from “Dark Lanterns”, by Zoe Drake.
“The Japanese are finished!” Takashi Hino yelled, stepping on the gas to speed us down the Yamanashi highway. He took one hand off the steering wheel and shook a fist at the pylons, the rice fields, the lonely farmhouses rolling by. “The way the population’s declining, a hundred years from now there’ll just be a few thousand oyaji rice farmers stuck in some crumbling radioactive wasteland wondering what happened to their Rising Sun. And good riddance.”
I’d got used to Hino’s rants over the last two weeks, and in my vulnerable position in the passenger seat, resigned myself to making toadying comments, trying to ignore the horseracing results blaring out of the car radio, and concentrating on the task ahead of me.
Takashi Hino was one of the lieutenants of the Shibuya Sumiyoshi-kai, not an Oyabun, but a fairly big player in the west Tokyo Yakuza. He’d made his mark coordinating dating scams and fake weddings for Thai prostitutes in his native Toyama prefecture. He’d moved onto bigger things after coming to Tokyo, like running a handful of backstreet loan companies, but he often talked about the Thai and Chinese girls he’d ‘broken in’. Never forget where you’re from, he’d say. I’d been working for Hino for the last two weeks collecting money from Soapland massage parlors – but today, I was out with Hino alone for the first time, for my ‘initiation’.
Hino slipped another Seven Stars cigarette from the packet, and I hurriedly moved to light it for him. “There it is,” he said, gesturing to the left. “Mount Fuji.”
I peered at the misty pyramid shape of dark blue and brown against the skyline. “It doesn’t look that big when you get up close,” I said.
Bam! Sparks exploded as the knuckles of his left hand connected with my right cheek. I turned my head, stared at his reddening face. Hold it together, I thought. Keep calm…
“Well then look at it properly, you son of a bitch,” he shouted, “Show some respect! That’s the most important site in the whole of Japan, that’s our spirit, our pride. You see the snow on the top? But not much on the sides, there, huh, where it’s all rocky and black? I saw something on the TV that said there’s gonna be another eruption soon. The snow’s melting quicker because the volcano’s warming up and sometime in the future it’s going to blow. Man, I can’t wait to see that! Fuji blows its top, and a great cloud of volcanic ash fills the sky and just dumps its load on Tokyo. That’ll teach ‘em. The Roppongi Hills megamall is gonna look like another Pompeii. A hundred years from now some archeologists are gonna dig through the ash and find the plaster cast of some office lady with her body curled around her Louis Vuitton bag to try to protect it, and they’ll find the bones of a little Chihuahua inside the bag with one of those stupid pink ribbons around the dog’s neck, and they’ll think, who the fuck were these people?”
Hold it together, I thought. Keep calm…
“So what about you, boy?” he asked, after he’d got bored with ranting. “They told me you want into the gang full-time. What’s special about you, Naoto?”
My story. I looked ahead at the road, recalling the details that the real Naoto Iwasaki had unwillingly given to me.
“Well, you know … thrown out of junior high school for pulling a knife on a teacher. Mum died when I was little, Dad was a taxi driver who hit the bottle. One night Dad came back from work, whacked some cash on the table and said, ‘I’m too tired for this. Here’s half of my savings, pack your bags and just get out.’ After that I hung out in Shibuya, sleeping in manga cafes, until I hooked up with some of your scoutmen who told me the score.”
“Yeah, yeah. I heard it all before. There’s plenty where you come from. Well don’t worry kid, just do what you’re told and you could make a lot of cash. And speaking of cash, here it is … our stop. The sea of trees.”
I followed his gesture and looked ahead through the windscreen, to the thick rolling cloud of green coming up on the left. Aokigahara Jukai.
About fifteen hundred years ago, Mount Fuji erupted, and over time a forest grew over the lava and other unknown matter that had emerged from beneath the earth. Thirty square kilometers of ancient woodland, called the ‘sea of trees’, because from half way up Mount Fuji it really does look like an ocean. Dense, dark, and forbidding.
Also the most notorious suicide spot of the entire country.
“Every year around autumn time, the cops do a sweep of parts of the forest,” Hino explained. “They find at least a hundred bodies. I saw this show on TV that said not all the people who die here are suicides. Some of them are hikers who get lost.”
“Who’d actually want to go hiking in a place like this?”
“You got me, kid. Anyway, the show brought on one of these rent-a-scientists who said there was something weird about the magnetic field around here. GPS devices don’t work. Compass needles don’t work. This guy actually said,” the gangster laughed at the wrong moment and began to cough on his own cigarette smoke, “that some University did an aerial survey, and they couldn’t even figure out the size of the place. They said the forest was a few meters bigger than it was five years ago.”
I turned my head away and smiled. “That’s just crazy,” I said.
We pulled over on the side of the road. With the engine and the radio off, the interior was suddenly plunged into mournful silence. We got out of the car. The tang of wood smoke hung upon the chill December air, behind us lay squares of rice paddies and distant farms beneath the cold sunshine, and ahead stood a dark tangle of trees that cast everything into shadow.
“It’s half an hour drive to the nearest town,” Hino said. “Well, you can’t really call it a town. Not much bigger than a village, and half of the buildings are empty and falling down. That’s the countryside for you, kid. These bastards can’t wait to get out and move to Tokyo.”
We wore the uniforms of the local volunteer fire service, and had fake passes stamped with the Fujigoko Fire Department insignia. We also had color-coded plastic tapes to attach to the trees, not only to provide us with a cover story, but also so we could find our way back.
A gloomy screen of oak, elm, paulownia and chinkapin stood ahead of us. Hino hesitated a little, but then shrugged, pulled out another Seven Stars that I lit for him, and then pushed me forward. We walked under the canopy of leaves onto the public hiking path, and out of the light of day.
“Boss, there’s an old riddle that goes if a tree falls in the middle of a forest, and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound,” I said.
Hino blew out smoke and gave me an angry look. “So?”
“So I was thinking, if a salaryman kills himself in these woods and there’s nobody around to hear him, does he really make a sound?”
“Does anybody give a shit?”
We came to a rope stretched across the trees, with a sign that said NO PUBLIC ENTRANCE BEYOND THIS POINT – IT IS EASY TO GET LOST.
There was an even bigger sign above it that said:
YOUR LIFE IS A PRECIOUS GIFT FROM YOUR PARENTS.
IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING SUICIDE, PLEASE TURN BACK.
DON’T KEEP IT TO YOURSELF: TALK TO SOMEONE.
Hino flicked his cigarette butt at the sign and laughed. We looked around; in the vague landscape of grey, brown and green, we were the only human figures. We climbed over the rope and started trekking, attaching the tape firmly to the trees as we went.
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