(*The following is a true story. Some names have been changed to protect the innocent.)
This is the story of how my friend Jack* tried to get into a festival princess’s kimono and nearly had a child with a different Japanese girl.
Aoi Matsuri is a festival celebrating the time the Emperor in Kyoto pretended he was a god and was able to banish famine from the city. I don’t really pay attention in culture class, but that sounds feasible in the smorgasbord of conflicting theologies that is the Shinto religion, so we’ll roll with it. Attending Aoi Matsuri is mandatory for Japanese language course students at Dōshisha. That said, my teacher at least had warned us it would be boring and said we could leave after the initial procession. Amongst that exciting parade of oxen and old men in traditional garb, however, was something worth waiting for at the end, our teacher said. A princess, riding in a palanquin.
She’s not a real princess. For a long time now, Aoi Matsuri has used what they call a ‘replacement princess’, substituting the daughter of a wealthy Kyōto businessman each year in place of the Emperor’s daughter. The selection process is unknown to us mere foreign mortals. Likely it’s whoever donates an obscene amount to some temple in the city. This is unusual: as we all know, money never has any sway in public appointments anywhere in the world. And Japan is a shining democracy with its one party state, wide inequality, and anti-labour laws. There’s also corruption, and the Prime Minister is Shinzo Abe. But I repeat myself.
Truth be told, I didn’t have much interest in any of the procession, fake princess included. On the morning of the festival, Jack would not stop talking about her. All lower-level classes assembled at the bottom of Kōfūkan building near the lifts. Marcus and I spotted each other. Together with the other exchange students from levels two through four, Claire, Rosanne, Jack, Nakiayah, Bo, and so on, we chatted happily away in a milling sea of non-Japanese faces trying to stave off the coming ennui. Finally, I had to ask Jack. “What are you so excited about?”
“Do you not understand? It’s a princess,” he replied. His Melbourne strine hung so thickly I tried cutting it in the air.
“What are you doing with your hand?”
“Nothing,” I replied, absent-mindedly mimicking his accent, and put my hand down again. “You know she’s fake.”
“She’s a very real woman, Simon. A very real woman. And I’m gonna try kiss that.”
“What?” I was incredulous. Behind me, Marcus laughed campily.
“Don’t tell me you don’t want to get a princess.”
“Fake princess,” I muttered, then more clearly, “Well, ah, anyway, good luck with that.”
Marcus chipped in, “Aren’t you trying to catch some other girl?”
“Yeah we’re going out for dinner in a couple of days. I’m gonna try take her home.”
“So, which one is it?”
“Why not both?”
I wasn’t listening to them. My mind turned to the princess again, trying to work out his strategy. Nobody here is going to catch the eye of the most desirable girl in Kyōto, I thought. I suddenly realised what Jack’s fuss was. This girl was, at least for today, truly the most desirable girl in Kyōto. Bribery for the position aside, most guys wanted her and every girl wanted to be her. “Huh” I said to myself aloud in my obnoxious epiphany voice. “That must be what being Beyoncé is like.”
“Beyoncé?” Marcus overheard me. “I want to give that woman a colonoscopy with my tongue.”
If I’m being honest, which for me is having a rare moment of moral goodness, everywhere in the Kyōto basin feels hotter than it should due to the humidity. 蒸し暑い, the Japanese call it. I believe it translates as: please let me not be standing here surrounded by a crowd in this heat when my clothes are more sweat than cotton someone please tell me the procession is over and Aoi Matsuri is done dear sweet Lord of all the Earth and Fishes of the Sea Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular Idi Amin I want to go home Amen. In the procession, six oxen passed. Maybe they’re going to an Ark, I thought, and we’ll all drown in a merciful maelstrom to cleanse the earth of matsuri.
Jack asked to sit on my shoulders. Stupidly, I complied. He’s almost the same height as me and weighs not much less. Salty rivulets running down my face, the sun’s heat felt as though it were compounded by the lump of human so thirsty for a princess sitting astride my neck. “I need photos” he explained. Beside me, from beneath the disc of her white parasol, our class teacher Imai-sensei gave a sideways glance and a rare Japanese quizzical eyebrow. “Hey, did Marcus tell you about his idea for a reality show based on Terrace House?” I asked Jack.
“No,” he said, dismounting, “Is Terrace House the one like—”
“--One that’s like Big Brother but more scripted and it’s Japanese.”
“They never do anything, right? Like the young people are Japanese and they’re so innocent they think holding hands is sexual.”
“Yep, that one,” I said, rubbing my neck, “Anyway, Marcus’s idea was to have them all be the same privileged kids, but they have to live in a shrine in the forest and all the games to win are how well they do traditional monk things. Same judges in that room reviewing everyone sbut there’s now a shrine priest judging as well. It’ll be called: Amaterasu House.”
“Amaterasu House,” Imai-sensei snickered. I turned to look at her, surprised that she had been listening. She whipped her head straight ahead again in the parade’s direction, coughed, and pretended to be a serious teacher beneath her white parasol once more.
Bored, we walked to where Marcus, Sam, and Rosanne were, on the other side of the grounds where the parade would pass by later. The sun continued beating us into the ground. Sam and Rosanne sat in the shade of a concrete wall. “UV forecast says 8 out of 12 today,” she explained. They did look pasty, I had to say.
“That low? New Zealand is regularly 11 or 12,” I said.
“Stop talking about New Zealand, they don’t care,” said Marcus. He looked at Sam, who happens to be Jewish. “You can burn in solidarity with your ancestors.”
Sam’s mouth opened slightly and his unhappy brows knitted themselves together beneath his black, wet hobbit hair.
“Be glad it’s not Luke here,” I replied, “He’s way more provincial.”
“Where is Luke?” Marcus asked.
“Probably went home.” That much was true. He skipped something if he didn’t like it, and traditional Kyōto-related things were high on the dislikes list.
Marcus looked genuinely glum. “That’s too bad.”
Marcus, Jack and I stood like marching dolls in a horizontal line at the front of the sweltering throng, pressed against the edge of the road where the matsuri parade went by. Cicadas and clomping clogs from the old men in the parade filled the air with summer noise. Jack spotted her first.
Riding along, waving like a discount Queen Elizabeth, the princess was carried before us in layers of fabric under the shade of her palanquin, swathed in rich pillows and tapestries. Oxen and sandal-footed bearers faded into the slate grey of the road. Jack took an unconscious half-step forward. I pulled out my phone, seeing it as a photo opportunity. As she drew nearer, I didn’t have to look to see Jack’s eager smile fading. Confused, I paid attention to my phone screen again and noticed it. Her eyes were dead set into the lens, unwavering. She had stopped waving, almost no smile anymore. I lowered the screen. My eyes met hers to realise that, the entire time, she had been looking into mine. Colours of the palanquin spiralled outward around her folded frame, pillows and kimono blending together as the layers opened outward, blooming. Face pale among the vibrant hues of each fabric petal, her ruby lips brightened into a smile. The transformation was complete. I could do nothing, think of nothing in the moment, but to smile back. Our gazes held together in an unmoving dance. Jack looked to her, then to me, then her again.
“Fuck you,” He said simply, shaking his head in disbelief.
Marcus lowered his own DSLR camera to look patronisingly at Jack. “There’s always date-girl.”
“Yeah,” he said, perking up. “Yeah.”
several days later.
“Guess who got laid the other night,” Jack smirked, setting his tray down with a clatter at our cafeteria table.
Marcus struggled with the tempura vegetables in his soba. “The date went well?”
“Yeah, brought her back to the apartment.”
“And she was conscious?” I asked, slurping noodles. The rest of the table were listening now.
“Funny. Funny guy. We had a great date, it was really good. Actually she said it was her first time, so she didn’t—we didn’t have a condom or anything, but it was fine.”
Everyone stopped eating.
“Jack, that’s not fine,” said Marcus.
“Yeah, but she said she was on birth control.”
“I thought you said she speaks barely any English, and your Japanese isn’t that good.”
“We got it across. We both understood.”
“How can you know that? Why would you—what?” said Marcus.
“Regardless,” I said, “you should use one anyway. You’re not dating this girl, you can’t be sure, and you also need to protect against STDs if you’re not in a long-term relationship.”
“Simon’s right. Are you stupid?”
“No, no you don’t need to,” Jack was insistent.
“You need to check with this girl. Look up the word for birth control,” said Marcus, gesturing at my phone.
“Do you know what class?” I asked.
“No, there’s nothing wrong. You don’t need to— I’m not— I asked her before we did it.”
Marcus smirked. He enunciated each word with practised mockery. “In before Jack got some Japanese girl pregnant, just because he was too dumb to use a condom. Honestly, get rekt, scrub.”
The argument continued in circles for a while, Jack becoming more and more indignant that his indignity was nothing to be worried about. Then, he capitulated. He excused himself from the table, face pale, realising himself what we’d been saying all along. Marcus waited until Jack had gone, then looked at me. “Honestly, it’s probably not that bad, I doubt she’s pregnant, but he deserves it.”
“That was mean,” Rosanne frowned.
“You were playing with him?” I asked.
“I am the king of bullshit. How do you not know this?”
I thought back to the times when I had been played by Marcus, and they were legion. As was he. And he was right. “Guess you’re right,” I said.
“You better hope if there’s reincarnation you get reborn into a superior being like me.”
Faintly, I saw horns growing from underneath his blond hairline.
Later, we stood in the shade of a courtyard building on campus. Being out of the sun dealt little with the pervading humidity. Nakiayah, Sam, Marcus and I had formed a loose circle. More aptly, an approximation of a geometric potato. Marcus’s phone bleeped. “Jack is messaging me. He says he’s going to talk to the girl now.”
“It’s not going to be anything,” I said.
“But,” said Marcus, “We should look up rates for women on birth control in Japan to scare him, because I know it’s way lower than the West.” He started swiping and typing rapidly on the screen of his smartphone. On a nearby grass area, a mother was playing with her infant. The kernel of an idea began to formulate in my head.
“Yep, oh yeah. It’s something like ten percent of women. Less likely for a virgin, too.”
“Screenshot it and send it,” I said.
“Done. I underlined the relevant details and added ‘get rekt’ to the message in handwriting.”
“Look over there,” I pointed to the mother and child on the grass, “You should take a picture of them and send it.”
“Yes!” Marcus crowed, then verbalised as he wrote on the phone screen, “You… in… nine months… Lol.”
We all laughed at the absurdity of the situation. The chances of the girl being pregnant from the night alone even given all favourable options was low, but it was worth it simply for the ribbing of Jack. Marcus’s phone bleeped again. He frowned. His eyebrows raised and fell briefly in genuine surprise. “What?” I asked.
“He talked to the girl. She wasn’t using birth control.”
I laughed, “Ouch. But still, the chance—”
“She took a test already. It was positive.”
We stood around in our deformed potato shape. There wasn’t much to say. Marcus’s phone rang. He picked up.
“Hey—y—yeah. Mm. Ah, ‘Don’t tell anyone about the situation’?” He looked around at us, the circle of people who had been communally sending joke messages about the situation. “Sure,” he said, “Nobody’s going to know.” Marcus hung up, then messaged Rosanne, instantly increasing the in-the-know count beyond the already unacceptable three of us. “He said he’s going to go with her to the doctor.”
Even I knew what that meant. How quickly things had turned on the dime of reality. Two minutes prior, the ribbing had felt funny precisely because of its unlikelihood. Now some kid wasn’t going to be able to have the chance at a future because of the stupidity of its parents. Maybe that was a mercy given how the girl would likely be treated by her upper-class parents, by Japanese society, had it come into the world. Dōshisha was a private school. A private school filled with dumb, impulsive rich kids.
I thought back to the Aoi Matsuri princess. She was a Dōshisha student, and probably another one of those dumb, impulsive rich kids. Marcus and I walked over to the bike rack. After a rusty struggle I felt a click, and the lock popped open. It needed some WD-40. We both walked our bicycles out the front gate, mounted, and began the long ride home. “Do you know,” I said to Marcus, “I think I’ve quit my flirtation with being a monarchist.” His expression was confused. I rode on ahead, cycling into the wind and down the gentle slope leading toward our dorm, turning over again in my mind what could have become a person, who would never get to see this world, like I had the opportunity to. Maybe that was a mercy. Maybe. No, it was something far more fitting of this kind of world. It was a cruelty.
All of which I shoehorned in at the end to justify the opening to Neon Genesis Evangelion, “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis”: