As it turned out, the man had a wife and baby son, who, in accordance with Japanese tradition, had spent a few months around the time of the birth at her parents’ house. Once they had moved back in with the father, instead of being kept awake at night by ragga, we could instead eavesdrop during the day on the general crash, bang, wallop of a baby boy going about his everyday business. When Mrs M got pregnant (read this if you want a detailed account of our conception-related adventures), she quit her part-time job and, particularly for the first two or three months of the pregnancy, took things easy, and it was at this point that she realised something quite remarkable, namely that the baby downstairs – and its mother, for that matter – never left the apartment.
The father would head off to work at around 7am, and come rain or shine, whether it be a weekday or a weekend, mother and baby would spend the rest of the day indoors, until the father got back at seven or eight in the evening. By the time we moved out, the baby was about a year old and already walking – we could hear his footsteps as he did circuits of the living room – but even at this point he was never taken to the local park, or even out of the front door to look around the yard. I said to Mrs M that surely they must go shopping together, but she explained that no, once or twice a week a van from the Co-op came to deliver groceries. Admittedly, the mother didn’t appear to be local and probably didn’t have any friends nearby, but despite having her own car, hardly ever used it.
We weren’t sure if they were from the mother’s or the father’s side, but every few weeks the baby’s grandparents would come to visit, and they too would only ever play with their grandson inside the apartment, before driving off again a few hours later. Even more infrequently than this, mother, father and baby would get in the car and disappear for the day, but based on the evidence we had, we could only assume this was to visit the same set of grandparents at home, and certainly not to go to Disneyland or even a shopping mall. So the only time their baby was exposed to the outside world was once every couple of months, when it was carried the short distance between apartment and car at one end of the trip, and car and house at the other.
Largely out of necessity, the mother made as creative use as possible of the relatively small space – probably about sixteen square metres – she had at her disposal, turning the apartment into a kind of live-in kindergarten, and kept her son occupied with all sorts of activities: among other things, the two of them could be heard reading books, playing games, playing with toys, exercising and watching TV, and she would forever be cooing over, chatting to or consoling him.
The boy’s day-to-day life was probably as stimulating as it was possible to make it under the circumstances, but if nothing else, he was in danger of contracting rickets due to a lack of vitamin D, and Mrs M said that if she were in the same situation, it wouldn’t be long before sheer claustrophobia drove her completely round the bend. The most heartbreaking thing that we witnessed – or rather, that we could assume from our eavesdropping – happened in March of last year, when the poor kid wasn’t even allowed outside to enjoy the first snowfall of his young life; all he could do instead was survey the scene from the living room window.
OK, so I was exaggerating when I said they never left the house: just once, I found the mother standing outside the back door with her son in her arms (it could have been my imagination, but they both looked rather pale), as they waved the grandparents off after a visit. Mrs M, too, bumped into them on one occasion, and during a brief chat was surprised to find out that when she was younger, the mother had spent a year living in Australia. The father, on the other hand, was what Mrs M described as a chinpira (chav if you’re British, redneck if you’re American). He was foul-mouthed, prone to shouting at his wife, and preferred to spend his days off (actually day off – he seemed to work six-day weeks for the most part) working out at the gym rather than playing with his son. On one occasion, Mrs M returned from our early evening stroll to find him on the warpath, having discovered a strange car parked in ‘his’ space. Despite the fact that the car in question wasn’t blocking him in and would no doubt be gone by the following morning, and that in any case, the car park was large enough to accommodate several more vehicles than were owned by the people who lived there, he had summoned both the landlord and the police. There was some paperwork relating to a cram school visible on the front seat of the offending car, and it took a certain amount of diplomacy on Mrs M’s part to convince him that it wasn’t me or one of my English-teaching friends who had parked it there,
Not that this is exactly a complimentary description of them, but contrary to what you might think, I don’t in any way want to suggest that the couple were bad parents. The father may have been a little narrow-minded, but he wasn’t a wife beater or an alcoholic (the middle-aged guy on the second floor sounded much scarier when he got drunk), and let’s not forget that according to statistics, the average Japanese husband spends just fifteen minutes a day with his children. Also, the apartment-as-prison scenario is pretty extreme even by Japanese standards, where most parents will merely shield their baby from the elements until it is three months old, and smother it in hats, scarves and surgical masks to stop it from catching a cold thereafter (they also, I was surprised to find out recently, never kiss their babies, a custom that would come as a blessed relief to British politicians on the campaign trail). Once M Jr arrived, though, the experience of having such eccentric neighbours convinced us to take her outside as much as possible, and if there is ever the slightest hint that she has acquired an interest in ragga, I shall immediately confiscate her iPod.