Before I left Japan, in the spring of 1968, I went on a farewell excursion with my Tokyo girlfriend, a beautiful, delicate, porcelain creature named Masako Okamura, whom I’d met on the set of a Japanese television drama where I was working as an extra.
Accompanied by a group of rapt and religious Shinto tourists, we sail to the sacred island of Miajima, in the Inland Sea, where there is a famous shrine and an equally famous troop of tame apes.
Although you’re a talented aspiring actress, Masako, you are afflicted with an extreme form of Asian diffidence. Shy and self-effacing, you’re petrified of “standing out,” or causing a spectacle of any kind. And you are acutely sensitive to the fact that you’re dating an outlander, a gaijin, which might provoke censure among your compatriots.
To add to your discomfort, you have learned over the months that your paramour Eduardo is burdened with two distinct and contrasting personalities. One is a quiet, reflective artist and intellectual. The other is a loud-mouth show-off and tease. Indeed, he once confessed to you in a rare candid moment that for as long as he can remember his tranquil, soulful self – what he calls “Eduardo The Good”– has been in conflict with his crass, soulless self – “Eduardo The Bad.” Unfortunately, he admitted, the efforts of The Good have been largely unsuccessful, with the result that The Bad remains ascendant; and nothing in the world sets off Eduardo The Bad like the coyness and timidity of an Asian woman.
For this reason, Masako, you are horrified, but not particularly astonished, when today — on our last outing together – your lover perversely conceives a plan to bring about what you most fear, and to taunt you past enduring.
“Masako-san?” I say, as we climb the spiraling trail toward the shrine. “Did you know that in English a synonym for the verb ‘to imitate’ is the verb ‘to ape’? The reason for this is that apes will copy whatever you do. Wakattadesuka?”
“Nanchate, Eduardo-san, nanchate!” you warn in the soft, breathy, confidential tone that you reserve for my most profound cultural transgressions. “You are kidding, Mr. Eduardo, you are kidding, of course!”
“Not at all,” I reply, as we reach the mountaintop, ignoring your veiled, reproachful look. “Just watch!”
I swagger over to where the middle-aged Japanese tourists, each sporting a little white sun hat, are snapping pictures in front of the shrine and feeding peanuts to a great bearded male ape who seems to be the leader of the tribe.
I approach the ape and stick out my tongue. The ape grins and follows suit. I thrust my thumbs into my ears and wriggle my fingers at him, which he copies to perfection. I flap my elbows like a bird, which the ape does as well. I jump in the air, spin around, and land just as I was. The ape does too. By now, all the Japanese tourists are slapping their thighs in glee, snapping pictures like mad, while you, Masako, are hanging back near the pinewood, trying to pretend that you have never seen this henna gaijin, this crazy foreigner, in your life.
Finally, as my pièce de résistance, I put up my dukes, beat my chest like Tarzan, and issue the ape a noisy invitation to a boxing match. The ape puts up his dukes as well, and beats his chest, and for a moment it looks like he might just go a round or two with me, Marquis of Queensberry Rules, when suddenly he reverts to his animal instincts. Howling in fury, he leaps upon me, wraps his claws around my throat, and starts taking ferocious bites out of the collar of my down coat.
Now I am no longer laughing and joking, but screaming in terror, which makes the Japanese tourists guffaw even more. And they crowd each other to get shots of this unprecedented spectacle of the bakkahakujin, the stupid white man, and the ape.
But I could not care less, for by now I am in major trouble. Spinning on heel, I tear off down the winding trail to the ferryboat like a dog with its tail on fire, with the fierce brown ape, whooping in victory, hot on my ass.
Later, safe on the ferryboat, I expect you to ignore me, Masako, and pretend you have never met me in your life, but you astonish me with an almost motherly solicitude.
“But why? Why would you ever do such a thing?” you keep marveling, as you bathe my wounds in the ladies’ rest room and bind them with material from the boat’s first aid kit. “Anatagawakaranai. I understand nothing about you.”
“For the fun of it,” I reply at last in English. But it’s The Bad still talking, trying for bravado, and not quite making it.
We take the train to Yokohama, where I have stowed my gear, and where my ship, the Arlanza, a Hong Kong-based tramp of British registration, awaits me. There are storms all the way, and tears pearl up in the corners of your dark slanted eyes and curl down your ivory face like the rain on my window.
After we have kissed and said our finalsayonaras amid a crowd of British seamen and their weeping bar-girls on the windswept Yokohama docks, after I have turned and started for the gangway ladder, you forget your native timidity for an instant and shriek at my retreating back, “Hajioshire, Eduardo! Hajioshire! Orokamono! Shame on you, Mr. Eduardo! Shame on you! You are such a foolish man!”
What do you mean, Masako? I have no idea, and I will puzzle over it all the way across the Sea of Japan to Vladivostok.
We clear the dock and I stand on the stern with the other seamen, waving into the driving rain. We pull out into choppy, squally Tokyo Bay, and you little nihonjin girls are still waving at us from under your colorful Japanese umbrellas, getting smaller and smaller. Finally, you disappear altogether.
I borrow a pair of binoculars and focus on the dock.
All the girls have gone but one.
Though I am invisible to you now, Masako-san, you keep waving at me frantically, as if we were still within eye contact. You are waving with a long linen handkerchief that I bought for you only yesterday, in a little handicraft shop near the Kobe railway station, on our way back from the island of Miajima. It is white, with small green hand-painted monkeys on it, some of whom are holding their hands over their eyes, others holding them over their ears, and others over their mouths.
“Arigato gonzaimasu,” you said, when I got it for you. “Thank you very much, Eduardo-san. But why this one in particular?”
“Doitashimashite,” I say. “Because you were born in the Year of the Monkey, and I hope it will bring you luck.”
“Somehow, I’m not quite sure that’s the only reason,” you reply. “I think perhaps it’s some kind of message to me.”
“It is what it is,” I say in English, but you’ve got me figured, Masako.
A week later, when my ship docks in Nahodka, the civilian port for Vladivostock, I reach into the bottom of my rucksack for a sweater and find an envelope of fine Japanese paper that you must have put there sometime before I left Japan.
Inside, on a folded piece of fine paper, there are two short poems written in your elegant calligraphy.
The first one is entitled “Eduardo-san,” and it can be translated as follows:
I am me!
says the raindrop
as he falls
upon the sea.
The second is entitled “Masako-san,” and I have translated it thus:
In the other room
Through the wall
I’m not alone after all.
Two years later, at an art house on Clay Street in San Francisco, I catch sight of you again, Masako-san, in an obscure, inept samurai film in which you are the only thing of beauty.
Wondering how I could ever have left anyone so impossibly lovely, so impossibly fine, I look for you after that, in every Japanese film that comes out, but I never see you again.
Thirty years later, a young and very pretty foreign graduate student named Miki Okamura enrolls in one of my writing courses at the International English Language Institute at Hunter College in New York.
“I know that Okamura is a common name in Japan,” I say to her, on the first day of class. “But I notice that you’re from Nagi, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which is a very small town. So I’ll ask anyway. Are you in any way related to an actress from the ‘Sixties named Masako Okamura? She was born and raised in Nagi.”
“Well, yes, Professor; such a coincidence,” she says, raising an eyebrow, a bit suspiciously, it seems. “Second sister of my father. How you know her?”
“We worked on a TV film together when I lived in Tokyo. How’s she doing?”
“She die when she very young. About 1969, I think.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I say, my voice trembling. “If you don’t mind my asking, how did she die?”
“Suicide, my father say.”
“Oh, my God!”
“God, he got nothing to do with it, Professor. She jump in front of a train in Shimbashi Station.”
“But why? Why would she ever do such a thing? She was so young and beautiful and talented.”
“Unhappy in love, they say. Gaijin, Amerikajin, he run away and leave her. You not the one, I hope?”
“I — I pray not,” I say, but my answer does not seem to satisfy her, and she drops my class the next day.