Shota had not seen his parents for two years, although they lived in the next room. In the early evening he stood silently at his bedroom door, listening. He slid the paper screen open an inch and waited; there was nobody. He opened the door wider so he could bend down and pick up the tray. On the tray was a bowl of chirashi – a home-style recipe of sushi rice with smoked salmon, avocado and egg – and a pot of green tea. He returned to his room, slid the door shut and ate his meal in silence.
Shota’s mother blamed herself. And why not, everyone else did, including Japanese society and Shota’s father. “Amae”, his father spat, using the emotive word for the co-dependant collusion between mother and son. Every day Shota’s mother tried to imagine the reason for her son’s withdrawal, tried to calculate the moment his life stalled. Sadly, the root cause was unknowable to her. The truth was it was such a small thing that had such profound consequences. Like the leaking sink in the airliner galley that causes a chain of events that leads to the crash; the complex machine destroyed by drops of water.
As he did each night, Shota climbed out of his bedroom window and over the balcony rail. After the cool air of his bedroom, the heavy heat of August hit him. He could smell the salt water from Tokyo Bay on the gentle breeze. He waited for the traffic noise from the road to cease. As he waited he felt the heat radiating from his building, felt the hum of the great city under the night. He climbed up the fire escape ladder. From the roof of his three-storey apartment block he had clear view to runway 04 of Haneda Airport. He sat on the ledge, hung his legs over the side and shrugged out of his backpack. There was just enough light to read his pilot’s watch and he noted the date and time in his logbook. He waited.
He heard it before he saw it: twin Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines – 30 tonnes of thrust each, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, ANA livery, a dash-8 model, most likely the flight from Beijing. The airliner came in over his head and then passed over the industrial islands, sank quickly on its short final approach and flared just above the tarmac. Through his binoculars he saw the puff of blue smoke. He looked up into the night sky and listened carefully for the spiralling whistle of the trailing vortices, the invisible signature of the giant airliner. He looked out to the east where the landing lights of a dozen other airliners were strung out like paper lanterns.
Shota opened his backpack and set out his picnic: his favourite frosted rice crackers and a can of melon soda. The can had condensation on it already. He watched some cars cutting through the narrow streets of his tightly coupled neighbourhood. The street below appeared yellow from the sodium street lamps. He jumped involuntarily when he heard a young man’s voice calling out. The young man was operating one of the vending machines on the sidewalk of Shota’s apartment block. He was so close; just down there.
“Calm down,” Shota said to himself, “he can’t see you up here.”
He watched the young man walk to a new Nissan Skyline with two cans of soft drink, handing one to a girl. Shota felt the knife of regret at the top of his stomach as he thought of Mitsuko.
Eventually he turned his attention again to the sky and found himself humming an old pop tune. Where did that come from? After a moment he was trying to sing it in a soft voice, dredging up the words. How did it go?
I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Shota’s reverie was broken by someone whistling the same tune. He spun around. There was a man on the roof walking towards him, blocking his path to the fire escape. The man stopped about 5 metres from Shota looking startled. He also turned to see what had startled Shota. Then, realising that Shota was looking at him, the man said, “Eeh? You can see me?” Shota did not reply but instinctively crouched down, grabbed his backpack and ran towards the fire escape. He braced himself for contact with the man but instead stumbled through thin air and landed on his palms on the concrete. Without looking back Shota dived toward the ledge and scuttled down the fire escape. The man looked to where Shota had dived over the ledge, puzzled.
“What a strange boy!” he said quietly. He walked over to where Shota left his binoculars and the remains of his picnic.
“Ahh,” he said, “it’s been a long time since I had a melon soda.” Concentrating, the man tried to pick up the can but failed, as if lacking the strength. He succeeded only in wiping off some of the condensation. Shota made it back to his room. His head was pounding. His palms stung with gravel rash. He brushed the grit from his wounds. He wrote a note to his mother requesting some antiseptic and sticking plaster and put it on the dinner tray with the dirty dishes.
The next morning Shota awoke and stood silently at his bedroom door, listening. He slid the paper screen open an inch and waited; there was nobody. He bent down and picked up the tray. On the tray was a warm bowl of okayu rice porridge made with chicken stock, a pot of green tea, a new bottle of antiseptic spray and a selection of sticking plasters. He returned to his room, slid the paper screen door shut and tended his wounds. As he ate his breakfast he logged-on to his computer. He waited for the picture from Mitsuko’s hacked webcam to come up. She was talking on the desk phone and he could see her in profile. She was 22, like him. She was dressed in a dark blazer and white blouse, the uniform of a freshman employee. Her hair and makeup were immaculate. Mitsuko was a beautiful young woman.
That evening Shota climbed back up the fire escape ladder and peeked over the roof ledge; he could see his binoculars and drink can were still there. He cautiously walked to his usual spot and took out his logbook, painfully writing the date. Under the previous day’s airliner entries, he retrospectively noted the appearance of the man: mid-40s, shiny suit, bouffant hair, wide friendly face. He saw his first airliner of the evening. It was a Boeing 737: Japan Airlines; 800 model; probably JL 132 from Osaka. He noted the details in his logbook. He found himself singing the same pop song from the night before. What was it called?
I look up as I walk
Counting the stars with tearful eyes
Shota stopped singing. He sensed the man must be there again. He turned and the man was standing nearby holding up his hands as if to show he meant no harm.
“I just want to talk.” He bowed respectfully.
Shota nodded, his was heart racing. His gut told him to run, but he held his ground.
“I’m Kyu,” said the man. He noticed Shota’s bandaged palms. “What happened to your hands?” he asked.
“When I fell,” replied Shota in a small voice; the first words he’d said to another person in two years.
Kyu considered this for a moment, “you’re alive?”
The question struck Shota as odd, “It’s only a small injury,” he said.
Kyu stared at him intently, marvelling, “no, I mean, well this is very interesting,” he said. “Normally it’s just other spirits who can see me.”
Shota felt a chill run up his body and gooseflesh appeared on his arms, “spirits?” he asked.
Kyu smiled, “yes, sometimes the living can see me, but only at the very end or the very beginning of their lives.” He looked wistful, “newborn babies are my favourite. When they look at you it’s like becoming a father all over again.”
He saw Shota’s confusion. “Oh, I’ve been dead since 1985,” said Kyu gently, “Monday August 12, 1985.”
Shota knew the date. “Japan Airlines Flight 123,” he said sombrely, “the anniversary is tomorrow.”
“Yes, that’s it. I like to come back here around this time,” continued Kyu, “but perhaps this will be my last visit. I feel like I’m starting to fade.”
It is the worst single-aircraft crash in history with 520 souls lost. It is also one of the great feats of aviation. Twelve minutes after take-off from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport a failed rivet caused an explosive decompression that ripped off the 747’s tail fin; a rivet, such a small thing. The explosion also destroyed the four hydraulic systems necessary to move the airliner’s controls. According to the textbook, the airliner should have crashed immediately. And yet the crew kept flying for 32 minutes, kept everyone alive for 32 more minutes. It was a feat that could not be subsequently replicated in the flight simulator by crash investigators.
“What do you mean you’re starting to fade?” prompted Shota.
“I’ve been lucky,” reflected Kyu, “I’ve hung around this long because lots of people remembered me.”
“That song! Sukiaki,” exclaimed Shota, “you’re Kyu Sakamoto!”
Kyu smiled, “first Japanese to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Thirteen million copies.”
“Just before I saw you last night and tonight I got the song stuck in my head,” said Shota.
Kyu laughed, “whenever you get a song stuck in your head it’s some mischievous spirit humming the tune in your ear!”
Shota laughed. He realised he hadn’t laughed for a very long time.
“Why are you fading?” Shota asked again.
“I think it’s the change in easy listening radio,” said Kyu ironically.
“Eeh?” asked Shota.
“Well, my song was a hit in 1963. I’m starting to be forgotten.”
The moment Shota’s mother was searching for happened at the university cafeteria. He was in line to buy coffee and the cashier had left some coins on the counter from the previous student. Shota calculated the coins were the correct change for his purchase and scooped them up as he handed over his 1,000 yen note. In the confusion the cashier thought Shota was stealing the money and called out. All eyes in the cafeteria turned; such a small thing. The root cause, the moment his life stalled. Horrified, Shota could not show his face in the cafeteria again. Then he couldn’t bring himself to sit in the lecture hall. The failure of his aeronautical engineering exam followed. Then Mitsuko left. And then he withdrew to his room. Even if Shota’s mother had discovered the cause, the chain of unintended consequences in her son’s complex system had begun.
Kyu was talking about how much he missed his wife since he died. “Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked.
“I haven’t been out in a while,” conceded Shota.
“Out with a girl?” asked Kyu.
Shota sucked the air through his teeth, “out anywhere,” he said. “I live in my room. And I come up here at night. That’s all I do.”
“Eeh? You mean like hikikomori?” asked Kyu. The word stung Shota like acid. The word meant ‘pulling inward’. Shota knew he was one of them but it had never been said to his face. Kyu noticed his shame.
“Hey I’m sorry. I’m sure you’ll be okay. Look at you, you’re young.”
The next evening Shota stood silently at his bedroom door, listening. He slid the paper screen door open an inch and waited; there was nobody. He bent down and picked up the tray. On the tray was a warm okonomiyaki omelette pancake with ham and a pot of green tea. He closed the door and ate his dinner while he started up his computer. He searched for the Sukiaki song and watched a recording of Kyu singing it on TV in 1984. Kyu looked happy.
Shota climbed out of his bedroom window. He hurried to the roof, excited. He sat on the ledge and started singing the Sukiaki song, imagining he was conjuring Kyu’s spirit.
Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Happiness lies up above the sky
In a moment Kyu was at his side. He seemed pale, or was it transparent?
“I bought you a melon soda,” said Shota, digging into his backpack. Kyu forgot himself and reached to accept the gift. The can passed through his fingers and clacked onto to the concrete.
“Never mind,” said Shota, “I’ve got a plan to help keep you around. I’ll play your song every day.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be enough,” said Kyu sadly. “I appreciate the gesture though, I really do.” Then he made sure he had Shota’s attention, “I’ve been thinking about you, young man.” After a moment Kyu continued solemnly, “I think the reason you can see me is because you’re fading. I think you are being forgotten.”
Shota rose to defend himself but realised the catch. After a moment he said, “my mum remembers me. She brings me food and things.”
“It’s very sad. You should at least be remembered in your own lifetime,” Kyu said simply. “Thank you for the drink.” Then he bowed – farewell.
“Will I see you again?” asked Shota. But when he rose from his bow, Kyu was gone.
Shota wiped the tears from his eyes and looked up into the Tokyo sky. The wind had changed direction and the Haneda approach had swung round to the west, bringing the take offs into his view. He watched an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 taxi and begin its take off roll, probably the flight to Seoul. The powerful turbofans rang out as it rotated and began the slow climb over Tokyo Bay and away into the night.
The next morning Shota decided to wake early and stood silently at his bedroom door, listening. He slid the paper screen door open an inch; the tray was not there yet. He waited until he heard footsteps coming and opened the door a little wider. He saw the tray first and then looked up into the eyes of his father.
you can hear the Sukiaki song with English translation here: