When the earthquake struck, Prosper Anyalechi was seated on the floor of his room in a love hotel in Senzoku, the Tokyo neighborhood where courtesan culture had permanently interwoven sexuality and the arts in premodern Japan. Africans weren’t supposed to know enough Japanese history to understand what the neighborhood had once been. But the history of Senzoku was the history of Japan’s red-light districts, and that was Prosper’s history now. It had been since he started working nightlife jobs in Tokyo eight years earlier.
He might have been sitting on the floor for twenty minutes by the time of the earthquake; when I asked later, he couldn’t say precisely. He’d been in a reverie, he explained, typical for him since he arrived in Japan. The column of murky light drifting through the hotel room’s privacy window had traveled past the open door to its unit bathroom and struck the plastic fixtures inside, in a way that reminded him how far he’d come from the country of his birth and upbringing, where windows admitted light without changing it.
A young Japanese woman slept in the bed he sat beside. Young enough, he’d learned, inspecting the contents of her purse after she drifted off, that she would still be living with her parents. And would confess what had happened if she came to regret it, but in the version her parents would hear, the role of her consent might diminish. So he’d moved out of bed and dressed quietly, planning to leave before she woke. He wasn’t sneaking away; he would return to work on the same street in the same red-light district the next night, where they’d met a few hours earlier. Probably, she wouldn’t try to find him, and he assumed this wasn’t the first time she’d lied about her age outside the entrance to a love hotel.
When the room began to shake, Prosper’s mind did not register that he had already dressed, and he thought to himself, “I’m naked.” The woman woke and they made eye contact, Prosper now standing, looking down. She wrapped herself tighter in the blanket, a gesture that also reminded Prosper how far from home he’d come, to a nation where people trusted that buildings would not collapse. Prosper’s instinct was different, and he followed it into the hallway, where a Japanese couple—one wrapped in a sheet, the other a towel—had opened their door halfway. They had been deciding how to react to the temblor’s unusual persistence, Prosper guessed. Now, seeing a foreign man emerge alone from the room across the hall, their concentration had broken, and they turned in unison to observe him. He was not the only Black person in Tokyo, but perhaps the only one who had seen them seminude, in a vulnerable moment.
As the door to his room shut behind him, Prosper thought he heard the woman in bed call, Omae!
and continue yelling, muffled through the door, as he turned toward the emergency exit and crossed the hallway. Omae,
he knew, is a way of addressing someone in the second person, reserved for moments of affection or disdain. In Prosper’s life, it had been used as a preamble to abuse, from people who thought his ethnicity made him deaf to gentle speech. Offered softly, the word was a caress. He would wonder about it later. Omae.
Prosper made his way to the exit and began to descend the staircase outside. He missed a step, slid down a few more on his back, and found himself on a landing, peering past the metal railing at the street, two stories below. He braced himself against the railing and fastened his gaze on the featureless concrete wall of the adjacent building, which appeared to bulge and contract as it swayed.
When the shaking subsided, Prosper descended to the street and joined the crowd gathering there, among whom he could already hear news of the earthquake’s origins around Sendai, or about a fire that had broken out on the roof of a high-rise in Odaiba, an upscale development on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. It no longer seemed to matter—in the way it had to the couple he’d encountered in the hallway—that he was Black and present in a vulnerable moment; he received only as many second glances as he would on any other day, in any part of the city.
Phone circuits were jammed, so he couldn’t call his cousins in Nigeria to tell them he hadn’t been hurt in the earthquake, which they would hear about. There was one severe aftershock, then everyone around him turned their attention to the task of getting home, examining maps displayed on their phones to orient themselves for a long walk. Prosper hadn’t slept since he woke to work the night shift twenty-one hours earlier. A nearby alley ended in a cul-de-sac of ventilation units where he sheltered from the gaze of passersby and noticed, as he lay down, the abnormal quiet and stillness of the machines.
Prosper woke to a tap, which he was not surprised to discover had been delivered by a police officer, though he was surprised the officer hadn’t used his baton, choosing instead to lay his hand on Prosper’s shoulder.
The officer brought Prosper to an interview room in the back of a nearby koban
and asked him if he wanted a can of coffee, which Prosper accepted. “We got a call from some guests at a love hotel,” the officer said, “about an African man.” He was sitting opposite Prosper, at a small table. He was young. His utility vest would have fit a thickset man better; it gave his gestures a thwarted, impatient quality.
“I was scared,” Prosper said. “In my country, we don’t have earthquakes.” He thought of the unhappy possibility this discussion presented: The officer had gone to the hotel and met the young woman, whose distress Prosper had ignored when he fled.
The officer waved off Prosper’s explanation. “People act foolishly in this kind of circumstance.”
“I’m very sorry,” Prosper said, and bowed in his seat.
“Oh,” said the officer. “Not you. The guests who called. I hope you don’t think all Japanese are like that—racial discriminators.”
“Of course not,” Prosper said, and paused to detach his thoughts from the difficult conversation he had anticipated. “I love Japan. I love Japanese people.”
“You don’t have to love them, but I hope you don’t blame them.”
A long silence passed, and it seemed to Prosper, who still thought he might be arrested, that the officer wanted him to ask the next question.
“Japanese people are accustomed to disasters,” the officer said. “They behave in a particular way. Did you live in Japan during the Great Hanshin earthquake?”
“I was newly here.”
“You remember the media reports?”
“I lived in a dorm for laborers. We didn’t have TV.”
“It’s possible to live in Japan without really living here,” the officer said, in the manner of making an admission. “To live that kind of life.”
“My first four years in Japan.”
“The world was impressed with Japan. Some people said the government was slow. They would criticize the government. People came from all over Japan to volunteer. You could never criticize the Japanese people.
I wonder if everyone considers themselves part of the ‘Japanese people’ in a situation like that.”
The term the officer used for “Japanese people” had always struck Prosper as strange, even when spoken unselfconsciously. The officer had emphasized each skeptical, staccato syllable: ko–ku–min.
People belonging to the country. There was a corresponding word in Prosper’s language: Ndigbo.
But the words had little in common. Kokumin
described a people who dwelled within the koku
—the land—it referred to. Ndigbo
expressed a bond defined by the significant proportion of Igbo people who lived in diaspora, particularly the generations born after Biafra’s defeat in the Nigerian Civil War, when their ethnicity was dispossessed of its economic and political prospects.
“A Japanese is a Japanese,” Prosper said.
“It wasn’t the same for everyone after the Hanshin earthquake. Some people lost more than others. Some people never got it back.”
“Ask one,” the officer said. “Ask a Japanese person.”
There was a knock on the door and the officer was summoned away. When he returned, the koban
was quiet; his colleagues had left. Now the officer told Prosper that he’d brought him in for his own good, to keep him off the street, where a certain segment of Japanese society might be inclined toward paranoia about foreigners in the wake of a disaster. The officer wheeled a TV into the room and they watched the news. The officer had already seen helicopter footage of the tsunami. Prosper hadn’t. “Look at all that—houses, cars—all inside the water,” the officer said, tracing a circle on the screen with his finger.
“And human beings,” Prosper guessed.
“What about in Africa? In a disaster, everybody gets helped the same?”
“Rich people decide.”
“Who’s rich in Africa?”
“Politicians,” Prosper said. “Oil.”
“Someone told me Nigeria has two hundred languages. Can you tell someone is from a certain group just by looking at them—before you hear their voice?”
“So you have discrimination, too.”
“We call it tribalism.”
“What makes a tribe?”
“Time. My people have been living together a thousand years. It could be three thousand.”
“What did your people do—for three thousand years?”
“We had our own civilization.”
“Was it known for something?”
“We had multiple kingdoms. It’s like saying Japan is a place where people make sushi.”
“What was your biggest kingdom? The original.”
“Nri. In my home state. They were making artwork in metal before anybody else. They also made masks.”
“They’re still around, or—”
“There’s a town, not a city.”
“Your people still work on metal? I can go to your part of Africa and see the methods?”
“It’s not like Japan—like kimono or tea ceremony. The methods are lost. We teach the masquerade performances, the cultural part.”
“What do your people do now? For money?”
“What you see me doing. We travel. We have a saying: If you go to a country and there’s no Igbo man living there, you should leave. If it’s a good country, an Igbo man would have found it.”
The officer slouched, his hands resting between his legs on the chair. He was morose, but wasn’t unfriendly. His demeanor reminded Prosper of a policeman he’d encountered at a group home for asylum applicants where one of his friends was living. He let his thoughts wander, remembering that: the policeman in the doorway, surveying the futons laid end to end along the floor of the house, the piles of personal effects and work clothes in every corner. The policeman had turned to the Buddhist clergywoman who managed the property and said, “If you’re upset about the phone bill, disconnect the phone.” The clergywoman pretended she hadn’t heard. She gathered everyone in the hallway and told them to leave. Some residents went upstairs to search for boxes. The sound of an argument filtered through the ceiling. It was winter, and almost night.
The policeman walked onto the house’s porch and lit a cigarette, Prosper remembered. When Prosper followed him to ask about calling a taxi, he was gone. Prosper looked both ways down the street and saw him walking toward the local police box, silhouetted by the late-afternoon sun, his shadow reaching nearly back to the house. A gust knocked the policeman’s hat off his head. He picked it up, turned to face the lamppost next to him, and hit the lamppost with the hat, gripping it by the brim. He hit the lamppost again, and the hat’s insignia detached. Prosper is certain he remembers the metal-on-asphalt sound it made when it landed, though that would have been impossible over the traffic noise.
Prosper let the memory recede. He leaned across the table. “Why are you asking these questions?” he said.
“I’m interested in people who go where they aren’t supposed to,” the officer said, and glanced, in a way that struck Prosper as involuntary, at the door to the koban
’s other room. “I might be one.”
Prosper felt the sympathetic effect of this disclosure, as if he’d learned the officer’s name. He wanted to ask what it meant, but his phone vibrated on the table. “Text message,” he said.
“You want me to read it?”
“If it’s in Japanese, it’s a wrong number.” Had he given his number to the woman he’d taken to the hotel? She could have picked up the phone and called herself while he was in the bathroom.
The officer took the phone off the table. “You have children?”
Prosper said he didn’t.
“Someone trying to make sure their father is safe.” The officer put the phone back. They watched TV. More helicopter images, cycling now, repeating themselves.
Eventually Prosper said, “I hope their father’s all right.”
“The person sending the messages.”
The officer picked up the phone and tapped a few buttons. “I told them it’s the wrong number.”
There was a noise in the adjacent room. Another officer had entered the koban,
talking to someone. “We can call your family from the landline,” Prosper heard the new voice say.
The officer Prosper had been speaking with excused himself. When he opened the door, Prosper saw the woman he’d taken to the love hotel reflected in the windows of the vestibule, accompanied by an older officer. “She fell asleep riding the Meguro line,” the older officer said. “Who’s in the interview room?”
The younger officer closed the door, leaving Prosper alone, listening to their voices. The moment the younger officer mentioned an African, the woman would have known it was Prosper. Her call went through. She told her father the same story, that she’d fallen asleep riding the train and disembarked before the earthquake. The officers were speaking to each other now, talking over her. The older officer said a nuclear plant in Tohoku had been crippled by the tsunami. Prosper looked at the television. An aerial shot of the tsunami panned around the water as it flowed inland, permitting the viewer to watch the wave approach the traffic on a highway. The helicopter carrying the camera entered a cloud of smoke from the fires in the tsunami debris. For a moment, nothing was distinctly visible. Prosper got up and turned off the television. The voices in the other room stopped. He stood in place, not knowing why, but trying to be absolutely silent.
Copyright © 2021 by Dreux Richard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.