Stick Out Your Tongue in Secret — My Murakami-esque Short Story for Books on Asia

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My latest short story pays homage to the genre of magical realism and Japan’s bestselling novelist Haruki Murakami. Read the full story for free on Books on Asia.

Stick Out Your Tongue in Secret – A Murakami-esque Short Story

It was the most traumatic night of my young life. A chilling experience for a thirteen-year-old girl. I’d always been a light sleeper but I knew it wasn’t the wind or an earthquake tremor that woke me in the wee hours of the morning. It must’ve been two or three o’clock. I’d sensed an intruder and my instincts rarely deceived me. I’d always been very intuitive and able to sense danger. A gift that would diminish each year as I grew older.

A sliver of moonlight was breaking through the curtains, revealing a pair of fluorescent beady red eyes in front of me. They were as bright as the azaleas in our front garden. My eyes focused a little and I could just make out someone with a thick waist and slightly wider hips. A small, chubby girl was perched on the edge of the tatami in our living room which doubled as our bedroom. She looked from side to side before she placed one hand in front of the other and inched a little closer. I sat up and leaned both hands back against the futon. Reclining my back, I didn’t want to lean forward and get anywhere near this being in front of me. I blinked twice and my eyes focused even more in the dark. The girl with the strange, brightly-coloured red eyes began to slowly but ever so surely crawl towards me little by little on all fours. Her glowing pupils lit up her face as she approached and I realised I was staring at Saki-san, a student who had moved into a street not far from our home with her family two months earlier. Her first name was Sakiko but everyone called her Saki or Saki-san. She was in the same class as me at the local junior high school but she had no female friends and she’d made it very clear with her icy demeanour that she didn’t want any.

Saki had deliberately distanced herself from nearly everyone in our class except for a couple of boys who were known for skipping school and smoking cigarettes in the alley behind the local pachinko parlour. Her ears were slightly pointy, her eyebrows were pencil thin, the end of her nose was too big for her face, and her lips were barely there. Her complexion was pasty, her shoulder-length hair was limp, and she was too short and stumpy for her age, even by Japanese standards. She was from Ehime Prefecture and she spoke with a rough Shikoku accent that had made everyone giggle when she’d given a presentation about her hometown in front of the whole class in August. You could tell that life would not be kind to her and she would become frumpy and unsuccessful as the years progressed if she had no desire to change, improve her attitude, or circumstances. As Saki approached me ever so hesitantly, I wondered why she was in our bedroom but I was too afraid to talk to her. I also wondered why her eyes were so red. I’d never noticed this before. I was sure they were dark brown when I’d watched her give that presentation two weeks earlier.

Saki flicked out her tongue a couple of times and hissed. Her tongue looked sharp with a silver glint, not rounded as it should be, but I couldn’t tell for sure. She was no longer in the light and I couldn’t see her face as clearly now. She reached the end of my futon, hissed at me again and sucked in air. A shiver went up my spine like a snake slivering up the skin of my back. Her hands began pawing the comforter as if she were hungry and rummaging for food. I gasped as she yanked at the end of my duvet. I finally found the strength to reach over to my mother’s futon and shake her shoulder. She instantly sensed something was wrong. My mother knew I’d never wake her unless it was absolutely necessary. She turned her head, opened her eyes, caught sight of Saki, jumped up off the futon, and pulled at the light switch. Saki sped past us, scuttled through the kitchen and jumped onto and out of the balcony in a flash. I was amazed she could move so quickly. I did catch sight of her eyes as she passed me and I noticed they were no longer red. They’d returned to their natural flat brown colour in the artificial light.

Continue reading this short story on Books on Asia.

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*The title, “Stick Out Your Tongue in Secret” is adapted from the Japanese proverb: 内緒で舌を出す (Naishō de Shita wo Dasu)

“Stick Out Your Tongue in Secret” is entirely a work of fiction. This short story was written to pay homage to Haruki Murakami and the genre of magical realism. It is not fanfiction and it was not written to plagiarise Murakami’s writing in any way or form. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in this story are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely coincidental.

This short story is copyright to Renae Lucas-Hall and Books on Asia in 2019. This story has been published subject to the conditions that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be sold or circulated without the author’s or publisher’s prior consent in any form.

20 Awe-Inspiring Quotes from Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

I recently read and reviewed Killing Commendatore for Books on Asia, a wonderful reference site that describes itself as a “guide to finding quality books on Japan and Asia from new releases to enduring classics, that deserve to be read, discovered and discussed.”

If you’re thinking about reading Murakami’s latest book and you want to know whether it’s worth your time or if you’ve already read it and you’re interested in an in-depth discussion on all the themes and symbolism in this epic novel then head on over to Books on Asia to read the review. While you’re there you’ll definitely find a lot of other Japan-related books to pique your interest.

KC coverBelow are 20 awe-inspiring quotes from Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami. Some of them are beautifully written similes, but I’ve also included some deeply philosophical quotes. I’m a writer so I tend to judge a book from a novelist’s point of view but it doesn’t matter whether you’re a reader or a writer like myself, I’m sure you’ll be equally impressed by Murakami’s clear and elegant prose and the way he makes us think more laterally, broadening our perceptions and perspectives on life and the people around us:

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1. “Look deep enough into any person and you will find something shining within. My job was to uncover this and, if the surface is fogged up (which was more often the case), polish it with a cloth to make it shine again.” (p. 15)

2. “Our lives really do seem strange and mysterious when you look back on them. Filled with unbelievably bizarre coincidences and unpredictable, zigzagging developments. While they are unfolding, it’s hard to see anything weird about them, no matter how closely you pay attention to your surroundings. In the midst of the everyday, these things may strike you as simply ordinary things, a matter of course. They might not be logical, but time has to pass before you can see if something is logical.” (p. 58)

3. “If he lived with someone he knew he would end up detesting them. Whether it was his parents, a wife, or children. He feared that above all. He wasn’t afraid of loving someone. What he feared was growing to hate someone. For all that, he had loved her very deeply. He’d never loved any other woman so deeply, and probably never would again. “Even now there’s a special spot inside me just for her,” Menshiki said. “A very real spot. You might even call it a shrine.”” (P.145)

4. “”Nirvana is found beyond life and death. You could see it as the idea that even if the flesh dies and disappears, the soul goes over to a place beyond life and death. Worldly flesh is nothing more than a temporary dwelling.”” (p. 165)

5. “Even after we broke up, it felt like my wife and I were still connected by a single living tube. An invisible tube, but one that was still beating slightly, sending something like hot blood traveling back and forth between our two souls. I still had that sort of organic sensation. But before long, that tube would be severed.” (p. 186)

6. “The longer I looked at the painting, the less clear was the threshold between reality and unreality, flat and solid, substance and image. Like Van Gogh’s mailman, who, the longer you looked, seemed to take on a life of his own. Same with the crows that he painted—nothing but rough black lines, but they really did seem to be soaring through the sky.” (p. 240)

7. “When people try to use a method other than the truth to follow along the path of understanding, it is like trying to use a sieve to hold water.” (p. 302)

8. “this woman, Yuzu, refused to love this man, me, and chose instead to be loved by someone else. It felt terribly absurd, a horribly ugly way to be treated. There wasn’t any anger involved (I think). I mean, what was I supposed to be angry with? What I was feeling was a fundamental numbness. The numbness your heart automatically activates to lessen the awful pain when you want somebody desperately and they reject you. A kind of emotional morphine.” (p. 315)

9. “I mean, it’s the first time I ever got divorced.” “What does it feel like?” “A bit bizarre, I guess. Like you’re walking along as always, sure you’re on the right path, when the path suddenly vanishes, and you’re facing an empty space, no sense of direction, no clue where to go, and you just keep trudging along. That’s what it feels like.”” (p. 326)

10. ““You’re saying there’s something similar in our eyes?”

“Maybe it’s because they reflect your true feelings. Curiosity, enthusiasm, surprise, suspicion, reluctance—I can see those subtle emotions in both your eyes and hers. Your faces aren’t all that expressive, but your eyes really are the windows to your hearts. Most people are the opposite. Their faces are expressive, but their eyes aren’t nearly so lively.”” (pp. 362–363)

11. “I had taken a nap, but my head was muddled. It felt like a ball of yarn had been crammed into the back of a narrow desk drawer, and now the drawer wouldn’t close properly.” (p. 364)

12. “Today we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, but that phrase—even that concept—was unknown then. In that deeply militaristic society, people like my uncle were dismissed as lacking courage, or patriotism, or strength of character. In wartime Japan, such ‘weakness’ was neither understood nor accepted.” (p. 397)

13. “Mariye was silent, her eyes fixed on the teapot on the table. She looked like a lone night heron motionless on the shore, glaring at the water’s surface for hours on end.” (p. 410)

14. “Once Mariye made up her mind not to speak, trying to reach her was like ladling water onto a parched desert.” (p. 419)

15. “Yet the thought of the two of them together left me bereft. As if I were standing in a station watching a long, empty train pass by.” (p. 474)

16. “Perhaps time really had stopped. Then again, maybe it kept nudging forward despite the fact that evolution, or anything resembling it, had ended. Like a restaurant approaching closing time that has stopped taking orders. And I was the only one who hadn’t figured it out.” (p. 478)

17. ““Walls were originally erected to protect people. From external enemies, storms, and floods. Sometimes, though, they were used to keep people in. People are powerless before a sturdy, towering wall. Visually and psychologically. Some walls were constructed for that specific purpose.”” (p. 487)

18. “But it went without saying that his life was bounded by time, space, and probability. Like everyone else’s in this world. None of us could escape those constraints, as long as we lived. Each of us was enclosed by sturdy walls that stretched high in the air, surrounding us on all sides. Probably.” (p. 501)

19. “Yet what was time, when you got right down to it? We measured its passage with the hands of a clock for convenience’s sake. But was that appropriate? Did time really flow in such a steady and linear way? Couldn’t this be a mistaken way of thinking, an error of major proportions?” (p. 583)

20. “When it came down to it, though, could anything be completely correct, or completely incorrect? We lived in a world where rain might fall thirty percent, or seventy percent, of the time. Truth was probably no different. There could be thirty percent or seventy percent truth. Crows had it a lot easier. For them, it was either raining or not raining, one or the other. Percentages never crossed their minds.” (p. 609)

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I’d like to say a BIG thank you to Haruki Murakami’s publisher in the UK, Harvill Secker, for sending me a review copy of Killing Commendatore. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I hope my review on Books on Asia reflects this.

I’d also like to thank Amy Chavez, the Editor of Books on Asia, for including my review on her marvellous website.

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The Importance of Cherry Blossoms in Japan in the 21st Century

I’ve already explained the significance of cherry blossoms (or sakura as they’re known in Japan) and how they represent the impermanence and fragility of life but I want to discuss their importance in the 21st century in this blog post and why they should be so highly regarded and valued now more than ever before.

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CHERRY BLOSSOMS ACT AS A GATEWAY TO DEEPER ASPECTS OF THE JAPANESE CULTURE

In today’s world, you might develop an appreciation of sakura if you come across a modern design, photo, painting or scroll in your own country featuring cherry blossoms or if you visit Japan at this time of the year. This can become a gateway to appreciating more traditional aspects of the Japanese culture such as ikebana flower arrangement and tea ceremony. You could even develop an interest in Japan-related books (the kind I write!), in books written by Japanese authors as well as famous artists and people in Japan who are upholding traditional Japanese crafts.

There is evidence in Japanese literature, poetry and art that cherry blossoms and hanami (花見) (or cherry blossom viewing) have been appreciated for over 1,000 years. There are more than 21 references to cherry blossoms and plum blossoms in the famous novel The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. Famous haiku poets like Matsuo Basho and Issa Kobayashi have dedicated poetry to these beautiful flowers and Reiji Hiramatsu and Kitagawa Utamaro are just two artists who have dedicated entire artworks to cherry blossoms. Take a look at this gorgeous photo by Sarah Hodge of the young maiko (apprentice geisha) posing next to the cherry blossom trees. Not only do the blossoms accentuate their beauty, this photo also makes you want to find out more about Japanese traditions.

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Japan has changed a lot over the past 30 years. When I first lived in Japan the Japanese were optimistic about their careers, family life and the future but this has all changed since that economic bubble burst in the 1990s. Now Japan is faced with an ageing population, many young people are forgoing marriage in favour of leading a single life and according to National Geographic the Japanese government estimated there were approximately 540,000 hikikomori or socially reclusive individuals living in Japan in 2016 and this situation has become even worse over the past couple of years.

CHERRY BLOSSOMS COULD GIVE HIKIKOMORI RECLUSES A GOOD REASON TO LEAVE THE HOME

Psychologists and therapists who are dealing with the hikikomori know it takes time to convince these young people to leave their homes or their bedrooms where they’ve spent years hiding from the world. An invitation to stroll under the cherry blossoms for just half an hour might seem like a small step in the right direction for these reclusive individuals, but it can also have an extremely positive impact on their attitudes to the outside world and really help them to regain the confidence they need to re-join society.

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Despite socio-economic problems and adversities, one natural occurrence remains constant every year all over Japan and that’s the cherry blossom season. In early spring, the custom of cherry blossom viewing not only attracts tourists from all over the world, it also draws millions of Japanese people out of their homes, schools and offices and into the parks, sidewalks and gardens. Here they can forget their worries for a few hours as they enjoy the good company of friends, families and colleagues while they admire the cherry blossoms.

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CHERRY BLOSSOM AND PLUM BLOSSOM VIEWING CAN MAKE THE ELDERLY FEEL YOUNG AGAIN

According to Forbes, elderly people in Japan, traditionally defined as those 65 or older, total some 35.57 million, accounting for a record-high 28.1% of the population. What do the cherry blossoms mean to these elderly people? Many pensioners in Japan believe their country is changing and evolving too rapidly, many traditions are no longer upheld and the Western world is having a huge impact on the young. The older Japanese people feel Japan is no longer truly Japan and their homogenous society is breaking apart so cherry blossom and plum blossom viewing have become very important to the older generation. It evokes all sorts of great memories and reminds them of a time when they were more active and enjoying parties under the trees with their friends. It gives them a chance to feel young again.

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JAPANESE PEOPLE LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY TAKE OFF THEIR MASKS AT HANAMI

In Japan it’s not uncommon to see someone wearing a mask over their mouth and nose if they have a cold or an unsightly pimple but in the past few years many people have started to wear masks over their faces as a sign they don’t want to talk to others or interact with other people. When a group of friends meet under the cherry blossom trees the pretty bento boxes filled with delicious food and the relaxed conversation means they can take off these masks and enjoy themselves for a few hours without any inhibitions.

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TOURISTS WILL GET A DEEPER SENSE OF WHAT IT MEANS TO BE JAPANESE

If you’ve ever been to Japan during the cherry blossom season or if you live in Japan you cannot help but be impressed by the beauty of sakura and if you see large groups of people picnicking under the cherry blossoms it’s more than likely you’ll be very tempted to join them or arrange a party with a few friends or fellow travellers so you can take part in the festivities.

If you’re a tourist in Japan at any other time of the year, your impression of the Japanese people will be very positive but you might not see their true personality. You’ll definitely have the chance to observe many people sitting tight-lipped on trains looking down at their phones or reading their favourite manga comics. You’ll also come across a lot of very polite customer service representatives in department stores, hotels, Japanese traditional ryokan inns, at information desks and in shops who will be more than willing to show you the true meaning of omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) but hanami brings out the true spirit of the Japanese people so you’re more likely to see Japanese people just being themselves. This is a time when the Japanese are most relaxed. The simplicity of the occasion and the beauty of the petals really brings out the best in them. You might be planning a trip to Japan to coincide with the cherry blossom season but you’ll leave Japan knowing a lot more about the spirit of the Japanese people if you visit at this time of the year and that understanding will leave you with a deeper sense of what it means to be Japanese.

JNTO Hanami

WESTERNERS GET THE OPPORTUNITY TO SEE JAPANESE PEOPLE SHOW THEIR TRUE PERSONALITIES

The most amazing transformation takes place when the sun sets in the evening and the colourful lights illuminate the cherry blossoms. Yozakura (夜桜) is the term used to describe cherry blossom viewing at night and this is a time when the Japanese people really start to shake off their inhibitions. The flowing alcohol and the cool air combined with the beauty of the blossoms provides the most wonderful setting. Company colleagues forge strong alliances as they take part in drinking games: you’ll see them loosening their ties and their faces becoming ruddy with intoxication as they scream out in playful defiance insisting they’ve just won a game. Couples on romantic dates will catch your eye and you’ll think it’s so cute the way they reach for each other’s hands as they admire the cherry blossoms, wondering when they should share their first kiss. You’ll also see large groups of high school friends or university mates huddled together. What you won’t know is they’re making promises to meet at that same place every year for the rest of their lives in order to relive this unforgettable hanami experience.

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CHERRY BLOSSOMS ARE TRENDING

Cherry blossoms in Japan are gaining worldwide recognition. Even Kim Kardashian threw a cherry blossom themed baby shower and launched a cherry blossom-inspired makeup collection in 2018. Every year in Japan, a lot of well-known brands launch a cherry blossom-themed product in March/April to commemorate the season. You can try a Starbucks Sakura Latte, a Sakura Kit Kat, sakura-flavoured sake, sakura-flavoured crisps and all sorts of cakes and sweets made to taste and look like cherry blossoms. You’ve probably also noticed all of my books have a cherry blossom theme because I too have a huge appreciation for sakura.

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CHERRY BLOSSOMS ARE HAVING A HUGE AFFECT AND MAJOR IMPACT ON INBOUND TOURISM

It’s easy to appreciate the cherry blossoms for their aesthetic qualities and especially the five petal somei-yoshino variety that’s so prevalent in Japan. The more cherry blossoms are admired all over the world the more Westerners will want to visit Japan and see the beautiful blossoms with their own eyes. The cherry blossoms are having a huge and very positive impact on inbound tourism, and interest in Japan from all over the world has amplified enormously in recent years thanks to the cherry blossom season (and other aspects of the culture such as manga and anime). Sakura, as always, continues to have a wonderful impact on Japanese society. I truly believe cherry blossoms are not only beautiful, I also think sakura and hanami will always be an extremely important and significant part of the Japanese culture now and in the future for the Japanese people and anyone with an interest in Japan.

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All of the above photos (except the seventh photo of hanami courtesy of JNTO) are by Sarah Hodge @japantravelbug. A linguist and ESL instructor by trade, Sarah Hodge writes food and travel articles for several print and online publications including Stars and Stripes Japan, Tokyo Weekender and Metropolis Magazine. A long-time cookbook reviewer and cooking enthusiast, she also proofreads and recipe tests for upcoming cookbooks from a variety of genres. Sarah’s hobbies include travel, Japanese traditional crafts, Zen Buddhism, and digital photography.

This image of the sakura season in Tokyo and the Greater Tokyo Area is courtesy of CFAY in Yokosuka

This image of the sakura season in Tokyo and the Greater Tokyo Area is courtesy of CFAY in Yokosuka