"I'm a monkey."
"I'm a salmon."
"No, I'm a mermaid." This is what it said.
"Yes, that last bit is correct," prompted Sukeroku. "Now, try saying it once again. What is it that you are?"
"I'm a monkey."
"I'm a salmon."
"No, I'm a mermaid," it repeated. Three states of consciousness, three statements, all uttered by the same mouth. For there was but one mouth, which had originally belonged to a monkey.
"Oh, no, no. You're a mermaid, you understand?"
"All of you are a mermaid," it corrected. [End Page 114]
"Nonsense," Sukeroku denied crisply. "You are a single 'you' and there's no 'all of you' about it. You are one person . . . rather, one animal . . . that is, a single-bodied mermaid. Think about it—back when you were a monkey, when you were a salmon, did you ever manage to say 'I am a monkey, I am a salmon'? It's thanks to me that you were even able to say all of that, you know. It's because I made you into a mermaid just now. That's all there is to say . . . you are a mermaid."
Right next to him, hunched keenly over his work with knees splayed where he sat, Yakichi paused to peer over at Sukeroku's workbench and laughed.
"Sukeroku, you simply aren't going to get any better at this, are you? Take it at its own word, that thing is a-monkey-that-is-a-salmon, the poor soul." Yakichi then turned back to his own handiwork laid out on the workbench before him. He tapped it smartly upon the completed seam and declared, "Now then, a mermaid!" As he did so, the crafted object became animated in an instant. It opened its eyes and said, "Yes, I'm a mermaid," affirming itself with clarity.
"Just so," said Yakichi, returning his gaze to Sukeroku.
"Hmm," grunted Sukeroku, turning away.
While this was taking place, it began to screw up its face like an infant, wailing, "But it's not as though I had any great desire to become a mermaid! I don't understand a single thing about the doings of you humans."
"Enough of this crying and carrying on," said Sukeroku. "At any rate, there are no tears for you to shed—the last drop of moisture in your body has been dried out . . ."
This is a mermaid workshop. Yes, of course, there is no such thing as a mermaid. But because they do not exist—well—that is precisely why their existence is such a precious thing. And so it is that everyone in this workshop wholeheartedly goes about making some up from scratch. Mermaids are made primarily out of monkeys and salmon. The monkeys are split cleanly in two at the belly and hung up from the eaves until they are entirely dried out. The heads of the salmon are cut off and discarded, and the bodies are hung up in their own spot on the eaves until they, too, are entirely dried out. When the bodies are as dry and hard as wood, they are then brought here, where each half is sewn neatly together with sturdy fiber thread. And at workbenches here and there, the craftsmen sit cross-legged, directly on the wooden plank floor, busily calling out "Hey, there's a mermaid!" and "Look, it's a mermaid!" whenever one has been completed. This is how the mermaids are born. They are mermaids who are dead right from the start.
Sukeroku fastened a rope around its neck and stood up. "One way or another, you'll be sold off to a foreign land," he encouraged it, slipping it deep into a jar of persimmon tannin to marinate. "Once you get there, you be sure to announce yourself properly, you understand? You tell them, 'I'm a mermaid,' just like that. As long as you do that…" [End Page 115]
Completely submerged in the thick, amber liquid, it was unable to hear what Sukeroku was saying.
"What was that? What?" it sputtered as Sukeroku pulled it back up.
"I'm telling you, there's no such thing as a mermaid, you see? It's not as though anyone knows whether or not you're the real thing, right? That's just it . . . as long as I stick on a label marked 'mermaid' . . . and as long as you, to make doubly sure, make a grand show of announcing yourself as a mermaid . . . even if the craftsmanship is a little clumsy, those foreigners, they'll just go along nodding and agreeing, and not a one will have the slightest suspicion. But mind you, if you falter and stutter with your 'I'm a monkey, I'm a salmon' nonsense, you just see . . . over there, there's those that'll kill and dry-preserve the likes of you, and before you know it, they'll make you into food for their dogs."
It was dangling from the ceiling, pulled directly out of the jar to be hung up there to dry, with its neck bound by the rope. Down on the wooden floor below, it could see other mermaids being made, one after the other. No sooner was each of the mermaids given a smart tap upon its completed seam than it awakened into the consciousness of a mermaid. It watched the bustling scene below with dry, shriveled eyeballs. The space around it—before and behind and to the right and left—had already come to be crowded with mermaids hanging from the ceiling.
Sukeroku's tools were taken away by the shop master, who berated him viciously, shouting, "A failure like you needs to start over from scratch," and he was sent back to cleaning the workshop as though he were no more than an apprentice. This is why, among all the mermaids hanging down from the ceiling, it alone was unable to awaken into an identity.
Sukeroku cleaned the wooden floors, sweeping up and collecting the litter around each workbench, and every day, as he labored, he gazed up at the ceiling. "Hey, you, state your true form, give it a go," he would say, prodding it with the tip of his duster.
"I'm a monkey."
"I'm a salmon."
"And . . . I'm a mermaid." Every time it would respond, so emphatic in its confusion, the workshop floor would erupt.
"It's not wrong, you know," Yakichi loosed his response like an arrow. "No matter how you look at that thing, it's just a hacked-up monkey tied to a hacked-up salmon . . . that stitching is as plain as day, even from a thousand miles off. It looks nothing even remotely like a mermaid!"
Meanwhile, the awakened mermaids that hung suspended from the ceiling, never once glancing its way, settled ever more profoundly into a sense of mermaid-ness with each passing day. As the staining persimmon tannin seeped in, their bodies became taut, [End Page 116] swallowing entirely the thread that joined their monkey and salmon halves, so that even the slightest sign of handiwork around their middles became difficult to discern. Their faces transformed into the stuff of old ghost tales—severe, and repulsive, and meditative. Those mermaids even came to remember a time, long ago, when they had been alive, with supple bodies that could surge powerfully through the water, tails slapping upon wild waves. They also remembered how they were pursued by humans wielding nets and harpoons, in search of the astonishing magical properties of immortality and eternal youth that mermaid flesh contains. The mermaids who were captured, in a rage of refusal to bend to the will of the humans, made their own blood boil to evaporation in their veins, causing their flesh to harden and dry, shriveling up in an instant. Those mermaids, fulfilled in the death they had chosen for themselves, proudly believed that they had disguised their bodies to protect their secret to the end.
The mermaids remembered nothing of picking fleas off their companions, raising a clamor of piercing cries, biting off mouthfuls of grasses and leaves, slurping down ripe fruit, or occasionally stealing the produce from a cultivated field. Neither, on the other hand, did they remember letting the cold water thick with plankton run through their bodies, narrowly escaping the bear's grasping claws, or desperately fighting the current to swim upstream. Still less did they remember being captured, the untold dread of watching the broad and heavy blade of the nata raised up overhead. Nor was there any trace of the misery, the uneasiness, of losing half of their bodies, losing their lives, and being hung up to dry out completely. Ultimately, for a mermaid, such an experience simply cannot be perceived. Among all the mermaids, it was the only one whose head was filled with such memories. Its face was that of a monkey frozen in shock at such an unexpected and unthinkable death. Moreover, the thread was ragged and poking through all around its seam.
Sukeroku stood on the workbench and reached up toward it with a large tatami needle, newly threaded. Because he pushed the needle through with too much force, the salmon portion came loose, leaving a gap between it and the monkey portion.
"Oops, now don't you fret," for just a moment Sukeroku's brow knitted and his lips stretched into a thin line, but he quickly arranged his face into an expression of composure. "Whatever anyone says, you are a mermaid . . . Hey, chin up, now. If you weren't a mermaid, you'd be nothing but a nasty old pile of bones, isn't that right?"
"Even if I were a mermaid, aren't I still just a pile of bones?" it replied.
"There'll be no such talk from you," Sukeroku clucked his tongue. "What I'm saying has nothing to do with that. It's all about that bright future that's waiting for you precisely because you're the relic of a mermaid."
"No, I'm a monkey."
"I'm a salmon." [End Page 117]
"I'm a mermaid," it declared hastily.
"No, that's enough of that!" Sukeroku gave up and withdrew.
Sukeroku gradually came to do nothing more than cleaning. For several days he went without looking up at the ceiling. It did nothing but follow the whorl of hair on the back of his head with its eyes. It couldn't help but follow him. Back when it was a monkey and a salmon, it had never had the experience of disappointing someone else. This is because, of course, that monkey and that salmon had never had expectations held of them in the first place. That monkey, that salmon, had each lived a life free of expectations from others. Each existed confidently, instinctively, doing precisely the thing that it was meant to be doing. Each lived just so, and each was complete, a perfect life. Compared to that, how might the incompleteness of this existence stand up? Sukeroku's disappointment left it drenched with fear. The fear was blacker than the jar of persimmon tannin, and, unlike that dye, didn't dry up and solidify with each passing day.
"Sukeroku, Sukeroku," one day it shouted out pleadingly to Sukeroku as he was sweeping the floor.
"What is it," grumbled Sukeroku, glowering up at it.
"Sukeroku, I am ... I am ..." it gasped out.
"I'm a mermaid."
"I'm a monkey."
"I'm a salmon." It had tried not to speak with so much effort, but didn't manage very well. Thinking of how it had failed Sukeroku, it felt all the more disappointment surging up inside. And what's more, this disappointment that it felt was the type of thing that would have been unimaginable in those days when it had been a monkey and a salmon. The disappointment of a monkey or a salmon is a response to its food being stolen by its peers, or to an unpleasant temperature of the water, and is not something that would be directed toward oneself.
It felt anew that fear pooling and gushing from deep within. By now, already swimming with that fear, it was astonished to even consider being soaked any further, but this was indeed possible.
However, Sukeroku stood up.
"You . . . just now . . . you said 'I'm a mermaid' first this time."
Sukeroku reached out and placed his hand on its scales. Sukeroku wore a sober expression, but he was obviously overjoyed. In the place where Sukeroku touched, it felt a slight but pleasant dryness.
Sukeroku returned again to his diligent care for it. Almost every day, Sukeroku would prod it lightly with the tip of his feather duster, saying, "Well now, about your true self, then?" It would then reliably respond so that "mermaid" was first from its lips, but [End Page 118] this was little more than a pretense. For it, there were absolutely no memories of having been a mermaid within its consciousness. Instead, all that happened was that its memories of having been a monkey and a salmon receded, leaving an emptiness that, in turn, filled up with a different fear. If I'm neither mermaid, nor monkey, nor salmon, well then, I suppose I'm a filthy pile of bones, little more than rubbish. Neither of them had been hoping for that conclusion—neither it, nor Sukeroku. Despair grated across its face, and pulled at its mouth, twisting the lips that had always been open from the very beginning. Its tail writhed and curled. The great irony was that its very suffering was what made it more or less like a mermaid.
"You're doing splendidly, lately. You're looking very mermaid-like," Sukeroku complimented it. "From out there, we're just this incredibly weird island country. If they were to receive from us a mermaid with such a ghastly face as yours, they'd most certainly be delighted, I know it!"
However, just as before, no sooner would it declare itself a mermaid, than that dried-out tongue couldn't help but to announce itself as a monkey and a salmon as well. And every time it happened, Sukeroku's face shook. It would tremble. At some times, Sukeroku would become agitated and heap abuse onto it, and at other times, he would be oddly gentle in his encouragement of it. But for it there was no difference. Fear, far from anything dry, saturated it entirely, constantly, from outside and from within.
The persimmon lacquer finally dried, and so arrived the shipment day. Sukeroku had very gently taken it down from the ceiling to lay it out in a paulownia-wood box lined with soft cotton fluff.
The mermaids, too, were packed into paulownia-wood boxes.
"Wouldn't it would be nice if you were kept in a china case once you arrive over there, just like they have for crystal."
"Scare the hell out of those foreign brats with their long noses and spindly legs, now."
"Maybe you'll meet up with a famous showman, and just think, you'll be able to travel the world 'round. What a chance for you!"
The craftsmen would say these sorts of things to the mermaids before shutting the lid of each box. But the mermaids paid little heed, consumed instead with dreams of the ocean, once so familiar and now so sorely missed. For the mermaids could all sense the ocean already—both its surface, which gleamed like a hand-forged blade, and its farthest depths below, where the living mermaids awaited them.
For it, there was no such vision to be had. Up until the very end, it was concerned with Sukeroku's mood. Sukeroku had been smiling, but the expression was one of quiet failure. [End Page 119]
"You did a good job," Sukeroku said, holding up the lid of the box. Upon the lid was a piece of handmade washi paper which bore the word "mermaid" in the language of the foreign land. "Well, have them take good care of you," he said.
Steadlily, tangibly, fear oozed out, soaking the cotton fluff lining, and filling the paulownia box to overflowing . . . until it thought, if he shuts the lid now, I'll be drowned. I'll drown and die, and I'll turn into a pile of bones, nothing but a worthless pile of bones. That's what I'll become!
And just as the lid was about to shut, it wrung out desperately, "I'm a mermaid!"
"What was that?" Sukeroku stopped, his hand on the lid.
"I'm a mermaid."
Sukeroku stood stock still, silently looking down at it.
It watched Sukeroku intently with milky eyes. After some time, Sukeroku's eyes filled with tears.
"That's right. You're a mermaid," he said. And then Sukeroku shut the lid of the box.
It was plunged into darkness. It felt at ease, experiencing this total darkness for the first time. So I'm a mermaid, it thought. I really am a mermaid. I've finally, after all this, satisfied Sukeroku, and now I'm satisfied, too.
It was loaded onto a ship along with all the mermaids. Within the swaying ship, gradually, it grew more and more self confident. All that about I'm a monkey, I'm a salmon, it was all like a bad joke. To think, monkeys and salmon! Monkeys and salmon are things to be gobbled up by humans—they're allowed to live a few short days at most. For that matter, what about mermaids? Humans make mermaids into sashimi and eat it up for everlasting youth and immortality. Humans yearn for mermaids, they search us out, and they fear us. Even our dead, dried-out bodies are placed into precious paulownia-wood boxes as relics to be bought and sold. That is what I am, right here.
While it was entering this state of blissful awareness, the mermaids had quietly, and on cue, begun to sing a song. It was a searching song that told where they were and that summoned the living mermaids to them. The humans had grossly underestimated the mermaids. To think that the humans could transport the mermaids—mummified though they may be—along a sea route, of all things.
The song, which was directed out toward the living mermaids, was inaudible to the humans. The mermaids sang with their dried out throats and shriveled tongues. They sang with all their power, each voice matching unwaveringly with the others from their lonely places locked away inside those sealed paulownia-wood boxes. This is what the dead mermaids saw in their minds: The living mermaids follow the ship, their white bodies flexing lithely as they swim. The living mermaids call out to each other, joining [End Page 120] and following along, one after another, until they form a large pod. And then swiftly, fluidly, the pod having swelled to the size of a whale, the living mermaids hurtle in pursuit after the boat, with the speed of a sailfish. All of the mermaids shared precisely the same image in their minds.
The ship didn't actually overturn, but it had been in very real danger of capsizing. In order to ride over the terrible wave that had suddenly risen up, the humans had no choice but to throw most of their cargo overboard. First they jettisoned the heaviest freight, saving the lighter wooden boxes that contained the mummified mermaids. Despite their efforts, over half of the mermaids were returned to the sea.
The jettisoned mermaids waited with great perseverence for the seawater to seep into the paulownia-wood boxes. It would take only a single drop of sea water upon the mermaids' skin to be restored to their original forms. The dead mermaids had but to take one restorative breath to be transformed into living mermaids. Their once shriveled and tarnished bodies washed clean, they then swelled into plump fullness, emitting a white glow. Their faces, once hardened in horrifying expressions, softened to reveal silky skin. Glossy, ink-black hair unfurled and fanned out behind their heads, flexible arms churned avidly at the sea water, scales like mother of pearl undulated enchantingly. Some mermaids remained on board to be carried off, and some mermaids had been hurled overboard to sink down into the depths—all the while, all of the mermaids shared precisely the same image in their minds.
In the end, it was among those boxes that had been kept on the ship, blissfully unaware of what was taking place, humming nonsensically and grinning and muttering to itself, "I'm a mermaid," again and again. By now, it had been able to say it countless times. How could I ever have struggled so, it's beyond me. In fact, at this point, it's much more difficult to say all that about I'm a monkey and I'm a salmon.
I'm a mermaid,
I'm a mermaid,
I'm a mermaid, it prattled on, in turns giddy, joyful, preening, solemn, and courageous, over and over, announcing itself as a mermaid.
Passing through the ports of multiple foreign lands, the ship arrived at its destination. The mermaids all sang a song of parting to one another together, and all the while it continued to be engrossed in its "I'm a mermaid," and "I'm a mermaid," and "I'm a mermaid," just as ever. And so, along with all of the other paulownia-wood boxes that began to be processed, so, too, for the box that held it. The import trader, account ledger under one arm, proceeded to open each box roughly at the hinges.
At this point, there was a problem. Upon coming to its box, the import trader discovered that the customer who had made this particular order had already died. So the [End Page 121] box was brought to an old estate in the remote countryside to be stored among all of the other articles left behind by the deceased, and there it was forgotten. After twenty years, a distant relative of the deceased customer hired an agent to put all of these abandoned belongings in order. The agent made a comprehensive list of the items that remained in the estate, and informed his client. The client gave instructions to have most of the items on the list sold off. But the old box bearing a label that read "mermaid," along with a handful of other valuable items, he had delivered to him. During all that time, it never tired in its fervent repetition of "I'm a mermaid," and "I'm a mermaid," and "I'm a mermaid." Those twenty years were no great burden to the dried-out body within that tightly sealed paulownia-wood box.
But now, the time for its performance had arrived. Miles placed the box on the finely polished oak table, untied the cord on the box, and raised the lid to reveal its contents. After a moment of nervousness, it looked steadily into Miles' blue eyes, gathering confidence, and said, "I'm a mermaid."
Miles gave a wry smile. It became flustered by this unexpected reaction from Miles. I wonder if he didn't understand what I said. I'm certain that I explained very clearly that I'm a mermaid . . . It thought back to a conversation with Sukeroku.
"If I'm going to be sent off to a distant land, when I declare myself, will the people of that land truly be able to understand?"
"Listen, you," Sukeroku tapped it lightly on the side of its head with the base of his tatami needle. "Don't tell me you think that we're speaking Japanese to each other right now. You don't even know something as simple as that? Everyone knows, there is only one language that you can use, and anyone can understand it, no matter where you go or to whom you speak—that's how it works."
So, it tried again.
"I'm a mermaid."
"I figured as much," replied Miles. So, it's just as Sukeroku said, this one understands what I'm saying, too. Miles gently reached into the box and picked up its small body. Walking over to the window, he examined the seam around its belly in the sunlight. "You're no mermaid," he said.
"I'm a mermaid," it insisted, indignant.
"Oh no, you are not a mermaid. You can't just decide for yourself what sort of thing you are," Miles retorted gently. "You're a monkey, and . . . well, some sort of fish, at any rate."
No sooner had Miles spoken than its memories of being a monkey, being a salmon resurfaced. Well, I'm not a mermaid! What would Sukeroku think if he ever knew? Poor Sukeroku, who was moved to tears when he was finally convinced that I had been a success. [End Page 122]
That old familiar fear came seeping back into its body. For all of the mermaids, "home" is in fact the actual ocean, but for it, the ocean of "home" was one of fear. No mermaid would ever drown in the ocean, but it would sink and die.
Its body was still in Miles' hand. Miles gazed at it. I'm a pile of bones . . . little more than rubbish. Any moment now, Miles' fist will close around me, and I'll be crushed to pieces. Dry-preserved goods crumble easily, of course. It would be nothing to turn me into a powder. When I was a monkey, when I was a salmon, I was caught because of my clumsiness, and I was mercilessly hacked apart, and now, even as I set out in my life as a mermaid relic, I once again must die a wretched death.
It remembered never wanting to become a mermaid or somesuch in the first place. That's right. I didn't want to be brought into this world in this way. I'll never forgive them. Sukeroku and all of the mermaids who were dry-preserved along with me, I loathe all of them. It glowered up at Miles. It bared its teeth, cursing him. It flexed its sharp scales, thinking, at the very least, I could shred his fingers, though in truth, it did little more than quiver.
But Miles held it up to the window, handling it very gently, simply gazing at it from this angle and that. He didn't make any indication of wanting to dispose of it. As Miles delicately shifted his hold, its entire body rotated and was warmed in the sun. When it was a monkey, when it was a salmon, the warmth from the rays of the sun was an immaculate pleasure. It used to let down its guard and stretch out in a sunny patch on the ground, or linger for a time in a spot near the surface of the river that sparkled with sunlight. Those perfect lives, and this utterly incomplete existence. That hatred that had welled up to overtake its entire being dissipated like mist as soon as Miles muttered, "Mm-hmm, you're crafted quite well."
Miles took great care in returning it to the paulownia-wood box, as though it were a precious thing. "You're meant to look like a mermaid . . . a handicraft made by sewing together the bodies of a monkey and some kind of fish."
It looked up at Miles from its spot nestled in the soft cotton fluff of the box.
"I'm a monkey."
"I'm a salmon."
"No, I'm a mermaid," is what it said.
"Yes, that's right," nodded Miles. "Each one of those statements is true."
About fifty years after that, lying on his death bed, Miles signed a document bequeathing it to a museum. "A museum is one type of educational institution," Miles explained to it. "That's where they collect every manner of precious objects and hold public showings and exhibitions that are meant to inform the general public. All those people will look at you, and they'll learn all sorts of things." [End Page 123]
It hoped that Miles' body would be hung up by the eaves somewhere until it was perfectly dried and then transported to be with it at the museum, but that was not to be. Miles's body was buried and, over the course of the passing years, decayed in the ground.
Even now, it sits in that museum, enclosed in a glass case. One cannot quite say that it is exactly famous, but it is reasonably popular compared to the other items on exhibit. The museum-goers who peer into its case make faces of disgust, or gaze upon it slightly aghast, or, conversely, become entirely fascinated. That it has the power to influence onlookers' expressions so is proof of its modest appeal.
Every so often a visitor will show up who has traveled there specifically to see it in person. These are usually the younger couples. The boy drags his girlfriend there and looks on, smirking, while the girl gives out a small yelp of alarm upon seeing it. Or in other cases, the girl drags her boyfriend there and then watches smugly while the boy casts about with his eyes, feeling vaguely ill. On rare occasions, there are those couples who arrive together with the express purpose of observing it carefully, both of them standing there before the case for a long time, pointing out interesting bits of information in the label and whispering together intently, leaning in to gape with rounded eyes.
The museum label reads: "Mermaid mummy (composed of the dry-preserved bodies of a monkey and a salmon, sewn together), 19th century, Japan."
Whenever people approach to stand before its case, it always tries to make them understand the same thing. For now, more than ever, as an object on exhibit in a museum, it carries a responsibility to inform people, to teach them. This is what it says:
In life, there will be times when a version of yourself that you never wished for will be forced upon you. And there will be times when you will become unfairly reduced to something entirely different from the ideal "you" in your mind. However, the most important thing in life is to discover another who accepts you just as you are. That, and also to accept yourself just as you are. This is true, whether you're a dried-up pile of bones, or whether you're little more than rubbish, or whatever else you may be.
There wasn't a single person who heard what it said. If the people there were going to learn anything from it, at the very least, it would not be this lesson. But it paid no mind to that. Whether or not those people were listening, it was carrying on, doing precisely the thing that it was meant to be doing.
The world of Fujino Kaori's "Identity" is at once intimately familiar and disorienting. In this story, mermaids are miraculous beings that exist despite the fact that, rationally, they should not.1 They appear to be exceptions in a world otherwise inhabited by mundane [End Page 124] animals, such as monkeys, salmon, and humans. Men with archaic names, like Sukeroku and Yakichi, labor in pre-industrial workshops to produce simulations of mermaid bodies by sewing together the mummified bodies of monkeys and salmon. In the especially remarkable final steps, the craftsman declares, talking to the body in front of him, that he has produced a mermaid; then the creature's eyes open, the body becomes animated, and each mermaid confirms its own identity through the statement, "I am a mermaid." By "awakening" (mezame) into its identity and existing on an individual level, each one causes the fact of mermaids to be true in the world.
According to the logic of the story, it is this identity—the realization into mermaid-ness—that is both the product and proof of a mermaid's success in coming into existence. Their identity is a collective one. This is not the sort of identity readers are used to applying to humans, such as gender, race, ethnicity, or class and status—a point made clear in Fujino's refusal to gender the "mermaids" by use of the term "ningyo," which emphasizes instead the combination of "human" and "fish."2 Rather, the mermaid identity allows each to communicate with the others through songs and mental images. Collectively, the mermaids remember having lived and fought for life in the ocean and that they have been saved by the mermaids who were never caught, or who (seemingly retroactively) escaped the nets and spears of humans intent on hunting them for the magical healing and youth-sustaining properties of their flesh.
Against this backdrop, the central figure in the story is born out of failure, with Sukeroku's clumsy craftsmanship impeding its transformation from preserved body parts into a conscious being. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that it is itself the failure and as such remains nameless and formless throughout. Fujino uses the singular "it" (sore, emphasis in original) to refer to it, but the irony is that its utterances point to multiple simultaneous identities. The narrator, in using the word "it" as a pronoun to refer to the figure, conspicuously distinguishes it from "the mermaids," who are referred to as a collective. This distinction on the part of the narrator rejects the unnamed being's potential mermaid-ness even more starkly than do the jeering craftsmen or the group of mermaids, who act, sing, think, and remember in perfect unison, by the very fact of having realized their identities as mermaids, regardless of whether they are living fully in the open seas or hanging semi-animated and dry-preserved from the workshop rafters. Among such peers, the sense of its isolation and vulnerability is visceral, particularly when imagined against the seemingly infinite future of occupying a place in the museum before a constantly changing—but always vaguely apathetic and self-centered—audience. Like many of Fujino's protagonists—such as the narrators of Nails and Eyes (2015) and "The Great Outdoors" ("Daishizen," in Fujino 2017) —the central figure of "Identity," the nameless non-mermaid, is childlike in its innocence and vulnerability, as well as in its witnessing [End Page 125] of and exposure to the vicious realities of life and the folly of depending upon care from a society of unreliable, apathetic, or absent guardians.
In this context of formulating self-identity through ritualized declarative statements, the main problem of the primary character in "Identity" is the failure to self-identify. Its very capacity to speak, something that Sukeroku reminds us would be impossible for a mere monkey or salmon, is not sufficient evidence of its mermaid-ness. The reader discovers instead that its multiplicity results in the fact that it is none of those things, and indefinitely so. Despite the multiplicity of its self-identification as simultaneously monkey, salmon, and mermaid, it becomes painfully clear that it is not and cannot be considered a mermaid and that such multiplicity only serves to detract from the ideal toward which it strives. This contradiction is unequivocally the central theme of the story, and is repeated in the incessant confusion surrounding the naming and labeling process: just as it falters through the declarations "I am a monkey . . . I am a salmon . . . No, I am a mermaid," Sukeroku stumbles over the appropriate category label for a mermaid: "you are one person . . . rather, one animal . . . that is, a single-bodied mermaid" (hitor no ippik no itta n ningyo). The "Identity" referred to in the title points to questions of mortality, humanity, and belonging in a social sense, particularly when a society's notion of success is to attain and project a singular identity, despite all evidence of one's multiplicity.
The story reads like a fairy tale, combining elements reminiscent of the story of Pinocchio and "The Ugly Duckling" in a setting that is both described in vivid detail and located ambiguously in a dreamed or hazily imagined and fantastical past. The workshop bustles with craftsmen using tools that are distinctly Japanese and which carry a traditional or archaic aesthetic, such as the thick, cleaver-like blade of the nata, the heavy tatami needle, and the amber persimmon tannin that was used for everything from a health tonic to a furniture lacquer. The countlessly repeated forms of mermaid bodies are constructed and brought to life through a ceremonious declaration that brings the inanimate object into existence, calling to mind the labor that must have gone into such extant objects as the Feejee Mermaid, a real-life example of an artificial "mermaid" constructed of wood, papier-mâché, and the preserved body of a fish; these objects have been identified as products of early-modern Japan, although the artists and production sites are unknown.
It is through this combination of the bizarre-but-real Japanese "mermaids" and the mundane-but-fabricated images of an early modern Japan based on fictional embellishments that "Identity" provides a setting that is unpredictable in its rules for existence but is familiar enough for readers to find pleasure in accepting it as a reflection of our reality. As Noriko Reider (2010, 120) observes about the function of oni (demons) in contemporary literature and popular culture, mermaids, too, are animated in the [End Page 126] reader's "nostalgic as well as futuristic imaginations." The initial setting of "Identity" suggests a vague recreation of Edo-period Japan, which Fujino explains was constructed more through an interest in popular cultural references such as film, anime, and television dramas than as a result of historical research.3 Through the spatial movement that it experiences upon its exportation to the "foreign land"—a distant and generic space whose otherness is emphasized in the term ikoku (sometimes translated as "barbarian countries")—the story sheds all indications of historical context, and its survival over generations of human characters' lives works to project its existence far into the future of the reader's imagination, forever encased in the museum display.
Not even this aspect of the story is so very far-fetched: The "Feejee Mermaid" at Harvard University's Peabody Museum is just one piece of material evidence of this practice (Castle-McLaughin et al). Indeed, accounts of mermaids circulating throughout Europe and the United States in the early nineteenth century reveal that it was not uncommon for showmen such as P. T. Barnum to entice passersby in circus tents to view such oddities of nature (Bondeson 1999, 36-63). Perhaps Fujino sees in the polite glass case of the museum exhibit, the failed mermaid's final home, echoes of the more uncivilized and unselfconscious pleasure of ogling the other in settings beyond the institution of the museum. This exploration of how a misfit learns the rules of acceptable social identity and navigates through various relationships with a combination of authenticity and passing makes "Identity" a story about existence and acceptance in the face of failure as one confronts outward social pressure to live up to the expectations of others, and to unequivocally belong within a society. [End Page 127]
Fujino Kaori has lived in Kyoto her entire life. She won the Akutagawa Prize in 2013 for her novella Nails and Eyes (Tsume to me). Her most recent collection of short stories is Dress (Doresu, 2017). In the fall of 2017, she was a participant in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Kendra Strand is an assistant professor of premodern Japanese literature and visual culture at the University of Iowa. Her translations with commentaries include "Souvenirs for the Capital: A Travel Journal by Sōkyū" in Asiatische Studien 71.2 (June 2017) and "An Excerpt from Ashikaga Yoshiakira's Pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi" in Transference 3 (Autumn 2015). She is currently working on a book manuscript examining the ways in which travel, landscape, and famous places are represented in medieval Japanese cultural production, particularly among the poetic milieu surrounding Nijō Yoshimoto and Ashikaga shogunate.
1. I would like to express my appreciation to the anonymous readers for their observations about the story, which have enriched my reading and comments.
2. A more literal English translation of the word ningyo here is perhaps "piscine-humanoid" (Hayward 2018, 52) or the slightly less awkward "merperson," but the familiarity of "mermaid" as a category of living being, however fantastical, is better suited to the neutral and matter-of-fact voice in which the third-person narrator introduces the steps that these craftsmen take to produce the mermaid bodies. Fujino uses the Japanese term ningyo rather than the less common but nonetheless functional māmeido, used in song lyrics and anime. Ningyo suggests magical ability and infinite youth, denoting aspects of the mermaids from Japanese folklore rather than associating them with mysterious beauty and feminine sexual allure as done in Hans Christian Andersen stories or Walt Disney cartoons, as discussed in detail in Fraser (2017).
3. Personal conversation with Kendra Strand, October 20, 2017.