- Things are much slower. If you've read the synopsis, you'll think, "and just when the hell are they going to get together?" They will. Very eventually and with many, many obstacles.
- It gets worse before it gets better. I think putting characters through utter misery is a trademark of Narise Konohara. The journey to the end will be gut-wrenching.
I’ve done nothing wrong.
After two weeks of newcomer training, Takafumi Douno was assigned to Factory 8 of N. Penitentiary. He was ordered by a prison guard, clearly years younger than him, to spend the morning observing the routines. So he obeyed, and stood to the left of the two desks lined up beside the manager’s station. The factory area was about the size of two classrooms put together. The room was divided into four sections by two walkways intersecting in a cross. The work areas were raised about twenty centimetres higher than the walkway.
Factory 8 mainly handled sewing, and several dozen sewing machines were placed in neat, equally-spaced rows from the front of the work area to the back. A steady dut-dut-dut echoed in the air, like the rumbling of an earthquake.
It was the beginning of September, and the temperature was still high. Douno could feel the sweat slowly drench his back just by standing on the spot. The distinct smell of a gang of males, a scent that mingled with body odour, irritated his nose. The barred window to his left was thrown open wide, yet there was no breeze. There were, of course, no fans in this factory. To top it off, these men in their mousey grey factory uniforms were perspiring at the brow, frantically sewing none other than ladies’ fur coats.
“Permission, sir,” a man called loudly in front of his sewing machine, raising his right hand high. He looked to be around his forties. The guard standing at the manager’s station pointed at him promptly.
“A refill of thread, please, sir,” the man yelled. Once he was granted permission, he hastily jogged to the shelves at the back of the factory. Holding the spool of thread, he raised his voice again: “Permission, sir!”
During training, Douno was given an instruction booklet of sorts about living in prison. In meticulous detail, it explained things like the daily schedule, planned right down to the minute; how to spend time within the group cell and the factory; and what kind of things were prohibited. Douno knew that he was not allowed to walk around freely without the guard’s permission, even for work-related reasons. He had gotten used to restrictive life from his time spent in the detention centre; and yet, the suffocating strictness of this place went far beyond that. Despite the fact that there was a newcomer in the room, everyone continued to sew without so much a glance in his direction―proof of how thoroughly the rules were enforced.
Douno could hear the cicadas buzzing through the drumming of the sewing machines. Feeling anything but the urge to work, he could only stare dumbly at the reality before him. He wondered what he was doing in a place like this. Why was he standing here sweating, watching other men working in front of the sewing machines sweating just as profusely?
He had repeated the question to himself hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of times from the moment he was arrested by the police, through the year and a half in the detention centre, up to this very moment.
He would forever remember that spring two years ago. March 16, past seven o’clock in the evening. Douno had been on his way home from work. He stepped off the train onto the platform of his transfer station only to be grabbed by the arm from behind. He turned around to see a woman standing there. She was perhaps in her early twenties, with short hair and a pretty face.
“This man molested me!” the woman shrieked. All eyes of the passersby turned on them. Douno could not recall doing any such thing.
“I haven’t done anything. Are you sure it wasn’t someone else?” he said.
“Don’t try to play dumb,” the woman said shrilly, her voice rising with her temper.
“I saw him do it,” chimed in another woman who had been standing nearby. The atmosphere around him turned grim. Even though he had really done nothing, the accusing gazes of the people around him said otherwise.
“It really wasn’t me,” he protested.
“Come with me!”
Douno was taken to the station manager’s office with the woman still holding him by the arm. No matter how many times Douno persisted that he had not done it, his account was not taken seriously. The police came shortly afterwards.
“We’ll hear your story at the station,” he was told. Douno had figured they would understand if he explained himself―he was innocent, after all. But all the detective had to say was, “You did it, didn’t you?” and refused to believe any part of Douno’s side of the story.
Douno was then put into a detention cell, and was questioned relentlessly almost every day without even a chance to go home. The detective used a carrot-and-stick tactic, first intimidating him by telling him to “’fess up already, because we all know you did it” before giving him smooth talk, saying if he would just say he did it, he would be let off with a 30,000 yen fine. Douno hated the idea of confessing to a crime he did not commit, so he continued to deny that he had done anything.
Those days were like a nightmare. Due to the stress of his ordeal, Douno lost hair, suffered stomach pains, and lost ten kilograms of weight. He was afraid that after being run into the ground and blamed over and over for something he had not done, he would one day lose his sanity and begin to feel like he actually had done it.
There was no proof―only the woman’s word. Douno continued to plead not guilty. He figured in this situation there was no way he could be charged: after the 20-day detention period was up, he would be set free to go home. Or so he thought.
On the last day of his detention, Douno was slapped with a conviction. He felt the world go dark before his eyes. He applied for bail numerous times, but was turned down. He spent the year and a half until the announcement of his guilty verdict in his detention cell. In his small, five-square-metre room, he thought endlessly about what he had done to deserve this.
Douno was ultimately given a two-year sentence. Because of his persistent, staunch refusal, he was deemed “showing no signs of remorse” and was not favoured by the judge. What was more, the woman had testified that Douno molested her almost every day, adding “repeat offender” and “premeditated and malevolent” to Douno’s judgement. As a result, Douno was not given a suspension on his sentence despite being a first-time offender. Pre-sentencing detention days―the period of time kept in detention until the sentence is finalized―were usually deducted from the total sentence, but only eighty per cent was applied to Douno’s, leaving about ten months of prison time.
“Why don’t we acknowledge the crime?” Douno’s attorney had suggested when he had been charged. According to the lawyer, once Douno was charged, there was almost no chance that he would be found innocent. If Douno kept up his denial, his sentence would only get more severe.
“I understand you want to fight because you’re innocent, Mr. Douno. But this is reality. Yes, you’ll be lying if you acknowledge the crime―but you’ll get a sentence suspension. You’ll be able to get out of the detention centre.”
Douno refused to assent, and it was partly from stubbornness. He had come this far―how could he bring himself to back down now? Once his sentence was passed, Douno thought of killing himself. He had been fired from work, imprisoned in a confined space for a year and a half, and now been slapped with a criminal record. Just because on that day, at that time, he had happened to board a crowded train.... If he had actually been guilty, at least he would have been able to resign himself to his crime.
The peal of a bell echoed throughout the factory.
“Stop working! Line up!”
At the orders, the sewing machines stopped drumming at once. All the inmates lined up on the walkway for roll call.
“Number 145, Douno,” barked a guard on the podium. Douno flinched as his spine tensed. He slowly turned around.
“Line up behind Section 3 and go to the cafeteria. Section 3 head, Shiba! Raise your hand!”
A bespectacled man in his mid-fifties standing to the very left snapped his right arm up.
“Go over there.”
Douno jogged towards the man who had put his hand up. He tripped over his feet and nearly fell over. His eyes met with the Section 3 head. The man grinned.
“Get behind the tall one over there,” he said. “You’ll be sitting beside him in the cafeteria, too.”
Douno fell in behind a man who looked closed to 190 centimetres in height. The line began to move immediately. Once they entered the cafeteria, all members sat down without a word. Douno also sat down as he was told, beside the tall man. At the signal from the factory guard, everyone began their meal at once. Today’s menu was stewed squid and white radish, fried eggs, spinach dressed in light broth, and barley rice. The seasoning was bland, and portions were small. Douno did not have an appetite, and put his chopsticks down before he was even halfway through. They were commanded to say, “thank you for the meal”, and that concluded lunch. Once the dirty dishes were deposited into the sinks, Douno’s surroundings erupted into chatter and noise from the TV. The silence of moments before seemed like a dream.
Some got out of their seats while others opened books, but Douno remained sitting at the table, his face turned slightly downwards at the dirty tabletop. Douno had been kept in his own cell at the detention centre, so apart from visitors, he hardly had the chance to speak to anyone. Back then, he did not care who it was―he was desperate just to talk to someone. But once he was here, that desire dissipated rapidly. Everyone seemed to have some unsavoury aspect to his face. But of course―the people here were “real criminals”.
Douno raised his head at the call, which belonged to a horse-faced man in his forties with a lazy eye who had sat across from him.
“Case of first-day nerves, huh? Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”
Douno was painfully aware of the obvious attention he was drawing from those around him. Back at the factory, they had all seemed so disinterested.
“How old are you, by the way?”
Douno could smell the other man’s bad breath, even though they were far apart. He unconsciously knitted his brow at the odour of rotting fish.
“I see,” the man murmured. “And what’d you do?”
“...I didn’t do anything,” Douno answered in a small voice. The man laughed.
“You had to have done something to be thrown in here! What? Theft? Drugs?”
“I’ve been wrongly accused.”
“Huh?” The man grimaced.
“I’m wrongly accused. I’m innocent.”
There was a moment of silence, but before long the chatter soon resumed.
“Oh, right, okay,” muttered the man with the lazy eye. Then, with a palm to his forehead, he chuckled. “Heh heh,” he said, his shoulders shaking. “You must have some weird preferences to get yourself into jail when you haven’t done anything.”
Vulgar hoots and laughter erupted from around him. Douno looked down at the table. He balled his hands into fists in his lap. Two or three more people came to talk to him after that, but Douno put his head down on the table and pretended he was asleep.
Douno was placed into group cell 306, a five-person cell. It was about twelve square metres in area, with toilet in the far right corner sectioned off by glass on the top half, and a simple stainless-steel sink on the left. There were small shelves on the wall along with towel hangers for each resident. Each person’s futon was folded and placed along the walls, with pyjamas and sheets folded pristinely on top.
Shiba, who had introduced himself as the head of Section 3 at the factory, was also in the same cell. Work ended at 16:20, followed by roll call. They returned to the cell and took roll call again before going for dinner. They were able to take a breather from their minute schedule only after dinner was over, around 17:30.
Douno’s seat beside the tall man at the long, rectangular collapsible table became his “usual spot”. Even during free time, they were scolded by the guard if they were caught walking around the cell aimlessly or lying down. This had also been the same for Douno when he was at the detention centre.
What surprised Douno when he entered the cell was that it was equipped with a television set, which he did not have at the detention centre. He had seen a TV in the dining hall, but had not expected to see one in the cell as well.
“Douno,” called a voice. He turned around. “TV time starts at nineteen o’clock,” said Shiba with a grin, which made his eyes crinkle behind his spectacles.
“I’m sure you’ve already heard the basics from the caretaker and the guard in charge, but if there’s something you need help with, you just ask me. I’m the section head at the factory, but we take turns being the head of the cell. That changes every week. As for where you’ll sleep, you’ll be beside the toilet. It’ll stink, but all the newcomers start there. You don’t have to worry, though―in a week, your spot will be shifted along with everyone else. Anything else... well, just make sure you don’t cause trouble for anyone else. And don’t get in trouble and get points deducted. We’ll lose TV privileges.”
Douno said he understood.
“I’ll introduce myself while I’m at it. I’m Shiba, head of Section 3 at the factory, and head of the cell for this week. The tall guy beside you is Kitagawa. He’s the youngest in our cell―twenty eight, I think.”
The man whom Shiba called Kitagawa had a face as expressionless as a Noh mask. Only his eyes moved slightly to glance at Douno. His attitude seemed to say he was not interested in the newcomer.
“I’m Mitsuhashi,” said the man sitting across from Kitagawa. He looked in this early thirties, about the same age as Douno. “I’ll be out on parole before the year is out. It’ll be short, but I hope we can get to know each other.” He smiled good-naturedly. He was a round-faced and sociable man, with a mild demeanour and kind countenance. If it weren’t for his shaved head and prison uniform, he would not look like a prisoner at all.
“And the guy beside Mitsuhashi is Kumon.”
He turned out to be the man with the lazy eye who had said Douno had weird tastes in the cafeteria.
“How long’s your sentence?” Kumon asked suddenly. Douno did not want to answer him, but he felt like it would be a wise idea not to start any conflicts off the bat with his cellmate.
“Ten months,” he said reluctantly.
“Ten months?” repeated Kumon, narrowing his already-squinty eyes. “A piss sentence, then.”
Douno tilted his head to the side, not quite understanding him.
“That’s what we call short sentences under one year,” Mitsuhashi explained kindly.
“You said something about false charges at lunch, but you’re in this joint, so there’s gotta be beef with your name on it.”
Everything about the way Kumon talked irritated him. He tried not to let it show on his face.
“Indecent assault,” Douno answered calmly.
“I see. Guess you aren’t as decent as you look, making moves on women, huh,” Kumon spat, clicking his tongue. Douno hastily explained himself.
“No, it’s not what you think. I was mistaken for molesting her.”
“Yeah, but―” Mitsuhashi butted in. “This is your first offence, right, Douno? Isn’t a full sentence kind of harsh for a first-time indecent assault? Don’t they usually give you a suspension?”
“I was dismissed for final appeal at the Supreme Court.”
“Wow,” Mitsuhashi said with wide eyes. “Supreme Court for molestation? Couldn’t you have settled out of court for something like that?”
It was too late for anything now. Douno bowed his head and stared at the knots in the wooden table. All the time spent in the detention centre; exorbitant legal fees―and his guilty verdict, which had put it all to waste. If this was what had been waiting for him, he could have lied and admitted to the crime from the beginning. Then, he would have been let off with a 30,000 yen fine and a summary offence and been set free within the day. He would not have had to burden his parents and younger sister with trouble, and he would not have had to quit his job. ―His heart ached. The year and a half he had endured, believing in his innocence, had been akin to garbage.
“Well, a lot of things happen in life. You have to think of it as a lesson and put up with it.”
Douno felt a twinge of irritation at Shiba’s matter-of-fact tone. What “lesson”? he thought. There was no “learning” in being jailed with other criminals, living a life choked with rules and monotonous, menial tasks. There was only humiliation.
Suddenly overcome with nausea, Douno dashed into the washroom. As he expected, he threw up his entire dinner. He rinsed his mouth at the sink. The back of his throat burned. I want to be alone, I want to be alone... but here, he could not even get that. He wanted to lie down, but since it was not yet rest period, he would be reprimanded by the guard if he was spotted. Douno sat at his “usual spot” on the floor cushion at the table, and put his head down.
“Hey, you alright?” Shiba said to him.
“Fine,” Douno replied abruptly without raising his head.
“Are you not feeling well?”
“No, it’s... I think I’m just tired.” Douno continued to sit still with his head down on the table. Eventually people stopped approaching him. There was a burning ache in the lower part of his stomach. Tears gathered at the corners of his eyes.
“Say, isn’t Taoka almost out on parole? I was wondering why the guy was swinging his dick in my face yesterday in the showers, and it turns out he got more beads in. I wonder how the guy can do it.” It was Kumon’s voice.
“But his dick is freaking full of them. They look like grapes, it’s disgusting,” Mitsuhashi said lazily.
“No complaints, as long as they’re as good to eat as grapes,” Shiba remarked to laughter from everyone else. Douno thought only the yakuza beaded their penises. Topics that had never been discussed in his life were discussed daily here. He felt weary already.
“Why’s Taoka in here again?” Mitsuhashi asked.
“Murder,” Kumon said nonchalantly. Murder. The word made Douno’s heart jump. He lifted his head.
“The woman he was cheating with got a boyfriend, and he beat him to death, I think,” Shiba added while rubbing his chin.
“Isn’t his sentence pretty light, then? Four... five years, right?” Mitsuhashi looked unconvinced as he furrowed his brow.
“It was manslaughter. He told them some crazy story about how he only meant to punish the guy with a few punches, but the guy ended up dying on his own. I guess that must have gotten through,” Shiba said.
“Ah, I see,” Mitsuhashi murmured in reply. “Four or five years for killing someone. That’s pretty light.”
Douno was struck by fear. Murder was unthinkable. It was unthinkable, and yet here they were, talking about it normally. An electronic sound issued from the room’s PA speaker which sounded a lot like a school bell. Everyone stopped chatting at once and began to put away the table and floor cushions. The futons were laid out, and Douno hastily changed into his pyjamas, feeling rushed as everyone else began to change around him. As for his prison uniform, he imitated the person beside him and folded it neatly and placed it at the head of his futon.
The futon itself carried a unique smell of sweat and body odour. Since he was beside the toilet, there was also the strong smell of excrement. The TV was turned on, but there were only talk shows on. The laughter annoyed him, but he could not bring himself to ask for the TV to be turned off.
Douno lay stock-still on his stomach and pressed his face into the pillow. He felt a sense of futility creeping up from his feet. What was he doing sleeping here, mixed in with real criminals in this stinking, noisy place?
He had done nothing wrong. He had never been late or absent throughout middle and high school, and had gotten awards for his perfect attendance. In university, he was in a volunteer group that helped poor Ethiopian children. Even after he began working at the city hall, he had only been absent for one day when his cold had gotten out of hand. He had been decent and proper in everything he did. Through what fault of his did he have to end up here? Did he simply have to write everything off as “bad luck”?
Music came on to mark lights out, and the TV was turned off. The room went dark. Ten minutes had not yet passed, and Douno could hear someone grinding his teeth. Even if he plugged his ears, he could hear it. He tossed and turned in irritation, and gave a short sigh before looking to his side. His eyes met with the man beside him. Douno felt a bolt of fear at the man’s eyes, which looked like they were glittering in the dark. It was Kitagawa, the youngest man in the cell. Kitagawa extended his fist towards Kumon, the source of the tooth-grinding, and slammed it on the tatami floor close to his head. The deafening grinding ceased instantly. This seemed to be the usual remedy.
“Th-Thank you,” Douno stammered. Kitagawa promptly turned his face the other way, with not so much as a polite smile of affirmation. Once the tooth-grinding stopped, the smell of the toilet began to bother him again. This was Douno’s first day in a group cell, in prison―and he could not sleep a wink.
They rose at 06:40. They promptly changed, folded their futons, and got started on cleaning. Douno had heard that cleaning duties changed weekly. As a newcomer, however, he was assigned the toilet. He felt a sense of irony, cleaning, red-eyed, the source of his sleeplessness.
Cleaning was followed by roll call, then breakfast. They wolfed their meals down in five minutes or so, then brushed their teeth. An announcement to “begin heading out” was made, and shortly their guard in charge came to unlock the cell and give the “head out” call. They went out into the hallway and lined up. They were forbidden from speaking to each other as they walked silently in rows of two. Before they entered the factory, they stripped down to their underwear at the physical inspection station and walked past the watching personnel before entering the next room to change into their factory uniforms. Once inside the factory, they went through roll call again, then did a strange exercise called “ceiling-raising” before getting down to work.
Douno was assigned the task of sewing the lining which had already been basted into place. Even though his section head had just taught him the day before, Douno could not recall the proper order to thread his sewing machine. In a situation like this, he knew he just had to request instruction. Wondering where section head Shiba was, Douno turned to look behind him when suddenly he was blasted by a yell.
“Hey, you!” Douno’s whole body seized up. The guard in charge of the factory was in front of him in an instant. “What the hell were you doing?” the guard demanded, his face livid. “No glancing around during work hours!”
“Oh, I... wanted to... the section head... to r-request instruction...” Douno’s voice dwindled to a whisper at the guard’s yelling and intimidating aura. The guard twitched one eye.
“You’re new,” he remarked.
“You’re forbidden from looking at anything other than your work at the factory. If you wish to request instruction, you are to raise your hand and speak up.”
“Section 3 Head, request for instruction!” barked the guard. Shiba went up to the manager’s station to pick up a Work Instruction card before coming to Douno’s work station.
“I... I couldn’t remember how to thread...” Douno’s fingertips and voice were trembling in the after-effects of being reprimanded.
“Threading, alright,” Shiba repeated, and slowly threaded the machine for him. “I remember you said yesterday it was your first time touching a sewing machine. It’ll be tough until you get used to it, but take your time and make sure you do it neatly. If your stitching is crooked or off the mark, you can take out the stitches and start over.”
Douno resumed his work after Shiba left. All he had to do was sew along the basting stitches―he knew that, but his fingertips continued to tremble. He was afraid he would sew his fingers along with the fabric. He gritted his teeth and stepped on the electric pedal. His sewing sped up and slowed down erratically as he tried to get a feel for the pedal.
In the end, his stitches ended up snaking along the seam and he was forced to take them out. No matter how many times he tried, he could not sew along the basted seam. He grew more irritated with each time he had to undo his stitches. Why did he have to sew, anyway? Why did the thread tangle so easily? Why was it so hard to take out? Douno suppressed the urge to throw the cloth aside, and continued to meticulously undo the tangled thread.
“Stop working! Line up!” Douno raised his head at the call. Everyone around him sprang up, and Douno fumbled his way after them down to the hallway. It was already noon. He had not been able to complete a single piece that morning.
Once lunch was over, Douno approached the bookshelf at the back of the cafeteria. He felt like if he just sat absent-mindedly, people would start approaching him. He recalled the incident yesterday, when Kumon had commented on his “weird preferences”. If that was how people thought of him, whether it was only a few or the vast majority, he did not want to talk to anyone anymore. Most of the books in the bookshelf were so worn and tattered that even a second-hand bookstore would probably refuse to take them. Douno extracted a dust-covered volume from the bottom shelf. As he opened it, the cover tore away from the rest of the book and hung limply.
He turned around to see Shiba behind him.
“How’s the work coming along?”
“...Not very well.”
“It takes a while to get used to the sewing machine,” Shiba smiled wryly. His eyes flitted to the disintegrated book in Douno’s hands. “You like reading?”
“Well, I suppose.”
“You look like someone who would. The type with the brains.”
Shiba had probably spoken to him out of kindness, but Douno could not help but feel like there was sarcasm in the way he said “with the brains”.
“I don’t have much else to do here,” he replied brusquely.
A queer expression crossed Shiba’s face for an instant before he was called away. Douno felt relieved to be alone again. Shiba was a criminal. Everyone here, other than him, had done something bad. I’m the only decent one here, Douno thought.
One day in the beginning of October, after the last vestiges of summer had faded and one could feel a faint chill in the mornings, Douno’s younger sister, Tomoko, came for a visit. It was their first meeting after Douno was put in prison. Tomoko’s face looked thinner through the plexiglas.
“How are mom and dad?” Douno asked. Tomoko’s cheeks tensed slightly.
“Mom is in the hospital with a stomach ulcer,” she mumbled, her eyes fixed downwards. “I think the exhaustion was getting to her. But she’s going to be discharged soon. Don’t worry. She was telling me how she wanted to come along today.”
Douno clenched his hands tightly in his lap. His mother was a kind, free-handed and energetic woman. For her to get a stomach ulcer―was it from stress? It was a blow to him.
“How are you?” Tomoko said. “They’re not giving you a hard time?”
“I’m fine. I’m doing alright.”
“That’s good,” said his sister with a breath of relief. “I wanted to tell you something. Mom, dad, and I, we’ve discussed this already. We’re going to move out of the house in two months.”
“What?” Douno cried.
“Mom and dad are going to grandma’s place in Fukushima. I have my job, so I’m going to rent an apartment here.”
“Wh―Why are you moving? Dad hasn’t even hit retirement yet.”
Tomoko lowered her eyes.
“He hasn’t, but he’s going to quit.”
A short silence. Douno finally put into words what he had been fearing all along.
“...It’s my fault, isn’t it.”
“No!” his sister insisted. “This is none of your fault. We all believe your innocence, but people in the neighbourhood like to gossip.”
“But that’s almost like running away,” Douno protested.
His sister hung her head. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I know it must be the hardest for you out of all of us. I know―we know―but mom and dad and I are tired. It’s been painful having to put up with what people say...”
The familiar image of his home revived in the back of Douno’s mind. Their father had bought the house when Douno was in fourth grade. They had only finished paying off their mortgage two years ago. Douno’s father had laughed and said his house was finally his own. They had lived in and grown familiar with that house. But now it could be someone else’s by the time Douno got out of prison.
He had lost his job, his freedom, and brought trouble upon his family; now, to top it off, he was losing a place full of memories. He had lost whatever one could lose in a year and a half―trust, moral virtue―he did not expect he could be stripped of anything more. But here he was.
“I’ve already decided on an apartment,” said his sister brightly. “It has a loft. They’ve gone out of style, supposedly, but it’s always been my dream to live in one.”
Tomoko’s tone was carefree. Even though she was surely in a lot of pain herself, she was keeping the conversation light out of consideration for him. Douno made an effort not to be gloomy in the face of her kindness.
“You didn’t have to rent a place. Why didn’t you just move in with Yasuoka?”
Douno had meant to tease her, but Tomoko’s face turned rigid. About a month before Douno had been arrested, a man called Yasuoka came to ask for Tomoko’s hand in marriage. Both Douno and his parents were overjoyed. They had been discussing betrothal gifts and the wedding day when Douno was caught. Once he was arrested, he was too occupied with his own troubles to have the time or energy to think about his sister.
“Right... about that. It fell through,” his sister brushed it off lightly. “I guess we just weren’t compatible. It happens, right?”
Was it really because you weren’t compatible? Douno wanted to ask, but could not bring himself to. He was afraid to ask. Before long, their fifteen-minute meeting time was up, and Tomoko left him with underwear, socks, and money before going home.
After returning to the factory, Douno found it difficult to concentrate on his work. The move, his mother’s hospitalization, his sister’s broken engagement... the topics cycled through his head in order. The incident had not only involved him; it had also involved and ruined the people around him.
If only he had not gotten on the train that day. If only he had not stood behind the woman that day. If only he had listened to the detective and opted for a settlement out of court. If only he had lied and admitted to the crime, paid the 30,000 yen penalty and apologized....
He had believed in justice, believed that someday they would understand that he was right. He had believed and fought in court until the end―but what meaning did it all have now? He had stuck faithfully to his belief that he was right, and in exchange he had been given a criminal record for indecent assault and ten months of life in prison.
His foot stopped over the pedal. He wished someone would tell him if he was wrong somehow. If he had committed such a crime that he deserved this situation, he wished someone would explain the what it was to him. Bitterness filled his heart, and his eyelids burned. In an effort to keep himself from crying, he gritted his teeth and stepped on the pedal.
He immersed himself in the rhythmical dut-dut-dut noise of the sewing machine, and for a fleeting instant he wished he could die.
Their lunch break was twenty minutes long. It was shorter than usual because they had an exercise period later. Almost all of Douno’s meal was left untouched. The meeting with his sister had made him think about a lot of things, which weighed down on his chest and made him unable to eat.
After their lunch break, all of the sewing factory workers were let out into the grounds. After some simple exercises, they dispersed and were free to spend their time however they liked. Some played softball while others cheered them on; some began to do push-ups silently on their own; others stood around and exchanged rumours. Douno joined none of those groups, and instead picked a sunny spot near the wall and sat down by himself. In his early days he had been invited out to play softball as well, but Douno declined with the excuse that he was bad at sports. It was true that he was bad, but his honest reason was that he did not want to socialize with other inmates.
In an environment where talks of theft and drugs were but casual conversation, Douno felt like his own standards of what was right and what was wrong would begin to go astray. He felt like he would be influenced by those “bad things” and lose his perception of normality.
In the evenings after supper, he immersed himself in the books he borrowed from the cafeteria until lights-out. He never spoke unless to answer a question, and he never initiated a conversation. Even if he never said outright that he wanted nothing to do with them, he probably exuded that kind of aura; even Shiba and Kumon, who made a point to talk to him about anything, stopped approaching him. When interaction ceased, so did the flow of information. It had been almost a month now since Douno first entered this group cell, but he had no idea about what kind of crimes his cellmates were imprisoned for, or how long their sentences were. In prison, inmates called themselves "sentence servers", which he had no idea about until recently.
“What’re you up to?” The voice belonged to Mitsuhashi, from the same cell.
Mitsuhashi sat himself down beside Douno with a grunt. “Nice weather, isn’t it?” he grinned.
“It is,” Douno answered cautiously, wondering why the man was sitting beside him.
“You alright?” Mitsuhashi said without warning.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you seemed kind of strange after your meeting. I wondered if you were okay.”
Douno was alarmed at the man’s sharp observation.
“A lot of people break down after meetings. As long as you’re willing, I’m right here to listen,” Mitsuhashi said. “Oh, but you don’t have to force yourself,” he added. “You know that I’ll be out on parole soon, right? But there’s something that makes me want to watch out for you, you know... well, because...”
His tone was muddled, as if he had something stuck between his teeth.
“Ah, damnit,” he muttered as he raked a hand over the back of his head. “To tell you the truth, I’m actually falsely accused too. But I haven’t told anyone here.”
Douno widened his eyes in surprise.
“If I spoke up that I was innocent, people would only be annoyed with me. That’s why I didn’t say anything. And that’s why I thought you were courageous for what you did.”
“What did you get caught for, Mitsuhashi?” Douno couldn’t help but lean forward to listen.
“How do I say this? I guess he set me up―my acquaintance, I mean. We both agreed on our transaction, but he went and filed a complaint with the police. You know how the police take the victim’s word as gospel, right? They didn’t listen to a word I had to say. I was convicted for fraud.”
Douno vividly recalled his own experience: the detective who had refused to listen, no matter how many times he had said he did not do it; the report, based entirely on the victim’s word and created conveniently in the victim’s favour. “Say if you’re on a train,” he had been told, “and you saw this young and beautiful lady in front of you. You wouldn’t feel bad about it, would you?”
“I guess not,” Douno had replied, figuring it was only small talk. But on the report, it was written, “A young woman came to stand in front of me, and I had a good feeling about her”. This kind of crudely-written report had wielded absolute power in court.
“I just thought about how much you were like me, and I couldn’t leave you alone,” Mitsuhashi said. “Your sentence is short. I want you to hang in there and not lose faith in yourself.”
Douno felt warmth rising from deep inside his chest. He had never imagined that someone would understand him so well. Unable to restrain himself, Douno spoke vehemently about how he had been mistaken as a molester, and what kind of investigations and court hearings he went through to get where he was now. He spoke passionately enough that his palms were sweaty by the time he finished. Then, Douno finally realized that he had wanted to be understood. He had wanted someone to relate to his feelings. He had wanted someone to listen.
Douno slumped as he stared vacantly into the distance, having expended all his energy on his story. Mitsuhashi lightly patted his shoulder. Douno cried a little, from the sense of release and comfort from spitting out all the unpleasantness that had accumulated inside him. For the first time since getting into prison, he felt like he had met someone who truly understood him.
Douno quickly grew close to Mitsuhashi. Once he knew that Mitsuhashi was falsely accused like he was―that he had not committed a crime―he could talk to him at ease, without having to be on guard. Once he had the chance to talk to Mitsuhashi, Douno realized they shared many of the same feelings.
“I go along with everyone because I don’t want to isolate myself, but in truth I’m sick and tired of listening to people talk about stealing and drugs,” he heard Mitsuhashi admit one day.
“I feel the same way,” Douno found himself blurting in agreement. Although he had not noticed from talking to the other sentence servers, Mitsuhashi was actually well-versed in a wide range of things. He said he could speak English and Chinese from running a trading company.
Thus, by the time their scheduled haircuts rolled around in the beginning of November, Douno had made a friend he could open his heart to and was finally getting used to everyday life in the cell. Haircuts were given every twenty days, and this was Douno’s third.
Douno woke up feeling glum on haircut days. He hated how they all came out with shaved heads, looking like middle-school boys. He felt like it was their trademark as inmates. The shave was always the topic of conversation in the evening after their haircuts―who got a close shave, whose hair was left relatively long; who looked good, who looked bad. As the men around him repeated the same maddening conversation over and over, Douno sat by himself reading a borrowed book. All the books had been exchanged with those of the factory next door the day before yesterday. Douno was drawn to the newer books and had trouble deciding on which one to read, but ended up picking a decade-old bestseller.
“I wonder why old man Tomi always does the haircuts? They should choose someone with a little more skill,” grumbled Kumon as he wrinkled his nose in a scowl. He had had to use his own shaver to even out his asymmetrical sideburns.
“The guards probably figure no one would make a fuss with old man Tomi,” said Shiba. “I heard a brawl broke out before over a bad haircut. If it was a young one cutting my hair, I’d have no qualms about giving him a piece of my mind. But picking a fight with an old geezer who can barely stand―well, that would just give you bad rep.” He rubbed his head with a wry smile. “But my haircut could have been better.”
“Kitagawa’s the lucky guy this time. It’s cut straight, too.” Kumon mussed Kitagawa’s hair with a rough hand. Kitagawa narrowed his eyes with an annoyed look but said nothing.
“Maybe he’s easier to shave because his head is a nice shape,” murmured Mitsuhashi. His eyes met with Douno’s. “So’s your head, Douno,” he said. Mitsuhashi leaned over the table to stroke Douno’s hair.
“Whoa, your hair’s really soft! Is it naturally like that?”
“Stop it, it tickles,” Douno laughed. Mitsuhashi laughed a little, too. Douno suddenly felt a pairs of eyes on him. As he turned, his eyes met with Kitagawa’s. Those frighteningly expressionless eyes remained fixed on him. Just as Douno wondered what the man could want, Kitagawa’s gaze flitted away.
Then day after was bathing day. Bathing times varied, but when Douno was allotted a time later in the day, he would sometimes see grime floating in the bath water, to his disgust. Luckily, today he was bathing early and the water was clean. In the short fifteen minutes of bath time he was given, he quickly washed his body and hair, and sank into the bath. In reality, he was only able to soak for about five minutes before the guard gave him the signal to get out. He stepped out and made for the change room.
“Liar,” said a voice as Douno was towelling off his hair with his head down. He looked up to see Kitagawa standing beside him. A pair of expressionless eyes looked down at Douno.
“Mitsuhashi,” Kitagawa said, then turned his face away. Douno cocked his head in perplexity at the cryptic message from a man he barely exchanged words with. Did he mean that Mitsuhashi was a liar? But Mitsuhashi was a good person, and not the type to lie. The man had gotten a refrain-from-bathing order today because he was feeling under the weather. It was almost as if Kitagawa had waited for a chance to speak when Mitsuhashi was not around. It bothered Douno slightly, but not very much; by the time he returned to the cell, he had forgotten all about it.
The next day was exercise day. As usual, Douno sat with Mitsuhashi against the wall and stared absent-mindedly at the inmates playing softball.
“What?” Mitsuhashi asked him.
“What did Kitagawa do?”
“You mean what was he charged for?”
Douno nodded slightly. Mitsuhashi looked like he knew, but was hesitating to put it into words.
“You know, don’t you?”
“I didn’t have to ask him personally―rumours are always coming in. What? Are you curious about him?”
“Well, kind of,” Douno said awkwardly. “The other day, he said ‘liar’ to me. Then, afterwards he said ‘Mitsuhashi’, so it’s been bothering me a bit.”
“What, so he’s saying I’m a liar?” Sensing sharpness creeping into Mitsuhashi’s voice, Douno feared that he had insulted the man.
“No, that’s not what I meant,” he said hastily. “It’s just... I’ve never talked with Kitagawa much. So when he said that to me out of the blue...”
“Douno,” Mitsuhashi said gravely. “You should be careful about Kitagawa.”
“He’s quiet and doesn’t talk much, but he’s a troublemaker. I hear he snaps suddenly and flies into a rage. Rumour has it he’s been put in solitary confinement so many times that he can’t even get out on parole anymore.”
Kitagawa always seemed like the cool and disinterested type. Douno could not imagine him flying into a rage.
“I don’t want to trash-talk my fellow cellmate, but you shouldn’t be involved with him. He’s not someone you wanna deal with. When there’s someone he doesn’t like, he snitches to the guard in charge. I know a bunch of people who’ve been thrown into solitary because Kitagawa ratted on them. He’s frustrated because he won’t get parole, so he goes around trying to take away everyone else’s parole, too.”
Lose my chance for parole? No way in hell am I doing that, Douno thought. A loud crack echoed in the air. The ball made a sweeping arc in the sky and disappeared into the distance. The batter was Kitagawa, and he broke into a run. As he made his leisurely way back to home base, Shiba and Kumon clapped him on the shoulders. He looked like he was enjoying himself.
“You know, when you’re just sitting here like this, don’t you sometimes wonder if we’re really prisoners?” Mitsuhashi murmured. “Even if they’ve killed people, there they are, still eating, sleeping, playing softball and laughing.”
The word “murder” crossed Douno’s mind. His eyes met with Mitsuhashi, and the man pointed at the tall man with the expressionless face.
“This prison used to house mostly long-term inmates, but since the number of people with short sentences increased, they started letting those in too. Now this place is a mix of both. Our Factory 8 is mostly full of short-term people, but once in a while you get long-term ones like Kitagawa.”
Douno had figured there would be people who had killed before―it was a prison, after all―but he had not expected to find out that such a man was in the same cell, sleeping right beside him.
“I didn’t hear this directly from him,” Mitsuhashi continued, “but they say he didn’t just stab the person once―he did it over and over.”
The sun’s rays were warm, yet Douno felt as if he had been thrown into ice water.
Once past mid-November, the chill in the mornings and evenings became harder to bear. There were heaters in the cell, but had supposedly never been touched since Mitsuhashi came in. Douno was prone to feeling cold as it was; the idea that it was just going to get colder put him into a glum mood.
It was a chilly day, and had been raining since morning. Douno was called out by Mitsuhashi at lunch break and taken to a corner of the bookshelves in the cafeteria.
“It looks like I can get out the day after tomorrow. Someone from the statistics factory gave me the news,” he whispered. “Starting tomorrow, I’ll be put into a solitary cell and I’ll be forbidden to leave it. So it looks like today will be my last day working with you, Douno.”
A man he could confide everything in was leaving―the thought of it suddenly made Douno feel forlorn. His anxiety evidently showed on his face, for Mitsuhashi grinned wryly.
“If you get parole, you’ll be out in three or four months too, Douno. Hang in there.”
In all honesty, Douno could not say he was happy to hear of his friend’s release. He reproached himself for feeling this way.
“All the best when you get out,” he said anyway. Mitsuhashi glanced around as if to gauge the people around him, then brought his lips to Douno’s ear.
“I can’t say this very loudly, but I’ve been thinking of doing this for a long time. I actually think there are a lot of us out there who’ve been falsely charged. I’ve been thinking of gathering people who’ve suffered like us, and filing a lawsuit against the country. Douno, will you fight this with me when you get out?”
A battle to prove his innocence―something stirred inside Douno’s heart. The fate he had resigned himself to was slowly beginning to change.
“I―I’d like to fight with you.”
“I knew you’d say you would. This kind of pain can only be understood by those who’ve gone through it. I’ll be waiting for you outside the fence.”
Douno told Mitsuhashi the address of his parents’ home. When he asked Mitsuhashi for his address, the man gave a sheepish smile and said he did not have an arrangement yet for when he got out of prison.
“Once March rolls around, I’ll contact your family’s house. Until then, I’ll get the lawsuit ready.”
Mitsuhashi had remained a reliable friend right up until his last days in prison. He was transferred to a solitary cell the next day, and on the day following he was released from prison. Douno felt as if he had been left behind, but Mitsuhashi had given him a goal to live. Before, he had no plans for when he got out of prison. But now, Douno felt he could endure any hardship in order to fight the evil that had wronged him.
The day after Mitsuhashi was released, a new inmate called Kakizaki joined them. He was young―twenty-seven―and his crime was illegal possession of drugs. His sentence was two years. Kitagawa and Kakizaki were close in age, and for that reason, Kakizaki seemed to have taken a liking to Kitagawa. He took to calling Kitagawa "brother" and followed him around like the droppings trailing behind a goldfish. As for Kitagawa, he maintained disinterest and refused to get involved.
Kakizaki loved dirty talk, and constantly spoke about the form of the penis. His most boast-worthy feat was when he had sex for five straight days while high on stimulants. His profile carried no hint of intelligence as he spoke smugly of his deeds. What was more, he had a taste for men: he earned the dislike of his cellmates for approaching and propositioning them with the gravest of faces.
“You must be pretty frustrated. How about a round with me?” he had even suggested to Douno once. Douno did what everyone else did and ignored him. Kakizaki eventually stopped talking to him. In the showers, Douno sometimes spotted Kakizaki nearby with a flagrant erection, which made him sigh in exasperation.
Douno spent each day cautiously as to avoid a penalty that would influence his parole. If he kept it up, he would be able to get out on parole in mid-March of the next year.
His sentence was short―a mere “piss sentence”, as Kumon put it―so his class never rose above fourth. Inmates had classes ranging from first to fourth, and the higher classes were allowed frequent monthly meetings and letters. Douno, who was in fourth class, was given one meeting and one letter allowance a month.
One day in the beginning of December, Douno was called out by the factory manager in the middle of his sewing work. He was told that someone was here to meet him. Douno was not happy to receive the news. He did want to see his family, but once he thought about how much their lives had changed because of him, he felt ashamed to look them in the face. But he could not just turn them back after they had come so far. Douno made his way to the meeting room.
His mother was the only one there. Back at the detention centre, Douno had worn his own clothes for meetings, but here he was wearing his mouse-coloured factory uniform. He was the picture of a prisoner. He stared at his feet, ashamed that his mother had to see him like this.
“How are you?” Douno’s mother had clearly lost weight since he entered prison. “You’re not having a hard time?”
It’s cold inside our group cell. I’m afraid my own heart will turn black from being surrounded by all these people who’ve done something wrong. We have too much time to spare, and all I can think about is what I’m going through. Think, think, think, and it fills my chest with pain.
―But if he told the truth, he would only make her worry. Douno shook his head.
“I’m fine. But mom, how are you feeling yourself? I heard you collapsed.”
His mother’s eyes welled with tears as she pressed a handkerchief to the corners of her eyes.
“You poor thing... you poor thing. Look at you. But it’s alright. Everything will be alright now.”
Douno felt a nagging sensation at his mother intently repeating the words “it will be alright”.
“We asked Mr. Takamura to do anything in his power,” Douno’s mother. “Everything will be alright.”
“Mom, who’s Takamura?”
“Isn’t he your friend from university?”
Douno sifted through his memory, but did not remember anyone called Takamura.
“Mr. Takamura works for the metropolitan police department. He said he heard about you through someone else, and came all the way over to our house because he was worried about you. He said if he had known about this earlier, he would have found a way to deal with it. He took it very personally. How nice of him.”
Douno was not convinced. He did not know anyone called Takamura, and in university, he was in the Faculty of Science. No one in his faculty aimed to be employed by the police.
“Mr. Takamura said he knows seniors in the police department. He said he would ask them if they can arrange something for you. I gave him a token of gratitude. Everything will be alright.”
Douno flinched at the words “token of gratitude”.
“Mom, did you give him money?”
His mother nodded deeply. “This is for you, after all. He has to ask some very important people. We have to express our sincerity in some form, too.”
“I don’t know anyone called Takamura. Who is he? Mom, who did you give the money to?”
His mother’s thin face paled before his eyes.
“But... but he said you knew each other...”
“What was he like?” Douno pressed urgently.
According to his mother, Takamura was short and bespectacled. A little on the heavy side, he was far from good-looking. But he looked respectable because he was wearing a suit.
“Mr. Takamura knew which jail you were in. Everyone knows you’re in prison, but I haven’t told anyone which one. That’s why...”
“Mom, I’ve been convicted,” Douno said shortly. “Once the sentence is finalized, nothing will change it. Even if it turns out I was falsely charged. Talking to higher-ups isn’t going to do any good!”
“I―I didn’t know,” his mother protested weakly. Douno could see her hands clasped together so tightly that they were turning white.
“How much did you pay him? It’s not too late. I want you to file a complaint. I can’t believe you took his story seriously!” he exclaimed.
“We―we were only concerned for your good―”
“How much did you pay him?” Douno demanded.
“Three million,” his mother murmured in a trembling voice. “I talked to your father about this. But we decided that we would do it for you.”
His mother’s voice gradually faded into the distance. Douno felt a slight onslaught of dizziness, and pressed a hand to his forehead.
* See the project page for In the Box (Hako no naka).