In this story by Toshirō Sasaki, a young woman in pre-war Japan buys a turtle and unintentionally contributes to a man’s arrest, opening up questions about class, poverty, and criminality in a nation that is beginning to rapidly modernise.
At the black markets in Ginza a girl bought a soft-shell turtle. She put it inside her large crocodile-leather opera bag and set out on the Ginza streets. It was early evening, and the district was filled with people bustling about. She pushed her way through the crowd, heading for the Owari-chō tram stop. Customers gathered impatiently at the opening street stalls. Red, blue, and violet rays of light swayed all around. The chaotic sounds of footsteps echoed.
“Excuse me! Young miss!”
Feeling that someone must have been calling out to her, the girl came to a stop. From her shoulder to the end of the street, countless shoulders rubbed together. Grey summer overcoats and bright green silk crepes. Spring jackets the color of matcha. Brand new straw hats. A rich fragrance of sweets. And then the refreshing chill of the night air, washing away the mood of afternoon.
It was an illusion. No one had been calling to her at all. Only a pale man with a long face, a grey hunting cap pulled down over his eyes and light brown jacket wrapped around his body, his shoulder touching hers, moved towards her.
Attempting to escape the man, the girl walked across the street and set out down the pavement on Houseki road. As though mimicking the pistons of a train, she moved from right to left and left to right in rapid succession. A blue bus groaned to a stop. One-yen taxis lined up in a queue. She swiftly decided to return home on the government railway line. She gave up on the one-yen taxis.
The train was unusually crowded, but one way or another, the girl was able to take her opera bag off of her shoulder and place it underneath her left armpit. Around Kanda station, she realized that a man standing by her left shoulder was gripping his finger, his entire face contorted in pain. Blood gushed out from the gaps in his hand.
“Oh my! What happened?!”
The girl, her eyebrows raised in surprise, offered the man her handkerchief.
“Ah, I’m sorry. It’s just, in the door…” As he thanked the girl, the man’s blood stained her handkerchief, now wrapped around his finger.
“Did it come all the way off?”
“I think so… in the door. Oh, we’re at Kanda. I’m sorry, thank you…”
The man stood up, ready to rush out of the door, and the girl’s crocodile-leather opera bag dropped into the man’s seat. The girl gathered her bag and prepared to transfer to another line. The train’s automated doors slowly glided open.
The girl, having placed her turtle in a washbasin, went into her room. She watched the turtle in the basin, waiting for it to stick out its head. She had been taught that in order to extract fresh blood from a turtle, one should wait for it to stick out its head, and then slice it with a sharp blade.
She recalled the man in the train, whose finger had been cut off by the automatic doors. In a moment, this turtle would soon gush in the same way. It was unpleasant to think about.
But still, the girl stood there, a large pair of sharp pruning shears in her right hand, waiting for the turtle to stick its head out. This was something she felt she couldn’t ask someone else to do. It was something the girl had to do herself. It was something she wanted to deal with in secret.
Lately, the girl had begun to worry she was going to become permanently frigid. She had tried many things to combat this. For instance, she had tried trendy aphrodisiac supplements like “Essence of Youth” and “Toshika Pin.” Unfortunately, neither of those things had done the trick. But even if she was dried up like this, she hadn’t forgotten what pleasure felt like. Sure, it might be useless when the leisure class was probably already halfway to ruin, but for the sake of her own pleasure, she was going to cut this turtle with a sharp knife and slurp up all of its blood.
It stuck out its head. The turtle had stuck out its head.
The girl cut off its head with the pruning shears. A small white fingertip fell out of the turtle’s mouth. A delicate section of finger with the nail still attached.
The girl sat on her bed with a newspaper spread out before her.
She was attracted to a particular article:
On July 20th, 1929 at 7:30 PM, on the line from Sakuragi-chō to Tokyo, a man in a grey hunting cap and light brown summer jacket was arrested. A chase began for the man after he was sighted attempting to reach into an adult female’s opera bag. The suspect was finally apprehended at 4PM today by a police officer at Yūrakuchō station.
It appears that the criminal, who is missing the top segment of his index finger, frequently pickpocketed unsuspecting customers on the train from Tokyo to Yokohama.
“When I was born I was just a normal person. Even if I was captured, I was just doing what everyone else in our society does. I was using what was at my fingertips to eat. My wife was sick and we couldn’t afford to pay a doctor for his services, so my wife passed away. That’s how I began pickpocketing. Since my wife passed away while other women wore beautiful and expensive clothing, I couldn’t help but hate them for their wealth. It was usually from those sorts of people that I stole from. One woman’s opera bag contained some sort of device that severed my finger, and that’s how I lost it. I thought I was stealing to stop women from wearing clothing like that, but when I think of my dead wife, who spent day in and day out stitching beautiful clothing without ever wearing it, just so that I could have something to eat, I have to think about what sort of person she was doing that for. I have to stop.”
Translated from the Japanese by Sacha Idell
Toshirō Sasaki (1900-1933) was a writer in Japan in the early 20th century. Once referred to by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata as “the standard bearer of peasant literature,” Sasaki often wrote about the effects of rapid modernization in the wake of the rise of the Japanese empire. His famous stories include “A Town for Curiosity Hunting”, “Black Zone”, and “An Empty Land Where Bears Emerge”.
Sacha Idell is a writer and translator from Northern California. His stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The New England Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. His other published translations include stories by the Japanese mystery writer Kyūsaku Yumeno. He is fiction editor of The Arkansas International and an MFA candidate at the University of Arkansas, where he is a Walton Fellow.
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