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Bob van Laerhoven

RETURN TO HIROSHIMA

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Prologue

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Hashima Island – the wooden pier – Mitsuko – March 9 th 1995 

In the diffident light of a fading moon, I descend the path to the wooden pier, exhausted somehow by the incessant boom of the surf. On my right, massive waves crash against the concrete wall that surrounds this part of Hashima Island. Every few meters of my descent, I look over my shoulder. A lifetime of shadows and fears has sensitised me to presences. I can’t help wondering if Rokurobei knows that his minions call him the Serpent’s Neck, behind his back. Me, they call majo , the giant witch. They fear me, but I know that majo  is no match for the serpent’s neck. I have the feeling that Rokurobei will materialize at any moment from behind the weathered concrete blocks next to the pier. I have apologies and lies at the ready, but will they suffice to slake his wrath?

The ship is waiting as I had commanded. Rokurobei tends to use burakumin  as his servants, those of unclean descent. This is to my advantage. The captain wouldn’t dare question my orders. Recently, during daytime, I walked to the shore with a book in my hand. I’d told Rokurobei that I liked to read with the roar of the water in the background. I closed my eyes intermittently as I descended, to imitate the darkness that would confound my escape.

The night sky hangs low, ashen, the moon prowling behind restless clouds, pale red as a berry in spring. I carry a rucksack with a few belongings, some cash, my diaries, and the talisman.  My breathing is fast, as if the blustering coastal wind has sucked away the oxygen. The instant my feet touch the rough wood of the pier, a lantern ahead of me sways to and fro then disappears, a sign that the captain is waiting for me, ready for departure. I can’t resist one final glance over my shoulder, up towards the eagle’s nest on the top of the tallest apartment building on the island. At that moment, the moon breaks through the clouds and magnifies Rokurobei’s silhouette, standing at the hand rail of the fortified wall. I freeze…Time skips a beat. Then I realise that the serpent’s neck is looking in the opposite direction; I sense he’s deep in thought, reflecting on who he once was and what he has become.

He never understood that to me Hashima Island was sakoku , a land enchained.

1

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Hiroshima – Dambara Islamic Centre – Mitsuko – March 10th 1995 

In the train to Hiroshima, I leaf through the old diaries I have taken with me from Hashima Island. On May 8th 1988, I’d written: “Rokurobei  hunts at night. Do not underestimate the demon’s power. When his victims hear his footsteps and see his long neck, it’s too late. He seduces if he can, kills if he must. Although his gentle nickname for me as a child was Aonyobo , a singing female spirit that haunts abandoned imperial palaces, it would be a mistake to overlook the Serpent Neck’s true nature, his capacity for violence.” I was a high-spirited teenager, hoping to fly with words.

Now I can only hope Rokurobei doesn’t find me. After fleeing Hashima Island, I only stayed in Nagasaki for five hours. I explained my conspicuous appearance by pretending to be the daughter of hibakusha , survivors of the atom bomb from the Second World War. My story sounded plausible: my parents were little more than infants when the bomb exploded and the radiation threw their endocrine system out of kilter, leaving me with an inherited genetic defect that made me grow up differently . People tended to be politely sympathetic, and some cautiously observed that I was a striking hibakusha  of the second generation.

Fortunately, I have brought enough money with me from the island. I wasted time and money in those first hours, the result of having spent almost twenty years imprisoned on “ghost island” Hashima and thus a stranger to normal society. Although I have stayed abreast of developments on the mainland via newspapers and magazines, adjusting turns out to be more difficult than I expected. Hashima is only 15 kilometres off the coast of Nagasaki, and Rokurobei will have presumed that I fled to the city when I left the island. The only other city where I could hope to blend in was Hiroshima. Rokurobei was sure to figure that out sooner or later, but it still gave me something of a head start.

Fate came to my assistance on the train to Hiroshima. A woman in a veil was sitting opposite me and we got into a conversation. Her name was Akkira and she had converted to Islam. She took her religion seriously and wore a veil that covered her face as well as her hair. While we were talking, it gradually dawned on me that a chuddar like hers might come in handy. I feigned interest in Islam, and Akkira, a zealous recent convert, was clearly anxious to win me over. When we left the train at central station in Hiroshima, she took me with her to the Dambara Islamic Centre, an old building in a working class district of the city with a small brightly painted mosque. Akkira believed my story about being a second generation hibakusha  without batting an eyelid. My height and loose fitting clothes concealed what was really going on with me. In any event, she made no allusion to it. I told her that my parents had died within weeks of each other. Her husband, a Muslim of Turkish origin, gave me permission to stay at the Centre while I prepared for my initiation as a believer. That was eight days ago and I’ve hardly been outside since, only at night. I know how merciless the one who is pursuing me can be. I’ve known him all my life. Rokurobei has connections with the police, the business world, politics, and the yakuza , the bigwigs of the underworld. I know how powerful he is, and I know about his origins.

He is a formidable enemy and I am a broken twenty-one year old woman.

The last few days I’ve had the feeling that the birth is about to happen. I’m afraid Akkira now has her suspicions. She’s discrete, says nothing, but I’ve seen her looking at me.

My water is about to break. Tonight I see Dr Kanehari.

2

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Hiroshima – Dr Kanehari’s private clinic – Mitsuko and Dr Kanehari – March 10th 1995 

I feel reasonably safe behind the chuddar that covers my face. Fortunately, Japan’s small Muslim population tends not to attract much attention. People pretend disinterest. We are a discrete people. I pass through the streets unimpeded. I deliberately asked for a late appointment with Dr Kanehari. The teachers at the Dambara Islamic Centre have kept me busy all day, studying Islam’s hundreds of rules and practices. Many of them are contradictory. The only moments I had to myself were at night in my room. I soon discovered that I could easily slip in and out of the place via a side door. I’m the only one living in the Centre on a permanent basis. After searching the telephone book for Dr Kanehari’s number, I rang him up and came straight to the point. He was confused at first when I told him I didn’t want to deliver in a hospital and that I wasn’t looking for an abortion. I had access to television on Hashima Island and in the last year to the internet. I was aware that many Japanese women resorted to abortion because the contraceptive pill isn’t legal. Just about every gynaecologist performs illegal abortions. It’s an excellent source of undeclared income, and something of a blessing after the collapse of the Japanese economy.

I told the doctor that as a Muslim woman I didn’t want to have an abortion, but that my life would be in danger should my husband discover that the baby was a love child and that it was already growing in my belly when we met for the first time seven months ago. Dr Kanehari swallowed my story. I made him believe that I didn’t dare have myself admitted to a hospital for fear that my husband would get wind of it. The doctor asked me how I had managed to conceal my pregnancy up to now. I dished up a story about my husband being in Turkey for almost five months trying to save the family business and preparing for me to come and join him in the land of his birth. Dr Kanehari wanted to know what I planned to do with the baby. My answer was endearing in all its simplicity: my childless older sister had promised to take care of the baby as if it were her own. My story didn’t exactly hang together, but wasn’t that the same with every story and every life? In reality, Dr Kanehari was only interested in the substantial sum of money I was offering. We made an appointment for this evening.

Just before leaving the Dambara Centre for his private clinic, I inspected myself in the mirror. Because of my height, my swollen belly was barely visible, and in recent weeks I had also resorted to a corset. I had unremitting cramps and prayed that day that I would survive until nightfall.

I’m tough, I remind myself, as I scurry through the streets of Hiroshima, map in hand. I am strong, but on the verge of despair. The night is warm and humid. People glance at me furtively, at my height, my veil, but they continue on their way, in haste, absorbed by their own lives, their own pasts, their own plans for the future.

I am a pale spirit without a past.

The future is in my belly.


* * *

The lenses of Dr Kanehari’s glasses are dotted with a myriad of miniature suns, reflecting the lights behind him.

“A little jab,” says the doctor.

What? He had told me he was going to induce labour, but had said nothing about an injection.

I want to sit up.

Too late.


* * *

He’s sitting in the eagle’s nest with a book. That’s what I call his favourite place to read and think. On a clear day, you can see the outline of Nagasaki harbour from the top of the tallest apartment building on the island. Ships sail past from time to time. None of them put in to port. At night a flotilla of little boats brings us everything we need.

This was once the most densely populated place in the world. Our island is only four-hundred metres long and one-hundred and forty wide, but more than five thousand people used to live here.

It’s high tide. I stand at the old “saltwater fountain” and look left and right. This is the narrowest part of the island. In rough weather, this kind of weather, the waves sometimes break on the other side. I wait until the sea draws back and then run towards the dirty grey building in front of me. On the ground floor, daylight on Hashima always seems gloomy. The old apartment blocks of weathered reinforced concrete, moss green and slate grey, are built so close together that they block out the light. The entrance to the building is still littered with empty sake bottles, left behind by the last group of mine workers who departed the island twenty years ago.

Every time I enter the inner courtyard of the eagle’s nest my eyes are drawn to the empty windows and I’m reminded of the people who once lived here. It’s as if they left behind a terse sort of restlessness. Mainlanders say the place is haunted. Maybe they’re right. Sometimes you think you can hear voices, sighs perhaps, but in fact it’s the old buildings, crumbling. When people leave behind their deeds, their dreams, their desires in the house they once lived in, the walls begin to fester, the ceilings split and the windows crack. The buildings of Hashima seem to exude more darkness with every passing year, more menace, more loneliness. I climb the stairs, walk the corridors. Most of the doors to the tiny apartments have disappeared or are lying on the ground. In some of the flats there’s still evidence of the former inhabitants: a torn wall screen adorned with pastel drawings, an old 1950s white-framed tv, delicate teacups in a circle on the floor. Fragile, introverted signs in brutal surroundings. I look outside through the broken windows: besides the odd spot of green ivy here and there, the rest is grey. The sky is overcast, the colour of old ice. To reach the roof of the eagle’s nest I have to take an exterior staircase from the top floor. The sea is menacing today, whipped up, high waves crashing against the fortified walls. The pier at which our supply ships tie up at night is swamped with sea water. When I reach the roof I see him sitting there. He’s set up a screen against the wind. His armchair is surrounded by books. He’s not wearing western clothes. His black haori  and hakama , the long, pleated culottes once worn by warriors, are impeccable.

“What are you reading?” He makes me nervous. That’s why I don’t beat about the bush. He forgives me most of the time. After all I’m only twelve.

“A book by a great English writer. Listen: No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity, but I know none, therefore am no beast .”

He pinches my cheek with his long fingers.

“I would like…”

I fall silent. Although he’s in his late fifties, his hair is still shiny and black, pinned up in a topknot, classic samurai style. His long, gaunt, disproportioned face is expressionless, but his eyes, black as coal and gleaming fearsomely, gauge my mood. I had asked him months before why his eyes always had the same glassy expression. He told me it had to do with an overactive thyroid gland, one or other organ… I’ve forgotten where it’s located. He’s always slipping me little nuggets of knowledge, like treats to a dog.

“You would like to leave the island.”

I nod, avoid his gaze.

“I miss my mother, friends to play with. I want to go to school.”

“You learn more from me than any school can teach you.”

That’s not what it’s about. There are a thousand things I want to explain to him but can’t because they’re scattered inside me like the pieces of a puzzle and I can’t fit them together.

“I want to enjoy myself; live.”

He lithely unfolds his limbs. I am more than six foot tall, but he is head and shoulders taller. His frame is slightly crooked and his neck, his impossibly long neck… I can’t avoid staring at it. I’ve been spared the neck, at least to some extent.

“Live? Life is about going after your goal and conquering yourself.”

Your goal isn’t my goal , I want to say.

He takes my hand and pulls me towards the handrail. He points to the countryside. From this distance, Nagasaki harbour is virtually invisible. A few bulbous, dark shapes allude to its presence. Today there are no ships sailing by.

“You’re not an animal,” he says, “but people will treat you like one.”

“And you,” I blurt, without being aware of what I’m doing.

The hand on my shoulder feels heavier.

It takes a while before he answers.

“Me too. That’s why I know no pity.”


* * *

When I awake from the anaesthetic, with images of Hashima flowing out of me like water and making way for reality, I don’t see Dr Kanehari’s face, I see my father.

“Daughter.” His weighty voice sounds broken behind the surgical mask. He says something about the kiku , the divine chrysanthemum, symbol of the kikusui , the imperial bloodline, but because of the turmoil in my head and the nauseating lightness in my belly I find it hard to understand what he’s talking about.

What’s he doing? He’s turning away. I look at his back through the white coat he’s wearing. I remember that I used to think my father’s body was made of veined granite.

“Daughter,” he says with his back still turned. “Did I make your life such a misery that you had to give birth like an animal?” His voice sounds like the voices in a dream, plaguing you from the depths of a gurgling well. Give birth like an animal?  What does he imply? I want to answer him, but I can’t utter a word. What is there to say when Rokurobei catches up with us?

3

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Hiroshima – Peace Monument – inspector Takeda and his assistant Akira – March 10th 1995 

Every corpse inspector Takeda’s job confronted him with made him think of his father, the fornicating buck. But the mutilated body of the baby found by the cleaning crew at the Peace Monument – dedicated to Sadako Sasaki – reminded him of his mother. When Takeda was a teenager, his mother told him about the first baby she delivered in the Dutch East Indies, which she tossed into the camp latrine shortly after its birth in 1943 with the permission of the Japanese guard who had raped her. Takeda, her second son, had been spared the same fate because his mother was still in her eighth month when the women’s camp at Pangkala-Balei in South Sumatra was liberated after the Japanese capitulation. Takeda thinks back to Hubertus Gerressen in a fit of melancholy. That was the name Barbara Gerressen gave him fifty years earlier, the name he no longer bears.

Takeda doesn’t know his father’s name. Barbara Gerressen didn’t know it either, or refused to mention it. All her life she referred to him as “that fornicating buck”.

His mother’s moods and convictions were extremely volatile, all down to the painful experiments the Japanese occupier conducted on her and many other women in the camp. If you could seduce one of the guards, stir his lust, you were better off. Barbara’s Dutch pragmatism almost dictated it. Result: a fertile belly bulging for a second time. Destined for the latrine as before, but the liberation got in the way. After the camp, Barbara Gerressen loved and hated her son with tremendous intensity for the rest of her life. She never knew why. Perhaps she thought too much about her firstborn.

The inspector stares at the bullet-shaped memorial to Sadako Sasaki, the twelve-year-old little girl who was standing on Misasa Bridge when Little Boy  exploded above her head and toxic radiation descended on the city like a blanket. She died ten years later from leukaemia. Sadako spent the last year of her life folding paper cranes because a clairvoyant had predicted she would survive if she reached a certain number. Takeda couldn’t remember how many, only that she had folded many more than the required number when she died with malignant bulges on her neck and throat. The hibakusha  later picked up her habit. Nowadays, after every school trip, hoards of nervous, giggling schoolgirls leave behind a veritable mountain of finely folded paper at her monument.

The inspector kneels beside the swollen lump of flesh. Colourful paper cranes are piled up next to the tiny corpse. Under his breath Takeda curses the person who discovered the body and phoned the gutter tabloid Shukan Gendai  before warning the police. It must have been one of the cleaners, but everyone’s denying it. Takeda is convinced they all received an equal share of the tip-off money. He has Shukan Gendai ’s local photographer traced, accusing him of disturbing a murder investigation and removing forensic evidence from a crime scene. The man defends himself by insisting that he’d come to photograph the monument for an “opinion piece” prior to the commemoration of Little Boy ’s fiftieth anniversary and “stumbled over the corpse” in the process. As a good citizen he had taken photos first and then informed the cleaning crew. His photos will appear on the front page under a glaring headline.

“Inspector?” Wary-eyed and bespectacled detective Akira appears behind Takeda’s back, striking a quasi-military pose.

“Yes?”

“The forensic people are here. They want permission to start work.”

In his youth, inspector Takeda’s hair wavered between blond and red, just like his mother’s. Now it was turning grey. His angular features had a rugged hue that still glistened like copper in the sun. Takeda has always considered the enforced racial fusion that led to his birth unseemly. Large, plump, cumbersome hands and feet, robust shoulders. The inspector moves like the trained judoka he is and has been for years.

“Wait for a bit, Akira.” The inspector stoops closer to the tiny corpse. The subdued light under the monument casts a uniform glow over the baby’s blackened skin. The body looks like a doll that’s been baked at too high a temperature. Its head is swollen and misshapen. Hardened fibrous tissue protrudes from its eye sockets. A lump of raw flesh – the tonsils? – bulges from its lipless mouth. The naked little body has the colour and texture of black porcelain. But the crotch is distended, a snow-white protuberance, the genitals melted like congealed egg-white. The inspector pulls on a thin latex glove. He doesn’t touch the corpse. His hand makes a gentle waving motion above the head, then the heart region, then the crotch.

Akira turns away. As a modern Japanese man he abhors such displays. But time after time superstition takes over and sends a slight shiver down his spine.

Takeda’s face remains motionless, writing off some of his colleagues’ claim that he has a sixth sense to sheer accident and his share of luck. But a feeling overcomes him nevertheless that’s best described as the moment before a tornado lets loose. A tingle of electricity runs across his chest from left to right. He picks up an intensity of pain and anxiety he’s never experienced before.

4

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Hiroshima – Dr Kanehari’s private clinic – Mitsuko and Dr Kanehari – March 10th 1995 

“Pseudocyesis,” says Dr Kanehari. My father’s face, always so inscrutable and stern, with those inward looking eyes almost impossible to engage, refuses to leave the room. It floats past in a slow blur, but I can still feel his presence, so powerful that I begin to doubt he was a dream. My legs are cold, my head trapped in an airless bubble. At the same time my limbs feel tense, ready to escape. I can see tiny droplets of sweat on Dr Kanehari’s forehead, crystal clear, as if through binoculars.

“What do you mean?”

The doctor looks at me as if he doesn’t understand why I should be asking him a question. “Phantom pregnancy. It’s rare, but the women who suffer from it are usually so desperate to get pregnant they experience all the symptoms: nausea, occasional vomiting, increased weight, sensitive, painful breasts, excessive sleep.”

“But…”

“You called me,” the doctor interrupts. “You didn’t want the foetus removed. You wanted to have the baby and give it to your sister. It was only after I agreed to your request that I realised you weren’t pregnant.”

“But I felt it kick! I talked to…”

Kanehari shakes his head. He tries to placate me. I sense he’s hiding something.

“Phantom pregnancies are often related to hysteria, even temporary insanity, a psychosis resulting from an enormous and merciless longing.” The doctor appears to be content with his last observation.

“Why did you put me under?”

“Standard procedure.” Kanehari joins his hands, palm to palm. “You should understand that given the circumstances I’m obliged to charge my full fee, as we agreed. I presume you’re fit enough to leave. Now you know what’s happening, your body will quickly adapt. You can already see that the swelling has largely disappeared.”

I get down from the bed and feel a little dizzy, nothing more. And he’s right: my belly isn’t completely flat, but it’s a lot less swollen than it was this morning. Even the oedema in my lower legs is virtually gone. I feel no pain between my legs. I saw my father as I awoke from the anaesthetic, but that must have been my imagination, nothing unusual after a period of sedation. In spite of everything, I still don’t trust the situation. But if Kanehari and my father have robbed me of my baby, I would at least be in some kind of physical pain. Almost unconsciously I check my breasts. Dr Kanehari’s glasses veer sideways. I sense an air of disgust. Maybe that is also my imagination. The tension he’s radiating is tight as a drum. He’s probably scared he might get into trouble. I sneak a peek at the bed. No trace of blood. It looks exactly the same as the bed I fell asleep in after the injection.

“What time is it?”

“Ten o’clock.”

“Have I been asleep for nine hours unbroken?”

Kanehari snorts. “Some people have a stronger reaction to sleep medication than others. It’s nothing unusual. Are you hungry? Thirsty?”

“Thirsty, yes, but not hungry.”

“You’re clearly sensitive to the anaesthetic. We followed the correct procedure. There were no mistakes.” The doctor’s gaze drifts in the direction of the door.

I can’t think straight. It dawns on me that I don’t want to go back to the Islamic Centre, but I’m also scared of being outside during the hours of daylight. I grab my bag. Kanehari shows me the bathroom. I wash and dress. I leave The chuddar in my bag is at the ready, but I don’t put it on yet. When I leave the bathroom, the doctor is waiting for me, his hands pressed stiffly into his jacket pockets. I pay him the agreed fee and say nothing. He leads me to the door.

I take out my veil. I notice him look at it. I skilfully wrap the chuddar around my head. I’ve become something of an expert.

It comes to me at the door.

“Why didn’t I see a nurse?” I say. “You said “we” a moment ago. Didn’t you say you intended to supervise the birth on your own, for the sake of discretion?”

Kanehari remains tight-lipped. I can see myself in his glasses: a tall, veiled figure who fills him with fear, disgust and greed.

5

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Hiroshima – metropolitan police headquarters – inspector Takeda and chief commissioner Takamatsu – March 10th 1995 

As Orandajin  – a Dutchman – Takeda is more apprehensive of the strict hierarchy in the Japanese police service than his colleagues. After assessing the crime scene, he drives immediately to his district’s police station. Chief commissioner Takamatsu receives him in his office. Takeda bows, the chief commissioner nods and motions him to get to the point. Takeda gives a detailed report. As Takeda had expected, the commissioner works himself into a serious fuss. He refers to the baby corpse as “a barbaric disruption of the harmony reigning in the City of Peace”. Takeda presumes the commissioner will have refined this slogan before the more important papers get wind of the affair. Takamatsu taps at his desk with a letter opener. He thinks Takeda was too easy on the photographer from “that rag” Shukan Gendai . Haul the bastard in and scare him shitless! As if a seasoned photographer working for a gutter tabloid could care less about police threats, especially when he knows they can’t follow them through. But Takeda bites his lip, nods and says in a composed manner that the commissioner’s order will be followed and that he’ll be sure to be less cautious with the press in the future. “Now of all times, this hideous crime, Takeda!” Takamatsu declaims, visibly irate. “The city will be crawling with foreigners soon for the fiftieth anniversary of the atom bomb! I demand an efficient and professional investigation and I demand results, fast! Don’t let this sordid affair cast a slur on your record of service, Takeda!” In the corner of Takamatsu office, the lacquered sheath of an officer’s sword from the Second World War graces the wall, hung there by the commissioner himself. Older officers claim he wields the blade with skill and speed to


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chop yuzu  to flavour his soup. Takamatsu’s office does indeed smell of Japanese citrus all the time, but Takeda is pretty sure the story about the yuzu  is made up. It’s typical of the jokes they tell when they get drunk after work and there are no inspectors around, Takeda excluded. Takeda’s half foreigner. That’s why the inspector doesn’t come across as their superior, in spite of his rank.

The commissioner ends the conversation with a tirade over “serious irregularities” in the social order brought about by the shinjinrui –  the “new type of human” – and their antics, young people set adrift by the economic crisis who have nothing to do but loaf around and commit crimes. What this has to do with the baby is a mystery to Takeda, but he nods benignly nevertheless. Takeda knows that Takamatsu is dreaming about a career in local politics. He asks himself if the chief commissioner will then be at the beck and call of the powerful extreme right organisations that have a lot of influence in Hiroshima – and in Tokyo and Osaka for that matter. Rumour has it they even have close links with the force.

“You can go, Takeda,” the chief commissioner barks. ‘Don’t disappoint me!”

Takeda bows, noticing his hands dangling at his sides in the process.

Huge hands. Murderer’s hands according to his wife.

6

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Hiroshima – Mitsuko searching the city for a place to sleep – March 11th 1995 

I remember precious little of the hours after I left Dr Kanehari’s clinic. I ended up in Hiroshima’s neon neighbourhood. I don’t know the city, so I’m not sure what the district is really called. I was surrounded by shopping centres full of people of my own age, hanging around, the girls in colourful and often outrageous outfits. Since my arrival on the mainland I’ve noticed that my knowledge of society is more limited than I had imagined. Theoretical knowledge is misleading. It’s experience that shapes us.

It’ll be dark in a few hours. I don’t know where to go. Fortunately, I took all my money and personal possessions with me when I left the Dambara Centre for my appointment with Dr Kanehari because I couldn’t find a reliable place to hide them. But I left my clothes behind.

I decide to grab a hamburger in a place full of blaring music and garish colours. My father always insisted on eating traditional Japanese food. I loosen my chuddar from underneath as Akkira taught me. People are looking at me but I lower my eyes and peer at my surroundings through my lashes. The hamburger tastes like soggy cardboard, the Cola leaves me down in the dumps. If my father was right about the food that many Japanese prefer to their traditional cuisine, wasn’t there a chance that he had been right when he said that the country needed a new leader? I look around and see smiling faces. I don’t remember laughter like that on Hashima. Everyone in the hamburger joint seems self-assured, high-spirited, carefree.

And the racket! Chitter-chatter right and left like tiny mountain streams coming from God knows where, wriggling and criss-crossing one another. My ears are ready to burst. I feel dizzy. I miss having the sea in the background, the cawing of the seagulls. But the relentless vitality of all these people surrounding me, running on escalators, storming in and out, roller-skating on the sidewalks, unleashes a longing within me. I don’t want to go back to Hashima. I want to be like them: wear bright colours, shave my legs, go dancing in discos.

7

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Hiroshima – Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank – March 11th 1995 

The bus stops at 8pm in front of the headquarters if the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank. The bus is marked Municipal Cleansing Department. The building is impressive, perfectly apt for an important branch of the biggest bank in Japan. Hiroshima’s harbour activities bring in a lot of money. There’s a meeting underway with the ceo of the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank who’s here from Tokyo. There are two security guards in the lobby. They allow three men into the building with containers on their backs. They’re wearing white facemasks and white gloves, the prescribed clothing for this sort of work. The bank’s logbook contains the words: extermination of vermin. Once inside the lobby the men pull out pistols with silencers. They shoot the security guards. They put on gas masks and march through the corridors as they open the valves on the containers on their backs.

8

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Hiroshima – Mitsuko spends the night in Hotel Ikawa Ryokan – Dobashi-Cho – March 11th 1995 

Night falls, but I don’t go dancing in a disco. I walk into the nearest hotel and book a room. I can’t sleep, but I’m not surprised. I toss and turn in the tiny bed. I miss the familiar curves of my belly and feel like a ghost lost in the wrong body. I wasn’t raised with other people, I was raised with shadows, and dreams like a puff of breath in the neck when you’re alone. A girl can create her own world in such circumstances, a world in which everything has meaning . On Hashima, books and rubble were the focal point around which my existence seemed to turn. Rubble was everywhere. The island was one massive industrial ruin. My father took care of the books. They were delivered in bulk. When it came to books my father set no limits. As a girl, I liked to wander down to the shingle beach and read at the foot of the sea wall surrounding the island. If you looked up from the beach, the blackened buildings on the island seemed to be on the verge of falling over. People called the island Gunkan  or ‘the battleship’, because of its shape. It was a place that left you short of breath because of the secrecy it exuded. The entire island was built over and there were few if any open spaces. My father only allowed me to go to the shore when the weather was good. Each time I was laden like a mule with books. I was crazy about them because they could make the world big or small at will, interfere in the fate of nations, but also seek out your hidden thoughts, illusive, intangible, like silver-coloured fishes at the bottom of a deep lake.

When the weather was bad I would sit in the old cinema. A good many of the wooden chairs were broken and the screen was torn. I sometimes pictured the characters in the book I was reading coming to life on the screen, making each other’s lives a misery, fighting and then loving each other. Those were lonely moments, a little creepy too, as if my head was capable of containing much more than I wanted it to. Everything was covered in dust. From time to time the uncontainable wind would toss it into the air and it would form itself into a figure in my mind’s eye. Then I would quickly look back at the page in front of me. Books protected me from reality. I remember them as a choir of pale shapes, sometimes hysterical, other times comforting, vividly prophetic, or disquieting, like a piano being played in the dark. I’ve always been convinced that stories influence the mind: they haunt regions of the brain where reason has lost its way. Stories made people see my father as Rokurobei, a demon of classic mythology. His background and the way he had been treated will also have had a role to play, but the main reason he acquired the status had its roots in the old stories and their superstitions. When I was a teenager, I was also convinced he wasn’t completely human. My father was treated like a god by his followers and he considered it nothing out of the ordinary.

Memory is a monstrous thing: I can remember various moments in my youth when I witnessed his supernatural powers at work. It was only after I read the reports of his personal physician that I realised the truth, or should have realised the truth. I’m twenty-one, and even now I still catch myself doubting.

I spend the entire night struggling to settle scores with my past. The lonely existence I shared with my father seems to have more control over me now than ever before. I realise that this very characteristic, so difficult to put into words, is what makes my father so intangible: he’s like a creature you encounter in a dream, yet at the same time he’s pure reality.

I fret over what to do next. The old power networks my father exploits might only operate undercover, but they’re still to be feared. Rokurobei will deploy every soldier in his shadowy army to find me. I talk to him in my imagination and beg him to leave me alone. He remains unmoved, like an old pagan temple. My thoughts return unwilled to the baby that had filled my belly. I’m no longer sure it was real.

But I still felt it.

I talked to it.

I shared my pain and my shame.

The creature was tiny and kind. It understood. It forgave.

It was a universe of comfort.

Dr Kanehari insisted that it had never existed. His glasses flickered an unambiguous message, but I was unable to decipher it.

9

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Hiroshima – Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank – night, March 11th/12th 1995 

The night security team arrives at the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo bank at 11pm. The security officers are taken aback by the thick mist in the lobby. First they find their two dead colleagues, then some members of the evening shift lying in their own excrement, surrounded by vomit. Their tongues are swollen, their faces contorted, the pupils in their dead eyes barely visible. They call the police. Moments later they’re overcome by violent spasms and nausea. By the time the first police officers arrive, the night security team are writhing on the floor, gasping for breath, spitting out chunks of undigested food. Appalled by what they see, the police pay little attention to the abnormal humidity. The security cameras have been destroyed. There are no recordings. The police officers feel unwell. They too are overcome by cramps. Within six minutes the cramps make way for uncontrollable bouts of vomiting. Eyes bulge, collapsing lungs heave in an effort to supply their bodies with oxygen. One of the officers manages to warn his colleagues over the walkie-talkie. A huge police presence assembles in front of the bank. The neighbourhood is shut down. It’s almost morning when a special team in protective clothing from the national security police discover what caused the poisoning: acetone cyanohydrin mixed with water and sprayed into the air using atomizers. On contact with water, acetone cyanohydrin separates into highly inflammable acetone and highly toxic hydrogen cyanide. The security police find the containers with the water valves. They discover the corpses of the assembled bankers in the meeting room. Here too the security cameras have been destroyed. After a provisional investigation, the members of the elite unit announce that the bank’s safes have not been tampered with. Only a detailed investigation can confirm their report, however, since rumours abound that the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank is involved in all sorts of shady financial dealings. The local police insist on leading the investigation, but the National Guard disagree. Friction ensues. Inspector Takeda is assigned to a special group under the leadership of chief inspector Hirasawa.

The inspector calls his wife. It’s going to be late. She takes his message with the politeness of a civil servant at an office window.

Takeda fiddles with a toothpick in his mouth. He thinks about the past. He thinks about the present. He thinks about everything at once.

He focuses: the dead baby under the peace monument is still preying on his mind. Why?

10

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Hiroshima – Mitsuko walking through the streets – Mitsuko and Yori – evening, March 12th 1995 

I’m wandering through the streets of Hiroshima again like a headless chicken, having decided, when I awoke this morning, to stay at the hotel until I had a plan. As the evening approached, my restlessness made it impossible to wait any longer. The walls were closing in on me so I left the hotel. I’ve been walking around aimlessly for over an hour. I cross a main road and follow it to the river. Couples are sitting on benches. They start kissing when they think no one’s looking, and grope around in each other’s clothes. I look at the renowned silhouette of the Peace Memorial looming up against the setting sun, relic of an era my father always called “the great humiliation”. The words filled me with awe as well as a feeling of insecurity because of the theatrical grimness with which they were spoken, as if I sensed he was feeding his phenomenal pride with an ever-increasing hatred. I find an empty bench, sit and look out over the river. In my teens, I often fantasised about my mother. I pictured her launch herself like a seagull from the ramparts surrounding Hashima Island, invariably dressed in a gown that billowed around her like wings of gossamer as she fell. I tried to feel the blow that cracked open her body on the rocks; I watched her being seized and carried off by the sea. The last thing I’d see of her before her demise was a slender hand. The daydream always ended with the question: was my father to blame for her suicide? Was it even suicide? Why had he told me so bluntly that she had “leapt from the rocks, unable to accept her fate”? Should I make more of an effort to understand his abruptness because of this sad event? I had too little to go by; youthful fantasies were my only clues. Many times the hand I saw sticking out above the waves in a gesture of goodbye was my own. On such occasions, I’d see the daydream through the eyes of my father, a powerless god destined to grieve forever.

I’m startled by a voice behind me: “Holy oxygen you need, and fast… just what the doctor ordered, Missy, just admit it.”

I turn around. Behind me is a young woman around my own age. She has painted glittery wings around her eyes and her hair is brushed forward over her forehead. It has a metallic red sheen and ends in an untidy fringe just above the wings. She’s wearing a surgical mask and is pointing a spray can at my face. The can is covered with rice paper, the words “laughing gas” spelled out in stick-on kindergarten letters. Her peculiar dress reminds me of a Louis XV ball gown. She smiles at me, gesturing “money” with her thumb and index finger. She’s wearing gloves, bright red wool; must be very warm in this temperature. She points at my chuddar. “No matter what you believe in, everyone needs holy oxygen.” Why does she call her laughing gas holy oxygen? I assume she’s high, if her easy carefree movements are anything to go by. I don’t know much about “alternative youth culture”. In my view, it’s a bit pretentious. All that hyperkinetic effort to distinguish yourself from the rest of the crowd! I stand, hoping that my height will put her off, but the opposite happens: she laughs admiringly and steps closer as if we’re sisters sharing a secret.

“What an impressively tall girl you are! Well, do you want it or don’t you? Only 200 yen.” She points the spray can at me as if I have no choice. Confused, I grab a bundle of banknotes and peel one off. She puts her hand on my arm. I pull it away quickly and she steps back a pace, a little hesitant for the first time. “Open your mouth,” she says, pocketing the note. I obey reluctantly. She sprays my mouth full of whipped cream.

11

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Hiroshima – metropolitan police headquarters – Fukuyamakita – inspector Takeda and police doctor Adachi – March 13th 1995 

Meetings, an endless succession of meetings; protocol, etiquette, bowing to superiors, whose judgement must be accepted without question and whose orders must be executed; Takeda will never get used to it, his Japanese skin is not thick enough. Police commissioner Takamatsu has issued strict orders: everyone is to join forces and find the perpetrators, or at least suspects, of the gas attack on the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo bank. But what about the dead baby under the Peace Memorial, and the anger, hate and pain it radiates? A footnote for the statistics, later.

Not as far as Takeda is concerned.

The district police headquarters appears to function like a tightly organised anthill. But inspector Takeda knows that this surface efficiency is a sham. Order? Discipline? He can see the mistrust in the eyes of his colleagues as they exchange glances at the karaoke bar after work. The music can’t drown out the whispering behind the scenes. Insinuations are batted about like ping-pong balls, reputations are dragged through the mud, ties are loosened and eyes turn red.

Takeda doesn’t care. He tries to see behind the masks people wear. What he finds there drives him further into isolation. From his earliest childhood, Takeda has had a gift he himself refuses to recognise. Others call it his “second sight”. Takeda’s wife thinks it’s a result of the constant fear his mother lived in for so many years. Takeda’s spouse thinks her husband inherited that fear and that it makes him less human, more like an instinctive animal. For Takeda this sensibility is nothing more than a bunch of inappropriately stimulated nerve endings. It bothers him from time to time, but not always. Sometimes, when he touches someone, he can feel a residue of intense emotion. Not every time, he’s happy to admit. It usually happens when he’s not expecting it, but he can sometimes induce it if he concentrates hard. This damned sensitivity makes Takeda as alert as a hundred-year-old giant tortoise. He treats his wife like a contract: with punctuality, decency and a minimum of emotional commitment.

The murder cases he works on are his main passion. For him it’s not about justice, it’s about making contact with criminals in the interrogation room. Takeda doesn’t really understand why this is so important to him, but it’s powerful, like sexual desire.

In the lift to the basement, Takeda pictures the police station as a symbol of Japanese society. The visible part functions according to strict rules and fixed behaviour patterns. The invisible part, the underground level Takeda is now entering, is belligerent, intoxicated, filled with an addiction to death.

Takeda can smell Dr Adachi’s menthol cigarettes as he walks down the dreary brown corridor. Their sharp odour helps disguise the liqueur Adachi guzzled at lunchtime. A couple of years ago, before the “Bubble” as the economic crisis is colloquially known, Dr Adachi owned a Porsche 911. But then the stock market crashed spectacularly and the police doctor lost millions of yen in the space of a couple of months. He now drives one of the force’s Toyotas and has a drinking problem. Adachi counts himself lucky that the mayor of Hiroshima thinks it’s important to have a police doctor on permanent duty. He’s also happy with the massive autopsy room the mayor had installed beneath police headquarters five years ago. Takeda knows that the mayor didn’t invest in this shiny, modern facility, complete with cold storage for the corpses, out of a conviction that murder cases should be solved. On the contrary. With the support of every senior police officer, all of them obsessed with keeping crime statistics as low as possible to boost their chances of promotion, the mayor quietly instructed the alcoholic doctor to report as few crime-related deaths as possible, unless the case was as good as solved and would enhance the reputation of the force in the press. The commissioner and the mayor see the autopsy room as a great improvement. In the past, bodies that appeared not to have died of natural causes were taken to hospitals, where information could easily be leaked to the press. Despite the violent yakuza  gangs based in the city, Hiroshima is still presented to the outside world as the City of Peace, where people care for one another rather than smash each other’s brains in. The press only dares enter the prefecture headquarters on official occasions. The basement is out of bounds.

Takeda, who considers Dr Adachi to be one of his few friends because they’re both seen as outsiders, often wonders whether the man is happy with this situation. Adachi likes to pretend that his work requires the sensitivity of an artist, diligently exploring all the possibilities that might allow him to conclude that the otherwise suspicious looking corpse lying on his dissection table died of natural causes after all. The mayor and the chief commissioner are satisfied.

The inspector walks into the autopsy room, into the familiar smell of formalin and disinfectant. Drunk or sober, Adachi insists on cleanliness. The police doctor, with his square features and thick-lensed glasses, never gives a straight answer. When they’re both on duty, their manners are formal. You never know who’s listening, and etiquette is important. “Murder, inspector? Hard to tell. I haven’t been able to perform an autopsy yet. All I got was a quick look at the body. The victims of the bank robbery get priority. But if I’m pressed I would say the mother was exposed to radioactive isotopes and the child was stillborn. I didn’t see any signs of physical violence on the body. Then again, it was so badly mutilated that only an autopsy can provide a definite answer.”

“Radioactive isotopes?” Takeda repeats.

“Yes, you heard me, maybe from depleted uranium. But that’s just a guess.”

“I don’t know anything about isotopes,” the inspector says drily. The doctor shrugs: “Under normal circumstances, depleted uranium with a low level of radioactivity doesn’t pose a health risk. It’s used as counterweights in lifts, for example. But the substance itself is chemically poisonous. The Americans used grenades containing depleted uranium in the Gulf War. When they explode, uranium particles are released and combine with oxygen. The resulting uranium dust is poisonous when inhaled. It can trigger cancer or metabolic disorders, even years later. Women have a greatly increased chance of giving birth to children with congenital defects. Do you know what Gulf War Syndrome is?”

“I’ve heard of it. American servicemen suffering from some unknown condition or other? I thought it wasn’t officially recognised.”

The doctor allows himself a crooked smile, revealing a set of false teeth that shine unnaturally in the brightly lit room.

“The American government is trying to deny it, producing all kinds of contradictory research reports. But the scientific fact remains that veterans are five times more likely to develop cancer, and female veterans three times more likely to have a miscarriage or offspring with congenital defects. I’ve seen the pictures. Their defects and the state of their skin resemble those of your abandoned baby.”

“Is the child Japanese?”

“Not a shadow of a doubt. Inspector Takeda, in the light of recent events, don’t you think it may be wiser if the case were…”

“So I’m looking for a female Japanese Gulf War veteran who secretly gave birth to a baby then dumped it underneath the Peace Memorial. After all, none of the hospitals has reported the birth of a malformed child.”

Adachi looks at the inspector long and hard. They’ve been friends for many years. Like many Japanese, he finds sarcasm difficult to grasp. It’s one of those things that mark Takeda out as foreign .

“That’s not what I said, inspector. I said it was probably not murder. I mentioned depleted uranium because the baby’s birth defects bear a close resemblance to those of Gulf War babies, but “normal” genetic defects from either the mother or the father could also lead to such serious malformations.”

“The body was covered with origami cranes. Seems like a symbolic act to me.”

The doctor takes out his menthol cigarettes, peers into the box and then slips it back into the breast pocket of his immaculate white coat.

“Not the only one,” he says. “The corpse has been embalmed. Meticulous craftsmanship. If kept dry, it’ll still look the same in a century.”

12

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Hiroshima – Central Station – Xavier Douterloigne and Yori – evening, March 13th 1995 

Xavier Douterloigne arrives from Tokyo station on the shinkansen  at 10.19 p.m. The high-speed train has only recently started running at this late hour, but quite a few passengers are making use of it. Douterloigne navigates his way through the crowd and into Hiroshima-Ekimae station. He didn’t enjoy his short stay in Tokyo. In the space of six years the city has changed into a voracious metropolis full of neon lights and people in a hurry. Not exactly a positive evolution. Hiroshima station is spacious, modern and efficient. It’s busy, despite the time of night, and very noisy. After what happened to his sister Anna, Douterloigne feels the world could do with more silence. He heads towards the exit. The heat and humidity hit him hard as he emerges onto the street, but it’s familiar. Outside, he stops to take in the city skyline – a typically Japanese architectural cacophony. The City of Peace smells of wet cement, a hint of sea air, and spices. On the other side of a small square, against the sharp contours of a trio of cypresses, Douterloigne can see pink spindly cranes in front of a criss-cross of electricity lines. He starts walking, past run-down houses with faded façades and rusty air conditioning units, and a shop selling health drinks, magazines, manga comics and excessively cheerful-looking pink pigs with short elephant snouts. Their impish eyes look like innocence itself. Hiroshima feels like a house you return to, only to find it has fallen into disrepair in your absence. Compared with Tokyo, the city looks provincial, at night even dingy.

Douterloigne first visited Hiroshima with his parents 13 years ago. His sister Anna was still able to walk then. He remembers Peace Square, how huge it was, and the Japanese school children in neat rows, wearing blue uniforms that hurt the eyes. They were waving little Japanese flags.

Four coloured lights appear further down the road. They’re flashing on and off in sequence: purple, blue, yellow, green. Douterloigne doesn’t stop. It’s not in his nature to be afraid, and he reminds himself that Japan likes to pose as a safe country, though he knows better. A moment later, he can see the outlines of a person wearing a peculiar outfit. Coming closer, he can make out a girl in a black leotard, a short batwing coat and glittering thigh- length boots with stiletto heels. She’s wearing a mask that Xavier finds both endearing and sinister. It resembles a Venetian mask, but with two thin, springy antennas attached to either side and tiny light bulbs on the end – the feelers of an insect woman. The lights bob up and down in rhythm with her stealthy gait. The woman stops in front of Xavier, looks up at him and smiles. She’s wearing delicate lace gloves and she moves her hands with grace. Xavier knows from experience that Japanese women are keen on Westerners, especially the tall and the blonde. He sees them as arrogant children at heart, easy to please and ready to flatter. The masked girl says: “Beware, sir, aliens will land on Peace Square on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. They will look like huge salamanders with gigantic, bulbous heads, and they will devour everyone.” Her English isn’t perfect. She giggles, evidently convinced of the originality of the text she has just rattled off. Xavier assumes she rehearsed it. The girl holds out a collection box adorned with pictures of fiery-eyed salamanders against an ominous background. “You are guaranteed to survive if you make a donation, as we, the honourable members of the Suicide Brigade, have a secret weapon that can stop these bloodthirsty aliens in their tracks.


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Unfortunately, they won’t be here for quite some time, and as life in Japan is getting terribly expensive, we’re left hungry, like all seers, prophets of doom and magicians.” She laughs as Japanese girls do when they think they’ve told a good joke.

Xavier smiles, fishes ¥5000 out of his trouser pocket and slips it into the collection box. He’s 25 and just graduated from law school, but it helps when your parents have been diplomats their entire careers and dote on their son. Fifty dollars wouldn’t even pay for a single night in the kind of hotel he’s used to.

The woman’s gestures seem weightless and remind him of Anna.

“Thank you. Your world will never be the same.”

“The world has changed enough for me already,” Xavier Douterloigne quips in Japanese.

The woman, all flowing motion, languid and theatrical as if stepping through mist or water, falls silent. At that moment he notices that she’s quite young. And very high.

“Your Japanese is very good.”

“I lived in Tokyo for sixteen years, left when I was nineteen. My father was a diplomat. It’s been a while. I’ve forgotten most of it.”

“You’ll be talking like one of us again in no time.” She pats Xavier lightly on the chest, almost tenderly. “But will you ever think the way we do?” He notices her arms are tattooed with a flaming, yellow-blue interplay of plants, demons and dragons. He looks at her cleavage. The leotard leaves much of it uncovered, revealing the picture of an angel reaching up to her collarbone. The heavenly creature’s elegant garment – a hagoromo  – is lying in a sad little heap at her feet. Xavier smiles, pointing at the tattoo: “Your fallen angel won’t be able to fly any more. Her feathered kimono is lying on the ground.”

“The tenshi  theme; reassuring and classical, even by Japanese standards,” the young woman smiles. “The fallen angel demurely accepts her fate. Not mine, though.” She turns and takes off her coat. Her back is naked to the waist. It’s mauve, purple, black, orange and green. Her skin glistens through pale tattooed bubbles that look like fish eggs, scalloped shells, an earthworm, leaves. It all serves to frame a wild-eyed young woman with a knife between her teeth and a classical geisha headdress on her pinned-up hair; her lips on the handle are blood-red, her eyes fiery and sensuous.

“The work of a master tattooist,” Xavier says politely.

The woman turns around again. “Amazing symbols, don’t you think? She was once an angel. Now, she’s a killer whore. She stabs her prey in the back. She never misses.” She points a tapering index finger in his direction. He holds out his palms with a smile. “I wouldn’t dare contradict a member of a gokudo  gang,” he says light-heartedly, deliberately using the old-fashioned term for “the extreme path of the chivalrous organisation” which the yakuza  gangs like to apply to themselves. Xavier Douterloigne doesn’t have much of a sense of danger. He realised that one night when he was 18 and was waylaid at the River Meguro in Tokyo by members of a bosozoku , a motorbike gang of young thugs who weren’t afraid of wreaking havoc now and then in the respectable foreigners’ districts. Xavier’s father had told him that more than a few police officers secretly sympathised with these gangs and their fundamentalist belief in the superiority of the Japanese race. Even so, he didn’t feel particularly threatened when they surrounded him. He’d talk his way out. But before he could say a word, the first blows fell. Xavier wiped the blood from his nose and quickly struck an effeminate pose. He “confessed” that he was gay. They immediately left him alone. For inhabitants of kami no kuni , the divine country, there was no honour in beating up an effeminate man, even if he was a foreigner. Xavier had always been good in remembering such details of Japanese culture.

The young woman leans towards him as if wanting to tell him something in confidence. He bends forward automatically, bringing his ear close to her lips, her chest gleaming just inches away from his eyes. “I’m hungry,” she lisps. “Do you have any more money?”

13

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Hiroshima – Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko – night, March 13th-14th 1995 

I’ve spent a night and a day in this old warehouse, home to a group of young drop outs unable to run the financial rat race. I keep myself to myself as much as possible and the others think I’m weird – an English word they’re fond of – but I’m still a perfect fit in this embittered company: they’re exuberant, unpredictable, and aggressive, and they’re my age. I told much the same lie as I told Dr Kanehari – that I had to flee my devoutly Islamic husband because I’d had a secret affair. If he finds me, he’ll kill me, and that’s why I’m trying to avoid going outside for the time being. I’ve lost my faith and refuse to wear my veil any more. My unusual appearance is the result of a glandular condition I suffered as a child.

The whipped cream girl who brought me here is called Yori. She says she’s a street artist. She lives with dozens of others in this abandoned warehouse in the old part of town. After nabbing my ¥200 for the whipped cream, she took off her mask. Her mouth was made for talking, and she kept making quotation marks in the air as if she was teaching me a code I had to learn urgently. The economic crisis had forced her and her friends “to do business”, she told me. None of them worked for an employer. “Our parents refuse to understand that we don’t want to be wage slaves for ten hours a day, unbelievable, no?” Yori sounded light-hearted, but a grating undertone had crept into her voice. A giggly bitterness made her next comments sound a bit forced: about a mother who “still lived in the 19th century and had developed a hernia from constantly bowing to her husband”, and a father who “excelled in standing stiff as a rod, military fashion”. Yori was coarse and funny, but also a little tragic. She seemed ashamed of her family, but I sensed that her exaggerated cheerfulness and the street entertainment that gave her an income were holding back a tidal wave of frustration, an energy that was consuming her from within. I went along willingly all the same. She invited me to join her gang, to be part of the Suicide Club. The name contained more than a hint of juvenile provocation, but as irony would have it I had considered suicide myself in only the past few hours. I didn’t mention it. Exhausted after an all but sleepless night at the hotel, I accepted the offer of a bed in their “fortress”. We crossed a busy, winding road that looked like a crazed funfair of neon lights. One of the billboards reads Mitsukoshi  in huge letters, a flash of phosphor. Then there was a giant clock, blue, yellow and green, an explosion of colours lighting up the date, March 12th 1995, with a shower of sparkling fireworks before it displayed the time: 02.15 a.m. I also remember seeing a tram twisting over the street like an enormous serpent of light. It seemed to come out of nowhere – I put that down to exhaustion. Then we reached the inner-city, the narrow streets, the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere, Yori walking ahead of me, grey lines on the asphalt road, a grubby blue house, a flight of stairs going up, a room, its windows stark and square, the smell of paint, oil and old wool, mattresses on a concrete floor. Then a shiver running through my bones, sleep taking hold of me, and nothing more.

Nothing, except a day and a night full of memories and doubts. One of the youngsters, Yori’s boyfriend, claims to be a writer. He woke me up after that first night. Or should I say, he shook me vigorously till I woke. Roughly my own age, with boyish good looks, slight but sinewy, a thick head of hair dyed bright blonde and gelled up in stiff spikes. He didn’t waste words: “You’re exactly what I was looking for!” He turned to a young woman at the window, grabbed her by the nose as if she was a dog, and shook gently: “Yori, you’re my inspiring muse! This must be fate!” It took a while before I remembered that the girl who’d brought me here was called Yori. She was playing a game on a hand-held electronic gadget, deeply engrossed, and didn’t seem interested in us at all. She didn’t flinch when her boyfriend took her by the nose. She was wearing a light grey ensemble this time: short skirt, pleated blouse with puff sleeves, yellow gloves halfway up her arms. It made her look innocent and childlike at first sight. The young man introduced himself as Reizo Shiga and asked me to get up. I did as he asked and looked down at him. He circled me, inspecting me like an animal ready for market. His name suited him: it meant cool , more or less.

“You’ll be one of the main characters in my book,” Reizo said. “Perhaps you’ll be the only one to survive on the island where they take the teenagers, to film them fighting duels like gladiators in the arenas of ancient Rome.” His movements were rapid and angular, but he spoke in a drawl. The back of his hand was covered in cuts. Arena? Duels? What was the boy going on about?

“You’ll be my tragic heroine,” Reizo continued enraptured. “And you’ve given me an idea for the title: “The Girl who Committed Seppuku .” He looked pleased. “The title alone will cause controversy. A woman committing ritual suicide like the warriors of old is a frontal attack on one of the most commonly misunderstood symbols of our patriarchal society.”

I don’t trust all this strutting and posing. Reizo is a damaged young man who enjoys humiliating others. His fashionable appearance conceals a dangerous hysteria. I wonder when he finds the time to work on his novel. He talks about it endlessly, but I’ve yet to see him write a single word. The fragments he tells me about remind me of extreme manga. Full of sex and violence. You can see he hates society. Reizo is always going on about how his novel is structured. “It’s complicated yet logical, like honeycomb, or a dna helix. Everything is connected with everything else. Borrowed time. Squandered time. That’s why I have to help the reader. God is omnipresent, even in the smallest part of himself. Only humans need chronology; without it they’d go mad.” I listen to his drivel with a straight face, I don’t want any trouble. Most of the members of the Suicide Club seem to be pretty self-centred. There’s a constant coming and going in the community room, which used to be a machine shed. Yori is often out, too. I had hoped she would become a friend, but her initial interest in me has flagged. Or perhaps her attitude is part of the group’s rituals. For the time being, the advantages of being part of this constantly squabbling community outweigh the disadvantages. I’ve got a roof over my head and the opportunity to decide what to do with my life.

Imagine flagpoles in the middle of a desert, their flags torn and tattered; that’s what my life feels like.

14

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Hiroshima – Sanctuary of the Brotherhood next to the Nishi-Honganji temple – night, March 13th-14th 1995 

So many bodies, so closely packed together, for such a long time, pressed into the consecrated space of the Hiroshima sanctuary; the temperature is rising, the bodies sweating. The Blessed One has prohibited air conditioning because of its negative influence on alpha waves. Despite the sweltering heat, there’s no unpleasant odour; the disciples of the Blessed One don’t stink like the unclean. Their bodies have reached a higher astral level than those of ordinary people. Reizo Shiga, whose hair – stiff with gel and dyed a yellow blonde – has already attracted disapproving glances from the undersecretary leading the meeting, is trying to look devout and get through the service on his best behaviour. Certain that the undersecretary will comment on his appearance after the service, he’s prepared his response: In the company of the unclean, you have to lure them into your trap, win their confidence by pretending you’re one of them, so that their final annihilation will go as smoothly as possible.  A large screen on the altar is showing a video of the Blessed One welcoming a new disciple at the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Tokyo. Reizo Shiga hears the same words that welcomed him three months ago. “Cast off your old, polluted body,” says the Blessed One after the new novice has kissed his ruby ring. “Today, you will shed your skin. Your old family has disappeared. The blood that tied you has been cleansed and renewed. Your new family consists of tens of thousands of brothers and sisters, and it will grow until the end of time.” The eyes of the Blessed One, as good as blind to worldly light but shining milky white like celestial pearls, look up from the novice now kneeling before him, and gaze into the hall through the screen. He raises a finger to heaven, his face as rigid as a puppet’s and his lips moving constantly. “Today, I was asked an interesting question by a young brother. He asked me: ‘Master, what do you mean by annihilating the unclean? Do we have to kill them all? Is that allowed?’ I told him to look into his own heart and cleanse himself before attempting to understand the answer to that question. Unless our emotions are pure and clear, we cannot grasp the concept of death. Yet the solution to this ethical problem is simple and logical: if by killing unclean beings you elevate them to a higher plane of existence, they will be happier than if you allow them to continue their miserable and spiritually empty life. However, such judgements can only be passed by someone who can fathom the process of rebirth and the transmigration of the soul. Anyone who does not have the ability to see what happens with the soul after death may not take a life. I, Shoko Asahara, have followed the path of the Mahayanas, and I am telling you that my heart is filled with compassion, its only aim is the deliverance of damaged, lost, suffering souls. Train your body and soul rigorously in accordance with the principles I have revealed to you. Free your soul, and you will understand what I mean.”

Reizo Shiga is gazing at the screen in awe, just like the other novices. He hides his envy. The man possesses powers Shiga can only dream of. Despite the limitations of the video screen, powerful alpha waves emanate from the Blessed One and shower his followers like a rain of golden light, sending them to their knees. Reizo Shiga, kneeling like the others, vows that he will not rest until he has acquired the same power.

Then the undersecretary takes over. After some singing he recites sayings of the Blessed One, which the disciples are to learn by heart. Next, tasks are appointed to help the Brotherhood achieve swift domination over the soiled earth. Great things are set to happen, but caution must prevail, as the corrupt police and the government of Nippon are especially affected by the virus of decline that has been plaguing Japan for the last decade. Alertness, secrecy, patience, diligence and unconditional obedience to the Blessed One are more vital than ever. Adhering to a strict training regime is the only way to achieve the alpha quotient that offers enlightened members of the Brotherhood the prospect of taking a step towards the Blessed One. They will then be able to will the molecules of their body to disintegrate and pass through walls like ghosts, just like the Blessed One himself. Distance will become meaningless to them, as they will have the power to project their astral bodies to any place they deem necessary. The undersecretary produces a black box with two buttons and an antenna. “With this latest invention, our Ministry of Science has made it possible to put one of the Blessed One’s visions to practical use. This teleporter is directly connected to the Blessed One’s prayer mat, transmitting sublime vibrations whenever the master recites a mantra in meditation. The Blessed One has authorised me to distribute ten teleporters to the best disciples of Hiroshima. Summon all your forces to compete for this precious device. It will boost your alpha potential enormously!”

As Reizo Shiga steps down from the Takanobashi tram, hours of exhausting yoga exercises, meditation, and tests to gauge his pain threshold behind him, his brain is throbbing with alpha energy. He’s confident that he’ll be one of the ten to secure a teleporter. On his way to meet his girlfriend Yori, he crosses the main road and walks through the red-light district of Mitsukoshi. A woman, young, slightly tipsy, emerges from a love hotel . There’s something about the way she walks that reminds Reizo of the other streetwalkers. Her handbag is silvery, glittering. She’s leaving work early today, probably because she realises she’s had too much to drink. Reizo Shiga follows her and watches her closely. On the corner of the street, close to a lamppost, he strikes. He’s done this many times in the past months. He knows for certain that he’s good at it, perhaps the best. He was surprised by his own brutality first time round, but the woman’s bloodied face only urged him on, like coke bubbling in his veins. Since then, Shiga has developed a fast and effective technique: a sharp blow to the shoulder with his elbow, paralysing the arm that holds the bag, while yanking down the strap with his other hand. The girls are usually too startled or frightened to react. Sometimes they’re drugged and they gaze at him goggle-eyed, pupils dilated, swaying on their legs. Reizo Shiga knows he can use more violence – and get more satisfaction – if he doesn’t rob girls on the street, where he needs to be fast, but this will have to do for the time being. His latest victim is tough. She slaps him and screams. There’s no time to think. The alpha energy he built up in the sanctuary is discharging. Shiga butts her with his forehead. She reels backwards, hits the back of her head against a lamppost and sinks to the ground, unconscious. He snatches the bag and makes his getaway. “Where are the police when you need them?” he mutters with a grin. Nothing can beat this overwhelming feeling of power, this buzz of pure consciousness. Further down the road he starts rummaging in the bag without slowing his pace. He finds a large amount of yen, more than he’d dared hope for, and more than enough to score a couple of times.

Still running full tilt, Reizo Shiga feels the breath of fate brush over him. Tonight is going to be different. Why submit to years of servitude to the Blessed One? Why not take a shortcut to the highest level and show the Blessed One that Reizo Shiga is a disciple with exceptional qualities?.

Greater, perhaps, than the Blessed One himself?

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Hiroshima – the Righa Royal Hotel – Beate Becht – night, March 13th-14th 1995 

Beate Becht thinks the Righa Royal Hotel is kitschy, overpriced and amusing. Its pompous domed ceiling makes the lounge look like an old-fashioned UFO. Her room looks out onto a neat square pond with an artificial island, trees and pontoons.

The hotel staff are also a source of amusement, if mixed with occasional irritation. They’re polite, servile and stereotypically inscrutable. Beate, whose friends call her “Peter Pan with boobs” because she’s boyish and has short hair, has spent the last few days wondering whether her father Hermann Becht would have approved of her latest photography project. Years ago, on his death bed, Hermann Becht told his daughter that suffering could not be aestheticized. He was a man of principle to the last. Beate’s publisher is a different kettle of fish. Bruno Günder of Bertelsmann Publishing, the man who canonised single malt whiskey, greeted Beate’s idea of publishing a tribute book to her father with “cosmic enthusiasm”. To her, it would be a way of exorcising her feelings of guilt. As a young photographer with the German army during WWII, her father Hermann had joined the fighting in Berlin to defend the city at the end of the war, when cameras, film and heroic Germans were few and far between. Beate sees echoes of the war in all his later photo-books. She wonders almost every day whether her father’s photo coverage of the Chernobyl disaster nine years ago wasn’t actually a painful, roundabout way of committing suicide. The man was 60 years old when he accompanied vomiting rescue workers and took pictures of men clearing radioactive rubble with spades and wheelbarrows, just after the disaster in Chernobyl. Hermann Becht had indoctrinated Beate from early childhood with his Calvinistic belief in damnation: man is predestined to evil. In her teenage years, Beate raged against her father’s fatalism. Now, at 30, she realises that her anger has become chronic, concealing a minefield of sorrow that she daren’t enter. She compensates by being friendly and polite to everyone. It uses up tons of energy. Beate knows well enough that she’s angry with her father for not understanding her work. Hermann Becht was a press photographer, every inch of him, and he was appalled by the sexually charged punk photos his daughter published. Her work, labelled “neo-symbolic”, was a complete mystery to him, “far-fetched”: shocking, slightly Gothic-looking female nudes, slender nymph-like creatures with chalk-white faces, blood-red lips, heavy eye-shadow – a glimpse of vampirism, a hint of lesbian lust with long fingernails; tethered silhouettes of women, powerless yet endowed with superior sensuality, slavish princesses, some wearing leather masks, their faces hidden, in tortuously painful poses replete with ambiguous passion. One critic wrote that her pictures “personified the ecstasy of the senses run wild”. Black-haired women with large crucifixes between their pallid breasts, naked female torsos with bull’s heads on their shoulders. Her father called her symbolism pretentious. Hermann Becht had never understood that his daughter’s pictures were an attempt to dispel her childhood fears. One of those fears, perhaps the greatest, was her uncertainty about being loved. Did her father love her? Beate Becht never found out. When she reached adolescence and first encountered sexual desire, she wondered whether she would ever be able to love anyone – the powerful intoxication she needed to stir her lust made love seem tame. Ten years later, she published her first book, Forbidden Fruit,  which pictured beautiful young women next to dwarfs, invalids, decrepit tramps, and hunchbacks. Languid and pleading, the beauties gazed at their hideous partners, who humiliated and abused them and afterwards carelessly pushed them aside.

Beate is now convinced that things aren’t as bad as they seem and that she simply doesn’t have time for love. She makes sure her needs are satisfied on a regular basis. Man or woman? She leaves that to fate. It makes no difference to her sweaty palms or feelings of inadequacy, of being small and saying the wrong things. She describes herself to her artistic  friends as a workaholic, pronouncing the word with a rolling ‘r’ in a self-deprecating parody of her Bavarian accent.

She came to Japan to complete her latest photo project, but the country has been a disappointment thus far. It irritates her that the Japanese, who treated their Second World War prisoners worse than the Nazis, claim to be the victims of the war because of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She’s read in the news editorials that extreme right-wing nationalism has gained more support than ever before during the economic crisis. Powerful political factions are openly demanding Japanese domination of all of Asia. The journalists who wrote about them didn’t capitalise “Great Japanese Empire” for nothing. The atmosphere in the country is not the only disappointment for Beate. Why isn’t the renowned Japanese sense of aesthetics visible in the street? Hiroshima gleams with false glamour and uninspired replicas of American architecture. The city centre, on the other hand, feels grimy and neglected. There’s hardly a trace of classical Japan anywhere.

Beate is lying on her bed in her neat hotel room, which resembles many other neat hotel rooms she’s stayed in over the years. But this one is smaller. She blames the legendary Japanese lack of space. It’s also a little old-fashioned, decorated in beige, light-brown and pink, with large flowers on the bedspread. She lies on her bed of flowers and leafs through the magazines she bought at the supermarket. The pictures disappoint her, their gaudy lollipop colours like cheap MTV ads. Many of the people in the photographs look like mental patients, recently escaped from some institution or other. A garish colour photograph takes up almost the entire cover of one of the magazines.

Beate Becht looks at it and holds her breath.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko – night, March 13th-14th 1995 

The sounds of sleeping people around me make my own sleeplessness all the more painful. I’d like to get up and go into the city, which looks like a colourful funfair at night, but it’s as if my limbs are paralysed. Earlier today, Reizo said: “You have the face of a murderer.” He was teasing, of course, but his words stuck in my mind. They remind me of Mayumi’s death. I must have been about ten. It was towards the end of the day. I remember seeing the sun, the colour of red ochre, drifting in the water like a gigantic egg-yolk. The dilapidated central watchtower of Hashima Island cast long shadows, and I’ve never dared ask my father why I, a child, was taken to the tower. I recall asking for “uncle” Mayumi while two of his followers escorted me up the steep path to the island’s highest point. Mayumi, cheerful and chubby, always ready with a joke, looked after me when my father went on his nocturnal trips to the mainland. He bathed me, told me stories, and brushed my hair with a hundred strokes. Mayumi bowed to my father like a jack-knife and would have walked through fire for him. Why then, had my father’s followers tied him naked to one of the watchtower’s supporting masts? I never found out.

I can remember a stiff breeze tugging at my clothes, but I can’t recall my exact feelings. Disbelief and bewilderment, most likely. I do seem to remember being choked by fear, as if I had been the one tied up there naked, and not Mayumi.

I understood nothing of the speech my father gave to the large group of followers who had assembled at the top. I heard his voice, but my mind refused to interpret the sounds as words. I looked at Mayumi, a few metres away from me. He was staring at the ground, but lifted his head a little every now and then to peer at me. His expression was that of a beaten dog, infinitely sad. I felt something change in me, a dreamy state, as if part of me had separated itself. The same feeling, now sharp and sizzling, shot through my body like a bolt of lightning when my father stopped talking, pulled out his katana , turned with the fluidity of water and chopped off Mayumi’s head.

My father took me back down to the building where we lived, his hand on my shoulder, patiently pointing to the places I should tread carefully on the steep, overgrown path. For once, he didn’t seem to be scrutinising me for some shortcoming or weakness.

I was prattling on about nothing, acting all busy and grown-up, like a little lady.

When we were almost at the bottom, he said casually: “Mitsuko, don’t you want to know why you had to see this?”

I sensed that much depended on my answer and my heart raced: “Because I’m your daughter and I deserve respect.”

He gave me a long, inscrutable look and finally nodded. I was deeply relieved, but hadn’t yet realised that I wasn’t the same girl who had gone up to the watchtower.

He then took my hand and asked: “Don’t you want to know what Mayumi did?”

I surprised myself with my answer: “I don’t know enough of the adult world, but I’m certain about one thing: Mayumi loved me.”

We were almost at the bottom. He let go of my hand and walked in front of me, an angular giant in warrior’s clothes from a different era, in a world of his own where darkness was falling rapidly.

I’ve always wondered whether I imagined his answer, but tonight I can feel my feet searching anxiously for the path after he let me go, and hear his voice again in the gathering dusk: “He loved you too much, and that’s why he had to die.”

I saw the gang


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my father called his followers commit many more atrocities in later years, but I’ll never forget the look on Mayumi’s face just before he died.

It all happened so quickly and unexpectedly and I was rooted to the spot. I remember Mayumi looking up at me just before the sword was pulled, I remember his smile.


* * *

How can a child witness such a thing and grow up normally? Everything I did seemed ambiguous after Mayumi’s execution. I was unable to accept the reality of my life, so I made everything unreal.

It only occurred to me much later that Mayumi is a woman’s  name. It made me distrust my memory – and as a consequence, my life.

17

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Hiroshima – Mayima-sou restaurant – Xavier Douterloigne and Yori – night, March 13th-14th 1995 

The girl has brought Xavier Douterloigne to a restaurant in the centre of the city. She was quiet on the overcrowded Hakushima tram, a little frown between her eyebrows as if she regretted her suggestion. Hiroshima’s nightlife is just as noisy and colourful as Xavier remembers it, yet it amazes him all over again. The restaurant doesn’t have a single photo album to help non-Japanese speaking tourists choose their food – a good sign. The interior may be a bit cluttered – bright red plastic walls and a steaming open kitchen – but it’s not Western. There are trees opposite, on the other side of the street, date palms colourless and bony, like old men against the cloudless night sky. Xavier orders himself a healthy meal. The waitress smiles at him approvingly; a tall blonde man speaking fluent Japanese is something to tell her friends about. She looks as if she wants to touch him. His table companion introduces herself as Yori, but doesn’t say much else. She attacks the food, licks her teeth with every bite, her pink tongue darting in and out. Xavier notices she’s still wearing her gloves. She starts to talk again in the middle of the meal and before long she’s bombarding Xavier with questions about his life, buzzing around his head like a bee. A girl with seven-league boots. He smiles. He knows that women find him attractive, especially Asian women. He’s evasive when she asks about his family: “My parents have been diplomats all their lives, but they wanted to round off their careers close to home and moved to Brussels. They’re the best. I’m their only son… just graduated. This trip to Japan, where I lived for many years, is my graduation gift.” Yori flashes her eyes at him as she asks about girlfriends.

“Enough about me,” says Xavier with a smile. “My life is boring. A diplomat’s son with doting parents, nothing exciting ever happens to me. Your body’s a story in itself.” He touches her right temple carefully. “And I guess there’s plenty more inside.”

Yori quickly rubs the spot where Xavier’s fingers touched her skin.

“Have you got a boyfriend?”

She nods with a wry smile. “If you can call it that. Our relationship isn’t conventional.”

“So what is it?”

“Passionate.” She lowers her eyes and adds quickly: “But not always in the traditional sense of the word.”

“What’s the traditional sense of passionate?”

She turns her wrists and stretches her body, unable to sit still for a second.

“Sex.” She peeks at Xavier to see his reaction. Xavier smiles. New dishes are served, soup perfumed with delicate yuzu  lemon, and fish wrapped in cedar leaf. Excellent food for such a modestly priced restaurant. Xavier watches her as she eats with great relish, but still with the lightness and elegance of a bird.

“What does your boyfriend do?”

“Reizo? He wants to write a novel. A book about what he calls “Japan the whore”. I’ve read some of it. A lot of violence. It’s about young people…” Xavier isn’t paying much attention. He’s basking in the sparkling light of her presence.

“I think Reizo has a screw loose,” Yori concludes. “He’s so over-the-top at times. He regularly ties a hachímalá  around his head, one of those headscarfs with special ritual symbols, the kanji , supposed to have the power to fend off evil spirits. Then he sits cross-legged and meditates in zazen , with a dagger in his hands. After a bit, he starts to shake like a madman, pretending to plunge the blade into his belly.” She giggles, again covering her mouth. “Playing the macho comes naturally to him. Man as warrior, flirting with death, that kind of thing.”

Xavier decides not to respond to her comment. “And what do you do?”

“I’m a street jester. I sing karaoke and invent reasons for people to fill my money box. It’s getting tougher by the day. More and more people are losing their jobs. We’re all going down together. The proud yellow race, captain of Asia, blah, blah, blah. In actual fact, we’re a sick people, Xavier.” Douterloigne loves the way she pronounces his name: it sounds almost Spanish like Javier. He’s not in love, but he knows that love is the only natural force in the universe capable of striking faster than the speed of light. After what happened to Anna, he’s having a hard time looking at life through rose-tinted glasses.

“Where do you live?”

“I rent some rooms with a bunch of young people in the centre of the city.” Yori smiles and coughs delicately. “What the hell, I can trust you with the truth. We’re actually squatting in a disused factory. We’ve divided it up into living spaces, using stuff we either found, scrounged or chipped in to buy. And we have our own club: the Suicide Club. Some of us are thinking of really doing it, if they can get enough publicity first. Suicide as a happening, you could call it. If there’s no other way out, suicide is a noble option.” She shrugs. “Want to hear a funny story about my boyfriend Reizo, the crazy he-man ?”

Xavier is amused by her attempts to use English. Before he can answer, she’s laughing in her furtive, nervous style. “Maybe you won’t think it’s that funny. Westerners have a different mentality from us.”

“Not me.”

Yori shrugs. “A year and a half ago, I was attacked on the street close to our squat by a man wearing a motorbike helmet. He stabbed me four times with a knife and left me bleeding. I can still see him standing in front of me, licking the blade clean. He wanted me to see. I was found by an acquaintance, who contacted my boyfriend. Reizo came running, wept onto my bleeding chest, picked me up and took me to the hospital on his moped. It was touch and go.”

“That was very noble of your boyfriend.”

Yori lowers her eyes, and this time Xavier notices her face twitch nervously. “He still thinks I didn’t recognise him.”

He doesn’t understand what she means and knits his brows.

“The man with the helmet who stabbed me was Reizo himself. Completely out of his mind on amphetamines. That’s what I believe.”

“How do you know?”

She shrugs her shoulders. “When he’s high he cuts himself, the back of his hands, then he forgets. His hands are covered in scars. I got a good look at my attacker’s hands.”

Xavier knows how ambivalent relationships can be, but he still suspects she’s made this story up. He doesn’t know why. It makes her even more interesting.

“You stayed with him, though.”

“We’re two shipwrecked people on a raft,” she says. “If one of us jumps off, the balance is disturbed and we both end up as dinner for the sharks.”

“Dangerous love.”

Yori shrugs and looks at the tabletop feigning bashfulness. Her lips are the colour of an open wound and as soft as silk.

“Love is for sick minds. In Japan, we only refer to it in novels, or when there’s a crime of passion. Reizo is my koibito .”

Xavier nods. The word “love” is a nineteenth century French invention, exalted by the literati of the day. He’s aware how uncomfortable the Japanese are with it.

Koibito : the one who arouses your passion.”

She nods. “Against your better judgement.”

“Did you know that your word for love, ai , is a cry of pain in my language?”

“Then I must love Reizo in your language.” She giggles, again shielding her mouth with her left hand. “Reizo is talented, I’m convinced of that. But he has a strong death wish.”

“I expect that makes him artistically interesting,” Xavier Douterloigne remarks calmly. “But it must be very tiring, I guess.”

She shrugs again. “I can’t complain. If a man isn’t dynamite what use is he? Most men are so blinkered and moody. I like them better when they’re weighted down with mental burdens. I’ve been pushing him too much to finish his book recently. It drove him mad, so he used his knife to teach me a lesson. He’s writing about a future in which Japan is an authoritarian police state. The young are considered dangerous. When they turn seventeen, they’re dropped on an island, where they’re filmed by television cameras, fighting each other to the death like the gladiators of old.”

Yori takes a large mouthful of tuna fish and dashi , a sour broth based on seaweed and soy sauce.

“The plot might seem a bit over the top, but it’s actually cool,” she says. Xavier thinks the way she purses her lips to pronounce the word “cool” is hilarious. “I’ve read a few chapters. Blood and sadism, right? He writes about a Japan that’s concealed in each and every one of us.”

“My sister kept a diary,” Douterloigne says. It was out before he knew it. Yori ignores the past tense. “I thought you were an only child.”

“Only son. I’ve got a sister, Anna.” Xavier bends down to fish Anna’s grey, misshapen diary from his suitcase and puts it on the table between them. Yori looks at it, but doesn’t touch it. “She’s in a wheelchair,” Xavier says. He’s not a very good liar and he has a feeling his words sound artificial and hesitant.

“Was she born with a handicap?”

Xavier leans back. “No. It’s only been a little over a year.”

“How did it happen?”

Yori watches the tall blonde Xavier take a deep breath. He looks away from her. “I’d rather not say.”

This kindles her interest. “Why not?”

The European is starting to feel very ill at ease, she can tell. Yori licks her lips. “I’m a child of hibakusha  myself. My parents were just children when the bomb was dropped. They survived, but it left them scarred. So they were bullied, humiliated and excluded.” Yori pats her stomach. “We, their descendants, are handicapped on the inside. Genetic time bombs, is what we are. My father only lived to be thirty-six, my mother just made it to forty-nine.”

“Descendants,” Xavier says. “That’s a beautiful word. It isn’t used much.”

Yori laughs again and presents her face in profile, mimicking the pose of a modest Japanese woman subtly trying to seduce a man. Xavier finds the cast-down eyes especially convincing. Realising he’s rumbled her, she lifts her chin and looks up. Xavier isn’t sure what she wants from him, but he’s content to be sitting here opposite her. It makes him think his trip might turn out to be what he wanted it to be after all: a journey through the past, to a time before Anna’s injury.

“Did your sister change once she needed a wheelchair?” Yori asks. “So much that you thought she was a different person?”

“Before, she was always where the action was. Afterwards…” He doesn’t finish the sentence, casting around the room again as if looking for an escape route. “Why do you ask?”

“Because a different situation can change people dramatically. Not that long ago, Reizo was an ultra-nationalist, then he joined a crazy sect with weird ideas. Now he thinks the emperor should be deified again, that Japan should assemble a powerful army and show foreigners the door. His views on men and women changed at the same time. He disapproves of my desire for freedom and is constantly needling me, to prove that he’s the boss. He often has me shadowed by a bunch of thugs, and accuses me of going out with other men. He doesn’t want me to have anyone else, but at the same time he neglects me. He’s stopped working on his novel. He says he has bigger fish to fry, something about alpha energy.” She giggles. “If you ask me all that alpha stuff is just an excuse for not writing. He’s afraid he’s not talented enough.”

Again, Xavier doubts Yori is telling the truth. She might be trying to arouse his pity so she can make her move. Young Japanese women are mercilessly competitive and seducing a Westerner would give her a serious edge on them.

Xavier is flattered, despite his reservations. He’s also starting to feel agitated. If anyone knows how cruel fate can be, how it can change a life, he does. He came back to Japan to remember how happy he and Anna had been. That was the only reason. A crazy reason, maybe, but the only one. Xavier needs to remember Anna the way she was before the wheelchair. Only then can he continue his life.

“Perhaps you’re his obsession,” says Xavier.

Her answer surprises him: “Reizo is just a boy, wild and crazy. You  look like someone with an obsession.”

Xavier Douterloigne is still thinking about her words when they leave the restaurant fifteen minutes later. Outside, three young men are waiting for them. They appear from nowhere, and before Xavier fully grasps what’s going on, they’ve grabbed his arms and put him in a headlock. He tries to shout, but he can’t. They drag him into an old Volkswagen van. He attempts to catch a glimpse of Yori out of the corner of his eye. In vain.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Mitsuko – night, March 13th/14th 1995 

The night seems never-ending. I’m drifting on an ocean of remembered fragments. Not a raft in sight. If it goes on like this, I’ll drown.

I kept a diary when I was a teenager, as I imagine most young girls did. I stopped after I found I’d written words, even sentences, that I didn’t understand. They were in a foreign language. The handwriting was mine, but the characters that filled the pages were incomprehensible. A chill ran down my spine every time I encountered those perplexing pages. Then it would switch seamlessly to sentences I recognised and remembered, as if the automatic writing had suddenly stopped.

Images of a young woman – me? – biting a man’s shoulder appear in my mind’s eye. The man: the one I called Mayumi?

What was he doing to me?

Or me to him?

When I became aware of my sexuality, and started stealing glances at the torsos of the seamen who delivered provisions to Hashima, I discovered my body could be a source of pleasure, but also disgust and aggression. My father said the seamen were a lesser species. I was above them on the evolutionary ladder. So why didn’t it feel that way? Looking at their young, nimble bodies, their unashamedly hairy armpits, the way they bent over while unloading our supply boats, I felt clumsy and grotesque. In my father’s study, I’d found video tapes of people mating. I watched them when my father was off the island. It struck me that all the actors were blonde Westerners from a distant and unashamedly cold land. Hairy as apes and just as unselfconscious, they smiled and looked into each other’s eyes while copulating. It looked like aerobics. I imagined they were big children, my children. I learned to pleasure myself, but what I enjoyed most was picturing the surprised faces of the cream-skinned people on the screen when I joined them, naked. In my fantasies, they always looked submissive. I despised them for hiding the fact that my body shocked them. They bowed low, cringing like domestic animals, and obeyed my every command. I would tolerate their presence or send them away. It all depended on my mood.

Afterwards, when the fantasies subsided, shame inevitably rushed in, filling me with a sense of my own emptiness.

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Hiroshima – the Righa Royal Hotel – Beate Becht – night, March 13th/14th 1995 

Beate Becht has decided the cover photo on the Japanese magazine on her bed is a coincidence. But its resemblance to Satsuo Nakata’s photo from fifty years ago is still chilling. She thinks back to the portraits her father took of the Japanese photographer. She was only a child at the time, but the short and shrivelled man with thin wisps of hair combed carefully over his balding scalp looked exotic to her. Papa travelled all over the world while she stayed behind at boarding school. Beate still remembers dreading the way her father’s Japanese colleague always looked at the camera sideways, as if ashamed, or in the process of hatching some devious plan. Hermann Becht first met Nakata while shooting a photo reportage about the Niigata earthquake victims in 1964, a year before his daughter was born. Hermann had travelled to Japan to cover the Olympics in Tokyo. Shortly before the games were opened, an earthquake struck the Niigata region, killing hundreds of people. Becht, the misery-addict, immediately left for Niigata. Years later, he would tell his daughter bitter-sweet stories about his encounter with Satsuo Nakata in Niigata. Shortly after the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, the Japanese photographer had taken pictures only eight hundred metres away from the epicentre of the explosion. Despite her tender age, Beate understood that her father was jealous of his colleague’s achievement. Nakata had told Hermann Becht an endless stream of stories about what he had seen and heard, which Becht later passed on to his ten-year old daughter without noticing the shock on her face. More than twenty years later, Beate still feels the fear and disgust the stories evoked in her. She gets up from the hotel bed and takes Lens  from her suitcase, one of her father’s books, an overview of his career in pictures and text. She studies a self-portrait of Hermann Becht in Chernobyl. He’s standing in a doorway dressed in a shabby-looking radiation suit with the background brightly lit. The suits turned out not to be proper radiation suits at all. The Soviet authorities couldn’t afford the real thing and distributed cheap gas suits instead, which offered little if any protection against radiation. The deceit was kept secret for a long time. Beate hears her father’s voice in its customary flat, drawling tone, as if he’s standing next to her: radiation victims have between twenty-five and thirty bowel movements a day… with blood and slime. The skin on their arms and legs starts to burst… 

Beate looks at her father’s eyes in the picture. He seems surprised by something. His right hand is holding the camera like a weapon, barrel pointing upwards.

Beate rolls onto her back and stares at the ceiling. After a minute, she picks up the book again. She finds what she’s looking for; a story Nakata told her father about something he had witnessed in Hiroshima that had etched itself in his memory. A young artist had accosted Nakata outside the ruins of his house and told him what had happened to his family. Hermann Becht had published the story verbatim in Lens  to commemorate the suffering caused by the atomic bomb. His daughter has read it many times, always wondering why that particular story had made her decide to go to Hiroshima.


* * *

“I was heavily burnt when I came round. My wife looked terrible too. Our children? I tried to call them. Was that my voice? I was croaking like a frog, unable to utter an intelligible word. I walked a few paces, stumbled over something. A man. I didn’t recognise him; he looked as if he had been roasted in an oven. To my great surprise, he was still alive. ‘Leave me, children,’ he whispered. ‘Run!’ The voice sounded like a dog barking but it was familiar all the same. Only then did I realise it was my father’s voice. But looking at him, I thought: no, it isn’t him, it can’t be. ‘Hurry!” he screamed in his dog voice. It is him, I thought. I ran to get water, but couldn’t find anything, just rubble, and acrid white dust covering everything. Everywhere I looked I saw fire and sooty smoke, and a red glow in the few houses that were still half standing, illuminating them from within like lanterns. I went back, looked at my father’s contorted face, his pain, the throes of death. No, I thought, it’s not him after all. At that moment, my wife tripped – not over an adult, but over the body of our youngest child Masaru, a baby scarcely two weeks old, swollen almost beyond recognition, distended by a force from within. Our infant son was the colour of fried liver. My wife was inconsolable. The blaze from the houses further down the street was getting closer. My wife tore at her hair, and to my horror, clumps of it came out in her hands. Her skin was covered in scorch marks that kept changing shape, abscesses bursting open, a dark, thick fluid oozing out. I dragged her away, screaming that our children must both be dead and that we would die soon too if we didn’t move quickly. She resisted, with a strength I didn’t know she had in her. In the rubble of our house she had spotted some paintbrushes and paint from my studio. The paint in the open pots had evaporated in the heat, but two of the pots were still closed. I saw her staring and stopped trying to pull her away. She had gone insane, there was no other explanation. I wanted to leave her behind. She grabbed my arm. Her voice trembled as she begged one last favour of me, a token of respect for Masaru, to wish him well before we left him behind. I did what she asked; it took me less than a minute. Out on the street, we noticed a stranger. He looked at us with a contorted smile, eyes as hard as marbles. He was taking pictures of the destruction. I don’t know why I approached him. I told him I’d painted a tribute to our divine emperor on the corpse of my youngest son, that I’d done it for my wife, but that I cursed the emperor myself. He nodded as if that was a matter of course, jerked his arm away and walked towards the blaze, to our house, where I saw him bend over the corpse of my dear, innocent Masaru… The camera clicked again and again, and while I knew it wasn’t possible, the sound rang in my ears like shots from a cannon …” 


* * *

In her mind’s eye, Beate Becht pictures Satsuo Nakata walk through the rubble in the surreal light. The man bends over, peers at the dead, distended infant and takes photos from all sides. She looks at the reproduction of Nakata’s picture in Lens , then at the cover photo of the Japanese magazine. The two deformed babies are identical.

Beate wonders whether she’d be capable of such a thing, taking pictures of a tiny corpse in a place where death reigns supreme. How could Nakata have ignored the risk to his own life? What drove men like her father and his Japanese colleague to sacrifice their lives to bear witness, to testify? She’ll never understand. In the past months, she’s often wondered what she’s hoping to achieve with her new book project. Is she trying to expose the cruelty of the human race? Or exorcise her own ghosts?

She calls the project a homage to her father and it’s the reason for her stay in Hiroshima. Becht has collected her father’s unpublished photographs, ranging from his last pictures taken during the Gulf War in Baghdad, portraits of babies with AIDS in South Africa and child soldiers from Angola, to an astonishing series about the zeru zeru , Tanzanian albino children who are hunted down and murdered for their hair, skin and bones, which magicians grind to juju powders believed to turn any man into a sex god. Beate uses the material in collages, combining it with her own punk photos, in which her models – teetering on the balance between male and female – parade their hidden sexual fears and aggressions. She wants to end on a completely different note: a serene series on Hiroshima during the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of Little Boy  on August 6th. They’re planning a nocturnal procession with lanterns illuminating prayers for peace painted on huge silk banners. Beate is hoping it’ll be surreal, like a fairy-tale. She wants to stay in the city for the next couple of weeks, soak up the atmosphere, and then come back in August. A number of famous writers have agreed to contribute pieces on war and violence to her book. The project looks good on paper – her publisher leered at her when they signed the contract and waved his trademark silk handkerchief – but for some reason Beate has been feeling low for over six months. Her shrink, who charges ninety marks an hour, said something about an existential-artistic depression with symptoms of a deep-seated father complex. The brylcreamed psych licked his lips and rattled on about “affectivity issues” and “bisexual impulses”. He prescribed Clonazepan, Anafranil and Valium, but they didn’t seem to help. One minute she felt listless, the next overwrought. Patience and a new appointment. These things take time , her psychiatrist pointed out, especially with someone as sensitive as you . Beate takes another look at the baby on the magazine cover, and then at the picture Nakata took after Little Boy  had fallen.

Twin brothers?

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko – night, March 13th/14th 1995 

Chronology. The word haunts me. Have years of loneliness eroded my memory, or am I a person without chronology? “God is omnipresent, even in the smallest parts of himself.” Reizo’s pompous words have stuck in my mind for some reason. After all, my father was revered as a god by some. I don’t believe that a lack of chronology drives you mad. But with a mind like mine, a mind that wants to shine its light into every hidden corner of my being, what does  it do?

“Revered as a god by some.” Easy to say, perhaps, but it’s only when you really think about the situation that you realise how weird it is. I took the veneration of my father for granted, but “some” didn’t refer to just anyone; they were men of high social standing. As a people, we adore secrets. We form underground brotherhoods that have tattooed a cult of complex rituals, mutual dependence, bloodlines and ethereal goals onto the map of our society. The Yuzonsha , the society of my father’s followers, is one such a brotherhood. I tried to listen in to one of their meetings in February 1994, a little over a year ago. I’ll never forget it. It marked an irreversible turning point in my life. Lying on a hard mattress, in this damp space that was never meant to be lived in, I relive the scene as if I’m sitting in the old Hashima cinema, watching it like a war film from long ago, with a cast of black-and-white characters I don’t know and can barely understand.

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Hashima Island – an old block of flats – Rokurobei, the Yuzonsha and Mitsuko – February 15th 1994 

All the buildings on Hashima Island were disintegrating. From the top floor of a block that had remained more or less intact, I watched the members of Yuzonsha  wade with dignity through the rubble of slate-grey structures that had collapsed decades ago. The clouds hiding the moon took the shape of a dragon, dark and menacing, only its head glowing with silvery light. A row of red lamps marked the path leading to the spiral staircase, known as “the stairs to hell” by superstitious fishermen. The massive balconies of the half-collapsed neighbouring block were leaning against it, their haphazard shapes shrouded in the lamplight and the darkness. Our classical poets called the night the mother of our fears. If that’s true, my father was her lover. His display of decorum struck me as simply theatrical, but it worked on his followers.

I was in my father’s study. The building was fitted with powerful generators. The room was full of the latest Toshiba desktop computers, with access to the Internet. We received radio and television stations, and owned a brand-new satellite telephone, the type reserved for high ranking army officials. The technology was in its infancy then and the quality of the connection left much to be desired. The p


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erson on the other end often sounded as if they were speaking underwater. That was what my father’s voice sounded like in my dreams, when he got angry at me for trying to convince him that I wasn’t like him. I rebelled, like all teenage girls. On television, and later Internet, I discovered a world completely different from the one I lived in. Father said this was our destiny as forerunners of a new race. It sounded too far-fetched to me. Besides, the mirror didn’t lie. I saw us as failures of nature. I wanted to know how that had happened. My father only answered: Shoganai . We are as we are. By sheer willpower and ruthless ambition – and as I later realised resentment – my father tried to twist our abnormality into a mark of superiority. But I couldn’t do the same. He kept insisting I had no right to be different from him. What had made him so sure? I decided that to understand my father, I’d have to plumb the depths of his past. One of his characteristics that baffled and sometimes frightened me was his changeability. I’ve never seen him at peace with himself or others. I believed his restlessness was a flight from himself. When I told him what I thought and used examples to back up my theory, he just threw back his head and laughed. He called me his “personal little soul shepherd”.

But was I wrong? One moment, he was urging scientists of Yuzonsha  to conduct genetic experiments and extensive research on artificial intelligence. The next, he was obsessed with the idea that Japan would have to go to war with China, the “Sleeping Dragon”, if it wanted to maintain its dominant position in Asia. At the same time, a rifle through his personal documents taught me that he was one of the biggest importers of drugs from the Chinese province of Yunnan, a place alive with the brightest poppy fields and the darkest rivers. The rivers seemed to flow in parallel lines and on a map they looked man-made, but in truth the water irrigating the red and green poppy fields came directly from the Himalayas.

My father’s mind worked like a Tibetan prayer wheel, turning high on a desolate mountain, and powered by a force he considered divine. He tried to impress on the Yuzonsha  that he wanted to pioneer bold scientific innovations that would lift Japan out of the economic crisis. Coming from him, even the most megalomaniac plans and projects always seemed to make some kind of sense. But I had also read his former physician Hayashi’s medical files, which my father had kept all that time, and I knew that he was just as preoccupied with his bizarre origins, the shadowy stories about his birth, and the World War II legends he’d absorbed as a sixteen-year-old.

The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle I was patiently assembling didn’t help me see the bigger picture. I refused to accept that an intelligent man like my father, a cunning and formidable leader, believed himself to be the embodiment of the old Japanese nature spirit Rokurobei. And yet he never deviated from this conviction in conversations with me, no matter how I tried to prove its absurdity. Should I have taken this as a sign of insanity? What did that say about me? What did I see in the mirror? Just like my father, I towered over his bodyguards; my neck was abnormally long, my features crooked, my hands and feet elongated. I couldn’t hear the word “beautiful” without flinching. While his appearance gave him power and confidence, mine made me shy and miserable. I hardly ever left the island. My father often crossed over to the mainland at night, where he issued orders to loyal Yuzonsha  members. He worked hard, I was neglected. His study was the nerve centre of an important part of Nippon’s invisible economy. My father saw our race’s deep desire for self-fulfilment personified in him. He liked to refer to popular myths and legends that featured heroes with exceptional powers. For all that, he still believed his worldview was rational. But I was convinced that his astonishing mind followed the unpredictable rhythm of the night – its outlines shrouded in shadow, and reeling with concealed desires.

These thoughts were milling around in my head like kites as I watched the Yuzonsha  men walk up the path. Rich and powerful members of the secret brotherhood, leaders in high places in politics, industry and the army. I felt their excitement billowing towards me like fog. I thought I understood their need for these ritual meetings. As my father knew, it had its roots in an age-old tradition of men gathering around a campfire when the night stoked their deepest fears, where they would drink, sing, dance and summon spirits. This is the way it has always been, and always will be.

As a woman, I was barred from the meeting, but my father wasn’t the only one with an interest in technology. The miniature cameras I’d hidden in the assembly room were connected to my monitor. The screen filled the room with blue light, making my shadow seem long and twisted. I knew the sentence my father would use to open his speech to the assembled Yuzonsha , I had heard it often enough: “The meaning of life is to perfect it.”

When he said “to perfect” I think he meant “to conquer”.

My father wanted to create the perfect human being because it had been attempted with him – unsuccessfully.

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Hiroshima – Rabu Hoteru – Inspector Takeda – night, March 13th/14th 1995 

A narrow, inconspicuous building with smoked glass windows. Hiroshima is more discreet than Tokyo. Takeda remembers Tokyo’s extravagant love hotels from his training in the capital – grotesque medieval castles, even flying saucers. Unlike the average Japanese man, Takeda doesn’t see extramarital sex as relaxation. His colleagues boast about visiting the rabu hoteru  for free, in exchange for leniency when neighbours complain about drunken punters making a racket at night, storming out, unhappy with the service. Takeda’s physical need runs deeper. He turns to prostitution for mizu shobai , the “water trade” as it used to be called, water symbolising a dream-like mental state dominated by desire and imagination. Takeda needs prostitutes to bridle his obsession with the unbearableness of existence, which, unknown to him, is deeply rooted in his youth. When he’s penetrating a whore, Takeda often pictures himself as the Japanese guard who raped his mother. He can hear her groan softly. Not too loud, he thinks to himself, it would put her life in danger. In his most embarrassing fantasies, Takeda is wearing a sword, intent on using it to decapitate the woman if the sex isn’t satisfactory. Such moments fill him with shame and sadness, but his anger and need for the fantasy are stronger than his shame. Most prostitutes are used to drunken clients and rough treatment so they keep quiet. When he comes, the half-breed policeman laments the day he was born, ashamed of his behaviour.

Takeda is shattered after a day of meetings. The spectacular poison attack on the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo bank has taken priority over all the other investigations and dozens of details and lines of inquiry are piling up, screaming for attention. His bosses want arrests. The press is already bleating about “incompetence”, “unwillingness” and “deceit”. Brash television programmes are talking about obscure paramilitary organisations set on toppling the government and restoring the emperor’s divine status. Every lead has to be followed; an impossible task for the local criminal investigation department, especially with the national security police throwing spanners in the works.

Takeda opens the door to the room he’s hired for the hour and undresses, folding his clothes carefully on a chair. The woman will be here soon. Takeda likes the love hotels’ anonymity. Two months ago, a discrete hand slipped the keys under a frosted glass window, now all you have to do is insert your cash into a machine and out pops the key with your change. Takeda lies down on the bed, aware of the tension in his body. Dealing with the National Guard liaison officers was unpleasant; men in grey suits who made no effort to hide their contempt for the metropolitan police. His colleagues claim that the Guard aren’t averse to using the old methods to force confessions, the kind used in the camps fifty years ago. Given his own past, every allusion to that period makes Takeda feel uncomfortable. He has a pile of books at home on Japan’s military history. He later developed an interest in fiction. Languages fascinate him. He still speaks Dutch, practising regularly with language CDs. Years ago, he took evening classes in English and started reading English-language comics. Later he switched to more sophisticated literature. He even read Haruki Murakami in English. The man’s amazing Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World  tested Takeda’s language skills to the limit. His colleagues consider his flair for languages a curiosity. They only speak Japanese themselves, convinced it’s not in the nature of the Japanese to speak other languages. Takeda secretly hopes that his skills will get him promoted one day, although chief commissioner Takamatsu clearly has his doubts. Only that morning, his boss had poured scorn on his theory about the dead baby underneath the peace memorial. The case was closed, the incident written off as the desperate act of a young mother who had secretly given birth to a deformed child. So why was the baby embalmed? Takamatsu had grunted something about street gangs and “satanic rituals”. End of discussion. But Takeda feels there’s more to this case. Had the body been embalmed out of love or hatred? It was certainly symbolic, as police doctor Adachi had remarked dryly. At that moment, Takeda thought of his unborn half-brother, drowned in the concentration camp latrine.

A knock at the door. The woman who comes in is in her mid-twenties. Takeda always chooses the same age category. Many other Japanese men prefer younger prostitutes. Enjo kosai  is popular in Japan: eighteen-year-olds, dressed up like school girls complete with pleated miniskirts, servicing older men. Young women are made out to be the pinnacle of pleasure, and they bring in a fortune. Takeda’s mother was twenty-five when she fell pregnant with him. Nothing is said. There’s no need. The woman does what she was taught to do. She undresses, her head turned away slightly in feigned modesty. She then takes him in her mouth with a look of fear on her face. She’s learnt that this makes men feel powerful and strong. When Takeda enters her, she winces as if he’s too big for her. That’s what Japanese men like. Takeda is slow to respond. Her body is too sinewy for his taste. He makes her go down on hands and knees and penetrates her from behind, trying to act out his favourite fantasy. His mind refuses to cooperate. He hesitates, can’t quite grasp what’s wrong.

Suddenly, he pulls back, chases her off the bed. The prostitute is baffled. She’d understand if he were drunk. Inspector Takeda pays her and motions her to hurry. They get dressed in silence with their backs to each other. The woman slips out of the door, relieved that her client didn’t get violent.

Takeda isn’t drunk, but he might as well have been. He’s intoxicated by something that anyone else, anyone other than a policeman, would call inspiration.

He’s determined to get home as quickly as possible.

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Hashima Island – Yozunsha meeting in the old island cinema and Rokurobei’s speech – February 15th 1994 

You call me Rokurobei, as dictated by tradition since the founding of the  Yuzonsha. Like the legendary demon from the noble  Kami family, my task has been to bring you prosperity and good fortune. That is what I have done. For forty years, I have made sure that you are among the most powerful men in Nippon. I have summoned you today to assess your level of  makoto. You know the meaning of the word in Japanese: it encompasses an immaterial value that translates into righteousness, which is something very different from honesty. The ancient Chinese definition is even more interesting: ‘the word that was kept and thus came to life.’ 

“I gave you my word in all righteousness many years ago, and have waited all this time for it to germinate. Your wealth and power may have made you weak and unstable. But my  tamashii, the soul I have been given, has the power to turn you back into the men you were in your youth. 

“Remember that a male Rokurobei is rare. A nature spirit of my eminence wants first and foremost to shine, to prove his worth. With greater maturity, however, success and self-fulfilment make way for more altruistic goals. At that moment a Rokurobei has no choice but to follow  unmei, his fate. 

“As a people, we are not individualists like the Westerners. We think and act as a group. We think and act as a nation. My fate and yours are therefore the same. In the next hour, I intend to reveal my plans to you. First, I want to explain the steps necessary to take Nippon to the absolute top of the software industry. Even though our technical innovations and our industry are renowned the world over, we do not make enough use of computers ourselves. Ten years ago, our Tandy 100 was the first laptop on the market, but only a third of our business people today have a computer of their own. Computers cost twice as much here as they do in the United States. Keyboards are not suited to our language, and as a consequence to our way of thinking. The ancients didn’t call Japanese ‘the language of the devil’ for nothing. Our writing system is the most complex on the planet. We use more than 4,000  kanji, and in order to employ these symbols in all their subtlety and elegance, we need over half a megabyte of computer memory for the characters alone. Our language was made to be drawn and painted, to do justice to the subtle and multifaceted meanings conveyed by our  kanji. Communication is vital for a people with a highly developed sense of community. But when the Japanese try to communicate through computers they feel awkward and misunderstood. 

“We can turn this around, however. Language is an essential part of intelligence. If computers understand language, their intelligence increases significantly. For this reason I have ordered the development of new software that will shortly enable computers to recognise the network of meaning underlying our language, allowing them to think with us. Once this first hurdle has been taken, we can overcome the next. Western scientists have warned that artificial intelligence will surpass the human intellect in the foreseeable future. Computers double their performance every eighteen months, while human evolution has stagnated. If we are to keep up with the artificial mind we are creating, we need to alter the genetic make-up of our brains and bodies. At the moment, modifications to the body seem to be more readily within our reach. By deactivating the gene that regulates myostatin, we can strengthen and improve the human body. Modifications to the mind are more difficult, but not impossible. By increasing the complexity of our DNA, we can develop the brainpower needed to meet the challenge of artificial intelligence. 

“All these possibilities are within our grasp. But global and national forces are preventing the experiments necessary to carry out this vision of the future. What has happened to our country? Our current emperor’s father dishonourably renounced his status as  arahitogami, a deity become human, after the Second World War. He denied being the embodiment of the divine natural spirit, thus insulting the Japanese people and damaging our souls.” 


* * *

I distinctly remember the way my father turned his head. It swung round like the head of a large predatory bird. He stepped away from podium and suddenly his enormous face was filling my screen. He laughed. His canines, filed sharp and carefully set with small gems, gleamed in the bright light of the spotlights behind him.

One rapid movement, then grey, dancing pixels.

Had he sensed  the miniature camera?

He had removed it before his speech was over, but I’d heard enough.

My father wanted to be the creator of a new arahitogami , a divine emperor the likes of whom Japan had never seen before.

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Hiroshima – the canal behind the Genbaku Dome – Reizo and Xavier Douterloigne – night, March 13th/14th 1995 

Xavier Douterloigne soon realises that the Japanese boy in front of him is high. Or drunk. Or both. His affected behaviour makes him look like an actor in a French play.

Xavier wouldn’t have been too worried – even though he’s realised that he’s dealing with Reizo, Yori’s boyfriend – if Yori hadn’t told him the story about the stabbing. Then there’s the sweet-and-sour breath Reizo is blowing into his face, his rigid stare and pouting lips, and the duct tape tying Xavier’s hands behind his back. The second boy is slumped on the floor of the van, hands dangling between his knees. He’s tall and lean, and grinning with a malicious delight that’s making Xavier nervous.

“I wanting make suicide as long as remember,” Reizo says in pitiful English. “In Nippon, making suicide is artistic, yes? But shortly I think that shit. First immortality with novel, then everyone knowing when I do the suicide.” His clumsy sentences have a smug ring to them. Xavier realises that he’s going to need all his experience as a diplomat’s son. There’s a cunning gleam in Reizo’s eyes, as if he’s calculating the effect he’s having on Xavier.

“Suicide?” Xavier replies in immaculate Japanese. “In your case, that would be a waste of talent.” He’s laying on the flattery with a trowel, but it’s working. Reizo drags both hands through his hair, sniffs and bends over to his companion. “A foreigner – one of the unclean  – who speaks Japanese. This’ll be fun,” he says. The other boy shrugs.

“What were you doing with my fiancé? Seducing her with your Western talk?” Xavier assumes that Reizo is playing a role and isn’t quite sure if he believes in it himself.

“I’ve only just arrived in the city,” he says. “I met Yori on the street. She gave me some tips, that’s all. I’m Belgian.” If Yori was telling the truth, Reizo is an extreme nationalist. Xavier doesn’t want him thinking he’s an American. Reizo ignores the information, grabs Xavier’s nose and pinches it hard. “Tips? On how better to fuck her?” Another bad sign. The Japanese don’t talk about sex in public, except when they’re drunk.

Reizo’s companion pulls out a hard plastic container from between his feet. He opens it. Xavier can’t see the contents. His nose hurts. He has to stay calm. He tries his old trick again. “Why would I do that? I’m gay.”

Did Reizo even hear him in the state he’s in? He surprises Xavier by pointing at the print on Xavier’s T-shirt: speaking is NOT communication . “I don’t believe you. I was watching you. You wanted to stick your pale chinko  into her, you dirty yarichin .”

Now that Reizo has called him a male slut in the presence of his companion, Xavier knows there’s no way back. Reizo has to take revenge on Xavier to save his honour. Xavier tries not to panic.

“Not at all, I…”

He’s suddenly blinded by a punch to the face. He can feel his lips swell up and his nose start to bleed. He tries not to groan or whimper. Luckily, Reizo is already taken by a new thought. Xavier can see the muscles of his jaw contracting.

“Has the baita  told you I’m a writer?” Harlot? Yori can expect to share in Reizo’s aggression. Xavier tries flattery again. “Yes. You’re working on a novel that’s going to create uproar in Japan.” Xavier can tell by Reizo’s face that he’s gone too far, and quickly adds: “A visionary  novel that’ll cause controversy the world over.”

Reizo seems to relax a little. “That’s right. It’ll be convincing . Conviction, that’s what other writers lack, even Mishima. I break all the conventional rules. Mishima spent his whole life practising for death. But times have changed. I’m going to practise on others, to perfect the art of a beautiful, dramatic death before my turn comes. I’m the writer who’s set to assert the superiority of Japanese youth. The older generation shall bow down to us!”

Xavier doesn’t know what to make of this ranting young man. They’re both roughly the same age, but Reizo has no work and no future. He’s starting to realise that his “innocent charm” is having no effect on the aspiring Japanese writer. The frustration is showing on Reizo’s face. Wiping the sweat from it with his forearm, he suddenly looks ill. A cocktail of drugs and alcohol is probably making him nauseous. His narrow face and his hair, bleached almost white and brushed into spikes, makes him look a little like a doll. The full, pouting lips, the delicate forehead, the small nose and dainty nostrils; Xavier has always been able to pick up subtle signs of homosexuality. It wouldn’t surprise him if Reizo was gay, just like his idol Mishima. Mishima was married with children, but couldn’t survive without the love of men.

“The success that this American Ellis is having with his American Psycho ,” Reizo continues contemptuously, “Crap! Hacking, stabbing, vaporising – anyone can do that. Not a single original murder in the whole book.”

Xavier is still trying to humour Reizo: “I agree. It’s a worthless novel. Flimsy… nihilistic.” Xavier hasn’t even read American Psycho ; he’s only read about  it. Reizo pulls down the corners of his mouth. He’s trying to give his face the determined expression of a Japanese warrior. Xavier would usually laugh at such a cliché, but he’s growing increasingly concerned. He can’t figure this young man. Is it an act, or does Reizo really believe in his worldview, loosely constructed around half-understood role models and his own death-wish?

“One of the characters in my novel gets bitten by an Irukandji . I want to write an accurate description of the long death-struggle that follows.” Now he’s sounding sober. His gaze travels to Xavier’s stomach. Before Xavier can react, or even fully understand the meaning of the words, Reizo nods to his companion, who carefully removes a water-filled plastic bag from the container. He hands it to Reizo, who slowly lifts it close to Xavier’s face. A small jellyfish is floating in the bag, its four tentacles about five centimetres long. The light-green creature is so pale that Xavier can hardly see it. It looks weak and fragile, like a glob of snot in water.

“Such a sensitive animal,” Reizo says. “So delicate, it dies if you carry it around in a glass tank. One bump against a hard glass wall and it falls apart. But the poison in those tiny tentacles will probably kill you. You can’t be certain, it depends on the circumstances. But there’s no doubt you’ll suffer horribly. You’ll feel as if your body is bursting, your guts exploding. It’ll be a struggle between life and death. That struggle is your task. Mine, to observe it, and write what I see.”

Xavier barely grasps the torrent of words coming from the young madman’s mouth. His brain refuses to believe that this is real.

“If you survive, I grant you the right to avenge yourself,” Reizo continues in all seriousness. “You know my name. You know what I look like. I wish you luck.”

“Wait, I…”

Reizo rips open Xavier’s shirt. He carefully pours the water with the jellyfish onto his chest. Xavier tries to wriggle free, but his hands are tied with tape. He feels a slight sting. He braces himself for the pain, but it doesn’t come.

It was a lie, after all. Xavier has never heard of an Irukandji . It must have been a tasteless prank. In a minute, Yori will pop her head around the door and they’ll laugh about it together.

Reizo stands, smiling: “I forgot to tell you that the symptoms only start setting in after about an hour. We’ll leave you alone until then, to give you time to fool yourself into thinking you can beat the poison. Should be interesting.”

The young men head towards the back of the van. With the deliberation of a film noir  actor, Reizo turns his head and says: “In the time you have left to think, before your brains are fried, reflect on this: you thought you could have her, but she’s had you. She spent days looking for a suitable victim for my literary experiment. Such an obedient woman, Yori, very loyal to my ideals – she will never love anyone more than me.”

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko’s sleepless night – night, March 13th/14th 1995 

I remember my blood running cold when the miniature camera was disconnected. I left the room, not quite sure what to do next, and made my way down the crumbling staircase. The red lamps that had marked the way for the Yuzonsha  members were still lit. The dark silhouettes of the Hashima buildings reminded me of an old story by the imperial lady in waiting Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote almost 1,000 years ago about houses absorbing gloom and hatred more easily than happiness and love. This had never been a beautiful island, just a lump of rock on top of a subterranean world of coal. The companies that erected these apartment blocks had been driven by the brute force of profit, and the whole island reflected this.

I wandered through the ruins in a strange stupor. I’d talk my way out, this wasn’t the first trick I’d played on him – my father seemed to enjoy this cat and mouse game between us, albeit secretly. But the tricks and games weren’t my biggest concern. What worried me most was that he had developed some, if not all, of the characteristics of Rokurobei. The snake-necked demon Rokurobei is also called the King of Lies. His speech had been nothing more than a carefully formulated distortion of reality. Under certain circumstances, Rokurobei has the ability to read the thoughts of anyone within his range of influence, something the Ancients described as “seeing into the soul”. Had my father just reached inside my soul?

I heard a fluttering sound behind me, the sound crows make when they fight over a piece of garbage, or out of boredom.

Someone was standing behind me on the path I had followed without thinking. He was shorter than me, by a head at least, and was standing still. I turned and walked towards him without stopping to think, my hands concealed in my wide sleeves.

I had almost reached him when the man bowed low, in the way expected of underlings. I knew then he wasn’t a Yuzonsha . “Ohimesama , it is an honour to meet you.” From this distance I noticed to my surprise that he was quite young, probably younger than me. He had an open face, and there was a hint of sensitivity in his eyes, or so I thought.

“Who are you?” I asked abruptly, unable to hide my self-consciousness. He had addressed me as Ohimesama  – Princess – without even a trace of sarcasm. Though shorter than me, he was tall for a Japanese man. Long legs, a short trunk, sinewy arms. His eyes drew my attention: the usual Japanese skin fold was less obvious and it made him appear more Korean than Japanese.

“Hidetoshi Inaba, madam.”

“Where are you from?” I sounded like a policewoman. I was tense, on my guard, keeping my hands up my sleeves. But I couldn’t avoid the impression that the boy was sincere, cheerful, I don’t know why.

His “madam” brought home my elevated and cloistered existence. It made me feel uneasy, as if my best years were already behind me.

“Nagasaki.”

“What brings you here?” I knew it was a stupid question. Hashima was officially deserted. Only the boats of my father’s organisation moored here, and always at night.

“I’m a sailor,” he announced with pride.

“On one of my father’s boats?”

He nodded, smiling radiantly, like a child seeing its first butterfly.

It didn’t take me long to find out he was sixteen. He’d run away from his parents six months ago, but remained vague about the reason. Nothing he said about it has stuck in my memory, except for one s


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entence: “I was living as if in a deep sleep or trance, now I’m awake.”

What a strange boy. But from the first, there was something about him I can only describe as “romantic”, a quality that seemed to be shining down on him from above like a beacon of light. His smile was surprisingly frank and open. He soon appeared at his ease, and there was no sign of that sidelong look of reverential awe I would get from the other seamen on the rare occasions we met. He talked a lot and with great enthusiasm. Before I knew it, we were sitting together in the rubble. Grinning with pride, he produced a flask of spirits from his back pocket and cautiously offered me a drink. The stuff scorched my stomach like sunburn, then a comforting glow took its place. He said he didn’t want to live like his parents, working in the shipyards of Nagasaki. “I love music. When I hear a certain kind of music, something in me changes, I grow, and the world gets smaller.” Later, when I used his name, he said: “I’d prefer if you called me “Crow”, that’s what my shipmates call me. What may I call you?” His smile was so inviting that I allowed him without hesitation to call me Mitsuko. He was hoping to save enough money to go to a conservatory. “I like rap and all that, it’s not that I’m not modern, but the classical composers… Wow. It’s not just their music, though that’s impressive enough. But their lives; they were so—” he cast around for the right word – “exalted”. I was watching him closely, thinking he had also found the right word to describe his own inner life. By “classical”, I assumed he meant Western composers, but didn’t ask, afraid of appearing ignorant. I felt comfortable with him, something that never happened with other people. I found myself wondering if he thought I was ugly, but the way he looked at me didn’t seem to suggest it. I sensed something like admiration in him; or, more accurately perhaps, respect. Strangely enough, our age difference – his sixteen years, my twenty – wasn’t a problem. Doggedly independent from his early youth, he told me he’d always gone his own way, spending hours at the public library. “Libraries calm me down. Quite an achievement, in my case.” His mercurial energy was captivating. In his company I felt normal.

I can’t recall the reason he gave for leaving, but I do remember the way we said goodbye. He bent down and kissed my hand like an eighteenth-century composer would have done. Before I knew it, we’d agreed to meet again two days later, when the boat he was working on would be back.

I’d only walked a dozen steps or so when a shadow fell over me. I knew who it was.

I stopped, head bowed.

The noise the shadow uttered was like the mocking screech of a crow.

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Hiroshima – the canal behind the Genbaku Dome – Beate Becht and Xavier Douterloigne – night, March 13th/14th 1995 

Beate Becht always carries a camera, even when she’s out for a stroll at night. She’s marching along the canal behind the Genbaku Dome at a speed even she thinks is slightly Teutonic. Going for a walk in the middle of the night seemed like a good idea at first. A powerful wind is lashing the river. Beate is on her guard. Is that down to her upbringing, her personality, her genes? She’s read that Japan is one of the safest countries on earth for foreigners. From the canal she can see the boulevards, the rivers and the city’s industrial zone. It’s very different from the densely populated city centre she walked through yesterday, full of neon, noise and smells. Near the ruins of the Genbaku Dome, a grim reminder of Hiroshima’s war history, all is quiet. Pools of shadow drift underneath the willows lining the river bank. The benches along the canal, occupied late into the evening by courting young couples not bothered by the dome’s grim perimeter fence, are deserted at this hour. Beate looks to the right. The water of the Aioi River is black. She remembers reading descriptions of the river from shortly after the atom bomb, when it was littered with corpses as brittle as burnt wood. A large firefly, pale as moonlight, skims over the water’s surface. Beate aims her lens and shoots, even though the half-light and the ghostly insect’s abrupt changes of direction have almost certainly rendered the result useless. The firefly makes her think of the genbaku obake , the spirits of the nuclear victims: unmistakably present, difficult to capture.

Further down the riverbank she notices a van, a VW, more hidden than parked between the willows. The colourful painting on its side attracts her attention. She approaches it slowly, her curiosity more powerful than her sense of caution. The manga painting depicts a white-haired girl with the face of a child and large, innocent eyes, dressed in a pleated school skirt and thigh length boots. Her underpants are down around her knees. Her breasts dotted with droplets of sweat dangle from her schoolgirl blouse. She’s being taken from behind by a red-skinned demon with a white, spongy head, lumpy and misshapen like an enormous turnip, and eyes that look both wild and sad. The demon’s massive penis has been painted over with metallic squares, but the girl’s vagina is depicted in great detail, with an exaggerated bulge and fluid dripping in abundance. The van seems abandoned. Reassured, Beate searches for the best angle to take pictures of the scene. The camera flashes twice.

She’s startled by a thud. She turns and walks away. Two thuds. A third. A drumming sound against metal.

Then she hears shouting, in Japanese. The voice sounds desperate.

She quickens her pace.

The voice switches to Dutch. Beate worked with a female midget from Amsterdam once, a highly intelligent and charming model who’d overcome the fact that she – as she put it – was imprisoned in a body not much taller than a metre. One evening, after an exhausting photo session in which Beate had locked her in a cage among the stray cats and dogs at a local kennel, the woman hit the bottle and had one drink too many. At three o’clock in the morning, she peered down at Beate from an attic bar, fixed her with bleary eyes and whispered: “Help. Help me.” Beate hears the same words now.


* * *

Xavier has managed to crawl to the side of the van and is kicking against it with both feet. Again, and again. He’s shouting, without even knowing what. The urge for life that he seemed to have lost for a while after Anna has come back with a vengeance. His mind is deflating like a balloon, focusing down on that one desire. It feels like drowning. Is he imagining things, or did he hear something? He takes a deep breath, his throat raw from yelling.

“Wie sind Sie, bitte?” A woman’s voice.

It sounds distant, as if a stretch of water is in the way. No time to think.

“Hilfe!”


* * *

Looking back later, Beate will marvel at her own decisiveness. Now, she’s acting on instinct. She can hear a man’s voice with a Dutch accent screaming for help in her native German. She tugs at the back door. It’s locked. She looks in through the window on the driver’s side. Something’s moving behind the seat. The riverbank is covered with smooth stones. She grabs one, and then on second thoughts grabs another. She hurls a stone at the driver’s window. Nothing. She lifts the heavier one, takes a few steps backwards this time, and throws it with all her strength. A crack. She runs back to the shore, pumped with adrenalin. She’s not thinking of the consequences of her actions, convinced that the man in the van needs help. She grabs the heaviest stone she can find, and this one smashes the glass. Reaching inside carefully she pushes the handle of the door. It swings open. She gets in, wriggles to the back of the van between the two front seats. It’s empty, except for a strapped figure on the floor.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko’s sleepless night – night, March 13th/14th 1995 

My father used to say: we are the future, they are the past.

My father used to say: of course you’re not human, you’re more than human. Cloaked in his protective armour of fevered activity and revenge, he made me feel invisible. I thought no one could see me – me, Mitsuko, the woman inside this shell.

Crow, a sixteen-year-old boy, did see that woman. He drew her out of herself with his lopsided smile, his gangling, funny gait, the way he always seemed to be conducting an unseen orchestra with his constantly moving hands.

I soon started to treasure the stolen hours we spent together, twice or three times a week. Without him, I felt like I was walking in a void. He was very frank. He told me he was a runner  for my father’s gambling joints in Nagasaki, and mentioned names of American Mafiosi that I later looked up. The kings of the American underworld were a recent fascination of his. He talked about Capone, but also told me stories about less famous men like Joseph Pistone, Lucky Luciano and Vincent Gigante. Crow talked about their sense of honour, and about the corrupt politicians and police, who he believed were much worse than the criminals. The men in his stories had only one goal, one resolution: to work their way up, and overcome their fears whenever they had to. Crow was determined to do the same. He didn’t say so, but I could tell: I want to reach an important position in your father’s organisation, then you and I can…  I trembled at the thought, a shudder ran through my body from tip to toe, or was it a tingle?

Sometimes I would spy on the crew of his boat, watching him and the other men unload the goods. He was pale, almost as white as a doll, his limbs long and bony, and a film of sweat made his skin look translucent in the sun. Gradually, as the months went by, I felt myself blossoming. We talked about things I hadn’t even known were on my mind, such as love and death. Eventually, I talked about sex. He told me without hesitation that he’d hired a baita  with his first wages as a gambling runner. He was only fifteen at the time. “It wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be,” he concluded with a shrug.

“What had you hoped for?”

We were sitting close to the observation post that we’d started calling “our spot”. From here, the highest point of the island, we could easily see anyone approaching. Though my father must have seen me with Crow when he came to find me after the Yuzonsha  meeting, he hadn’t said anything about it. Nor about the incident with the camera.

Crow turned his face to the sun. His skin looked translucent again. “I’m not sure. Perhaps that she’d like me. But she seemed… wary.” He looked at me. “I forgot to caress her. That’s what I’d meant to do. But maybe she wouldn’t have liked it.”

He sat in silence. “At least you’re not a virgin anymore,” I said. Sitting next to me, he pulled up his right knee, rested his arms on it and peered at me over his shoulder. “And you?”

I felt a lump in my throat and couldn’t do anything but nod. I realised at that moment I was hoping he would ask if I would allow him to caress me. Instead, he put his arm around my shoulders and said: “Someone will come, I’m sure of it – a sweet woman like you.”

I clenched my teeth.

My thigh muscles tensed.

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Hiroshima – inspector Takeda’s apartment – Kanayamacho – Takeda and his wife – Night, March 13th/14th 1995 

Surprise. A childless woman reading late at night, in a chair, by lamplight. She’s reading one or another rag, doesn’t lay a finger on inspector Takeda’s books. Or perhaps? He actually knows little about her. She can be a bitch at times. Mostly she’s respectful. Takeda looks at her bowed head. She’s greying, like him; with her it’s much more visible. Her body is wrapped in a nightgown. He knows her body, although it’s been a long time since they shared a bed. Wiry in recent years, a little withered at the edges, creases behind the knees, between the breasts (small, once pert), her broad pelvis now bony, her legs too short. It wasn’t so obvious before, when her proportions were pleasantly rounded, agreeable, a little flirtatious. Does Takeda still love her? He wouldn’t know. He values her coldblooded obstinacy and her stubborn attitude to fate. She treats him with respect, as a man should be treated. What’s he doing with his hand? He’s holding it over her head, to caress her hair, in a sudden surge of… of what? She looks up, her eyes calm and placid in the lamplight, a tad reserved, verging on distant. Takeda withdraws his hand.

“What are you reading?”

She smiles almost imperceptibly: “The usual news.”

He takes a quick look at the article. Photos of a scorched facade. A smouldering corpse being carried out by rescue workers. Fifteen people dead in a “video box” in Osaka. Video boxes are porn shops where customers can rent tiny coffin-like rooms, relax in an armchair and watch porn undisturbed. It was three in the morning when the place burned down, but it was almost full at the time. Labourers who’ve missed their train or don’t want to go home often spend the night in a video box. It’s cheaper than a capsule hotel. Takeda knows all about them, has used them more than once.

“Men are strange creatures, don’t you think?” says his wife. “They’ll do anything for a woman’s body.” Is he mistaken, or is there a hint of meaning in her eyes? He takes the magazine from her. Shukan Gendai.  The crumpled face of the “atom baby with the blind stare of silent suffering,” as the headline had tagged the discovery, gapes at him from the front page.

He holds the photo out to his wife. “Do you think a man did this?”

Her expression remains calm and her voice is steady when she replies: “No. When a man kills or mutilates his child, he leaves it behind at the side of the road, in a gutter, on a rubbish tip. You don’t expect paper cranes, let alone symbols like the Peace Memorial.”

Is this a concealed insult? Takeda reproaches himself for harbouring feelings of guilt. Suspicion has become second nature to him.


* * *

She bows to him, wishes him goodnight and withdraws to the bedroom. The apartment is small, but Takeda had a bed installed two years earlier in the room where he keeps his desk and computer. The computer is one of his passions. Takeda would like to wire the apartment for internet, but it’s still too expensive. In Newsweek,  which he buys on a regular basis to keep up his English, he read predictions about the future potential of the net: buying books online, airline reservations, you name it. If the weekly was to be believed, the internet was set to take over the world in a decade. In a decade he would be closing in on sixty-one. Would he still be able to walk the streets, calm, conscious of his experience and inner strength, surrounded by hordes of young people who seem to be losing more and more control by the day? He was a law-abiding young man in his day, he’s sure of it. It had to do with a sense of inadequacy, of not coming up to the mark. He has clear memories of a house surrounded by trees, damp and humid – Indonesia? – and his mother pulling down his short trousers (he figures himself to be about four at the time), her hands feverishly warm, and snarling: “I should have drowned you in the shit too!” Takeda doesn’t trust the memory, although it forms the basis of the vague fear that constantly haunts him. When he was fifteen he started to blame his mother for it, albeit guardedly, and before long the distance between them was complete. Now he’s stuck with a suppressed authority problem. He not only thinks his boss is a pompous asshole, he also has uncomfortable daydreams in which he sees himself with his hands closing around commissioner Takamatsu’s windpipe. He often wonders what the buried anger towards everyone, especially his mother, is all about. When he was a teenager he saw her as closed, obstinate, but she didn’t really get in his way. In Japan she worked at first for the Dutch consulate and later for Philips Electronics. There was money enough for whatever he wanted and she was usually away most of the day, allowing him to indulge his freedom. Takeda’s Japanese friends had mothers who adored them, but tried to keep an eye on them every minute of the day. They were mummy’s boys as far as Takeda was concerned. He strutted his self-assurance for all to see, but in reality he was jealous: my son’s going to be a professor, mine an engineer.  

Takeda forces himself to concentrate. Don’t lose sight of the goal. Think logically. Follow the clues. He’s expecting chief commissioner Takamatsu to hound him and his team until they produce results. The commissioner wants arrests, now not later. The identity of the suspects involved in the bank holdup isn’t his priority. The press release is what counts. Takeda gets to his feet, explores the cheap bookshelves against the wall. He would like to have more books, more space. Why has he never managed to sort them into alphabetical order? It takes a while before he finds what he looking for: Unit 731 Testimony,  subtitled: Japan’s Wartime Human Experimentation Program.  The book caught his attention in the American Bookshop a couple of months earlier. The English wasn’t too difficult. He’s looking for something near the front: the incident at the Teikoku Bank in 1948. Takeda reads the account carefully. The expression on his face changes from concentration to concern.

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Hiroshima – Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko’s sleepless night – March 13th/14th 1995 

I got into the habit of talking to Crow at night as if he was lying beside me. I convinced myself that his reserve had to do with his fear of my father, not because he found me ugly. When we were together, I searched obsessively for traces of aversion. I didn’t find them. Sometimes I thought I saw admiration in his eyes, and one time he said that my height impressed him. I teased him: “Does it offend your masculinity?” His smile had nothing to hide: “I’m too young to be worried about my masculinity.” He was so smart, so mature for his age. I can’t remember how often I promised myself I would ask: “Do you find me beautiful?” I didn’t dare. I started to hate my father as a result. The place in my chest that used to be filled with fear made way for rage. I dreamt of escape, with Crow, hand in hand into the big wide world, the first kiss, his fingers running through my hair. I was already familiar with his smell: leather, tobacco, a splash of the sea, and a hint of musk in the background. Fired by love and passion, that sinewy body of his would make me feel like a lady who entertains , basking in the glow of his youthful manhood.

I started to tease him more and make naughty remarks. He joined in with enthusiasm. One time we wrestled. I made sure I lost and ended up beneath him. His arms had brushed against my breasts and thighs as we wrestled. It was bliss. But he didn’t fall for it. He lay on top of me and then jumped to his feet like a puppy: “You did it on purpose! You can do a lot better, I’m sure of it! An ohimesama  like you, invincible and proud.” He found it really funny and I laughed along. But in my heart I cried because he hadn’t said invincible and beautiful . I convinced myself that he wanted to say it but couldn’t, didn’t dare. When the laughter subsided he gallantly offered his hand and pulled me to my feet. At that moment I thought he was going to take me in his arms. Instead he turned around and looked at the sea. I saw the tension in his shoulders and held out my hand, but I couldn’t either . I didn’t dare.

It didn’t take long for me to convince myself that Crow didn’t take the plunge because he couldn’t set aside the class difference. The ominous shadow of my father hung between us. I didn’t blame Crow. He was still so young. The man he was going to be appeared every now and then but quickly vanished again. Our time would come.

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Hiroshima – Aioi canal behind the Genbaku Dome – Beate Becht, Yori and Xavier Douterloigne – night, March 13th/14th 1995 

When she’s having her period, Beate often feels as if she’s wearing a layer of hypersensitivity that makes the world chaotic. She now recognises precisely the same feeling, but this time it’s because of the young man with his backside against the bus, his hands on his knees, his head hanging forward as if he could throw up again at any moment. Stung by a poisonous jellyfish? Someone getting their own back because of a girl? She had trouble understanding his Dutch. He’s from Flanders, maybe that explains it. She asked him to speak English. She’s not quite sure what’s going on. The vinegary smell from the vomit on the ground between them only fortifies her confusion. He’s still young. Narcotics? Magic mushrooms? Possible. But tiny, poisonous jellyfish? She automatically lines up her camera and snaps a couple of shots. The boy seems groggy, clears his throat. By the time Beate hears the footsteps it’s too late. Beate is dumbstruck. The newcomer is a young woman, black tights and a short batwing coat, glossy thigh-length boots and stiletto heels. She has a mask on her chest with antennas sticking out. Her heavy breathing makes the antennas wiggle. When she catches sight of Beate she holds up both palms, clearly afraid. She’s wearing gloves made of shiny synthetic cloth. She mutters something in Japanese, realises that Beate doesn’t understand, and switches to rudimentary English: “Have Xavier Irukandji in body?” Beate says she doesn’t understand.

The young man opens his eyes. He still looks in a bad way, but he speaks to the young woman in Japanese. Their conversation is agitated. The Japanese girl lifts her hand to her mouth. Beate reacts: flash, flash, flash.

The boy shakes his head, apparently incredulous. The girl races to the driver’s side of the bus, yanks open the door and climbs in.

Beate asks the young man what the hell is going on. He stares at her, runs his fingers mechanically through his blonde hair.

“Come!”  the girl shouts. She beckons Beate “To hospital!” 

The boy starts to move. “They put a poisonous jellyfish on my chest,” he repeats in English. “It stung me. I could die.”

“Come!” 

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Hiroshima – Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko’s sleepless night – March 13th/14th 1995 

My father had gone to the mainland. I wanted to show Crow the place where he spent most of his time reading and hatching his plans. We had gone up to the eagle’s nest. There was something absent about Crow that day, as if he had forgotten something very important. I talked. He turned his back to me, rested his foot on the stone rampart that encircled Hashima and looked out across the sea. “You look like a pirate heading out into the briny deep,” I said. He wasn’t the same as before. I felt that I was making a fool of myself. He looked back at me and grinned, but I could still see his remoteness. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do, Mitsuko,” he said, as if he’d made a decision. In the couple of months that we had grown closer to one another the boy had changed. There was strength in his shoulders and the fluff on his upper lip had darkened. A desire to conquer twinkled in his eye, a need to show the world what he was made of.

“Later, perhaps, the two of us,” I said bluntly. I noticed him pull back his head slightly, but didn’t have the time to think about what it might mean. He was a little flustered, told me he had been selected to get some experience in one of my father’s smuggling organisations. He had to go to China, wasn’t sure for how long. When he came back he would no longer be a novice, fit only for unloading crates. His enthusiasm increased as he spoke. The wind played with my skirts. I felt ridiculous. I hadn’t put on a furisode  that day, the classical kimono my father insisted I wore, but a dress. For him. Instead of looking at me he just stared out to sea, longing to leave, to be far from here.

“What about me?” The words were out before I was aware of it.

He seemed surprised. “We stay friends. I’m coming back.”

“When?”

Now he seemed shy. Or didn’t he understand? Had it taken him this long to realise what he had done to me?

“I don’t know.”

“Didn’t you think about me when…?” The lump in my throat took over. Sadness engulfed me.

“What do you mean, Mitsuko?” He had the cheek to ask me what I meant. Did he want to push the knife in even deeper? I moved closer. We stood eye to eye. He opened his arms, laughed, and shouted: “How could I stay away? Crow always comes back! And when he does he’ll have a present with him, a present just for you from China, caw, caw!”

He flapped his arms wildly and laughed, laughed. A shadow flew over him; it was as if a giant crow had crashed down on him. I covered my head with my arms. A scream, swallowed in an instant by the wind.

He was already tiny, like a doll, when I leaned over the balustrade and watched him fall to the rocks below, his arms and legs flailing. The caw of a mocking crow filled my ears. I turned, could hardly believe my eyes. The Lord of Lies had tossed my only chance of love into the sea.

My father stared at me. His eyes absorbed the light.

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Funairi Hospital – Funairisaiwai-cho – Hiroshima – Beate Becht – night, March 13th/14th 1995 

“Are you the one who brought the patient in?”

The senior doctor at Funairi Hospital doesn’t speak the same standard of English as the young doctor who checked Beate in at the reception. He’s standing several meters behind his boss now. Beate nods. She’s cross. She and the girl called Yori brought the young Belgian in over an hour ago. He had been rambling and was unable to stand up without support. They had helped him out of the van and walked him into the hospital. His body was warm and feverish. Yori disappeared at the reception. She had muttered something, but Beate couldn’t remember what. She presumed she had gone to the toilet. Beate was angry because she was having a hard time explaining to the triage nurse that the boy was in a very bad way. She was so frustrated it took a while before she realised that Yori had cleared off. Luckily the triage nurse finally got the message and called a doctor who could speak English. The boy was in a wheelchair by this time and seemed to be only half conscious. The doctor checked his temperature and pulse. He asked Beate if he had taken drugs. She tried to make it clear that she didn’t know him, that she’d found him near the river, that there was a Japanese girl with them who did seem to know him, but that she had disappeared. It dawned on her as she spoke that her story didn’t add up and that she could be accused of having stolen the van with the demon painting: “The Japanese girl said he had been stung by a poisonous jellyfish. Funakondji, or something?”

“You mean Irukandji?”

Beate sighed. “Could be. A jellyfish. Poisonous. I didn’t believe him. I told you: there was a girl, a Japanese girl…”

Less than a minute later, the young Belgian was on a gurney being wheeled at top speed into emergency.

“You’re the one who brought the patient in,” the senior doctor repeats. Perhaps that’s the only English he can manage?

“Yes, anyone would have done the same,” says Beate. She’s aware that she sounds grumpy. “I told you… there


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was a girl with us who clearly knew the guy. It’s got nothing to do with me. I’m just a tourist. Can I go now?” The senior doctor and his assistant exchange a few words, seem nervous. The young doctor steps forward and makes a shallow bow. His English is much more acceptable: “The police have already been informed, madam. I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait for them.”

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Hiroshima – Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko’s sleepless night – morning, March 14th 1995 

The clouds hung low and dark over my father’s boat. We were at sea, heading in the direction of Takahama from Hashima Island. It was June 13th 1994. I’ll never forget it. The rising sun was doing its best to tear holes in the clouds creating pools of dazzling white light. I was holding on to the rails and my knuckles were white too. That morning, the day after Crow fell over the balustrade, my father forced me to get into the boat. I hadn’t slept a wink that night, felt dizzy and lightheaded, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Crow was like a long forgotten dream that returns to haunt you from time to time in fragments.

An elderly disciple was at the helm, his gaze fixed on the horizon. The waves seemed viscous and metallic. The morning sun etched swathes of Hashima black. The concrete wall surrounding the island varied in height. From this distance Hashima looked just like Gunkan,  the giant warship with which the island is always compared. My father appeared from the cabin and pointed one of his unnaturally long fingers towards the island.

“What do you think? That I like living there?” He turned to look at me, a movement that always reminded me of a salamander twisting its supple neck. His black eyes were like glass. “Someone with my blood? My lineage? Locked up on an island everyone thinks is abandoned, a forgotten rubbish dump in the middle of the sea?”

When I was thirteen, my father became obsessed for a while with the discovery that the government had dumped nuclear waste in the deepest mineshafts under Hashima at the end of the 1970s, five years after the mines had been closed and the island evacuated. The shafts had then been filled with a thick layer of cement, but that hadn’t prevented him from wandering around the abandoned city for days on end, once the most densely populated place on the planet, now “the city of ghosts”, staring at his Geiger counter. I followed him like a puppy. Sometimes I heard the thing crackle like crazy. My father would shake his head. I did exactly the same and it felt good.

In my teens my father was my idol. I knew we were different. We were the New Humans, the future. We had to be careful, because the old human race was small-minded and vindictive. They would kill us if they found out about us. We had to multiply first before we could seize power.

In hindsight, my faith in this transparent and infantile lies makes me blush with shame. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. My father’s stories and the romantic teenage world I inhabited were a perfect match. I looked at photos of girls in magazines. I compared them with my image in the mirror. I couldn’t understand why a new human like myself could be uglier than an old human. Perhaps the future was going to be so harsh and rough that people would need to be thick-skinned, tanned and tall like me just to survive.

“And you,” my father continued. “It’s time you faced up to who you are.”

“I’m the victim of the way you live your life,” I said, surprised at my daring, but a chill had entered my bones that stirred me to hostility. “It’s time I…” I couldn’t finish my sentence. I had always thought that his rage would never touch me. I was his favourite, and in spite of his unbending character he had always indulged me.

My father was a creature of the night. I rarely saw him like this, in the light of day. After so many years I must have grown accustomed to his appearance and mine. But the sight of his long neck and his Adam’s apple jumping angrily up and down still filled me with fear and trembling. My father tried to swallow his rage. “You’ve nagged me for years to be able to live somewhere else, to have contact with other people. My answer was always the same: when the time is ripe. You’re not capable of living in the outside world. I am your protector and in exchange I demand obedience. And what do I get instead? A daughter who eavesdrops on her father to find out what he’s planning. Why didn’t you just ask?”

His reference to the mini-camera surprised me. I tried not to answer. He paid no attention to my answers when he was in this kind of mood. But I couldn’t let go of his remark: you’re not capable of living in the outside world.  Resentment dug itself deeper and deeper inside me. My own father found me too ugly, too clumsy, too stupid to be allowed to mix with other people.

He pointed to the mainland. “One day that will be your home. You’ll be a person with authority. You’ll change the course of your country’s history. Show yourself worthy!”

In spite of my anger I tried a little girl manoeuvre: “I’m so lonely, father.”

Bad choice. It made him angrier. “Korean prisoners of war died like flies to dig the mineshafts and apartment buildings on that godforsaken lump of rock I’ve called home for the last fifteen years. I, a refined spirit of nature, have been doomed to live in a place where the souls of the dead maraud through the streets at night in search of revenge. And you  speak of loneliness?”

I’m taken aback by the amount of emotion in his words. Anger, but also frustration and sorrow. I had never associated my father with sorrow. He was right, of course. Nights on Hashima had a melancholy power that often left me longing for death. As a young girl I used to wander through the empty halls and corridors. I sometimes sensed I was being followed by a tiny figure, much smaller than me, with a doll in her right hand, eyes like a hawk, and the reddest mouth you could imagine. A doomed soul perhaps, but I wanted to be her.

He stepped towards me, pointed to the island: “There really are ghosts over there. And sometimes, you, my daughter, are one of them.”

I stuck to my guns and pretended I hadn’t heard him.

“I have a plan; we can move to Nagasaki right away.” There, it was out. There was no way back. “We can say that we’re descended from hibakusha , that we suffered genetic damage because of the bomb,” I rattled.

I still don’t know why, but my remark threw him into a rage. He lifted his huge deformed hand and I was convinced he was about to slap my face. “Silence, I tell you. Enough! You live in your own world. You don’t want to hear what I have to say.”

I realise now that I couldn’t imagine anyone doing me any harm in those days, not even my father. Perhaps my hysteria was a terrified response to the sudden awareness that he was capable of more than I thought. Or was it an explosion of accumulated anger? An entire lifetime concentrated into a single instant? Before I knew it I was screaming: “I’m your prisoner! I’d rather die than live another day like this!”

His black eyes narrowed. I saw the tension in his body, but I couldn’t stop myself. “It’s your fault my mother jumped to her death in the sea!”

To my surprise he started to laugh. “Mitsuko, poor Mitsuko, is that what you really think?” He took me by the shoulders and whispered in my ear: “Don’t you remember what you did to gentle Mayumi? And to your mother? ”

Me?  My throat closed as if he was squeezing it with his hands. He looked at me, his face like a lump of stone ready to crush me. Before I had the chance to speak he said: “Don’t you remember what you did to the boy you called Crow?”

The Lord of Lies.  That was all I could latch onto, the only thought that made sense. I pushed his hands from my shoulders and staggered backwards. His enormous body blocked every escape. He thrust himself against me and whispered: “If I’m Rokurobei, then you’re Harionago. Think about that  before you open your mouth again.”

Harionago? The female demon of death with her barbed hair? I had longed for love all my life. How dare he compare me with that bloodthirsty harpy who drove disease and epidemic into the world just to be sure she had enough souls to catch in her net. He  was the one who had robbed me of everything I loved. Blood rushed to my head. “If I’m Harionago, then you would be the first to join me in hell and there would be nothing you could do about it!”

An electric shock ran from my belly to my head when he grabbed me by the throat. I’d seen him loose control before. But always with other people. I invariably had the chance to disappear, look away, pretend it wasn’t happening. In spite of the years of denial, I suddenly realised I knew exactly what he did when he lost control. I couldn’t breathe, felt dizzy, my chest heaved.

“Father,” I whispered.

His hands were already gone, but before I had the chance to breathe again he did something incomprehensible. He tore my furisode , the pretty long-sleeved kimono he liked to see me wear. He lunged forward, bit my neck, restrained me with one hand and loosened his belt with the other. As he penetrated me, burning, dry, grinding, his eyes closed, his face distorted, I watched the island behind us ablaze in the morning sun. It didn’t last long, didn’t hurt much… it was a dream and only certain details etched themselves in my mind: his Adam’s apple as he threw back his head, his strangely curved penis as he pulled out of me, spattering seed on my belly, the way he pinched his eyes tight as if he was in pain. I felt as if I had been yanked out of my own body, as if I was hovering above it all. My mind was painfully clear, but it no longer seemed attached to my body, my existence.

All his life my father had been free to indulge his every urge without concern for reasons or consequences. Who, after all, would dare stand in the way of Rokurobei, this natural manifestation, half god half human? He was ignorant of the boundary between good and evil, and had no idea what either meant.

But his reaction, disgraceful as it was, also revealed that he could feel pain, perhaps even doubt himself. He had never touched me in such a manner before, or shown any signs of desire. When I think about it, I’m sure he didn’t do it because he desired me, but because it was the only way to vent his fury. He was faced with a choice: kill your daughter or rape her. He chose the latter.

As I lay on the deck trying to cover my body with my torn clothes, he charged towards the wheelhouse, broke the helmsman’s neck like a match, and threw his body overboard. He took the helm, didn’t deign to look at me or say a word. I needed no explanation: I knew why he wanted no witnesses to what he had done.

We returned in silence to the lump of rock that had been my prison for as long as I can remember.

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Hiroshima – metropolitan police headquarters – Fukuyamakita – Takeda and commissioner Takamatsu – morning, March 14th 1995 

“What’s got into you, inspector Takeda?” Chief commissioner Takamatsu is standing at his desk, hunched dramatically, leaning on the tips of his fingers. “Why waste my time with these absurd theories?”

“Take a look at the facts one more time, commissioner, if you don’t mind. In 1948, the Teikoku Bank in Tokyo was raided in a bizarre attack. A man identifying himself as a Ministry of Health official informed the manager that a deadly epidemic had engulfed the area. Management and staff were asked to drink what they thought was an antidote. They did what they were told and they were all poisoned. An unusual modus operandi , don’t you think? Stranger still was the fact that the robbers only took a small sum of money. What did the federal police discover yesterday at the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank?”

The commissioner stares at inspector Takeda long and hard. Takeda begins to think he’s unwilling to give an answer or that he hasn’t understood this abrupt twist in his argument. His superior sits, leans back and says in a deceptively gentle tone: “The amount of money stolen has yet to be determined. It appears that nothing has been taken from the safes. It probably has to do with bonds and securities.”

“That only supports my conviction, commissioner. In 1948, the police arrested an artist by the name of Hirasawa Sadamichi. After attempting suicide he confessed to the raid on the Teikoku Bank. But his written statement was full of holes when it came to the modus operandi  of the robbery. Taro Shiga, the manager of the bank who had also taken poison and died, is referred to in American books as “Prince Chichibu’s WWII banker”. According to the Americans, the prince had an important role to play in the disappearance of Japanese war treasures after the capitulation and…”

The chief commissioner interrupts his subordinate: “Inspector Takeda, have you been drinking? Are you suffering from one or other venereal disease that has affected your mind?”

Takeda is taken aback by the abruptness of the interruption, but is intent on saving face come what may. “The poison used during the raid on the Teikoku Bank, respected commissioner, was acetone cyanohydrin, a gas we used a great deal during the war. And the ceo of the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank in Tokio who died during the raid was Tomio Shiga, the son of Taro Shiga. This can’t be mere coincidence.”

“What are you trying to say, inspector?”

“When I heard that Tomio Shiga was among the victims his name stuck in my mind. A great many contemporary American historians are convinced that his father Taro Shiga was the true target of the strange “bank raid” because he knew where the clandestine operation to secure Japan’s war treasures after the capitulation had located its spoils. The operation was called Kin no yuri,  the Golden Lily, and was among the activities of Unit 731. Luck would have it, chief commissioner, that I had the opportunity to investigate Unit 731 earlier in my career.”

“Unit 731 is a fairytale for children who like to read mangas,” the chief commissioner interrupts in the same curt tone.

“I have reason to believe otherwise.” Takeda bites his lip. In his determination to get Takamatsu on his side he has to be careful not to go too far and expose his past. That would be a disaster. He clears his throat and continues. “I think Unit 731 actually existed and that operation Golden Lily is not a fairytale. I’m also inclined to believe that a portion of Japan’s war treasures has yet to be found and that someone is determined to get his hands on them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tomio Shiga knew more than he was willing to reveal and that he died for his silence just like his father decades earlier.”

The commissioner shakes his head as if he’s talking to a retarded child: “And you, inspector Takeda, want me to take this infantile fantasy of yours to the head of the National Guard and make myself immortally ridiculous? Have you perhaps become obsessed by such fables and by the twisted convolutions of your own mind?”

The inspector folds his hands behind his back, his right fist in his left. He’s relieved that he said nothing to the commissioner about the secret Unit 731 he had heard about from a man he had believed for a short time to be his father. Since that encounter, which took place twenty-two years earlier, Takeda had continued to search for information on Unit 731 and the book he had recently bought by the American scholar Hal Gold had been very informative.

“Tomio Shiga, commissioner, may have been killed because he knew something about operation Golden Lily, something he refused to divulge, or because he had revealed too much. If you ask me the bank raid was just an excuse to blur Shiga’s death. I also think my theory is worth investigating.” As Takeda is formulating his conclusion one more time he can see in the expression on the chief commissioner’s face that he’s gone too far. Imaginative lines of investigation don’t tend to be appreciated in the Japanese police force. But he still finds the harshness of chief commissioner Takamatsu’s reaction difficult to understand. He only knows that he can’t turn back, nor does he want to. The same obstinacy that haunted Takeda’s younger years tightens around his chest like a band of steel.

The chief commissioner joins his hands. ‘Fine, inspector, you refuse to let go of this insanity? Well, your foolishness demands serious measures. As of now you are off the case.”

Takeda stands at Takamatsu’s desk, his back straight. What had he expected? He can’t remember. Anything but this.

“You should be grateful I don’t have you demoted,” the chief commissioner concludes with an icy glance. Takeda opens his mouth, but is able to control himself. Takamatsu puts on his glasses, lifts a sheet of paper from his desk and throws it at Takeda. “You’re on a new case. It should give you the chance to relax those overstressed brain cells. We were contacted this morning by the people at Funairi Hospital. Apparently someone tried to kill a foreigner, a Belgian. An unusual weapon, if I’m not mistaken. With your language skills and your penchant for exotic theories, it should be right up your street.”

The paper lands on the floor. Takeda has to bend down to pick it up. He straightens himself, red blotches on his cheeks.

“At your command, sir.”

Takeda is almost at the door when he hears Takamatsu’s voice behind him. “You’re familiar with the National Guard, inspector? They don’t like the local police disturbing their investigations with insane conspiracy theories involving the imperial family. You would do better to keep your mouth shut about those fantasies of yours, Takeda. You can curse me now, but one day you’ll be grateful.”

“Is that a threat, chief commissioner?”

“I’m protecting you, inspector, try to get that into your head.”

Takeda marches along the corridor, a burning sensation in his chest, an overpowering rage as old as he can remember. It’s un-Japanese, but it’s stronger than himself. He turns on his heels, retraces his steps, opens the door to Takamatsu’s office and hears himself say stubbornly and squarely: “With all due respect, chief commissioner, I still think this is an important line of inquiry and that it needs investigation.”

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Hiroshima – Sanctuary of the Brotherhood next to the Nishi-Honganji Temple – morning, March 14th 1995 

Only a fool would say this new direction  was accidental. Reizo Shiga knows that he’s supposed to be surprised, but all he feels is intense satisfaction. He arrived in the temple tired and gloomy after his nocturnal literary experiment with the Belgian – which failed because of that coward Yori – but now he senses a surge of adrenaline clearing his mind. What he’s about to hear could work to his advantage, as long as he’s careful.

Together with the other disciples, Reizo listens with a straight face to the undersecretary who had followed the usual prayer to the Blessed One with some staggering news. Shiga might seem serene on the outside, but inside the chaos is mounting. He’s always known the truth: his alpha waves are so powerful he’s capable of working miracles . The giant of a woman who calls herself Mitsuko did not find her way to the sad remains of his Suicide Club by accident. Mitsuko must have been drawn to the club by his alpha waves. The undersecretary of the Brotherhood has just instructed each disciple to be on his lookout for a woman. Mitsuko answered perfectly to the undersecretary’s description. He underlined the vital importance  of his charge: “The command comes from the Blessed One in person. The woman is probably in Hiroshima. Whoever finds her must report back immediately and can expect to be invited to an audience with the Blessed One.” It was as if a powerful yet invisible gust of wind had raged through the sanctuary’s prayer room. One novice was stupid enough to ask a question: “Is she impure and a danger to the Brotherhood?”

The undersecretary pouted, stormed through the rows of disciples and bowed stiffly from the hips in front of the novice who had posed the question: “Tell me, little brother. In the short time you have been taken up with kindness in our midst, have you amassed so much alpha-potential that you can see into the mind of the Blessed One? Or are you simply arrogant, intent on providing the Most High’s every command with your own commentary?” The boy, a bespectacled academic type, blushed and bowed his head as deeply as he could. The undersecretary looked around the room. “If you work hard at self-improvement a day will come when you will acquire telepathic insight into the plans of the Blessed One. Until that day, you must follow one single motto: obedience, obedience, obedience! I want you to scour the streets of Hiroshima with courage and determination. Search in groups of two; explore every corner of the city. If a group spots this woman, one brother should immediately report back while the other continues to follow her. Think about it: whoever finds her will be granted an audience with the Blessed One himself. A privilege novices like you can only dream of. Perhaps the Blessed one will reveal his astral powers, walk through a wall, levitate? Try to imagine what that might mean for your alpha-potential!”

A collective sigh runs through the room. The eyes of the other novices are glazed. Reizo Shiga bows his head to camouflage the glint in his. As he watches the video recording of the Blessed One instructing the novices on how to generate the power to levitate, his thoughts scurry back and forth like a pack of hunting dogs. He tries to concentrate on the screen, listen to the Blessed One as he explains how much energy levitation requires, watch as the Blessed One undresses and sits in the lotus position wearing nothing but a loincloth. The eyes of the Blessed One, half blind in the polluted earthly dimension, but pools of light and energy in the higher dimensions where he spends most of his time, close as he bows is head and his long black hair falls over his face. His body quakes, his breathing becomes a rhythmic grunting. The Blessed One’s body judders up and down, faster and faster, the waves of energy surging through it more impressive by the minute. At a given moment, when he’s a metre above the ground, it happens: the Blessed One raises his head, appears to freeze in midair, stares at the novices, and slowly falls, as if weightless, to the floor. Although he knows that this is only the first step towards levitation, Reizo Shiga is disappointed. Did he witness a transgression of the established laws of nature, or a cheap trick used by yogi to give the impression they are levitating when in fact they are simply jumping up and down on the spot?

He looks around the room surreptitiously. The faces of the others, waxen in the light of the video screen, appear narrower, excessively smoothed by absolute admiration and docility. A couple of the faces belong to ex-members of the Suicide Club who only two months earlier had followed Reizo Shiga with the same blind faith as now the Blessed One. Shiga senses a desire for revenge bubble to the surface. He glances furtively at the undersecretary, who is also staring at the screen, expressionless, like a sheep. How can a senior member of the Brotherhood with reputedly superior alpha powers not sense Reizo Shiga’s blasphemous thoughts?

Reizo Shiga feels his body tingle. The answer is simple: his alpha-potential is unfathomable; it’s been there all his life; nothing else can explain it. If he develops that potential, no matter how, he’ll be able…

The thought suddenly comes to him that Mitsuko must be very precious to the Blessed One, if even novices are being sent out to look for her. As sacred tea is distributed, made from the hair of the Blessed One to help speed the novices to a higher astral plane, Reizo Shiga is unable to suppress a new thought: why, why  can’t the Blessed One find Mitsuko himself  if his astral powers are so advanced?

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Hiroshima – Funairi Hospital – Xavier Douterloigne – morning, March 14th 1995 

After the swirling colours that made him feel sick and the piercing noises sharp as razors, came blackness. Xavier Douterloigne has lost control of time and space in his head. He’s eight years old and imagines he’s back in Ypres, at the industrial poultry farm run by his grandfather on his mother’s side. Thousands of chickens are scurrying around on the floor of the dull grey poultry house. Their cheeping grates in Xavier’s ears. He chases after them, excited, determined to catch one, caress it, cuddle it. The rubber boot on his left foot lands on a yellow stain. It wriggles, crumples, oozes blood, slime. Xavier begins to sweat. He feels the pain of the crushed chick under his boot. He’s carried the pain of that childhood incident all this time and now it’s got him by the throat. It catapults him through time, arms and legs outstretched as if he’s on a cross, until all movement ceases.

That’s how Anna must have felt.

When fate struck its final blow, Anna was wearing a dress as yellow as a cornfield.

And it was his fault.

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Hiroshima – Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko – morning, March 14th 1995 

Did it really happen? My father raping me? Did it really happen?  Doesn’t a woman with a phantom pregnancy live in a world of her own making, a world she thinks is real?

But the fabrications of the mind are contradicted by the body. I can still feel the pain in my belly, the fever that kept me in bed for days with my father at my side, a silent ghost staring out of the window at the sea and not at me. We didn’t exchange a single word: our bodies seemed frozen in time.

Still, this morning my doubts are like pebbles tumbling down a steep incline. Can I describe my father to my own satisfaction? What happened to all that time I spent alone, more or less, with Mayumi? My mother? Can I picture her face? I must have been about ten when she committed suicide. My father told  me she committed suicide, that I wasn’t witness to it. Yet I can still see her looking back, high on the ramparts surrounding the island, her hair tossed by a stiff sea breeze. I hear something screaming at me, a confession or an oracle. Scenes in my head, like those in the manga comics that are lying scattered on the floor in this old building. Reizo says they’re the “literature of tomorrow”. Or scenes in my head from a film I saw when the cinema on Hashima was still intact? Captive on my futon, surrounded by the breathing and groaning of people awaking from sleep, I panic when I feel me  slipping away from myself. I try to remain calm and the fear slowly subsides, but a residue of doubt about my own mental stability lingers. I should seek help. Is it possible that my unusual metabolism is also affecting my mind? Didn’t the same thing happen to my father? Since the day I found his birth records on Hashima, one hypothesis after another has plagued me. If you saw my father you wouldn’t believe your eyes. Almost seven foot tall, head like a block of stone, hands and feet abnormally large, long neck out of proportion with the rest. The medical term for the condition is acromegaly . But does that explain his extraordinary powers of attraction? The light in his eyes, the expression on his lips, the way he uses his classical, poetic Japanese to seduce people, his berry-red lips? The way he moves his imposing body, which sometimes, in certain positions and at unguarded moments, can appear fragile?

Does acromegaly explain how my father thinks? I haven’t a clue what drives him. He always played his cards close to his chest and wallowed in the aura of mystery that surrounded him.

Yesterday I had an unexpected conversation about my father with Reizo Shiga. He had just returned from a meeting of what he called “the Brotherhood”. His pupi


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ls were dilated, his movements fast, pointed, exaggerated. His saliva spattered all over the place. One minute his body was limp, the next it jolted and jiggled as if electrified. He asked if I still saw my parents. In an impulse I told him about my father, fortunately without mentioning Hashima. My description excited him. He wanted to know more: “What a character!” That’s Reizo’s mantra: everyone has to be a character in his novel. I realised I’d told him too much and tried to distract him. Easy enough since he was high. I asked him what kind of literature he wanted to write.

“Literature is about the violence within us that leads to death.” He puffed on his cigarette and inhaled deeply. The shoddy surroundings of the decrepit factory hall were in complete contrast to his aristocratic demeanour.

“Why?”

He seemed surprised at the stupidity of my question, straightened his shoulders, his yellow crest. “Writers are like God. They love their characters, but take pleasure in the suffering they put them through. They torment themselves through the puppets they create and in the midst of the torment they discover a sort of rage, the rage you need to create. There’s a lot of sadomasochism in the universe and literature has its own fair share.”

A far-fetched hotchpotch of an answer, I figured, but I was happy enough that I’d managed to change the subject. I kept my face even. But I couldn’t deny that his ideas made me think of my father. I realized that I had seen a sort of rage in him when I was a child, a rage that had terrified and attracted me all at once.

“The Eros and Thanatos principle,” I said. He made a dismissive gesture: “Fuck that old crap! Have you read Gide?”

I had to admit that I had never heard of Gide. Reizo continued self-satisfied: “French writer. Published Les Caves du Vatican  in 1914. One of the characters throws a complete stranger from a moving train for no reason at all. People saw it as an illustration of the existence of free will. But they were wrong: the character wanted to have a free will so much that he was willing to do anything to prove it: the rage of imperative desire . It motivates every writer. That’s why, my dear Mitsuko, writers are the most amoral creatures alive.”

The most amoral creatures alive.

Because of imperative desire.

I repeated his words aloud. He burst out laughing, brayed that I’d walked right into his trap.

I watched him for a while. He examined his nails, threw back his head, lit another cigarette. Then he grinned at me, bristling with hate and lust and compassion.

If I had been more attentive, smarter, I would have seen that same expression in my father’s face long ago.

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Doctor Kanehari’s private clinic – Futabanosato – Dr Kanehari and Rokurobei – March 14th 1995 

Dr Kanehari rolls his eyes. It’s all he can do.

“Are you familiar with shi-e,  doctor?” says the voice behind his right ear. “Probably not. You’re young, modern; our old and venerable Japanese culture is probably a stranger to you. Shi-e  is one of the kegare  or ‘impurities’. It represents the impurity of death. What many people don’t know: shi-e  intensifies when we live a dishonourable life and die as a result. The body of such a person deserves only to be spat upon.”

A long silence follows. Kanehari can hear the blood pounding in his ears.

“You might want to ask yourself why I’m taking such a personal  interest in you,” the voice muses. “I have a network of people who do all sorts of things for me, who prepare  things for me, just as I have people who are preparing this nation of ours to take its place once again as the mother of all countries. It’s not just coincidence that the old name for Japan, Yamato , means ‘the land on top of the pyramid’.”

The voice falls silent. Dr Kanehari has no idea what’s going on. Twenty minutes earlier, two policemen appeared at his door to question him about a young woman who had visited his clinic. Kanehari let them in and before he knew it they had overpowered him and tied him to his own operating table. The door opened. He heard a rustling sound. Someone was standing behind him, leaning over him. It made him shiver. A voice spoke to him. Kanehari did his best but couldn’t place it. The same elusive voice now continues: “And the present name for our country, Nihon , surely you know its meaning?” The doctor has nothing to say; the voice continues unruffled: “Source of the Spirit. In prehistoric times, Kanehari, the Japanese ruled the world. The evidence is indisputable.”

A long bony finger taps the doctor’s left cheek. Kanehari can smell it. As if the flesh is burning.

“The symbol of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen was the chrysanthemum. The Egyptians treated their pharaohs like gods, supernatural beings in human form. The symbol of our imperial family, who we traditionally honour as gods, is the same chrysanthemum. Proof if proof were needed that the Japanese race has its roots in the beginnings of time. The chrysanthemum is my  symbol, Kanehari, and that of my daughter who visited you here. Do you get my drift, doctor?”

Kanehari gulps, moves his head to one side.

“My daughter consulted you. You told her she had a phantom pregnancy. She refused to believe you. You sent her away. What kind of doctor are you? Have you no eyes? Have you no ears? Surely you were able to diagnose  my daughter’s affliction?”

Tears appear in Dr Kanehari’s eyes. An arm, long, with thick knobbly ligaments enters his field of vision. Words are whispered in his ear. Then he panics, bites his tongue. A pair of hands, broad, out of proportion, take hold of the doctor’s head. A face hovers above him. Kanehari opens his eyes wide and then closes them.

“Do you understand why you must die?”

A pinkish froth appears in the corners of Kanehari’s mouth.

“Death is a problem, don’t you think?” The voice has dropped in pitch, sounds like crickets on a summer night. “We should be aware of our mortality at every moment of our lives. It’s what transforms our existence into a continuous stream of choices.”

The voice laughs, heartily, with a hint of self-mockery. “You’ve made your choices, I’ve made mine. When the gods decide to punish us they first drive us insane then they kill us. But I was treated like a god from the day I was born. How do you punish divinity? Let me tell you: with lucid  insanity. As a result I’ve spent my entire existence struggling with the same question: what kind of life should I live? ”

Beads of sweat roll over the doctor’s temples. Powerful lights blind him. The straps holding him down are tight.

The man behind Kanehari stands up straight. His voice sounds further away. “During my years of isolation I studied the magnificent laws of the universe and then I explored the hidden features of butoh  from the perspective of depth psychology.  If the laws of entropy and the feigned insanity of butoh,  our most elevated dance form, are so similar, what does that tell us? That affliction is fundamental and universal. We devour each other, driven by the misery we afflict on ourselves. I devoured myself  for years. But I finally concluded: if I’m a god, I’m also fated to be a demon. I withdrew from the world, embraced immobility, now I’m on the hunt. What am I hunting? My destiny, the pinnacle of self-affliction.”

Dr Kanehari wants to object, argue back, tell the man behind him that his bizarre monologue is a manifest sign of mental illness. The gag in his mouth prevents him.

“How to live?” The voice sighs. “It’s my obsession. But in your case, Kanehari, the tables are turned. How to die? Death in butoh  is the essence of thinking and being, a magical moment to be savoured with respect. Do you know who died with a smile on his face? The great Sergei Diaghilev. ‘It’s not wasting any time…” were his final words. Do you know what the worst thing is? Dying slowly! What do you think? Do you deserve a quick death? I don’t think so. Most of our deeds in this world are futile and passing, ripples on a pond as it were. But there are moments in a man’s life when his deeds seal his fate. That’s what happened to you, Kanehari. Submit to your fate with dignity.”

Kanehari tugs like a man possessed at the straps holding him to the operating table. The veins in his neck swell and he shakes his head back and forth.

“That’s not the reaction I was hoping for,” says Rokurobei.

A broad bony hand with fingers like drumsticks draws the scalpel across Dr Kanehari’s throat. The doctor gags, gasps for air. Rokurobei examines the depth of his incision and calculates how long it will take for death to claim him victim. Kanehari deserves an hour, he muses, before he chokes in his own blood.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko – morning, March 14th 1995 

The dreams I’ve had since I moved in to this old warehouse seem more real than the life I’m trying to remember. The ground beneath my feet is kicked away and I’m carried off on a tide of memories the colour of mud, flashes of the past that confuse me. I’ve a feeling that the other members of the Suicide Club don’t trust me. I dissect their every snigger as if my life depends on it. Behind all the light-hearted badgering and the group ethic they’ve developed – perhaps without even realising it – there’s a whirlpool of sexual tension, hidden jealousies and power games. It makes me turn in on myself all the more. There’s little come and go between myself and the other young people here, except with Yori. But even then there’s something contradictory about her. Yori is affected and unpredictable, but she can also be incredibly kind and sensitive. She apparently spent the night somewhere else, as did Reizo. I haven’t a clue where they are. I dozed off for a moment during the night and dreamt that Yori kissed me. It wasn’t the kiss that woke me with a start, but the tongue that the dream-Yori traced across my cheek and propped into my throat. It turned out to be forked and pale, like the tongue of a lizard I surprised under a stone as a child on Hashima Island.

Now I’m exactly the same as that lizard: I’m sitting under my stone, hiding, not daring to come out. The members of the Suicide Club have dispersed once again, chattering like sparrows, to steal, cheat, manipulate, live off the street for the rest of the day. I stay behind on my own, scared to go out.

My existence doesn’t seem to parallel the reality that’s now trying to take hold of me with brute force. I just had a look at Yomiuri Shimbun  and saw pictures of the people who died during the spectacular bank raid in Hiroshima. The headlines read: crisis makes bank robbers merciless.

One of the victim’s lifeless faces was a Yuzonsha. His name was Tomio Shiga, the ceo of one of the biggest banks in Japan.

Shiga. Isn’t that Reizo’s surname?

Coincidence?

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Hiroshima – Harry’s Bar – Ebisu-cho – police doctor and Takeda – lunchtime, March 14th 1995 

“The only place in the city you can get a decent margarita.” Police Dr Adachi takes a satisfied sip from his glass. The dreary, poorly lit café is reminiscent of a classical 1950s hotel bar, with wood panelling and dark red carpets, a huge bar in the form of a horseshoe and barmen squeezed into immaculate suits rumbaing as they shake their cocktails.

Adachi is crazy about kitsch. Takeda is staring absent-mindedly at a bunch of noisy tourists who waggle into the place one after the other like geese. He prefers the working-class districts to downtown Hiroshima where the hip and trendy have their fun, but he forgives Adachi this minor peculiarity, which he apparently needs to make him feel eccentric.

“I need another one after what you told me,” Adachi continues, winking at the barman. He peers at Takeda through the fringe of lank hair hanging over his eyes. He thinks his haircut makes him look younger. Takeda has spotted that Adachi fancies one of the barmen, young, porcelain features, self-assured smile. “It was stupid of me to go back and confront the boss,” he says. “Takamatsu’s young and didn’t get where he is now by accident. The man’s a shark and he’s got a serious appetite.”

“And a big mouth with teeth made of steel,” Adachi adds. His expression turns serious: “You’ve heard them clanging together often enough, Akio. So what happened to your self-control? Tut, tut.”

The men only use each other’s first names when they’re alone together.

“I couldn’t control myself. He had no reason to humiliate me like that.”

“Pig-head half-caste Dutchman.” The police doctor laughs thinly. “But you’re right: there’s something weird going on. The bank raid is too big a case for the local boys, yet the National Guard doesn’t seem to be interested. The same kind of thing happened ten years ago… a political murder if memory serves. After a couple of months it went off the radar.”

“A cover up? You’re kidding me.”

“Akio, the people are running about like headless chickens, afraid for their jobs, their homes, their wages. They’ve a lot more to worry about than a bank raid, no matter how spectacular.” The doctor pulls a goody-goody face. “Maybe they’re jealous of the booty.”

“That’s what makes it so strange: the amount that was stolen hasn’t been made public. The National Guard are keeping it to themselves.”

“In line with worthy tradition, the Keisatsu-chô  have appointed a local officer to coordinate the investigation. And guess who they picked?” Adachi grimaces. “One more reason to handle Takamatsu with kid gloves: Ki o tsukero yo,  be careful.” The police doctor takes a look at his half-empty glass, picks it up, then returns it to the bar. “Crime figures are on the rise, more than 100% this year, and the public think we’re a bunch of lazy power-mad bastards. Let me give you a piece of advice. We’re all being screwed over by the monster they call the Economic Crisis. A friend of mine who works at Tokyo University under professor Toshihiro Ihori, the big economics brain, told me that the government’s spending more money than ever before. They’re pumping billions into public works, but it’s not helping us out of the economical dip.” Adachi sips at his glass. “Now we’ve got bridges but no cars to drive across them and airports without planes to land on them.”

“And the country is crawling with politicians and underworld gangsters cashing in on the show,” Takeda grunts.

“Fat and horny for power.” Adachi narrows his eyes. “At moments like this it’s safer for small fish like us to stay out of harm’s way.”

“You don’t know your own people,” says the inspector. “The Japanese always pretend to be yes men, that they don’t like to rock the boat, but at heart they’re a bunch of anarchists.”

“Exactly!” The doctor lifts his glass as if to say cheers and empties it in a single gulp. “But only if we think it’s worth it, on the quiet, in the dark. The hidden face of Japan, Akio. You still don’t get it, do you? How long have you lived here?” Adachi turns serious again, but there’s still a hint of cunning is his eyes. “Just like we don’t know the hidden face of Akio. Am I right?”

Takeda looks over Adachi’s shoulder at some people at the bar. “There’s nothing hidden about me. My mother brought me up with clear principles; don’t trust anyone / life can screw you at any moment / today your best friends, tomorrow you devour each other / always be on the look…”

“Friends don’t devour each other, Akio.” Adachi seems genuinely hurt. Takeda looks him in the eye. The police doctor is short, almost puny, delicate, his facial features blurred as if he’s withdrawn deep inside himself. Yet there’s still something dignified about him, a readiness to see things as they are.

“Not my  words, Daichi, my mother’s. She tried to brainwash me at every turn. Can you blame her after what she’d been through?”

“She filled her child to overflowing with fear,” says Adachi. “You can blame her for that.”

“Not after…”

“That’s no excuse.”

“She always said: you don’t understand. You can’t. You had to be there to understand.”

“It’s not fair that you had to share her fear and her pain, that she blamed you for it all in a sense.”

Takeda smiles, almost imperceptibly. “She didn’t exactly love my ‘father’, don’t forget. I was destined for the latrine, just like my half-brother.”

“Treating a child like that is just criminal.” Adachi speaks with great authority, although himself childless.

“But I can’t blame her.”

“You have to.”

“Why? Your father laughed at you and despised you because you were gay. He did everything he could to dominate you, but he  never experienced the camps, he  was never raped by a guard and all the rest of it. He’s to blame for his actions, but I can’t say the same for my mother.”

Adachi blinks nervously. When anyone, even his friend, mentions his father, he senses danger lurking behind his back. In such moments, he wishes he could be smaller than he already is. He takes a deep breath, adjusts his glasses.

“My father couldn’t bear the idea that his son was a ketsuman . Ketsuman , ass cunt, ketsuman , ass cunt, he would scream at me, right in my face, his lips twisted with disdain. That’s wrong, I agree, but I was a disappointment as a son. You were anything but, yet your mother still treated you like shit…”

“She didn’t insult me, she took care of me. It was only when I caught her looking at me unawares, in silence, that I knew what she was thinking.”

“That’s worse than a frustrated father who slaps you around and screams at you because you don’t live up to his expectations.”

Takeda beckons the bartender with a wink. The man seems indifferent, has an arrogant expression on his face, purposefully takes his time. The condescending attitude of café staff is a recent trend in the bars in Hiroshima and elsewhere in Japan. “Live up to your own expectations, Daichi, and leave the past for what it is,” says Takeda.

“Speak for yourself.”

“I can’t forget my past.”

Adachi wants to ask him why the abrupt answer, but Takeda doesn’t give him the chance and orders another round of drinks yakuza -style. The barman drops his superior facade, bows, and scurries off to prepare the order.

“If I’d told him to get a move on because I’m a policeman he would have laughed in my face.”

Adachi smiles. “But because he thinks your mafia he’s off like a rabbit with a kilo of gunshot in its ass. You haven’t changed, Akio. And you still know how to change the subject when you think you’re being backed into a corner. Allow me to repeat my question: what about you?”

“Guilt.”

Silence. Adachi takes off his glasses, rubs his eyes, and puts them on again as if he wants to get a clearer look at his friend when he asks his next question: “I haven’t mentioned this for years, but does that guilt of yours have anything to do with the man you tracked down more than twenty years ago, the man behind the military id-tags from WWII? You gave me them when I was working at the Ministry of Health and asked me if I could help you find him. Is that what it’s about?”

Takeda stares at his friend, astonished. “So you… for all these years…”

“I had a hunch, Akio, nothing more. A hunch. You should have seen yourself when you asked if I could find that soldier. The hate was seeping out of your pores. Don’t you remember? It seemed like a reasonable request, but your eyes couldn’t lie.”

“Then you know what I did.”

“No, I don’t, and I don’t want to know.” The doctor tosses back half his drink.

“My life became one big lie from that day on,” says Takeda.

“Wrong. I hate to use clichés, but this one fits: from that day on you started to convince  yourself that your life was one big lie.”

“I was a young policeman. What I did was…”

Adachi holds up both hands. Takeda falls silent, shakes his head: “The bastard deserved it, but it’s like a millstone round my neck.”

“If he deserved it then so do you,” says Adachi cryptically.

Another silence. The moment empties like a balloon, turns gaunt like winter skin.

“So you figured what I was going to do but you still helped me?”

A hint of a smile appears at the corners of Adachi’s lips. “Friends don’t devour each other, Akio.”

Takeda blinks. “I think it’s time I left the force, Daichi.”

“You’ve been saying that for years.”

“This time I mean it.”

“How long have you been a policeman? More than twenty-five years? You would be crazy to give it up now. We might not get a fortune at the end of each month, but the pension makes up for it. Can’t you just close your eyes to all the crap? Japan’s not the only place with problems. The world’s a mess. The economic miracle’s gone up in smoke. What’ll you do if you resign? Night-watchman, on a subsistence wage?”

“I remember the early days,” says Takeda. “I didn’t make it to university, remember. It took blood sweat and tears to make sergeant, then assistant inspector, then inspector. But I never forgot what our instructor hammered into us at the academy: protect and serve. And what did I do?”

“Protect and serve.” Adachi holds his glass up to the light of a lamp behind their table and eyes the contents as if it’s a prism. “Protect and serve. Sure. But the question is: who?”

“Exactly,” says Takeda. “I used to know the answer to that question, until a couple of years ago. Now I’ve no idea.” The inspector gets to his feet, the ruddy glow of a heavy drinker on his puffed veiny cheeks. “And do you know what’s worse, Daichi? It wasn’t him, it wasn’t my father. I got the wrong guy.”

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Yori, Reizo and Mitsuko – March 14th 1995 

The voices are loud and stroppy. They make a deep impression on me. They sound familiar, as if I’ve heard them before, when I was young and shy. It’s almost noon, but I must have dozed off and I’m still exhausted from the previous night. I try to concentrate and recognise the voices. Reizo and Yori are rowing again. It quickly turns nasty, below the belt, an explosion of pent-up anger meant for something else, something long past. I can’t help thinking that something changed yesterday, that the Suicide Club is now falling apart. These people are like shadows that merge at given moments but have little effect on one another. They preach an alternative society, but in fact they’re only interested in themselves. The group has been plagued by an ongoing power conflict. One part of the club moved to another squat. The other, three members, is lying here like me on an old mattress, staring at the ceiling as if nothing’s wrong, but I hear the dull thud of a fist hitting someone’s body. Yori screams. I jump to my feet and before I know it I’m standing in front of Reizo pushing him back with my hand on his chest. Yori is lying on the floor, simpering, holding her bleeding nose. Reizo’s in a state, calls her darashinai,  dissolutely, a slut who screws around with blonde foreigners. He roars at the top of his voice that Yori has sabotaged a unique literary experiment and that she thinks his novel is pathetic. I grab his arm. Reizo leers at me through keyhole eyes and kicks me in the gut. He’s fast, his muscles are like springs. I feel bile rise from my stomach and gag. I grab him instinctively by the throat, shake him back and forth until his eyes reach the same level as mine. Two members of the Suicide Club are standing to my left. I can’t remember their names. They nudge and prod each other, shake their heads. I realise I’ve lifted Reizo from the ground. Disgust, at him and at myself, wells up inside. I toss him aside and he lands meters away after tumbling over a huge slab of mica on trestles we’ve been using as a table, library, and hobby area. He stays where he is, his back on the floor, groaning, pulling up his knees.

Yori is on her feet. She rests her hand carefully on my belly. She’s wearing shiny black gloves today, artificial leather. I’ve never seen her without gloves on. Maybe she doesn’t like the idea of touching naked skin, especially mine. Everyone’s afraid of the dragon, the miscarriage. I can hear my father’s voice as if carried on the wind. “You can’t hide or deny who you are.” I want to push Yori away but she beats me to it: “Mitsuko, you’re bleeding.” She’s not staring at my stomach, where I can still feel Reizo’s kick.

She’s staring at my crotch.

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Hiroshima – Takeda on his way to Righa Royal Hotel – March 14th 1995 

In his car on the way to the Righa Royal Hotel where he’s scheduled to question a German photographer about the bizarre incident with the young Belgian tourist, Takeda suddenly feels dizzy and his heart rate surges. He shakes his head. The main boulevard is awash with neon ads that burn night and day. Slithers of light flutter like streamers either side of the car. Nausea invades his stomach and bowels. He and Adachi had only had a couple. Surely not enough to make him sick? An illogical memory bubbles to the surface: the hurricane that threatened to carry him away as he stood on the beach on Hokkaido Island near the Suttsu city, just seven years old. After years in a concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies, his mother was, as she put it, “addicted to nature”. She loved to walk, long and lonely, and she always took her little boy with her without paying attention to his complaints or his sore feet. In Takeda’s memory, the bay of Suttsu is nothing but blue: the water paler than the deeper metallic blue of the surrounding mountains. It was the kind of location that looked down on you, made you feel out of place. The gusts of wind, the infamous Suttsu-dashi  caused by the narrow, less than twenty kilometre stretch that separates the bay from the Sea of Japan and the mountains that funnel the ocean winds, were like punches from an invisible boxer. Takeda was terrified one of them would throw him into the water. The wind whistled like a steam train, and every new gust made him grab his mother ever tighter. To the seven-year-old’s dismay, Barbara Gerressen paid no attention to him. Rather she spread her arms as if she was stretching and screamed above the howling wind. Takeda couldn’t make out what she was saying. He dug his nails into her leg but she seemed not to notice, absorbed as she was by an emotion the young Takeda didn’t understand, although he could feel it. His mother’s entire body seemed to be abuzz . The boy was overcome by a terrifying rage: why did his mother refuse to protect him?

He was angry because he felt as if he was riveted to her.

Because he couldn’t move without her.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko – March 14th 1995 

Reizo is gone. Looking for drugs as usual, Yori said. As usual.  Her words are simmering with both anger and sadness. The others have also scattered. My scuffle with Reizo appears to have worked as a catalyst. The group is falling apart completely. Or maybe I’m imagining things and they’re just hungry, went out for a bite to eat. These people hate society, but they still believe in the law of the jungle and the profit principle. They think they’re different, but they’re not. From the moment I arrived here I made sure anything I had of any value was well hidden. If they find out what I have they’ll steal it. But in spite my suspicions, I just broke my own rule. I told Yori much more than I should have. I hope s


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he doesn’t betray my confidence. After the confrontation with Reizo I ran outside to the parking lot in front of the Suicide Club and tried to regain my self-control. I was finding it hard to breath. A sense of sickening abnormality  took shape in my mind, filling me with both panic and desire. The clawing heaviness of my bizarre life had me by the throat. The thirst for blood I had felt during the fight with Reizo made it hard for me to think straight. I had to face the facts: I couldn’t avoid reality, but I didn’t know how to divide it up into neat digestible portions. Most of us live our lives with our eyes downcast, bound hand and food to established rituals. A tough layer of surface skin protects people from life’s more toxic influences, but I don’t have such protection. My nerves are exposed like foam on a restless sea.

I felt as if I was standing on the edge of a precipice. A single thought anchored in my head: why did I write things in my diary as a child that I later didn’t understand, as if they were written in a different language?  The thought concealed a threat that seemed ready to devour me at any moment. Yori’s gentle touch and the way she looked at me made that feeling ebb away. “Let’s go,” she said.

And what did I do? I followed her like a giant pug into a smaller room next to the common area, the place where she and Reizo normally spent the night. She pulled me onto a futon surrounded by fluffy toys with big ears and baby eyes, the stuff she made to sell on the street. I surrendered. She threw her arms and legs around my huge ungainly body and held me tight as she caressed my hair. I floated off into a limbo where time and identity were non-existent. I opened my mouth and listened in astonishment to my story about the documents and the talisman  I had found in the underground shelter on Hashima Island. I tried to stop myself but I couldn’t.

I explained the blood down below. I told her that I had taken documents from the island that could back-up my story if need be.

Yori said nothing the entire time. She rocked me to and fro as if she was the mother and I the child. When I finished my story there was a long silence. I felt lightheaded. I had finally been able to confess it all. Yori didn’t react directly to my story, but told me in her turn about her boyfriend and how he was losing his mind and what he had done to the foreigner she had met just to go one better on his idol Mishima. By the time she had said what she had to say I had made a decision. But first I asked her if she thought that Reizo Shiga was crazy.

Her answer felt like a kick in the stomach: “He’s not crazy. It’s much worse than that… he’s just pretending to be.”

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Hiroshima – the canal behind the Genbaku dome – Takeda and Becht – March 14th 1995 

Inspector Takeda and Beate Becht are sitting on a bench on the banks of the river Aioi near the place where Becht found the van. It’s humid. A stiff breeze heralds the typhoon season, which reaches its height in September. The air has pale yellow quality, shifting to ochre when thick clouds block out the sun. One moment the surface of the river is blinding, with flashes of light from every angle, the next it’s dark, grey and sombre.

Takeda isn’t the only one who slept badly. Beate Becht’s depression is worse than ever and it’s eating her up inside. She’s convinced that she lost the inspiration for her new photo book in a single night. All the doubts she had been fighting for years about her work joined forces and turned on her. She tries to concentrate on what Takeda is saying, attempts to imagine that the burly policeman sitting next to her on the bench has an interesting face, a face she’d like to photograph: it’s broad and patient with a hint of stubbornness, but also good-natured and could easily break into a smile if he would just drop the meaninglessly polite facade. There’s something comical about his red hair, something boyish, although he must be well past forty.

“It’s not a lot to go on,” says Takeda resignedly.

“It’s all I know, inspector.”

Takeda crosses his legs. She’s not sure why, but she can’t help thinking that he has an air of tragedy about him. He might just be frustrated because she had so little to say about the Japanese girl who appeared out of the blue when she was trying to help the Belgian. They were keeping him in an artificial coma until the effects of the Irukandji sting wore off. Or until its poison killed him.

“Are you sure, miss Becht?”

Becht thinks for a minute. “It all happened so quickly. I was confused.” She says nothing about the photos she took of the scene. She wants to, but she’s afraid Takeda will confiscate them.

Takeda stays where he is, apparently calm. That morning, when he asked the sergeant on duty to check the shift roster, he noticed that commissioner Takamatsu had written something in the margins: “results expected with the appropriate speed”.

“I’m not used to this sort of situation,” Becht sighs.

“Of course, I understand,” says Takeda. “Your father was a renowned photographer, wasn’t he? Just like yourself if I’m not mistaken.”

She smiles, but he still has the impression that his compliment was unwelcome. “You’ve checked me out,” she says, half sarcastic. He thinks her English is funny. Her black ponytail is a bit shapeless. Intentional or accidental? It fits the perky look. There’s something delicate and fragile about her, Takeda thinks, but he figures it’s probably pretence.

“Oh well,” he says. “Let’s put it this way, Miss Becht: I’ve been in this business quite some time.” He doesn’t mention the piece he read about her and her visit to Hiroshima that morning in Yomiuri Shimbun,  or that it raised his eyebrows. As a source of news, Yomiuri Shimbun  isn’t known for accuracy, but the way it described Beate Becht, her background and life, has left him non-committal about her, especially since her testimony of the events of last night were so confused and vague. He senses that he is not in the moment, in the now.  He keeps asking himself what he will do if the commissioner were to accuse him of incompetence and have him demoted. Would that be the moment to go public with his theory about the bank raid? With the present economic climate, getting the sack would be a disaster. Security guards get paid half his present salary, and a job in security would be his only option.

“My work is completely different from my father’s,” she says, her sarcasm not far from the surface. “His photos will still have a story to tell in a hundred years time. Mine are mirages, inspector. They capture the perfume of the hour and, as we all know, perfume evaporates.”

“You’re too modest, Miss Becht.”

Tomio Shiga, Tomio Shiga. The name of the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank ceo who died in the raid is buzzing around Takeda’s head like a restless wasp. Japanese people have secrets. It’s second nature to them, or as his mother used to say: it’s in their gut. She was talking about the unseen things that go on in this country that make discretion second nature to its people. Her favourite expression was: “This country has a problem.” Another expression creeps into Takeda’s mind: the hounds of Yomi  are on the hunt. It comes from the world of the afterlife, with its six Buddhist hells and their demons, heroes and angels, but he’s not sure what made him think of it. He considers himself an atheist.

“Let’s go to the place where you saw the van,” says Takeda when the silence gets uncomfortable. They walk along the riverbank. Beate seems stiff, tense. She has a camera, an Agfa ActionCam Minolta, in her shoulder bag. She wants to ask the inspector for permission to take his picture; doesn’t dare. She points awkwardly to the place where the van had stood. The forensic team Takeda managed to put together at very short notice found tyre tracks, a cigarette butt and a puddle of water. Takeda had dipped his finger in it and tasted it. Seawater. The Irukandji is a saltwater jellyfish. The inspector’s German companion is pacing up and down, short steps, shaking her head almost imperceptibly.

“Have you been able to identify the young man?” Beate asks, looking around, at a loss.

“He had no papers on him, in fact he had nothing. We’re presuming everything was stolen. My colleagues are checking the hotels at this very moment with a description. It’s time-consuming.”

The photographer focuses her attention: “Wait a minute. I think he said something about being new in the city, just arrived. But I can’t be sure. He was slumped against the van with his arms clutching his belly. We spoke English, but the girl was rattling on in Japanese. I was excited and nervous. Then he suddenly got worse and I couldn’t ask him anymore questions.”

“Try to picture the van. Was there anything unusual about it?”

Beate smiles at the policeman’s old-fashioned English. “You’re a photographer,” the inspector continues, almost apologetically. “Aren’t you supposed to be observant, to see things others might miss?”

“But I did forget something,” says the German slightly taken aback. “There was a painting on the side of the van. I remember looking at it before the young man started to shout, a red demon … you know… a young girl… from behind.”

“Taking her, you mean?” says the inspector

“Yes.”

“Was there anything about the demon that drew your attention?”

“He was ugly.” Beate laughs nervously.

“It might help if you close your eyes.”

Beate Becht does what he asks although she doesn’t believe in such gimmicks. But to her surprise it works. “His hair was wild and he had long nails… and horns.”

“An Oni . They’re pretty common in manga comics. Young people read them a lot, they’re popular all over Japan. We even have study mangas and philosophical mangas. We like drawings. And photos.”

Beate wonders why he’s so talkative all of a sudden. Was his last remark a hidden compliment? “Sorry, that’s it I’m afraid.”

“When I saw your name on the incident report I bought one of your books.”

“Am I so well-known in Japan? You flatter me.”

“Your work is extraordinary. Gothic … isn’t that what they call it in English?”

Beate Becht nods. Inspector Takeda can’t help himself: he pictures his sturdy body on top of her boyish frame in a situation more violent than erotic. Takeda is aware that the events of the last few days, and the deceptively light but significant internal pressure he has experienced all his life because of his origins, have set something in motion over which he has little control. He knows he has a certain sort of sensitivity that is compensated for by physical urges that usually help him get his feet back on the ground. But he’s noticed of late that his urges tend to derail him more than heal him.

He thinks about his wife. Suddenly, without knowing why, he feels pity for her, and her lonely life.

“My thoughts are jumping all over the place like frogs,” he says. He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. “And their croaking is enough to drive a man crazy.”

Beate scowls and begins to laugh. She visibly relaxes. “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you’re a bit of a blabbermouth compared to the average Japanese man.”

Takeda explains in brief that he is mixed race. Two men appear behind them on the riverbank, walking and talking loudly. They’re foreigners. Takeda sizes them up as they approach. Iranians, he figures. A fair amount of friction has been reported in recent months between the Japanese and labourers from Peru, the Philippines, Iran, Malaysia, and Bangladesh. All down to the crisis. The men appear to be keeping an eye on them and Takeda doesn’t like their furtive behaviour. Takeda senses the air around him contract and interrupts his story. “Wait a minute,” says Beate at that very instant. “I remember something else, inspector. The demon had a tattoo. Rough dots. It looked as if nails had been pressed into his wrist.”

The inspector’s face brightens up. “The sign of the Shinjinrui , young layabouts, outcasts.”

He’s distracted by Beate’s remark. In the meantime the Iranians are almost on top of them. They pull knives and run towards them. Takeda isn’t armed. Japanese police functionaries don’t usually carry a service weapon. Takeda steps in front of Beate, protecting her with his substantial frame. The first of the Iranians aims below the belt, but Takeda beats him to it with a boot to the testicles. The man wheezes, drops his knife and grabs his crotch. For a brief moment he’s an obstacle to the other man, smaller, bearded, turning circles in the air like a typical knife fighter trying to prevent his opponent from grabbing his weapon. Takeda’s next move is unexpected: he jumps at the first attacker bent double from the pain and pushes him with all his might in the direction of the man with the knife. The two bodies collide, the knife fighter goes down and his companion wheezes once again. The smaller, bearded man clambers to his feet and runs off. The taller of the attackers remains on the ground, his companion’s knife wedged in his liver. He shivers, arches his back, then collapses in convulsions onto the pavement.

Takeda looks at Beate Becht. He expects to see her in a state of terror but instead he’s blinded by a flash from her camera.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko and Yori – March 14th 1995 

I wake with a start in Yori’s arms. Quiet as a mouse, I try not to wake her. She smells of something sticky sweet; perhaps it’s her perpetual chewing gum. A memory of Mayumi flashed past me in my sleep and made me tense and nervous. Try as I might, nothing is going to bring back whatever was important  about that snippet of my dream. All I can remember was that my father appeared at the end and told me the precise  ins and outs of it all, but I was as nervous as a deer at a pool of water when it senses a predator glaring at it from the bushes and I didn’t understand a word of what he said. Then death appeared, his massive weightiness a calming presence. I’m still a little groggy, not quite awake. I listen to Yori’s breath. When her eyes are open there’s always something vicious about her, like a cat in the wild, but asleep her face is serene, innocent.

She sighs in her sleep and, as if that’s a sign, a shiver runs through me. I look over my shoulder.

A few feet away, crouched like an animal, Reizo, staring at us, contempt written all over his face. His presence is more irritating than dangerous.

“It’s normal for women to nurse one another when they feel bad. It’s in their nature,” he says. His voice is airy, almost a purr, barely a whisper. I search for an appropriate answer, but he touches his lips with his finger and winks. Yori mumbles something in her sleep and her left foot kicks something invisible. I get up, still careful not to wake her, and follow Reizo into the other room. I stand upright, my stomach tense. He walks through the common area – it’s empty – and into the next room, which the Suicide Club use for storage. The things they collect on their forays through the city piled up on the floor right and left. There isn’t much room. We’re standing close. I take advantage of the fact that I’m a good six inches taller than he is by looking down at him ostentatiously. He doesn’t seem afraid, although he now knows how strong I am.

“I want to write about you,” he says as if he’s making me a business offer. “My novel needs someone like you.”

I’m on my guard, think back to what Yori told me about his “literary experiment”, although her story about the poisonous jellyfish was farfetched and hard to believe, like many of her fantasies. I decide to play the game, for the time being. Reizo smiles disarmingly. “I’ll do whatever it takes. Originality  is the most important thing.”

“I don’t possess originality. My existence is dull.”

“Tell me your life story?” From his mouth, it is a mixture of a demand and a question. I don’t know why, but behind the bravura, the cunning, the chilling cruelty, I can see a twisted mechanism, a spider’s web of pain, ambition and frustration, a child that’s lived for years with its head stuck inside an instrument of torture, leaving it disfigured.

I recognise myself in him. We are equals . The thought cuts into me like a knife.

I nod.

“But not now,” I say. “I’ve forgotten my past and need to find it again. Later.” My voice sounds hoarse and fake, but he’s so elated by my response he grabs me with both arms and beams at me: “Isn’t that the same as everyone else, except those dimwits outside? Forgetting your past is a sign of exceptional intelligence!”

He glances to his left and his right as if expecting applause from some invisible public dazzled by his performance. A glint of artifice in his eyes disturbs me for a second but quickly passes. I realise it was clumsy of me to throw in the word “later” just to win time. I also realise I’ve decided to leave the Suicide Club, but I don’t want him to harm Yori.

He looks me in the eyes and says: “Your hair is so beautiful. Like the tresses they use to make Noh  masks.”

His right hand reaches up, caresses my hair. The tips of his fingers pause for an instant on my neck.

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Hiroshima – the Righa Royal Hotel – Beate Becht and Bruno Günder – March 14th 1995 

“My darling child!” says Bruno Günder. The publisher’s voice trembles with excitement. He speaks posh affected German, melodious, not unlike the way the Austrians speak. He’s infected the entire management at Bertelsmann with it.

Beate has been telling him about the men who tried to stab her in Hiroshima because she witnessed some sort of weird incident. She doesn’t miss a detail.

“In the City of Peace, no less?” Bruno crows.

“The inspector and I have reached a compromise,” Beate concludes. “He insists I have a police escort, but how can I work with a couple of yellow uniformed monkeys hanging around me all day? So I refused.”

“Beate,” Günder groans, savouring every moment. “You’re a true professional.”

“But I’m still not rid of him. He dropped me at my hotel and made me promise I would wait for him while he talks things over with his superiors.”

“You know the Japanese, darling, everything according to the book,” Günder growls. “Not an ounce of creativity! But I don’t think you’ll be able to refuse that escort forever. I’ll talk with our lawyers about it asap.”

“OK,” says Beate. She feels excited, bubbling with ideas. She knows that she might be suffering from shock, but she wants to stay with the feeling, intensify it. Ideas flow thick and fast. Her new book is going to be her best yet, it’s inevitable.

“One more thing, Bruno. I’m not allowed to talk to the press about this.”

A short silence follows. “But you didn’t talk to the press, sweetheart,” says Günder, his accent even thicker. “You spoke to your publisher about it.”

Beate gently replaces the receiver. She looks in the mirror. She’s beaming. At this moment, she realises, Günder is having his staff prepare a press release and is about to milk the hype. With a bit of luck it’ll go global. She can see the headlines: “Attempted murder of renowned German photographer in the City of Peace!”

In her mind Beate Becht pictures Günder lighting one of his expensive cigars. She smiles and looks at her reflection in the mirror. A sacred light glistens in her eye.

Someone knocks at the door.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko – March 14th 1995 

After my confrontation with Reizo in the storeroom I make my way back to Yori, but she’s not on the futon where I left her. I don’t understand these people. They sneak in and out like rats in their ideological struggle to break the daily bread. I explore the rest of the dingy and miserable squat. There’s no one here. It’s time for me to get out too, but I first want to be sure Yori is safe. I peer through the green and grimy windows, framed in rusting rectangles. Extinguished neon signs still decorate the facades outside, remnants of what the place used to be: a sewing workshop, a restaurant, a firm that produced boxes and packaging. I make my way back, call Yori’s name. I realise what made me feel at home here so quickly, in spite of the state of the place. It reminds me of Hashima Island, the same weathered atmosphere, the same suppressed hostility. I wander through the dark mouldy spaces, not quite sure of what I’m doing. Judging by the black stains on the walls and the floor there must have been machines here, probably not so long ago. I retrace my steps and peer through the doorway of the main room, the machine room as Reizo calls it. There are futons and tatami  mats all over the floor, shelves with provisions, laundry, yellow plastic containers we use to store drinking water. A mixture of smells, predominantly rusty. The parking lot in front of the building is overgrown with weeds, and there’s a swing barrier twisted up into the air, crooked, broken. Yori told me the city authorities were planning to ask a court to decide who was responsible for cleaning up the site for redevelopment. The Suicide Club didn’t have much time left. I walk down the ramshackle stairs. On the ground floor there’s a pale grey iron door, bolted shut. I try the bolt and it opens without a problem. It’s been recently oiled. I can see a ladder disappearing into a hole in the ground, a dark, damp cellar. I can just see the reflection of the tiles on the floor. There’s a light switch. A single light bulb illuminates the cellar with a bluish glow. I’ve no reason to go down, except for the fact that the ladder is new and someone went to the trouble of tapping electricity from the web of cables that criss-crosses Hiroshima.

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Hiroshima – the Righa Royal Hotel – Beate Becht and Yori – March 14th 1995 

The moment she opens the door without checking first who has knocked, Beate Becht realises she is acting foolishly. She stands there, frozen to the spot. But it’s just a Japanese girl, not an attacker with a knife. The girl is dressed in an unimaginative grey suit, the type worn by the majority of Japanese women when they’re at work. Her hair is tied up in a bun and she’s wearing a hat that’s both pert and artless. She’s also wearing spotless white gloves. She says she has a message from the hotel desk. Her English is lumpy. Beate automatically steps back and invites her in. The first thing the girl does is lock the hotel door behind her.

Beate grimaces in a state of panic. The girl takes off her hat, shakes her hair loose, and makes a reassuring gesture.

“Not recognise?”

For an instant Beate looks as if she’s about to throw herself at the girl and force her way to the door. Then her penny drops. It’s the Japanese girl who drove the van to the hospital. She was dressed differently back then. The stiff two-piece made her unrecognisable. Beate remembers that she was wearing gloves that night too, shiny, with a tiger motif. It takes a while for the girl’s words to penetrate. She apologises in her broken English for abandoning Beate at the hospital. She was scared. Now she wants to ask her something, or better, how you say? Beg?  She hopes Beate will listen, she won’t regret it. “Please listen. My name is Yori.”

She then does two things. She unzips her belt bag and produces a well-thumbed copy of the American edition of Beate’s first photo collection, the one with all the punk, horror and sadomasochistic grand guignol  motifs.

She then removes her left glove. Her left hand looks as if it’s covered in snake skin. The fingers are slightly clawed and she has no nails. She bursts into tears. She points at herself, searches for her words, repeats again and again:“Hibakusha!” 

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko – March 14th 1995 

The cellar has vaulted corners. The bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling casts shadows everywhere. In the far left corner a couple of old-fashioned metal filing cabinets create a separate space with an opening to the left. I slip through it and stop abruptly as if I’m facing a wall. A hideous creature is staring at me, only feet away. It’s grey, with horns, a flat pig-like nose, yellow eyes with black pupils, a frozen grin and sabre tooth tiger tusks. A crop of stiff hair has been planted between the horns like a horse’s mane. Déjà vu , I think to myself, and a familiar sense of panic creeps up on me. The feeling remains, gnawing at the edge of my consciousness, even after I realise it’s a Noh  mask. There’s a desktop computer on top of a table. I open a drawer in one of the filing cabinets. It’s full of manga comics exploding with sexual sadism, sweat drenched female bodies being taken in every imaginable position by demonic creatures with grotesquely engorged genitals. One manga is situated in feudal times and depicts an adulterous woman undergoing bukkake : all the men in the village older than fifteen gather around her trussed, gagged and naked body. The men masturbate in her face and fill her nostrils with their seed until she chokes. I see her eyes bulging in a circle of exaggeratedly swollen penises. I know bukkake  was invented by the Japanese porn industry in the 1980s and isn’t a classical sexual practice, but the manga artist has a skilled imagination. On Hashima I was fascinated for a while by the works of Freud and his rigid sexual theories. They transported me into a dream-like state in which I designed my own world. I was only sixteen at the time, but in hindsight my daydreams were perverse, and I still don’t know why I didn’t realize it at that time. Bodies were objects to be used and abused and they had a use-by date. Emotions were enlarged and inflated, a caricature of reality. Rage and cruelty monopolized the conversation. Sex went hand in hand with humiliation and often with death. Bodies beaten and bent double were tossed from the cliff into the sea. I saw details, colours, heard sounds, was overwhelmed  by the maelstrom of this alternative world. Later the visions stopped. I don’t remember when or why, but I can sense them creeping up on me again in this dark cellar, whispering in my ear that I’m a deviant , a freak of nature. I close the drawer with the same feeling that I’ve seen all this before. The other cabinet contains folders with photos of a man I recognise to my surprise as a member of my father’s Yuzonsha. He has strong Mongolian features, his eyes almost invisible. He’s wearing what looks like a curtain of long black hair and appears to be the spiritual leader of some sect or other. Apparently, he’s called the Blessed One and he presents himself as humanity’s new redeemer and the saviour of Japan. Baroque statements vie with each other in their use of elevated words like “light”, “unity”, “the Almighty Creator”. His complicated and highly symbolic creation narrative seems more intended for children than adults. I’m about to return the folders when I’m distracted by one of the titles: Mu: the beginning of humanity .

At that moment they all flood back, the endless rambling monologues my father delivered from his eagle’s nest while the wind tugged at his hakama . His never-ending stories about the age-old continent of Mu of which Japan was a part, and the magnificent inhabitants of the mythical land, superior in every way to modern men and women. His accounts fascinated me. Why do I find it so hard to remember them now? Why do I have the f


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eeling I’m in shock? That I’ve lost touch with myself? Is this mental state only a result of recent events? Ever since I started to bleed from my vagina and realised that the blood was mixed with lumps of tissue I’ve been unable to shake the idea that there’s something seriously wrong with me. Did Dr Kanehari lie to me?  I was at his clinic only a few days ago, but I can barely remember his face. His words sound distorted in my mind, as if they’re being spoken under water: phantom pregnancy.  My heart begins to race and I feel dizzy. I try to concentrate on the text in the folder in the hope it will focus my memory. In a very roundabout manner it states in essence that Japan is the oldest country in the world and that in the olden days there was an umbilical cord connecting heaven and earth that brought forth the god Kunitokotachi-no-Mikoto . The Japanese are direct descendants of the children sired by this divinity, but they are unaware of it.  A shiver runs down my spine as I read these words. The feeling that something is being whispered in my ear is so intense it makes me turn and look behind me. No one. I read on. Once again it claims in bombastic language that “the yellow race of Mu”, the people of ancient Japan, was superior to every other yellow people, and all of them superior to the white, black or brown races. The people of Mu understood the language of the divine signs, the kamiyomoji,  which served as a source for all future alphabets and ideograms. It reminds me of my father’s dogged determination to develop software that would enable his computers to communicate with kanji.  It scares me to think that Reizo’s cellar, a young man I consider to be mentally disturbed, contains ideas and images similar to those of my father. In another drawer I find some Oni  masks with horns and fangs, most of them red, a couple black, with tresses of coarsely braided string.

I start up the computer but it asks for a password. I decide to shut it down again, but type something on the off chance, not sure why: baita –  whore, a word Reizo uses a lot when he’s talking to Yori. I have access to the files. I’m not even surprised. Everything in my head is floating, weightless, as if I’ve been taking drugs. The text I open looks like a chapter from the novel Reizo’s always going on about. Ostensibly it takes place in the future in the middle of a “brutal conflict” between the youth and the Japanese government. The government is determined to round up all the troublemakers and isolate them on an island without provisions. There’s water on the island in the form of a couple of lakes, but there’s no food. Knives and axes: all they have. Tiny airborne cameras flutter around keeping them under surveillance day and night. Before long the young people form groups and fight each other over meat, each other’s meat. Their blood drenched battles and cannibalistic orgies are broadcast worldwide on 3D television. The novel’s subject is sickening and there’s no explanation for the conflict between the adult “wrecks”, as Reizo calls them, and the young antagonists who call themselves “wolves”. The style is also pretty woeful. Reizo’s talent doesn’t reach beyond scenes of violence and characters that continuously foam at the mouth. My finger is hovering over the off switch when I notice at the bottom of the page that a new delivery of young rebels has been dropped on the island to keep the bloodbath going. One of them is a giant: “bolted together like simple meccano , face like a pumpkin, the daughter of Rokurobei, the celestial slut. Every warm-blooded young man on the island wants to plant his seed in her, now  not later, in the hope of siring a child with exceptional qualities, an heir to Amatsu Mikaboshi,  the lord of Evil”. 

I can hardly believe my eyes.

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Hiroshima – restaurant Sawa No Tsuru – Robatayaki – Takeda, Becht and Yori – March 14th 1995 

“Try the bacon wrapped asparagus . Delicious.” Inspector Takeda points to the English menu the Tencho-san  – the proudly grinning owner of restaurant Sawa No Tsuru  – has placed on the table in front of them. Beate nods. Yori has buried her head in the Japanese version. Beate peers at her out of the corner of her eye and notices the girl’s eyes are closed. Takeda taps loudly on the table. Yori jumps. “I should have arrested you on the spot and taken you to the station,” he says. “But I gave in to our foreign visitor to avoid unnecessary complications. She has access to the media all over the world. I advise you to enjoy your meal. It may be your last as a free citizen.” The girl looks up at him, misery written all over her face. Takeda senses Beate’s disapproving stare and adds in English: “Normally I should have arrested her and taken her to the station for interrogation. I broke the rules to do you a favour.” In reality, he was doing himself a favour when he had agreed to Beate’s suggestion that they first give Yori a chance to speak. His pride hadn’t quite dealt with the humiliation he had suffered in chief commissioner Takamatsu’s office. The inspector had reported the attack on the German photographer by the Iranians. He figured it had to do with the attempted murder of the Belgian – maybe Beate knew more than she pretended – but he still had described it in his report as robbery. If Takamatsu got wind of his suspicion that the German woman was attacked because of her involvement in one or other conspiracy he would hand the case over to a team of detectives. Takeda’s determined to keep the chief commissioner out of it.

“She’s innocent,” says Beate. “She told me everything.” She sees the scepticism in Takeda’s face and adds: “In spite of the language problem, I still think she’s telling the truth. I believe her.”

The Japanese girl had spent more than an hour in Beate’s hotel room trying to tell her story. Beate understood the gist of it. She was entranced by the dramatic images Yori’s story planted in her imagination. Yori’s account fascinated her, drawing her in bit by bit. She was convinced the young woman was genuinely afraid and saw no way out of the dangerous situation she was in. She decided to take Yori for a meal. They were just getting out of the lift when Inspector Takeda appeared. Beate was completely taken aback and blurted that the girl was the one who had driven the young Belgian to the hospital. Yori had turned at that point and was about to run away, but the high heels she was wearing slowed her down. Takeda took three steps in her direction and grabbed her arm. Beate was nervous and suggested that they all three go to dinner “to clarify the situation”.

To her relief the Inspector agreed. On their way to the restaurant, Beate caught herself fantasising about a photo session with Yori, her deformed hand in full view of the camera, provocative, seductive, skittish, a lizard woman. A new sensation creeps up on her in the restaurant. Beate feels attracted to the frail Japanese figure, her furtive glances, her slightly immodest pose – which is probably unconscious – a Lolita with a magnificent flaw. So many different sensations all at once , she thinks, and in such a short period of time . When she turns from Yori to the inspector she smells freshly laundered sheets and sees images of glorious decadent depravity. Takeda and the Japanese girl are deep in conversation. Beate sees hints of the inspector’s age in the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Otherwise he looks surprisingly good for a fifty-year-old. The way he moves his hefty, barrel-shaped body makes her think of the powers of nature, forceful, compelling. She stares at his broad face and tries to picture the old man he will later become. She chooses a garden with stone Buddha’s as background. It’s one of her hobbies. She’s convinced that when people reach a certain age the years start to swing back and forth like a pendulum between youth and future. She wants to picture the old Takeda as a classical Japanese monk, at peace with himself, a hint of sarcasm in his face. When she took photos of him during the fight with the Iranians she saw a metamorphosis that fascinated her. She already knows what she’s going to do with the photos when she gets back to her studio in Hamburg. She’s sorry she doesn’t have her laptop with her to sketch her ideas while they’re fresh in her mind. She doesn’t trust lcd screens and doesn’t like working with laptops because the resolution is usually crap and they don’t have enough capacity, although a colleague swears that nec are ready to release a 2 kilo laptop with a trial version of Windows 95 onto the market. Her prosaic train of thought is interrupted by the look of concentration that appears on Takeda’s face. He clenches his left hand into a fist. He’s aware that Beate is looking at him and that she’s surprised: “One door closes, another opens, Miss Becht. That’s life. Her boyfriend, the one you say was responsible for trying to kill the young Belgian, happens to be the nephew of the ceo of the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank.” He sees that she doesn’t understand, his mouth slams shut, and he scowls as if he’s just inadvertently betrayed a secret.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko and Reizo – March 14th 1995 

“Do you know what’s so tragic?” says the voice behind me. “I’ll tell you: my ego is bigger than my talent. I was determined to keep the information I received about you to myself, but I had to write it down, no way about it. Well, it looks as if I screwed up.”

I turn. Reizo looks grey and sickly in this light, slumped, as if his bones are crumbling as we speak. It’s not so much the pistol in his left hand, pointing in my direction, but his posture and bulging eyes that makes me think: Yori was wrong; he’s played the misunderstood crazy genius for so long it’s taken over his mind.

“I was twelve when I first read Mishima,” Reizo continues, talkative as ever. “I knew there and then that I had to surpass him or die. Hardly a thought for a kid of twelve, don’t you think? What else could the kid do? The insanity of Hamlet was his only option.”

“Hamlet’s insanity was feigned, Reizo.”

He raises his eyebrows. “How refined  of you; how smart. You clearly read a lot on that island of yours. I like people who read. But then you should also know that you ultimately become what you’re pretending to be.”

I try to figure out where the conversation is leading and what he has in mind, but I draw a blank.

“You shuttle back and forth between reality and pretence and the show finally gets the better of you,” Reizo continues. “I thought of becoming a classical actor for a while. Our teacher used to insist that we put on the mask we were going to use in rehearsal before  we arrived for class, that we had to become one with it, a complete transmutation. I was the best at it. But my storm god was a demon. Eventually, it took me by the throat.” Reizo grabs the mask of the storm god Raijin and holds it out in front of him like a lucky charm. “My feigned madness is worse than real madness. It’s a struggle for power, sublime, I’d even dare to call it divine . The best lunatics, feigned or real, never let anything get in their way.”

I notice how much he’s enjoying the rhetoric. Words for him are like brightly coloured magic stones. But he doesn’t use them to conjure new realities, he uses them to conjure new selves .

“I know what you think,” he blurts, self-satisfaction still written all over his face. “You think I’m a junkie, and worse, a talentless windbag. I agree with the junkie part…” He clenches his fist and pounds his heart. “… but I’m not sure how I should react to the talentless windbag  charge. I said earlier that I’d like to get to know you better. You said ‘later’ when I asked about your life, as if I was a child fishing for candy. But I think your nosing about in my little basement office has introduced a touch of urgency into our relationship.”

I say nothing. I can’t fathom him. I try to figure out the best way to overpower him and escape.

Reizo grins. “I’ve had a fruitful afternoon, Mitsuko. Look at me: tossed around like a ragdoll by the daughter of a sort of god. Don’t say I’m wrong. The daughter of a powerful yakuza  by the name of Rokurobei. I hope the undersecretary of the Brotherhood whose tongue I loosened with a fistful of drugs was telling the truth about you. Otherwise I would be very disappointed.  Odd creatures, the people I work with, but handy all the same. They think I believe in their hocus pocus, but it’s nothing more than an interest  in the phenomenon of sects. There are sects everywhere in Japan, thousands of them, and all because we’re two-faced, hide our true selves. Don’t you agree?” Reizo concludes with a self-satisfied grin. He waves his pistol in the air and strikes a self-mocking pose, although the pompous grandeur of a novice kabuki actor is simmering under the surface. “Beaten shitless by our Mitsuko here while the members of my club stood by and watched. What an honour!”

“How do you know?”

“What? About the beating?” He laughs. “I felt it.”

“That I’m Rokurobei’s daughter.”

He pretends he didn’t hear me. There’s something unresolved about him, an inner conflict. “But you have to realise, Mitsuko, that modern Japanese people like us aren’t much into that old gods and ghosts routine. We might invoke a kami  here or a kami  there, but it’s just habit. All we really want, as we stumble along and lean on society’s Zimmer for support, all we want is to fill our cup, right here right now, and forget who we really are. All those stories about a demon called Rokurobei are hopelessly – how should I put it? – out of date.”

“If only you could write as you talk,” I say.

Reizo turns his head lightly, stiffly, like a swallow, and points the pistol at my abdomen. My stomach muscles tense automatically. Will the bullet burn like fire or be cold as a mountain stream?

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Hiroshima – restaurant Sawa No Tsuru – Robatayaki – Takeda, Beate, Yori – March 14th 1995 

Tenchou-san, owner of the Sawa No Tsuru restaurant is so proud of his new high-tech toilets that he’s reintroduced the old custom of requiring customers to take off their outdoor shoes before using them. Inspector Takeda exchanges his shiny shoes for a pair of rubber slippers and goes inside. He’s confused. The man in him who fears and respects the rules is irate: why did he agree to the German photographer’s suggestion that they both have dinner with the suspect to hear her account of things before taking her to the station? The man he became after commissioner Takamatsu’s reprimand senses a degree of freedom to make his own decisions and not fret too much about the consequences. The old Takeda would never have agreed to Becht’s proposal. The new Takeda is fiercely enjoying the anxiety he’s putting himself through. Surely it can’t be mere coincidence that the young man Yori claims was responsible for the attempted murder of the Belgian with a poison jellyfish is in fact a nephew of the dead ceo of the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank? If the girl was telling the truth, Reizo Shiga doesn’t get on with his parents, who don’t approve of his drug abuse and excessive lifestyle. How can he use this information to his advantage? When is the right moment to go over commissioner Takamatsu’s head and share his theory about the bank raid with a more senior police official? Takeda is so deep in thought that he doesn’t pay much attention to the refurbished toilets, the subdued lighting, the background music – just loud enough to mask embarrassing noises. All he notices is that the urinals are higher than before, in line with western norms.

He also doesn’t pay any attention to the two men who came in behind him.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Mitsuko and Reizo – March 14th 1995 

Reizo grins and relaxes his trigger finger. He’s seen my fear, he’s enjoying it.

“How did you know who I am?” I repeat.

“Fate is this world’s only true god. This morning, at a meeting of the Brotherhood, an organization I belong to, we were given orders to look for you. This afternoon, after our little altercation in the storeroom and the pleasant conversation that followed, in which I tried in vain to worm more information out of you, I paid a visit to the undersecretary of the organization. He knows a lot of things, and that looser Reizo Shiga, poor bastard, a mere novice in the Brotherhood, hasn’t a clue half the time. But alas, our pathetic undersecretary is also a secret junky like me. Like me he has to keep it from the others, but birds of a feather and all that. And junkies will do anything for a fix, even tell tales out of school. As soon as I knew exactly  who you were, it dawned on me that my first impressions of you weren’t far off the mark: you’re a godsend for my book.”

So he already knew that they were looking for me. That explains all the questions. I still don’t know what he’s up to. Why the cat and mouse? Does he plan to turn me in to my father? He’s had every opportunity and I’m sure my father has offered a substantial reward.

“We’ve been looking for you everywhere,” says Reizo, still grinning. “And look who found you!”

“Who is ‘we’?”

He narrows his eyes. “You don’t know the Brotherhood?”

“Let me guess: under the leadership of a guru they call The Blessed One?”

He grimaces. “Do you know what foreigners think is so crazy about us? That our language has thirty different ways to say ‘no’.”

He’s still playing games. I try to push my anxiety out of the way. He called me “the daughter of a sort of god” just then. He was clearly jeering at me, but he wasn’t being sarcastic. I don’t know how much time I have before he makes a move, but if I let him think he’s in charge he might make a mistake.

“Deny it as much as you like. I saw that guru of yours on Hashima. He’s one of my father’s Yuzonsha.” My words appear to cheer him even more. His body language tells me he doesn’t know as much as he’d have me believe. He probably thinks that he’ll come closer to realising his goals – whatever they might be – if he has more information.

“My father won’t like it if he finds out you’ve been writing about me.” I point to the computer. “He likes to keep himself to himself.”

Reizo takes the bait. “Who is your father?”

“Would you write about him if you knew?” My question clearly hit the wrong button. He sticks out his tummy and pouts like an angry child.

“You think you can mock me because you’re the daughter of some big mafia cheese. You don’t know who you’re dealing with. I have talent in abundance, but the drugs hold me back. If I gave up the dope I’d be able to write a masterpiece that would astonish the world.”

“That’s what you want to believe. You’ll do anything to accomplish that goal. But that means you’re still not sure of yourself.”

The transformation is astounding. He suddenly seems older, withdrawn. I sense Reizo has made a decision. For him there’s no way back.

“No,” he says. “You’ll  do anything.” He lurches towards me and I toss the heavy folder I’m holding in his direction. It takes him by surprise and he tries to avoid it. The corner of the cardboard cover hits the bridge of his nose. I push him aside and slip between the filing cabinets. I hear a shot. The bullet ricochets against metal, a deafening bang followed by a whistling sound. I run, keep running, and it’s only when I realise I’m running along a dark tunnel that I realise I made a mistake.

I didn’t head for the stairs.

I’m in the cellars under the building.

I’m scared of basements. Always have been.

Since that time on Hashima.

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Hiroshima – restaurant Sawa No Tsuru – Robatayaki – Takeda, Becht, Yori – March 14th 1995 

He hears leather soles squeaking on the polished wooden floor. They haven’t changed into the rubber slippers by the toilet door. Inspector Takeda registers the information automatically. Kids these days have no manners, he thinks. He sees their vague reflection in the stainless steel strip above the urinal. One of them is waving something in the air and they’re heading towards him. Takeda turns, hoists his elbows to face level in a split second and lunges forward. A club whistles past his right shoulder and lands with a thud against the stainless steel wall. Takeda rams his right elbow into the voice box of the closest attacker. The man staggers backwards gasping for air. The second attacker pushes him aside and collides with Takeda as the inspector hurtles towards him. He’s small and stinks of garlic. He tries a head butt. Takeda blocks it with his forearm and forces the man into reverse. He spots the first attacker slip through the door. The second pulls a knife but doesn’t attack. His eyes dart back and forth. The man tries to divert him, stabs at Takeda’s throat. In spite of his weight, the inspector is still light on his feet. He swerves out of the way and just misses grabbing his attacker’s arm. The man turns and hares towards the toilet door. Takeda runs after him into the corridor.

Those first attackers, the Iranians.

They weren’t after the German photographer after all.

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Hiroshima – in the tunnels under the Suicide Club squat – Mitsuko and Reizo – March 14th 1995 

When compared with the cellar where Reizo keeps his writing desk, the tunnel I’m in appears relatively new. The walls are greyish-white and there seems to be a source of light somewhere towards the end. There’s only silence behind me, although I was certain Reizo was following me. I continue along the corridor: a network of cellars, a mixture of smells, caustic soda and spices, briny, reminiscent of the sea. I emerge into a vaulted junction with a grill above letting in just enough daylight to make out a couple of barrels and a shapeless pile of garbage in the right hand corner. The smell of rubber is nauseating. Cellars are rare in Japan because of the danger of earthquakes. I stop. Can I go back? I’m certain Reizo won’t be afraid to use his weapon if he catches me. All I can hear is my own racing pulse, yet I sense an approaching sound, an invisible quivering of something huge coming in my direction. The quivering becomes a terrifying drone, gets louder and louder, then thunders past me and slowly fades to an almost imperceptible quiver. The sound came from behind a metal door in the right hand wall. I realise I’m in one of the Astram storage bays, Hiroshima’s almost entirely surface metro, which was built the year before when the city hosted the Asian Games. I saw some of the construction work on television and remember the first train’s maiden trip, the chain of rubber tyres flanking either side, and the reported high speeds. Only two stations are built underground because the region is mountainous and mostly unstable. They must have started to dig out the service tunnels from the cellars beneath the Suicide Club squat. I take a quick look at the garbage in the corner. Discarded tyres and strips of rubber. I try the metal door. Locked. I walk towards the pile of rubber. Perhaps I can use it to… out of the darkness Reizo appears, marching towards me with the mask of the storm god Raijin covering his face. He has a katana , a classical sword, in his right hand.  

At that moment a metro train whistles in the distance.

Its sound is as piercing as the spontaneous howl of laughter I let out at the ridiculous sight of the young madman.

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Hiroshima – Dr Adachi’s apartment near the Peace Tower – Takeda, Becht and Yori – March 14th 1995 

Rumours have been doing the police corps rounds of late, persistent rumours. Some are saying that a number of disgruntled officers have established links with extreme right organisations that are using the economic crisis to push through their particular vision of society. In their understanding of things, Japan isn’t made to be a parliamentary democracy. They’re determined to get back to the old aristocratic Japan with its strict hierarchical structures, and to do so by force if necessary. Hiroshima, officially the City of Peace, is a yakuza  stronghold, crawling with criminal fraternities, often with extreme ideologies. Inspector Takeda is convinced, nonetheless, that there’s more to the case he’s investigating than common gangsterism. He knows the yakuza  wouldn’t hesitate to set a couple of goons on a police officer and try to take him out, but only if it was worth their while. He also knows that people are more inclined to kill in the name of an ideology or religion than for simple profit. The two attackers were foreigners like the first; this time Malaysian he thinks. Did chief commissioner Takamatsu arrange with the yakuza  for two teams of killers to eliminate him? Is that conceivable? The second pair was less professional than the first, although the club Takeda found in the toilet had been weighted with lead. One blow to the neck would have finished him. Takeda had to make a quick decision and that is what he did. He told Tenchou-san that a couple of men had started a fight in the toilets and that when he tried to intervene they took to their heels. He didn’t want to arouse Becht’s suspicions unnecessarily. He had initially thought that she was the target of the attacks, but the second attack had changed his mind. To be on the safe side, however, he didn’t want Becht to go back to her hotel room, not yet. So he told her that his bosses wanted her to stay in a safe house for a while until they knew more about what was going on. Takeda and a colleague would keep an eye on her. He added that Yori could join her until he had tracked down Reizo Shiga and compared his version of the facts with hers. Becht protested. Why not just guard her hotel room? Takeda informed her that no one would be able to find her in a safe house and gently warned her that further protest wouldn’t be appreciated. He could have her arrested if he had to, under suspicion of aiding and abetting. He had expected her to object, appeal to her status as a foreigner, but she didn’t. Her interest in Yori, who had followed their exchange in silence in the hope that she would understand the gist of it in spite of her limited English, was clear to see. A whisper of jealousy took Takeda by surprise, but he put it down to infantile reflex. His next thought surprised him even more: he remembered bouts of jealousy as a boy, because he felt awkward, clumsy, unrefined, a half-blood, someone who didn’t really belong anywhere. The idea took him unawares. He had refused to pay attention to his life and his own emotions for years. It was like a map dotted with white unexplored regions and minefields everywhere.

The inspector turns into the road leading to Ujina harbour. He glances in the rear-view mirror at the two young women in the back of his black and white police car, a Subaru Legacy. Takeda’s sticking his neck out by going it alone and he knows it. On one side of the quiet street, with its overhead carpet of electrical cables – typical of Hiroshima – there’s a monument erected at the end of the nineteenth century to commemorate Japan’s victory in the war against China. The monument was r


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enamed the Peace Tower in 1947 to appease the American occupier. Takeda thinks the change of name is ridiculous: anyone looking at the warlike eagle perched on top of the monument isn’t likely to imagine that this magnificent lump of stone has anything to do with peace. It’s all about pride and dominance.

Dr Adachi lives in a 1960s apartment block with a steel staircase on the outside. The building only has two apartments, an unheard of luxury in today’s Japan, and is half hidden behind a couple of electricity poles and a trio of cedars.

As he gets out of the car and makes his way to the back, it dawns on inspector Takeda that there are cracks in his life that risk causing his apparently calm exterior to collapse at any moment. An inexplicable melancholy washes over him. He looks up at an armada of white butterflies fluttering around the cedar trees. He then turns to Yori’s gloves.

She senses him looking and holds up her right hand, limp at the wrist like a swan with a broken neck: “The dragon bit me.”

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Hiroshima – Dr Adachi’s apartment near the Peace Tower – Becht, Takeda, Adachi and Yori – March 14th 1995 

“There was a time I would’ve laughed at that theory of yours,” says Dr Adachi with the affected circumspection of an experienced drinker. “But in today’s circumstances, nothing surprises me. You should try to remember that the attackers may have had another motive. Commissioner Takamatsu is a career man and if you ask me he’s capable of just about anything. But this?” Dr Adachi delicately swills his Scotch. He was a single malt man until the crisis forced him onto cheaper blended whisky. With the composure of a born boozer he’s managed to conceal from both women that he’s already had a skinful. Takeda had called him from Tenchou-san’s restaurant. Without explaining why, he had asked the police doctor if he would be willing to accommodate both women in his apartment. For how long? He didn’t know. Not long. Adachi had laughed and then barked into the phone: “You know they’re safe with me.”

“What are you going to do now?” the police doctor continued. “Takamatsu is expecting a report on the attempted murder of the Belgian tourist before the end of the week. Don’t arouse his suspicions.”

“I’ll be there and he’ll have his report,” says Takeda. “I appreciate your help, my friend, more than you know.”

Adachi’s gaze softens: “Outsiders need to help one another in this anthill we live in, Akio. But remember: a goldfish that jumps out of its bowl into the sea shouldn’t think it’s a shark.”

Both men start to laugh. Adachi is well known for contorting old sayings and putting on a wise face in the process.

“And the women?” Adachi continues. “The onna  is a hibakusha .”

“I only noticed when she said ‘the dragon bit me’ and showed me her hand. She was always wearing gloves.”

“She’s a bit young to be using such an expression. Must be second generation.”

“I guess so. Her boyfriend is mixed up in this whirlpool of events somewhere.”

“Reizo Shiga, the nephew of the murdered bank manager? Are you going to have him traced?”

“Yes. The other woman, the German…”

“Sorry to interrupt,” says Beate Becht to Takeda’s back. Takeda turns. The German may have a timid personality, but she appears determined. She doesn’t seem to have much interest in Adachi’s sparsely furnished living room, mostly red and white, Scandinavian. Adachi is proud of his taste in interior design and likes to be complimented on it. But Becht only stares at Takeda.

“Mr Takeda,” she says. “This situation is pretty strange, don’t you think? Are you hiding something from me?”

“What makes you think that, miss Becht?”

“First: the two men who were with you in the toilet ran out of the place as if the devil was on their heels.”

Takeda raises an eyebrow. “And second?”

The photographer takes a deep breath: “When you came back from the toilet where the men, according to you, were having an argument, you didn’t only seem agitated, you’re zip was still open.”

Takeda raises his eyebrow even further.

Becht clears her throat: “I can’t imagine that someone like you – how should I put it? – would return from the toilet in such a state because of some banal argument that didn’t involve you.”

Dr Adachi, who had lived in America for a number of years when he was young and spoke excellent English, explodes with laughter.

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Hiroshima – in the tunnels beneath the Suicide Club squat – Reizo and Mitsuko – March 14th 1995 

When I see how nimble Reizo is with the sword I realise I’ve underestimated him. At the same time I feel reassured. What he’s doing is more of a circus act than a threat. But the fact that he’s using a shinken –  a sword sharpened and ready for battle – is still unnerving. Reizo traces a complex figure of eight in the air. The point of the shinken  stops at my left nipple. He is calm. I can see it in his eyes through the mask. He’s different when he’s wearing a disguise. Reizo has blond hair and listens to American death metal music, but when it comes to the crunch he can’t let go of the old patriarchal traditions.

“Aren’t you afraid of my father?” I ask, surprised at the hoarseness of my voice.

“At this moment I’m afraid of no one.” I’m having a hard time understanding this boy. There’s clearly something seriously wrong with him put I can’t put my finger on it. It’s clear he’s drugged at the moment.

Perhaps he can see my hesitation: “I’ve suffered all my life. It took me years to come to terms with being different , being special . My only ambition is to create a universe in a book form that reduces reality to rubble. I want to be a deconstructivist  role model.” What’s all this drivel about? He’s determined to be unpredictable, contradictory, affected and a genius  all at once. Words are all he needs; inner cohesion isn’t important as long as the content is mysterious enough. I think I can smell what ails him: Reizo’s experience of the world is based on signs he alone can interpret. He drinks himself into a stupor on his own words, just like Hitler and Mussolini. It’s Reizo’s way of controlling the world. It transforms him into a character you can’t pin down. If I’m to have any chance of escape I’ll have to find a way to meet him in his own world.

“You sound like my father,” I say. I try to inject admiration into my voice. I’m convinced his short term memory is damaged. He wasn’t afraid of me back in the storeroom, in spite of the beating I gave him this morning. I hope he doesn’t remember that I wasn’t exactly faltering about his writing talent. “My father says the human race is on its way out, that it’s time for a new version. You should meet him. You both have a lot in common.”

I had the impression earlier that he was in awe of my father. Now he just shrugs and slips the sword back into its sheath with elegant taito . I’m certain he’s good enough to draw it again in an instant so I keep my arms at my side. The mask gives his face a glassy, impassive look. I presume it also gives him the self-assurance he would otherwise have to feign by fencing with words. “I guess your father should have done this more often,” he says. I feel a sudden smack on the side of my head, hard, dizzying, as he hits me with the sheath of his sword. I want to throw myself at him, but the sheath stabs my stomach. I gag, bile fills my mouth, and I fall back, shaking my head in astonishment. What did I do wrong?

“I don’t need your father,” he says. “I need your life.”

He takes off the storm god mask and winks at me as if we’ve just shared a good joke.

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Hiroshima – Dr Adachi’s apartment next to the Peace Tower – Takeda and Becht – evening, March 14th 1995 

Desolation takes hold of Takeda as he leaves Dr Adachi’s apartment and starts the engine of his patrol car. The way he looks at the world has completely changed in less than a couple of days. Takeda reflects on what Yori had to say about Reizo Shiga. And about what his mother once said: “The Japanese will do anything to bring structure  to their lives, society, reality. But the same structure conceals phenomenal forces of insanity and unbridled  lack of control the likes of which you can’t find elsewhere.” The expression on her face at the time made him remember her words. That and the word unbridled , a curious word when you think about it. As if the Japanese were like horses, bridled, restrained, until the moment the reins are suddenly severed.

Perhaps his mother had been right. Takeda has spent his entire life proving his mother wrong. When he was a teenager, he despised her because she had been a japwhore . She invented the word herself. She would have been better off dead, the target of one or other Japanese bullet. Then he would never have been born… then there would’ve been no nameless sadistic soldier to father him or a mother who could barely conceal her disgust when she looked at him. Takeda changed his attitude later in life and pretended to be proud of his origins. But deep inside he still wrestled with the fear that his father’s genes might surface one day.

A tap on the window on the driver’s side made him jump.

Beate Becht is standing next to the car in the sober black miniskirt she put on for the restaurant.

“So what are we looking at?” asks the German. “A Japanese variant of the Red Army Fraction or just a couple of goons? By the way, thanks for being so honest back in the restaurant, inspector, and for your concern. But I don’t really have anything to do with this case, do I.”

“I still need to be sure,” says Takeda. “That’s why I’ve decided to bring in Reizo Shiga. Thanks to Yori I now know where the Suicide Club is.” Listen to yourself, he thinks. Inside I’m breaking down at a rate of knots, but on the outside I’m still the perfect Japanese cop.

“Why did you tell me the whole story?”

“You put me on the spot,” says Takeda dryly. “You have a good eye for… eh… details.”

She laughs and touches his arm for an instant in a gesture of reconciliation and consolation.

“I hope I didn’t hurt you.”

“You know how proud the average Japanese man can be.”

“You aren’t the average Japanese man, inspector.” Was she flirting with him? Maybe she was still suffering from shock after everything that had happened. Takeda’s police work has taught him that people are much more vulnerable than they like to think. This German woman’s slender, stringy build and delicate joints makes her appear fragile, but he’s convinced in the meantime that she’s capable of more than she would probably admit.

“What a day,” says Beate. She gestures with her head in the direction of the police doctor’s apartment. The setting sun casts a halo of light around her head. “But if I understood her right, Yori’s days are always hectic. I couldn’t live like that. Or perhaps…” She laughs. “There’s this sense of excitement, d’you understand?” She sees the look in his eyes and blushes. “Yori inspires  me.”

Takeda wants to leave. What’s holding him back? Inspiration can wait.

Instead he asks: “Why do you think Yori is innocent?”

Beate blinks, feels cornered, but pulls a stubborn face: “My gut tells me. But you wouldn’t understand that, would you, inspector. You’re a man of facts, if I’m not mistaken?”

The word “no” is on the tip of Takeda’s tongue, but he backs down and agrees.

“I often see images when I look at people,” says the photographer. “There’s probably something wrong with me.” The inspector has the impression that he can taste her loneliness. Or is it his own? He can’t help noticing yet again how driven  and focussed  he feels when he takes risks, when he goes against his training, pushes his position to one side, ignores his innate docility. He’s curious to know what images the photographer sees when she looks at him.

“What do you make of Yori?”

The German hesitates for a moment. “She stumbled into my hotel room in a state, sobbing, confused. She reminded me of the young mother in one of my father’s books, the same tears in her eyes. I was flicking through it only yesterday; a bizarre photo of the corpse of a baby taken here in the city in 1945 by Satsuo Nakata, just after the bomb. My father and Nakata were friends. He put together a penetrating collage of the incident based on pictures taken in the still burning embers of the city. The mother, badly burned, then the corpse, misshapen and bloated, like a lump of putty in the charred rubble, then a close-up of a chrysanthemum painted on the child’s left heel. The father, a young artist, had painted the flower on his little son’s body as an indictment against the emperor. In Japan, the chrysanthemum is the symbol of your emperor’s ‘divinity’, inspector. Where I come from they’re associated with cemeteries.” The photographer makes a dismissive gesture. “I don’t know why that image came to mind. Perhaps it has to do with a photo I saw on the front cover of one of your magazines, just two days ago, a photo of a deformed dead baby. I was struck by the similarity between the two photos although there’s fifty years between them. I remember my father telling me that the father of the dead baby in Nakata’s collage had made a clay replica of his dead son in 1958, with the same chrysanthemum on his heel, and placed it at the foot of the Peace Monument. Little was made of what he did. People preferred to sweep that kind of thing under the carpet back then, because it was still seen as pointing the finger at the imperial family. Perhaps someone heard about it and left this new dead baby as a reminder of the incident. My photography is based on signs , inspector. That’s why I’d like to take a picture of Yori under the monument with a replica of such a baby in her arms. But perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you this. Just like my father you’ll probably think I’m too eager to mimic reality and call the result art.”

Beate Becht takes a step back when Takeda scowls, opens the car door and returns in great haste to Adachi’s apartment.

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Hiroshima – Funairi Hospital – Xavier Douterloigne – evening, March 14th 1995 

“How’s the patient doing, doctor?”

“I think we need to keep him in a coma for a couple of days more. He’s not out of the woods, but there’s hope. He mumbled a few words earlier, in Dutch I guess. If you ask me he’ll pull through. Whether the poison from the Irukandji has affected his brain is another matter. But, let’s say I’m optimistic.”

“Why?”

“When he was talking there were tears in his eyes. Sadness is one the mind’s higher expressions, honourable colleague.”


* * *

So what happened exactly?  Month after month the same question, from friends, acquaintances. Compassion from some, others suspicious. Xavier Douterloigne couldn’t answer them. He wanted to, but something was standing in the way.

What was there to say? That it was his fault his sister Anna had ended up in a wheelchair and committed suicide six months later?

His parents had urged him not to think such thoughts. It was fate, there was nothing else to it. It was sheer accident that Xavier was there when it happened.

They wanted to protect him, their darling son, he was sure of that.

But for him the decision was made: he was to blame. His parents didn’t want to tell him how she had died. It only made him more determined to find out. He started by calling Den Ommeloop , the home where Anna had been staying since the accident. He made an appointment and met up with one of her counsellors, a bearded young man with glasses and an oily voice. Xavier came straight to the point and asked how Anna had committed suicide. The counsellor blinked at the word. He told him that Anna had been having trouble moving her arms in the last few weeks before her death as a result of her damaged nervous system. She could no longer get out of the wheelchair by herself, in spite of the fact that she had even been able to walk a little at the beginning, albeit with difficulty and a lot of assistance. But she hadn’t been unhappy, the counsellor told him. She had made friends in the home. Xavier listened patiently, but had to bite his lip when the man told him that they weren’t certain Anna’s death was suicide. “We think it may have been a simple household accident,” he added. Xavier asked him to explain. The counsellor responded with another question: “Didn’t your parents tell you it was probably  an accident?” Xavier informed the man that his parents were thoughtful and considerate people and that they had wanted to spare him in spite of their own pain, but he still insisted on knowing how Anna had ended her life. They pussyfooted around the topic for a while. “Do I have to force my parents to tell me? Is that what you want?” said Xavier finally. “They’ve been through enough. It’s your duty  to tell me what happened.” The man stared at him and his defensive wall slowly but visibly melted. He nodded. His voice sounded flat, as if his vocal cords where under pressure. “There was a birthday party. It was busy, lots of people milling around. There was a deep fat fryer in the kitchen, industrial size. Everyone was wearing party hats and singing, clapping, that sort of thing. Anna disappeared into the kitchen without anyone noticing. The fryer… hot oil everywhere… no one saw it happen.”

There was a long silence. Xavier got to his feet and thanked the man. On his way to the door he turned and asked. “Is that what killed her. Burns from the oil?”

The man pursed his lips and heaved a deep sigh. “The police found a melted cigarette lighter next to what was left of her wheelchair.”

Another long silence. The blood had drained from Xavier’s face and he was about to leave when the counsellor stood up: “Can I ask you something? How did Anna end up in a wheelchair? She always refused to talk about it.”

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Hiroshima – metro tunnel – Reizo and Mitsuko – evening, March 14th 1995 

My fear is an embarrassment. But it’s so immense it has me shaking uncontrollably from head to toe as if I had a fever. The same shadows and underground caverns that terrorised me as a child are pushing me to the edge of hysteria. The blindfold Reizo tied around my head has slipped a little. My hands are tied behind my back with what feels like a strip of rubber. I can see vague slivers of light and there’s a cold wind blowing down the corridor. I hear Reizo open the iron door. I’m afraid I might stumble and fall onto the rails. I can smell metal and the same putrid stench I noticed earlier, like rotting fish. I don’t understand how Reizo managed to overpower me since I’m stronger than him. I freeze at the idea. A paralysing electrical charge runs through my body.

“Keep moving.” He sounds irritated. I hang my head. He pulls at me, but I refuse to move, like a workhorse that’s decided it’s a donkey. He walks around me, pokes his pistol in my belly.

“Keep moving.”

I focus my head butt on his voice, pay no attention to the pistol or the fact that it might go off. I see stars. The blindfold has slipped even further and I can now see with one eye. Reizo has staggered backwards. His nose is bleeding. But he’s still on his feet and my hands are still tied behind my back. I race past him, but it’s hard to run. The head butt has left me dizzy. A wound above my exposed eye begins to bleed, making it even more difficult to see. The rails are glistening and in the distance I can see a light with a blue halo around it. I begin to tremble once again. A reflected metallic light on the tunnel wall is getting steadily closer. I stand between the rails. The questions that have plagued me all my life, the pain and the loneliness, the doubts and the inner turmoil, everything suddenly focuses on this moment. I want to die. I know it. Life has been a trial and there’s no escaping my father. How can I ever find a lover, ever start a family?

I stand on the rails. I feel nothing. The approaching light turns into a miniature sun. I bow my head. The blood in my eye shrouds everything in darkness, but I know that the darkness can be transformed at any moment into a flash of light. Something heavy hits me on the back and I fall to one side. Hands push me like a ragdoll against the tunnel wall. The pain in my limbs is so intense I can’t fight back.

Then: shuddering, a rush of air that evolves into a deafening trumpet blast, a passing tornado, the stench of warm metal. I lie still, overwhelmed by the power of the train that has missed us by a hair’s breadth.

His voice is close by, dark and nasal: “If you don’t want to know what I’m capable of, don’t try to hurt me.”

I already know what he’s capable of.

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Hiroshima – metropolitan police headquarters – Fukuyamakita – Doctor Adachi – evening, March 14th 1995 

So what’s the deal with inspector Takeda, Adachi asks himself on his way to the police station. The doctor knows Takeda has always seen himself as an outsider and for that very reason he always played it by the book. Not anymore, Adachi suspects. He has heard plenty of rumours about Takeda’s infamous intuition , exaggerated no doubt during noisy police get-togethers in the city’s karaoke bars. Does his farfetched theory about the bank robbery and now that dead baby have anything to do with that intuition, or has Takeda been able to finally put together the pieces of some complex puzzle? It’s been one scandal after another of late: police bribery, even police involvement in bank robberies. The crisis has had some bizarre consequences: the pride post-war Japan achieved through its industrial superiority is slowly evaporating. And we can’t live without pride, Adachi thinks to himself. We’re losing the plot, especially the younger generation with their painted hair and their crazy underground culture. They’ve turned their back on us and our values. They forget how we did without after the war. They forget about the typhoid, the lice, and the obsessions: eat now , drink now , find shelter now . We tried to survive in spite of the diseases and the radioactive residue. The horrors we had to look at were beyond belief. Skeletons walked the streets and at night you could hear the dead, the blistering dead, weeping, vomiting, coughing, mumbling.

No wonder I enjoy a drink, thinks Adachi as he pulls into the car park in front of the police station. He looks up. It’s dark already and he imagines that he can see a tiny light far above his head that can unfold at any moment into a tempest of fire, scorching and devouring everything in its path.

The police doctor smiles as he informs the duty officer that he’s come to pick up a couple of documents. He takes the lift to the basement. His hands are sweaty, his forehead burning. How did that hanhan  Takeda, that fucking half-breed, manage to turn my head with those crazy stories of his about wartime treasures so big that a senior police commissioner wasn’t even afraid to have one of his own inspectors eliminated just to keep a lid on things?

He makes his way to cold storage where they keep the corpses prior to post-mortem, opens box 23 and pulls back the sheet covering the body. The misshapen head of the baby found at the Peace Monument appears. Its eyelids are dried up and shrivelled by the cold and the corpse appears to stare at him in terror. Adachi examines the right heel and instinctively holds his breath.

A sign, Takeda had said. It might be a sign.

Of what?

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Hiroshima – metro service tunnel – Mitsuko and Reizo – evening, March 14th 1995 

Reizo has prepared every detail of my imprisonment here in the service area next to the metro tunnel. That means he’ll keep his word and come back for me. There’s a writing pad and some ballpoint pens on a chest I’m expected to use as a desk. My left hand has been handcuffed to a pipe. The place is damp and stinks of stagnant water. The metro workers use it to store replacement track, bolts and other material. It’s stacked up behind me on racks. When Reizo handcuffed me at gunpoint I could see his bruised and bloodied face at close quarters. His eyes sparkled, his movements were jerky. He didn’t seem to have much control over his body, but he was still rational about the situation, and that worried me. He left a battery operated desk lamp for me. The shadows here remind me of Hashima. If I look away from the light too long I begin to have trouble breathing. I’ve lived a life in the shadows and it looks as if I’m going to die in the shadows. What is life? You turn a corner and in the blink of an eye you’re face to face with death. Nothing prepares you and you can’t believe your time has come. Has my time come? The will to live is unfathomable. Moments ago I was thinking about suicide, now I can’t believe that this is the way I’m going to die. Reizo promised time and again that he would come back and let me go: “What else can I do? You’re my muse. I need  you.” His mind is damaged, I’m sure of that, but I’m also convinced he’s a man of his word. He kept saying he wanted to integrate my life into his novel because it’s so “extraordinary and contradictory”.

Where did he get this obsession? When we meet people with this level of insanity we’re inclined to back off. We find it hard to believe, blame it on something else: voices, possession, schizophrenia, evil spirits, but never the person in front of us. He’s just a toy in the hands of a power we name at random and never fully understand, although we recognise echoes of it in our own mind.

When he was standing at the door Reizo said with apparent indifference: “Start with your earliest memories on Hashima. Can you still remember?” His face was as contradictory as my life: a swollen and bloody nose, at once brutal and childlike.

“A piece of open ground between the ruins,” I said. “I emerged from the rubble and saw what looked like a black carpet, but it was moving. I didn’t understand at first, then I realised it was a bunch of crows. They flew off as I approached. Their cawing and fluttering wings filled my world. They skimmed past me. I saw their eyes, sparkling with a strange and sinister light. I’ve never been so afraid in all my life.”

I lied: I’m more afraid now.

“Crows,” Reizo roared. “There are so many crows in my book! I want to hear them, now!”

With that he slammed the iron door and left me alone and lonelier than I have ever been.

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Hiroshima – Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Takeda – evening, March 14th 1995 

“Where are you?” says Dr Adachi on the police frequency.

“In front of the warehouse Yori told me about. It looks abandoned.” Takeda is sitting in his Subaru Legacy staring at the neglected facade of the building and the remains of a couple of grimy neon signs. A street lamp casts an inhospitable grey light over the ripped tarmac of the car park.

“Your intuition was r


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ight,” the doctor continues. “The corpse has a chrysanthemum tattoo on its right heel.” He coughs. “It’s faded and small, but it’s clear enough.”

“It wasn’t intuition,” says the inspector. “The idea came from the photographer.” Adachi doesn’t react to Takeda’s observation. “So, where are the ladies?” the inspector continues.

“They’re watching TV. CNN. A documentary about the earthquake in Kobe on January 17th. Time flies, doesn’t it. So easy to forget.” Takeda can tell from his voice that the police doctor has been drinking. He makes nothing of it.

“Your mind is like a clock, Daichi.”

“And yours is a pink cloud, Akio.”

They laugh in unison.

“So what’s next?” says Adachi.

“Complete the puzzle.”

“How?”

“By carefully fitting together the pieces I already have.”

“If you ask me you don’t have enough pieces.”

“I can set my pink cloud to work.”

“You sound tired.”

“You’re right. It’s been a long, hard day. And it’s already after ten.”

“Whatever you do, be careful.”

“Is it impolite to go visiting after ten? You were raised the old fashioned way, weren’t you? You should…”

“Very funny. It’s extremely impolite and you know it. But I’m guessing it’s not really an issue.”

The two men sign off. Takeda takes a final look at the building. Before Adachi called him on the radio he tried to open the front door. It was locked. He thinks of giving it another try, but then decides it would be better to leave now if he wants to make it to Saijo, a city suburb, before midnight. It would be exceptionally un-Japanese to break the rules of politeness and go knocking any later.

As he drives away, a vague glow appears behind one of the windows.

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Hiroshima – Saijo – Takeda – evening, March 14th 1995 

Reizo Shiga’s parents live in Saijo, a fancy district on the outskirts of Hiroshima, residences surrounded by paddy fields. Takeda parks in front of the house. It looks like an oversized Swiss chalet: a wooden frame with white plaster walls. The inspector straightens his tie but doesn’t get out of the car. He had stopped on the way and called his wife from a telephone box.

“You don’t have to wait up.” That’s his usual way of letting her know she’ll be alone tonight. After this final visit Takeda has plans for the rest of the evening: a woman and a good night’s sleep.

“Okay. How was your day?” Under normal circumstances Takeda would have offered some meaningless reply to his wife’s meaningless politeness. But this time he said nothing, peered out over the swarming neon lights of the city. Why was everything so chaotically clear  these days? He pictured his wife next to the phone, her right hand on her lap, the left holding the receiver to her ear.

“Problems with the boss,” he said.

A lengthy silence followed.

“Big problems?”

“He doesn’t agree with the way I reason things.”

He heard her breathe.

“There’s nothing wrong with the way you reason things, Akio.”

Takeda was touched that she had sided with him without even knowing what the conflict was about. Their long marriage, the nonchalance with which he had absorbed her existence into his, the loneliness she had endured for so many years, seem to fall on his back like an avalanche. He sensed his shoulders tense.

“I’m not Japanese enough,” he said. “I…” He didn’t complete the sentence. It surprised him that he had almost said: I’m not good enough , and how easy it would have been.

Instead he said: “I’ve tried to be a good husband, Ayako.”

“I know.” That was all she said.

“We should have had children.”

More than ten years earlier he had forced her to have an abortion. Since then he had used a condom on those rare occasions they made love. The idea of becoming a father had filled him with horror and panic. He had tried to explain, but all he could manage to tell her was a vague story about being in a Japcamp as a toddler and seeing so many children die. It had left him a little thin-skinned about the idea of starting a family. It was a lie: he was only seven months old when he and his mother were liberated.

When she was drunk, his mother would follow him through the house, screaming about what had happened to her and what she had done to his older half-brother. She threatened to do the same to him. Later she would whine and dribble, begging his forgiveness as if he was his nameless brother’s reincarnation.

Takeda’s wife had accepted his decision as always, although he noticed occasional sidelong looks of reproach. When he looked her straight in the eye she would resign herself.

“How do you feel?” said Takeda. “I’ve never really asked you how you feel.” He sensed panic because he had let his mask slip. “At work they used to praise my intuition. It was as if I could get under a criminal’s skin. None of it was true, but I enjoyed the reputation and never contradicted it. It was just guesswork, sheer luck, with the odd hint of insight. What I actually sensed were echoes of the terror, powerlessness and fear of the victims, because I had experienced the same as a child.”

He fell silent. He should have explained it differently. He was sorry he called her.

“I hope the problems get solved, sooner rather than later,’ said his wife.

They hung up simultaneously.

As he took the exit for Saijo, Takeda realised that his renowned intuition had always ignored the echoes of terror, powerlessness and fear coming from his wife.

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Notes from Mitsuko’s basement prison 

Where do I begin? Like some grim fairytale… once upon a time there was a lonely girl living in a world of rot and decay . There were crows everywhere, in huge flocks, never alone. The sea was a giant and sinister crater. The girl saw her father as a mat-finished ball, always on the move, rolling all over, crushing everything in its slippery path. The world slowly took shape, as it does for young children. But for the lonely young girl it remained a Shangri-La much longer than normal, a place where everything was possible, a place where dreams had no boundaries. The girl stopped growing when she was seven feet tall, but inside she stayed small. The girl has been alone for as long as she can remember. The ghost of her mother haunted the place. She was a shadow, a pale face, a vague pain in her heart. Her father’s face seemed carved from stone when he came to tell the girl that her mother was dead.

Death played a leading role in the girl’s life.

She had a friend, a bald and portly man, the father of a babysitter, who lost his head.

There was a boy fleeing love so hard he thought he was a crow.

(What else should I write? Why does there never seem to be a way out for me? Here, in this cellar, I’m forced to conclude that I’ve always felt the same: no way out. A rumble in the distance just then means a train is on its way, advancing at speed through the tunnel. Why can’t I be sitting in a carriage, watching a nice landscape slip by, far from here? When I was a teenager the world drew me like a magnet. I wanted to go to a place where people would ask without embarrassment why I was so tall and so clumsy. That would be less painful, I told myself, than the furtive glances I had to put up with my father’s minions when they visited the island.

Would Reizo come back? What’s he planning to do? Will I ever see the sun again? On Hashima I used to peer at the rising sun between the charred and half-ruined apartment buildings, on my guard, as if I was afraid its rays would pulverize me if they touched me.)

I can’t remember what age I was when I became obsessed with stories about children who grew up in strange places. How many times did I read Jungle Book ? I pretended I was Mowgli and transformed Hashima’s miserable ruins into a sultry jungle teeming with life. I had to watch out for Shere Kan, the mighty tiger, lord of the animal kingdom, who was coming to get me. When I heard him roar I would tremble. My Shere Kan was more powerful than in the book: at regular intervals he turned into a human being, a giant of a man, with a long neck and penetrating eyes.

When I was older I grew fascinated by the story of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who hid in the Philippine jungle for decades after the capitulation because he didn’t believe the war was over. He surrendered in 1974. I read about him in the magazines my father brought from the mainland after I had complained ad nauseam that I was bored and unhappy. I couldn’t get my obsessions out of my head. My life was lost in its own interiority.

Three years ago we got internet on the island. The world wide web was laborious at first, but I was soon surfing at speed in search of points of contact. Without being aware of it I also searched for people who shared my misfortune. I found the weirdest stories that somehow reconciled me with my fate, if only for a while: children locked up by their parents for years on end in sheds and attics as if they were animals, adults who hid children in musty cellars and treated them like luxuries to be indulged whenever they felt the urge.

I fantasised that I was rich beyond imagination and that I was in a coma in hospital after a car accident and could wake up at any moment, throw back the sheets with shouts of joy, and hop, skip and jump my way outside into the sun. I badgered my father almost every day to take me on a trip to the mainland, to my horizon paradise. I wasn’t as scared of him as before, but when I saw that look of impending doom in his eyes, I knew it was time to stop whining. I started again the next day.

(What sort of nonsense is this? How can I write down the story of my life as a rat in a cage in a metro tunnel? Only a madman would think I could! I can’t breathe… I’m going to die… Reizo’s sure to come back. He’s probably gone for food and something to drink. He’ll want to know if I’ve done what he asked. I need to write. I need to surprise him.)

At a certain moment, it must have been when my sexuality awoke raging and kicking from its slumber, I realised that I had been daydreaming for months that my father was chasing me. He was naked and so was I. I ran through the corridors and saw things that made me want to vomit, but at the same time they thrilled me, leaving me with a feeling of mortification, close to fear only more intense, more exciting. My daydreams slowly evolved: I would hide myself in niches and pose Lolita style as my father passed, expose my buttocks coquettishly before disappearing once again with the speed and elegance of a cat. My father – much bigger in my dreams than he was in reality – turned slowly into a Minotaur. He snorted, belched steam from his nostrils, scraped the ground with his hoofs, roared from the bottom of his lungs. It was fantastic. Then he found me and did what bulls do, savage, brutal, like a raging storm.

Afterwards I felt wretched, hung-over, bored.

(Is that what you want to read? Is that what gets your pathetic little junky dick hard? Do you think you have the same power as my father? We’re all insane, all capable of the most miserable things, but some of us do things in our dreams while others dream as they do what their warped minds dictate.)

(Come back and let me go this minute! You can’t imagine what my father will do to you when he hears about this.)

(My life? You want to drink my life? You want to have  me? What is there to remember of my broken life? It’s spread out behind me like a swamp inhabited by pale formless figures, and who I am is only a shadow of the person I should have been.)

(What have I done… what have I done? Am I being punished for what I did? Oh, my baby, my baby….)

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Hiroshima – Saijo – Takeda, Nagai Shiga and his wife – evening, March 14th 1995 

Takeda climbs the stairs to the Shiga residence. He straightens his crumpled suit for the last time, rings the bell and puts on his official face. There’s light inside the house. The woman who opens the door is small and broad-featured.

“Police, ma’am,” says Takeda. “Sorry to bother you at this late hour, but it’s urgent. We’re looking for Reizo Shiga. He’s wanted for question… attempted murder on a foreigner.”

The woman’s broad features seem to collapse. She turns without responding and shouts: “Nagai.” A cry from the heart, a release of pent-up anxiety and pain. She disappears down the corridor without inviting the inspector in. The same stark cry: “Nagai!”

Takeda takes the opportunity to push open the door, take off his shoes and wait in the corridor. The house is tastefully furnished: wood, sharp lines, pale blue tategu  doors, elegant sliding panels. A mixture of classical Japanese and western interior design. A tall thin man with grey crew-cut hair and dark sunken eyes appears at one of the sliding doors. Takeda recognises him from newspaper photos: Nagai Shiga is an economist, and with Japan’s economic recession he’s featured in the media a great deal of late.

“My son?” he barks. At the same time he beckons Takeda into the main room of the house, ignoring the usual ceremony. Takeda notices a tokonoma , a traditional alcove filled with delicate flower arrangements, tiny fragile bonsai trees and other family bits and pieces. They sit on tatami  mats at a low circular table. Subtle shades of colour, simple, carefully selected furniture, and the interplay of light and shade create a sense of serenity. But Takeda also senses suppressed tension in the room. The economist looks him in the eye: “I knew something like this would happen one day. You might be surprised to hear this from a man of science, inspector, but over the years I’ve come to believe my wife’s conviction that our son has been possessed from birth by a yokai.  We’ve seen one psychiatrist after the other with our son, but none of the diagnoses they produced has ever been able to change my wife’s conviction.”

There are many different yokai,  Takeda remembers. One is a demon that enjoys preserving a baby’s innocent exterior while transforming its inside into a monster unable to resist its bizarre needs.

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Hiroshima – Adachi’s apartment near the Peace Tower – Adachi, Yori and Becht – night, March 14th – 15th 1995 

Dr Adachi parks in front of his apartment feeling ill at ease for not noticing the chrysanthemum tattoo earlier. But his conscience is clear: when the corpse of the baby arrived in the mortuary he had only glanced at it. He had no time to be exhaustive. He had noticed the dead infant’s deformities and made a mental note to do an autopsy later. The fuss generated by the bank raid simply got in the way. Yet he’s still annoyed at the way things turned out. He’s been trying to reach Takeda on the police uhf radio but there’s been no response. He’s probably with the Shiga family. Takeda doesn’t own a mobile phone: too big, too heavy, too unreliable. He does have a beeper, but Adachi doesn’t know the number. The police doctor has a two-way radio in his living room, operating on the police frequency. During the lonely hours, with only a bottle for company, he listens in to his colleagues’ messages and fantasises romantic tragedies behind their calls. He decides to try the inspector again later. As soon as he walks into the living room he senses the tension between the two women. The German seems frustrated, Yori dispirited.

The photographer gestures apologetically when she sees Adachi raise an eyebrow. “I tried to explain an idea I had for a photo. I wanted to shoot her at the foot of the Peace Monument with a doll in her arms, one with a chrysanthemum tattoo.” Becht points to a magazine with a photo of a chrysanthemum. “For one or other reason it made her really nervous. Her English isn’t good enough to explain what’s upsetting her. I think it has to do with a girlfriend…” the photographer stops speaking when she sees Adachi raise both eyebrows.

“You want to take a picture of her holding a doll in her arms with a chrysanthemum tattooed on its right heel?”

The German appears defensive. “I wanted to take a series of photos, actually. Start with a wide view then move in on her hand, a close-up – without glove – and the doll, which I would first scorch black. I saw a picture of a deformed baby the other day on the cover of a Japanese magazine and it made me think of my father who…”

Adachi turns to Yori and asks what’s going on. Before she answers, she grabs her bag and pulls out a pile of old documents. The first is rubberstamped Dai Nippon Teikoku Rikugun , the emblem of the “Land Forces of the Great Japanese Empire,” governed by the department that was referred to during the Second World War as the Ministry of War instead of the Ministry of Defence.

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Hiroshima – Saijo – Takeda, Nagai Shiga and his wife – night, March 14th – 15th 1995 

Nagai Shiga’s head sinks to his chest when inspector Takeda tells him about the charges his son is facing. “When he was still small, my wife read him the story of the carp that turns into a dragon. She must have read it hundreds of times,’ he says, his eyes focused on the polished wooden floor in which his reflection is like a pale stain in the varnish. “I remember her voice as if it was yesterday, and his enthusiastic whoops of encouragement. The carp was expected to do the most impossible things to achieve its dream. How can a fish become a dragon? But the carp was determined. He tried the impossible. He failed time and again. But he refused to give up. When I arrived home one evening Reizo hurled himself at me, a five-year-old bundle of energy: “Daddy, the carp turned into a dragon!’ He almost fell over himself from the excitement. I asked him what the carp was going to do now that it had become a powerful dragon. Reizo looked up at me; in the light of the room his eyes were black: ‘Make everyone dead who doesn’t listen to him’.”

Nagai Shiga withdraws into a long silence, staring at his cup of tea. Inspector Takeda thanks his lucky stars his marriage is childless. Then he reconsiders: perhaps a child would have helped make up for some of the things that happened in his youth.

Takeda hears a barely audible sigh at his back as Nagai Shiga’s small, trim and classically dressed wife enters the room. Takeda is surprised by the tautness of her face. Her voice is close to a whisper: “My carp became a dragon.”

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Hiroshima – Adachi’s apartment near the Peace Tower – Adachi, Yori and Becht – night, March 14th – 15th 1995 

Adachi translates the gist of what Yori had told him about the tall, mysterious woman who had joined the Suicide Club a few days earlier. Beate Becht listens attentively. The story reminds the police doctor of his father, a doctor at Kyoto’s military hospital where his mother worked as a nurse. Adachi’s father had moved up the ranks to major. He had told him of rumours he had picked up about experiments carried out during the Second World War in laboratories in Tokyo and other secret locations, experiments on prisoners involving a secret military organisation called Unit 731. The maruta –  the prison guards mockingly referred to the prisoners as “logs of wood” that were to fuel the fire of Japan’s success – were infected with typhoid and bubonic plague, among other things, and then injected with experimental substances to see what would happen. Adachi’s father also told him about decapitations after which the prisoner’s heart was ripped out of his body to see how long it would continue to beat. His father had dismissed the rumours as malignant enemy indoctrination. But a brief inspection of the documents Yori had given him had convinced Adachi that the rumours were more than rumours. His heart skipped a beat when he read about the background of the person on whom the court physician of the emperor himself had conducted experiments in 1932. Adachi doesn’t know what to think. He’s pretty sure the documents are authentic. Yori’s story about her giant of a girlfriend is bizarre to say the least and hard to believe. But as alcoholic, discrete homosexual and police doctor, Adachi has heard plenty of true stories that sound unbelievable when they’re repeated.

“Why did you try to tell the gaikokujin  all this?” he asks Yori, making sure he uses the correct word for female foreigner. There was a possibility that the German photographer might recognise the word gaijin  and take offence. Westerners often think gaijin  sounds racist. As a member of a minority that the Japanese tend to look down on, Adachi avoids offending others as a matter of course.

“Because Mitsuko asked me to go public with her story shortly before she disappeared. She’s convinced her father will find her sooner or later and she’s not sure if she’s up to the confrontation. I ran away from Reizo that same day. He had flipped his lid. I didn’t know where to go. My parents are both dead. The only person I could think of was Beate. I heard her mention the name of her hotel when we were at the hospital reception.”

Adachi sighs. The number of people being left behind by the worst economic crisis Japan has had to face since the Second World War is increasing by the day. But he still has to make an effort not to picture the present generation as spoiled and spineless. When his father found out Adachi was homosexual he called him a ketsuman,  a vulgar and abusive term meaning “ass cunt”. In a drunken rage he had grabbed a scalpel and threatened to give his son a “real” cunt. Adachi turns to Yori who’s staring at the floor, a look of resignation on her face. He feels sorry for her. If he’s properly understood everything she told him and she hasn’t been lying too much, she was a wildcat before they met, young and reckless. Now she’s terrified of being locked up because her boyfriend did something crazy with a foreigner. If truth be told, she’s more scared of her friend than she is of jail. Adachi thinks the youth of today read too many mangas and are addicted to video games that glorify violence.

But the story about her girlfriend Mitsuko is even weirder. Adachi isn’t a great fan of Japanese society with all its rules and regulations, but alternative lifestyles don’t inspire him much either. In his eyes, Yori and this Mitsuko are outcasts who need each other’s support and comfort because they’ve nowhere else to turn. Hence the “friends forever” stunt.

“What makes that Mitsuko of yours so sure her father will find her?”

Yori looks up. She has dark seductive eyes – that do nothing for Adachi –, dreamy eyes, ready to turn away from reality and build castles in the sky. Adachi can see how she must have been easy prey for her aggressive young friend.

“Because she left behind a sign he’s certain to react to,” she says.

She tells him about the sign.

Adachi turns pale.

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Notes from Mitsuko’s basement prison 

You want my life? You’re too late. Yori beat you to it. I lay in her arms and told her everything while she caressed my hair and kissed me. You can have the dirt and the shit, that’s all you’re worth. You can have the details about my baby, what I did to it. It’ll inspire you no doubt. I told whoever was willing to listen in your Suicide Club crew that I had experienced a phantom pregnancy, diagnosed by a proper doctor, all verifiable and traceable. His name is Kanehari and he performs abortions in his private clinic. I went to see him, heavily pregnant, but for some incomprehensible reason I couldn’t bring myself to allow the child that my father had forced into my womb to be killed by the hands of another. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I had already decided to do the deed myself.

I spent the final days of my pregnancy in the Islamic Dambara Centre, my loose fitting clothes concealing my swollen belly, the world around me a daze. I convinced myself that I hadn’t made a decision, and that was the truth: I hadn’t yet decided how , but in hindsight I’m certain I already knew deep in my heart what  I was going to do.

Mother nature helped me: labour started deep in the night, sudden and intense. My waters broke before I realised what was going on. Less than half an hour later I was exhausted. Then came a series of cramps, regular, excruciating. I couldn’t think straight. I followed my animal instincts. I was always alone in the Centre at night. It wasn’t designed to house people on a permanent basis, but they had offered me a provisional roof over my head because I told them there was a danger my husband might try to kill me to restore his honour. I dragged myself to the gloomy square behind the prayer centre where a couple of nearby restaurants kept their garbage bins. The stench of rotting noodles and festering fish remains was unbearable. I crouched to the ground and lifted my hands heavenward. I cursed myself, my father, my miserable existence. And it came. It came so fast, as if it was greedy for life. My hips were broad enough. I didn’t tear. It was as if a wet ball had slipped from my body, accompanied by blood and slime. I can still remember the tension in my neck, as if I was screaming skyward in silence. It was an indescribable moment. Think about it good, you miserable skunk, write it down in your measly novel. It was at once bestial and passionate. I didn’t deliver a child, I spawned a child.

And what a child it was. I saw skin, I saw disfigurement, I saw milk-white eyes. And yet it screeched, its deformed body gasped for air. It was alive, I swear, it was alive.

I grabbed the umbilical cord and twisted it round its neck.

Had I gone insane? No. I wasn’t myself, but I knew what I was doing. I didn’t know why, that was all. Revenge for what my father had done to me? Horror at the little monster I had brought into the world? I’ve read about women who hide their pregnancies, give birth in fear and isolation like animals in the woods, and then kill their offspring or abandon it in some remote place to die of hunger and thirst. I asked myself, as anyone would, how it was possible in the name of God for a woman to do such a thing. Our instinct tells us that motherhood is sacred, that children enrich our lives. I still believe that to be true.

But it doesn’t alter the fact that I twisted the umbilical cord as tight as I could. The creature struggled, wriggled its arms and conjoined misshapen legs. Its eyes bulged and its tiny tongue protruded from its lips. I’d never seen such a painful expression in my life.

And then it was over. I was soaked in sweat, wheezing like a pig, and had clumps of my own hair in my hands. I had to fight to regain my self-composure. I had committed a primal murder, the most horrible murder you can imagine, the greatest outrage imaginable. I knew I would have to pay the price and it was then that I decided – sweating on the outside, as cold as ice on the inside – to split myself in two to limit the damage. One part of me had to decide what to do with the body. It already knew . It was as if someone whispered it in my ear. The other part had to shield my emotions and make sure I didn’t lose my mind, the price most people pay for primal murder.

I went back inside, washed off the blood and the slime, improvised a tampon, put on two pairs of underpants, and gathered up my things. I hid the documents I had brought with me from Hashima that


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proved my father’s identity between my clothes. I threw everything in a holdall, made my way outside again, picked up the tiny corpse, wrapped it in a towel and popped it in the holdall.

I marched into the city at a determined pace, although my knees were still trembling and I could feel my underwear slowly getting wet. The streets were alive and noisy in spite of the late hour – it was after 2am. Groups of young people were gathered at every corner, hanging around, gesticulating, kicking each other for fun, flaunting their youth, their beauty, their bravado. I didn’t understand any of it. Why had they been given the grapes and me the thorns? I sensed a cold satisfaction, an abnormal melancholy. I had to control myself; otherwise I would have shaken the dead baby in front of their eyes and accused them of devouring the sun and leaving only the night for me. I wanted to shout at the top of my voice for all the world to hear that if I was pushed far enough I could be even worse than my father.

(And you, you should be jealous! You may be a monster, but you’re nothing compared to me. Perhaps the kami  were right after all when they whispered in your pathetic confused brain that I was your muse. A seagull follows the wind and gobbles up everything that glistens, whether it be a shard of glass or a diamond.)

I arrived at the Peace Monument. The young people avoid the square at night, I imagine out of some rudimentary sense of respect. The place was deserted. I removed my dead son from the holdall and drew a chrysanthemum on his right heel with a felt-tipped pen. I abandoned my poor, hideous and accursed son at the foot of the monument, knowing full well that he would be found, that the press would get wind of it, and that a picture of his tiny corpse would one day whisper in my father’s face: because of what you did, I curse you with the blood of your own son. 

So that’s my story. Satisfied? Ah but you’re right, of course, it isn’t finished. What about the second part of me? It convinced me that I had visited the clinic of Dr Kanehari and dreamt under anaesthetic that I had seen the face of my father, Rokurobei himself no less, hovering above me when I awoke, but that Dr Kanehari told me I had experienced a phantom pregnancy. A story that may be a bit farfetched, but rational and plausible, indispensable to allow me to wander the streets of the city until my message reached my father – I’m here in Hiroshima . Before long he would be standing in front of me and I would do what I had to do.

Perhaps you’re smarter than I imagined. We all make a story of our lives. But the leading role we play is split, subdivided within us. We incarnate both the lover and the goddess of revenge, the witch, the whore and the Madonna. My story has its roots in years on Hashima, when I lost the ability to distinguish dream from reality. We all do the same to some degree since we’re neither animals nor angels, but those who go too far, like you with your dismal imagination, are doomed to wallow in a pool of self-torment for the rest of their lives.

(If you don’t come back; if this is the price I have to pay for the sorrow I feel for my child, then the curse I have endured will turn on you, and – as I imagine you already know – you will come to a bad end.)

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Hiroshima – Saijo – Takeda, Nagai Shiga And his wife – midnight, March 15th 1995 

Takeda turns to Reizo’s father. “Where can I find your son?”

“He left home more than a year ago. He wants nothing to do with us.”

Takeda turns to Reizo’s silent mother. She’s sitting on her heels, her hands resting on her lap. Her face is a world of contradictory emotions. He catches her eye. He nods almost imperceptibly.

“He’s living in a squat in Kabe-cho,” she says, staring at the floor. “With a group of foolish youngsters. He deals drugs and he’s addicted himself.”

Nagai Shiga looks at his wife, surprised, irked.

“I was there earlier this evening,” says the inspector. “The place is locked up. There was no one there.”

Nagai Shiga rubs his cheeks and then his eyes. “Those kids are creatures of the night. Then they wander round in their dreams, which they defend to the hilt.”

His wife pours a second cup of tea. “Who knows what’s going on in their heads? They’re greedy, they don’t know how to cope with their lives so they create their own world. Reizo was always a difficult child. He had such an insatiable longing. I don’t know where it came from, but it got worse as he grew up. Then, about a year ago, he joined that sect…” She turns to her husband.

“Aum Shinrikyo,” says Nagai Shiga finishing her sentence. “Reizo made his vows in the temple.” He looks at the inspector almost apologetically. “The sect doesn’t only target people with an infantile understanding of the world like Reizo, they also attract highly educated academics. They say the founder, Shoko Asahara, is just a front for someone else. Nobody’s sure who he is, but he’s supposed to be nicknamed Rokurobei.” The economist observes the inspector’s silent reaction and continues: “I’ve tried to find out as much as I can about the sect, inspector. I wanted to protect my son. But for reasons I don’t understand, his father no longer matters to him.”

“Your brother Tomio Shiga, the managing director of Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank, died recently in a mysterious gas attack together with a number of other senior staff and assistants.”

The economist glances at his wife. “They told us that the police still don’t have any information that might lead them to the perpetrators.”

“I have a theory,” says Takeda. “Your father…”

“Please, inspector,” says the economist. “It’s late and we’re tired, my wife and I. Can’t we continue this conversation at another time? Let me walk you to your car, but first…if you’ll excuse me for a second…” Takeda notices a silent supplication in Nagai Shiga’s eyes. Shiga says nothing for a second or two, then respectfully bows his head, stands and leaves the room.

Did his wife notice the silent message? She adjusts the collar of her kimono and mumbles: “Reizo was always a dreamer… boundaries for him were unacceptable. Mishima was his great hero. Reizo was convinced Mishima’s coup d’état should have worked. He shouted it from the rooftops. Then, according to Reizo, there would have been more real men in this country of ours.” She directs her pale, dispirited eyes at Takeda. “You might think I’m just a foolish mother, inspector, but let me tell you this: hungry, unbridled fantasies like those Reizo nurtures have been the cause of more evil in human history than passion and greed.”

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Hiroshima – Takeda’s wife Ayako in their apartment – midnight, March 15th 1995 

In her sleep, a great fatigue weighs upon her. Once her body could run for hours. She wasn’t fast, but equably. Her friends – she was a student then – called her “the Diesel.” She never dared to ask if it was a compliment or an insult.

There was so much she never dared in her life. She likes to think of herself as an oyster, clamped shut, hiding precious beauty behind her tough shell.

She sits up before she realizes that she’s awake. A familiar small breeze whiffed from the corridor: the front door opening and closing, her husband coming home earlier than expected. The man who enters the room is a total stranger, not even a Japanese. She’s standing now, her arms in front of her. The way how he comes up to her. She backs away, turns, runs into the kitchenette. He’s right behind her, a silent stranger. Her body is hot now, burning with a sudden fever.

It turns heart-stopping cold when he grabs one of the kitchen knives out of the rack.

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Notes from Mitsuko’s basement prison 

When I was a teenager, I dreamt about a house in the middle of a garden with laughter and the sound of splashing water. I saw a man next to a little pond with a pretty waterfall. He was pushing a child in a swing. The garden was a haven of light and colour. Dreams had become my reality, my waking life a dream. Now that my life has descended into a nightmare, why can’t I picture that sweet garden anymore? Why does it hurt so much when I try? Why is the pain so incomprehensible, so terrifying?

For a time there was a woman in my life – not my mother – who looked after me and asked me all sorts of questions. Her name was Mayumi. Something happened to her. Then my father cut off her father’s head. Why? And that’s not the only strange thing. When I think back to that horrible episode, something doesn’t square. There was a switch somewhere .

Switch: it has become a keyword in my life. As if someone switched places with me, early on, unexpectedly.

(You didn’t even leave me a glass of water.

Does that mean you won’t be away for long? How long have I been here? I don’t feel thirsty, no, not yet.

If I die here, my father will dip the tips of his fingers in your blood and paint my name on your belly.

Come back! Get me out of here. The pressure of the earth above me is suffocating. The thunder of the trains is like the breath of some resentful ghost in my neck.

Don’t chance your luck, fool. You’re dealing with the daughter of Rokurobei.)

(Get me out of here. You can have me. I’ll have sex with you. I’ll climb on top and do the things I saw in my father’s films. You’ll die dribbling with pleasure.)

Father, why don’t you come?

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Hiroshima – Adachi’s apartment near the Peace Tower – Adachi, Yori and Becht – midnight, March 15th 1995 

Adachi isn’t sure how to deal with the situation. He feels as if he’s landed in a nightmare. He’s suddenly reminded of a statement made by the Noh director Tadashi Suzuki, someone he’s admired all his life: “People say Noh theatre is absurd and grotesque, pregnant with tragedy, a chaos of gods and demons, but I say: Noh theatre dines at the table of reality. So many people close themselves off to the tears in the theatre curtain in which we have wrapped reality and dam up their lives with work and karaoke, with laws and prohibitions. Look around you, listen to the stories your friends have to tell you, open the papers, turn on the TV: the cycle of meaning is everywhere. You read about the threads of people’s lives becoming entangled with others, acquire insight into coincidences that create extraordinary new circumstances, you imagine yourself as an urban cannibal chopping up his victims and eating them, you are the father who lusts after his daughter, you live in a world of rats and syringes, you are the mother who strangles her child at birth, you are the hero who rushes into a burning house to save the lives of complete strangers.” Adachi has never forgotten Suzuki’s statement about the absurdity of life, but he’s never fully understood it. Now he’s convinced he’s got himself into the kind of situation the Noh master had in mind: his entire life is suddenly out of kilter, and what amazes him most is the self-evidence  of it all.

The police doctor tries to explain the situation to Beate Becht while simultaneously doing his utmost to untangle the confusion left behind by Yori’s declarations. “I need time to study these documents,” he concludes. He can see that the photographer is growing impatient. How long before she takes things into her own hands? Adachi asks himself if Takeda knows what he’s got himself into. The inspector is in the middle of an intricate hornets’ nest and needs to be kept abreast of unexpected developments.

Adachi’s thoughts are interrupted by the bleating of the police radio in his living-room.

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Hiroshima – in front of the Shiga residence in Saijo – Nagai Shiga and Takeda – night, March 15th 1995 

The economist is standing next to Takeda’s car watching the lights in his house go out one by one. “My brother Tomio was the oldest.” He sounds calm, but there’s still a tremor of subdued tension in his voice. “He inherited our father’s professional secret and was ordered that he should commit seppuku  rather than reveal it to anyone.” He turns to the inspector: “In those days, in the early 1950s, it didn’t sound so crazy. People still believed  back then,” he says defensively.

“Professional secret?” Takeda asks, ignoring Nagai Shiga’s remark.  “You mean ‘the secret of the Golden Lily’? Wasn’t that all a bit dramatic?”

“Exactly, but I say it again: the generation before ours was a different race altogether, obsessed by different ideals. Japan was a different country in those days.” Nagai Shiga smiles, but with a hint of malice in his eyes. “We even had a god as our leader.”

“They say it was the emperor himself who gave orders for Japan’s war treasures to be hidden in out of the way places.”

“The idea came from Hirohito, but it was Prince Chichibu who did the work, with the help of zaibatsu,  the army and the secret service. The prince apparently didn’t think twice about hiring criminals for the job. Gold, platinum, silver, diamonds, antiques and objet d’art were stored away in underground warehouses. Prisoners of war did the actual work. Afterwards they were shot or buried alive.”

“Your father Taro Shiga helped choose a number of those locations as Hirohito’s banker.” Takeda doesn’t mention the fact that his hypothesis comes from a recently published American book. He hopes to take the economist by surprise and tempt him to reveal more. Nagai Shiga takes a step backwards. For a moment Takeda fears he has gone too far. “A credible hypothesis,” says the economist. His voice deepens. “Nobody can keep a secret where so many people are involved. A year ago I was approached by Kenji Eda, a professor of history in Tokyo. He had evidence of my father’s complicity. But I had already figured it out because of the family secret that had been passed on to my brother Tomio and some of the vague remarks he made when he had been drinking. I thought it was all about his involvement in the emperor’s unsavoury secret, not about complicity in the murder of so many prisoners of war.” A sad smile. “Do you have a family, inspector? You know how it works. We all vow secrecy and fidelity come what may, but sooner or later we end up looking for a shoulder to support our ailing consciences. When my brother talked – albeit indirectly – about the Golden Lily, I wrote it off as wartime idealism. I knew that my father had close links with the imperial family and that he revered the wartime ethics of the day. As a banker, he was one of the driving forces behind Japan’s war effort. But please understand me: he was my father. I wanted  to believe that all those stories were totally unfounded, or at least exaggerated.”

Takeda thinks about his own father, the unknown Japanese soldier, rapist, child killer, and nods. “My brother laughed in my face because I pretended not to believe him. He too was a banker , just like my father. Do you understand? He was conditioned to think in terms of money flow and power. In his eyes, I was a boring and slightly naive academic who spent his days poring over tables and economic fluctuation charts, a slave to the system, while he was at its helm. He dismissed my predictions of the present crisis. His confidence in Japan’s monetary and economic resilience was limitless. When the bubble burst he didn’t see it coming, or didn’t want to. And even when it was impossible to deny, he still maintained his confidence in the ability of the banks to rectify the situation and restart the economy. I wasn’t the guardian of the family secret. That was his  burden. But when I look back I have the feeling he wanted to share it and that he was frustrated by my inability or refusal to believe him.” The economist shakes his head. “Why did I behave as I did? Jealousy? Contempt? Shame about my family? I don’t know. In any event, a couple of months ago Tomio handed me a photograph and observed cryptically ‘take good care of this should anything happen to me’. Here, I had a copy made.” Nagai Shiga fishes a black and white photo from his jacket pocket. Its background grey with age, it pictured two men in uniform from the Second World War posing in front of a life-size statue of Kannon , the hermaphrodite god of mercy and compassion. In line with tradition, this emanation of the Buddha glistened in polished gold. The crisp shadows suggest the photo was taken with powerful lighting. Takeda has the impression that it was shot in a cave. While both men pose straight-backed and rigid, he can see no evidence of pride in their eyes. On the contrary, they’re wide open, as if whatever they’re looking at is a shock to the soul.

“I checked it out,” says the economist softly. “There was no golden statue of the Buddha in the caves of Abukama-do when they were officially  discovered in 1969. But this picture is clearly from 1945.”

“How do you know it was taken in Abukama-do?”

“Look at the Christmas-tree like stalagmite behind the statue of Kannon . It’s more than two meters tall and is considered one of the biggest in the Far East. There’s nothing like it anywhere else.”

Takeda looks at it carefully and nods. “So where is the statue buried?” the economist continues. “The larger caves at Abukama-do are open to the public, but more than two kilometres of corridors and smaller caves are inaccessible. You need a precise location in an underground complex like that.”

“Which your brother knew?”

The economist gestures with his hands: who knows?

The radio in the police car splutters into life. In spite of the tinny quality of the message, inspector Takeda recognises the voice.

But he refuses to believe what it says.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Reizo Shiga – night, March 15th 1995 

Reizo Shiga switches on the lights in the main room of the Suicide Club. The place is empty. Recent tensions, arguments about the best drugs and the best prices, Reizo’s leadership style and the growing influence of the Aum Shinrikyo sect have driven the group apart. At the end of the day, junkies are only interested in one thing: their next score.

Reizo’s ideas about a youth front determined to eradicate tired and decrepit social structures sounded cool as long as his few followers were high and could gesticulate wildly in long discussions about the inhumanity of the social system and the elite who were to blame for the profound economic crisis ravaging the country. They whined about the education system that turned young people into well-trained rats, paralysed by stress, and forged plans to take out bankers, the ceos of major companies, and well known politicians as the German Baader-Meinhof group had done in the 1970s.

The decline of the Suicide Club started when a number of its members joined Aum Shinrikyo. Reizo was against it at the start, but he soon realised that he was powerless to stop it. When the sect itself suggested he might become a member – with the prospect of speedy advancement – he took the bait. His competitive instincts were aroused by the fact that many young Aum Shinrikyo members had degrees from prominent universities yet still venerated the radical ideas of its founder Shoko Asahara. From the outset, Reizo was intent on climbing the hierarchical ladder whatever the cost, but in spite of the promises they had made him he hadn’t moved anywhere in the organisation, and certainly not upwards. His followers took note and abandoned him one by one. Before long the Suicide Club was facing money problems. At that point even his most faithful followers departed in silence.

Reizo stands at the window and notices the rear lights of a car driving off in the distance. He checks his nose, cautiously, convinced Mitsuko has broken it. He sees his dull reflection in the opal glass. He was always a handsome figure. He can’t bear the idea that his nose will no longer be a perfect feature. He has to be an immaculate, shiny machine. The tiniest blemish irks him intensely. He analyses his subdued despondency and comes to the conclusion that he’s afraid of Mitsuko. The untamed temperament she keeps hidden under her hesitant and diffident exterior leaves him weak. All his life, Reizo has struggled with an inner self that mocked him and belittled him. He has no idea where it came from. His contempt for the world is a result of the self-hatred that devours him. When he was fourteen, he read about the troubled youth of Yukio Mishima who had been abused by his parents. It only served to stoke Reizo’s inexplicable aversion to his own absent but gentle parents, although there was no reason for it. When he was small, his father had never threatened to throw him in front of a passing train, although Reizo later imagined  he had to make him feel more like his great idol Mishima. He had never been forced to play with girls and he didn’t have a tyrannical and violent grandmother. When he looked at himself in the mirror he saw Reizo Shiga alias Joe Bloggs. The youth decided to learn kendo, the sport at which Mishima had excelled, but he found it hard to control his aggression and would smash his bamboo practice sword to pieces whenever he lost a duel. He was thrown out of the kendo club, but came to treasure the rejection as evidence of his superiority. He started to read Mishima’s essays, and although he didn’t understand much of what he read, he quickly understood that he was eloquent enough to use a couple of Mishima’s core ideas to convince his peers of his special mission. Reizo dreamt of a Japan in which the younger people ruled the roost. A strong Japan that would rise to its predestined place at the head of all the other nations. He embraced Mishima’s conviction that politics was a rat’s nest and that the only thing that could give a life meaning and depth was a glorious death. He imagined a society in which everyone would opt for an idealistic and honourable suicide when they reached the age of twenty-five. From the age of seventeen, Reizo had dressed in military black. He was like a magnet to other young people and he enjoyed the times he was able to manipulate them. He had moments of euphoria, but his character tended on the whole to be melancholic. He didn’t fantasise about sex, instead he pictured himself fighting heroic duels. He would cut it fine but always win, and then he would die from his wounds. There was often a homo-erotic tint to his daydreams, but he would never acknowledge that side of his character. Men were blood brothers, women were for slapping around. That’s what real men did. Reizo developed a fascination for porn in which the act of penetration was speeded up so that the actresses looked like inflatable dolls rolling back and forward on the bed. He was turned on by close-ups of faces twisted with pain. He loved to see the actors slap their partners’ breasts or take them from behind. The orgasmic explosion it gave him wasn’t lust, it was more like an overwhelming wave of physical energy, like having power over life and death. Reizo had the constant feeling he had been saddled with an immense hunger that could never be satisfied. He looked down on the popular mangas  and assumed an arrogant artistic air, but in reality he was obsessed with comic books featuring aliens with supernatural powers. He was ashamed that he was human, a weak creature with unforgivable flaws in its basic design. He was plagued by an unbearable sense of his own triviality. Drugs were the only way to escape it. Cocaine turned him into a superman. But the euphoria only lasted half an hour, then he would crash into the ink-black darkness of self-humiliation. His frustration grew. He tried time and again to push back his boundaries. The things he didn’t dare were the most attractive. The challenges he set himself became more and more grotesque. Dare I disguise myself, stab my girlfriend, then drive her to hospital like an affectionate boyfriend? Do I dare expose someone to the potentially lethal sting of the Irukandji and note every detail of his last mortal hour to use in my novel? Do I dare lock up the daughter of a legendary mafia boss and force her to write down her life story, knowing that her father is looking for her and is holding out the prospect of a serious reward for finding her?

Every time Reizo realised what he had done, a fear took hold of him that thrust him upwards into a rage, a rage that would allow him to do something he had dreamt about for so long without daring to admit it to himself.

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Hiroshima – Nagarekawa district – gay bar Splash – 1-23 Yagenbori – Takeda, Adachi, Yori and Becht – night, March 15th 1995 

“800 yen for the first drink,” says the barman at Splash.  Takeda only has to look at him to make him change his mind. “On the house, this time.” Takeda orders a beer. His body feels dehydrated. A memory is haunting him, throbbing with the intensity of a wound. Years ago he had staggered drunk one night into his wife’s bedroom. He can’t remember whether he wanted to have sex with her or ask for indigestion tablets. His wife was on her knees beside the bed, her eyes closed. When he asked what she was doing on her knees in the middle of the night, she said: “I’m talking with my heart, Akio.” It sounded so infantile that Takeda answered condescendingly: “And does your heart have anything interesting to say?” His wife tilted her head and looked at him, one of her usual understated if slightly accusatory looks. He’d seen it a thousand times. He often compared her expression with that of a cart horse: nervous, gentle, ready to run. He couldn’t have been more mistaken. Now, Takeda sees her eyes again and remembers with astonishment how they ploughed their way through the mud and mire of his embitterment and buried sadness. The inspector rubs his temples and shakes his head.

The other people in the bar – a chubby type with a girlish haircut and a skinny young man with slick, combed back hair – had been keeping a furtive eye on him since he arrived in the place, but now they turn their surprised attention to a trio of new arrivals: Dr Adachi and two women. Adachi gives Takeda a hug, completely out of character. Takeda is frozen to the spot. He catches sight of Beate Becht over Adachi’s shoulder. The German photographer reacts to his gaze as if she’s just been caught taking a picture of the embracing pair without permission.

“Akio,” Adachi whispers in the inspector’s ear. “I’m bitterly sorry. Why do I have to bring you such news?”

Takeda wriggles out of Adachi’s embrace without a word. His wife’s voice resounds in his ears as if the words she said that night are only now hitting home: “You should listen to your heart, Akio. Don’t let it turn to stone.”

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Hiroshima – Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Reizo Shiga – night, March 15th 1995 

Reizo Shiga tilts his head as if he’s listening to something. He looks around the poorly lit room. The third futon on the floor belonged to him and Yori. He treated Yori like a pin-up, but deep in his heart he always feared the day she would see through his disguise. He leaves the main room, descends the stairs to the cel


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lar, heads for his improvised office and sits in front of his computer. He opens the file with the text of his novel, rereads the final paragraph and starts to type. A few sentences later he shifts to a new document. He sits for a while, motionless, his fingers resting impotent on the keyboard. When the undersecretary of Aum Shinrikyo told him in exchange for drugs that the woman the sect members were looking for was the daughter of a shadowy kumicho  by the name of Rokurobei, a plan started to mature spontaneously in his head. Convinced that fate had led the daughter of a powerful organised crime leader into his group, he wasn’t about to just hand her over to the sect’s leader Shoko Asahara without something in return. As always, the plan to exchange Mitsuko for power and influence started as a vivid daydream. And as always, he had been unable to make a distinction between his own dream world and that strange, confusing, frightening thing other people call reality. He hadn’t dared imagine that Mitsuko would put up such a fight. He had wanted to play with her, like he liked to do with people, but the game had gotten out of hand. To his great surprise, he realised that his life had always been like that, wild, out of control. The anxiety that accompanied this conclusion grabbed him by the throat. He had to go back to the metro tunnel, immediately , set Mitsuko free, offer her his apologies, convince her that he didn’t know what he was doing most of the time, and hope for the best.

He remains at his computer, waiting for the moment to get up and carry out his plan. But it doesn’t come. Past and present mingle anew in his head to create a new story. As an adolescent he had poured over hundreds of photos of the young David Bowie. When he was fifteen he bought a jack-knife. He had always been terrified of being mugged, but he also secretly hoped that someone would try just to see if he would have the guts to use it. In those days he wrote jisei no ku , death poems in which he tried to get “drunk on death”.

He waits for a long time, then starts to type. Instead of a new scene in his novel he writes:

I never wanted to be born. I never wanted to be so lonely and so venomous. 

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Hiroshima – Nagarekawa district – gay bar Splash – 1-23 Yagenbori – Takeda, Adachi, Yori and Becht – night, March 15th 1995 

Takeda, Adachi, Yori and Becht are huddled together in an alcove in the gay bar. Yori has the least to say of all four, but she’s listening carefully to the others. Beate Becht tells Takeda how sorry she feels for him, then tells him again. Adachi repeats what Yori told him about her friend Mitsuko. He insists that fate brought them together. He hands Takeda the documents Yori gave him, Mitsuko’s documents. The inspector has a quick look at them and they put his head in a spin. He now understands why Adachi arranged to meet him at a bar where no one would expect to find them and not at the inspector’s home.

As they try to unravel the puzzle, it becomes clear that each of them has a unique perspective that can help clarify the situation. They’re all agreed that Takeda has to go into hiding. The police statement Adachi picked up on the radio at his apartment was crystal clear: Takeda is suspected of killing his wife in a domestic quarrel and every unit in the Hiroshima prefecture is looking for him. Every cop in the city knows the score and they’re all on the lookout for the inspector. Takeda’s wife died at home from multiple stab wounds. The knife was from the kitchen in their apartment. There were no signs of a break-in. Chief commissioner Takamatsu issued the arrest warrant in person. The magistrate who signed it has been a close friend of Takamatsu for decades. Everything is pointing towards a set-up, but they have no evidence. How do they prove it?

Yori explains in detail what Mitsuko told her before she disappeared: about her father – the mafia boss known as Rokurobei –, his Yuzonsha group, and the abandoned island of Hashima he uses as his operations base. She adds that, according to Mitsuko, the murdered ceo of the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank was one of the members of Rokurobei’s criminal fraternity. Adachi and Takeda are forced to conclude that Takamatsu must also be a member of the Yuzonsha, or at least in their pay.

“What’s the next step?” Adachi asks. In spite of the tricky situation, there’s a sort of familiarity in the group, as if they’ve known each other for years.

“Can I make a suggestion,” says the photographer hesitatingly.

“I’m all ears,” says Takeda.

Beate points at the documents: “If I understand it right, the chief commissioner belongs to a band of criminals that wants to cover up the attack on the bank because it has to do with Japan’s wartime past. If you ask me they’re not going to stop there if they want to keep their boss’s identity a secret. I’ve heard enough to figure that Japan would be turned upside down if the true identity of Rokurobei were to be exposed.”

“Are you suggesting I contact Takamatsu and offer him the documents in exchange for my safety?” says Takeda.

“You make the suggestion but you don’t go through with it,” the photographer answers. “And that’s why we need to go to my hotel room first.”

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Notes from Mitsuko’s basement prison 

Go away, my son. You’re not real. I left you behind as a sign for your father, my father. I didn’t want you to live when you slithered out of me, far too slimy, without even a cry of anger. Even then your indifference was complete, so don’t pretend now that you’re grieving the loss of your life. I can see the umbilical cord around your swollen neck, I can see your parched tongue. That is no big deal. My tongue is parched too. Be happy you’re already dead. I still have to face my end, and the thought of it pains me in the very place you spent so many months in hiding, kicking me now and then.

I begin to fear that Reizo Shiga isn’t coming back. His tragedy threatens to become perfect and he’s not even here to write it all down. Your presence is all that I have, my son, but I still want you to go. You’ve suffered enough. You weren’t destined to live, just as it would have been better if my father and me had never lived. Your life would have been a misery, populated by therapists, social workers and, who knows, perhaps even machines to help you move and talk. Don’t pretend you’re not a monster. You were deformed, helpless. Death was the best for you. I dressed you like the baby I found deep in the cellar on Hashima, years ago, embalmed, a chrysanthemum on its right heel and birth and death certificates with the seal of the imperial physician who had filled the small corps’ veins with formalin and the eye sockets with caustic soda. According to the documents, they also used zinc acetate, salicylic acid and glycerine.

That baby looked just like you, my poor son, just like you.

I was thirteen and had developed an interest in the history of the island. When I looked up at the sombre ruins against the dark grey sky, I imagined I could hear voices and sensed a hand with wispy fingers reaching towards me from behind, trying to grab my hair. Such thoughts left me with a strange feeling in my belly, a terrified ecstasy. I enjoyed fantasising that there was a curse on the place and that my father and me lived here because humanity had rejected us. I wandered for hours in and out of the apartments the mineworkers had once lived in, trying to picture what they would have been like when they were occupied. My father told me that the Chinese and Koreans who had worked in the mines deep below sea level had been treated like animals. The first time I made my way down to the cellars that gave access to the mineshafts I trembled from head to toe, but I enjoyed every second. Just before descending the broad staircase, I looked up at the sky: greenish-grey with clouds hanging like smoke over the rust-coloured ruins. The crumbling dilapidated walls stood out against the dirty white colossal chimney that rose from the ground behind the buildings. I descended the grimy stairs that gave access to the cellars where the mineworkers changed before they clambered down into the narrow shafts that brought them deep underground, far below sea level. I imagined I could smell them in their underground vault. There were still a few dusty overalls in the changing room, overalls the men had worn and left behind. They had become thin as paper and had the colour of stale rice. Because life on the island was a treeless existence, the only colours I trusted were dull shades of brown, grey, slate, the sombre indifference of the empty windows in the apartment buildings. I kept a close eye on the uniforms, afraid they might come to life at any moment. Bits and pieces of miner’s tackle were scattered here and there, including half a motorcycle. God only knows how it got there.

The iron-coloured chest in the corner beside the metal lockers caught my eye. I rambled through the room, pretending to myself I wasn’t going to open the chest. What might be inside? I knew I couldn’t stop myself, but I resisted as long as I could. I turned on my heels and in a couple of nervous steps I was standing in front of the metal box. I was young, but even then I had an eye for detail. The chest wasn’t covered with dust like the other things in the cellar. The locking mechanism glistened as if it had just been oiled. I held my breath and clicked open the lid. I remember an explosion of heat in my body when I saw the dead, deformed baby. The dry air in the place made it look as if the baby was asleep and might wake up at any moment, in spite of its terrible deformities. Its head was swollen and disfigured. Hardened fibrous tissue bulged from its eyes. A lump of flesh bulged from its lipless mouth. The naked little body had the colour and texture of black porcelain. Its crotch was distended, a snow-white protuberance, the genitals melted like congealed egg-white.

The sight of the baby didn’t terrify me long; rather I felt sorry for it. It looked as if it could come to life at any moment, rub the fibrous tissue from its eyes, and beg for love, protection, warmth with its as good as lipless mouth.

Someone must have loved the poor creature a lot to have taken so much trouble to embalm it.

And as I thumbed through the documents I found in the chest – certificates signed by the imperial physician with reference to the nationality  of the mother – I learned who that person was. I saw the chrysanthemum on the baby’s right heel and I read the date of birth.

I read the name of the father.

His full name.

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Hiroshima – in a taxi on its way to the Righa Royal Hotel – Takeda and Becht – night, March 15th 1995 

“Do you believe in fate?” Takeda asks the German photographer in the taxi. He’d left his police car behind on his way to the gay bar. It would be too easy to trace. Beate Becht turns to look at him. The inspector avoids her gaze and stares out of the window. In spite of his excellent English, he had used the Japanese word unmei . But he was sure she understood.

She sees his taut jaw muscles and tries to make her answer sound noncommittal: “People always say that reality is a hundred times more surprising than the imagination. It’s a cliché, of course.”

The inspector nods almost imperceptibly. “Strange that this sad merry-go-round started in my imagination,” he says with an oblique smile. “With my infamous intuition.  If I hadn’t told Takamatsu that the deaths of both Shiga senior and Shiga junior in bank raids decades apart couldn’t be a coincidence none of this would have happened.”

“You shouldn’t blame yourself,” says Beate. She can’t think of anything else to say and it leaves her feeling stupid and awkward.

The inspector leans forward, lets his shoulders hang. The man isn’t finished yet, Beate thinks, but his resilience is being pushed to the limit.

“I’ve always known that a moment like this would come,” says Takeda. He continues before Beate has the chance to respond: “When they would lock me out, when everyone would see that my skin isn’t the same as everyone else’s.” His eyes veer to the right, surprisingly bright and vulnerable in the light of the neon advertisements outside. “Do you understand?”

Beate nods. Her mouth is dry. “I’ve had much the same feelings all my life,” she says, without explanation.

He stares at her long and hard. She reminds him of a watchdog: big, heavy, alert.

“Would it be an insult if I told you I’ve lived more in the last two days than in the last six months?” she asks.

He raises his eyebrows.

“Not because the situation excites me,” she hastens to add, “but because it’s forced me to make choices, and to feel .” She places the emphasis on the last word. She’s angry with herself, but also emotional and confused. She thinks: I hate the way Japanese men size women up. He’s probably no exception. But for some incomprehensible reason she feels for him.

“I cheated on her,” says Takeda. He pushes his chin forward. “Several times a month. In rabuho,  those hotels you book by the hour. I paid for sex. It was something I had to do.” He turns to her: “When I was young I thought the word “love” meant something. Now, I’m not sure.”

His words throw her off balance. She knows that Japanese men never talk about such things. Not under normal circumstances. She wonders if he can read her thoughts when he adds: “I never told her. I didn’t want to hurt her. But now I think she knew all along.”

The inspector peers out of the window at the jagged contours of the Righa Royal Hotel looming up in the darkness.

Just before they step out of the car, Beate Becht says with a voice as cold as ice, as if she’s accusing him of something: “I think I’m falling in love with you.” She laughs nervously. Typical me, she thinks. I always know when to press the shutter release… but that’s it.

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Hiroshima – Funairi Hospital – Xavier Douterloigne and two nurses – night, March 15th 1995 

Xavier Douterloigne isn’t sure where he is. It’s a kind of no-man’s-land. He’s too tired to lift a finger or raise an eyelid. He’s weighted down with sadness like an overloaded barge on a mist covered river. The pain is everywhere, every centimetre of his body. It makes him want to burst open. But it’s concentrated in his head. This is what it must feel like when you set yourself on fire. There’s only room for one thought in this prison of pain, and he holds on to it like grim death: he has to keep the promise he made to Anna at Tyne Cot Cemetery  in Ypres when he was thirteen. Xavier opens his mouth to tell her he’s determined to keep his promise. He cocks his ears to listen to her response, but the roar of the fire burning inside him gets louder, too loud to…

“Quick, call a doctor.”

“Do you think? He’s coming out of the coma, isn’t he?”

“Or dying.”

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Hiroshima – Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Reizo Shiga – night, March 15th 1995 

Reizo Shiga wakes with a start from one of those unbridled nightmares that had plagued him since childhood. His nose is swollen and throbbing, his mouth full of sticky saliva from the dose of gamma -Hydroxybutyric acid he took after locking Mitsuko up in the metro service tunnel and trying to write. The ghb hadn’t produced the desired effect on time so he treated himself to a little crack to speed up the process. Reizo isn’t a fool. He knows the combination is dangerous. He feels agitated, as he always does after a dose of ghb and the short deep sleep that inevitably follows, but he’s having a hard time getting his thoughts straight. When he sees the men in the main room he thinks at first they’re members of the Suicide Club. Then he realises they’re armed. Reizo tries to figure out what’s going on. There’s no staggering stab of anxiety, the kind he used to feel when he had to go to school or prepare for an exam, just the irritation of your average junky completely caught up in his own little world. These men don’t have the right to disturb him. He sees a giant lurching towards him and thinks for an instant that he’s still stuck in his ghb trip. The giant has horns, the nose of a pig, yellow eyes and upturned tusks, a creature of nightmares. The men have torches and their light makes the coarse hair sticking up between the giant’s horns appear glossy, like a woman’s hair. Reizo starts to get nervous when he sees that the man is wearing the Noh  mask of the storm god Raijin, just as he himself had worn it to harass Mitsuko a couple of hours earlier. It dawns on him that the men must have been in his basement cubby-hole, where he did his writing. The feeling of defeat in his chest surprises him. He hangs his head when he realises that two of the men are pointing their guns at him.

“Reizo Shiga?” The voice behind the cypress mask with its ambivalent undertone drops a contemptuous octave: “The junky Reizo Shiga?”

Reizo rubs his nose. He suddenly remembers the depression that took hold of him after he failed the university entrance exam. “The writer  Reizo Shiga,” he says.

The man grabs Reizo’s battered nose and twists it hard.

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Hiroshima – in a taxi on its way to Denny’s Diner next to a videogame centre in the Hakushima district – Takeda and Becht – night, March 15th 1995 

Takeda tries to stay calm as they head for Denny’s Diner in a taxi. The situation is evolving so fast he has a feeling he’s lost his grip on reality. His wife’s murder doesn’t seem to have hit home completely.

Takeda ponders about what happened: Adachi gave him chief commissioner Takamatsu’s mobile number back in the gay bar. Takeda punched in the number and treated the chief commissioner to a few carefully rehearsed threats. He revealed that he had official documents at his disposal that could expose the identity of the Oyabun  called Rokurobei, the man who had given orders for the attack on Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank. Much of the conversation was one-way. This was Takeda’s chance to say what he wanted and he refused to let himself be interrupted. The chief commissioner didn’t even squeak when Takeda accused him of being a member of a criminal organisation that was responsible for his wife’s death. Instead, he asked unruffled what Takeda wanted in exchange for the documents.

“I want my name cleared and my share of the takings.”

“What takings, inspector?”

“Don’t fuck with me, Takamatsu. Don’t try to tell me the attack on the bank was only to get rid of the ceo. You don’t happen to have the golden Buddha from the Abukama-do caves back at your apartment by any chance? Or other Golden Lily war treasures?”

A lengthy silence followed.

“I’m sure we can come to some kind of arrangement,” said Takamatsu. “Meet me at my place.”

Takeda laughed. “So you can kidnap and torture me to make me tell you where I’ve hidden the documents? I prefer something a little more anonymous.” Takeda gave the chief commissioner the address of Denny’s Diner in the Hakushima district, a family restaurant, part of an American chain, that serves yoshoku,  western dishes with a Japanese touch. The lights in the place are blinding and the serving staff smiles even worse. Takeda threw in a final warning for good measure: “Just in case you’re planning to kill a bunch a people – let’s say an entire restaurant – to cover up the elimination of one single person: I’ve hidden the documents in a very safe place.”

“Always true to form, inspector Takeda,” said Takamatsu cool and collected.

Click.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Reizo Shiga and Rokurobei – night, March 15th 1995 

When the giant lets go of his nose, a searing burst of pain careens through Reizo’s entire body. But the pain of humiliation is even greater.

“People call me Rokurobei,” says the giant. “It’s not my real name, but over the years I’ve come to identify with it.”

It takes a while for Reizo Shiga’s penny to drop. “If the masks are anything to go by you are a lover of Noh ,” the man continues. “I prefer Shakespeare myself. The strangest and most besotted things happen in his plays… so true to life.” The man leans forward. The eyes behind the mask glisten with scorn. “But I couldn’t resist the temptation to borrow the identity of the storm god. If Shakespeare had known him he would have been crazy about him. He was in a state of awe about everything supernatural. Ironic isn’t it that Japanese men and women of your generation claim they don’t believe in the old spirits anymore, yet they’re all completely addicted to comic strips in which the supernatural is central. Ho hum… But as a writer  you must surely have heard of shingao,  tell me, Reizo Shiga?”

Reizo doesn’t answer. He saves face, in spite of his aching nose, by staring at the man unflinchingly.

“In the old days it literally meant: eat your face ,” the masked man continues unperturbed. “It was presumed you would wipe out your own everyday face and replace it with the incarnated spirit of the mask you were wearing. What do you think, Reizo? Could that be true?”

Reizo’s voice cracks, but his words are far from a terrified whisper: “Let me put on the storm god mask and I’ll tell you.”

Rokurobei slaps his thighs with delight. His minions grin. “Look what we have here… a real man with karisuma!” 

The underlying insult carried by the word charisma  is crystal clear. But Reizo’s face remains rigid.

“But we’re not here to talk about culture. Your uncle Tomio Shiga lost his life recently in a bank raid. Did he try to contact you before he died, in whatever fashion?”

Surprised by the abrupt change of subject, Reizo tries to think on his feet. He was expecting a different question: where is my daughter?  He’s standing face to face with the father of Mitsuko, the man she said would come for his blood when he left her behind in the metro service tunnel. But the drugs have left him indifferent. He realises that the man is unaware that his daughter is close by. Rokurobei is here for something else. Reizo grins obliquely. “My uncle, the magnanimous bank executive whose plan to save the Japanese economy was touted in the newspapers day in day out? A man like that isn’t likely to want anything to do with the black sheep of the family.” The figure before him moves in closer. Reizo observes that his neck is unnaturally long. He’s wearing a support collar that appears to be made of silver. “Is that so?” says Rokurobei. “A classical dilemma. Should I believe you? You could be telling the truth, I suppose, but I grew up with absolute  values, do you get my drift? When I catch even a whiff of doubt I’m on my guard. Shortly before he died, your good uncle threatened me. He said the Shiga clan  would be my downfall. And you’re part of that clan, whether you like it or not.”

The spirit of the young junkie isn’t to be tamed: “I don’t care if you’re on your guard. Why target me ? I’m a member of the Brotherhood and that makes me a part of your…”

“I know you’re a member of the sect,” says Rokurobei. “But who told you I was a man of influence in Aum Shinrikyo?”

“I’m highly placed in the Brotherhood. I know things.”

“You’re lying. You’re a novice.”

“I’m one of yours!”

The man sighs. “That sounds so delightfully old fashioned. Are you a ronin , boy? Is that what you think you are? A mercenary in my employ? Let me give you some advice: open your eyes and look around. In a world of crisis and recession, fidelity and a person’s word are worth as much these days as a rat’s ass. Especially in Japan.” He looks round the room. “That’s even more true for someone like you, who lives the life of a rat.”

Reizo’s sense of honour lifts him out of himself: “So I’m old fashioned. My word counts.”

A lengthy silence follows. “So it would appear,” says the man, his tone polite. “Bushi no ichigon, neh?” 

Reizo straightens his back. “I give you my word as a samurai, that’s true.”

“Mmm, I can trust the word of a samurai.  But the word of a junkie?”

Reizo isn’t immediately sure how to react to this insult. Jump to his feet and challenge mister know-it-all to a duel, man to man ? But his initial rage has been replaced by a paralysing indifference. A boundless fatigue takes hold of him. For years, the drugs had filled his dreams with visions of terrifying creatures creeping up on him, leering at him. Now that Rokurobei, the “serpent’s neck” as the demon was once called, is standing in front of him, large as life, the same drugs make him shrug his shoulders.

“Your uncle had information about a secret that is very important to me. I need to be sure no one else knows about it, even someone who calls himself old fashioned .”

Why is Rokurobei telling him all this? Reizo looks him in the eye and sees his answer: he belongs to the Shiga clan and he’s doomed to die. People didn’t just kill adversaries in ancient Japan. It was important to eliminate your enemy, but just as important to get rid of his family and his blood brothers. Otherwise you could count on a dagger or a sword in your gut sooner or later. His mouth dries up and he finds it hard to breathe. But he’s determined to stay calm and unmoved on the outside, whatever the cost.

“I’m told you’re keen on Mishima,” the serpent’s neck continues.

Reizo says nothing.

“Or rather, you want to outstrip  Mishima.”

Reizo looks at the floor. He’s surprised at the clarity in his mind, a gift of the ghb, a clarity almost as intoxicating as any drug can be. It’s a sudden state of grace, of insight into his life and his motivations, something he’s never experienced before. Reizo remembers the anxiety attacks, and the shame that followed them. Speed made him reckless, but it also transformed the darkness into a place of monsters, all of them waiting for him, all of them wanting something from him. But if he confronted them with courage, they would turn and walk away, grey shadows. It all left him surprised and confused. Heroin made him grind his teeth, then it brought a white light that filled the world with breathtaking meaning. After that the illumination  withdrew, leaving the darkest pit imaginable in its wake.

“Teach me something, Reizo Shiga,” says the storm god condescendingly. “Tell me about Mishima’s philosophy.” Reizo has a feeling the man knows he’s been parading Mishima all his life without ever having read him properly. He tries to think of an appropriate response. He’s never finished any of Mishima’s novels. It was the elitist author’s life that fascinated him most. Filled with shame, sadness and rebellion, he finally says: “You’re born as a worm, suffer a miserable life of anxiety and paranoia that prevents you from revealing the golden light inside you to others, and then you die, sobbing for your wasted, useless life.”

“A little stilted perhaps, but well put,” says Rokurobei. “And bungled together in too much of a hurry, boy. Mishima’s philosophy was simple, to the point, attractive and true . In Bunka Beiron  he wrote: the emperor of Japan is the source of Japanese culture, an


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d thus defending the emperor is the same as defending Japanese culture.”

“The Japanese emperor no longer exists,” says Reizo Shiga.

“True, very true,” says Rokurobei. “But the emperor, boy, we are all  that divine being. And our culture has always revered the beauty of cruelty. A man like myself can’t exist without that dramatic beauty. Surely someone like you can understand that.”

Reizo has a feeling that these are the man’s final words. He toys with the idea of bargaining with Mitsuko’s life. But if these killers find her prison, he’s sure to die, and probably a more painful death than they originally planned for him.

Rokurobei leans closer. He seems to be interested in the expression on Reizo’s face. Reizo hangs his head, but his hands fly up unexpectedly, fast and furtive, and tear away the mask.

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Hiroshima – in a taxi on the way to Denny’s Diner – Takeda and Becht – night, March 15th 1995 

Takeda runs through their plan one last time. He peers at Beate Becht out of the corner of his eye. She’s hardly said a word since her declaration of love in front of the hotel. Did she mean it, or was she just messing around, trying to be provocative? She seems the serious type. Takeda likes her. She’s smart and seems to enjoy the unexpected. But at the same time she’s too eager, as if she’s trying to prove something. Takeda would like to get to know her better, but the temptation scares him.

He tries to concentrate on the confrontation with Takamatsu. The chief commissioner is keeping his options open, he’s sure of that. Takeda has his duty weapon with him. He’s not sure if it will be enough if he’s forced to use it. He figures they’ll try to kidnap him in the restaurant. They won’t use a sniper to take him out because they want the documents and they’re in a safe place. He just has to wait and see what happens. He stuck his neck into the rope of fate and it became a noose. Only detachment can help in such a situation. Is he capable of detachment? He’s surprised at the amount of sadness and fear that have invaded him. Sadness at the death of his wife, more profound than he could ever have imagined. Fear of failure, kept at bay for as long as he can remember. He asks himself if it was jealousy, greed or just sheer badness that had turned Takamatsu into a corrupt cop. He remembers a conversation with the chief commissioner a couple of years back when the man had just been promoted to Keishi-sei , chief commissioner. His face flushed and red from alcohol, Takamatsu had made an allusion to colleagues who had climbed the career ladder faster than him because they knew “which buttons to push”. Takamatsu was the stiff and proud type and wasn’t prone to such outbursts so the remark had stayed with Takeda. Takeda had been inspector for more than ten years. He took part in exams for Keishi,  commissioner, a couple of times and was rejected on both occasions. He’s convinced that it had to do with him not being 100% Japanese, not having pure Japanese blood. There were always hundreds of candidates for promotion, whatever the rank, and competition was stiff to say the least, but with his record of service he should have been promoted.

Abuse is rampant in the ranks. Unions are forbidden and the force is divided into prefectures. A Commission for Public Safety is supposed, in theory, to exercise a control function, but in practice it counts for little. In recent months, the cops on the beat have been complaining about the power of the “desk samurai”, and there’s a clear need for unions, but in the meantime nothing has changed. A small group of bureaucrats rules the roost in the prefectures. Takeda’s heard incredible stories about violent feuds inside the force that have been swept under the carpet. The police big wigs seem to be able to do what they want.

Killing the inspector’s wife to try to discredit him seems extreme, incomprehensible perhaps, but since Takeda heard about the identity of the man behind the name Rokurobei he knows he can’t win this fight. Where was his infamous intuition when confusion and arrogance were his only response to Takamatsu’s gibes about his Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank theory? He should have guessed that something wasn’t right when the chief commissioner overreacted as he did. He should have apologised a thousand times and thanked Takamatsu profusely for preventing him from making an error of judgement that would ruin his career. Instead he had answered back. From that moment onwards he was a marked man.

“The stakes are high,” he says to break the awkward silence in the taxi. “With the information we received from Yori we’ve been able to piece together an outline of the facts. But does it all tally?”

Beate Becht clears her throat. “When I was a teenager I put together a picture of the life of my uncle on the basis of stories I’d heard from family members. He was an SS officer, involved in the death camps. It was only years later that I managed to persuade my father to tell me the whole story. Then I realised that the picture I had in my mind was pretty close to reality.”

Takeda takes a moment to digest what the German photographer has just told him. He figures it’s a mark of confidence on her part, but decides not to pursue it given the circumstances.

“If my interpretation is correct,” he says, “we’re dealing with a criminal fraternity that calls itself the Yuzonsha, which has links with powerful people in different social circles. The leader’s called Rokurobei, and they venerate him because he…”

The taxi driver interrupts. He’s from Pakistan and he’s tired and losing patience. “Wasn’t I supposed to drop the lady here?”

Takeda looks outside. As a precaution he had decided to drop Becht a couple of streets away from the agreed rendezvous with Takamatsu. Beate Becht nods and grabs her bag.

Takeda bites the bullet: “I’m honoured by what you said back there, miss Becht, but I think…”

“I know.” She glances at him and looks away, shy, bashful… “It’s because…”

“I understand. You’re a ravishing young woman with exceptional talents.”

Why all the politeness, Takeda asks himself. This isn’t his usual style.

“Thank you.”

“And very courageous,” says Takeda when Becht gets out of the taxi. “When all this is over…”

The taxi driver hits the accelerator.

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Hiroshima – Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Reizo and Rokurobei – night, March 15th 1995 

Reizo Shiga involuntarily drops the mask when he sees Rokurobei’s face. The man in front of him has monkey-like features, thick skin and heavy stubble all the way up to his eyes. Reizo has never seen eyes blacker than these or ears so enormous. Without the mask the long neck seems even longer. But in spite of his rugged lips, forehead, nose and jaws, the expression on his face is almost gentle. He smiles. His polished teeth glisten in the lamplight.

“Ah? So you want to look the demon I embody in the eye, boy? Courageous of you.” A pair of unnaturally large hands come to rest on Reizo’s shoulders. “But young Japanese men like you know that demons don’t exist. Am I right? You’re convinced that what you see looks like acromegaly, a metabolic disorder caused by a problem birth.”

Reizo doesn’t answer. The hands hold him motionless. The man’s heavy forehead comes closer. He whispers: “But if you look deep into my eyes you begin to have doubts, don’t you, Reizo Shiga?”

Reizo looks Rokurobei in the eye. He nods.

Rokurobei makes a gesture of appreciation and returns his hefty hand to Reizo’s right shoulder. “A warrior must wake up every morning with the idea that this is his last day. Have you done that, Reizo Shiga?”

Shiga’s voice is hoarse: “No. But I always wanted to.”

“Just like the rest. Plenty of good intentions, but no follow through.” There’s sarcasm in the voice. The man seems to be enjoying his role, but Reizo has a feeling he also means what he says. He’s reminded of a psychiatrist his father forced him to visit a number of years back when he was suffering from extreme fear of failure: split personalities think they’re playing a role and do so with great conviction and pleasure. They don’t realise that they’re playing their role so seriously they can no longer distinguish between their own personality and the one they are playing. 

Reizo Shiga doesn’t understand how it’s possible that Mitsuko’s father wants to kill him for a completely different reason than the kidnapping of his daughter. He accepts, not without a little pride, that he is a plaything in the hands of fate. The realisation allows an inner energy to rise to the surface, an energy he had always suspected was present deep inside him. In the limp and deceitful society Japan had become, he had never been given the chance to develop it. A sudden insight makes him hold his breath, tells him how to revenge himself against this man and his insult who is about to rob him of his life. Rokurobei looks at his watch, an absurd everyday gesture that doesn’t square with his fearsome appearance: “The question is: has a black sheep among the present generation ever heard of eiyo ? Or is a sense of honour too old fashioned?”

“I repeat: I spoke the truth as a man of honour: I know nothing about my uncle,” says Shiga. “I severed contact with my family years ago.”

“This changes nothing, you understand, even if it is the truth. You’ve seen my face. You can identify me.” The man smiles, his voice melodious like an actor in a mugen no  play full of ghosts and spirits: “This is the moment at which the supernatural world interferes with everyday reality. Take a look at the imagined reality  flourishing between us.”

Reizo hangs his head. He knows that the man’s words are meaningful, but in reality he knows nothing about Noh theatre, he just likes the masks. In his imagined reality  he’s a sensitive artist, a great writer, but in truth he’s just a sick young man with limited horizons. He looks up and grits his teeth: “If you plan to kill me I demand an honourable death.” A feeble smile: “In honour of the real  emperor of Japan.”

“Oh? Are we that  old fashioned?”

Reizo looks the giant in the eye and manages a crooked smile.

“An honourable death. To give a little lustre to that lustreless life of yours?”

Reizo refuses to look away.

“Do you have the courage to follow your teacher Mishima?”

Reizo doesn’t answer but takes off his shirt and gets to his knees. Rokurobei sizes him up. He stands upright, pulls a long steel knife from a sheath under his coat. Reizo notices the western clothing for the first time. It seems inappropriate for a man like this, a ghost of Japan’s feudal past. In his mind’s eye, Reizo Shiga pictures Mishima in full military uniform. How many times has he wanted to die this way after coming down from a bad trip  with so much adrenaline in his body his heart could barely cope? In those moments of torture he prayed not to have to die the death of an insignificant junky, foaming at the mouth.

Reizo Shiga realises that his prayers have been answered. “Mishima committed seppuku  because his coup d’état was a failure. I choose to do so because it is the better death,” he says softly.

Rokurobei snaps his fingers. One of the men hands him a sheath containing a katana  that belonged to Shiga’s grandfather, the handsome shiny sword he had used earlier that day to make an impression on Mitsuko. Rokurobei tests its balance. Reizo Shiga monitors his expert movements. “I’m ready to be your attendant,” says the mafia boss. The man hands him the knife. He takes no risks: the ceremonial sword blade is pointed at Reizo’s throat. He steps back and to the side. His bodyguards are nearby, their weapons cocked and pointing at Reizo. It would be very hard to attempt to kill the man with a throw of the knife.

Reizo isn’t planning to do that. His thoughts are elsewhere. He remembers all those times in his life meditating with a knife against his navel, imagining the instant of suicide, glorying  in it. 

A final moment of hesitation takes hold of him, a perplexing knot deep inside.

He concentrates on the blade and on his hatred of the world that has had him in a stranglehold for so long. Reizo Shiga accumulates that hatred in every cell of his body. He breathes it out with a hissing sound as he drives the blade into his belly. It’s less painful than he had imagined. It feels cold, like an ice pick. Rokurobei moves closer and lifts up the sword to decapitate him. Reizo’s hands are warm and wet from the blood. He feels dizzy, then a ringing like tiny silver bells fills his ears .

“I lied,” says Rokurobei. “That’s all part of the theatre of life, neh?  I take your life, Reizo Shiga, to punish your father.”

Reizo Shiga looks up at the giant figure leaning over him. His eyes glisten as if they’re made of metal: “I didn’t tell you the truth either. That’s all part of the way I am. I’ve hidden your daughter in a secret place. When I die, she shall die. By killing me, you have killed her. That is your unmei. ”

He sees the surprise in Rokurobei’s face. The giant lowers the sword that – according to the classical rules of ritual suicide – should have delivered the final blow to the neck. He leans closer, intent on pulling the knife from the young man’s belly. Reizo beats him to it, yanks the blade from the wound and thrusts it, this time without hesitation, into his own heart.

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Hiroshima – on the way to Adachi’s apartment – Yori and Adachi – night, March 15th 1995 

In the car Yori won’t shut up. Perhaps she thinks that Dr Adachi is good at listening to women because he’s gay. But Adachi isn’t comfortable in the presence of women. He hides his distrust behind old fashioned politeness. He listens to Yori’s monologue about her “miserable life” with apparent patience. Yori considers herself to be part of the “underground Japan” that for decades has had nothing to do with the economic miracle the world gets to see. The underground Japan is the Japan that exists outside the beehive mentality, Yori rattles. Both her parents were children when they dropped the bomb. They didn’t live far from the epicentre of the explosion. They survived a ridiculously heavy dose of radiation, but struggled to get by after that and died of cancer within weeks of each other. Her sister wanted to be a singer for as long as she could remember. She was sure she had talent. To prepare herself for her career, in which she believed with all her heart, in spite of opposition from her parents who insisted that they were just ordinary people trying to make ends meet, Yori’s sister developed anorexia. She kept it secret until her sixteenth birthday when her periods stopped and osteoporosis set it. They put her in an institution for the mentally disturbed where she managed to defeat her anorexia with heavy medication, although she cut it fine. She now works at a local supermarket. “We don’t talk,” says Yori as Adachi’s apartment appears in the distance. “She lives the existence of a bee.”

The police doctor nods. He’s tired. He tries to run over the draft of their plan in his head. It all seemed so clear back in the bar, but now all he can think about is the deformed baby in cold storage in the basement of police headquarters and the chrysanthemum on its heel.

The imperial sign. Adachi shakes his head. Apparently, there’s more to “underground Japan” than just the poor and the simple. Yori misinterprets his head movement: “But she’s happy now, has a couple of kids. And you know what?” Yori laughs. “She’s fat as a pig. And look at skinny me.” She starts to talk faster and faster, her eyes fixed on the road ahead: “Did I show you my tattoos? They’re…”

Yori suddenly covers her eyes with her hand. Adachi turns into his street. “I lied,” she sighs. “Mitsuko didn’t give me the documents. I’m always skulking around, ready to strike if there’s a profit to be made. I saw where she hid her things. When I woke up in the Suicide Club and she wasn’t there I wanted to run because I knew Reizo would be intent on revenge for the humiliation we had dealt him. I stole her money and snatched the documents in the process. From what she had told me I figured they might bring in a bit of cash. I’m a thief and a coward for leaving her behind. But you don’t know Reizo, all the things he can… The rest is true, I swear. She really did tell me who her father is!”

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Hiroshima – Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Rokurobei – night, March 15th 1995 

Rokurobei spits on Reizo Shiga’s corpse: “Search the place from top to bottom.” The sweat on his forehead glistens like mercury. His bodyguards notice that their leader is rambling to himself, nothing unusual when he’s under great pressure. “I don’t believe that lunatic. But I can’t deny he was a member of Aum Shinrikyo. And I gave the sect members orders to look out for my daughter. The proximity of death cleared his mind. He thought he could hurt me. But I want to be sure. Track down the other members of the Suicide Club. On the double. I want to hear what they have to say. I want to know if Mitsuko was here.”

Rukorobei’s mobile phone rings. He pulls out the clumsy contrivance’s antenna.

Moshi moshi  … The connection is poor, Takamatsu… What? When?… He has the documents? Make sure he’s still there when I arrive… No, don’t argue, I’m not in the mood.”

Heika, ” says one of his ex-military associates. He still refers to the mafia boss with the unofficial term for his majesty. Rokurobei forbad it, but old habits die hard. The man is pointing his torch at the right hand wall of the room. “Look.”

The words Deep in our hearts we all want to be like Reizo Shiga  are spray-painted on the wall in large letters.

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Hiroshima – Funairi Hospital – Xavier Douterloigne – night, March 15th 1995 

He hears the footsteps of his guardian angel on the hospital stairs.

He hears the footsteps of his guardian angel in the hospital corridors.

He hears the footsteps of his guardian angel on the corridor that leads to his room.

He keeps his eyes closed, as he has done for the last few days.

The guardian angel opens the door to his room.

The guardian angel approaches his bed.

His heart is fit to burst. Tears stream from his closed eyelids.

He wants to ask where she has been all this time.

He wants to ask her why everything happened as it did.

He wants to know the origins of suffering.

And the meaning of the future.

He wants to take one of her feathers and tickle himself, so that he can laugh, in spite of everything, in defiance of himself and this world.

To do that he has to open his eyes.

And see who she is.

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Hiroshima – Denny’s Diner – Takeda, Takamatsu and Rokurobei – night, March 15th 1995 

Denny’s Diner stays open late into the night. At this hour the place is full of youngsters stuffing themselves after a night on the town. They’re wearing every colour of the rainbow; some are unnaturally quiet and shiftless, others are over-excited and noisy.

By arriving too early, Takeda is taking a risk. What if Takamatsu sticks his neck out and sends an arrest squad to keep an eye on the diner? The inspector is counting on the documents he has in his possession being sufficient bait to prevent Takamatsu from doing anything of the sort. He catches sight of Beate Becht in a booth in the non-smoking area – as agreed – and opts for a booth diagonally opposite without making eye contact. The restaurant’s half-moon shape and the semi-open booths make it easy for them to keep an eye on one another. They don’t exchange glances. Becht has just been served a portion of saimin,  a soup with noodles, ham and fishcakes, originally a Hawaiian plate, but en vogue  with the young crowd. The waiter is a young man with straight hair and sparkling glasses. He’s exaggeratedly jovial. Takeda orders a simple grilled chicken , tsukemono  as a side-dish. He realises that he’s hungry, in spite of everything. He’s about to finish his pickled vegetables and chicken when Takamatsu walks into the restaurant. Takeda watches the chief commissioner look round, take note of the interior and the customers. He seems self-assured. He walks towards Takeda, his pace measured. Takeda has spent most of the evening trying to work out how to appear angry at the death of his wife in an effort to convince Takamatsu that he’s confused, upset, scared. Now that his chubby superior is standing in front of him with that familiar arrogant look on his face, anger comes easy. He looks Takamatsu in the eye. The chief commissioner stares back unruffled, as if he demands respect for his rank even in this situation. Takeda hunts for a crack in his armour but finds none. For one reason or another, Takamatsu still considers himself master of the situation, in spite of being forced onto the defensive. At the last moment the inspector changes strategy. Takeda gives his sorrow free reign and hopes that the commissioner will notice: “Was it necessary to get my wife involved in this? She’s never harmed a fly.”

The look of contempt on Takamatsu’s face becomes all the clearer.

But his reaction is not what Takeda had expected. “You don’t understand,” says Takamatsu. “I’m only following orders from upstairs.”

He sits down opposite Takeda and folds his arms over his chest as he does when he’s sitting at his desk.

“Two attempted murders and one murder just for a theory ?”

Takamatsu shrugs his shoulders, albeit barely observably. At closer quarters Takeda can see that the man is under pressure. “If you only knew what’s at stake, Takeda.”

“I know what’s at stake.”

The commissioner sighs: “That fucking intuition of yours is making you crazy, Takeda.”

“It’s not intuition. I have facts. If you hadn’t brushed me off so abruptly when I came to you with my theory about the bank raid, things would have been different. Then  it was just a hypothesis.”

“No use crying over spilt milk. I actually asked myself the same question when I sent you away. I know how stubborn you can be.” Takeda is surprised that the commissioner seems to be in no hurry. He had expected a formal, impersonal discussion and was planning to interrupt it with a fit of rage at the death of his wife. The conversation hadn’t only started differently, but Takamatsu seemed more interested in being personal than Takeda had expected, in spite of the commissioner’s superior demeanour.

“You tried twice to get rid of me.”

Takamatsu appears irritated. “As I said, orders from upstairs. If it had been up to me I would have had you demoted and sidetracked. But the man handing down the orders is the all-or-nothing type. He doesn’t like uncertainties.”

Takeda tempers his rage. “The man handing down the orders is a relic from the past, commissioner.”

The commissioner laughs in a surge of malicious delight. “Surely you don’t think you can know  the man because you managed, God knows how, to get your hands on documents that expose his origins? Think about it, Takeda: he’s in his late sixties. Do you think his life has meant nothing thus far? That he’s learned nothing, never acquired influence, never exploited his origins? He operates in secret, but his power is…” Takamatsu makes an irritated gesture as if trying to convince himself that it isn’t worth explaining everything to Takeda.

“I understand he has his own secret network,” says Takeda. “But does his influence extend to the Prime Minister? To the government? To the Japanese economy? To the emperor?”

Takamatsu stares at Takeda as if he’s convinced that the inspector lost his mind. “You always forget you’re an outsider, Takeda. You don’t have the correct  Japanese soul.” He gestures at the students sitting behind him. ‘Is that the Japan our parents fought for? Those useless, spineless cowards? I know your background, Takeda. I know where you come from. You’re ashamed of your father. Mine was a soldier, a camp guard in Fukuoka Camp 1. He was one of the men who guarded the six American survivors of a B-29 bomber that was rammed by war hero Kinzo Kasuya above Fukuoka. My father and two other guards escorted the prisoners to Kyushu University where a vivisection was carried out on them while they were still alive. My father was obeying orders, but he was later condemned to death by the Americans. Do I have to tell you what that made me feel, what that did to his son’s heart? You’ve always thought that you had access to the Japanese soul , Takeda, but you don’t understand our tragedy, our honour, our life.”

“They’re just words, Takamatsu. We spend most of our lives telling ourselves stories, convincing ourselves that the things we do have a meaning, a purpose. But it’s a lie: our lives are a tangle of strange, incomprehensible and contradictory facts. We’re just caricatures of who we think  we are. You talk about tragedy and honour. Where’s the honour in murdering an innocent woman?”

Takamatsu remains remarkably relaxed. “You don’t know the meaning of discipline, let alone the idea that a greater goal might justify the means we use to achieve it. You think my career has been a disappointment to me. I’m disappointed alright, but in Japan and the Japanese.  That’s why I’m a follower of… our German allies called him an Übermensch . I love the sound of that word, Takeda. The first born of Showa Tenno  is a thousand times more worthy to be emperor than…”

Takamatsu holds his breath and peers cautiously at the door as a bunch of noisy baseball fans storm into the diner. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp had played the Yomiuri Shimbun from Tokyo and had achieved the nearly impossible by defeating a far superior team. Red faces, affected behaviour. A naked man dances between the tables wearing nothing but the Toyo Carp club flag. Takeda realises that the management of Denny’s Diner are likely to call in the police if the over-enthusiastic baseball fans – who’ve been partying for hours – continue the high jinks. He glances at Beate Becht out of the corner of his eye and sees that she’s on her feet. That means she has enough material. Takeda turns back to the chief commissioner and asks himself whether his reaction was one of caution or expectation. What’s the man waiting for? Or: why is he keeping me waiting?  The two men look each other in the eye. Takeda realises that he knows why Takamatsu is being so openhearted.

He gets to his feet. “The son of Showa Tenno  isn’t the future, Takamatsu, he’s the past. A past we have nothing to be proud of.”

The chief commissioner lifts his hand as if to interrupt Takeda. Takeda grabs the table with both hands: “Tell him that in addition to the documents I also have a photo of the young Tomio Shiga in uniform in front of a golden Buddha in the Abukama-do caves. Tell him not to be mistaken: I’m not alone in this. To illustrate my point, let me tell you this: our conversation has been filmed with a handheld camera, date and hour included. What will the honourable members of the Public Security Commission think when they see chief commissioner Takamatsu of the Hiroshima prefecture in an animated conversation with inspector Takeda, hours after issuing a warrant for Takeda’s arrest for the murder of his wife?”

Takamatsu stiffens. He glances to either side, takes in the interior, trying to determine whether Takeda is telling the truth. Takamatsu opens his


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mouth in anger. But Takeda is already on his way out of the restaurant, apparently unruffled, but with his heart pounding. Two buildings down the street he jumps into a doorway. Less than three minutes later a pair of motorcycles stop in front of Denny’s Diner. The motorcyclists are dressed from top to toe in shiny black leather. Their bullet shaped helmets have reflective visors in which the neon signs in the street flicker like miniature suns.

One of the motorcyclists is exceptionally tall, an angular giant with hands and feet completely out of proportion.

If what Yori told him about Mitsuko’s stories is correct, Takeda figures this has to be the man whose birth certificate is among the documents.

Such a man doesn’t tend to appear much in public.

Takeda realises that Rokurobei is determined to deal with him in person.

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From Mitsuko’s notes, written in the basement room beside the metro service tunnel 

I am Princess Mitsuko, niece of Showa Tenno , who called himself Emperor Hirohito when he was alive, daughter of Prince Norikazu Tsugonimaya, first born son of Emperor Hirohito and thus his rightful heir as emperor of Japan.

These words, written in captivity and with an uncertain future ahead of me, give account of my title and my ancestry.

On July 18th 1930, the imperial physician observed that the life of newborn Prince Norikazu, sired by a concubine, was insufficiently viable and that he was therefore not fit to be the emperor’s successor. The decision was made to let the firstborn of the arahitogami  die. The imperial physician was terrified at the very thought and suggested a daring new treatment based on growth hormones. They started with growth hormones taken from cattle, but when the results turned out to be poor, the court doctors started distilling human growth hormones from the pituitary glands of imprisoned Manchurian guerrilla fighters. The prisoners were executed and the precious hormone was immediately extracted from the pituitary gland. They were convinced that fresh corpses would produce better quality. The treatment worked: the child grew. It later transpired that the administered doses were too large and the child developed gigantism and a severe form of acromegaly.

When Prince Tsugu, now known as Emperor Akihito, was born to Hirohito’s lawful wife Nagako in December 1933, the emperor decided that Tsugu, and not my father, would be his successor. Prince Norikazu was kept from the public. Until he was ten, he lived in a separate wing of the imperial Edo Castle in Tokyo. Accounting for his personal desires and preferences, he was trained during the Second World War in a number of secret Japanese laboratories where experiments were carried out on prisoners of war. After the Second World War, when his father renounced his divinity and was considered responsible for war crimes, Prince Norikazu withdrew into the hidden regions of our society, assisted by Shinto priests and high ranking officers who were still convinced that Norikazu should have succeeded his father as firstborn son. The imperial family decided to act as if Norikazu no longer existed and tolerated his actions as long as he avoided public exposure. Prince Norikazu grew bitter and withdrew even further from everyday life. He became the leader of a secret society intent on reinstating imperial Japan.

Before I was imprisoned in this basement I had official documents at my disposal revealing my father’s identity. They confirm my present testimony

• his birth certificate, signed by the emperor’s physician

• the military logbook kept by Colonel Tadao Masamada, commander of Unit 731 on Okunoshima Island

I am no longer able to present this evidence because I no longer have the documents in my possession. But as princess of the Japanese imperial family I swear that every word is true.

Let me conclude: with all the strength that remains in me I curse the family of the Showa tenno , to which I myself belong, because it rejected my father.

May all the kin of the Showa Tenno  now and in the future live a life of pain and suffering, as I have done.

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Hiroshima – the Righa Royal Hotel – Takeda and Becht – morning, March 15th 1995 

Inspector Takeda wakes with a start and sees the sleeping face of Beate Becht beside him. She’s breathing with her mouth half open. She has small, sharp teeth. Their ankles touch. Her skin is warm. The dream he just had must have been a result of an anxiety attack brought on by the profound confusion of the previous night. In his slumber, the life he had been living, the person he thought he was, became a backdrop in which he had lost his way. Part of him welcomed the anxiety because it anaesthetised his conscious mind. Takeda had been living at odds with himself. He hoped in vain that liberation would come, transcendence, light. Takeda isn’t a believer. Consciousness is an accident, a fabrication  of nature. One day it will be extinguished and everything it once imagined will shatter into fragments bereft of context, content and structure. Nothing will remain. Still half asleep, Takeda felt a coldness tighten around his chest and what seemed like enormous pressure in his brain. Panic grabbed him by the throat. His entire being tried to resist, aspired to be reasonable , but a storm rose up inside him: a longing for death inflamed by fear. As if it were yesterday, the inspector remembered a classmate from the 60s who was so proud because his father had penetrated the belly of an American navy ship with a Kaiten,  a manned torpedo, and had thus become a kamikaze. Takeda was sixteen at the time and he had listened to his friend’s stories with a mixture of fascination, fear, disgust and incredulity. His classmate had told him that his father had longed for death because it would bring Japan one step closer to victory. Takeda didn’t understand how anyone could long for death. But that didn’t prevent him from feeling a vague sense of jealousy towards a man he had never known: his friend’s father had already rounded the cape of death with success.

Takeda turns and sees his reflection in the chest of drawers against the wall. His body tenses instinctively. Then he reminds himself that the man in the mirror is not a stranger, but himself with pitch black hair, dyed earlier that night by Beate Becht. When he had knocked three times at her door as agreed and walked into her room, he found her busy, close to a frenzy: “Let me dye your hair. You’ll look like a completely different man. And they won’t expect you to be in the company of a foreigner.” She pointed to the bathroom. “It’s all ready.”

“Did you manage to film everything?”

“No problem. I’m a professional.” She forced a laugh.

“If they check my duty roster they’ll know I contacted you,” said Takeda. “And don’t forget you also gave your name and hotel room number at the hospital when you brought in the Belgian.”

She smiled: “But who’s going to believe that an inspector would sleep over with a witness he was supposed to question? That love at first sight stuff only happens in the movies, Akio.” She hadn’t used his first name before. She noticed the look on his face and added: “Do you have another option? You look exhausted. This hotel room is your best hiding place, for the time being. You can decide what you’re going to do tomorrow. Any better ideas?”

“Where do I sleep?”

“There’s only one bed. But if you want there’s a small sofa…”

“Are the takes clear enough?” asked Takeda abruptly.

Beate Becht grabbed her Handycam dcr-vx1000, according to Sony “the first digital video camera for the consumer market”. She had filmed Takeda’s conversation from under the table. The sound wasn’t perfect, but the pictures were excellent. The date and time indicators were the most important thing. They allowed Takeda to demonstrate to the authorities in Tokyo that Takamatsu had talked with him after  the chief commissioner issued a warrant for his arrest on murder charges. Takeda relaxed when he saw the images and followed Beate willingly into the bathroom. An hour later, when they were getting ready to go to bed, Beate Becht heard a strange noise emanating from the same bathroom, something between a sigh and a laugh. “Are you alright?” she shouted. Takeda appeared in the half-open door. “The sight of myself in the mirror was a bit of a shock. I look like an okama  with my old face under such pitch black hair, an effeminate old gei .” She asked what the words meant, then laughed and called him a conceited old pansy. He noticed for the first time just how sunken her eyes were. In certain positions it made her boyish face seem gaunt and tired. Her small, compact body lost its boyish grace when she got tired.

They kept their distance in bed, reserved, awkward. Takeda racked his brains for something to say. In the process he fell into a dreamless sleep.

The body beside him sighs, moves.

An arm falls across his chest.

And slowly slips downwards.

95

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Hiroshima – doctor Adachi’s apartment near the Peace Tower – Adachi and Rokurobei – morning, March 15th 1995 

Dr Adachi opens his eyes with caution. He has the feeling that his father is close by, the dismal weight of his disapproving gaze burdening him. He looks out of the window. It’s already light. For a moment Adachi feels lost, as if he’s detached from his own body. For a brief second the feared sensation casts its merciless light over his life: that night, before he went to bed, he had knocked back a half bottle of whiskey. Adachi the drunk, Adachi the faggot.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” says someone standing in the doorway. “Metaphors can be so pretty, don’t you think Dr Adachi?”

Adachi turns his head.

The man in the doorway isn’t his father, but for some reason he feels the same fear as he did when he was thirteen and his father was standing by his bed.

The man comes inside, sits down on the bed and does something unexpected. He stretches out his hand and rests it on Adachi’s forehead as a parent might do when a child has a fever.

“How do you feel?”

“Lost,” says Adachi. The skin on the shovel-like hand is dry and scaly. Psoriasis, the police doctor automatically assumes.

“We’re all lost, Dr Adachi, from the moment we’re born,” says Rokurobei.

96

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Hiroshima – Shiga residence – Nagai Shiga and his wife Akane – morning, March 15th 1995 

A formal Mr and Mrs Shiga are sitting opposite one another at the breakfast table.

“What did we do wrong, Akane?” says Nagai Shiga.

His wife looks up at him. His wife has always had something furtive about her. “We did the best we could,” Nagai Shiga continues. “We’re no different from other parents. What else could we have done?”

“Perhaps he felt  something in my belly,” his wife mumbles.

“Please, Akane. Don’t start…”

“My loneliness. My sadness. The life I no longer wanted.”

“You’ve turned that episode into…”

“Reizo was always such a lonely boy.”

“We did our best! Some things are beyond your control.”

“You were never there.”

“I had to work hard, all the hours of the day, to get us to this, to where we are now.”

“And where are we now?” his wife asks, her voice brittle. “That student you couldn’t keep your hands off when I was pregnant…”

“Stop this!” the economist barks stiffly.


* * *

In the corridor, ready to leave for the university, Nagai Shiga calls his wife to the door. Their long marriage has evolved its rules and rituals and they still have to be obeyed. The illusion of everyday calm is important to him. His wife comes to him, refined and unruffled, as he prefers.

“I gave him a copy of the photograph.”

“Who?”

“The inspector.”

“When?”

“When I walked him to his car.”

“Why did you do that?”

Nagai Shiga hesitates: “For strategic reasons. I wanted to find out what he already knew. One thing is clear: the inspector’s visit wasn’t only about our son. He knows part of the truth. I tried to throw him of the scent.”

“Why didn’t you want me to be there?”

“I was afraid of your reaction. I didn’t tell him everything, Akane. I only told him that my brother had given me the photo on his last birthday and asked me to look after it.”

“And what if he puts two and two together?”

“I might not have sounded very convincing, I know, but I didn’t have much time to think about it. People do the strangest things in the heat of the moment. It happens all the time. The inspector asked me why my brother was being so secretive. He doesn’t know that Tomio confessed everything to me.”

“If they find out that your brother was using his bank to launder Golden Lily money by investing it in Hong Kong it’ll be a national scandal, especially with the crisis. Then the name Shiga will become a synonym for shame.”

“That’s why I tried to make sure they’ll keep looking for the treasure. If they don’t find it in the Abukama-do caves then they’ll think it was moved or that the whole story was just a myth after all. The authorities will think that Tomio died because he refused to divulge its location. You know how careful the government is these days with the banks. There isn’t a single minister who would dare insist on an investigation into the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank. Maybe, they’ll conduct some kind of inquiry, but it’ll only be symbolic.”

“But if I’m not mistaken the oyabun  who ordered Tomio’s execution knows better.”

“The yakuza  leader wanted to launder money by buying up companies in difficulty across the country. He was planning to borrow the money officially from Tomio’s bank, but he wasn’t planning to pay it back because it was revenue from the Golden Lily treasures. Result: laundered money.”

“Why did Tomio decide to steer his own course if it was all so dangerous?” He notices, and not for the first time, that her lips are thin. They’re now pressed together, narrow and disapproving.

“Rokurobei would have ended up controlling an important chunk of Japanese business output after the economy picked up. The international business world has known for years that our banks have close links with the yakuza  and their criminal economy, but so much power in the hands of one oyabun  was a step too far. Not to mention that fact that some consider him a psychopath…”  Nagai Shiga shakes his head. “But Tomio had other reasons for not following Rokurobei’s instructions. Hong Kong is the biggest money laundering hub in Asia. By investing the Golden Lily’s money in Hong Kong he was convinced it would generate more revenue. Tomio was certain he was doing the right thing. He was thinking like a banker , Akane. He had faith in the power of numbers and presumed Rokurobei would see that his plan was better.”

“The oyabun  was clearly not convinced,” his wife responded dryly.

“Tomio told me that Rokurobei is extremely nationalistic,” said the economist resignedly. “Tomio made a serious error of judgement. And sooner or later the mafia boss’s minions are going to be knocking on our door wanting to know what kind of relationship I had with my brother. You know the yakuza  don’t like loose ends.”

“What’ll you do then?”

“Tell them what I did last night.”

“Are you mad, Nagai?”

“The best approach is to seed the truth with lies, Akane. I’ll tell them I received the photo from Tomio and I passed it on to the inspector. As far as I’m concerned the treasure still has to be found. If the yakuza  figure that the police know about the Golden Lily, even if it’s bogus information, they’ll think twice about hurting us. They managed to camouflage Tomio’s death with a bank raid. They clearly want to be discrete, in their own way. But the death of another Shiga after he handed over a photo to the police with the location of the Golden Lily? Not even the yakuza  would stick their necks out that far.”

His wife doesn’t look convinced. Nagai Shiga smiles: “Do you remember how I predicted economic growth all those years? It was only when the recession seemed inevitable that I changed tack. The scandal lasted two whole months. I stuck to my guns in every interview: people had misquoted me, had been selective in what they heard me say. I had warned about the recession after all. Now they see me as one of the first to predict the economic crisis and they call me a visionary. It’s all a question of perception , Akane.”


* * *

Nagai Shiga leaves the house and points his zapper at his three litre Nissan Maxima. The lights flash without the usual click. He must have forgotten to lock it the night before. Nagai Shiga thinks nothing more of it. He’s relieved that the atmosphere at home has recovered the detached, neutral charge he prefers. He tries not to fret about the lie he told his wife. It wasn’t Tomio Shiga who came up with the idea of investing the Golden Lily’s money in Hong Kong. Tomio Shiga followed his brother’s advice, the renowned economist, the jack-of-all-trades.

Nagai gets into the car and sticks the key in the ignition. It’s only then that he notices the cardboard box on the floor on the passenger side. He lifts it onto the passenger seat as the engine purrs. Did his wife leave it there? He sees the box is open and flips up its cardboard lid. The severed head of his son Reizo, the eyes wide open like an absurd comic book drawing, stares back at him. A shiver runs through Nagai Shiga’s body. His last coherent thought: Tomio told them about me . He hears a buzzing sound then a click. Reizo Shiga’s eyes appear to spit fire as the detonating device ignites the bomb attached to his ragged neck.

The ensuing explosion blows out all the windows in the Shigas’ handsome residence.

97

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Hiroshima – Dr Adachi’s apartment near the Peace Tower – Adachi and Rokurobei – morning, March 15th 1995 

“The art of shibari,  an important part of our culture, had almost disappeared, until we were confronted with the need to torture prisoners during the Second World War to obtain information from them.”

Dr Adachi is lying on the sun bed in his room, naked. A complex pattern of wet ropes criss-crosses his body. Rokurobei is crouched beside him. He’s wearing a tiny pair of uv goggles, making his long face look like a fantasy being. The doctor stares at him, his eyes pinched against the powerful light.

“The important thing was to knot the ropes tight enough but not too tight. As the sun dried them they were capable of breaking bones and damaging interior organs. It was a very slow process, doctor, and extremely painful. But today we only have a watery sun, not even enough to tempt the cherry blossoms to flower. Fortunately you’re a little vain. So pleasantly warm here under your sun bed, don’t you think?”

The doctor coughs. “Why the needless cruelty? I’ve done you no harm.”

The yakuza  peers at him. “That’s what you think, doctor. Your friend, inspector Takeda, has documents in his possession he could only have acquired from my daughter Mitsuko. I want those documents and I want her. And I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve my goal.”

“I already told you that Yori stole the papers from Mitsuko. You questioned her. You must have seen that she was telling the truth.”

“I’m very particular when it comes to the truth. I smell a rat at the least hesitation.”

Dr Adachi moves his head up and down like a captive horse. “The truth is that you take pleasure in suffering.”

“Do you think so? Most people tend indeed to be taken in by my rather fear inspiring exterior, which I cultivate with care, you understand.” The giant leans forward. Adachi can feel his breath on his face. “The truth is that I’ve been terrified all my life. Every day, every hour, I’m tortured by unbearable terror.” Rokurobei’s breath smells of bitter almonds. “I’m not a healthy man, doctor. I take medicine for my thyroid gland, I have problems with my kidneys and I suffer from arthritis. And in spite of it all I’m the lawful emperor of Japan, a superior natural spirit. I’m scared of death and everyone else is scared to death of me. A magnificent paradox, don’t you think, but precious little comfort.”

Adachi closes his painful eyes. “The biggest cowards are always the cruellest.”

“You may be right, doctor. But believe me: my cruelty is reluctant. Its purpose is to reduce my fear, but it has the opposite effect. I should demonstrate the wisdom of my years and stop, but I can’t. Just as I can’t contain my idiotic need to chatter, sometimes to the point of indiscretion , with the people I’m about to kill. To be honest, I feel a certain kinship  with them.”

“Don’t try to convince me that you’re possessed by the legendary spirit of Rokurobei.”

“Why not?” Adachi’s executioner replies. “I’ve no other explanation for who I am. I read poetry, I love beauty, I’m captivated by the mysteries of nature, I’m a lover of culture . But at the same time I see a profound ugliness everywhere, doctor. I wanted to be an angel, but I became a devil against my will.”

“That’s what they all say, those egos coming apart at the seams. I had a good look at your birth certificate. You claim to be the lawful emperor of Japan and I’m sure you believe it. But in reality you’re the son of Emperor Hirohito and a concubine, a mekake .”

98

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Hiroshima – in a rental car on the way to the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Takeda and Becht – March 15th 1995 

In the rental car on the way to the Suicide Club squat, Takeda is overcome by a sense of alienation. When the silence gets painful and he senses Beate looking at him, he says: “It’s an amazing coincidence that I met Yori through you and that she is – or was – the girlfriend of Reizo Shiga, the nephew of the unfortunate banker Tomio Shiga. Too much of a coincidence not to see the hand of fate in it all. A flash of intuition connecting the bank raid just after the Second World War with the recent attack on the Dai-Ichi-Kangyo Bank and my desire to impress my superiors have totally changed my life.” Takeda leaves out the fact that it wasn’t intuition, but his attempt – twenty years earlier – to discover his father’s identity that had led him to the Golden Lily and the existence of secret units in the Japanese army. That topic was and remained a taboo.

Beate looks out of the window. At breakfast she was alert and active, as if she had enjoyed a night of good sex. She had suggested they rent a car via the hotel and drive to Tokyo to warn the authorities. Takeda had protested and insisted she had already done enough, but his words crashed into a wall of stroppy determination. She wanted to go with him to the Public Security Commission and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was convinced that her presence would support his case. Takeda didn’t think so, but he didn’t tell her why.

“Your life has changed too,” he concludes.

“It’s like a Greek tragedy,” says Beate without turning her head. “The hero always gets into trouble with the gods one way or another. They send fate to get you. That’s the way it is. You’re their plaything.”

Takeda frowns: “My wife believed in kyuuseijutsu,  the Japanese form of astrology.” He turns to Beate. “Full of mysteries and rituals and hard as hell to figure out. That’s the way we Japanese like it.” Beate laughs and then feels cornered, not quite sure if his sarcasm was intended. “A month ago she read my horoscope. Her final words were: ‘The sword cuts like a bolt of lightning’. She said it meant something unexpected  was going to happen.” Takeda looks outside. “According to her it could be something positive. I looked at the characters she had written and asked: ‘Don’t they say: something unthinkable  is going to happen?’”

Takeda slams on the brakes. One of Hiroshima’s incomprehensible traffic jams has suddenly materialised. They’re on Takeya-cho, heading for the Suicide Club squat. Takeda is hoping Reizo Shiga will be there. The local radio news station hasn’t mentioned anything about Takeda being on the run. Takamatsu must have changed his strategy after the encounter the night before. That was what Takeda had hoped for, but he’s still not comfortable with the situation. He figures that Takamatsu probably decided to continue hunting him down, but not via the police. He’s pretty sure that the commissioner advised the yakuza  who arrived when he left Denny’s Diner to eliminate him as quickly as possible and without a fuss. The inspector has to admit that Beate had turned out to be very helpful thus far. But he’s still determined to leave for Tokyo alone.

“Do you know the Star Wars  saga?”

Beate smiles. “That’s one of my weak points. I’m crazy about space opera.  And I’ve seen every episode.”

“They’re based largely on Japanese mythology. The background idea has its roots in what we nowadays call chanbara  in fight movies, usually the warrior’s mythical struggle with fate occasioned by some minor event and by unexpected bonds between people who’ve never met before.”

The photographer sticks out her chin. She seems smaller than she really is in the passenger seat of the car. “Star Wars  has a happy ending,” she says stubbornly. She looks out at the busy street. There are no pedestrians. She wants to ask Takeda: how strong are those unexpected bonds?  But she keeps it to herself.

“That’s why the saga was such a success here. We’re not used to happy endings.”

They’re making painfully slow progress. With every metre his knuckles get whiter on the steering wheel. From the side his deep-set eyes and the skin around the robust eye sockets seem strained.

“What’s the matter, Akio? You look anxious.”

“I was thinking about Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.” 

Beate isn’t surprised that he keeps changing the subject. At that moment, the inspector is more preoccupied with himself than with the predicament he’s presently in. “A cyberpunk novel, if memory serves,” she answers. “By… by…”

“Haruki Murakami. I read it in English hoping it would improve my fluency. I can’t remember much about it to be honest, just that it was complicated and dark. Some of the characters lived in a strange city surrounded by a wall and an impenetrable forest. The inhabitants of the city weren’t allowed to have a shadow. I still remember how I found that such a pitiful idea for someone who was supposed to be a great writer. But to my surprise the image stayed with me, haunted me, as if it had latched on to something inside me. And now I feel as if a shadow lived my life instead of me, while I was imprisoned in a city surrounded by a wall and an impenetrable forest.” The inspector looks at her apologetically and then smiles: “I’m gibbering, I know it. The last forty-eight hours have left me feeling like a tsukimi  specialist.”

Beate raises her eyebrows. “How do you say that in English?” he asks. “The best I can think of is ‘the art of moon gazing’. The ancients used to stare at the full moon until they reached a state of transcendence. At that moment they saw the universe as it really is. It was so scary and confusing that it drove many of them mad.”

Before she knows what she’s doing she runs her finger over his cheek, an intimate gesture, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. He doesn’t pull away;


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he just blinks for a second or two, surprised. “You’re not mad, Akio,” she says “You’re just sad.”

99

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Hiroshima – Dr Adachi’s apartment near the Peace Tower – Adachi and Rokurobei – March 15th 1995 

Rokurobei has a habit of getting close to his victims. He now does the same with Adachi as he did with Dr Kanehari and Reizo Shiga. In the light of the uv lamps, his enormous, angular, slightly crooked head appears nothing short of monstrous.

“By saying I’m the son of a concubine I presume you’re trying to make me angry, doctor, in the hope that I will hasten your death. Smart, but not smart enough. You know as well as I do that the children sired by the emperor with a concubine are officially registered to ensure their right of succession to the throne. I was scrapped from the register because I was sickly , not because I’m the son of a mistress.”

“I read the documents.” Adachi’s voice is little more than a whisper. “The doctors were convinced you would die before you were six months old. The imperial physician experimented on you on his own initiative. He gave you the growth hormone somatropin, among other things. In those days they had to harvest it from the pituitary glands taken from fresh corpses. How many Manchurian prisoners of war had to die to keep you alive, kotaishi?”  On Adachi’s lips the word for “crown prince” sounds like an insult.

Rokurobei grins. Adachi closes his eyes. He finds it hard to write the man off as a fairground freak when he’s so close by.

“The imperial family is a rat’s nest. When I survived against expectations and started to grow up, they saw me as a threat. I was disfigured , a mockery to the emperor’s divine status.”

“The doses of somatropin were far too high. They caused gigantism and organic deformation.”

“Exactly. In those days they knew very little about the correct use of growth hormones, especially on young children. I grew into an abomination . There were plans to have me murdered, but my father thwarted them. He was fascinated by his pup. He watched as the growth hormone treatment turned me into a giant and was captivated by dreams and phantasms about eternal life. Thanks to him I was able to lead the life of a shadow. Don’t you think that’s funny, Adachi? The Japanese wallow in formality and are inclined to think themselves superior, but no other people on the planet has so many secret cesspits as we. Our sense of military superiority is nothing short of pompous. In other countries they would have reacted very differently to a deformed prince.”

“Perhaps, but your response to it all was to create a perverted myth and start to live it.”

“Typically Japanese yet again, doctor. But who knows, there may be a hint of truth in that myth. They say that Rokurobei – the serpent neck – has the power to shed his skin . I’m sixty-five, but look at my hair and my smooth skin.”

Adachi looks his executioner in the eye one last time and decides to pull out all the stops. “Does the serpent neck rape his own daughter?”

The head pulls back abruptly, almost hitting the sun bed. Adachi waits. Then, that smile again. There is no fast deliverance. The head comes close again; Adachi notices for the first time that the face is covered in makeup. Tiny beads of sweat trickle down oily cheeks. Under the makeup the skin is pockmarked.

“Mitsuko made that story up. It’s not even a question of lying. She believes all her fantasies to be true.”

“I saw the baby your daughter left at the Peace Monument in my autopsy room.”

“So I heard.”

“I know the chief commissioner is helping your organisation.”

“The Japanese police are a bunch of derailed imbeciles. The biggest collection of tyrants, blacklegs, traitors, degenerates and nail-biting weaklings the world has ever seen.”

“No wonder the yakuza  and the police work so well together,” Adachi whispers. He can feel the ropes tightening around his body. His intellect refuses to believe he’s about to die. Not this way. At the same time a deep sense of resignation has taken root in him, as if someone had just pumped his arm full of anaesthetic.

“My name is Norikazu,” says the man crouched beside Adachi after a long silence. “Respect that name, doctor, it represents my true self.” He looks at the doctor out of the corner of his eye, unexpectedly coy. “I never laid a finger on my daughter. Mitsuko has lived for years in her own make-believe world. She has a tumour in her brain. I consulted the appropriate doctors, Adachi; I did my duty. It’s inoperable and it’s going to kill her. The doctors bombarded me with jargon: schizoid personality disorder, or words to that effect. They suggested pills, but they didn’t help, not enough at least. It’s not only the rape fantasy. She tells anyone who’s willing to listen that we live on Hashima Island, but it’s not true. I use the place sometimes, but it’s not my permanent abode. How old do you think my daughter is?”

The doctor coughs. “What kind of a question is that?”

“I suggest you answer.”

“Yori told me that she and Mitsuko were roughly the same age, early twenties.”

“Mitsuko is forty-one.”

“Does this sort of idiotic crap entertain you? If I’m to die, at least tell me the truth.”

“Mitsuko was born on Hashima, that at least is true. Her mother gave birth to her in 1954. Throughout the pregnancy, I was convinced there would be something wrong with her because of my faulty genes. It was nine months of agony. I wanted to spare my child the humiliation I had endured in my youth, whatever the cost. The old network of patriots known as Unit 731 was still active in those days. I engaged former military doctors who had performed certain tests in Manchuria and ordered them to transform my daughter into a superwoman.” The mafia boss’s face seems pensive, is if he still doesn’t understand what went wrong.

Adachi clears his throat: “A superwoman? If present day science isn’t capable of such a thing, why should I believe it was possible back then?”

Rokurobei narrows his eyes. “We thought  it was possible, doctor. In fact we were convinced of it because Unit 731 had reported a major breakthrough to the military leadership during the war. The doctors had adapted an ancient Chinese method. Anthropologists use the word emperor for Chinese leaders stemming from the pre-Xia period thousands of years ago, but the character that is used to refer to these leaders actually means ‘demigod’. They were renowned for their unparalleled skills and their incredible, inhuman lifespan. The Unit 731 doctors had poked around in Manchurian mythology during the war and concluded that the ancients had used a special preparation of montmorillonite to pass on their legendary lifespan and supernatural powers to their offspring.”

“Green clay.” Adachi can’t help laughing, in spite of the situation.

“Have you forgotten how humans were created? The gods fashioned us from clay.” Adachi finds it hard to understand why the man is going to so much trouble to tell him this far-fetched story when he’s about to die.

“Female and male babies were treated according to the Huang-Di  method in which green clay, montmorillonite, played a major role. The doctors who treated Mitsuko combined it with hormone cocktails. It all had to be done before she reached six months. We were convinced it would work.”

“Why are you telling me this nonsense?”

“Because it’s the truth, doctor, no matter how incredible that may seem.”

Adachi grins, but the increasing pain in his body turns his grin into a grimace: “You know what they call the serpent neck, don’t you? The Lord of Lies. Very appropriate if you ask me.”

“I’m a born liar, I admit it. But even a born liar needs the truth now and then. Isn’t it sad that the truth can sometimes appear more deceitful than a lie?”

Adachi doesn’t answer, simply shakes his head as if he’s talking to an irrational child.

“I repeat: Mitsuko is in her forties. The Huang-Di  worked: her body aged slower than that of an ordinary person. But the method hadn’t been perfected. Mitsuko grew big and strong, but there was something amiss with her brain. The combination of hormones and montmorillonite had caused the cells in her brain to multiply out of control. The method was devised for the ancients, doctor. They were much closer to themselves and to nature than we are. Modern human beings are apparently unable to cope with the magic of earlier days. You don’t believe me? That’s up to you. But sooner or later science will try to create a demigod once again. It’s part of us, doctor. We’re hardwired to reach beyond ourselves.”

“You can lie as much as you like, but the fact remains that the deformed son you sired by your daughter is in cold-storage in my morgue.”

“Did you notice it had been embalmed?”

Adachi nods.

“It was my firstborn. Mitsuko took it from the island,” says Norikazu. “My son was embalmed at the end of 1945 in a secret military complex on Okunoshima Island. I commanded it myself. The dry air in the mine on Hashima helped keep the body intact. I was almost sixteen in those days, doctor Adachi. The child was sired with a Chinese pinyin,  a female prisoner of war, one of hundreds assembled as material for medical and psychological experiments. I was curious about her. She was roughly my age and she reminded me of someone I had been very close to. But I also despised her. As a sixteen-year-old I was extremely nationalistic, arrogant, proud. The Japanese race was unsurpassed and I was its future. I was completely convinced of it.”

Norikazu leans towards the doctor, their faces almost touching as is his wont. “You can’t imagine the life I’ve led. You would need the imagination of a novelist, and even then you would fail. The things I’ve done can only be described as inhuman. But I don’t share your human nature, doctor. The divinity of the emperor is a malady  that plagues our soul, Adachi, a need that will haunt us forever, both the Japanese people and the imperial family. My younger brother Akihito, the first emperor without official divine status, tolerates the life I lead as long as I continue to use my underground organisations to work for its restoration. Behind that deadpan, super-respectable mask of his, Akihito hates the politicians and the lip service they pay to democracy in this country of ours. We’re not democrats and we never will be. Our emperor is forever an akitsu mikami,  a superior human being in whom the divine status of the spiritual world is represented to perfection. That’s the way it has always been, and it’s never going to change.”

The ropes tighten further round Adachi’s body. The police doctor’s face has turned red and he is wheezing. His eyes close, open, close, open. Norikazu throws open his jacket to reveal a knife in a sheath. “Tell me where Mitsuko is and you’ll die quickly, I give you my word.” The man laughs, his bizarre, sharpened teeth reminiscent of a cartoon shark. “That sounds so old-fashioned and I’m painfully aware of it. But if we don’t stick to the old-fashioned values what have we left, Adachi? Where is our contempt for death? Isn’t honour a value worth dying for?”

The doctor coughs. “Spare me the melodrama, Norikazu.”

The yakuza  removes his uv goggles. Now their faces are almost touching. Pinpricks of light and darkness dance across his eyes. “I presume your behaviour is intended to convince me that you’re not afraid of dying, good doctor.”

“I’m afraid of the pain,” says Adachi.

“Then save yourself from it.”

“I don’t know where your ‘mythical’ daughter is. You have Yori, but you can ask her as much as you like, she won’t be able to help you. Yori ran away from a squat used by a group of kids called the Suicide Club. Mitsuko moved in with them shortly before Yori left. Yori stole her belongings, including your birth certificate and the notes written by the imperial physician who treated you. That’s all we know. How many times do I have to repeat it?”

“Takeda?”

“I saw him yesterday. He went to the meeting with Takamatsu. After that, he was supposed to follow me here but he didn’t.” Adachi says nothing about Takeda’s plans to go to Becht’s hotel room.

“You know that Takeda betrayed you?”

“If that’s another lie intended to make me talk then I’m going to have to disappoint you. I’ve told you everything I know.”

“Takeda said to Takamatsu: I’m not alone.  That got our cunning commissioner thinking. And his first suspect was you, the eccentric inspector’s only friend. When I heard from Takamatsu that you had prepared the corpse of the baby found under the Peace Tower for autopsy, out of the blue, after days of waiting, I knew enough.”

“Your daughter didn’t approach the police if that’s what you’re thinking. It only takes one little stone to start an avalanche. That’s what happened.”

“Sometimes life indeed is like that.” The man gets to his feet. “Farewell, Adachi.”

The police doctor grits his teeth, says nothing.

The mafia leader turns on his heels as if he’s suddenly thought of something. The uv light has affected Adachi’s eyes and conjures a halo around Rokurobei, a dark amorphous cloud.

“A careless young man claimed this evening that he had imprisoned my daughter in a place I will never find. He confessed this just before he died. That’s why I believe him. I’ve had his friends interrogated, but none of them was able to tell me where my daughter is. Do you believe me when I tell you that I love her more than life itself?”

Adachi nods. He is exhausted. A reverberating light-headedness plagues him. He hopes he will soon lose consciousness. His eyes close.

The voice next to his face makes him jump.

“I think you deserve this, in spite of everything,” says Norikazu. “Your courage is many times greater than I could have imagined.”

The knife plunges into Adachi’s liver and is jerked sideways. Adachi’s body lunges in spite of the ropes, but to no avail. His fettered feet sway back and forth like a fish on dry land.

The voice is still close; it penetrates the searing pain.

“With shibari  it would have taken at least another hour for you to die. Now? A few minutes…”

Its compassion sounds genuine.

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Hiroshima – the Suicide Club squat – Kabe-cho – Takeda and Becht – March 15th 1995 

Takeda has his duty weapon at the ready. He feels ill-at-ease in the darkness of the squat. Beate is waiting by the stairs. The place appears abandoned. The personal belongings of the young folk who used to live here are scattered across the floor, as if someone had recently rummaged through them. Takeda peers through the iron-barred windows and tries to picture what life was like for the people whose protest against society took shape in this building. It reminds him of the fact that he had always been obedient and compliant on the surface, in spite of the many contradictions inside. A dark irregular stain on the floor in the right hand corner of the room attracts his attention. He crouches to get a better look. Congealed blood. A large quantity. Beate walks in uninvited. “I heard something downstairs,’ she whispers.

Takeda walks towards her, brings his lips to her ear. The smell of her jasmine perfume doesn’t prevent him from observing how fine and fragile her ear is. “Stay here.”

He descends the stairs on tiptoe. He notices that the door on the ground floor that was locked before is now half open. He heads for the door, sees that it leads to a cellar. He hears noises downstairs, stuff being shifted around. He makes his way down with the barrel of his gun pointing upwards. A single light bulb illuminates the cellar space. Metal filing cabinets corner off part of the room and he hears noises behind them. He approaches, slowly, cautiously. A man is stuffing a computer into a rucksack.

Takeda takes aim: “Police.” The man is young, probably in his late teens. He’s thin and his face is covered in acne from excessive use of speed. He steps back in shock and bumps into a filing cabinet. “It’s not what you…” he says.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“My name is Sho. I…”

“Are you a member of the Suicide Club?”

“Eh… Yes.”

“Where are the others?”

“The club was disbanded. There were disagreements.”

“Where is Reizo Shiga?”

The junky lowers his eyes. “He… He’s gone. We don’t know…”

Takeda moves closer and looks him in the eye. “You’re lying.”

To his surprise the young man starts to sob. “We found him dead! He was headless. We didn’t want any trouble.”

“Calm down. Control yourself. Tell me what’s going on.”

The boy tells Takeda his story in fits and starts. A couple of club members had come back to the building the previous night in the hope of scoring some drugs from Reizo’s extensive supply. They found his decapitated body in a pool of blood in a corner of the main room. The head had disappeared. They had panicked, certain that the authorities would blame them for the killing. So they dumped the body in the rubbish chute in the old restaurant in the hope that no one would find it. They did their best to get rid of the blood stain and then went looking for drugs. They found nothing and left. But Sho had come back because he remembered that Reizo Shiga had a brand new computer in his workshop. If he could sell it he could score.

Takeda forces Sho to bring him to the rubbish chute in the restaurant on the first floor, beneath what used to be the machine room. Takeda only has to take one look. The body is visible in the midst of the trash.

“Get out of here, now,” Takeda barks at the boy. “And never come back.”

Sho races to the exit. Takeda follows his narrow frame. The boy is old for his age. The inspector asks himself what the parents of such children go through. If he had had a child, he or she would have been the same age as the young junky heading for the door.

The inspector makes his way upstairs. Beate is sitting on an old chair in the middle of the room. She seems small, lost. The photographer has been asking herself how she got into this nightmare. The chronological puzzle is the easiest part. She’s used to thinking in pictures and the pictures are clear. It’s the why of her emotions and the stubbornness with which she’s clinging to Takeda in this gloomy situation that surprises her.

The inspector tells her what happened.

“We should drive to Adachi’s place,” he concludes.

The diminutive German woman looks him in the eye. In the beer-coloured light of the main room she looks like a nervous cat. “But what about Reizo’s computer? Is it still working? Maybe he left some kind of clue.”

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Hiroshima – Dr Adachi’s apartment beside the Peace Tower – Rokurobei and Yori – March 15th 1995 

With her bowed head and naked back, Yori is the picture of subordination. The tattoo on her back glistens metallic through the sweat on her skin. Rokurobei rests his hands on her shoulders, covering them completely.

“So you call yourself ‘Mitsuko’s best friend’? How long did you know her? A couple of days? Three?”

Yori nods almost imperceptibly. She mumbles something.

“What?”

“It felt like longer. She confided in me.”

Rokurobei wraps his hands around her neck. “Is she dead?”

Her voice is little more than a whisper: “I don’t know. I told you: she was gone when I woke up. I was afraid of Reizo and I…”

“My men are on their way to the German photographer’s hotel. We’ll soon know if you’re lying.”

“It’s the truth.”

“What should we do to kill time while we wait?” He lifts Yori’s chin with his right thumb and when she looks at him he moves his face closer. “If Mitsuko is no longer alive, are you going to tell me how smart and cunning my daughter was? Are you going to tell me time and again how you lay in each other’s arms on the mattress and lamented your fate together? Doing that, are you going to bring colour to my old age?”

Yori undergoes a remarkable transformation. She stands on the tips of her toes, throws her arms around Rokurobei’s neck and looks him deep in the eye.

“Are you going to tell me then, superior spirit, that from now on I’m your daughter and that you love me deeply?”

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From Mitsuko’s notes in the metro cellar 

I don’t know how long I’ve been here.

My body is losing moisture drop by drop, slowly but surely.

I’m imprisoned in a giant press, squeezing me, shrinking me.

My eyes are bulging.

My world has closed in on me.

All the monsters that ever haunted my imagination have locked me in.

I can hear them muttering.

Words of peace.

Words of pain.

And that I’ve never really been myself. 

In their eyes I see the reflection of my father.

And the things he has done.

Every child wants to know who his father was, sooner or later.

Something my father once said has stayed with me all my life: “We are the biggest liars the world has ever known. Lies were fed to us at the breast and we grew up with them. We should ask ourselves why.”

My father is the irrefutable king of the born liars. Why? I’ve asked myself that question so many times. I only found the answer when I read Colonel Tadao Masamada’s military logbook. During the war he was commander of a secret Unit 731 complex on Okunoshima Island. The log was with the baby I discovered in my father’s chest in the miners’ changing rooms.

Based on the notes in the logbook I was able to put together a picture of my father, give it shape and colour. But how can I be sure I’m not also an inhabitant of the kingdom of lies just like him?

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Okunoshima Island – Unit 731’s secret laboratory complex – September 26th 1944 – Prince Norikazu and Colonel Tadao 

The boat arrived after midnight, following a short trip across the Seto Sea from the port of Hiroshima. Colonel Tadao Masamada had informed a few trusted members of his elite troops to expect an important visitor. The men stood to attention on Okunoshima Island’s modest pier waiting for him to disembark. The colonel had warned them not to move a muscle when the Ishibashi-no-miya  came ashore. They were to accompany his highness without delay to the ro  cells and hand him over to the senior physician, Dr Kenshin.

The colonel, aloof and efficient with ruddy and gleaming rural features that betrayed his Okinawa origins, had concluded: “If the serene one speaks to you, you must address him with the title heika.  Do not look him in the eye. He doesn’t like it.”

The soldiers guarding the Unit 731 installations on Okunoshima were well trained, loyal to the Japanese emperor and ready to give their life for him. They stood in attendance, motionless, as ships delivered Chinese pinyins,  mostly from Manchuria, and the occasional American prisoner of war to Unit 731’s secret underground complexes. They knew what was going to happen to the maruta  and joked among themselves about the “blockheads” and the amount of “juice” they would provide. The underground complexes were referred to as ro  cells, square concrete blocks divided by a broad underground corridor, women on the left, men on the right. As with the construction of the laboratory complex commissioned by Unit 731 in China’s Pingfang, the Suzuki Group had done an excellent job on Okunoshima. The complex had every modern convenience, including automatic shutters in the event that one of the maruta  succeeded in starting a fire, and lifts capable of carrying several stretchers at a time when the prisoners were ripe for dissection. The suffering endured by the maruta  had no effect on the guards and lab technicians. None of them flinched. They were used to tapping the blood of prisoners until they died or injecting them with infectious pathogens and then an array of other substances to see what would happen. They subjected the prisoners to extremes of cold and heat and exposed them to all sorts of toxic substances. They injected poisons and then tried to stimulate their immune systems with exotic substances. The reactions they triggered were often extremely bizarre and almost always incredibly painful.

However, now they were hopelessly nervous. The boat carrying the prince – they called him Rokurobei  behind his back, the legendary demon with the neck of a serpent – had arrived. On the outside it looked like all the other fishing boats sailing the Seto Sea; the only difference was the absence of lights. But it managed to tie up alongside the pier with perfect precision in spite of the darkness. To the outside world, Okunoshima had to appear uninhabited. As a precaution, the Japanese high command had removed it from the maps several years earlier.

The soldiers had heard vague rumours about the young man who was about to disembark. Their lieutenant Kitano knew a little more. That’s why his expression quickly turned serious when he caught sight of figures descending the gangplank. One of them towered at least thirty-five centimetres above the others.

Kitano had never seen such a giant before.

Nor had he seen anyone with such a long neck, supported by metal rings that at first sight appeared to be made of silver.


* * *

“Death is an absurdity,” said Prince Norikazu to Colonel Tadao. He folded his long skeletal fingers over his face as if he was greeting an invisible god. The colonel, descended from an ancient rural samurai family, greeted the prince according to protocol and took his place behind his desk, straight-backed and rigid. The prince had been living on the island for several months by this time and appeared to like his military host, but the colonel refused to drop his guard. Tadao tried to remind himself that the young man in front of him, a direct descendant via his father of Amaterasu , the goddess of the sun, was yet to turn sixteen. The prince spoke perfect classical Japanese, the Japanese of the sages. “The military doctors who busy themselves here with pioneering research should focus on the concept of immortality, colonel.”

The colonel nodded politely. The ungainly young man in front of him surprised him by adding: “The Chinese emperors were more closely related to my cast than we will ever admit. In the course of China’s rich and mysterious history they set out to achieve immortality.” The young man looked down at his long, slightly crooked legs: “Magicians of every sort were summoned to the imperial court to make herbal preparations and magical potions, like Ling-zhi , the ‘mushroom of immortality’. Nothing worked, but they kept on trying. Their perseverance should be an inspiration to us. For the first time in history, colonel, science is capable of fulfilling the ambitions of the ancient emperors. Your work is being followed in the highest circles, the people who guide and advise the Emperor himself.”

Colonel Tadao inclined his head at the compliment, but still wasn’t sure where the princely whelp was leading. It was hard to imagine a young man of his age being so obsessed and talking about it with such ease and fluency. Did his deformed body contain a prematurely developed brain? In the first months of his existence, the prince’s life had hung in the balance and the wildest stories emerged about what made him so big. Perhaps his precociousness was a result of an awareness that he was the incarnation of a myth. Speculation was rife about the latter, ranging from the foolish to the insane. Colonel Tadao peered into Norikazu’s dull lustreless eyes and saw a determination nourished by pain, desire and hate. At least, that is what he suspected. The colonel had been raised in the old traditions, which meant he gave due consideration to the possibility that the boy in front of him may not have been entirely human


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. There was his imperial background to consider, the way he had floundered through his early years. There was Japanese society’s obstinate determination to be a race superior in every respect to other human beings and do everything necessary to reach that goal. .

“Your wish is our command, heika,”  said the colonel.


* * *

The woman, young, Chinese, was lying on a dissection table, naked, hollow-cheeked and heavily pregnant. The powerful lights cast deep shadows under her eyes. She screamed at the top of her voice when a giant appeared above her in surgical attire, his face covered with a mask. Prince Norikazu turned to Dr Kenshin. There was something contrived about his movements, as if he had to think about every stimulus his limbs obeyed.

“They tell me you can speak Chinese, doctor. What is she saying?” Norikazu’s voice was hoarse and callous, but calm.

The doctor looked up at the bushy eyebrows atop his eminent guest’s sunken eyes. The prince’s head was square, angular. His jaws were heavy, his nose broad, and deep sockets formed what seemed like battlements around his lifeless eyes. It was better not to look into those eyes.

Dr Kenshin replied stiffly: “She’s saying: kill me, but please let my baby live.”

“An emotion as honourable as it is remarkable. The willingness to suffer pain for a creature she has never seen, and without knowing whether its life will be miserable or prosperous. I would be more inclined to call her reaction ‘instinct’, especially coming from someone of an inferior race.” In spite of his youth, the prince was verbose and slightly pompous when he spoke. At the same time there was often a hint of sarcasm in his words, giving them an ambiguous and ominous air. His hands were folded over his belly. “The baby is destined for our first experiment using large doses of growth hormone in combination with mushroom extract prepared according to the ancient Chinese texts,” Dr Kenshin explained. “When we injected the same cocktail into newborn mice it improved their physical defences, bodily measurements and lifespan by thirty-three percent.” The prince nodded and leaned over the woman. “Tell her she can die in peace. Her child has served a noble purpose.”

The doctor’s words were still fresh on his lips when the prince took a scalpel and cut open the Chinese woman’s belly with a single powerful swipe.

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Hiroshima – Adachi’s apartment near the Peace Tower – Takeda and Becht – March 15th 1995 

As they get out of the car in front of Adachi’s house, Beate Becht says: “Do you think it’s true? What Reizo Shiga last wrote on his computer?”

Takeda scowls. “We know in the meantime that the boy wasn’t firing on all pistons and that he suffered from delusions of grandeur.”

“But that last sentence: I have her underground and no one is more mine than she.” 

“A stretched metaphor? His writing was pretty pompous stuff. And even if there’s some truth in it, it’s too vague. Where do you start?”

Beate nods but isn’t completely convinced. “What a situation. No wonder we’re confused. And by the way, I’m still trying to figure how it’s possible for a senior police functionary like your boss to work so openly with criminals, even if one of them has imperial blood.” She punches Takeda playfully but unexpectedly in the ribs. “And you, the fugitive inspector, drive through Hiroshima as if there’s nothing going on.”

Takeda forces a smile. “Have you ever seen a big police presence in the city? Hiroshima has to keep its image come what may. It’s the ‘City of Peace’, a symbol for the entire world. ‘Cover Up City’ would be closer to the truth. And don’t forget, the Japanese police force is the most corrupt and least efficient on the planet. Corruption here has historical roots: after the Second World War, Japan was left a broken, defeated nation, plagued by famine and scarcity at every level. The black market was the only way to get what you needed. It was run by gangs who had acquired weapons and  influence during the war. The police helped them to construct an ‘underground Japan’ to save their families from starvation.” Takeda notices that the front door of the house isn’t locked. Nothing unusual. Adachi’s inclined to forget when he’s been drinking. “And underground Japan is much more important than the straight face we present to the world. We bow to one another, respect each other’s station, but that’s because we’re afraid that others might catch a glimpse of our shady inclinations. And because we’re afraid, we’re forced to cultivate a sense of superiority towards other peoples, a conviction that we’re smarter and stronger. There’s a reason why we’ve become a people of hidden extremes. Where else in the world could someone like Rokurobei avoid the media for decades?”

“But that’s it,” says Beate. “There’s something not quite…”

The inspector rattles on without waiting for her to complete her response: “Why are we so good at hiding whatever doesn’t fit the picture? We’re sick to the teeth of ourselves and of the enormous demands we place on one another. Our much-vaunted culture is rooted in greed , not just at the material level, but at the level of who we are and the way we present ourselves.” Takeda glances over his shoulder at Beate Becht who’s following him up the stairs. “Sorry for the tirade, but it’s a hobbyhorse of mine because I’m half foreigner.”


* * *

One of Adachi’s jazz cds is playing in the living room: Miles Davis in a set with John Coltrane. Over the years, Adachi has treated Takeda to more than a few evenings of whiskey and jazz. The doctor never once tried it on with him. They talked about life, love, death. Both men were the melancholy type, and both tried to hide it from others. Coltrane’s melancholy saxophone reminded Takeda that the police doctor was his only friend. His western-style living room is empty. The bright green display on his expensive Linn Mimik cd player – Adachi’s pride and joy – lights up when a new song starts.

At that moment Takeda senses that something isn’t right.

“What’s that smell,” says Beate, automatically lowering her voice.

Takeda doesn’t smell anything out of the ordinary, but his nose has never been particularly sensitive. He looks into the kitchen and then makes his way down the corridor to the stairway leading to the upper floor of Adachi’s duplex. He looks up and can see the blue light of the sun bed. He knows Adachi is a sun worshipper. He wonders what happened to Yori. He climbs the stairs in silence and stands outside Adachi’s half-open bedroom door.

“Daichi?”

The indifferent hum of the sun bed.

Takeda hears a noise and looks over the balustrade. Becht is in the corridor below looking up. Her face is a reddish brown in the light of the sun bed.

“Burning flesh,” she says. “I smell burning flesh.”

Takeda pulls his pistol and enters the room.

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Okunoshima Island – Prince Norikazu and Colonel Tadao – morning, August 6th 1945 

It was very early in the morning, four forty-five, a turquoise sea, first light, a cloudless sky. Two men stood by the pier, which offered spectacular views of the mainland and the other islands scattered across the Seto Inland Sea. The pale light made the islands in the distance look like prehistoric hump-backed sea creatures.

Colonel Tadao gestured in the direction of the mainland. “You’ll be safer there than here, heika.  I’m convinced of it. 

Norikazu grimaces. “I’m not safe anywhere, Koruzo.”

The colonel raised his chin on hearing his first name. “My men and I have sworn lifelong fidelity. You will be received on the mainland by people who will keep guard over you just as I have done.”

“We’re losing the war,” said the colossal young man. “The propaganda machine is working harder than ever before – proud Japan will destroy the barbarian enemy! – but what does my uncle do, Prince Chichibu? He uses yakuza  leaders to secrete Japan’s war treasures. We’re such a pompous people, Koruzo. We stash gold and artworks in caves and call this miserable escape we have chosen “the Golden Lily”.”

The colonel bites his lips. “The Japanese imperial army will never capitulate.”

“Nevertheless, the generals, or what’s left of them after the bombing of Tokyo, have ordered the evacuation of Okunoshima and the dismantlement of all the Unit 731 test plants. Just when we were working so hard to create the new human being. One more year, Koruzo, just one more year and we would have succeeded in improving the Japanese race.”

The colonel grit his teeth. “Our knowledge will never go to waste, heika.  We shall rise above this and begin anew.”

“700,000 firebombs on the capital, Koruzo. B-29s like swarms of flies above the city. Tokyo’s canals full of bodies like chickens boiling in a pot. My father’s propaganda machine has been trying to use censorship and mail screening to disguise the facts, but they’re making a fool of themselves. We’re being cut to pieces. We can’t face up to American military superiority.”

The colonel’s face remained motionless, although the words of the young man he considered the legitimate crown prince had touched him deeply.

“When your father dies, heika…”  Colonel Tadao fell silent.

“I will not be emperor,” the eccentric prince continued, apparently unmoved. “Look at me, Koruzo. Who would accept such an emperor? And don’t forget, I am a creature of war and combat, not of an enforced and honourless peace. People still faithful to me at court inform me that father has washed his hands of me. I’m no longer a curiosity, an organism he wanted to study as if I was an object in that infamous botanical garden of his. Now I’m just an irritating liability.”

The colonel wanted to say something, but the prince silenced him with a gesture of his hand. “The people at the court think I’m a creature of the past, with my ideas about war and honour. They refuse to see that I represent the future of the yellow race. They call me arrogant, melodramatic, puffed up by my own self-importance, a dark prince who – you never know – might well be slightly insane.” The young man laughed, but he sounded far from cheerful. “They don’t understand what the divinity of the Japanese emperor means, Koruzo. They claim I want to be larger than life itself. But what else can a man do if the gods are his only measure? Dwarfs! I’m surrounded by them, and they’re suffocating me.”

“Your faithful followers are firmly convinced that you are the next step in the completion of Nippon’s superiority, heika . Follow my advice, I beg you. You must go into hiding. When the time is right, you will ascend the throne of Japan. The results of our experiments here will be of inestimable value in the future. Where the Germans failed, our scholars succeeded: you are the beginning of a super race that will conquer the world.”

The young man straightened his shoulders. It was clear that the fanatical soldier’s words had done him good.

“As you wish,” he said. “I’ll do what you ask, hide myself, take on a false identity. No one will call me Prince Norikazu from now on.”

“How should we address you?” the colonel asked.

The young man sneered. “Let me think about it, colonel. I’m sure to come up with something ‘melodramatic’ and ‘self-important’.”

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Hiroshima – Adachi’s apartment near the Peace Tower – Takeda and Becht – March 15th 1995 

Takeda has switched off the sun bed and covered the body with a sheet from the bed. The heat of the lamps had shrunk the ropes and they had done their work. The result was disfigured and horrific.

He insists that Beate Becht stay downstairs, but she ignores him. She waits in the doorway, staring at the sheet.

“It’s my fault,” Takeda realises. His voice sounds absent, as if his thoughts are elsewhere.

“What makes you say that?”

“It’s been running around in my head all this time, but I didn’t want to pay attention to it so I told myself it probably wasn’t important. I let something slip when I was talking to Takamatsu. I wanted to intimidate him. I told him I had help.”

I’m not alone.  Takeda is convinced that Takamatsu took good note of his words. The man had years of detective experience and had honed his interrogation techniques to perfection. He’s also aware that the chief commissioner is an expert in the principles of ishin denshin,  non-verbal communication. He once boasted about it. Takamatsu will doubtless have concluded from the delicate and dangerous circumstances in which Takeda found himself that only a good friend could be behind the ‘help’ he was receiving.

And who was Takeda’s only friend in the department, an outsider like himself?

“What are you going to do?” Becht stares at him wide-eyed. Takeda has the impression that he can see a glimmer of hysteria in them. He still can’t understand why she’s helping him, but he can’t escape the feeling that she’s in too deep and can’t cope. Maybe she’s just an extremely nervous young woman, an artist  kicking on the moment. Takeda figures she’s had enough kicks. He decides once again that he’ll be better off without her.

“I’m going to take your film of my conversation with Takamatsu to the Public Security Commission in Tokyo together with the Norikazu documents. I have to move fast. I can still travel freely outside the prefecture, but it’s not going to last.”

“Will they believe you? It’s a pretty strange story.”

“I’m not a fool, Beate: in exchange for dropping the murder charge and the provision of a new life they’ll ask for discretion. Discretion is the greatest good. Such a scandal would shake Japan to its very foundations: a yakuza  who should actually be the successor to the throne, living in hiding for decades. The world press would have a field day.”

“I’m going with you. I’ll back up your statement.”

Silence.

“OK,” says Takeda without looking at her. “We leave tonight for Kyoto in the rental car. Once we’re a distance outside the prefecture it should be safe to take the shinkansen .”

He glances over at the figure under the sheet. “I once read that just before you die, when the brain is short of oxygen and is determined to keep control of the body whatever the cost, the senses short-circuit and it feels as if your whole life is flashing by in front of you. I wonder what Adachi saw.”

“And you?” says Becht. “What do you expect to see when your time comes?”

The intimacy of her question surprises him. She’s the complete opposite of his wife.

“Loneliness,” he says. “A sea of loneliness.” He pulls himself together and adds: “But I guess that doesn’t sound very Japanese.”

“It does,” she says.

They make their way down the stairs. “I forgot my bag,” she says. Before Takeda can respond she runs upstairs and back into Adachi’s room.

Halfway up he sees flashlights. He runs up to Adachi’s room and waits in the doorway.

She’s removed the sheet from Adachi’s body and she’s taking photographs of it, one after the other, her lips tight, her eyes concentrated and emotionless, as if she’s withdrawn into a place inside herself where everything is locked out.

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Hiroshima Harbour – Prince Norikazu – 8am, August 6th 1945  

The boat was inconspicuous and unmarked, but it was heavily armed. The port of Hiroshima, a low-lying and extensive array of docks, quays and warehouses, had limited military value. It served rather as a repository for the hinterland. It was eight in the morning. Prince Norikazu was standing at the bow looking out over the city as the boat tied up. The company disembarked quickly and in orderly fashion. A Toyota KB truck in military khaki was at the ready. They set off in the direction of the river Aioi. A young soldier wearing glasses pulled back the tarpaulin and caught sight of three planes flying past above their heads. “American planes,” said the soldier next to him. “I heard the air-raid siren earlier, but they sounded the all-clear half an hour ago. They must be scouts.”

“The bastards come and take photos then return with a whole squadron to firebomb us,” said another soldier.

“They’re turning,” the bespectacled soldier shouted. He followed them as best he could. Moments later: “One of them just dropped something with a parachute.”

Prince Norikazu made his way to the rear of the truck. The men bowed and made room for him. The young prince looked up. A parachute supporting a black object was drifting down towards the city. Norikazu narrowed his eyes, tried to get a better view of the object. A cold sensation ran through him, a pulse of excitement that paralysed him yet made him feel simultaneously as if his body was about to explode. The driver turned into the street leading to the Aioi. The sky suddenly turned into a magnesium torch followed by a tremendous bang and a surprising disappearance of the blinding light. The Toyota KB was lifted and thrown screeching across the street. Everything went dark. In the blink of an eye, the city’s wooden constructions were reduced to splinters. A dust cloud thundered like a steam roller over the stone buildings at eight hundred kilometres per hour. It was accompanied by a firestorm with temperatures reaching almost two thousand degrees Celsius. A cloud of smoke in the form of a mushroom rose to a height of eight thousand meters, purple, black, red and grey. People were scorched or tossed into the air like leaves by the pressure of the explosion. Houses were crushed, factories of solid concrete reduced to rubble.

Prince Norikazu and his company were more than two kilometres from the epicentre of the explosion, but the heat and the air pressure resulting from the atom bomb were still tremendous. Norikazu awoke from unconsciousness as two of his escorts dragged him from the burning truck. The military uniform he was wearing had been torn to shreds.

Heika ,” stammered the lieutenant designated by Colonel Tadao as convoy leader. “You must… The Americans have…” He fell silent, exhausted. His left eye bulged out of its smashed socket. His hair had been scorched away. Blood poured from a wound at the back of his skull. Strips of smoking skin hung from the prince’s upper torso. The sixteen-year-old’s bloodshot eyes stared through the reeling lieutenant as if he wasn’t there, then his gaze swung to the right, to a corpse lying on the ground. As he looked at it, fire burst from its fingertips and the corpse was quickly consumed by flames.

“I have seen Rokurobei,” said Prince Norikazu, barely audible. “His neck unfurled and his head filled the sky with darkness.”

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Hiroshima-Saijo – Takeda and Becht looking for Yori near Saijo Station – March 16th 1995 

A bunch of bosozoku  are loitering around the arrivals hall of Saijo Station. These young outsiders see themselves as rebels. They’re revelling in the fierce wind blowing in from the platforms. Spring storms are rare in this part of Japan, but when they do move in they can reach wind speeds of more than one hundred kilometres per hour. In spite of the wind, the girls are wearing high heels or garish boots. Their jackets are as long as their miniskirts. Red, white, neon green, fluorescent blue. The boys wear their hair over their eyes and try to look mean in their baggy jeans and oversized hooded jackets. They’re sitting in circles in the covered hall. The rows of narrow windows don’t provide much light, a lot less then the blaze of neon inside, advertising power games, fashion articles, cars, computers. Two girls are standing in the middle, encouraging people to join a playful demonstration, part of the upcoming Peace March in Hiroshima.

Takeda and Becht walk into the station. The inspector thought it made better sense to get out of the centre of Hiroshima after hearing on the rental car radio that the prefecture police were investigating the attack on economist Nagai Shiga. Their spokesman said that traces had been found on the renowned academic’s bombed-out car that suggested the involvement of a group of “economic anarchists”. This mysterious group had already issued a death threat against Shiga because they saw him as the “instigator of expensive and useless public works that had intensified the crisis, deepened corruption, and made the poverty of so many unemployed Japanese men and women worse than ever”. In the car, Takeda had talked with his stubborn companion about their shared adversary. He is convinced that the yakuza  leader who calls himself Rokurobei is being protected by the police higher up the chain of command than Takamatsu. And who knows: politicians, business people, senior civil servants? Organisations with extremist tendencies are all over the place and many aren’t averse to a dose of overblown samurai rhetoric or puffed up cultural folklore. Takeda is pretty sure that Takamatsu called off the official police investigation into him after their meeting at Denny’s Diner. He’s more worried about new attempts on his life. Before heading for Tokyo with the evidence he has at his disposal, he wants to track down Yori. There was no suggestion in Adachi’s apartment that Yori had suffered the same fate as the police doctor. It was possible that the capricious street urchin had left the doctor’s apartment before Rokurobei and his cronies arrived. There was a chance that they had taken her with them, but Takeda can’t think why the yakuza  would do such a thing. It’s crystal clear in the meantime that Rokurobei and his followers aren’t afraid of murder. Takeda is convinced that the rejected crown prince can’t keep up his killing spree forever, but after more than twenty years in the Japanese police force he knows how pathetic the results of crime prevention can be. There’s a myth in the West that Japan’s crime figures are among the lowest in the world. That was more or less true until the middle of the 1980s, upheld by intimate entanglements between the yakuza  and the police and by the typically Japanese need to show the outside world a respectable facade. But in recent years, crime figures had skyrocketed as a result of a crisis that had made society merciless and cynical and trashed the old values. According to Takeda, Rokurobei was probably determined to recover his anonymity as quickly as possible and get on with his clandestine operations. The more dead bodies he left in his wake, the more dangerous it became for the mafia leader. At the same time, Takeda knows that he shouldn’t underestimate the prince’s sense of hubris, let alone his twisted, fanatical nationalism. With the documents he received from Yori and Becht’s videotape, Takeda thinks he stands a good chance of worming his way out of this hornet’s nest, but he also thinks it wouldn’t do any harm to have Yori along in person as a witness.

But that wasn’t the only reason the inspector chose the busy station with its multiple exits to check out if anyone knew anything about Yori’s whereabouts.

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Hiroshima – Prince Norikazu – the burning city – August 6th 1945 

Shortly after the explosion, a rain of condensation fell from the sky in the form of dense, dark droplets that hurt when they touched skin, a gluey rain that turned everything black. The black contrasted intensely with the yellow and red fires that spewed flames metres into the air. Prince Norikazu stretched his neck, tried to collect as much of the black rain as he could in his parched throat in spite of the pain it caused. Of the detachment charged with accompanying him only four had survived. The lieutenant was on his feet, waving his arms, muttering to himself. He wasn’t likely to last much longer. The horizon was a line of flames, smoke and ruins. When they passed a factory that had been completely flattened, the lieutenant turned to his superior; stuck out his horrendously swollen tongue and raised his arm as if he was about to salute him. He collapsed like a sack of salt. The prince crouched beside him, looked closely at the dead man as if he was measuring him up for a sturdy coffin, and then unfastened the katana  hanging from the lieutenant’s belt. He greeted him with the sword.

The young giant continued on his way, with difficulty and determination, into the ruined city.


* * *

A woman staggered past the burning buildings with a baby in her arms. The heat had caused the baby’s skin to peel. He was limp and motionless in her arms.

A man tugged at the body of a teenager buried under the rubble. The boy’s skull was cracked open and brain tissue was hanging out of the wound. He had lost his right eye. He was calling out for his mother, his voice clear and steady. The man had pulled away enough rubble to see that both legs had been crushed. He tried to lift the boy. He succeeded. He continued on his way, the boy motionless in his arms.

A girl, blood gushing from her mouth, stumbled through the ruins of a school. Hands shot up from the rubble, bloody and smouldering. They tried to grab the girl by the ankles. Voices begged: “Take me with you, take me with you!” In panic she kicked at the hands and ran on, her arms outstretched as if she was blind.

Hundreds of people tried to reach the river Aioi. They screamed for help, lost direction in the ash-filled clouds of smoke, fell exhausted to the ground before they could reach the banks of the river and baked like clay stones in the raging fire.

Those who made it to the river couldn’t believe their eyes. A young man, his upper torso badly burned, was standing on the banks; a giant with an enormous, crooked head, waving with his left arm. In his right hand he held a katana.  He held the sword into the air like an antenna. He shouted words the refugees didn’t understand: he was the crown prince of Japan, and he was going to lead them to the only surviving bridge across the river. They shook their heads: for some the atom bomb had brought mutilation, for others insanity. They refused to listen to the lanky scarecrow, forced their way past him to the river, jumped into the water to cool their burnt bodies, tried to swim to the other side with the little energy they had left.

The lunatic dropped his sword when he saw a whirlpool form in the river, a greedy centrifuge of water, as if some primal creature had awakened from its sleep at the bottom of the river, gulping down the bodies one by one as they shrieked and flailed with their arms and legs, or submitted in silence, resigned, exhausted.

Norikazu turned away from the river of death and stared at the mushroom above the city. It was still swelling outwards and upwards, illuminating the sky with a blinding radiance, reflecting every colour of the rainbow. It was overwhelming yet attractive, the gate to a new world.

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Hiroshima – Saijo Station – Takeda and Becht – March 16th 1995 

Beate Becht turns in a circle in the middle of Saijo Station, her camera at the ready. Bright colours swirl. The station building is a cacophony of sound and light. Voices, announcements, music, arriving trains. The youngsters around her are like a swarm of bees, constantly moving. They make her dizzy.

She decided to snap some shots while Takeda was asking around after Yori. As always, the le


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ns narrowed her world and drew her to details. A pout, a dirty look under an orange Mohawk, a tattoo of a stiletto, high-heel pumps under a baggy skirt. She looked around when she was done, but Takeda was nowhere to be seen.

“Stay on the move,” Takeda had said that morning when they left the hotel where they had spent the night. “Norikazu knows it’s risky to spend too much time in the outside world. We have to get as far away from him as possible.” Beate was confused and angry at the heavy-set inspector who pretended nothing was going on. She was even angrier at herself. She didn’t understand why she had been so determined the night before. She had tried to seduce him. She had gracefully offered her boyish back and let her fringe fall over her eyes.

And what did Mr Policeman do? He completely ignored her and fell fast asleep. Later in the night she heard him dreaming, muttering and growling, angry and sad, snorting like a bull. Beate Becht lay sleepless at his side, her body heavy and limp, like a lump of clay.

In the morning he behaved as if nothing had happened. She followed his example.

Beate sits on a bench on the platform.

She’s convinced Takeda left the station when he saw she wasn’t paying attention to him.

She has a feeling he planned all this after their morning conversation on one of the okonomiyaki  diners in the centre of town.


* * *

“Yummy.”

Okonomiyaki  is the Japanese pizza.”

He sat opposite her, motionless, not hostile. For Beate, his broad face with the deep furrows either side of his robust nose was impossible to read. He took a bite of his okonomiyaki , its base covered with meat, seafood, vegetables and buckwheat noodles fried on a flat grill. He seemed to be waiting for something.

A hint might help: “I didn’t sleep a wink last night.”

He looked at her with his deep, dark eyes. She stared back at him. Was that regret? Hidden sadness? She hoped it was, but she wasn’t sure. She regretted her own insensitivity. His wife had only been dead for a day and she had tried to seduce him. She figured it would be better to start the conversation with something else.

“I spent the entire night picking over this crazy situation.”

Takeda made a dismissive gesture.

“I still can’t believe that our mafia boss is a rejected crown prince.”

He returned his okonomiyaki  to his plate and wiped his fingers with his napkin. He ate like a farmer. She loved that.

“I’m pretty sure the birth certificate Yori gave us isn’t a fake.”

 It might be authentic, but can we be sure it’s his? If everything Yori told us is true, the prince was in poor shape when he was born. Would the physician have dared act against the will of the emperor?”

“I’m not sure it was against the emperor’s will. Maybe he persuaded the emperor that this was the right thing to do. Children change people.”

“But…”

“You don’t know how we think or feel. You’re not Japanese.”

She tried to keep it light. “You’re not the full pizza yourself.”

His eyes narrowed. He picked up his okonomiyaki  and took a serious bite. He seemed to be thinking.

“Whatever: even if Norikazu isn’t the crown prince, he still has a lot of power, at least in this prefecture. He had no qualms about killing Adachi, a police doctor, and liquidating Nagai Shiga, an economist known throughout the country, in a pretty spectacular way. Have you seen what the papers are saying about Nagai Shiga’s death? They’ve found a new scapegoat.”

Beate shakes her head.

“They’re claiming he was murdered by hired killers brought in by property developers who’ve been milking the crisis for hakomono  contracts.”

She only has to raise an eyebrow.

“White elephants; enormous infrastructure projects organized by the government to help alleviate the crisis. They’ve been insisting for years that corrupt politicians and senior civil servants have been assigning such projects to companies asking ridiculously high prices. Japan’s facing its biggest crisis since the Second World War and Shiga lashed out on TV and in interviews against this sort of practice, pointing the finger at a bunch of fat cats getting rich at the expense of the taxpayer. That’s why the theory that he was taken out by people from the construction sector sounds so plausible.”

“Have you seen anything about poor Adachi?”

“Not yet. But I bet the journalists will be fed some story or other about the doctor being queer and having a penchant for darkrooms  and playing the slave. A sex game that went wrong, they’ll say.”

“And that’s proof enough as far as you’re concerned that Norikazu is who he says he is?”

“It’s proof enough that he has contacts at different levels and in different domains. Not exactly rocket science when you remember that he apparently has chief commissioner Takamatsu in his back pocket.”

“But you’re still a free man. It all seems pretty quiet in that department.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good sign.”

“But I still find it hard to believe he’s the rejected son of the emperor.”

Takeda suddenly leans closer, his eyebrows pinched. He’s more put out than angry, but his face is enough to make her pull back.

“This is Japan. What we believe  is one thing, what we do  is another.”


* * *

His words now haunt her mind. What did he mean by them?

She had said: you’re  still a free man. She’s not really sure what Norikazu knows about her role in the affair.

This means that Takeda isn’t interested at all in her fate.

Why did she say she was in love with him?

She has no answer.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Like the inspiration that spurs her on when she’s taking photos in her studio.

It’s like being on speed.

You can do whatever you like.

A quiver runs through her, starting in her groin and spreading out to her entire body.

She hears destinations being called in Japanese and English.

Should she get on a train and close her eyes, let it take her away, far from here?

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Hiroshima – Prince Norikazu – the burning city – August 6th 1945 

Wisps of smoke wafted from the prince’s ripped clothes and shoes. His body felt as if it was made of tinder wood. Where his gaze once fell on the buildings of Hiroshima, he could now see the horizon on every side. A smoking, burning horizon, jagged, irregular, daubed with shades of stone where the fires had burnt themselves out. A bizarre sense of satisfaction took hold of him: he had often dreamed of a world as deformed and misshapen as himself. His wish had come true. He had encountered delirious people on his path through the rubble, some badly burned, others deranged. One of them had screamed that the Americans had used a ‘death ray’. Norikazu had assured them that a new Emperor of Japan would soon be at the head of an army of supermen. They all ran past him like headless chickens, cackling from fear and pain.

Above him: a dark, turbulent sky, riddled with red flames.

In front of him: a tottering woman, her right eye the size of a pomegranate. A man with shards of glass in his head, lurching, ready to fall.

Beside him: a naked man, his crotch charred to the bone, holding a rain pipe to his scorched genitals and muttering incomprehensibly.

There were patches of pale yellow in the black sky. The thick clouds of smoke slowly dispersed. The firestorm raged on towards Hiroshima Station.

To his right, in the smouldering ruins of a wood built house, he saw a dead baby, its skin the colour of pastry that has been left too long in the oven. The black-red blotch on its right heel drew Norikazu’s attention. He moved in, leaned closer. It wasn’t a blotch. Someone had painted the imperial chrysanthemum on the child’s heel. Norikazu peered closely at the symbol, his eyes parched and smarting. He could hardly believe what he saw, but he was convinced this was a sign he could not ignore. He took the tiny corpse in his arms. It was as hard as stale bread. The misshapen prince carried it away from the fire, the smoke and the countless dead.

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The Hiroshima-Kyoto motorway – inspector Takeda – March 16th 1995 

He had done the right thing to leave Beate Becht behind, Takeda repeated over and over. At this time of day, the motorway to Kyoto is relatively quiet, the motorway busses carrying tourists to and from Kyoto being its primary users. He’s paid the toll and is planning to arrive in Kyoto in five hours, give or take, where he intends to leave the rental Mazda and take the shinkansen  train to Tokyo. He hasn’t called for an appointment with the members of the Public Security Commission. He figures it’s too risky. One of the members could easily be a puppet working for Norikazu. He plans to make his appointment at the very last minute to limit potential leaks to an absolute minimum. Takeda presumes that – for security reasons – they won’t let him speak directly to the senior members of the commission responsible for supervising police services and that he’ll have to work his way past some lesser civil servants first. But he’s still convinced that a single glance at Prince Norikazu’s birth certificate will be more than enough to set the bureaucratic wheels in motion.

Takeda knows that the Commission doesn’t have a good reputation. A couple of years earlier they were given a severe dressing down by the UN Commission for Human Rights because of a corruption cover-up involving senior police officials. Ms Evatt, chair of the UN Commission, lambasted the Japanese government for maintaining two different kinds of law: strict rules for the man in the street, and not so strict for the police, the politicians and the industrialists.

Takeda is well aware that the Commission might want to sweep the entire affair under the carpet and propose a little horse trading. He can live with a little horse trading. That’s the reason he decided not to bring the photographer along… the only reason.

She’ll make the most of her situation, he figures. Once she’s back in Germany she’ll take a good look at her photos and force herself to believe they’re stage-managed; bizarre, alarming, dark, sombre, like her earlier work.

He failed to mention when they first met what he had read about her in Yomiuri Shimbun : her alcohol and drugs problem, the suicide attempt a year earlier that she survived by the skin of her teeth, the widely publicised and highly ambiguous affairs with both men and women. Now that he knows her better he finds it hard to believe it’s all true, but a reputation is like a visiting card: the first impression is what counts.

He’s also convinced that westerners are too principled , certainly when it comes to situations elsewhere in the world. A headstrong loud-mouth could completely sour any meeting with the Commission.

Takeda has another reason for acting as he did. He’s thought long and hard about what he wants from the Commission in return for discretion: transfer to a quiet part of the country, somewhere remote, promotion and perhaps a change of identity. He wants an office job with a good pension. Takeda’s had enough of the grief. He doesn’t want a career. He wants to end his existence in peace, settle scores with his sexual demons, his suppressed thirst for blood, his uncontrollable anxiety. The pressure that settled on his shoulders the day he turned twenty-seven, traced his father and did what he did to him, has to go once and for all.

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Hiroshima – the Righa Royal Hotel – Becht and Norikazu – March 16th 1995 

Beate Becht opens her hotel room door. The suite seems faded and grey, as if she had returned to the place of her birth after years of absence to find it covered in dust and mould. She makes her way to the bedroom. A tall man is lying on her bed with his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling.

“They tell me I have no sense of humour,” says the man in perfect English. “I beg to differ. I have a highly developed sense of satire, but my situation has been so ghastly for so long that I no longer dare to admit it. Do you understand, Miss Becht?”

Becht hears the bedroom door close behind her. She’s trapped in a room with the same killer she had described that morning to Takeda as a psychopath with delusions of grandeur.

Norikazu gets to his feet. Becht is one metre sixty-four and the difference in height is overwhelming. She can smell popcorn. Not completely unpleasant, but still sickly and slightly nauseating. A huge, bony hand settles on her shoulder, hot as a slice of grilled sirloin. “Let’s have a civilised conversation between civilised individuals, Miss Becht. I may not look very civilised, but I assure you I am. Does it feel as if you’ve been living in a dream these last few days? No need to answer: I can see it in your eyes.”

Beate Becht doesn’t respond. The blood is pounding in her temples. The man in front of her has a soporific aura about him. Reality seems to take a step backwards.

“Recent events have pushed me to my limits. I’ve always been able to present myself as a hibakusha  to explain my appearance, but I’ve had far too much public exposure of late.”

Beate Becht wants to ask Norikazu if he’s planning to kill her, and if so how, but the words refuse to come out. The hand slips beneath her chin and gently tilts her head upwards.

“You’re intimidated. At this moment you think I can intimidate anyone because I’m the legitimate crown prince. But nothing could be further from the truth. I used to have the support of people with power and influence in the prefecture, both in everyday society and its underground counterpart , if you get my drift. But a certain bank executive I was expecting to deliver capital resources dating back to the Second World War had the foolishness to invest the money elsewhere while I needed it in cash to – how shall I put it? – pay my suppliers . Under the counter  cash, so to speak. Money for useless bridges and airports, for empty roads and other major infrastructural projects the government is putting out to tender these days as if there was no tomorrow. Projects worth millions of yen, you understand, destined to find their way into a variety of pockets. The executive of whom I speak, who was, until then, one of my partners , left me facing serious difficulties. I have a small army of followers, but officially I’ve been dead for years and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m also blessed, to some degree, with a sense of realism. In addition to the crazies surrounding me and their bizarre sects – a national plague if you ask me – I have a number of ultranationalists at my disposal, all of them very useful, but some dumb enough to have their neo-fascist inclinations tattooed on the foreheads, so to speak.”

“Yori said your daughter told her you’re at the head of a powerful organisation.” Beate is surprised at her own voice, so hoarse, so tense.

Yuzonsha ?” The man focused his dark lizard eyes on Becht and smiled, exposing his pointed teeth. “Mitsuko, a poor soul unable to cope with reality, spent her entire life thinking I was a god who only had to snap his fingers and Japan would be under his control. Ironically enough only the first part is true: I am indeed a god. But a fallen god, Miss Becht, is the worst of his kind: he harbours hard feelings. He frets over what he has lost and is determined to get it back whatever the cost. And if that doesn’t work he protects what he has left. Inspector Takeda is intent on destroying the latter with his reckless behaviour. He happens, by chance, to know a little too much about me.” Beate opens her mouth to speak. A long index finger touches her lips. “Don’t you understand, Miss Becht? Officially I haven’t existed for fifty years. An underground network of patriots supports me. If the authorities get to hear Takeda’s story and see my birth certificate they’re bound to start an investigation. I can only hide in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I stand out too much elsewhere. Takeda will also inform the authorities that I have an operations base on Hashima Island. How long do you think it will take them to find and arrest me? And what do you think they’ll do with me? They’ll dump me in an institution for the rest of my days. The things I have done, Miss Becht, have been a matter of self defence and nothing more.”

“So you raped your daughter out of self defence, I suppose?” she blurts before realising it. She’s shocked by her own reaction. It feels as if the floor beneath her has suddenly disappeared. But she can’t take it back. She’s going to die here, in this room, and the best she can hope for is that her end will not be the same as Adachi’s.

Both hands now rest on her shoulders. She looks up at his face. It seems out of kilter and she notices to her surprise that her words must have hurt him. He lets her go and sits on the bed, his long arms over his knees. “I never laid a finger on her. Mitsuko is the only person I ever loved…”

“Where is she then? She ran away from you.”

“That’s not true. It’s in her head, all of it, the world around her, everything.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

“She ran away when we were in Nagasaki. I wanted her to try out a new treatment. I kill out of self defence, but Mitsuko cannot control her urges . In her world, with her brains, every choice is heartrending . When she finds herself faced with doubts or powerful emotions, her world collapses and she loses control.  Did you hear me? Mitsuko is a poor, wandering soul and I have always done everything in my power to help her heal.”

“So where is she now?”

The giant shakes his head. “Untraceable. My men have been looking everywhere. A junkie told me he had her “in his possession”. He said this just before he committed suicide. Should I believe him? Must I believe him?”

Seeing Rokurobei this way saddens her: “I don’t believe you. Dr Adachi did an autopsy on your stillborn child…”

He smiles and the sight of his contorted mouth silences her.

“Miss Becht, I cannot have children. I took the baby to which you refer from a burning house in Hiroshima fifty years ago. I had the corpse embalmed to remind me of who I am and what I have become.”

“Mitsuko…”

“I repeat: Mitsuko is not my biological daughter.” He folds his weathered hands like an old farmer looking back over his life. “Mitsuko is the daughter of the only man I considered my friend. He was like a father to me and protected me for years. He was a proud soldier in the imperial Japanese army who started a new life after the war with a new identity. His daughter was born when he was getting on in years. He was in perfect health at the time, but a month later he was dead. I raised Mitsuko as my own. I love her as a father loves his daughter. But from the very start she was different from other children. She lived in her own world with her own rules and regulations, a world outsiders found incomprehensible. Her mental illness went from bad to worse and there was nothing I could do. She was still only twelve when she killed Mayumi, a woman I paid to look after her when I was away. As a result of this needless  murder, which she committed in a state of total mental chaos, I was forced to get rid of Mayumi’s father. The man was threatening to go to the authorities, but he had worked for me for years and he knew I would never allow such a thing. Shortly before she ran away from me she killed a boy she thought was in love with her. Every time someone got close to her she was faced with a choice, and because of her obsessive neuroses her choices were always black and white, all or nothing. Am I to blame? I’ve asked myself that question so many times, thousands of times. Is it because of the life I have led? Perhaps she couldn’t cope with being the daughter of a legend. She started to keep a diary in her teens. She told me about the things she wrote in it and after a while I was curious to know more. She wrote, Miss Becht, about things she imagined had happened to her in a language only she could read. She used characters similar to those used in ancient Chinese. What else is there to say?”

Beate stares at Rokurobei. She hasn’t forgotten what Adachi told her about him, about the demon’s nickname: the Lord of Lies. But the intense sadness of the man seems genuine, real.

“My love for her made her my daughter, do you understand? But why should you? I was completely in the dark myself. Repugnance, fear, arrogance, cruelty: these are the emotions that inhabit my world. Make no mistake, Miss Becht: everyone talks about love, but such negative emotions are the flipside of the same coin. We dabble in love with the greatest of pleasure because it gives our most perverse deeds a hint of refinement. Murdering someone for love is less vulgar than murdering for profit or revenge. Isn’t that what they say? I was sixteen, Miss Becht, when the demon I now represent took possession of me, here in this city. You may not believe in him, but the bomb had just been dropped and it had torn reality asunder. Or had it exposed reality? The choice is yours. At that moment, as I watched people take each other’s lives out of compassion and love, it didn’t seem so strange that the demon came to inhabit me and I thus became the one people call Rokurobei. A tormented spirit, certainly, capable of the most horrific deeds. But even a demon can transcend itself and love someone, without reason, without desire for gain, without purpose.”

“Dr Adachi was a sweet…”

Norikazu jumps to his feet. “I know what you’re going to say. But listen to me: I don’t understand why everyone is against me . I just told you about the bomb and what it did to this city and to me. I met survivors and wanted to help them cross the only remaining bridge over the river. I called out to them, told them to follow me. Me! Japan’s legitimate sovereign. And what did they do? They screamed I was crazy and jumped into the river. They all died, Miss Becht. I’ve never forgotten. I then realised they weren’t worthy of me and that the old Japan had entered the realm of fable once and for all. My  Japan is a Japan of courageous men willing to do the right thing  and accept the consequences when they make the wrong choices. Your Adachi may have been a sweet man, but he made the wrong choices. I killed him out of self-preservation… and out of compassion. I could have let him suffer much more than he did.” The demon takes a step towards her. “What is good and what is evil, Miss Becht? Everyone should know the answer to that question, but no one does. What should I do if killing one person could save the lives of hundreds of thousands? Should I stand aside and watch my people throw themselves over the edge like lemmings? My goal is a glorious future from which the weak have been banished. Does that sound hard, callous? Think about it, Miss Becht. The weaklings of this world are responsible for nothing but misery and contradiction.”

Beate peers into his glimmering almost lightless eyes. Once again his coarse hands came to rest on her shoulders. This time she shivers from head to toe, as if a surge of electricity had coursed through her body. “You think I’m going to hurt you, hurt you a lot, until you tell me what Takeda is planning. You’re wrong. You’re going to tell me because you want to. Then you can go home. Pretend this episode never happened… that it was all a dream. You’re the kind of person who can picture such a dream in your mind. Better still, you’re the kind of person who can transform what I say into the truth .” With these words he takes her right hand and places a little box of Largactil on her upturned palm, the neuroleptic she had left behind in her hotel room a couple of days earlier in all the excitement.

To her surprise, mixed with a hint of shame and bitter resignation, Becht realises that he’s right. She’s convinced she’s dealing with an arch deceiver unable to speak the full truth whatever the situation. Or perhaps he speaks the truth as he sees it at any given moment,  she suddenly concludes.  She remembers what the world was like when depression had taken complete hold of her: a sinister stage play in which everyone wore a mask, a drama filled with invisible intentions arching through the air like electricity, a tragedy polluted by furtive shadows. Her malady gave her the impression that the buildings and the people she saw were nothing more than pixels of energy bundled together by an insane artist who could shift around the worlds inside him like pieces of chess.

She wants to return to her photographic world of fauns and satyrs, of melancholy lust in the corners of S/M dungeons, of contorted, smarting limbs.

A world in which she is in control.

Norikazu’s face moves closer. There’s nothing hypnotic about those eyes, she observes, in spite of what she first thought. They’re mirrors. 

“If you allow the truth to be what it is , Miss Becht, then I have a peace offering for you… something I’m sure you’ll find tempting.”

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Kyoto – Ryokan Yachiyo – 34 Nanzenji Fukuji-cho – Takeda – evening, March 17th 1995 

Spring storms can take you by surprise at this time of year. The weather has been quirky of late. In the past you could trust it, but not these days. The wind tugs and jerks at the motel he has chosen for his stop, an old Gonkan building. Takeda can feel the vibrations. He’s lying on his back, has his hands folded over his belly like a corpse in the morgue. His eyes open, close, open again.

He’s not sure if he’s half-awake or half-asleep. His lips are moving, but it’s barely noticeable. He’s saying the words he’s always wanted to say, all his life… words to his father.

When he thought he had found him he said the wrong words and did the wrong things.

Takeda was twenty-seven and was preparing for the Junsa-bucho  exam, one of the force’s most difficult. He asked himself every day why he felt different from the other candidate sergeants. They wallowed in the standing policemen enjoyed in Japanese society. They stuck out their chest when someone addressed them with the appropriate respect. Didn’t they see that people were complaining behind their backs about police selling their authority to criminal organisations, that people were laughing at them? Everything was turned on its head in 1973. Society changed at breakneck speed. Takeda saw new recruits arriving who knew little if anything about the disciplinary principles he had encountered seven years earlier in the police academy. If you didn’t pay attention, made stupid mistakes, or proved yourself incompetent, you were rewarded with a slap in the face. No one even considered questioning the authority of their superiors, let alone asking them to explain the orders they doled out. He made up his mind to uphold the military principles of order and clear instructions to the letter, once he was a sergeant. He didn’t go to the pub after work, where his colleagues would toss back as much sake as they could manage in the shortest time and then head to the red light district and the whores. That came later, when he thought he had murdered his father. He had married two years earlier. His wife was extremely modest and retiring, and didn’t seem to mind that he was a half-breed. When Takeda grumbled that no one took him seriously, she tried to placate him. Sometimes he accepted it, sometimes he got angry and beat her. He was dissatisfied, resentful, full of repressed aggression, but he didn’t know why. His decision to become a policeman had to do with his longing for recognition. But what kind of recognition? Deep in his heart he had a problem with authority, although he was always meticulous and punctual, and grovelling towards superior officers who might help his career. Judo was his safety-valve, but in spite of his weight, strength and decent reflexes, he found it hard to master the technique. For some inexplicable reason – inexplicable to himself at least – he was always extremely


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nervous, even during training. As a result he often lost against opponents who were twenty-five kilos lighter. Takeda detested his anxiety and blamed it on the mortal terror he had sensed as an unborn child in camp Pangkalan-Balei, in the womb of a desperate woman who didn’t want him. But when it wasn’t a question of points or classification, when Takeda the policeman was attacked on the street by a thief or a drug user, he reacted with skill and determination, and sometimes even went over the top. He had received a couple of warnings for excessive aggression during an arrest. Accustomed as they were to his docile behaviour, his superiors were taken aback at times by a curt remark, by an unexpected flash of aggression, which was usually followed by a profusion of apologies.

Takeda’s bosses didn’t have to look far for an explanation of his inconsistent behaviour. He was half foreigner, not a full-blood Nippon. His languages skills, general submissiveness and enthusiasm were useful, but he was never going to really belong .

Takeda watched the days come and go. There was something chained up inside him, something he was afraid to let loose. Sometimes he felt like trashing the tiny flat they lived in. His mother, Barbara Gerressen, learned to speak fluent Japanese in the women’s camp and after the war returned to Japan with her infant son to work as a translator for Philips Electronics Japan. When he was a teenager, Takeda had asked her why she had come to live in the country of the man who had raped her. A slap in the face was his answer. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of forty-six. For the time being, she wasn’t ready for a wheelchair, but she found it difficult to take care of herself. Takeda and his wife saw it as their duty to look after her. Takeda passed his days with a gentle but unhappy wife and a bitter mother who hated her life and predicted she was going to choke to death when the sickness reached its final phase and attacked her lungs.

On May 18th 1973, Takeda took a call from his wife while he was at work. Barbara Gerressen had tried to commit suicide and had been rushed to the hospital. She had overdosed on painkillers. Takeda completed his working day with mechanical precision. His mother had seemed indestructible, a cold indifferent lump of stone perhaps, but still his rock. Now she turned out to be just as human as everyone else. He said nothing to his colleagues, but much to their surprise he joined them that evening at the bar after work and knocked back as many glasses as they did. His wife was already asleep when he got home. He opened the door to his mother’s tiny bedroom, where there was barely enough room for a bed and a wardrobe, and lay down on the bed. He pictured to himself being back in his mother’s womb and tried to share her feelings towards the camp guards, how she hated and feared them. It may have been the booze, but his experiment worked. Takeda sensed a rage begin to surface that made his limbs tingle. It was so overpowering, gave him so much satisfaction , that he could no longer sleep. He got up and rummaged around in the wardrobe in search of old, faded photos of the camp his mother had taken when she returned three years after the war with a delegation from the Netherlands. She had wanted to confront her past, but when she returned she was sullen and had little to say. There wasn’t much love in evidence between mother and son, not on the surface at least, but Takeda had to admit that she had never treated him badly. Barbara Gerressen was a woman who kept her emotions to herself and didn’t let other people touch her. He finally found the photos in a metal box. A chain with Japanese military dog-tags was lying at the bottom of the box, engraved with a service number, regiment and company.

No name.

Japanese soldiers didn’t have a name in the Second World War.

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Hashima Island – Norikazu and Yori – evening, March 17th 1995 

Norikazu arrived late on Hashima Island and made his way to the eagle’s nest in spite of the darkness. Yori takes the stairs up to the roof and looks out over the white-crested waves and the full moon projecting a tunnel of light onto the surface of the sea. Behind her a mishmash of rectangular concrete apartment buildings that used to house the miners, joined together by stairs and corridors, a decaying world of long forgotten hopes and dreams. Yori has spent the last couple of days wandering around the island. There are no trees to be seen, no green, no life. Hashima was a rock on top of an immense seam of coal. Now it’s one gigantic haunted house.

The clouds are low in the sky and a strong wind pummels her body. She can’t see the water below from where she’s standing, but she pictures it crashing against the seawall, hissing and bubbling, muttering to itself: I’ll break you one of these days, I’ll break you.  The giant Yori still calls Rokurobei, in spite of the fact that he told her to use his real name, is leaning over the edge of the seawall with his back to her. His clothing – western, he’s been to the mainland – flutter in the wind. In the corner, the table and sofa where he habitually reads on sunny days. A couple of lamps are attached to a tall flagpole, casting perfect shadows on the roof.

Yori stops and stares at his broad back. Her former life now seems so far away. She can still remember the situations she found herself in, although they seem like scenes in one or other movie. But the person  she used to be is completely out of focus. The old Yori is only a distant memory.

He changed everything. He nudged the world and made it less scary and confusing.

He’s not afraid of the world. The world is afraid of him.

The old Yori would have said to herself: this is my chance, now or never, I run to him with my arms outstretched, all my energy concentrated on his back, in one breathless moment he dangles between falling and flying, then the wind takes hold of him and tosses him indifferently to the sea. 

She’s aware that the old Yori would have thought this way. How many times had she contemplated killing Reizo in his sleep?

But she didn’t.

And she certainly wasn’t planning to do it now with this new man in her life.

He turns as if he can read her thoughts.

“Come closer, daughter.”

She obeys. She likes to obey.

“Any news?” she asks.

He nods.

“Do you know what the policeman has in mind?”

He nods again.

“And Mitsuko?”

He shakes his head.

“I feel so bad for your daughter.”

He opens his arms. She nestles against him.

“You’re my daughter now. My only one.”

She hears the hissing sound in his throaty voice. She knows that he’s a snake with a voice of honey. The demon Rokurobei turns words into fermenting fruit that intoxicates those who hear them and takes away their ability to see reality.

But this knowledge fades into insignificance in face of the pure, unadulterated love she feels surrounding her at that moment in time.

A shadow moves behind her.

Yori turns and is blinded by the flash of a camera; Beate Becht’s camera.

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Kyoto – Ryokan Yachiyo – 34 Nanzenji Fukuji-cho – Takeda reminiscing about 1973 – night, 17th/18th March 1995 

Inspector Takeda has the feeling that his life has been one festering lie spreading itself slowly but unavoidably like an oil stain.

Takeda gets out of the motel bed, looks outside at the tiny garden courtyard with its shrine and its kami . The clouds continue to tumble back and forth in front of the full moon, which sheds intermittent light on the statue of the household spirit.

The kami  looks at him and says: you searched for your father hoping you would find yourself, but you found someone else. 


* * *

The morning after finding the military dog-tags, Takeda visited his mother in hospital and stood beside her bed, his legs trembling. She was groggy and nauseous from the stomach pump that had saved her life and from the sedatives the hospital staff had given her afterwards. Her eyes were closed, but Takeda dangled the dog-tags in front of her nose nonetheless and asked loud and clear if they belonged to him . He repeated the question until she opened her eyes. She smiled, closed her eyes, and nodded almost imperceptibly.

Takeda spent the following night brooding over his plan. He sensed a determination he had lacked his entire life. Now he had his mother’s confirmation, his energy seemed inexhaustible. He fulfilled his normal everyday duties with enough vigour to make his colleagues jealous and his superiors nod in approval. He then contacted Dr Adachi who worked at the Prefectural Department of the Ministry of Health. The two men had met and become friends when Adachi gave a talk on forensic techniques. Adachi had set his sights on becoming a pathologist. In the meantime he spent his days visiting factories to monitor their implementation of the health guidelines and to spot potential health risks. Adachi was gay and had a hidden drink problem. He was afraid this would prevent him from pursuing a career in the police. Takeda didn’t mind. Adachi was an outsider like himself, that  was the important thing. They got drunk together on a regular basis and philosophised at length over the emptiness of existence. It established a bond between them. The one-night-stands Adachi would chase as if there was no tomorrow, only to be rebuffed for the umpteenth time, were meaningless in comparison. Takeda explained his problem. He was trying to trace a soldier from the Second World War on the basis of a set of dog-tags: “A friend of my father’s, from when he was a boy.” Takeda told Adachi a story he had made up: his father had done business with the Dutch before the war, had married a Dutch woman and had settled in the Netherlands. He died in Rotterdam from a major stroke shortly before the end of the war.

“Do you think he’s still alive?”

“I’m not sure. But if he is, then I can ask him about my father, what he was like.”

“I can use my ministry contacts to find out.”

Takeda tried to hide the excitement his friend’s words aroused inside him. He wasn’t sure if it was working. Adachi gave him a strange, bemused look.

But the doctor said nothing. A week later, Takeda had a name and an address. And, finally, a way of finding out who he was.


* * *

The dog-tags belonged to a soldier named Masajiro Amitani, fifty-three year old, living in a home for the disabled in the city of Morioka in the Iwate prefecture. In spite of the patient’s relatively young age, his official malady was “atypical muscular dystrophy”. Takeda visited the place and gave a false name and occupation. He was well prepared. His job made it easy for him to secure forged papers and lying was a piece of cake. To add to his disguise he wore a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, which completely transformed his face, and a cloth cap, which was popular in Japan at the time, to hide the colour of his hair. Takeda felt awkward as he entered the building, but the management and the nursing personnel had no reason to suspect him. He was allowed to see the patient without the least problem.

What had he expected? A sturdy, robust man like himself? Masajiro Amitani was crumpled in his wheelchair, his eyes sunken, his cheeks hollow, his limbs dried out and brittle as a twig. But there was something determined in his gaze and tenacity in his demeanour that his wasted muscles belied. Takeda introduced himself as a civil servant doing research into veterans and their war past with a view to improving their maintenance allowances. Masajiro fell for it hook, line and sinker. Without the slightest hesitation – he was still every inch the patriot – he reeled off dates and the places he had been stationed.

“Camp Pangkalan-Balei?”

“Absolutely. Two years as a guard. Then they transferred me to Xinjing in China.”

“What did you do there?” Takeda avoided focusing his questions too quickly on the women’s camp in South Sumatra.

Masajiro hesitated for the first time in the conversation. His eagerness melted. The large Adam’s apple in his emaciated throat bobbed up and down.

“In my day that was classified information, sir.”

“I know,” said Takeda, although he had no idea what the man was talking about. He was relying on his intuition, and his intuition told him he had to pretend he knew exactly what the invalid ex-soldier was referring to. “But the government has decided we have to put matters right on the war. Patriots like you who fought for their country were left with a shadow over their heads. Isn’t it time you received the proper reward for your patriotism?”

Masajiro stared at him. The whites of his eyes were yellow and bloodshot. Takeda felt a prickling sensation in his hands, very weird. But he was otherwise calm and even a little lightheaded, as if he was watching this encounter as a third party witness.

Then the ex-soldier nodded.

And Akio Takeda learned for the first time in his life about Unit 731.


* * *

“It was a secret operation ordered by senior military officials who were in direct contact with the emperor. They insisted that we were the most courageous of patriots, the most loyal of soldiers, the guardians of Japan’s honour. Our superiors didn’t say much beyond that, but you know how things are: soldier to soldier. We heard stories from ex-servicemen that the seeds had been sown in occupied China and Japan for a master race that would avenge Nippon if capitulation in the war turned out to be unavoidable. In those days our cities had suffered heavy bombing, and while no one dared suggest that Japan was losing the war – on punishment of execution – we all knew it in our hearts. But that made us all the more determined, do you understand? It might sound strange to someone from a different generation like yourself, but we  thought it was normal and even desirable that our best doctors conducted experiments on prisoners of war. I’m not a monster. I was often left shivering in my shoes when I had to carry the dying and the dead to the quarry outside the camp and saw what had happened to them. But I turned my heart into a stone because I knew that these sacrifices were being offered for the future of Nippon. They injected the prisoners with experimental agents designed in theory to strengthen their cells. They were then infected with the black plague or typhus, exposed to dioxins, extremes of cold and heat. They even tested how long they could stay under water before they drowned.

The experiments failed one by one, but new ideas emerged to replace them. Pregnant Chinese women were fed chemical cocktails designed to produce super strong wonder babies. They were then infected with syphilis and the doctors observed how the foetus reacted. Every now and then we were ordered to inspect the women’s manko . They had to stand on their hands and knees with their naked vulvas pointing upwards to allow the doctors to see if their medication had prevented the syphilis from taking hold. Sometimes they resisted, so we sat on them and held them by the throat to keep them still. If they didn’t do what they were told we strangled them. The syphilis made the manko  swell, of course, and you didn’t need to be a doctor to see it. One day the doctor on duty was hit in the face by puss spurting from a vaginal wound he had pressed too hard. In the commotion that followed – the woman was immediately decapitated – I must have picked up some of the infected fluid. A few days later I came down with a fever and fainted. For some unknown reason, probably because of the chemicals they had injected into the woman’s body, the syphilis had mutated. The doctors were mystified. My muscles swelled up then wasted away and my bones started to disintegrate. I was rushed from Xinjing and admitted to a military hospital in Hiroshima located in a separate building a distance from the civilian hospital. No one was allowed in without authorisation. The doctors working in the place had all been recruited by Unit 731. I was given a pension of thirty-six yen per month. In those days a headmaster earned eighteen yen per month. I was proud. The government clearly valued my sacrifice for the fatherland.

I could still walk, albeit with difficulty, when the bomb fell. The hospital exploded like a nut under a hammer. My memories of that moment are jumbled together. It was as if I had indulged myself in some opium, which I did now and then in Xinjing to escape the things we had to do there. Flames and the screams of the dying are foremost in my mind, that and the feeling that my body was a dried ume,  a prune hankering for water, water, water. The black rain fell on us, burning our skin. It tasted like sewage, but I opened my mouth and swallowed it all the same. Growling, groaning, gasping… those were the sounds that filled the world around me. The smoke made it difficult in places to see your hand in front of your face. Chance – or fate? – brought me to a primary school where people had gathered together. There was an enormous pit next to the school full of corpses; adults, children, but also horses, dogs, cats. The sight of it almost drove me insane.

I was later repatriated to Morioka where they took good care of me when they learned I was a war veteran. After the war I received a visit from a civil servant not unlike yourself who made me swear I would say nothing about Unit 731. We put together a story to explain why my body was in such a state. It was all due to the atom bomb and the hardships I had endured during the war in the Pacific. The man told me that it would take a while for people to realise that the things we did in Unit 731 were heroic deeds, things we did for Japan, things that would influence future generations, perhaps even all humanity. I’ve never forgotten what he said. I think about it when I’m awake and dream about it when I’m asleep. I hoped for years to receive news that our scholars had created a superman. But there was only silence and I continued to waste away. I often return to Xinjing in my dreams, and discover what we were looking for, how to improve the human race and restore glorious Nippon to its rightful place as the world’s leader. I’ve spent my entire life afraid that the Americans would discover our test results and succeed where we failed. They managed to exploit dioxin, didn’t they? We discovered it and they use it now already a couple of years in Vietnam.

I’ve always wondered whether that civil servant – who made sure I could stay here in the home – would ever be proven right. And look, more than twenty-five years later you appear asking about my story, what really happened.”

“We have to dig a little deeper into the past, Mr Masajiro. I’d like to talk to you about South Sumatra, if I may, about what you did in Pangkalan-Balei women’s camp.”

“…”

“Did you understand my question?”

“Yes… but I’m tired… exhausted to be honest. Can you come back tomorrow? I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.”

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Hiroshima – Funairi Hospital – Xavier Douterloigne – morning, March 18th 1995 

“How’s the patient today?”

“Better. He was conscious for a few minutes. His pupils reacted to light. He mumbled something, a mixture of his own language and Japanese…”

“Japanese?”

“Apparently he speaks our language. He said something about the kitsune.” 

“What?”

“You heard me. The kitsune.” 

“If I was a traditional  Japanese man, confrere, I would say he was struggling with the fox spirit. And as we all know, the fox represents our conscience.”

“ A classic  explanation, my respected colleague. I couldn’t have put it better. The next few hours are crucial.”


* * *

Xavier Douterloigne can hear the murmurs, whispers and sighs of a thousand voices. Guilt, angst and pain are eating him alive. He’s far too young for the tragedy fate has dumped on his shoulders. That awareness is the only thing preventing him from sinking deeper into a darkness that knows no end. He gropes for something solid, something to hold on to, and what does he see? The bronze lights of a tiny temple in a narrow lane in Yanaka, the old part of Tokyo, the oppressive downtown where smells and shadows crowd his twelve year old brain. Slender streets snake upwards on steep hills, littered with tiny ateliers and shops. Xavier follows his father and quickly loses his own sense of direction. His father turns left into an alley that smells of ginger, crosses a tiny courtyard and enters a room on the other side, cool, poorly lit. The yumetoki  Xavier is visiting with his father is emaciated, fragile and old; everything one might expect of a spiritual person. The interpreter of dreams pours water in Xavier’s eyes and peers through a hollow bamboo cane at his pupils while his father takes photographs. The ritual was necessary, the clairvoyant explains. It was the only way to see what Xavier’s eyes had seen while he was asleep. The old man peers long and hard and sighs deeply with considerable dramatic effect. He then concludes: “The boy is living in the vicinity of a fox that can transform itself into a girl. We call this spirit the kitsune. ”

Xavier’s father puts down his camera. “Is that good or bad?” Xavier is taken aback at the concern in his father’s voice. It’s all superstition, isn’t it? The old man, his eyes no more than dark pencil marks in his wrinkled face, places his hand on Xavier’s head. “The kitsune  is neither good nor bad,” he says. “It depends on the boy himself. If he lives a dutiful life, the kitsune  will be good for him. If not…”

Xavier and his father later laughed with gusto at this colourful intermezzo. Xavier squared his shoulders and felt like a man.

But for one reason or another, the memory had resurfaced and in his dream he sees a white fox with red eyes skulking towards him with its head close to the ground. The kitsune  gets closer and closer and Xavier is aware that his body is getting tenser by the second. He screams when he recognises the eyes of the fox inches from his face.

His eyes wide open and gasping for breath, he stares into the eyes of a nurse dressed in white, leaning over his bed.

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Kyoto – Ryokan Yachiyo – 34 Nanzenji Fukuji-cho – Takeda thinking back to 1973 – morning, March 18th 1995 

This is going to be the longest night of my life, Takeda thinks. It’s pouring outside the motel. He’s lying in bed. He shifts his right arm from behind his head and turns. He has pins and needles in his elbow. This night is never going to end, he thinks. Is it because he’s bored? Powerless? He’s definitely uneasy, no question about that, and not only because of the meeting he’s hoping to have the following morning with the Public Security Commission. But for some reason he can’t get the memory of the events that took place twenty years earlier out of his head, and they’re only making things worse.

What now irks him most is the awareness that he always denied the role of fate  in what happened to Masajiro Amitani.

Was it an accident , he asks himself so many years later, that his wife told him when he got back from his first meeting with Masajiro that her confused mother, a diabetes patient, had been admitted to hospital after injecting too much insulin and had sunk into a coma. Her doctor had only recently prescribed R-Regular U-500 Humilin, a new concentrated form of insulin, but his mother-in-law had used the same old dose she had been injecting for years. It could easily have been fatal. Takeda and his wife visited her in hospital that same evening. He wasn’t usually so interested in his mother-in-law, but this time he was curious for some reason and asked the old lady what had happened. She had injected twenty units of the new insulin concentrate, and the overdose had almost killed her.

Sitting in his car the following morning in front of the home, Takeda put on his horn-rimmed glasses, cloth cap and civil servant face. Less than ten minutes later he was sitting opposite Masajiro Amitani. This time the man seemed a little uncomfortable.

“Why do you want to know about the camp? They didn’t conduct secret experiments there as they did in Xinjing. It was a camp for women, nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Why were you transferred from the camp to Xinjing?”

Masajiro tried to straighten his back: “The answer to that is simple: my superiors had taken note of my patriotism and my readiness to follow orders to the letter.”

Takeda peered deep into the man’s sunken eyes and asked himself if Masajiro could sense a bond between them. He looked at the soldier’s hands: long fingers with surprisingly coarse knuckles, as if his skeleton had already gone to war with the skin covering it. Takeda noted that the fingers were tense and twisted.

“Your readiness to follow orders to the letter… Tell me, Mr Masajiro, how were the women in the camp treated?”

“According to the regulations of the imperial Japanese army.”

“So the prisoners of war had to be productive.”

The man’s fingers relaxed and he rested his hands on his thighs. “There were production quotas, that’s true.”

“I mean: productive in another way.”

“I’m not following.”

“Did they have to produce babies?”

The fingers tensed. His nails were clean and neatly cut, but his hands appeared to be covered with patches of dirt, or was it subcutaneous bleeding?

“Where did you get such strange ideas?”

“What were the nationalities of the women in the camp?”

“English, America…”

“Dutch?”

“Yes, Dutch too. There were a lot of Dutch people in Sumatra when the war broke out.”

“They have beautiful women in the Netherlands, don’t you think? Tall, sturdy, blonde.”

“They disgusted me. Graceless peasants, smelled of… ”

“Milk and honey?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Did you enjoy raping them?”

“I…”

“Was there a tall woman, half-blonde, half-redhead?”

A shudder ran through Masajiro Amitani’s body.

“I think it would be better if you…”

“No, it would be better if you confessed.” Takeda took off his glasses. The man opposite him blinked.

“Who…?”

“I’m the son of Barbara Gerressen. Does the name ring a bell?”

“No.”

“A Dutch woman.” For the first time in the conversation Takeda removed his cap. Masajiro had made nothing of Takeda’s impoliteness during their last meeting and had seemed equally indifferent on this occasion.

“A Dutch woman with red hair.”

Did Takeda catch a glimpse of recognition, a memory, a flash of guilt, or a dark shimmer of incomprehension?

“I don’t know any Dutch women with red hair.”

“You’re lying. Or should I say: father, you’re lying?”

The man’s lips stiffened. Takeda noticed his left hand tighten around the wheel of his chair, its knuckles white. “Are you mad? I’m not your…”

“What was it like when you raped her? When you penetrated her sumptuous flesh with your war-crazed prick?” The exhilaration felt good, a glorious liberation.

“You’re not my son. I was a soldier. I was following orders.”

“Ah so. Then your superior was to blame. Did he hold your prick and use it as a bayonet to stab the enemy? Is that what you’re saying?”

Masajiro moistened his dry lips. “Of course not. We were soldiers. We had to follow…” His eyes turned towards the door. Takeda was afraid and angry: he didn’t feel the satisfaction he had predicted, at least not as much as he had expected. He felt less and less at ease with the situation. He didn’t know the routine followed by the nursing staff. The previous day he had spent more than an hour with Masajiro without being disturbed. He hadn’t seen a call bell in the room. But who could guarantee that they wouldn’t interrupt them this time round?

“Filthy dog,” said Masajiro from deep in his throat, shaking in his wheelchair with helpless rage. “You are not  my…”

Takeda lost control of himself, pulled a syringe from his poc


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ket, waved it in a circle as if it was a dagger and thrust it into Masajiro’s neck. In almost the same movement he jumped to his feet and covered Masajiro’s mouth with his right hand. Masajiro did his best to fight for his life and break free, but his feeble frame was no match for Takeda’s muscle power. The night before, Takeda had taken his wife’s key to her mother’s apartment and filled a syringe with sixty units of insulin from the ampoules in the fridge. On his way out he hesitated, returned to his mother-in-law’s fridge, and added another twenty units. He hid the syringe in his own fridge at home and crept into bed next to his sleeping wife, who was used to his nocturnal escapades. The entire night he had fantasised a hint of recognition, of guilt and regret and panic in Masajiro’s eyes before he put the man out of his misery.

Masajiro’s eyes closed and his body slumped. He was still alive, but his brain cells were disoriented, dying in their droves in the hypoglycaemic shock brought on by the massive overdoses of insulin. He would be dead in minutes.

“Father,” Takeda rasped as he let the man go. “Say something before you die, show some remorse… it’s your last chance.”

Masajiro rolled his eyes and babbled: “The latrines were full of vermin, mostly maggots and… tiny, tiny bodies.” His head fell to his chest as he sunk into a lethal coma.

Takeda started to panic. How long did he have to wait to be sure Masajiro didn’t wake from the coma? What if someone came into the room? He sat down in a chair in front of Masajiro. He had to wait, had to be sure. If anyone came in he would say he was astonished: Masajiro Amitani had fallen asleep in the middle of a sentence. Sweat trickled down Takeda’s forehead. His body seemed to be energized with electricity. He was alone in the world, alone with the man who had robbed him so many years ago of the possibility of enjoying the pleasures of life. The seconds ticked by and felt like hours.

Why did I do it? Takeda asked himself, genuinely surprised. Why?


* * *

It took months before he dared show his mother the dog-tags. Barbara Gerressen emerged from her attempted suicide as a woman who spread overpowering anger in the air around her, like the smell of burning flesh. All that time, corporal Takeda had been waiting for a knock on the door and the police taking him into custody in handcuffs. But the staff at the home where Masajiro lived had apparently blamed his death on the man’s failing health. And even if they had performed an autopsy, there would have been no traces of the overdose of insulin after twenty-four hours.

Takeda told his mother that he had found the dog-tags when he was tidying her room. He asked in a tone that could be interpreted as accusatory if they belonged to his father. The tags had a strange effect on her. She tore them from his hand and threw them away as if they were poisonous. She clenched her fists, her eyes bulged. Her MS had worsened in recent months and her limbs jerked and shuddered. He finally calmed her down and she told him in a toneless voice, distant, as if she was telling someone else’s story, that most of the camp guards made a habit of picking the prettier women to rape. The man she called “that whore-hopper Masajiro” without paying the least attention to the expression on her son’s face was the first.

After getting her pregnant he had threatened to kill her and when the baby was born they both, father and mother, made sure it drowned in the latrines. Barbara Gerressen wasn’t up to raising a child in the camp. Where would she get the energy? She also hated the baby: it was “brown as a coconut”.

This was the first time Takeda had heard about his dead half-brother. Other whore-hoppers followed, Barbara Gerressen continued, but fortunately none of them got her pregnant.

“Six months before the end of the war I had sex with whore-hopper Genkei Akama, your father,” she concluded. She looked at him as if she wanted to see how deeply her words pained him. “You were destined to meet the same fate as your half-brother, but the war ended and that changed everything.”

He noticed her hands tremble as if she felt sorry she hadn’t been able to toss the second baby into the latrines.

I killed the wrong man, thought Takeda. I took all those risks for the wrong man. He roared with laughter as his mother raised her eyebrows in surprise.

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On the toll road from Kyoto to Tokyo – Takeda – March 18th 1995 

He still has hours of driving ahead of him and tiredness is already weighing heavy, but he’s determined to get to the suburbs of Tokyo before nightfall and take the metro the following morning to the offices of the Public Security Commission. After the storm of the night before, his car has been assailed all day long by broad swathes of almost blinding golden sunlight. Takeda pays little attention to the motorway and the landscape around him. There’s something cardboard about it all, neat and soulless, constructed in haste. His mind is a merry-go-round of half-digested impressions and streams of ideas, a psychic no-man’s-land without horizons. Takeda realises that he’s been living for days with the same rattled feeling he had twenty years earlier when he was sitting in that tiny room with the man he thought was his father, waiting for him to breathe his last. Then, as now, his mind zigzagged back and forth trying to come to grips with a reality that seemed so unreal, so unacceptable.

A new thought makes him tug the wheel involuntarily. If Norikazu and his men have Yori under their control, then the mafia boss now knows about the existence of Beate Becht and that means she could be in danger. His jaws tense. He’s botched up big time, one blunder after the other. Becht is unstable, has already attempted suicide before. It won’t take much to get her to talk. The inspector tries to calm down. What happened, happened. He’s determined not to deviate from his plan. It’s not a good plan, but it’s his only plan. In contrast to the traditional detective novels his wife used to read with such pleasure, the events of the last few days had been nothing but chaos. Takeda had been involved in plenty of investigations in his career that were just as chaotic, hanging together by a thread, the work of the inadequate and the confused. Since murdering the man he thought was his father, Takeda has subscribed to the theory that “normal” life is like being under water: everything is blurred; the people and things around you do the same every day, listless, pointless. But serious crimes propel you to the surface where everything is sharp and unexpected. Suddenly you realise that creatures have followed you from the deep. You see predators you didn’t notice before and they scare the shit out of you.

He feels like a tiny cog in a huge machine, turning and churning, stirring the pot.

After the confrontation with his mother and the realisation that he had killed the wrong man, Takeda suffered a nervous breakdown and took sick-leave for four months. It wasn’t appreciated. The force had little sympathy for policemen with mental problems, a reality he had to deal with later when he still struggled to pass the inspector’s exam in spite of being significantly older than the other candidates. When he got back on his feet, he decided it was time for a new Takeda. Prior to his breakdown he had been the model policeman, following orders to the letter wherever possible, a born yes man. But now he seemed to have developed such an instinct for crimes and the motives behind them that his colleagues and superiors started to talk behind his back of his “sixth sense”. Rumours gradually spread about his talents and Takeda was even tempted to believe in them himself. Fortune and accident combined to help him solve a couple of difficult cases. Once he had separated himself from the pack, he inevitably drew attention to himself; not exactly an advantage in Japan. His superiors used him with relish to get results, but they didn’t trust him; not only because he was a half-breed, but now because of what they called his eccentric  behaviour. Takeda resigned himself and cultivated his image. It helped him forget the past and come to terms with the fact that he was destined to be an average run-of-the-mill police officer for the rest of his life. He channelled his underlying vengefulness and ambitions into the cases that came his way and gradually developed a sense of pride in being a lone wolf. At the same time he learned to live with the widespread corruption that riddled the force in a country where losing face was the worst thing that could happen to a person and crime figures were kept artificially low. The outside world saw Japan as an anthill society in which everyone played their part to the best of their ability, but Takeda was convinced that the Japanese were the biggest anarchists on the planet, they just managed to keep it under wraps.

Years passed, time flew.

Now he was sitting behind the wheel of a rented car on his way to Tokyo to save his own skin.

But was his skin worth saving, he asked himself. He had treated his wife as an object of little value. He had indulged his hidden desires on whores. The thin line he had walked for so many years reminded him of the months of fear that had followed the death of Masajiro and the slowly evolving conviction after the event that he wasn’t going to be caught.

But I should have been caught.  That thought kept him focussed and helped him mask the dark side of his character. It was only in the tiny, tidy, impersonal cubicles of the love hotels  that he was able to reveal the true Takeda. But he would drive home afraid after each visit: a police inspector who enjoyed a bit of hard-handed action with prostitutes was exposed to any number of dangers. Sooner or later he was going to rough up a woman who worked for the yakuza  and his unusual appearance would make him easy to find. Takeda knew he was playing with fire; perhaps he wanted to be punished . He asked himself time and again if he did what he did because he hated his mother. Then he would try to cultivate feelings for her, but nothing ever came, beyond a slight sense of irritation, as if she hadn’t suckled him enough.

As tears go by.  Takeda remembers a Rolling Stones song he had to translate when he was a student. He has no idea what makes him think about it now.

But what he does know is that the tears in his life have gone by without him being able to cry them.

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Tokyo – Hibiya line – Ueno Station – metro heading to Naka-Meguro – Takeda – Monday March 20th 1995 

Takeda has the taste of ash in his mouth. He spent the entire previous day in his hotel room being chased by memories and being forced to confront himself once too often. He had called the Public Security Commission and passed through the usual echelons before being granted an appointment. An appointment on March 19th wasn’t possible, which left him with a day on his hands to mull over his chances again and again.

7.58am. The Hibiya line is packed as usual. Takeda squeezes between the other passengers as they push towards the door of the train. A railway official dressed in the familiar green uniform and regulation white gloves tries to prevent all the pushing and shoving from getting out of hand. Two men wearing surgical masks board the train behind him to his right, not an unusual sight on overfull metro trains where bacteria has free reign. Decent people wear a mask out of respect for their fellow travellers when they feel a cold coming on. One of the men is carrying an attaché case and an umbrella, just like hundreds of thousands of others on their way to work in the metropolis. He squeezes in behind Takeda. The other walks past him.


* * *

Takeda tries to organise his thoughts. He can’t appear nervous in front of the Commission. He dives into his memories as he used to dive into the sea in his youth when he wanted to be alone. He remembers his first holiday job selling tyres for a car-part firm and how he stammered and stuttered in front of his first customer. At university he joined a Buddhist organisation called Soka Gakkai, but it didn’t last. The path to inner peace was not for him, although he longed for tranquillity in the depths of his being. Several months police-training in Tokyo followed, the city without beginning or end, where millions of people work, dream, fight and fuck. The metropolis always worked him up, and now the same old fever invades his bones in spite of his best efforts to think serene thoughts. He looks around the compartment. The train slows down. Akihabara Station is the next stop. The man with the surgical mask behind him places a number of parcels wrapped in newspaper on the floor and looks around. At that instant Takeda looks over his shoulder in response to what feels like a tingling in his neck. Their eyes meet and for a moment Takeda is confronted with his own loneliness. He turns back and is unaware that the man behind him is poking the parcels on the floor with the sharpened tip of his umbrella. The train stops. The man wedges up against Takeda to get off. There’s a chemical smell in the air, the smell of concentrated cleaning fluid. The man pushes Takeda aside and jumps onto the platform. Takeda shakes his head at his rudeness, but is quickly confronted by a new sensation: a hurried crowd pushes and shoves its way into the carriage. The inspector tries to stand his ground against the increasing pressure from the bodies around him. The smell in the compartment becomes penetrating, like nail varnish remover. The passengers begin to shout, push to the front, gasping for air. Takeda feels an oncoming wave of nausea. His eyes are irritated and his chest tight. The scene in the compartment begins to undulate as if he’s under water. A mother of a headache sets in.


* * *

The second man was chosen because of his skills as a metro pick-pocket. He’s young, smart, cheeky, and equipped with lightning reflexes. Like his accomplice, he was given an injection of atropine that morning, an antidote for sarin. Small, agile and slightly cross-eyed, he knows precisely what to do. When the passengers start to cough and rub their eyes, he has to do the same to avoid drawing attention to himself. The adrenalin begins to pump. He watched his companion leave the train and he knows that it’s now his turn. When panic breaks out he sees Takeda lose balance. Not long now. The train is approaching Kodemmacho station. A couple of passengers have found the source of the deadly fumes: three plastic bags on the carriage floor. When the train stops they kick the bags onto the platform. In their panic they hit people trying to board the train. Chaos breaks out on the platform and people start to scream. Takeda falls to his knees, snot pouring from his nose and a yellowish fluid from his mouth. The second man stoops and grabs the attaché case his victim has been holding with both arms the entire time. Takeda looks at him with bloodshot eyes and makes a feeble gesture, as if insisting the man give him his bag back. He knows,  the second man thinks. He knows what I want from him.  He spits in Takeda’s face, jumps from the train, skilfully avoids the convulsing bodies on the platform, and rushes towards the exit with the attaché case clasped to his chest. He runs outside as the sirens begin to wail in the distance. He hums, almost imperceptible, his favourite song: Lord Death Counts His Followers. 


* * *

Inspector Takeda vomits and tries to get to his feet. All the evidence he had is now gone. His last thought before losing consciousness: I should have fired a sea of bullets as I crossed the street, when I saw him there with his follower and their motorbikes and leathers and flashy helmets as if they were from a different planet… 

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Hashima Island – Norikazu and Yori – March 22nd 1995 

The spring sky is bright and capricious as molten iron. The sea by contrast is deep blue with occasional white-crested waves. As sea and sky collide, the buildings on the island seem like relics of a forgotten civilisation of giants. Norikazu is made for this island, Yori thinks, as if its concrete ground gave birth to him. Today he’s without make-up. In the sunlight his pockmarked skin is speckled black. Yori once saw photos in an underground magazine of Vietnamese with skin diseases brought on by the American defoliation compound Agent Orange. Their damaged skin looked like that of Norikazu. It’s amazing how bright daylight makes him appear old when he’s without his make-up. Today Yori can clearly see that he’s well into his sixties. At other moments, at dusk and at night, he seems much younger, in part because of his jet-black hair, which he probably dyes.

“I saw it on TV,” she says. “They’re calling it ‘an aimless gas attack in the metro’. Aimless, father?” She likes to call him father. Norikazu smiles, exposing his pointed teeth. In this light they’re yellow and irregular.

“How did you manage to track down the inspector?”

He turns away from her. Today, as is often the case on Hashima, he’s wearing formal attire. His hakama  is charcoal grey. His broad-waisted gi  is black. His grey trouser skirt hangs to the floor and accents his height. He looks at once like a badly assembled meccano man and an impressive stage actor, larger than life itself.

“Come, father. You know how curious I can be.” She stands beside him, rests her head against his chest. He smells of metal long exposed to the sun. He almost always does.

He relents: “The German photographer was able to tell us the name of the motel he would use on March 18th. He had promised to take her with him and had reserved two rooms. She still had a record of their reservation. After that it was easy to trace Takeda and shadow him. He contacted the Public Security Commission and was given an appointment for the morning of March 20th. The rest is history.”

“Is that so? The papers say the attack was the work of Aum Shinrikyo, father.”

“The papers, the papers… They also say it’s a miracle that so few people died, my daughter. The sarin had been mixed with acetonitrile to slow its release. If it had evaporated quicker, thousands would have perished, perhaps even tens of thousands.”

“I heard that Shoko Asahara is a member of your Yuzonsha .”

He pushes Yori away and leans over her. His shadow covers her completely. “And who told you that, my daughter?”

“People talk, father, even here on the island.”

His lips curl; it’s not a pretty sight: “Then it’s time I set a new example.”

Yori looks up at him, her eyes screwed up, and quickly changes the subject: “Are you still worried about all the recent publicity?”

Norikazu rests his hands on his belly like a shell. “Aum solved that problem for me too. Look at the media: everyone’s talking about the sect. No one could care less about me anymore.”

Yori lifts her chin. Her eyes glisten when she asks the question she can no longer hold back: “You got the documents back. Are they authentic?”

His eyes are clouded, but he smiles: “They’re authentic.” He steps forward and takes her in his arms.

Yori is pressed against his chest, her voice muffled: “Then there’s only one more question, father: do they relate to you?”

She feels his arms tighten around her in a firm embrace, like a giant reptile that could crush her at any minute.

“The last time someone asked me that question, my daughter, was also here in this same place. A woman. Women can be so curious. Alas, I loved her deeply.”

With her mouth pressed against his tunic she asks: “What happened to her, father?”

He sighs and relaxes his arms: “She fell from the parapet. Her body was dashed against the rocks and then tossed into the sea. It all happened so quickly, like a hawk diving into the waves, desperately searching for an answer to a question that must never be asked.”

Yori carefully extricates herself from his embrace and steps away from him. A tear glistens in her left eye, but she smiles nevertheless. “I don’t want to know the answer to that question, father. All I want to know is this: do you love me with all the energy love can muster?”

The Lord of Lies smiles from ear to ear and gives her the answer she wants to hear.

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Hiroshima – metro service tunnel – metro workers – March 23rd 1995 

Two metro employees are faced with the surprise of their lives when they open the service tunnel door. They flinch at the sight of a woman lying dead over a pile of boxes, writing material and sheets of paper on the floor beside her.

The two workers approach with caution. The expression on the woman’s face makes it clear that she didn’t die in peace.

“Look, there… She’s handcuffed… There’s something not right about this.”

They lean hesitatingly over the body with a mixture of anxiety and compassion.

“God, she must have tried to open the cuffs with a pen… she’s cut deep into the wrists.”

“I don’t think so… If you ask me she was trying to gnaw at her wrist with her teeth. Aren’t those teeth marks?”

Both men sense the residue of a terrifying death that still hangs in the air around them. They urge each other to get out and inform the police, but instead they slowly circle the body.

“Those papers… Can you read that?”

“… Illegible… Makes no sense to me… looks like gibberish. Take a look yourself.”

“… Same here. Is that Chinese? It looks like Chinese.”

“No, those are Japanese characters, but it still makes no sense. Maybe fear drove her crazy.”

“Or maybe she was already round the bend and this is a sort of suicide. What would drive a person…”

“Poor kid.”

“Poor kid? Look at the size of her. She was colossal.”

The smaller of the two crouches in a corner. “Look… What’s this?”

“The keys to the cuffs by the look of it.”

“I wouldn’t touch them if I were you! Do you think she did it herself?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“She wouldn’t have struggled so much to escape.”

“Maybe she changed her mind. You never know with kids these days. She could have decided to commit suicide by cuffing herself down here and throwing away the key. Then she realised what she had done. Drugs might explain it. Look at her. Maybe she was sick of being stared at.”

“Or a prank that got out of hand. I can’t follow the younger generation anymore. You’d think they were from another planet at times.”

“Whatever it was, she died a pretty ugly death. Look at her eyes.”

“And you can be sure it’ll remain a mystery. The police aren’t interested in kids who turn their back on society.”

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Excerpt from the Stern – April 4th 1995 

The prepublication of Beate Becht’s photo book Underground Japan  in the German weekly Stern  is a phenomenal success. The magazine is usually good for a million copies, but this edition sells almost two-hundred thousand more. The photographs, as the accompanying text explains, represent a change of direction in Becht’s work. Street Photography from Japan’s Underbelly!  one of the subtitles screams. The photos are printed in black and white. They’re coarse, grainy, crooked, sombre and threatening. They portray, among other things, a street brawl with knives, a grotesque and bloated corpse tied to a sun bed, and the tattooed back of a half-naked Japanese girl being held by the hair by a giant of a man with a strange, angular, pockmarked face. The faces are barely recognisable because of the heavy shadows that typify Becht’s photographic style. The final image of the report, which announces the book’s publication in the autumn of 1995, is an exceptionally powerful collage: the giant from the previous photograph is standing on the roof of a grey, dilapidated apartment building looking out over the ruins of what looks like a deserted city, a veritable ghost town, brooding, mysterious, terrifying. The centre segment of the collage was clearly taken from a boat at sea, close to an enormous walled embankment. The sea has the colour of rusty metal and green-grey clouds hang low in the sky. The final segment is a close-up of a pair of dark, hypnotic eyes in a face that appears to have been damaged by illness. It’s a cruel face, but it also exudes authority. Becht explains in the accompanying text that it’s the face of a local mafia leader known by the name of a Japanese demon and feared in Hiroshima and its surroundings. The photographer claims that the man suffers from delusions of grandeur and tries to convince everyone that he’s a prince rejected by the Japanese imperial family and banished to an island, an industrial wasteland where he awaits the arrival of better times. Becht concludes: “Rokurobei was so insane it was hard to believe that he wasn’t really possessed. Every minute I spent in his company, I felt as if I was under the influence of some sort of force field that threatened to absorb me completely. I’ve never met anyone in my life who seemed less human as Rokurobei, both inside and out. His claim to ‘divine origins’ was thus more unnerving than ridiculous.”

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Hiroshima – Hijiyama Park – Xavier Douterloigne – April 10th 1995 

Xavier Douterloigne still has problems with his balance. They told him to be patient, that it would get better. He might never be the same as he was, but after such a lengthy period of recovery he has to be grateful he’s alive. He looks back at his stay in hospital as one of life’s lessons. It gave him time to think things over, but more than anything else to dream. His calm exterior still conceals a sense of guilt, a desire to return to a childlike state of grace. Xavier is now aware that he has to realise his own grace.

He’s taking a stroll in Hiroshima’s Hijiyama Park. He’s in no hurry. Every step is filled with hesitation, as if he’s walking on unstable ground. He has a better eye for detail than before. The Yamazakura cherry blossom trees have yet to bloom, but their buds are already visible. Xavier makes his way to the tenth tree, standing neatly in the row, exactly as it was more than ten years ago. He sits at the foot of the tree and closes his eyes.


* * *

Xavier and Anna buried the time capsule in Hijiyama Park on Anna’s eleventh birthday. They were in the southern part of the park, surrounded by the pink of fluttering Yamazakura cherry blossoms, when they popped the tin box in a hole in the ground at the foot of the tenth tree, which extended its branches above them like a fan. Anna had a serious expression on her face. She always believed wholeheartedly in the things she did. Xavier was different. He felt a little giggly, but he was still impressed by the importance of the moment.

“Why here, on holiday, Anna? Why not in Tokyo?” Xavier didn’t tell her that he planned to dig up the capsule once in a while to look inside and to play with the toy car he had contributed to the box’s contents. They had filled the box with Anna’s poems, Xavier’s most cherished model car – a Porsche 956K Hockenheim –, a lock of each other’s hair, an old medal that once belonged to their mother, and a pen belonging to their father.

“Because this is the City of Peace and love,” said Anna, still serious. She gestured towards Hiroshima to their left below the park.

“It’s also the city of death,” said Xavier. He had read it somewhere. Xavier pictured death as a long journey over stormy oceans filled with monsters and the like.

“Don’t be so pig-headed,” said his sister.


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That’s what she always said when she wanted to get her way. “Say after me, Xavier: this time capsule seals our love as brother and sister. In ten years time we will dig it up again and still love one another.” Xavier felt slightly embarrassed and lowered his gaze, but he repeated his sister’s words nonetheless.

“As brother and sister we will do everything to make each other happy,” Anna continued. ‘Everything’ sounded like an awful lot to Xavier. Anna was eleven, a year older than him, and sometimes a little bossy in his eyes. But Xavier still looked up to her, her quick-wittedness, the way she brushed her hair, stuck out her chin, and then, out of the blue, without warning, her fears at night when she had a bad dream and asked if Xavier would get in beside her. When he did, the world suddenly seemed much smaller, as if they were in a space ship on a long journey to a world more beautiful than Earth.

They dug with their hands; the soil was sticky. When they were finished stamping the soil flat again, Anna looked at her brother – still serious –, took him by the arms and kissed him on both cheeks. At that moment a cloud of butterflies flew out of a nearby cherry blossom tree and surrounded their heads in pastel coloured wings and feelers. Anna and Xavier followed the swarm as it nestled in another tree. “They’re our witnesses,” said Anna. It was as if a large wheel had turned in Xavier’s head; a vague and nameless feeling filled his chest. “Now we have a secret,” Anna continued. “Our life will never be the same again.”

Shoganai,”  said Xavier. He wasn’t exactly sure why he said what he did. It was a word he had borrowed from the adults who surrounded him.


* * *

Sitting under the tree in Hijiyama Park, Xavier Douterloigne decides that when people ask him back in Belgium how it happened  he’ll answer them. He’ll tell them how Anna ended up in a wheelchair and later committed suicide. He’ll tell them why he thinks it’s his fault, although the law sees it differently. He’s determined to do it, but the thought of it weighs heavy in his stomach. He had the same feeling the day Anna predicted her own death years earlier in the war cemetery in Ypres.


* * *

“Gently sloping, traditional, provincial farm land.” Anna Douterloigne giggled. She could always see the funny side of things, whatever the situation, in spite of the fact that she was the type of girl who liked to collect signatures to put an end to dolphin hunting and the like. When Xavier wanted to tease her, he called her “engaged” in a tone that made it sound like a venereal disease. It was a blustery day, June 1983, and there was a hint of summer madness in the air. Anna called it A Day of Mischief . Such a beautiful, mysterious expression; especially now, as they sat together in Tyne Cot Cemetery. She had completely changed in the preceding two years, in the way only girls could. She was fourteen, but she tried to convince Xavier that she’d been in cafés in Ypres during the holidays where you had to be sixteen. Anna stuck out her chest and took an exaggeratedly deep breath. “Où sont maman et papa?” she drawled in French.

“Over there, nosing around in the family’s history, with a horde of Japs in their wake.” Xavier wanted to sound macho, intent on not falling behind too far when compared with Anna.

Anna sighed and straightened her blazer. “Father always has to play the diplomat and impress the mayor… even on holiday.” She laughs. “Let it please the lord mayor of Ypres…” The Japanese delegation listened enthralled to her father as he explained the region’s wartime history in another part of the cemetery.

“I’ve heard we won’t be staying in Tokyo,” she continued.

“What do you mean? Are we moving back to Flanders?”

Anna looked at Xavier as if he was the village idiot in need of a moment of mental clarity. Her mother had helped her to put on make-up that morning. She seemed so adult that Xavier had the feeling he had to brace himself. Xavier had a preference for the things Anna called traditional . That was also the way he liked to dress. Anne called him her “little professor”, although he was head and shoulders taller than her. In Anna’s eyes he was “the perfect diplomat’s son”. Anna was extravagant, a magnificent bird of paradise. She often dressed in a way that made her mother choke with laughter while at the same time dramatically touching her heart as if she would die at the spot. Adolescents bent on confrontation aren’t likely to find understanding parents anything but boring, but in the Douterloigne household most issues were solved with a smile and a little humour.

“I wouldn’t mind moving back to Flanders,” Xavier continued in response to his sister’s silence.

“I would have preferred a few years somewhere else,” said Anna, “in another country. Like the daughter of father’s predecessor we met back in Japan. What was her name again? Amélie, wasn’t it. She was mad! What was her surname?”

“Nothomb,” said Xavier obligingly.

“That’s right. Amélie Nothomb. She complained nonstop that she had lived in too many different countries, but I quite like the idea.” Anna looked up at the deep blue sky that set the white gravestones of Tyne Cot Cemetery in sharp relief and gave the treetops a burnished sheen. She pointed to her parents. “But we shouldn’t forget that they aren’t getting any younger. They want to be near their family.” She laughed. “Jung says that parents become totems to their children.”

“Should we dance and haw-haw around them like American Indians?”

Anna was always moved when Xavier tried to be funny. She laughed out of duty: “Jung was talking about idols. We have to knock them down instead of dancing around them. Otherwise we’ll spend the rest of our lives on our knees in front of our idols.” Anna had read about Jung in a journal recently and raved about him at every opportunity. She tried to read his books and even quoted him now and then.

“If you ask me,” said Xavier, a little affectedly, “the revolt of the younger generation is a bit passé and I don’t need it. We’re not living in the sixties or seventies anymore.”

Anna laughed. “You’re such a goody-goody, the spitting image of dad, only dad’s funnier. He managed to preserve his inner child. Just like Carl Gustav Jung. Even after he became a renowned psychiatrist, Jung still built miniature cities in his living room using sticks and stones and other bits and pieces. It was also something he did as a child. And as an adult he wanted to feel what was going on inside when he was a child, what animated  him.  He had an Egyptian spirit guide named Philemon. I wouldn’t mind hooking myself someone like Jung when I’m a little older; I’d never be bored again.”

“He probably smoked opium,” said Xavier. “Everyone did in those days. And if you didn’t see yellow skeletons dancing a jig after smoking opium then you were completely gaga.”

Anna laughed: “You’ve been nosing around in my books again. How many times do I need to tell you that you’re more the Tintin  type?”

“Help,” said Xavier. “You’re so funny my sides are bursting…”

“The unconscious,” Anne continued enthusiastically. “I’d give anything to know what’s hiding in it, and what it can do if you bring it to the surface.”

“Make you fly? I don’t think so,” said Xavier. Anna gave him a playful punch on his chest. “The unconscious is beyond time and space, idiot. It can take me to a different planet or catapult me back in time.” She pointed to the graves. “To 1915, for example, when those crumbled bones beneath our feet were young men who whistled as they shaved, with a healthy clump of hair under their arms, brown from the sun, and dangling braces.”

“What a morbid horror you are,” said Xavier. He liked using words like morbid. Anna abruptly changed the subject as she often did. “Let’s agree that the first of us to die has to try to give the other a sign.” Xavier’s thoughts were elsewhere: the narrow paths that crisscrossed the landscape and led to inward-looking orchards, the chestnut trees with their blossoms, the nettles, the hedges, the ochre clouds blocking the sun, the absurd noblesse of the cemetery, blinding white exclamations, endless under the distant sky as it peered towards the sea. And suddenly the world was magical, inexplicable.

“What?” said Xavier. In spite of the distractions around him, he had in fact heard her every word.

“I’ll be the first,” Anna continued in a restrained tone.

“Nonsense. You can’t know that.”

She looked at him. Her face glowed like the flame of a candle in the sun. “I don’t know it, I feel  it.”

“Are you going to ruin my day with that crap?” said Xavier. He looked away from her, turned towards a tiny lizard enjoying the sun of one of the snow-white gravestones. The creature’s head flashed in the sunlight like a fake diamond.

“You shouldn’t say that kind of thing,” he concluded shiftlessly. She placed an apologetic hand on his arm and pointed to the reptile. “Lizards are messengers of the gods. This one was sent to seal our pact.” She tried to keep it light: “If you die first and forget to give me a sign then your ghost will grow donkey’s ears. Or a lizard’s tongue… it’s your choice.” She laughed and waved at her mother who signalled they should stay close. She headed back to her. Xavier followed then stopped and looked over his shoulder. The lizard disappeared behind the gravestone in a flash of green and gold.


* * *

Shoganai,  Xavier Douterloigne thinks as he sits beneath the cherry blossoms. That’s the way it is. Between the branches, the spring sun pitches shards of light that land on his closed eyelids. He has the feeling that he understands nothing about life, and that it’s OK. Not good, just OK. He opens his eyes and starts to dig, carefully at first and then with trembling fingers. He doesn’t take long before he feels something hard. Moments later, he’s holding the tin box he buried with his sister Anna in both hands. The promise wasn’t fulfilled as it should have been, Xavier thinks. More than ten years had passed and things hadn’t turned out as they had expected. The trembling in his hands gets worse as he opens the box. The paper on which Anna wrote her poems has turned dark green from the damp and the Porsche 956K Hockenheim has patches of rust here and there, but the locks of hair are in perfect condition, as are their father’s pen and their mother’s medal.

Xavier holds his breath. It’s impossible, but his eyes aren’t deceiving him. There’s a dark red petal at the bottom of the box.

He’s certain the petal wasn’t there when they buried the box. And even if he’s mistaken, it’s still impossible: cherry blossom petals only keep their intense colour for a couple of days.

While his brains grumble in protest, Xavier Douterloigne thinks back to what Anna said in the cemetery in Flanders Fields.

He holds the petal to his nose. Its smell stuns him… like an arrow to the heart.

125

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Tokyo – St. Luke Hospital – Tsukiji – neurology department – professor Arima and chief commissioner Takamatsu – April 11th 1995 

“Professor Arima, I’m chief commissioner Takamatsu of the Hiroshima prefecture. I need you to…”

“Can’t it wait? We’re under incredible pressure treating the two-hundred plus patients that were brought in after the sarin attack.”

“It’s an important matter.”

“Is it that urgent, Mr Takamatsu?”

“It’s about Mr Takeda. He’s in ward three, if I’m properly informed.”

“Mr Takeda. A moment… Yes, you’re correct chief commissioner. But get to the point, please.”

“Takeda was one of my inspectors in Hiroshima. He was suffering from depression and killed his wife just before he fled to Tokyo.”

“Is that so? Serious business indeed. You’ve come to arrest him, I presume?”

“I have subordinates to do that kind of thing, professor Arima. I’m more interested in his condition…”

“Doesn’t ward three ring a bell, Takamatsu?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“That’s where we keep people ‘alive’ who were in such bad shape when they were brought in we had to use a defibrillator on them. The majority are in a vegetative state, literally. The sarin completely poisoned their nervous system. If Mr Takeda ever emerges from the coma he’s in, he’ll have the intellectual age of a four-year-old infant. Large parts of his brain have been damaged. He won’t be able to use his limbs anymore, but we still have to wait and see how serious that paralysis will be.”

“Will he be able to speak, doctor?”

“He’ll be able to make noises, but carry on a conversation or make a statement… forget it, commissioner. The man is a complete wreck and will stay that way until the day he dies. If I wasn’t a doctor and hadn’t sworn the Hippocratic Oath, I would advise euthanasia. It would be more humane than keeping him alive. But isn’t that the way we are here in Japan? Duty prevails over everything. Will you excuse me?”

“Of course, doctor, with pleasure.”

About the Author

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Bob Van Laerhoven published more than 30 novels in Holland and Belgium. He explored trouble-spots across the globe from 1990 to 2003: Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Mozambique, Lebanon, Burundi, Kosovo… During the Bosnian war, in 1995, he sneaked into the besieged town of Tuzla when the refugees arrived from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. This resulted in the book Sebrenica.Testimony to a Mass Murder .

De wraak van Baudelaire  won him the Hercule Poirot Prize for best suspense novel of the year in Flanders in 2007. The French translation La Vengeance de Baudelaire  was published in 2013, followed by Baudelaire’s Revenge  in the US, and Месть Бодлера in Russia. Baudelaire’s Revenge  won the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category “mystery/suspense.” Laerhoven’s short story collection Dangerous Obsessions  (2015) was “best short story collection of the year” in The San Diego Book Review and is translated in Italian, Brazilian, Spanish, and Swedish. Heart Fever , his second collection, came out in the US in January 2018. He contributed to Brussels Noir in Akashic’s famous Noir-series. Brussels Noir was translated in French and in Polish.


Word-of-mouth is essential for any author to succeed.

If you enjoyed Return to Hiroshima , please consider leaving a review on Amazon.

Even a couple of lines would make a difference and would be extremely appreciated.

About the Publisher

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Crime Wave Press is a Hong Kong based fiction imprint that endeavors to publish the best new crime novels from around the globe.

Founded in 2012 by acclaimed publisher Hans Kemp of Visionary World and seasoned writer Tom Vater, Crime Wave Press publishes a range of crime fiction – from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring the world’s dark underbelly.

Crime Wave Press promotes strong voices, exceptional talent and unique points of view in the crime fiction genre.

Visit our website: www.crimewavepress.com

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Praise for Return To Hiroshima 

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Van Laerhoven’s Return to Hiroshima might well be the most complex Flemish crime novel ever written.

— Fred Braekman, De Morgen, Belgium 

A complex and grisly literary crime story which among other things refers to the effects of the nuclear attack on Japan.

— Linda Asselbergs, Weekend, Belgium 

Van Laerhoven skilfully creates the right atmosphere for this drama. As a consequence the whole book is shrouded in a haze of doom. Is this due to Hiroshima itself, a place burdened with a terrible past? Or is the air of desperation typical for our modern society?

— Jan Haeverans, Focus Magazine, Belgium 

Van Laerhoven won the Hercule Poirot Prize with Baudelaire’s Revenge. You’ll understand why after reading Return to Hiroshima.

— Eva Krap, Banger Sisters  Return to Hiroshima

Copyright

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Originally published in 2010 in Belgium as Terug naar Hiroshima 

© Bob van Laerhoven / Houtekiet / Linkeroever Uitgevers nv

This edition published in 2018 by

Crime Wave Press

Flat D, 11th Fl. Liberty Mansion

26E Jordan Road

Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong

www.crimewavepress.com

English Translation Copyright © 2017 by Brian Doyle

The translation of this book is funded by Flanders Literature.



Protected by copyright under the terms of the International Copyright Union: All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.

e-book ISBN: 978-988-14938-7-3

This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and other elements of the story are either the product of the author’s imagination or else are used only fictitiously.

Any resemblance to real characters, alive or dead, or to real incidents is entirely coincidental.

Cover design by Hans Kemp

Author photograph © Studio Schrever


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