Outside it’s America
A hard-boiled Japanese noir takes on US imperialism
Toshihiko Yahagi, The Wrong Goodbye trans. Alfred Birnbaum (London: Maclehose Press, 2021). First published in Japanese in 2004.
Reading this book made me crave a strong coffee and a nice big sandwich. Maybe a salad, too. And a good night’s sleep.
In the great tradition of hard-boiled noir detective fiction, the disaffected, isolated hero of this novel drinks heavily. Really heavily. Scotch on an empty stomach, a new drink for every inning of a baseball game, too many beers to count. It’s enough to give this reader a second-hand hangover.
The drinking is what gets Eiji Futamura in trouble. He’s already fed up with his job on the Japanese police force. Passed over for promotion, he’s disgusted with a culture summed up in the phrase: if you don’t do anything, you can’t fuck up. Eiji fucks up a lot. For a start, he picks up Billy Bonney, a mysterious airman and soon Futamura’s favourite drinking buddy. Even as Futamura realizes that Billy is involved in some serious stuff, he keeps enjoying the rum and the camaraderie, instead of coming clean as a cop and getting out of there. Soon Futamura, too, is deep into a web of organized crime and secrets that span continents and decades.
From its title to its set-up, the book is an obvious homage to Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye. But, the more I read, the more I realized something else was going on. Yahagi isn’t interested in paying tribute to American culture. Far from it. With an ironic smirk, he’s turning a classic genre inside-out and using it, instead, to paint a damning portrait of US imperialism in East Asia. The title in Japanese is a transliteration that uses katakana (Japanese syllabic symbols) to spell out Ronggu Guddobai. From ‘long’ to ‘wrong’: Yahagi’s book plays with what gets messed up in the translation of people, dreams, and desire along the vector of militarized power.
The novel is set in Yokohama and environs in the mid-1990s, but it always has an eye on the past: the Japanese economic boom of the 1980s and its new fragility; the war between the United States and Vietnam; and the lasting damage from the Second World War. The urban fabric reveals the cycles of destruction and renewal – new shopping malls built where seedy bars had sprung up to service GIs on leave, themselves built on the ruins left by fire-bombing in the 1940s.
As a child growing up in the United States in the 1980s, I heard about “Vietnam” – or just “Nam” – a whole country reduced to a single syllable signifying chaos, bloodshed, and disillusionment. The Wrong Goodbye has a very different perspective. It describes a regional conflict whose legacies reverberate across national boundaries. Chinese organized crime, Taiwanese nationalist politics, and Hong Kong’s immigration policies all play a role, underscoring the interconnections between these places. And Yokohama is a central node, the place where Americans built their base and created a hive for activities ranging from military effort to illicit trade to nightlife catering to GIs looking for a break. (Fair warning, there’s a very brief but, to me, tasteless throwaway line on cross-dressing early in the book connected with this last point.)
Yahagi weaves a complex plot with all those threads—one that ultimately shows how America becomes a distorting force, a vast impersonal power that warps whatever it touches. The desire for America – American citizenship, American culture – warps lives and alters decisions. The American military reshapes land and sea to its own ends. American functions here as a zone of lawlessness, where Japanese sovereignty becomes meaningless but is replaced by nothing in particular.
At one point Futamura finds himself being chased by Chinese criminals out of an ambiguous bit of American military territory. He makes it to a narrow railway bridge over some water and starts climbing across, chased by the threats of the Chinese and the bluster of the American military police. Eventually he makes it to the other side and climbs out, bizarrely, into a wedding reception. “These ‘found locations’ are big money nowadays.” Still, a waiter warns him, watch out for American police even on this side, because they’re known to harass Japanese revellers. “And like, this is supposed to be Japan!” The sequence is the novel in miniature: the Americans are almost inert, if noisy, bystanders to the central dramas of organized crime and economic development, and yet they are also the shapers of the very ground and air in which it all plays out.
The idea that the United States has functioned—and continues to function—like an imperial power is one that has gained traction in recent years. Folks are paying more attention to the history of US territorial expansion, looking anew at places like the Philippines and Hawai’i and using concepts like settler colonialism to understand the European presence in the contiguous 48 states, too. They’re also tracking American military, economic, and cultural power using insights from colonial and postcolonial studies. I’m no expert in this area, but I’ve learned a lot from the work of folks like Genevieve Clutario, Lorgia García Peña, and Daniel Immerwahr.
Still, probably like a lot of Americans, especially middle-class white Americans, I’m still learning to think about the texture of American imperialism—what it feels like and how it really works. Of course Japan has its own complex history as a colonizing power too, which Yahagi barely touches. But what this novel does best is picking up a bit of American culture—the hard-boiled noir novel—and using it to paint a vivid portrait of American empire: that violent, distant, greedy force that distorts even what it barely notices touching.
And now for something completely different. Please forgive the brief note of self-promotion. A couple of years ago I wrote a book about the Golden Age detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers and her circle of life-long friends. One of those friends was Muriel St. Clare Byrne, whose story stayed with me. I had more to say about Muriel, it turns out. My article on that, and on how we might imagine a non-binary approach to writing gender history, is just out this week in History Workshop Journal. If that sort of thing is your jam, do check it out:
“‘Both Your Sexes': A Non-Binary Approach to Gender History, Trans Studies, and the Making of the Self in Modern Britain," History Workshop Journal.
I borrowed The Wrong Goodbye from Manchester City Library. You can find out more about the book and how to read it here.