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 He had planned to eat a quick dinner at the ramen restaurant near the apartment, but it had been replaced by a honey stand.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.