The Bomb Incident

This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Tokyo, May 1996. One of the newsstands inside Takadanobaba station carries the Wall Street Journal Asia. Before 8 a.m., the wrinkled prewar archetype has two copies. By 8:45 a.m., he’s down to one. By 9 a.m., he’s out. And now that I live a few minutes away, I get there in time to grab the last copy. Surely, the same two guys have been buying them for years, and now I come along and muck up their system. I feel like a thief. Yet one of the pleasures of living in Takadanobaba—as opposed to Ekoda—is being able to buy this paper in my own neighborhood and read it in a coffee shop on the way to class. Just seeing the familiar layout and sheer mass of English is a pleasure. I begin with the stock listings. Everything is up. Wall Street is funding my trip. My strategy is working. I feel smart. A rare feeling in Japan.

This is the mood I’m in when I enter the closet-like classroom for my lessons with Shirai-sensei. If it weren’t for Japanese, she’d be a lot of fun. And during our second hour, as part of our practice conversation, I ask her to have lunch with me.

“I know a good sobaya,” she replies.

And that’s where we go. Around us, guys are bent over their bowls, sucking noodles with fanfare. Others hold up their bowls with both hands and slurp the broth. But there are a few girls, too, and they’re less noisy. Handicapped by the limitations of my Japanese, our conversation is basic.

“How old are you?” she asks.

I tell her. She acts surprised.

“How old are you?” I ask.


I act surprised.

She asks what I did last night. She’s asking in order to get me to practice past tense and topic-particle sentence structure. But gradually we drift away from grammar-driven sentences. She tells me she teaches courses for future teachers of Japanese. I already know that because Izumi is one of her students, but I don’t mention Izumi due to the clandestine nature of our relationship. She asks in which state I live.


“Yes,” she says and tries to remember something. “Oh yes, I saw it on TV, the bomb incident.”

I nod. The bomb incident, as she says, is all we’re known for these days. A sad manifestation of our importance in the world.

Our conversation stumbles forward in its laborious and exhausting manner. If I did this more often, I might actually learn Japanese. But I want a human conversation, not a practice conversation, and switch to English.

“We should speak Japanese,” she says in English, and when I don’t get excited about that, she adds, “but I enjoy speaking English. Maybe we can compromise.”

“You speak English very well.”

“No, no, I have a long way to go.”

“Did you learn it in America?” I say because of her faint American intonation.

“In China.”

I guffaw. I like her sense of humor.

“I spent two years in China,” she says. “I taught Japanese under a Chinese government program. My roommate was an American girl who taught English. At first, we tried to speak Chinese with each other, but—” She chuckles. “Let’s just say that my English improved a lot more in China than my Chinese.”

And so the conversation hopscotches along.

“We should have dinner together,” she says as we finish our soba. “We can take turns, English an hour, Japanese an hour. And so on. We can get drunk together.”

“If I drink, my Japanese goes to hell entirely.”

“Opposite. Your Japanese improves with each drink. I know because my English becomes fluent after the third drink.” She laughs while I imagine the sound of my Japanese after three drinks. When the check comes, she doesn’t let me pick it up but insists with gentle authority on going Dutch.

“I bought a house two years ago,” she says. “I like foreigners in my house. A Korean student stayed with me for three months. He left two weeks ago.”

“Aren’t you afraid the school might find out?”

“Afraid of the school? We Japanese are afraid of only four things: jishin, kaminari, kaji, oyaji—you know, earthquake, thunder, fire, and father. But no one is afraid of their father anymore.”

“I was afraid of my father.”

She laughs. “Actually, the school encourages it,” she says more seriously. “Where do you live?”

“At the Weekly Mansion.”

“When your lease is up, you can stay with me.” She writes a phone number into my textbook. “Call me when you’re ready.”

At night, in the ample time that Izumi’s unknown activities leave me, I sit on the bed with the never-ending Genji. Instead of reading, I’m grappling with the nuances of the conversation. Is Shirai-sensei only interested in renting out a room and practicing English? Or is she interested in me? She never exerted any pressure. I never had to say yes or no to anything. I can follow up or not follow up. She’s helpful without being maternal. She’s flirtatious without being aggressive. She’s cute without being gorgeous. She’s the kind of girl gaijin guys get all starry-eyed about when they return home.

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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