Bebe Taian: The Talisman, by Masao Yamakawa

November 12, 2013

The Talisman, by Masao Yamakawa

After typing up a transcript of The Girls, I wanted to follow up by posting a short story by a Japanese author featured in the same magazine. It was printed in English, so no word on how accurate the translation is. I intend to work on posting the rest of the articles from this magazine to preserve them. It seems like ancient history, but many people who lived through this time are still alive- and some work in politics! So the viewpoints of this 'dated' material are still very important today.

The Talisman
A Short Story by Masao Yamakawa
TIME/LIFE Magazine - September 11, 1964 (Showa)
Special Issue: Japan

Another kind of revolt against explosive modernization - paralleling the revolt of youth (preceding pages) - is described in fiction by one of Japan's finest young writers.

I don't suppose you need any dynamite?"

This was the question my friend Sekiguchi asked me. I had not seen him in four or five years. We had run into each other on the Ginza, and were drinking in an upstairs room of a small restaurant.

I had been with Sekiguchi through high school. He was now working for a construction company. It was not strange that he should have access to dynamite; but the question, however peculiar an old friend he might be, was a little sudden.

"I don't know what I'd use it for."

"I have it right here if you want it."

It would be a joke, of course. I smiled and poured a new drink for him. "It would blow up right in my hands. And what is the point of carrying dynamite around with you?"

This was the story Sekuguchi told me.
My wife and I live alone in an apartment house. I put my name on the list two years ago, and got married last spring, before I had a decent place to live. And then last fall I got one of the apartments. I couldn't have been happier.

Everything seemed new and fresh - the grass that hadn't taken to the ground, the beanpoles of cherry trees. Before that we had been with my family, a big family at that. We had had only one room, and we wanted a place where we could lock other people out. Well, now we had a room with a lock. You can imagine what it meant to us.

We had it, a place of our own. But I had not been there six months before I began feeling uncertain and irritated. I felt somehow that I was disappearing. No one's fault - call it some sort of neurosis. I can't say it was his fault either, I suppose. But I can say that Kurose made things start going this way for me.

It was late one night. I had been to a party. There were no more buses, and I took a taxi and got off at the main gate. I hoped that by the time I got to my wing of the building the night wind might sober me up.

There was a man in front of me. I had the feeling that I was looking at myself from behind. He had on the same felt hat, and he had the same package in his left hand. You could tell by his walk that he had been drinking too. It was a foggy night, and I wondered if I might be seeing my own shadow.

But it was no shadow. He walked on, the image of me, I thought - and he went into Wing E, where I lived. He went up the stairs I always go up.

It was a big complex, I grant that; but I knew at least the people who went up and down the stairs I used. And I did not know him. He went up as if they were the stairs he knew best in the world. He came to the third floor and knocked on the door to the right.

It was my apartment. And then I was even more startled. The door opened and he was taken in, like any tired husband home from work.

I thought my wife must have a lover. That was it. I climbed the stairs quietly. I would catch them in the act. I put my ear to the door.

The way I felt - how can I describe it to you? I was wrong. He was not her lover. He was I myself.

No, wait. I'm not crazy. But I thought I was. I could hear her saying, "Jirou, Jirou," and laughing and telling me what my sister had said when she had come calling that day. And I could hear my own tired voice in between. She was off in the kitchen getting something to eat, and "I" seemed to be reading the newspaper. I did not know what to think. There was another "I", that was clear. And who then, was this I, standing foolishly in the hall? Which was "I" and which was I? Where should I go?

I had thought that I was sober, but I'm afraid I was still drunk. The confidence that I was I had left me. It did not occur to me that the man in the room was a false "I," a mistake. I opened the door only because I could think of nothing else to do with the I that was myself.

"Who's there?" she said.

"I," I finally answered.

It was quite a scene. My wife came screaming out. She looked at the other "I," and screamed again, and threw herself on me. Her lips were moving and she began to cry. The other "I" came out. His face was white.

His name was Kurose Jirou.

Sekiguchi fell silent,  a thoughtful expression on his face. He poured himself a cup of sake.

"Another you," I laughed. "A fine Doppelganger."

He glanced up at me, but seemed to pay no attention to my words. Unsmiling, he went on with this story.

Kurose was all apologies. When he handed me his name card I saw what the mistake had been. I lived in E-305, he in D-305. He had come into the wrong wing and gone up to my apartment.

My sister is named Kuniko. He was a civil engineer, and he had a cousin named Kuniko. His name was Jirou, so is mine. He lived alone with his wife. The coincidence was complete.

"I did think she seemed a little young. I've been married four years, after all," he said as he left. He said it as if he meant to flatter, but I was not up to being pleased. It weighed on my mind, the fact that until I opened the door neither of them had noticed the mistake.

"But I went off into the kitchen, and he sprawled out with the newspaper the way you always do. It didn't even occur to me that it wouldn't be you."

I reprimanded her, and she looked timidly around the room.

"Not just the room. They must be exactly like us themselves. You saw how he thought I was his wife. It scares me."

I was about to speak, but I did not. To mistake a person or a room - that made no difference. It happened all the time. What bothered me was that Kurose had mistaken our life for his own.

Kurose had been mistaken for me by my own wife. And were they as alike as all that. These apartment-house homecomings?

I knew of course that all the apartments were the same. But I asked myself: had our very ways of life become standardized?

You know what apartment-house life is like. It does have a terrible uniformity about it. The qualifications for getting in, and the need to get in - they mean that the standard of living is all on the same general level. All of us are even about the same age. But it seemed to me that the uniformity had gone beyond externals. It had gone to the very heart of things.

Take for instance when I have a quarrel with my wife. The wind always brings the same kind of quarrel in through the window from another apartment. It all seems so foolish that we stop fighting. So far so good; but then you come to realize that the people in the other apartments have their quarrels on this and this day of the month at this and this time of the day, and you are no exception yourself; and - this may seem a strange way to put it - the sacredness of quarreling disappears. A quarrel comes to be no more than a periodic outburst of hysteria. Think about it. It's not very exciting.

You go to the toilet, and over your head you hear someone pulling the chain and the toilet upstairs flushes. The same thing day after day. I hadn't paid too much attention, but it began to weigh on me.

I began to wonder whether identical surroundings and identical routines were bringing us to identical emotions and identical outlets for them. And if so we were like all those toy soldiers lined up on a department-store counter. Like standardized puppets.

Where was there something that was mine? No one else's but mine? In this mass of people who so resembled one another, I was no more than one bean spread out to dry with the rest. I could not even identify myself among them all.

My wife said something that did not help matters. We were in bed.

"It's very strange. I go off to the toilet, and I hear water running up above and down below. We all do exactly the same thing."

I pulled away from her. We men of the apartment house proceeded every night, as if upon signal, to go through the same motions.

And so I began to lose interest in them too. Each time my wife would whisper something to me, it would seem to me as if all through the building wives were whispering. I would hear a gale of whispers in the darkness and I would find myself frowning.

We may think we have something of our own. But we only have standardized days with standardized reactions.

It seemed intolerable. I was not a puppet!

Could I put much importance on my life when I could no longer be sure that I was myself and no one else? Could I love my wife? Believe I was loved by her?

I started to laugh, but did not. Sekiguchi was gazing earnestly at me.

Presently, a faint smile came over his face.

He had always been a man, I remembered, who placed a high value on a smile.

"It's a very serious story," he said.

Kurose became for me the representative of all those numberless white collar workers, all the apartment-house husbands, the toy soldiers, exactly like myself. The representative of all those numberless people who were "I".

You will have guessed that after that foggy night I did not want to speak to the man. We were too much alike, and it would seem that, as he clutched his briefcase to his chest, he was avoiding me too. He always seemed to be scurrying off.

He had become the scapegoat for all those standardized toy soldiers - I hated them through him. I rejected all those standardized articles that were "I."

I resented him. He was not I. I was not one of them, those office workers so much like myself. I was I, I was most definitely not he. But where was the difference? Where was there positive evidence to establish the difference?

I was not a random spot. I was I, a particular person with the name Sekiguchi Jirou, someone not to be substituted for another, whoever that might be. So I said over and over to myself.

And yet where were the grounds for distinguishing me from them? Was there more than my name? A name is only a tag. Aside from my name, where was the evidence that I was not a random apartment-house dweller?

I had to build it - my independence, my individuality. I had to find something to distinguish me from those numberless ones who were Kurose Jirou.

A couple of weeks ago I found it. A charm. I've kept it secret from my wife. The problem is my own private one.

This is my charm.

Sekiguchi opened the heavy leather briefcase behind him and took out a bundle just small enough to hold in one hand. It was elaborately tied up in oil paper.

"Dynamite. The real thing."

With great dexterity he undid the knots, and for the first time in my life I saw dynamite, the real thing. There were four iron tubes perhaps eight inches long, bound tightly in wire, heavy for their size.

"This is my charm - my talisman," said Sekiguchi. "We talk and talk, but we can't get away from the uniformity. But when I am of a mind to I can blow all of them up and myself too. This is what I came on. The secret that keeps me going. My uniqueness."

I handed the tubes back, and Sekiguchi turned a caressing gaze on their dark luster.

"I don't think I need any dynamite, thank you."

"Oh? That's too bad. I don't need it anymore myself. I'm going to have to hunt up another charm."

"I don't know whether you're being funny or not, but it's dangerous..."

Sekiguchi raised a hand to silence me. "Make no mistake," he laughed. "You're a very lucky person. I don't need it anymore, because it's not my uniqueness any more." He paused. "Did you hear the news on the radio this evening?"


He smiled a wry smile. "There was a dynamite explosion on a bus. Three people were killed on the spot. The others got by with cuts and burns. It was near my apartment house."

"How did it happen?" I felt the effects of the sake leave me.

Sekiguchi did not look at me. Slowly and deliberately he put the bundle away.

"He always did carry his briefcase around like the most important thing in his life. And he avoided me. He must have resented me as much as I resented him. He needed a charm too."


Sekiguchi stretched out on the matting. His voice rose in a sort of lament. "They said it over the radio. The police think the dynamite was in the briefcase of one of the three people killed. An engineer names Kurose Jirou."

1 comment:

  1. I love this story. We have the orgininal Life magazine for it in our library's archive at Emporia State University.