Hiroko and I were sitting in my living room on the couch. I gave her my undivided attention as she began telling me a little of her childhood.
“I was born on Hokkaido in the town of Chitose and lived there almost all the time until I finally moved to Tokyo. My parents owned a metal goods shop that sold kitchenware and gardening tools. I did agreeably in school, until I had just turned fifteen. The economy was not doing well and, basically, my parents sold me to an uncle in Sendai. He was the supervisor in a textile factory in which I labored at a sewing machine for twelve hours a day, six days a week."
“But, Hiroko-san, isn’t that illegal – even here in Japan?” I asked.
“Yes, Biru-san, but this law is broken many times and in many ways. My parents could not afford to keep me. In some families, female children are not considered for higher education or other luxuries. I also had conflicts with a few of my coworkers. I dutifully sewed at the factory for less than a year before returning back north to my parents. Then I took a job that angered my parents even further when they found out, causing my father to order me out of his house.”
I sat up straight and turned to face her. “My goodness, what job was that?” I asked, and then retracted the question. “No, don’t tell me. It is none of my business, Hiroko-san. Please forgive me.”
She smiled wanly. “There is nothing to forgive, Biru-san. I am not ashamed of what I have done to feed myself.”
That puzzled me. I didn’t know what she meant. My bewilderment must have shown because she looked a bit hesitant and sat back in the seat. Her eyes glistened as she tried to show Japanese stoicism, but a single tear formed at the corner of her left eye and eventually trickled down her cheek.
I became alarmed. “Hiroko-san? What is it? Can I help in any way?”
“Oh, Biru-san! You have been so kind to me, so I cannot deceive you any longer.” She hesitated yet again. Then, after making several false starts, she said softly, “Do you know the term baa giru?”
I paused. I knew what it sounded like, but I answered, “No, I don’t recall that term. What does it mean?”
“It is a name for a female who works at a bar. When I returned to Hokkaido, I spent months working as a hostess at several bars near Chitose military base. I was a baa giru. Sometimes I ... would urge customers, mostly Americans, to spend money. Of that, I am ashamed, but I never went as far as some of the other girls.” She dropped her eyes again – unable to meet mine – and tears welled up anew. “It was because of that, my father ordered me out, calling me a vile name and adding that he now had no daughter.”
She paused, waiting for me to say something. When I didn’t, she continued.
“I am very attracted to you, Biru-san. That very first day, on the subway when we were so close together, I wanted so much to meet you, to talk to you, so I pushed my purse against you. You must have felt it.” She looked at me quizzically.
“No. No, I didn’t, Hiroko-san,” I lied - and she knew I was lying.
I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my chest. Now I knew what had been nagging at the back of my mind these past two months. Hiroko was purposely keeping me at arm’s length so I wouldn’t know her secret. Despite her discomfiture, I felt relieved that it was out in the open. I took her hands in mine and pressed her fingertips to my lips.
“I don’t care about that, Hiroko-san. To me you are an honorable woman and will remain so, no matter what.” I looked up at her closed eyes, which were again leaking tears. “Look at me, Hiroko-san. Please.”
She opened first one eye and then the other. I saw her pupils flick from one of my eyes to the other and back. She sniffled. “Honto?” Honto means truth or of the truth.
“I swear this is honto.” I kissed her fingers yet again. “The truth.”
Hiroko had just confessed the darkest truth of her life to me. Something quite likely extremely difficult for her to do given the relative shortness of our friendship. Toss in the fact I was a gaijin and that made it doubly impressive. Now, I realized I would have to court her much more properly, taking pains not to treat her as an object like those men from the air base had probably done. Regardless of what she had confessed, she was a sensitive woman who was struggling to erase her past misdeeds.
I had a real dilemma now. No other Japanese person, male or female, had ever been so open with me. Did she tell me this in order to stop me from seeing her? If so, I knew I knew couldn’t do that easily because I thought so much of her. I needed to tell her that.
“Hiroko-san, please believe me when I say that nothing you have told me will ever be mentioned by me to anyone. It is your story and yours alone. It is as if it has never been said.”
She looked up at me, with tears still on her cheeks, and sighed deeply. “Hai, Biru-san,” she said softly, almost to herself. “Of course, you are correct. I have been far too long without someone I can share my uncertainties with, and I reacted perhaps too rashly. Please forgive me. I am ashamed I acted in this manner.”
“No!” I said, fighting to keep anxiety out of my voice. “It is my fault completely, Hiroko-san. I have moved much too fast for you. I should apologize to you. Gomenasai.” I bowed my head and stared at the floor, hoping she would accept my submission.
Slowly she stood and began smoothing her skirt. I realized I’d been holding my breath. I came to my feet rapidly, exhaling. What she said next would either give me hope for our future, or dash it on the rocks.
She visibly arranged her demeanor, giving me a small smile “No apology is necessary between friends. Thank you for understanding. Will you be leaving for work tomorrow at the same time, Biru-san?”
“Of course, Hiroko-san. At seven-twenty, the same as always. Would you like for me to wait for you at the station?”
“I would like that very much. And now, I think I should leave. I have much to think on at home tonight.”
She turned to go, tensing as I put my hands on her shoulders. Without warning, she turned and raised her face to mine, eyes partially closed. Leaning in, I brushed my lips against hers. She responded hungrily, pressing her lips to mine harder yet. We held our first kiss for a long moment. When we pulled apart, her lips trembled. With her arms around my waist and my hands on her shoulders, she hugged me, laying her cheek against my chest.
“I will see you tomorrow. I will wait all day if I have to, Hiroko-san, to have the pleasure of your company,” I said, meaning every word.
She moved back from me, but showed a smile meant only for me. It was the smile that a man receives when he has given pleasure to a woman for some reason, a smile that I would remember for a long time.
Slipping into our shoes, I took her hand and we went down in the elevator. We crossed the lobby, and I found that I was reluctant to let go of her hand, but for today, it was time to go, and I did. I held the door open for her.
“O-yasumi nasai,” she said, giving me another smile and nodding her head as she passed through it.
“Good evening to you also,” I replied, bowing back, completing the ritual.
Lifting her hand in a tiny wave, she walked across the flagstones and disappeared around the corner of the next building.
I went back up to my apartment and paced. Had I done the right thing by putting my hands on her? But, I was sure she was the one who wanted me to kiss her. Did I feel better now about our relationship? A definite yes. Did I really care about her working in bars to support herself? No, not at all.
Deciding that the answers might come to me overnight, I went to the kitchen to prepare my dinner. After taking the time to create a roll of meguro sushi from a bit of tuna I had, and putting together a cucumber salad, I continued to wrestle with those questions. Hardly tasting my meal, I was lost in thought. Washing up afterwards, I had the feeling that everything might just work out fine.
For a while, I drew on my sketch pad. I wanted to remember what had just occurred. Sketching rapidly, I made several attempts to show Hiroko as she was, trying her best to make the best of a deeply personal subject. At last, I set down my fistful of pencils, nearly satisfied, yet worried that I would add too much and ruin the picture.
I’d always been a decent artist and once I saw how popular Manga comic books and anime were in Japan, I found I was good at it. I had several pads filled with superheroes, weapons, wizards, and beasts, as well as girls with impossibly long hair and wide, round eyes. When I drew, my brain tended to nibble around a problem and sometimes I came up with a solution. After an hour of this, I sat up straight. I had an idea.
Flipping my computer power switch on, I waited for it to boot up and then dialed one of the bulletin boards in the Tokyo area that had an English interface. Pushing the handset into the modem, I logged in. My search found several references to the social stigma of “hostesses”, and how they broke away from the trade, but they were devoted more to the deep psychological side of the problem and thus not quite what I was looking for.
Then, after an hour of punching keys and dialing up more bulletin boards, I finally located one article, which might help me if the title, ‘A Single Man’s Guide to Socialization in Japan’, was any indication. It was partially in Japanese, but fortunately, my printer, a very good 14-pin dot matrix, could do a readable job of the characters. After it printed, I browsed through the article. Translating from Japanese was becoming easier the more I studied the high school books I'd purchased. But now I was tired so I decided to read it thoroughly tomorrow.
Standing and stretching mightily, I went through my nighttime routine and slipped into bed. It was time to get some sleep.
In high spirits the following morning, I dressed, ate a quick breakfast, and then left my apartment. The walk to the train station went rapidly and I was soon standing on the platform eagerly awaiting the arrival of Hiroko. The first train, which was a local, arrived and paused for the required forty-five seconds. Remembering my promise, I stepped back and allowed others to board while looking around for her, hoping that she would appear; dreading that she would not.
The doors hissed shut and the brakes released with a loud burst of air. Leaving the slight smell of ozone behind from sparking in the overhead catenary, it was gone. The next train was due in ten minutes. I spent most of that time pacing the platform wondering if she would appear or not. When I turned at the end barrier to come back, there she was, standing behind the painted warning line, smiling at me. My heart leapt and I stepped rapidly next to her.
I wanted desperately to kiss her again, but that just wouldn’t do in public. Smiling back and bowing, I said, “Good morning, Sasaki-san. I trust you had a pleasant night.”
She smiled broadly and bowed just as formally. “Good morning, Hansen-san. Yes, I did. Thank you. Is the express train next?” she asked, eyes twinkling at the humor of the situation.
“The local departed on time, so we have a few more minutes to wait.”
Four minutes later, the express thundered into the station, punctuating my prediction. Stepping aboard, we began another trip into the city.
© Copyright 2017 Tom Oldman. All rights reserved.
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