Article: Anthony Head


An Everyday Occurrence

The story was only four paragraphs in the local news section. It caught my eye because I often passed through the station in question, Shinjuku Sanchome on the busy Marunouchi Line, which snakes its way around the city in a wide circular sweep underground. But the story itself was unremarkable; indeed, it was typical, highlighting the number of trains delayed and the ‘inconvenience’ suffered by thousands of commuters before service was resumed at 7.34 a.m., and leaving the reader to infer that there must have been a body on the tracks.

Later that day, a friend of mine called to say she had bad news.

I had known Eiji for about four years, though to me, as to many of the night-time denizens of Shinjuku, he was Aida-kun, the affectionate diminutive eternally attached to his family name. ‘Known’ is now obviously a misnomer. I don’t think I ever saw him in daylight, or outside the Shinjuku Nichome patch, a world of bar flies and amateur musicians in which he worked and moved, and doubtless had his very being. He was one of those people encountered in life who in many ways are peripheral to one’s own private world, yet who nonetheless assume a familiar and dependable place within it. He was tall, taller than me, and although a six-foot Caucasian in Japan is an unlikely target of random violence, Aida-kun’s height and physical strength lent him an air of protectiveness that I found reassuring, the air of an elder brother, despite his being twelve years my junior. I never had cause to tell him so.

But I knew that six nights out of seven he would be behind the bar at Cloud Nine, usually till the sun came up. I knew that whenever I called in after midnight on my way home from work, he would greet me cheerfully, he and Kenji, and would often cue on the turntable even before my beer was in place some favourite piece of mine – Donald Fagen or Janis Ian or early Fleetwood Mac – on an album pulled from the packed shelves behind the counter. I had sometimes seen him the worse for wear, hung over or bleary-eyed after too many tequilas, but never staggering, never legless. Like many people of obvious physical strength, he exuded an aura of calm rather than pugnacity, of easy self-possession, as he banded his hair back from his eyes into a tail or tapped another of his filterless cigarettes on the back of his wrist and flipped shut the lid of his Zippo lighter with practiced aplomb.

I was therefore quick to disbelieve that he had simply fallen from the platform, as Takako had reported, tottering wearily home one December morning with more alcohol in him than his body could command. Another version I heard in the days that followed, which had him being set upon by a gang of equally inebriated youths, seemed equally fantastic. But the alternative seemed incredible, and only became less so the more the notion was dismissed, or skirted, or broached in hushed tones.

He had left no note for family or friends, though that was evidence neither way. He had recently got married, and though the story was that he had merely done the honourable thing, his girlfriend having discovered she was pregnant, it hardly seemed cause for such a desperate measure. He had been his usual chatty self when I had seen him earlier in the month and raised a celebratory glass.

I called a few people to pass on the news, believing they would rather hear it from me than find out days or weeks later when they were next in Nichome. Laura, a Colombian friend, burst into tears and could hardly speak. My Japanese friends said I was lying or joking, then fell into stoic silence, only Midori betraying emotion as her voice eventually cracked.

The memorial party was held two months later at a cabaret club hired for the afternoon in Kabukicho, the sleaziest district of Shinjuku with its sex shops and girlie bars and litter-strewn streets. The lift opened onto a carpeted foyer where a huge framed photograph of Aida-kun was perched on an easel, flanked by bouquets of orchids. I paid my 10,000 yen at the reception table, wrote my name in a book, received a copy of a photograph of Aida-kun in a polythene wrapper, and passed through a pair of heavy velvet curtains.

The club was palatial, a vast circular room lined most of the way round with low tables and soft brown sofas which gave onto a spacious dance floor. On an island in the middle, a raised stage bathed in the reflected glitz of a huge rotating chandelier suspended above it. Kenji’s band was belting out something raucous. More bouquets adorned the front of the stage, where more large photos of Aida-kun in plastic frames were propped against the amplifiers.

I helped myself to beer and food from the buffet and picked out a table of familiar faces – Shin-chan, Miura, Masako. Things had been underway for about an hour but the mood was muted. People milled around from table to table, or slouched at their own, exchanging small talk, wondering as the afternoon wore on what was going to happen next, if anything at all, and whether Aida-kun’s boss, Makoto, would be able to stand upright and keep his speech unslurred. By late afternoon there must have been at least 200 people, bar owners and regulars from Nichome, even the old bearded man who ran the local grilled-chicken stall beneath its blue plastic sheeting. When the speeches finally began, Makoto, himself once a rock drummer of some distinction, slurred his way through a lengthy peroration that elicited laughter at the appropriate points. Lined up on stage beside him were Aida-kun’s father, brother and sister, the latter his spitting image, as everyone remarked, who had all made the journey from their home in distant Niigata, the snow country to which Aida-kun had not returned for years. At the end of the line, on the edge of the stage, petite and bewildered, stood his wife of three months. When her turn came to step forward and speak, she barely could. The words would form, a sentence would begin, only to be choked off. The microphone seemed a weight in her hands. ‘Ganbatte!’ someone would suddenly yell in encouragement, and she would try again. A completed sentence brought forth a barrage of applause and more cries of support.

The microphone passed to the father. He spoke with the sober authority of the bereaved, drawing similar cries of encouragement when his voice faltered. He expressed his gratitude and his surprise, to find himself so briefly a part of the community his lost son had embraced and which had so manifestly valued him, and of which he knew nothing.

Afterwards, as people continued milling from table to table, he sat with his daughter, alone in his thoughts, as his other son strummed an acoustic guitar and sang a plaintive song. I went over to pay him my respects; I wanted him to know that Aida-kun had always put me, a foreigner in a land so deeply attuned to foreignness, at my ease.

As time slipped away, the music became more frenetic, the drinking more voracious. Many people had taken to the floor; it became apparent the finale was in view as the clock neared six. We thronged in front of the stage. The drum-beat and guitar rhythms built to a crescendo. Someone started chanting ‘Aida-kun! Aida-kun!’ and held up one of the framed photos by the amplifiers. The others were taken up and held aloft like icons. People started swaying. Awkward sobriety dissolved into chants of ‘Aida-kun! Aida-kun!’ and the sobbing became audible. This was what we had gathered for, what we had waited for, what we had wanted. I felt no grief, though tears welled into my eyes with the rest. I wish I had; I wish I could go back and feel more than the mild bewilderment of having a catharsis engineered before the clock struck the hour. People hugged and clung to each other.

Then it was over. The lights came up, tears were wiped, and we slowly drifted out.

Some headed off to Cloud Nine to continue the event. But the chill air of the evening washing over my face and the garishness of the streets – the shabby fast-food outlets, the huge and amateurish posters displayed above the cinemas, the squealing youths in dyed hair and leather loitering aimlessly, the overcoated sex-club pimps attempting to entice the passer-by and thrusting leaflets under noses – encouraged a quick retreat from conviviality.

Pain or madness, the writer Louis Wilkinson once declared, justify suicide – ‘any madness, such as the madness of excessive grief or unrewarded love.’ I had long come to know Japan as the land of the senseless suicide. In the mid-1980s when teenage pop-star Yukiko Okada jumped to her death from her agency’s building in a busy part of Tokyo, it sparked a flurry of imitations among other girls, reportedly thirty-one in two weeks, and gave the name ‘Yukko syndrome’ to such copycat tragedies. Then when the national railways were privatized – a sordid and largely unknown tale of union infighting, bullying and kidnapping – some two hundred workers took their own lives, unable to endure the humiliation of unemployment or of seeking new jobs. There was the case of the Yokohama zookeeper who had been in charge of the koalas and who, fearful of ‘public criticism’ should they fall ill and die, as had happened at some other zoos, bereaved his wife to escape the dilemma. And the truck driver who lost control of his vehicle and shed its load on the expressway, and promptly wandered off to the nearest wood to hang himself.

Suicide in Japan has long been linked to notions of nobility; rarely is it regarded as a selfish or ridiculous waste. The early 18th century tale of the 47 ronin, the masterless samurai, who having avenged their master’s death were ordered to commit ritual suicide, retains its Robin Hood resonance in modern society, with numerous school children every year taken on trips to their graves at a Tokyo temple. With the recent fashion among strangers ‘meeting’ on the Internet to form suicide pacts, commonly leading to asphyxiation in sealed cars using charcoal burners, and a shockingly inadequate welfare system that leaves many of the country’s unemployed without the means to survive, Japan was already well on the way again last year to surpassing the 30,000 mark long before the recession bit. Nearly 100 people have taken their own lives every single day of every year for the past twelve years, nearly half a million in the past two decades.

Almost daily the papers record, in blandly sympathetic prose, the suicide of a man in the prime of life who had lost his job or been found out in some trivial case of corporate fraud, leaving behind his wife and children. Sometimes the wife and children are taken too, stabbed or throttled in one of those ‘family suicides’ which help to reduce the murder statistics. Or sometimes it’s the woman, despairing at her husband’s infidelity or the loss of his social station in life, who drives the car into the sea with the children locked in the back.

Such stories never cease to induce in me a bafflement and anger, a surpressed contempt for the monumental cowardice they reveal, though I have always imagined the act itself requires monumental courage. I search for the pain and the madness, and find only a pointless waste of life, a culturally sanctioned spinelessness.

But these are stories in a newspaper, words on a page, read one minute and discarded the next. One reacts quite differently perhaps in the case of a personal acquaintance. It must have been my incredulity at Aida-kun’s death, and the cultivated mystery surrounding it, that muted these emotions in me; so that when, at length, I began to feel a sort of anger, it was not so much at Aida-kun as at a concealing and complacent society. For how was it that someone so friendly and so popular could feel, at the lowest point in his life, that there was no one to turn to for help or support, or that to do so would be to transgress some unspoken law of social intercourse? What private pain had forced him to this point? Was it money he needed, as I later heard suggested, to pay off some gambling debt? Was it simple reassurance, that although his personal affairs had taken an unfortunate turn his friends would see him through to a better day? Was there nowhere in the depths of his own being, in the love of family or friends, in the boundless world of music or literature, or even in the secretive labyrinths of Tokyo night-life, that he could find some respite, some source of spiritual sustenance?

But sometimes, when I look at his photograph, I sense the simple truth. It is a strange picture to have given as a memento. He stands behind the bar in white cheesecloth vest beneath a brown unbuttoned shirt, his arms folded, an unlit cigarette drooping from an unsmiling mouth bordered by a rough and wispy beard. His head is tilted back a little, rendering his dark eyes all but closed as they peer down into the camera. There is a hint of scorn, unrelieved by humour, but it is too inscrutable to be even this. It is not even pride. It is an evocation of extreme self-possession, of fatalistic weight. He had not sought help because he felt no need of help. Perhaps that moment had not even been the lowest point of his life.

I subsequently heard that when Makoto and Kenji had identified the body they found it barely marked, just a few cuts to the head, and that only the first car of the train had borne any traces of blood. Nor did the surveillance cameras at each end of the platform capture the desperate leap of a man in front of an oncoming train, a method of suicide so common in Japan that railway companies now sue the family of the deceased for damages caused by delays.

But Aida-kun had thought of this. He stood beneath the camera at the back end of the platform, and whether out of impulse or long determination, when no one was aware, slipped down onto the track and tucked himself into the dark hollow under the platform’s edge. Here he knelt, and as his chosen instrument of death approached, its bright eyes glaring in the blackness, inclined himself sufficiently for one brief bite to send his body clear of harm and his soul clear of this tiring life – composed in his desperation, courageous in his cowardice, calm, inscrutable, self-possessed to the end.

Two months later, his daughter came wailing into the world.

Anthony Head

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