Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tokyoites (Edokkotachi): Maintaining Radio Silence, a short story by Jacob Ritari

Each Wednesday in September, author Jacob Ritari is sharing with us one of his unpublished short stories set in Tokyo. This week's story is Maintaining Radio Silence, the story of Sasahara-san, a young university student, as he conducts a kind of personal experiment. Just what that experiment is, you'll have to find out for yourself. As with both of the previous two stories, Jacob once again gives us a thoughtful story with quiet depth.

Maintaining Radio Silence
Jacob Ritari

The thing was, time passed at a fixed rate. He had to remind himself of that more and more frequently now.
His first experience with the elasticity of time had come, of course, in elementary school, when the hateful wall clock ruled the lives of he and his classmates. Although it was dead and the teacher was alive, it often seemed as if the teacher were the machine, going benignly about his duties, while the clock adjusted itself—drawing out time like a body on a rack—to cause them the greatest possible misery. A glance: eight after three. Then his mind would take flight and travel all the way to Pluto and back, or back through time to the court of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He fought in great battles and rescued beautiful women, then laughed off their offers of marriage because girls were stupid, and went off to a banquet with his friends. All that had taken hours surely. A glance: nine after three. Years later, when he studied science in high school, he was struck by Einstein’s theory of relativity.
But what Einstein had meant by relativity had only to do with exceptional circumstances; for regular people, standing or walking around, every second that passed aged every cell in their body by one second.
After a great deal of thinking, he had come to several fast conclusions, of which this was one. Another: if it was possible to live for one second, it was possible to live for a minute. If it was possible for a minute, it was possible for an hour. If it was possible for an hour, it was possible for the eight thousand, six hundred and forty hours in a year.
It had been about nine hundred and sixty hours since he had begun the experiment.

He woke up to three sensations: darkness, heat, the smell of his sweat. It was hard to tell which of these preceded the others.
Darkness: the heavy purple curtains, what he had come to think of as his blackout curtains, kept out the light of day except for a narrow bar on either the right or left, depending on how he shifted them. This filament, no wider than that inside a lightbulb, was the only means he had of telling whether it was day or night. It was hard to say how darkness could become a positive sensation; but like the optical illusion of negative space, in which the same picture could be a vase or a pair of faces, the room was full of darkness that kept out the light.
Heat: the room was a hermetically sealed environment, so that the late summer heat was kept out, but what heat there was had no way of escaping. He had gotten used to it, and felt like a plant in a hothouse. Besides, sweating was supposed to release toxins.
Smell: he was skinny—now moreso than ever—and had always remarked how little he sweated; but doing laundry lay outside the parameters of the experiment, and his futon had thoroughly absorbed the odors of his body. He had marked it, the way a dog marks its territory. Sweating was one of those things you did whether you wanted to or not, like breathing.
What was in the room?
Books mainly; modern literature beginning with Sakaguchi Ango and Jun Ishikawa, up through Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima, to the latest hardcover editions by K.O. and H.M.—or almost the latest; it had been about a year since he’d bought the last. Shakespeare and Tolstoy in translation. There was a stack of papers, the edges turned imperceptibly with age, including essays and theses that shared names with the spines of the books. Science had never been his subject, but his education formed the subject matter of the experiment. Although he didn’t open the books anymore, they had formed him into the person he was today.
Empty PET bottles and aluminum cans lined up against the wall; a small force of armless soldiers. Eighteen bottles of Polcari Sweat. Five bottles of Nattchan. Twenty-one sixteen-ounce cans of Sapporo beer. Two of Kirin chu-hi.
The casual observer might easily misunderstand the nature of the experiment. The thing was, he wasn’t like those specimens you always heard about on the news, whose rooms were a filthy mess and who had basically given up on caring for themselves. He was simply restricting the care he received. Besides, with an infinite amount of time at his disposal, he might as well keep the room neat.
Infinite: that was one English word he knew. He like to pronounce it infinite rather than infinite, to stress that it didn’t mean an unlimited quantity of something, merely the removal of the idea of a limit.
Increasingly he played with language in his head, until Japanese words, divided into their calligraphic parts, became a series of meaningless signs; and foreign words scanned into Japanese became still more absurd. Knowing more than one language drove home to one the arbitrariness of signs. But thought, as he had learned in elementary school, filled up time least of all; the most elaborate thoughts less so than the most ordinary, automatic actions.
He sat up. Next to the bed was an alarm clock with two old-fashioned bells that never rang. The clock, with its glow-in-the-dark hands, read twenty till noon. That meant almost ten hours had passed by without his having in any way to acknowledge them.
His head throbbed, and he drank from the bottle of Nattchan still half-full that stood behind and slightly to one side of his pillow.
Next to the alarm clock was a tall, slender hourglass full of blue sand that he’d bought at a Western curio shop in Ikebukuro. The extremely slow trickle of sand was supposed to measure two hours. It had run down sometime during the night, and he upended it. The idea of movement in the room, even something this slight, was bracing. It was an independent corroboration of the passage of time; and even clocks had become so intermeshed with time itself that they seemed like its literal manifestation.
On top of a low chest of drawers was an upright cardboard tube, containing his high school diploma; a metal box full of loose-leaf tea; a plastic ashtray containing eleven butts of Mild Seven cigarettes, arranged around half its face as if knocked down by a Foucault’s pendulum; a box of Mild Sevens, three remaining, upright with its lid open and a tuft of foil escaping; another can of Sapporo he had put down the previous night, drunk enough, with an inch left in it; and a framed picture of a boy and a girl, taken in front of the Taiwan Pavilion in Shinjuku Park. The girl had her arm through the boy’s. They were both dressed in stylish fall clothing and leaning into the frame at an angle, giving it a comical and madcap appearance, as if they had interrupted a photographer’s shot of the pavilion. The girl had short hair, freckles, and a mischievous expression. The boy’s face was obscured by a small piece of tape pasted over the frame. The picture was dated over a year ago.

The experiment was called Maintaining Radio Silence. It was a matter of offering only the slightest resistance to the world’s attempts at communication—and the astonishing finding was how little effort it really took. For years, he had been aware of what most people took for a fact of their environment, but what was really an ongoing low-level communication between the world and the self—the things you encountered weren’t simply there, they demanded some response.
These things could be sorted into several levels: some, like advertisements, attempted to direct one’s behavior. Others like street signs, or the surprisingly mournful tune played by the traffic light when it changed to Walk, contained information, but it was up to you whether you followed them or not. Then there was the broadest category, the one most commonly disregarded; things like trash blowing in the wind, snatches of overheard conversation, the barking of neighbors’ dogs. Things that had nothing to do with oneself. But no matter how familiar they were—on how low a level they registered—who could claim to be entirely indifferent to them?
In his third year of university (he was now in his fifth) he had read Heidegger, and encountered the idea that a person’s being was inextricably bound up with the world around him. Individual being, then—as he understood it—wasn’t a valid category; there was only being-in-world. That might be the case for the ordinary run of people, those who never gave the world any thought.
True freedom, he was convinced, came from the ability to control the channels of communication. It wasn’t enough to reject the message of an advertisement; by the time it had reached you, it was too late. Wasn’t that what was meant by wandering in the desert, like the great prophets had done; or the Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree? It had nothing to do with meditation, or with renouncing the world in favor of something else. They had learned to cut all but the necessary connections.

In the hallway outside the room, now washed with the light of day and looking quite cheerful, an unmarked, white paper envelope protruded from underneath the door. The slit was just wide enough, without admitting much light and barely allowing the odor of the room to escape.
A lady just past middle age, her coiffed hair died very obviously black, came down the hall with all the contented regularity of a figure in the diorama on top of a grandfather clock. Who was it?—The landlady, Mrs. Ueno. She carried a plastic sack from Lawson’s convenience store under one arm. When she reached the door, she bent down carefully, removed the envelope, tucked it into the sash of her house kimono, and put the sack down in its place.
“Sasahara-san,” she called softly, and her eyes wrinkled with a smile.
“Thank you,” came a voice from inside.
It sounded strong, but hollow, like an echo.
“There’s lots of mackerel in there,” said Mrs. Ueno, “for your brain work.”
“Thank you.”
“And some milk tea. You shouldn’t drink so much liquor at your age, you know, it’s bad for you. But you can never drink enough tea.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
As she spoke, Mrs. Ueno remained slightly bowed before the door, in a rigid but seemingly effortless position.
“And how many pages have you written today, hmm? You can tell granny.”
“Thanks, but I’d prefer not to say.”
Mrs. Ueno chuckled silently to herself.
“Well, that’s as it may be. Be sure to let me see it when you’re finished. I’m an old woman, but I’ll do my best to understand.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Oh, and Sasahara-san…”
She went on in a tone of gentle remonstration: “You really ought to take in your mail, you know.”
“It’s alright…I pay my bills online. I know it’s just catalogues.”
“But Sasahara-san, it’s positively grotesque, spilling out of the box like that! What will people think of this establishment?”
“I’m sorry, grandmother. But couldn’t you…” For a moment, the voice lost its power. It took a moment to marshal unfamiliar words. “That is, I’d be happy to pay extra…”
“Now, now,” she slowly shook her head, “I’m happy with this arrangement of ours, but really, a young man should do some things for himself. You aren’t living at home anymore, you know.”
“I know.”
Mrs. Ueno gave an unemotive sigh. “Very well, then. Just this once, I’ll have Rinko bring it up later. That girl needs something to do, after all. But next week, for your own sake if anything, you really ought to do it yourself.”
Rinko was Mrs. Ueno’s youngest daughter, still in junior high school.
“Thank you,” came the voice. “Thank you for everything.”

He ate the convenience store bento with a pair of disposable wooden chopsticks he had been using for some time. They had split evenly when he opened them, and he had decided at the time—back when he half-believed in such things that were simply a matter of confusion between the self and the world—that they were lucky. Now it had become a matter of economy.
The bento had been heated by the clerk in a microwave; the mackerel was tough and dry, the rice was spongy, the pickled vegetables were like snips of leather. The only normal ingredient was the sour plum in the rice, which was supposed to taste awful. But why should he expect anything else? If it was possible to eat one bite, it was possible to eat the whole thing.
Against the wall opposite the empty bottles and cans were a number of clear plastic jars, each marked with tape. The levels in each jar also rose with the progress of the experiment. When he was finished eating, he scraped the picked mackerel bones into the jar with their kind; the same with the dried, truly inedible grains of rice, and the pit of the sour plum. There were at least thirty of the plum-pits in one jar. When they had filled up, like the hourglass, he supposed he would turn them over by emptying them.
This accomplished, he sat back on the futon coverlet and lit a cigarette. There was a small fan next to the ceiling light that drew off most of the smoke. Still, what remained covered pleasantly the sweat rising off the futon.
The clock read half-past noon. The bar of light beside the curtains was bright enough to pierce into the room, but still not as bright as the point of his cigarette.
In one corner stood a digital camera on a tripod. When he had snuffed the cigarette, he went and knelt slightly in front of it and squared his face in front of its opaque sightless eye. Then he switched it on and a faint light emanated from the screen in back. He pressed the shutter. His eyes burned and red light erupted behind his lids; a few tears even came. Wiping them forcefully, he crossed to his desk and switched on the computer. It was connected to the camera by one of the many cables held in fat bunches by masking tape that wound all around the futon. Another connected to the electric fan, another to his small refrigerator, another to the combined scanner and printer.
High up on the wall, above the jars of meal detritus, was a series of thirty-nine printed snapshots meticulously arranged in three rows and six columns. They showed a young man whose hair gradually lengthened and whose chin sprouted dark growth like fungus. In the first, he had been crew-cut, and his eyes were open. In the most recent, his hair fell below his shoulders.
Nearby on the same wall, sheets of notebook paper were attached with thumbtacks. One of them laid out the guidelines for the experiment. Another contained a set of more specific parameters that were continuously refined. For example:
No drinking beer before two p.m.
No drinking beer before four p.m.
No drinking beer before dinner
Cigarettes were recorded by a series of tally marks: twenty-four for the previous day. There was a table of expenses in gradually dwindling columns.
While the photograph was printing, and since the computer was already on, he cued up his music player and, still squinting into the light, browsed through the library. There was Schoenberg, Beethoven and Brahms. Hikaru Utada and The Rolling Stones.
He cued up Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Music was only fair as a way to pass time; it encouraged thought too much. A ten-minute piece of music, repeated six times, would do away with an hour; but would make it seem much longer. Even Schoenberg’s intellectual compositions were far from mechanical enough.
He sat back on the floor.
If false communication were rejected for long enough—surely a true communication, of some sort, would emerge.
As this conjecture lay outside the periphery of science, there was no mention of it in his notes. Yet something he had yet to lose faith in entirely was a certain motive power in the world, that directed the formation of impersonal elements into personality, while seeming impersonal itself; but that might, if provoked, reveal its face. That if ignored might eventually, as if through its own colossal boredom, peer an eye through the slit underneath his door.
Then as he sat thinking, the quick, light strokes of violins in the fifth symphony were undercut by a cacophonous element. In the hall outside, along with advancing footsteps—the quick rude thuds of socked feet on the wood—a young female voice was singing, in a hardly passable imitation of English:
“Since my baby left me—I found a new place to dwell—”
This was accompanied by the rhythmic tapping of knuckles against the wall. He shut his eyes, sighed, and lay back.
“Do-own at the end of lonely street, at—o-oi, Sa-chan!”
This was Rinko Ueno’s nickname for him.
“What is it,” he said, rolling over.
“Mail call! I dragged this junk all the way up the stairs, so you better come out and get it! Huh!”
When he shut his eyes, he could see the figure of the landlady’s daughter: her narrow hips that twitched as she walked, her impatiently swinging braids. But he could hardly remember her face.
“Thanks,” he said. “Leave it there, if you please.”
“Fine.” A snort. “Suit yourself.”
Another loud thud as a great stack of papers hit the floor. Then, following slightly after, a long, slow scraping noise. He realized she had sunk down to lean against his door. It was as if he could feel the heat of her body through the door, even in the room’s tropical atmosphere.
“It stinks,” came Rinko’s voice. “Don’t you open your windows?”
He said nothing.
After a moment, she went on: “God, school today was so boring. I fell asleep in every single class. Y’know, I think it’s all a big trick. I bet when you graduate college they all just stand and laugh at you. I mean, like, what am I learning that’ll ever be of any use to me? Or is the world really that boring?” She paused and added: “What do you think?”
He said nothing.
“God, you’re so boring. You should be, like, out of your mind with happiness that a beautiful girl like me will come and talk to you. I know you can hear me. C’mon, say something.
“Alright. Hey, Sa-chan, didja know? There’s this guy I like. He’s stupid, he’s always pulling my hair, but he’s really good at sports and everything. I figure it’s about time I had a boyfriend, I mean, I’m already thirteen years old. So it might as well be him as anyone else.
“I wrote him this letter. But now I don’t know if I should send it. I mean, I wouldn’t want him to get the wrong idea and, like, take it too serious. But I called up Nobuko—y’know, my sis, the one in college—and she just laughed, and said that writing love letters and all was part of being young, and I should do it. But she said she never sent or got a single one. Can you imagine that? She’s so pretty. I mean, she has a boyfriend now, but I guess he just asked her out.
“Anyway, what do you think?” Then after another pause she added: “I mean, you can read it if you want. You’re a writer, aren’t you? I’m not embarrassed or anything. My dad says getting embarrassed is a waste of time. He’s right, dontcha think? Anyway, here it is,” she said matter-of-factly, and after a moment, the bar of light under the door received a faint obstruction.
The floor creaked as Rinko stood up.
“You really should be honored,” she said, and her voice wavered. “That’s the secret of a young girl’s heart.”
Then he realized that his lips were moving: “I’ll look it over.”
He opened his eyes. There was silence within the room and without. Then Rinko’s voice resumed, quieter: “Thanks.”
He managed a faint grunt in reply.
“Alright. I guess I’ll see you around, Mr. Hikikomori,” and she pounded off.
He sat up. After a moment, he snorted.
Youth these days, he thought, and gave a wry smile; after all, he himself was only twenty-two. But still, it was sad; submerged in the mass media and society’s prejudice, they couldn’t tell the difference between a hikikomori and a man conducting a scientific experiment.
He reached out and turned over the hourglass.


Here are a few links about hikikomori:
Wikipedia page
Shutting Themselves In (Article in The New York Times)
The Story Behind Shutting Out the Sun (Michael Zielenziger's non-fiction book about hikikomori)
'Hikikomori' finds way into Oxford Dictionary of English

For more on Jacob and his writing, visit Jacob Ritari's website. You can also follow him on Twitter.

If you missed them, please also check out the previous two stories: The Sound of the Train, and Futaride.

Read more about Jacob's debut novel, Taroko Gorge, including an excerpt, at the Unbridled Books website.

Buy Taroko Gorge at: | BookDepository | via IndieBound

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon, or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information please visit my About Page. 


  1. Another great story:) I actually know a few people who became hikikomori for a short time, both after returning to Japan from abroad. I guess the change in pace of life was too much of a culture shock.

  2. Perfect ending. Thanks for another great story.


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