I Lied When I Said I Was a Nobleman
A short story by Watanabe On, translated by Haiji.
A note on the translation
Though the sources language of this text is Japanese, the characters occasionally utter words in English. To preserve the distinction between these English words and the original Japanese, I have taken the convention of italicizing them.
Among the women of the foreign quarter
That night I went out to Yokohama to enjoy myself for the first time, guided by Alexander, who lived in the room next door to me.
If you were to ask about that kind of place, Alexander was by far more knowledgeable than even I, a Japanese person.
Alexander, if we take his word for it, says he was the dancing master attached to the former Russian imperial family and that after the revolution he crossed over to Japan from Shanghai. As it turned out though, he couldn’t make a living by dancing, so nowadays he plays the cello in some back-alley Western restaurant in Ginza, a Caucasian of a kind barely higher than those cloth-sellers you often see on crowded streets.
Even so, as one might expect of one born in the Caucasus, he is quite a handsome man with his hair and eyes both jet black such that, in spite of his poverty, he seems to be especially popular among the women of the foreign quarter.
By the way, other than Russian, Alexander, is able to speak crude Japanese and equally crude English.
It was 9 o’clock when we descended from Sakuragichō Station, so we first turned in the direction of the wharf and went to the Chinatown in Yamashitachō.
After that, we drank beer at International Bar, which everyone knows about. For some reason this shop made its name on Ebisu Beer, but a long while back I had gotten to drink a terribly delicious pilsner at Hamburg Bar, which was also in the neighborhood.
Back then – it was around the time I was thinking of going to Germany – there happened to be a strange German man in that bar who claimed to be a crewman on the Battleship Emden. Claiming that the most important qualification for entering the University of Heidelberg was being able to drink four dozen beers, he goaded me into drinking two dozen of the pilsners.
“That Emden guy works for the shop. I mean, he was shilling for them, eh?”
Alexander said, rejecting the Hamburg.
A group of four or five waitresses – each of whom looked to be of a different nationality – had gathered around our table.
“On top of that, there isn’t even a single beautiful woman there. It’s boring.”
As Alexander was speaking, he prodded the chin of the blond-haired girl, the one with the most beautiful slender eyes.
“Marsha! You’re in love with a man who writes Japanese novels. Marsha, speak!”
Even I had already heard the rumors of that girl. She showed me a handkerchief that she says she received from Mr. XX.
After that, she joined with Alexander and they danced. An old couple near the stove, apparently a family, joined in with the harp and violin.
I couldn’t be satisfied with Ebisu beer, so I stood at the bar and drank vodka.
The proprietress, who in her youth had apparently been quite a beautiful woman, struck up a conversation with me as she poured a drink.
Sure. If you die then I’ll die too
As we had planned, after spending one hour we left the International.
The blue streetlamps were miserably frozen in the pitch-black riverside road, and the wind blew around carrying the intense smell of the sea.
Leaving Motochō, we approached the Bungalow and waited for 10 o’clock. Alexander said he wanted to dance here until closing time, but I, unable to dance, did nothing but sample the whiskey absentmindedly and waited while surveying the spectacle of the lively hall.
A drunken dancer who was really too old came near me and begged for a port wine and, in the end, she, thinking my inability to dance pitiable, offered to teach me. Grasping both my hands, she pulled me up.
But, she promptly tumbled down upon the waxed floor. Again and again she fell.
In the end I had to lay the troublesome old dancer down on a cushion.
At 12 o’clock we were driven out of the Bungalow, so we headed on foot towards Ōmarudani down the sleepy Motochō Street.
“Ōmarudani is about half as cheap as Honmoku, but it’s no good. Japanese people aren’t welcome,” said Alexander as he walked, linking arms with me.
As we ascended a grassy, pitch-black hill road, a line of some number of houses stood on the left side, the words “such-and-such hotel” visible in the lamplight.
Among those, we chose the New Number Nine, which appeared to be the grandest, and went there, but the entryway and windows were completely dark, so we reluctantly went to the Tokyo Hotel located behind it.
“What country?” The small side-window opened, accompanying the voice.
The woman’s face, back-lit to black in the window-light, peered not at Andrew, the one standing at the opening, but rather at me, though who stood behind him.
“Chinese,” Alexander said, laughing.
“We’re full!” and with that, the window shut.
“Peh!” Alexander spat on the pavement.
“Even if we go to the Tivoli, they’ll be sleeping. Let’s go to Honmoku!”
“Alright,“ I answered.
After that, we discussed whether we should choose Jūniten or Shokō while we road a taxi toward Honmoku.
In the end, since the Kio Hotel is so bourgeois, we ended up taking the latter. The car sprinted along the late-night seashore.
We turned into a narrow alley, and when we passed the front of a hotel lighting a nightingale lantern in a plum tree, Alexander made the car stop. We entered a hotel called Étoile. In the bright, charming lobby, ten or more women, gorgeous as June peonies, stood in a line.
To Alexander this was already familiar: he explained that I could to choose whichever woman most attracted my attention.
The girls surrounded Alexander, shouting “Sasha! Sasha!” Alexander’s girl, sporting a beautiful bobbed haircut and severe eyebrows, looked as though she couldn’t be more than 17 or 18.
“Sasha, let’s tango!” she said, twining around his body.
My own selection was pressed on by the mistress of the establishment. I ended up pointing out, all the way on the far end of the crowd of girls, a slender pale-faced one who was looking the other way.
She captivated me from the start. It was because she wasn’t smiling at me like the other girls, and what’s more, I could feel an awfully timid, pitiful charm in those big, sorrowful eyes and sharp shoulders.
However, the mistress, the other girls, even Alexander found this not a little unexpected. Nonetheless, I had her sit on my lap and I caressed that colorless face.
The pair of us paid twenty-five yen. The transaction completed, we entered our respective rooms. My girl folded my clothes and put them away in the dresser. “Are you an important person?” she asked, stroking my hair with a bony finger. Her voice hoarse, she made a sound like a long sigh.
“Ah, a nobleman. I’m a baron,” I lied.
“Oh? Wonderful.” Her voice rumbled like the wind.
“Are you sick? Are you having chest trouble?”
“I’m sorry. I…I might die.”
“Ok, fine. If you die then I’ll die too!”
“My, aren’t you a glib talker.”
I embraced her small head against my chest.
“Please stop. I…I have an even worse disease than that,” She said. Turning her lips away, she coughed.
“Ok ok,” I said, and against my will I held her cheeks in my arms. – That kind of disease linked millions upon millions of men and women across long centuries. – To say it another way, the love between men and women is of the same quality. – These words of Alexander’s came to my mind as I…
The above story is a previously untranslated work by Watanabe On, a Japanese author who was active in the first half of the 20th century. This story was originally published in 1929 in the literary magazine “Storytelling” (講談雑誌). The original text can be found on Aozora Bunko.