It turned out Hina’s parents did not hold on to old superstitions as firmly as their daughter had believed. They didn’t mind that the big house their son-in-law, Franz, had found for them all to co-inhabit was right next to a cemetery.
“Well, it makes it cheaper and quieter, doesn’t it?” was the only thing Hina’s mother, Rumiko, had to say on the matter. Her husband, Katsu, had just made an unintelligible grunting sound that was most likely an affirmative.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really Franz who had found the place, but his acquaintance O.G. On some days, he considered O.G. a friend rather than an acquaintance. On this day, however, he bore an unreasonable grudge. Franz himself admitted to the grudge’s unreasonableness, yet it couldn’t be helped: a grudge was a grudge. At the grudge’s core were, of course, his in-laws. They had met O.G. earlier that day when he assisted with moving their belongings, and they had talked to him — and they understood what he said. That had never happened to Franz, despite his Japanese being much better than O.G.’s.
Franz had mastered all levels of politeness and many a dialect. Still, he never figured out how to speak to Rumiko and Katsu. He understood them perfectly well, but it was a one-way street. Whenever he asked them a question or answered one of theirs, they would turn to their daughter and ask: “What did he say?” Then she would repeat what he had said in precisely the same words, without the slightest change in pronunciation. They would relay their reply to her, which she would repeat back to Franz, again unedited. Conversations about the simplest topics could be endless.
And from now on, they lived together in this house by the cemetery — the cemetery near Happy Road, as Franz liked to point out, to make it sound a bit more cheerful. This was the first day of their new lives, of Franz’s new life.
When O.G. had left, and Hina’s parents had gone for a stroll through their new neighborhood, Franz sat his wife down on one of the many unopened boxes in the main living room.
“How come they can understand O.G., of all people, yet for me, it wouldn’t make a difference whether I addressed them in German or Japanese?” he asked her.
“They saw O.G. on TV once,” she replied. “Remember, he was on that panel show where semi-famous people comment on food?”
“Oh, that one. Right. But what does that have to do with anything?”
“If a foreigner speaks Japanese on TV it’s, like, official. In real life, however, they can’t wrap their heads around it.”
“How can I make it official? Do I have to go on TV?” It wasn’t out of the question. Hina was a producer, he himself had some contacts through his work as a translator.
“You want to go on a food show and tell the country you hate nattō?”
“So you are still mad about that.”
“I’m not mad about you hating nattō. In fact, it just makes it more special in my eyes. I am mad about you pretending to like it all these years.”
“Maybe I can go on TV and do what I actually do: Be a translator for some traveling celebrity. Become a minor cult sensation of my own, like that adorable interpreter that accompanies Marie Kondo when she greets all those homes in America.”
“You’re adorable, but not that adorable. There has to be another option. My parents are well-read. They really enjoy literature and poetry, and all that … stuff … that you enjoy. I’m sure you can connect to them through your work.”
“You mean ‘The Armageddon Rejects,’ the show I’m currently translating? You think they read the original comic books back in the day? I wonder who their favorite character is. I bet either Indifferent Man or Can-of-Worms.”
“I can tell yours is Sister Sarcasm. I am sure you can find something else.”
The doorbell rang when Hina’s parents let themselves in. “Tadaima!” they exclaimed, shouting the Japanese for “We’re home.”
“Okaerinasai!” Franz greeted them, the Japanese for “Welcome home.”
Rumiko looked at him, smiling warmly. Then she turned to Hina. “What did he say?”
Franz had been suffering from headaches ever since they had taken their first look at the house. Now it got worse. His vision blurred. It was not his life up to this point that flashed before his eyes, but a premonition of his life from now on. An endless procession of “What did he say?”
Then everything went black.
Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo. “Leaving Happy Road” is a work of fiction. Some of the names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.