FICTION: Cool Japan by Mark Halpern

Midnight found Eriko clicking away mercilessly on the icon above her in-tray. An email appeared

Subject-line: Do
Message: Hot

sent by Hitokoto-san, Mr. One-Word. What everyone called the Weather Editor.

Obeying the command, Eriko finished analyzing the raw data and used every remaining minute for writing and micro-editing. The afternoon edition would report that during July, all eight of Japan’s regions experienced the greatest number ever of consecutive three-day periods during which daily minimum temperatures exceeded 30.5C. Another record hot year. Readers would blame global warming.

At home, David commenced his shower. For forty minutes he mumbled songs, imagined water droplets were evildoers’ bullets bouncing off his impenetrable super-hero costume, and thought about Eriko. Later, upon hearing her keys jangling, he pressed start on the space-saving microwave-convection oven and, when the apartment door opened, attempted the fixed greeting, okaerinasai. As she entered the kitchen, he laid out a plate of warm apple pie topped with cheddar cheese. “It’s o-ka-E-ri-na-sa-i, not o-ka-I-ri-na-sa-i,” she responded. “I am too stressed to eat.”

Eriko glanced at the plate, then at David’s innocent face, and then again at the plate. It held a reasonable facsimile of one of the “Premium Line” items introduced to maximize profits at the university cafeteria where they first met. Probably what she was eating that very day. She recalled her delight upon discovering this attractive, sensible, American concoction. The novelty had passed, but she could see its long-term, dependable sustenance.

Without sitting down, she loaded a fragment of pie and a fragment of cheese onto a fork and, balancing the rickety construction below her chin, said softly but deliberately, “I am lucky I found such a kind, caring, intelligent husband.” David caressed her cheek.

Eriko ate the morsel and walked toward the bedroom. As David began to follow, she placed her taut, open hand against the inside of his elbow, apologized, and said again that she was very stressed.

“No problem,” said David. “I’ll go to work now. Then I can leave right at five and we’ll have time together before you go back to your office.”

Eriko removed her makeup. “Which did he choose?” David asked. “Hot,” she replied, and got into bed. Given that July’s oppressiveness felt about average, Eriko had thought hot and cool equally likely. Wet and dry had both seemed unlikely.

Whatever the subject, Eriko got satisfaction from using words precisely. That satisfaction was keenest when meeting a challenge to present facts so as to lead the reader to a pre-selected conclusion those facts did not necessarily support. She knew she’d chosen the right career.

David prolonged the conversation, asking about the deadline. “I’m not entitled to complain,” said Eriko. “When I look at the senior employees and think of what they accomplished when the publisher shifted support from North Korea to South Korea overnight, I feel worthless.” She switched off the light. David kissed the hair falling across her forehead.

Last summer, his first in Japan, David devised a mathematical model for minimizing heat exposure during his brief daily commute. Now, throughout the fifteen-minute walk he would crudely estimate ambient temperatures, distances to shaded areas ahead, likely red-light durations, wind velocity, and the speed of his own movement. He used constants to represent humidity, the sun’s angle and the effects of clothing, since every day was maximally humid and he generally left home approximately the same time, attired approximately the same way.

Employing his model, he would continually adjust the angles at which he traversed the wide sidewalks alone, from his ex-pat apartment to his office in Marunouchi, though the sudden presence of other pedestrians often made him detour sharply. But leaving at this hour, so soon after sunrise, there seemed no point. He looked at the scenery. This he found equally enjoyable.

Today David commenced his daily burst of intense concentration while still riding the elevator, and before long filled his time reading magazines and playing computer games. He always resented being required to stay after performing all assigned tasks. The illogic pained him.

Nothing should matter but quality and quantity of output, as had been the case at school. There had been no complaint when, to avoid missing even one day of Eriko’s comfort, he started racing through his dissertation, which cleverly integrated scholarship on game theory, stochastic processes, financial institution design and macroeconomic forecasting. He’d been determined to go to Japan together with Eriko once she finished her master’s in international relations. The newspaper wanted her back immediately and David could respect that.

Especially, David felt, since the newspaper had forked out a strikingly-high tuition fee – one the market could apparently bear only for an eight-month degree from an ultra-prestigious university with a near-100% pass rate, open to students who had never studied any related subject. Some of whom, David had noticed, had only borderline English skills – unlike Eriko, who had lived in London as a child.

David closed his office door and started a new round of Kerbal Space Program, but he burned with frustration.

Why should a megabank behave less logically than a university? At the first-stage interview in New York, he’d conscientiously described his strengths and also his weaknesses. The interviewers seemed satisfied. “For a position like this,” said one, “quirky is okay. Maybe even a requirement.” David understood quirky was a euphemism. Even by the end of junior high he had grown used to nerdy.

When flown to Tokyo for the next stage, he faced tight and focused questions, and so gave tight and focused answers. Yet now his boss acted as if David, like the compliant Japanese staff, had agreed to the concepts of “face time” and “fitting in.”

“Oh, fuck it,” he said aloud, his office door still closed. Today he’d show them. He left at one thirty, somewhat satisfied at this protest against forced competition with co-workers on any basis other than talent or productivity. But deep down he knew there would be no understanding, that his act would be tolerated as simply more eccentricity.

Even the superficial satisfaction evaporated as he stepped into the intense mid-day heat. Yet soon David was light and joyful, on his way to Eriko, making frequent course corrections of eleven or seventeen degrees, give or take.

The heat continued. But a few weeks later, during the o-bon holiday period, Eriko had four successive days off work. They took the bullet train north and travelled by rental car across Aomori Prefecture, sticking to her carefully-researched itinerary. Each night they stayed a different ryokan, all with natural onsen baths.

Though the first ryokan was exceptionally charming, Eriko suffered from residual stress. But following a good sleep and bracing, fresh air, she could better enjoy the next evening’s equally high-class accommodations.

A pretty young woman in kimono, friendly, but impeccably polite, served dinner in their cozy tatami room, one precisely-crafted course after another. The coolness of the mountains increased David’s desire for alcohol, though not his capacity. Eriko attentively kept his ceramic o-choko filled with hot sake. Though he persevered with his chopsticks, clumps of broiled river sweetfish ended up in the flopping sleeves of his yukata.

Eriko drank moderately. “No Japanese man with your elite education and career prospects would move to another country just for his wife. I know I should appreciate you more.” The meal progressed onward to a broth-filled clay pot set over a portable burner on the low table between them. Taking the large serving-chopsticks, Eriko placed bits of fish, vegetables and minced-chicken balls into David’s ponzu-filled bowl, and afterwards into her own. “I’ll try harder to be a good wife.”

She refilled David’s o-choko and he drank the sake quickly, spilling some.

“Like I told you when we started dating,” she said, “I probably won’t ever stop wanting a career, and a life of my own. You’re so patient, always trying to help me. I’m not like you – I have a selfish nature. But I will try harder.”

“Eriko, my tall, sexy, beautiful Eriko,” said David, who had listened more to her voice than her words. “My brilliant, talented, exquisite, voluptuous Eriko.” He spilled more sake from his again-refilled o-choko. “How did a guy like me get a woman like you?” More drinking and spilling and proclaiming of adoration. “I love you, Eriko, I love you so much,” he blubbered on without interruption. “Just promise that you will never lie to me.”

“I promise,” said Eriko. She kissed him on the cheek. He held her hand.

For later, Eriko had reserved a “family bath.” Its smallness and angularity, its discoloured hinoki wood, balanced simple against complex. Elegant, and rough. Astringent. Shibui. She washed David’s body before they immersed themselves.

Back at their room, two futons had been laid out. David pushed one flush against the other.

After another day roaming, they arrived on schedule at the third ryokan. Unlike the previous two, it was large and, by Japanese standards, slightly garish, with tour buses parked out front. Yet Eriko, now fully unwound, seemed pleased. As they checked in, she asked if David wanted to go together for konyoku, mixed bathing, permitted at one of the three outdoor baths. “Sure,” he said, “as long as I’m with you.”

Once at their room, David said that after all the hiking that afternoon, he needed one of his long showers. “You know me.” “Yes I do,” Eriko replied, but pointed out that dinner would be served in about an hour. David said she should go ahead and he would join later, “if you don’t mind having a bunch of naked men around, without me to protect you.”

“For Japanese people, mixed bathing is natural,” she said, not mentioning that this would be her first time with strangers.

“And don’t worry,” said David, “I won’t look at other women.”

“I doubt you’ll want to. They’ll probably be just a few wrinkled old ladies.”

“Anyway,” Eriko continued, “enjoy your long shower.” Closing the door behind her, she raced to the women’s changeroom. There, she rapidly washed her body, and dried with a bath towel on the way to the full-length mirror. Examining her reflection, she snatched several bobby pins from her jet-black hair, which had been shampooed that morning. With a few quick brushes, she let it down to its full length. Her eye makeup and pale red lipstick could stay, as she intended to keep her head above water.

From their room she had brought one of the short, narrow towels guests were permitted to take home, a cheap, flimsy item. Still standing before the mirror, Eriko held its top edge against the base of her neck with her right hand. She then turned her body opposite from the mirror and looked over her shoulder to examine the unimpeded obverse view, rising to tiptoe.

The thin, still-dry towel hung straight down almost to her knees, but once outdoors it fluttered about in the wind. Her left arm, resting at her side, bore nothing but a hair elastic around the wrist. She moved forward purposefully, now without haste, along a stone path, maintaining a straight posture. Rounding a bend, the bath came into view. She had a brief but clear glance, before she cast her eyes downward. She stopped for a moment, repositioned the towel much lower, and then substantially reduced its effective length by draping it over her right forearm. A few paces later, she stopped again and compressed the towel’s width by gathering it inward.

The bath looked just as it did on the ryokan’s website. Almost circular, about ten metres across. Against its perimeter stood irregular-shaped dull-grey rocks of various sizes, and beyond were pine trees, some casting shadows. In the centre was a massive, smooth reddish-grey boulder that jutted nearly a metre above the water’s surface.

The steamy mist rising away did not prevent Eriko from noting the presence of human bodies scattered around the bath. Men’s voices emanated from some. In her mind’s eye, all the bodies belonged to men.

The pathway ended at a metal handrail leading down into the water. But before that, Eriko stepped through some sparse greenery and up onto one of the thinner rocks at the bath’s edge. She stood there motionless, facing toward the voices – which now grew quieter – as if ignoring everything in the world except the pleasant breeze. After a time, she climbed down gracefully onto a submerged ledge, where the hot water came less than half way to her knees. During this process, she progressively rotated her body a full 360 degrees, steadying herself with one hand and then the other against the rock. Whichever hand was free clutched the towel, its placement suggesting little more than a token formality of modesty.

Looking straight ahead and making eye contact with no one, Eriko held the towel in front of her and folded it, neatly, carefully, perfectly. Her right hand placed it on the rock behind, while her left hand somewhat obscured the full view of her body, which she kept faced toward the central boulder. She allowed no outward reaction several of the men, all of them now silent, shifted to better, or closer, vantage points.

She took four or five long, deep breaths, in and out, and her lips formed a wry smile aimed at no one. Removing the elastic from her wrist, she arched her back and, reaching both hands behind her head, arranged her hair evenly into a loose bun. She then picked up the well-folded towel, laid it gently on top of her new coiffure, and stepped from the shallow ledge into deeper water, which even here came only two-thirds the way to her waist. She lowered herself onto her knees, keeping her back straight. Eriko stayed like that a minute or two.

Then she stood up. The towel, now crumpled in her right hand, had no pretense of purpose. She raised her body onto the balls of her long, slender feet, extending her height fully. Maintaining that stature, she walked through the water, necessarily slowly, toward the boulder. Three men sat at different points along its right side, each leaning back against it with legs stretched outward. As she started around, counter-clockwise, the fingers of her left hand reached to the boulder’s surface and gave her balance. Without seeming to look down, she very slowly stepped over the first man’s extended legs, one by one, her mid-body passing near his eyes. Each time either of Eriko’s still-arched feet rose and each time either fell, some part almost certainly grazed along the outer or inner side of one of his thighs.

She paused a moment, a far-away look on her face, as if she were making some mental calculation. Then she continued onward at the same slow pace, staring straight ahead. But when she reached the next man, she stopped, turned herself three-quarters toward him, raised her right knee, holding it so her right foot, pointed toe, hovered in the water above his right leg, fixed in that position as if awaiting a response. Some seconds passed. Then his shoulders began to slide downward against the rock, so that more of his body became submerged and extended, and his legs came closer together.

Eriko resumed movement. Slowly, her right foot, toe first, found its way into the acute-angled isosceles triangle defined on two sides by the man’s slightly-spread legs. Then her left foot. Part of the weight it bore rested a long moment against the triangle’s vertex, before it gradually, gradually withdrew and stepped onward.

She continued on the same trajectory toward the third man, as if not seeing him, reenacting an identical sequence of movements. While Eriko’s right foot hovered, he slid his body downward and outward, just as had the second man. Still Eriko continued to hover her foot. Then she turned more, so her body fully faced him, and leaned slightly inward toward the boulder. After several seconds he slid much further into recumbency and brought his legs close together, leaving just a sliver of space between.

Once his position was fixed, Eriko very slowly pressed one foot, toe first, and then the other into that narrow opening. She then lowered her heels to the stone base of the bath and raised them up again, holding them there. More seconds passed.

The narrow space constricted even further, while Eriko stayed completely immobile. The third man then, supporting himself first with his elbows and next his hands, angled his pelvis forward and pressed against the left side of Eriko’s left leg. The far-away look returned to her face.

Eriko then recommenced lowering and fully raising her heels, but at an accelerated tempo, continuing this cycle of movement without break for two or three minutes, towards the end quickening the pace. Suddenly, all tension in the man’s legs was gone. Eriko then resumed slow progress toward the far side of the boulder.

Once there, she sat down and leaned back against it, letting the steamy water heat her entire body up to her neck. Only her head felt the cool breeze. She closed her eyes.

Time passed and she heard David’s voice. He held his towel awkwardly over his private parts. “How was it?”

Eriko slowly, stutteringly inhaled and exhaled twice before answering in a flat voice. Her short sentences were interrupted by breaths. “It was very… pleasureable. The whole…time. Extremely…so.”

“You were right,” he whispered into her ear, “there are only two old ladies here, but around fifteen guys.”

“I absolutely did not…look at them,” she continued, the words coming slightly faster. “I only knew the vague…placement of their bodies. The minimum. For practical purposes.”

“Of course you didn’t look,” said David, laughing. “I know you only too well.”

“Anyway,” he continued, “how do you feel? Relaxed, I guess.”

“My calf muscles ache.”

“Must’ve been all that hiking. I thought you were in better shape.”

“My body is in perfect shape.”

Dinner was served to all guests in a large, western-style dining room. Though Eriko fixed her eyes on David, she was distracted by voices of other men. Not their words, but the nuances of tones and phrasing. She neglected David’s o-choko, but he poured the sake, for her as often as for himself. Once dinner was over, it was she who pushed the futons together.

A book about local attractions had been set out in their room. Later that evening, Eriko flipped through it, glancing at images from a municipal art gallery. “Isn’t human imagination a wonderful thing,” she said.

Back to Tokyo, Eriko’s work entered an extremely busy period. She still had, theoretically, eleven days’ vacation time left, but would be unable to take time off until the year end. Really, she explained to David, just by letting her accompany him on a trip home at Christmas, the newspaper was making a concession she didn’t deserve. A concession she could justify only by working long hours without complaint.

For David, the insufficiency of time in Eriko’s comforting presence made the heat more punishing. Then, one morning about three weeks later, he awoke to find it suddenly cooler. Autumn. David, of course, had no compunction about taking each and every vacation day allotted by the bank, and now might be the time. He could explore Tokyo without Eriko. Amuse himself as best he could. He could not, however, ignore the change between them – the great decline in intimacy, physical and emotional. While waiting for Eriko to return home, he made up his mind to set this right.

When she finally arrived, he greeted her affectionately. No apple pie and cheese this time, but he presented to her a cup of Earl Grey tea and wedge of lemon, saying, “You are very talented and I’m sure your dedication is appreciated.” She took the tea cup from his hand.

“After all,” he continued, “they already sent you to study abroad. That in itself is a big investment. I’ll bet they post you as a foreign correspondent within another year or two.” He sat down next to her. “The bank has offices everywhere. Wherever you’re posted, I can be with you.” He gently stroked her upper arm.

“I look at the senior employees sent out as foreign correspondents in the old days. The yen was low and they’d never had the chance to live or study abroad. Before leaving Japan they prepared by studying English day and night, on their own.” Eriko got up from the table. “When I see them, I feel worthless.” She quickly got ready for bed.

“You’re way too tough on yourself,” said David. “And from a career perspective, it’s counterproductive. You make yourself feel bad for no reason. Surely, in your heart, you know it’s possible to work hard and still enjoy life.”

“All I do is sit at my desk and work, go home to sleep, then go back to the office. And if I can find a little extra time at home, I do something to distract myself and relieve the stress.”

“But at least,” Eriko continued, “every day I can be with men who have true accomplishments as newspapermen. They are much kinder than I deserve. They teach me so much.”

“Well, that is something,” said David.

“Those senior men have great responsibility. I imagine their stress. Then I look at them and can’t help but think: ‘I should be doing everything I can to help you through your hard duties, and to gain your approval.’ And, honestly, David, I don’t want to stop thinking like that. It helps motivate me to return to the office, and gives me fulfillment in other ways too.”

Eriko looked out the window. “There’s no point going into details. You and I are married, but we also have separate lives, and I don’t think it’s wrong. That’s often the way it is in Japan – though mainly for the men. But you are my husband, and you’re a good husband. And I know you deserve a better wife. I’ve been letting my outside life interfere with my home life.”

She sipped her tea. “I’m saying all this because I promised to be honest.” She smiled and then stopped. “It’s selfish to ask, but if you could be patient a little longer…”

David leaned to kiss Eriko’s forehead and then left for work, feeling it must be a good thing that she had opened up so much.

Arriving at his office, David decided to take off the entire following week. Surprisingly, this gave him energy and motivation for sustained concentration straight through until after six o’clock. Surveying his accomplishments, he found an accumulation of tangible product that he could submit gradually, creating an illusion of working during his days off. David announced his vacation plans, but also that he would not neglect his duties while away. His boss was delighted. “You are becoming one of us!”

While Eriko stayed intensely busy, David went exploring on his own. But this grew increasingly tedious, and on the third day he returned home soon after he had left. He expected she’d still be asleep, but heard the shower running. Then her voice, singing some old J-pop song out of key. He went into the bedroom and sat down, his heart welling up.

Eriko entered in high-heeled slippers, eyes cast downward, her body uncovered except by a thin, narrow towel draped casually over one hand. David’s presence startled her. “Don’t you look nice,” he said. “Let me close all these curtains and drapes so you can get dressed.” He offered to accompany her on her way to work.

“You are a very considerate husband,” said Eriko. “What would I do without you?”

She paused a short while, her face showing a far-away look of mental calculation. Then she kissed David on the cheek.

For a moment, he savoured that rare physical expression of affection. But then it became a reminder of what was missing.

glasses

Mark Halpern

Photo (Mark Halpern)

Mark Halpern has lived since 1993 in Tokyo, where he runs his own law firm and writes stories about foreigners in Japan. He was born in America, mostly grew up in Canada, and has spent long periods in the UK and France. As to Japan, Mark has, like some of his characters, found a way to be both an outsider and an insider.
If you enjoyed ‘Cool Japan’ leave a comment and let Mark know.
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