This novel portraying the growing economic inequalities that divide Japanese society into winners and losers?with the latter venting their frustrations by lashing out at one another?offers a twisted, near-future projection of where the country may be headed.
The story is set in the Matsuho shopping district, a place sandwiched between two upscale residential neighborhoods. Longtime mainstay shops are closing down as their proprietors grow old, and new stores targeting the younger folk who stream in and out of the adjacent neighborhoods keep failing in short order as well. Finding a way to revitalize the area is an urgent priority.
The action begins at the end of April, in a bistro that is among the few businesses doing well. A customer arriving after the place has run out of most items on the menu is annoyed at having to settle for a pasta dish, and when the food arrives, he not only complains that it took too long to prepare but claims that some of the ingredients have gone bad, ultimately becoming rowdy enough that the police are summoned. Afterwards the customer rails at the bistro and the entire shopping district in a blog posting, and ratchets up the heat even further by distributing disparaging fliers.
The elders of the merchants’ association urge bistro owner Zuryō to ignore the flak, but Zuryō decides to meet the accusations head on: he returns fire on the Web and elsewhere with cogent arguments and counter-evidence, putting the disgruntled customer on the defensive. His evenhanded rejoinder draws the sympathy of the public, especially young people, and both bistro and shopping district enjoy an unusually lively “Golden Week” (as the string of holidays running from the end of April into May is known in Japan). But this incident then sets the stage for the advent of an authoritarian regime.
Zuryō had opened his bistro five years before as the sort of place where female customers could feel comfortable visiting alone, and it had been a hit. He gained favor with liquor store owner Sakanabe, one of his most important suppliers who was also chairman of the merchants’ association, and had not only become the man’s son-in-law but was now ensconced as secretary-general of the association. When a bicycle shop and beauty salon that had long been part of the community were about to shut down, he had personally recruited new operators from outside to take them over and give them new life.
Having gathered enthusiastic support among the younger set in the furor surrounding his disgruntled customer, Zuryō takes the opportunity to conduct a housecleaning of the association, removing the elders and consolidating power into his own hands. He begins enforcing a new policy that requires merchants to gain the approval of the association before selling out or buying in, while also using the association’s influence to help troubled businesses gain ultra-low interest loans. At the same time, he organizes some unemployed and marginalized young supporters into a private security force dubbed “The Futurists”?for handling disgruntled customers and eliminating opposition within the association. The Futurists initially focus on removing undesirable elements as directed by Zuryō, but as time goes by they begin to see themselves as primary agents of change in their own right, and adopt a more radical plan of action in which sacrificing their own lives becomes a means of furthering their ends. It is as if the entire group has come under a hypnotic spell. As they begin taking actions that go beyond Zuryō’s wishes, they become aware of his highhandedness. Believing that they can spark a major change in society by committing mass seppuku, five of them, including one woman, disembowel themselves on the street?evoking author Yukio Mishima’s ritual suicide in 1970 at a Japan Self-Defense Force installation in Tokyo.
Can such a suicide actually serve as a spark to ignite the fuse of social change? Where is the dividing line that separates right from wrong in today’s society? Author Tomoyuki Hoshino’s incisive critical eye shines in this community drama that delves deeply into the collective angst of contemporary Japanese society.