Retreating Horses

by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by David Karashima

My friend Anne told me the following story when we got together for drinks in Shinjuku.


It was at the end of last year.

“Listen,” my sister Luri said, placing a finger on her lips.

I’d been aware of a sound getting louder. Just hadn’t realized it was hooves.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Luri shot me a puzzled look. “What does it look like?”

“I know but . . . ”

A horse, its chestnut coat lush, was trotting down the middle of the street. Cars slowed down or sped up, trying to keep a safe distance.

“The question is why? Why is the horse here?”

Luri just laughed and watched the horse——with its striking hindquarters and full tail——trot by and disappear. Everyone around us was doing the same. I wondered if the horse was supposed to be part of a ceremony.

Luri and I said our goodbyes, and after I got my train, I checked my phone to see if there was anything in the news. Nothing. A search for “horse” didn’t reveal anything of much interest either. Odd-toed ungulates. Thirty-two chromosomes. Attacks by kicking up hind legs. Et cetera, et cetera.

That’s when I must have jumped.


I’d jumped three times in my life. At least as far as I was aware. It’s possible that I’d jumped without knowing. But I try not to think about that too much.

The first time was when I was in third grade. My mother, my younger sisters, and I were visiting my grandparents down in the valley. We’d lived in California for a few years after my parents divorced and had recently moved back to Tokyo. But you already know this.

Luri, Nina, and I were taller than our Japanese classmates. We also looked a little older, which might have been why our classmates tended to keep their distance and why our teachers seemed to have it in for us.

We were actually reprimanded on our very first day at our new school. You know how both Luri and I love getting dressed up? Well, we already had our ears pierced by then, and on our first day of school, we had worn our favorite earrings——mine silver, hers pink. And when we walked into the faculty room with our mother the teachers stared at us.

The principal was wearing a tie. “Take those off this instant,” he commanded.

But both Luri and I just stood there. We had no idea what we were supposed to take off.

Nina, in the meantime, had taken off her glasses. “I get it——in Japan you have to take off your glasses when you enter the teachers’ meeting room, right?” She beamed, saying meeting room in English.

The principal was flummoxed for a second. But he quickly turned his attention back to Luri and me. “Your earrings,” he said. “Take them off.”

They’re not just earrings, they’re pierced earrings, I almost said. But I’m glad I didn’t. Because when we just stood there, he began repeating himself——take-them-off, take-them-off, take-them-off. His voice rose each time he said it, which prompted our mother to rush behind us and quickly take off our earrings.

“It was my fault,” our mother said when she later recounted the episode to her own mother. “I’d forgotten how injun Japanese schools were.”

“What does injun mean?” Nina asked. She hadn’t had her ears pierced because she was afraid it would hurt. But she was proud of her black-rimmed glasses. Said she liked looking like a professor.

We did not wear our earrings to school again. But as soon as we got home each day, Luri and I would rush over to the small mirror that we shared, take the earrings out of a little box, and put them on. When we visited our grandparents, we would always wear matching heart-shaped gold earrings. Our father had sent them from the States the previous Christmas.

“Injun means old-fashioned.”

“But piercings are old fashion,” Luri said shaking her head.

Grandma walked in with a tray of tea. “As we say here, shintai happu kore wo fuboni uku aete kishou sezaru wa kou no hajime nari.”

Nina opened her eyes wide. “Shintai happu what?”

“It means that you shouldn’t disrespect your parents by harming the body they gave you,” our mother explained half-heartedly. Back when we were living in California, she seemed very American to us, even when she was speaking Japanese. I was taken aback by how so very Japanese she sounded when speaking to her mother.

“Getting your ears pierced is harming them?” Luri looked shocked. “But they’re so cool.” When she said cool in English, she suddenly no longer looked Japanese.

Grandma prepared inari and hiyamugi and we all sat down for lunch. Luri and Nina fought over the few strands of red and green noodles mixed into the hiyamugi. After lunch, we played poker. When we played poker in the States, you and Nina were always the ones who were most into it, but that day Luri and I were determined to win. I was kind of surprised at my determination. Before long night had fallen and it was time to leave.

I was putting on my shoes by the front door——I remember thinking how different our grandparents’ place smelled from ours——when I looked up and noticed that Luri’s heart-shaped earrings had vanished from her ears. In fact, her ears weren’t even pierced.

“Your piercings,” I said, but nobody heard me. I touched my earlobes. My earrings were no longer there. The holes, too. That’s when I realized that I had jumped.


I jumped again in my twenties, and once again soon after my divorce. Apparently my jumps could be triggered by some significant event in my life or by nothing of significance at all.

I’ve never told anyone about my jumping. But I figured you wouldn’t be overly surprised. I should also say there is no way of actually confirming that I jumped. It could all very well be in my head.

I know that saying I jumped “in my twenties” is vague. But there’s no other way of putting it. Because I don’t know exactly when it was that I jumped. Though I’m pretty certain that it was during that decade of my life.

Not long after I turned twenty, Yōko wrote me about Three Mile Island. Yōko is a friend I made back when we lived in California. I don’t think you’ve met her. They came to the States after your family had already moved back to Japan.

Yōko’s father, like yours, was a research assistant within the University of California system. They were in the States for five years——a couple of years longer than you. So they were still there a few years after we moved back to Japan.

After Yōko’s family returned to Japan, she had trouble adjusting to school. I didn’t fit in, but at least I had my sisters for support. In the beginning we had trouble pronouncing English the Japanese way and English words would slip into our Japanese sentences. Well, when we did that, the other kids felt like we were making fun of them.

Yōko, on the other hand, was an only child, and she was bullied quite a bit. She stuck it out until the end of high school, but she’d had enough of Japan and went to university in Pittsburgh. So she wasn’t very far from the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island.

“There are rumors that farm animals are dying,” she wrote me. “But there’s nothing about it on radio or television so it probably isn’t that bad.”

After graduating from university, Yōko eventually returned to Japan and worked as an interpreter and technical translator. That would have been at least a decade after she’d been writing me from the States.

The Three Mile Island nuclear accident was covered widely in the papers here. I remember staring at photographs of two lifeless, box-like buildings standing next to each other.

Yōko would write mostly about her love life. At the time she was seeing a local Irish-American man fifteen years older than she was and was frustrated that his divorce proceedings didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

“He’s just terribly unlucky in life,” she wrote. “His big mistake was getting married to the woman he did. His wife is a perfectly decent person. The tragedy is that two people who weren’t meant for each other got together.”

I remember thinking, I’ve read something like this somewhere. At the time I had little interest in romance myself. I didn’t quite know how to respond to her letter, so ended up writing about other things: about my elderly neighbor who was always dressed in white; about how the scuba instructor’s voice had sounded muffled but I had learned that it was because the helium in the air supply shortens the soundwaves; about how I had gone to the zoo to see macaroni penguins. Yōko eventually stopped writing.

It was almost ten years after the Three Mile Island accident, just before I turned thirty, that I realized that I might have jumped. Graph magazine had a feature on “looking back at the Shōwa era.” I was taken aback when I saw the photo of Three Mile Island in the article. The two box-like buildings had been replaced by four large, white structures that looked like clay still being molded into shape on a pottery wheel. I thought I had to have been mistaken and kept rereading the caption and then the article. But there was no question that the photo was of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. I couldn’t recall the exact details of the photo I had seen in the papers immediately after the accident, so I went to the library and went through several months’ worth of articles about the accident.

All the photos accompanying the articles showed the large, white, curvy structures. The accident also seemed much more serious than I remembered. I didn’t recall the word “meltdown” being used when I first read the papers. Of course, it could have been that the papers hadn’t used the word immediately after the accident, and that they had begun to use it only after the facts had been verified. It was also possible that I had skipped over these later articles back then.

But I was pretty certain that I had jumped. 


Even after Yōko returned to Japan as an adult, she rarely contacted me. But we started meeting up again around ten years ago. Yōko had fallen in love countless times and had even got married twice. But one day she began questioning why she dedicated so much of her life pursuing love. That’s when we started spending time together again.

I usually meet Yōko at the local community center. She brings her sandwiches and I bring my onigiri. We also each bring a small thermos, Yōko’s filled with coffee, mine with genmaicha. We never share. One of the things we do share is a dislike for sharing at restaurants. And gift-giving.

“And to think I was constantly racking my brains trying to come up with some kind of birthday surprise when I was in a relationship!” Yōko said once, laughing.

“Do you remember the Three Mile Island accident?”

When I asked her this the other day she nodded vigorously. “How could I forget? That’s practically all I wrote you about back then.”

As far as I could remember, Yōko had mentioned the accident in her letters just once, and only in a few lines at that. Where was the other Yōko now? The one I knew before I jumped? Did that Yōko love exchanging gifts and sharing everything?


Let me jump now. I’ve wished that more than a few times over the years. Perhaps the most during the ten years it took for my divorce to go through.

Back then, I would often think about what Yōko had written in one of her letters. “His wife is a perfectly decent person. The tragedy is that two people who weren’t meant for each other got together.”

It was almost funny how perfectly those words mirrored my feelings. All I had to do was replace “his wife” with “my husband.” I couldn’t help but laugh that something so cliché, something someone with a way with words might rattle off effortlessly, would reflect my state of mind so precisely.

My ex and I had been separated for a long time, and we didn’t have children, so there was absolutely no reason to maintain a marital contract. But he simply refused to sign the divorce papers.

I still wonder what that was all about. Heartbreak, pride, obsession. I’m sure all those things played a part at first. But those feelings must have largely faded over a period of ten years.

My guess is that it was a combination of a little spite and having missed the right moment. When I say spite, I don’t mean spite toward me. More like spite toward what you might call fate, contempt for the pressure to change.

Our relationship was clearly over. That our marital contract remained intact weighed heavily on me. It made me desperately want to jump. But it didn’t happen. Looking back, I can begin to understand why. At the time I was spending each day acutely aware of the fact that I was “living.” This wasn’t a fun way of being. Not that it was so terrible either. I went through life faintly aware of my connection to my ex. It was like having an ulcer in your mouth that you would run your tongue along now and then.

Once my ex finally signed off on the divorce papers, he remarried within a year to a woman thirty years younger.

“Didn’t know he had it in him!” Yōko laughed when I mentioned this.

“I know! Neither did I!” I responded, unable to stifle a giggle myself. 

Then we went back to stuffing ourselves silly with yakitori.

My ex sends me a photo of his new family every New Year’s. He and his wife had a child the year they got married and a second a couple of years later. New Year’s cards with photos on them are slightly thicker than regular postcards. They can be a bit of a nuisance when you’re flipping through the cards to check the lottery numbers printed on the bottom to see if you’ve won anything.


I jumped not long after the divorce. It was a day or two after it snowed. There was a big earthquake off the coast of Hokkaido on the seventh of March. It was around eight in the evening and I was at a restaurant with a work friend. It was one of those places where it was almost impossible to get a reservation and I had been looking forward to the evening for some time. That’s why I remember the exact date.

We took our time enjoying our food: the beautifully arranged tray of tiny appetizers, grilled tilefish with perfectly crisped skin, the zenzai——a red bean soup with mochi——which was just the right sweetness.

Once we were done, my friend went to the restroom. This friend, let me make clear, was a woman. I enjoy sharing a meal with a man, but when you’re having an especially fine meal you can do without the distraction. Only the very rich are able to fall in love and appreciate good food at the same time. It’s not for us commonfolk.

I’d had two small bottles of warm saké and was feeling all fuzzy inside. I always feel a little sad after a satisfying meal. I remember staring at the empty zenzai bowl and wondering how many more times I would be able to savor such sadness.

That’s when I felt the ground beneath me move. The tremors weren’t large. But they did go on for quite some time. I remember thinking, I hope that this isn’t a big quake somewhere else, because the ’95 Kobe quake immediately came to mind.

Once the ground stopped shaking, I stood up and went to the restroom. Finding water splattered all around the sink, I reached for paper towels. Did my friend do this? I wondered. Or was it someone before her, that man from the room in the back, his voice so smooth, like the narrator of the bunraku puppet show I went to see the other day for the first time in years, whose lines, I was surprised to find, were displayed on an electronic board, not unlike those you find at Alta in Shinjuku, which I’ve never used as a meeting spot, though I have met up with friends in front of Hachikō in Shibuya . . . In my slightly inebriated state, my thoughts drifted. Before I knew it, the sink had been wiped clean.

My work friend and I settled up our bill and stepped out of the restaurant. The street was slippery from the snow that had fallen that afternoon. My friend poked a mound of snow with the tip of her umbrella.

“Is this the first snow of the season?” she asked.

“Yeah, it is. I know because we have to pitch in shoveling the snow in front of our condo.”

“Look, a snowman!”

The snowman brought to mind my work friend’s hobby taking photos of snowmen all around town when she was younger. People built all kinds of snowmen. Some big-headed, others big-bodied. A lot of thought went into building a snowman. How large should it be? Does it need arms? A face? A hat? Everyone had their own style. My friend had even talked of holding an exhibition of her snowmen photos, though I don’t know how serious she was about it. 

“Are you still taking photos of snowmen?” I asked.

“No, I lost interest.”

“Oh, right,” I said.

I said goodbye to my friend at the station and got on my train. The path from the station to my apartment was icy. Once I reached the residential part of the neighborhood, there were sections of the sidewalk where the snow hadn’t been cleared. I had thought that I’d sobered up, but I still managed to stick my foot into a mound of snow. 

A couple of days later, there was another large earthquake, this time around noon off the Sanriku coast in Tōhoku. When I took the neighborhood bulletin next door later that day, I mentioned the large earthquake in Hokkaido a couple of days ago, but my neighbor looked confused. She must not pay much attention to the news, I told myself, and thought nothing more of it.

In the afternoon, my work friend rang, and we chatted first about work and then about the wonderful meal we’d had. When I mentioned the earthquake in Hokkaido I didn’t get much of a response.

“I’d love to see your snowmen photos again,” I said.

“Snowmen?” She asked.

“You know, the photos that you used to take. On the way home you were saying you’d lost interest in them but——”

“What photos?”

That’s when it occurred to me that I may have jumped again. After getting off the phone with my friend, I went to the library and went through the last two weeks’ worth of newspapers. None mentioned anything about an earthquake on March 7.

I also checked to see how many times it had snowed in Tokyo since the beginning of the year. Once in January and four times in February. The records show that it had indeed snowed the evening of the dinner. I must have jumped after the earthquake in Hokkaido, but it had apparently snowed that day in both worlds.

March 11 was two days away. I would find out later that my ex was on a prewedding trip to Hokkaido at the time. I later heard through a friend that they hadn’t been close to the epicenter but still had difficulty making their way back to Tokyo.

Had my ex and his new wife gone to Hokkaido back in the other world? That world, the one before my most recent jump, had experienced a magnitude seven earthquake. Was it possible that an even larger quake had followed?

I realized I still had feelings towards my ex, which was, needless to say, irritating. No need to deal with these pesky feelings, I told myself, and quickly flipped off the switch to those emotions.

But the switch, it’s loose, and it sometimes flips back on, bathing those feelings in a gentle light. It’s frustrating. Like when you can’t quite reach an itch.


I had an operation at the beginning of the year. I went into hospital two days after I saw the horse trotting down the middle of the street. I had a tumor and would have to undergo major surgery to have it removed. This didn’t quite register with me. I mean, I was barely aware of any symptoms.

The doctor explained my situation using terms like five-year-survival-rate, prognosis, and QOL. I was scared, of course, but all I could think was——how could this possibly be happening to me?

The horse appeared the same day the doctor had gone over the details of my hospitalization. I asked Luri to sit in on the meeting with the doctor and we’d decided we would get something nice for lunch afterwards. Nina, who had married and settled down in the US, was planning to fly back on the day of the operation.

We were told it would be a long operation. No surprise given it involved extracting an organ nestled in a tricky location.

“Seven hours is a long time to be waiting at the hospital,” I said over lunch.

“I’ll go home and come back in the late afternoon.”

“What about work?”

“I got permission to take the day off.”


Luri knew that I wouldn’t want things to get overemotional. For a moment I did feel like leaning on her and saying, Hey, isn’t this one bummer of a situation I’m in? But I found myself just enjoying my lunch.

We came across the horse as we were making our way from the restaurant to the station. At the time I didn’t quite register how strange it was to have encountered a horse on the street. My mind must have been preoccupied with all that was happening to me.

The sky was bright on the day of my operation. When the anesthetic wore off and I opened my eyes, the nurse greeted me with a simple otsukaresama.

All I could manage was a half-word, domo, in response.

They kept me in the ICU for another hour before moving me back to my room.

“Anne, I’m so glad you’re okay,” said Luri.

“Anne, you’ve aged,” said Nina, who had come straight from the airport.

They both seemed oddly calm. It made me nervous. Were they feigning calm because the operation hadn’t gone well?

“The organ they removed, what did it look like?” I asked.

They both looked at me funny.

“What are you talking about?” “What a scary thought!”

“Good thing it was a minor operation,” added Luri. “Having an organ removed would be just awful.”

This is strange, I thought, but I didn’t say anything. Going through an operation was exhausting. I didn’t have the energy to correct them.

It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I came to understand that they hadn’t opened me up or cut anything out. I was already walking normally and was surprised by my speedy recovery. The explanation from the doctor still came as a shock. He said they had removed a polyp using an endoscope. That’s not what I was told, I thought, and shot Luri a sideward glance, but she looked as calm as ever. She had been there for the initial explanation. This new information should have come as a shock to her, too.

“Umm . . . ” I started to say something but stopped.

I realized later that I must have jumped around the time I saw the horse. I wondered if there was any significance to that particular moment but decided not to pursue that thought any further.

This was the first time the course of my life had been directly influenced by one of my jumps. Of course, it was entirely possible that my life had been somehow altered by my previous jumps. But it was the first time the change was so evident. 

The doctor had given me a handwritten memo when he first explained the operation to me. I had brought it to the hospital with me, and once back in my room, I looked at it. There was mention of a polyp, nothing about a tumor. The diagram of the organ that was to be removed had also vanished.

Was the other me still back in that other world minus an organ? I couldn’t help thinking about it as I lay in bed alone after visiting hours. Did that version of me eventually die? Was she able to maintain a good QOL? How had her emotional response shifted from the initial shucks? It was all supposed to be about me. But I knew nothing.


“Was the horse a thoroughbred?” I asked.

Anne thought about it before saying, “probably.” Then she added, “Do you think it’s normal for a horse to be on the streets?”

I thought about this. It seemed like something that was not all that uncommon. Then again, it also felt like a rare occurrence, something that would only happen if a horse had escaped from somewhere.

Different versions of me existing in different places. I tried to imagine what that would be like as I downed a shot of whiskey. The shot glass glowed dimly in the light.

We left the second bar and said our goodnights before it got too late. I watched as Anne walked away, her retreating figure eventually fading into the bustling Shinjuku crowds.

Hiromi Kawakami was born in Tokyo in 1958. Her first novel, Kamisama (God), was published in 1994. In 1996, she was awarded the Akutagawa Prize for Hebi o Fumu (Tread on a Snake) and in 2001 she won the Tanizaki Prize for her novel Sensei no Kaban (Strange Weather in Tokyo), which became an international bestseller. Strange Weather in Tokyo was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Asian Literary Prize and the 2014 International Foreign Fiction Prize. Hiromi Kawakami has contributed to editions of Granta in both the UK and Japan and is one of Japan’s most popular contemporary novelists.
A photo of a snow-dusted statue of a man wearing a graduation cap and gown. Students walk past holding umbrellas to protect themselves from heavy snowfall.
David Karashima is a professor of creative writing at Waseda University in Tokyo. He has translated a number of contemporary Japanese authors including Hitomi Kanehara, Hisaki Matsuura, and Shinji Ishii. His nonfiction book Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami was published by Soft Skull Press in 2020 and his novella Intersections was published in Subaru in Japanese in 2022.