THE SWEET LIFE • by Aidan Doyle

The extra-large jar of honey in the staff kitchen was Toru’s first hint of the coming of the bears. The next day, three of his co-workers were replaced by bears.

The bears didn’t join the morning calisthenics program, nor did they contribute to the conversation about the Giants versus Tigers game. Instead, they remained at their desks, taking only the occasional break to get some honey from the kitchen.

After work Toru accompanied Ishibashi and Yamamoto to their favorite izakaya.

“All of the foreign firms are doing it,” Ishibashi said. “Japan has to stay competitive.”

Toru had a daughter in college to support and little chance of getting a new job.

“They can’t replace me,” Yamamoto boasted. “I’m the only one with the contacts in China.”

A week later a brown bear in a red beret occupied Yamamoto’s desk. It spent most of its time speaking Mandarin on the phone.

Ishibashi was replaced the following week.

At the end of the day, Toru looked around for co-workers to accompany to dinner. The bears that had replaced Yamamoto and Ishibashi were going to a pub called The Bee and Hive. Some of the other bears were having a whispered conversation about a club in Roppongi called Honeyshakers.

Toru was only forty-nine years old, but it felt as though the world had left him behind. He had proposed to his wife the old-fashioned way, by asking her if she wanted to make miso soup for him for the rest of her life. Now Saeko was gone and his daughter, Mariko, was the only family he had left.

He left the office alone. The train home was full of bears reading Kafka manga on their cell phones. He had planned to eat a quick dinner at the ramen restaurant near the apartment, but it had been replaced by a honey stand.

Mariko was watching a travel show about Kumamoto when he got home. “Welcome back, Dad. You’re home early.”

He didn’t want to worry Mariko, so he didn’t say anything about work.

Mariko’s phone buzzed. She read the message and laughed. The way her eyes shone when she laughed reminded him of Saeko.

“Would you like to get something to eat?” he asked.

Mariko’s eyes widened in surprise. “I’ve already eaten, but it was only a snack. Where do you want to go?”

He thought for a moment. “There is the sushi place near Family Mart.”

“That closed last year,” Mariko said. “Give me a minute.” She reached for her phone.

They ended up eating at a family restaurant near the park. Toru hadn’t enjoyed a meal as much in a long time.

After dinner, Mariko squeezed his hand. “Just because you cherish the past, doesn’t mean you have to hate the future.”

“How did you become so wise?”

“We had a bear exchange student in high school,” Mariko replied. “Bears are more afraid of you than you are of them.”

The next day, he approached the desk of the bear wearing the red beret. “Would you like to go to an izakaya?”

“What’s an izakaya?” the bear asked.

Toru had to stop himself from reproaching the bear. How could you live in Japan and not know what an izakaya was? “It is a pub-style restaurant.”

“I’m sorry, but I have a lot of work,” the bear replied. An hour later, all of the bears left work together.

He had dinner with Mariko again. “Don’t give up, Dad,” she said.

He couldn’t sleep that night. It must be challenging for a bear to move from the countryside to Toyko’s neon-lit streets. He fumbled for his phone and started checking online restaurant reviews. Eventually he found a highly recommended honey restaurant in Shibuya.

The next day, he spoke again to the bear in the red beret. “Would you like to go to a honey restaurant?”

The bear smiled. “That sounds wonderful.”

Sweet As specialized in honey from New Zealand. The bears all ordered second and third helpings. Afterwards he invited them out for karaoke. He could tell they weren’t fans of J-pop, but they joined in nonetheless, belting out the songs in their deep voices. Saeko had loved singing enka, the traditional Japanese ballads, and Aka, the bear in the beret, showed a surprising aptitude for crooning the sad tales.

Toru lost his job a week later, but Aka recommended him to a colleague at a company helping bears adjust to life in Tokyo. Toru surprised himself at how quickly he adapted to his new job, but he never could manage more than one helping of honey.


Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer. He loves traveling and has visited more than 80 countries. His stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Fantasy.


Rate this story:
 average 5 stars • 2 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Tibor Simic

    A very straightforward satire that doesn’t provide deeper insight into the social issue it purports to address, so the cuteness of its initial premise wears off fast. Two stars.

    • Erin Ryan

      In my view, the story didn’t purport to address anything. The author left it up to us to decide what we thought it was about – just as Kafka (my favorite author, hands down) never explained what his stories “meant.”

      • Tibor Simic

        If you must draw comparisons, the story is more Kishon than Kafka.

        Kafka unearths the subconsciousness, and conveys personal tensions and traumas through dreamlike symbols.

        Kishon takes a recognizable social situation and takes it to an absurd extreme.

        Here, practically every scene is some recognizable point of view on the problem of multiculturalism and foreign workers (“all companies are doing it”, “I can’t be replaced”, “the bear exchange student”, “more afraid of you than you of them”, not fans of J-pop but singing karaoke…) and the point of view focuses on the big picture, on social changes.To say “it doesn’t purport to address anything” is like saying Animal Farm doesn’t purport to address anything.

        The problem is that, unlike Orwell or Kishon, there’s no insight.

        Now, if the bears had more bear characteristics, it could be fun comedy. You know, if they started hibernating, or if they went berserk in meetings… Like how Rocket Raccoon is recognizably a thieving tricking ferocious raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy.

        As it stands, it’s just a cute idea that gets tired fast. In my humble view, of course. If you liked it, I’m glad you had fun and I’m glad the writer reached his audience.

        • Erin Ryan

          Okay. I don’t know Kishon. I know Kafka. So I read it as though the bears were dreamlike symbols portraying the subconscious.

          • Tibor Simic

            I personally didn’t find textual support for that, and I didn’t find that the story probes deeply into the subconsciousness, but this is only my view, and your view has given my a fresh insight into what the story could be to someone.

          • “The train home was full of bears reading Kafka manga on their cell phones.”

            The author referenced Kafka by name. I’m pretty sure this is based on Kafka.

          • Tibor Simic

            A reference reinforces intertextuality when the intertextuality is there in the first place. So, is it there?

            I don’t find it. I suppose you could argue this story addresses the idea, crucial in reading Kafka, of being a foreigner in one’s own country.

            In my view, the key difference is that Kafka internalizes and Aidan externalizes the alien POV. The former reveals psychological processes, the latter is more native to social commentary.

            Finally, my assessment of the story doesn’t rely on it being related to a past great writer. Even if you made a convincing argument the story was based on Kafka, I would find it just as boring as I find it now.

  • Tibor Simic

    A very straightforward satire that doesn’t provide deeper insight into the social issue it purports to address, so the cuteness of its initial premise wears off fast. Two stars.

    • Erin Ryan

      In my view, the story didn’t purport to address anything. The author left it up to us to decide what we thought it was about – just as Kafka (my favorite author, hands down) never explained what his stories “meant.”

      • Tibor Simic

        If you must draw comparisons, the story is more Kishon than Kafka.

        Kafka unearths the subconsciousness, and conveys personal tensions and traumas through dreamlike symbols.

        Kishon takes a recognizable social situation and takes it to an absurd extreme.

        Here, practically every scene is some recognizable point of view on the problem of multiculturalism and foreign workers (“all companies are doing it”, “I can’t be replaced”, “the bear exchange student”, “more afraid of you than you of them”, not fans of J-pop but singing karaoke…) and the point of view focuses on the big picture, on social changes.To say “it doesn’t purport to address anything” is like saying Animal Farm doesn’t purport to address anything.

        The problem is that, unlike Orwell or Kishon, there’s no insight.

        Now, if the bears had more bear characteristics, it could be fun comedy. You know, if they started hibernating, or if they went berserk in meetings… Like how Rocket Raccoon is recognizably a thieving tricking ferocious raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy.

        As it stands, it’s just a cute idea that gets tired fast. In my humble view, of course. If you liked it, I’m glad you had fun and I’m glad the writer reached his audience.

        • Erin Ryan

          Okay. I don’t know Kishon. I know Kafka. So I read it as though the bears were dreamlike symbols portraying the subconscious.

          • Tibor Simic

            I personally didn’t find textual support for that, and I didn’t find that the story probes deeply into the subconsciousness, but this is only my view, and your view has given my a fresh insight into what the story could be to someone.

          • “The train home was full of bears reading Kafka manga on their cell phones.”

            The author referenced Kafka by name. I’m pretty sure this is based on Kafka.

          • Tibor Simic

            A reference reinforces intertextuality when the intertextuality is there in the first place. So, is it there?

            I don’t find it. I suppose you could argue this story addresses the idea, crucial in reading Kafka, of being a foreigner in one’s own country.

            In my view, the key difference is that Kafka internalizes and Aidan externalizes the alien POV. The former reveals psychological processes, the latter is more native to social commentary.

            Finally, my assessment of the story doesn’t rely on it being related to a past great writer. Even if you made a convincing argument the story was based on Kafka, I would find it just as boring as I find it now.

  • joanna b.

    A heartwarming tale well told. I liked the daughter helping her father out, also the bear in the beret (!) helping the MC get a job that he’s well suited for. The sentence about the MC at only 49 feeling the world has left him behind added depth and poignancy to the story. So many people are being fired even at that age and then have to compete for jobs with people half their age. We’re probably going to end up with 10 y.o. CEO’s someday soon.

    i could have done with fewer honey and sugar references and, more importantly, without the second clause of the last sentence. I see the point of it: that the MC has trouble adapting to the bear’s lifestyle just as the bears need help adjusting to city life. Nonetheless, this very good story didn’t need a joke at the end. 4 stars.

  • joanna b.

    A heartwarming tale well told. I liked the daughter helping her father out, also the bear in the beret (!) helping the MC get a job that he’s well suited for. The sentence about the MC at only 49 feeling the world has left him behind added depth and poignancy to the story. So many people are being fired even at that age and then have to compete for jobs with people half their age. We’re probably going to end up with 10 y.o. CEO’s someday soon.

    i could have done with fewer honey and sugar references and, more importantly, without the second clause of the last sentence. I see the point of it: that the MC has trouble adapting to the bear’s lifestyle just as the bears need help adjusting to city life. Nonetheless, this very good story didn’t need a joke at the end. 4 stars.

  • You can lose your job to a computer. I would have preferred losing it to a bear. Probably 🙂 I enjoyed reading this. I particularly liked “bears reading Kafka manga”.

  • You can lose your job to a computer. I would have preferred losing it to a bear. Probably 🙂 I enjoyed reading this. I particularly liked “bears reading Kafka manga”.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Rural-urban migration! I’m going to lose my job to a camel.

    • Cranky Steven

      lol! 🙂

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Rural-urban migration! I’m going to lose my job to a camel.

    • Cranky Steven

      lol! 🙂

  • OK, it’s not Tolstoy but the opening para got me hooked. I had an inkling about where it was going but it was a pleasant ride. ****

  • OK, it’s not Tolstoy but the opening para got me hooked. I had an inkling about where it was going but it was a pleasant ride. ****

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Five stars for the unexpected and marvelous charm of this story.

    I thought the second use of “bears” in the first sentence was jarring and unnecessary. If the ratings could be microcalibrated I’d have taken off a fraction for that. But this story was too beguiling to rate at only four.

    • MPmcgurty

      You’re referring to the first paragraph, Sarah? I agree. I don’t have a preference. Either sentence could be modified to eliminate a “bear”.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Right–I meant first para. I’d have liked it better as “replaced by them.”

    • Perhaps: “The extra-large jar of honey in the staff kitchen was Toru’s first hint of their coming.”

      Adds some mystery to the opening line.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Yes! I like that even better!

      • Frank Schulaner

        Yes, yes, perfect.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Five stars for the unexpected and marvelous charm of this story.

    I thought the second use of “bears” in the first sentence was jarring and unnecessary. If the ratings could be microcalibrated I’d have taken off a fraction for that. But this story was too beguiling to rate at only four.

    • MPmcgurty

      You’re referring to the first paragraph, Sarah? I agree. I don’t have a preference. Either sentence could be modified to eliminate a “bear”.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Right–I meant first para. I’d have liked it better as “replaced by them.”

    • Perhaps: “The extra-large jar of honey in the staff kitchen was Toru’s first hint of their coming.”

      Adds some mystery to the opening line.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Yes! I like that even better!

      • weequahic

        Yes, yes, perfect.

  • Carl Steiger

    I spewed my sencha when I read the line about bears reading Kafka manga on their cell phones. The fashion police might suggest the Mandarin-speaking bear might wear a green cap with a red star, but overall this yarn is a perfect Monday-morning morale booster.

  • Carl Steiger

    I spewed my sencha when I read the line about bears reading Kafka manga on their cell phones. The fashion police might suggest the Mandarin-speaking bear might wear a green cap with a red star, but overall this yarn is a perfect Monday-morning morale booster.

  • J.B.Ripley

    I enjoyed the tale overall, thought much of it very clever, though bogged down with unnecessary business. Mariko’s entire reaction to being asked to eat with her father, eyes widening, phone grabbing, etc…It’s minor but it felt like superfluous words that could have been better spent elsewhere. Perhaps on deepening and/or bridging the cultural rift better, which would have taken the story from surface-skimming to something a bit more meaningful.

    3 stars.

  • J.B.Ripley

    I enjoyed the tale overall, thought much of it very clever, though bogged down with unnecessary business. Mariko’s entire reaction to being asked to eat with her father, eyes widening, phone grabbing, etc…It’s minor but it felt like superfluous words that could have been spent better elsewhere. Perhaps on deepening and/or bridging the cultural rift, which would have taken the story from surface-skimming to something a bit more meaningful.

    3 stars.

  • MPmcgurty

    Five stars. It put a smile on my face at the second sentence, and the smile stayed until long after the last sentence. Simply told, subtle humor, well written, lots of negative space, problem, resolution, has it all in my view.

    I love the stinginess with words. “He had dinner with Mariko again. ‘Don’t give up, Dad,’ she said.” We get a whole conversation from one encouraging comment from a daughter.

    I think this story could stand without the last paragraph, very nicely, but I’m not strongly opposed to what the writer did. It’s like an epilogue, and I think eliminating would leave the story in sweet uncertainty. In my view, whether Toru loses his job, lands on his feet if he does lose it, or gets a favor in return for befriending the bear is not important to the story.

    But I smiled at the ending just the same. 🙂

    I enjoyed this a lot, Aidan. Thanks.

  • MPmcgurty

    Five stars. It put a smile on my face at the second sentence, and the smile stayed until long after the last sentence. Simply told, subtle humor, well written, lots of negative space, problem, resolution, has it all in my view.

    I love the stinginess with words. “He had dinner with Mariko again. ‘Don’t give up, Dad,’ she said.” We get a whole conversation from one encouraging comment from a daughter.

    I think this story could stand without the last paragraph, very nicely, but I’m not strongly opposed to what the writer did. It’s like an epilogue, and I think eliminating would leave the story in sweet uncertainty. In my view, whether Toru loses his job, lands on his feet if he does lose it, or gets a favor in return for befriending the bear is not important to the story.

    But I smiled at the ending just the same. 🙂

    I enjoyed this a lot, Aidan. Thanks.

  • Genghis Bob

    I liked this very much. It set just the right tone of sadness, loss, without being maudlin. Just like life, most of the time.

  • Genghis Bob

    I liked this very much. It set just the right tone of sadness, loss, without being maudlin. Just like life, most of the time.

  • terrytvgal

    cute; entertaining, unique and just kinda fun, but I’m not sure if I’m missing a key point some how. Is there some bigger symbolism beyond that of accepting change and treating newcomers with respect? Thanks, Aidan

    • Paul A. Freeman

      I got the feeling the story was a take on immigration – i.e. ‘they’ take our jobs, ‘they’ don’t integrate, ‘they’ eat their ethnic food, ‘they’ set up ‘their’ ethnic restaurants, etc, etc…

  • terrytvgal

    cute; entertaining, unique and just kinda fun, but I’m not sure if I’m missing a key point some how. Is there some bigger symbolism beyond that of accepting change and treating newcomers with respect? Thanks, Aidan

    • Paul A. Freeman

      I got the feeling the story was a take on immigration – i.e. ‘they’ take our jobs, ‘they’ don’t integrate, ‘they’ eat their ethnic food, ‘they’ set up ‘their’ ethnic restaurants, etc, etc…

  • phantomwhale

    Totally charming. I really enjoyed this !

  • phantomwhale

    Totally charming. I really enjoyed this !

  • I bet the bears were being underpaid. They need to join the union!

  • I bet the bears were being underpaid. They need to join the union!

  • Erin Ryan

    Five stars. Clear, compact, well told.

  • Erin Ryan

    Five stars. Clear, compact, well told.

  • Lightbright

    I enjoyed it too, but it does feel like a George Saunders knock off. Or even David Sedaris. But people have been using animals to tell their tales since the beginning of time. I agree with some of the earlier reviewerr that it would benefit from some deeper social insight, a less tidy ending, and removal of tags like eyes widening, phone grabbing …etc. Keep writing – definitely enjoyable!

  • Lightbright

    I enjoyed it too, but it does feel like a George Saunders knock off. Or even David Sedaris. But people have been using animals to tell their tales since the beginning of time. I agree with some of the earlier reviewerr that it would benefit from some deeper social insight, a less tidy ending, and removal of tags like eyes widening, phone grabbing …etc. Keep writing – definitely enjoyable!

  • I agree that this is a well-written story however there’s something about it that makes me uncomfortable and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Is it that it’s about a deep issue written about using superficials? Is focusing on differences in food preferences being too reliant on stereotype? I found the line in which Toru recalls proposing to his wife by asking if she wanted to serve him miso soup for life jarring. Likewise, I found the bears reading Kafka manga gratuitous humor; in a story about stereotypes why would they read Kafka? unless, of course, I’m missing something which is certainly possible. Then again, perhaps I feel uncomfortable because the story works so well in putting forth its theme which is expressed by the wise college-age daughter. Good work in generating much thought!

  • I agree that this is a well-written story however there’s something about it that makes me uncomfortable and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Is it that it’s about a deep issue written about using superficials? Is focusing on differences in food preferences being too reliant on stereotype? I found the line in which Toru recalls proposing to his wife by asking if she wanted to serve him miso soup for life jarring. Likewise, I found the bears reading Kafka manga gratuitous humor; in a story about stereotypes why would they read Kafka? unless, of course, I’m missing something which is certainly possible. Then again, perhaps I feel uncomfortable because the story works so well in putting forth its theme which is expressed by the wise college-age daughter. Good work in generating much thought!

  • Cranky Steven

    Three stars for craftmanship but the characters didn’t grab me.

  • Cranky Steven

    Three stars for craftmanship but the characters didn’t grab me.

  • You had me at the first line! I loved how the first sign of the bear’s impending takeover was pots of honey in the break room. I really really enjoyed this piece.

  • You had me at the first line! I loved how the first sign of the bear’s impending takeover was pots of honey in the break room. I really really enjoyed this piece.

  • Paul Owen

    Thank you, Aidan, for such an entertaining story!

  • Paul Owen

    Thank you, Aidan, for such an entertaining story!

  • Jackson Grove

    This is a good story yet i need help, im trying to bring it alive in one photo and idk what to do plz can you guys give me ideas

  • Jackson Grove

    This is a good story yet i need help, im trying to bring it alive in one photo and idk what to do plz can you guys give me ideas

  • thrasyvoulas

    Nice story…. It was very interesting reading the comments…some want the issues address and spelt out, other want to figure it out for themselves and so forth.
    I would have preferred the author going all the way and the reality that has hit many people these days all over the world…BEING YOUNG (yes, 50 is very young and productive unless you are a ballerina in general) and being redundant in LIFE…. with everything changing so fast and people becoming obsolete as is the trend…
    I just like to thank you all for sharing your thoughts and in sites like this have helped me so much in understanding others while having a great read on a daily basis.
    Thanks

  • thrasyvoulas

    Nice story…. It was very interesting reading the comments…some want the issues address and spelt out, other want to figure it out for themselves and so forth.
    I would have preferred the author going all the way and the reality that has hit many people these days all over the world…BEING YOUNG (yes, 50 is very young and productive unless you are a ballerina in general) and being redundant in LIFE…. with everything changing so fast and people becoming obsolete as is the trend…
    I just like to thank you all for sharing your thoughts and in sites like this have helped me so much in understanding others while having a great read on a daily basis.
    Thanks