‘Hey, Nagaoka, wanna start a new cult with me?’
It was Sunday afternoon, and the Saizeriya in the shopping mall by the station was packed with families having lunch.
I shrugged and took a sip from my third caffè latte.
‘That’s a bit vague, isn’t it? What exactly are you trying to rope me into?’
Ishige lowered his voice and leaned in closer. ‘No, no, I’m not trying to rope you into anything. I’m proposing that you and I should start a new business in the form of a cult.’
I gave an exaggerated sigh and resisted the urge to burst out laughing.
Everyone had exchanged curious glances when Ishige turned up to the class reunion last week. We often held these parties, but it was the first time he’d ever come to one, and nobody knew who on earth had invited him. I myself rarely attended them before circumstances forced me to move back in with my parents, and maybe that was why he’d singled me out. The first thing that occurred to me when he sat down next to me, pestering me for my LINE ID and insisting we meet up for tea, was that he had to be selling something. I didn’t know whether it was a pyramid scheme or a religion or what, but I was certain that he wasn’t just trying to pick me up.
I only agreed to meet him at Saizeriya on my precious day off because I already had an appointment for nose-hair whitening at an ear and nose beauty salon near the station. I might as well, I thought. Plus, Ishige was stupid, so even if he did try to sell me something I wasn’t going to fall for it.
And if he was trying to sell me something, that meant he had already fallen for whatever it was. I was curious to know what he had been taken in by. I thought it could make for a good laugh at the next afternoon tea gathering at Asami’s place. I’d even imagined how I’d make fun of him.
Hey, you know what? Remember Ishige turning up to that party? He’d been pestering me over LINE ever since, so in the end I thought I might as well hear him out. And then he did the hard sell on me! Crazy, isn’t it? Hilarious!
So when Ishige came out with this idea, it was perfectly within the realm of expectation, although it hadn’t occurred to me that he might be pushing a scam cult that he hadn’t actually fallen for.
‘I’ve been looking into it. Spiritual stuff seems to be popular among women, right? We could make a killing starting a cult like that!’
‘You must be joking!’ I shot back.
Despite my refusal, Ishige looked happy. He leaned in closer and spread some ludicrous papers out on the table.
‘It’ll work, I’m telling you. I’ve put a lot of time into this. Here, look at this data. You see, it’s no good joining an existing cult, you have to start one yourself. If all goes well, profits will balloon to this level within a year. It’s such a good opportunity I thought I should invite others to join me too. It came to me suddenly at that party. You always were different from the others, Nagaoka, even in junior high. You were smart, and didn’t hang around with other kids much. That sort of charisma is absolute essential in this business.’
‘Flattering someone’s talents like that is a textbook approach, isn’t it? Anyone can see through that. If you’re so crap at the hard sell now, Ishige, how do you expect to fool anyone once you get the business started?’
Ishige looked a bit put out, but went on undaunted, ‘Yeah, well, it probably was out of a textbook. But it’s true. Even she said so.’
‘Oh look, here she comes now.’
Oh, so that’s his tactic, I thought, steeling myself. He’d shown no sign of calling anyone else by the time I was on my third caffè latte, so I’d let my guard down.
Before coming, I’d already thought that if Ishige was going to do the hard sell on me, he’d likely bring along whoever had done it to him. He was stupid, but it was possible that his accomplice would be a smooth talker and a formidable opponent. I’d therefore deliberately ignored the waitress’s offer of a comfortable seat in the interior and had taken a seat beside the busy self-service drinks bar close to the exit, where I sat with my bag on my lap and without even taking off my hat, ready to make my escape at a moment’s notice.
The person who turned up was someone I knew, which threw me. It was Saikawa, who had been in the same year as me in junior high, although we’d only been in the same class once and had hardly even spoken with each other. She’d been well behaved and hard-working. She hadn’t stood out at all, but was smart and trustworthy – just the type of girl the class teacher loved.
I glared at Ishige. ‘You’re not trying to rope Saikawa into this weird scheme too, are you?’
Saikawa was the sort of girl who did all her chores meticulously, whether it was her turn for class duty or cleaning or class rep or collecting work sheets. Just watching her do this I used to think she was losing out for being so earnest. And I’d sensed with revulsion that there were people out there who would prey on her right into adulthood.
‘Oh, didn’t I tell you? We were an item during college,’ Ishige said, somewhat boastfully.
I couldn’t hide my surprise. ‘What? You two?’
‘We went to the same university, you see. We dated for a couple of years. But after graduating, she got involved in a pyramid scam selling water purifiers. And so I split up with her.’
Saikawa hung her head in shame as Ishige went glibly on and on.
‘It’s true, I’m embarrassed to admit,’ she said.
Already petite, she now sat hunched over, which made her whole body even smaller. She held her thin right wrist with her left hand, gripping it tightly as though punishing herself.
‘And actually I cut off all contact. It was only when I thought of starting this business that it occurred to me that since Saikawa was dumb enough to fall for one scam, I could pick her brains about how it works. But I mean, really, water filters! Does anyone get taken in by that sort of thing these days? I laughed my head off at the time, I really did.’
Somehow I felt offended by this. ‘Look, you don’t have to put it like that. After all, she must’ve ended up getting involved because there was something to it. It’s not on to trash her like that, is it?’
Apparently neither Ishige nor Saikawa had expected anything like this from me. They both peered at me, baffled.
‘Eh? We’re planning to dupe idiots in the same way, aren’t we? What are you saying, Nagaoka?’
I was lost for words.
‘I did check the law on this.’ Saikawa said, as if coming to my rescue. ‘If you deliberately deceive someone, it’s fraud. But if you truly believe in it, and don’t have malicious intentions, there is a grey zone. I guess that’s what you mean, isn’t it, Nagaoka?’
‘Well, yeah, but . . . anyway, in that case all the victim can do is cry themselves to sleep. They won’t get back any of the money they pump into some invisible entity,’ I murmured in a low voice.
‘Hey Nagaoka, you seem to know quite a bit about it, don’t you?’ Ishige cried in delight.
‘A friend of mine once got taken in by something like this, so I read up about it.’
‘Well I never! So you’re something of an authority then. Glad I brought you in, Nagaoka. Very reassuring, eh, Saikawa?’
Ishige guffawed, and thumped Saikawa on the back.
As if startled by the sudden shock, Saikawa’s left hand let go of her right wrist. The skin looked even whiter than normal, like a plastic doll’s.
I still hadn’t managed to turn them down by the time I had to leave for my nostril-whitening appointment, and it was decided that Saikawa would give me a lift.
‘I’m sorry for taking advantage of your offer when I could easily walk.’
‘It’s perfectly fine, Ms Nagaoka. It so happens that I have an errand to run in the shopping center, in any case.’
Saikawa kept mixing ultra-polite language into her speech, as if she was finding it hard to judge the distance between us when we were meeting after so long.
‘You really don’t have to speak so formally, you know,’ I told her. ‘We were classmates, after all.’
‘Oh, right. Lately I’ve only been seeing colleagues at work, so I’ve just got into the habit.’
Seeing Saikawa laugh so shyly, it vaguely occurred to me that maybe she didn’t have any friends. I’d been the same before I moved back home and reconnected with Asami and the others, with no friends or anyone to talk to other than work colleagues and the staff in the convenience store next to where I lived.
I’d come here today intending to have fun ridiculing Ishige, but now all I could think about was Saikawa in the driver’s seat beside me. Having witnessed Ishige being so contemptuous of her, I almost felt ashamed for having wanted to laugh at him.
‘Look, I haven’t made up my mind to join yet, you know,’ I said reluctantly, thinking it would be horrible if I found myself roped in any further.
‘I see.’ She gave a wry smile. ‘I must say that someone like you shouldn’t be involved in persuading people to join a scam cult, much less one that we’re starting from scratch.’
‘What prompted you to get involved?’
With a little smile, she replied, ‘Um, well . . . It’s for revenge.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know, when I was selling those water filters, I really did believe in what I was doing. I believed they were the best water filters in the world, and that they would make everyone healthy and happy. But as it happened, all my friends distanced themselves from me and I got up to my ears in debt, and ended up causing trouble for my parents.’
‘So isn’t that sort of . . . um . . . whatcha call it . . . brainwashing, I guess? Won’t it be traumatic for you? Don’t you want to get away from all that sort of thing?’
‘Yes, I suppose that would be the normal thing to do. Having sold those water filters is a black stain on my past, and it’s a taboo subject even among my friends who know about it now. But maybe because of that . . . well, when Ishige got in touch with me on Facebook after so long about this plan of his, I thought to myself, this is an opportunity to get my revenge.’
Revenge for what? Did she mean that because she’d been ripped off so badly last time, this time she’d make the money back?
‘Oh, this is it, isn’t it? Ear and Nose Beauty Clinic. It was just an ordinary ear, nose and throat clinic before.’
‘I guess it was, yes.’
‘So they do nostril whitening now! I had no idea.’
‘Yeah. Seems it’s the norm abroad.’ I undid my seat belt and opened the car door. ‘Thanks for the lift!’
‘You’re very welcome, Ms Nagaoka.’
‘Saikawa, you really don’t need to be so formal with me, you know.’
‘Oh, I did it again, did I?’ she said, putting her hand over her mouth, embarrassed. ‘I’ll work on it for next time.’
As I closed the door, Saikawa slowly bowed her head at me. When I reached the clinic, I turned to see that her light blue car was still there? She must have been making sure I was okay before driving off.
‘What, really? No way! That’s hilarious, Miki!’
Asami roared with laughter when I told her about what had happened, and hugged her child close.
About a year ago, when I posted on Facebook that I was moving back to my parents’ place for a while, there had been hardly any response. Asami had been the only one to leave a comment. She had married and had bought a condo next to her parents’ place, and sometimes she invited me along to the tea parties she held there. I hadn’t been close to her other friends at school, and there were times when I couldn’t keep up with them, but the vibe was good and they would laugh about everything.
Still, they liked it better when I had an interesting story for them. I’d been feeling awkward about not having thought of an amusing topic of conversation, and on the spur of the moment I ended up telling them about Ishige. He’d never been popular with girls, even back in school, and they all laughed uproariously at his plans to start a scam cult. I was relieved when everyone laughed, and felt that my place in the party had been assured for a little longer.
‘It’s not like it’s that easy to start a scam cult, is it? Who on earth would be taken in by Ishige?’
‘I’m surprised that Saikawa’s involved in it too. I wonder why? Maybe she’s short of money?’
Suddenly I couldn’t laugh any more. I’d only intended to talk about Ishige, and hadn’t planned on mentioning Saikawa. But then everyone got excited and began demanding, ‘Miki, why on earth didn’t you turn him down right away and get the hell out of there?’ I was scared they’d all think I was stupid enough to be taken in by his sweet talk, and so on impulse I’d mentioned her.
‘Yes, exactly! If it hadn’t been for Saikawa, then I’d have been out of there like a shot! It’s just that I was concerned for her. Normally I’d never have listened to Ishige talking such rubbish for a moment longer,’ I said by way of excuse.
‘Yeah, I get what you mean. Saikawa always was quite timid. I’d hate for her to be taken in by Ishige.’
‘Come to think of it, I had a really weird phone call from her a while back.’ Asami’s close friend Mayu, who was drinking non-alcoholic wine, suddenly looked up. ‘It’s not like we were friends or anything in school, but we were in the same club and lived in the same area, so we often walked together and talked a bit. But we hadn’t been in touch at all after leaving school. Then out of the blue, I guess it must have been about the time I started working, she called me at my parents’ place.’
‘Uh-oh, that in itself would be enough to make anyone suspicious,’ Keiko laughed as she stuck her fork into her cake.
‘There was no way I was going to meet up with her – I knew right away it was something dodgy. And she gave me some spiel about a water filter –’
‘A water filter! How lame is that?’
Everyone burst out laughing, but the most I could manage was an ambiguous expression.
‘Well, it’s in her nature . . . it’s her fate to be taken in by that sort of thing.’
‘What do you mean, in her nature?’ I asked seriously.
Asami frowned, a bit put out. ‘Look, people who get taken in by that sort of thing always have some kind of hidden aspiration, like deep down they’re frustrated with their lives, or maybe they’re hoping to make easy money without having to work. They get taken in because they’re foolish. They’re stupid, to put it bluntly.’
‘Seriously? I’d been feeling a bit sorry for her, but maybe she’s been that sort of person all along. There’s no hope for her, I guess. Best leave her alone.’
‘Too right. Might be catching.’
I wanted to defend Saikawa, but I couldn’t find the words. After all, I myself had been using almost exactly the same words to make fun of Ishige a few moments ago.
‘Wow, Asami, that plate’s a Ron Babarontic, isn’t it?’ Mika suddenly whooped in delight at the sight of a dish of fruit Asami had placed on the table. It was earth-coloured with a cord pattern, reminiscent of prehistoric Jōmon pottery. ‘How cool is that? Even a flat dish from this series costs about half-a-million yen, doesn’t it?’
‘It really livens up a dining table, doesn’t it! I wish I could afford Ron Babarontic too.’
‘What’s a Ron Babarontic?’ I asked doubtfully, and Mayu laughed.
‘Really, Miki, don’t you know? Everyone wants one of these dishes.’
‘No, I don’t. I’ve never really wanted anything like that anyway. I never even knew such a thing existed.’
Mika laughed. ‘Miki, you work too hard! I can’t believe you don’t know about Ron Babarontic, being a woman and all.’
Beside Mika, Keiko was softly stroking the cord pattern around the edge of the dish. ‘Yeah, but it’s better not to know. Once you do, you want one. I bought some Ron Babarontic teacups too. A set of four costs over two-million yen. If you include a teapot, it’s seven million, but no way I could afford that much.’
‘It’s dangerous getting into Ron Babarontic, you know. You can easily blow your bonus just like that.’
‘Still, I’d love to own a piece . . .’
I thought it was bizarre how they were all raving about these Ron Babarontic dishes I’d never heard of before.
Just what was the difference between Saikawa’s water filters and these Ron Babarontic dishes? They thought nothing of handing over hundreds of thousands of yen for a plate, but nobody had even heard of Ron Babarontic a few years ago. I was pretty sure about that because there had been a rush of weddings at work, and I’d studied up on fancy tableware. But now everybody was totally into this Ron Babarontic.
The water filters had been a scam, but Ron Babarontic was the real deal. I couldn’t get my head around that.
Everyone rapturously helped themselves to fruit from the Ron Babarontic dish. It just looked like a bit of ancient pottery to me, and I felt weirded out by it all. Still, I played along with appropriate comments like, ‘Amazing. I guess it does have a special power for a dish. You can tell just by looking at it.’
‘Oh, by the way, how was that nostril whitening that I told you about last time?’ Asami asked.
‘Oh yes, it was fantastic,’ I said hastily. ‘It didn’t hurt, and it’s completely white now.’
‘Really? Wow! Let’s see!’
Everyone peered into my nostrils.
‘Wow, it really is white!
‘How much was it?’
I hesitated a moment, then said, ‘Fifty-thousand yen.’
‘Really? That’s incredibly cheap! Where I go it costs me over a hundred thousand a time.’
‘But still, it’s so effective. Brilliant. Maybe I should go too.’
They already had whitened nostrils, but nobody had been doing this a few years ago. Was it really necessary to make your nostrils white, I wondered? What was the cost price of the treatment?
Keeping these thoughts to myself, I said loudly, ‘For fifty-thousand yen, it’s totally worth it. I really recommend it!’
When I turned up at Saizeriya the following Sunday, Ishige and Saikawa were already there, sitting side by side. Ishige had his laptop open and was typing something.
‘Hey Nagaoka, you’re late, aren’t you?’ he said, giving me a wave.
Frowning, I took a seat. ‘Look, it’s not like I’ve decided to go along with this yet.’
‘Yeah, well, we’ve decided on the outline. Have a look.’
I looked at the screen, and saw things like ‘Spiritual but not actually a religion ⮕ a legal grey zone. Target!!’ and ‘Plan (1) Power Stone accessories. (2) A pot that makes you happy. Handmade.’
‘What the hell is this? Do you really believe this sort of thing will work? Ishige, have you given this enough thought?’
‘Well, I don’t know anything about these things, you see –’
‘That’s what I mean! It’s not going to work. It might look simple, but it takes knowledge. It’s not like an amateur can just do it. Right, Saikawa?’
‘What do you think, Saikawa?’ What I meant was, what did she think of scams in general?
‘How about geocentrism . . . ?’ Saikawa answered shyly, her voice small.
‘There was an American guy on the news recently who still believes in geocentrism. He said that he was building a rocket so he could check it out for himself. And so I got to wondering, how come we now believe the Earth goes round the Sun?’
‘What do you mean, how come?’
Because it’s scientifically proven. Because we learned about it at school. Because we see images of the Earth taken by satellites on TV. A number of answers occurred to me, but all of it was received information. I’d never actually experienced the bodily sensation of heliocentrism myself.
‘Of course, it’s not like you have to actually believe in it. You just imagine that’s what it could be, while gazing at the stars with other people. In ancient times, people really did live in that world, after all. We’re linked to those people through our souls, so you can do a mental time-slip back into the ancient world and soothe your soul.’
‘Saikawa . . .’
‘I think it’d be wonderful to have a healing therapy like that,’ she said shyly.
Frankly, I had absolutely no idea what she was going on about.
Then I remembered what she’d said about wanting revenge. For what, exactly, I wondered? I was getting the feeling that she wanted to get back at us for not having believed in her water filters. That scared me a little.
‘In any case, I’m saying we should carry it out as a group therapy kind of thing . . . hmm, I’d say about a hundred thousand yen a time should be right to begin with.’
‘What, that much?’
I was shocked, but Saikawa remained unperturbed.
‘Look, I was taken in before, so I know what I’m talking about. You’re more likely to believe something if it’s expensive. Once you’ve paid that much you won’t want to admit you’re wrong, and what’s more, if you stretch to pay for something, you feel like you’ve had a special experience, and can go to some new place.’
Come to think of it, Saikawa really had stopped using formal language with me. My throat was dry, and I swallowed some saliva before asking, ‘Some new place?’
‘I don’t know. But I think the benefit to the participants’ souls will be worth it,’ she said, gazing into space. I had no idea what she was thinking.
‘Hey, now you’re talking! There is something to you having been taken in before. Well then, let’s try that therapy thing once, and see whether some stupid women fall for it, shall we?’
I had to stop them at all costs! ‘No,’ I told Ishige. ‘Best work it out properly first, you know.’
‘But we still need some start-up money, don’t we? There’s a girl at work who looks like a total sucker. I’m going to try to get a hundred thousand yen out of her for starters. It’ll be hilarious, she’s such an airhead.’
I found Ishige’s vulgar way of putting things disagreeable.
‘Stop saying things like that about someone you’re about to scam, won’t you?’ I snapped. ‘Show some respect for the people you’re going to cheat. Believers aren’t stupid you know. They can easily tell when someone is treating them with contempt and trying to scam them, or whether someone really is a believer.’
‘What the hell are you saying? Scammers are superior to the scammed, right? We’re one up on the suckers, after all.’
‘No you aren’t. The person being scammed may be naive and soft-hearted, but they haven’t stooped as low as the scammer. Wanting to scam someone has to be about as low as you can get as a human being.’
‘Oy, Nagaoka, are you saying I’m a loser? You’re the same – you’re part of this too.’
‘I haven’t said I’ll do it yet.’
‘In that case, leave. We don’t want to give away any more of our trade secrets.’
‘Such infantile trade secrets are hardly anything to boast about. I’m worried about Saikawa . . .’
I leaned over to Saikawa and squeezed her thin wrist. ‘Come on, let’s leave together. Now. You have to stop this. It’s not realistic.’
She looked me in the eye and shook her head. ‘I’m determined to go ahead. You can go. Best you forget all about it – you’re not cut out for this.’
I stared at her, somehow feeling forsaken. I thought of several things I could say to persuade her to return to the real world, but none of them felt effective in the face of her aura of resolution, and I swallowed the words before they left my mouth.
I stood up, hanging my head. Ishige demanded I pay 300 yen for the drinks bar, so I put the exact price of 280 yen down on the table and, without looking at them, fled from Saizeriya.
When I got home, nobody was in and the place was in semi-darkness. My father, now retired, would often go out to join the litter collection volunteer group on weekends. My mother was working part time while she could still move around in order to save for her old age.
‘I’m home,’ I muttered, and went upstairs. I rushed past my own bedroom and opened the door to my little sister’s room further along.
My sister had been living here until six months ago, and the furniture and bookshelves remained unchanged. I went into the room and lay down on the bed. The smell of my sister that had always hung over the room was fading.
Ever since I was little, I’ve believed that ‘reality’ is the true world that will make us happy. I didn’t keep this to myself, but I kept urging it onto everyone else, too.
In elementary school, I was in my element at festivals and other events. If a friend was about to buy a glow-stick hairband, I’d warn her, ‘Don’t buy that! It only costs about 100 yen to make. It’s a rip-off!’ This pleased the old men and women in the neighbourhood no end. ‘Such a sensible child!’ they’d praise me.
‘What? Candy carving for 200 yen a time? That’s crazy!’
‘500 yen for shaved ice and syrup? What a rip-off! Let’s go over to that stall, it’s only 200 yen there.’
‘Miki-chan, you’re so clever. Amazing!’ my friends would all applauded me as I went around exposing the inflated prices, one after another.
‘Thank you. I was just about to buy shaved ice from that expensive stall, but this neighbourhood association stall is much cheaper, isn’t it?’
‘Thank you Miki-chan!’
Their words of gratitude filled me with satisfaction. I grew obsessed about stopping my friends and family and loved ones from being carelessly duped into losing money.
My favourite phrase was, ‘What’s the cost price?’
But little by little, my friends began to hate it when I said this.
Seeing my friends getting all decked out in pretty accessories and brand clothes, I wanted to make them happier. I couldn’t bear seeing them being duped.
‘What’s the cost price of that brand bag? They’re selling something just like it for 3,000 yen in the Ameyoko market, you know.’
‘This cafe’s terribly expensive. 800 yen for a tiny cup of coffee!’
‘What? 10,000 yen for face lotion? No way! Look at the ingredients! It’s almost identical to that 400-yen stuff I got from the Matsukiyo drugstore.’
I was saying these things because I wanted to make my friends happy, but their faces kept clouding when I pointed things out. They all loved paying for invisible glitter. However much I insisted things were a rip-off, they refused to stop spending their money on invisible illusions.
I will never forget how a friend of mine at university spat at me, ‘You’re such a killjoy, Miki!’
I’d thought she’d finally woken from the dreams inspired by the evil people making her waste money, but she’d just been annoyed by me bringing her down when she was excited and happy. But it was my friends who later regretted having been duped into paying for something invisible once they saw their bank balance. No matter how many times I tried to persuade them, they would just sigh and ignore me. Some were even openly hostile.
After I started work, I got my first boyfriend. We’d grown close at company drinking parties, and he told me, ‘I love how reliable you are.’
But he too eventually tired of my constant carping – ‘Isn’t this too expensive? What do they mean, a cover charge? Aren’t we being ripped off?’ – when we went to romantic restaurants or a luxury ryokan, or when he bought me expensive accessories.
At Disneyland I was hysterical from morning to night. As we went around the place I couldn’t stop shouting, ‘What? This price for popcorn? How come these hairbands are so expensive? I wonder what the cost price is? Everyone’s being totally ripped off. Unbelievable!’ And I screeched when I saw some kid outside the Cinderella castle buying an outrageously expensive Mickey Mouse balloon.
Then we talked about getting married, my eyes popped at the exorbitant price of the reception venue. ‘Can you believe that price?’ I fumed. ‘It’s a total rip-off. What a scam!’
‘Miki, I’m getting a bit tired of this,’ he told me. ‘I’m beginning to think we’d all be happier being just a little bit duped.’
Even Yuka, my one childhood friend who had always understood me, told me, ‘That’s it, I’ve had enough. I can’t cope with this anymore.’ I’d made her tell me how much she paid at the beauty salon and nail salon, then kept going on at her, ‘Look, stop going there! It’s downright fraud!’
‘You’re probably right, Miki, but that makes it even worse. Doesn’t reality include a bit of room for dreaming, at least? If we didn’t have any money at all to spend on dreams and illusions there wouldn’t be anything in life to enjoy any more, would there?’
‘But Yuka, you’re my best friend and I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to be ripped off . . .’
Yuka looked me in the eye. ‘Thank you. I mean really, thank you for not respecting the illusions that are important to me, and for systematically smashing them to bits. From now on, I’ll be living a life where even if I go to the beauty parlour or the nail salon, or go for a meal in a hotel, the reality you’ve forced onto me will always be on my mind. If you really believe that this will truly make my life happy, then thank you.’
My sister is seven years younger than me. She’s a dreamy type, the exact opposite of me. She dropped out of university and became reclusive, only going out to her part-time jobs. If that were all it would have been okay, but then she announced she was going to open an accessories shop with a friend she had met online, and started attending an expensive seminar on starting up businesses. My mother was quite upset, and called me to tell me about it.
I went straight back home in high spirits, intending to confine my sister to the house. I was fired up with a righteous desire to make her happy.
Every morning as she was leaving to go to the seminar, I would stand next to her yelling blue murder about how she was being duped. I also printed out blog entries by people who had fallen for other similar scams and plastered them up all over the toilet walls, and played recorded news reports on scams endlessly from dinner time until she went to bed.
I remember well the last time I saw my sister. It was a weekday, and I had been waiting all morning outside her bedroom door to stop her from going to a seminar they were holding in Tokyo that day. I was playing back at full volume a YouTube video on my iPhone titled: ‘Arrest of organizers of a fraudulent business start-up seminar targeting young women who dream of an Insta-glam lifestyle.’
‘Look, Miki, isn’t your “reality” pretty much a cult?’ she declared coldly.
I frowned, not understanding what she was getting at. ‘What do you mean? You’re the one who’s falling for a cult’s tricks. And here I am trying my damnedest to save you! I’m doing it for your own good!’
She shoved me out of the way without a word and ran off to the seminar, leaving me screaming after her. And she didn’t come home again.
I was on my lunch break one day when the news went viral. The business start-up seminar for women that my sister had been funneling her money into had been outed as a scam. I was super happy. So it had been a scam! You see? I thought she’d finally come home now. My sister would be coming home to my beloved reality.
‘That’s how it always ends when they have their fingers burned, isn’t it? Well, I suppose she can think of it all as a tuition fee, right? I hope she’ll see reality and take the lesson to heart, having learned it the hard way.’
I remember how excited I felt as I cheerfully explained this to my work colleagues. At the time I thought that my ‘reality’ had finally won. I was thrilled to think my sister would at last realize that ‘reality’ was true happiness.
As it happened, though, she never did come home.
She had blocked my number on her phone, but I heard the next morning that she’d called our parents to let them know that she would work to pay back the money they’d loaned her for the seminar, but she would not give up her dream to open an accessories shop. She also said that she didn’t want to come home while I was still here, so for the time being she was going to stay with a friend.
‘Why? Why doesn’t she want to see me?’
My mother looked uncomfortable. ‘Well, she says that as long as you’re around, you’ll suck all the life out of her, you see. I mean, she’s always been a bit of a dreamer, that one, and I understand why you’re so worried about her, but really, you know, maybe you can recognize that she does have her own potential, so to speak.’
I was flabbergasted. All I’d done was show her reality so that she wouldn’t be duped into losing everything. The scammers were the ones taking away her life! But apparently she didn’t see it that way, and as long as I was in the house she would never come home.
I’d always been recruiting everyone I came into contact with to ‘reality’. I’d never even doubted that this would make them happy.
I couldn’t get the words my sister had said that last time I’d seen her out of my mind. That my reality was a cult. Maybe she was right. Put like that, I couldn’t actually see what was so different about what I did and someone selling water filters or geocentric therapy. I completely lost confidence in myself, and decided to give myself over to the values of Asami and my other classmates, who I hadn’t seen for some time. I dressed in clothes that were far more expensive than the cost price, drank coffee that was ten times the cost price, and took cake that was twenty times the cost price to the tea parties at Asami’s place. I even got my nostrils whitened. But still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all a huge waste of money.
When Ishige tried to get me involved in his cult, I’d probably been deriding him in an attempt to restore my faith in my own ‘reality’. I still hadn’t completely managed to get it back. But I couldn’t completely discard it, either.
About a month after that last meeting in Saizeriya, I called Saikawa. ‘I want you to indoctrinate me,’ I told her.
I had left my parents’ place and was now living in a cheap apartment. I heard from my mother that my sister was planning to move back home now that I was no longer there. I’d had my sister’s best interests at heart, but I was made to understand that I was an obstacle to her happiness.
‘Long time, no see!’ Saikawa said when we met, back at the same Saizeriya.
She had a rather different air about her than before. She was dressed all in white, with a white hat, white shirt, white skirt, white socks and white shoes. This was the only change she’d made, but worn by petite and fair-skinned Saikawa, the white outfit emanated a strangely mystical aura.
She really stood out from the restaurant’s weekend crowd. Numerous bracelets made of white stones hung from her right wrist.
‘You’ve um . . . changed a bit, Saikawa.’
‘Not at all.’
Saikawa was shy, but even so she radiated far more self-confidence than before.
‘Your clothes, your air . . . they feel different.’
‘Oh, but it’s all fake, just trying to look the part,’ Saikawa said bashfully, stroking the beads on her wrist. ‘Having been told to be a guru, I’ve kitted myself out in the sorts of things often associated with them.’
‘I’m not really cut out for it, though.’
‘Of course you are. You’ve got something that slips into people’s hearts, a talent for making people feel like they want to believe,’ I said frankly.
‘I’ll be holding the first therapy session soon. I haven’t managed to get many participants, though.’
I didn’t know whether that was a lot or not, but I had the feeling it wasn’t too bad for a first session. It wasn’t a big number, but when I thought that they’d each be paying 100,000 yen, it beggared belief.
‘Really? Can I still sign up? How do I apply?’
‘Are you saying you want to apply, Nagaoka?’
She looked a bit embarrassed, but she took out her smartphone and showed me her Instagram page.
‘The time and place are given on this page – you can apply through the email form there, and once you’ve made the payment you’re in. But why?’
‘I want to become the sort of person with a gift for being duped.’
She looked at me uncomprehendingly.
‘Just about everybody lives their life being duped by something to some extent. Ishige might be contemptuous about scams, but he drinks an energy drink that costs 2,000 yen, drinks water from a water server that costs 10,000 yen a litre, buys an expensive hair restorative medicine online, and wears a watch that sells for a million yen even though it isn’t even worth 10,000 yen. I looked into it and discovered that the reason Ishige started all this is because he needs money to pay back the loan on his watch. The reason he wants to sell illusions is because he himself was duped by an illusion. After all, that watch isn’t either gold or platinum, so how much do you think the cost price is?’
‘You really have looked into it, haven’t you! So why on earth do you want to come to my fake seminar?’
‘You aren’t like Ishige, Saikawa. You love the people on the receiving end of the scam. So take me with you to your world. Please? If I see a stone, that’s all I see, and plastic is just that – plastic. I can’t feel it’s anything else. But nobody else cares about the cost price – they all spend money on an invisible something. And they love doing it. They all share this invisible illusion. And I want to join them. I tried going through the motions. I even did nostril whitening just to be like my friends, but it’s no good. I’m not taken in – I’m incapable of being taken in. But Saikawa, I think you might just be able to dupe me.’
‘Why do you think that?’ Saikawa asked, looking at me directly.
‘Because you have more faith than anyone else,’ I said, my voice hoarse. ‘You don’t really believe that what you’re doing is a scam, do you? You say it is, but you’re lying, aren’t you? Your eyes really are those of a true believer. I’ve been seeing that same look all along, so I know.
I have always been trying to recruit to reality people whose eyes were shining in rapture. That mission had come to be my entire life. But everyone had become fed up with my faith and distanced themselves from me. So maybe I was the one who had to wake up. Maybe Saikawa would succeed in carrying me over to the other side.
Saikawa smiled briefly and nodded. ‘Actually, I want to . . . to make this cult the real thing.’
I knew it! Happiness spread through me.
Saikawa was glowing in her seat in the restaurant. ‘I really did want to make everyone happy with those water filters, you know. I wanted the best for everyone. So this time, I want to really make people happy. Even a cult can become the truth if it saves people all around the world. Don’t you think?’
I had always found Saikawa’s unadulterated integrity a bit scary. It was a bit too close for comfort, since I’d always pushed reality on the people around me with exactly the same kind of integrity.
‘I’ll join. But I think Ishige’s presence is a hindrance, and you’d be better off without him.’
‘I’ve also been thinking about that. But he’s been doing all the admin stuff, like making the website and booking the location for the therapy.’
Saikawa gave a troubled laugh. The sooner she brainwashes me the better, I thought.
‘I’m good at that sort of thing. Look, just brainwash me will you? Then I’ll leave my job and take care of all that side of things for you.’
Her eyes widened. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’ll do my best to brainwash you, Nagaoka.’
Her pale face broke into a smile.
I nodded and clasped her hands. Unlike before, there was hardly any body heat in them.
On the appointed day, Ishige drove me and the other participants to the location in a six-seater van.
When Ishige saw me at the meeting place, he averted his eyes. Saikawa had promised to feed him a white lie, and she had apparently told him that I was coming with them because I really did believe.
The other participants were two girls who looked like university students, a woman in her thirties, a little younger than myself, and a woman in her seventies.
They had all paid a hundred thousand yen for Saikawa’s therapy.
I, too, had transferred a hundred thousand yen to the indicated bank account the day after our talk. I was trying to convince myself that it was money well spent on going to a distant place, but naturally it felt like an outrageous expenditure.
As we drove off, the university-age girl next to me asked, ‘Is this your first time for geocentric therapy?’
‘Oh really? Me too. I’m a bit nervous, to tell the truth.’
It was the first time for the geocentric therapy itself, which meant it was everybody’s first time, but the young woman probably thought the older ones among us were veterans. ‘Have you taken Sai Sensei’s mini-therapy?’
‘What? Oh. No.’
‘It was amazing! It’s because she impressed me so much that I came today.’
‘I saw her on Instagram,’ the thirty-ish-year-old woman in front of us said, turning around to face us. ‘A photo Sai Sensei posted there really saved my soul. Good things happened when I made it my phone’s home screen image. Also her detailed writings on how to do self-therapy. And so I thought I’d like to meet her . . .’
‘I also saw her on Instagram! I was so surprised to see her picture in the therapy pamphlet, I never expected she would be so young and pretty!’ said the other young woman sitting next to her, nodding enthusiastically.
‘I was in the dentist’s waiting room when I suddenly got a terrible stomach ache. Sai Sensei just happened to be there at the time and she treated me with her power. And you know what? The pain completely went away. I felt as good as new!’ said the elderly woman.
Everyone exclaimed in awe at this. So Saikawa had already started saving people. I still wasn’t sure whether this was a wonderful thing, or whether it was terrifying.
We drove deep into the mountains of Nagano, through the deserted ruins of a holiday resort area, until we arrived at a small clearing in the forest. According to what I’d briefly heard from Saikawa when I called her about the payment, the land belonged to Ishige’s relatives. They had bought it when they were young, planning to build a holiday home on it. Now they couldn’t find anyone to buy it and it was lying unused, so Ishige had managed to talk them into renting it out. I see, I thought – with that sort of connection, I could see why Saikawa wasn’t able to cut free from Ishige, even though he wasn’t a ‘believer’.
Saikawa was already there at the site waiting for us. She was wrapped in pure white, from head to toe, and totally looked the part of a real cult guru. Everybody gulped at her majestic appearance.
‘Okay, Ishige, you can leave now.’
‘Right. I’ll come to pick you up tomorrow morning.’
He got back in the van and drove off.
We six women were left behind in the mountains.
‘Well, everyone, please come this way.’
Saikawa led us to a small high space deep in the forest.
‘Let’s get started, then. In this therapy we leave behind the heliocentric world, and let our minds fly to the geocentrism of ancient times. Back then we were much closer to the gods than we are now. All of you will each receive something from this return – something that you will clearly see with your own eyes. It will appear in the smoke, and will be different for everyone. When you see it, please shout out loud to let me know what it is you’ve received. I will then gift you one word. This will function as a tattoo imprinted on your heart, personal for you alone, and will last as long as you live. You will live the rest of your life with this word.’
Saikawa’s voice was louder than usual, and rang out comfortingly, like music.
‘Uh oh, we’ll see something?’
‘Amazing! It’s completely different to the mini-therapy.’
Everyone exclaimed excitedly, and the feeling of anticipation intensified.
After looking around at each of us in turn, Saikawa said, ‘Okay then, now let’s take off all our clothes.’
Everyone looked at each other uncomfortably.
‘What, our clothes . . .?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ve rented this space and ensured that nobody will come here until tomorrow morning.’
‘But . . .’
Saikawa handed each of us a white cloth.
‘Don’t worry, I’m giving each of you a piece of white cloth and a hemp rope. We need to divest ourselves as much as possible of the “present”, and take on an appearance as close as possible to ancient times.’
Exchanging glances, everyone slowly began undressing. Seeing this, I too stripped off, including my underwear, wrapping the white cloth around myself and tying it with the hemp rope. I placed my clothes, wristwatch and accessories in the wooden box provided for the worldly belongings of participants.
Meanwhile, Saikawa went around switching on some grey appliances placed here and there in the clearing. As she switched each one on, there was a faint whirring sound, then steam and the pleasant smell of aroma oils began wafting out. They were apparently aroma pots with a humidifying function. They must have been battery operated, since there was no electricity supply or outlets, yet somehow they were producing plenty of steam along with that pleasant fragrance.
One of the young students was staring at the appliances curiously.
‘Sai Sensei, what are these?’
‘Cosmos Tone Aroma Pots. They’re special, made from a meteorite that fell to Earth from outer space.’
‘Wow! From a meteorite?’ the thirty-ish woman exclaimed in surprise.
Saikawa nodded. ‘Of course, they’re mechanical so they have some plastic parts as well, but the exteriors are cut from a meteorite and then given a protective coating. Breathing in its cosmic aroma will take you to the next spiritual stage.’
‘I’m selling these, so if you’d like one you can talk to me about it afterwards.’
To me the Cosmos Stone Aroma Pot looked like a regular humidifier with bits of ordinary stone stuck to the surface. But everyone was gazing at them appreciatively.
Each of the Cosmos Stone Aroma Pots seemed to be emitting a different fragrance. The one next to me smelled of ylang-ylang, while lavender was coming from another one further over.
‘Well then. Now our spirits will return to ancient times.’
By the time she had finished turning on all the aroma pots, it was already completely dark. In the pitch black, the only light came from the faint glow they were emitting.
‘Please hold hands and then lie down on your backs, looking up at the sky. Let’s gaze at the ancient stars together.’
We stood in a row holding hands. On my right was the woman in her thirties, and on my left was the girl who had been the first to talk to me.
We did as Saikawa said, and lay down while still holding hands. It was September, so it wasn’t all that cold, but it must have rained the day before because the grass was damp.
‘Now look at the sky. Look at all the stars in heaven,’ Saikawa instructed, moving between us as we lay there.
The sky was so thick with twinkling stars it was almost scary. I’d never seen the night sky out in the countryside before, and it looked a bit like a rash, which made me feel queasy.
‘Breathe deeply. Is the sky moving? Or are we here moving?’
‘Um, my eyes see the sky moving. But . . .’ the thirty-ish woman said, looking up uneasily at Saikawa. ‘Knowledge is still getting in the way, and I can’t help feeling like the Earth is moving.’
‘Me too, I feel like we’re all moving,’ the girl the other side of me said.
‘It’s fine to be honest about what you are feeling. It’s hard to be freed from your brain. Don’t turn your eyes away from it. Those of you who feel like we are moving, don’t resist that. Little by little you’ll enter a time-slip back to the age when the sky was moving.’
We continued to gaze at the sky, breathing deeply. Saikawa dribbled some oil or something onto our bodies while chanting, ‘The sky is moving. The sky is moving. The sky is moving. The sky is moving.’
After a while, she said, ‘Now breathe deeply, look at the slowly moving stars, and listen to the sounds of ancient times. The sound of quarry moving around, of another presence, the rustling of the forest . . .’
‘There’s someone there!’ the girl on my left yelled.
She must be getting off on the therapy, I thought, but then I realized that she’d sat up to readjust the cloth and rope around her body, and was screaming her head off. Alarmed, I sat up too.
‘There’s a man over there!’ the thirty-ish woman on my right screamed.
There was a commotion as we all stood up and huddled around the Cosmos Stone Aroma Pot furthest from where the girl was pointing.
Unperturbed, Saikawa went over to where she was indicating, lifted up a Cosmos Stone Aroma Pot, and hurled it down into the undergrowth.
‘Ow!’ came a man’s voice, and Ishige came out of the bushes holding his head.
‘Oh! It’s the driver!’
I quietly went up to him, and picked up the iPhone that he’d dropped.
It hadn’t locked yet, so I could see that he’d been using the camera to record videos. He’d apparently been filming our therapy session. I quickly opened his LINE, and saw a group called ‘T Project’.
How about this for a title: ‘Shocking Candid AV: Full-On Strip By Women in Naked Spiritual Session! (Shot secretly by an amateur. No fucking.)
Ishige’s post had received a lot of likes.
2 young women! Nice job!
How much can I sell it for? Best go thru a broker?
A real candid video is great, but a tough sell without any fucking.
You’ll probs get a better price through Mercari or Yahoo Auction.
Try this upload site – you get paid by the number of views.
As I scrolled down I couldn’t resist saying, ‘Well, how about that, Ishige? You’re on fire, aren’t you? Doubling your profits!’
Saikawa stood next to me, staring at the screen. Then she picked up the Cosmos Stone Aroma Pot again and yelled, ‘Justice!’
The force of her voice made me drop the phone.
‘Bring this man to justice!’
Everyone had been huddling at a distance, but now they all picked up Cosmos Stone Aroma Pots and began converging on Ishige.
The thirty-ish woman brought her cosmos Stone Aroma Pot down on him. ‘Justice!’
Then they all started hitting him with their pots.
At first Ishige ran around frantically trying to escape. ‘Saikawa . . . wait!’ he shouted, then added, ‘I’ll fucking kill you all!’ He tripped and fell again, and everyone crowded around him, beating him with Cosmos Stone Aroma Pots.
This wouldn’t kill him, I thought, so I too picked up a Cosmos Stone Aroma Pot.
I aimed at his face and hit him as hard as I could. Despite the cloth I had wound around myself, I didn’t want him to see any more of my body.
Ishige had been thrashing around, but after my blow he suddenly stopped moving. His face and head had been reduced to a bloody pulp, and his clothes were covered in blood too. He must have passed out, since he didn’t make a sound as the others continued to hit him.
I crouched down and checked briefly that his heart was still beating, and that he was breathing. Saikawa looked at him lying there motionless. ‘That’s enough. I’ll deal with him now,’ she said. ‘I apologize for the driver in my employ. I’m responsible for this. Anyone who wants to continue the therapy can stay here, but if any of you want to stop now, I’ll take you to a nearby station or business hotel right away. The driver’s car must be around here somewhere, so we can use that. Of course, I will fully refund anyone who decides to leave. Please let me know what you wish to do.’
‘I’ll continue!’ I shouted. The other participants looked up, startled by my voice. ‘I definitely must be brainwashed, Sai-sensei. I’ll continue even if I’m the only one!’
‘Me too, I’ll continue!’ the seventy-year-old shouted.
All the other participants started chiming in, as though following my lead.
For some reason the thirty-ish woman suddenly burst out, ‘And I’ll buy one of these Cosmos Stone Aroma Pots!’
‘I’ll buy one too!’
Saikawa looked around at everyone and said, her voice trembling, ‘Thank you everyone. The Cosmos Stone Aroma Pots are a bit expensive since they’re made from real meteorite. They cost four-and-a-half million yen, so please don’t feel obliged to buy one.’
‘That’s cheap!’ I cried, my voice shrill and animal-like.
We held the Cosmos Stone Aroma Pots aloft and began walking around Ishige’s bloodied body. It was as if he were a sacrifice to the gods, and as we danced around him I had the feeling that I could hear the sound of drums and the calls of mammoths, though I knew that was impossible.
‘It’s here!’ the university student yelled. ‘Sai-sensei, it’s here! I can see Pegasus in the smoke!’
‘This is your previous existence!’ Saikawa cried.
Before we realized it, we were all drenched in sweat, and because of walking around so energetically the robes had fallen to the ground and we were all completely naked.
‘Me too! I can see it! I can see it!’ This time it was the woman in her thirties shouting. ‘It’s the Sphinx! I can see the Sphinx!’
‘That’s your inner child!’ Saikawa shouted.
One being after another descended into the smoke rising from the Cosmos Stone Aroma Pots we were holding aloft, and Saikawa kept conferring the ‘heart tattoo’ to each of us.
‘I can see the Devil!’
‘He’s your partner in love!’
‘I can see a dragon!’
‘That’s your future existence!’
Only I was left. ‘I can see reality!’ I screamed at the top of my lungs.
Everybody continued circling around Ishige without missing a beat.
‘I see reality! A collective delusion in abnormal circumstances! Abnormal pleasure due to the dopamine in our brains! Illusions projected by the brain to avoid the abnormal conditions! I see the reality!’
‘That’s your karma!’ Saikawa screeched like a monkey.
‘Er . . . my karma?’
‘That’s right. It’s your karma – your calling, in other words. You will carry it with you for the rest of your life!’
‘But Saikawa, you told me you’d brainwash me, didn’t you?’ I broke away from the ring of participants and threw my arms around her legs as she stood there stark naked. ‘Please brainwash me! Please show me an illusion!’
‘Reality is your brainwashing. It’s the illusion you will spend your life with. That’s your fate. It’s your heart tattoo.’
‘Give me my money back!’ I shouted.
‘What a lovely phrase. Give me my money back!’ someone chanted.
‘Give me my money back!’
They all smiled and continued rapturously chanting these words, the meaning forgotten.
‘Givememymoneyback! Givememymoneyback! Givememymoneyback!’
Their singsong voices were sucked up into the night, and echoed around my geocentric sky.
‘Givememymoneyback!’ I shouted desperately, from my place on the surface of the geocentric Earth. Everyone’s chanting and dancing was making the ground under me shake and the air vibrate. Amid the sing-song voices around me, I kept screaming, ‘Givememymoneyback!’
Image © Anthony Ross
This story is part of our 20 for 2020 series, featuring twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.