As Beto awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his futon into a gigantic cockroach.
“What’s happened to me?” he thought. In his native land down south, he had been a person — if at times underprivileged due to his nikkei status. So, years ago, he “repatriated” to Japan, attracted by promises of better milk and honey. Yet now he felt even more marginalized by the locals here, who called themselves “people” yet treated him at times like he was an insect.
Beto scurried off to work, where people shied away and refused to sit by him in the train cars. But as the end of the line approached, the coach filled up with fellow cockroaches, and people stopped paying attention.
The people at his factory also took no notice of his metamorphosis. His supervisors were used to dealing with cockroaches. Bugs seemed an inevitable part of lower-rent circumstances. As in the train, it seemed some people had learned to “co-exist” with them in close quarters.
In public, however, reactions were different. Alone, Beto was often seen as something exotic, maybe even collectable if there was a curious person flitting about who was interested in “speaking bug.” But if seen as part of a swarm, people’s knee-jerk reactions were to take steps against them. Bugs might overrun the place, making it feel less the realm of the masters, more of the roaches.
Speaking of the masters, politicians were calling for strict controls of the cockroach population. For what did the gokiburi (sometimes dissed as “gai-kiburi”) actually do? Nothing visibly important, and they were always found in the dirtiest places. What kind of house were we keeping if cockroaches were around?
Cockroaches, after all, weren’t like other insects. They were compared unfavorably to the skilled worker bees from rich countries, who were overtly adding to the national honey pot. Also, remember, worker bees have a sting. You had to respect that — not rattle the nest if you wanted to keep scraping at the luscious honeycombs they built.
But the politicians warned against wasps. Sure, those yellow jackets served some pollinating function in the wilting countryside, but they should never be allowed to build nests. For they too had stings, and deviously stung in hordes. Approach them carefully, for they were unpredictable, emboldened by the world’s biggest hive just a short flight away.
Even stronger stings were found among the white-faced hornets. Their nests here were very secure, kept because they offered Japan considerable honey. So as long as the hornets mostly policed themselves on some rock far from the mainland, their stings, kept in full public view and sharpened often, managed to scare off the yellow jackets.
In contrast, cockroaches like Beto had no sting. They didn’t even bite. They just scurried about doing their business, quietly collecting crumbs through their allotted niches in society, unrecognized for their long-term contributions to Japan’s food chain.
That’s why cockroaches were so easily kicked around. Few people raised a stink if someone stomped on them, for example, for being grubby while sorting rubbish on garbage day.
Beto recalled how past insects had been kept under control. Remember the stink bugs of yore who sold fake telephone cards? They incurred the vindictive wrath of Japan’s then-largest corporate giant, who convinced the authorities to fumigate — closing off entire parks to any insect, and stamping them out through visa nonrenewal. For good measure, the pheromone of public money was used to attract them into building sports stadiums. Once hastily completed, the stink bugs were bottled up and booted out.
That should have put the insects in their place. But a decade ago, a self-styled Sanitizer-General claimed Japan was breaking out in hives, and campaigned about “cleaning house.” Whole areas of Tokyo were apparently so infested that public stability — even purity — was imperiled. The Sanitizer got all his wishes, including Japan’s first neighborhood security cameras, antiterrorist legislation, and routine public harassment of anyone who bugged him. Plus reelection no matter how old and vitriolic he got.
Fortunately, cockroaches were distant from Tokyo, so they managed to keep their clusters. But their turn came during the economic downturn of 2008, when the government sprinkled pheromones on airplanes and spirited a clutch of them away.
Beto himself stayed on. Factory work was what he did well, and he thrived quietly within his nook. He stayed past 2011 — when the honey turned sour, then salty and hot. He even stayed when all the other insects, so long decried as pests, somehow metamorphosed into rats and then were decried for leaving a sinking ship.
But as of this morning, when he realized that he was just a cockroach, Beto began to wonder if it wasn’t time to claim his place in the food chain.
That would require acting like a person, with a sense of entitlement in Japan. He would have to emerge from his exoskeleton and become more articulate in the language. He would have to start convincing fellow roaches to come out of the cracks. They would have to build more hives in public view — not just cluster around the occasional ethnic restaurant or local samba festival.
They would also have to stop letting the people convince them that, despite decades of contributions to the national honey pot, bugs were here only by the vicissitudes of labor-migration economics and the good graces of an indifferent government.
Beto could — dare he think it out loud? — even refuse to fill the honey pot until they were acknowledged and respected like worker bees. With stings. With the will to unionize, then strike if their nest was rattled enough. Striking was something those in the most secure jobs — the public servants — couldn’t even do.
Still, the public-servant drones didn’t need to. Drones were already people, not insects, even though they had hidden stings of their own. The bugs, on the other hand, would have to swarm upon Tokyo to show off their stings.
Of course, it would be difficult for people to ever see immigrants as anything more than bugs. But it was worth a try. After all, people can only spend so much of their life bottom-feeding, crushable at any time with no reprisal or payback just because they happen to be underfoot. Beto scuttled off to become human again.
With apologies to Franz Kafka. Debito Arudou’s latest publication is the Hokkaido Section of Fodor’s Japan, on sale now. Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue to email@example.com