This is the continuation of the third instalment of the third part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
Kenji plays an important supporting role in some old friends' lives.
1) The outcome of Kenji's secret mission in August 2017 can be found here.
2) The aftermath of that occasion can be found here.
Kenji 3: Distant Drums—Year Three
(June 2017-September 2017)
People talk a lot about work-life balance. They are stupid. Work is part of life. You cannot balance the part against the whole. Now that I’m much older, I know this. It is fantasy to separate the private from the public, the personal from the professional, because we are humans, and in us everything comes together. That is why one man’s corruption or nepotism is another man’s cultural solidarity.
But we have a world in which this idea of transparency, of cutting away everything except the raw achievement and ability, all measured in numbers and quantities, is all. We are mysteries to ourselves. What makes us think that exposing everything tells us anything?
As 2017 passed by, my life limped on. Old crazy Kenji did not win. New sober Kenji did not lose. I am still Kenji, and so are they. Here are some notes from the ‘quiet years’, 2015 to 2020. Much of it was quiet because I was hiding, and keeping things hidden.
I’m back to work, crazy Kenji back on his meds, back on his job, keeping his head down. My colleague Ryu, the last contact I have from my old team, has learnt to ignore me. Damn, I have learnt to ignore me. I arrive at work punctually fifteen minutes exactly before we begin. I bow exactly to each person I work with. They are mostly faceless, except for my immediate co-workers and superiors. Foremost of these superiors is my base commander. He has been recently promoted; his family name is Shirakawa, and he is my father-in-law.
“Setou!” says my immediate boss, Colonel Kurita. “CO wants to see you, before this year’s sakura season.”
It takes me a while to understand. The cherry blossoms have come and gone. I need to be faster than fast. I nod, suddenly very apprehensive. The colonel has a firm, round, cheerful face. That face can turn stony in an instant, although I know she has a kind heart and a stellar career of giving good advice and help to everyone from NATO, to the UN, to the new country of Timor Leste.
“This person complies,” I bow. “The day before yesterday, I am there.”
She chuckles. “May you have good fortune today.”
In minutes, I am waiting uneasily in the stark outer office that leads to the lair of Major-General Masahide Shirakawa. His aide, some horse-faced guy whose name I cannot remember, puts down the office intercom and gestures sharply that I should accompany him.
Then I am standing even more uneasily in a room full of maps and papers. The general is smiling, like a tiger sucking air past his palate to see if something is tasty. “Setou-san!” he says, “I have been too busy to talk to my son-in-law for a long while!”
I bow deeply and he returns the bow, holding it for a ceremonious second. Then he gestures me to a hard wooden chair. I say softly but firmly: “General-san, this worthless junior officer has tried to get the work done. If anything is unsatisfactory, I accept my punishment.”
“Kenji,” the general replies, after making sure his aide has left the room and the door is firmly shut, “You are an idiot in some ways. But you are at least an idiot that I can rely on for other things. Let us talk.”
Dumbly, I nod. “You are my commander.”
“I am your father-in-law. My grandfather commanded an army in China. I am incapable of commanding my daughter. Nor do I want to, being quite a modern person. And you, the one man she might listen to, have lost your right to be heard by her. Such a mess. You idiot. You… idiot.”
He sounds almost meditative as he says those last words. He repeats them fondly, as if he likes the sound ‘baka’. Then he continues.
“That is not our problem. This is work. You have been recommended for a promotion, based on activities related to our big neighbour’s renovations in the southern part of town. You have given us sharper teeth and better eyes. I have discussed the matter with Colonel Kurita. You will be promoted to a rank equivalent to Major with effect 1st January 2018.”
I am stunned. “This humble research engineer is extremely grateful at the undeserved…”
“Shut up, Kenji. It is deserved. I am also trying to like you even though I want to kill you. It is a professional thing. Also, you must take six months of mentorship from Colonel Kurita before your promotion is approved. You will manage your team under her leadership. And you will not screw up. In any way.”
“This person understands that, and will endeavour to give satisfaction.”
“Look at me.”
I elevate my downcast gaze. It hardly matters to me, because I am nearly blind unless I make the effort to see. I wonder if he knows this. I wonder what he sees.
“Hai. Listen. You’re my son-in-law. You broke faith with my daughter. So I talked to her. She still says you are mostly a good man. Your colleagues also say that. Why should I believe them? You tell me.”
He is very tanned for a Japanese. I wonder what he used to do for the SDF. It is all a wonder to me, today. I have no idea why people say I am a good man. I don’t want to be an evil one, but I know I am not a good one.
“No words? No defence?” He sounds frustrated. The skin around his eyes is drawn tight into creases; the eyes themselves gaze at me with cold, hard blackness. “Dedicated, they say. Conscientious. When you came here, I requested the full report. Your strategic assessments run to an average of six compact and meaningful pages, each one compiled within three days or less. Hardly anybody thinks you have a personal life. When people need a quick and accurate summary of facts, they look for Kenji Setou.”
I say nothing. He returns my nothing for a while. Then he hurls my file across the room, into a pile of loose material in one corner.
“My son-in-law is a mystery. So I will just ask you one thing. And you will answer me.
“What is the goal of your existence?”
Oh. That is easy. Before I can think further, my mouth says, “To protect the cherry blossoms with my life.”
It’s as if somebody has cut the rope on a suspension bridge. He sinks back into his chair. I realize that both of us have been sitting on the edge of our seats, leaning towards each other. “Damn,” he curses softly, although what he says is sharper than what I am recording. “You surprise me. You might be worth saving. Go. I’ll get Captain Ishikawa to settle the details with Kurita.”
I’m sitting in a little restaurant in Saitama. Nice place; it was where Nakai used to meet his lawyer. And it’s his lawyer’s sister I’m meeting today. I am dressed neatly, a light suit for the July heat, and a scarf that is less bright and less thick. Mother always said to keep the neck warm. It’s evening, but the sky is still bright.
I’m remembering clumsy old Kenji who used to blame everyone for colliding with him in the school corridors. In one universe, he collided with a fair-haired girl who couldn’t see him. In this world, he collided with a deaf brunette whom he didn’t see. In both worlds, he helped them pick up their stuff, strewn all over the floor. In both worlds, someone noticed.
A lady walks into the room. My mind splits into two. In one world, the lawyer’s sister is my old class representative, tall and blonde, and I have to raise my voice to let her find her way to me. In this world, the lawyer’s sister is Hisao’s old class representative, not very tall and dark-haired, and raising my voice is pointless.
It’s pointless because my friend Shizune spots me with her trademark efficiency, quartering the room with her gaze until she sees me in the corner. She is strikingly made-up, despite having next to no make-up on at all. Her pale complexion contrasts comfortably with her grey suit. She has a lot of those. I wonder if she’s angry with me. I stand and move away from my seat a little.
[Shizune] I begin, bowing. [Dr Hakamichi now? I congratulate you.] My signing has improved. Online courses help, and I have practiced a lot.
She smiles a little, a dimple appearing at the left corner of her mouth. [Thank you.] She returns my bow and the smile disappears.
[But you forgot my birthday! There was no cheesecake this year!] Her signing is emphatic, like swordplay.
[Ah. I was uncertain that you wanted to talk to me.]
[There is no uncertainty about cheesecake, for which you need not have opened your mouth at all.]
I’m not sure how serious she is. Over the years, I have found her to have a mischievous sense of humour. [Apologies, Shizune. I hope we are still friends.]
[Only if your wife has given us permission to be. Where is she?]
This time, she is serious. I reply equally seriously, unfolding the piece of paper from my pocket. [I followed your instructions. She has given permission for us to meet. See, it is written here.]
She adjusts her steel-rimmed glasses carefully to read, while I hold the paper steadily in front of her. Finally, she looks up. The smile is back.
[Good. One must rebuild broken faith carefully. So we are still friends, and we can have dinner like friends. Tell me everything.]
We order a simple meal of fried cutlets (pork for me, veal for her) and rice with egg and onions. She has an excellent appetite, it seems. I tell her what I can about my new work.
I tell her about the children and show her pictures on my tabphone. Her eyes light up. It’s almost as if she wished she had some of her own.
[Cute! Masako has your sharp features but she is feminine like Yuuko. And Koji, he’s amazing. He looks very naughty. He will grow up to be a master of romance, like his godfather.]
I am startled into laughter. Her humour always catches me from the side, like an ambush. But that reference to Hisao, it carries some sadness in it.
[How about you, Shizune?]
She carefully puts her chopsticks down again. One thing about eating with her is that it’s hard to converse unless you take well-defined turns.
[I’m going to be vice-principal at Yamaku from the first day of next month.]
What a bombshell to drop! I look at her, and then realize that the scrappy young girl I’ve known for more than a decade is more than a match for any school system.
[That’s excellent! Do they know?] Oh, God, she’ll be Hisao’s boss.
[If by ‘they’ you mean Hisao and Emi, then no. But I have told Mutou-sensei. It was he who made me think about that career option.]
[Congratulations again, Madam Vice-Principal.]
She blushes a little and favours me with her asymmetric smile. [Thank you, and congratulations to you too, Major.]
She laughs outright when she sees my surprise. That was one thing I hadn’t told her about. It embarrasses me when civilians use military rank. I am actually an Assistant Director, equivalent to a major, but not worthy of the latter title.
When I tell her, she merely waggles her chopsticks in the air and slurps some miso soup from its bowl. We are friends, and it is comforting to know that she thinks of me as one whom she can waggle her chopsticks at.
Later, I give her a ride home to save her the admittedly short bus journey. I disappear promptly after depositing her. I have no desire to meet her brother at this time. Nor her legendary father.
“You’ll do it?” she asks.
I look at my lady wife, the lovely woman I don’t deserve. “Shirakawa-san, I cannot fail in any duty now, you know that. I have made promises.”
“Go, then. Um…” she frowns for a moment here, choosing her words carefully, as always. “One cannot let one’s friends down.”
Unlike some other people I know, she is serious about this. She is not making a sly dig at me. I say carefully, “I have not replied yet.”
“What are you waiting for, Assistant Director Setou?”
“Your permission, Administrative Officer Shirakawa.”
She smiles, but it pains me to see the wariness behind her eyes. “You have it, and also my blessings. Help your friend win a chance of happiness.”
I bow gratefully and make my exit. I sense her eyes on me as I leave her room. I am already speed-dialing a certain number.
“Hey, man. Did she say yes?”
“Yeah, we’re good to go. I’ll make the arrangements.”
And just like that, I’m off to Yamaku one more time. I can only hope that Shizune won’t kill me for what I’m about to do. On the last night of the Sendai Tanabata Festival, no less.
The days pass, and on Tuesday 8th August, we are ready. I grin to myself. I can’t be Hisao’s best man the way he was mine, but I can surely be his second in this particular matter. Just before 0900, I make my way from my hotel room to the rendezvous point, a little bistro in a small corner of Sendai, near a post office.
“Hello, Rin Tezuka!” I say. Her distinctive profile is only slightly different from the last time I saw her, years ago. Her hair is wilder, and yet it has braids in it. She is wearing something loose and comfortable. There is an older lady with her, someone who reminds me somehow of my mother.
Rin turns to look at me. “Hello, Kenji. It’s an engagement Rin. It was difficult to Meiko. Do you like my English jokes? Hisao said you like English jokes. I didn’t know what to say to you, so I thought I would get some jokes ready.”
For some inexplicable reason, I feel a bit sad. “Ah, those are good jokes,” I say politely. “It is very nice to see you again, Rin.”
“Is it?” she says, curiously. “Nicer than the last time?”
“It always is,” I say firmly.
“Hi! I’m Meiko! Don’t expect Rin to introduce us; she doesn’t do introductions. You must be Kenji, Hisao’s best friend.”
She is actually quite a beautiful woman, although she must be in her fifties by now. She not only reminds me of my mother, but her hair reminds me somehow of my wife. I feel very awkward now.
“Hello, Ibarazaki-san. It is my great pleasure to be of your acquaintance.” The line feels even more awkward than I feel.
“Ah, young man, don’t be silly! You’re doing us a great favour. Even Hisao hasn’t seen it yet, and he’ll only get to see it a short while before Emi does. Hopefully my daughter will then say the right thing, and we’ll all live happily ever after!”
Rin looks at me, her eyes unfathomable, deep wells of green. “We can’t trust Emi to say the right thing. But it will be fine if she doesn’t say the wrong thing.”
Meiko smiles and nimbly produces a little box. “Would you like to see it?”
“This person is honoured.” I am more curious than anything else. What strange thing could spring from the minds of Rin Tezuka and Meiko Ibarazaki?
A little shyly, Emi’s mother opens the box. I cannot help myself. I take a deep breath. The setting is some dark metal, with five little claws capped by five tiny stones: diamonds? They protect a smoothly polished and unfaceted gemstone in their midst, a large one. It must be a fire opal. I’ve never seen one before, but I’ve read about them. This one is mostly red and orange, flashing like fire. But in the morning light, it also glitters bright blue and green, like copper in a flame.
Inanely, I find some words. “How very beautiful! Is that thing from Mexico?”
Meiko laughs. “How did you guess?”
I didn’t. I know some of them come from South America. But the only country that came to mind just happened to sound a bit like your name, Mrs Ibarazaki.
But I don’t say any of this. I just smile back, as if I am a secret gemologist.
Rin taps her foot, as if impatient. “Don’t lose it. It wasn’t easy to make. It wasn’t easy to keep the butterflies inside the stone. They don’t like it in there. But some day the stone will crack and they’ll fly out. Hopefully a long time from now.”
I solemnly promise to look after this treasure, and I take my leave. I have several tasks to perform before this day is out: keeping students away from a certain roof, avoiding Shizune (which gives me a twinge of pain) and making sure she knows nothing about this, and getting the ring to Hisao before he needs to use it.
Later, sitting in my secret lair in the room behind the library, I sneak another look at the fiery stone, flashing with colour, that I will soon be smuggling to Hisao. Green for him
, I suppose, and if I remember correctly, blue for Emi. And a lot of brightly glowing warmth.
I sigh, and say a little blessing over it. I pray that they’ll have good years and a long time together. Who knows if such things work or not?
I don’t, but it is what a friend would do.
Here we are, at an undisclosed location. Yuuko has given me permission to get my well-deserved scolding. I knew we would never be able to get away with it, Hisao and me, two old friends in cahoots. But Hisao, he’s not here today, and that leaves me alone to face the wrath that comes.
We have barely greeted each other and taken our seats—the nondescript civil servant with a light brown jacket and garish scarf, the school administrator with conservative blue-grey suit and hair neatly pinned back—when she begins.
[Kenji Setou, you got me into trouble.] She seems almost petulant. But there’s more to it than that, I sense.
[I did? I am sorry, Shizune.]
[Principal Yamamoto almost had a heart attack. He wanted to know who organized it. I had to protect the Student Council president, poor Hasegawa, from taking responsibility.]
[Yes, the innocent young lady that you suborned.] The light flashes off her glasses in a way reminiscent of swords at dawn.
[Hisao told me to make the arrangements with her.] I know Shizune already knows, so I am fine with giving up this information.
[Yes! I know! But I had the unpleasant task of disciplining Hisao and Emi!] She is frowning, and her elbows are quivering with suppressed rage.
[It was wonderful. All the students, and the fireworks, and the two of them up there on the roof.] I press ahead recklessly, indirectly trying to make the point that people have to have a life, that work is only one part of life.
She takes a deep breath, then lets it all out in a sigh. [I suppose so, Kenji. But I am offended.]
[Why?] The damn feminist boss
, old Kenji is thinking, she never likes other people to have fun.
[Because…] There is a long pause. [Because you didn’t trust me. They’re my friends too, Kenji. And you too. But I was made to look foolish and had to officially take them to task for their behaviour. And…] Another pause.
She doesn’t continue. She has lapsed into uncomfortable silence. I wait for a while.
[Nothing, Kenji. Just old thoughts. Emi has never really liked me, and I did not want to seem as if I was bearing a grudge.]
[Were you?] I am genuinely curious.
[No…] She is frowning. [Well, not any more.]
[You once did?] I am a little shocked.
[I used to think Emi was bad for him. She had no sense of discipline. Maybe I was wrong.] She has an unhappy look on her face. For a moment, she reminds me of the little girl she once was, mouthing meaningless sounds at me in frustration as her stationery and books lie scattered around her, because I didn’t see her and barged into her along the school corridors.
I helped her pick her stuff up then. I will do it again now.
[Shizune, you did the right thing. I was wrong to not tell you. I was not being a good friend.]
[No, it wasn’t.] Now she seems forlorn, not angry. [I don’t have many good friends, do I?]
[It isn’t your fault.]
[It is. But to say it isn’t, that is you trying to be a good friend. Appreciated.]
She tries to smile, and succeeds a little. Then she surprises me by momentarily placing her bony fingers on my hands, which are clasped on the table between us. She squeezes my hands with unexpected strength, and then lets go.
[Thank you, Kenji. Thanks for trying to be everyone’s friend.]
I find it in me to smile at her. [Would you like some cheesecake?]
Friendships, they’re too precious. It is especially rare to have friendships between men and women that do not involve nakedness, emotion, or naked emotions. When I look back at those years and realize that I was not to see Shizune Hakamichi again for a very long time, I think of how sometimes work is a curse. Work brings people together, but like a river or an ocean, it can also keep them apart.
But one can always imagine how much better one could have been. There is no end to that. Better to avoid thinking that way too much, if possible.