8 July, Natsuhiko Kyōgoku

文字数 7,261文字

I arrived at the home of an old friend, on the pretext of thanking him for lending me some leafy bamboo stalks, an indispensable centerpiece for the preceding day’s

Tanabata

celebrations. Far from the warm reception one might expect after many years of friendship, he could not even muster the courtesy of getting up from his desk, where he grumbled peevishly about my pallid complexion, and growled that I was probably running a fever. Although he begrudgingly acquiesced to my assurances that no, I’ve always been this pale, he still retorted that there would be hell to pay if he fell ill as a result of my visit. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that my friend was engrossed in a tattered old manuscript. After some prodding, he revealed that he had acquired the text—the private diary of a personage involved in the

Shinsengumi

—by way of his mentor in the antiquarian bookseller trade.
  I’ve just now reached the entries from July 1862.
  Appropriately enough, the year 1862 was evidently wracked by another pandemic.
  The way the diarist describes the outbreak is enough to make one’s toes curl in horror. He reports how the undertakers couldn’t make enough coffins to keep up with demand.
  As the pandemic is said to have claimed 70,000 souls in the old capital of Edo alone, the veracity of the claim checks out.
  Yes, but that was cholera, no? We’re dealing with an entirely different beast now. I see little point in attempting to draw any comparisons.
  Of course, cholera was predated by a measles epidemic. Topographically speaking, Tokyo has historically had poor drainage. Chalk it up to the lay of the land. All those poor bastards crowded into rowhouses had to share communal toilets and drinking water wells. They endured squalid conditions, made worse by the wet summer months. Their living quarters were far from hygienic.
  You’re talking about the 19th century, before modernization. Nowadays, we can wet our whistle with fresh drinking water at the twist of a sink faucet.
  My friend huffily asks whether I remember the Spanish Flu.
  Sure, point taken. The Spanish flu was in the late 1910s, well after ‘modernization.’ If I recall correctly, 350,000 died. In Japanese, we called it the ‘Spanish cold,’ but in English, it was an influenza, the ‘Spanish flu.’
  I don’t know about English, but I can tell you that medicine has progressed by leaps and bounds over the intervening years. Case in point, they hadn’t even discovered antibiotics back then.
  My friend continues, contending that the times haven’t changed.
  In 1954, they passed legislation directly addressing such contagious flus. Has it made a difference now? I’m not so sure. 1858 is a prime example. The country was riddled with cholera. If you look at the records from that time, it only got worse and worse. Humans never learn. We’ve consistently failed to contain bacterial diseases. And this is an influenza we’re talking about, far more difficult to control! It’s a perpetual cat and mouse game. We’ve learned nothing over the past century. It’s always the same thing, over and over, ad infinitum. The doctors are overwhelmed, and the corpses of the impoverished pile up. Nothing’s changed, it was the same in the Edo period. The country can not be counted on to stave off the plague.
  I cynically ask if my friend would prefer an exorcism. He wryly responds that an exorcism might be more effective than current policy.
  The moment they find a scapegoat for an invisible threat is the moment it becomes a viable target for aggression. Those who are ‘unclean’ become a target of hatred. The sick and the vectors of contagion, not to mention our medical professionals, should never be put in an ostracized position, treated as somehow tainted or impure. ‘Quarantine’ is simply meant as a preventative measure. No negative connotation should be attached to the term.
  I offer a cursory word in agreement. After all, my point was something else entirely.
  Listen, this is precisely the kind of problem politicians are elected to solve. This is why governments exist in the first place. Governments are entrusted to handle this sort of thing swiftly, unveiling logical and practical policy to make things right after a disaster. But more importantly, they need to secure the peoples’ trust. Unwavering, absolute trust is essential in order to stave off calamity. Unfortunately, our country has a well-established tradition of distrusting any word that comes out of a politician’s mouth.
  Well, such a contrarian viewpoint need not be mentioned to a dyed-in-the-wool disestablishmentarian such as yourself, my friend adds.
  Think about the earthquake, not so long ago. It was the masses who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, with little help from the government, and rebuilt their city. We can’t trust the government one bit. We saw what happened when the government had resounding support, like a cult. They went and started a war! But surely, the politicians deserve a pass at a trying time like this. Let them placate the people. Did you see the news today? There’s some protest or other over the American military base in Tama. It smells fishy to me, but then again, I just want peace, and peace of mind.
  If I may, you seem awfully content as an armchair critic, holed up in the safety of your own home.
  Be that as it may, I have to entertain unannounced visitors such as yourself all day long. May I remind you that the death tolls of both cholera and the Spanish flu were mostly boosted by their respective second waves. Contagions are spread by people in motion. The modern-day man is able to traverse unbelievable distances, unfathomable to his ancestors even a mere hundred years ago. We can go anywhere in the blink of an eye. This isn’t something to be taken lightly.
  I’m not taking it lightly. Or rather, I didn’t come here today to discuss the ‘Asian flu.’
  I know. You are undoubtedly here to talk about the double-suicide arson at the Yanaka five-storied pavilion.
  Kyōgokudō finally looked up from his desk and met my eye. The date was July 8th, 1957, two days after the . . .

  With that, dear reader, the clock struck twelve, and I regretfully had to set down my pen.


Translated by Daniel González/Arranged by TranNet KK

Natsuhiko Kyōgoku
Born in Otaru City, Hokkaido Prefecture, in 1963. The 15th representative director of the Mystery Writers of Japan, Inc. Acting leader of the World Yokai Association and Friends of Ghosts. Made his literary debut in 1994 with

The

Summer

of

the

Ubume

. Won the 49th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel in 1996 for

Mōryō

no

hako

(The box of spirits and goblins), the 25th Izumi Kyōka Prize for Literature in 1997 for

Warau

Iemon

(Smirking Iemon), the 16th Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize in 2003 for

Nozoki

Koheiji

(Peeping Koheiji), and the 130th Naoki Prize in 2004 for

Nochi

no

kōsetsu

hyaku-monogatari

(Hundred tales of late rumors), and the 24th Shibata Renzaburō Award in 2011 in

Nishi

no

kōsetsu

hyaku-monogatari

(Hundred tales of Eastern rumors). Received the 8th Kuwasawa Award in 2000, the Tono Culture Prize in 2016, and the Saitama Cultural Prize in 2019.

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