The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 2

Rumors About Me

by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Translated by Andrew Driver

I was surprised to hear my name mentioned on the evening news one day.
     "And now, other news," said the anchor. "Earlier today, Tsutomu Morishita asked Akiko Mikawa out for a drink, but was turned down. Mikawa works as a secretary in the same company as Morishita. This is the fifth time Morishita has asked Mikawa out for a date. He's been refused on all but the first occasion."
     "W-what? What?" I slammed my cup down on the table and looked on in disbelief. "What was that? What did he say?"
     My face appeared large on the TV screen.
     The news anchor proceeded: "It's not yet clear why Mikawa continues to reject Morishita. Hiruma Sakamoto, a friend and work colleague of Mikawa, thinks it's because—although Mikawa doesn't particularly dislike Morishita—she doesn't particularly like him either."
     Then a photo of Akiko Mikawa appeared on the screen.
     "In view of this evidence, it's thought that Morishita failed to leave any impression at all on Mikawa during that original date. According to well-informed sources, Morishita went straight to his apartment after work today and is now eating a meal that he prepared himself. Well, that's all we have on Tsutomu Morishita for today. Now let's go over to our correspondent at the Yakuyoke Hachiman Night Festival in Kobe. I imagine things are starting to heat up, Mizuno-san?"
     "Yes, that's absolutely right."
     I sat there open-mouthed, staring blankly at the screen as the next segment progressed.
     When I eventually came to my senses, I decided I'd been hallucinating. That was it. I'd been seeing things. And hearing things. That was the only explanation. I mean, what would be the point in reporting that I'd asked Akiko Mikawa out for a drink and been so spectacularly rejected, as always? The news value was zero. All the same, it seemed so real—the pictures of Akiko and me, the captions under the photographs, the anchor's manner, everything.
     The news ended.
     I nodded to myself. "A hallucination. Yes. That's what it was," I said. "But hey, what a realistic hallucination!"
     I laughed. My laughter reverberated around my tiny bedsit room.
     What if the news had been real, I wondered. What if Akiko Mikawa had seen it, what if my workmates had seen it? What would they have thought? I had myself in stitches just imagining their faces.
     I climbed into bed, yet still the laughter wouldn't subside.

There was an article about me in the morning paper.

At around 4:40 yesterday afternoon, Tsutomu Morishita (28, an employee of Kasumiyama Electric Industries, Sanko-cho, Shinjuku, Tokyo) invited Akiko Mikawa (23, a secretary at the same company) out for a drink after work. Mikawa refused, claiming she had to go home early. Morishita was wearing a red tie with green polka dots, which he'd bought in a Shinjuku supermarket the previous day. Morishita later returned to his apartment in Higashi-cho, Kichijoji, and made his own dinner. He is thought to have gone to bed immediately after eating, as usual. This is the fourth time Morishita has been refused by Miss Mikawa.
     There was a picture of me next to the article, the same one that had appeared on television the night before. But there was no picture of Akiko Mikawa. I was obviously the main subject of this story.
     I read the article four or five times while drinking a glass of milk. Then I tore up the newspaper and threw it into the bin.
     "It's a conspiracy!" I muttered. "Someone's playing a practical joke on me. My God! All this just to have a laugh!"
     Whoever it was, the person must have a lot of money. Even a single copy of a newspaper would be expensive to print. Who could it be? Who would go to such bizarre lengths just to get at me?
     I couldn't remember offending anyone that much. Perhaps it was someone else who fancied Akiko Mikawa. But what was the point? She'd done nothing but reject me.
     No, this must be someone really perverse, I thought. Trouble was, I couldn't imagine who that could be.
     I forced myself onto the packed commuter train and found a place to stand in the middle of the carriage. I considered all the people I knew. A man beside me was reading a newspaper. It was not the paper I'd read that morning, yet it also had an article about me. And this time it occupied two whole columns. I gasped audibly.
     The man looked up, glanced back at the photograph next to the article, then looked up again and stared at me. I hurriedly turned my back.
     I was livid. The villain had actually replaced all the morning papers along this line so that everyone on my train saw the stories about me. Of course, the ultimate intention was to make me lose my mind. Inside the packed carriage, I filled my lungs with stuffy air. I laughed aloud.
     "Hahahahahaha! Who's going mad, then?" I shouted. "I'm not! Hahahahahaha!"
     At Shinjuku Station an announcer was barking over the loudspeakers. "Shinjuku. This is Shinjuku. Change here for the Yamanote Line. The train on Platform Two is for Yotsuya, Kanda, and Tokyo. By the way, Tsutomu Morishita was on this train today. All he's had this morning is a glass of milk. Mind the doors!"
     There was nothing unusual about the atmosphere at work. But as soon as I walked into the office, seven or eight of my colleagues started tapping each other on the shoulder, giving me sidelong glances and whispering to one another.
     After clearing a few memos from my desk, I went over to Admin. In the office were four secretaries, one of them Akiko Mikawa. As soon as they saw me, they changed their expressions and began typing feverishly on their keyboards. It was quite obvious they hadn't been working until that very moment.
     Ignoring Akiko, I called Hiruma Sakamoto into the corridor.
     "Was someone inquiring after me yesterday?" I asked.
     She looked as if she were about to cry. "I'm really sorry," she answered nervously. "I didn't know they were journalists! I didn't think they'd put it all in the newspaper like that!"
     "They? Who?"
     "There were four or five men. I didn't know any of them. They accosted me on my way home and asked all sorts of things about you."
     I returned to my desk, more agitated than before.
     Just after lunch I was called to the chief clerk's office. After issuing a new work assignment, he gave me a knowing look.
     "I read about it in the paper," he whispered.
     "Oh?" I answered, not knowing quite what to say.
     He grinned and brought his face close to mine. "You can't trust the media, can you. But don't worry. Personally, I couldn't be less interested."
     My new assignment took me out of the building and into a taxi. The young cabbie had his radio on at full volume.
     "Ginza Second Street, please."
     "Eh? What's that?"
     He couldn't hear me for the music.
     "Ginza Second Street."
     "Ginza what street?"
     "Second. Ginza Second Street."
     The cabbie finally understood, and the taxi set off.
     The music ended. An announcer started talking.
This is the news at two o'clock. The government this morning ordered all laughing bags to be confiscated from shops throughout the country. Police nationwide have been instructed to clamp down on the illegal manufacture or sale of the bags. Laughing bags are novelty toys that emit a hysterical laughing noise. Today's move follows a dramatic surge in social unrest caused by nuisance calls using the bags. Calls are often made at two or three o'clock in the morning. When the victim answers, the caller makes the bag laugh into the telephone. There have also been reports of a phenomenon known as "laughing-bag rage."

Tsutomu Morishita arrived at work on time this morning. Soon after entering his office, he went to the Administration Department and called Hiruma Sakamoto into the corridor, where the two were observed in conversation. The precise nature of their discussion is not yet clear. Details will be announced as soon as they're known. Later, Morishita went out on company business, and is currently traveling toward central Tokyo in a taxi.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare today released the results of a nationwide survey of pachinko game machine users and designers. The results suggest that playing pachinko after eating eels can be very detrimental to health. According to Tadashi Akanemura, chairman of the National Federation of Game Machine Designers—
     The cabbie switched off the radio.
     I closed my eyes. Could I really be so famous when there was nothing distinctive about me at all? I was a lowly office worker, a company employee.
     So just how famous was I? Take this cabbie. Was he aware that the person mentioned on the news a moment before was none other than the passenger in the back of his cab? Had he recognized me as soon as I got in?
     "Er, driver?" I asked him. "Do you know who I am?"
     He looked in the rearview mirror. "Have we met somewhere, sir?"
     "No. I don't think so."
     "Well then, I don't know you, do I."
     There was a pause.
     "You're not one of them celebrities, are you, sir?" he asked at length.
     "No. Just an office worker."
     "You been on TV?"
     "No. Never."
     The cabbie smiled wryly. "Then I'm not going to know you, am I, sir."
     "No," I replied. "I suppose not."
     I thought back over the radio news I'd just heard. The announcer knew I was in a taxi heading for central Tokyo. That meant someone must be following me, watching my every move. I turned and looked through the rear window. The road was full of cars—it was impossible to know which was following us. Come to think of it, they all looked pretty suspicious.
     "I think someone's following us," I said to the cabbie. "Can you shake them off?"
     "That's a lot to ask, sir, if you don't mind me saying so," he said with a grimace. "Unless you know which car it is. Anyway, you'd have a job shaking anyone off in this traffic."
     "I think it's that black Nissan. Look! It's got a newspaper company flag on it!"
     "Well, all right, sir. If you insist. Though, personally, I think you're being paranoid, sir."
     "I'm perfectly sane," I countered hastily.
     The taxi meandered and roamed aimlessly for a while, as if driven by a sleepwalker, before finally arriving at Ginza Second Street.
     "Well, I lost the black Nissan, at least," the cabbie said with a broad smile. "That must be worth something!"
     I reluctantly added five hundred yen to the fare on the meter.
     On entering the client's office, I was greeted with uncommon courtesy by a female receptionist whose face I recognized. She led me to a special reception lounge for particularly valued guests. Normally, I'd be called to the duty clerk's desk and would stand there talking while he remained seated.
     I sat on a sofa in the spacious lounge and was fidgeting in some discomfort when, to my surprise, the department director walked in with his assistant. They, too, greeted me with particular formality.
     "Suzuki is always most appreciative of your kind assistance," said the department director, bowing deeply. Suzuki was the duty clerk who usually saw me.
     As I stood there bewildered, the department director and his assistant, far from discussing the business at hand, continued to praise me. They admired my tie, flattered my dress sense, extolled my good looks. In my embarrassment, I hurriedly handed over the documents I'd been given by the chief clerk, passed on his message, and took my leave.
     As I exited the building, I noticed the same taxi waiting on the pavement.
     The young cabbie thrust his head out the side window. "Sir!" he called.
     "Still here?" I said. "Well, that's perfect. Take me back to Shinjuku, will you?"
     I was just settling into the rear seat when the cabbie thrust a five-hundred-yen note toward me. "You can have this back, sir," he said. "You've got to be joking!"
     "Is something the matter?"
     "I switched the radio back on, didn't I. And they were talking about you, weren't they. They said you'd been carried off by a rogue taxi driver, who'd deliberately taken you out of your way and squeezed five hundred yen out of you for it! They even mentioned my name!"
     "I told you, didn't I? We were being followed!"
     "Whatever. You can have your five hundred yen back."
     "Go on. You keep it."
     "No way! Have it back!"
     "All right. If that's the way you feel. Anyway, will you take me to Shinjuku now?"
     "How can I say no? Next thing they'd say I refused a fare!" And with that he started off toward Shinjuku.
     I gradually was realizing that the plot to drive me out of my mind was unimaginably massive in scale. All I could do for now was to follow the flow, as it would be impossible as yet to uncover the mastermind behind the conspiracy. My immediate pursuers were small-fry.
     "I'm not trying to make excuses, sir," the cabbie said suddenly. "But I did lose that black Nissan. I did, really."
     "I'm sure you did," I replied. "But I reckon it's not that simple. They're not just following me in a car. They've probably bugged this taxi."
     Hold on a minute, I thought. This driver could be in on it, too. Otherwise, how did they know the tip was five hundred yen?
     I noticed a helicopter circling above us at dangerously low altitude, almost skimming the tops of buildings.
     "I'm sure I saw that chopper on the way here, sir," said the driver, squinting up. "Maybe they're the ones that are following you."
     There was a thunderous crash, and a blood-colored flash of light streaked across the sky. I looked up to see fireballs flying in all directions. The helicopter had crashed into the top floor of a building. The pilot must have been paying too much attention to events on the ground.
     "Serves him right! Heheheheheheheh!" The cabbie laughed insanely as he sped away from the scene. He had the look of a deranged man.
     I knew I had to get out of the taxi. "Ah, I've just remembered something," I said. "Could you let me off here?" Actually, I'd remembered there was a small psychiatric clinic nearby.
     "Where are you going?" the cabbie asked.
     "That's my business," I answered.
     "Well, I'm going straight home to sleep," he continued. He looked pale-faced as he took the fare from me.
     "Good idea," I said, stepping into the unbearable heat.
     I entered the clinic and sat in the waiting room for about twenty minutes. The receptionist called an apparently hysterical middle-aged woman and then an apparently epileptic young man. I was next. I went into the treatment room, where the doctor was looking at a television on a desk by the window. News of the helicopter crash was just coming through.
     "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Even the sky's getting congested now," the doctor prattled as he turned to face me. "And of course, there'll be more patients as a result. But they won't come for treatment until it's too late, oh no. Another bad characteristic of people today."
     "Yes, you're right," I said with a nod of agreement. I didn't want to seem pushy, but jumped straight in and started to explain my situation anyway. I was supposed to be at work, after all, and didn't have much time. "They suddenly started talking about me on TV last night. And there were articles about me in this morning's papers. They made an announcement about me at the train station. I was even mentioned on the radio. At work, they're all talking about me in whispers. I'm sure they've bugged my house and the taxis I travel in. In fact, I'm being followed. It's a major operation. That helicopter on the news crashed while it was following me!"
     The doctor stared at me with a pitiful expression as I continued. Finally, however, he made a gesture to signal he could take no more.
     "Why didn't you come to me sooner?" he moaned. "But no. You come only when your condition is already too serious! You give me no option but to admit you to the hospital immediately—by force, if necessary! For there's no doubt about it at all: You are suffering from a persecution complex, a victim complex—in other words, total paranoid delusion. A classic case of schizophrenia. Luckily, there's no loss of personality as yet. I'll admit you to the university hospital right away. Leave it to me."
     "Wait a minute!" I said. "I was in a hurry, I didn't explain myself well! I had a feeling you wouldn't believe me. I'm not a good talker, I can't express things logically. But everything I've just said, it's nothing to do with any complex—it's plain fact! Yet I'm just an ordinary office worker—certainly not famous enough to be followed by the media! However you look at it, these media people who are tailing me, reporting about me, they're the ones who are insane! I just came here to ask your advice, you know, what you think I should do to cope with all this."
     The doctor shook his head and picked up the telephone. "Everything you've said merely proves how serious your case is."
     He began to dial, and then his hand stopped dead, his eyes riveted to the television, which was transmitting a picture of me. The doctor opened his eyes wide.
     "Some news just in on the Morishita case," said the announcer. "After leaving his client's office at Ginza Second Street, Tsutomu Morishita, an employee of Kasumiyama Electric Industries, took another taxi, apparently intending to return to his office in Shinjuku. But he suddenly stopped the taxi and entered the Takehara Psychiatric Clinic in Yotsuya."
     A photograph of the clinic's main entrance appeared on the screen.
     "It is not yet known why Morishita entered the clinic."
     The doctor stared at me with a glazed expression, as if in admiration. His mouth was half-open, his tongue dancing about excitedly. "So, you must be someone famous, then?"
     "No. Not at all." I pointed to the television. "He just said it, didn't he? I'm a company employee. Just an ordinary person. But in spite of that, my every move is being watched and broadcast to the entire nation."
     "Well. You asked me how you could adapt to an abnormal environment without losing your sanity." As he spoke, the doctor slowly rose and moved toward a glass cabinet crammed with bottles of drugs. "But I find your question contradictory. An environment is created by the people who live in it. You, then, are among the people creating your abnormal environment. In other words, if your environment is abnormal, then you must be abnormal, too." He opened a brown bottle labeled SEDATIVES, tipped a quantity of white pills into his hand, and greedily stuffed the pills into his mouth. "Therefore, if you persist in asserting your own sanity, it proves, conversely, that your environment is, in fact, normal and that you alone are abnormal. If you consider your environment to be abnormal, then by all means lose your mind!" He snatched a bottle of ink from his desk and swallowed its contents. Then he collapsed onto the couch beside him and fell asleep.
     I left the clinic without receiving a satisfactory answer. The sun was going down, but it still felt oppressively hot.
     As soon as I returned to my desk, Akiko Mikawa called. "Thank you for inviting me out yesterday," she said. "I'm really sorry I couldn't make it."
     "That's all right," I replied with reserve.
     We both remained silent for a few moments.
     I sighed before plunging in. "How about today, then?"
     "I'd love to."
     "All right, I'll see you at the San José after work."
     News of our arrangement must have been reported immediately, as that evening the San José was unusually busy. For the whole hour Akiko and I were in the café we sat in stony silence with our drinks in front of us, conscious that anything we might have discussed would have been instantly publicized in a three-column article with a massive headline.
     We parted at Shinjuku Station, and I returned to my apartment. I hesitated before switching on the television. The program was a panel discussion, a change to
      the evening's schedule. "Now, I think we come to a very difficult question at this point," said the moderator. "If events continue to unfold at this pace, when do you think Morishita and Mikawa might be booking into a hotel? Or might it not come to that? Professor Ohara?"
     "Well, this Akiko is a bit of a shy filly, if you know what I mean," said Professor Ohara, a racing expert. "It all depends on Morishita's persistence and determination in the saddle."
     "It's all in the stars," said a female astrologer, holding up a card. "It'll be toward the end of the month."

The following morning, inside the packed commuter train, I saw an ad for a women's magazine, and my heart sank. Its large, bold letters read:
     Beside the headline was a photo of my face. And underneath that, in smaller type:
     I boiled with rage. "Don't I have a right to privacy?" I shouted. "I'll sue for defamation! Who cares how many times I did it?"
     On my arrival at work, I went straight to the chief clerk's desk and presented him with a copy of the magazine, which I'd bought at the station. "I'd like permission to leave the office on personal business. I assume you know about this article. I'm going to complain to the company that publishes this magazine."
     "Of course. I understand how you feel," the chief clerk said in a faltering voice, evidently trying to pacify me. "But there's surely no point in losing your temper, is there? The media are too powerful. And I'd always give you permission to leave the office on personal business. As you know, I'm quite flexible when it comes to that kind of thing. I'm sure you're aware of that. Yes. I'm sure you are. But I'm just concerned for your welfare, you see. I agree, it's pretty disgraceful. This article, yes, it's disgraceful. Yes. I can certainly sympathize with your predicament."
     "It really is disgraceful."
     "Yes, utterly disgraceful."
     A number of my colleagues had come to stand around me and the chief clerk; all started to sympathize with me in unison. Some of the female clerks wept. But I wouldn't be taken in by any of it. Behind my back, they were swapping nasty rumors about me, cooperating with the media coverage. Theirs was the inevitable duplicity of those who surround the famous.

I watched the TV news later that day, and not a word of my ranting and raving was mentioned. Nor was it referenced in the evening paper. I abandoned the idea of complaining to the publishing company and considered the way in which news about me had been reported.
     Occasionally, I'd stumbled across people collecting information: After using the company toilet, I'd half-opened the door to the next stall to discover a knot of reporters crammed into it, tape recorders and cameras dangling from their shoulders. On my way home, I'd rummaged about in the bushes with the tip of my umbrella, and a TV announcer holding a microphone had dashed out and fled, shrieking.
     In my apartment, journalists (some female) hid in the wardrobe, photographers above the ceiling panels. But none of my interactions with them was ever reported in the news. The media covered only my dull, everyday affairs, expanding them into major headlines that surpassed politics, the economy, international events. For example:








     Everything I did in awareness of the media was omitted: my efforts to shake pursuers, my tantrums and rages at each new story. Even the helicopter crash was reported as if completely unrelated to me. The media were presenting a world in which they themselves didn't exist.

In the morning I found my photograph on the cover of a weekly magazine. It showed me on my way to work among a group of office workers and was quite a good picture, actually, if I say so myself.
     Writing articles about me was one thing, but as this magazine had used me as a cover model I expected the publisher to thank me at the very least. I waited three days, four days, yet still heard nothing. Finally, I'd had enough. On my way back from a client, I paid the publisher a visit.
     Normally, I had only to walk down the street for everyone to turn and gawk at me. But as soon as I entered the publisher's building I was treated with total indifference, almost as if the receptionists and staff alike had never heard of me. I waited in the reception lounge, regretting my decision to confront these forces. Then a man with a sour face appeared and identified himself as the magazine's assistant chief editor.
     "Listen, Mr. Morishita. We'd prefer it if you didn't come here, you understand."
     "I thought so."
     "You're a nobody whose life was reported in the media. You were supposed to remain anonymous, even when people recognized you. We thought you'd understand that well enough."
     "But why did a nobody like me become part of the news?"
     The assistant chief editor sighed wearily. "How should I know? I suppose someone decided you were newsworthy."
     "Someone? You mean someone in the media. What idiot had that idea?"
     "Idiot, you say? As if there's just one person at the bottom of it? The media don't need to be told. They'll follow someone if they think he's got news value."
     "What news value do I have?"
     "You tell me. What news do you consider important?"
     "Well . . . Something about the weather forecast being wrong . . . A war going on somewhere . . . A massive power failure . . . An airplane crashes, killing a thousand . . . The price of apples goes up . . . The U.S. president is caught shoplifting . . . Someone's bitten by a dog . . . A dog is caught shoplifting . . . Man lands on Mars . . . An actress gets divorced . . . The war to end all wars is about to start . . . A company profits from pollution . . . Another newspaper company makes a profit . . ."
     The assistant chief editor watched me vacantly as I continued, and then shook his head with pity. "So those are the things you regard as big news, are they?"
     "Aren't they?" I replied in some confusion.
     He waved his hand dismissively. "Not in themselves. Of course, they could be made into big news. That's why they're duly reported. But at the same time, we report on the life of an ordinary office worker. Anything can become big news if the media report it," he said, growing animated. "News value arises only after something's been reported. But you, by coming here today, have completely destroyed your own news value."
     "That doesn't bother me."
     "I see." He slapped his thigh. "Actually, it doesn't bother us either."
     I hurried back to the office. From my desk, I immediately phoned Akiko in Admin.
     "Akiko," I said loudly. "Will you go to a hotel with me tonight?"
     I could hear her breath catching at the other end of the line.
     For a moment, the whole room fell silent. My colleagues and the chief clerk gaped at me in amazement.
     Eventually she replied. "Yes. Of course," she sobbed.
     And so that night Akiko and I stayed in a hotel. It was the shabbiest, seediest hotel on a street full of tasteless neon signs.
     As I'd expected, there was no mention of our tryst in the newspapers. Nor was it reported on TV. From that day on, news about me vanished from the media. In my place came coverage of a middle-aged office worker, the type that can be found just about anywhere: thin, short, two children, suburban, a clerk in a shipbuilding company. I was once again a nobody—this time for real.
     Sometime later I asked Akiko out again. Of course, she refused; but I was satisfied—now I knew what sort of person she was.
     Within a week, no one could remember my face. However, people would occasionally stop and glance at me curiously. On my way home one day, two girls sat opposite me on the train. One gave me that look and started whispering to the other.
     "Hey! Haven't I seen him somewhere before?" she said, nudging her friend with her elbow. "What was it he did?"
     The other girl considered me with a bored expression. After a moment, she answered in a tone of utter disinterest: "Oh, him. Yeah. He was just a nobody."

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