Creative non-fiction / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Songs of the Wandering Years: Hōrōki

by Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951), translated into English by Mariko Nagai

December X

Getting off at the station at the end of the world
Following the snow-lit road
I enter a sad town slowly

It's snowing. Remembering this poem by Takuboku, I feel something akin to homesickness. When I open the bathroom window, I see the lamp by the gate lit dimly in the twilight, so beautiful, reminding me of the red rhododendron I saw in the mountains of Shinshū a long time ago.

"Nanny, oh nanny, can you watch over my baby girl?" I hear the mistress yelling.

How much I hate that baby, Yuriko. She cries a lot, she's nervous like her father—the writer; carrying her is almost like carrying a fireball on my back. The only time I feel myself is when I'm in the toilet where I can be by myself.

(Banana, eel, pork cutlet and tangerine, oh, I want to eat these until I'm completely stuffed.)

When I feel blue, I get the urge to scribble. Pork cutlet. Banana. I write on the wall with my fingers.

I carry the baby on my back and walk up and down the hallway until the dinner's ready. It's been a week today since I came to work for the Shukou family, but the future looks grim. The master—author—goes up and down, up and down the ladder all day long. Just like a mouse. And I can't stand his nervousness.

"Cuchoo, cuchoo, has my baby slept well?" he would check the baby on my back, and when satisfied, he would go up the steps, holding the edges of his kimono in his hands.

I pull out Chekov from the bookshelf in the hallway for today's reading. Chekov is my home. His breath, his appearance, is so alive to me. He whispers something into my ear. The soft feel of the book. Whenever I read my master's novels, I think that he should read Chekov again. The whores in Kyoto that he writes about don't move me at all.


Okiku, the housekeeper, is cooking delicious-looking mixed rice. I am ecstatic.

Once the baby's been bathed and everyone's gone to bed, it's nearly eleven o'clock. I hate babies in general, but strangely, when I put them on my back, they fall asleep immediately. Even people here are surprised.

At least I can read books with the baby asleep on my back.

Maybe when you have a kid later in life like the master did, you worry so much you can't work. It drives me crazy—with the guy worrying over the baby so much. I swear that I don't want to be a maid for the rest of my life.

Does he not know that even clovers have pretty blossoms? His wife grew up wild, but now, she goes about her day as if asleep. But she's my favourite person in this house.

December X

They fired me today.

Nowhere to go. I stand on the pedestrian overpass with my luggage in hand and open the envelope they gave me. Only two yen. Two yen for working like a dog for two weeks. Anger like cold blood rises from my feet.

As I walk aimlessly with my big luggage, I feel sandpaper dry, like I want to throw everything away.

I sneak into an empty western-style house with blue tiled roof. A big yard. Glass windows shine coldly as if the December wind has polished it clean.

I am tired and sleepy, and I feel like resting, so I open the backdoor. Empty rusty cans all over the place. The mats in the living room are filthy with mud. There's something lonely about an empty house in the daylight. A faint human presence here, another there, it feels bone-cold. I have nowhere to go. I can't do much with two yen. When I come out of the toilet, a dog with fox-like eyes stare at me from the run-down deck.

"It's nothing, it's absolutely nothing!" I try to tell myself. I stand on the deck with my back straight.

(What should I do? There's nothing I can do.)


Decided to spend the night at a cheap boarding room in Asahimachi in Shunjuku. For thirty-five sen, I can finally rest my exhausted body in this lodge off the slushy street that felt like I was walking on a melted candy. With a small naked lightbulb lighting a three-mat room—a room so shabby that not even during the Meiji period was a room ever this shabby—I write a long, helpless letter to the Island Man who has left me.

I have nothing to lose. Even my tomorrow is unknown.

This world is full of lies
Last train to Koushu runs above my head
I throw away life as empty as the rooftop of the department store
Like a stretched vein, I lie on the bed of a boarding room
I cradle the dead bodies torn apart by trains
Like bodies of strangers
When I open the sooty window in the middle of the night
Even at a place like this, I find the sky
And the moon clowning around in it

Goodbye, everyone
I've become a warped die
And keep coming back
To the attic in the cheap lodging house.
I grab the travel lust that's been building up and building up
And let the wind blow me every other way.

Even late at night, people keep coming and going noisily.

"Excuse me," a voice says, and with that, I hear someone sliding my door open, and a woman with hair in two low buns suddenly and roughly slips into my threadbare bed next to me. And soon afterwards, I hear loud footsteps, and a scruffy man without a hat slides open the door about an inch and hisses, "Hey, bitch, wake up."

The woman mumbles one or two words and leaves. From the hallway, I hear slapping sounds several times, but soon, it becomes eerily quiet like a sewage. The air of the room that the woman has disrupted would not quiet down.

The same scruffy man enters my room and stands by my pillow, licking his pencil. "What have you been doing? Where were you born? Where are you going? Age? Parents? Do you know that woman?"

"No, she just came into my room."

Even Knut Hamsun wouldn't have dared to write a scene like this in his novels.

When the cop leaves, I stretch my arms and legs and touch the wallet under my pillow. One yen and sixty-five sen left. The wind must be blowing the moon around; I can almost see light entering from the lopsided window near the ceiling, dancing.

Jesters are good at jumping down from high places, but they suck at jumping up and down.

I'll get through all this somehow.

I'll find a way to eat.

December X

I go to breakfast at a diner near the edge of Aome Boulevard. As I drink a hot cup of tea, a construction worker covered in mud quickly enters the diner.

"Hey girl, what can I eat with ten sen? I only got one ten-sen coin!"

He yells loudly with his back straight.

A girl of maybe fifteen or sixteen asks, "Is rice with meat tofu OK?"

The man's all smiles now and sits down on the bench.

A big bowl of rice. A plate of scallions with minced-meat tofu. A bowl of murky miso soup. A ten-sen worth of nutrients. He stuffs his mouth with rice. A heart-breaking sight. He wanted to make sure in a loud voice that he could be fed with one ten-sen coin because that's the only money he's got.

It touches me so much I want to cry. I think he got more rice than I did, but is it going to be enough for him? He's in good mood. The girl brings me my order: a bowl of rice with simmered vegetables and fish, with a side of pickled vegetables. A poor man's dish of vegetables and fish.

I pay twelve sen, and the girl thanks me loudly for coming as I step out the diner.

For a mere twelve sen, I get cup after cup of tea and a morning's greeting.

It's a thin line between hope and rock-bottom life. But when I think about that construction worker in his forties, I know that a ten-sen coin can make the difference between disappointment, hitting rock bottom or crashing completely.

Even if my mother comes to Tokyo to live with me, I can work somehow. I've sunk and floundered so much, I'm just like a wrecked ship. No more splashes left inside of me. I've swallowed too much seawater.

In the end, I'm no different from that whore from last night. That woman must have been over thirty. Hey, if I had been a man, I would have hidden her and made love to her until nothing was left inside of me like a drowned man, and we might have talked of killing ourselves this morning.

I leave my luggage at the boarding room and go to the employment office in Kanda.

My heart pangs. Everywhere I go, I feel as empty as a desert.

(You're not doing the hiring!)




Cold-hearted bitches!

When I hand the paper-blotter thin peach-coloured card to the woman at the counter of the employment office, she reads out loud what I wrote, "Thirty yen a month."

When she sees what I look like, she smirks.

"You don't want to work as a maid? You want to be an office worker? There are so many girls with degrees, there's no way you'll get it. But we have a lot of positions for maids."

Like an avalanche, beautiful women after beautiful women come after me.

Yeah. You are right.

Nothing to gain.

Three letters of introduction: one to an ink company, another to work at a gas station and the last one as a maid at the Italian Embassy.

There's only ninety sen left in my wallet.

When I get back to the inn in the late afternoon, geisha girls are sitting like potted plants in front of the mirror, smearing greyish powder all over their faces.

"Only sold twenty percent."

"With a glare like yours, no one would buy from you."

"Oh yeah? Well, some men like that."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever you say."

Conversation between girls of fourteen, fifteen years old.


December X

Sadness comes rushing out of nowhere like waves. I feel like I'm going crazy.

I strike a match and draw eyebrows.

At ten o'clock in the morning, I go to the Italian Embassy at Sannen-chou in Kojimachi.

Laugh and live.

But my face is too skewed to laugh.

A white boy comes through the gate riding a horse. An old gatehouse stands by the gate, and a beautiful long gravel path leads to the front door of a mansion.

A woman like me doesn't belong here.

I am led to a large red-carpeted room with a map on the wall. A white woman in white and black dress. White women are beautiful in general, but they're especially beautiful from afar. The boy on the horse comes in with his nose running. A white man comes in, says that he isn't the ambassador, but a secretary. They are both tall, and I feel claustrophobic.

The mistress in white and black dress shows me the cook's room where onions roll around in a concrete box and two portable barbecue stoves are on the floor. She says that maids cook their own food on these pits. A maid room so much like an abandoned house. With black armoured doors, this place smelt of bars of soap, of a distant land.

I leave without getting a yes or no.

As I walk through the imposing residential neighbourhood of Sannen-chou and down the hill, the red flags waving with December wind.

Don't know whether they have hearts or not because they are foreigners, but I might as well look for other openings.

I don't take the trains but instead walk along the river.

I want to go home.

Nothing will come out of staying here in Tokyo aimlessly.

I see trains: I think of killing myself.

I stop by my old lodging in Hongo. The landlady is cold but hands me a letter from Mr. Chikamatsu. When I left his place, he said that he might be able to help me out by introducing me to a Mr. Yoshii at Jyunisha Publishing House since he was looking for a maid, but this was a no-thank-you letter written in a faded ink.

Writers are heartless.

As I walk through twilight Shinjuku, I suddenly want a man to take care of me.

(Is there anyone who can rescue me right now?)

Staring at the purple signals shining and waving on the bridge over the railroad station, my eyes become heavy with tears, and I start to hiccup like a small kid.

Just do it.

At the boarding room, I tell the landlady about my money situation. She says that I can stay with her on the first floor until I find a job.

"Why don't you be a driver for the Blue Bus? Heard you can earn up to 70 yen a month …"

Someone is barbecuing dried sandfish. It's stinking up the entire house.

Seventy yen would be nice.

I have to find a place where I can earn money.

Sitting by the foot heater, I write a letter to Mama under the ten-bulb light by the reception.

I got sick and can't work, can you send three yen? 

The whore from a couple of days ago comes with her face stuffed with Inari sushi.

"Went through hell a couple of nights ago because of you. You should be careful," the landlady chides.

"Was your man pissed?"

Under the light, the whore looks about forty and has a dried, collapsed look about her.

"We call a woman like that an owl in our business. She's not a welcome guest—always bringing in different men at all hours. My man was so pissed; the cops really grilled him," the tired-looking but kindly landlady made some tea for me as she cussed out the whore.

The landlady treats me to a bowl of noodles.

I'll go to the Blue Bus with the referral from the landlady and take the exam.

It's lonely to be without a real home so near the end of the year, but there's no use getting depressed about it. I'll just have to keep myself moving and work.

The electric lines whistle furiously with the wind.

And here I am, lying on the dirty bed and staring at the picture of the Daikoku, the god of wealth, on the wall and daydreaming about something so impossible, so out of my grasp.

(Maybe I should go home and get married.)

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.