Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

  “Correct. The business all started with an idea I had. You know, like in a comic book, where a light bulb goes off over the character’s head? Startup funding came from the president of a consumer finance company who believed in me and fronted me the money. It just happened that’s where the original funds came from.”

  “So how did you come up with the idea?”

  Aka laughed. “It’s not all that exciting a story. After I graduated from college I worked in a large bank, but the job was boring. The people above me were incompetent. They only thought about what was right in front of them, never thought long term, and only cared about covering their asses. I figured if a top bank was like this, then Japan’s future looked pretty bleak. I put up with it for three years, but nothing improved. If anything, it got worse. So I switched jobs and went to work for a consumer finance company. The president of the company liked me a lot and had asked me to work for him. In a job like that you have much more freedom to maneuver, and the work itself was interesting. But there, too, my opinions didn’t exactly conform with those of the higher-ups, and I quit after a little over two years. I apologized to the president, but there it was.”

  Aka took out a packet of Marlboro Reds. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

  “Not at all,” Tsukuru said. Aka put a cigarette in his mouth and lit it with a small gold lighter. His eyes narrowed and he slowly inhaled, then exhaled. “I tried quitting, but just couldn’t. If I can’t smoke, I can’t work. Have you ever tried giving up smoking?”

  Tsukuru had never smoked a cigarette in his life.

  Aka continued. “I’m more of a lone-wolf type. I might not look like it, and I didn’t understand that part of my personality until I’d graduated from college and started work. But it’s true. Whenever some moron ordered me to do something stupid, I’d blow my top. It was like you could actually hear my brain explode. No way a person like that can work for a company. So I made up my mind. I had to go out on my own.”

  Aka paused and gazed at the purplish smoke rising up from his hand, as if tracing a far-off memory.

  “One other thing I learned from working in a company was that the majority of people in the world have no problem following orders. They’re actually happy to be told what to do. They might complain, but that’s not how they really feel. They just grumble out of habit. If you told them to think for themselves, and make their own decisions and take responsibility for them, they’d be clueless. So I decided I could turn that into a business. It’s simple. I hope this makes sense?”

  Tsukuru said nothing. It was a rhetorical question.

  “I compiled a list of things I dislike, things I don’t like to do, and things I don’t want others to do. And based on that list, I came up with a program to train people who follow orders from above, so that they could work more systematically. I guess you could call it an original idea, but in part I ripped off elements from elsewhere. The experience I had myself, the training I received as a newly hired bank clerk, was extremely valuable. I added methods taken from religious cults and personal development seminars, to spice things up. I researched companies in the U.S. that had been successful in the same sort of business. I read a lot of books on psychology as well. I included elements from manuals for new recruits in the Nazi SS and the Marines. In the half year after I quit my job, I literally immersed myself in developing this program. I’ve always been good at focusing on one particular task.”

  “It helps that you’re so bright.”

  Aka grinned. “Thanks. I couldn’t very well come right out and say that about myself.”

  He took a puff on his cigarette and flicked the ash into the ashtray. He raised his head and looked at Tsukuru.

  “Religious cults and personal development seminars mainly try to get money from people. To do that, they perform a rather crude form of brainwashing. We’re different. If we did something that questionable, top corporations wouldn’t agree to work with us. Using drastic measures, forcing people to do things—we’re not into any of that. You might get impressive results for a while, but they won’t last. Driving the idea of discipline into people’s heads is important, but the program you use to do it has to be totally scientific, practical, and sophisticated. It has to be something society can accept. And the results need to be long lasting. We’re not aiming at producing zombies. We want to create a workforce that does what their company wants them to do, yet still believes they’re independent thinkers.”

  “That’s a pretty cynical worldview,” Tsukuru said.

  “I suppose you could see it that way.”

  “I can’t imagine that everyone who attends your seminars allows themselves to be disciplined like that.”

  “No, of course not. There are quite a few people who reject the program. You can divide them into two groups. The first is antisocial. In English you’d call them ‘outcasts.’ They just can’t accept any form of constructive criticism, no matter what it is. They reject any kind of group discipline. It’s a waste of time to deal with people like that, so we ask them to withdraw. The other group is comprised of people who actually think on their own. Those it’s best to leave alone. Don’t fool with them. Every system needs elite people like them. If things go well, they’ll eventually be in leadership positions. In the middle, between those two groups, are those who take orders from above and just do what they’re told. That’s the vast majority of people. By my rough estimate, 85 percent of the total. I developed this business to target the 85 percent.”

  “And your business is doing as well as you hoped it would?”

  Aka nodded. “Things are working out now pretty much as I calculated. It was a small company at first, with just a couple of employees, but now it’s grown larger, as you can see. Our brand’s become pretty well known.”

  “You’ve assessed the tasks that you don’t like to do, or the things that you don’t like to have done to you, analyzed them, and used this to launch your business. That was the starting point?”

  Aka nodded. “Exactly. It’s not hard to think about what you don’t want to do or have done to you. Just like it’s not hard to think about what you would like to do. It’s a difference between the positive and the negative. A question of emphasis.”

  I’m not too fond of what he’s doing. Tsukuru recalled Ao’s words.

  “Aren’t you doing this, in part, to get personal revenge on society? As one of the elites, someone who thinks like an outcast.”

  “You could be right,” Aka said. He laughed happily and snapped his fingers. “Great serve. Advantage Tsukuru Tazaki.”

  “Are you the organizer of these programs? Do you do the presentations yourself?”

  “In the beginning I did. I was the only person I could count on at that point. Can you picture me doing that?”

  “No, not really,” Tsukuru replied honestly.

  Aka laughed. “For some reason, though, I turned out to be really good at it. I shouldn’t brag, but I was well suited for it. Of course, it’s all an act, but I was good at seeming real and convincing. I don’t do it anymore, though. I’m not a guru, but more of a manager. And I keep plenty busy. What I do now is train our instructors, and leave the practical side of things to them. These days I’ve been giving a lot of outside lectures. Corporations invite me to their meetings, and I give talks at university employment seminars. A publisher asked me to write a book, too, which I’m working on.”

  Aka crushed out his cigarette in the ashtray.

  “Once you get the knack, this kind of business isn’t so hard. Just print up a glossy pamphlet, string together some high-blown self-advertising language, and get some smart office space in a high-end part of town. Purchase attractive furnishings, hire capable, sophisticated staff members, and pay them very well. Image is everything. You don’t spare any expense to create the right image. And word of mouth is critical. Once you get a good reputation, momentum will carry you. But I’m not planning to expand beyond what we do now. We’ll continue to focus solely on companies in t
he greater Nagoya area. Unless I can keep an eye on things myself, I can’t ensure the level of quality.”

  Aka gazed searchingly into Tsukuru’s eyes.

  “Come on, you’re not all that interested in what I do, are you?”

  “It just feels strange. I never would have thought, back when you were a teenager, that you would open this kind of business someday.”

  “Me either,” Aka said, and laughed. “I was sure I would stay in a university and become a professor. But once I got to college I realized I wasn’t cut out for academic life. It’s a stagnant, crushingly dull world, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life there. Then when I graduated, I found out that working for a company wasn’t for me, either. It was all trial and error, and eventually, I was able to find my own niche. But what about you? Are you satisfied with your job?”

  “Not really. But I’m not particularly dissatisfied with it, either,” Tsukuru said.

  “Because you can do work related to railroad stations?”

  “That’s right. As you put it, I’m able to stay on the positive side.”

  “Have you ever had doubts about your job?”

  “Every day I just build things you can see. I have no time for doubts.”

  Aka smiled. “That’s wonderful. And so very like you.”

  Silence descended on them. Aka toyed with the gold lighter in his hand but didn’t light another cigarette. He probably had a set number of cigarettes he smoked every day.

  “You came here because there was something you wanted to talk about, right?” Aka said.

  “I’d like to ask about the past,” Tsukuru said.

  “Sure. Let’s talk about the past.”

  “It’s about Shiro.”

  Aka’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses, and he stroked his beard. “I was kind of expecting that. After my secretary handed me your business card.”

  Tsukuru didn’t reply.

  “I feel sorry for Shiro,” Aka said quietly. “Her life wasn’t very happy. She was so beautiful, so musically talented, yet she died so horribly.”

  Tsukuru felt uncomfortable at the way Aka summed up her life in just a couple of lines. But a time difference was at work here, he understood. Tsukuru had only recently learned of Shiro’s death, while Aka had lived with the knowledge for six years.

  “Maybe there’s not much point in doing this now, but I wanted to clear up a misunderstanding,” Tsukuru said. “I don’t know what Shiro told you, but I never raped her. I never had a relationship like that with her of any kind.”

  “The truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand,” Aka said. “As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed. In this case it’s definitely the latter. Whether the misunderstanding is cleared up or it isn’t, you aren’t the type of person to do something like that. I know that very well.”

  “You know that?” Tsukuru repeated the words.

  “Now I do, is what I mean.”

  “Because the sand has blown away?”

  Aka nodded. “That’s about the size of it.”

  “It’s like we’re discussing history.”

  “In a way, we are.”

  Tsukuru gazed at the face of his old friend seated across from him, but couldn’t read anything resembling an emotion in Aka’s expression.

  You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them. Tsukuru recalled Sara’s words, and said them aloud.

  Aka nodded several times. “Exactly. You can hide memories, but you can’t erase history. That’s precisely what I want to say.”

  “Anyway, back then, the four of you cut me off. Totally, and mercilessly,” Tsukuru said.

  “It’s true, we did. That’s a historical fact. I’m not trying to justify it, but at the time we had no other choice. Shiro’s story was so real. She wasn’t acting. She was really hurt. An actual wound, with real pain, and real blood. There was no room for us to doubt her at the time. But after we cut you off, and the more that time passed, the more confused we got about the whole thing.”

  “How do you mean?”

  Aka brought his hands together on his lap and thought for five seconds.

  “In the beginning, it was small things. A few details that didn’t fit. Parts of her story that didn’t make sense. But it didn’t bother us much. They didn’t really matter at first. But these started to become more frequent, and we noticed them more and more. And then we thought, something’s not right here.”

  Tsukuru was silent, waiting for him to continue.

  “Shiro might have had some mental issues.” Aka fiddled with the gold lighter, carefully choosing his words. “Whether it was temporary, or more of a long-term condition, I don’t know. But something was definitely wrong with her then. She had a lot of musical talent. The kind of beautiful music she played blew us away, but unfortunately she demanded more from herself. She had enough talent to make her way through the limited world where she lived, but not enough to go out into the wider world. And no matter how much she practiced, she couldn’t reach the level she desired. You remember how serious and introverted she was. Once she entered the music conservatory, the pressure only mounted. And little by little, she started acting strangely.”

  Tsukuru nodded but didn’t say anything.

  “It’s not so unusual,” Aka said. “It’s a sad story, but in the art world it happens all the time. Talent is like a container. You can work as hard as you want, but the size will never change. It’ll only hold so much water and no more.”

  “I’m sure that kind of thing does happen a lot,” Tsukuru said. “But saying that I drugged her in Tokyo and raped her—where did that come from? Granted, she might have had mental issues, but didn’t that story just come out of nowhere?”

  Aka nodded. “Absolutely. It came out of nowhere. Which actually made us believe her at first. We couldn’t conceive of Shiro making up something like that.”

  Tsukuru pictured an ancient city, buried in sand. And himself, seated on top of a dune, gazing down at the desiccated ruins.

  “But why was the other person in that story me, of all people? Why did it have to be me?”

  “I couldn’t tell you,” Aka said. “Maybe Shiro secretly liked you. So she was disappointed and angry with you for going off to Tokyo by yourself. Or maybe she was jealous of you. Maybe she wanted to break free of this town. Anyway, there’s no way now to understand what motivated her. Assuming there even was a motivation.”

  Aka continued toying with the lighter.

  “There’s one thing I want you to know,” he said. “You went to Tokyo, and the four of us stayed behind in Nagoya. I’m not trying to criticize you for that. But you had a new life in a new city. Back in Nagoya, the four of us had to draw closer together as a result. Do you know what I’m trying to say?”

  “It was more realistic to cut off me, as the outsider, than to cut off Shiro. Right?”

  Aka didn’t reply, but let out a long, shallow sigh. “Of the five of us maybe you were the toughest one, at least emotionally. Unexpectedly so, considering how placid you seemed. The four of us who stayed behind weren’t brave enough to venture out like you did. We were afraid of leaving the town we were brought up in, and saying goodbye to such close friends. We couldn’t leave that warm comfort zone. It’s like how hard it is to climb out of a warm bed on a cold winter morning. We came up with all kinds of plausible excuses at the time, but now I see how true this was.”

  “But you don’t regret staying here, do you?”

  “No, I don’t think so. There were lots of good, practical reasons for staying put, and I was able to use these to my advantage. Nagoya’s a place where local connections really pay off. Take the president of the consumer finance company who invested in me. Years ago, he read about our volunteer efforts in high school in the paper, and that’s why he trusted me. I didn’t want to profit personally from our volunteer program, but it worked out that way. And many of our clien
ts are people my father taught at the university. There’s a tight social network like that in business circles in Nagoya, and a Nagoya University professor is like a respected brand name. But none of that would make any difference if I went to Tokyo. I’d be completely ignored. Don’t you agree?”

  Tsukuru was silent.

  “Those practical reasons played a part, too, I think, in why the four of us never left town. We chose to keep soaking in the warm bath. But now it’s only Ao and me who are still here. Shiro died, and Kuro got married and moved to Finland. And Ao and I are literally down the street from each other but never meet up. Why? Because even if we got together, we’d have nothing to talk about.”

  “You could buy a Lexus. Then you’d have something to talk about.”

  Aka winked. “I’m driving a Porsche Carrera 4. Targa top. Six-gear manual transmission. The way it feels when you shift gears is amazing. The feeling when you downshift is especially great. Have you ever driven one?”

  Tsukuru shook his head.

  “I love it, and would never buy anything else,” Aka said.

  “But you could buy a Lexus as a company car. Write it off.”

  “I have clients whose companies are affiliated with Nissan and Mitsubishi, so that’s not an option.”

  A short silence followed.

  “Did you go to Shiro’s funeral?” Tsukuru asked.

  “Yeah, I did. I’m telling you, I’ve never seen such a sad funeral, before or after. It’s painful to think about, even now. Ao was there, too. Kuro couldn’t come. She was already in Finland, about to have a baby.”

  “Why didn’t you let me know that Shiro had died?”

  Aka didn’t say anything for a while, gazing vacantly at him, his eyes unfocused. “I really don’t know,” he finally said. “I was sure someone would tell you. Probably Ao would—”

  “No, nobody ever told me. Until a week ago, I had no idea she’d died.”

  Aka shook his head, and turned, as if averting his gaze, and gazed out the window. “I guess we did something terrible. I’m not trying to excuse our actions, but you have to understand how confused we were. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were positive you would hear about Shiro’s murder. And when you didn’t show up at the funeral, we figured you found it too hard to come.”

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