It’s like precious china. A fresh white, virtually blue. Touch it, and it appears almost to melt, softly giving way. The spot touched turns the slightest pink, as if bashful, and surely, if bitten into, it would taste sweet, with a lush juiciness. Round, with exaggeratedly swivelled curves, and slightly vulgar—it is still and everlasting.
Pale and smooth, with a sudden rise.
My lovely ass.
A man approached me on the street. “Don’t get the wrong idea.” He said this as he handed me his business card. He was a nondescript, perfectly ordinary fellow. He wore a simple grey suit with a maroon tie. Average height, average looks.
Although at the time I was about to turn thirty, I felt like a lost child approached by an unfamiliar grown-up, not one of my parents. It wasn’t so much that I was frightened by the man; I felt a vague uneasiness.
“Is there anything about yourself that you might like to, perhaps, leave behind?” the man asked. I didn’t understand what he meant.
“Let me put it another way. Is there something you might like to get some distance from, to see from afar?”
He spoke gently, but for whatever reason I couldn’t tell whether he was smiling or if there was something suspicious about his expression.
“Let me get right to the point. I’m referring to your bottom.”
I might have run away when he said that. I might have screamed. But I didn’t do either of those things. Quite the contrary, I felt irresponsibly intrigued by the man, very much that same feeling I had had when I was young.
“Yes.” I was that lost child all over again. So many unfamiliar faces and unknown places. As I wandered toward them, despite the childlike despair I felt at the thought of never seeing my parents again, it was as though I had encountered a sorcerer who was leading me into another world. I died a little when I strayed from my family. I knew at that moment that whatever happened now, there was no reason to be afraid and that I was that brazen, apathetic child. Without a doubt.
I worked as a parts model. The best-known parts models are probably hand models. You see them in advertisements for hand cream or cooking commercials or posters featuring nail art and the like—stunningly beautiful hands without a single visible vein and with slender, tapered fingers. Theirs are the epitome of hands.
There are eye models whose eyes are used in ads for eyeshadow, foot models whose heels can be seen in commercials for products that remove calluses, even ear models whose ears appear on packages of earplug
I am a butt model: my butt can be seen in commercials for pantyhose and underwear or in advertisements for beauty treatment clinics.
I first got into this business shortly after I turned twenty. Back then, I had a part-time job at a chainstore coffee stand.
The store uniform was a white shirt with a close-fitting brown pencil skirt. I am not attractive: the only time I was ever aware of men looking at me was when I wore this uniform. Even then, they weren’t looking at my face. They were looking at my rear.
Around this time, I became aware of the shapely beauty of my own posterior, seeing the bottoms of the other girls who worked there—either slack and pancake flat or expansive l ike some landmass. For what it’s worth, theirs looked vastly different from mine, packed as it was into my skirt with the fabric stretched tight. And as far as I could tell from looking at people out in the street, most Japanese women did not have an ass like mine. That is to say, I came to realize that it was quite special.
When bathing, I was often enchanted by the sight of my own backside reflected in the mirror. There was its obvious shapeliness, but moreover, other girls’ bottoms didn’t have the same tautness or the ripeness of a fresh, white peach.
I washed my bottom as if it were a prized possession. Then, each night, I would sleep on my stomach so as to avoid causing my ass any discomfort. It rose and fell soundly, keeping time with my breath as I slept. I enjoyed hearing the sweet and gentle noises it made.
I felt embarrassed by the intent gazes of the male employees and customers at the coffee stand, but I did find it amusing to fluster them by turning around suddenly and calling them out. Seeing their faces go bright red in agitation made me feel pretty, like I had become one of the popular girls.
But even that only lasted for a fleeting moment. Once they raised their gaze and saw my face, the men would regain their composure, their expressions changing back as if they hadn’t noticed anyone there. The only thing that held their interest was my ass.
I often wondered, What if my ass were my face . . . ? Surely, I’d have lots of male admirers; the men would love me. I’ve never seen such a pretty girl, they’d tell me. I had a recurring dream in which the word ass was printed on my forehead and I was being chased by a mob. I would wake up and sob quietly.
My ass was my ass, and my face was my face.
I was walking down the street one day, and someone handed me a circular advertising part-time jobs.
The guy who was passing them out was a shady character wearing a jangly earring, and he was only handing out the magazine to young women. Normally I would have thrown it away immediately, but I stuffed it in my bag. I usually carry around a paperback book, and that day I had forgotten to bring one. For the half hour before I started work, I always had a coffee at another shop. I went to a different chain than the one where I worked. It felt decadent and immoral to patronize what was ostensibly a rival chain, as if I were betraying my workplace. I was exulted by this twinge of guilt, by the sweetness of revenge. Such were the pleasures I took in life.
All the job listings in the circular were for the entertainment and liquor trade.
Work for just a day * Paid in cash * From ¥ , an hour * Make ¥ , a day just for ear cleaning!! Have fun on the job!
As I glanced over the sleazy euphemisms and muttered to myself with disdain, I thought about my own job that paid ¥850 an hour and let out a sigh. The young employees at this foreign-owned coffee shop probably earned a similar wage, but they bustled merrily about in their fancy aprons, as if it were the day before the school arts festival. Each and every female worker was pretty enough that she might have been hired for her looks.
Surely, guys never treated any of these girls as if they didn’t exist, I thought to myself. I felt like someone was pinching my temple. Maybe, I thought self-deprecatingly, right here and now I ought to spell out ass on my forehead, as in my dream.
I became still and sad, as happened whenever I woke from the dream, and I lowered my gaze. Before my eyes was a recruitment ad for parts models.
I had found my calling. When I entered the room for an interview, the agency director took one look at my ass and nodded with satisfaction.
The following week, my ass was already basking in the light from the camera’s flash.
Working as a model was fun. At first it was embarrassing, for sure, to have everyone staring at me while I was photographed, but I soon got used to it, and eventually I took sweet pleasure in those moments. Making com- mercials for pantyhose or a girdle, I even began to feel frustrated that it was only my “fine form” on display.
I started doing work that required me to be nude. When I exposed my ass, everyone—men and women alike—exclaimed.
“So curvaceous!” “So smooth to the touch!” “So porcelain!” “Beautiful!” “Gorgeous!” “Lovely!” My ass had sprung to life. It was glowing. Almost all the advertisements for beauty treatment clinics at the time featured my bottom, and it appeared on many album covers as well.
I was raking in the money. I never imagined that parts modelling would be so lucrative, but according to my manager, “These are special conditions.”
My ass really was extraordinary. Thanks to it, I was able to move from a studio apartment in Kami-Igusa on the western outskirts of Tokyo to a two-bedroom apartment with a living room, dining room, and separate kitchen in Meguro in central Tokyo. For the first time in my life, I bought a leather sofa; I learned uplighting techniques to keep the rooms diffusely lit; I tossed expensive bath salts into the tub.
And I got my first-ever boyfriend. Before then, guys I didn’t know never talked to me, and it goes without saying that I never struck up a conversation with any of them either. At the coffee stand, there had been a guy I liked, but he told one of my coworkers about another girl who was “his type,” and I knew she was a model, which made a person like me feel ashamed for even taking a fancy to him.
Out on the street, I often saw girls who didn’t look so different from me walking along happily with a guy, but imagining the circumstances that might bring about such a scenario was completely beyond me. Talking to an actual guy—to say nothing of developing a romance with one—seemed to me more difficult than divining the secrets of the universe.
But since becoming a parts model, I had changed. As it turned out, what was more difficult than divining the secrets of the universe was having self-confidence. And thanks to my ass, I had managed to gain some confidence in myself.
Now that I had money to burn, I had started going to the beauty parlour. I got my hair done at a fancy salon, I learned how to do my makeup from a beauty expert, and when wearing fashionable, well-made clothes, even a woman like me looked pretty decent.
There were plenty of guys in this world who would love me.
I wondered why I hadn’t done any self improvement sooner. I regretted the lost time.
The only thing I had ever loved or cherished had been my ass. All those days I had shuttled between home and the coffee stand without any makeup. And then there were my days off, spent inside my apartment in Kami-Igusa, never going out.
I forgot about the past, giving myself over to the honeymoon phase with my boyfriend. I had the feeling that “reality” would finally catch up with me.
In the end, I went so far as to break up with this boyfriend. Who would ever have imagined that I’d be the one to cut a guy loose because I didn’t like him enough?
Naturally, all the boyfriends who came after were enthusiastic in their praise of my ass.
“What a shape!” “What a texture!” “What a colour!” “Beautiful!” “Beautiful!” “Beautiful!” “Beautiful!” “Beautiful!” “Beautiful!”
My ass had come alive. It was radiant.
“I see. Indeed, that must have been a time of happiness for you,” the man said as he settled into a worn sofa.
I had followed the man back to a multi-use building; it was old and run down, but structurally it had once been beautiful. In the old days, he said, buildings like this were everywhere. I couldn’t actually tell the man’s age, but his appearance was well suited to the building’s signs of decay.
The room he had shown me into had crimson carpeting and an old wall clock that ticked away the minutes. The second hand seemed to move slower than real time.
“Yes, I was happy. Tremendously happy. I felt like I had everything in the world.”
“So I would imagine, yes.” As soon as I sat down on the sofa, the man said to me, “Tell me the story of your bottom.” I did so, talking about my own ass without any skepticism. In terms of being on guard, there couldn’t have been more red flags, but for some reason, the man had a salubrious air about him that seemed to invite deep and relaxed breathing. Even though I was talking about my ass, there was nothing the least bit sexual about the conversation.
“But, at some point, I started to hate my ass.” “Oh, really? Why is that?” “How can I put it? Because nobody looked at me. They only looked at my ass. I knew that. And yes, my ass is a part of me. It’s thanks to my ass that I was able to find fortune. But my ass is practically the only thing anyone ever compliments me on.”
“I see.” “It’s strange, you know.” “No, it isn’t the least bit strange. I understand. Very much.”
My boyfriends had only admired my ass. “Your butt is the best,” they’d say. But no one ever said, “You’re the best.” At photo shoots, normally the production staff would announce, “Miss So-and-So is here,” but instead of calling me by name, they’d say, “The butt is here.”
It was this part of me that my boyfriends loved. It was my ass that made me in demand as a model. It was thanks to it that I had acquired my current life.
I had been all too aware of that, but I developed a strange sense of jealousy, a sort of love-hate relationship, with the fact that I had been superseded by my ass and that it was what everyone loved me for. And that feeling quickly intensified.
First, I stopped sleeping on my stomach. I no longer heard “her” breathing. When I would roll over onto my back, my ass made a plaintive, squeaking sound, but I ignored her voice. Then, I started to experience pain when I would rub expensive cream on my ass every day. This used to be blissful: I would gently massage in the wonderful-smelling cream, and my lotioned ass would gleam. “I’m so happy,” she would declare to me. But the moment my manager dictated to me, “Please make this your daily routine,” it began to feel like a boring and tedious effort, an obligation to fulfill. I would apply the cream roughly, and she would squeak plaintively, which I again ignored.
Around this time is when I met the man. That day I had been at a studio shoot for a beauty treatment clinic. During a break, a member of the crew who was bringing coffee around tripped on a camera cord and spilled coffee on me. I had been lying on a sofa, resting, and it spilled on my face. I yelled out, “That’s hot!” and when the crew member ran over to check on me, he was relieved to see it was my face that had been burned.
“Oh, good, I’m glad it wasn’t your bum,” he said. Hearing this, I stormed out of the studio.
“But, how did you know I want to get rid of my ass?” I asked the man.
“I could tell right away. The part for which you have ambivalent feelings looks blurry. From a distance, it was as if your bottom was swathed in mist.”
“Really?” “Observe closely for yourself. You’ll see that, among people on the city streets, for instance, there are some whose faces or arms or breasts seem blurry.”
“Ah! Now that you mention it, a long time ago I saw a ghost story manga artist on TV, and he was all blurry—his whole body. Is that what happened to him?
That he had conflicting emotions about being loved for something that went beyond who he really was?”
That person happens to be blurry for a completely different reason. As far as I can understand it, in his case, existence itself is a mystery to him, and as a result, the air he is swathed in is hazy and indistinct. See for yourself. Even an actress who invites guests over to her home every day or a Hollywood star who has saved the planet numerous times on screen looks blurry once in a while.”
“Is that so? But then, what happens when it isn’t a part of the body that someone has ambivalent feelings for, but rather it’s their talent or intellect?”
“That’s simple. The area where they envision that residing blurs. For some of them, the brain or the back of the head will be blurry, or for others, their hands will be blurry. Some people’s eyes appear blurry.”
“The head, I get. Hands . . . I guess that’s their talent. But why their eyes?”
“Well, those people are gifted with powers of observation. The reality of their situation is that they see too much.”
“Wow.” “So, then. Without further ado.” The man clapped his hands together and stood up. When he did so, the ticking of the second hand on the clock seemed to slow down.
“Shall we go to room D?” “Room D?” “That’s where your bottom will be kept.” I followed after the man, who had already started walking. We descended a spiral staircase and then made several turns down a corridor. It was like a maze. It was surprising how vast this building was.
“What do you mean by ‘where it will be kept’?” “Say, for instance, an author’s books sell so well that he decides to take them out of print. The books themselves are, without question, still his own work, but in order not to be beholden to the thrall of acclaim, he takes them out of circulation. It’s the same thing. For your sake, please think of your bottom as being like that author’s books. Since you cannot take it out of print, so to speak, you can instead ‘leave it’ here. We use a specialized technique. Authors have come here to leave their entire brains. The ones who have been unable to write anything at all since a particular point in time? That’s because their brain is being kept here.”
“Then what happens to the place where their brain or my ass is while the part itself is being kept here?”
“You are allocated what you yourself would consider to be the general concept of a bottom, or in their case, a brain. An average brain or an average bottom, shall we say. It’s fine—it works out by and large, conceptually, and is not discernible to the eye. Sometimes it doesn’t even appear blurry. Here we are. This is the place.”
The man passed by doors that were marked A, B, and C, stopping in front of a door marked D. Inside, it was dimly lit. There were doors along one wall, like a morgue.
The man deftly opened the door second from the left and third from the top. As he did so, a puff of smoke billowed out. The smoke was pale violet, with a pleasant scent.
“It’s a specialized technique.”
After that, I remember nothing.
The next thing I knew, I was lying on the sofa in the room where I’d been before.
Startled, I reached out my hand. I definitely still had an ass, but the shape and texture felt different.
“Hey, you’re awake?” The man came into the room, holding a cup of coffee. “Uh, what about my ass?” “Don’t worry. It’s safe in the room where we were.” “Um, what’s this? What about this ass?” “As I said before, it’s the general concept of what you would consider an average bottom. You will no longer be captive to your bottom. The bottom that inspired adoration beyond objective reality is now sleeping peacefully in room D. Would you like to see?”
“I can go see it?” “Of course. It’s yours, after all. You can come here to see it any time, whenever you like. And, if at some point you feel as though you would be able to love your bottom for what it is, you may have it back.”
The man drank down the coffee. We descended another long staircase and then made several turns.
“What do A, B, and C stand for?” “Levels. The rooms are categorized by degrees of ambivalence. There are five levels, from A to E, and you were determined to be at level D. Would you like to see level A?”
“May I?” “Of course. People who are at level A are unlikely to ever return, even after a hundred years.”
The man reversed his steps and then opened the door marked A. It made a heftier sound than when he had opened the door marked D. The room was the same as room D, with doors installed along the wall. However, here there were two large coffins arranged in the centre of the room.
“What are these?”
“Oh, these are for the ones that don’t fit in the units on the wall. Some people come here to leave their entire body. So far, there have only been two.”
“All of it? What happens to those people? Don’t they die?”
“No. They are allocated what those people consider to be the general concept of a body. Completely and totally. That’s right. So, from a societal perspective, it is equivalent to being dead since they become a completely different self.”
As he spoke, the man opened both of the coffins. I looked into one and let out a cry.
“That’s right. It’s Osamu Dazai.” I owned several paperback editions of his novels. I had ached with sympathy when I read his books, which were filled with self-recrimination, and he was so handsome in his author photo. I had been dispirited by his demise.
“He did not commit suicide. The body that was found at the Tamagawa Aqueduct was akin to a castoff husk. He is still alive today. In the form of what he considers to be a man. These general concepts are ageless, you see.”
“He must really have hated himself.”
“In his case, being ‘Osamu Dazai’ had transcended his literary works and even himself; it was too intense. When he left him behind here, he was so relieved; his face was like that of a child.”
“What about the other one, this beautiful woman?”
“Ah, her? She’s an actress who lived about a hundred and thirty years ago. Celebrated for her looks and her performances, she was loved by everyone, and her acting talent was admired beyond reason. It transcended reality. She disappeared at a young age, but she’s still alive. In the conceptual form she wanted.”
“Is that so?” “Now, let’s go and see your bottom.” After the man carefully closed the coffins, he led the way out of room A.
When we entered room D, I felt my heart pounding. This would be the first time, of course, that I would encounter my ass from outside myself.
“Here it is. What do you think?” Setting aside my nervousness, the man opened the door readily, as if he were sliding open a box of caramels.
In spite of myself, I let out a sigh. Beautiful. How beautiful it was there. My ass. My hand reached out unconsciously, but it was thwarted by glass.
“Come and see it any time,” the man said. “I’ll say it again. If at some point you are truly able to love your bottom for what it is, it will be returned. It is, after all, your own bottom.”
My eyes brimmed with tears. This was indeed my ass. My own. My very own. And yet, why wasn’t I able to love it? No, that wasn’t right: as much as I did love it, I still couldn’t help hating it.
My ass, which had definitively changed me. “You . . .” I spoke without turning around. I could not, for the life of me, remember what the man looked like.
He had a kind voice. He wore a nice suit. Other than that, he had no defining characteristics. He was quite indistinct.
“Just who are you?” The man chuckled. “Haven’t you figured it out?” There was nothing suggestive or sexual about him. Undoubtably, this was because what radiated from him was a feminine energy.
“They loved me too much. At first, when I performed, it made me happy. In front of the camera, in front of an audience. Then, being admired by everyone for my beauty, that gave me pleasure. I thought I had everything in the world. I was really, truly happy. And yet.”
I turned around.
The man was gazing directly at me, but still his face didn’t register at all in my consciousness.
“Despite being happy.” The man’s voice dissolved into the stale air.
My ass was crying. I closed my eyes as if to shut out her voice.
Born in Tehran in 1977, KANAKO NISHI grew up in Cairo and Osaka and has also lived in Vancouver. A writer and artist, she has published more than two dozen books in Japanese, including novels, short stories, essays, and children’s books. Translations of her work in English have appeared in Freeman’s, Granta, Slice, and Literary Hub.
ALLISON MARKIN POWELL is a literary translator, editor, and publishing consultant based in New York. Besides Kanako Nishi, her other translations include works by Osamu Dazai, Hiromi Kawakami, and Ryunosuke Akutagawa. She maintains the database Japanese Literature in English and is a founding member of the collectives Cedilla & Co. and Strong Women, Soft Power.