Toshihiko Yahagi's alternative goodbye

« Back to list
Back to list

News & Updates

2013/03/22 Column

Toshihiko Yahagi's alternative goodbye

by Alfred Birnbaum

The last time I met Toshihiko Yahagi for drinks at his regular "mess hall" in Akasaka, we faced off over a quibbling but telling remark. I paraphrased Joyce's famous remark "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake" by way of saying I thought that deep down people do not actually like, and even distrust, history. Yahagi took exception. Was I crazy? If people didn't love history, there'd be no sweeping Taiga Drama period epics on NHK, no Kurosawa samurai flicks. More to the point, he himself would be out of a job. I tried to make amends, qualifying that people really only like the illusion of history. Alas, too late for apologies, though in retrospect the gaffe was more spot-on than I'd consciously intended.

Yahagi is a brilliant illusionist who has made a career out of rewriting histories. His most obvious "allohistory" is of course A JA PAN! (1997, winner of the 1998 Bunkamura Deux Magots Prize), a hilarious re-imagining of postwar Japan split in two like the Korean Peninsula. Starting from an almost plausible supposition—what if, when MacArthur and the Americans arrived via Okinawa, the Soviet Army had also invaded from Siberia?—he creates an impoverished communist East Japan centered on Tokyo, opposed to a "slapstick capitalist" West Japan with its capital in Osaka, recasting everyone from Prime Ministers Kakuei Tanaka (a Showa-loyalist renegade in the hills of Niigata) and Yasuhiro Nakasone (First Secretary of the Communist Party) to singer-comedienne Shizuko Kasagi (Prime Minister of the Yoshimoto vaudeville regime). Similarly, Yahagi's Semana Tragica (2002) harks back to the Meiji era to follow the young poet Daigaku Horiguchi, the real-life son of Japan's first Ambassador to Mexico, as they walk right into the hotbed of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It's sword-renouncing samurai meets gun-slinging Pancho Villa, a close encounter of the strange kind with Western modernity, Latin passion, and the embattled democracy of Francisco Madero as recounted in Horiguchi's fictitious period-prose memoirs.

Alternative history as a literary genre has a respectably long history in itself, tracing back past such speculative fictions as Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962) all the way to H.G. Wells's Men Like Gods (1923) and beyond. Indeed, ever since Francis Fukuyama declared the—ahem—"end of history" in the post-Cold War '90s, alt-writing has taken off, with sub-genres ("steampunk") and websites ( galore, even its own annual Sideways Awards.

Yahagi's what-ifs, however, are decidedly not utopian chronicles, nor are they sci-fi parallel universes. If anything, his meticulous attention to curious coincidences and encyclopedic command of overlooked events, not to mention his precisely crafted style and sardonic wit, recall Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2002) or more recently Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007). However, unlike either Roth's sober experimental rigor in tweaking only one historical variable (FDR losing a presidential election to Charles Lindbergh), or Chabon's giddy invention of a Jewish refugee settlement in Sitka, Alaska (in lieu of the UN-mandated state of Israel), Yahagi's alt-revisionary tactics are often obscured under the slyly appropriated guise of the hard-boiled detective novel.

Case in point: Yahagi's The Wrong Goodbye (1994) does more than just put a Japanglish spin on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953). On the surface, this third book in a neo-noir series featuring world-weary police detective Eiji Futamura, a Yokohoma homeboy like Yahagi himself, obliquely mirrors the twists and turns of the famous LA whodunit. Wisecracking and cynical but basically decent like Philip Marlowe, Futamura tries to help out a dubious drinking buddy and gets in deep over his head in misplaced confidences, threadbare accusations, switched identities, and of course murder (rather than spell out spoilers here, I leave it to readers to spot the many clever correspondences to the original Chandler plot.)

A deeper subtext to these misadventures, however, weighs the long shadow America has cast over Japan for the last 60-plus years, and this is where the buried—not exactly alternative—history angle gets interesting. Yahagi was born only five years after World War II and raised in Yokohama, where the U.S. Navy presence was especially strong. As with fellow author Ryu Murakami (1952–), whose hometown of Sasebo was host to the U.S. Seventh Fleet throughout the Asian conflicts of the '50s to '70s, childhood memories of GIs around town left indelible impressions. Like most Japanese of their generation, Yahagi has very mixed feelings about Americans, viewing them almost as big children: embarrassingly brash and blunt, yet so refreshingly uninhibited and happy-go-lucky, impulsively free from the polite constraints of "adult" Japanese society. A self-declared han-bei ("anti-American"), Yahagi nonetheless can't shake off the Hollywood matinee swagger—and what could be more American than the hard-boiled genre? Thus, Yahagi makes Futamura's main foil and object of incomprehension, Billy Lou, the vet-turned-crook he aids and abets, an intentionally overblown fiction, a ridiculous self-made caricature of Americanisms from the JFK–LBJ '60s. A faux-anachronism as shallow as an 8 x 10" marquee bromide, a flawed vanishing act, a laughably simplistic cover—but for what?

As I read it, Yahagi's purpose in The Wrong Goodbye, besides writing a cracking good yarn shot through with humor and flashbacks to Saigon, is to hint at a much longer mystery, the ongoing unspoken history of U.S.–Japan complicity. What if, Yahagi floats the leading question, the American Occupation never really ended? What if, he has Futamura ponder as he pieces together shady connections that still haunt characters he recognizes from a torn Vietnam War–era snapshot, what if GHQ didn't actually go away, but merely went underground to become a "khaki mafia" making transnational deals and calling the shots behind the scenes in Japanese politics? Certainly after all these years Japan's incumbents still seem to owe an unreasonable degree of allegiance to Washington; to this day Tokyo never puts up significant obstacles to U.S. military impunity on supposedly sovereign Japanese soil.

The alternative history that Yahagi doesn't tell in The Wrong Goodbye is bigger than the sum of its characters, and much more sinister. History is an inside job, the string of illusions we want to believe. While Futamura does in the end solve the multiple-murder case and learn Billy Lou's true identity when the joker resurfaces, he's left with the nagging suspicion that he now knows too much, that he should have given in to the powers trying to squelch him and said goodbye to his snooping while he still had the chance. It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry at Yahagi's closing paraphrase of the classic Chandler quip: "I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them."

For of course the implications are much too sinister for a mere throwaway line:

"From that day forward, every last one I'd ever felt attached to left town—except the Americans. Mankind has yet to invent a way to say goodbye to them."

Alfred Birnbaum (1955–) is an American long-time resident of Japan. He is the translator of Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Natsuki Ikezawa's A Burden of Flowers and The Navidad Affair, and many other works by contemporary Japanese authors. He is currently translating Toshihiko Yahagi's The Wrong Goodbye and A JA PAN!