By Simon Rowe
‘English for Repeating Students’ was assigned to part-time instructors because none of the full-timers wanted to teach a bunch of teenaged misfits whose love of English rivalled their affection for the dentist’s drill.
They were restless young men and women with hormones beating like war drums, not clever in the academic sense—most wouldn’t have known the past-perfect tense if it had punched them on the jaw—but on the sports fields and judo mats of our university, they were royalty.
They came from farmsteads and fishing villages, construction families, truck driving and carnival clans; sent by parents who knew the market value of blood and bone, but also knew that you didn’t need a pass in English I-A to get a job with the Police Department or Self Defense Force—which is where most us assumed we’d end up.
So it was, that in the summer of ‘97, due to a mix-up by student administration, I joined the English haters. For the record, I disliked English as much as the next kid and would have been happier for the entire judo team to sit on my face after a summer training session than to have to spend summer afternoons listening to a blustery, overweight American verse me in adverbs of frequency, or whatever they were. At least in judo you learned to take a fall, and in this town that could be of real use.
What intrigues me, even now, is that every single member of the class of ‘97 is today a successful business person. Kenta Kayama runs his own organic farm upcountry, supplying apples, nashi pears, figs and strawberries to boutique restaurants all over Kansai. Mako Tanaka has a busy downtown restaurant right here in Himeji—I see her sometimes on Friday nights. Issei Funagi started a racehorse transporting company in Nishinomiya and Yuta Nakajima owns half the oyster farms between here and Ako on the inland sea bord. The others, too, are doing well I hear.
But the really big surprise is Jiro Takeda. The toughest, meanest kid who ever walked the halls of Himeko University is now a florist! That’s right. Runs a chain of stores stretching from Hokkaido to Okinawa—even has a branch in Ginza, Tokyo, supplying flowers to politicians, rock stars and sumo wrestlers’ girlfriends. Someone told me he won the contract for the Tokyo Car Show.
And me? Well, I guess you could say I’m the exception. You see, I never left this place. My business card says, ‘Chief of University Maintenance and Security’. It’s a living, modest salary, cafeteria lunches…I’m not complaining. So why am I telling you all of this? Well, if it weren’t for those jackhammers on the ninth floor drowning out my coffee break right now, I would not have remembered the repeaters’ English class of ‘97.
After the American quit, halfway through the first term, the university was desperate for a replacement. When they advertised the position, they got only one response. They didn’t even bother to interview; they just gave the job to the sole applicant.
This new teacher had a special request. He wanted his own office, apart from the other two part-timers who shared the staff room. Back then, part-timers did not qualify for such a privilege—and still don’t—but since the university was in a tight spot, admin quietly acquiesced. They requisitioned a storeroom on the ninth floor, threw in a table and a chair and slapped a number on its door: Room 910.
The other English teachers of the faculty of Foreign Languages sneered. Who was this part-time upstart? A few days before he was due to start, a sign mysteriously appeared on the door of 910. In hand-scrawled marker pen it read, ‘Gem Polishing Unit’. None of us understood the meaning of those words back then—but we do now.
Goto was his name.
Not Mister Goto, or Goto-sensei. ‘Just Goto,’ he told us. I will never forget his face on that first day. He had a scar on his jaw like a vein of silver, a mustache covered a bent-out-of shape lip and a piece of his left ear was missing. He looked like he’d lived more than one life. Apart from his face, there was no other defining characteristic; everything else about him—his height, his body shape, his hairstyle, his eye colour—was unremarkable. He wore long sleeved-shirts, buttoned at the collar, and through the entire rainy season and into July, never did he once roll up his sleeves or wear a summer business shirt.
Ah, the jackhammers have stopped. Now I can think…
On the first day of June we drifted in, bellies full from lunch, heads primed for dozing. The sports jocks were first, slumped over the desks, then the judo boys and girls entered with their cauliflower ears glistening with sweat, and after them came the ‘yunkees’ in their low slung jeans, spiky orange hairdos and thin sneering lips.
None of us knew what to make of the stranger. None of us cared. But soon, a feeling of unease spread through the room. It was not just his appearance, but what he did. He had rearranged the classroom so that the desks and chairs, instead of facing the whiteboard, now faced the window. This meant that we were forced to squint into mid-afternoon sun. It was like you read in those WWII manga comics, about the Zero fighter pilots who attacked the Americans from out of the sun. It had an oddly subduing effect on us.
That first day he never used a whiteboard, never touched a cd player, or a textbook. He simply asked us to write our names on a paper name card which he gave us and place it on our desks. We traded glances and shrugged; the American had not even bothered to learn our names, treating us a single entity to be painfully herded towards summer holidays.
The yunkees tested the water first. They ignored his instructions, took out their cell phones, drew penises on the desktops, and when that bored them, slept. Then, from out of the sun came a voice which said,
‘Issun no mushi ni mo, gobu no tamashii.’
Eyes opened. Heads lifted. Gazes fixed on the silhouette of the man at the front of the class. Had Goto just said that? And what kind of accent was that—Tohoku? Satsuma? Tosa? No-one knew.
Goto repeated, this time in English, ‘Even a worm an inch long has a soul half-an-inch long.’
At first there was silence, then from the back of the room someone murmured, ‘Fucking crackpot.’
Goto showed no reaction; not that we could see any because he was completely silhouetted. From behind his lectern, he produced a small woven cane basket and asked everyone to place their cell phone inside. Anyone who did not, he said, would receive an instant fail. The class complied.
All except Jiro Takeda. He was a big, brawny kid with a crew cut and wire-thin eyebrows. He was from Takasago, a steel town on the other side of the Ichi River where they told the seasons by which way the smoke stacks billowed.
Jiro looked up and grunted in the negative. The class held its breath.
When Goto turned sideways into the sunlight, his face was as passive as a temple pillar. He advanced on Jiro, giving him time to reconsider. But Jiro’s calloused knuckles only tightened around his phone and a snarl rose from inside him. What happened next I cannot explain: from Goto’s pocket a black furoshiki cloth, the kind used to carry goods in olden times, appeared. It seemed to fly by itself and land over Jiro’s clenched fist. He gave a loud yelp and flinched. Goto whipped the cloth away. When he held it up, the shape of the cell phone inside was clearly visible. Then he shook the cloth, and the phone was gone.
Jiro leaped up and lunged.
‘Masao-san has it,’ Goto said quickly.
‘Masao-san has your phone. It will be returned after class. Now, please take your seat.’
Jiro looked like he’d just been walloped with a baseball bat. He hung there in the sunlight, dumbstruck—alone. There was no face to lose because Jiro didn’t have one; it was completely blank. He returned to his seat to sit in silence and brood.
None of us knew who ‘Masao-san’ was, nor what Goto had meant by his comment, but I later found out that ‘Masao’ was the name of Jiro’s father. He’d died in a factory accident when Jiro was a high school student. How could have Goto possibly known his name? When the lesson ended, and our phones were returned, Jiro’s was among them.
We awaited our next lesson with a mixture of curiosity and loathing—but mostly curiosity. Even the often absented ‘yunkee’, Nakajima-san, showed up. He was a tall, thin, bleached-hair kid whose drop-out friends were all motorbike gang members and who were always pressuring him to join them. Nakajima swaggered in late, headphones on, and slumped into a chair at the back of the room. He glanced warily at Goto, but Goto barely noticed him as he instructed the class on the task ahead. Nakajima lay his head on the desk and closed his eyes.
‘Baka mo ichi-gei,’ said a voice. It caused Nakajima to leap up and violently pull the headphones from his head, as if someone might have increased their volume tenfold.
‘Even a fool has one talent,’ Goto said.
Nakajima rubbed his ears and glared back at him.
‘Your father is a fisherman isn’t he?’ said Goto.
‘And he has taught you how to fish, hasn’t he?’
Nakajima looked about furtively.
‘And you are good at it.’
A look of extreme discomfort crept into Nakajima’s face.
‘You know why you are a good fisherman? Because you watched, listened and learned.’ Goto smiled and his lip curled oddly. ‘You are not a fool, Nakajima-san. You have a talent.’
The lesson continued, and for the half-dozen lessons which followed, Nakajima, who was sometimes late, never did wear his headphones in class again.
July arrived and the summer heat set in, the humidity rose and the whine of cicadas in the sakura trees outside the windows only made us feel more listless. It was around this time that English for Repeaters took a new direction; instead of listening to cds of native speakers talking about sports, weather, food and shopping, Goto instructed us to listen to ourselves. He explained first in English, then in his strange Japanese, how to write a personal profile—easy stuff at first, like our age, birthdates, hobbies, pets and so on. Then he asked us to write about our families and our home life; next about our hopes, dreams, fears and ambitions. It was as if he were asking us to mine our own lives, to split the ore and sift the muck for nuggets and gems, experiences that had changed us, for better or for worse. I believe now he was sending us to the depths of our souls to find out who we really were, what we were really worth not just to ourselves or our families and friends, but to society and—perhaps, the world.
If we finished a task early and Goto was satisfied, then we could leave the classroom. However, a strange thing began to happen: instead of leaving, students stayed. They stayed and they wrote. I can’t speak for others, but I found myself writing things that I could never say in class, things that I was ashamed of, like the time I stole a tortoise from my neighbor’s pond, or the time my teenage sister got caught dating a married man, or my parents’ divorce… And though my vocabulary was poor, my grammar terrible, I felt a sense of relief as my words filled the paper.
The dog days of summer continued and gave us no respite from their heat and humidity. One afternoon, an electrical storm struck the city. Lightning needled the hills and the thunder boomed so loud it shook the window panes. An almighty CRACK! sounded and the entire university was thrown into darkness. All except our class, where the lights continued to glow and Goto continued speaking in his strange mixture of English and Japanese, seemingly unaware that our third floor classroom must have looked like a lighthouse that afternoon.
As August approached and other teachers began their ritual of scaring us with reminders of test dates and grading systems, Goto said nothing. Then one day he made an announcement which shocked us all: there would be no test. Instead, our final assessment would be an interview in Room 910. One student at a time.
To decide the order, we drew tickets and my name was pulled last. We had questions: what was the scope of the test? What kind of questions would we be asked? Goto replied that we would have to give a presentation about ourselves.
Then Kayama-san, who was seated on the far edge of the front row of desks, asked, ‘Is that a tattoo on your back?’ The class looked at Kayama-san, then back at Goto. For the first time since we had known him, he looked surprised. None of us could see any tattoo from our seats—the sunlight made it difficult to see anything at all.
‘It’s a scar,’ said Goto quickly.
‘It looks like a kid’s face…’
‘No-one chooses his scars, Kayama-san. Finish your stories for homework everyone and bring them to class next week. That’s all. Thank you.’ We left with our minds working overtime.
The day before the test, I was hit by a motor scooter and knocked off my bicycle while riding home at night. A shattered elbow and a hairline fracture on my right hip bone put me in hospital for two weeks. University administration said that so long as I could produce a doctor’s certificate, I would be receive special consideration for the first term’s assessments.
The days passed slowly, painfully, eased by painkillers and the visits of my friends who brought gifts of manga comics and snacks. When my thoughts turned to the Repeaters’ Class, it dawned on me that I had no friends because we were all drawn from different faculties. I had no news about Goto’s ‘interview’.
Halfway through August, and a few days after leaving hospital, I met Tanaka-san in the video rental shop. She had been my writing partner in Goto’s class. She was a big breasted girl with a thick, black pigtail and a judo swagger, but also soft-spoken and shy.
‘How did the interview go?’ I asked.
‘Room 910. You know, Goto’s interview…’
She looked surprised, and suddenly self-conscious. She drew me into the anime aisle, and said, ‘You didn’t hear?’
She looked over my shoulder.
‘Goto’s not a teacher.’
‘He’s a medium.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘He talks to the dead.’
She looked pained, but continued:
‘Goto asked us to talk about ourselves, our lives. Then he asked us about the future—where did we think we’d be in ten years time? After we’d answered him, his voice changed. It sounded very old, with many strange words I’d never heard…’
A mother with two young children stepped into the aisle; she ambled up and down, thumbing her cell phone, while her kids ran amok. She stooped, picked out three or four dvd movies and dragged her children to the counter. I turned back to Tanaka.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘I was speaking to my ancestors. They were trying to help me, to tell me what I should do in my life…’
‘I asked my grandmother some questions later, about our family history. She said that we are descendants of court chefs, that my ancestors even cooked for the Shogun, Honda Tadamasa.’
‘What did Goto say? I mean, the voice.’
‘He said that I should focus on what I’m good at, never give up because success will come eventually, ’
‘What do you think?’
‘I don’t know what to think. It’s funny, I like cooking but my parents want me to get a job at City Hall. It’s stable, safe, they say…’
‘Where’s Goto now?’
‘That’s the really strange thing. He’s disappeared. No-one knows a thing.’
I visited the campus the next day, limping through the empty corridors to the teachers’ office building, took the elevator to the ninth floor and found Room 910 at the end of a darkened hallway. The door was locked, the ‘Gem Polishing Unit’ sign gone; only a chair sat against the wall outside. I sat down and rested, pondering what Tanaka had said about Goto’s ‘direct line’ to her ancestors, about their advice… A chill shot through me and I shivered. I got to my feet and left.
As Chief of Maintenance and Security, these days, my job is to keep this campus running smoothing and safely for all students and staff. From time to time, or whenever I’m visiting the ninth floor of this building, I think about what happened back in the summer of ’97. I have even been to City Hall and to my family’s Buddhist temple to investigate my own ancestry; it seems my forebears were engineers; centuries ago they had helped lay the stone foundations of the majestic White Heron Castle which rises at our city’s centre and attracts so many foreign visitors today.
As for Goto, there is one last piece of information I’ve found. I haven’t told anyone—not even Tanaka-san. In 1998, a story appeared in the papers about a body which had been found beside the highway on the Sea of Japan coast. The police had not been able to identify it, except to say that its neck and torso were covered in tattoos; not of the yakuza variety, but strangely, with the faces of twelve children.
Now, this might be all one huge coincidence, but one year earlier on that exact day, on that same highway, a school bus overturned killing its driver and all of the students on board. Only a female trainee teacher survived. The news story quoted her as saying that she had seen the driver using a cell phone just before the accident.