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NATSUME SŌSEKI (1867–1916) was born the youngest of eight children during the last year of the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo, the city shortly to be renamed Tokyo, and became the defining writer of the Meiji period (1868–1912). Raised by foster parents until he was nine, he made a faltering start at school but soon displayed a special aptitude for Chinese studies and later for the English language, ultimately earning an advanced degree in English literature. As an undergraduate at Tokyo Imperial University, he published an essay on Walt Whitman that introduced the poet’s work to Japan. After teaching for several years, Sōseki was sent in 1900 to England for two years by the Ministry of Education. Upon his return he succeeded Lafcadio Hearn in the English department at Tokyo Imperial University. Sōseki published his first work of fiction in 1905, the opening chapter of what would become the famous satirical novel I Am a Cat. In 1907, offered a position with the Asahi Newspaper publishing company, he left teaching to become a full-time writer, and proceeded to produce novels at the rate of one a year until his death from a stomach ulcer in 1916. Other major works to have appeared in English translation include Botchan, Kusamakura, The Miner, and Kokoro.

WILLIAM F. SIBLEY (1941–2009) was a professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago. A translator of Japanese fiction and nonfiction, Sibley was at work on Sōseki’s First Trilogy, comprising Sanshiro, And Then, and The Gate, at the time of his death.

PICO IYER is the author of several books, including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, The Global Soul, and, most recently, The Man Within My Head. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and Harper’s. He lives in Japan.



Translated from the Japanese by


Introduction by



New York



435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014

Edward Fowler contributed to the editing of this translation.

Translation copyright © 2013 by William Sibley

Introduction copyright © 2013 by Pico Iyer

All rights reserved.

Cover image: Fukuhara Shinzō, Untitled, 1927; the Shōtō Museum of Art, Tokyo

Cover design: Katy Homans

The Library of Congress has cataloged the earlier printing as follows:

Natsume, Sōseki, 1867–1916.

[Mon. English]

The gate / by Natsume Sōseki; introduction by Pico Iyer ; translation by

William F. Sibley.

p. cm. — (New York Review books classics)

“Edward Fowler contributed to the editing of this translation.”

ISBN 978-1-59017-587-3 (alk. paper)

1. Japan—Fiction. I. Sibley, William F. II. Title.




ebook ISBN 978-1-59017-600-9


For a complete list of books in the NYRB Classics series, visit or write to:

Catalog Requests, NYRB, 435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014


Biographical Notes

Title Page

Copyright and More Information


The Gate


























Sōseki and the Art of Nothing Happening

JAPANESE literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too. There are few emphases in spoken Japanese—the aim is to remain as level, even as neutral as possible—and in a classic work like The Tale of Genji, as one recent translator has it, “The more intense the emotion, the more regular the meter.” As in the old-fashioned England in which I grew up—though more unforgivingly so—the individual’s job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feelings to himself and to present a surface that gives little away. That the relation of surface to depth is uncertain is part of the point; it offers a degree of protection and makes for absolute consistency. The fewer words spoken, the easier it is to believe you’re standing on common ground.

One effect of this careful evenness—a maintenance of the larger harmony, whatever is happening within—is that to live in Japan, to walk through its complex nets of unstatedness, is to receive a rigorous training in attention. You learn to read the small print of life—to notice how the flowers placed in front of the tokonoma scroll have just been changed, in response to a shift in the season, or to register how your visitor is talking about everything except the husband who’s just run out on her. It’s what’s not expressed that sits at the heart of a haiku; a classic sumi-e brush-and-ink drawing leaves as much open space as possible at its center so that it becomes not a statement but a suggestion, an invitation to a collaboration.

The reader or viewer is asked to complete a composition, and so the no-color surfaces make for a kind of intimacy: “Kyoto is lovely, isn’t it?” is one of the most important sentences in Sōseki’s novel The Gate, and the other protagonist’s response to it, quintessence of Japan, is to think to himself, “Yes, Kyoto was lovely indeed.” For the visitor who has just arrived in the country of conflict avoidance, the innocent browser who’s just picked up a twentieth-century Japanese novel, it means that the first impression may be of scrupulous blandness, an evasion of all stress, self-erasure. For those who’ve begun to inhabit this world, it means living in a realm of constant inner explosions, under the surface and between the lines.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Sōseki (his family name is Natsume, but he’s usually known by his pen name, derived from a Chinese term meaning “stubborn”) is still, ninety-six years after his death, the Japanese novelist most honored in his nation’s classrooms and until recently featured on the back of every thousand-yen note (equivalent to our ten-dollar bill). His protagonists are masters of doing nothing at all. They abhor action and decision as scrupulously as Bartleby the scrivener does with his “I prefer not to”; the drama in their stories nearly always takes place within, in secrets revealed to or by them. This creed of doing nothing is a curious one in a country that seems constantly on the move, but in Sōseki’s world doing nothing should never be mistaken for feeling too little or lacking a vision or doctrine.

The Gate is a perfect example of this. On its surface, it’s just the story of Sōsuke and Oyone, a determinedly self-effacing couple in a small house in Tokyo in the first decade of the twentieth century, when the book was written. Sōsuke, for reasons that furnish the gradual drama of his story, has all but stepped out of the official world, even though (and sometimes because) he feels such a rich sense of duty toward so many of its members. The book delights, more than any Sōseki book I’ve read, in the everyday details of the late-Meiji landscape, from gas lamps to cigarettes and men in greatcoats to the sound of a wooden fish-block from the local temple. Yet its author, unexpectedly, goes out of his way to stress that his protagonists are living in “mundane circumstances,” as befits those who are “lackluster and thoroughly ordinary to begin with.” In a certain light, the entire story is about what never comes to pass: a character falls ill, and then nothing much happens; a long-feared reunion fails to take place; a search for spiritual revelation seems to reveal very little.

Look closer, however, and you can see how everything is happening, between the spaces and in the silences. To take an example almost at random, chapter 5 begins with Sōsuke’s aunt, much discussed but always somewhere else, finally visiting his house, and exchanging pleasantries—you could call them platitudes—with her nephew’s wife. Nothing could be more ordinary or without effect. Yet notice that the aunt’s first comment is about how unnaturally “chilly” the room is, and recall that the external temperature, and especially the slow cycling of the seasons, are always telling us something about mood and tone in this book. Part of the beauty of the novel comes from the way that it begins, very carefully, in autumn, takes us through the dark and cold of winter, and ends, in its final passage, with the arrival of spring.

We also learn, in the chapter’s opening paragraphs, that Sōsuke’s aunt (on whom his welfare seems to depend) looks strikingly young for her age; we’ve already been told that Sōsuke—as his aunt likes to stress—looks unreasonably old for his. We read that Sōsuke ascribes his aunt’s healthy appearance to her having only one child, yet even that thought underlines the fact that he and Oyone have none. As the laughter of kids drifts down from the landlord’s house up the embankment—the location itself is no coincidence and sounds coming in from outside are at least as important here as the words that are never exchanged—Sōsuke’s wife can’t help feeling “empty and wistful.” The aunt then says that she owes the couple an apology—which conspicuously prevents her from actually offering one—and refers pointedly to her son’s graduation from university (since Sōsuke, we’ve already been told, owes much of his present predicament to having dropped out).

The whole scene might be taking place around me, every hour, in the modern Western suburb of the eighth-century Japanese capital, Nara, where I’ve been living for twenty years. “Oh, you look so well,” a woman says to another, outside the post office, emphasizing, with a craft worthy of a Jane Austen character, that she didn’t before, and might not be expected to now. “It’s only because I have so little to worry about,” the other will respond, to put the first one in her place. “It’s hot, isn’t it?” the first will now say, perhaps to suggest that nothing lasts forever. “Isn’t it?” says the second, and no observer could find any evidence for the combat that’s just been concluded.

As Sōsuke’s aunt, in The Gate, goes on about how her son is getting into “com-buschon engines,” and on his way to profits so “huge” they could ruin his health, she’s drawing attention to the money she’s not giving to Sōsuke, the success of her son by comparison, and, in Meiji Japan, the fact that her progeny is eagerly taking on the Western and the modern world, and is not stuck in his Japanese ways and the past, as Sōsuke seems to be. Sōsuke himself, meanwhile, is characteristically absent, at the dentist’s office, taking care of a problem that his wife ascribes to age.

One magazine he picks up in the dentist’s waiting room is called Success, and in its pages he reads of the furious forward movement that is exactly what seems closed to him. He also reads therein a Chinese poem, about drifting clouds and the moon, and finds himself at once moved by the realm of changeless acceptance and natural calm it describes, yet excluded from its quietude, too. When the dentist appears—he also has a “youthful-looking face” despite his thinning hair—he tells Sōsuke that his teeth are rotting and his condition is “incurable.” He then removes a “thin strand” of nerve. Back home, Sōsuke picks up a copy of Confucius’s Analects before going to sleep, but they have “not a thing” to offer him.

Nothing much has happened, you might say, if you consider the seven pages that have just passed. But we’ve learned more about Sōsuke, his anxiety, his relations with his aunt, his premature sense of decay, and his (and his culture’s) inability to commit themselves either to Success or to old China than any amount of drama could provide. Everything is there, if only you can savor the ellipses.

Literary critics will tell you that Sōseki was almost unique among the writers of his day because he was sent on a Japanese Ministry of Education program to live in England at the age of thirty-three, and brought back from his two years there an even more pronounced taste for the nineteenth-century European fiction he’d already mastered at home. They will remind you that he was born in 1867, a year before the Meiji Restoration changed the face of Japan, releasing it from more than two hundred years of self-imposed isolation (since 1635 or so, it had been illegal for any Japanese to leave the nation). They will note that he became the defining novelist of the Meiji period in part because he embraced in his life the central question of the day, which was how his country could combine “Japanese spirit, Western technology,” as it called it, trying to elide through slogan-making what could be whole centuries of differences. The great novelists who would follow later in the century—Yasunari Kawabata, Junichirō Tanizaki, and Yukio Mishima—would all, in their different ways, be writing about how Japan had already lost its integrity and its soul to the West.

Sōseki’s time in London was famously miserable—he felt himself “a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves” and almost lost his mind amongst what seemed to him cold people and strange customs—but after his return to Japan, he took over Lafcadio Hearn’s position teaching English literature at Tokyo Imperial University, the country’s Harvard (and Sōseki’s alma mater, where he had been only the second Japanese to graduate in English literature). He left the university in 1907, after a series of nervous breakdowns, and then published nearly all his fourteen novels in nine years before dying in Tokyo, where he had been born, at forty-nine, in 1916, four years after the Meiji period ended. He dabbled in stream-of-consciousness narratives, Arthurian tales, satires, detective stories, and travel pieces, yet even the titles of his books often stress the fact of nothing happening. Sorekara simply means “And Then,” while Kokoro is an enigmatic word for “Heart.”

A little as his life story suggests, the man himself seems at once profoundly Japanese and something of a rebel; over and over in his books we meet a quiet maverick who, because of some moment of passion that he feels he must spend his life atoning for, has all but opted out of society, and abandoned every trace of initiative. His withdrawal from action marks him as a failure in Japanese terms, but it may also suggest his deference to “the inexorable workings of karmic retribution,” as The Gate’s narrator puts it—and even a pride at not participating in a world of ambition and exploitation. Sōseki’s wounds are never far from the surface of his books—the hovering around a gate through which his characters will never pass, figures in dire financial straits with holes in their shoes and leaky ceilings, an obscure sense that there is “guilt in loving.” His characters defect from Japanese society without quite arriving anywhere else.

The Gate puts us into its prevailing mood—and theme—with its very first paragraph. A man is lying on his veranda in the autumn light of a regular Sunday, and almost immediately we are in the relaxed, undramatic world of day-to-day life, while also feeling an edge to things, allied perhaps to that character’s “case of nerves.” The novel seems to abound in casual descriptions of Tokyo in 1909—we hear the “clatter of wooden clogs” in the street, see the ads in a streetcar (“WE MAKE MOVING EASY”), read of posters advertising a new movie based on a Tolstoy story. But of course none of these details is casual, and all intensify the sense of restlessness and regret that seems to haunt the man on his veranda. The more Sōsuke keeps insisting on how his is a life of no consequence, the more we may wonder what all this deliberate stasis is concealing.

Thus the novel quickly establishes itself as a story of absences and withholdings, about all the things that aren’t spoken about, but that keep on ticking away in the background like the couple’s pendulum clock. The prematurely old and settled young partners, going through their unchanging motions, look at Sōsuke’s brother, Koroku, who is ten years younger, and feel the impatience and drive they’ve lost. They carefully step around everything they’ve been thinking about—the fact that Sōsuke longs to find what you could call the courage of his non-conviction and that their lives seem already to be behind them. Sōseki builds a powerful kind of tension precisely by giving us so little (and this is conjured up with evocative grace in this new translation by the late William F. Sibley, whose text was completed just before his death in 2009).

Observant readers of Haruki Murakami may recognize something of the highly passive, though sympathetic soul in the Tokyo suburbs bewildered by everything that seems to happen to him, or that appears to have abruptly vanished from his life (Murakami has named Sōseki his personal favorite among the “Japanese national writers”). Others may recall how even Kazuo Ishiguro, though writing in English and having left Japan at the age of six, wrote his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, about people from Nagasaki, a few years after the atomic bomb there, going through a whole book without mentioning it. The central fact of their lives is the one they never speak about.

But perhaps the best way into this world may be to turn to some of the movies of Yasujirō Ozu, one of the defining artists of twentieth-century Japan, whose films are famously quiet, shot at tatami level, with a camera that seldom moves, in long, slow takes, about those pressures that are never explicitly addressed—and frequently draw their titles from the seasons. In Japan, as is often noted, there are separate words for the self you show the world and the one that you reveal behind closed doors; while we regard it as a sin to be reserved at home, the Japanese take it as much more cruel to be too forthcoming in the world. This reticence has little to do with trying to protect oneself and everything to do with trying to protect others from one’s problems, which shouldn’t be theirs; it’s one reason Japan is so confounding to foreigners, as its people faultlessly sparkle and attend to one another in public, while often seeming passive and unconvinced of their ability to do anything decisive at home.

“Under the sun the couple presented smiles to the world,” Sōseki writes, in one of his most beautiful sentences here; “under the moon, they were lost in thought: And so they had quietly passed the years.” At one point Oyone asks her husband, “How are things going for Koroku?”

“Not well at all,” he answers, and with that they both go to sleep.

How to adjust to a world in which the climax of a scene—and sometimes the central event—is going to sleep? We’re going to have to adapt, maybe even invert our sense of priority and our assumptions about what constitutes drama, as most of us foreigners have to do when traveling to Japan. Sōseki is an unusually intimate writer—the public world is only his concern by implication—and in Japan (again as in the England that I know) intimacy is shown not by all that you can say to someone else, but by all that you don’t need to say.

Thus the very fact that Sōsuke and Oyone express so little to each other in the novel seems almost to intensify the depth of their shared past; their silences say plenty. While never showing the couple touching or quite baring their hearts, Sōseki evinces a sense of closeness—you could call it love—so intense that when one of them falls ill, it becomes hard to read of the other one’s fears. It’s everything that doesn’t get externalized that knits them together in a community of two: One central scene finds Sōsuke returning to his home to discover everyone, unsettlingly, asleep; and in perhaps the novel’s most magical moment, Oyone simply walks around their house, watching her husband, then her maid in sleep. Much of the novel suggests the silent, only half-shared agitation of a couple, one of whose partners falls instantly asleep, while the other tosses and turns, wide awake.

Indeed, it’s typical of the predicament—and the devotion—around which the novel turns that one partner realizes that to wake up the other might be to cause suffering; yet not to do so may be to allow a worse suffering to develop. And the arrival of any outsider, whether Sōsuke’s aunt or his brother, only deepens our sense of the bond between Oyone and her husband. Sōseki was suffering from acute stomach pains while he wrote The Gate—they would lead to his death six years later—so perhaps it’s no surprise that even a wind in the novel is so strong it can “send people into depression.”

The fact of nothing happening becomes a source of almost unbearable tension in nearly all of Sōseki’s novels. His protagonists keep waiting to be exposed, or for something to explode (again you can see how Ishiguro might have learned to create suspense from Sōseki, just by having a character try to outrun a past that’s always gaining on him). Since Sōseki’s people are nearly always hard up, and bound by many conflicting obligations, they’re already paralyzed in a practical sense. And since they seem terrified of dependence on others—Sōseki himself was raised by a family not his own and appears never to have outgrown the unsettledness that brought him—their only way of claiming independence is by sitting in a prison they’ve made themselves.

The challenge of a novel like The Gate is to find a way to turn inaction into a kind of higher detachment, suggestive of the sage’s refusal to be swayed by the vicissitudes of the world. One of the first things that may hit a Western reader on entering the world of a Japanese novel—though of course you can find this in Edith Wharton, too—is how every character is effectively a tiny figure in a suffocating world of associations and obligations; where many an American novel might send its protagonist out into the world to make his own destiny, in Sōsuke’s Japan he cannot move for all his competing (and unmeetable) responsibilities to his aunt, his younger brother, his wife, and society itself.

Free will is not an option; for Sōsuke it would be all but heresy even to reflect on his individual longings. “For some reason I have become terribly serious since arriving here,” Sōseki wrote, in his “Letter from London,” a year after his arrival in England. “Looking and listening to everything around me, I think incessantly of the problem of ‘Japan’s future.’” Its future, then as now, involves trying to make a peace, or form a synthesis, between the ancient Chinese ideal of sitting still and watching the seasons pass, tending to social harmonies, and the new American way of pushing forward individually, convinced that tomorrow will be better than today.

It’s no wonder that so many of Sōseki’s characters are prematurely old; this is an old man’s—an old culture’s—vision, in which the past has much greater vividness than the future. Yet his people don’t feel nostalgia toward what’s passed so much as skepticism toward the prospect of getting a new life. New Year’s Day, the central festival of the Japanese calendar, features in many of Sōseki’s books, as here, and it has resonance mostly because, for figures such as Sōsuke and Oyone, there seems scant possibility of starting anew or turning a fresh page.

When Sōseki traveled to England, he complained that he couldn’t even “trust myself to a train or cab . . . their cobweb system was so complicated.” He felt patronized by the cleaning women and landladies who tried to explain their culture to him (already a teacher of English literature), and both pride and insecurity arose as he felt himself superior to people who (physically) were always looking down on him. But if you read the novels, you begin to suspect that this sense of imprisonment was simply something he took with him on the boat to England. Not only is his take on standoffish and ghostly England startlingly similar to a foreigner’s response—even today—to Japan; the England he evokes, of class distinctions and wraiths and people falling on hard times, is almost identical to the Japan he describes in book after book.

In his dismissals of the “lower class” barbarians he meets and the way his bleak London boardinghouses are so far from what English literature led him to expect, he sounds in fact very much like V. S. Naipaul half a century later; yet, much like Naipaul, Sōseki, for all his unease in Britain, could seem a strikingly European figure when he went back to Tokyo, affecting a frock coat, a mustache, and a love of beef and toast. It is one of the curiosities of Japan, ever since the Meiji Restoration, that its identity has been defined largely by an identity crisis; to this day, both Japanese and those foreigners who contemplate the country keep wondering if it’s leaning too much toward an outdated Confucian past or toward an unsteady Californian future. Whether progress is cyclical or linear—should people honor their ancestors or their ambitions?—sometimes seems the central question in Japan. Sōseki is one of the first writers to make it the heart of his concerns, telling individual stories that seem to speak allegorically for something much larger.

Yet what a novel like The Gate only slowly discloses is that all the talk of no thing happening and all the meticulous avoidance of conflict and feeling speaks only for too much feeling in the past. Sōseki had an uncommonly acute sense of the power of passion—“It is the force of blood that drives the body,” he writes in his late novel, Kokoro—even if he chooses to concentrate on those moments when people live with the embers of what was once a devouring blaze. The problem is not that a character like Sōsuke “hated socializing”; it is that, once upon a time, he was “exquisitely socialized,” a flamboyant “bright young man of the modern age,” whose prospects seemed “boundless.” It’s only his acting too strongly that has condemned him to a life of inaction.

It takes awhile for a Western reader, perhaps, to realize that in Sōseki’s novels, as in Japan, external details are not just decoration; they’re the main event. It’s as if foreground and background are reversed, so that it’s the ads in the streetcars, the sound of laughter from a neighbor’s house, the talk about the price of fish that are in fact the emotional heart of the story. A man is robbed in The Gate and we read on excitedly to see what has happened. But when the victim is revealed, he “did not appear in the least ruffled” and sits at home with a palpable sense of well-being, talking about his dog who’s off at the vet’s.

It’s easy to suspect that this is the character who’s found the peace that all Sōseki’s characters long for, just by sitting apart from events and not letting them affect his joie de vivre. Indeed, his confidence is rewarded by his receiving back the item that was stolen from him. By the end of the novel, though unmoved by Confucius and all talk of Buddhism, Sōseki’s protagonist suddenly takes off on a ten-day retreat to a Zen temple in the mountains, and there discovers a world in which the fact of nothing happening can be a kind of blessing.

Nothing can be known or controlled, Zen training teaches; the only thing you can do is scrub floors and do your rounds and perhaps clear your head in the process. Enlightenment comes nowhere but in the everyday; self-realization arrives only when you throw self—and any idea of realization—out the window. Accept life and what it gives you and then you become a part of it.

It may seem strange that Japan’s favorite novelist was an anxious, passive, haunted character writing about nervous disorders and falling asleep and paralysis (even the dog at the vet’s is suffering from a “nervous ailment”). But it speaks for an inner world—and again this is evident in Murakami—that sits in a different dimension from the smooth-running, flawlessly attentive, and all but anonymous machine that keeps public order moving forward so efficiently in Japan. Perhaps the novel has always been one way in which the individual can get his own back at the world; perhaps this is even one of the more useful souvenirs Sōseki brought back from his life-changing stay in England. One of his most celebrated essays, the text of a lecture delivered two years before his death, was called “My Individualism,” and in it he spoke out about a “nationalism” that, only a generation later, would indeed become poisonous.

Nothing is happening on the surface of his characters’ lives even as so much around them seems a whirlwind of movement and perpetual self-reinvention. But each of these may be as deceiving as the other, as evidenced by the fact that, after a century of turmoil and convulsive change, Japan seems not so different, in its questions, from where it was in Sōseki’s time. In Sōseki, as in Japan, it’s the fact of nothing happening that makes for a tingle of expectation, a sense of imminent passion, and, in the end, the kind of privacy that stings.




SŌSUKE had been relaxing for some time on the veranda, legs comfortably crossed on a cushion he had set down in a warm, sunny spot. After a while, however, he let drop the magazine he had been holding and lay down on his side. It was a truly fine autumn day, the sun bright, the air crisp, and the clatter of wooden clogs passing through the quiet neighborhood echoed in his ears with a heightened clarity. Tucking one arm under his head, he cast his gaze past the eaves at the expanse of clear blue sky above. Compared to the tiny space he occupied here on the veranda, this patch of sky appeared extremely vast. Thinking what a difference it made, simply to take in the sky in the rare, leisurely fashion afforded by a Sunday, he squinted directly at the blazing sun for a few moments, then, averting his eyes, rolled over to his other side and faced the shoji. Beyond its panels his wife was seated, busy with her needlework.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it,” he called out to her.

She murmured in acknowledgment. Sōsuke, apparently not eager to strike up a conversation himself, lapsed back into silence. Presently his wife spoke up.

“Why don’t you take a stroll?”

This time it was Sōsuke who answered noncommittally.

Two, three minutes later, she brought her face up close to the glass panels in the shoji and peered out at her husband lying on the veranda. She saw that at some inner prompting he had brought his knees up to his chest, prawn-like, as if he were occupying a cramped space. His head of black hair was cradled between his arms, and his face was totally obscured by his elbows and clasped hands.

“Sleeping in such a place—why, you’ll catch cold,” she cautioned. She spoke in a manner characteristic of contemporary schoolgirls, in which overtones of Tokyo speech mingled with undertones from somewhere else. Peering up from between his elbows and blinking exaggeratedly, Sōsuke mumbled, “Don’t worry, I’m not asleep.”

Once again they fell silent. Sōsuke heard two or three rings of a bell announcing the passage of a rickshaw gliding along on rubber wheels, followed by the distant crowing of a rooster. Basking in the warm sun’s rays that readily penetrated to the shirt beneath his newly tailored kimono, made from machine-spun cloth, Sōsuke passively registered the sounds. Then, as if suddenly reminded of something, he called out to his wife through the shoji.

“Oyone,” he asked, “what’s the character for ‘kin’ in ‘kinrai’?”

“It’s the same as the one for ‘Ō’ in ‘Ōmi,’ isn’t it?”[1] His wife’s reply contained no hint of condescension, nor was it accompanied by the sort of shrill laughter peculiar to young women.

“But that’s the character I can’t remember—the one for ‘Ō.’”

Sliding the shoji open halfway, his wife thrust her ruler out beyond the track and with its edge traced for him the character on the veranda. “Like this, you see.” She said no more. The tip of the ruler rested where she had ended her tracing, and for a moment her gaze lingered intently on the pellucid sky.

“Oh, so that’s it,” said Sōsuke, not looking at his wife and without the faintest smile that might indicate this had all been a little joke.

Oyone, for her part, appeared to make nothing of their exchange. “Oh yes, a really fine day,” she remarked, more or less to herself, and resumed her needlework, leaving the shoji half open behind her.

Sōsuke raised his head slightly from between his elbows and now looked directly at his wife for the first time. “You know, there’s something amazing about Chinese characters.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, no matter how simple the character, once you get to thinking about it, it starts looking a bit odd, and suddenly you can’t be sure anymore. The other day I got all mixed up over the ‘kon’ in ‘konnichi.’[2] I’d put it down correctly on paper, but when I scrutinized it I got the feeling it was wrong somehow. After that, the closer I looked at what I’d written the less it looked like kon . . . Hasn’t that ever happened to you, Oyone?”

“Certainly not.”

“It’s just me, then?” Sōsuke asked, bringing a hand to his head.

“Just you. There’s obviously something wrong.”

“I wonder if it’s my nerves again.”

“Yes, that must be it!” Oyone said, eyeing her husband.

At this Sōsuke got to his feet. He traversed the sitting room, stepping gingerly over Oyone’s sewing basket and scattered threads, and opened the sliding panels to the parlor. Its southern exposure was blocked by the vestibule, with the result that the shoji at the other end of the room presented a distinctly chilly appearance to the gaze of someone just coming in out of the sunlight. He opened these as well. Yet even here on the eastern veranda, where one might expect the sun’s rays to strike in the morning, at least, they scarcely penetrated at all because of a cliff-like embankment that loomed over this side of the house, sloping down so steeply that it all but brushed the eaves. The embankment was covered with vegetation. Lacking so much as a single row of stone revetment, it looked precariously close to crumbling down. Astonishingly, however, it seemed as though nothing of the sort had ever happened, and the landlord went along year after year simply leaving things as they had always been. An elderly produce dealer, a resident of the quarter for two decades, had offered a ready explanation for this phenomenon as he stood with his vegetables outside the kitchen door one day. According to him, this plot of land had originally been covered by a sprawling thicket of bamboo; when it was cleared, the roots had not been dug up but left buried. The earth here, the peddler had said, was in fact more stable than one might think. Sōsuke had raised some doubts: If the roots were just left there, wouldn’t the bamboo grow back into a new thicket? Well, the old man had said, it seems that once it had been cut down to the ground like that it couldn’t easily grow back, but there was no need to worry about the cliff; no matter what, it would not crumble down. After this spirited defense, delivered as if he had a personal stake in the matter, the old man had departed.

The face of the embankment was largely colorless. Even in autumn the green vegetation merely faded into a pale, patchy tangle. There was no touch of the elegant such as would have been provided by plumes of susuki grass or ivy vines. In a kind of compensation several tall, slender mōsō bamboo trees,[3] a vestige of the former grove, rose cleanly out of the soil, two of them halfway up the steep slope, three more near the top. The bamboo had recently taken on a yellowish hue, and whenever Sōsuke stuck his head out beyond the eaves and saw the sun’s rays strike their trunks, he felt as though he were observing the warmth of autumn there atop the embankment. Sōsuke was one of those men who left home for work every morning and returned after four o’clock; normally he was far too pressed for time to take in the scenery towering above him. After exiting the unlit toilet and washing his hands in the basin, however, he happened to glance up beyond the eaves and noticed the bamboo. Leaves gathered densely atop the bamboo stalks, like the stubble on a monk’s close-cropped head. As the leaves luxuriated in the autumn sunlight they drooped down heavily in silent clusters, not a single one stirring.

Sōsuke returned to the parlor, closing the shoji behind him, and kneeled down at his desk. Although the couple had designated this room the parlor, as it was the one to which guests were conducted, it might more aptly have been called a study or a living room. In the alcove in the north wall hung a token scroll, a rather peculiar one, and in front of it was displayed a misshapen, murky crimson flower vase. In the space between the alcove’s lintel and the ceiling glinted two shiny brass S-hooks. No plaques hung from them. The only other item on the wall was a cabinet of shelves with glass doors that contained, however, nothing worthy of note.

Opening the desk drawer, which was trimmed with silver hardware, Sōsuke rummaged around vigorously but to no avail, and finally snapped the drawer shut. He then removed the cover from an ink stone and began writing a letter. Finished, he pondered a moment and then called to his wife in the next room.

“Oyone, what’s my aunt’s address in Naka Roku-Banchō?”

“Number twenty-five, isn’t it?” she answered, and then, after pausing long enough for him to write it down, added, “But a letter won’t do the trick. You have to go over there and have a real talk.”

“First let’s see if a letter won’t actually work,” he declared, as if to have done with it. “If it doesn’t, then I’ll go.” His wife did not reply. “Well, what do you think?” he persisted. “Won’t that do?”

Oyone, seemingly loath to disagree, protested no further.

Letter in hand, Sōsuke stepped directly from the parlor into the vestibule. When she heard his footsteps Oyone got up from the sitting room and proceeded to the vestibule by way of the veranda.

“I’m going out for a stroll,” said Sōsuke.

“Enjoy yourself,” his wife replied with a smile.

Half an hour later, at a rattling of the door being opened, Oyone left off with her needlework and again proceeded by way of the veranda to the vestibule, where instead of Sōsuke she found his younger brother, Koroku, wearing the cap of the secondary school[4] he attended.

“It’s hot!” he said as he undid the buttons of his black woolen cloak, so long that only about six inches of his hakama[5] showed below the hem.

“But just look at you,” said Oyone, “wearing that bulky thing on a day like this!”

“Well, I was thinking it might turn cold when the sun went down,” Koroku explained hastily, before following his sister-in-law along the veranda to the sitting room. “I see you’re hard at work as usual,” he said, glancing at a partly stitched kimono, and sat down cross-legged in front of the long brazier. After sweeping her sewing into the corner, Oyone moved opposite Koroku, took down the tea kettle, and began putting coals in the brazier.

“If it’s tea you’re serving, don’t make any for me,” said Koroku.

“None at all?” Oyone asked in a cajoling, schoolgirlish tone. “Well, what about some sweets, then?” she said with a smile.

“You have some?” asked Koroku.

“Actually, I don’t,” she replied truthfully, but then, as if remembering something—“Wait a minute, there just might be . . .”—she rose, pushed the coal scuttle out of the way, and opened a small storage compartment attached to the wall.

Koroku stared idly at Oyone from behind, focusing on the swelling above the hips where her jacket covered her obi. Whatever she was looking for seemed to take forever to find, and so he said, “Let’s skip the sweets, too—but tell me, where’s my brother?”

“He went out for a while,” she replied, her back still turned toward him. She was intent on her search. Eventually she clapped the compartment door shut. “Nothing! Your brother must have gobbled them up when I wasn’t looking,” she said as she returned to her place opposite Koroku.

“Well, then, won’t you treat me to supper this evening?”

“Why, of course!” said Oyone, looking at the clock on the wall. It was nearly four o’clock. Oyone made a mental note of the two hours left before mealtime. Koroku silently studied her face. He was, in fact, not especially interested in being treated by his sister-in-law.

“Nee-san,[6] do you suppose my brother’s gone to see the Saekis on my account?” he asked Oyone.

“Well, he has been saying over and over that he’s going to see them, but he hasn’t done so yet. But then, you know, your brother goes off in the morning and doesn’t come home till evening, and when he gets home he’s exhausted—even the walk to the bathhouse is a chore. So you shouldn’t keep pressing him, it isn’t fair.”

“Yes, of course he’s busy, but as long as this matter is unsettled I feel too anxious to concentrate on my studies.” As he spoke, Koroku picked up the brass fire tongs and, wielding them energetically, scrawled something in the ashes in the brazier. Oyone watched the tips of the tongs move this way and that.

“But he did just send a letter to the Saekis,” she said by way of consolation.

“What’d it say?”

“Well, I didn’t actually see it. But I’m sure it had to do with the matter in question. When your brother comes home you should ask him yourself. I’m sure that was it.”

“If he did send a letter I suppose that was probably it.”

“Yes, he really did send a letter. When he left awhile ago he had it in his hand and was going to mail it.”

Koroku did not wish to hear another word on the subject from his sister-in-law, whether of justification or consolation. He thought to himself with annoyance that if his brother had time to go out for a stroll, he might as well have strolled right on over to the Saekis instead of sending a letter. Entering the parlor, he took out a foreign book with a red cover from the cabinet and restlessly flipped through its pages.


MEANWHILE, Sōsuke, unaware of his brother’s visit, had arrived at a corner shop in his neighborhood. There he purchased stamps, along with a pack of Shikishima, and wasted no time in mailing the letter. That small thing done, simply to retrace his steps homeward somehow did not suffice, so he walked on, puffing out cigarette smoke into the autumn sunlight, the urge in him to wander afar, to someplace where he could etch vividly on his mind the sensation that the very essence of Tokyo was to be found here in this spot, then take it home as a souvenir of this day, his Sunday, before he lay down to sleep. To be sure, he was a man who had for years not only lived in and breathed the air of Tokyo but who also commuted by streetcar to the office and back every day, passing twice, to and fro, through the city’s bustling quarters. Neither physically relaxed nor mentally at ease, he was in the habit of simply passing through these places in a daze and had not recently experienced even a moment’s awareness that he lived in a thriving metropolis. Normally, caught up as he was in the busyness of his daily routine, this did not bother him; but come Sunday, when granted the opportunity for relaxation, his workaday life would suddenly strike him as restless and superficial. He was driven to the conclusion that while living in Tokyo he had never in fact seen Tokyo, and whenever he reached this point in his thoughts he would feel overwhelmed by the bleakness, the dreariness of it all.

At times like this he would set out into the busier quarters as if suddenly remembering some errand. If he happened to have a bit extra in his pocket, he went so far as to think, Why not splurge a little on a good time? Yet his sense of dreariness was not so acute as to drive him to self-abandon; before he could rush to such an extreme, he would decide that this was all quite ridiculous and give it up. Besides, as is the rule with men like him, the limited thickness of his wallet was such as to prohibit any rash indulgence, and rather than racking his brains over timid half measures, it was easier just to keep his hands tucked in his kimono sleeves and turn toward home. And so it came about that a simple walk, or a leisurely look around an exhibition of useful products, would console his forlorn spirit enough to sustain him until the next Sunday.

Today as well, Sōsuke boarded a streetcar in a characteristic oh-well-why-not frame of mind. Once on board, however, he found things uncommonly pleasant, for in spite of the fine Sunday weather, there were fewer passengers than usual. Moreover, the expressions on these passengers’ faces were peaceful; each and every one of them looked thoroughly at ease. As Sōsuke sat down he reflected on his customary weekday lot: the commute to Marunouchi[7] at a fixed hour every morning, when he would hurl himself into the no-holds-barred struggle for a seat. There could be nothing more depressing than the spectacle of his fellow riders on the streetcar at rush hour. Whether he was hanging on to a leather strap or sitting on a cushioned seat, he had never once received any impression of human warmth from this daily routine. Very well then, he would say to himself, and just sit there brushing shoulders and knees with his robotic seatmates, riding along to his destination, where he would hop up and get off. Today, however, as he watched an old woman seated opposite him murmuring into the ear of her granddaughter, who looked to be about seven years old, and then a thirtyish woman with the air of a tradesman’s wife showing a friendly interest in the little girl, asking her age, her name, and the like, he felt even more keenly as though transported to another world.

Overhead hung several framed advertising posters. On his weekday rides these went completely unnoticed by Sōsuke, but now he casually glanced up at the first poster, for a moving company, and read the caption: WE MAKE MOVING EASY. The next one had three parallel lines: People Who Are Economical / People Who Care About Hygiene / People Concerned About Fire Safety; below which came the culminating message: THEY ALL USE GAS—this complemented by a picture of a gas stove with flames coming out. The third poster announced in bold white characters against a red background: ETERNAL SNOWS, by the Russian Master, Count Tolstoy[8]; and: ANYTHING-GOES FARCES by the Kotatsu Troupe.

Sōsuke took a good ten minutes perusing all the posters three times over. Not that he had any desire to buy the items or attend the events advertised; rather, he derived considerable satisfaction simply from having found time for the advertisements to impress themselves on his consciousness, and beyond that, the mental leisure to read through each of them with complete comprehension. So devoid of composure were his daily comings and goings that even this one calm, collected moment was to be savored.

Sōsuke got off the streetcar at Surugadai-shita in Kanda. The instant he alighted, his eyes fixed on a row of foreign books beautifully arrayed in a store window to his right. For a while he just stood in front of the window gazing at the brilliant gilt letters embossed on red or blue or striped or otherwise patterned book covers. He could, of course, understand the titles, but they aroused in him not the slightest curiosity about what was contained inside. That time in his life when he could not pass a bookstore without wanting to go in, and once inside to buy something, now belonged to the distant past. True, one English-language volume in the center of the window with a particularly fine binding and entitled History of Gambling fairly leaped out at him with its distinctiveness, but that was all.

Smiling to himself, he hurried across the street, where he stopped for a second time, to peek inside a watchmaker’s. On display were numerous gold watches, watch chains, and the like, which again he regarded as so many pretty-colored, well-formed objects without experiencing the slightest desire to make any purchase. Nevertheless he examined all the price tags dangling there from silk threads, comparing this item and that, and came away surprised at how cheap the gold watches were.

He even paused for a moment in front of an umbrella shop, and then a Western-style haberdashery; a necktie hanging next to a silk hat attracted his attention. It was of a much higher quality than the one he wore every day, and he thought perhaps he might ask the price. He started to enter the store, only to retreat at the image conjured up of the ridiculous figure he would cut if he were to appear at work the next day in a new tie. The impulse to reach for his wallet vanished on the spot, and he moved on. Next, at a draper’s, he window-shopped leisurely and committed to memory the names of various weaves, such as “quail’s crepe,” “twill weave,” and “summer sash weave,” all previously unfamiliar to him. At the branch of a Kyoto shop called Eri-shin, for the longest time he gazed in through the window at some intricately embroidered half collars for kimonos, standing so close that the brim of his hat touched the glass. Among them was a particularly elegant one that looked well suited to his wife. He had a fleeting impulse to buy it for her. But I should have done this five or six years ago, he thought immediately thereafter, whereupon he squelched the notion and the moment’s pleasure it had brought him. Detaching himself from the window with a resigned smile, Sōsuke moved on, and before he had walked half a block he lost interest and ceased to pay much attention to either the storefronts or the passersby.

But then his eye was caught by boldly printed advertisements for the latest publications, hanging from the eaves of a large newsstand on the corner. Some posters were enclosed in an elongated ladder-like frame, others pasted to strips of wood decorated with bright patterns. Sōsuke read each title and author’s name, among them certain ones vaguely familiar from newspaper advertisements, others with an air of novelty about them.

Just around the corner from the newsstand, a man of about thirty wearing a black bowler was sitting cross-legged right on the ground and blowing up large rubber balloons, all the while calling out “A nice treat for your children!” Sōsuke marveled at how the balloons inflated automatically into the shape of a Daruma doll,[9] complete with eyes and mouth in black ink that had been applied to just the right spots. Once blown up, the doll stayed that way indefinitely, and rested easily on the palm of the man’s hand or even on a fingertip. Then, when the man stuck a thin piece of wood like a toothpick into a hollow in the Daruma balloon’s rump, it deflated with a whoosh.

Pedestrians thronged the busy street, but not a single person paused to look at the balloons. The man in the bowler, sitting nonchalantly on the street corner in the midst of the bustle and seemingly oblivious to his surroundings, alternated between calling out “A nice treat for your children” and blowing up another Daruma balloon. Taking out one and a half sen, Sōsuke bought one, had it deflated, and stuck it in the deep part of his kimono sleeve. He toyed with the idea of going to a nice, clean barbershop and having his hair cut. Not knowing where such a shop might be, he looked around for a while but to no avail. In the meantime the sun had gotten low on the horizon, and so he got back on the streetcar, homeward bound.

By the time Sōsuke reached the end of the line and handed his ticket to the conductor, the sky was losing its color and dark shadows were stretching across the damp pavement. The steel pole he grasped as he stepped down felt cold in his hand. All the other alighting passengers scattered hastily this way and that with an air of preoccupation. Surveying the neighborhood here at the city’s edge, he noticed clouds of pale white smoke drifting over the roofs and eaves of houses on both sides of the street and seemingly right into the earth’s atmosphere. Sōsuke quickened his pace like the others and headed in the direction of a well-wooded area. Realizing that both this Sunday and the fine weather that had accompanied it had drawn to a close, a certain mood came over him: a sense that such things did not last for long, and that this was a great pity. From tomorrow he would again, as always, be busy at work—the thought brought on pangs of regret for the good life he had tasted for this one afternoon. The mindless activity that filled the other six days of the week seemed utterly dreary. Even now, as he walked along, he could see before his eyes nothing but the outlines of the large, all but windowless office that the sun scarcely penetrated, the faces of his colleagues sitting beside him, the figure of his superior summoning him with a “Nonaka-san, over here, please . . .”

To reach his house, Sōsuke passed Uokatsu, the fishmonger, turned the corner at the fifth or sixth house farther on, and entered a byway—something between a side street and an alley—that dead-ended at the cliff-like embankment and was flanked on both sides by four or five rental houses with identical façades. Until recently, in the midst of this tract, well inside a tall, if sparse, hedge of cryptomeria, there had stood a weathered residence that looked as if it might have housed the descendants of a shogunal retainer. But then a man named Sakai, who now lived on top of the cliff, had bought this land and immediately remodeled the old house in the same up-to-date style as the others, doing away with the reed thatching and uprooting the hedge. Sōsuke’s house, tucked in on the left at the very end of the byway, stood directly below the embankment; hence the general gloominess. But as he and his wife had agreed before settling on this particular house, it was bound to be quiet at least, being at the farthest remove from the thoroughfare.

Now that twilight had fallen on this week’s one Sunday, Sōsuke’s thoughts, as he hurriedly opened the latticework door in front, turned to a quick bath, perhaps a haircut, time permitting, then a leisurely dinner. From the kitchen came the sound of bowls and dishes being handled. Stepping over the threshold, he inadvertently trod on the clogs that Koroku had cast aside there. As he bent over to rearrange them, Koroku appeared. From the kitchen Oyone called out, “Who is it, your brother?”

“Well, look who’s here,” said Sōsuke, making his way into the parlor. Once he had mailed the letter not a single thought of Koroku had crossed his mind all the while he was strolling around Kanda and riding home on the streetcar. At the sight of his brother’s face he felt embarrassed, as if he had somehow wronged him.

“Oyone! Oyone!” he called, summoning his wife from the kitchen. “You’d better fix a good meal for our brother here.”

Hurrying out of the kitchen, leaving the shoji open behind her, Oyone came as far as the parlor. “Yes, right away,” she said in response to this superfluous command and started back to the kitchen, only to turn around and address her brother-in-law. “I’m sorry to trouble you, Koroku, but would you please close the shutters and light the lamp? Kiyo and I have our hands full at the moment.”

“Yes . . . of course,” Koroku replied, a bit flustered, and got to his feet.

From the kitchen came the sounds of Kiyo chopping things up, of hot or cold water flowing down the drain, and of voices: “Where should I put this, ma’am?” “Nee-san, where are the scissors to trim the wick with?” Then came a hissing sound, as of water boiling over into the flames on the portable charcoal stove.

Sōsuke rubbed his hands silently over a small charcoal burner in the darkened parlor. A reddish tongue of flame rising from the ashes was the only spot of color in the room. Just then, in the landlord’s house atop the embankment, one of the young girls in the family began playing the piano. As if prompted by the music, Sōsuke stood up and went out to the veranda in order to close the shutters. One or two stars twinkled high above the mōsō bamboo, their leaves grayish smudges against the clear sky. From beyond the bamboo the piano’s notes reverberated in the night.


BY THE time Sōsuke and Koroku returned from the neighborhood bathhouse, towels in hand, the various dishes Oyone had prepared were arranged with care on a perfectly square table placed in the middle of the parlor. The flames in the charcoal brazier burned with a deeper hue than before, and the lamp shone brightly. When Sōsuke had seated himself comfortably on his cushion, which he had moved closer to his desk, Oyone, having collected the soap and towels, asked, “Did you enjoy your baths?”


Sōsuke’s reply was not so much brusque as simply indicative of post-bath languor.

“Yes, very much!” said Koroku in an agreeable tone as he turned to face Oyone.

“The place was mobbed, though—simply unbearable,” added Sōsuke wearily, his elbow propped on the edge of the desk. Usually he went to the baths after his return from work, at twilight, just before the dinner hour, when other customers came pouring in. For two or three months now he had not enjoyed even a glimpse of clear bathwater shimmering in the sunlight. Still worse, it had reached the point where three or four days would go by without his setting foot in a bathhouse. He had it constantly in mind to wait for Sunday, when he would get up early and waste no time going off to steep himself up to the neck in pristine hot water. Come Sunday, however, he would awake with the thought that this was after all the only day he could stay in bed as long as he liked, and as he lay there indolently the hours would mercilessly slip away, until at length he would change his mind: No, it was too much trouble; he’d skip it today and go next Sunday—a pattern that repeated itself again and again through force of inertia.

“I really do want to take an early-morning bath, you know,” he announced.

“So you keep saying,” his wife replied teasingly, “but on the days when you could go early you always sleep late—it never fails.”

Koroku was privately of the opinion that all this dithering stemmed from an inborn flaw in his brother’s character. Being a student, he could not comprehend how precious his brother’s Sundays were to him, how many hopes and wishes had been vested in these twenty-four hours out of a need to counteract six days of dark musings with the balm of a single day. There was always too much that Sōsuke wanted to do on this one day, and he could never accomplish even two or three out of the ten things he had proposed for himself. On the contrary, whenever he set out to follow through on just those two or three, he quickly came to begrudge the expenditure of time required and, hesitating to act, would just sit there until before he knew it the day drew to a close. With circumstances thus dictating that he deprive himself of his peace of mind, well-being, and various pleasures, Sōsuke’s failure to tend to Koroku’s needs had nothing to do with any disinclination but rather with a sheer lack of mental energy—such was Sōsuke’s argument, anyway. Yet this was something Koroku could not fathom. He viewed his brother as a man who simply did as he pleased without regard for others, who chose to spend what leisure time he had in strolling about alone or just sitting around with his wife, who was utterly unreliable and unhelpful and fundamentally lacking in empathy.

Yet it was only quite recently that Koroku had come to this view of his brother—indeed, only since the issue of negotiating with the Saeki household had arisen. With his youthful impatience in all things, Koroku, when he needed a favor from his brother, fully expected that it would be done, if not this very day, then by tomorrow. That his brother had been unable to bring the matter in question to a resolution, indeed, had not so much as paid a visit to the Saekis, was a source of no small discontent.

Nevertheless, today, as soon as Sōsuke and the waiting Koroku were reunited they became two brothers again, behaving toward each other with a certain warmth that was evident in their complete lack of affectation, and refraining for the moment from blurting out what was uppermost in their minds. And so they had headed off together to the bathhouse and soon settled into a relaxed, casual conversation.

The brothers continued to be at ease as they sat down to dinner. Oyone did not hesitate to join them, occupying her own side of the table.[10] Sōsuke and Koroku each drained two or three cups of saké.

“Oh, yes, I came across something interesting!” Sōsuke announced before the rice was served, whereupon he produced from his kimono sleeve the Daruma balloon he had bought and blew it up to its full size. After placing it on his covered soup bowl he lectured them on its properties. Oyone and Koroku, their curiosity piqued, watched the fluttery balloon. After a while Koroku took a deep breath and blew at the Daruma figure; it fell from the table to the floor, nonetheless returning to sit upright on the tatami.

“Just look at that,” said Sōsuke.

In typical womanly fashion, Oyone obliged by laughing out loud; but then, removing the lid from the rice container and filling her husband’s bowl, she turned to Koroku and said somewhat protectively, “You see what a free spirit your brother is.” Without a word in his own defense, Sōsuke took the bowl from his wife and began to eat. At this, Koroku ceremoniously picked up his chopsticks.

There was no more talk of the Daruma balloon, but it set the tone for the innocuous conversation that flowed smoothly for the duration of the meal. After his last bite, however, Koroku departed from this tenor.

“By the way, wasn’t that shocking about Mr. Itō!”[11]

Five or six days earlier, Sōsuke, after having looked over the extra devoted to Lord Itō’s assassination, took it into the kitchen and laid it on top of Oyone’s apron. “Terrible news—Mr. Itō has been killed,” he said, then went to his desk. His tone of voice, however, was so perfectly calm that Oyone made a point of remarking, half teasingly, “ ‘Terrible,’ you say, but you don’t sound the least bit terrified.” Every day after that, the paper unfailingly devoted five or six columns to Itō’s assassination, but Sōsuke appeared so indifferent on the subject that it was unclear whether he even glanced at them. When she asked her husband, home from work, in the midst of her dinner preparations, “Was there anything more about Mr. Itō in the paper today?” he would merely reply, “Uh-huh, quite a lot . . .” And so unless she later extracted the folded paper from his coat pocket, she had no way of learning the latest news. Yet her main concern had been to have a topic to discuss with her husband when he came home, and she no longer saw any reason to go to such lengths in order to drag him into a discussion of matters that held no interest for him. From the day when the extra was published up until Koroku’s remark at dinner, this public event that had sent shock waves throughout the nation created scarcely a ripple in the couple’s life together.

“But how did he . . . well, get himself killed?” Oyone asked, turning toward Koroku and repeating the same question she had put to Sōsuke when the news first broke.

“It was a couple of quick pistol shots—bang, bang!” Koroku answered in all seriousness.

“Yes, but I mean, well, how could he have gotten himself killed?”

Utter incomprehension was written on Koroku’s face.

“That was surely his destiny,” Sōsuke offered, his voice calm, sipping his tea with relish.

Clearly still not satisfied, Oyone asked, “But why did he go to Manchuria?”

“Yes, why did he . . .” Sōsuke mused, looking sated and complacent.

“I hear that he was on a secret mission to the Russians,” Koroku ventured, an earnest look on his face.

“Oh, but still, it’s awful, his being killed,” said Oyone.

“When an ordinary drudge like me gets killed, yes, it’s awful,” said Sōsuke, at last warming to the topic. “A man like Mr. Itō, though—it’s much better for him to go off to Harbin and be killed.”

“Gracious, what do you mean?”

“What I mean is, it’s precisely because Mr. Itō was assassinated that he can become a great figure in history. If he’d simply died on his own it would never have turned out that way.”

“Well yes, I suppose there’s some truth to that,” said Koroku, who appeared only partially convinced. After a pause, he added, “At any rate, Manchuria, Harbin—these places seem to be pretty rough-and-tumble. To me, they just spell danger, somehow.”

“That’s because all sorts of people are thrown together there.”

Oyone registered her husband’s remark with a look of dismay. Her expression was not lost on Sōsuke, who then prompted her: “Well, I guess it’s time to clear the table.” Scooping up the balloon from the tatami, he let it rest on his index finger. “Marvelous, isn’t it,” he said. “To think someone could make a thing like this, so that it works just right.”

After Kiyo had come in from the kitchen and taken away the dirty dishes, along with the table itself, and with Oyone over in the next room preparing fresh tea, only the brothers remained in the parlor, sitting face-to-face.

“That’s better, all the clutter’s gone,” said Sōsuke, clearly relieved to be rid of the table. “There’s something nasty about the dregs of a meal.” In the kitchen Kiyo kept laughing to herself. Then Oyone could be heard through the shoji asking her what was so funny, to which Kiyo murmured noncommittally and burst out laughing again. The two brothers sat in silence, their ears half inclined to the maid’s laughter. Presently Oyone reappeared carrying a plate of cakes in one hand, a tea tray in the other. From a large pot with a wisteria-vine pattern she poured the tea, of a coarse-leaf variety unlikely to overstimulate, into bowl-size cups and placed them in front of the two men.

“What’s she laughing about?” asked Sōsuke. Not looking up at his wife, he trained his eyes on the cakes.

“Well, here you are with that balloon you went and bought, balanced on your fingertip,” she said. “It’s not as if there were any children in the house . . .”

Sōsuke appeared unfazed. “I see,” he replied. Then, rather deliberately, and with an air of ruminating his words, he finally glanced up at his wife and added, “That may be so, but there were children here once upon a time, weren’t there?” His eyes were not without warmth. Oyone immediately fell silent.

Presently she turned to Koroku and asked him if he would be having a second cake, but when he said yes she paid no attention and quickly withdrew to the sitting room.

The brothers found themselves alone again.

The evening was still young, yet here in the recesses of the hilly neighborhoods that ring the city’s west side, some twenty minutes on foot from the end of the streetcar line, the streets were quiet. From time to time the clatter of worn-down clogs sounded sharply out front; the night air grew steadily colder. His folded arms tucked in his sleeves, Sōsuke said, “The days are warm enough but it cools down quickly at night. Have they turned on the steam heat in your dormitory yet?”

“No, not yet. The school won’t turn it on till it gets seriously cold.”

“Really? Then it must be freezing.”

“Yes. But the cold—well, that’s something I can put up with,” said Koroku, who, momentarily at a loss for words, finally found the resolve to continue. “But tell me, please, whatever has become of the business with the Saekis? I heard from Nee-san that you sent them a letter . . . ?”

“Oh yes, I mailed it. I expect they’ll answer in the next couple of days. Depending on how they respond, I’ll go over there, or do whatever else is necessary.”

Koroku silently took in his brother’s nonchalant reply. He found it wanting, and yet he could detect nothing in Sōsuke’s manner meant to give offense, much less a defensive tone that smacked of some base motive, and so he was not moved to go on the attack. Instead, he simply sought confirmation of the true state of things when he asked, “Then up until today nothing else got done?”

“No, I’m sorry, nothing. It was all I could do to get that letter off today,” Sōsuke said, now sounding serious. “Lately I’ve been plagued by a case of nerves.”

Koroku smiled mirthlessly. “Well, if this doesn’t work out, I could quit school. In fact, I’ve been thinking about going abroad, to Manchuria or Korea, and the sooner the better.”

“Manchuria? Korea? Now that would be a drastic move, to burn your bridges like that. But didn’t you just say awhile ago that you didn’t care for the rough-and-tumble of Manchuria?”

Their discussion of the business with the Saekis twisted this way and that without finding any resolution. Sōsuke had the final word. “All right, don’t worry so much—things will work out somehow. At any rate, I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve received a reply. Then we can talk it over some more.” With that, the conversation came to a close.

Peeking into the sitting room on his way out, Koroku found Oyone leaning idly against the long charcoal brazier. Only when he called out to say good night to her did she get to her feet, with a murmur of surprise, to see him off.


THE REPLY from the Saekis, the focus of so much agitation on Koroku’s part, arrived as hoped a couple of days later. Exceedingly simple though it was—a mere note in their aunt’s hand that could have been sent as a postcard—it came fastidiously encased in an envelope complete with a three-sen stamp. On returning home from work Sōsuke had removed the close-fitting jacket he wore to the office and sat down by the brazier when the envelope, placed in a drawer so as to stick out an inch or so, caught his eye. After a single sip of the tea Oyone had poured out for him, he cut it open.

“Hmm . . . It seems that Yasu-san has gone to Kobe,” he said while reading along in the letter.

“When?” asked Oyone, who had not stirred since serving the tea.

“It doesn’t say exactly, but she writes here, ‘Inasmuch as he is expected to return to the capital in the not distant future,’ so I suppose he’ll be back any day now.”

“‘In the not distant future,’ et cetera—yes, that is your aunt’s style.”

Sōsuke expressed neither agreement nor disagreement with his wife’s critique. He rolled the letter up and tossed it aside; then, with a look of foreboding, he stroked the four or five days’ growth on his chin.

Oyone quickly picked up the letter but showed no impulse to read it. Leaving it on her lap, she studied her husband’s expression and asked, “ ‘Inasmuch as he is expected . . . in the not distant future’—what’s that all about?”

“‘I shall confer with Yasunosuke upon his return, and we will undertake to pay our respects then’—that’s what she says.”

“But this ‘not distant future’ is so vague! Doesn’t she say when he is coming back?”

“That’s enough about that.”

Wanting to see for herself, Oyone now opened the letter in her lap and scanned it. Then, after rolling it up again, she stretched out her hand. “The envelope, please.” Sōsuke picked up the blue envelope that lay at his side by the brazier and handed it to his wife. Oyone opened it with a puff of air and reinserted the letter. She then went out to the kitchen.

Sōsuke gave no further thought to the letter after that. He recalled the remarks of a colleague that day at the office about a sighting, just outside Shimbashi terminal, of Field Marshal Kitchener,[12] who was visiting from England. Yes, here was a man who created a great stir wherever he went the world over—indeed, someone quite possibly born to create such a stir. When Sōsuke compared his own life—the dreary lot he dragged along with him from the past and the destiny likely to unfold before him in the years to come—to the life of Kitchener, the two hardly seemed to belong to members of the same human race.

Lost in these thoughts, Sōsuke incessantly puffed smoke into the air. Outside, the wind that had come up earlier in the evening now sounded as though, taking aim from afar, it were determined to descend upon them with real force. From time to time it would die down for a while, and these lulls, in their utter stillness, were more desolating than the stormy gusts. Sōsuke folded his arms against his chest. It’s almost here, he thought, the season when fire bells would clang, announcing outbreaks throughout the city.

He went over by the kitchen and looked in at Oyone standing over a red-hot stove, grilling fish fillets. Kiyo was bent over the sink rinsing pickled vegetables. Each performed the task at hand without speaking to the other. For a while Sōsuke stood at the open shoji listening to the hiss of oil dripping from the fish, then closed the shoji without a word and returned to his seat. His wife had not taken her eyes off the fish for a moment.

When dinner was over and the couple sat facing each other over the brazier, Oyone started in again. “This business with the Saekis is getting nowhere.”

“Well, there’s nothing to be done about it. We have no choice but to wait until Yasu-san is back from Kobe.”

“Wouldn’t it be better if you met with your aunt before that and had a chat with her first?”

“No, it wouldn’t. They’ll get in touch soon enough, one way or another. In the meantime we’ll just leave well enough alone.”

“Koroku is upset. That doesn’t bother you?” Oyone smiled even as she made her point. Eyes lowered, Sōsuke stuck the toothpick he had in his hand into the collar of his kimono.

Two days later Sōsuke got around to informing Koroku by letter of their aunt’s reply, adding a characteristic postscript to the effect that everything would turn out all right sooner or later. This done, he felt that for the time being he was off the hook where this business was concerned. He acted as though the best approach, which also happened to be the least bother, was just to forget about it—at least until, in the natural course of things, the matter was once again shoved under his nose—and so he let nothing disturb his daily routine of commuting between home and office. It was generally late when he got home, and once there he hardly ever went to the trouble of going out again. The couple almost never received guests. If Kiyo was finished with her chores, they even sent her off to bed before ten o’clock. Every night after dinner the couple sat in the same place, facing each other across the brazier, and talked for about an hour. The topics of their conversation were tailored to the mundane circumstances of their lives. If no issue so pressing as how to pay this month’s rice bill ever passed their lips, neither was there to be heard the high-spirited banter that often bubbles up, like will-o’-the-wisps, in a conversation between a man and a woman, let alone a discussion of literary matters. Young though they were, they appeared to have gone beyond this stage and become the sort of couple who naturally grows more retiring with each passing day. One might even assume them to have been the sort who, lackluster and thoroughly ordinary to begin with, had gravitated toward each other simply for the sake of conforming to the custom of marriage.

On the surface neither husband nor wife showed signs of being the worrying kind. That in fact they were not could be inferred from their attitude toward Koroku’s situation. Predictably, it was Oyone who suggested once or twice: “Isn’t Yasu-san back yet? Why don’t you go over to Banchō next Sunday and see”; to which Sōsuke replied: “Sure, why not.” But when the designated Sunday came around he appeared to have blithely forgotten all about it. While noticing this dereliction, Oyone made no attempt to admonish him. If the weather was fair she would say, “Why don’t you take a stroll?”; if it was raining, “Well, it’s a good thing it’s Sunday.”

Fortunately Koroku had not descended on them again. A young man of a compulsive and excitable temperament, he would pursue unremittingly whatever was uppermost in his mind, a trait that had been apparent in the Sōsuke of distant schooldays. On the other hand, when Koroku’s mood changed he became a different person, with a good-natured look on his face, as if the cares of yesterday were totally forgotten. Here too the brothers’ common blood showed: Sōsuke had been just like this long ago. Koroku had a relatively lucid mind and, while it was not clear whether it was a case of pouring passion onto his reason or cloaking his emotions in rational trappings, he was at any rate never satisfied with a proposition until he could discern its underlying logic; once he had done so, he would zealously push it to its conclusion. His will, moreover, was far stronger than his physical constitution might suggest, and his youthful impetuosity made him capable of almost anything.

Whenever Sōsuke saw Koroku he was struck by a sensation of watching his old self resurrected and in motion. At times this made him nervous. On other occasions it even made him feel bitter—a bitterness caused by the thought that fate may have deliberately thrust Koroku before his eyes in order to summon up as often as possible harsh memories of how obsessively he himself had behaved before. This thought in turn became terrifying; he would tremble at the prospect that by virtue of his birth his brother was bound to succumb to the same fate that had befallen himself. Depending on the moment, however, this prospect created not so much concern as irritation.

And yet to this day Sōsuke had never criticized Koroku for his behavior, nor for that matter had he offered him any advice for the future. His treatment of his brother was thoroughly conventional and unexceptionable. The life he now led appeared so subdued as to be completely at odds with his previous existence. Thus in his dealings with Koroku it was hard to detect anything of the experienced elder brother that suggested he even had what might be called “a past.”

Two other boys had been born between the brothers but had died in infancy; Sōsuke and Koroku themselves were ten years apart. While still in his first year as a university student Sōsuke had for certain reasons transferred to Kyoto;[13] his daily life under the same roof with his brother thus came to an end when Koroku was only about twelve. Koroku’s defiant, mischievous ways at that age were fresh in Sōsuke’s memory. Their father was still alive then, and the family’s circumstances were comfortable enough to afford a full-time rickshaw man, who had been provided with a modest dwelling on the property. The rickshaw man had a son, younger by three years than Koroku, who was the latter’s constant playmate. One midsummer day Sōsuke found the two of them under a large persimmon tree, rigging up a cicada trap with a bag of sweets dangling from a long pole. “Kenbō, out in this heat bareheaded you’ll get sunstroke,” he had said and produced an old summer hat of Koroku’s for the boy to wear. Koroku flew into a rage at his brother for having given away something that belonged to him without permission. Swiping the hat from Kenbō’s hand, he threw it to the ground and with the motion of one bounding uphill repeatedly stomped on it until the straw hat was pulverized. Sōsuke jumped down from the veranda in his bare feet and smacked Koroku on the head. From that time on he retained in his mind’s eye an image of Koroku as a spiteful brat.

In his second year at university Sōsuke had had to withdraw; his situation also made it impossible for him to return to Tokyo. Soon after that he moved from Kyoto to Hiroshima, where he had been living for about six months when his father died. His mother had died six years earlier. The only immediate family ties left to him consisted of his father’s twenty-five-year-old mistress and Koroku, who was then fifteen.

On receiving news of his father’s death in a telegram from the Saekis, Sōsuke had returned to Tokyo after his long absence. Once the funeral was over and he had begun looking into his family’s finances in order to settle the estate, he not only found the assets on hand to be less than expected but was shocked to discover extensive debts he had known nothing about. After consulting with his uncle he was persuaded that he really had no choice but to sell the family house. He decided to hand over an appropriate sum to the mistress and let her go without further ado. And for the time being he entrusted the care and lodging of Koroku to his uncle. The pressing matter of the real estate sale could not, however, be resolved on the spot. To get it off his hands right away, his only recourse was to rely, at least temporarily, on his uncle’s good offices. Saeki was an entrepreneur and something of a speculator who had tried his hand at assorted ventures, all of them inevitably failures. When Sōsuke was still living in Tokyo, his uncle often extracted money from his father with proposals couched in glowing terms. The total amount poured into his uncle’s ventures on the basis of these blandishments, doubtless abetted by a measure of greed on his father’s part, was no small sum.

At the time of his father’s death his uncle’s circumstances seemed to be more or less as they had always been. Nevertheless, in addition to a sense of duty toward the deceased, as is the way with such men when the chips are down, he showed himself to be of a generous spirit and did not hesitate to assume responsibility for what were Sōsuke’s affairs. As part of the arrangement, however, Sōsuke gave his uncle total control over the sale of the real estate. In short, in return for a quick solution to his need for ready cash, he in effect presented his uncle with the house and grounds.

“Anyway, with a property like this, if you don’t deal directly with the buyer, you’ll take a beating,” his uncle had said.

In a similar vein, Sōsuke simply accepted an estimated valuation of the furniture, with those items of no appreciable value to be disposed of as a wholesale lot. When it came to half a dozen scroll paintings and a dozen or so antiques, he again deferred to his uncle’s view that they should wait for particularly eager buyers, in the meantime entrusting everything to his care. Excluding these various set-asides, the legacy Sōsuke was left with came to a total of approximately two thousand yen, some portion of which, he recognized, had to be spent on Koroku’s tuition. But he also realized that in his present, far from stable position, it would be risky for him to take charge of the monthly tuition payments, and so, gritting his teeth, he handed over half of the legacy to his uncle, with the request that he kindly assume this responsibility, too. Having stumbled badly along the way himself, it was Sōsuke’s primary concern here to support Koroku on the path to success. As for what would happen when the thousand yen ran out, he could worry about that later; and there was always the lingering prospect, by no means certain, that his uncle might come up with something more—so he had told himself as he left Tokyo to return to Hiroshima.

Halfa year later a letter arrived from his uncle, written in his own hand, stating that the house had been sold, and now he could set his mind to rest on that score. But as no mention was made of how much it had sold for, Sōsuke wrote by return mail asking for clarification. Two weeks later his uncle wrote to the effect that inasmuch as the proceeds had fortunately been sufficient to cover expenses already incurred, Sōsuke need have no further worries about the matter. Sōsuke was far from satisfied with this response, in which his uncle had added that a discussion of further particulars could be deferred to such a time as he might have the pleasure of a visit from his nephew, et cetera, et cetera.

When he had read this Sōsuke felt like leaving for Tokyo immediately, and he explained things to his wife, tacitly seeking her advice. Oyone looked pained as she listened, but answered with her characteristic smile, “But you can’t go, so there’s really nothing to be done about it.” Looking very much like a man who had for the first time had a sentence pronounced on him by his wife, he pondered awhile, arms folded against his chest. No matter how he looked at it, his hands were tied; he was a prisoner of circumstances he could not control. Thus things had reached an impasse.

With no other recourse, Sōsuke continued his correspondence, exchanging three or four more letters with his uncle. But the answer was always the same, as though etched in stone: “When I have the pleasure of a visit . . .”

“This is a total waste of time,” he said to Oyone, the anger written on his face.

Three months later he finally had an opportunity to travel to Tokyo with Oyone and was all set to leave when he caught a cold and took to his bed, after which his cold developed into intestinal typhus. He was bedridden for more than two months, and for still another month he was too weak to do much work.

Not long after his recovery, new developments necessitated a move farther west, from Hiroshima to Fukuoka. Sōsuke was searching for a good opportunity to make a quick trip to Tokyo before the move when another set of constraints cropped up, so that in the end he had to cancel his plans yet again and instead entrust his fate to a train bound in the opposite direction. It was around this time that the money he had pocketed upon vacating the property in Tokyo ran out. During the ensuing two years, roughly corresponding to their stay in Fukuoka, it was a struggle living from day to day. Sōsuke often thought back to his student days in Kyoto, to those distant times when he would find various pretexts, for instance “special supplemental tuition fees,” for extracting from his father large sums that he would then spend freely on whatever he wanted. Comparing that life to his present predicament, he trembled at the inexorable workings of karmic retribution. On occasion he reminisced about the springtime that had stealthily passed him by, and he acknowledged to himself, as if opening his eyes for the first time to gaze back into those far-off mists, that it had been his one moment of glory.

Things went from bad to worse for them, and Sōsuke now said to his wife, “I’ve let it go for a long time, but I think it’s time to go to Tokyo and have a talk with him.”

Oyone did not argue with him, of course. She simply looked down and responded forlornly, “It won’t do any good. Your uncle has absolutely no trust in us.”

“Well, maybe not, but we have no trust in him, either,” Sōsuke retorted defiantly, but he had only to look at Oyone’s downcast eyes and his pluck would evaporate. After the matter had first been broached, it came up in discussions of this sort once or twice a month, then once every other month, and eventually once in three, until finally Sōsuke broke down and said to his wife, “All right, then, just so long as he manages to do something for Koroku. As for the other business, I guess it can wait till I get to Tokyo and meet with him face-to-face. What do you think, Oyone, isn’t that the best way to handle it?”

“Yes, that is definitely the best approach,” Oyone replied.

With that, Sōsuke at last dropped the subject of the Saekis. Given his past conduct toward his father, he realized that he could not simply ask his uncle for a handout, and had never so much as hinted at such a request in their correspondence. Letters arrived intermittently from Koroku, but most of them were short and stilted. Picturing only the Koroku he had last seen shortly after their father’s death, Sōsuke still saw him as a guileless boy whom he would not dream of using as an intermediary in negotiations with their uncle.

The couple lived in seclusion, each utterly dependent on the other in their daily life, clinging together for warmth in a cold, sunless world. Whenever things turned especially harsh Oyone would say only, “Oh well, it can’t be helped.” And Sōsuke would respond, “That’s right, we’ll get by somehow.”

They kept on together by force of a steadfast mixture of resignation and forbearance, seemingly without the balm of hope or any prospect for a better future. As for the past, they rarely spoke of it. Indeed at times they appeared to shun even the mere mention of bygone days, as if by tacit agreement.

Occasionally Oyone would offer her husband words of encouragement: “Things are bound to get better soon,” or “Bad times like this can’t last forever.” To Sōsuke, however, those words sounded like the spiteful tongue of fate—a fate that had so twisted him around its finger—conveyed through the mouth of his pure-hearted wife. He could only grimace, offer a forced smile, and say nothing in reply. If on these occasions Oyone unwittingly went on in the same optimistic vein, he would cut her short and declare, “But then, people like us don’t have the right to expect very much, do they?” At which she would finally get the point and fall silent. As they continued to sit facing each other in mutual silence, they would eventually slide back into the dark hole of the past they had dug for themselves.

In accordance with the principle of As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap, the couple had erased any prospects for the future. That no resplendent vistas would open up on the path that lay ahead for them was something to which they were simply reconciled, and they contented themselves instead with making their way together hand in hand. As for the land and various rental properties that the uncle had sold off, from the outset they had not expected any huge profit. “But still,” Sōsuke would say after it had all been settled, as though the thought had just occurred to him, “with prices at the level they’ve reached lately, he must have gotten twice the amount he raised back then to cover debts, even if he just dumped it on the market. I mean, it’s outrageous!”

“Back to the property sale, are we?” Oyone would answer with a wan smile. “You just can’t get it off your mind, can you? But weren’t you the one who said to your uncle, ‘Please, sir, be so kind as to take care of everything’?”

“Yes, but I had no choice. At the time there was nothing else I could do about it.”

“Well then, don’t you think it’s possible that in your uncle’s mind, instead of any money he’d at least inherited property from his brother?” said Oyone.

Listening to Oyone, Sōsuke could see that there might be some basis for his uncle to have taken such a view of things, but he launched a spirited defense. “Maybe that was his intention, but it doesn’t mean he’s right.”

And yet, after each revisiting of the issue it receded further and further into the background.

For two years the couple continued their life of warm intimacy surrounded by desolation, at the end of which Sōsuke had an unexpected meeting with a former classmate named Sugihara, who had been a close friend during his university days. After graduation, Sugihara, who already held a post at a certain ministry, passed the advanced civil service examination, which led to his being dispatched from Tokyo to Fukuoka and then to Saga on special assignment. From an announcement in the local newspaper Sōsuke was well aware of the time of Sugihara’s arrival and where he was to stay. But aside from the pitiful figure he imagined himself cutting—a complete failure groveling before a highly successful colleague—he had good reason to avoid meeting any friend from those days and would not in any event have dreamed of visiting him at his inn.

In the meantime, however, through a chance connection, Sugihara had found out for himself that Sōsuke was languishing hereabouts and insisted on a meeting. Sōsuke felt obliged to assent. It was entirely thanks to this Sugihara that it then became possible for him to move back to Tokyo. The day the letter arrived from Sugihara confirming the final arrangements, Sōsuke had set down his chopsticks and said, “Oyone. At last we can go to Tokyo.”

“My, what good news!” she replied, gazing at her husband’s face.

For the first two or three weeks after their arrival in Tokyo the days went by in a dizzying blur. Along with the predictably hectic business of setting up a new household and settling into a new job, they were nearly overwhelmed by the concussive stimuli that, day and night, filled the air of the bustling metropolis. They lacked the time to think about anything at leisure and the composure to weigh their options with any care.

The long-deferred reunion with his aunt and uncle finally occurred when their train arrived at Shimbashi terminal. It may have been simply the effect of the weak light in the station, but in Sōsuke’s eyes neither of the two radiated much good cheer. An accident along the way had resulted in a rare thirty-minute delay, and there was in the weary impatience betrayed by the couple a suggestion that this had somehow been Sōsuke’s fault.

The only thing his aunt had said to him on this occasion was, “Gracious, Sō-san, it hasn’t been that long since I last saw you, but how you’ve aged!” Not having met Oyone before, she glanced at her nephew and said somewhat hesitantly, “And this is, uh . . . ?” Oyone, at a loss for a proper greeting, merely bowed her head in silence.

Koroku had of course accompanied his uncle and aunt to greet the couple. Sōsuke took one look at him and was astonished to see that in his absence his brother had grown to a height that rivaled his own. He had just finished middle school and was preparing to enter secondary school. On coming face-to-face with Sōsuke, Koroku barely managed an awkward greeting to his brother. He did not say “Welcome home!” nor did he address him as “Nii-san.”[14]

After just one week’s stay at an inn, Sōsuke and Oyone had moved into the house they now occupied. While they settled in, Sōsuke’s aunt and uncle helped them out in various ways. There was no need to buy all those little things for the kitchen if secondhand would do, they insisted, and sent over a complete set of utensils adequate to the needs of a small household. “With the move and all you must have had considerable expenses,” his uncle said, and followed his words up with a gift of sixty yen.

What with all the distractions, half a month went by without a word to the uncle about the property sale that had exercised the couple so greatly when they were living in the provinces.

“Have you spoken to your uncle?” asked Oyone.

“No,” said Sōsuke, “not yet.”

“How strange—when the matter was so much on your mind,” said Oyone with a faint smile.

“Well, it’s not as if I’ve had the occasion to bring it up,” he said in his defense.

Ten days later it was Sōsuke who raised the subject. “You know,” he said, “I still haven’t brought it up. Doing so now is such a bother that I’ve lost interest.”

“If it’s that much of a bother you needn’t force yourself to speak to him.”

“You don’t mind, then?” Sōsuke asked.

“But why should I mind,” said Oyone. “Hasn’t it always been something for you to decide for yourself? It’s never mattered to me one way or the other.”

At which Sōsuke said, “Well then, since it would look odd for me to launch into some formal inquiry all of a sudden, I’ll just wait for the chance to ask him in a natural way. Some kind of opening is bound to come up.” And so he put the matter off.

Koroku was comfortably lodged at his uncle’s house. If he passed the examination and was admitted to the secondary school, he would have to move into a dormitory, an eventuality about which he and his uncle appeared to have already reached an understanding. Having received little help with his tuition from Sōsuke, so recently relocated to the capital, Koroku seemed disinclined to confide in his brother the kind of personal matters he discussed with their uncle. As for his relations with their cousin, so far he and Yasunosuke had been getting along very well. Indeed, the two seemed more like brothers than did Koroku and Sōsuke.

In the natural course of things Sōsuke’s visits to his uncle’s house became less and less frequent, and as even these occasional visits came to seem like a mere formality, they left him feeling quite empty on the way home. In time this tendency reached the point where he barely got through the obligatory comments on the weather before he was itching to leave. It had become a trial to sit still for half an hour and string together enough banal remarks to pass the time. His hosts, too, appeared constrained and somehow ill at ease.

“What’s the hurry? Stay awhile!” his aunt would invariably say, but her effort to detain him only made him all the more eager to leave. All the same, when he had absented himself for a stretch he felt uneasy, as if from a twinge of conscience, and he would resume his visits. From time to time he would go so far as to say, with a nod of apology, that Koroku must be quite a burden for them. But to go beyond this and broach the subject of his brother’s future tuition, or the issue of the property sale executed on his behalf in his absence, was still too great a hurdle. Yet clearly it was not just out of a sense of duty, or the need to meet the world’s expectations where ties of blood are concerned, that, however reluctantly, Sōsuke continued to call on this uncle who held no attractions for him. Rather, his visits were attributable to nothing but an urge to be rid of a kind of knot still lodged in his breast.

“My goodness,” Mrs. Saeki remarked to her husband at one point, “Sō-san is a different person, isn’t he.”

“Yes, he certainly is,” replied her husband. “But when you get right down to it, the kind of business he got himself mixed up with was bound to take its toll, sooner or later.” He made as if to cringe at the iron laws of karma.

“Yes, it’s truly frightening,” she said. “He wasn’t always this subdued. He used to be so full of life—too lively, in fact, for his own good. And now, over the past few years since we last saw him, he’s aged so much I hardly know him. Why, he looks more like an old man now than you do.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” he said.

“No, I mean it,” she insisted. “Maybe not his hair or his face, but, you know, just the way he looks in general.”

Since their nephew’s return to Tokyo the old couple had engaged in not a few conversations along these lines. And it was true that whenever Sōsuke showed up at their house he looked very much the old man in their eyes.

Oyone, meanwhile, after being introduced to Sōsuke’s uncle and aunt upon arriving at Shimbashi, had for this reason or that never ventured to cross the threshold of their house. When they showed up for an occasional visit, she was the polite hostess, addressing them cordially as “Uncle” and “Aunt.” Yet despite their parting invitation to “come over sometime,” she would merely bow her head with a word of thanks and never get around to paying them a call.

Even Sōsuke had once urged her to follow through.

“Now, why not pay them just one visit?”

“Oh, but I . . .”

Noting the look of distress on her face, he resolutely avoided any further suggestions of this kind.

Relations between the two households continued thus for about a year. Then Mr. Saeki, whom his wife had declared to be more youthful in spirit than Sōsuke, suddenly died. His death was attended by virulent symptoms of meningitis or some such disease: After a few days in bed with what had appeared to be influenza, he fainted in the midst of washing his hands after a visit to the toilet; hardly a day later, he was a cold corpse.

“Well, my uncle’s dead and gone,” Sōsuke said to Oyone, “without my ever having had that talk with him.”

“You were still thinking of bringing that up? My, you do know how to nurse a grudge!” she said.

A year after the uncle’s death, Yasunosuke had graduated from the university and Koroku was about to begin his second year of secondary school. Yasunosuke and his mother moved to Naka Roku-Banchō.

A year after that, during summer vacation, Koroku went on a swimming holiday to the Bōsō Peninsula. Having spent more than a month there, with September upon him he set out from Hota across the peninsula to the Kazusa coast, traveling by way of Kujūkuri to Chōshi, from where, as if it had just occurred to him, he reversed direction and headed back to Tokyo. He turned up at his brother’s just a few days later, on an afternoon still heavy with summer’s lingering heat, and stretched out in the parlor, the room most protected from the sun; his eyes were the only two bright spots on a deeply tanned face that might as well have belonged to someone from the South Seas. The moment Sōsuke appeared Koroku sprang to his feet. “Nii-san, I have something to consult with you about,” he announced, in such solemn tones that, without pausing to change from his office attire, the mildly astonished Sōsuke heard him out.

According to Koroku, on the evening he had returned from Kazusa he was put on notice by their aunt that, regrettably, she would no longer be paying his tuition after year’s end. Having been immediately taken in by his uncle after his father’s death, Koroku had been lulled into a passive sense of security; he had been able to get on with his life much as he had while his father was alive, with no worries about school fees, clothes, even pocket money, all of which had simply been taken care of, such that until that evening the very thought of tuition as a problem had never crossed his mind. When his aunt issued her decree, then, he had been too dazed to offer even a polite response.

With a look full of apology, she proceeded for the next hour, woman that she was, to detail the reasons why she could no longer help him out. There was the death of her husband and the ensuing financial adjustments, then Yasunosuke’s graduation, and on the heels of that, the question of his marriage.

“I’d hoped at least to see you through your graduation from secondary school, and I made a lot of sacrifices . . .” Koroku repeated this remark by his aunt twice over. At that point in the conversation he suddenly remembered how Sōsuke, when he had come up to Tokyo for their father’s funeral and to make the necessary arrangements, had told him before returning to Hiroshima that funds for his education had been entrusted to their uncle. But when Koroku had asked the aunt about this for the first time, she seemed taken unawares. “Well, yes, at the time Sō-san did leave some small amount with us,” she said, “but that’s long gone. Even when your uncle was still alive we were paying your tuition out of our own pockets, you see.” Since Kor