The Imperial Hotel

Author: Adolf Muschg
Translator: Alan Robinson


During the bus journey the metropolis had insinuated itself seamlessly. The apartment blocks, covered in advertising, crowned by enormous characters, their façades overrun by videos, squeezed closer together, pushing first green spaces, then the streets between them into the depths below. The multi-lane highway had also needed to climb in order to cut a wide swathe through the mass of dwellings, on which one lost all sense of speed. At what seemed a leisurely pace, the bus advanced amid a procession of disparate vehicles, which now overtook on the right, now fell back on the left, to get in lane for one of the exits marked in white writing on green signs. High up in the distance to the right, the Skytree, the city’s new landmark, peeped between the wandering towers, then was cut off from view, only to re-emerge larger in the next vista. The sky was an immaculate blue, every outline was etched clearly, free of haze. To Paul Neuhaus, his khaki bag on his knees, the settlement now beginning to envelop the road from all sides appeared immensely orderly and completely unmysterious.

Finally the bus branched off too, descended a ramp into the bustle of ordinary street traffic, and resigned itself to a slow crawl from one traffic light to the next, until, after weaving round several corners and passing well-kept parks, it reached a congested terminal which, the microphone voice announced, was Tokyo Station. From here the Imperial Hotel was only a few steps away. But first he had to get from the bus station to the train station. Or was he there already?

Having made it across a dozen lanes of traffic to the building on the far side, he was now apparently in the station: every departure board breathed the consummate efficiency of Japanese railways. He was directed to innumerable destinations, an escalator led up or down from every platform, but none to the Imperial Hotel. And the longer he wandered among shopping areas and columns of pedestrians, the more he realised that this station was a city in its own right. He didn’t want to ask anyone, having learned from previous experience that communication problems merely added to one’s disorientation and it was simply ridiculous to be unable to find the exit from a station. In the end he took the first one he saw. Admittedly, he now knew less than ever where he was, but rescue was at hand: a taxi.

So much for a few steps! The drive to the hotel seemed to take ages, past some kind of fortifications, with a moat and gigantic walls, behind which only treetops were visible – the Imperial Palace? – ending up again in a covered, multi-lane terminal. Right in front of them was the bus that had brought him from the airport, for he recognised the driver waiting in front of the empty luggage compartment.

Imperial Hotel? Paul Neuhaus enquired.

There, said his own driver, pointing to the rear of the terminal. An array of clay-brown uniforms was indeed standing in attendance there, and when the door beside Paul sprang open – he also had to get used to self-opening taxi doors – a porter hastened to his car.

Welcome in the Imperial Hotel, Sir, he said. No baggage?

I hope you already have it.

Paul remembered in time that the taxi-driver would have regarded a tip as an insult.

So much for his first steps in Japan. He didn’t part with his bag, however, and entered the hotel with an honest No thanks and a forced smile.

Once through the revolving door, he examined his fingernails, ran a comb through his hair and freshened his breath with a spray. The ground floor lobby had only artificial light but gleamed like amber. What first caught his eye was a large circular bowl surmounted by a globe of white flowers. Above it, as a counterpoise, hung a chandelier covered by white parchment. The golden-brown lobby was supported by columns of the same hue, which disappeared at the top into square openings, capitals of sheer light. Dark armchairs were abundantly distributed in numerous alcoves, and bands of fabric in a spectrum from golden yellow to deep brown ran the entire length of the left-hand wall. The right-hand wall was occupied by a row of desks, at the first of which his suitcase was already waiting. But where were his friends?

Suddenly a gentleman in black attire appeared before him, raised his hands and then seized Paul’s own, which he pressed tremblingly for some time.

Could this be Ken-ichi Tenma, Ken? His once luxuriant hair was now thin, receding at the temples and – as he bowed towards Paul – revealed the beginnings of a tonsure. But his large eyes gazed piercingly as ever, vibrated as it were with resoluteness beneath his oddly raised eyebrows. Even when he wasn’t speaking his lips twitched, as if the whole man was charged with nervous energy. The tic was new. He’d condemned himself to making constant witticisms in the days when he still turned up in jeans – a characteristic phrase was I don’t allow anybody to believe that I am Japanese. But his dark outfit was conventional only at first glance; a second look detected its stylish cut and almost clerical collar.

Welcome to Japan! he cried, at the same time sweeping his arm with a showman-like flourish towards the armchair from which a woman in a white kimono now rose. Mitsuko had already appeared to Paul in a dream, but with no face. Now this face greeted him with a shy smile, which vanished immediately when he tentatively shook hands with her. She too was older, wore her hair in a tight chignon and white make-up on her face; the brows above her narrow eyes were pencil-thin, the lips above her strong chin were pursed. In her kimono she now also reminded Paul of the doubled Harunobu figure above his desk. However, this time she began to speak German, hesitantly, but with faultless grammar and much closer to colloquial speech than her husband’s stilted idiom. It emerged that she now gave German lessons herself, having trained at an international school for interpreters.

On the rare occasions he allowed her to say something, Ken passed over her reticent comments discourteously, even brusquely. Long-serving married couples evidently displayed no affection here either – the less so, as convention dictates that one disparage one’s possessions. That Mitsu had dropped the -ko from her first name occurred to Paul only later; she had used the polite form at first. When she bowed, the silver outline of a crane was visible on the back of her kimono.

Ken seized on this ‘conversation piece’ to rectify the mistake. It was the phoenix that had accompanied Tezuka Osamu’s life’s work, his symbol of rebirth in fire. – Did Ken still draw manga? – He was no longer innocent enough for that. He had once dreamed of publishing books, and manga would soon be the last ones printed; whether they were worth the paper was a different question.

But before we celebrate our reunion, don’t you want to go to your room? It’s on the 29th floor. I can accompany you: it’s somewhat complicated to find.

He wanted to drink a toast first, Paul objected. His suitcase would surely find its own way to the room.

Ken gave the porter appropriate instructions; then he suggested the bar in the furthest, slightly elevated part of the lobby, it was still quiet and you could smoke there. – I don’t need to smoke, said Paul. – But I do! Ken replied, with a nervous laugh. Paul’s suitcase was wheeled to the lift, while the friends withdrew to the almost empty stage behind the still silent orchestra podium. They sat in the corner of the balustrade, overlooking the art nouveau lobby and the toing and froing of guests. Ken studied the drinks menu intensively and, until the right champagne arrived in its ice bucket, silence reigned at the table. They raised their glasses, after Paul had requested that they resume addressing each other informally, as ‘Du’; but the mood wasn’t yet convivial.

To everyone’s health! Ken could understand Paul’s wish to pay his respects to Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s hotel had even survived the carpet bombing. The Americans had taken care to spare it: after all, they’d needed quarters befitting their rank as victors. Back in 1923, the year it was built, the hotel had fortunately withstood the Great Kantō Earthquake, thanks to the floating foundations on which Mr Wright had erected his monumental ‘H’ structure in pre-Columbian Maya style. What had finally killed it was the Japanese economic miracle. Room prices would have been prohibitive if the airspace spurned by Wright’s flat Palace had remained unused. His monument had therefore been demolished and reassembled in an open-air museum near Nagoya, while in Tokyo the obligatory skyscraper was constructed – with the decoration here as a fig leaf.

You’re staying in a fake, explained Ken, gesturing with his half-smoked papirosa, to accustom you to the fakery in our next economic boom – involving Fukushima, of course. The deadline’s rather tight to get everything cleaned up before the 2020 Olympics, if you consider the half-life of trivium, strontium, caesium and their cronies, but the government’s motto is: Yes, we can! And only ten kilometres away from our Great Work, radiation levels are now said to be almost healthy.

Or do you doubt our prowess in transforming a defunct nuclear reactor into the industry of the future? Dai-Ichi is a laboratory, a testing ground for techniques that we need in any case, but now post-haste. Robots, for example, that don’t conk out with radiation. Now all they’ve got to do is locate the melted uranium, so that we can dispose of it – by then, we’ll have figured out where. What do the Russians have so much space for? Surely a ‘deal’ could be struck there. Perhaps the radiation can be used for heating? There’s always a demand for that in Hell and why shouldn’t the Devil agree on a decent price? After all, we’ve been in business since Hiroshima and Nagasaki and our reactors aren’t decorated with Buddhist wisdom for nothing. In principle, nuclear energy is still the cheapest kind, humans simply have to adapt their capacity, perhaps arrange for a mutation that can cope with it. But do we still need an organism, when computers manage so much better? If they require feelings to reproduce, that can surely be programmed. And why should a bot fear a chain reaction, if it can feed on it? At last we’d have created a perpetuum mobile – time would no longer matter if every day is Judgement Day!

Ken is rather embittered, Mitsu warned, but he ignored her.

Okay, this might take some time. Luckily, the nuclear core doesn’t stink any more than all the cash that’s already been invested in its disposal. And until it stops stinking all that counts is making it profitable. Larger than life! And when will it have been successfully disposed of? Quite simply, when we have other cares at our disposal! Why must we take such a narrow view of Dai-Ichi? Why shouldn’t the tsunami have sparked off a whole new exchange of elements? Seawater in, nuclear power out! Why are we constantly flooding the ruin with water which doesn’t cool it anyway? Why don’t we make a cognitive leap and regard the extinguishing water as the amniotic fluid of a new Creation? Why not throw a counterpunch: scientific versus maritime tsunami? Be my guest: just a small quantum leap in planetary evolution! Then the no-go zone where stray cattle munch grass until it kills them, where wild boar storm well-kept homes, where carparks full of new cars are overgrown – then the desert of civilisation will herald a futurity beyond rationality! Turn no-go into go-go, then humanity will have been taken care of and you’ll be able to say you were there when it happened!

Conversation at the bar fell silent; new arrivals also cast doubtful glances at the Japanese gentleman who was clearly laying down the law to an older westerner, in German and in the presence of a mortified, formally dressed Japanese woman – and wasn’t done yet.

But they tell us that the first step is always the hardest and that what Japan now needs above all is for settlers to return to the contaminated areas – guinea pigs who will of course be properly compensated for their laboratory lives.

Because let’s be honest: what do we really know about the long-term effects of radiation? We mustn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by the tragic fates of some individuals. They need to be reconfigured for public consumption; just as digital images are Photoshopped. With that there’s no limit – why should there be one for human resilience? Up to now this has been mere assertion; the disaster finally offers a chance to test it. Who’ll still be around in the so-called no-go zone in a few years’ time? In what state, and with what degree of consciousness? What will become of families, or relationships? Might this not be the start of a new success story for homo sapiens, in which humanity – after a certain transformation of its values – celebrates its rebirth? Perhaps with a little help from our friends, the genetic engineers? Who knows? But why not take a chance, if only because we’re left with no alternative?

Of course, the whole thing could only work if it was kept under wraps – at least until the public is completely malleable and one alternative fact is as good as another. We’re well on the way there already. Adversity could become prosperity overnight, and Japan be the first country to realise it – at the very core of globalised civilisation!

Ken was driven by a grim nervous energy that left Paul dumbfounded. Something had to erupt, but it wasn’t clear why it had to be now – unless Ken was making it his business to shock his guest and torment his wife. However, Mitsu was now sitting composedly, as if her husband’s outburst was no longer her concern.

Ken was smoking constantly, his fingers trembled, but he didn’t seem drunk.

Do you know that Prime Minister Kan wanted to evacuate the city of Tokyo in March 2011?

Yes, said Paul. Suzanne and I had just flown to Japan. Gai-jin, Fly-jin didn’t apply to us.

That was when you visited Tadao Ando, said Ken. Ah, these daredevil architects!

It’s a pity your wife couldn’t come with you, said Mitsu.

A great pity, echoed Ken. – Now we will have to look after Paul. You must get an early night and eat properly again. I’ve made a reservation in the sushi restaurant here in the basement. The fish will certainly be fresher than on your flight. Or would you prefer Chinese?

We’ll also need to discuss our trip, said Paul. I’ll just unpack a few essentials beforehand in my room.

Take the lift over there to the mezzanine, then go straight ahead to the far end of the shopping arcade, about fifty metres, until you reach a glass door. Open it with your card and then you’re already in front of the lifts to the 29th floor. We’ll wait here. Take your time.

When Paul stood outside room 2917 and swiped the key card over the sensor, he had a sense of déjà vu: the Swiss Hotel in Chicago, when he’d tried the wrong room door. He walked into the small room – furnished functionally, it seemed – and headed past his waiting suitcase towards the view from the window. He felt both exhausted and breathless, as if Ken’s tirade had sucked the air out of his reunion with Japan. Of course the window couldn’t be opened at this height. Luckily, the air conditioning was silent.

Paul stared past the neighbouring skyscrapers at the park beneath his feet, in which, here and there, he could make out a low roof. So this was the Imperial Palace. He hadn’t been in Tokyo before but felt he already knew this vista of canyon-like streets and railway tracks from the film Lost in Translation. Any social obligation was really too much for him today. How he would have loved just to lie down on his bed and close his eyes.


Excerpted from Adolf Muschg, Heimkehr nach Fukushima.  (Coming Home to Fukushima).  Verlag C.H. Beck, Munich, 2018.