Three years ago today, I was ferrying Young Sir home from Kumon, where he had unabashedly basked in his endless love of math and numbers. He did not attempt to burn down the classroom, or cause any trouble of that magnitude. His teacher had called him an o-rikosan, so I was feeling pleased with myself. It was a good day. One-year-old Little Prince was sitting on the front child-seat of the mamachari, because where else would he be.
But when we crossed the bridge over the Sumida to approach our apartment building, everything changed. There was a certain feeling in the air, a coldness. Police officers were still putting up the yellow tape, to rope off the entire shopping area in front of our building. Something very bad had just happened. That I knew for sure.
I only saw it for a split second before turning away and taking a detour to make sure my kids didn’t witness anything. But even though it was a mere moment’s glance, I still remember the scene. Blue tarps, there were more than one. They covered one large bundle, then a couple smaller ones scattered about on the concrete. And in between them, blood.
As I got my bicycle in the garage, only one sentence was circling endlessly in my head. Something very, very bad just happened. No other thoughts were possible at the time. Shaking, I lifted my children off the bicycle and carried them into the elevator.
A building employee got in with me. A brawny, rough-looking middle-aged man, he was wearing workers coveralls and had a white towel wrapped around his partially balding head.
Nanka atta no? I asked him what happened, too flustered for pleasantries.
Hito ga shinda. He nodded, his speech also quite informal. “Somebody died.”
“From what floor?” I asked.
“Nineteen,” he replied. The floor just above mine.
The man’s face was flushed, and his eyes were bright red, as if he had been crying. A new chill ran down my spine. Something very, very bad.
Sugu…sugu ni shinda.
“But the death was… it was very quick,” he stuttered, in an attempt to console us both.
It didn’t work, though. I wouldn’t have slept at all that night if it weren’t for some extra Xanax I had lying around from an old prescription. It was the only way I could stop obsessing over what, specifically, happens to a human body that plummets 19 stories.
In order to make sense of a shock like this, our minds need a story of sorts to cling to. Almost any narrative will do. In Japan, the word “suicide” is a story in itself, and one that is told too often.
It was a narrative that I would have accepted immediately, had there not been other rumors. For example, there were accounts of police activity in and around the building just before the incident happened. Some posters on anonymous message boards insisted that the building’s security cameras had been suspiciously shut off just before the incident, which may or may not have been true. Voices on SMS reported that they saw the police take a man away in handcuffs after the incident, some speculating that he was being arrested for murder. (I’m not posting links to these specific articles because they would basically provide the general public with a road map to my doorstep. Sorry.)
“I’m sorry for all the trouble we’ve made in your building.” A police officer in the elevator said to me the next day, after Little Prince waved to him from baby carrier. It was true, in fact it felt like every officer in the ward was reporting for duty in and around our building at the moment.
“Was it a suicide?” I asked him. Elevator rides are short and leave no room for pleasantries.
“A woman?” I asked, in an effort to confirm what I read on SMS.
“Yes, a woman.” He confirmed.
Earlier that day, a mama tomo told me that her husband went to the koban down the road the evening prior, to inquire about the incident. He was also told by the officer on duty that it was a woman in her 40s who had jumped. So this was the story I chose to accept, the narrative I internalized to help me get over the shock of what I saw, and return to normal life.
And it worked for a while, until almost a month later, when I passed a news crew filming outside of my building while taking Young Sir to kindergarten. When I got home, I immediately opened my computer to see if more information had been revealed to the public about the incident.
And there it was. A new report claiming that, according to a leak from police headquarters, the woman whose death I grieved never actually existed.
Instead, on the day of the incident, the Tokyo police were investigating a suspected case of drug possession inside the room in question. While they were searching the house, and interviewing the tenant, the suspect’s acquaintance (who was at the house when the police arrived) went out onto the balcony and jumped. Or so the new story went.
I was actually pretty annoyed to learn that the woman who fell 19 stories, whose grotesque demise I had finally come to terms with (in that it no longer gave me nightmares), was actually a man in his 50s. Seriously, what the hell? I had bonded with this “woman in her 40s who killed herself.” I thought we had probably met in the elevator on occasion. I assumed that she and I had a lot in common, and that we could have been great friends if she hadn’t given up on living all too soon.
Then again, this new account had plenty of holes in it as well. If this were all that really happened, why did the police feel the need to blatantly lie to the residents of the building about the identity of the victim? I doubt that it was just for fun. Also, according to the new report, the cops never found any drugs on the suspect, in the room in question, or in the body of the “jumper.”
Once again, nothing made sense.
I recalled a bit I read in Tokyo Vice, in which the ‘King of Gaijin’ Jake Adelstein* likens himself to a “Male Geisha” in describing the extent to which the Japanese media pander to the police. “If you think this system creates a very cop-friendly, biased reporting style,” he concludes, “you are correct. The Japanese police are extremely adept at manipulating the press, and we are extremely willing to submit to this manipulation for the possibility of getting a scoop.”
That in mind, I knew I had to accept that if- for whatever reason- the police didn’t want the public to know what really happened on that balcony just above mine, more information would never be revealed. There was no longer story, or narrative to help me arrange my complicated feelings about the incident. And there wouldn’t be one again. Some mysteries are never solved.
In Japan, that’s just how it is sometimes.
A couple days later (on the day after Halloween to be precise (◔_◔)…) the city put a large Christmas Tree right on the spot where the body had been. Tourists en route from Sensoji to the Skytree often stopped to take family pictures on the pavement. The spot had a nice view, after all. Perfect for christmas cards.
I still will not walk there.
I take the long way, going around the courtyard instead of through it. Even to this day. Especially on this day.
*I sort of know Jake. No, we didn’t meet in a bar. He contacted me once, around when his first book was finally being released, and asked me to help publicize it by writing a guest blog post for him. I think I agreed, on the condition that he would comp me a book in return, but then he never replied because he suddenly got super famous and likely forgot about all the little people. That’s ok though. I get it. It’s fine. Not everybody’s book can be turned into an HBO series.
All personal musings aside, though, Tokyo Vice really is an excellent account of Japan’s Underworld, and if you’ve been living under a rock or haven’t read it yet for some other reason, I really recommend you get on that.