I can no longer. These words are Taguchi Hiro’s motto. This incomplete sentence is what defines him, he says. And yet he describes the period at the end of it as “vibrating,” signifying the possibility of completion. Or better, a revision of this refrain that constantly haunts him.
“In I Called Him Necktie” by Milena Michiko Flasar (translated by Sheila Dickie), 23-year-old Taguchi Hiro is a hikikomori—a shut-in who never leaves his room and avoids all human interaction. The book’s glossary says that between 100,000 and 320,000 young people suffer from the condition, caused in large part by the enormous pressure to conform and achieve in school and society.
As the book opens, Taguchi has just begun to venture out of his room, which he refers to as a cave. Giving in to a yearning to feel the warmth of the sun, Taguchi makes his way to the park that he had known as a child, the one his mother used to bring him to. He wishes to be a child again. “To look with eyes full of amazement.”
When he sees a salaryman, a company worker, settle onto the bench opposite his, he is, despite his aversion to interacting with the world around him, curious and observes the man carefully.
I observed him like a familiar object, a toothbrush, a washcloth, a piece of soap, which all at once you see for the first time, quite separate from its purpose.
Taguchi’s two years in isolation, while diminishing his ability to communicate with the world, has nonetheless heightened his ability to observe and feel it. It has imbued his thoughts with a sensibility that is both elemental and lyrical.
A fleeting glance at his watch, then he lit a cigarette. The smoke rose in ringlets. That was the beginning of our acquaintance. A sharp odor arose in my nose. The wind blew the smoke in my direction. Before we had exchanged names, the wind introduced us to each other.
And so the relationship with Ohara Tetsu, who has recently been fired from his job, begins, born of sympathy and circumstance. Soon they are trading stories and divulging secrets. With no quotation marks around dialogue and few dialogue tags, there are some brief moments of uncertainty for the reader in the beginning. But soon the transitions are, if not seamless, at least recognizable. Flasar’s intent may be to nearly merge the stories and voices to reflect what Taguchi realizes one day as he stands alone on the train platform surrounded by people: We must all, every one of us, relate to one another.
Taguchi confesses to his new friend that “at fourteen I had already achieved mastery in studiously ignoring the pain of others.” Testsu, whose necktie, bento box, and brief case are the accoutrements or, rather, the trappings of a salaryman, reveals secrets of his own. But he offers wisdom as well, gained from his more mature years and the choices he has made. “We are unfree, all of us. With every decision we take we become less free.”
Having established a connection, the two extract a promise from each other, one that is meant to release them from the prison each has created for himself as a result of secrets and betrayals. But only Taguchi will have a chance at a new beginning, a new motto.
While the characters and story are set in Japan, it’s an easy leap across borders and languages to other modern industrialized countries that engender a sense of isolation. If one is lucky there will be the chance encounter with another human being that can lead the way out of darkness. The universality of the theme is reflected in the author’s own straddling of cultures. Milena Michiko Flasar is a writer of Japanese and Austrian descent who lives in Vienna. Her lovely, poetic novel about Japanese society is translated from German to English.