Reasons for Song


By Susan Laura Sullivan 

Josephine and the Ginnan

In a town far from the gold mining town where everyone comes from sooner or later, the saucepan wobbles as the Master nears it. It looks ready to flip up, over and away like a scrap of tinfoil waiting for the slightest current of air. He shakes salt into the pan and stirs, charcoal bands ringbarking the wooden spoon. Ginnan, butter coating their green pebble roundness, glisten from the pan to our bowls. Steam bubbles their skins, wets our faces. “Tabete kudasai,” the Master says. Eat up. We thank him, plough in. Butter sticks to our fingers, salt stings our lips.

The Gingko’s fruit is starchy sweet, not too sweet. The tree is used to line streets in North America and New Zealand. There the female is killed, the smell of the rotting seeds too rank for the salad crisp lawns and hedges of suburbia. In the Mikan Growing Prefecture though, Gingko grows in temple grounds, ginnan are a speciality.

Stena and I sit on one of the three wooden benches huddled around the counter of Gretsch – the Master’s bar. Our knees graze the underside of the counter. My stockings catch on a splinter, nylon burling the pinprick wound.

We pick at the last crystals of salt. A recorded trumpet swirls through the room, cigarette smoke coats our hair and clothes.

Oishkatta?” the Master asks, takes the bowls from us.

Delicious, Stena says, thank you. Or at least I suppose she does. She’s lived here a couple of years already, and can throw more than a few words together to form a sentence in the language that isn’t our own. I find it an effort even to say hello, but she dazzles with such phrases as I shop, and I work, and then some. That’s all I understand. I’m impressed, though I tell myself it’s all to do with European confidence and blonde hair.

Masta, biru mo hitotsu,” the guy on the end bench calls out, lifts a finger. The light spots his dark hair and leather coat; a torch isolating patches of gravel, tufts of grass from the black pool of a moonless night. All male bar owners are Master, and all female are Mama-san. It’s an easy word for me who can’t yet work my way around the new syllables, guttural rumblings. The Master nods, then looks our way to see if we want anything else. I shake my head and the beer in my bottle to and fro. It’s still half full. Stena picks up her empty Corona. “Onagai,” she says.


Unh,” she nods.

The fridge door swings open, a slice of light severing the Master’s face. He pulls out two coronas, pops the tops, squashes lime into the necks, eyelashes of pulp clinging to the glass. He puts one bottle in front of Stena, the other in front of the guy in the leather jacket.

A salaryman coughs. Mr. Leather Coat glances over his shoulder, the newly opened beer at his lips. The salaryman excuses himself, his head, the white stripes of his suit, jerking by way of apology.

Leather coat returns the apology, sumimasen, shrugging like a fisherman’s ring-necked cormorant struggling to swallow the day’s catch. He puts down his drink and stands to let the salaryman through, remains standing until the toilet door reopens, and the man brushes past, apologising once more before walking back to his friends. Tiny is too big a word to describe Gretsch.


Masta,” a cry from the room the salaryman has just walked into, the gradating scale of instruments tuning. Gretsch, made up of two areas small enough to fit into a goldfields kitchen, carries all sounds.

Hai,” the Master calls, nods to his assistant, wipes his hands on his apron, slips it over his head, and ducks away from the counter. He joins the double bass, the sax and the trumpet where they straddle the space joining the two rooms of the bar.

A trumpet blast clears the air. We turn our heads. The Master’s mouth hangs open, his moustache scraping lips chasing beats his drumsticks let fly. He guests with the band for a few songs. The sound is good, but to see clearly we need to slip off our seats, crick our necks. We turn back to the bar, twisting occasionally to run our eyes over the curve of the double bass, the player’s fingers moving up and down the strings. To catch the glint of light off the rim of the trumpet, the edge of the saxophone when it’s lifted to play. As we drink and talk and tap our feet against the bench, the regulars clap and a chanteuse with a lisping Japanese accent sings her way through Summertime. The night I meet my husband, Stena and I sit with our backs to his performance. We don’t need to see to hear.


Brushes scrape the final piece to a halt. The band leave their instruments one by one, the sax player last, to join us at the counter. There’s nowhere else to sit, and they want to talk to the Master, and are maybe just a little curious about us, the foreigners who’ve come to the bar three times now when they’ve been playing.

Sutina-san desu, Josefyuin-san desu,” the Master says. An introduction. I smile, lift my beer, have forgotten how to say, “You were good.”

Hajimemashite,” Stena says in greeting, has words enough for both of us. Smoke rises from her cigarette, haloes her blonde frizz.

Stena tells me they’re all from Tokyo, except the trumpet player who is from Osaka. All have left the flashing neon of those cities to play in the Mikan-Growing Prefecture for one reason or another.

The trumpet player keeps his hair bristle short and smiles a lot. He has the biggest appetite and loudest mouth out of all the band, but it’s another six months before I find this out, and another six months before Takeshi actually says even one word to me.

Gretsch and the Jazz Tunes

In the six monsoonal weeks before summer, the heat-thick nights of July and August, throughout the snow flurries of winter and the chills of autumn and spring, I slipped in and out of traffic on my way to the jazz at Gretsch. Headlights dulled to a Vaseline fuzziness, carbon-monoxide-laced raindrops streaked chrome. Mites flew in from empty river beds, spotted my eyes and blackened my teeth. Even when there was no jazz, I pushed open the door of the small room to a blast of warm air and the musty smell of alcohol.

Okaeri nasai,” the Master joked as soon as he saw me; welcome home.


Takeshi was a frequent visitor. He played every Thursday night with the Tokyo Quartet, displaced to this small slice of a town. Other times he’d pop in to see other combos perform. Before a gig, after a gig, the jazz nights segued into the other days of the week, until any evening I was there I’d be sure to see him too, leaning over the counter, talking and laughing. I didn’t think too much of it. The Master’s friends were always dropping by.

Six years of English was compulsory, but Takeshi could barely speak a word. He’d studied Shakespeare in his final year at school and his reading wasn’t too bad, but he remained silent rather than make a mistake in talking to me.

“Shy, isn’t he?” I once asked the Master. He’d laughed into the tumbler of whisky he held. “Only when he speaks English,” he’d said, wiping alcohol from his moustache.

It took Takeshi half a year to speak to me, because it took me at least as long to even begin to grasp the rudiments of his native tongue. At the international centre, Hori Sensei tried to teach me her language. I’d use a new sentence structure in Gretsch every night. The Master was patient. With prompting I held something akin to conversation.

Hori Sensei laughed when I repeated phrases picked up at Gretsch, then said young girls didn’t speak that way. It was enough to get by, though I often felt only the Master and my teacher understood me. If Takeshi was afraid of the grammatical net that ensnared and entangled even the most simple of ideas, reducing them to the babble of a three year old, he wasn’t alone.

Towards the end of the year, an American colleague and I entered Gretsch. Takeshi sat on the middle bench. We nodded at each other and sat on the bench to his right. A salaryman, white shirt, blue tie, sat to his left.

Karoushi was rampant in office jobs. Workers sat in fluorescent-lit rooms, turning papers, playing cards, waiting for the boss to go home. Because the boss was the boss he had to put in the hours, show his loyalty to the company. Because the workers were the workers they put in the hours to show loyalty to the boss, then keeled over. Cause of death: karoushi – overwork. The Mater’s friends weren’t in any immediate danger. They passed up promotions downing one whisky and water after the other in the huddled darkness of Gretsch.

Amerikajin?” the salaryman asked the Master, looking at us.

It wasn’t a surprise when people spoke about us as if we weren’t there. Part culture – too direct was impolite – and part that people thought we didn’t understand. Usually they were right, though I wasn’t too bad at answering basic questions, but the Master or Stena usually replied for me. The Master had heard the same queries as often as I had and knew how annoying the attention of a curious drunk could be, and Stena was just fast.

Osutorariajin, amerikajin,” Takeshi said, though he’d never once asked me. The Master and I looked at him.

“Australia, America. Is that so?” the salaryman said, yawned into the hand he ran across his face in an attempt to stay awake. Pulled out a handkerchief, dabbed his forehead. The heat always up too high.

Nan sai?” Invariably the next question. The older the person and the higher the social position the more polite the language to be used.

“Twenty-three,” answered Takeshi.

“You’re talkative,” the Master said to Takeshi, but smiled at me. I smiled back. Takeshi shrugged. The salary man nodded, tried to follow Takeshi’s and the Master’s conversation. Opened his mouth to ask another question, a yawn strangling it on the first syllable. He rested his head on the counter near the ashtray, and fell asleep. The Master took his empty glass and wiped the puddle left behind.

“What’s Josephine doing for New Year?” Takeshi asked the Master. The Master had his back to us as he emptied the ashtray. He looked around, but before he could answer I said, “Not much.”

Takeshi jumped, feigned falling off the bench.

“You speak Japanese.”

Sukoshi dake.” I squeezed my forefinger and thumb together.

“No, it’s very good.”

I rolled my eyes. At any of the schools where I taught I only had to say good morning before my co-teachers praised me for fluency. “You’re just saying that,” I said, using an expression the Master had taught me the night before. Both men laughed. I should have declined the compliment with as much grace as I could muster.

“You’re here every night,” the Master said, “why notice Jo-chan speaks just now?” He stood with his arms folded, his body leaning against the counter behind him, raised his eyebrows my way. I laughed. It was too dark to see if Takeshi blushed, or if it was the flush of alcohol creeping into his cheeks. He lifted his glass towards mine. “Kampai,” we said as they clinked mid-air.


The Mikan-Growing-Prefecture is far enough south for snow to melt when it hits the pavement. You can’t pad snowmen into shape, but it’s cold enough on New Year’s Eve to dress in thick clothing. Bundled in scarves and gloves, people walk to the temples and shrines of the city in the hour before midnight. At home warm bowls of buckwheat noodle soup wait for them. A few women in kimono wrap stoles tightly around their shoulders. Crowds wait in line to wash their hands before they can enter the holy grounds. Omikuji, paper fortunes, are twisted around the branches of trees by families hoping to better their luck. If their fortune is bad, hopefully it will improve with the year.

As the city listens to the bells rings one hundred and eight times to atone for the one hundred and eight sins of humankind, the Master, Takeshi and I sit in the overheated warmth of Gretsch, sipping hot sake, listening to jazz, just like any other day of the week.

Josephine goes down South

Takeshi sits in the car listening to a tape popular with my students. I can pick out the words for love, for you, for forever, but the rest is lost on me. He lights a cigarette, sits back into the seat. I wave, but he doesn’t see. Shoving my hands in my pockets, I turn back to Mark and Stena.

We stand at the edge of the road, a gradin of rice fields cutting into one side of the valley below us, thick slices of yellow and green layering the land. The road flows with the turns of a canal, past two wooden farm houses, beams stained dark with rain, to the slate wall of a dam. Pines rise into a summer fog that covers the curves of the mountain range like a great blanket thrown over the backs of knee-bent elephants. Resting his foot on the guard-rail, humid-heavy curls peeking out from under his cap, Mark frames a picture, presses the shutter.

Takeshi can’t see the attraction in rice, or in chains falling like water from temples, rain slipping over their rivets and loops. Has no interest in paper-offerings shuffling in the breeze, or in the roofs of shrines – thatch swollen, corners turned like drying cardboard. Had muttered mata when Mark had asked him once again if he would pull over for a second. Takeshi turned the steering wheel even as he complained, brought the car parallel to the road. Mark had glanced at me. I shook my head. Don’t worry about it.

It was hard. Mark, an English university exchange student with a penchant for Marxism and Stena, had only been in the Mikan-Growing Prefecture for three months. Stena and I had thought he’d enjoy the south of the land away from the crushed tins and plastic wrappings and insistent noise of the city. Though wherever you pulled up – the loneliest car stop on the loneliest sweep of land – there was a vending machine dispensing drinks. Even in the country, faded labels caught on twigs, empty cans rolled under bushes. Stena and I had been going to hire a car, going to do the tourist thing, but Takeshi had thought the trip sounded like a great idea and offered to drive instead.

I squeeze his shoulder as we get back into the car. “Otsukare,” I say, a way of thanking him for putting in the effort, for driving us, but he shrugs, puts the car into gear. Mark shoos the cigarette smoke as he gets in.

Stena sits in the front. I don’t mind. She feels nauseous if she can’t see the road ahead, and her Japanese is better than mine. After six months together, Takeshi and I have come up with a brand of Japlish that does nothing to enhance the levels of our second languages. Not only is Stena fluent, she can fold and unfold maps and read the Chinese characters naming routes and highways.

We follow the coast for a while before pulling into a verge again. The convex lollipop mirror ahead of us reflects the twists and turns of the oncoming road, the build-up of cars. We’re higher up now. Pines soar down the hillside to the sea. Takeshi puts the car into reverse, curls it around the corner, leaves it in neutral, until four cars driving the opposite direction pass.

“I’d get my right and left mixed up, you know, like when you’re reversing and you have to turn the wheel the other way to make the car go the way you want,” Mark says.

“That’s only when you’ve got a trailer,” I say.

“Imagine a trailer round that corner.” Mark shakes his head, puts the lens cap back on his camera. He’d been lining up shots outside the parked car to see if there were any worth taking. The mountain on his side was surfaced with concrete and netting to stop rock falls. There wasn’t much scope.

“Can see why you’re in the back with me and Takeshi’s behind the wheel. Ne, Ta-kun?” I say, leaning towards the front.

Nani?” he asks, what am I rabbiting on about now? He puts the car into first, cigarette hanging from his lips, indicates and pulls out, doesn’t turn the music down.

Nan de mo nai,” I say, not worth worrying about, plop back into the seat, look out at the flashes of sea appearing between the gaps in the trees. I turn back to Mark and ask, “You know how to play Twenty-Questions?”

He nods.


She twists from the front. “No, I have not heard of it.”

The music clunks to a stop. Takeshi presses a button, the tape flips over.

“I’ve got a tape a friend sent from home,” Mark says, pulls at his knapsack.

New tunes,” I say. I don’t mind Takeshi’s pop songs, but only understand a quarter of the lyrics, and he only seems to have one tape. Different if it was jazz, but he hasn’t packed any. I need a break from all the nasal warbling.

“Ta-kun, how about this?” I ask, leaning into the front with Mark’s tape.

“Takeshi’s driving,” Stena says.

“We’ve listened to his music all the way,” I say to her, then to Takeshi, “san jippun dake.” Tap the tape against his arm, hold up three fingers to indicate the thirty minutes it takes to play one side, as if he can see me, as if this strengthens my request.

“Forty-five actually,” says Mark.

“Thought you didn’t understand the old Nihongo,” I say, looking back at the Englishman.

“I have my moments.”

Stena sighs, takes the tape from me. “Sit back, put your set belt on,” she tells me.

“Yes Mum.” I sit back, but don’t belt up.

Dou Takeshikun, ii desu ka?” Stena asks my boyfriend.

Nani ga?”

There’s some new music that Mark and Josephine want to listen to, Stena says. He glances at the tape in her hand, then back at the road.

Sutiinasan wa?” he asks. She shrugs. Doesn’t mind what’s played.

“O-kay,” he says, punches eject, stops his tap mid-yodel.

Yatta!!” I yell, give Takeshi a quick squeeze, despite the car seat and his hands wrapped around the wheel. Mark laughs and I sit back, pulling the seat belt across my body, hum along to the music.

Josephine and the choices

Takeshi jingles his car keys, holds his finger on the button. He ignores me crowding into the lift behind him, the blanket and basket we’d taken down south bundled in my arms. He turns a cigarette in his hand, lights up when we get to the fourth floor, then strides to the apartment, barely holding the door open for me, though he does have to stop to remove his shoes in the genkan, the recess at the front of the flat.

Dumping the basket, I take out the containers, empty scraps into the bin. He opens the fridge, the seal separating like the smack of lips, pulls out a beer, doesn’t offer me one. It’s not like him. Picking up an ashtray, he walks into the lounge, flops onto the couch.

He has to be tired, had driven a long way, but at least he’s not working tonight. What does he want to do for dinner? He says his head hurts, he doesn’t want to do anything. If I told any of our friends that he’d passed up a chance to eat they’d howl me down with laughter.

“What’s up?” I ask, standing at the bench, running water over the containers.

“Nothing.” He picks up the remote, flicks on the television without the sound.

Uso,” I call him out on his lie, smile, hope to cajole him into a good mood. He scowls, stubs his cigarette, looks up at me, hesitates before he speaks. “Now you’re fluent.”

“What do you mean?”

He sips his drink, looks at a magazine left on the couch, turns the pages too fast to be reading. “Why’d you ask me to come? Just so I could drive?” He drains his can and crushes it.

Takeshi and I didn’t fight. I’m not sure what he’s getting at. I wipe the container before it’s really clean, need something to do with my hands. It’s hard to think in Japanese, to say what I mean.

You asked to come.”

“So you didn’t want me to?”

“Of course I did.”

“Thought I was the foreigner. Why come here if you don’t want to speak the language?”

He’s unfair, but I don’t want him to think I used him. Don’t want him to be upset. He knows Mark hardly speaks. Everyone’s fluent at Gretsch after a few drinks, but a daytrip, free of the liquids that loosen tongues and break down inhibitions, is another matter. Takeshi and I see each other all the time, speak Japanese eighty percent of that.

“Oh, Ta-kun, we try,” I walk from behind the bench. Sit on the arm of the couch. He gets up, goes to the kitchen. Sighing, I wipe my hands on the tea-towel, drop it on the magazine. Stooping, he swings the bar-fridge open again. “Your friends don’t rush to speak to me in English, I say to the bench, the top of his head. That’s what I hope I’ve said anyway. Probably more like your friends English speak don’t anyway.

He stands up, pulls back the tab on his second beer, drinks it by the sink, where I’d been standing. “Not our language,” he says, “this is Japan.”

I pick up the remote, switch off the television, turn to him.

“I was watching that,” he says. I raise my eyes, don’t flick it back on. “Didn’t mean to ignore you, but Mark’s only been here three months. His trying his hardest, but if we only spoke Japanese, even at my level, he wouldn’t understand a thing.”

Takeshi stares at the blank screen as if he can will a picture to appear. Speaks to the TV but gradually turns his head to me. “So it’s better he understands and I don’t? How long have I known you and Stena? How long have you known him?”

I shake my head, sit down on the couch, pick up the magazine he’s discarded. Flick through pictures of motorbikes and kakoi Japanese in their cool leathers, their mirrored shades.

“Your English has to bet better than his Japanese. Learning since you were thirteen. Must be some things you know,” I say to a picture of a BMW. A hissing noise. Takeshi sucking in air. I look up. He thinks his skill should be better, has told me. I don’t care one way or the other, but bring it up now. If he can be a pig, so can I.

“Only Stena cared. Even your stupid tape was in English,” he says. I see his point, but it isn’t like I hadn’t experienced the same situation, only in reverse.

“Sorry Ta-kun. It was the gaijins’ day out. Didn’t mean to ignore you, but how many dinners have I sat through like this . . .,” I push the skin up around my mouth with my thumb and forefinger, squash my lips into a jester’s leer, “ . . . because it’s the only way I can communicate? You think it’s interesting for me? You think when we went ice-skating with Yo-chan and Aiko I understood more than a quarter of what went on?”

A hint of a smile at the face. It wasn’t often you couldn’t get Takeshi to laugh. He focuses on the water faucet, fills himself a glass which he doesn’t drink. He turns to me, any trace of a grin inverted into a tight-lipped grimace. “You said you had fun.”

“I did, but I came home with a headache.” Same as you, I think, push the magazine off my lap, press my fingers into my forehead; the intermittent whine of mosquitoes buzzing behind my temples. But it’s not your country, I say to myself, know he went out of his way to accommodate me, and so did his friends. I appreciate it, know I’d been in the wrong that afternoon, but sometimes it was such a relief to speak English. He finishes his second beer, crushes the can, slips it into the sink. Stands there, folding one lip under the other.

“You chose to come here. It’s not Australia, you know.”

What did he want me to say? Fuck yeah, I knew it wasn’t home. I stare at him, his eyes blurring from the beers, shot red from a continuous hangover and full day’s worth of driving. I get up from the couch, pick up my bag, don’t bother stepping into my shoes properly. What was there to say? He wasn’t listening.

Yanking the door open, I stumble over my untied laces and pull my shoes on properly and wipe at my eyes with the back of my hand. I hear the can clatter to the kitchen floor. “But you chose to be with me,” I say to the mites flitting around the light outside his apartment. The sound of kazoos, music, yelling, audience laughter – a TV games show – filters through the bathroom window, drowns the noise of the cicadas shrilling into the heat-steeped night.

The Master Offers a word of Advice

“Was just staying a year. Was going to Europe. Only because of Ta-kun I’m here,” I wave my finger around, another shot of whisky in front of me, a half smoked pack of cigarettes to the side.

I offer one to the Master. He pulls a face, shakes his head. “Menthol dai kirai,” he says, pats his top pocket, pulls out his own brand. He laughs as he flicks the lid of his lighter, puts the flame to his cigarette, shoulders shaking, the sound escaping like a wheeze.

Nani?” I ask, leaning over the bar, jerking my hand away from the tip of my smoke. What’s so funny?

Nan de mo nai,” he dismisses me, but shakes his head as if I’m the sorriest thing he’s ever seen and sniggers as he refills his drink.

Nan de?!” Why is he laughing? The place is empty. Stena and Mark, the last customers but me, left at around two.

The Master screws the cap onto the bottle, places it on the ledge behind him, picks up his drink and holds it in front of him before taking a sip. “Guden guden ne?” he says under his breath, a phrase plucked from air.


Josefyuinchan ga guden guden ni narimashita.” He puts the phrase in a full sentence, speaks every syllable precisely. I’m good with speed, but he needs to articulate clearly for me to pick up. When I first went to the schools and mispronounced the students’ names they corrected me, enunciated every syllable evenly and clearly. I thought they were taking the piss. It was only when I started to understand how the language was put together that I realised they were spelling their names.

Guden guden no imi wa nani?” I ask. He smiles as I write the word in a small book, a pencilled colon anticipating an explanation. I show him so he can check the spelling. He nods, then frowns, trying to think how he can explain the expression.

He asks how many cigarettes I’ve had. I hold up the half empty pack, indicate the full ashtray. He asks how many drinks. I shrug. He holds up five fingers on one hand, places one finger on that palm to indicate six. No more than usual. So? I shrug again. He asks if I can run a sentence together, sit on my chair properly, remember where my purse is? I smile at him and shake my head.

Sore wa guden guden desu.” Sloppy drunk I write in my book in sloppy handwriting, offer the Master the menthols again and he shoos me away, laughing.

Takeshi usually drinks with me. The bar’s often full, but at other times just the two of us and the Master take the ten-to-whenever shift. We heard a lot of his stories. He’d converted to Catholicism for a young love. Had one daughter, and a wife whom he rarely saw. He wanted to float in a yacht near Indonesia on his fiftieth birthday, have the birds come and peck out what was left of his liver.

I rest my head on my hand, head slipping, straighten and try again, my spare hand running over the face of the sun bracelet. I never took it off. Bar the shower, of course. The design had worn smooth and I’d replaced the leather more than once. I used vinegar, flour and salt every now and then to stop the bronze from going green.

Samishii ne?” the Master says to me. I look up at him through frizzled curls. When I first walked in my hair had been pulled into a bun to beat the mugginess, now it brushes my shoulders, tickles my neck, sweat building up under its weight. He nods, looks sympathetic, but his moustache barely hides his smile.

Samishii,” I agree, my hand slipping to the counter. Admitting to loneliness in another language doesn’t sound quite so pathetic. There were a million songs written about it.

It’s time to head home. My eyes won’t stay open. Don’t worry, the Master says, Takeshi is jealous.

Jealous of whom?

Marukusan,” he says, but his eyes seem to focus on the bracelet, but then again maybe it’s just the movement of my hand that catches his eye.

Mark?!” I laugh. Stringy like a bean, and already caught up with Stena, he’s fun to be with, but not much more.

The Master nods. It makes sense in its own silly way. I sip my drink, the Master his.

Baka da ne!” I say.

Baka da yo,” the Master agrees. Takeshi was, indeed, a fool.