In ‘Pink’, reality melts during a heatwave, and it does so in four dimensions: not only the physical landscape but also time itself warps in the course of the story.
Hoshino conveys this through the careful modulation of tone, which he keeps plain as the protagonist observes the increasingly strange world around her. This strangeness explodes, though, in the final section. Clauses tumble over each other in an alarming rush, until by the last paragraph they are barely interrupted by any full stops at all.
The challenge of translating the end of this story lay, for me, in capturing that feeling of out-of-control acceleration without making it seem as if the story was actually out of Hoshino’s control. I decided to keep the sentences in English as close as possible to the length they are in the original, which presented the problem of how to make them readable. Japanese can accommodate long sentences more easily than English, and earlier in the story I split up or rearranged sentences that feel ‘too long’ in English because they don’t feel ‘too long’ in the original. For the same reason, it was important to preserve the ‘too long’ final sentences because their meaning resides precisely in how they feel ‘too long’ in the original.
The writer Yoko Tawada, who publishes in both German and Japanese, wrote an essay in her book Exophony about her negative reaction to the first translations into Japanese of the German author Heinrich von Kleist. She objects to the splitting up of his distinctively long sentences into more orthodox prose. She writes:
There is no objectively ‘correct’ length for a sentence. Short or long, a sentence’s length is just another method available for conveying meaning. Reading Kleist’s sentences, the cells of my brain (and even elsewhere) are stimulated directly by a delight in the workings of language itself. Sentences that can channel the vibrations of such delight to simulate an earthquake or shake the foundations of what we call history cannot accurately be called bad.*
Hoshino’s writing can also be said to engage with the fundamental workings of language and history. The last sentence is neither a headlong, linear rush into the future nor a series of tragic repetitions; it is both, with history shown to be progressing as a kind of whirling spiral. And the very end of the story simulates a desperate yearning to reverse this, to spiral the opposite way. I ended up using several devices to convey Hoshino’s modulation of speed in this paragraph, including things like semicolons (which do not exist as such in Japanese), repetition and parallel (and deliberately non-parallel) construction. I can only hope that some of Hoshino’s exhilarating, wrenching translation of time into grammar survived my translation of Japanese into English.
*my translation, from Yoko Tawada’s Exophony: A Journey Beyond the Mother Tongue (Iwanami Shoten, 2003).
The sixth of August marked the start of the nine-day streak of blistering heat. Just after one in the afternoon, Tokyo registered forty degrees Celsius. It was the highest temperature since city records were kept, and the heat kept rising, reaching 42.7 degrees a couple hours later. The humidity never dropped below 80 per cent, and the sky, though cloudless, was thick with a pale mist. Older folks greeted each other, laughing, with lines like, Next week is the Bon festival, but the dead might go back early – it’s too hot even for them! Perhaps because age had numbed their senses, they seemed unbothered by the heat, and several of these very senior citizens were content to stand talking in the sunshine that beat down on Kaki-no-ike Park. It seemed to Naomi, as she listened to two old biddies go on while she watched her niece play in the sandpit, that it might be a good idea if they thought about their own welfare rather than that of the dead. Or maybe they were the dead, having returned for Bon without realizing it, chattering away thinking they were still alive. Though why the dead would want to come back to this prison called life – just because it was that time of year again – was beyond her. If I had the chance to end it all, muttered Naomi to herself, I’d leave this world in an instant and never look back. What was her problem? Why was she so irritated, she didn’t even know these women, why was she getting so carried away? It was the heat, the goddamn heat, and it was her goddamn stupid sister, who insisted that Naomi take her daughter outside to play at least once a day – for her health – even in this toxic weather. Why don’t you take her outside? thought Naomi, but she nonetheless did as her sister asked, the promise of a thousand yen for her trouble pushing her out the door.
Naomi’s two-year-old niece Pink (the stupidity began with the naming) was absorbed with her playmates in some sort of sandpit public works project, and so, seeing that other mothers were keeping an eye on things, Naomi left the play area and walked over to the edge of the pond to have a smoke. There were no trees to filter the sunlight, which poured down from the yellow sun like sulphurous gas. Even the cicadas, whose tinny drone was usually inescapable, were silent. Humidity saturated the hot air to oozing, sticking to Naomi like insects. It felt less like she was sweating than like her skin was melting and running down her body. Everything around her seemed not entirely solid, a series of colours running like ruined ice cream. When the temperature gets high enough, even the landscape melts, thought Naomi.
Little bodies began to fall one by one from above. They were birds, dropping down for a dip in the pond. They gathered at the edge, splashing themselves with water. Sparrows and white-eyes, starlings and bulbuls: there were so many of them. A few actually immersed themselves in the water, which had made Naomi think they were ducks, but when the birds broke the surface, she could see they were sparrows. She saw some dive straigh tinto the water. Naomi counted the seconds – one . . . two . . . – and then, flapping their wings, the birds emerged and flew up into the sky.
It wasn’t just sparrows. The white-eyes, the bulbuls, the starlings: they all began to dive into the water, as if imitating the sparrows. At one point, the oversized body of a crow crashed into the water, causing the smaller birds to fly off. Only the pigeons, perhaps unable to swim, refrained from diving in, scuttling back and forth at the water’s edge.
The crow finally left, and the sparrows returned. They dove in the water again and again, twisting their bodies and spinning in the air. Had sparrows always been waterfowl? It began to seem so to Naomi. As they emerged from the pond, water spraying, the wet sparrows gleamed in the sun. Suddenly, in their midst,shiny things began to leap from the pond. They were fish! Similar in colour and size to the sparrows, the fish were flying alongside the birds just above the surface of the water.
Naomi crouched down and dipped a finger into the pond. As expected, the water was warm – too warm. The fish were suffering. They were throwing themselves into the air for the same reason the birds were plunging into the water. Seeming to follow the sparrows’ lead, the fish twisted and somersaulted in the air. Were they trying to fan themselves? Birds have wings; humans have hands; fish have only their bodies to twist and turn if they want to generate a breeze.
Fish were jumping and twirling all across the surface of the pond. The pond was alive with the spray they produced, a silver mist that, carried by the hot wind, cooled Naomi’s face.
Naomi was gripped with a sudden joy. This place was a living hell. No one was dead, but they felt closer to death than the dead. Assaulted by such unbearable conditions, they longed to flee their existence. Birds wished to quit being birds and become fish, fish longed to stop being fish and become birds, people longed to become anything but people. And so they all went crazy, flailing and flopping, spinning and twirling. But wasn’t it fun too? To spin, to twirl?
A crowd gathered to watch the leaping fish, but Naomi broke away from them and began twirling slowly by herself. If viewed from above, she became a clock, her body the axis.The soft breeze produced by her twirling touched the sweat on her skin, cooling it. She raised her arms like a ballerina to form a circle parallel to the ground, and she pictured it turning as she spun. Slowly, gently, so as not to get dizzy, she made her way back to the sandpit where Pink was playing.
Naomi raised her head to look at the sky, which she felt was getting closer. Like she was floating up into space as she spun. Spiralling upward like the feathers of a shuttlecock, she felt air gathering beneath her. To spin and spin until you become the wind itself – would that make her a tornado? Well, nothing so strong as a tornado – a whirlwind? That’s it, a whirlwind. If she became a whirlwind, she’d be cool. Light. Able to fly.
Naomi gradually returned to herself and stopped spinning. She was near the sandpit, and just about to run into a metal post. The heat began to press in on her from all sides, and sweat poured from her like water from a spring. She felt wobbly, and her head ached. She’d crossed a point of no return. Once you start to twirl, you can’t stop, because if you do, it’ll be even worse than before you began. The only way out was to spin and spin forever.
Naomi walked over to Pink, saying, ‘Time to go home!’ as she took the child by both hands. The moment she did, she was struck by a feeling that something wasn’t right. Naomi looked around, inspected Pink from head to toe, but nothing seemed out of place. Still, Naomi couldn’t shake the feeling that some unknown had been introduced into the world around her, something that created a subtle but inescapable dissonance. It was as if everything around her had been replaced by an exquisite fake.
In order to collect herself, Naomi, still hand in hand with Pink, spread her arms to create a circle between them and began to spin with the child, singing softly. Bird in the cage, bird in the ca-a-age . . . Pink danced happily even when her legs tangled up as they spun. Naomi didn’t want Pink to get dizzy, so after a few spins they walked side by side for a bit before Naomi held out her arms again and said, ‘Let’s play bird-in-the-cage again, Pink!’ They’d re-form the circle between them, repeating the pattern again and again until they reached home. Exhausted by the heat and the excitement, Pink fell asleep at once. Not long after, Naomi was asleep too.
That evening, the television news was all about the heatwave. Not only Tokyo but all of Japan saw temperatures exceeding forty degrees, with 392 people hospitalized and fifty-six dead, mostly elderly. But the story that really grabbed people’s attention was that of a seventeen-year-old high-school girl who’d spun and spun under the blazing sun until she succumbed to heatstroke and died. According to friends who were with her, the girl had said, Hey, what if we spin like fans – wouldn’t that cool us off? And so she tried it, and it worked so well she invited her friends to join her – Oh, it feels so good! Try it, try it! – and they did, but soon, dizzy and nauseated, they lay down to rest, and, after a while, the girl lay down beside them; when it came time to get up, she was still, and when they tried to rouse her they realized she was gone. A so-called expert compared her to someone trapped on the top floor of a burning building choosing to jump out a window rather than face the flames; it was a perfectly logical choice, not abnormal in the least.
‘So things are so fucking awful that death is preferable. Let’s not beat around the bush,’ Naomi carped at the television. This prompted her sister to admonish her: ‘Could you not use that kind of language in front of Pink? As it is, all she does is imitate everything you do.’
‘It’s only natural. I’m the daddy around here. She’s a daddy’s girl.’
‘No one asked you to be her daddy. She’s better off without one. All I asked was for you to be her big sister.’
Appalled at the utter immaturity of Pink’s father, Naomi’s sister had dumped him and kept Pink. It was like throwing away a box of candy and keeping the prize that came with it. She was working at a nursing home to make ends meet, and had invited Naomi, who had graduated from university but was without a job, to look after Pink in exchange for a place to live. Naomi had accepted the invitation without a moment’s hesitation. She’d been stuck in the couch-surfing life and, nearing the limits of her friends’ patience, she’d been on the verge of signing up with the Self-Defense Forces anyway. The truth was that Naomi had been fixated on the SDF since she was little; she had the feeling that her sister’s offer was, at least in part, an effort to stop her from enlisting.
After he was dumped by Naomi’s sister, Pink’s father thought he would ‘toughen himself up’ by participating in right-wing demonstrations, and about a year later he showed up on her doorstep, the fashionable clothing that had been his sole redeeming feature replaced by a dowdy suit that clung to his thickening frame. I’m an adult now. Give me another chance! When Naomi’s sister had asked what he meant by ‘adult’, he replied that he could now state his beliefs without fear, even as the world turned a cold eye on him, even as he was blasted by the harsh winds of public opinion, that he had learned how to stand his ground even if it meant putting his body on the line and that he would put everything on the line to protect himself and his family. Naomi’s sister had heard enough, and she told him that it was time for him to go home. But he refused, saying that he was no longer the weakling who gives up and goes home just because a woman tells him to.
As the confrontation escalated, Naomi returned with Pink from one of their customary trips to the park and couldn’t help breaking in. She’d once seen Pink’s father in action – on a street corner with a group yelling into megaphones for revival of the colonial policy of Five Races Under One Union. ‘You joined the right-wingers to find yourself – what do you think you’re gonna find here? There’s nothing for you here, not yourself or anything else.’
Recoiling at Naomi’s ridicule, Pink’s father began yelling, though it wasn’t clear exactly what he was saying. Naomi cut him off: ‘This is you being an adult? All you’ve done is learned how to yell! Everything else is the same, you’re still a little boy begging for attention: Mommy, mommy, listen to me, mommy please! A real adult would start by asking my sister what she needs!’ The guy slunk away, though not before swearing they would get theirs.
Naomi’s sister was left uneasy, worried that he would try to get revenge. But ever since, Pink stuck to Naomi like glue, from the beginning of every day to its end.
‘Naomi was smoking!’
Naomi took Pink’s cheeks in her hands and squeezed them, rubbing them up and down. Delighted, Pink shouted, ‘You were smoking! You were smoking!’ in hopes of prolonging the cheek squeezing. As she dutifully complied, Naomi noticed that the small bruise Pink had gotten earlier in the day – she’d bumped into the doorknob while playing around as they got ready to go to the park – had disappeared without a trace.
Starting the next day, Naomi’s sister insisted that Pink be out of the house so she could have some time to herself, if only in the morning or evening when temperatures fell below forty. For her part, Pink would rush to the door, ready to start playing bird-in-the-cage. Her body plastered with cooling patches, Naomi would do as she was told.
There were now – several days into the heatwave – endless reports of people sustaining burn injuries from cars and rocks that had heated up during the day. Between streets and buildings holding the heat and the air barely cooling, temperatures failed to dip below thirty-five at night, and hot wind blew continuously from cranked-up air conditioners like they were hairdryers mounted in windows. Day after day, the number of people dying from the heat reached the triple digits, and anywhere you went, you’d encounter bodies of small animals that had passed on too. On the fifth day of the heatwave, the city of Kōfu saw temperatures reach 50.2 degrees. It was a new record for the country. Where Naomi lived with her sister and niece, temperatures soared above forty-five by noon; when things ‘cooled off’, dropping down to forty in the late afternoon, Naomi would leave the house with Pink. Almost no one was outside, the area a ghost town, the streets like vacant sets. Pink and Naomi made their way to the park, spinning all the while. Naomi drank bottles of Pocari Sweat in an attempt to replace the liquid draining from her body. By the time they reached the park, she looked as if she’d emerged from a soak in a hot spring.
All signs of life had disappeared from Kaki-no-ike Park, and a terrible stench rose from the pond. The water level was low, the surface oily and lumpy with dead fish. Not just dead fish – dead birds were mixed in with them – and some sort of larger animal, part of its bulk sticking up out of the water. Naomi didn’t want to know what it might be.
She took Pink into the shade beneath a huge zelkova tree, and they began to play bird-in-the-cage. The ground was pitted and uneven, not only because the earth had hardened and cracked in the heat, but also because the tree’s roots, seeking water, were extended crazily in all directions. If a tree concentrates its energy in its roots, it can displace the earth. Most plants in conditions like these might wither and die, but a tree that was strong enough could fight for what water there was.
On the opposite side of the pond was a large camphor tree. Someone had tied a rope around a branch and seemed to be twirling in mid-air from it. Someone else had the same idea, thought Naomi appreciatively, as she and Pink went to take a closer look.
‘It doesn’t hurt, hanging like that?’ Naomi asked the young man.
‘Not at all, it’s nice and cool!’ he replied.
‘So you’re doing what the fish do?’
‘Fish? No, no. I saw it on TV! You can spin like this and feel cool – and you can get dizzy enough to forget everything!’
‘The other day the fish in the pond were jumping and spinning in the air, trying to get cool too.’
‘But they’re all dead now, right?’
The young man grabbed the rope and nimbly pulled himself up its length to sit on the branch. ‘I’m not just cooling off, you know,’ he said as he untied the rope from his waist. ‘I discovered that if I really let myself spin, it was like I was getting . . . purified. If I was feeling depressed, I would feel better, as if the depression flew off somewhere as I went around and around. Like I was in a salad spinner. So I began to spin faster and faster. Pushing the limit, you know? I would get sick and vomit. And I would sweat, really sweat. It was like detox. Like I was bidding farewell to parts of me that were bad. And as I got rid of more and more toxins, I could spin as much as I wanted without getting sick. And it was the most amazing feeling. Like it wasn’t me who was spinning, it was some larger force that was spinning me. And it felt good not having control, giving it all up to whatever it was. I don’t know how to put it. Maybe it’s like life taking over, so you can just go with it, naturally. Like letting go and feeling easy, feeling . . . peace.’
The young man had descended from the tree and was now standing in front of Naomi and Pink.
‘Huh. Well,’ Naomi said, ‘I’ve been spinning a little these days, but I’ve never felt anything like that.’
‘It’s not just me. I mean, there’re a lot of people who feel this way. They begin by just spinning, but then they have some kind of awakening. And they realize that the spinning is really a kind of prayer.’
Naomi felt irritation bubble up within her. ‘Prayer?’ she said, her voice rising. ‘To whom? For what? I don’t get it.’
‘A prayer to a larger force, or power, asking it to take control and make us suffer less. Like a prayer to the heat, even. Or a prayer for rain.’
‘I take it this larger power hasn’t heard our prayers yet?’
‘Maybe the prayer isn’t powerful enough yet. I believe that if enough people come together and unite their feelings, something will happen.’
‘So along with prayer comes prophecy?’
‘It’s not just me who feels this way. There is really something to this, I know it. That it’s not just me. Not just me who’s spinning. Not just me who’s getting stronger, who’s growing. The feeling is . . . there. Everyone is starting to feel this way, and I just know that if we can gather all these feelings together, we can really make something happen.’
‘I’ve never felt anything like that.’
‘Maybe it’s rude of me to say, but I think your spinning must be inadequate. You have to do it more, devote half a day or more to it, and you’ll see. The feeling will come, and it will be real.’
‘I haven’t been spinning all day every day or anything, but I’ve been doing it pretty regularly for five days now, and all I’ve noticed is that it feels good while I’m going around and around, but once I stop I feel exhausted. Isn’t that normal?’
‘Five days? You’re more experienced than me! You started the first day of the heatwave then, right? That makes you one of the first to be enlightened! Don’t you think it’s strange? That people began spinning that day not just here but all over Japan?’
‘You mean like that girl who died?’
‘Yes! Our first martyr. I myself only began spinning when I heard about her on the news – I’m just a wannabe! Who am I to say anything to you, you’re the real deal, starting spontaneously like that. What made you do it?’
‘I told you, I was watching the fish jump and twist in the air and imitated them. It wasn’t some revelation from above.’
‘If you see fish jumping and twisting, do you always start doing it too? Did anyone else watching the fish start spinning?’
All Naomi knew was that she had separated herself from the crowd that had gathered around the pond and started twirling, off on her own.
‘So I’m right. The fish might have been the inspiration, but it was a larger force that moved you.’
Naomi was shaken. She began to doubt that her spinning was a result of her own intention. But she didn’t agree with the young man that some higher force had possessed her either. That wasn’t how it felt. It just seemed like the only way to respond to such crazy heat was to do something she would never normally do.
‘What about tornadoes or whirlwinds? They’re touched off by forces larger than themselves, right? Natural forces, like gravity and atmospheric pressure. But no matter how hard you pray to the atmosphere or to gravity, they won’t make the heat go down.’
‘Do you think it was gravity or the atmosphere that made you start spinning?’
‘Well, no, but –’
‘Were all the people who started spinning that day moved by the same force that produces a whirlwind?’
‘I don’t know anything about anybody else. All I know is that I thought if I became a whirlwind I might feel cool.’
‘Most of the people who started spinning that day describe it like that. They thought if they could become the wind, or become a fan, then they’d finally get cool.’
‘It doesn’t seem so strange that people who are all subjected to the same unusual heat would end up having similar thoughts.’
‘We could stand here and debate all day, but what’s the point? You should go where the others are and see for yourself. Even if you don’t end up agreeing with me, you’ll at least see what I’m talking about.’
‘Where the others are? Where’s that?’
‘Just over this way, at Kumano Shrine.’
The young man spun around as he led the way to the shrine. Naomi and Pink began to spin too. Before long, the three of them formed a big circle as they continued on their way. Pink shrank shyly away from the young man at first, but gradually relaxed and began to return his smiles.
Even before they entered the grounds of Kumano Shrine, they could sense a force emanating from the place. People were packed all the way to the torii gate, body heat and moisture rising like steam from an internal combustion engine. They were twirling, all of them, as if intoxicated. All in the same direction too: clockwise. Completely silent, their heads slightly tilted, staring into space through half-lidded eyes as if near sleep, their arms spread like butterfly wings, they spun around and around in the same direction at the same speed. It was so quiet, as if the shrine were sucking the sound from the air, while the energy the twirling crowd exuded was so strong it seemed able to blast any onlooker into the air.
The first to join them was Pink. She began awkwardly, losing her footing and bumping into one of the twirlers. Naomi went to pull her away, but then ended up joining her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the young man walking away.
Naomi closed her eyes completely and felt a wave of energy coursing through her body. If she could just ride that wave, she could spin and spin forever. She let herself go with it, her arms rising of their own accord, like the wings of birds. She tried to spin a bit faster and felt resistance in her body, as if it were putting on brakes. She realized that this resistance, which was like walking against a strong wind, came from the wave of energy produced by the people spinning around her. The wave she was riding came not just from her own movements but everyone’s. The energy produced by each individual movement interacted in complex ways, rippling the air within the shrine’s grounds with waves that Naomi found herself riding. Everyone around her was riding these complex rippling waves, moving with them and putting up not the least resistance, lost in the motion. It was like music. Like dancing to music. Soon Naomi felt her consciousness on the verge of leaving her completely. She had the feeling that if she passed out, she would ascend to another level and be able to spin furiously, on and on, even unconsciously. Her insides would grow transparent, her self subsumed entirely by the trance. Surely at least half the people around her were spinning in such a state.
I might as well let go completely, thought Naomi, but as she did she became aware that the crowd had thinned significantly, and that there was only a smattering of fellow spinners left around her. The wave grew weak, depriving Naomi of the force that had been driving her, and she stopped. The heat descended once again upon her, and, pouring with sweat, Naomi took Pink by the hand and headed away from the shrine.
‘It hurts, I said! Why aren’t you listening to me?’ yelled Pink, pulling her hand from Naomi’s grasp. It was only then that Naomi realized she had been yanking Pink along.
‘You’re not respecting my will!’
What? Naomi looked hard at Pink. Why is she talking like that? Pink was clearly imitating what Naomi said, in so many words, to her sister all the time. But this was the first time Pink had said anything like that herself.
‘I’m so sorry. Do you still feel sick?’
‘My legs hurt.’
‘We spun around too much, huh? That guy really got us going . . .’ This last bit was addressed more to herself, but Pink replied nonetheless. ‘Yeah, he’s really cool.’
Pink kept complaining that her knees hurt, so they stopped to rest again and again as they made their way home, finally arriving only after night had fallen.
When she saw Pink, Naomi’s sister sighed, ‘These clothes are already too tight for you, aren’t they? We’re going to have to get you some new ones.’ Shaking her head, she added, ‘It would be nice if you could take a break from growing once in a while, you know.’
Naomi, who didn’t remember Pink’s clothes being too small when she’d helped her get dressed that morning, dubiously pulled at a sleeve. It was indeed tight as a drum.
The next afternoon, Pink and Naomi found the young man spinning from the camphor tree just as the day before.
‘I didn’t think I’d see you here today!’ he exclaimed.
‘The kid kept pestering me, saying she wanted to go back to the shrine,’ Naomi said, pointing at Pink.
‘So why aren’t you there?’
‘I wanted to spin by myself?!’ replied Naomi, almost angrily.
The young man looked intently at Naomi from where he hung suspended in mid-air. ‘Every day more people show up, so it’s getting a bit hard to find room over at Kumano – maybe you should try Sampin Temple. It has bigger grounds.’
‘I told you – I want to spin by myself. And anyway, why are you out here all by your lonesome?’
‘I can’t really handle crowds.’
‘What? You were the one going on and on about everyone uniting in feeling and all that crap! Do as you say and not as you do – is that it?’
‘I can pray here all by myself and still be united in feeling with everyone else.’
‘There’s a term for that, you know. Delusion.’
‘It’s like I said yesterday. It’s a real feeling I have. And so I’m just fine out here all alone. But it’s different for people like you. I really am someone who can’t handle crowds, and so I know how people are when they truly want to be left alone. They’re not like you. It’s so obvious to me that all you really want is to melt completely into a crowd. Besides, I saw how you were yesterday.’
There was no denying it. Naomi hadn’t gone back to the shrine because she was afraid of her desire to do it all again. Maybe this guy had her figured out, and that’s why he was tempting her now with Sampin.
‘Enough about me already. What I want to know is why you can’t stand being around other people.’
The young man clambered easily up his rope and, standing on the branch, undid the knot at his waist and then shimmied down to the ground.
‘Have you heard of the Greater East Asian Friendship Society?’
‘Yeah. They’re the Five Races Under One Union guys.’
This happened to be the right-wing group Naomi’s sister’s ex had joined. Their idea was that, instead of East Asian countries squabbling all the time, they’d form an East Asian Union – like the European Union – and that East Asia would become a free economic zone. The centre would be in northern Kyūshū, and a trade corridor would stretch from Okinawa in the south to Hokkaidō in the north. The standard currency would be the Japanese yen, the standard language would be Japanese, and the union would have the backing of the Japanese military, once it was re-established.
‘I went to a small vocational school in the sticks,’ the young man began, ‘so I knew that no matter how hard I studied, I’d never get anywhere. I wasn’t the kind to join a gang, and I wasn’t popular with girls. My sport was gymnastics, and while I got pretty good at the rings and uneven bars, I was never better than anyone who practised a lot. In other words, I was completely unremarkable – maybe below average. I never thought I’d be able to find a good job when I graduated, and sure enough, I didn’t. Objectively speaking, I was disposable. But I wanted to improve myself, even just a little, and ended up getting interested in history. I joined a history group. Groups studying Japanese history, they’re filled with losers like me. Below average, socially awkward: they don’t fit in anywhere and they’re desperate not to feel like losers. So they form groups like this to save themselves. I joined one, and then, along with another guy from the group, joined the Greater East Asian Friendship Society.’
Suddenly Naomi found herself feeling sympathy for her sister’s ex. Come to think of it, this story wasn’t so different from her own trajectory either, graduating from a third-rate university and applying to over 180 companies only to be hired by none.
‘And you know, I felt great when I did things with them. I could respect myself. We were serious, maybe not so smart, but committed to debating important things and doing something about them, unlike the thoughtless, lazy people all around us who went about their lives with no sense of urgency. That this pride might lead to arrogance was maybe inevitable; after all, I was only about twenty. But the group gave me responsibilities, I worked with the police and got permits, I was put in charge of a platoon of demonstrators.’
‘Yeah, the society was organized top-down, and each level had its captains and lieutenants and other borrowed military titles. They made me a sergeant major, and I led a platoon. The idea was that if the Japanese military did get re-established, military experience was going to be required for membership.’
‘So that we could defend ourselves without help. Self-reliance was a big thing in the Society. We had slogans like, Rely not on others – let others rely on you! Anyway, one day one of the demonstrations I was leading got into a clash with some anti-foreign group. Those guys are idiots – they think that Japan will benefit by picking fights with its neighbours. The basest, most thuggish way of thinking. The Greater East Asian Friendship Society was about establishing Japan’s leadership of East Asia at a much higher level – we didn’t want to dwell on petty differences. They never understood that. So they saw us as the enemy, and they targeted us that day. They were screaming stuff like, You want to sell out Japan! You’re just a bunch of Koreans! Some of my guys wanted to rise to their challenge, but I tried to keep everyone calm. The police trusted me, so they were on our side too. But the guys who wanted to fight started shouting me down and yelling that there was a government mole in the Society. The anti-foreign idiots joined in, and soon all hell broke loose. Later, at a Society meeting, I tried to explain what happened as calmly and clearly as I could. I thought that in a group focused on the big picture, reason would prevail over tough-guy talk, and so I couldn’t believe what happened next. I was accused of being the mole, a traitor working for a government that was selling out its people, an agent provocateur causing division within the group, an enemy of the Japan that was to be, an anti-patriot. I was kicked out of the Society. And you know who the leader of the charge against me was? My friend from the history group! To see friends turn on me before my eyes, willing to string me up in front of a group I was devoted to – it was like I died, really died, in that moment.’
‘And so now crowds are a source of trauma for you.’
‘That all these believers in self-reliance could suddenly turn into a mob like that . . . but now I understand what it was all about. We thought we were using reason to bring about a revolution in society, but all we really wanted was to feel that our lives weren’t useless, that we had purpose, had value; we were each trying to find ourselves but instead we ended up finding an “us”. The content of the things we said or did didn’t really matter. What was important was the feeling of “us”.’
‘You said it was obvious I wanted to melt into a crowd. Are you telling me I’m a candidate for a scene like the Greater East Asian Friendship Society?’
‘I might have said that before. But not now. Because this “tornado dance” thing is pure. You don’t do it to please anyone, even yourself. The joy and satisfaction are in the spinning itself, and all the unnecessary parts of the self fall away. There’s no gap between one dancer’s intentions and another’s. That’s why it’s a kind of prayer. It’s different from an ideology or a political position. It’s a shared suffering and a shared attempt to overcome that suffering. A plea, from the simple basis of being alive. There’s no difference between people at that level. Of course, some might not experience this suffering. But they’re relatively few; most begin spinning purely from a desire to ease their discomfort, and everything else just flows from that.’
Naomi remembered the curious joy that had burst within her as she watched the fish leap and spin in the pond. They had spun in the air because their world had become a living hell, because they wanted to become anything else besides what they were, because to spin was to be reborn. If that joy was what this young man meant by ‘purity’, she understood what he was saying perfectly.
‘You called it a “tornado dance”?’
‘Yeah, I heard it on the news yesterday. They call it that.’
‘There’s a little village up north of Tokyo that had a traditional dance they called the “tornado dance”. Tornadoes would hit the area every few years, killing villagers and destroying crops, and so, to contain the tornado god’s wrath, they began whirling around themselves in the opposite direction, clockwise. The area became depopulated over the years, and the tradition disappeared, and now the people left there say that that’s why there have been all these tornadoes around Tokyo lately.’
‘Well, do you want to come with us to tornado-dance over at Sampin Temple, then? But if you’re going to slip away again, you might as well stay here. Pink and I will be fine on our own.’
‘All right.’ The young man began to climb back up his rope to the tree branch.
‘I wonder – do you think there are more people like you, spinning and spinning on their own somewhere?’
‘I bet there are. There must be plenty of people around with stories like mine.’ The young man said this with a smile that seemed to come from the bottom of his heart.
‘Scary!’ It was Pink who said this. Naomi looked back at the young man. He was concentrating on suspending himself from the tree again, now that Naomi and Pink were out of sight and thus, it seemed, out of mind. Let’s go, said Naomi, tugging Pink by the hand.
Sampin Temple turned out to be already filled to bursting with spinners. All was silent, even the cicadas; the air held only the smell of bodies, wafting from the temple in clouds. If Pink hadn’t been there to lead her by the hand, Naomi might not have ventured in. But sure enough, her hesitation and unease faded away as she began to move. Surprisingly, Pink no longer clung to her as they spun, but rather went off to twirl alone. She took rests from time to time, but she spun just fine by herself, becoming as intoxicated in the trance as anyone else. She didn’t seem to be stifling any nausea either.
An hour passed this way, and Naomi could no longer deny it. Pink was growing, and quickly. Her body was getting bigger, and the look in her eyes showed that her mind was maturing as well. Which meant that Naomi had to be ageing faster too. If she didn’t want to chew up the time she had left, she had to stop spinning, right? But she didn’t have the impression that time grew slower when she stopped. In fact, it was during her twirling that it seemed to slow down. Enough that it was a reason she kept spinning.
A chill went through Naomi. This unseen larger power, was it deceiving them, compelling them toward unspeakable acts? Were they unknowingly speeding time up? Was it a conspiracy? Was the young man in the tree sending people to these shrines and temples to do this ‘tornado dance’ for him? He said there were others like him all over. Were they a coordinated group inciting a movement? Were people like her, who longed to become one with something larger than herself, unwittingly becoming slaves?
Don’t be stupid! I started spinning all on my own. It was only after however many days of it that I met that guy, there’s no reason to think there’s a conspiracy. Conspiracy theories are just illusions conjured by uneasy hearts. I’m totally at ease when I spin. If I do feel uneasy, all I have to do to feel better is spin more. Spinning makes all that is illusory fall away. The things that remain – those are the things that are real. That are true. Things like Pink growing up so quickly, for instance.
Naomi began to spin faster. She twirled fast enough that the landscape around her melted into a colourful blur. No matter how fast she went around, she didn’t feel sick. Spurred on by her, the dancers around Naomi began spinning faster as well. At this speed, it seemed as if they would be lifting off the ground before long. She could feel her consciousness begin to detach itself again, somewhere in the back of her mind. Let go, she thought. It’s time.
She spun. She flew. Gravity disappeared, and she floated in the air for a moment, only to come down gently back to earth when it returned. Her body still felt light. The rush of grey in front of her resolved into distinct shapes. She concentrated her gaze. The grey became transparent. The figure before her was Pink. Now a teenager, she had become pretty, even sexy. She was spinning as fast as Naomi, but she appeared still as she returned her aunt’s gaze. And not just Pink. Everyone around Naomi moved so fast that the movement disappeared, leaving their still figures to emerge from the blur. It was like a zoetrope or the frames of a film, images revealed through high-speed revolution. But they were not just images; she could reach out and touch them. ‘It’s getting late, we should get back before dark,’ said Pink, but when Naomi took her by the hand, Pink shook her off. ‘I’m not a kid any more.’
Even as they continued to spin at such high speeds, they found that they could walk normally as they made their way home, just as if it were a day like any other. When they reached the house, Naomi’s sister greeted them at the door waving an envelope watermarked with cherry blossoms. ‘It arrived!’ she exclaimed. The back of the envelope bore a Ministry of Defense insignia, and the letter informed Naomi that although she was just finishing up the last vacation period of her military service, she was being deployed; and so, in the time it took to say, Off I go!, Naomi became a crew member on the aircraft carrier Sakimori. Because it was a battle to defend an island, the fighting took place almost entirely at sea, with threats and displays of force exchanged almost as if choreographed in advance, but Naomi’s unit, lured by the crossfire, was commanded to make a landing using small, single-passenger submarines, and just as Naomi was thinking they’d succeeded, it turned out to be a trap, torpedoes coming at them from three sides within the confines of the bay, and while she managed to eject herself from the submarine right away, she was hit in her back by shrapnel from the explosion, which immobilized her, and she drifted out to sea, only to be picked up by a passing cruiser and given a hero’s welcome upon her return home, but even as she spent her time in the hospital working diligently at rehabilitation, she never rid herself of a lingering paralysis in her arms and legs, and she grew depressed with the passage of day after listless day while her sister, who was a nurse after all, did her best to take care of her; her depression expressed itself as resentment, resentment spewed at her sister and the world. It can just go to hell for all I care! she would say and say again, and soon the island was snatched away for good, Japan’s supposed allies declaring that they wouldn’t intervene, and thus the East Asian Union dissolved, leaving Japan isolated, its food supply rapidly diminishing, the country finally paying the price for opening its food markets so completely to foreign goods, the domestic agricultural industries woefully behind the times, woefully unable to increase production to meet demand, and even in Naomi’s household, meals dwindled to two servings of thin potato gruel a day, and Pink, having once so idolized Naomi and now so disgusted by her current state, left home to live in a dormitory while she attended technical college, volunteering for the army right after graduation and ending up on the front lines near Kyūshū, where she became a casualty of war at nineteen, taken out by an unmanned stealth-fighter strike, leaving Naomi overwhelmed with guilt as if she had been the one to do the killing, the heaviness of her heart paralysing the rest of her body completely, but even as she imagined her own death again and again, she couldn’t bring herself to abandon her sister to what had become a life dark with tragedy, a life her sister strove every day to keep herself from abandoning completely, and thus it was that August came again as rumours swirled that the war had reached Japan’s main island at last, and the sun, as if driven mad, poured heat mercilessly down upon the land, Tokyo’s temperatures breaking forty for the first time in nineteen years. Weakened and hungry, the residents of the archipelago, reduced to mere shimmers in the hot air, winked out one by one, and it dawned on Naomi as she watched her sister unable to cope, languishing before her on the tatami, that she could become a fan herself and create a breeze to revive her, and so, taking a small fan in each hand, she wrestled with her stiffened body, forcing it into motion, and as she slowly began to revolve, she remembered how she had spun like this to battle the heat nineteen years before, how Pink, so young then, had clamoured to play bird-in-the-cage every day, and as she shared these memories with her sister, they revitalized her enough that she joined Naomi in her spinning, a spinning that somehow made them both feel newly strong, and newly hungry too, enough to want to leave the house for food, and so out they went as the sun went down, and they encountered a crowd of people gathered at the edge of the pond, spinning slowly all in unison, and Naomi found herself joining them, looking up into the sky just like before, but this time she felt like she was falling, and she noticed she was spinning left, counter to the clockwise revolutions of nineteen years ago, perhaps this meant that time could reverse direction too, could unbind her from this past that so entangled and constrained her, and perhaps Pink could come back as well, and they could all go back to before they’d twisted their bodies in wicked prayer and find some other way to free themselves from a world become a living hell, and so she vowed that once they’d gone back all those nineteen years, they would take the world in their hands again and make it theirs at last; on and on she spun, every revolution a prayer in reverse.
Image © Taisuke Koyama, Untitled (Melting Rainbows 032), 2010