YARN is honored to bring you this exclusive sneak peak into “Tomo“ (meaning “friend” in Japanese), an anthology of young adult short fiction in prose, verse, and graphic art set in or related to Japan. Edited by Holly Thompson, this unique collection features thirty-six stories—including ten in translation and two graphic narratives— contributed by authors and artists from around the world, all of whom share a connection to Japan. (More on the book and it’s philanthropic mission, below.)
You won’t find excerpts from “Tomo” anywhere else before its March 11 release, and YARN is thrilled to bring you this unique culture-crossing work: “Love Right on the Yesterday” by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, author of “Midori by Moonlight” and “Love in Translation.”
I learned my destiny the day I first laid eyes on Rie Ando. It was her television debut, her appearance as the week’s “Bursting Young Star” on my favorite TV show, The Best Ten. Her song, “Love Right on the Yesterday,” had been released only that day, so there was no way she could have been in the top ten yet, and at that moment it was impossible to know she would be number one the following week, the fastest number-one debut ever. But clearly she was someone special, the type of idol singer who arrived out of nowhere, yet the next day you couldn’t remember a time when you didn’t know her, as if she’d been a part of your life forever.
Rie wore a lacy pink camisole top over a white, cap-sleeved blouse—the layered look that had been on the cover of the latest issue of PopSister. Her ecru, tiered petticoat skirt reminded me of an outfit I’d seen the previous Sunday in the window of Ciao Panic in Harajuku. Her hair hung shoulder length and perfect, shimmering like a waterfall.
But it was when she sang that I knew for sure.
I need you! Love right—on the yesterday!
Bright, open, sparkling, her voice boasted a confidence, an unexpected sophistication from a singer who was fifteen but still managed to come off as a cute young girl. The melody rang out as new but familiar, catchy but unrecognizable, and I realized immediately that I was witnessing a historic, monumental event.
After that I bought every CD, tribute book, calendar, DVD, pencil case, pair of house slippers, and T-shirt. I switched to drinking Pocari Sweat from Calpico because Rie Ando was the Pocari Sweat mascot. A life-size cardboard cutout of her graced every 7-Eleven in Japan.
I learned that her birthday was July 21, that she was born in Kumamoto City, that her real name was Noriko Yoshikawa, that purple was her favorite color, that her blood type was O, and that her measurements were 84-59-84.
I committed every Rie Ando song to memory, performing them hundreds of times at Sing-Sing Karaoke Box, and hundreds more times in front of the mirror on my bedroom closet door.
But it was when I made the pilgrimage to Tokyo Dome to see her live and in concert on the first stop of her Shiseido Cosmetics Super Pink Peachy tour that I allowed myself to believe that my secret dream could come true; that I would become the next Rie Ando.
“This is something I really want to do,” I said to my mother.
She sighed, her forehead wrinkled as a prune. “You’re too young.”
“But Rie Ando debuted when she was fifteen.”
“Well, you’re not Rie Ando.”
It didn’t impress my mother that I’d won seven singing competitions with my version of “Love Right on the Yesterday,” including the grand prize in the Cup Noodle New Voice Karaoke Contest, beating out singers from all over Chiba Prefecture. I’d taken this as a sign that I should get started on my musical career. I was determined to go to the open auditions in Tokyo put on by the big music production companies. But there was a catch: you had to get a form signed by your parents. My mother wouldn’t budge.
By now Rie Ando had become the biggest idol singer Japan had ever seen. Her nickname was Rie-Himesama—Princess Rie—because she looked so elegant, as if she should live in a big castle, or at least a fancy condo in Roppongi Hills. Yet somehow she never came off as stuck-up. She seemed a regular, down-to-earth girl—the classmate who would let you copy her algebra homework, borrow her favorite Hysteric Glamour muffler, or tell you the shocking secret about the unmarried assistant principal at your high school.
“Do you know what it’s really like being in the entertainment industry?” my mother went on, the emotion rising in her voice. “Only one in thousands will be as big as Rie Ando. And so many girls don’t make it.”
“But I think I have a chance.”
“And the ones that do make it don’t get very far,” she said, as if she didn’t hear me. “Their fame lasts only five minutes. Then it’s over. What kind of a life is that?”
It was pointless to talk to her. “What if I ask Dad?”
She frowned and shook her head. “You’ll be wasting your time.”
Dad worked at a big insurance company in Tokyo and rarely got home before ten o’clock. Mom would leave his dinner out for him and then go help my younger brother Yoshi with his homework. That night I waited until my father was just about done, finishing his miso soup. As I refilled his rice bowl I pled my case.
“Yumi,” he said. “You need to listen to your mother. Being in show business is tough.”
“But I know this is my destiny.”
He smiled. “It’s good to have a passion and you have a nice voice. But it’s not as glamorous as it looks. It’s best to enjoy singing as a hobby.”
His patronizing tone made my face flush. “Please, Dad. Please.”
He paused, thinking of something to appease me. “If you still feel this way when you graduate high school, we can think about it.”
I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so heartbroken. Didn’t he know that the idea of an idol debuting at eighteen was as ludicrous as starting kindergarten at the age of eight?
“My parents won’t let me go,” I wailed to my friends Chisato and Naoko at school the next day.
“That’s so unfair,” Chisato said. “You sing better than Rie Ando. You deserve a chance.”
“You can’t give up your dream, Yu-chan” Naoko said.
“I won’t give it up—I won’t,” I said.
My parents were ruining everything and I didn’t know how I could change the situation.
Rie Ando’s songs always blared from the cafés, boutiques and clothing stands jammed into Takeshita-dori in Harajuku, where Naoko, Chisato, and I spent every Sunday afternoon. All the kids dressed in the trendiest clothes, and everyone crowded into the long, narrow street or spilled over into the side alleys. It was so packed that you couldn’t move much faster than a caterpillar, but all the noise and excitement and the sweet smell of strawberries and whipped cream from the crepe stands always made me feel that Harajuku must be the best place on earth.
Another thing you could always count on at Takeshita-dori was the photographers. They reminded me of bats, the way they perched upon the stairways and side streets and then would swoop out, aiming their long-lens cameras like rifles, taking pictures of the girls who looked the most fashionable. They’d sell the photos to magazines for spreads on street fashion, and if you looked good enough, they’d publish your photo with your name, age, and occupation. No photographer ever paid any attention to Chisato, Naoko, or me, and we never expected that they would.
But on one Sunday I was wearing a new outfit that I’d just bought with my prize money from the Cup Noodle contest, and to my surprise, several photographers took my picture.
Then a bunch of them started taking photos of me every Sunday, and soon after I noticed the pictures showing up in magazines like Zipper, Young Street, and Up!Venus. The caption always said: Yumi Kitazawa, 15, high school student—there wasn’t much else to say.
I clearly remember my ensemble on the Sunday my life changed. It was four months to the day that I’d won the Cup Noodle contest. I wore a white, tight-fitting T-shirt dress a few inches above the knee and a black-and-white polka-dot jacket with a Peter Pan collar. I paired this with short black leggings and bright green platform high-tops with white laces, and finished it off with a black scarf made from fabric that looked like shredded rubber, and an oversize gray, slouchy shoulder bag dotted with silver studs.
My friends and I were walking along the street as usual when a guy approached me who seemed different. He wasn’t scruffy-looking like the typical photographer; in fact, he didn’t even have a camera. He wore a suit and looked more like a salariman or an actor on a home drama.
“Excuse me,” he said, bowing. “Are you Yumi Kitazawa-san?”
He already knew my name! Naoko and Chisato began to giggle. I stood there, silent.
“I’m sorry to be so rude and stop you like this,” he said.
He spoke in formal Japanese like an NHK news anchor. He was old—at least thirty.
“I recognized you from your pictures in these magazines.” He opened a black leather case that resembled a fancier version of my schoolbook bag, and pulled out a thick binder. Inside were photos of me from every magazine I’d been in. “You are Yumi Kitazawa-san, correct?”
My first reaction was what is he? Some kind of pervert? Should I just run away or deny that I’m this Kitazawa girl? My mouth went dry, as if I’d swallowed a spoonful of sand. But in the end I cleared my throat and said, “Yes, that’s me.”
“I represent Morita Pro Music.”
Naoko gasped much too loudly. Chisato went, “Heyyyyyy!” My knees seemed to turn inside out. I concluded that I must have been dreaming. He went on talking, but somehow I could only comprehend every other word. He handed me a business card.
“If you’re interested in possibly working with Morita Pro Music, have your parents contact us,” he continued. “Again, I’m sorry if I’ve caused you any inconvenience. We look forward to hearing from you.”
I held the card as if it were a delicate piece of china. If you’d told me while I was getting dressed that morning that I’d be scouted that afternoon by Morita Pro Music, the very production company that had discovered Rie Ando and dozens of other idol singers, I’d have thought you’d had a couple of shots of whiskey with your breakfast coffee.
All I could do was bow as low as I could and thank him. He bowed back, then turned around, disappearing into the crowds.
Chisato was practically sobbing and couldn’t speak.
“Yu-chan,” Naoko said. “It’s your dream, but . . .”
She didn’t have to say another word. Yes, it was my dream, and something meant to be, and yes, my parents would be against it. But what she didn’t know was what I was saying in my head, that nothing would stop me from getting what I wanted.
“It’s fate,” I told my mother. “To have this guy come up to me. You have to let me go.”
“I don’t have to let you do anything,” was her reply.
“But this is a chance in a lifetime.”
“We’ve already had this discussion.”
“I’ve heard enough, Yumi. That’s enough.”
I was relentless, pleading for weeks, fearing that if we waited too long to contact Morita Pro Music they would forget all about me. I must have worn my mother down, because finally, after hashing it out with my father, she reluctantly agreed to accompany me to an audition at their office in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.
“Yu-chan, I want to make one thing clear,” she said in a stern voice the rainy Saturday when we rode the train in to Tokyo. “This is just to check it out. It doesn’t mean that I’m giving you permission to pursue this.”
I nodded, but felt my frustration once more approaching the boiling point. Couldn’t she possibly understand what this meant to me? I asked her something I’d never asked her before. “Didn’t you have an idol when you were young?”
“Yes, of course. There were idols in the ‘olden days.’” She smiled. “Akiko Takeda. She debuted when I was fourteen.”
The name sounded familiar, but that would have been about twenty-five years ago; I knew nothing about her.
My mother stared out the window, her face becoming smooth and relaxed, and began to sing softly to herself. I couldn’t hear every word, but the song seemed to be about a spring day with the cherry blossoms blooming and a girl being newly in love.
She stopped and gave a laugh, as if she were embarrassed to be caught singing on the train. “We all went crazy for Akko-chan—bought all her records, watched her on TV, went to her concerts. She was everywhere.” She looked at me. “Akiko Takeda was just as famous as Rie Ando, even more so.”
I found it difficult to picture my mother as a teenager and even more difficult to believe that anyone could have been as big as Rie Ando. My mother’s smile faded, and she turned toward the window. She seemed to be thinking hard about something. I didn’t want to risk souring her even further about the audition, so I just nodded and kept quiet. We rode in silence until we reached Shinjuku Station.
Although it was the biggest and most famous production company in Japan, Morita Pro Music was housed in a plain and rather dismal seven-story office building not too far from the west exit of the station. We rode the elevator to the fourth floor and met Fujita-san, the man who’d spoken to me in Harajuku, and some other people whose names I forgot the moment after they introduced themselves.
On the phone they’d told me to have a song ready, so I was prepared to sing Rie Ando’s “Love Right on the Yesterday.” Not only was it my favorite, it was also a lucky song, the one I always sang in the karaoke contests. I knew Morita Pro Music thought I must have the right look for an idol singer, since they scouted me from my pictures. And to be an idol it didn’t matter if you couldn’t sing too well. But I was determined to show them I was good at that too—maybe even better than Rie Ando.
Fujita-san took us to a room lined with huge mirrors. It wasn’t what I expected, not fancy or glamorous at all. A long strip of black adhesive tape on one of the mirrors seemed to cover a thick crack. There was only a small table and some fold-up chairs where Fujita-san’s assistants took their places, and a wooden stool in the middle of the room, where he told me to sit.
“We’ll be videotaping you and just want to ask you a couple of questions,” Fujita-san said. “Are you ready?”
“Yumi-san, what are your hobbies?”
Trying hard not to be consumed by nerves, I willed myself to be poised and enthusiastic like Rie Ando. But Fujita-san’s question stumped me. Hobbies? My mind went blank.
“I love to go to the karaoke box and sing,” I finally said. There was silence, as if he were expecting more. I combed my brain for ideas. “And I go to Harajuku every Sunday, and I also collect stuffed animals.” It was lame, but it was the best I could do.
“How many stuffed animals do you have in your collection?”
What a relief that he seemed to find enough legitimacy in one of these pathetic responses to continue the conversation. And I knew the answer without even thinking. “One hundred and nine.”
Thankfully Fujita-san asked no more questions, and said that now it was time for me to sing.
I stood in the middle of all the mirrors, feeling not much bigger than an ant. I was glad to have the interview end, but now I turned fidgety and nervous. A young woman dressed in a dark blue office-lady uniform handed me a microphone. I jumped when the introduction to “Love Right on the Yesterday” blasted out of speakers that seemed to surround the room.
Luckily, my voice rang out loud and clear, though I couldn’t stop bending my knees. I was convinced that everyone was staring at them flexing up and down like a chicken’s. I concentrated hard to hold them in place, to stop the wobbling, while at the same time trying to make sure I wouldn’t forget the lyrics, which I somehow was struggling to remember. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my mother pulling at her hand as if she were peeling an orange and looking like she had a headache. I tried to put her disapproval out of my mind.
I made sure to smile in the same way as Rie Ando, and point with my index finger toward the audience, which consisted of only seven people, including my mother, and all sporting uninterested looks. I also made a point of holding the note longer on the word “yesterday” than on Rie’s version, hoping to show off my stronger voice.
“We can’t believe how great you are! You’ve passed the audition!” That’s what I wanted someone to say once I finished and the music faded. But instead no one even clapped, and Fujita-san looked bored when he stood up and said, “Thank you Yumi-san. We’ll be in touch.”
Afterward my mother took me to the Spick and Span coffee shop in Shinjuku Station. I hadn’t eaten a thing all day, feeling much too jittery to think about food. But once the audition ended I was starving. In spite of Mom’s dubious expression, I ordered the Dokkiri deluxe sundae—three scoops of vanilla ice cream doused in chocolate sauce, a cherry topping each mound—and began wolfing it down immediately.
“Don’t eat so fast, Yu-chan. You’ll get a stomachache,” my mother said.
“Do you think I did okay?”
She sipped her milk tea. “It doesn’t matter what I think. It’s what they think. They must be seeing hundreds of girls.”
I put down my spoon. That was true, and I felt like an idiot not to realize it. Just because there hadn’t been some big group of girls waiting to audition didn’t mean I had no competition.
“You may have some talent, but there are many girls who can sing just as well or who are just as cute. And they may even prefer someone who doesn’t sing too well. You know, someone who’s charming but isn’t so talented that she makes her fans feel bad.”
“And you need to remember that if you did pass, and if we did decide this was something we’d let you do, you’d have to move to Tokyo, go to the Morita Pro school, and live on your own. They wouldn’t let you commute from home.”
We’d talked about this before after she’d first spoken to the people at Morita Pro Music, but she always made sure to bring it up, as if these facts would cause me to change my mind.
“You’d be a company worker like your father—an employee of Morita Pro Music. It’s a job, you know. And you wouldn’t have time to see Chisato and Naoko. You’d be very busy, working all the time.”
“And your mom would miss you, you know?”
She always made sure to say this, too. Yes, I knew she would miss me. The lump in my throat grew bigger by the minute. My eyes fixated on the runny ice cream in front of me, turning to soup in the glass boat.
My mother stared at my face. “Are you absolutely sure you’d want to do this?”
Yes! I’ve never been so sure about anything in my whole life! I wanted to scream, but instead I only nodded. I was too exhausted to utter a word, and what did it matter? I’d said it to her many times before.
She knew the answer.
On the train ride home my mother read her home décor magazine and I sent messages to Chisato and Naoko on my cell phone, telling them about the audition and that I really wasn’t sure if I had a chance. Immediately they wrote back, saying they knew I would pass, but I wasn’t so confident.
With another thirty minutes to go before we’d arrive home, I fiddled with my phone. What was the name of my mother’s idol again, I wondered. Akiko Takeda? What did she look like? I typed her name and found her picture immediately. Of course she looked hopelessly out of date. Dressed in a sailor suit, she had short, feathered hair, and her teeth looked a little too big for her mouth. But she was cute and sparkly with bright brown eyes, a
dimple on her left cheek, and a sweet smile. Underneath her picture it said:
Akiko Takeda, nicknamed “Akko” and winner of the prestigious “Newcomer of the Year” award, was one of the biggest idols in the 1980s, with hits that included “Spring Song,” “Heart Kimagure” and “Kuchibiru Wonderful.” But her life was tragically cut short at the age of seventeen when she leapt to her death from the seventh floor of the Morita Pro Music building in Shinjuku. She left no note, but it was widely believed that she was despondent over her career, although at the time of her death “Kuchibiru Wonderful” was number one on the charts. Thousands of fans kept vigil for days at her death site and the subsequent copycat suicides that swept the nation over the ensuing weeks and months were dubbed “Akko Syndrome.”
I gazed at my mother’s face, then took her hand and patted it. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”
During the following weeks, each day when I arrived home from school, I hoped to hear the good news that I’d passed the audition. But no phone call came. What a relief, though, to find that a letter hadn’t arrived either, saying how awful I’d been and how Fujita-san must have been having a poor judgment day when he tracked me down in Harajuku.
Only Chisato and Naoko knew about my audition.
“What are you going to do if you don’t pass, Yu-chan?” Naoko asked. “I mean, I’m sure you will, but . . .”
I didn’t know how to answer her question.
It was a Friday afternoon when I came home to see my mother sitting at the kitchen table. She wasn’t chopping carrots or beating eggs or drinking coffee. She wasn’t watching Longing to Hug on television. She wasn’t even wearing her favorite apron—the one with the fat penguin that said Let’s Housewife! She wasn’t doing anything. It was quiet. I could only hear the ticking of the orange wall clock, the one in the shape of a watering can, and the humming of the refrigerator.
My mother’s face looked drained of color. It must be something bad, I thought. Someone must have died.
I sat down across from her. “What happened?”
She didn’t answer.
She looked me in the eye. “Yu-chan, are you absolutely sure you want to do this?”
It took me a moment to understand her question. “Did they call?”
She nodded, but she wasn’t smiling.
“So can I? Can I?” I’d never felt more desperate in my entire life.
She clasped her hands, and I could hear the cracking of her knuckles. “I talked to your father,” she said with a small, resigned sigh. “He said it’s okay.”
The rush ricocheting through my body lifted me up from my chair. I threw my arms around her shoulders and pressed my cheek to her neck, holding on as tightly as I could. I was determined to make sure that she would never regret letting me go.
Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels, “Midori by Moonlight” and “Love in Translation” (both published by St. Martin’s Press), and the e-book novel, “Falling Uphill,” written under the pen name Kelly Sweetwood. She’s also the author of the nonfiction e-book, “Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband.” Wendy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of San Francisco and teaches for Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and for the MFA program at University of San Francisco. She also does private manuscript consulting for novels and memoirs. When she’s not busy writing, Wendy loves to sing jazz and Japanese karaoke with her Osaka-born surfer-dude husband accompanying her on keyboards. Follow her on Twitter at Wendy_Tokunaga and visit her website at: www.WendyTokunaga.com
More on “Tomo”: By sharing “friendship through fiction,” “Tomo” aims to bring Japan stories to readers worldwide and help support young people affected or displaced by the March 11, 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami disasters. Proceeds from the sales of this book will go directly toward long-term relief efforts for teens in Tohoku, the area most affected by the disasters, in the northeast region of Japan’s main island. To begin with, “Tomo” donations will go to the Japan-based NPO Hope for Tomorrow, which provides educational expenses (including university entrance exam fees, travel costs to exam centers, and so on) and mentoring, tutoring, and foreign language support to middle and high school students in hard-hit areas of Tohoku.
Visit the “Tomo” blog at tomoanthology.blogspot.com to stay updated on book events, read interviews with the contributors, learn how proceeds from the sales of the book will be used to help teens in Japan and more.