This is the third section of the fourth part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which Kenji makes promises to Hisao and tries to figure out things about soy sauce.
Kenji 4: The World Turned Upside-Down
The year 2021 had pieces of sadness in it, but work was fine and there were a lot of happy moments. I became older, but that happens every day. I did many things which I cannot write down here, and possibly will never be able to mention. I read an old comic book series called ‘Planetary’ by some guy named Ellis. I laughed, and then I cried. We had done so many of those things, although without the fancy psychic powers and stuff like that.
2022 was when I knew the world was somehow broken. But that came later, and these events came first.
July to August 2021
“Hello. This is Natsume. Kenji?” Familiar voice, something tells me—but my head, it’s not joining the dots. Oh, it’s Nat, my old friend Nat.
“What’s up?” I say sleepily. There’s more mumbling, urgency, I don’t know. My ears don’t work well in the morning when I’ve just woken up after a few days without sleeping, and I’m not so sure I’m awake.
Then I hear it: “Naomi’s in hospital. Just to let you know. In case you care.”
Why wouldn’t I care?
Suddenly, I’m alert. “What? Of course. Why?”
“She said you might want to know. Also, she told me you abandoned her at Shizune’s little party a couple of months ago.”
“No, did not! Where is she?”
“In Osaka. She went off her meds again.”
Nat sounds very upset. There’s a lot of strain in her voice. Damn! What is it with people? I’m angry. But also, I’m afraid. “How bad is it?”
“She’ll recover. Had a fall off a bridge, but people nearby were alert.”
“Were you not with her?” Too late, I hear myself. It sounds like I’m accusing her of something.
“No. Was working.” In my mind, I hear Naomi saying, Nat’s busy… always busy… too busy to come.
Shit. It’s not my fault. It’s Nat’s, surely. But she sounds like she’s already accusing herself.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“I just thought you would want to know.” She sounds like she might cry, but won’t.
“Yes. Is she with you now?”
“Hold on. Then I’ll leave the room and you can talk to her.”
There’s a pause. It’s a terrifying moment. I’m sitting up in bed and Yuuko is making breakfast and the kids are going to school and I have to talk to someone who, maybe, I have let down. Somehow. I don’t know how.
“Kenji?” She’s alive, but she sounds weak.
“Naomi? What happened?”
“Nothing. Forgot my meds.” She says it without any change in tone at all.
“That’s bad. Used the reminder app?”
“I’ve not used it since I upgraded my tabphone. So, I forgot. That’s all. And I was sleepy, and tired, and it didn’t seem worth it.”
“What’s not worth it?” I am afraid to hear the answer.
“Everything. I went home. I stayed home. There wasn’t anyone. And I found a little model of the Milky Way you gave me once, a long time ago. Do you remember what’s on the base?”
I remember. Oh. “I think so.”
“Kyoto. Thirteen years ago. We used to go up on the roof, the astronomy building. Can you say the words?”
Of course I can: “Wherever you are is the centre of the stars
,” I quote.
“No more, right? I’m not anybody’s centre, not that I wanted to be, but it would’ve been nice. Thanks for talking, Kenji. Bye.”
I want to tell her to hang on, to not go away yet. But the phone dies in my hands, that’s what it feels like. I can’t remember the Kenji of thirteen years ago very well, but the sadness in that Kenji tastes bitter in me.
A couple of weeks later, Naomi leaves a message to say she has fully recovered and gone back to work, but she does not answer my return calls. In a way, that is a relief. I cannot live my life thinking about someone I used to love when I love someone else now. My mind cannot take that kind of shit. But my heart is sad, because some bits of old love, they don’t go away.
Yuuko seems to understand when I tell her all this. Maybe it is foolish to tell people all these things, but it is also necessary, I think. And so she is kind enough to let me hang out with Hisao once in a while, and that brings us to a rooftop in Sendai one night.
“What’s up?” I ask my friend. This is our custom now, because we have had meetings like this for fourteen years.
“Heh. Maybe, a second child.” He looks genuinely pleased. It is very different from what he felt before.
“Congratulations! You are making a good legacy for the future.”
“I always wonder if I will be there to see them grow up.” A sudden turn to melancholy. It is not unusual for my friend, but my instincts come alive.
“Any news on your heart condition?”
“Not really. But I think you know about what’s happening.”
“Seems as if a lot of us are involved, somehow. In a lot of things.”
“All I wanted was a quiet life with someone I loved,” he says softly. “And maybe, to give back to society the second chance of life I also was given.”
“That is what we all dream of, Nakai-san.”
“That is what I thought I had, Setou-san.”
There’s a bit of whisky, a Nikka Taketsuru, old and wonderful. Our wives have given us permission. The stars are out, and while we are happy to be free, we are also sad. Our lives, they aren’t really our own, no matter how much we do with what we have. We share them a lot, we Yamaku alumni, because we don’t think other people will understand; in fact, we know that other people, especially in Japan, are unlikely to understand us.
“How were the Yamaku-50 celebrations?”
“Good. We’ve had two big events, because the actual anniversary was 1st March, and we could combine that with graduation. I think the parents and the graduates were quite impressed and felt it was unforgettable. Shizune wants a bigger auditorium though. She kept saying it was too small.”
I grin at him. “She would, wouldn’t she?” This gets a smile from him.
“The other one was our school festival, and that’s just over. Tiring for everyone, but I always feel nostalgic. There are probably students like you, hiding in their rooms and slinking around; students like me, confused and trying to get a life. I look at them and I wish them all the best.”
“If they end up like us, that’s almost as good as it gets, huh?”
He smiles again, and for a while, we’re two kids on a roof again. Then his face ages a little, and I realize that mine has too. We’re both responsible adults now, who would’ve thought it?
“I hear you’ve been promoted.”
“How did you find out?” He pauses, then smacks himself lightly on the forehead. “Of course, Yuuko. She takes the minutes at meetings.”
“Yes. Congratulations, Mr Acting Vice-Principal. How does it feel to be Shizune Hakamichi’s vice?”
“That sounds a lot worse in English, you know.” He grins for a moment, then his cheeks collapse a bit. “It’s hard work. It’s like being in the old Student Council again, except that more people tell you what to do, and there’s only two of you and some people who are supposed to be there but too busy to help out for real.”
“Getting old and tired, Nakai-san?”
“Just tired, Setou-san. This is good whisky.”
I take a sip, he takes a sip. Whatever he says, we’re like two old geezers, two old crows up on the roof. It’s funny, but it’s also sad.
“How’s Emi taking it?”
“Happy, but she feels I spend too much time in school and not enough time with Akiko.”
“Ah. It’s the mother-daughter thing.”
He takes a sip, I take a sip. Then he looks at me with the corner of his eye, before looking up into the sky.
“If anything happens, will you watch over them?”
“I? I’m not in a position to…”
“Kenji, I’m not the dumbass kid you knew in high school.” He takes a small sip, looks at me with tired eyes. “I’m a graduate of the grandest and most ridiculous university in Japan, and I teach science for a living. I can construct hypotheses and test them. I can gather data and see how the pieces fit.”
I look at him. All this is true. We aren’t the dumbass kids we used to be.
“So, I know you can do it. Emi has no objections. Her father was a cop. But she doesn’t really like you, sorry. And she hates the idea of being protected. So there’s no need to be obvious. Obvious things I’m leaving to more obvious people. That’s settled too.”
I’m uneasy. “Hisao, my friend, nothing’s going to happen to you. If God wills, you will have a long life.”
“I’m not sure about God, or gods, or spirits. But things do happen. And you’re my friend. Even if you didn’t turn up at the wedding, you were watching.”
“What do you mean?” How the hell does he know?
“These days, the first-year students build drone detectors as school projects. They scan and detect RF, some of them do optical heterodyne systems too. Mutou and I facilitate, we supervise. It’s a new world. It’s beyond our time. I don’t know what exactly your job is about, but you have one foot in a different world, and you see things. And if you can see, you can watch. It’s rude of me to be asking, I know. But who will protect them when I’m gone?”
He’s not angry with me, I think. He’s anxious. He’s being a father, and I know the feeling. I feel ashamed that he feels he has to ask, and I also feel the burden of my work.
“Of course I will watch, if it comes to that. But I will not be a heavy hand on them.”
“I’m very grateful,” he says, bowing his head a little. “I don’t think I’d want that, but a finger of assistance once in a while, perhaps that’s something they would be grateful for in the years ahead.”
“I will look after your children as if they’re my own, friend.”
I take a sip. He takes a sip. I offer him a hand, and he shakes it firmly. We’ve found out long ago that shaking hands is easier than bowing when up on a roof. We’ve been friends a very long time now, it seems.
September to October 2021
Masako is six years old in September. She’ll be in primary school next year, and I wonder where all the time has gone. Also, she is even more independent-minded, always questioning us. Her godmother, who has come to visit for their combined birthday party, encourages this.
“I want to be like Natsume Godma. I want to be a journalist and interview people and go around the world and get to stay up late and stay out and have parties all the time!”
Nat looks embarrassed as I walk in on this proclamation. “It’s not always like that,” she mumbles.
“Colonel’s home!” says Yuuko, grinning. “Greet your papa.”
Koji hits me in the legs first, his little body all hot and sweaty. Masako twirls, then runs up to me with a little electronic pad. “Hi papa, see, this is what Natsume Godma gave me! It’s really cool!” And really expensive, for a six-year-old girl.
“Hi little champion, big champion. Very cool, very cool. Wife, Nat. Happy birthday, Nat! So happy to see you! Ah, where is Naomi?”
To tell the truth, I’ve been looking forward to seeing her. I am still a bit worried about her health.
“She says she’s busy, Kenji. Sends you her warmest apologies. My brother’s working part time as a resident computer person at her consultancy firm, and they’re both at some IT meeting.”
Natsume sounds tired, and Naomi’s reason sounds more like an excuse. I hope they are both all right, because something is nagging at the back of my head. But, hey, this is a happy birthday party, and it’s not to be spoilt.
A month later, I’m at a place I haven’t been to for a long, long time. I look around furtively, feeling guilty even though I have no reason to be. This is where my wife used to work in her spare time, to earn money for her education. I asked her why, and she said that her father always staked the kids fifty per cent and made them earn the rest. After thinking a bit, I decided it was a good idea.
In a while, there appears a thin, tired guy who is greeted at the door by the new staff (or maybe not so new, but I wouldn’t know). He drops heavily into the seat opposite me. “Hey, Kenji!” says Mr Vice-Principal.
“What’s up, Hisao?” I say, but I already know what’s up and I wish I’d known earlier. “How are the stealthy mineral investments doing?”
“It’s not for me,” he says heavily, not pretending that he doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
“But, dude, it’s CHINA,” I hiss, adopting the secret-agent-conspirator tones of our youth. “How are you so into THEM?”
I’ve been looking at his investment positions, all part of due diligence. I mean, if you’re going to protect the children, you need to know what the hell you’re protecting. And I asked Hisao, and he talked about the Yamaku Foundation, and all I saw was all his stuff going to the Foundation. What’s left for the kids? So that’s why we’re here. I need to bully him a bit.
“Yeah, I know. But rare earths, that kind of thing, they’re golden forever.”
“The Americans are digging up a lot of it, these days.”
“It’s okay, man. If you’ve been poking around, you know what I did.”
“Nakai, you sold the stuff back to us! At a big profit!”
He looks uncomfortable. “Wasn’t me, actually.”
“Confirm it, bro. It was Madam Dictator who networked you through Hakamichi Industries, right?”
“I’m not a criminal! What’s with the ‘bro’ stuff, anyway?”
I sigh. “Hisao, whenever I need to force your stubborn side to talk, I just pretend I’m old mad Kenji. Now, do you want me to curse and swear loudly inside the Shanghai and let people know that Yamaku’s vice-principal is under investigation?”
“What? I am?”
“No, you’re not. But…”
“Gah.” Silence. Then he talks about how Akira Satou, sister of his old flame, has been helping him with certain things. That, I admit, is a big surprise. But it all fits together with what I know, and that’s good. I hate not knowing stuff.
Strangely, our conversation moves on to the topic of women. They’ve always worried me, on some level. We let them rule our lives, in exchange for letting us play with the rest of the world. But when they turn bad, or sad, or mad, it’s trouble of a different kind. Eventually, we end up talking about our kids.
“Yeah,” I laugh, “Koji’s about Akiko’s age, and he already likes her a lot. Since he saw her as a baby.”
“Don’t tell Emi that. She’s very sensitive about letting girls make their own choices.”
“Sometimes, Emi has no sense of humour,” he says morosely. “Especially when she’s expecting. Cheerful, but touchy.”
“Ha! So what you told me last time was true! A second on the way!”
“Kenji, I thought you believed me when I told you! Due in May!”
I need to change the subject before we end up like some poetry jam. Also, there was once I hinted to Hisao that Yuuko and I had another one coming, and that didn’t work out. The truth became a lie. It’s like what Tezuka once told me, “If you make comments on works in progress, it’s bad luck.”
“Well, congratulations again. What do you think about the food quality here nowadays?”
“As an adult, I think it’s terrible. But I think it’s better than when we were students—so, not so bad.”
“That’s life, Hisao.”
He looks down at his ramen, half-finished but still warm in its bowl. “One day, come over to the school. I’ll get the molecular gastronomy class to whip up something for you. It’s a cool project that Emi and I have in the basement of the laboratory block.”
It sounds wonderful. “Ah, but you know I can’t be seen on the campus officially, these days.”
“We’ll make it unofficial then, we won’t tell Shizune. One of the days that you pick Yuuko up after work, come a bit earlier and we can have tea in the café we set up outside the MG lab. It’s better than this, you know.”
“Isn’t that an abuse of privilege?” I needle him.
With a completely deadpan expression, he cracks me up by saying, “Madam Principal Hakamichi Shizune would never consider it so.”
November to December 2021
I’m busy towards the end of the year. Monitoring the activities of one Rika Katayama has given me a headache. So one day in late November, when it’s getting cool, I pull Tsukuda off surveillance and give him a day off. I am quite sure he’s been targeted by the Katayamas anyway, so I tell him to get clean while I rotate someone else in. He seems very thankful. I wonder how he’ll feel if he knows his boss is going to take over for a couple of days. That’s why I’m borrowing my Aunt Midori’s little German car for a drive up to Noda, a place I am quite fond of for a funny reason.
Let me tell you a story, in case you are a foreigner. Once upon a time, maybe four hundred years ago, there were a couple of families who decided to pool their resources in their small town, and become a bigger ‘gang’. They made soy sauce, from wheat, and soybeans, and salt. Then they add some kind of fungus called ‘koji’. No, I didn’t name my son after a fungus! But it always cracks me up when people think that; after all, when you have it in sounds but not the characters themselves, it’s exactly the same. This mixture is called ‘shoyu koji’ which I guess you can call ‘fungus bean sauce’. It is world-famous, and I bet you know the brand I’m talking about.
The small town is quite big now. It even has one of those American ‘Toys ‘R’ Us’ stores. But I like the little soy sauce museum in their science-fiction style headquarters building in Noda. It was their place of origin, and they maintain it well, they have tours even, through the factory. They serve soy sauce flavoured ice-cream, and one day I might consider sending a friend a soy sauce cheesecake or a soy sauce pizza. It all tastes good.
What I’m interested in, though, is behind the reconstructed traditional fermentation centre. It’s even behind the enormous steel vats that are the real thing. It’s a little research facility that is linked to Noda Campus, only 20 minutes away. They weren’t supposed to have one. I flash my pass at the security guards, who scan it diligently and then look very confused, but bow and let me in. I drive past them and park neatly in a visitor’s lot. Better not to antagonize your hosts if you need information the quiet way.
As I guessed they might, my hosts attempt to act like a tortoise and pull their legs in when I start asking. I smile and ask gently, “Do you want to live for 10,000 years?” I think they are unnerved by my colourful scarf, because they don’t think that a civil servant like me should wear such colours with my suit.
“No, Director Setou,” some of them chorus. Some say, “Yes, Director Setou,” and the count is about even. These are small turtles in the soy sauce pond. I smile more, and somebody gets the hint, and soon I get to see someone more senior.
“Good morning, Ueta-san!” I say, the moment I see him enter. He has a very appropriate name for a big head in a big company. The moment he sees me, he smiles without humour and says, “Good morning, Setou-san!” in reply. It is as if we are great friends.
But he suspects the jig is up, as they say. I have come to steal melons in broad daylight, and he is going to tell me where they are. We pause for tea, which we do patiently, not talking about the secret research facility. An hour later, we smile and exchange goodbyes, and I am off down the road to visit the ‘Ghost of Noda’.
What? I blink in a certain pattern again. My eyeball’s data feed is saying something strange. Very strange. What is Dr Katayama doing heading to Sendai today? Kenji, you’re a failure! You spent so much time acting the scary man at the sauce factory that you let the fish slip out of the net!
Frustrated, I decide that this is the day I visit Yamaku for some molecular gastronomy. It’s not a short drive, but it’s relaxing in a way. As I approach Sendai, my target ring and my destination ring begin to overlap. As I park below the window of Shizune Hakamichi’s office, they are almost one hundred per cent in alignment.
I’m already talking to my good friend the Vice-Principal, and he has earlier informed the Principal that Director Setou of a certain government agency is visiting. It is 3.30 pm. Yuuko finishes work at 6 pm most days, so I still have time.
“Hisao, would you happen to know if your good friend and surprise love interest Rika Katayama is on campus today?”
I swear I can hear him blush over the phone. “What? No! I mean, I don’t know. Ow! I don’t know what he means by that, Emi! Really! Yes, later! No, I mean yes. No!”
This is amusing, but tiresome. “Tell Emi I was joking. I’m just visiting your molecular gastronomy lab on impulse. Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. Was supposed to meet Rika earlier today and found out she was headed in this direction.”
It’s mostly true. But there’s too much coincidence about the whole thing. From out of nowhere, a voice in my head says, “See? It’s the damn feminists again! They got to Nakai and now they’ll get to you!” I slap myself to make it shut up, and feel a lot better.
“She doesn’t come here to meet me,” he says. “She has a research project she discusses with Mutou-sensei.”
Damn, I had forgotten about him. His life is a mystery, that guy. He’s off our radars because he’s only a science teacher, but somehow he has connections. He is flagged as being on three different Family registers, and I don’t even think he knows what a Family is, which makes me a fool.
“Ah! I remember him. Where can we find him?”
“It’s after lunch, so I don’t know. I can check his timetable, though. Hold on.”
“Holding.” I wonder if we have a tracker on Akio Mutou. It is unlikely, but it never hurts to try. Hmmm. “Hisao, do you think you might find Mutou-sensei training in the dojo?”
“The dojo? What? I know he does a bit of stick fighting, hanbojutsu mainly. He studies his kata three times a week, mostly Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Maybe he does some weekends too. But I’ve never watched him. How did you know? Why do you ask?”
“He always seemed like the Sherlock Holmes adventurer type, back in the old days.” I can’t tell my friend that the satellites are telling me that both Rika and her mentor are in the dojo right now, or very close to it. The security cameras could probably tell me what they’re doing.
I’ve reached the main office, so I say, “Bye for now, see you at your office soon,” and knock on the door politely before walking in.
“Welcome to Yamaku!” says the lady at the front counter.
“Ah, good afternoon, Setou-san?” says my wife, who is standing right behind her and lifting her eyebrows so high that I start looking for little pulleys on the top of her head.
I nod to the junior officer and say, “Hello, Shirakawa-san! I have a little meeting with Vice-Principal Nakai, so sorry if I have surprised you because it was very last-minute!”
I can see Hisao already stepping out of his office, so I feel relieved that I do not have to explain things too much. “Pick you up at 6 pm?” I whisper to Yuuko, who seems a bit flustered.
“Umm, okay, husband,” she replies, a very tiny trace of a frown appearing before Hisao joins us. “See you later,” she says a little grimly just in the brief moment before Hisao and I greet each other. She hates surprises, that one.
Some distance down the corridor between the admin block and the sports centre, Hisao turns to me with a suspicious frown. “So, how do you know they’re in the dojo?”
“It’s a guess, that’s all.”
“Have you hacked our security cameras?”
“No, no, never!” I am thankful that I hadn’t done it before he asked. I hate lying to friends, so I always avoid that by not saying anything. Or by saying something else.
“Well, we’ll head for the sports centre, say hello to Mutou-sensei, and then join Emi back at the MG lab. She’s just gone there to set things up for tea.”
“Great!” I say brightly. “So nice of you!”
“Kenji, I know when you’re hiding something or being devious. But I won’t ask you more, because it’s your job. The log says that Mutou has only booked the dojo till 4.30 pm. Yamasuge takes the Aikido Club from 5 pm onwards.”
We don’t talk much as we make our way to the dojo. However, we begin to hear interesting sounds as the entrance comes into our view. Quiet conversation, with very, very short bursts of activity.
“I think we wait outside?”
“Of course,” says Hisao.
It’s the polite thing to do if we’re not actually training. But clearly he’s uncomfortable with not knowing why I’m here. Me, I’m uncomfortable because I myself don’t know why I’m here. I just need to know what Rika Katayama is doing, and that she seems to be meeting with… oh, shit. That explains why Mutou-sensei is on the Katayama register as well. For some reason, he’s either a retainer or a very close Family associate.
It’s a very uncomfortable wait. Fortunately, it’s now acceptable to do your email while waiting, and that’s what Hisao’s doing, I think. Me, I’m pretending to do mine while running through Rika’s dossier. It makes me unhappy to know there are things Kenji doesn’t know!
At 4.15 sharp, we hear sounds of practice coming to an end. It’s not true we Japanese are all martial artists, but one is familiar with typical training sounds. Today’s training was a style that didn’t sound familiar at all.
Eventually, the curtain draws back, and Rika appears, her long neat silver ponytail swaying behind her. I am impressed. I can tell even Hisao is impressed, although he stubbornly refuses to show it. She is carrying a compact black-and-red bag about the right size for a kendo armour set, and a matching sword case perhaps with a bokken in it. Katayama arms, but the impact isn’t from what she’s carrying, but how she carries herself. She has perfect posture, and she isn’t sweating at all.
“Oh? Greetings, senior gentlemen! It is a great and pleasant surprise to find you here.”
My eyeballs, on the other hand, suddenly fade to black. “Damn it!” I say, unable to stop myself.
“Kenji!” says Hisao, sounding scandalized.
“Has this junior lady caused offence?” asks Rika, very politely and demurely.
“Ah, hello? Oh, Nakai-san, Setou-san, what can this old teacher do for you today?” says someone who can only be Mutou-sensei.
I blink, attempting to reset my augments. Who’s using countermeasures against me?
The augments put themselves offline and my eyeballs go normal, but without commentary. “Ah, sorry, Sensei, Dr Katayama,” I say politely, “Good day to you, I was just about to have tea with Hisao and was wondering if you would like to join us.”
It is the dumbest excuse I can give. Why would I go all the way to the dojo to invite people to tea? But there it is. What surprises me is that they accept, Mutou sticking in the comment that it is Rika who is sensei in the dojo and not he. Soon we are sitting down in a little traditional-looking café that has been set up outside the shiny steel doors of Hisao and Emi’s molecular gastronomy laboratory.
At the end of our little encounter, I’ve classified everyone there as a friend. I also have some guesses about what is happening, some ideas about the future of animal tissue culture, and first-hand knowledge about how good food can taste in specially-prepared small amounts. ‘Foam of clam extract on julienne of flash-frozen fugu ’ sounds terrible, but it is excellent, and it is only one of the several tiny portions I get to taste.
But at the back of my mind, old Kenji is yelling, “Hey, don’t let the damn feminists con you, one of them is handling the Mutou guy you used to respect so much, and the other one is controlling your best friend!”
I’m sure this is not true. After I take my meds, things will be better, and my birthday is coming soon!