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  • Stranger in Japan
  • Tom Nurmi

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Photo courtesy of Dennis Berthold.

Last July, on a morning shinkansen train bound for Osaka, a man began handing out thousand-yen notes and urging passengers to move to the next car. He then doused his clothes in gasoline and lit himself on fire. Haruo Hayashizaki’s self-immolation killed one other, injured twenty-six, and shut down all trains between Tokyo and Osaka, for a moment stopping time in one of the busiest transportation corridors in the world.

I spent the same morning several hundred miles south, watching fleeting glimpses of Fukuoka and Hiroshima from my own train window—a time-lapse image of cities raised, burned, and rebuilt over centuries. When I arrived in Osaka, the station was bedlam in the most orderly way possible. The trains to Kyoto and Tokyo halted, lines formed and station agents fielded questions in five languages. Swedish tourists regrouped, clutching rail passes and phrase-books, while a man from Nara smoked his cigarette down to the ember, a splay of artificial flowers under his arm.

In Japan, much remains unspoken. The landscape hides the residues of empires, nuclear bombings, and environmental disasters beneath efficient planning and the hospitality of silent histories. On that Tuesday in July, my view from a train compartment merged with the last reflections of a suicidal man, a man whose corpse, burning like a cinder, was his wordless manifesto. Hayashizaki’s immolation also recalled another man’s suicide-by-fire last November in [End Page 128] protest of recent moves to re-militarize the country. He had burned to death in Hibiya Park, directly below my Tokyo hotel.

These two deaths were profoundly striking to me, perhaps because of the violent pageantry: the intentional, solitary performance of dying in a crowd. Or maybe they struck me so deeply because I was travelling alone, tracing their same paths through trains and gardens, in a country where I understood little of the language. I too was a performer, a stranger to the world. I spent the entire next day in Kyoto without saying a single phrase but arigato, thank you. When interactions are conditioned without speech, bodies speak first. An isolato in Japan, I became a stone face among a hundred company men, a point of neon at Shibuya Crossing.

So the 2015 Melville Conference is entwined with the memories of Japanese cities seen from a train, the hum of an empty hotel room, the silent mime of a man on fire. Like the hikikomori who withdraw for years to the solitude of their apartments amid the frenzy of Tokyo, like the remnants of Bartleby’s nightly presence in the Wall Street law office, I felt an uncanny hauntedness in Japan, the contours of which appear—or are oddly anticipated—in the best of Melville’s writing.

In his plenary, “Bartlebies: A Dramatic Reading,” Yōji Sakate offered a vocabulary for this vague strangeness, the same feelings of absurdity and grief balanced in traditional kyōgen and noh plays. Characters on stage, Sakate observed in his closing remarks, are ghosts inhabiting. They are ghosts buried in the actors’ unconscious. As the Cosmopolitan phrases it in chapter 24 of The Confidence Man: “Life is a picnic en costume; one must take a part, assume a character, stand ready in a sensible way to play the fool.” The Shakespearean themes of inhabitation and costuming appeared in fascinating ways across a range of other talks at the conference. For example, Elizabeth Schultz’s discussion of the pre-industrialized image of the whale in Japanese culture or Mitsuru Sanada’s description of the temporal dynamics of capitalism in the structure of “The Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” both emphasized how art uncovers and conceals the many masks of a culture, some of which we can barely risk remembering.

At the heart of Sakate’s “Account of the Director of T Hospital” is the powerful desire to forget, played out against apocalyptic backdrops and states of emergency in hospitals at the edge of the Pacific. Because “nuclear plants and psychiatric hospitals are troublesome,” Sakate observes, they are “built by the sea...


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pp. 128-130
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