Monday 29 April 2002


We strolled into Andiamo late on a Friday night. Ayako glanced at the floor, a shadow darkening her face.
“This place is not very clean,” she said. It wasn’t particularly clean but I liked it. Pete and I had coffee there every week. I pulled out a chair for her and she sat down. We ordered.
“Why can’t we go to a nice place?”
“We do go to nice places,” I replied. “But sometimes I like to go to a shabby place, it makes me feel relaxed.”
We’re having the same argument as the couple in Ozu’s Ochazuke no Aji, I realized: the wife with expensive tastes, her husband preferring cheap cigarettes and second class seats on the train. Had I fallen for an o-jo-sama?

She took a sip of her hot chocolate and I waited for her to lick the outside of the cup to catch the drips. Her tongue flashed moist and pink. Already beautiful, this gesture made her irresistible.
“My mother was always telling me not to lick the cup,” she said.
“It’s cute,” I told her. “Sexy too.” She looked skeptical yet delighted.
“What did your father think? About your licking the cup?”
“He didn’t mind. He liked everything I did.”

I’d wondered about her name. I knew that Japanese girl’s names frequently ended in ko — meaning child or small thing — but was curious about aya.
“Did he choose your name? Ayako?”
“Yes he did. It was his mother’s name too.”
I flattened a napkin on the table and called to the waitress to borrow a pen. She gave me one of two tucked into the waistband of her apron. I gave it to Ayako and asked her to write her name. She fussed with the napkin for a moment then carefully wrote two large red characters.

Ayako's nameI asked her the meaning of the character aya.
Aya means gorgeous,” she answered, without a trace of self-consciousness. “It’s an old-fashioned character, not used much any more. People are always asking me to write it for them. Ko means tiny thing or child.”
“Why do so many Japanese women’s names end in ko?” She considered my question thoughtfully.
“I’m not sure,” she finally said. “Perhaps because their fathers don’t want them growing up into tigers.”

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I am not an accomplished cook. I’ve been told often enough — mostly by girlfriends — that I cook as though I’m conducting a chemistry experiment. I suppose it could look like that. What with majoring in chemistry at university and then becoming a photographer, much of my life I’ve been carefully measuring and mixing chemicals.

Those habits must have followed me into the kitchen. I never stray from the recipe: measuring quantities accurately, setting the oven temperature precisely, timing each dish to the minute. By eschewing flair or imagination, applying scientific methods, and restricting myself to a repertoire of three dishes, I can make a meal for two or four people with little fuss and no risk of failure.

I always ask potential guests whether they’ve eaten at my place before and, if so, what did they have: grilled Atlantic salmon with asparagus and new potatoes; chicken cacciatore with steamed corn, carrots, and broccoli; or veal campagnola with a green salad? For newcomers, I like to serve the chicken cacciatore. It seems more ambitious and can be prepared ahead of time, leaving just the vegetables to steam.

So that’s what I cooked for Ayako, the first time she came to dinner. The aromas of garlic, basil, and tomato filled the apartment. Chopped anchovies, olives, and parsley lay in piles on a large white plate. Ayako stood in the doorway of the tiny galley kitchen, holding a glass of white wine, watching me slice carrots and broccoli.

The lid of the saucepan clattered gently. I lifted it, poked at the corn with a fork then — relaxing for a moment — took a sip of beer.
“You should put the broccoli in now,” she told me.
“No,” I replied. “The carrots go in next, for eight minutes, then the broccoli for two.”
Shinjirarenai,” she exclaimed, laughing.
I’d only recently started studying Japanese again and didn’t know the meaning of shinjirarenai.
“Unbelievable,” she said. “A man who knows how to cook broccoli.”

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We’d ventured west, combining a picnic in the mountains with a visit to see H’s new baby at the hospital. Now — after presenting the flowers, admiring the baby, and mixing uneasily with the relatives — we were filling up with petrol for the 35 mile trip home.

Shrieks and yells pulled my attention from the spinning numerals on the bowser to a gaggle of teenagers at the next line of pumps. Tattoos, shaven skulls, bovver boots. We were deep in skinhead country. I felt uneasy, and ashamed of my unease.

The noise evaporated as they scrambled back into their Chrysler. A hard boy — older than the others — strode out of the 7-Eleven. Short and stockily built, he wore a dark green T-shirt with SPIT in huge white letters across the chest. Looking at Natsuko’s old Volvo (and me) with loathing, he slid into the driver’s seat, slammed the door, flicked the ignition, and revved the V-8.

I ran through a checklist of possibilities, from bundling Natsuko into the 7-Eleven to locking ourselves in the car to fleeing without paying for the petrol. Still, I consoled myself, it’s broad daylight. There are three other cars filling up. They won’t try anything here.

As though he’d read my mind, SPIT-man threw the car into gear and careered out onto the main road. I relaxed and tried to cast off my shame.

But, rather than diminishing, the roar of the Chrysler’s engine increased in intensity as the car zoomed back alongside.

Two brutal young faces crowded the rear passenger window.

“Why don’t you and your wife get back to Asia where you belong?” one of them yelled.

“Fucking Asian cunt,” screeched his offsider. And just as suddenly they were gone.

It was my first encounter with racism, or rather, my first time I’d been subjected to racist taunts. I felt embarrassed for Natsuko and — perversely — wanted to apologize for my countrymen’s behavior. But, her face flushed with excitement, she interrupted before I’d uttered a word:

“Did you hear what they said? They thought I was your wife.”

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Thursday 16 May 2002

The Waiting Years

Eleventh century written Japanese is so different from modern Japanese that a novel like The Tale of Genji must be translated for contemporary Japanese readers, as if into a foreign language. In the twentieth century this task was undertaken by the poetess Yosano Akiko and the novelists Tanizaki Junichiro and Enchi Fumiko.

As I become more deeply immersed in my project of reading the three English translations of Genji, I’m taking various side trips by reading Genji-related books such as Edward Seidensticker’s Genji Days and Enchi Fumiko’s A Tale of False Fortunes. The latter brought back memories of discovering Japanese literature.

A long time ago I realized that it would be years before I could achieve my dream of experiencing Japanese novels in Japanese; so I resolved to read whatever was available in English translation and—having purchased J. Thomas Rimer’s A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature—began to work my way systematically through the authors he suggested, reading anything I could find by Ogai, Soseki, Kafu, Shiga, Tanizaki, Ibuse, Kawabata, Inoue, Dazai, Endo, Mishima, Ariyoshi, and Oé, all the acknowledged masters of modern Japanese literature. And, with the exception of Ariyoshi Sawako, all men.

I would not understand until years later that, consciously or not, Rimer was following a long tradition in Japanese literary criticism which—using terms such as “joryu sakka” (woman writer) and “joryu bungaku” (women’s literature)—places most women writers in a separate (and implicitly inferior) category.

Book cover: Enchi Fumiko, The Waiting YearsI must have picked up Enchi Fumiko’s Onnazaka whilst searching for a rare title by the one of writers on Rimer’s list. After reading just a few pages I was at a loss to understand how or why he had excluded her. (She finally rates a mention, along with Kono Taeko, Hayashi Fumiko, and Uno Chiyo, in a later edition of Rimer’s book.)

To be sure, condensing modern Japanese literature into a list of twenty classical and thirty modern works is a close-to-impossible task but I could have easily nominated three or four books that Enchi’s novel deserved to displace.

Set in the Meiji period (1868-1912), Onnazaka was published in installments between 1952 and 1957 and translated by John Bester in 1971 as The Waiting Years. Onnazaka does not mean “the waiting years.” It’s a made-up word, constructed from the characters for “woman” and “hill” or “slope.” It conjures up an image of a woman struggling up an endless incline.

In the novel’s opening scene, Tomo, comes to Tokyo from the north of Japan to find the first of the concubines she will, during the course of her married life, be forced to procure for her husband Shirakawa, a wealthy bureaucrat.

“Should she refuse to accept the task it was almost certain that her husband would simply introduce into the family a woman chosen without consulting her. His leaving the choice to her was a sign of his trust, of the importance he attached, for the family’s sake, to her position.”

Such is Tomo’s devotion to her husband and his ie, or household, that she conceals her resentment of both her husband’s cruel infidelities and the patriarchal family system which makes her an accomplice in the exploitation of other women.

Enchi FumikoBased on stories told to Enchi Fumiko by her grandmother, The Waiting Years is an extraordinary book: beautifully written, filled with wisdom and compassion, sad beyond belief in its careful delineation of Tomo’s repressed emotions.

The year after the English version was published, Enchi Fumiko commenced work on her translation of The Tale of Genji.

As it happened, my former girlfriend Natsuko was reading Enchi Fumiko’s Genji when we first started seeing each other. She’d had to study the novel in high school, much as Western children have to read Shakespeare, and her schoolgirl memory was that it was etchi (lewd or obscene).

We used to sleep late on Sunday mornings: making love, eating breakfast in bed, and reading books or newspapers.

“I must have been so naïve then,” Natsuko said one such morning, balancing Genji on her knees as she tore off a piece of croissant and dipped it in her coffee. “To think Genji was etchi just because it’s about a man who has lots of affairs.”

I thought about Hikaru Genji, the Shining Prince, with his many wives and mistresses; and about Tomo’s husband Shirakawa in The Waiting Years.

A few weeks later in the Kinokuniya bookstore, I found a copy of Onnazaka in the Women’s Literature section and bought it for Natsuko. On the train home I slowly turned the pages and scanned up and down the columns of characters, occasionally encountering a kanji I could understand, wishing with all my heart that I could read Japanese properly, that I could connect directly with Enchi Fumiko’s prose.

Natsuko loved getting presents and she responded as she always did: by wrapping her arms around me and whispering a thank-you in my ear. But the book sat on the shelf for months until one Sunday she plucked it off the shelf on her way back to bed with our coffee.

She finished Onnazaka within a matter of days and when I asked her how she’d liked it, she simply said it was omoshiroi, an adjective that like its English equivalent—interesting—can mean almost anything at all.

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Monday 24 June 2002

Mizu shobai

mizu-shobai the bar and entertainment business

Kodansha Furigana Japanese English Dictionary

mizu-shobai, water trade
the vulgar term for any precarious form of trade yielding an income entirely dependent on the patronage of its customers; for example entertainment provided by geisha, bars, cabarets, and so on

John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade

Pub Blue Moon

“What’s mizu shobai mean,” I asked Ayako. We were eating breakfast.

“There’s no such thing,” she flatly replied, without looking up from her newspaper.

Twenty minutes later she folded the newspaper, pushing it to one side. She moistened the tip of her middle finger and began to collect the crumbs on her plate, one-by-one.

“Where did you hear about this mizu shobai?” she asked, as she daintily retrieved each crumb with her tongue—yet another provocative gesture from her seemingly inexhaustible repertoire.

“I read it in a book.”

“Which book?” I loved the way she pronounced it, saying ‘buke’ as in Luke.

“A textbook,” I fibbed, certain this would annoy her. A former high-school teacher, she regarded textbooks as inarguable sources of fact.

In a way though, I was telling the truth. Though John David Morley’s Pictures from the Water Trade, is a kind of shi-shosetsu, a lightly-fictionalized account of the author’s several years in Japan, at a crucial point it had functioned as a textbook, my only reliable reference to the enigma of Japanese behavior.

Unless I’d discovered and diligently read Morley’s book I would never have been eating croissants with Ayako on a Sunday morning, arguing about the existence of the mizu-shobai, the water trade.

Ayako had been evasive, the first time I invited her on a date—to see Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-ga the following Sunday afternoon. She asked if she could call me on Sunday morning, that it would take her until then to decide.

She did call back and we saw the movie, which made her laugh and cry. We went on to dinner, chatting so easily and happily together that when I dropped her off in front of her apartment building, I was already falling in love.

I asked her if she wanted to do it again and she said: “Mmm, sometimes.” She gathered up her coat and bag, climbed out of the car, and stood stock still as I drove away. All the way home I tried to decipher what had passed between us in those last moments.

She called me frequently on the phone after that yet it was always the same. Ayako would imply an interest in seeing me again—perhaps another Japanese film?—but the moment I tried to pin her down she would retreat in a flurry of vague apologies.

Our stop-start relationship seemed to have permanently stalled. Around then, fortuitously, I bought Pictures from the Water Trade. The answer to my difficulties was on page 69.

John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade (book cover)“The framing of questions in Japanese was an art, an instrument to be handled with great delicacy and care. A direct question at an untimely moment could prove very destructive, merely by virtue of its directness. Direct questions (with obvious exceptions in professional, business life and so on) were not much liked. The typical question was really a feed line, what in a court of law would be disqualified as suggestive, full of loop-holes, offering escape-hatches, and in fact as unlike a question as it was possible to be. The person who had been asked the question could thus be indicted on no more serious charge than of aiding and abetting the person who had asked the question; an accessory to the answer, as it were, not the principal malefactor. He had merely conspired to answer.”

John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade

Suddenly it all became easy. She’d call, I’d make a nebulous remark about reading a restaurant review in the newspaper or mention in passing that a friend had enjoyed such-and-such a movie and, almost magically, Ayako and I would be seated at the counter eating sushi or standing in line to buy tickets to the film.

I put Morley into practice with a diffident vengeance: shying away from any attempt at precision; using qualifiers like “perhaps,” “maybe,” or “apparently;” omitting the subject of a sentence, or the verb; speaking, in effect, a kind of ethereal English that mimicked the oblique, tentative quality of spoken Japanese.

And the wonderful paradox was that the vaguer my speech, the more definite Ayako’s affections became.

Months later I asked her if she’d noticed what had happened.

“Of course,” she replied. I asked her what she thought about it at the time.

She said with a smile: “I liked it very much.”

So Ayako’s statement that there was no such thing as the mizu shobai—when both of us knew perfectly well there was—was meant to draw my attention to some inarguable facts: that I needed to learn that “direct questions were not much liked;” that her o-jo-sama upbringing had kept her well clear of the water trade; and that—by extension—she had no desire to associate with a man who felt at home in its relaxed, squishy world.

But most of all she was reminding me that I wasn’t Japanese.

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Thursday 04 July 2002

Visiting Ozu’s grave

On an overcast Friday afternoon, Natsuko’s aunt’s ashes were buried at the temple, ten minutes from the family home. After another formal meal in the temple dining room, similar to the one we’d eaten at the crematorium, Natsuko’s sister drove us quickly through the narrow streets back to the house she shared with her teenage daughter.

We spread our futons out on the living room floor, took off our clothes, and immediately fell asleep. In the past two days we’d slept only five or six hours.

The next morning, Natsuko—knowing I would return home the following day—asked me how I wanted to spend my last day in Japan. More than anything, I told her, I wished to visit Ozu’s grave.

Kita-Kamakura station signI recalled a scene from Tokyo-ga, Wim Wenders’ movie about Ozu: the railway station sign saying Kita-Kamakura, Ozu’s headstone engraved with the character mu

“I think he’s buried at Kita-Kamakura,” I told Natsuko.

“We’ll have to change trains at Ofuna,” she replied.

At Kita-Kamakura no-one knew where Ozu was buried so we walked back to the station to wait twenty minutes for the next train. I wandered out and stood by the level crossing, snapping pictures of people as they waited then crossed over the railway line. As an express clattered past, I thought of the mandatory train scenes in Ozu’s films, particularly the ninety-second sequence in Ochazuke no aji, with Taeko on the train to Nagoya in a futile attempt to escape the invented unhappiness of her marriage. Natsuko sat on a bench at the station, reading a magazine.

Eventually I strolled back and we rode one stop south to Kamakura to ask at the koban, the police box next to the station. Japanese police usually know where everyone and everything is but they had no idea who Ozu was or where he might be buried.

Natsuko suggested we look for books on Ozu in the bookstore across the square but the single book on the shelf mentioned only a memorial service held in Tokyo after his death. There was nothing about his funeral or burial.

Discouraged, we went to a coffee shop. Natsuko ordered strawberry pancakes.

Natsuko's strawberry pancakes

Suddenly, her mouth full of pancake, she said: “There must be a tourist bureau, we should have asked there.”

The young woman at the Visitors Center had never heard of Ozu but she pulled a thick blue binder from the shelf behind, dropped it on the counter with a thud, and slowly flicked through the pages. Sure enough, under “O” there was a brief note: he was buried at Engaku-ji. We bought another set of tickets for the ride back to Kita-Kamakura.

Engaku-ji was just a few minutes walk from the station. The old attendant to whom we paid our entry fee spoke rapidly to Natsuko, pointing to a steep slope above the carpark. I thought I caught the word “mu.”

“He says Ozu’s buried up there, we should look for a black marble headstone with the character ‘mu.’”

We walked across the carpark, climbed to the top of a set of worn stone stairs, and looked around the jumbled profusion of Japanese graves. Instinctively—was it my memory of Wim Wenders’ film?—I headed off to the right and there it was. Ozu’s grave.

We’d come in late April, the end of the cherry season. Damp pink and white petals lay scattered around the huge marble cube. I could just make out the character “mu.”

Ozu's grave at Engaku-jiI took some photographs. Natsuko did the same. Then we stood before the grave and bowed our heads to pray.

I looked back through my life, remembering Ozu’s films, when and where I’d seen them, who I’d been with at the time… most of all I thought of all he’d taught me about the inextricable link between beauty and sadness, about mono no aware.

It had been years since I’d prayed: like Ozu, I believed primarily in nothingness. But I recalled Murasaki Shikibu’s visit to Ishiyamadera, the temple on the edge of Lake Biwa, where she is supposed to have prayed for and received inspiration to write The Tale of Genji. I asked Ozu to guide me as I attempted to write my own book.

The sound of two sharp claps shattered my reverie. Natsuko had finished her prayers in the Japanese style.

“Ozu-san ni inotta no?” she asked me. “Did you pray to Ozu?”

“Inotta yo,” I replied. “Yes I did.”

“Eigo de? Nihongo de?” In English or Japanese?

“In English,” I told her, “it was too complicated for my Japanese.”

“Well, you know, Ozu didn’t speak English,” Natsuko said tartly. “He wouldn’t have understood your prayer.”

“The gods would have translated for him,” I told her as I walked towards the stairs, trying to recall the face of a woman I’d photographed crossing the railway tracks, a woman I would never see again.

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Thursday 01 August 2002

A taxing woman

Video cover: Itami Juzo's Marusa no OnnaOn our fourth date, I took Ayako to the movies again, to see Itami Juzo’s Marusa no onna (A Taxing Woman). We’d seen Tokyo-ga, the Wim Wenders tribute movie to Ozu. We’d eaten an expensive sushi dinner. And we’d “gone to bushwalking,” as Ayako phrased it—in an exact transliteration of the Japanese. I thought another movie was called for and a Japanese comedy seemed the perfect choice.

We met just before the six o’clock session at the Valhalla in Glebe, an ancient fleapit not far from Sydney University. Ayako had come straight from the merchant bank where she worked as an analyst. In her elegant gray suit and high heels, she looked immaculate and utterly out of place amongst the scruffy university crowd. Trying to balance formality with comfort, I’d chosen jeans with a jacket and a tie.

Though I’d come of age in the seventies, when sex on the first date was almost a matter of course, by the mid-eighties AIDS had arrived and by the end of the decade we were all more cautious, delaying the first kiss until the second date before tumbling into bed on the third.

But Ayako and I had yet to hold hands and we certainly hadn’t kissed. I couldn’t make up my mind: was she was prudish about sex? or was the decision to sleep together a cross-cultural mystery? Since she was the first Japanese woman I’d dated and I hadn’t yet discovered Pictures from the Water Trade, I’d resolved to take it slowly.

In the opening sequence of A Taxing Woman, a nurse unbuttons her uniform, exposes an enormous breast, and suckles her eighty-year-old patient. Twenty minutes or so into the film, the tax-evading gangster masturbates his mistress to climax while speaking on the telephone to an associate.

I began to think that I was re-enacting the scene in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which the Robert De Niro character, Travis Bickle, takes straitlaced Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to a porno movie on their first date. I was convinced life was about to imitate art, that Ayako would suddenly stand up and walk out, leaving me in the theater. But Ayako sat quite still, intent on watching the movie.

When the gangster’s mistress gets out of bed after sex and walks across the room, there’s something white clenched between the cheeks of her ass.

Marusa no onna (A Taxing Woman)

My God, I thought, it’s a fucking tissue!

Unable to restrain myself I looked to my right, to gauge Ayako’s response. She’d raised her hand to cover her mouth as she always did when she laughed, though her face showed just a trace of a smile. She didn’t turn to meet my gaze.

We didn’t sleep together that night. But the reserve between us evaporated and, coming out of the theater, Ayako took my arm for the first time as we crossed the street to the car.

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Thursday 09 January 2003


Ayako had no sympathy for the disabled.

This morning, when I read in an email from UsableNet that the European Union has designated 2003 as the “Year of the People with Disabilities,” I recalled a conversation we had one evening over dinner. There’d been a story in the Herald about a group of disabled Japanese who were here on a fact-finding tour, with a photograph of a young paraplegic man being carried down the stairs from a Qantas aircraft to a wheelchair on the tarmac.

“Naze kita no kashira. Ano hito.” Ayako asked. I wonder why they came. Those people.

“To check out how we help people with disabilities in Australia,” I replied.

“They shouldn’t be here.” She struggled to suppress her irritation.

“Why not? They just want to see how we do things here. Maybe they’ll get some good ideas to take back to Japan.”

“They’re an embarassment,” she told me. “The government shouldn’t have allowed them to leave Japan.”

I was stunned. I’d spent much of my childhood with an intellectually-handicapped girl named Jennifer who was a year or so older than me. Jennifer had no hair so she always wore a wig or a woolen beanie, she had steel braces on her legs, and her speech was severely limited. Almost every day a dozen or so kids would play in the street and in each other’s yards for hours at a time—running, chasing, hide-and-seek, roller-skating, riding our bikes and billy-carts—and for an hour or so Jennifer’s parents would allow her to join us. Whenever she did, we switched to gentler games so that she could join in. Occasionally a new family would move into our street and the routine was always the same. One of the new arrivals would poke fun at Jennifer and would be very quickly put straight: “She’s just like you and I,” someone would tell them, “only different. When she comes out to play it’s our job to look after her.”

“How would you like to be in a wheelchair?” I asked Ayako.

“I wouldn’t mind,” she replied. “How could I be upset if I’d never known anything different?”

“What about if you’d had an accident? You’d always been able to walk and now you couldn’t. Or if you’d been born crippled, how would it feel to see everyone around you walking and running?”

“You don’t understand!” she said passionately. “People have accidents or they’re born like that because they did something terrible in a past life. They have to spend this life atoning for their sin.”

I knew Ayako saw the world differently—from the start I’d been attracted by her ability to surprise me. And I knew better than to persist.

“Let’s do the dishes,” I suggested, “then we’ll drive down to Bondi and buy an ice-cream.” She loved lemon gelato.

Stuck behind a bus on Bondi Road, Ayako sitting quietly at my side, I remembered Kevin, another handicapped figure from my boyhood. When I was in senior high school, Kevin—who had Downs Syndrome—must have been about twenty. He lived with his mother. His father, who’d been a bus driver, had died suddenly when Kevin was young and, once he was no longer attending his special school—there were no jobs for the handicapped in those days—the guys at the bus depot, his dad’s workmates, did this marvellous thing. Realizing his mum needed a break now and again, they got Kevin a bus conductor’s uniform, with a leather satchel, a ticket holder, and a whistle.

Conductors were only assigned to buses during peak hours or on busy routes; the rest of the time the driver collected the fares. So, a couple of mornings a week, a neighbor would drop Kevin off at the depot after the morning rush. He would board a driver-only bus and spend the day riding back-and-forth, handing out tickets and putting the coins he received into his satchel. At the end of the day, one of the drivers would drop him off at home and he’d proudly show his mother the money he’d earned.

It could never happen now. Everyone would have a nervous breakdown about workers compensation and public-liability insurance, do-gooders would complain that Kevin was being exploited, and the Transport Union would argue that he was doing a conductor out of a job. But back then, we all thought it was marvellous to get on the bus and find Kevin walking up and down the aisle, blowing his whistle when all the passengers had alighted, calling out: “Fares please!” and “Move right down the back of the bus.”

Ayako ate her lemon gelato at the water’s edge, salty foam lapping at her toes. We drove home and went to bed. The first night she came to sleep at my place, many months before, she’d brought a nightlight. “I don’t like to sleep in the dark,” she explained. I didn’t mind. We spent hours making love in its soft glow.

“When I was little,” she said as she lay with her head on my shoulder, “around four or five years old, if I was naughty my mother would lock me in the tansu for an hour.” A tansu is a Japanese chest of drawers or a cabinet with deep drawers at the bottom.

“That’s unbelievable,” I said. “You must have been terrified.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” she replied. “I was lucky in a way. If my older brother was naughty, she would tie him to a maple tree for an hour, even in the middle of winter when the garden was covered in snow.”

I held her tight, speechless once again.

“When I grew older and became too big for the tansu,” Ayako added, “my mother told me that if I was naughty I would come back in my next life as a cripple.”


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Saturday 08 March 2003

Ikuko’s name

“When I was in middle-school,” Ikuko told me, “I hated my name.” We were lying in her bed, drinking champagne, fooling around. I traced her name in the glossy film of perspiration on her stomach. (On our second date, I’d asked her to write the characters for me. Since then I’d written them dozens of times in my notebook and on scraps of paper.) I could already guess what she wanted to say.

Whereas in the West we “come” during sex (or “cum” as they say in pornland), the Japanese “go,” saying iku (I’m going) as they approach a climax and itta (I went) immediately after.

But Ikuko never said “iku.” Sometimes she would bite her wrist or the pillow instead. Nor did she ever say “itta” though she came easily and often. The only time I asked, saying “Itta?” (Did you come?), she simply replied “Mmm, yokatta wa” (It was great).

Japanese characters for IkukoIku has multiple meanings since it can be written with a variety of kanji, all with the same pronunciation. I tried to reassure her. “But it’s a lovely name. I looked up your iku in my dictionary. It means ‘aromatic, fragrant, sweet-smelling’.”

“I was teased about it constantly,” she replied, “all through middle school. The boys were always saying to me ‘Iku! Iku!’ Even some of the girls joined in.”

“So what did you do? Did you tell your parents? Or the teachers?”

“How could I do that? I would have been too ashamed.”

I knew it was pointless to ask why she hadn’t changed her name, if she hated it so much. Not only might she have offended her parents; worse still would have been asking the local bureaucracy to record the new name in her family register.

Naze o-namae o kaeta’n desu ka?” (Why did you change your name?) When, not long after we’d started seeing each other, I told Ikuko that I’d changed my name—from John Anthony to Jonathon—she’d changed the subject. Now, six months later, she was suddenly curious.

Yume o mita’n desu yo.” (I had a dream.) In my dream I was standing in line, listening as a female voice called a roll. When she said “Jonathon Delacour”, I thought: “That’s me.” I looked down and saw that I was holding a three-by-five index card in both hands, white, with JONATHON DELACOUR written on it in a neat script. I woke up, knowing that I’d discovered my real name.

Ikuko sipped her champagne. Drops of condensation splashed gently on her stomach, nearly obliterating the character ko.

“I knew they were having sex and that they knew I wasn’t. Not that I was saving myself for someone special, it’s just that none of the boys in my school appealed. But I knew, even before having sex, that I’d enjoy it, because I’d already discovered how to give myself pleasure.”

“Now, occasionally after I come, I think of my stupid classmates. None of those boys will ever have me and the girls are stuck with children and salaryman husbands. They probably can’t remember when they last had sex.”

She took a mouthful of champagne, rolled nimbly onto my chest, and kissed me, filling my mouth with warm bubbles.

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Tuesday 07 October 2003

Super Best

Mark Pilgrim posed an “addiction koan”:

Your spouse, who hasn’t had a cigarette or a drink in 12 years, comes home late one night with smoke in their hair and alcohol on their breath. What do you do?

I picked up Ayako at her apartment one Sunday morning, many years ago. We were meeting some friends for a picnic in the Royal National Park, an hour south of Sydney. Waiting for the lights to change at the intersection near her apartment, I leaned across and kissed her. Mingling with the Listerine was the unmistakable taste of whisky.

“You taste of whisky,” I told her.

“I do not,” she replied.

Enka singer Ishikawa SayuriI knew better than to argue, remembering her habit of flatly denying inconvenient facts. So we chatted about the weather, the onigiri she’d made as part of our lunch, and our plans to spend a couple of weeks in Shikoku the following spring. I popped a cassette into the player, one I’d made the night before from my favorite enka CD, Ishikawa Sayuri’s Super Best. (It’s oddly gratifying to find, on the Ishikawa Sayuri page at Barbara’s Enka Site, that Super Best is Barbara’s desert island enka CD: “If someone really forced me to choose one performer and one album, here it is.”)

Ayako pretended not to like enka, dismissing it as obasan no ongaku (“music for aunties”), but I could tell she secretly admired Ishikawa Sayuri. As Barbara says, “She pours feeling into every song until it bursts, but somehow she does so with a beautifully elegant restraint.”

Arriving at the park, we drove slowly along until I saw our friends in the distance, carefully laying out the contents of their picnic basket on a bright tartan blanket.

I parked the car and turned off the ignition.

“I have a confession,” said Ayako. I waited for her to continue, and the words tumbled out in a torrent.

“This morning, when I met Shinobu for coffee, she offered me a cigarette and I couldn’t resist. I know you don’t like the smell of cigarettes but Shinobu told me that if I washed my hair and had a couple of sips of whisky it would get rid of the smell of tobacco and the taste. And then, if I drank a glass of milk, that would take care of the whisky too. But the milk didn’t really work because ten minutes before you were due to pick me up I could still taste the whisky in my mouth. So I gargled twice with Listerine and hoped you wouldn’t notice. But you did. And now I feel a little bit drunk.”

Though I’d once told Ayako that it was much nicer kissing a woman who doesn’t smoke, I hadn’t expected my casual remark to have such an impact.

“They must have been big sips of whisky,” I replied. “Next time you have a cigarette it might be best to go with just the milk and Listerine.”

I leaned across and kissed her again. The barest trace of whisky on her tongue tasted indescribably sexy.

“We’d better get going,” I told her. “Emiko and Ken are waiting.”

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Sunday 23 November 2003


Thanks to Natsuko I learned some new words yesterday, including:

  • haggler (huckster, cadger)
  • wold (formerly-wooded hilly tracts in certain regions of England)
  • lath (a thin flat strip of wood)
  • black-pot (a beer mug, a toper; though I suspect, in this context, a kind of food, perhaps leftovers; no, as Language Hat explains in his comment, it’s black pudding i.e. congealed pig’s blood in a length of intestine)
  • chitterling (fried smaller intestines of a pig)
  • vamp (to make one’s way on foot; to tramp or trudge).

Natusko comes to my place for breakfast most Saturday mornings, then borrows the car for the rest of the day. It was her idea that we should help each other with our reading—hers in English, mine in Japanese—after I asked her last week to explain a sentence construction in an Akutagawa story called Hana (Nose). I had known Akutagawa only as the author of the stories upon which Kurosawa’s film Rashomon was based. But Natsuko was, of course, familiar with Akutagawa’s story of a priest with an excessively long nose, who is delighted to have it shortened only to be then disappointed by the negative response to his good fortune.

We’d agreed to start with English, which is how, once I’d cleared away the breakfast dishes, I came to be sitting at the living room table with my own copy of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles as Natsuko, comfortably ensconced on the sofa, read from hers.

“Then what might your meaning be in calling me ‘Sir John’ these different times, when I be plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler.” Natsuko paused. “What’s haggler?”

“It’s normally a customer who argues to get the price of something reduced but that doesn’t make sense here.” I went to my study and came back with the dictionary, which revealed that an older meaning is ‘huckster’ or ‘cadger’.

“What’s huckster and cadger?” Natsuko asked.

I flipped through the “H” section, from ‘haggler’ to ‘huckster’, thankful that twenty-five years ago I’d bought a copy of the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

“A huckster can mean someone who bargains or haggles but it can also mean a small trader… now, this is better. A cadger is a carrier who travels between town and country with butter, eggs, and shop-wares or someone who sells things in the street. That makes sense because Jack Durbeyfield is carrying an empty egg basket when he meets the parson.”

Natsuko continued reading. I explained the meanings of “whim”, “antiquary”, “direct lineal representative”, “Knights Hospitallers”, and “baronetcy”.

Cover of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles“I’m wondering why you chose this book,” I told her, as I was looking up “wold”.

“Well, you know I’m trying to save money,” she replied. “I already had a copy on my shelf and classics are cheaper than contemporary books because there’s no royalty to pay the author. The one I bought for you was only $7.95 at Kinokuniya but a modern book would cost about $20. Why do you ask that?”

“To be honest, I hadn’t thought about it until we struck all these words I’d never heard of. I suppose I was thinking that a more modern book might be easier to start with.”

(Although my ambition is to read Kafū and Tanizaki in Japanese, at the rate my Japanese reading skills are improving I’ll be thrilled if I can finish the Japanese translation of an Agatha Christie novel.)

“But I like this author,” she said. “When I was living in Seattle, I read Far from the Madding Crowd and it made me cry. Reading Thomas Hardy gives me the same feelings I used to have when I read Yamamoto Shūgorō as a teenager.”

Natsuko wasn’t surprised that I’d never heard of Yamamoto Shūgorō.

“You only know about literary writers,” she said, a trace impatiently, “like Kawabata and Tanizaki and Enchi Fumiko. Yamamoto Shūgorō was a taishū writer. He wrote all kinds of books—frequently about the common people but also detective and samurai stories as well as jidai-mono.”

Taishū (大衆) means “general public” and taishū bungaku is popular literature (though I imagine that Yamamoto Shūgorō is a cut or two above Agatha Christie). Jidai-mono are historical novels.

“In any case,” Natsuko added, “I think it’s better to read a classic novel. If you can understand the classics, then you can understand contemporary books. But not the other way round.”

She was right, of course. You won’t encounter too many “lath-like striplings” in a John Grisham novel. Natsuko started reading again.

“The clergyman explained that, as far as he was aware, it had quite died out of knowledge, and could hardly be said to be known at all. His own investigations had begun on a day in the preceding spring when, having been engaged in tracing the vicissitudes of the D’Urberville family, he had observed Durbeyfield’s name on his waggon, and had thereupon been led to make inquiries, till he had no doubt on the subject.”

I’d expected her to stumble over “vicissitudes” as she had over a number of other uncommon words; but, to my delight, she pronounced it perfectly.

“What is this ‘vicissitudes’?” she asked.

“It means that someone’s situation changes,” I explained, “often in an unexpected or unpleasant way. They might be doing well and then things turn bad… people often talk about ‘life’s vicissitudes’, meaning life’s ups and downs.”

Natsuko thought for a while, then said: “Like ‘the vicissitudes of George Bush’? He barely won the election, then after September the 11th he became very popular but now, with the problems in Iraq, his popularity is falling.”

“That’s pretty much it.”

“I like this word, ‘vicissitudes’,” she said. “If I use words like this, people will think I’m educated.”

“People can already tell you are educated,” I told her, “whether or not you use words like ‘vicissitudes’.”

How strange, I thought to myself, that I’d read almost all of the eighteenth and nineteenth century classic English novels but nothing by Thomas Hardy. I haven’t even seen Polanski’s movie, Tess.

Natsuko reached the end of the first chapter, put down the book, and picked up the photocopy I’d made of Akutagawa’s story—Kinokuniya hadn’t had any copies of Dondon yomeru: iro-iro na hanashi (Selected Stories for Steadily Improving Your Reading).

“Now it’s your turn,” she said.

“OK,” I replied, “Here we go… Ike-no-o no hitotachi wa, minna naigu no hana no koto o shitte ita. Sono hana wa, nagasa jū hachi senchi kurai de, sōsēji no yō na katachi o shite, kao no mannaka ni burasaggate ita.

(“Everyone in Ike-no-o knew about the distinguished priest’s nose. About eighteen centimeters long and shaped like a sausage, it dangled down the center of his face…”)

Natsuko interrupted, saying “Interesting that you chose this story, isn’t it? About the vicissitudes of a monk with a long nose.”

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