The air on his skin was unfamiliar and left him strangely agitated. Though the shutters and the glass door to the hallway were closed, drafts seemed to swirl about the room. It had been a long time since he had slept in a futon laid out on tatami mats, and the musty smell of the straw was pleasant, but at the same time the mats seemed insubstantial beneath him, as if a wind were blowing under the floor.
The room he had occupied until that morning measured less than seventy square feet: concrete walls on three sides and chipped, gray iron bars facing the corridor. What air there was should have come in that way, but none did, as if a thick plastic panel had been placed over the bars. The air was utterly still, stirring slightly only when he moved. Nevertheless, over the course of the long months and years he spent there, almost without realizing it, Shiro Kikutani came to feel a kind of peace. It was peace he felt when he lined up with the others to go to the workshop, or went out to the exercise yard to stand in the sun, or scrubbed himself in the showers; for in those places too he was shut off from the world, surrounded by the same high concrete walls.
For some time now he had felt the need to urinate, but he did not get up. Until last night he would have hopped out of bed and gone in the can in the corner of his cell. But now he was daunted at the thought of walking down the hall to a room marked by a wooden signbearing the letters we. The realization that he could open the door of his own free will and walk to the toilet without being watched by a guard filled him with something approaching terror.
The blackness he felt pressing in around him made him anxious as well. In fact it was not particularly dark, with light from the hallway coming in through the frosted-glass door, but to Kikutani the darkness seemed thick and inky. The cell he'd lived in until the night before was always bright, lit by a line of fluorescent lights in the corridor that cast the shadow of the bars on his bed. No doubt the light was meant for the guards who paced up and down the corridor keeping a close eye on the prisoners, but to Kikutani it brought a sense of security that helped him sleep. Tonight, however, though he was exhausted and almost feverish, he could not sleep. The darkness seemed to strangle him, and he found himself turning, mothlike, to look at the dim glow coming through the smoky glass.
He could hear a woman laughing somewhere. He listened more intently. She must be walking along the street in front of the building. She sounded drunk, laughing and screaming at someone. He realized now that a jumble of noises had been coming to him out of the darkness since he shut off the light: cars passing, people talking, a bell ringing on a train platform in the distance. The only sound that had reached him in his cell was the echoing of the boots of the guards on patrol. The noises outside now washed over him like a flood.
He turned over, and a pain shot through his abdomen; he would have to urinate soon. "You must learn to blend into society as quickly as possible." The admonition from his parole officer, Kiyoura, came back to him, and he realized how stupid he was to be lying there in pain. He was free to do as he liked now, and he didn't need to ask anyone's permission when he wanted to go to the toilet. Getting out of bed, he crossed the tatami and opened the glass panel. The guards had always opened the door of his cell, and he nearly panicked now as he did it himself. Once he was through the door, he steadied himself and set off down the hall. Faint breathing could be heard from the men sleeping behind the doors on either side.
He reached the wooden door, opened it, and stood before the toilet. As the urine gushed out, the ache in his bladder subsided, and he found himself staring at red and blue neon smudged on the tiny frosted window in front of him. Though it was quite late, the town seemed to be going about its noisy business. Nothing to be afraid of, he told himself as he studied the window.
He'd had a presentiment. For two years he thought of little else, trying to read the faces of the guards and the other people who worked in the prison, looking for clues as to when it might come.
According to the twenty-eighth article of the penal code, once a prisoner served a third of his sentence, preparations for his parole would begin, though he was unlikely to be released until two-thirds of the sentence was served. For indefinite sentences such as Kikutani'sthey were not unusualonce a prisoner served twelve or thirteen years, he would become eligible for parole. Everything depended, of course, on a clean record and good behavior.
Kikutani spent the first years of his sentence reliving his crime, the police investigation, the trial. He had received an indefinite sentence, but believed there had been a certain inevitability to his actions and felt no remorse. On the contrary, it seemed unfair to him that he should have to spend his days locked away in prison, and at times he nearly despaired. But when he reached the eighth year of his sentence, his attitude changed. He thought that he had grown accustomed to his surroundingssettled in, as it wereyet he would find himself losing his composure when he saw the joy in the face of a prisoner being released after serving only part of a long sentence. As he made his way to and from the workshop or stood in the exercise yard soaking up the sun, he would eye the high walls, knowing that beyond them people were living free lives. And when he saw planes taking off or landing at the airport nearby, he was painfully conscious that they carried people who were free to travel wherever they wished.
"Indefinite incarceration," his sentence had read, and the words seemed oppressive, but indefinite did not necessarily mean forever, and he clung to the hope that his time would be cut short by parole. A fly that had found its way into his cell landed on his foot, and as he stared at it, he felt a pang of envy for the freedom of this tiny insect.
Some prisoners with indefinite sentences became eligible for parole after fifteen years, and some had to wait as long as twenty. When the record was good, the prison officers in charge would send a report to the warden, who would file a petition with the provincial parole board. At some point, Kikutani learned about these procedures, and he set about trying to make a good impression on the guards, following every rule to the letter whenever they were watching.
Having taught Japanese at a high school, he was assigned to the print-shop section of the prison workhouse and put in charge of proofreading. The shop employed prisoners who, before their convictions, had been printers; there were also former government officials, businessmen, an electronics manufacturer, and a publisher. All these inmates, Kikutani included, were given ranks according to the privileges they had earned; with good behavior, they could work their way up from fourth to first rank. The-first rank, which Kikutani reached in time, meant a private cell and permission to continue working after dinner. Kikutani would sit far into the night hunched over his papers, his pencil racing across the page.
In the autumn of his twelfth year in prison, an official came to the print shop and led him to a room in the prison office, where Kikutani found a short, older man in a dark-blue suit sitting behind a desk. When the official identified the man as the investigating officer for the parole board, Kikutani could feel himself flush. A visit from the parole board's investigative branch meant that the warden had petitioned the board on Kikutani's behalf and that the board had agreed to consider the case. This interview was the beginning of the procedure.
"My records indicate that you've been a model prisoner, but I'm curious to know how you've found prison life." The man's tone was almost respectful.
"Yes, sir," Kikutani managed, but that was all. His whole body had gone rigid.
"Your younger brother has come to see you a number of times, hasn't he? What do you talk about?"
"Different things," said Kikutani. He wanted to say more, but his mouth clenched shut. The man in the suit made no effort to draw Kikutani out. After a short silence, he rose from his chair.
"Take care of yourself, then," he said and, bowing slightly at the prison official, gathered up his black briefcase and left the room.
Back in the print shop, Kikutani was filled with regret that he hadn't been able to manage better answers to the man's questions. It was crucial to make a good impression on the investigating officer, and yet Kikutani had said nothing, made no impression at all.
In the fall of the following year, he was interviewed again. This time he had prepared something to say, but one look from the man and Kikutani was petrified, reduced again to monosyllables. Then, too, the questions themselves were pointless, trivialIs your appetite good? Do you find the work interesting?and no mention was made of parole. After that, there were no more visits from the investigating officer, and Kikutani began to wonder whether the process leading to his parole had stalled for some reason or perhaps been stopped altogether. Those days were anxious ones, as he lived with an unbearable mixture of hope and fear.
Two more years passed, and then last year, just as the summer heat was beginning, a parole officer in his forties named Kiyoura came to interview him. Kikutani was elated; in preparation for Kikutani's parole, the warden had sent a prisoner report to the head of the parole board's investigative branch, which appointed a parole officer to look into such matters as a guarantor for the prisoner and to see to his placement after his release. That this parole officer was now paying Kikutani a visit was evidence that the process was in motion.
Kiyoura announced that he was a Buddhist priest, but he hardly looked the part, wearing a good suit and having a full head of hair. Unlike the investigating officer's, his eyes were kind and his manner of speaking open and candid.
"Your brother is a good person, isn't he?" he asked, as if to weigh Kikutani's response.
"Yes," said Kikutani, realizing that Kiyoura must have gone to see his brother.
Half a dozen times a year Kiyoura came to visit Kikutani, bringing him books, clothes, and the like, and each time, when the interview was over, he would invariably say goodbye with a mournful look on his face.
He would motion for Kikutani to have a seat, but before Kikutani could sit, his eyes swung automatically to the guard for permission.
"Sit," said the guard, and Kikutani, with a bow to Kiyoura, sat. The parole officer would ask him a variety of questions: How was his health? What kind of work was he doing? What sorts of things gave him pleasure and what did he dislike? What did he think of the athletic meet they held in the prison each spring? As Kikutani answered briefly, Kiyoura would nod and smile. After twenty minutes or so, the interview came to an end.
"Make sure you get plenty of exercise and keep yourself healthy. I understand you'll be turning fifty in less than a month. I'll come again," said Kiyoura. Kikutani stood, bowed politely, and left with the guard. Back in the print shop, he forced himself to look at the galley proofs spread out on his desk, but his eyes were not following the words. Kiyoura's questions had been casual, and he'd said nothing to lead Kikutani to believe that he would be paroled soon. Perhaps Kiyoura was not allowed to drop any hints. Perhaps, even if Kikutani was to be paroled, it was still a long way off. Nevertheless, the fact that Kiyoura had contacted Kikutani's brother indicated that progress was being made, however slow the pace. It occurred to Kikutani that he should talk to his brother about this, so that night he wrote a short note on a postcard asking his brother to come to the prison. He gave it to a guard to mail.
The visit took place two weeks later. As he entered the room for the meeting, Kikutani was flustered to find Kiyoura standing behind his brother. The parole officer had instructed Kikutani's brother to report the contents of any letter he might receive from him, so no doubt Kiyoura knew about the postcard. His stem expression, so different from the one he'd worn at their previous meeting, worried Kikutani, but his brother behaved as if this were any other interview, asking first about his health before launching into a report on the family. The family was just Kikutani's brother and his brother's wife and their two daughters, since Kikutani's father had died before the "incident" occurred and Kikutani's mother two years later. The elder of his nieces, he learned, had graduated from junior college in the spring and found work in a department store in a city an hour away by train. According to his brother, she was adapting to her new job quite nicely.
At this point, however, the conversation ended, and both brothers fell silent. When the time allotted for the interview had passed, Kikutani stood and, with a bow to Kiyoura, left the room. That night in bed, he kicked himself. He knew that the parole process was a slow one. The law required deliberation. He also assumed that they would be careful not to give a prisoner false hopes. Kiyoura must have come along with Kikutani's brother to make sure that Kikutani didn't learn something from him. The postcard had tipped Kiyoura off, but Kikutani had the feeling that Kiyoura could see through him anyway. It was quite likely that his release depended on the impression he made on Kiyoura, and now he began to realize that sending the postcard to his brother had been a reckless act.
The next three months he spent in unbearable suspense, but when Kiyoura appeared at the end of that time, the expression on his face set Kikutani somewhat at ease. Kiyoura's eyes were as gentle as the first time they met, and he was almost friendly as he gestured for Kikutani to have a seat. Kikutani could find nothing in Kiyoura's tone that suggested the postcard had hurt his chances.
Kiyoura wanted to talk about Kikutani's brother's family. After Kikutani's trial, his brother had resigned his teaching job at the vocational high school and taken work in the accounting office of a friend's construction company. The work was steady, and, after disposing of their mother's house, he had been able to build a small place just outside town. In his free time he liked to fish.
"Your sister-in-law seems reliable," Kiyoura said with a slight frown. His brother's wife was the daughter of one of Kikutani's colleagues at the high school; Kikutani himself had been responsible for getting them together. She was a very methodical person; she began saving for a house, tiny though the deposits were, almost from the moment they were married. She was the image of "reliable," as Kiyoura put it, but Kikutani thought he could detect a hint of disapproval in the parole officer's tone. The fact was that not once had she come to visit Kikutani in prison or so much as sent him a letter. It was safe to say that she felt a deep loathing for him, in the wake of his horrible crime, and would have preferred to sever all ties with him. No doubt his brother, out of respect for her feelings, had made a secret of his visits and of the packages he sent. Powerful memories of what Kikutani had done would linger in the old castle town, and it must have been difficult for the family to live with such humiliation. Kikutani found nothing strange in her rejection of him.
As they spoke, Kikutani studied Kiyoura's expression and began to realize that his sister-in-law represented a significant obstacle to his parole. Even if his brother was willing to serve as guarantor for his release, his sister-in-law would never allow it.
"Do you like chickens?" Kiyoura asked suddenly, looking up at Kikutani. "I mean, I suppose I should really be asking if you hate them."
"I wouldn't say I hate them ...," said Kikutani, not quite sure what the question meant. Kiyoura looked thoughtfully out the window and then changed the subject.
Kikutani spent much of his free time over the next few days wondering why Kiyoura had mentioned chickens. He recalled that his mother, about the time he entered elementary school, began keeping a few chickens in the backyard in order to have fresh eggs to feed to his ailing father. It was Kikutani's job to collect the eggs from the henhouse and bring them to his father. Taking a still-warm egg, his father would carefully make a hole in one end with a needle; then, putting his mouth to the hole, he would suck out the contents. But this lasted only a short time, because the neighbors soon began complaining about the noise from the henhouse at dawn. His parents were forced to give up the chickens, but Kikutani still felt something approaching affection for the birds. Perhaps his brother, sharing those memories, had begun raising chickens at his house on the edge of town, prompting Kiyoura's idle remark.
Six months later, in another interview with Kiyoura, Kikutani learned just how important chickens were to be to his parole.
"There's no telling when this might be," Kiyoura began, choosing his words carefully, "but if you were to be released, how would you feel about working on a poultry farm?" At the word "release," Kikutani fell into a kind of stupor and was unable to answer. "The president of the company where your brother works has a friend who runs a chicken farm; they've spoken about your situation, and it seems he's willing to take you on. I've met him myself, and he's a fine person." Kiyoura's tone was subdued. Kikutani could feel his heart pounding in his chest, and he grew weak. He knew he had to say something, so he began, haltingly, to talk about the chickens of his childhood.
"I like chickens. I like them a lot," he blurted, but he could hear the exaggeration in his voice and felt that he was simply trying to ingratiate himself with Kiyoura, and he blushed with embarrassment.
That night, back in his cell, he buried his face in his pillow and wept. It had been the first time Kiyoura gave any hint that Kikutani might be paroled, and it even seemed that this could happen soon. He knew there was almost no chance that his brother would serve as his guarantor, but perhaps they had arranged for this man who ran the poultry farm to sponsor him instead. Kiyoura had probably been to see his brother a number of times, and had probably also called on others who were involved. Kikutani felt deeply grateful to him for having spent so much time and effort on his behalf.
From that day on, Kikutani noticed a marked change in the way the guards looked at him. Their eyes were softer, and sometimes they even seemed to smile at him. He imagined that they knew that he was up for parole and were glad for him.
Five days earlier, as he was getting on line after breakfast to go to the workshop, a guard came by to tell him to step out of line. He was sure he had noticed a certain softness in the guard's eyes. Kikutani was led through the prison offices to the room where inmates were interviewed and parole cases reviewed. Against one wall was a large desk where a white-haired man, the section chief, was seated, his underlings standing around him. As Kikutani approached, they all turned to look at him.
"Congratulations," said the chief, taking a letter from his desk and standing to meet Kikutani, "your certificate of parole has arrived from the prefectural board. You'll be released in five days, March 25. We've notified your brother, so all you need do is follow instructions and make the necessary preparations." A warmth spread in Kikutani's chest, and his knees wobbled, as if he might slump to the floor at any moment. He nodded silently and shuffled out of the room as best he could, tears streaming down his face. "Congratulations," he could hear the guard repeat behind him. "Thanks," he managed to mutter, waving feebly as he made his way down the corridor.
That day he was moved from his cell to a special holding room for prisoners who were about to be released. These new quarters were equipped with a TV, a teapot, and even a mirror on the wall. He turned on the TV, but his eyes stared uncomprehendingly at the screen, and his mind was a blank. His body felt light, featherlike, abstracted from the material realities of his existence; the physical functions of breathing, eating, digesting, excreting were somehow unrelated to him. He was relieved of his duties in the workshop and given permission to go wherever he wanted in the prison, but when he was alone in his room, he would weep for no reason, or else pace in great agitation.
Overcome by an urge to tell someone about his impending release, he scrawled tiny characters on postcards and addressed them to Kiyoura and to his brother, who he imagined had already been notified. He wrote essentially the same thing to both, about his gratitude to the guards and others at the prison who had been responsible for him, but on Kiyoura's postcard he added special thanks for the role Kiyoura had played in securing his parole. When he finished, out of habit from his long years as a proofreader, he carefully inspected each character.
He was given two small cardboard boxes and told to pack his clothes and other personal belongings. From the thirty or so books he had accumulated, he chose the Japanese and English dictionaries, a guide to classical grammar, and a volume of history; the rest he gathered up and carried to the prison library, where he handed them over to the inmate in charge.
Late in the afternoon of the third day after he was moved to the temporary cell, his brother came to see him. "I'm happy for you," his brother said when they faced each other through the wire screen. Kikutani, his face covered with tears, could only nod. Before the interview, his brother had been to the prison office to make arrangements for what Kikutani would wear on the day he was released. The suit and shoes he wore when he arrived had been wrapped in heavy, oiled paper and held for him; but fifteen years and seven months had passed since then, and the material of the suit had deteriorated and the shoes had turned dry and hard. It was decided that his brother would buy a suit for him in town and have it sent to the prison, while someone else would make arrangements to buy a pair of shoes from the prison shoe shop. Kikutani was deeply grateful for his brother's kindness.
The following morning, a man from the prison office came to Kikutani's room with a pair of black shoes and a box wrapped in department-store paper. Kikutani carefully removed the paper and opened the box; inside he found a navy-blue suit, as well as two dress shirts, a dark-blue polkadot tie, a belt, and socks. In the breast pocket of the suit coat, stuffed in a small plastic bag, was a square of matching material for mending holes. Kikutani made a line of his new possessions against the wall of his room, as if they were decorations, and gazed at them. The thought that he could dress himself in these clothes and walk about freely made him feel the reality of his release all the more powerfully. He picked up the shoes and tried them on. The measurements had been exact, so they fit perfectly, but he was surprised at their weight. They were made of leather, hand-sewn by the prisoners in the factory. Kikutani realized that what made them seem so heavy was the fact that he had worn nothing but canvas prison shoes for many years. He wondered whether he would really be able to get around in such heavy shoes, but when he tried imagining himself walking on paved streets or on the bare earth in them, he found the weight pleasant, and he strolled about the room gazing down at his feet with delight.
That afternoon, a man from the prison accounting office came to his room and handed him several sheets of paper that recorded his pay for the work he had done in the print shop.
"Quite a sum," the man said. "In fact, it's the most anyone has ever taken out of here." With a nod to the guard, the man left. Kikutani flipped through the pages, stopping at the column that gave the grand total: 1,027,525 yen. Before he went to jail, his take-home pay had been about 53,000 yen a month after taxes and his union dues were subtracted. Now he had saved more than twenty months' paya substantial sum, as the man from the accounting office said. From watching TV, however, Kikutani knew that wages and prices had gone up, and he doubted that it would seem like so much money once he was released. Still, it was a start, and he felt confident that it would be enough to tide him over until he readjusted to life on the outside. When he first started working in the prison shop, he was stunned by the low wages; but inmates aren't in a position to complain, so he resigned himself and worked as hard as he could. This, he thought, was the result.
In the first years, he earned less than 1000 yen a month; but as he rose through the system of privileges, his wages slowly increased. And after he reached the highest level, he was allowed to take work back to his cell, which meant that he could earn as much as ten times what the lowliest prisoners earned. There were, of course, opportunities to spend money on creature comforts, but Kikutani maintained a spartan life and parted with little of what he made. Nevertheless, he was surprised that his savings came to more than a million yen, and he stood checking the figures again and again.
That night, after lights-out, he lay awake in bed, exulting in the thought that he would be released the following day. He tried to smother alternating bursts of laughter and sobs by covering his head with his pillow. At last he turned to stare at the suit and shoes lined up against the wall.
Rising early the next morning, he washed his face, then cleaned his room until it was spotless. When he had finished breakfast, he sat down with his legs tucked under him properly and listened to the sound of the roll call in the distance. Soon afterward, he could hear footsteps as the inmates headed off to work. A profound silence fell over the prison. Kikutani sat motionless, his eyes half closed.
An hour later, he heard footsteps in the hall, and the head guard appeared in front of the cell with a man from the prison office. "Bring all your things," said the guard, opening the door. Kikutani stood and picked up a box and his shoes. The guard came in to help with the other box, and Kikutani walked out of the cell. He followed the two men down the corridor, staggering a bit as the feeling drained from his legs. They led him to a room in the prison office and told him to sit on a stool by the wall. Kikutani took his place and looked quietly down at his lap.
He looked up again as he heard the door open and saw a short man in his sixties, another prisoner he had seen many times, enter the room. The expression on the prisoner's face betrayed his anxiety. His hair was white and thinning, and his skin seemed almost transparent. Kikutani knew that the man had been in for fifteen years and that he had spent his time in the woodworking shop. It was said he won some citation for the tea cabinets he made. Kikutani noticed that the young guard who was following the old man carried a cardboard box under each arm; he must be getting out today as well. The prisoner bowed repeatedly to the officers sitting in the room and then lowered himself into a chair next to Kikutani's. The two of them sat in silence, eyes straight ahead.
Thirty minutes later, Kikutani and the other man left the room, surrounded by guards and a number of prison officials. They made their way through the office building and down a covered passage that led to the prison chapel. When the heavy door swung open, Kikutani could see a large group of men gathered near the rostrum, all of them looking their way. The warden, a tall man in a suit, was standing in front of the dais, and Kikutani quickly spotted Kiyoura among the men flanking the warden. Hovering behind Kiyoura was a plump woman in a kimono; she must have been the other prisoner's wife. The officials who brought the prisoners bowed toward the assembly at the front of the hall, and Kikutani and the old man followed suit. The guards took up their positions by the door, which had been shut after them. One of the officials turned to the two prisoners.
"You are here to receive your official parole papers," he said. "Advance toward the warden." Kikutani fell in step behind the other prisoner and walked slowly up the aisle between the rows of chairs. They stopped a few yards from the platform, straightening their backs and bowing their heads. The warden's eyes lowered slowly to the papers in his hand, and he read their names.
"You're the right ones?" The two men nodded that they were. The older prisoner's name was Igarashi. "You men have exemplary conduct records since coming to this institution, and you have applied yourselves to your work. Congratulations on your perseverance. At this time it is my pleasure to inform you that we have received your papers from the prefectural parole board, which has deemed you fit to return to society. You will leave this prison to take up your lives on the outside again. I am sure you must be pleased. You will undergo many hardships, but I am confident you will endure these and live the remainder of your lives as useful citizens." Kikutani could feel tears welling in his eyes.
"Now, I am sure that you are aware that your parole officer, Kiyoura, has been laboring long and hard on your behalf while you've been awaiting your parole, despite his numerous other duties. It's thanks to him that we've been able to secure guarantors and places to relocate you. I would just like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude to him for all his efforts." The warden bowed politely in Kiyoura's direction; Kiyoura bowed in turn. So Kiyoura had been working all the while on Igarashi's parole as well as on Kikutani's.
Now the chief of the records division approached the warden and called Igarashi's name, handing the warden a sheet of paper. The warden walked up to Igarashi and held the paper out to him. "I am pleased to present you with your official parole," he said. Like an elementary school student receiving a certificate of merit, Igarashi reached out to take the paper. "Your pleasure at this moment must be especially great, because your wife is here to be with you. I urge you to keep your debt to her in mind and do your best to live together in harmony. When difficulties arise, do not try to solve them on your own. Talk them over with your wife, and with your parole officer. Understood?"
"Yes," Igarashi managed.
Then the warden stood in front of Kikutani and handed him his paper. "You, sir, were a teacher, a discerning individual. I urge you never again to be moved by the passions of the moment, but to use reason, swearing never to act rashly. Is that understood?"
"I swear," Kikutani answered in a loud, clear voice. The warden returned to the dais.