Four Japanese Stories

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Ryan C. K. Choi
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

Duck Hunting

The last time I saw Professor Keigetsu Ōmachi was in 1924, on New Year’s Day, when we went duck hunting in Shinagawa Bay with a group of friends, Misei Kosugi, Taneaki Shindai, and Torayoshi Ichikawa. We met early that morning at the boathouse near Ichi-no Bridge in Honjo, and from there we coasted down the river on our rented motorboat loaded with a day’s worth of supplies. Kosugi and Shindai were both seasoned hunters, and it showed in their confident stance, the quality of their gear, and their style of dress. To make matters worse (I’m extremely self-conscious), the guide they hired was a renowned hunter himself, whose name is still known by hunters today. In retrospect, the great irony of all this was that, even with these eminent hunters in attendance, none of us shot a single bird that day. Cormorants and ducks alike, on every one of our approaches, spotted our boat without fail and scattered into the sky before we could take aim. Professor Ōmachi was amused no end at our repeated failures to bag a feathered prize, clapping his hands and laughing whenever a flock dispersed and settled at a distance. “Amazing!” he remarked. “The ducks are literate. Look! They flee to the areas marked ‘No Hunting.’ They know exactly where to go.” To everyone’s consternation, throughout the entire outing, Ōmachi’s obnoxious comments blared from beneath his booze-soaked mustache, and the hood of his garish fox-brown hat cast an ominous shadow on the waters around the boat. The spectacle of Ōmachi alone was enough to frighten the ducks away.

Thus, we spent a total of ten hours on the bay drifting in the wind, and with nothing to show for it at the end of the day. By the time we returned to the docks, Ōmachi, who had been reveling so garrulously in our misadventure, had sobered up, and was now in a sullen mood. As we were disembarking, he spoke up in a downcast voice, “I promised my children I would bring home two ducks, one for each of them. I don’t know what to do now, I can’t let them down. They’re planning to give the ducks to their teachers tomorrow as gifts.”

After discussing it outside the boathouse, we all decided to walk to a nearby poultry house where Ōmachi could buy a pair of ducks. The only problem, Kosugi pointed out after Ōmachi had made his purchase, was that these ducks had been captured with birdlime traps. “That means,” he said, “there’s no bullet holes in them. Don’t you think your kids will notice? We ought to shoot each of them once, so it looks like they were hunted with rifles. Come on. Let’s do it in the alley over there.”

Ōmachi shook his head like a timorous child. “No, they’re fine as is. My children won’t notice the difference,” he said, wrapping the birdlimed ducks in old newspapers. When he was finished, he said good-bye to us curtly, then carried the bundles home, one under each arm. –Date Unknown

In Dreams
It is said that seeing color in dreams is a sign of exhausted nerves. Ever since I was a child, however, my dreams have always been rich in color, to the point where I have a hard time believing there’s even such a thing as a colorless dream. The other day, for instance, I had a dream in which I ran into the poet H.K. at the seaside baths. He was wearing a hat made of barley straw and a beautiful deep-blue cloak. I was so struck by the blue’s intensity that I begged him to tell me the name of the shade.

“This?” the poet said casually, staring at the sand. “Why, this is the color of Sapporo …”

I have even heard it said, on occasion, that smells don’t appear in dreams. But I can recall a dream I had in which my nose was piqued by the stinging smell of burning rubber, or something akin to it. It was sunset in the dream, and I was walking on the outskirts of a town and nearing a river from which the smell seemed to emanate. The river was full of alligators floating leisurely down the current like logs. Earlier, as I passed through the town, I remember thinking to myself, “Ah, now this is the way to get to the Suez Canal.” (Indeed, to my memory, this is the only dream I’ve had in which smell played a central role.)

Sometimes, in my dreams, I even compose haiku and songs. Nothing of lasting merit has ever taken shape, though in my dreams I always seem to believe the opposite. Four or five days ago, in a dream, I was standing on a path in the middle of a field in the countryside. Not far from me was a crowd of men and women from the area. The people in the center were plodding along, carrying a small shrine on their shoulders and shouting, “Heave ho! Heave ho!” While looking on, I was compelled to capture the scene in a haiku, and, unsurprisingly, the haiku turned out to be a masterpiece. I intoned it to myself repeatedly, and soon felt myself to be a truly venerable poet. Later, however, when I had awoken, and was trying to remember the poem, I was utterly appalled by the drivel my memory dredged up–

On tiptoes, I watch the raising of a shrine. –Date Unknown

Game of Tag
A boy was playing tag with a little girl on the backroads of their neighborhood. It was winter, late afternoon; the sun was setting, and the gas lamps glowed.

“Catch me if you can!” said the boy, nimbly skirting the girl’s reach. He turned to wag his tongue at her but instead found his attention fixed on a strangely obstinate snarl that lodged itself in his memory for the coming months and years before fading.

Two decades later, on a train northbound for snow country, he bumped into the same girl again. She was a grown woman but immediately recognizable. As night filled the windows, the evocative scents of snow-sodden shoes and coats washed over the man.

“It’s been awhile,” he said warmly, cigarette stiff between his lips. As she spoke of her recently deceased husband and then, avidly, of her parents and siblings, he was riveted by the still visible girl in the woman’s face. He confided that until three days ago he and his comrades had been rotting in a prison with no hope of release–observing her face as she listened, the man caught sight of that strange snarl of hers, and became a boy of twelve once more, lost at sunset in a game of tag on the backroads of their neighborhood.

Today, boy and girl are husband and wife with a house outside the city. Even now, the husband searches his wife’s face for her girlhood snarl, but always in vain. –1926

The Heron and the Mandarin Duck
This happened one summer two or three years ago. I was walking through the bustle of Ginza when I spotted a pair of beautiful women from behind. They were not, by any means, your average beauties. Their figures were more conspicuous and clashing than any I’ve seen together. One, whom I call the heron, was long-necked and willowy, while the other had a physique that was anything but orthodox, requiring a bit of unpacking to do it justice. In China, the ideal female body has been depicted as tall and lithe since ancient times, epitomized most famously by Han Empress Zhao Feiyan, whose shape is traditionally compared with that of the august Yang Guifei, the plump concubine of Emperor Xuanzong. The heron’s companion, who was more than modestly fleshy, unquestionably fell into this rarefied, latter class, as her size did nothing to detract from her impeccably proportioned frame, which was guided along in her stroll with a lulling roll of her hips, reminiscent of the mandarin duck’s sashay. The women were dressed identically, with spiffy sashes of silk ribboning the waists of their kimonos, which were striped and printed with miniature red fawns; when I saw that even their parasols were the same (sheathed in the reticulated sleeves that were the season’s rage, now all but curios), I suspected that they were sisters. As I trailed them closely, poring over every aspect of their bodies, gestures, and clothes, as if they were models on a pedestal, I thought of a certain quip (perhaps even an advocacy) that has haunted the pages of women’s magazines for the better part of thirty years–

In summer, thinly clad, female shapes for all to see.

With this jingle in my ear, I passed in front of the women to get a look at their faces, glimpsing that their hair was arranged in look-alike spade-shaped braids. Seeing their faces up close, even if fleetingly, I felt almost certain that they were sisters, each about twenty years of age, and was left judging them thus, with no great confidence, that the beauty of the mandarin duck was inferior to that of the heron, but only by the slightest degree. And then, all at once, I forgot them, and continued on my aimless walk. As I said, all this happened on a bustling street in the heart of Ginza on a scorching summer day. That those two beauties slipped so swiftly from my mind, I believe, was not because I lack the aesthetic delicacy of a poet, but rather because I was consumed with battling the blindingly golden summer heat, dabbing my sweat with a handkerchief, using my straw hat as a fan.

Not more than ten minutes later, I was in my seat on the train about to depart Ginza-yonchōme when the pair suddenly scurried into the carriage just as the doors were closing. Although the carriage wasn’t crowded there was only one free seat, which happened to be the one to my right. The heron, with the presumption of an older sister, plopped down onto the seat as the mandarin duck stood nearby, timidly gripping the strap above. I opened my book, and set out to slog through the sweltering biography of Mahatma Gandhi, though, in truth, I couldn’t focus, much less absorb a single page of this tome I could only think about someday conquering. When the train started with a jolt, the mandarin duck briefly lost her footing. I quickly stood and offered my seat in a manner that was more than gentlemanly. Before either sister could thank me, I dashed off into the neighboring carriage. The fact that someone like me, an avowed egotist, would commit this seeming act of chivalry was not an anomaly: only seconds before, to my horror, having glanced up at the mandarin duck, I had seen, peaking from her nostrils, bushes of thick, wiry hair, and the heron, too, had a grungy air with her sour-smelling locks as if she hadn’t washed for weeks, and, as if that weren’t enough, the topic of their boisterous chatter was menstrual cycles, the quirks of their own and those of women they knew.

Unhappily for me, ever since this incident, the saying “In summer, thinly clad, female shapes for all to see” has become an ominous symbol of disillusion, a call to precaution in the judgment of beauty. No matter how divine the heron and the mandarin duck first appeared on that Ginza afternoon, I could never extol them as great–or even middling–beauties. At the very least, before I can think of bestowing such praise on anyone, my nose must have its say. –June 1924

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927) was a Japanese short story writer. His stories (over 150) include Rashōmon, The Spider’s Thread, The Nose, Hell Screen, Kappa, and In a Grove. Japan’s premier literary award for emerging writers, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him.
Ryan C. K. Choi lives in Honolulu, Hawai'i, where he was born and raised. He is a composer and musician as well as a writer and translator.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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