Tokyo Damage Report

Kenzaburo Oe’s SEVENTEEN part 4

What is SEVENTEEN??

 
CHAPTER 2
 
 I did not open my eyes in a good mood the following morning.   My head was pounding, my body had a slight fever, and my arms and legs felt heavy. I felt like I was in a coma, and that everyone in society was having their cheerful breakfast, while talking about what a fool I was. I had a feeling that something bad was going to happen today. Until last year, every birthday I made a resolution to choose a new hobby or custom. But now that I'm seventeen, I don't feel like doing anything new. Some guys start going downhill at forty. Others are still climbing uphill at sixty. But for me, Seventeen, it's all downhill from here! But the longer I keep my eyes shut, the more I feel like I'm sinking into mud, so eventually I decided to open them. Lacking the strength to rise or, for that matter, to shed my blanket, I merely stared sideways for a time. Until this year, no matter how bad things looked, I'd always been able to leap out of bed in an instant. I had a fire in my chest that felt like a bundle of good fortune had been stored there.
 
 I used to really love mornings. The bundle of good fortune gave me the energy to throw open the doors and run outside to greet the morning world. The radio exercise program announcer would recite the exercises in a cheery voice, and I'd cheerily follow along, his words for some reason making me want to exercise. Somehow I would want to wish good fortune with others and greet them in an upbeat manner. But now, listening to the wacky, giddy junior-high child-next-door playing his exercise program at high volume and singing along, I am filled with rage. No one has the right to tell me to sing along with anything! I want to tell him.
 
Sunlight streamed in through the cracks in the walls, and the roof as well, lending a golden sheen to the thick layer of dust on the seat of the kids' bicycle stored there. It was my bicycle, back when I was light-hearted. I used to ride it around the roller-skating section of the park, trailed by a woman taking my picture. Then I took a break to rest beneath the wisteria, and soon the strange golden-haired woman came and patted the bicycle seat, while blushing and smiling at me. It seemed to me she wanted to touch my naked ass, but settled for the bicycle seat. I got embarrassed and ran home, forgetting to take the bicycle. She chased after me, her high-and-low swooping laugh echoing in my ears. Listening to her words of praise, I got my first taste of the English language. It was scary at the time, but as I recall, she said: "Oh, puri reeru boi, kamu bakku! Puri reeru boi!"
 
She said I was small and clean! 
 
Those carefree, fortunate times are behind me, but I still believe in my heart that I was truly small and clean. The world was a sunny place and the people in it were kind-hearted.  As was the solar system, if not the entire cosmos, or so I felt at the time. But lying there in the decrepit shed, I could only see dark, evil things budding and breeding in the world, and inside of myself for that matter: headache, constipation, the feeling that every joint in my body was lined with innumerable grains of sand. Lying there with the ratty blanket still wrapped around me, my depression deepened. Hidden weeping in my blanket, nothing short of a miracle could turn my life around. While outside, it was like everyone in the world was deliberately taunting me with their good moods and early-to-rise cheerfulness.
 
Still, truthfully, I had to admit that an indefinite shed existence was sadly not possible.
Slowly I rolled out of bed, yawned, and wiped away the accumulation of liquids and solids – tears, eye snot, what-have-you – that had built up around my eyes. I put on my droopy pants, and noted gloomily that my genitals had shrunk up into my crotch as if they were searching for a trapdoor to escape into. Even though it's morning, I don't have morning wood – I have morning impotence, I noted with a masochistic glee. What a great omen for my seventeenth year. I imagined myself as a forty year old man, a redneck from some hill-town, lowering his pants to his knees in the dingy office of some quack psychoanalyst, his genitals entirely hidden inside his pubic hair. Rad! 
 
 From the direction of our main house's front hall, the sounds of an argument emerged: It seemed as if my sister was in a heated discussion with Father. Her ill-tempered whine versus his aloof, irritatingly pedantic drone. But clearly Father was not feeling truly aloof, just pretending, imitating his American Liberal role-models. Also, it sounded as if my sister had not in fact been blinded, (?!?!?! – ed) (how the fuck do you sound not blind) which made me feel relieved. It was possible for me to show my face that morning.
 
 I'm always worrying needlessly – whether there's an accident or an illness, I always imagine the worst. But what else am I good for besides worrying? I am simply incapable of succeeding at anything: I couldn’t even manage to kick out my own sister's eyes. But I regretted the incident, so I felt saved that she was not blind after all. I can't change the world even a little bit. Seventeen is useless to anyone. There's only two things that Seventeen can do: hide from normal people, and self-satisfy.
 
 While I am lurking in the shack, normal people are out making the world happen, making it revolve, fortifying and re-building it like an architect. "Let's do this! Put it there!" they say, decisively. Especially when it comes to politics, it seems like the normals can make anything happen, to make society go from here to there at their whim. What a job that would be! I have marched in demonstrations, but even then I felt alone, and useless to the cause. Out of all the normal people, it seems politicians have the most confidence: whether in their parliaments or in their restaurants, they casually decide how things will go. They clap their palms together: "Put it there! Make it so!" 
 
You'll never catch me in a voting booth, believe you me. Even when I turn twenty, I'll abstain from voting until I die. I realized that I believed my sister's well-reasoned arguments more than my own inarticulate rantings. Just thinking about it filled with shame. My entire body – muscle, blood and all – filled with a sour feeling. In the end, I know nothing about politics. I have no ideas of my own, just repeating what others do like a chimpanzee. Once again I felt a masochistic glee as I tormented myself with this realization. It was the same kind of glee I felt when the normal people cruelly mistreat me.
 
Head held high, I marched out of the shed singing "Oh Carol," under the radiant blue sky, into the radiant world of normal people. "Oh Carol! You can beat me, you can make me cry, but just don't ignore me or I'll die! Oh, oh Carol, do your worst!! "
 
I was twenty minutes late to school, which was especially bad, as today was the college placement test, which had already begun. I entered the class in a total panic, received my test booklet, and took a seat in the absolute back of the room. I peeped at the adjacent fellow's answers as I sat. He had already completed over one fourth of the entire exam. It's really inconvenient for me, I thought. To try to calm my nerves, I arranged all my pencils in a row, and re-arranged them until they were in perfect formation. Now I was feeling good. Until I started reading the test.
 
Although it was a test of my mother tongue, just reading the questions was enough to make me panic. I read until the words couldn't even fit inside my head – the head seemed to be overflowing with blood. I kept re-reading the same question, but it kept getting brushed aside by the rising tide of dread. I tried to concentrate, but other thoughts kept bubbling up and floating around, like schools of ignorant fish circling my head in the blood whirlpool.
 
Please write an essay analyzing these verses. Be sure to include the author’s name(s), date(s), and title(s) of book(s) or poem(s).
 
The moon it doth verily set-eth into thee mountainsydde, whilst Lady Sky be-eth most clear. I feel thee soothing Wynnde, and hear thee various and sundry chirruping of the insects which be-eth in the Reeds. With a ‘moyohoshi gao’ ( literally, ‘physical need face’), I realized I bear no Wyshh to Part from this wondrous Playce. I stayed Awaykke as long as the Cricketts chirruped, and as thee Sun broke over the mountainsydde, my Tearres did verily mix with the Morning dew upon thee Pholiage. He who ryddes upon the Clouddes (the Emperor or King) can do that which He pleases, but I am but a Byrdde in a guilded Cage, at his Beck and Call.
 
Now, who on earth wrote that? It sounds like Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, doesn’t it? But I can’t say I’m sure. And what’s this about a moyohoshi gao? It sounds erotic. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it’s dirty. That one time I read the magazine for free in the bookstore, there was one of those Sasa no Ha o Gin stories (no real English translation – a sort of slutty medieval adventuring lady?). The heroine was lusting after some Ronin or other, and she said something like, “Alas, I be-eth moyohoshi!” At least, that’s how I remember it.
 
At any rate, didn’t that test question combine the words of two different authors? Or was it all from one source? It isn’t fair to mess with us like that! At least they should put quote marks where one quote ends and another begins. That one paragraph – what was it? “Thee chattering of mickle Insekts builds and builds and builds, leaving Behynde merely thee Dewdrops in yon Grasse.” . . reading it gives me the same sensation as right after I self-satisfy, and overflow onto my abdomen. I must have a really filthy mind. Some kind of sexual disorder found in a manual somewhere. . . . . 
 
Suddenly, the finishing bell rang, ending my reverie. I looked down and found that I had only completed one-third of the answers. I tried to lighten my spirits with a joke. “’Seventeen! You’rrrrrre OUT!’ cried the umpire,” I muttered. But when I realized how true it actually was, I felt a throbbing pain in my chest. I signed my name and turned it in.
 
The post-test classroom was a disgraceful place: everyone making a lot of noise, passionately turning in their answer sheets, with pink cheeks and glassy eyes, looking vaguely obscene, like the aftermath of a ‘heavy petting’ session! We were all headed heedlessly to extremes: triumph or despair. I was in the latter group, of course. Students began to gather in their respective cliques to discuss their performance. But I remained in my seat, head hung low.
 
I saw the honor-student group, who were calmly deliberating the merits of the test. Until last year, I had been a member of this clique, but recently I didn’t have the courage to approach them. But I eavesdropped on them now, straining the nerves of my ear to catch their words.  The honors students always knew the situation well: what kinds of tests the teachers were planning to give, what to study, and so on. They prided themselves on getting this information before the rest of us.  The way they talk about it, it’s quite disgusting – they’re not students, they’re technicians: the ‘good score technicians.’ In their pride, they pay not the slightest notice to people like me, preferring to talk arrogant nonsense such as this: “The answer to that one was ‘Kiritsubo’! I think my approach to the Chinese Literature problems was passable. And I definitely got the one about ‘Oosakai’ right!” . . . . and so on. At any rate, these fellows definitely filled out more than a third of their answer sheets.
 
“If you score over the average – which most years is 80% – I heard they’ll put you in the Tokyo University-tracked advanced placement class. I probably won’t make it, though.” “Don’t be so modest! If you can’t get in the advanced placement class, no one at all is getting in!”
 
I couldn’t bear the ‘honor student’ conversation any more – it had reminded me of Father’s words last night: Tokyo University was now utterly out of the question for me. I despaired. Those fellows were being groomed to join very trendy American multinational firms, and have a happy future. In comparison, I was going to get tracked into the bonehead class, and still I’d have to struggle like a drowning man to even complete that! The teachers in those classes don’t even try.
 
“Still in all, it was a good test, wasn’t it? The questions were very high-standard.” “Mr. Hara’s getting better at writing tests! But, I bet that the actual college entrance exam is different than this. The questions about Myoubu weren’t hard enough. And the keigo (formal Japanese) questions were structured poorly – you couldn’t tell who was addressing whom.” “Speaking of the entrance exam, if I may be so bold, you’re a cinch to get into Tokyo University.” “You’re too kind, sir, too kind. First I’ll have to go to cram school, like all you other fellows.”
 
By this time, I was so angry that I could feel the taste of vomit working its way up from my stomach. The way those fellows get so excited by the test, practically licking each other all over. But besides them, there were other, more outgoing, groups of students. Cliques where girls flocked around them, laughing. Funny and charismatic guys, talking in loud voices: “Yo, yo, yo! Yo man, in the test, I was getting a ‘moyohoshi gao’ – I had a ‘physical need’ to take a wicked piss! Of course in the Heian Era there were no public bathrooms, am I right? You had to hold it. I felt like I WAS in the fuckin’ Heian, right there in the classroom. I could feel the ‘mickle Insekts’ getting louder every minute! I almost made a ‘Morning dew’ . . . in my pants!
 
This good-faced fellow who had everyone laughing, he was no doubt a weird kid. But unlike me, he knew exactly how to turn that to his advantage. His nickname was ‘Shintohou’ (the name of a trashy sci-fi and horror movie studio popular at that time) because he refused to see movies made by any other company. In fact, rumor had it that he’d travel to the edges of Tokyo – really scary neighbourhoods – just to catch the latest ‘erotic-grotesque’ triple features.
 
“What was that part about, ‘I am but a Byrdde in a guilded Cage, at his Beck and Call’? Shintoho-san, help me understand!” demanded one of the girls surrounding him. Everyone waited for his no doubt hilarious response.
 
“Well, she got thrown in the ‘Cage’ by the cops, didn’t she? For a ‘golden’ fuckin’ misdemeanour, didn’t she– public urination!”
 
“Oh, Shintoho-san! Were there really cops in the Heian period?”

“You’re a pretty naive girl, aren’t you?” replied the popular boy. “Anyway, the real answer is in a different section: ‘Thee chattering of mickle Insekts builds and builds and builds’  . . . that’s what Heian women used to cover up the sound of their peeing. Even as they were wiping themselves off, they’d tell you, ‘Oh, it must have been crickets that thou hadst heardst’.”
 
“Oh, this guy is a serious perv,” shrieked the girls, getting all excited, and they all ran out of the classroom together. The popular guy bathed in the applause, pushing both palms down in the ‘calm down, calm down’ gesture that American TV emcees used to hush the crowds.
 
But despite his silly answer and his popularity, it was clear he had understood the test question much more deeply than I. How miserable! And here I am alone in my stupid seat – I can’t bear it. But I could not rise – it was as if I was sand on a narrow road, which had giant pits on each side – half the sand trickled into the Pit of Anxiety, and the other half fell into the Pit of Weakness.
 
 I couldn’t show my exam-failing face in the honor student group anymore. And yet, back when I was an honor student, Shintoho had invited me to join HIS group, I turned him down! I felt he – this popular guy, this gifted entertainer – was beneath me, and how dare he invite me down to his level? I turned my back on him. Of course I regretted my conduct, and bitterly criticized my arrogance. I’m really alone now, like a turtle with no shell. Easy to hurt and unable to fight back. That’s when the bell rang again, signalling the beginning of the next test. Overwhelmed with anxiety and dread, I had to return to class.  My mathematics results were even more dishonourable than my literature results, so I had now to re-take the test. Mazui!
 
After the math test, I sat holding back tears until the lunch-bell rang. However, as I reflected on it, I had to acknowledge: the worst was yet to come. After lunch was PE.
 
PE was, naturally, my worst subject. Not only was I uncoordinated and unconscious of what my body was doing, but the gym shorts were only one layer thick, so how could anyone concentrate on sports when a bo-ki could visibly manifest at any moment? The mere thought filled me with a constant dread. My second-biggest PE phobia was the ‘compulsory 800 meter race.’ Which was today. Besides the horrid length, this race was on the main field, where the girls and the ‘sight-seers’ could watch us. The main field was right next to the local shopping mall, so the adult shoppers who had nothing better to do could while away their time by laughing at our pain. The school even provided them bleachers for this! One would think they’d only use the bleachers to watch the pro games, but they seemed more entertained by the spectacle of awkward struggling teenagers losing our dignity while being yelled at by odious coaches.
 
I assume they all had abusive husbands, bullying bosses, or terrible lives. Why else would someone be so desperate to forget their personal dishonour, and take fleeting pleasure in the pain of others? I imagined I could hear their snickering even now. We gathered in the center of the field to do warm-ups, waiting for Coach to emerge from his shack, wielding his stop-watch and his ‘devil notebook’ (the notepad where he writes the names of students who will get detention).
 
We milled about like a herd of cattle – some quaking with dread, some gathering their courage, some vacantly taking in the late-summer sun, lying down like stray cats. The honor students, enfeebled by their test-study, shaded their eyes with their hands and winced in confusion. When they realized the length of the race, they almost turned blue!  Everyone in class thought these nerds were too tired-out from their constant study to run such a punishing race, but only I knew the secret: even they could endure more punishment than I.
 
The members of the track team had arrogantly proclaimed themselves the leaders of our warm-ups, and, overflowing with confidence, shouted out the cries of “One, two! One, two!” In particular, the fellows who had broken the citywide track record last year strutted around, just like the honors students after the literature test, preening and full of themselves. They would do a long jump and then exaggeratedly make a show of checking their knees and ankles, adjusting gauze tape and stretching. I knew it was all theatrics, but it still had its intended effect: I was overcome with jealousy. My inferiority complex had been pushed into even higher gear.
 
Then there was the last clique: the fellows who just didn’t care. They lay on the field, soaking up the sun’s rays, with the same attitude of utter disdain that they had shown for the morning tests. They had been told they were worthless for so long, that the scorn no longer had any effect whatsoever. No matter who judged them, they just shrugged it off – in their shamelessness, there was an almost Zen-like detachment from the material world. In our grade, I alone didn’t belong to any group. Thus, I was more scared than everybody – I could only hope that we’d get this race over with soon.
 
Between the main track and the gym building, protruding like a nub, was a small exercise field where the girl students were playing volleyball. They were made to wear headbands and very un-cool bloomers which made them appear ducklike. As always, a small number of girls stood to one side of the game, wearing their regular school uniforms – coats and skirts -, watching vacantly, like a pack of retarded livestock. It must be their time of the month, I thought scornfully. This was an ‘open secret’, since everyone at the school knew!
 
Every week, Shintoho went ‘on patrol’, diligently writing the names of the ‘skirt-wearing spectators’ in his notebook. Finally he tallied the results and printed them on a single paper, which contained the menstrual dates of the entire female student body. After that, Shintoho announced, “Using this paper, we can calculate the ‘safe days’ for each girl, and then apply the rhythm method accurately.” With a total lack of shame, he would then add, “I’m always free, so if you feel the urge to unburden yourself (of your virginity), give me a call!” The girls would forgive him even for that !
 
Being a popular guy, he had the power to say such things as if they were acceptable. If I were to say something like that, I would be totally ostracized from the very next day, and would have to drop out of school altogether. Why would they forgive only him? Perhaps because he’s also the most experienced guy at school. Even when we were children, we’d go to the same Sunday school, and in the school play, he got the role of ‘Satan.’ The human characters were made to repent and suffer for their bad actions, but only Satan could rampage obscenely and scream heresies without any punishment. Ah! I wish I could be the Devil, too. But it seems that the role of ‘teenage devil’ is also taken. 
 
When he graduates, what kind of job will he find? Honestly, I have no idea which company Satan would work for, in this day and age.   I considered this carefully as I did my warm-ups. Perhaps he’d be a serial killer.
 
Meanwhile, the current version of Shintoho was – as always – surrounded by other kids and joking around. “It’s fucked up, yo! It’s all fucked up! That A-bomb test in Nevada must have thrown off all my calculations. . . .it looks like Sugi Emiko is wearing a skirt ahead of schedule – maybe the bomb gave her diarrhoea I’ll have to revise my ‘safe day’ report to take into account these extraordinary events!!”
 
My ears pricked up, and I – along with every boy in class – turned my head to look at the girls’ exercise field. Emiko’s unmistakable face looked back at us unflinchingly. In the middle of the sick, damp, ashamed skirt-wearing group, only one girl had her head raised proudly. I felt a wave of heat rush through my chest. The boys all sighed in unison, emitting a wave of humid air. 
 
Every grade has its own ‘queen,’ if you will, and Sugi was ours.  Not just beautiful, but possessed of an overpowering, almost regal majesty combined with a flirtatious powers of enchantment. As one would expect, the girls are jealous of her and the boys all desire her. Of course, I was not immune either. I was one of many boys on the ‘written her love letters, then torn them up, lacking the courage to even mail them’ team.  If she so much as glanced my way, I’d spazz out disgracefully, and my knowledge that I’d blown it once again only added to the suffering. If we boys stared at the bloomer-wearing girls, they could potentially overcome the embarrassment of their white fat legs and spotty faces. But if we stared at the menstruating girls, who held their skirts down with both hands, shamefully, they would quickly flinch and turn away. There was only one skirt-wearing girl who could meet our stares, confident that she had absolutely no weak points, and that was Sugi.
 
“Why does Sugi Emiko stare at us dudes so passionately?” Shintoho continued. Though his face was dotted with filthy acne, it beamed with the benevolent radiance of the sun when he spoke of our beloved Sugi. With a wink, he included me in his final attack: “Because, yo, I put a copy of the Kinsey Report in her desk when she wasn’t looking! It said that dudes who beat off a lot get exhausted faster. Now that that chick knows the facts about fuckin’ sexual problems, she’s watching our race to see who’s the biggest jerker!”
 
Just then, Coach came running up, bringing terror with him. The 800-meter race began. The track was 200 meters long, and we were going to race in groups of ten, going up and down twice, before the next group could start. The starting line was right next to the girls’ area, but the goal was the farthest from them.  All the greedy, mocking adults began to cluster by the starting area, leaning on the fence. I lined up on the starting line, my throat parched, my feet itchy on the burning-hot earth, staring at the endless expanse of track in front of me. When the starting gun fired, we were off, rubbing our sweaty arms and legs against those of the boys next to us, hurtling forward willy-nilly, our chests already on fire. I was soon outpaced by my cruel and merciless classmates. The distance between me and them was already shamefully large, and continued to grow. 

 
 

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  1. bradf July 9th, 2010 12:11 pm

    Great stuff! I likely wouldn't have ever heard of this if you hadn't wrote it up/translated it.
    "Also, it sounded as if my sister had not in fact been blinded, (?!?!?! – ed) (how the fuck do you sound not blind)"
     
    Not that i'm an expert on translation or even writing, but I guess the writer was refering to the conversation between the sister and father in the previous sentence. Maybe "seemed" rather than "sounded".

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