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Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007

The Courtship


Insight, fate and human frailties intermingle in this love story for winter from the pen of MICHAEL HOFFMAN

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You'd probably recognize me if you saw me. I'm on TV a lot; a fortuneteller is a good draw, and talkshow hosts are always happy to get their hands on one.

How did I become a fortuneteller? One thing and another. Essentially, this: There was no room for me in a shrinking economy. I drifted from job to job, going nowhere -- convenience stores, gas stations, construction sites. My god! I'm not cut out for that sort of life. I'm an educated man.

One day after work, I ran into an old friend, a college drinking buddy. "Congratulations," I said. Why congratulations? Congratulations for what? I have no idea. Stupid with fatigue, I simply mumbled the first word that came into my head, that's all, it meant nothing. But my friend was astonished. "How did you know?" he gasped.

"Know what?"

"Why . . . that I'm getting married. I haven't told a soul. What are you, a fortuneteller or something?"

"There will be trouble in your life," I smiled. There was; more than I could have imagined. But that's another story (maybe I'll tell it someday). The point here is, it was that old friend of mine who first saw the fortuneteller in me. To him goes the credit. All I had to do was take the hint, which I was not slow to do.

The construction site had seen the last of me. I never showed my face there again, not even to claim my back pay. (Two years later, the apartment building we were putting up had to be torn down. The architect had lied regarding earthquake-resistance specifications. There was a big scandal at the time. You probably remember it.)

I've said it openly on TV, and I'll say it openly here: When I started, I was a fraud.

Fortunetelling? In the 21st century? Please. Use your brains! Well, if you insist on believing in nonsense, that's your affair -- you only get what you deserve, and I won't waste my sympathy on you. I became a fortuneteller purely to escape the wretched life I was leading. It was a means to an end; the end being: an easy livelihood. If it meant pulling the wool over the eyes of fools who see nothing anyway -- pass the wool, is all I can say.

Easy? Well, it was. Was it the way I set up my booth? There was nothing special about it. Maybe that's what people responded to -- the artless simplicity. No tarot cards, no tea leaves, no arcane literature, no studying the lines of your palm as if I was seeing something there you couldn't see yourself. No, it was intuition, pure intuition. Whatever thought came into my head, I uttered; that was your "fortune."

I never lacked business. Even on rainy nights they came; even in the cold and snow. Men, women, children. Women mostly. They poured out their hearts to me -- their hopes, their fears. They asked my advice: Should I marry Mr. X, or dump him? Should I have an abortion, or have the baby? Should I quit my job, or go abroad? Move in with my boyfriend? Start a business? Have artificial insemination? Have plastic surgery to raise my cheekbones?

There are so many choices to make nowadays! Come to think of it, why not take a fortuneteller's advice? It's probably no worse than anyone else's.

But here's the strange thing: A fraud I was, a fraud in a sense I still am, and yet my utterances, my pronouncements, or whatever you want to call them, have a way of coming true. You'd be surprised how often. I'm surprised myself. How do I explain it?, the talkshow hosts ask me. I don't try to explain it, I say. But the facts speak for themselves. I look into a person's face and know what sign of the zodiac she or he was born under. I catch a certain glint in a woman's eye and I know she's single, lives with her mother -- is unhappy. From the way a man says "Hello," I know his profession; from the shape of his nose I know how many children he has.

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"Know?" Is that the right word? Can you be said to know something when you have no idea how you know it? When you yourself don't believe in your own knowledge, and are as astonished as your client -- though careful, of course, not to show it -- when the words you speak, seemingly at random, turn out to be true?

Yes, even now, after all these decades, I am astonished, I confess it. You'd think success would have raised my confidence, if it needed raising. As a young scam artist I had all the confidence in the world. I dispensed advice as though I were some sort of prophet, and was obeyed accordingly. Have that abortion; divorce your wife; spit in your boss's face and start anew . . . And the more visits I received from people who had taken my advice and wanted to tell me how grateful they were, how well things had turned out . . . well, the more often this happened, and it happened very often indeed, the more confused, the more anxious, I became.

What kind of a fall was I headed for? What exactly was going on? How was it that I could see into everyone's life except my own?

* * * * *

My booth is in the Fukamo district, near the Takewara Temple. I moved here five years ago. It is a neighborhood of older people, and as I myself grew older I came to find it congenial. Here, people stop by not so much as clients but as friends. More often than not they don't pay me. That's fine. I have done well for myself over the years; I can afford to let it pass, to pretend not to notice. At this stage of my life, I find, friends are more important to me than clients.

My best friend is a man named Ryuji. He was the first to welcome me to the square opposite the temple when I first set up shop here. It was early evening. I remember his very words: "So you're a fortuneteller! How old am I?"

"Eighty-seven."

He was crestfallen -- he had counted on his spry appearance taking me in.

"How many children do I have?"

"None. You never married."

"What was my profession?"

"Teacher. High school. You taught history."

"How on earth . . . ?"

"If I knew how I knew, Ryuji-san" -- he had not, of course, told me his name -- "I suppose I'd be a teacher myself."

I'm not sure what I meant by that, but anyway, based on that little conversation, Ryuji and I built over the years a firm friendship. We talk and talk -- he mostly about the past, I about the future.

Never have I talked to anyone at such length, or with such pleasure. He wasn't much of a teacher, despite his vast knowledge; maybe because of it. He is a shy, mincing, unworldly little man. No beau even in his prime, now in considerable old age he looks as though he was assembled by a whimsical, malicious child; his protruding ears, lumpish blue-veined nose, goggling eyes and thick moist lips grotesquely unsuited to his tiny, almost elfish face. He knows the streets of ancient Athens better than those of his own neighborhood, where he's liable to get lost on the way to his favorite noodle restaurant around the corner. Concerning the Chinese government in the time of Confucius, he is as informed as though he himself had appointed it to office, but I doubt he could name the current prime minister of his own country. He can fight in his head every war that ever occurred, from ancient Sumeria to the age of Napoleon (that's where "history" ends for him). But the pranks of his students were forever taking him by surprise. Teenagers make mincemeat out of teachers like him. How he stood it for 35 years I don't know.

Something else I don't understand: How can a man like him, who knows so much about the past, be so blind regarding the future? He insists it will be bright, shining. He's not Jewish, but he believes in the Messiah; not Christian, but he anticipates redemption. History is meaningless otherwise, he declares passionately.

"So, it's meaningless," I once said to him; "Who says it isn't?" The expression on his face as he looked at me . . . his lips trembling, his face twitching; I thought he would burst into tears. "I'm sorry," I mumbled, and made haste to change the subject.

* * * * *

One winter evening, as twilight deepened and tiny snowflakes swirled in the light of the street lamps, Ryuji came by with a woman. She was a pleasant-looking lady, half a head taller than he, and she smiled brightly as Ryuji said, "I'd like you to meet a friend of mine." Her name was Tae. "Ask him to guess your age," Ryuji said to her, grinning.

"I don't guess," I snapped -- smiling at Tae to signal that my anger was in fun. "Forty-three, I would say."

She laughed as old-fashioned Japanese ladies do, raising a hand to cover her mouth -- a hand that ought to have held a fan, I thought. If Ryuji is courting, I said to myself, that's what he ought to get her. But . . . Ryuji courting?! That was decidedly something new; and no, I had not foreseen it.

"Tae was born," declared Ryuji proudly, "on the very day Miss Michiko Shoda married the Crown Prince. Of course, you knew that. You're just toying with us."

As a matter of fact, I hadn't known -- but I did know that the royal wedding was in 1959. I smiled. She was, truly, a most beautiful 84.

"We're on our way to the Nishimuraya," said Ryuji, naming a sake shop. "Would you like to have a drink with us?"

Why not? I'm the president of the firm; I take holidays when I please. I shuttered the booth and went off with them. It was a charming evening. "IDs please," said the proprietor, laughing heartily at his own little joke.

"Just think," said Tae as we seated ourselves. "We'll die, and be reincarnated, and we'll have to wait 20 years before we can drink."

"Are you afraid of death?" Ryuji asked her, quite seriously.

"Not in the least. Are you?"

"Yes."

"Relax," I said. "You have many years ahead of you yet."

"And me?" Tae asked lightly.

I looked at her. It was strange. Well, perhaps not very. Some people have a fate that does not reveal itself to me. I understand that no better than I understand my remarkable but by no means all-encompassing powers. "You too," I said -- but, very slightly (was it my imagination?), her expression darkened, as though in response to a false note in my voice.

* * * * *

Tae's husband had been dead 7 years. She lived with her daughter, an unmarried woman who was getting on in years herself. Judging from Tae's half-humorous, half-tipsy description, this daughter -- Samuko, her name was; an unusual name -- was a formidable character: "More like my mother than my daughter."

Until her retirement two years ago, Samuko had been a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Few women rise so high; one who does would have to be gifted with uncommon brilliance and drive. Retirement was a bane; she didn't know what to do with herself. " 'Get yourself a boyfriend,' I tell her," Tae said, winking suggestively at Ryuji, who giggled like a schoolboy and flushed scarlet. "But she only snaps at me for my trouble. She thinks I'm turning senile."

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"Tae, senile!" cried Ryuji, turning to me, his comical little face abruptly compressing into an expression of the fiercest indignation. "Tae, senile! She has a clearer head than anyone I've ever known -- you included," he said, as though I'd been somehow complicit in the insult.

"You don't have to convince me," I said, laughing. "I can see that perfectly well."

"Oh, sure," grumbled Ryuji, not at all mollified. "You see everything perfectly well, don't you?"

"Come, Ryu-chan," said Tae, getting a little unsteadily to her feet. "I have to go, or she -- my keeper -- will start imagining heaven only knows what!"

* * * * *

Winter ended, but spring did not arrive; it was a seasonless season, almost eerily blank -- neither winter nor spring, neither warm nor cold. Rain turned to snow, which turned back to rain. The sun glowed but did not shine. How one longs for the sight of green leaves at such a time! But the trees are distressingly bare; you begin to think they will never bud.

I plied my trade as usual, but my powers seemed to have deserted me. It had happened before, and they had always returned, so there was no real cause for alarm. On the other hand, maybe this time they wouldn't.

* * * * *

I wasn't a young man any more. My 70th birthday was just around the corner. Though healthy, I was starting to feel my age. It was a condition that invited reflection. Couldn't I have made better use of my powers when I had them, instead of frittering them away as a street-corner fortuneteller? Maybe I could have helped feed the hungry, or prevented wars, or . . . ah, but what's the use! A man at the end of his active life is always full of exaggerated notions of what he could have accomplished if only he'd tried a little harder.

When all's said and done, man is man, his destiny is dark and unhappy; the best a person can do is build some kind of shelter for himself, huddle inside it, and hope for the best. That's basically what my advice over the years amounted to. Really, it didn't take any special powers to see what I saw.

My one consolation from gloomy thoughts was the blossoming love between Ryuji and Tae. Tae's daughter, whom I had yet to meet, was not wrong. Her mother was a little senile -- just a little, and only intermittently. She would slip into the delusion that she was a young girl being courted by her first boyfriend. No mincing, girlish airs accompanied these flights of fancy. Her matriarchal dignity never deserted her; no, not even when she'd had a bit to drink. The only outward sign of her infirm grasp of reality was a tendency to address Ryuji as "Yusuke."

Ryuji seemed, or pretended, not to notice. Once, at Nishimuraya, I seized a moment when Ryuji was in the washroom to ask her, "Who is Yusuke?" For an instant she looked startled, but then, no doubt recalling the nature of my peculiar gifts, and crediting them with my unexpected knowledge of the name, she composed herself and, smiling a tender, faraway smile, said: "He was my first love. He was poor; my family wouldn't hear of the match. One day he simply vanished -- I never heard from him again." She would have said more, perhaps, but just then Ryuji rejoined us and the subject was dropped.

"How come you never married, Ryu?" she asked.

"How come? Because I hadn't met you, that's how come."

"You've met me now."

Ryuji put down his glass and took her hand in his. I wish I could draw. I would exchange all my past and possible future powers for the ability to draw just one picture, just one; but could even someone with real artistic talent portray Ryuji's face as it was at that moment? It was ridiculous, grotesque, and yet . . . and yet beautiful. It was a beauty I had never seen, could never have imagined.

Yes, I would have liked to draw that face, if only to show it to those students of his who had tormented him over the years. The youngest of them would be well into middle age by now. It might have moved them, might have changed their lives, might -- who knows? -- have kindled their belief in the coming of the Messiah that Ryuji so firmly, so ridiculously, believes is on the way.

"We'll have children, of course," Tae was saying when I emerged from my reverie.

"Of course," said Ryuji.

"How many? How many shall we have?"

"Why, as many as you like, my dear. A whole houseful."

* * * * *

The next day the sun shone -- really shone. It was spring. The surge of relief I felt surprised me. Had I seriously doubted it would come? Birds sang. People smiled. A small crowd gathered as I set up my booth. Perfect strangers greeted me, and each other. "Beautiful day," they said. "Beautiful day." It seemed no one could hear or say those two simple little words often enough.

"Got good news for us, sensei?" someone called out.

"Yes indeed," I said.

"What?"

"Beautiful day," I said. There was a roar of laughter. Someone shouted, "We don't need a fortuneteller to tell us that!"

* * * * *

'Excuse me."

At my elbow stood a rather slight woman, not young but not quite elderly, at least not by the standards of this neighborhood. She spoke very softly, as though anxious to escape everyone's notice except mine. It was plain from even a cursory glance that she was tense and upset. "You are the . . . the fortuneteller?"

The crowd edged back a pace or two, in spontaneous deference to the woman's unspoken claim to privacy.

She seemed not to know how to begin. Fortunately, I was able to make it easy for her. "You are Samuko," I said.

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She gasped. "How . . . "

"I don't know. I don't know how I know what I know, but I do seem to possess a limited insight, or intuition, into things that others don't see. I stress the word 'limited.' "

"Then perhaps . . . perhaps you know where my mother is?"

"She didn't come home last night?"

Samuko shook her head.

"Have you called the police?"

"I . . . no. I thought . . . My mother has spoken of you, you see."

"And has she spoken of a man named Ryuji?"

"Ryuji? Are they . . . Are they . . . Ryuji?"

The situation was clear enough. Samuko had known of the affair, or had had some inkling of it, and was appalled to have it confirmed. She was ready to sink into the earth. I think if I hadn't reached out a hand to steady her she would have fallen. "Your mother will be along shortly," I said, suddenly sensing her approaching presence. "But Samuko-san, please, please, don't . . ."

* * * * *

I was too late. Here they were, Tae and Ryuji, walking hand in hand and smiling. Samuko positively flew at them. With all her strength she slapped her mother across the face. Then she turned to Ryuji. There was an instant of total silence, total motionlessness. At least so it seemed to me. One scarcely knows what one observes at moments like that. She spat in his face, then, seizing her mother by the arm, she marched off with her, dragging her as if she were a small child who was really going to "get it" when they got home.

* * * * *

The next thing I was aware of was Ryuji's anguished face fixed on me. "Go after them!" I hissed at him. "Go!"

He didn't move; his expression didn't change; he seemed not to have understood me.

"All right, wait here," I said, dashing off after them myself. What was I going to say or do when I overtook them? I had no idea.

I caught sight of them, two figures in a small knot of pedestrians waiting at a traffic light at the quarter's main intersection. Samuko stood ramrod stiff, eyes front, her very back, which was all I could see of her, expressive of fierce impatience to be on her way. Tae, head bowed and shoulders trembling, was evidently sobbing, but she clearly posed no resistance. "Samuko-san!" I called out, perhaps more loudly than necessary. She would be abashed at having attention drawn to herself, I thought. Her embarrassment would weaken her. Some heads in the crowd turned to her and her mother; others turned to me. One woman recognized me. "Sensei!" she said brightly. "Beautiful day!"

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The light turned green. "Samuko-san, wait!" Tactfully suppressing their curiosity, the onlookers went on their way, leaving the three of us alone on the curb. Samuko glared at me. She'd kill me, I thought, without a qualm. She uttered not a word, letting her expression do the talking, and it said, "If you have something to say, say it fast."

I did. I spoke up in defense of my friend Ryuji. He was a good man, I said, even saintly, after a fashion. He had suffered much, and had emerged with a pure heart. He and Tae-san could make each other happy during the years remaining to them. Why stand in their way? Why set yourself against such innocent, such radiant happiness?

Samuko's eyes glittered. Her lips twitched. "Stand in their way?" she said with quiet, suppressed fury. "I, stand in their way? Mother, am I standing in your way? Do you want to go off with that man, that . . . what's his name? . . . Ryuji-san?"

Tae, head bowed, said nothing.

"I asked you a question, Mother. Do you want to go off with him?"

"No."

"You're free, you know. Free to do whatever you like. You understand that, of course, don't you, Mother?"

Tae nodded.

"Speak up, please. Do you understand, or not?"

"Yes."

"And you don't want to go off with him? You're sure?"

"Yes."

Samuko turned her blazing eyes to me. "Are you satisfied, Mr. Fortuneteller?"

"No I am not satisfied!" I shouted, but too late; I must have blacked out, or gone into a trance, or something; in any case, they were gone, and my shout only attracted the attention of people whose attention I had no wish to attract. "Do you need help?" asked a concerned-looking young man in a gray suit. I shook my head and he disappeared.

* * * * *

What would I tell Ryuji?

Should I call the police, and insist they protect Tae from that demon daughter of hers?

I arrived back at my booth, having reached no decision. There was no sign of Ryuji. Where would he have gone? Home? For a walk?

"Beautiful day, sensei!" called the woman who kept the noodle restaurant Ryuji frequented. "Yes," I said.

Wearily I fell into my chair. My first customer of the day was not long in coming -- a young woman, very pretty, so pretty she hardly seemed of this world. "Sensei, am I in love? Am I . . . is what I feel love? It's my first time, you see, and I . . . I just don't know, I don't know what to think . . ."

'There's no such thing as love," I heard myself say. Later, when I opened my eyes and the young woman was gone, I wondered absently what I'd meant by that.

Michael Hoffman is the author of "Nectar Fragments" (Authorhouse; 2006). His Web site is www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com/


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