Twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro has spent the last two years of his life living as a hikikomori—a shut-in who never leaves his room and has no human interaction—in his parents’ home in Tokyo. As Hiro tentatively decides to reenter the world, he spends his days observing life around him from a park bench. Gradually he makes friends with Ohara Tetsu, a middle-aged salaryman who has lost his job but can’t bring himself to tell his wife, and shows up every day in a suit and tie to pass the time on a nearby bench. As Hiro and Tetsu cautiously open up to each other, they discover in their sadness a common bond. Regrets and disappointments, as well as hopes and dreams, come to the surface until both find the strength to somehow give a new start to their lives. This beautiful novel is moving, unforgettable, and full of surprises. The reader turns the last page feeling that a small triumph has occurred.
Excerpt from I Called Him Necktie
I called him Necktie.
The name pleased him. It made him laugh.
Red gray stripes on his chest. That’s how I want to remember him.
Seven weeks have passed since I last saw him. In these seven weeks the grass has grown dry and yellow. Cicadas sit chirping in the trees. Gravel crunches under my feet. In the harsh light of the midday sun, the park looks strangely desolate. Blossoms burst open on branches, bending wearily towards the ground. A faded blue handkerchief lies in the undergrowth, without a breath of wind to stir it. The air is heavy and oppressive. I’m all scrunched up. I say goodbye to someone who will not come again. I’ve known that since yesterday. He is not coming again. Above me stretches the sky that has swallowed him up – forever?
I still cannot believe that our parting is final. In my mind he could return at any moment, perhaps as someone else, perhaps with a different face, could throw me a glance which says: I’m here. Head turned to the north, smiling at the passing clouds. He could. That’s why I am sitting here.
I’m sitting on our bench. Before it became ours, it had been mine. I came here to try to work out whether the crack in the wall, that hairline fissure crossing above the bookshelves, had any meaning internal or external. I spent two whole years staring at it. Two whole years in my room, in my parents’ house. Behind my closed eyes I traced its broken line. It had been in my head, had continued there, had penetrated my heart and my arteries. I myself was an anemic stripe. My skin pale as death, for the sun didn’t shine on it. Sometimes I yearned for its touch. I imagined what it would be like to go outside and finally understand: There are rooms one never leaves.
One cold February morning I gave into my yearning. Through the gap in the curtains I could make out a flight of crows. They flew up and down, with the sun on their wings, and dazzled me. With a stabbing pain in my eyes, I felt my way along the walls of my room towards the door, pushed it open, pulled on a coat and shoes, one size too small, went out onto the street and beyond, past houses and squares. Despite the cold, sweat ran off my forehead and I experienced a strange sense of satisfaction: I can still do it. I can put one foot in front of the other. I have not forgotten how. All efforts to forget were in vain.
I didn’t try to delude myself. Now as before it was about me, it was about being by myself. I didn’t want to meet anyone. Meeting someone means getting involved. An invisible thread is tied. From person to person. Real threads. Back and forth. Meeting someone means becoming part of a web, and I wanted to avoid that.
Like on that first walk out. That’s how a prisoner must feel, looking through the bars of the cell he carries around with him, knowing full well he is not free. When I think back to that first walk out, I feel as if I was a figure in black and white walking through a color film. All around the brightness screamed. Yellow taxis, red mailboxes, blue billboards. Their loudness deafened me.
With my collar up I turned the corner and took care not to stumble over anyone’s feet. I feared the thought that my trouser leg could graze the hem of someone’s coat in passing. I clamped my arms to my sides and ran, ran, ran, without looking right or left. The most horrible thing imaginable were the double glances, catching one another at random. The ones that linger for seconds. That never leave you. Such nausea. I was full of them. Full to the brim. The further I ran the more aware I was of the weight of my body. Someone bumped into me. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. With one hand to my mouth I ran into the park and threw up.
I knew the park and I knew the bench by the cedar, too. Distant childhood. Mother would beckon me to her, pick me up onto her lap and explain the world to me with a pointed finger. Look, a sparrow! It said chirp, chirp. Her breath was on my cheek. A tickling on the back of my neck. Mother’s hair swayed gently to and fro. When you are small, so small that you believe things will stay the same forever, the world is a friendly place. That’s what I thought when I recognized my childhood bench. This bench, where I should learn that nothing stays as it is, and yet it is still worthwhile being in the world. I am still learning that.
He would say: It was a decision.
And I did really decide to walk over the lawn, towards the bench, and to stand in front of it. I was alone, surrounded by silence. Nobody was there to catch me as I walked once, then once more, around the bench, in ever tighter circles. The taste in my mouth as I eventually sat down. The wish to be a child again. To look with eyes full of amazement. I mean, it was my eyes that became ill at the very beginning. My heart simply followed them. And so I sat in clothing much too thin. I shivered under my skin, which was even thinner.
After that I was compelled to come here every morning. I watched the snow as it fell. I watched the snow as it melted again. A gurgling rivulet. With the spring came the people and their voices. I sat with clenched teeth. A retching in my throat. That was the crack in the wall. It separated me from those who were woven in. A couple in love strolled by me whispering. The secret words flowing by me sounded foreign, like the words of a language I had not mastered. I am happy, I heard, inexpressibly happy. A sticky surge on my tongue. I stifled the retching.
Whether anyone was aware of me, I doubt it, and if so, then only as you are aware of a ghost. You see it clearly and distinctly, may not believe that you have seen it, and it’s gone in a blink. I was such a ghost. Even my parents were barely aware of me. If I encountered them in the entrance or the hallway, they murmured incredulously, Oh, it’s you. They had long given up counting me as one of them. We have lost our son. He has died, well before his time. That’s how they must have experienced it. As a deep loss. But gradually they came to terms with it. The sorrow they may have felt to begin with gave way to the realization that it was not in their power to win me back, and however strange the situation may have been for them, even in the strangeness a certain order prevailed. You lived together under the same roof and so long as nothing about it got out, you regarded it as completely normal, to live like that under the same roof.
Nowadays I realize that it is impossible not to encounter anyone. In that you are there and breathe, you encounter the whole world. The invisible thread has bound you to the others from the moment of birth. To sever it requires more than a death, and there’s no use opposing it.
When he appeared I have no idea.
I say: He appeared. For that was how it was. One morning in May he suddenly appeared. I sat on my bench, my collar turned up. A pigeon took flight. I felt dizzy from the beating of its wings. When I closed my eyes and opened them again, he was there.
A salaryman. Mid fifties. He wore a gray suit, a white shirt, a red and gray striped tie. In his right hand swung a briefcase. Brown leather. He walked, swinging it to and fro, shoulders bent forward, face turned away. Somehow tired. Without looking at me he sat down on the opposite bench. Crossed one leg over the other. Stayed like that. Motionless. His face tense as he looked away. He was waiting for something. Something was going to happen. Soon, soon. Bit by bit his muscles relaxed and he leaned back with a sigh. Such a sigh, like there was something inside him waiting to occur.
A fleeting glance at his watch, then he lit a cigarette. The smoke rose in ringlets. That was the beginning of our acquaintance. A sharp odor in my nose. The wind blew the smoke in my direction. Before we had exchanged names, this wind introduced us to each other.
Was it his sigh? Or the way he flicked away the ash? Absentmindedly, absent from his own mind. I was not afraid to watch him, as he was, sitting opposite me.
I observed him like a familiar object, a toothbrush, a washcloth, a piece of soap, which all at once you see for the first time, quite separate from its purpose. It may be that this familiarity was what stimulated my particular interest. His well-pressed figure was like thousands of others who fill the streets day in and day out. They stream out of the belly of the city and disappear into tall buildings, whose windows break up the sky into separate pieces. They are average, typical in their inconspicuousness, with smooth-shaven suburban faces, all of them interchangeable. He for example could have been my father. Any father. And yet here he was. Like me.
Again he sighed. This time more quietly. Someone who sighs like that, I thought, is not just a bit tired. More than thinking it, I felt it. I felt this is someone who is tired of life. The tie constricted his throat. He loosened it, looked again at his watch. It was almost midday. He unpacked his bento box. Rice with salmon and pickled vegetables.
He ate slowly, chewed each bite ten times. He had time. He slurped the iced tea in little sips. I watched him doing that too. I was surprised at myself now, because at that time I could hardly bear to look at anyone eating or drinking. But he did it with such care that I forgot my nausea. Or how should I describe it: He did it with a full awareness of what he did, and this transformed an everyday act into something meaningful. He took in each individual grain of rice, presenting it to himself with a grateful smile.
With anyone else I would have gotten up and run away, I would have seen his grinding jaws as a threat, his chomping teeth as a danger. I found it horrific, how one mouthful after another slipped in and down into his digestive system. I was gulping, without thinking about it. The inner compulsion to protect myself above all, was a mystery I avoided solving. Better not to think about it.
As soon as he had finished eating, he became a normal salaryman. He spread open the newspaper, read the sports section first. The Giants*, printed in bold, had pulled off a triumphant win. He nodded in agreement as his finger traveled along the lines. A ring. So he was married. A married Giants fan. Once again he lit a cigarette. Then another and another, as the smoke enveloped him.