In a world where everyone is online, why can’t I find the man who inspired a major character in my novel?
My first memory is one of loss — specifically, the disappearance of Blackie, my beloved plastic horse. (Despite his name, Blackie was, for reasons now lost to history, brown.) I must have been three years old. It seemed that one minute, Blackie was there with me on the living room floor, and the next, he was gone forever, and no amount of searching under couches or in boxes could bring him back. This was not supposed to happen. Things didn’t just vanish. They had to be somewhere. Didn’t they?
I met Shinobu for the first time in 2002 at a Subway shop in Kawasaki. Neither of us cared for the chain’s sandwiches, but the location was convenient and open late. We’d connected on a website that matched students with private English conversation teachers. Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be taking on private students outside my job teaching in public junior high schools, but the money was good and I liked the idea of working with adults, who would, no doubt, teach me more about Japan than I could ever teach them about my native language.
There was an eagerness to the way Shinobu spoke. He chose his words with great care, as if the act of choosing words were a physical task.
One of the first things Shinobu wanted to know about me was my favorite United States president. Embarrassed, I told him I didn’t have one; I thought Kennedy was cute and that instead of coming to Japan I’d almost joined the Peace Corps, his legacy. Shinobu frowned. His
favorite was Eisenhower, in part because of the Civil Rights Acts and the Federal Highway Act, but also because he created NASA, and Shinobu’s dream was to go to space. He wanted to feel how peaceful it was there. How silent.
"You live in one of the most densely populated cities in the world," I said. "If you want solitude, why not move to the countryside?"
He laughed. "I would maybe live in the American countryside," he said. "As long as there is a baseball team within one hour’s drive. And kind people. And Seinfeld
on television every day. That is one of my dreams."
This may sound corny, but almost everyone I’d met in Japan, from schoolchildren to adult professionals, talked freely of their yume
, or dream. Your dream was part of your identity, like your favorite color or ice cream flavor. I couldn’t tell whether it was important to actually take steps toward accomplishing your dream, but it was certainly crucial to have one. Mine, I said aloud for the first time ever, was to become a writer. Shinobu’s was to move to America and become a citizen. He felt American in his kokoro
. In his heart.
There was an eagerness to the way Shinobu spoke. He chose his words with great care, as if the act of choosing words were a physical task. He tried to say exactly what he thought and felt. This was shocking from any stranger, but especially a Japanese stranger. In Japan you can know a person for months, years, a lifetime, and never get past what they call tatemae
, literally, “built in front,” the face you present to the world, the face that keeps the peace and doesn’t make waves. Behind tatemae is honne
, “true sound.” What we really think and feel. I had never met a Japanese person who was willing to offer honne immediately. It felt like a privilege. But it also, as I got to know Shinobu, made me worry for him. Japanese society operated by these concepts and their proper application. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. I wondered how much hammering a person could take. Shinobu also stood out physically: he was tall, over six feet, and heavyset. Though he dressed the part of corporate cog (a term he delighted in using, sometimes abbreviating to “cor-co,” which he coined), his hair was longish and messy and always hanging in his eyes. There was a loneliness to him that I can only imagine was kept in check by a fierce determination to learn and be in love with his favorite bits of the world. He drove a white Camaro with the license plate “1776.”
And he was bitingly sarcastic. His was a style of humor I’d never encountered in Japan. He confided that no one at work laughed at his jokes. They preferred wordplay and puns, which he found childish. His emotions rippled across his face like waves on a pond; every emotional breeze was visible. And yet he was the opposite of volatile. The name Shinobu is typically given to girls, which he told me with some measure of shame. But he also said that he felt he had a feminine soul. Or at least, not the soul of a traditional, gruff Japanese salaryman.
We met weekly for about four months. We deciphered and laughed at badly translated English advertisements and signs, and took field trips in his Camaro — once to a Nippon Ham Fighters baseball game, once to a museum outside the city dedicated to traditional basket weaving. We talked about our loves lives — me, about my fiancé back home in Illinois, him about a woman he’d met online who lived in Denver. He pointed out that it should be “heels over head,” not “head over heels” in love.
I left the JET Program and the Tokyo-Kawasaki megalopolis for rural Shikoku (where I set my novel) after eight months. I’d been arrested on a false charge of shoplifting and spent a week in a Yokohama women’s prison. I lost my job — was forced to resign, since people don’t really get fired in Japan — despite being cleared of the charges. After I was released, Shinobu listened to my story with tears in his eyes, and at our last meeting, he gave me a handwritten letter, in Japanese I couldn’t read well, and an elaborately wrapped gift box: a gold letter opener shaped like a fern with a pearl dangling from the top. In the whirlwind of my sudden move to a different part of the country and a new job, I can hardly remember whether we said we’d stay in touch, or how. I must have assumed we would. You assume such things when you’re 22.
Fast-forward 14 years. Some writers have the problem of not wanting people they know to read their work; they fear how a relative or friend will see themselves portrayed. I have the opposite problem: the person who’s inspired one of my favorite characters to write, ever, is unfindable. In this age of social media, there’s no sign of Shinobu, a character my early readers and editors have adored, a fictional version of someone I adored who made such an impression, whose kindness toward me far outstripped mine toward him — or to perhaps any friend I’d had yet in my life at that point. I’ve tried searching his name in Japanese and in English, have even asked Japanese friends to search independently on Japanese social sites that are hard for me to read and navigate. I know his name, approximate age, his field of work, his hobbies, and still — nothing. Where is he? Did he leave Japan after all? Did he give up his dreams of America and being the nail that stands up, and marry and start a family? Does he still follow baseball? Study English? Watch Seinfeld
I’m at a loss, as they say. But I suppose that’s what the imagination is for. Shinobu, wherever he is, would get a kick out of his being in a novel, would be proud that I “reached my dream.” And in my imagination, he’s out there somewhere in Colorado, driving a patriotic car, and who knows, maybe he’ll stop into a bookstore and find himself somewhere he never expected.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Pull Me Under
and Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail
(2013), which won Foreword Reviews
's 2013 Editor's Choice Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for book prizes from the Texas Institute of Letters and the Writers' League of Texas. Her work has been honored by fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Ragdale, Jentel Arts, Tin House, and the Sewanee Writer's Conference, and has recently appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine
, the Chicago Tribune
, Electric Literature
, New England Review
, American Short Fiction
, and other publications. She was a Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, where she received her MFA. She lives in Northern California.