For five days in January 1989, the parents of a seven-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl sat and listened to the demands of their daughter’s kidnapper. They would never learn his identity. They would never see their daughter again.
For the fourteen years that followed, the Japanese public listened to the police’s apologies. They would never forget the botched investigation that became known as ‘Six Four’. They would never forgive the authorities their failure.
For one week in late 2002, the press officer attached to the police department in question confronted an anomaly in the case. He could never imagine what he would uncover. He would never have looked if he’d known what he would find.
Snowflakes danced through the evening light.Text © 2012 Hideo Yokoyama
The man’s legs were stiff as he stepped from the taxi. A forensics official in a police-issue overcoat was waiting outside the entrance to the station. He ushered the man inside. They passed a work area for duty officers and continued along a gloomy corridor before taking a side door out to the officers’ parking area.
The mortuary stood by itself at the far end of the grounds, a windowless structure with a tin roof. The low rumbling of the extractor fan told him there was a body inside. The official unlocked the door and stepped back. He gave the man a deferential look, indicating he would wait outside.
I forgot to pray.
Yoshinobu Mikami pushed open the door. The hinges groaned. His eyes and nose registered Cresol. He could feel the tips of Minako’s fingers digging through the fabric of his coat, into his elbow. Light glared down from the ceiling. The waist-high examination table was covered in blue vinyl sheeting; above it, a human shape was visible under a white sheet. Mikami recoiled at the indeterminate size, too small for an adult but clearly not a child.
Ayumi . . .
He swallowed the word, afraid that voicing his daughter’s name might make the body hers.
He began to peel back the white cloth.
Hair. Forehead. Closed eyes. Nose, lips . . . chin.
The pale face of a dead girl came into view. In the same moment the frozen air began to circulate again; Minako’s forehead pushed against his shoulder. The pressure receded from the fingers at his elbow.
Mikami was staring at the ceiling, breathing out from deep in his gut. There was no need to inspect the body further. The journey from Prefecture D – by bullet train then taxi – had taken four hours, but the process of identifying the corpse had been over in seconds. A young girl; drowned, suicide. They had wasted no time after receiving the call. The girl, they were told, had been found in a lake a little after midday.
Her chestnut hair was still damp. She looked fifteen or sixteen, perhaps a little older. She hadn’t been in the water for long. There were no signs of bloating, and the slender outline running from her forehead to her cheeks was, along with her childlike lips, unbroken, preserved as though she were still alive.
It seemed a bitter irony. The girl’s delicate features were, he supposed, the kind Ayumi had always longed for. Even now, three months later, Mikami was still unable to think back on what had happened with a cool head.
There had been a noise from Ayumi’s room upstairs. A frenzied sound, like somebody trying to kick through the floor. Her mirror was in pieces. She’d been sitting with the lights off in the corner of her room. Punching, scratching her face, trying to tear it apart: I hate this face. I want to die.
Mikami faced the dead girl and pressed his hands together. She would have parents, too. They would have to come to this place, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, and face up to the awful reality.
‘Let’s get out of here.’
His voice was hoarse. Something dry was caught in his throat. Minako seemed vacant; she made no attempt to nod. Her swollen pupils were like glass beads, empty of thought or emotion. This wasn’t their first time – in the last three months they had already identified two bodies of Ayumi’s age.
Outside, the snow had turned to sleet. Three figures stood breathing chalky clouds in the dark of the parking area.
‘A great relief.’
The pale, clearly good-natured station captain proffered his card with a hesitant smile. He was in full uniform, even though it was outside working hours. The same was true of the director, and of the section chief of Criminal Investigations flanking his sides. Mikami recognized it as a sign of respect, in case he’d identified the girl as his daughter.
He gave them a low bow. ‘Thank you for getting in touch so quickly.’
‘Not at all.’ We’re all police. Skipping any further formalities, the captain turned to gesture at the building and said, ‘Come in, you should warm up a little.’
There was a nudge in the back of Mikami’s coat. He turned and caught Minako’s imploring gaze. She wanted to leave as soon as possible. He felt the same way.
‘That’s very kind, but we should get going. We have a train to catch.’
‘No, no, you should stay. We’ve arranged a hotel.’
‘We appreciate your consideration, but we really do need to go. I have to work tomorrow.’
When he said this, the captain’s gaze dropped to the card in his hands.
Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami. Press Director. Inspector, Administrative Affairs Department, Personnel Division. Prefecture D Police Headquarters.
He sighed as he looked back up.
‘It must be tough, having to deal with the press.’
‘It can be,’ Mikami said evasively. He could picture the mutinous faces of the reporters he’d left back in Media Relations. They had been in the middle of a heated argument over the format of press releases when the call had come in to notify him of the drowned girl. He had got to his feet and walked out without a word, earning the wrath of the reporters, who were unaware of his family situation: We’re not finished here. Are you running away, Mikami?
‘Have you been in Media Relations long?’ The captain looked sympathetic. In district stations, relations with the press were handled by the station’s vice-captain or vice-director; in smaller, regional stations, it was the captain himself who stood in the firing line.
‘Just since the spring. Although I had a brief stint there a long time ago.’
‘Have you always worked in Administrative Affairs?’
‘No. I spent a long time as a detective in Second Division.’
Even now, this engendered a certain amount of pride.
The captain nodded uncertainly. It was unlikely, even in the regional headquarters, that he had seen any examples of detectives switching into the role of press director.
‘I would imagine, with your insights into Criminal Investigations, that the press might actually listen to you.’
‘I certainly hope so.’
‘You know, it’s a bit of a problem here. There are . . . certain reporters who like to write what they please, true or not.’
The captain scowled and, without changing his expression, waved towards the garage. Mikami was troubled to see the front lights of the captain’s black car flick on. The taxi he’d kept waiting was nowhere to be seen. There was another nudge in his back, but he was hesitant at this point to call another taxi and upset the well-meaning captain.
It was already dark when they drove to the station.
‘Here, this is the lake,’ the captain said from the passenger seat, sounding a little awestruck as a deeper stretch of darkness appeared beyond the window to the right. ‘The internet really is appalling. There is a horrible website, the “Top Ten Suicide Spots” – this lake is listed there. They’ve given it an eerie name, something like the “Lake of Promise”.’
‘The “Lake of Promise”?’
‘It looks like a heart, depending on the angle. The website makes the claim that it grants you true love in the next life; the girl today, she was the fourth. We had one come all the way from Tokyo not too long ago. The press decided to run an article, and now we’ve got the TV to deal with.’
‘Absolutely. It’s a disgrace, peddling articles about a suicide. If we had had time, Mikami, I would have liked to ask you for some pointers in dealing with them.’
As if he were uncomfortable with silence, the captain continued to talk. For his part, Mikami lacked the will to carry out any animated conversation. While he was thankful for the captain’s tact, his responses became increasingly terse. It was a mistake. It wasn’t Ayumi. His thoughts were joyless all the same; no different to those on the journey out. To pray she wasn’t their daughter. He knew all too well that this was the same as wishing she was someone else’s.
Minako was perfectly still at his side. Their shoulders pressed together. Hers felt abnormally frail.
The car turned at a junction. The bright light of the train station came into view directly ahead of them. The square in front of the building was wide and spacious, strewn with a few commemorative monuments. It was almost empty of people. Mikami had heard that the building of the station was the result of political manoeuvring; no one had thought to consider actual passenger numbers.
‘There’s no need to get out, you’ll only get wet,’ Mikami said quickly. He had the rear passenger door halfway open, but the captain beat him out of the car regardless. The man’s face was flushed red.
‘Please accept my apologies for the unreliable information and the trouble you’ve taken to come here. We thought, well, from her height and the position of the mole that she might be . . . I just hope we haven’t caused you too much distress.’
‘Of course not.’
Mikami waved a hand to dismiss the idea, but the captain took hold of it.
‘This will work out. Your daughter is alive and well. We will find her. You have 260,000 friends looking for her, around the clock.’
Mikami remained in a low bow, watching the tail lights as the captain’s car pulled away. Minako’s neck was getting wet in the cold rain. He pulled her slight form close and started towards the station. The light from a police box – one of the koban – caught his eye. An old man, possibly a drunk, was sitting on the road, fending off the restraining arms of a young policeman.
There was no exaggeration in the captain’s words. District stations. Koban. Substations. Ayumi’s picture had been sent to police departments across the nation. Officers he would neither know nor recognize were keeping watch day and night for news of his daughter, as if she were their own. The police force . . . family. It inspired confidence, and he was indebted – not a single day went by in which he wasn’t thankful for being part of such a powerful and far-reaching organization. And yet . . .
Mikami bit down on the cold air. He had never imagined it. That his need for help could have become such a critical weakness.
Now and then, his blood felt ready to boil. He could never tell Minako. To find your missing daughter. To hold her alive in your arms. Mikami doubted there was anything a parent wouldn’t put themselves through in order to achieve such a goal.
An announcement rang out along the train platform.
Inside, the train was marked by empty seats. Mikami ushered Minako to a window seat, then whispered, ‘The captain’s right. She’s safe. She’s doing okay.’
Minako said nothing.
‘They’ll find her soon. You don’t need to worry.’
‘. . . yes.’
‘We had the calls, remember? She wants to come back. It’s just pride. You’ll see, one day soon, she’ll just turn up.’
Minako was as hollow-looking as before. Her elegant features shone in the dark window of the train. She looked worn. She had given up on make-up and hairdressers. How would she feel, though, if she realized this only served to draw attention to the natural, effortless beauty of her features?
Mikami’s face was also in the window. He saw a phantom image of Ayumi.
She had cursed the way she’d taken after him.
She had made her mother’s beauty the focus of her anger.
He slowly pulled his eyes away from the window. It was temporary. Like the measles. Sooner or later, she would come to her senses. Then she would come home with her tongue stuck out, like she had done when she made mistakes as a small girl. She couldn’t genuinely hate them, want to cause them pain, not Ayumi.
The train rocked a little. Minako was resting against his shoulder. Her irregular breathing made it hard to know if she was groaning or just asleep.
Mikami closed his eyes.
The window was still there, under his eyelids, reflecting the ill-matched husband and wife.
English translation © 2016 Jonathan Lloyd-Davies