JULY 31, 2017
CON MEN IN JAPAN collectively pull in over $400 million a year. One of their most successful grifts is the Ore, Ore scam, in which the con man calls an elderly person, says, “It’s me,” and then tells of some bind he’s gotten himself into and needs money to get out of. The elderly person, duped into believing that the con man is a younger relative, sends cash through registered mail or transfers money into a bank account. The scam is so common that Japanese children, at school festivals, pass out “It’s not me” flyers to elderly attendants, warning their grandparents about the dangers of Ore, Ore. It’s even so ubiquitous that Japanese noir novelist Tomoyuki Hoshino is able to use it as the catalyst for his novel ME, which has recently been translated by Charles De Wolf.
ME begins with disaffected camera salesman Hitoshi Nagano eating lunch at a Tokyo McDonald’s. A group of three salarymen stand nearby, one of whom bullies the other two. Hitoshi steals the bully’s cell phone, more to be a jerk than to actually have the phone. When he gets back home, the phone rings and the screen tells Hitoshi that the call is from “Mother.” Hitoshi answers and pretends to be the bully, Daiki. He tells Mother he’s had a car accident that led him to running up a bunch of debt. Now, he’s in a tight spot. He convinces her to wire ¥900,000 (about $8,100) to Hitoshi’s bank account. She does so.
Hitoshi is immediately shaken up. He’s not a con man. He gave Mother his real bank account number. He’s set himself up to get caught. And this is when the unexpected begins to happen in the novel. Rather than charges being pressed, Mother shows up at Hitoshi’s apartment and starts treating him as if he’s Daiki. Making matters worse, Hitoshi returns to his own parents’ home only to find a replacement Hitoshi living there. Hitoshi’s birth mother doesn’t recognize her birth son and threatens to call the police. The replacement Hitoshi meets Hitoshi at the nearby McDonald’s. They realize that they’re both MEs — con men who have become so entangled in their own grifts that they’re losing themselves. Replacement Hitoshi has become Hitoshi. He tells the original Hitoshi, “There’s nothing for you to do but become Daiki […] You’ve got no alternative, have you?”
The original Hitoshi is resistant, but the replacement Hitoshi explains, “It’s like company work — there can be personnel changes, and my title may change too, but as long as operations run smoothly, life goes on.” So, with seemingly no other options, Hitoshi begins to morph into Daiki. With no prompting, his co-workers at the big box store where he sells cameras begin to call him Daiki. He goes to Daiki’s high school reunion and visits Daiki’s sister. In both cases, he’s accepted as Daiki. Even his memories blend together with Daiki’s memories. In the meantime, he meets other MEs who are going through similar transitions. As he loses his individuality and his identity disperses, he begins to become not a part of a community, exactly — there’s nothing communal about this group — but a subculture of equally selfish, equally dispersed MEs. What follows is a Kafkaesque journey of a lonely narrator being absorbed by an impersonal system. For Kafka, these narrators engaged in futile battles against bureaucracy. For Hoshino, Hitoshi/Daiki is swept up in the mass-produced identities of consumer corporate culture.
His specific approach to identity also seems to have roots in Buddhist thought. Throughout the novel, Hitoshi/Daiki continually morphs. He takes on other names and other forms. He dies a few times, yet continues to live in ways that should be maddening but are not. The continual morphing works because there’s always a “ME” narrating the story, and we always follow the “ME” through a sequence of events (the Japanese language doesn’t distinguish between subject and object pronouns). The very structure of this approach to identity is tied to Zen. As Alan Watts explains in The Way of Zen, “It is fundamental to every school of Buddhism that there is no ego, no enduring entity which is the constant subject of our changing experiences.” Instead, we are constantly being reincarnated in the sense that “the process of rebirth is from moment to moment, so that one is being reborn so long as one identifies himself with a continuing ego which reincarnates itself afresh at each moment in time.” If we take this approach, it makes perfect sense that the novel’s narrator can start off as Hitoshi, become Daiki while still retaining aspects of Hitoshi even though there are new Hitoshis and old Daikis, and they can all become MEs who can hunt and kill each other, yet have an ego that continues in a new material form after death.
Hoshino seems to take this concept of identity for granted. ME doesn’t exist to demonstrate Zen concepts of shifting identity. As Kenzaburō Ōe notes in the afterword, ME is no “simplistic allegory.” “The weight of reality it creates,” Ōe argues, is able to “surpass even Kōbō Abe, Japan’s great forerunner in the power of literary thought.” Ōe’s comparison of ME with Abe is not made lightly. Hoshino’s concern with memory and the fluidity of memory harks back to Abe’s Kangaroo Notebook, which is an equally surreal tour through the dark side of urban Japan. The unnamed narrator of Kangaroo Notebook continues to lose his sense of self and his memories as he wanders through the novel. Like Hitoshi/Daiki, Abe’s narrator can’t trust his memories. He feels them undergo a metamorphosis. Both narrators come to understand that, beyond names, our sense of identity comes from the memories we choose to cling to and the memories we choose to release. They also learn that the memories we keep and the ones we let go are likewise fluid. As Watts says, “Man’s identification with his idea of himself gives him a specious and precarious sense of permanence. For this idea is relatively fixed, being based upon carefully selected memories of his past, memories which have a preserved and fixed character.” Watts suggests that it’s best to release these expectations of a static identity. Similarly, and each in different ways, the narrators in Kangaroo Notebook and ME are stripped of this sense of permanence.
Beyond the Buddhist concepts of identity and the comparisons to Abe, ME is not a particularly “Japanese” novel. It is set in Tokyo, but a Tokyo of box stores, meals at McDonald’s or Yoshinoya Bowl, and apartments where single men in their 20s gather to drink beer and play with their smartphones. In other words, it’s a Tokyo that’s interchangeable with any major industrialized city. It could just as well take place in Seattle or Edinburgh or Karachi. It’s not cosmopolitan as much as it is multinational. For this reason, it’s helpful to examine Marxist concepts of identity in addition to the Buddhist ones. In particular, we can look to Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation. For Althusser, power calls us a name (interpellates us), and thereby assigns us a set of behaviors. Think, for example of multinational corporations’ insistence on calling its customers “consumers,” as if customers are nothing more than giant mouths, stomachs, and anuses swallowing up goods, processing them, and leaving behind a trail of waste; as if the highest, most meaningful activity in life is to purchase, use up, and dispose of commodities. Think, further, how readily we accept this term and perform the role of a consumer. Think of how this interpellation encourages us to spend our free time shopping recreationally as if that activity is natural or fulfilling.
Althusser doesn’t use the consumer example. That’s mine. Althusser keeps it more simple and general. When power interpellates in Althusser, it just hails you. It says, “Hey, it’s you.” Or, in Hoshino, “Hey, it’s ME.” When Hitoshi/Daiki first starts the Ore, Ore scam, he doesn’t merely say, “It’s me” — he becomes a ME. He goes on to meet other MEs. They are similarly interpellated not only into con men, but also into selfish, isolated workers whose lives are geared toward the good of multinational corporations. They eat all their meals at McDonald’s. They sell commodities. They work menial jobs for which they are undercompensated. They buy their own sales pitches. They allow themselves, their very identities, to become mass produced.
In his most honest moment, Hitoshi/Daiki sits alone in his apartment, trying to tune out the outside world. As soon as he engages with it, he thinks,
my troubles would begin in earnest. I would have to deal with parents enslaved to a program, incapable of knowing me as a flesh-and-blood human being, have chummy conversations with coworkers, and otherwise explain myself to other people. I would constantly have to be me, and that would drive me crazy. I cherished the time I had to myself, since it was only then that I could chill out and stop being me — it’s impossible to truly switch off when other people are around.
It’s interesting to note that, unlike most of us who see our real selves as the person we are when no one is around, Hitoshi/Daiki sees his real self as the performance he puts on in public. This is what makes him a ME. He has so fully embraced the mass-produced identity of consumer corporate culture that he knows no other self. This sets him up for, first, a fantasy of a world full of MEs, and, second, a journey into the nightmare of what a world full of MEs would really produce.
The novel follows this journey. Hoshino takes the story into wild, unexpected places. For as bizarre as the situations become, Hitoshi/Daiki’s first-person narrative keeps its hard-boiled tone. This tone is what makes ME special. Hoshino can keep the reader firmly rooted in Hitoshi/Daiki’s mind as he engages in horrifying situations. For example, at one point in the novel, he witnesses a group of men descend on and murder an innocent couple. Hitoshi/Daiki says, “I felt the pressure to jump on the victims myself. If I participated, I might no longer be viewed as one apart, a marked man, and thus, by joining in the celebration of this event, be left alone.” The reader might not agree with Hitoshi/Daiki’s actions, but she can at least understand his actions as consistent with the world he creates. She won’t even bat an eye when Hitoshi/Daiki calls the murder a “celebration.” And when Hitoshi/Daiki then says, “I gave in to the pressure. I took out my Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, opened the blade, and gripped the handle,” the reader is prepared to be swallowed into that dark, corrupt world.