"In the Bar" by Murakami Ryu


Translated by Ty Christian

Translator's Notes: Murakami Ryu is one of my favorite Japanese authors, so I decided to translate "In the Bar", one of his short stories from a collection entitled "In the Airport". "In the Bar" was first published in the magazine "Wish", volume three, in the year 2000. My favorite aspect of Murakami's work is his ability to convey complex emotions through the detailed descriptions of his background scenes. As you will read, there are many shining examples of this ability contained in this story.

This is my first translation work, so if you have any comments, suggestions, corrections, or feedback please feel free to e-mail me at tnchristian@wisc.edu

To view this story in its original (Japanese) format, click this link for a PDF scan.

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It was a little past 8:00pm. I was in a bar. Next to me is my boyfriend. Facing him is a person from his work, and facing me is my colleague. My boyfriend's coworker said he had already found a girlfriend, but since my colleague had been searching for a boyfriend, my boyfriend and I decided to introduce them. My name is Mizutani Yuko, and my boyfriend's name is Sakae Toshio. I called him Toshi. Toshi's coworker had given me his name before. I don't remember clearly, but it was something like "Sakagami". Since after introductions no one was calling each other by their names, I can't confirm it. It might have been "Nakagami". It doesn't seem to be the case that Toshi is familiar with Mr. Sakagami or Nakagami or whatever his name is. My colleague's name is Naomi, and she's 25 - two years younger than me. Our group drank draft beer and ate such things as squid sashimi, fried chicken, green soybeans, and cold tofu. That "Sakagami" or "Nakagami" fellow asked why we had brought along a seemingly "high school classmate" of a woman. This woman, in a sort of "night life" fashion, wore caked-on makeup and a pink mini-skirt one piece with hints of gold fabric. Her name was Yashimoto Sayoko. Naomi would've been shy if she had met this boyfriend candidate alone, so she brought along a male friend who worked as a swimming instructor. I didn't know the man - he said his name was Tsuyoshi.

This was the first time I'd come to this bar. It was near the midpoint of East Nakano and Nakano. Toshi is the type who chooses places like this, but I didn't know if he had come to this exact bar before. At the middle of the counter was what seemed to be the bar owner; a few girls working part time approached us wearing Japanese clothes with tightened head bands, ready to take our order. At the table next to me was a party of businessmen. To my side there was a table of seven people talking about movies and plays. They were already suitably drunk, and talked in loud voices. Among them were skinheads and people with long, tied up black hair. Within their group of seven sat two women, and also two people wearing dark, "manufacturing plant"-looking clothes.

At this side wall the TV had been left on but no one was watching it. Major league baseball was on. Kuwata from the Giants was pitching, and Suzuki from the Yokohama team was batting. People sitting at the bar drinking alone would probably be watching that sort of thing. The bar was to my back. I had no idea what kind of people were sitting at the counter.

I work in Shinagawa doing office work for a delivery company. It's a 9-to-5 job. Before working there I had a job as a hostess in a bar in Nishiazabu. Toshi works at a chain furniture store. I got to know him almost three months ago while collecting CDs at Tower Records. I don't recall what we talked about when we met, but we didn't talk about painting and we still don't talk about it. Naomi, as well, doesn't talk about it. After graduating high school, Naomi went from Yamakagechiho to Tokyo and entered a fashion design school, but it seems she soon quit. One of the guys said to shut up about it, so I don't know the details accurately. Naomi joined an internet "meeting group", and she was always going to offline meetings and drinking parties. However, there was always an absence of satisfactory men, so she would split. Because of that, we decided that this should be the night we introduced Toshi's colleague, but why'd she have to bring along her male friend? Tsuyoshi seems like a guy just out of college, working for a Marunouchi company. Naomi said it was the first time they had met outside of their swimming lessons.

"Therefore, you said you weren't seeing reality!"

I could hear that voice, but I couldn't tell what table it was coming from. This place is noisy. Sounds were overflowing. On the TV Kuwata was trying to throw a ball, but for some reason music was playing. It was much like a cable broadcast, but with only simply realizing the flowing of the music I couldn't discern what type of tune it was. There were four headband-wearing girls working, carrying food and drink. Some time ago Toshi glanced at one of the girls which made me wonder what his type was. She was a girl with big breasts. Before Toshi was seeing me, he was seeing this girl Satomi - the one with the big boobs - and because Toshi and I had reached the point of "seeing each other", we would sometimes bump into her. When he was with me he'd get a lot of calls on his cell, to which he'd say, "I'll call you back later." Definitely must've been Satomi. It wasn't the case that Toshi and I were living together. He had this Satomi thing and it seemed he was indebted to me. Under Naomi's sandal-wearing feet I could see something like a small bug. Her toes were plump. A little while ago, Sakagami or Nakagami said something, but there was no reaction from anyone. I was eating fried chicken. I detected a hint of garlic, but tonight I had put a lot of quality protein into my mouth.

I had a hostess-age friend named Kaede (her name taken from the Tale of Genji) who used to do private S & M sessions. She was like a queen. Anyone would consider her tall, but no one would call her face pretty. A passing dentist had, as a masochist, taught her the ways of this world, she said. It seemed he would "play dentist" with her - although I didn't hear what kind of "playing" they did.

Toshi was indebted to me, and when I heard Naomi's story, I came out and said I would introduce her to Toshi's colleague. When I said this to her she definitely wanted to meet him so it turned into this bar setting, but honestly all I wanted out of this was to talk with Toshi. It was an important discussion, so I didn't want to talk here. It seemed like Toshi was planning on marrying me. There was also another girl, but if we married I could say we were "Toshi and Yuko". Toshi said something like that three weeks ago. "Other than her big boobs, there's not much worth to that gloomy chick," Toshi said of Satomi. It seems like Satomi was working in the sex industry. It must've been arousing to think that the same mouth that had held other men was holding him, but that's not the type of girl you'd want to marry.

"Therefore, you said you weren't seeing reality! 'Seeing reality', to that degree - it's a hope or wishful thinking - exclude your preconceptions; frankly, 'seeing reality' as you put it is not a hard thing to do, but no one's noticing that. No one wants to hear your thesis, and it's also not up to making anyone hope that this fact should be looking them straight in the face in the first place! Am I wrong?"

I wonder who it was that said that. That group of businessmen? Or it might have been that group of skinheads and those guys with the long hair? It seemed like Naomi wasn't interested in that Sakagami or Nakagami fellow. He was interested in her, it seemed. I gazed at Naomi, and ignored Yoshimoto Sayoko whom I'd brought with me. Sayoko was smoking. They were long and narrow menthol cigarettes. Why was someone like Sayoko in the same bar with Sakagami or Nakagami? After meeting Sakagami or Nakagami and greeting everyone with a forced introduction she just smoked and drank draft beer, always finishing her drink faster than the rest, and asking Sakagami or Nakagami, "How about a whisky and water?" In the middle of the hand holding the whisky glass, I could see the transparent blue of her blood vessel. Her makeup was also caked on, and I could see she appeared to be in the later half of her 30s or in the earlier half of her 40s.

On the TV Kuwata had pitched a ball and Suzuki had let it go by. The number of bugs crawling under Naomi's feet had increased. Pieces of white tofu were stuck to Toshi's lips, but you couldn't tell it was tofu. Naomi was wearing a grey tank top with sharp cream pants. That night I had talked with Naomi about what she thought would be good to wear. I answered that I thought regular clothes would be fine. Therefore, you said you weren't seeing reality! 'Seeing reality', to that degree - it's a hope or wishful thinking - exclude your preconceptions; frankly, 'seeing reality' as you put it is not a hard thing to do, but no one's noticing that. No one wants to hear your thesis, and it's also not up to making anyone hope that this fact should be looking them straight in the face in the first place! Am I wrong?

When I was in kindergarten, I liked to draw pictures, but before you knew it, I grew to dislike drawing. When I worked as a hostess in a club in Nishiazaburi, the local men would come, and I would pass them a hand-written business card - not the business cards from the club. Why I passed them this handwritten card is, even now, a riddle. When I started hostess work in order to save the money my family in Chiba had given me, I was ashamed of the small, round-cornered night club business cards. Written on those cards was a name other than your own, and of course the address and phone number were not yours either. Alone at night, looking at those cards made me sad, so I went to a convenience store to buy a sketchbook and some colored pencils, and by myself I would write my own name and draw my portrait, thus making my own home-make business cards. Creating those cards was fun, and it made me recall how I'd loved to draw when I was young. Sometimes I'd continue drawing until morning, but I didn't have anyone to hand out my business cards to. I collected close to 200 of these un-handed-out business cards. I had no one to hand them out to, but I'd carry them around in my handbag. While I was waiting to hand them out, I had a feeling like I wouldn't ever forget my own name. When I met those men in the club, I wanted to give them my card. Why I wanted to hand out my home-made business cards to these men, I don't know exactly. I had no idea what kind of work those men did, and of course they were strangers to me. However, only one thing was certain. Those types of men had never been to this bar before. Before Toshi and I were seeing each other, I'd always use bars in order to hook up with him. This bar is quiet, and unlike those strange Mediterranean food places with no purpose, this place has delicious food and I'm able to relax. Right now I'm eating fried chicken, but I honestly think it's delicious. Toshi's eating an onion slice, and Sakagami or Nakagami is eating meat and potato stew. Naomi's pinching her squid sashimi with her chopsticks; that Yoshimoto Sayoko woman is popping green soybeans into her mouth, and Tsuyoshi is scooping buttered corn with a spoon. No one's eating the food I want to eat, so it's not hopeless. The word "life-sized" exists, but this bar is endlessly life-sized. There's an abundance of hope with a lacking of its counterpart. There's an abundance of hope without betrayal.

However, in this bar no one feels like a stranger. At the club in Nishiazabu, when I first saw those men, they were strangers. Those men were a different type of human than I was - as if a different sort of body odor was being transmitted. It was like leaning against a heavily polished semi-transparent sheet of glass all the while. For example, when I'm together with Toshi, I don't think that way. Of course, Toshi and I are two different people. However, it's not the case that we embrace each other and do indecent things - when Toshi and I are alone together, the boundary between his body and mine becomes unclear. For example, I'll be watching TV, and Toshi will be looking at the same screen. We'll laugh at the exact same thing. Watching and laughing at the TV - it becomes as if I can't tell if we're watching for the purpose of laughing together. Also, for example, I'll be reading a magazine and Toshi will be reading comics. At that time, even though we're looking at different things, there'll be a sort of "melting together" feeling. Toshi's room isn't big, and I don't know what he pays for it, but when I'm in it, I can't discern the boundary between our hearts and bodies. At that time, it feels like the boundary of time melts. Past, present, and future all blend together - one hundred million years ago I had been looking at a magazine and watching TV with Toshi, and I think that this looking at a magazine and watching TV will most likely, unfortunately, go into eternity. That makes me shiver.

We have the question of why Toshi feels indebted to me and other strange things to take into consideration, but it isn't like a wave of violence. It seemed like Naomi's former boyfriend would often become violent. That boyfriend kicked her with his heel and broke her molars. Toshi and I have often argued, but he's never hit me. When Naomi was together with that violent boyfriend, it seemed like she would get horribly nervous. When her boyfriend became violent, she was seemingly eternally nervous, even when in a safe place. If memory serves me correctly, when I pursued this with Naomi she said she didn't hate the nervousness. Naomi said she felt like two people were sitting on a plank of semi-transparent glass, and you didn't know when it was going to break. As for me, when I was with those men I felt like there was a semi-transparent sheet of glass, and I grew nervous. When I handed out the hand-made business cards, those men would ask if I was an artist. "Ah…not quite", I would laugh. To say I was an artist would make me very uncomfortable. I didn't know what sort of race an artist was, so I would ask the men what sort of person an artist is. Everyday - moreover 20 hours a day - continuing to paint a picture and not tiring of it - that's what sort of person an artist is, the men would answer.

Sakagami or Nakagami matched the music flowing from the cable broadcast, humming in a soft voice. For him, in the middle of this noisy bar, he could probably still hear the music. On the TV the ball that Kuwata had thrown and Suzuki had let by was called a strike by the umpire's gesture. The bugs collecting under Naomi's feet had become three. At the beginning I'm certain it was just one. Where are those bugs appearing from, I wonder? The businessmen were repeating their laughter. Every time someone said something there was loud laughing. Therefore you said you weren't seeing reality! That you said "you saw someone" was total garbage! No one wants to see your acting! What's the reason you can think of that anyone would pay attention to you? That sort of thing is not just pride! I can hear the voice that says those things from behind my back, however, are the skinheads and the long hair group the ones talking? It's possible that it might be the voices inside my head.

When someone has a shouting dream, and remembers it after waking, they'll notice that the shouting voice is actually something practical, like the sound of a drill from road construction in front of their apartment. I am certain I am hearing someone talking. Also, it's not someone from my group. Toshi's eating an onion slice, Nakagami or Sakagami's putting meat and potato stew in his mouth, and I see Naomi's breasts covered by her tank top. Tsuyoshi spilt a number of kernels on the table from his scoop of buttered corn, and that Yashimoto Sayoko woman was holding her whisky glass in her left hand and her cigarette between the index and middle finger of her right hand. "You can't see reality," that voice was saying. When I think about it, that's not something any of my friends or acquaintances would say. The TV, the cable broadcast music, the popping noise from the cooking oil, the water supply noise, laughing voices, and the filling of liquid into glasses - this bar is noisy. The headband-wearing waitresses were, without dying out, making their way and working at undoubtedly whatever table entered their field of vision. Still, various smells filled the place. However, with all this, no smell or sound, or field of vision gave a feeling of discomfort. The surrounding people were not conspicuous. You're not seeing reality - I could still hear that voice as if it were a jarring noise. Like the drill from road construction, the meaningless noise, like jumbled words, was the only thing I thought I could hear inside my head.

The bugs under Naomi's feet had begun to separate from each other. Surely there had been three bugs from the beginning. That Yoshimoto Sayoko woman dropped a piece of ash from her cigarette on the floor which was smaller than the bugs. Three bugs were gathering - I suppose I guessed wrong when I thought it was one bug. Naomi had a watery blue pedicure, but she hadn't smeared it to make the surrounding flesh climax. That Yoshimoto Sayoko woman's face was completely lizard-like. On the TV, the catcher is throwing back Kuwata's ball. Some chicken had been caught between my back molars. When Toshi ate his onion slice, he accompanied his right hand holding the chopsticks with the palm of his left hand. That was the same as my father's gesture. My dad was a public accountant, and when I reported to him that I had started to love drawing, he said something like I don't know what kind of hardships are necessary as an artist. Why do you have to draw pictures? When he said that, he also told me the story of how Van Gogh had cut off his own ear. That was a terrible story. I thought that all artists had to cut off their own ears. I stopped drawing pictures. When I thought that if I continued drawing I would have to cut off my own ear, it was simple to stop. Actually, because I stopped drawing pictures I remember that I felt more at ease. It resembled being cured of the common cold. I had gotten over a fever, and my body had an altogether light feeling.

At the Nishiazabu club, after I had met those men, on Sunday - my day off from my hostess job - I drew business cards for 20 hours. I could do 1000 cards in a day, and next Sunday I decided to make a picture postcard. After that, I sketched my own hand. It took something like ten times the amount of time for the hand sketch compared to the business cards or postcards. I had started drawing again for the first time in almost 20 years, but I didn't tell this to anyone. If I told someone, I thought that the ancient words of my father would be said to me again. Why do you have to draw pictures? Certainly no matter where or how I searched I couldn't find the reasons as to why I needed to draw. Therefore you said you couldn't see reality! Reality is a thing sort of like this bar. You're surrounded with sounds and smells and fields of vision, but these don't give you a sense of discomfort.

Sakagami or Nakagami is probably in the early half of his 30s. Under his navy blue suit he's wearing a red and white two-tone color polo shirt. Sort of like what Toshi wore at his daytime furniture chain store job, perhaps. This chain's head office is in Gunma prefecture, and by cooperating with merchants in China, they are able to sell some inexpensive furniture. Toshi was working in the Fuchu store (in Tokyo), but I only visited that store once. I wanted a drawing desk. It was a furniture store in a four story building, so you could call it "natural" - however the selling floor was amazingly wide, and the beds and shelves and sofa sets were lined up on a gapless floor. Toshi kept the products company. At that time I saw a countless number of furniture reflected in Toshi's eyeball. As if it were a map. When they delivered the new desk, I placed it beneath B3 Kent paper, and first, with a pencil, I drew a large circle. I decided to draw the furniture reflected in Toshi's eyeball. I thought to draw the beds and shelves and sofa sets like a swirl of a galaxy, all coiled and lined up. That Sunday I completed that drawing in 21 hours, and called it the "The Furniture Galaxy".

On the TV Kuwata was entering the motion of his next pitch. Sakagami or Nakagami was humming in time with the cable broadcast music while looking at Naomi's breasts protruding from her tank top. Naomi sucked up the squid sashimi that grew heavy on her lips. She was dying her hair light brown but the roots would soon begin to grow in black. At the table beside us I could see the shaking shoulder of the woman wearing something like black work clothes, but I couldn't tell if she was laughing or crying, or if her shoulder was simply shaking. It wouldn't be unusual if she was crying, nor would it be unnatural if she were laughing. Tsuyoshi was trying to pick up the scattered corn kernels with his chopsticks to throw them away in the ashtray.

Those actions were sort of, I don't know, ceremonial. I once read that a shaman from a tribe somewhere in Africa would dance wearing a lion mask from a traditional shrine, but it wasn't the case that he would actually appear like a lion. However, the shaman has conviction that he himself was a lion. It's possible that Tsuyoshi, picking up that corn kernel with his chopsticks, has the same conviction. It's like he's a person theatrically performing the act of picking up corn kernels with his chopsticks and throwing them away. That Yoshimoto Sayoko girl is performing the act of smoking her long and thin menthol cigarettes, and Sakagami or Nakagami is acting out humming along with the cable broadcast. Naomi is acting out grinding the squid with her teeth. Toshi is acting out the mixing together of the onion slice inside his mouth. These are normal things, but for the difference in brightness of the small particle of Kuwata's brown pipe on the TV screen, it's only figures of people being linked together. It doesn't mean that on the level surface of the TV screen there exists a miniature pitcher named Kuwata. Honestly there might not be anyone there. For example, I have thought that I had that feeling while Toshi and I were naked and embracing each other. Last week, on an amazingly warm night, we had sex. I was my own physiology. Afterward, Toshi pointed at the blood and sweat and semen-stained sheets and said it was proof we were alive, and I nodded. However, is that actually true? The dirty sheets had obviously come from the emissions of our bodies, and it also had a unique smell. The blood and sweat and semen were produced and emitted from inside our bodies as only a chemical reaction. However, after emission they would soon become normal material, unfortunately.

I had always thought about telling Toshi about my painting, but eventually it just wouldn't come out. I wonder why I didn't tell Toshi about it? Since I decided to paint for more than 20 hours, Toshi and I wouldn't meet on Sundays. Even if I got a call from him I wouldn't answer. I lied and told Toshi that since my father had become sick, every Sunday I would have to return to my parents' house. He believed this lie. Because I decided on that lie when I was painting, I also decided that tonight I would tell Toshi the truth, but why did I make this the drinking party to introduce Nakagami or Sakagami to Naomi? Other than me, it seemed like they wanted to have a drinking party. In any case, this was not the atmosphere in which to make that important of a confession.

I thought I'd go and see Arles in the south of France. It's the town where Van Gogh lived. Van Gogh painted a lot of Arles. This real Arles scenery - I lined up the pictures taken from different magazines that Van Gogh had painted, and I thought that I would go and see Arles. The courtyard of the mental hospital, night coffee, the wheat fields, the olive tree, the cypress - these things Van Gogh painted were very normal landscapes. When you look at a Van Gogh painting in a picture, you don't feel the swirl of air around the cypress coiling, and you don't notice the delicate distortion of the olive tree's trunk. However, Van Gogh's a different type of painter, so perhaps you'll see those things. I can hear the voice of the olive tree painted for me. That's what Van Gogh is saying. I thought that I wanted to go to Arles and see the actual scenery. Around September, when the vacation season in France is over, I suppose I would rent an apartment in Arles and try living there. I'd try talking, and there'd also be painting tutors. I know a little French, but I'd study. It seems the mental hospital where Van Gogh was admitted has turned into an institution for young writers and artists. I'd use the savings I have up till now to buy a ticket and live in Arles for two or three months.

Toshi probably couldn't quit his job at the furniture store, and because he isn't prepared, we couldn't go to France together. I think even if he said we should go together, I'd refuse. I don't want to go together. I want to stand in front of Van Gogh's scenery by myself. With Toshi, the scenery would disperse for the two of us. I feel that together, in front of the scenery, the things we would talk about would be the same things we would talk about while in Toshi's apartment watching TV.

Toshi's eating an onion slice. He doesn't know my decision. The headband-wearing waitresses pass me in the background. Tsuyoshi had rolled away the final kernel of corn picked up with his chopsticks and tossed into the ash tray. That Yoshimoto Sayoko woman reached out her arm and dropped a piece of ash from her cigarette on top of the kernels that Tsuyoshi had thrown away. I thought that the lizard's tongue had lengthened. Amongst the two women wearing black work clothes, one shoulder was shaking. Because she was hanging her head, it's possible she was crying. The person who was blaming someone for not seeing reality might have been that woman. The "reality" that that woman wasn't seeing was what "reality", I wonder?

The bugs under Naomi's feet were gathering in the shadow of her sandal. When the tiptoe of her sandal became loose and fell to the floor, the bugs were probably crushed. I not sure if the bugs became mad over being crushed to death. While humming in time with the cable broadcast music, Sakagami or Nakagami brought the stein of draft beer to his mouth. As the stein moved closer to his face, he removed the gaze staring towards Naomi's breasts.

Tsuyoshi was bringing the spoon of buttered corn filled to the brim towards his mouth. It seems like he was scooping smaller amounts in order not to spill the buttered corn like last time. The yellow kernels reflected in the belly of the silver spoon, but besides me no one was watching this.

If I told Toshi I was going to Arles I wonder how he'd react. The time we spent watching TV three weeks ago became dull to the point of shivering, and I said to him we're through. Toshi seemed to take it as a joke. When he realized I was serious, that Satomi woman would utter, "They're through." Up until now I've called that woman Satomi, but in front of me she announced that it would be best if Toshi and I broke up. Then she'd begin talking about marriage. Toshi had said that even if they married, she probably wouldn't stop her sex service. That whore is sad anywhere. The indifference of that whore is a big lie. The woman practically didn't inherit her last name from her family. Therefore she's calm even when sucking off a man she doesn't know. She can't be important. "When she's with others I can understand that Yuko, according to me, has a special existence. She's a whore; I know that, and I want her to know that to me, her existence is ONLY that." That day, Toshi said that while standing up.

Toshi thrust the point of his chopsticks into the coil of the onion. I wonder if Toshi could work more than 20 hours in a day at the furniture store. Sakagami or Nakagami touched the edge of the beer stein to his lips. He slanted the stein and his face back at the same moment. Sakagami or Nakagami began to gulp. That Yoshimoto Sayoko woman pulled her hand away from the top of the blackened kernel in the middle of the ashtray back towards herself. You should have been able to smell the sweet smell of the mint from the tobacco, but there were so many other various smells I couldn't notice it. It seemed like Naomi finished chewing her squid sashimi and gulped it down. Toshi gathered up the bundle of onion slices with his chopsticks. Toshi blended the sliced up, diluted, whitish onion skin with his Katsuobushi, and, with a fixation, lifted it up with his chopsticks. He is adding this to the palm of his left hand. From the time of picking it up, Toshi is dropping the black soy sauce-stained Katsuobushi on the top of the table. The onion slice touched Toshi's lips, and I felt I could hear the crunching noises of his teeth on the onion. The shoulder of the woman wearing the black work clothes is shaking in the edge of my field of vision. I suppose I'll tell Toshi about my Arles plans pretty soon. The blue vein in the palm of Yoshimoto Sayoko's hand reflected in the handle of Tsuyoshi's spoon, but besides me, no one was looking at that. Someone's coughing. Another big laugh from the group of businessmen. Inside Toshi's mouth, the Katsuobushi and onion were being crushed and blended. On the TV, Kuwata pitched his next ball.

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Acknowledgments: Steve Clark/Ridgely, for first introducing me to Murakami. Naomi Geyer, Naomi McGloin, Junko Mori, Atsushi Hasegawa (and his excellent "American person trying to speak Japanese" impression), Shino Hayashi, Tsuji-sensei, and last but certainly not least, Heidi.

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Copyright 2006 Ty Christian