would be for the better. But why should I be the only one to suffer? The Chinese authorities will probably want to put me to death. Will they treat me differently from the others?
Sede glared with hatred at the surface of the sea, which had now grown forest green. He knew that the sea bore no responsibility for his problems. Man calls anything that does not have to take responsibility for his predicaments “nature.”
At some point, he dropped off to sleep. When he woke, he was lying on the wet deck, his body arched backward like a bow and his hands tangled in a pile of rope as if he had been trying to tie himself up. It was light so he knew that dawn had broken. His shoulders were cold, and his head hurt. I hear a man and a woman arguing excitedly. They ought to be speaking Japanese, but I can’t understand a thing. Could we have already reached China? If so, the language I’m hearing is probably Chinese. When he stood, his body felt so heavy that he could hardly support it, and he stumbled. Had the muscles in his thighs shrunk in the course of a single night? The sea was the color of sapphires, and a small dock was visible in the direction the boat was headed. He worried about whether such a big ship could land in such a tiny spot, but when he turned around, he realized that the boat he was on was also quite small. When I got on board, I thought it was quite big, so why does it seem so little now?
Standing along the shore was a row of men wearing dark blue uniforms, but contrary to what Sede had imagined, none of them were carrying rifles. The uniformed men politely ushered the Japanese refugees off the boat and into a nearby building. They were not smiling, but the movements of their hands and arms showed that their greetings were meant to be friendly. Sede shuddered. He could not walk normally. If I can’t walk normally, I’ll fall behind, and maybe they’ll treat me with suspicion. The harder he tried to walk as if nothing was wrong, the more difficult it became. Eventually, he did make it into the building. Through the windows at the far side of the building, he could see a forest of high-rise housing complexes. They must have leveled some hills to build them. The earth was reddish and raw like a fresh wound where they had cut the land away. Will they let us refugees live in those high rises? If so, maybe we can start anew, living peaceful lives. Shit, I hope they don’t look into our pasts. I hope they just give us new names and let us start working. Sede had hardly ever used the word “laborer,” but now it had a pleasant ring to it. I hope they take me in as a laborer. It’d be such a relief if they pay me the same as everyone else and just bury me in the masses—a plain old worker. This country is so huge that maybe it’s no big deal for them to accept a few million refugees from a small chain of islands. We’re not that important. I won’t be on TV any more, and they’ll probably forget all about me soon. I hope the government doesn’t think it’s worth investigating who we were in the past.
Sede approached the reception desk fearfully. A female official in her early twenties was seated there. Her hair hung down to her chin, and her eyebrows grew densely over her shining eyes. She didn’t have any lipstick on, and her lips were the color of ripe strawberries. He sat in the chair before her. She placed a single form in front of him. Her fingers were long with pink fingernails. He was supposed to write down his name, birthdate, birthplace, previous professions, and his preferences for future work. When he wrote down his birthday, he added three years to his age. For profession, he wrote that he was a small business owner, and for his address, he wrote the place where he had lived as a little boy. For his name, he wrote the name of the criminal in a detective novel he had read the week before. As soon as he wrote it, he was filled with regret. I should have made up a name.
When Sede read the question, “Would you like to be relocated to the Korean Federation?” his hand began to shake. So that the young lady wouldn’t notice, he used his left hand to grab his right, which still held the pen, and hid them both under the table. Maybe it would be safer to go to Korea instead of staying in China. After the reunification of North and South, the Korean Federation had not been held back by its past. It looked to the future and made steady steps forward on the world stage. Back before reunification, Sede had once made some nasty comments about North and South Korea that had invited criticism from his political opponents and ordinary citizens too, but that was long ago. Plus, he had only done it that one time. Korea was a small country, albeit a competent and talented one, and so he found that badmouthing it didn’t help his problem. His male juices only started flowing when he lashed out at big countries. That was why he had heaped so much abuse on China, but had only spoke about Korea that once. I only made one slip of the tongue. A country that wants to forget its past would surely forgive me, wouldn’t it? That’s an idea… I’ll go to the Korean Federation. As these thoughts went through his head, however, his mind began to grow cloudy. He didn’t have enough strength left to make such a big decision on the spur of the moment.
He was sitting there silently, his pen paused, so the young female official took out a memo pad, wrote something, and showed it to him. She had written the characters 問題—“problem”—followed by a question mark. This was a critical moment of reflection for him—he was supposed to be making a life-or-death decision about where he was going to go to live—but instead, stupid things started pouring through his head. If I married this young Chinese girl, the only way we’d have to communicate would be writing notes in kanji and showing them to each other. That could be kind of fun. Faced by a decision that was far too difficult for him to make, Sede found himself increasingly distracted. It was as if his brain wanted him to stand up and flee into an ordinary life on the streets.
He couldn’t even pronounce English. It would be impossible for him to learn how to pronounce Chinese correctly, but he could probably learn how to communicate by writing basic words like the woman had just done. I doubt it’d be proper Chinese, but she’d probably get the drift if I were to string together characters like 帰宅何時? (Return home what time?), 夕食美味 (Evening dinner delicious taste), or我愛納豆 (I love fermented beans). That’d be enough to communicate as husband and wife. We’d be contributing to world peace, wouldn’t we? Still, if the secret police find out about me, they’ll come to arrest me. They might even give me the death penalty. This is China, so who knows? Maybe they’d serve nice food in jail—shark’s fin soup or Shanghai crab maybe. But that’d be expensive, wouldn’t it? There’d be no point in keeping a worthless person like me in jail for a long time. They wouldn’t want to feed me so I bet they’d just execute me after a few days. My young wife would probably bawl her head off. So young and so sad…
Sede snapped back to attention. The young woman had seen that he didn’t have any questions and had started moving on to the next step. Sede turned the form over and started stringing together characters to write, 朝鮮移住可能?—“Korea go live possible?” Until this point, her graceful, pretty face had only shown a calm expression, but his question made her laugh out loud. Her voice was like a bell. He had no idea what was going on. She took a new piece of paper and wrote in big, powerful strokes, 不可—“Not possible.”
She knows something. She must be playing with me. Goose bumps appeared on his flesh. He felt his midsection constrict, growing tighter around his navel. Feeling his forehead break out in sweat, he continued to look down, unable to raise his head.
© Yoko Tawada. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Jeffrey Angles. All rights reserved.