David made his way through a maze of streets dotted with izakaya and boutiques, taking in an eclectic mix of the old and the exorbitantly low-key. It was a little like walking through downtown Taneshige and finding all the old wooden establishments, redolent of grilled fish and minor-key ballads, turned into shi shi watering spas.
David blinked. He had had a dream like that––slinky Phoenix blasting from the shadows of a one-counter enka bar, invaded by repurposed bicycle-spoke stools and dirty cucumber cocktails. It was pure paradox, this distaste for what he should admire––preservation a worthy aim amid a vast checker of yakuza-financed wedge developments. Here in Azabu they had somehow preserved the husk, if not the exact spirit, of feudal, samurai-frequented horse market. Authenticity an inevitable casualty of money moving in, the husk a vessel into which unencumbered lives might someday flow.
It was not just that money had moved in, contaminating a place he hardly knew––it was observed patterns over the years, the circling of money into corner pockets, away from where it really mattered. The flagrant destruction of nature where thickets of money did not rise to protect it. David shook his head as a flash of righteous Bernie anger passed. Really, it was not that bad––not bad at all, from a certain perspective. There was a quixotic hipness to many shops he could almost get behind.
David was not only here to critique––two years of teaching in the coastal Yamaguchi mountains had kindled vague dreams of a more varied life in the heart of it all. The new neighborhood, with its endless shopping and entertainment possibilities, held undeniable interest. Yet suddenly the last thing he wanted was to be surrounded by people. The part of him excited to be experiencing the city in all its artistic fervor represented a steadily diminishing urge. He found himself gravitating toward Arisugawa Park––several worlds removed from the restless, the fretful, the urbane. Content to sit nestled in its narrow folds for hours, plugged into early rocksteady and Pugnacious John, reading a book––he had been trying to get through The Corrections for a month––and pondering next steps. When his attention wandered from the pages he simply watched ducks flap on a pond framed by unflappable old men, fishing.
The gaijinhouse had been a gift. A little slice of the past, a remnant piece of ground on which to stake a claim. In remnant nature a recognition that people served a greater purpose, beyond clan or country. The room surprisingly spacious, full of character––beyond what he could afford on a teacher’s salary really, but he had scrimped and saved for two years in a very cheap place––one that offered no real way of spending money beyond pachinko parlors and third-rate hostess bars. The latter clustered in defiant brightness on a late-night hill, separated by patchy woods and rice fields from the two closest stations. Passing by bicycle, on his way to a girlfriend’s house, he had elicited knowing smiles from a revolving lineup of lipsticked mothers.
Despite a natural inclination to be in a place with more space, David had ultimately decided he needed to be here, in the center of it all, developing the ‘fabric’ idea he had been nurturing for months. If the platform was to work, it needed to apply not just to dreamt-of tropical destinations, but to the gritty urban core. Scalable, content-driven app that would change spending habits en masse, disseminate money earned to sustainable causes associated with the local fabric––in the process leveling wages, preserving nature, and averting irreversible climate change. Just like that. A shiver ran through his spine––massive capital flow harnessed in the same way as a turbine transformed wind power into energy. Fabric leapfrogging venture-financed transactional deceptions, a virtuous cycle of sustainable commerce––leaving corrupt governments, ineffective agencies––any business or entity not contributing to a livable planet, in the dust.
Turning onto a quiet, winding street past Blue & White, David passed a shi shi salon within the weathered frame of a pre-war shop, cedar sign advertising tofu. This particular juxtaposition always generated a sense of unease, the feeling that tradition had been infected by something patently unaffordable… beautiful women having their hair teased, dyed, curled, and stressed by a flirtatious hairdresser.
The street gradually rose, skirting a steeper grade. Turning onto the hill that ran up to the gaijin house, David swung a plastic bag loosely in his hand. His Japanese-language skills far from advanced, he had inside what he hoped was Eve’s requested shade of hair dye.
One of his students had tried to explain it once, half apologetic, as if she were single-handedly responsible for this blight on Japan’s status as a 21st century democracy. After World War II, American occupation forces had given a leg up to the formerly downtrodden and oppressed, those who had been spied upon, discriminated against, and forced to perform wartime labor for Imperial Japan. Ethnic Koreans, buraku, benefitted directly from General McArthur’s policy and established business enterprises in varied shades of legality. Some had started legitimate businesses, others had gravitated towards gambling halls and the mizu shoubai––the water trade. These shadowy entrepreneurs had poured money into the types of right wing groups they should be nominally against, wrapping in the flag their dirty deeds. Maybe it was the establishment’s price in blood, an extracted pound of flesh for acceptance of money and bribes. In Japan there was always subterfuge, a covering of tracks. The present was never really here and the past was unnervingly complex.
David’s thoughts turned to Eve. These past few weeks, nothing had happened to break his routine––until this morning…. He felt past the plastic bag with hair dye in it, to wallet snugly in his jeans. Bursting at its seams with an ATM envelope containing the equivalent of $10,000 cash. An hour ago, after a short and fitful nap, Eve had shot up like a bolt. “Listen, I––” Taking a moment to choose her words. “I’m afraid the police may be looking for me. Could you to take my card to the nearest Mizuho ATM and withdraw the balance from my savings account?” David nodded as Eve fingered the ends of her hair. “Oh, and could you pick up some hair dye, something in a darker shade––”
The money had come out of the ATM in a huge crisp brick, just as Eve had said it would. Withdrawing a stranger’s life savings in an instant, with a piece of plastic––that was one of those things that could only conceivably happen in Japan.
David grasped for a good explanation why Eve couldn’t go to the police. The Japanese system was far from transparent with regards to foreigners under suspicion of crime, suspects held without a lawyer for weeks and confessions manufactured. As an American this had not bothered him quite so much. There was the sense, tied to the legacy of close political alliance that had sprung from the ashes of Hiroshima, that different rules applied. If worse came to worse he could feign ignorance in the stock foreigner way and the authorities would make an extra effort to understand his case. America-jin desu, a shake of the head––move this potential headache toward quickest possible resolution. Eve had no such luxury––she wasn’t from a country that had a lot of clout with Japan and, if she had been set up, was swimming in very deep waters. David shrugged––a dash of sympathy, a sprinkle of beauty, and a taste for adventure had overcome fear of being considered an accessory to murder.
Turning onto the bicycle-lined walkway leading to the gaijin house, David squeezed past Julian––the German BMW intern was sitting on the edge of the pathway, running the chain through the gears, wheels spinning in air.
“Going for a ride?”
Julian gave a wave of grease-stained rag, “Stimm––It's the kind of day that epic rides were made for. You'll join?”
David shook his head slowly, as if he was seriously considering the offer. “Not today. Gotta prepare those lessons I put off all vacation. I have exactly one day to get a syllabus together before class begins.”