I wanted to talk a bit about a few things I learnt in Japan before I get on to my spooky story below. And I use “spooky” in a very broad sense.
Japan and Peace
While I was teaching in Japan, the Prime Minister resigned. Why? One of his election promises had been that he would remove, or at least move, the American military base from an Okinawan Japanese island to the south of Japan. The fact that his failure to do so led to his resignation says as much about honouring your word in Japanese culture and politics as it does about how important an issue this is to many people.
A lot of Japanese people dislike having an American military presence in Japan at all. I thought I understood this at first – it seemed like a hangover from the Second World War, with the Americans “keeping an eye” on them. Probably that’s how they got the land to build a base on in the first place.
But then I found out from recruitment posters in the university that Japan has no standing army as such. They have a “Self-Defense Force”, but everyone working in it is technically a civilian. 3% of the national budget goes to them. Japan, despite being a world economic power, isn’t even slightly a military power.
This was all going on while North and South Korea were getting edgy about torpedoes fired on ships. I asked a student, “Surely, with North Korea being so dangerous, it’s best to keep the Americans to defend you?” His answer: “I think… peace… is best.” “Well, that’s a bit impractical, don’t you think?” I thought.
I want to show you their Japan’s top three military priorities, taken from a Wikipedia page:
- Maintaining an exclusive defense-oriented policy.
- To avoid becoming a major military power that might pose a threat to the world.
- Refraining from the development of nuclear weapons, and to refuse to allow nuclear weapons inside Japanese territory.
All this Peace makes a lot more sense after you’ve visited Hiroshima, which is a popular school trip destination here in Japan. I’ve seen what atomic bombs have done to Japan. I’ve also seen photographs of American prisoners of war in Japanese camps. Japanese schools and the education system are continuing to teach new generations about the horrors of war. They don’t shy away from the terrible things that the Japanese have done, but neither do they pull any punches in describing the aftermath of Hiroshima. Japan are possibly, through it’s economy, the most powerful peaceful country in the world, and are constantly calling for nuclear disarmament. And this isn’t just the top politicians – it’s something that everyone in the country strongly believes in.
So now I understand my student’s view on North Korea. Sure, it’s not ideal to be so close to somewhere so potentially dangerous. But Japan doesn’t go in for arms racing. Don’t pose a threat, and you won’t get attacked, they seem to say. Fight with trade. And, after some initial sneering at the whole concept, maybe we should sit back and say, “Well, why not?”
Anyway, enough of that. Here’s the story as promised above. It makes a nice change to be posting a short story – I should write more.
aI know we’ve been telling ghost stories tonight – but I don’t know any, or at the least, can’t remember them well enough. I’d slip up on the important details, like “Oh, I forgot to mention, the ghost was blind…” But I think this story will do. I heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who probably made it up or read it somewhere, so stop me if you’ve heard it before.
There was this taxi driver. He was young, but able and willing, and he’d just moved to a new town. A small town, and he became a taxi driver there. This town was pretty small, and everyone knew each other, you know. Two long main shopping streets, lots of little back roads, a train station….. a residential town. Nothing special.
For a while, business was slow, and he wondered why he’d moved to this little town, or where his life was going. But then, sitting in the taxi rank, he started to make friends with the other taxi drivers, and learnt more and more about the town, and started to enjoy himself. He learnt where the best and the cheapest bakeries were, where there was a jazz bar with a beautiful pianist, and where he could get his jacket fixed. So he was starting to enjoy life, little by little.
Almost every day, he drove up and down the main thoroughfare in his taxi, with or without passengers, and he watched people walking by. As time passed, he started to recognise people, people who had the same routines daily or weekly. The fat man who slowly patrolled up the street. The policeman with the fierce looking dog. The woman in dresses a size too small. The quiet librarian. Each time they passed he’d get this little thrill of recognition, of comfort, even though he never spoke to them. Sometimes he’d see someone he’d had in his taxi, and work out whether they were walking home or to work.
But about once a week, he saw someone that, well, he never quite saw. He always spotted her just as she was going round a corner, or he was. She wore a hooded jersey, whatever the weather, which with her long, black hair, covered her face, so he never saw what she looked like.
She only walked down his street every now and again, but as the months passed, he started to realise which days it was – Tuesday and Sunday. He’d still see her every now and again, but never properly catch a glimpse. Even as the weather warmed up, she still wore that hood.
As the work was slow, he let his mind wander through the possibilities. Who was she, where was she going, why was she so shy? She never spoke to anyone in the street that he saw, but as he was always driving, never walking, he never saw her for long.
He started to try and be in the main street on Tuesdays and Sundays. If he didn’t have a customer, he wouldn’t wait at the train station or the hotel, but park up in the main street and watch the street. People needed taxis there too – he wasn’t cutting work to look. She was never walking at exactly the same time, and sometimes he got a call in that took him away. At first it didn’t bother him if he missed her, and then later, grew to a tinge of disappointment, an unfulfilled day.
She wore long skirts to the floor and flat black shoes. She was young and thin, and beneath that baggy hoody and big skirt she probably had a great body. Her face, from the glimpses he got, was very pale, very clear – but then, keeping herself covered in all weather, she probably never got sunlight. He imagined her in an office, typing away at a blue screen in the dark. He could never work out where she came from or where she went, no matter where he parked or saw her.
This carried on for a bit, until one day when he’d just driven some businessmen from an out-of-town hotel to the train station in record time. The businessmen had caught their train, they tipped generously, he was feeling pretty good. Like everything he did would work out well that day. Lucky. And on that day, he saw the woman, walking down the street. It was about midday, and a Wednesday – not one of her usual days. Something was different that day, in her, in him. He felt it in the air. He watched her walk to the end of the street, and turn left, and then he started the car, and followed her.
He wound along the streets, a good way behind her, just catching her before she took each corner. It was mindless, insatiable curiosity – he had to learn more about her. He kept a safe distance, as he didn’t want her to know she was being followed. His mind was whirring with the possibilities, with a mental map of where she was leading him. He turned his radio off, and all he could hear was a buzzing in his head.
Eventually, she led him to quiet back streets, where any car would be obvious. He knew at this point that she’d see him. That what he was doing was creepy and wrong. So he stopped the car at the end of the street, and watched. It was time to give in this silly game. But when she was half way down the street, she turned and walked towards a small block of flats. It was a funny one, with three floors, and the stairs to the higher floors were external. Her house, he thought.
He was seized by impulse again, and got out of the car, started walking towards her. She walked up the outside steps. He started running towards her. “Miss,” he called, “Miss!”
She didn’t stop. She walked along the corridor, a little faster. “Miss!” he called again. “Miss! Wait, please!”
She got to her door on the third floor, stepped through it and closed the door.
The taxi driver, young as he was, had been doing a lot of sitting down and not much running, so was a bit out of breath as he reached the third floor. But he knew which door she’d entered. He stopped for a minute, panting, looking round. From the third floor, he could see out over some of the smaller houses. He knew exactly where he was, which street name, how to get back. But at this point, he wasn’t ready to go back. He’d scared her, probably, and not surprisingly. He wanted to explain himself, so she wouldn’t stay locked at home or worry on the streets. So he walked to her door, and knocked, firmly, three times. “Miss?” he said. “Hello, miss?”
No answer. He listened. No sound of footsteps. He bent down and put his eye to the keyhole.
And through the keyhole, he saw red. Not a red wall, or a red light, just red. He couldn’t identify what the red was, but that was all he saw. He stood up again, and knocked once more, calling out her name. Nothing. He knew it was the right door, knew she was at home, knew she couldn’t have left any other way from a third storey flat. Bending down and peering through the door again, he saw that redness, that perfect scarlet redness, and nothing else.
“I’m sorry, miss! I didn’t mean to frighten you!” He called through the keyhole.
The red unnerved him. He couldn’t work it out. Uneasy, he stepped back from the door and looked at it. With nothing else he could do, he sighed and walked back to his car, the mystery still confusing him. a
That night, he talked with an old taxi-driving friend at the taxi rank at the station. This was the first time he’d mentioned the woman to any of them…. She’d always been his secret. “Do you know,” he asked, as if the question had just occurred to him, “do you know that three storey apartment block down Darvish Street?
“Oh yeah, I know the one. That woman lives there.”
“That woman? … Does she live on the third floor, the door at the end?”
“Oh, so you know her then? The girl with the red eyes.”