Good Luck Bag (Fukubukuro)

I'm walking the streets of Osaka under the blazing sun with a woman I met only a short while ago. With the unspeakable heat, everything around me looks bent out of shape, and nothing seems quite real. It's like I'm in a dream where I wander about an unknown city with an unknown stranger, without ever realizing it's only a dream.
      The woman's name is Yamaguchi Mieko, and she said she's thirty-nine, but gauging from the blemishes on her skin and the distressed condition of her hair, not to mention the gravel creeping into her voice, I'd have guessed more like fifty, while on the other hand, her denim miniskirt and cut-n-sewn-down-to-here rhinestone getup as well as the cloying, disjointed way she talks remind me more of girls in their early twenties, so she's definitely sending out mixed signals about her age, and I'm really not quite sure how to relate to her. She's supposedly a year younger than me but also says she's my big brother's fiancèe.
        Having transferred from the bullet train to the Midōsuji subway at Shin-Osaka and gotten off at Namba, I now find myself exploring the city's Dōtombori district with Mieko as my guide, but it's obvious from the way she keeps getting lost and has to stop people to ask for directions that she doesn't really know Osaka any better than I do.
          "So anyway," she jabbers on at me without the slightest concern for the people she keeps bumping into in the crowds, "I was gonna tell you how we wound up not getting registered that day." Why do there have to be so damn many people in this city anyway? They just keep coming and coming from every which way like streams of water running into each other, all yak-yak-yakking at the top of their lungs, and it's wearing me out trying to extract Mieko's voice from the din and piece together something coherent out of her muddled way of talking. "So here's the thing. Remember that couple who made some kind of mistake on their registration and had to do it over, and then, like, they did something wrong again, so they had to come back a third time?" She names the young actor and the pop idol she's talking about, but I just grunt vaguely since I have no idea where she's going with this information. "If you ask me, that's what you call fate. I mean, look how fast they split up afterwards, right? The way I see it, when they had to go back a second and third time, that was, like, the voice of fate trying to tell them something, you know, and what they really shoulda done when they didn't get it right the first time was wipe the slate clean and start all over from scratch. But instead they go back two days later, then three days, you know, and that doesn't work, it just doesn't work. You know what I mean?"
            She peers at me for a response. Droplets of sweat the size of rice grains dot the tip of her nose. Her makeup is running.
              "And what exactly does that have to do with my brother?" We only just met, so I know I ought to be polite, but I can't keep an edge from creeping into my voice.
                "Oh, yeah. So, you see, Yasuyumi and I went to register once, too― um, let me think―it would have been at the Suginami Ward Office. Because that was when he lived in Kōenji. By the way, have you ever eaten cow's udder?"
                    "Oh, wow! Look! Look! There's that famous Glico sign you always see on TV. Yikes! This is so exciting. It's really here. And this is the bridge where they all jump into the canal when the Tigers win the pennant. Except what's going on with the canal? Under construction? Oh, pooh, I'm so disappointed."
                      I sigh. I didn't come to sightsee, and it makes no difference to me whether I get to see the canal or it's covered up with construction panels. Meanwhile Mieko keeps erupting in squeals of delight not just over the Glico sign but the giant mechanized crab above the entrance to Kanidōraku as well as some famous takoyaki place, and she keeps leaving me dangling on how they "wound up not getting registered," not to mention what eating cow's udder has to do with anything.
                        She told me she has it on good authority that my brother now works at a ramen shop in the entertainment district here, and between the scorching heat and the insufferable crowds and listening to her incoherent babble, I'm just eager to find the shop and see my brother if he's really here, or forget it all if he's not, and hurry up and get this day over with, but Mieko seems to have other ideas.
                          "As long as we're here, I want to see the Mizukake Fudō, too," she declares right out of the blue.
                            'I'm only here for the day and don't have much time, so maybe we should leave that for later," I say.
                              "But, like, we're practically there already, and Yumi-nums' shop doesn't open until noon anyway, so we're early, right? Right? So come on. Wehave to go. We're practically there already," she says, and the next thing I know she's asking a passing lady, "Can you tell us how to get to the Mizukake Fudō?" and the lady is kindly explaining, "You keep going straight along here, until, let's see, do you see that corner up there? Turn at that corner, and then ... "
                                "Thank you so much," Mieko says, offering a deep bow, then promptly marches off at a brisk clip. I hasten after her. We turn into a narrow lane with old-fashioned storefronts lining both sides. "Around here looks old, but it's actually new. A fire burned the whole place down and they rebuilt everything just like it was before." She makes it sound like it's her own personal achievement.
                                  Twisting through narrow back lanes, we come to a small open temple with rows of paper lanterns hanging under the eaves and Fudō, the god of fire, ensconced as the object of worship. A young couple acting every bit the tourists take their turns splashing ladles of water on the moss-covered statue and folding their hands in prayer. When they leave, Mieko takes the ladle and hurriedly tosses some water on the image. "Please help us find my Yumi-nums," she says out loud for all to hear, then claps her hands twice and bows her head in silent prayer. After a moment she turns to me with a smile. "Your turn, Kayo," she says. I throw a ladle of water on the statue, clap my hands, and close my eyes, only to realize I don't really know what I want to pray for.
                                    Please let my brother be gone somewhere far away, I pray, exactly as the thought forms in my mind. Let him be somewhere so far away I'll never find him―so far away I never have to see him again. I'm surprised at how fervently I find myself praying this. And as I pray I wonder, is praying that he's gone so far away I never see him again the same as praying that he's dead? I know immediately that the answer is yes, and I'm horrified. Horrified at how readily I accept it. I've become the kind of person who prays for her own brother's death.
                                      "You prayed a long time," Mieko says as we start back down the lane. "Did you pray for us to find Yasuyumi, too?"
                                        The way she switches back and forth between calling my brother Yasuyumi and calling him Yumi-nums is another thing about her that gets under my skin for some reason.
                                          "Pray for us to find him? I thought you said you know where he is.
                                          That's the only reason I came."
                                              "Well, yeah, sure, I know where he is, but this is Yumi-nums we're talking about. There's no telling when he might decide to pick up and leave, like, an hour before we get there. You know that." She says it as if nothing could be more obvious.
                                                We emerge from the back lanes and resume our trek along the main drag. According to Mieko's information, my brother works at the Dōtombori branch of Noodle King, which is supposed to be located in a multi-tenant building somewhere along this street, and I tag along behind her as she asks one person after another if they know where it is. We finally find the place occupying the first floor of a building just a few steps down a side street. They're open for business so we enter and Mieko goes up to a guy with short blond hair working behind the counter.
                                                  "Excuse me, but does Tanabe Yasuyumi work here?"
                                                    Several customers at the counter eye us curiously.
                                                      "Tanabe Yasuyumi? Never heard of him. Nobody by that name works here."
                                                        Mieko and I look at each other.
                                                          "Then, like, could he be at another branch, d'you think?"
                                                            "I can't help you with who's working at our other outlets," the blond guy says as he picks up a flier with a map showing nearby Noodle Kings on it and hands it to her across the counter.
                                                              "The guys in Osaka really look cool, don't they?" Mieko gushes as soon as we're out the door. "And they're so kind, too."
                                                                "If I might note," I feel compelled to say, my voice taking on even more of an edge, "you assured me he'd be at that shop."
                                                                  "Yeah, so, like, maybe it wasn't the Dōtombori branch but the Parks branch. That's not far, so let’s try there next, okay?"
                                                                    We start off under the burning sun again, shoulder to shoulder through the throngs. I expected to grab a cab or take the subway, but Mieko just keeps walking the sun-scorched street. Striding briskly along as if she doesn't even feel the heat beneath the free-for-all of signs protruding overhead, she finally gets back to the question of how she and my brother wound up not getting married.
                                                                      When she decided to wed my brother, she tells me, she went to a fortuneteller in Harajuku and paid her ¥6,000 to pick a lucky day for them. The fortuneteller named not just the day but the time, too, so she and my brother headed for the Suginami Ward Office with the proper form in hand, all filled out and ready to submit at the appointed time between 11:00 and 11:20 on October 1. But Mieko noticed that Yasuyumi had written the first character of his given name wrong. He insisted that it was right, but no matter how many times she looked at it, it looked to her like he'd miswritten several strokes, turning it into the character for hata instead of yasu. It was still seven minutes before eleven, so they hurried to fill out a fresh form and affix their seals. But when they took it to the window, the clerk told them that Yasuyumi's address was wrong. He'd never registered his new address after moving from Nerima Ward, where he'd lived three years before.
                                                                        "So, like, the clerk tells us he has to change his address first, and we can't file our marriage registration until after that's done. And poor Yumi-nums, he just snaps, you know. He starts yelling that all we want to do is get married, why the hell should he have to write his name and stamp his seal on all these other forms first. The next thing I know these security guard types are escorting us out of the building, and we've missed our 11:20 deadline. That's when I remembered the celebrity couple, and I said to myself, I guess we weren't supposed to get married today after all, that fortuneteller in Harajuku was a fraud, so in the end we just went for Korean barbecue in Kōenji. It was an all-you-can-eat place, and can you believe it, they had cow's udder on the menu."
                                                                          Along the way she keeps an eye on the map she's following and punctuates her unbroken chatter with exclamations like "Oh, wow! It's the famous Grand Kagetsu Theater!" or "That building up there is the Namba City Shopping Center!" Meanwhile, in spite of the heat-induced haze in my head, I finally learn how she and my brother failed to get married and understand what the association with cow's udder is about. Hearing how my brother couldn't even write his own name properly, and hadn't bothered about his residency card, and wound up creating a scene that brought out the security guards, I'm thinking it's just the sort of hoo-ha my brother would get himself into, with this woman named Mieko who visits fortunetellers definitely playing a part, too, and I'm getting more fed up with her than ever.
                                                                            "How much farther do we have to walk?" I say. "Can't we go some other way, like take a taxi or find an underground passage somewhere?"
                                                                              She ignores me and walks on.
                                                                                "So I went to another fortuneteller, this time someone I could really trust who charged ¥10,000, and the date she told me was in December, so I took care of the address change myself, and the only thing we had left was to take the form in, but then Yasuyumi does his vanishing act on me ... Oh, there it is, Kayo. That's the Namba Parks building."
                                                                                  She explains how the site used to be a baseball stadium as I follow along dabbing constantly at my forehead and neck with my handkerchief, barely listening. I'm thinking about what was happening in my own life around the time she and my brother went to register their marriage and got thrown out of the ward office, and when she went to consult the second fortuneteller after that. It was at the end of September last year that my mother went into the hospital, and I began making the two-hour trip to visit her there every Saturday and Sunday. Her mind was still lucid until the middle of October, and during that period I was careful never to bring up my brother in conversation. He came up just once, when my mother asked, "Do you suppose maybe this happened to me because Yasuyumi said he hoped I'd hurry up and die?" and let out a little chuckle. She apparently intended it as a joke.
                                                                                    Namba Parks turns out to be a spanking new building with lots of curvy lines that give it an unusual shape. We step inside and the cool air-conditioning brings immediate relief. Mieko falls silent as she skips quickly toward the escalator and steps aboard. My feet are aching, my throat is parched, my sweat-soaked blouse clings uncomfortably to my back, but she gives me no chance to suggest we stop for something to drink, and all I can do is mutely try to keep up.
                                                                                      Coming to a section of the floor filled with a whole collection of ramen shops, she breaks into a trot as she searches for Noodle King, and when she finally spots it, immediately dashes inside. No longer having the energy to follow, I sink weakly onto one of the stools provided out front for customers waiting to get in. No more than a minute or two goes by before Mieko pushes her way back through the shop curtain and her sunken shoulders instantly signal that my brother isn't at this branch either.
                                                                                        "Sheesh, I don't believe this. Was it all bogus? But I know Tachibana, and he's not the kind to give out bogus information ... You know what? Maybe it's not Namba. Maybe he's actually over here, at the shop in Tsuruhashi, or the one here in Shinsaibashi. What do you think, Kayo?"
                                                                                          She unfolds and refolds the flier from the Dōtombori shop as she speaks. The fact that my brother isn't where she was told he'd be seems utterly consistent with what I've come to expect of him.
                                                                                            "I want to catch a return train by five or so, so I suppose we can keep looking until around then. If you're sure it's Noodle King, I don't mind checking at other branches in the area."
                                                                                              I cringe at the thought of another lengthy forced march under the direct rays of the sun, but I also know that to go home now would leave a decidedly unsatisfying taste in my mouth. I'd rather give the search a full day before concluding he really isn't here.
                                                                                                "Good grief," she says, fixing me with an exasperated glare, "you're so ... "But she breaks off.
                                                                                                    "Oh, nothing. Let's just go. Let's try Tennōji next."

                                                                                                    My brother is two years older than me, and I used to love him from the bottom of my heart. I thought he was the coolest person in the world and the smartest person in the world and the bravest person in the world all rolled into one. I followed him everywhere until he started school, and when I started school I did everything exactly the way he did. We played a sort of baseball with a rubber ball, and we went to swimming classes together.
                                                                                                        I was in sixth grade when he had his first girlfriend. The advent of this girlfriend made me realize with utter clarity that I was in love with my brother. I became fiercely jealous of this girl his own age who had won his affection. I did everything I could think of to obstruct them― though, of course, there's a limit to the kind of monkey business a sixth grader can cook up. I hung up on her calls or deliberately forgot to pass on her messages; I threw away presents she had given him; I put a hex on her using the method that was going around at the time.
                                                                                                          During winter vacation I secretly read a note she'd written to my brother and found out they'd had sex for the first time. I was so frantic with jealousy and rage that I smashed my brother's precious stereo set with one of my father's golf clubs. But he never got angry. He just set about trying to fix it with a troubled smile on his face.
                                                                                                            Once I got into junior high, my feelings for my brother underwent a change. It happened when the girl I'd put a hex on got pregnant. My parents did everything they could to conceal it from me, but I found out by sneaking into my brother's room like before and reading one of her letters. Being only in ninth grade, the girl had to have an abortion. I assume my parents went to apologize to their counterparts bearing a tidy little sum "for your daughter's health." She and my brother and I all went to the same junior high, so I was there when the whole school started talking about her abortion. My brother offered no response―no denials, no standing up for his girl, no nothing. "Kayoko," he said, "could you walk to school with me from now on?" So we started going to and from school together. I found out later it was because the girl kept trying to walk with him if I wasn't there. When she saw me with him, she would give me a dirty look and go away. My brother just snickered the whole time.
                                                                                                              In high school, he turned into a teen rebel―though never all that seriously, mostly just for show. Basically on the order of a skateboarder. The shaved eyebrows, and altered uniform, and visor-like hairstyle were pure fashion statements. But thanks to these in-your-face stylings, he got the shakedown from some hardcore hooligans, which prompted him to steal from our parents' wallets, shoplift at neighborhood stores, and run his own shakedowns on junior high kids who looked weaker than him. He also found himself a new girlfriend and got her pregnant. Day after day I saw my parents with their heads together trying to figure out how to straighten him out and turn him into an upstanding teen who doesn't steal money or get girls in trouble all the time. They bawled him out, and put him into a summer program for at-risk kids, and even tried sending him to live with relatives, but none of it did any good. Taking it all in with his trademark snicker, he blithely apologized when scolded, took up with another girl in summer school, and stole valuables from the relatives he went to live with.
                                                                                                                I didn't get the brunt of it like my parents did, so I didn't hate him for these things, but I did think any girl who got involved with my brother had to be pretty stupid. I no longer became jealous or frantic over his constantly changing companions.
                                                                                                                  When he finished high school, he moved out of the house saying he wanted to test himself on his own two feet. It sounded commendable enough, but he remained every bit the brother I'd come to know, and I'm personally aware of three times when the police called for my father to come and get him out of lockup. The first was when he brought a stash of marijuana back from Bali, the second when he was drunk on a train and tried to get too familiar with a girl, and the third when he trashed the furnishings in a love hotel room.
                                                                                                                    In the summer of my senior year, he got my father to pay for a prefab in our yard. He thought he could set it up as a karaoke box and make some money. This was back when karaoke was just a device you found in bars, before anybody else thought of renting out individually equipped private rooms and calling them karaoke boxes, so I should probably give my brother credit for being ahead of the times, but in this case, too, he only proved himself to be the same impetuous brother I knew. He installed a karaoke machine in the small, perfectly square room, and where he picked up the idea I don't know, but he claimed that plastic egg cartons had excellent soundproofing properties and went around to the neighbors gathering them up so he could line the walls with them. Needless to say, egg cartons don't actually dampen sound, so every time he rented the room out, the din carried all across the neighborhood. Having spread the word through his network of friends, the one-room karaoke box was already booked up pretty far out, but the complaints pouring in from the neighbors quickly got to be too much, and my parents shut it down. About the time my summer vacation ended, Yasuyumi left home again, leaving the tacky-looking prefab sitting in our yard. Loathe to simply write off his loan to my brother as a loss, my dad sold the karaoke equipment to a nearby pub, carefully removed all of the egg cartons from the walls, and turned the room into his own private study.
                                                                                                                      Over the months from then until I graduated and moved away myself, I looked out my bedroom window each day at the roof of the ugly, misbegotten building. The more I looked at the square little eyesore, the more I wished I didn't have a brother. I just knew he'd be coming back someday to ruin my entire future. Whether to flee merely from such visions or from my brother himself, I enrolled at a university in Tokyo and found a boarding house near campus where I could live. I don't know what kind of trouble my brother caused after that, or how much of a nuisance he may have been to my parents. I'll never understand how he could have turned out this way," my mother lamented to me in her frequent calls, but I made a point of changing the topic rather than asking for details.
                                                                                                                        And then my worst fears came true. Seven years ago now, right when arrangements were underway for me finally to get married, Yasuyumi got arrested for fraud. He and some friends were convicted of selling fake health foods and nutritional supplements and sentenced to serve a year of real prison time. My fiancé remained unshaken in his resolve to marry me, but his parents started treating me like I was the family of a criminal and vehemently opposed our union. That got our hackles up, and we talked about eloping, but then somehow or other things between us began to grow strained, and before a month was out our relationship had died a natural death. Thinking about it in retrospect, "treating me like" wasn't the issue; I really was the family of a criminal.
                                                                                                                          My parents and I sat down at the kitchen table and talked grimly about cutting off all ties with Yasuyumi. Infantile as it may sound, we assured each other in complete earnestness that we would act from now on as if my brother had never been born. But a voice inside my head told me that even if we severed ties and acted as though he didn't exist, his very real existence was eventually going to catch up with us. Like a deceased spirit from the past, just about the time we'd finally pushed him from our minds, he would appear before us and give us new grief. My mother wept as we spoke, but there were no tears in my eyes. The thought of my brother insinuating himself back into my life even after our parents were gone was too frightening for tears.
                                                                                                                            We lost all contact with my brother after he was released, and enjoyed a period of peace and tranquility. I continued to be without a boyfriend ever since my wedding plans had fallen apart, but I had no desire to blame it on Yasuyumi. Since I no longer had any reason to set aside my bonus money, I used it to take my parents on trips during the midsummer and year-end holidays―to Kyūshū or Hokkaidō, or at times even overseas. It was my way of fulfilling my filial responsibilities as an only daughter.
                                                                                                                              One day nearly two years ago now, my mother showed up unexpectedly at the apartment where I lived by myself. She was waiting for me when I came home from work, standing all alone in front of the bank of mailboxes. I invited her up, and after we got inside she explained that Yasuyumi had called. He wanted to borrow some money. Naturally, she refused. She had cut off all ties with him; as far as she was concerned, he'd never even existed. "I hope you hurry up and die," he spat out, and promptly hung up.
                                                                                                                                "Tell me, Kayoko," she said softly, there in my apartment, kneeling on the futon laid out next to mine. "What in the world do you suppose I gave birth to? What in the world did I bring up?"
                                                                                                                                  It was a year later―which is to say last year―that she went into the hospital with a diagnosis of inoperable stomach cancer. When the doctor explained that feelings of severe stress can sometimes cause tumors to form in the stomach, the first thing I thought of was Yasuyumi. Wow, I thought. My brother's going to kill my mother. Quite literally.
                                                                                                                                    Around the middle of October, the doctors put her on a strong pain medication. She slept most of the time after that, but when she was awake, she talked about Yasuyumi. She spoke of little else, as if something pent up inside her until now had suddenly burst free. She might happily recount the Mothers' Day when her son entertained her with a one-man show, or, hallucinating, she might say that she just saw Yasu go by the doorway and want to know if he was staying in this hospital, too. Inside her heavily medicated fog of mind, the son who had to be cut off had apparently vanished without a trace, leaving only the innocent young boy of gentle disposition he'd once been. I thanked the gods that my mother remembered only the Yasuyumi who was still her son, but that same fact also annoyed me to no end. It was nothing but childish jealousy, I knew, but it was still infuriating to have her look at me sitting right there in front of her and ask, "Who are you?" even as she went on and on about the son she'd supposedly long since disowned.
                                                                                                                                      Her endless talk of Yasu this and Yasu that finally prompted my father to ask, "Would you like me to bring Yasuyumi to see you?" If she'd said yes, I imagine my father would have spared nothing to track my brother down and bring him to her. But she replied, "No, I wouldn't want Yasu to worry, so I'd rather you didn't." Just that once, her voice was firm and clear.
                                                                                                                                        She died at the beginning of November. Just before she slipped away, she squeezed my hand with a strength that startled me and repeated, "You take care of your brother now."
                                                                                                                                          "I wonder what that boy was to her," my father murmured after the funeral. "I wonder what Yasuyumi was to your mother." I sensed in the way he said it that he was suffering pangs of guilt for not finding his missing son and bringing him to see her.
                                                                                                                                            I was still staying with my father on bereavement leave six days after my mother's death when a woman introducing herself as Yamaguchi Mieko phoned. She told my father, who took the call, that she and Yasuyumi were planning to get married, and she'd like to stop by the house soon to pay her respects. When my father replied that he didn't consider Yasuyumi his son so she needn't bother, she let out a cackle of a laugh and said, "Just because you don't consider him your son doesn't actually make him any less your son."
                                                                                                                                              The next time she phoned was when I was visiting my father again for New Year's, and this time I was the one who answered. "Yasuyumi's disappeared," she sobbed at the other end of the line. I asked if he owed money. "I took care of all that," she said, brushing my question off as if it hardly mattered before sobbing some more and pressing me for any ideas I might have about where he'd gone. She said she would call again, so I gave her my number at the apartment and asked her to call me there. Ever since my mother's death, my always-taciturn father had become even more withdrawn and was about as expressive as a plant, and I saw no reason he should have to get stressed out about my brother.
                                                                                                                                                When she then called to say she'd found Yasuyumi, she'd heard he was in Osaka, and she'd like me to go with her to see him, I started to reply that I didn't have the slightest desire to do that, but I quickly changed my mind and said all right, I'll go. I decided I wanted to confront my brother. I wanted to confront him with my mother's questions about what she had given birth to, what she had brought up. And I wanted to tell him his mother had died, just like he wanted, and ask him if he was satisfied. Even if all I could manage was a tiny scratch or scrape, I wanted to hurt him, and once I'd seen him wounded and made sure I felt nothing from it, I intended to never see him again. Never ever.

                                                                                                                                                "I could really go for some good kushikatsu about now," Mieko says as we emerge from Noodle King's Tennōji branch. We've come up empty yet again, and I've pretty much given up any hope of finding Yasuyumi today. But if I'm not going to get to see my brother, I'm not inclined to linger over kushikatsu with a woman I don't even know. So I tell her I'm not really interested, but she immediately starts pleading with me, "Oh, come on. Please. We came all this way to Osaka, and we're right here in Tennōji. We have to have kushikatsu," and she grabs my arm and starts dragging me along behind her. My throat is parched, and she did pay off my brother's debts, after all, besides which I'm not likely to ever see her again, so I get to thinking why not, I can humor her over a few kushikatsu, and I let her pull me along without putting up a fuss.
                                                                                                                                                    Beneath the Tsūtenkaku Tower, a web of narrow streets and lanes stretches out in every direction dotted with old-fashioned eateries whose shop curtains and sign boards announce Kushikatsu or Takoyaki or Doteyaki. The sun has begun to descend in its arc, but our surroundings show no hint of an evening glow, with both pavement and signboards still glaring white in the sun's blinding light.
                                                                                                                                                      We pass any number of kushikatsu establishments as we go, but Mieko strides purposefully down the street as if she has a specific shop in mind. The place we enter is all counter, no tables, and even though it's only a little after four, well before meal time, the seats are nearly all taken. We manage to squeeze into the last two spots on the end. The air-conditioner is blasting away, but the sliding glass doors are wide open, and the air inside feels sticky. I begin pouring with sweat all over again.
                                                                                                                                                        "Two beers, and we'll start with pork, asparagus, cheese, and your special, two each."
                                                                                                                                                          Mieko calls out an order for both of us as soon as we sit down. When the beer arrives, she lifts her mug for a toast. To my mind, we have nothing to toast, but it seems silly to refuse, so I lightly clink my mug against hers. I bring it to my lips, and the liquid slides soothingly down my throat. Ahh, excellent.
                                                                                                                                                            "I was thinking, Kayo," Mieko says, peering my way. "Maybe we should stay the night and look again tomorrow."
                                                                                                                                                              "No, I'm going home today."
                                                                                                                                                                "Yeah? Well, maybe I'll still stay over by myself. I haven't had any of the local okonomiyaki yet, and I'd like to try some authentic Korean barbecue in Tsuruhashi, too."
                                                                                                                                                                  A stainless steel tray with a wire rack sits in front of us on the counter, and a guy with bleached hair drops the first of our deep-fried skewers on it from the other side.
                                                                                                                                                                    "The skewers are hot, so be careful," he says.
                                                                                                                                                                      "Exactly how much did my brother owe?" I ask as I take one in my hand.
                                                                                                                                                                        "Huh? Oh, never mind that. It's all taken care of," she says as she picks up the other skewer. She dips it in the sauce and takes a bite. "Oh, wow! That is so-o-o good!" she gushes. The other customers at the counter look her way and smile. Her pitch rises as she squeals over her next skewer, "These are delicious!" and the next, "Ouch! It's hot! I can't believe how good these are!"
                                                                                                                                                                          I dip a skewer into the container of sauce. "I’ve actually been thinking it'd be better if we don't find my brother. I'd just as soon he stayed unconnected to me."
                                                                                                                                                                            "Yeah? Well, I'm still hoping to find him. Excuse me," she gets our server's attention, "could you fix us some shrimp, and scallops, and eggplant, and tomato, and also pork again, two each."
                                                                                                                                                                              "Even if you do, you know he's just going to run up a bunch of debts again, and then skip out on you and leave you to clean up after him." I take a bite from my skewer. The hot cheese melts across my tongue.
                                                                                                                                                                                "No, this time I'm gonna stay away from fortunetellers and just hurry up and get married. And hurry up and make a baby, too. Once Yasuyumi has his own little family, he won't keep running away."
                                                                                                                                                                                  My brother with a family. My brother procreating. The very notion sends a shudder through me. It hadn't occurred to me that this woman might have her sights set on such a frightening prospect. For several moments, all I can do is stare.
                                                                                                                                                                                    "I think he's probably the kind of person who'll run away whether he has a family or not."
                                                                                                                                                                                      "Uh-uh, my Yumi-nums isn't like that."
                                                                                                                                                                                        The only possible conclusion I can reach from this is that the man she sees and the man I see in my brother are completely different people.
                                                                                                                                                                                          "Two more beers here, please!" she sings out cheerily.
                                                                                                                                                                                            "Whatever made you want to marry my brother anyway? To the point of covering his debts out of your own pocket, even. Why would you want to be with a man like that?"
                                                                                                                                                                                              If we're looking at different people, I suppose it's useless to ask anything, but I ask anyway in the hopes of learning some tiny little tidbit I don't know about my brother. One little reason to affirm him and love him and keep searching for him.
                                                                                                                                                                                                "Well, like, for one thing, he's so cool. And so considerate, too. Plus he really understands me, and, I don't know, I feel like there's a special connection between our souls."
                                                                                                                                                                                                  In other words, she's not seeing my brother for who he really is at all, I think, but then it hits me like a ton of bricks that the way she feels about my brother is exactly how I felt about him when I was in grade school. Except that I never thought there was a special connection between our souls. I simply knew we were connected by blood, and I regarded that as a kind of special privilege no one else could ever share.
                                                                                                                                                                                                    Like me and every other woman who's ever known my brother, will this woman, too, give up on him in the end, and come to loathe him and want to get him completely out of her life? But if that does happen, when it happens, she can actually ditch him for good and go off anywhere she pleases. How I envy her for that!
                                                                                                                                                                                                      As five o'clock approaches, customers waiting to get in begin forming a line in front of the shop. I've had all I can eat.
                                                                                                                                                                                                        "I need to be going," I say, fishing my wallet from my bag.
                                                                                                                                                                                                          "No, no, no, put your money away, this is on me," Mieko waves me off ostentatiously.
                                                                                                                                                                                                            Outside, after she's settled the bill, I turn to her with a bow. "Thank you. It's very generous of you."
                                                                                                                                                                                                              "Oh, for goodness' sake, stop being so formal," she says, "We're going to be sisters."
                                                                                                                                                                                                                The last part rubs me the wrong way, but I pretend not to have heard.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The orange glow of evening has begun to descend over the street. A middle-aged man in a tank top rides unsteadily by on a bicycle. Here and there, the smell of hot oil wafts into the air from the eateries we pass. We emerge from the side street and come to the base of the Tsūtenkaku Tower. A group of tourists is having their picture taken with a huge Billiken doll sitting on one of the benches. I spy several taxis lined up across from the tower entrance and start toward them. Just then Mieko shouts "Yumi-nums!" and takes off running. It's all so fast, I don't realize immediately what's happening and stand there watching her back recede into the distance for several moments, but then I hastily follow in pursuit.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    "Mieko!" I call after her.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                      "That's Yumi-nums!" she shouts back without turning her head.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        She races up a side street much like the one we just came out of. I can see the figure of a man racing farther on ahead. Is it my brother? Can it really be my brother? Has she actually managed to find him where we least expected it? But hold on a second. I don't remember Yasuyumi being that short. Or that chunky. She must have the wrong guy. Unless maybe he's changed since the last time I saw him. The beer sloshes about in my stomach as I run. Mieko has a forty- or fifty-meter jump on me. Wait, Yumi-nums! Stop! I hear her shouting as she sprints up the street bathed in evening sunlight. Both she and the man she's chasing keep pulling farther ahead, so as I start to run out of breath I think, What's the point, and decide to give up the pursuit, but my legs go on pumping in complete disregard of my will. I follow the two runners from the side street out onto a main thoroughfare, where we continue our chase along a sidewalk separated from the traffic by a guardrail.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Pain stabs at my side, and for some reason I think of Good Luck Bags. The white-on-red bags stenciled with GOOD LUCK that my mother used to buy at the supercenter near our house every year at New Year's. Bubbling with excitement, she would tear open the sealed bag―only to invariably be disappointed by what she found inside. A sweater made of synthetics; a skirt made of wool, but in an off color like yellow or purple; a frilly blouse; a cheap-looking jacket; a hideously gaudy scarf―items, one and all, that obviously came from the remainder bin. She would drop her shoulders and sigh, "I got suckered." Each time, my father would suggest maybe she shouldn't buy Good Luck Bags anymore, but the next thing we knew we'd see her wearing the synthetic sweater or frilly blouse as if she was perfectly happy with it. Sometimes she'd even take to boasting what a steal the item had been. And the following January, she'd go merrily off to try her luck again.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Maybe, it suddenly hits me as my feet pound the sidewalk in pursuit of the man who might be my brother and the woman who clearly is my brother's girlfriend. Maybe we all come into this world with a Good Luck Bag in our hands. The bag contains everything you're destined to experience after you're born into this life. Hopes and despairs. Happinesses and torments. Joyful laughter and choked-back tears. Feelings of love and feelings of hate. They're all there. Just because it says "Good Luck" on the outside doesn't mean the bag contains nothing but good fortune. Sometimes what you find inside isn't anything like what you hoped for. It looks cheap, and disappoints. You wish you'd chosen a different bag. But you can't discard what you find in it. You reluctantly put it on, make do with it one way or another, and about the time you grow into it, you've forgotten how you even came by it. What looked cheap, what disappointed, is now simply there. It's there as something given only to you. My mother wondered in dismay what she had given birth to, what she had brought up. But in her final days, at the end of the end, she must have realized: being birthed and nurtured by her was not how her son came into existence; he had been in her Good Luck Bag from the beginning. Just as he was in mine.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                              I strain for breath. My legs burn. The pain in my side throbs. Greasy burps escape my stomach.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Far ahead, Mieko has shrunken to the size of my index finger. I see her catch up to the man she's chasing and, with a final lunge, grab him from behind. I can't tell from where I am whether the man she's caught is my brother or a complete stranger. Who―no, what exactly has Mieko laid hold of, with her hair in wild disarray? Yet another item in her Good Luck Bag? My feet slow to a walk but continue to carry me forward. My wheezing breaths echo inside my head.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Now, what was it I planned to say to my brother when I saw him? And why was it I came to look for him? I can't seem to recall, and instead, with each step I take, I find myself repeating, almost like a prayer, Let it be my brother. Let it be my brother. Let the man she caught be my brother. Amidst the lights flickering in my eyes from lack of breath, an image of the ugly prefab that stood in our yard appears momentarily before me, then fades away.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (Translated by Wayne P. Lammers)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    [Posted Work Introduction]
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      "Good Luck Bag" (“Fukubukuro”)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Two women who just met each other are running hither and thither about the unfamiliar but famous streets of Dotonbori and Tennoji in Osaka on a scorching day. They have come to Osaka based on uncertain information about the whereabouts of the estranged brother of the narrator. They search in several ramen shops where he might be working. The rather scatter-brained woman leading the chase claims to be the brother's fiancé. She seems to hold a rather distorted love affection towards him. The narrator ruminates about her brother. She overlaps affection toward him that she felt in her childhood with anger about how he became a trouble-maker. A "Good Luck Bag" (“Fukubukuro”) is a popular item sold in stores in the new-year season. It could contain wonderful things or disappointing things; no one knows. As the title of this story, it expresses the philosophical conclusion of the narrator about the meaning of life and relationships, and shows the taste and style of the author. This story was first published in Bungei magazine spring 2008 issue and included in "Good Luck Bag" (“Fukubukuro”). February 2008, Kawade Shobo.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Good Luck Bag translated by Wayne P. Lammers is digitized from its appearance in Japanese Literature Today No.26 ©2009 by the Japan P.E.N.Club All Right Reserved.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          KAKUTA Mitsuyo
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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          KAKUTA Mitsuyo

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Novelist. Translator. Born Kanagawa Prefecture, 1967. After graduating from Waseda University's literature department, she has continued her artistic activities from novels for girls to serious literature. Many works are based on the key of ‘What is Woman?’ Kakuta’s women are homemakers and company presidents, such as those in ‘The Other Side’. "Woman on the Other Side" (“Taigan no Kanojo”) depicts relationships among women facing increasing difficulties in human relations, and won the Naoki Prize in 2005. Becoming a single mother, a woman returns to her family island home. The sea and islands glowing in the sunset show no change, but her family, especially her mother, are broken. In "Rock Mother" (“Rock Haha”), which won the KAWABATA Yasunari Literary Prize in 2006, a woman listens to American rock music at a loud volume, as she had done when she was a high school student, while she makes small dolls' clothes. A woman who becomes a mother and a mother who is abandoned by her mother, asks the question again: ‘What is Motherhood?’ A woman kidnaps the child of her adulterous partner in an ‘escape’ episode, and faces conflicts with the child after the child reaches adulthood in a suspense style episode. Here in “Cicadas of the Eighth Day" (“Youkame no Semi”), recipient of the Central Public Liberty Award in 2007, is again the theme of ‘what is motherhood?’ "Paper Month" (“Kami no Tsuki”) depicts the distorted love affair of a woman who can only have love through the intermediary of money. It received the SHIBATA Renzaburo Prize in 2012. KAKUTA Mitsuyo has won many other prizes and awards, and her works have been made into dramas, movies, and animations. She is a selection committee member of the Subaru Literary Prize and the KAWABATA Yasunari Literature Prize. Recently, she has been working on a modern translation of "The Tale of Genji" (“Genjimonogatari”.) She is at her prime as a writer with great energy and diverse literary activities.

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