Yoshio Kita’s hopelessness and lack of faith in his future crystallizes into a decision to commit suicide by what he calls ‘capital punishment at free will’, meaning his only pressing problem now is how to spend both his remaining self-allocated seven days on earth and all his worldly money. From fine dining with a former porn actress to insuring his life, from pursuing an ex-girlfriend to an entanglement with an assassin, Yoshio’s last seven days on earth take on unexpected twists and turns in this darkly comic exploration of the cult of suicide in Japan and the culture that has created it.
|Publisher:||Thames River Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Masahiko Shimada is one of Japan’s best-known and most prolific fiction writers, and the winner of awards including the Noma Literary Prize for New Writers.
Meredith McKinney is currently a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, and works as a freelance translator.
Read an Excerpt
Death By Choice
By Masahiko Shimada, Meredith McKinney
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2003 Masahiko Shimada
All rights reserved.
Somewhere over Tokyo
You are hereby sentenced to Death by Choice. From now on, this form of execution replaces this country's customary Death by Hanging. You have the honor of being the first criminal to be executed by this means. You should make haste to decide your chosen means of execution and execution date, and to personally carry out the aforesaid execution. For the next two weeks the weather should be fine, and all those involved are able to be at your disposal.
You have got to be joking, thought the traveller, his head bowed before the judge's sentence. The "courtroom" was exactly like the little oden restaurant he dropped into a couple of times a month, and a haze of steam obscured the faces of both the public prosecutor and the lawyers. The judge who had delivered his sentence of Death by Choice was riding piggyback on a woman in a denim skirt. In fact, there was no getting around it: the judge was actually a baby. So what did this baby think it was up to, treating him in this high-handed fashion? The traveller felt half inclined to retaliate with a bit of sarcasm, but he felt constrained by the presence of the woman and held his tongue. He somehow felt he knew her, but he couldn't put his finger on who she was. He'd met her quite a while ago; that much he was certain of. As for this smart-arse baby, he'd never laid eyes on him before. Babies were absolutely anonymous creatures to him. Whoever it might be, it was only someone's baby as far as he was concerned. He guessed this particular baby must plan on being a judge some time around the mid-twenty-first century. But why did this poor traveller have to find himself being sentenced by a baby?
"Mumma! Milky!" the baby shouted suddenly. The woman carrying him on her back brought down her gavel with a thud, upon which the traveller was summarily ejected from the courtroom.
He found that the aeroplane had taken off, and had already levelled out. The traveller always grew drowsy just before takeoff. That gavel hitting the desk had actually been the sound of a baby's bottle hitting the floor, fallen from the hand of the young mother in the seat across the aisle from him.
Fresh from his dream, the traveller had the feeling that the baby judge had somehow resembled his dead father. Come to think of it, the woman carrying him seemed to be one of his classmates from middle school days.
He examined the mother and baby across the aisle out of the corner of his eye. The baby gazed back at him. "Abama oodleoodle," it remarked. "Eh?" said the traveller, caught off guard. The mother, becoming aware that her little darling was talking to some unknown man, murmured, "Yes dear, I'll give you your milky now sweetheart," throwing the man a tense, warning smile as she did so. In an attempt to dispel her fears, he responded by relaxing his frown and attempting to entertain the baby by blowing out his cheeks and crossing his eyes. Breathing noisily through its nose as it sucked away at the bottle clutched in its hands, the baby glared back. It looked as if it was about to give him a stern piece of its mind. The traveller gave a little sigh, and settled back to flip through the magazine from the seat pocket in front of him. The baby sighed too. From then on, the traveller found their eyes meeting again and again. Whenever their gaze locked, the baby would try to engage him in conversation. It seemed to be speaking in words that only the dream world could make sense of. Unfortunately, however, the traveller knew neither the grammar nor the pronunciation of dream language, and it didn't look like the mother could interpret for him either. From time to time, the baby sighed, and gave a derisive snort of laughter. The traveller too had once been a baby. More than thirty years ago it was now. He had no way of recalling the sort of things he'd thought as a baby, but it seemed to him the world of time had been different back then. Yesterday and tomorrow had been all jumbled up together, a year would pass in the space of a day, and he could slip easily in and out of past and future lives – that was the kind of dream world he imagined he'd inhabited as an infant.
Sure, it would be enough to make anyone snort with derision, or heave a sigh or two, if a man turned into a baby and looked back over his own life.
Dreams were the sort of thing that seemed at first glance to have some meaning, but in fact you could interpret them any way you wanted. With the one he'd just had, though, he'd certainly feel a lot better if he treated it as completely meaningless. Being able to interpret dreams any way you wanted meant in effect that you could rewrite them as much as you liked. In the hands of someone who had a way with words, a nightmare could become a harbinger of good luck, while a pleasant dream might turn out to be simply the flip side of harsh reality. Dreams get used according to the needs of the moment. If something's preying on your mind, take a look at your dreams and you'll discover what it is. If the future's weighing on you, ask your dreams for the answer. It will help you prepare yourself, if nothing else.
The traveller had never been psychoanalysed. Nor did he have any particular worries. He never remembered his dreams. Trying to recall them only made you feel anxious, after all. As to the question of where he came from and where he'd go when he died, well the answer had always been perfectly clear. The fact was, there was nothing he could do about it. What his dreams told him was: you yourself are quite meaningless.
On a sudden impulse, the traveller had just been to visit the grave of his father, who had died four years ago. His father's name was inscribed on a gravestone in Dazaifu, his birthplace. At the age of sixteen he'd left Kyushu for Tokyo in search of fame or fortune, and for the following forty years he'd moved from one suburb of Tokyo to another, working virtually without a break all that time. He'd gone to his final rest still dreaming of returning home in triumph. He'd requested that he be buried back home in the family tomb, but there were no longer any family members left in Dazaifu to look after the ancestors, just the lonely grave. The priest in charge of the cemetery had intended to make the plot over to another family, and this new addition foiled his plans. The traveller and his mother had also come up with a plan to move the grave to a new site in the suburbs of Tokyo so that they could look after it, but his father had stuck to his guns. I may have nothing else in the world to call my own, he declared, but that grave is home and I want to go back there. Nothing had gone his way in life, thought his son, so the least they could do was follow his wishes in death.
It was four years since he'd visited the ancestral grave, and it was an overgrown wilderness. The traveller weeded it, cleaned up the gravestone with a scrubbing brush, and placed fresh flowers and sake before it. As he worked, he had to smile. What on earth had his father been thinking to want to come back to his birthplace, even if it was as a corpse? Did he believe that the soul should return to its place of origin? Or was it that forty years after he'd left home, forty long years of Rip Van Winkle existence, he still wanted to go to his eternal rest in the bosom of his ancestors?
His father had gone through life a good-natured dupe, too spendthrift ever to make his fortune and too gullible ever to make his mark on the world. And his son had quite a lot in common with him. His father had named him Yoshio, "good man," and his own foolish good nature had come down to the boy. Yoshio Kita was thus at the mercy of genes that inclined him to serve others. In reaction, he longed to try a life devoted to the impulse of the moment, to follow his instincts, to give way to explosive emotions.
Since about the age of thirteen, Yoshio Kita had developed a tendency to despair of the future, and from time to time he had the recurring thought that he may as well just throw it all in and die. Nevertheless, he'd made it this far without putting the idea into action, just mooching along through an uneventful life, relying on his own good nature to get him by. But, as sometimes happens, he suddenly became possessed by the idea.
Still, when he came to think of it, dying wasn't all that easy. That French philosopher who died of an autoimmune disease had advocated the idea of suicide as a death as pleasant as making love to your sweetheart in some hotel room. But he had actually latched onto the idea after his visit to Japan. Here in Japan, suicide had traditionally been a matter of form, without necessarily any need for a motive or a reason or a crime to justify it. It was the same for the mourners who saw you off to the other world – they mourned you according to custom, without feeling they had to get to the bottom of just why you killed yourself. Sure, there were people who enjoyed tossing round ideas about death and suicide, but then they weren't the ones who did it. They stayed alive, which meant they got to say whatever they liked about it. They could bewail its absurdity or investigate its true nature all they liked. But the dead are mute. The living can choose to take that silence as ironic or see it as some kind of joke if they want. Nevertheless, the person who dies gets to choose his own death. That's essentially what suicide's been about in Japan all along. You may be forced to commit suicide by society or other people, but the act itself is completely meaningless. What's without any meaning can sometimes make people laugh. And since the dead can't laugh, the living have to make up for it by getting the joke he intended and laughing for him. How ironic it would be for the poor guy if they didn't get it!
There's a story about the comic storyteller who liked to make his audience groan by being intentionally unfunny. Apparently, as he lay in the hospital bed about to breathe his last, he stretched out his hand toward the family members gathered round him. But when his wife and children went to seize it, he waved them feebly away.
"No, no," he said, "I'm after money."
There he is, about to die at any moment, surrounded by people weeping at this parting from their beloved husband and father, and he goes and makes a tired old gag like that. This was the man who liked to scandalize his audiences as a matter of principle. That was his art, his very essence, so even on his deathbed he was still at it. People found this moving. Even at the very doors of heaven or bound for hell, they said, it looks like he couldn't resist one more stab at getting a laugh.
This way of dying is revered in Japan, you might say. It sticks in people's memory. The one dying and the ones seeing him off are both essentially following the old traditions.
In the airport restroom, Yoshio Kita threw away the Boston bag he'd been carrying, and emerged empty-handed. The bag held a change of clothes, a couple of magazines, and a packet of Dazaifu rice cakes. There was no need to carry any of this stuff around any more now.
Swaying along in the carriage of the monorail into the city, he pondered where to start, but his mind was a complete blank, and nothing came to him. Finally, as he arrived at the last stop in Hamamatsucho, he came up with a few ideas – he'd withdraw money from the bank, he'd indulge in luxury and debauchery, and he'd do something for the world and humanity. He had 1,116,715 yen in his bank account. It was quite a hefty amount to take out all at once, and he may well want to make some purchases on the credit card, so he settled for withdrawing 300,000 yen, which he divided up and stuffed into his pockets.
Not Just Your Average Guy – A Sermon
OK, he thought to himself as he stepped out into the main street, let's use my remaining time on earth meaningfully and efficiently. He set about trying to hail a cab, but not a single one that passed him had a "vacant" light posted. Not a good start. But as he was standing there, eyes peeled for cabs, he was startled to catch a sudden glimpse of a figure out of the corner of his eye. Just two yards back down the road, a middle-aged man, of medium height and medium weight, in a grey three-button suit, was standing with an innocent air, trying to sneak in ahead of him to nab the first vacant cab. He looked like he'd only just managed to haul his heavy-looking aluminium briefcase as far as the street and was anxious to get to his next destination by the shortest possible route as soon as he'd caught his breath. In short, he looked like the sort of guy a policeman would immediately be inclined to ask a few questions. Kita simply wanted to be somewhere else – anywhere else, he'd decide where once the wheels were rolling – and had no reason to compete with this fellow, but on the other hand he didn't want his adventures to get off on the wrong foot. And so, keeping a careful check on the man's back, he moved five yards down ahead of him, and stood there squirming about with his hand raised like an elementary school student with the right answer, trying to draw attention to himself, as if to say to the world "I got here first." The man, however, ignored him completely. He just moved himself two yards down beyond Kita. There he slipped a cigarette into his mouth and set about searching for his lighter, slapping his pockets up and down both sides of his suit, then glanced at his watch, and even clucked his tongue in mild impatience. A taxi drew in, its indicator flashing. The middle-aged man turned to Kita. "Got a light?" he said. Kita pretended not to hear him. Determined to be heard, the man went on, "It's difficult to catch a cab right now, so why don't you join me and we can ride together?" No longer able to ignore him, Kita asked, "Where are you going?"
Guys off to the cycle races might share a cab, but Kita didn't think this was the sort of town where two men completely unknown to each other could nonchalantly just hop in together like that. As for himself, of course, he was quite prepared. If the guy turned out to be a murderer, he'd simply resign himself to the fact that his fate had caught up with him. But wasn't the other man at all concerned whether he himself might be a killer?
The taxi was sitting idling beside them with the door open. The other man climbed in, hugging his case, and beckoned Kita to get in after him. He hadn't even asked where Kita was going, probably to forestall any refusal. So this was his justification for sneaking in ahead for a cab – he'd simply planned to share it, eh? Kita settled down beside him without a word, annoyed that he was tacitly allowing the man to get away with his tactic. The man gave a destination to the driver, then turned to Kita. "What about you?" he asked. "That'll do fine," Kita said casually. His old teacher would have told him not to let things sweep him passively along like this, to assert himself. Too bad, though. The other guy was too pushy to resist.
The taxi set off for downtown Shibuya. Shibuya's actually not a bad idea, he thought, immediately setting about justifying having let himself be swept along by events. A good place to relax what goes on above the neck, and liven things up below the waist. After all, I'm going to die in a week's time, so why not go easy on the resentment and hatred side of life? He found himself feeling more magnanimous and openhearted than he had in years.
The cab radio was tuned to the news broadcast. The announcer's even, detached style of reading had a way of making any murder, air raid, terrorist bomb attack, robbery, or collapse of the share market sound like a matter of no personal concern. After all, things were all going all right as far as you yourself were concerned, so you could get a mild kick out of tales of terrorist attack, or feel happy that you weren't among the victims of a murderer, without ever registering despair or hope or indulging in self-reflection as you listened. Sure, there were moments when you felt envy, but five minutes later it was gone.
"Another convenience store robbery, eh? There's been a lot of that lately. Never out of a job in that line of work – and pretty easy work in Japan at that, with all those drink machines packed full of money standing around on the streets."
The man was holding forth with the aim of getting Kita and the driver to chime in.
"Those vending machines are real moneyboxes, aren't they?" said the driver, with a trace of a northern accent. He seemed to relish talk. At times when he had no passenger, he'd probably amuse himself by talking back to the radio announcer as if they were on air together.
"Japan's a dangerous place these days, that's for sure. There are plenty who'll understand you when you talk, mind you, but nowadays we've got a lot of foreign types who can't follow a word you say. Get mixed up with those guys and bang, you're done for. We cab drivers who got to work with our backs to folks are always feeling danger right behind us."
"So what would you do if I turned out to be a robber?" murmured the man, tapping a finger against his aluminium case.
Excerpted from Death By Choice by Masahiko Shimada, Meredith McKinney. Copyright © 2003 Masahiko Shimada. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 Friday, 1,
Chapter 2 Saturday, 40,
Chapter 3 Sunday, 55,
Chapter 4 Monday, 64,
Chapter 5 Tuesday, 103,
Chapter 6 Wednesday, 131,
Chapter 7 Thursday, 166,
Chapter 8 Friday, 203,
Chapter 9 Someday, 222,
What Is "Death by Choice"?, 242,