Posted by: theboyfromsmallville | April 12, 2008

A Japanese parable

(Something cooked up while LSS-ing on Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life, particularly on the line “This Ain’t A Song For a Broken-Hearted” while in Tokushima, Japan for a sports coverage. Story still has no title. So feel free to leave a suggestion.)


It was late afternoon and Kenji awoke from his daily nap on a large bamboo chair at the porch of his beach-front hut. He stretched his arms and listened to the wind make music with the palm fronds that burst forth from the line of trees that bowed gracefully, almost in reverence to the sea’s majesty.

Suddenly, he noticed a sniffing sound and as he turned his gaze to its source—the steps that rolled out into the white-sand front lawn—he saw his daughter bowing with a knife in her hand.

Kenji sat up.

“Yuki-san? What’s wrong?” Kenji asked.

Startled, Yuki looked at her father, stood up, straightened her white dress and tucked rebellious strands of hair behind her ear.

“Nothing, father,” she answered. She started walking toward the front door.

“Yuki,” Kenji said. “Come here. Sit with me awhile.”

Yuki obediently approached her father and sat beside him.  Kenji could see remnants of the tears that streaked down her face from her still watery eyes. Normally, Kenji would choke with sentimentality every time he was this close to his daughter. Yuki, after all, was a spitting image of her late mother, Kenji’s beloved Aoi.

But right now, he was too worried to wax sentimental. Yuki was holding a knife. And she was 14, and on teenagers, confusion settles into the soul like the morning dew on tsutsuji leaves.

“Tell me, Yuki, What’s wrong?”

Yuki looked up, stared at her father with imploring eyes and asked: “Why must we cry, father…?”

“Hush child,” Kenji said. He drew Yuki closer and laid her head on his lap, running his hand through her hair. He took the knife from her hand and placed it on the floor.

“Let me tell you a story.”

* * *

It was 3:15 p.m., Monday, and Makoto Minamiyama woke up from his afternoon nap, got dressed and got ready to rule his empire.

Makoto was 14 years old. But in his far younger mind, he had the world at his fingertips.

He hurried down the spiral staircase that connected the attic room he shared with his mother to the restaurant where she worked—the one that sold the best nu-doru soup in all of Tokushima. He ran behind the counter and dragged an empty wooden noodle box out of the restaurant and into the street corner, underneath a street lamp.

He propped the wooden box against the lamp post, crossed his hand and, as he did every day, proceeded with his royal duties.

As always, too, his mother, his empress Manami, was doing her afternoon chores, cleaning the wooden tables outside the restaurant, when Makoto rushed out.

‘Careful, Makoto-san,’ she said. ‘Careful, my little emperor.’

Makoto simply smiled back at her. Manami approached her son and ruffled his hair with her hands. She kissed Makoto on the top of his head and left him to his preoccupation.

Makoto looked at his watch. 3:35 p.m. He looked at the two streets that intersected in front of his throne. Kobayashi had the red light while Kaeda had the green. He waited for the lights to trade places. When it did, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. At the precise moment, Makoto would raise his right hand, lower it down with authority and commanded the lights to trade places.

Traffic would then stop for one street, and go on for another. It never failed.

Every day, until the sun hid behind the huge hotel buildings adjacent to his street corner and his mother called out to him because it was time for yashoku, Makoto would do nothing but dictate the flow of traffic from the corner of Kobayashi and Kaeda.

And Makoto loved how the cars, his loyal subjects, obeyed every wave of his hand.

For regular patrons of the restaurant, Makoto was an amusing sidelight. They enjoyed the way he truly believed that Tokushima traffic was under his spell—especially the two old men who always arrived at 3 p.m., and sat by the outside tables, drinking sake on the house while waiting for the restaurant’s daily 5 p.m. opening. They would humor him sometimes by naming the cars he had become familiar with.

On Mondays, when it was 4:13, the old, yellow Beetle that always turned left into Kobayashi from Kaeda would arrive, always failing to make the turn before Makoto ordered his side of the street to stop. The old men christened the Beetle “Bushou.” Sloth.

Some names, he picked up accidentally. On Tuesdays, a yellow-green bus carrying loads of students would stop in front of him at exactly 5:10 p.m. Makoto enjoyed the loud and boisterous minute that the school children spent at his corner of the world.

But not so the old men, whose sake-laced conversations would get drowned by the ruckus. “Ogres,” they would yell at the kids. Makoto, his smile turning his circle-shaped eyes into tiny slits drowned by puffed cheeks, named the bus “Oni.”

There was Yuuga, Grace, the two-door Boxster with the elegant lady driver that would cruise past him at 4 p.m. every Wednesday. There was Yanagi, Slim, the stretch limo with tinted windows that he had never seen rolled down that would pass by him at 3:40 p.m. every Thursday. Then there was Zetsumei, Death, the fiery red Ferrari that would beat the Kobayashi red light every 3:55 p.m. Fridays, earning the distinction of the only car to “disobey” Makoto. 

 “That guy, he’s knocking on death’s door,” clucked one of the old men when, one Friday, Zetsumei again beat the red light.

When these cars would pass, Makoto would stand on his fruit box, jump with glee and call out their names.

Of course, not everyone was amused.

‘That boy of yours Manami, you should start having people look inside his head,’ Makoto overheard Tatsumi, the fortyish owner of the restaurant, say once.

‘It’s okay, Tatsumi-san. He does no harm to anyone,’ Manami answered then.

‘Now, no. But maybe someday, he will develop stranger and more foolish methods of craziness and scare customers away.’

‘Leave him be. He has his own world and in his world, he is king,’ Manami said. ‘When he wants people to understand him, he will make himself understood.’

‘What he needs is a father to teach him his place in this world, with a firm hand if need be,’ Tatsumi said gruffly.

Makoto understood that he no longer had a father, who died in a fishing accident when he was four, just a year before his mother noticed that he was different from other children in their fishing village in that he hardly ever cried or let out any sound.

But he didn’t understand Tatsumi’s insistence that he needed a father. At least, not the way his mother understood.

Makoto did not know what Manami knew. He wasn’t aware how Tatsumi secretly pined for his mother. He wasn’t aware that Tatsumi would ascend the spiral steps every night at the stroke of 12, slip in the key to their attic room, turn the lock, open the door, sit on the wooden stool near the foot of their bare bed and stare at his mother.

Makoto didn’t know that there were times when Manami felt Tatsumi slowly and softly peel the blanket off her body and feel his stare on her exposed legs. And that minutes would pass before he left, before he slipped the key off the lock and descended the spiral steps. Whatever happened between the coming and going, Tatsumi never went beyond it. He never even dared touch Manami.

Most of all, Makoto didn’t know that Manami secretly blushed at this clandestine acts of passion. And that she had stopped herself from acknowledging Tatsumi’s desire only for Makoto’s sake. She had vowed to take care of him. Makoto, in fact, had learned of emperors and their empires from his mother, who read to him story books when he was at the age when children needed to be schooled.

Makoto loved how the world seemed to revolve around the rulers of lands.

Unlike Makoto’s version of the world, however, Manami’s life was a one-way street that stretched endlessly, hopelessly maybe. And it was paved out of Makoto and would hit a brick wall in Makoto.

Makoto was ignorant of the things his mother gave up so he could, every day, spend idle afternoons ruling his kingdom. How his slightest sniffle would cause his mother to stop working for a day just to make sure he’d be okay. How a cry in his sleep would induce sleeplessness for Manami, who would stay awake and watch her son until the dawn crawl through the windows and into the wooden floors of their bedroom.

The kids who passed his corner on their way home from school every 3:50 p.m. didn’t like him, too. They’d mock drunken declarations by the restaurant old-timers that Makoto ruled this part of Tokushima.

‘Such a hakuchi,’ Hiroshi, the 14-year-old leader of the bully pack would say. ‘Thinking he controls traffic.’

‘Hey, little emperor, you’re simply counting in that locked-up head of yours, aren’t you?’ he would taunt. And the other boys would laugh.

Then, as always, when he was on the verge of tears, he’d look to the restaurant door and out would burst his mother. The Empress Manami. She would stand in between Makoto and the boys, tell them to leave her son alone and chased them with a broom when they challenged the ferocious glare she cast at them. When they scampered away, before his mother could even look back to check on him, Makoto would be back on his wooden throne, ruling his kingdom.

Directing traffic, dictating the lives of people on the street, was what passed for normalcy in Makoto’s world. And everything was like clockwork. Everything was routine in its predictability.

But life is anything but routine and predictable. And even in Makoto’s enclosed, well-timed world, things were bound to go askew.

Like, for instance, one Friday afternoon, Makoto got up from his afternoon nap and checked his watch. It read 3:19 p.m.

He got dressed, run down the spiral staircase and hauled his wooden throne out into the street. When he got there, when he plopped the box against the lamp post, he noticed his mother wasn’t cleaning the wooden tables outside the restaurant.

The dust kicked up by the passing cars had settled on the outside tables of the restaurant. Still, Makoto’s mother was nowhere to be seen. Makoto looked at the wooden box and at the door. He peeked through the window and finally noticed that there was nobody inside the restaurant.

Without even a shrug, Makoto went back to his throne, more upset that he was late in doing his duties for his empire than the fact that his mother was missing.

If he had entered the restaurant and looked for his mother, Makoto would have seen how Manami’s restraint had reached its limits.

She was washing her face inside the restaurant comfort room when Tatsumi barged in, his eyes dripping with desire. And before she could utter a word, he was upon her, his hands fumbling with buttons and caressing long-untouched flesh that had suddenly come alive.

And at the moment the bullies from school walked up to Makoto, Manami was getting a taste of the life that lay beyond the brick wall. She was lost in the newfound passion, unable to hear the derisive, mocking words bullies were currently throwing at her son.

‘Hey, hakuchi, show us your magic now,’ Hiroshi taunted.

Makoto stared back at him, confused. In other empires, such behavior would have merited long nights in lifeless gallows. Here, at the corner of Kobayashi and Kaeda, the little emperor was suddenly left to fend for himself.

Makoto looked around. The old men who usually passed the afternoons toasting cups of sake still hadn’t arrived. He stared at the restaurant door. At exactly the moment when his mother should have burst out with broom in hand, the door remained closed.

Makoto willed his mother’s presence.

‘Tatsumi-san. Makoto must be out in the street corner by now,’ Manami said, suddenly interrupting the kiss that had found its way to her navel.

‘Must it always be about Makoto, Manami?’ Tatsumi said. ‘Look, he’s fine. The boy obviously just sits and watches cars go by.’

“But you know he needs to be looked after,” Manami said.

“Later, Manami, later,” Tatsumi replied with urgency.

Outside, Hiroshi became emboldened by the fact that nobody was getting in the way of his bullying.

‘Go on hakuchi, stop traffic now,’ he said, and his friends drew closer around him.

Makoto raised his hand to buy time.

‘See, he’s counting the seconds again,’ he told his friends, who had formed a semi-circle around Makoto. ‘Such a fraud.’

Inside the bathroom, Manami was fixing herself up; retrieving pieces of clothing and putting them back on, smoothing the creases with her.

Outside the restaurant, it was Makoto tried to stare off the bullies. But his glare wasn’t authoritative enough to discourage the boys, who were jabbing hands into his shoulders, pushing him, taunting him, daring him to prove that he, indeed, had a say on the life of traffic on the streets.

The old men had finally arrived, but they were more amused than bothered by the bullying and all they gave was token scoldings while waiting for someone to serve them their sake.

Makoto jumped unto the wooden box and held the lamp post. He sneaked a peek at his watch. 3:53. As it turned to 3:54, Makoto shut his eyes and zoned out the taunts of the children. Then he began to count. Sixty seconds. He knew that was how long he needed to wait before his command over the streets would work. He stumbled on a few of the seconds as the jabbing, which was going on at his knees and waist this time, became more rabid.

Then, at what Makoto felt was the 59th second, he bent his knees and leapt backwards to the air.

The remaining second, it seemed, took forever to arrive. In that stretch, Makoto felt Tokushima fall into a vacuum. The sounds emptied into deafening silence. He did not hear the restaurant door burst open or his mother’s screams. He did not hear the roar of traffic or the sounds of the taunting boys.

He twisted his body in midair so he could face the street and smiled at how he could finally prove that life in Tokushima, at least the one at the corner of Kobayashi and Kaeda, was under his control.  He landed firmly on both feet, sprinted to the middle of the red-lighted street and looked back to his corner. His empire.

The silence, it seemed to Makoto, had seeped out of his head and into the world. His mother had her hands on her face in mid-scream. Hiroshi and his gang were suddenly still and quiet. The old men stood from their chairs their mouths agape. Even Tatsumi, who had come out the restaurant at the last moment, looked shocked.

It was Friday, 3:55 p.m., and Death—unlike a lot of things that day—came exactly on time.

* * *

“It’s such a sad story, father,” Yuki said.

“Yes, my Yuki. And do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?” Kenji asked.

“A little.”

“And does it answer the question that’s troubling you, child?”

“No, father.”

“How come?” Kenji asked.

“Because, father, what I wanted to know before you interrupted me with your haunting story was why we must cry,” Yuki said, pausing to eye the knife that lay on the floor and then flashing an earnest look at her father, “when we slice onions?”

(The author with the great nu-doru maker Tatsumi, who really doesn’t like Manami. Makoto Minamiyama isn’t really a kid. He’s a former Japanese national basketball team mainstay. He’s the son of a Japanese father and a French mother and whipped up quite a frenzy among female basketball fans because of his looks when Japan played here in 1998. Kenji and Yuki still live by the beach. Kanji doesn’t allow Yuki to even touch onions anymore)




  1. Great story!

  2. Hey! thanks dude! Great site btw. Will drop by as soon as I have a perplexing problem that needs a straightforward answer.

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