Update! Larceny Is Part of Family Love in Cannes Winner “Shoplifters”–Showing With English subtitles on June 21 (木)

『UPDATE: There will be a showing of the film with English subtitles at 7pm on June 21, at the Roppongi Hill Cinema. There will be a Q & A with the director afterwards. Details of the showing are after the review』

The titular family in “Shoplifters” give a new slant to the term “living in squalor.” (The film is partially based on true events)  Their house looks more like a bizarre crime scene than an actual dwelling for normal people but – and this is a crucial point in “Shoplifters” – the family is HAPPY. They enjoy the kind of freedom that one rarely sees in Tokyo families. The 10-year old son doesn’t go to cram school (or any kind of school for that matter). The dad is not an over-worked salariman whose only solace is the company drinking party. The mom couldn’t care less about keeping up with the Tanakas. And grandma – she’s an entertaining but cantankerous piece of work who drives well-meaning social workers up the wall.

1) One Big Happy Family – clockwise from right, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki and Sakura Ando.
Title: The Shoplifters
©️2018 Fuji Television GAGA AOI Pro.
Distributed by GAGA

Amid the filth and debris they huddle together for warmth and comfort. At mealtimes, they poke chopsticks into ramen tubs and food cans. The catch in this cozy utopia is that they must steal almost everything they need. The other catch is that dad has just kidnapped a 5-year old girl named Yuri. She had been neglected and abused by her biological parents, so the dad just had to rescue her. “We’ll return her to her folks in the morning” he says, but then he doesn’t and Yuri joins their little clan, adding another item to their history of crime.

“Shoplifters” just won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival – a first for a Japanese director in 21 years. The last time this happened was back in 1997, when Shohei Imamura came out with “Unagi,” and put leading man Koji Yakusho’s name on the international map. In Japan however, “Unagi” didn’t exactly break box office. It was artsy, dark and posed too many philosophical questions. While these ingredients worked wonderfully at Cannes, the general feeling in Japan was that everyone would rather watch Keanu Reeves.

“Shoplifters” is another animal. Keanu Reeves isn’t in it (too bad) but the director is Hirokazu Kore-eda: a constant contender at Cannes and other major international film festivals for the past two decades. He’s also a former TV documentarian with a shrewd sense of business. Shohei Imamura was an auteur of the old school, but Kore-eda has a nose for what sells. In his films, art never overwhelms commercialism and on the other hand, it’s not all business either. Kore-eda knows that in the international market, the biggest appeal of a Japanese film is its Japanese-ness and in “Shoplifters,” he adopts a Zen-like approach, letting the characters do their thing at their own pace, in their own space. A lot of things are unexplained or left for the audience to surmise. And pretty soon, the squalor of that awful house starts to grow on you. The ancient and no doubt odorous tatami mats, the wild, unruly shrubbery that grow all over the garden, the stained and mildewed bathtub – somehow, these things begin to assume a patina of Japanese charm. After all, we’re so used to seeing spanking clean Japanese homes inhabited by perfectly manicured people, at least in the media and after awhile, the hypocrisy of this set-up just gets to you. Such a house and family appear in the story for about 5 minutes and the contrast between them and the Shoplifters is jarring.

The Shoplifters’ house is a real one, sleuthed out by Kore-eda’s staff who combed the northeast wards of Tokyo for weeks before hitting upon the perfect specimen. Surrounded by high rise apartment buildings on all sides, the house is a tiny, crumbling Showa era relic. In the movie, it belongs to the grandmother, Hatsue played by Kirin Kiki. Divorced before becoming a widow, Hatsue still keeps her ex-husband’s photo on the ‘butsudan (miniature buddhist shrine)’ and takes out his pension every month to supplement her own. It’s the only steady source of income the family has, since the mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and dad (Lily Franky) earn minimum wage doing part time work and even that’s jeopardized when their employers install a workshare program. “What’s work share?,” asks the son and the dad’s response – “ahhhm, it’s when you share the work.” It also means less pay and less income to share with the family.

Nobuyo’s younger sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a ‘JK (short for ‘Joshikosei, which means high school girl) sex shop, which entails dressing in a school uniform and opening her legs in front of a two-way mirror. Aki’s wages are 3000 yen per session and upon hearing this, grandma Hatsue lets out a sigh of real envy. “That’s such a well-paid job!”

Of course, even working an honest job at minimum wage or a shady job at 3000 yen per hour, isn’t enough for a family to survive on and so shoplifting supplements their income. The movie was partly inspired by real events.

Partners in crime – the son Shota (Jyo Kairi) cases the joint with dad Osamu (Lily Franky).
Title: The Shoplifters
©️2018 Fuji Television GAGA AOI Pro.
Distributed by GAGA

The film is full of dark humor but it is also a biting criticism of modern Japan. Kore-eda is not a fan of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The film references how the rights and wages of workers keep deteriorating and a growing number of people live in poverty, while “Abenomics” only benefits the elite.

The Japanese family has cultivated a certain image – that they revere their elders, that fathers work themselves to the bone, that the kids are models of scholastic excellence and good manners. In real life, that image is shattered again and again – consider that 1 out of 6 children live in poverty while the number of abused kids have been on the rise for the past 20 years. In the movie, Yuri’s biological mom is beaten by a rat of a husband and she takes out her anger on her daughter. And for all the love they show the son, the Shoplifter parents think nothing of depriving the boy of his future by keeping him home and teaching him to steal. The son, played by Kairi Jyo, is a compelling figure to watch – he loves the couple who have raised him, but at the same time he knows theirs is not a sustainable relationship. They have good times together but the son comes to realize that they’re bound more by crime and money than blood and love.

So, like a Bruce Springsteen song, it had to end. For me, the final scenes were blurred by a blizzard of tears, triggered by a longing for a raucous, uproarious, hugger-mugger childhood that never happened.

Shoplifters (万引き家族) opened nationwide in Japan on June 8th. 

The English subtitled screening and Q&A session of “Shoplifters” will be taken place on Thursday, June 21st.

【Date】Thursday, June 21st
【Time】19:00~(Q&A session after the screening)
【Venue】TOHO CINEMAS ROPPONGI HILLS
【Guest (tentative)】Kore-eda Hirokazu (director)

<How to buy the ticket>
・By PC & smart phone : Ticket site will be opened from Saturday, June 16th 0:00 at internet ticket vit (https://www.tohotheater.jp/vit/)
・Ticket counter at the theater : Ticket will be on sale from the opening on Saturday, June 16th at the theater (if the tickets are available.)

<Price>
Standard price *This film is rated PG12
※Additional costs will needed for Premium box seats. Please check the theater website.
※Movie tickets can be used.
※Free admission tickets can not be used.

<Caution>
※The screening is with English subtitles.
※Press will cover the Q&A and there will be a possibility that the audience could be on camera.
※The guests and Q&A session are tentative and are subject to change without notice.
※Reserved seating only and the ticket is for only 1 screening. You must obtain the seat for this screening to attend the Q&A.
※Resale is strictly prohibited.
※No camera (including by phoens) shooting or recoding are strictly prohibited.
※Once paid, ticket fees are non-refundable/non-changeable.

 

“Yo girls, get out of the ring!”–Sumo, Sexism And Why In Japan Upholding Tradition Can Mean Protecting Discrimination

Ever since the #Me Too movement landed in Japan late last year, there’s been a greater awareness of women’s rights and sexual harassment. In Tokyo subways cars, there’s a video ad exhorting female teens to refuse to work inside Japan’s infamous underage sex industry. Some train station kiosks sell pin badges for young women, printed with an anti-groping slogan. All this marks quite a progress from the days (only 5 years ago) when sexual abuse and discrimination were so much a part of the daily fabric that many victims didn’t think it worthwhile to raise their voices.

Recently however, Japanese women were given a rap over the knuckles, jolted back to reality and reminded that we were second-class citizens in a male-dominated society. The incident happened during a sumo exhibition match in Kyoto earlier this month. After the match, the mayor of Maizuru City, Kyoto, got up on the arena to make an award-giving speech when he suddenly had a stroke and crumpled to the ground. In a flash, two women in the audience went up, massaging his heart while calling an ambulance. These women were professional nurses and knew what they were doing. In other circumstances, they would be applauded, lauded, maybe even paid for their heroism. Instead, they were told – a total of three times – to get off the arena. Over a loud speaker, no less.

In the world of sumo, the arena is sacred – and females are not allowed to even touch its holy rim.  Why’s that? Traditionally, women have been deemed impure, and feared to contaminate the match if they got too close to the arena. A century ago, women weren’t even allowed to watch sumo bouts, as their poisonous gaze may harm the godly flesh of the sumo wrestlers. Tides will turn and times may change, but sumo has, and will always hold women unworthy. Two days after that Maizuru City mayor was carried away on a stretcher, another exhibition match was held. This time, the mayor was a woman and her request to give out the award ON TOP of the arena, was adamantly refused. She had to make her speech from under the arena, stretching her arms above her head, to the winning sumo wrestler.

This incident is by no means the first of its kind. Women mayors, and even a Cabinet Minister acting on behalf of the prime minister, were banned from mounting the steps to the arena for no other reason than that they were women. Women were dirty – after all, they menstruated, had babies and grew old. How despicable. Sumo wrestlers on the other hand, were glorious creatures whose dense muscles and shining flesh were a testament to male power and the incarnation of ancient deity. Never mind that these wrestlers were born from women like everyone else. Never mind that some of sumo’s staunchest supporters are women. Never mind that the sacred arenas are made from packed dirt, and taken apart and shoveled away after each tournament, so what’s the big deal?

After the Kyoto fiasco, the head of the Sumo Association issued an apology to the nurses. But the rules have not been radically changed and will likely stay the same forever. On April 28, the association did announce that it was acceptable for women to enter the arena if a man’s life was in imminent danger or in other dire emergencies. But for the time being, if Japan were ever to have a woman in the Prime Minister’s seat, she too will be told to get the hell off the holy arena during the award ceremonies.

Sumo and tradition have been air-tight for over two millennia, though unlike Judo or Kendo with their forbidding, too-solemn public image, this particular sport is extremely accessible. The spectators gather around the arena in a circle, often taking off their shoes to sit cross legged on mats. They’re free to drink beer, sake and munch boxed meals sold in the numerous lobby stalls. And though it’s closed to women, the sumo world is open to foreigners. Two out of the three current “Yokozuna” or highest ranking wrestler, are Mongolian. There have been wrestlers from Russia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Brazil, respectively. Taiho – one of the greatest and most popular sumo wrestlers of all time, was half Ukranian and raised by a single (Japanese) mother.

There are, of course, no female sumo wrestlers recognized by the Sumo Association. That happening is as likely as Japan’s other bastion of misogyny and tradition, the Yakuza, letting a woman sip the sake cap of fraternization. There are no sexy female yakuza. Whether there are sexy yakuza or not, is a matter of taste.

On or off the arena, sumo wrestlers are admittedly sexy. They are a splendid sight: enormous men with protruding stomachs, naked save for the “mawashi” or sash elaborately wound around their middles, leaving backsides exposed. They seem cuddly and friendly – like giant teddy bears that bow politely to the stable masters before going at each other with the full force of their mighty weight. In terms of celebrity status, sumo wrestlers are on par with kabuki actors, also entrenched in anti-woman tradition. In spite of this (or maybe because of it) there’s never a shortage of women who want to marry into those worlds, though both may be riddled with scandal and rife with discrimination. Adversity acting as an aphrodisiac, maybe.

While condemning the discrimination, I have a tiny, grudging sliver of respect for sumo. As the world continues its relentless march toward total globalism, sumo still prefers to be weird and backward, mired in a logic that’s 2000 years too old. At the same time, the wrestlers are for the most part, smartphone-wielding college graduates that pal around with pop idol groups. The combination is fascinating, even alluring. True, I will never be allowed to touch the sacred arena but I’m free to ponder, (and be frustrated by) its unfathomable mystery.

UPDATE: Oh Lucy! A darkly funny movie that asks: Can learning English in Japan change a woman’s life? The answer…..

Oh Lucy! has been doing so well in it’s Japan release, that the distributors, for one night only, will  be showing the English subtitled version. May 17th, from 18:50 at the Eurospace Theater in Shibuya.

Shinobu Terashima is one of the few Japanese actresses who plays hardball, consistently choosing roles that blow holes in the cardboard stereotype of the Japanese woman. We all know this woman: saintly, supportive, long-suffering AND a wildcat in bed. Yawn.

作品名:『オー・ルーシー!』
公開表記:4月28(土) ユーロスペース、テアトル新宿 他にてロードショー
配給:ファントム・フィルム 
コピーライト:(c) Oh Lucy,LLC

While Terashima (the thoroughbred scion of veteran actress Junko Fuji and the late Kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro) can probably do sexy wildcat with both her hands in cuffs and wearing a straitjacket (wait a minute, maybe this is TOO sexy) she’s far less accommodating when it comes to the saintly and long-suffering bit.

Shinobu Terajima is a perfect fit for the role of Setsuko aka “Lucy,” in a funny, sardonic and ultimately warm-hearted film called “Oh Lucy!” Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi who first penned the screenplay as a graduation project for NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, said she was actually taken aback by the movie’s success. “Oh Lucy!” was nominated for two awards in last year’s Cannes Film Festival – a first for a Japanese director – besides winning the NHK award at the Sundance Film Festival. “I was never really interested in portraying a heroic woman, or a beautiful woman or any of that. I guess I was really tired of seeing those types up there on the screen,” said Hirayanagi. “I needed to see someone different, and came up with the idea of Lucy. She’s not young or cute but she’s really, really watchable.”

Atsuko Hirayanagi penned the screenplay to this highly rated film.

Indeed, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from Terashima as Setsuko, a 43 year old Tokyo OL (Office Lady) with just the right amount of inner venom and outward politeness, neatly balanced on the scale of Japanese womanhood. Setsuko, whose name means restraint and saving money, divides her time between a dreary office in a small company and an apartment packed to the gills with her stuff. Tokyo media has stories galore about single Japanese women of a certain age who can’t stop hoarding, and Setsuko’s little room is straight out of this urban folklore. Then one day Setsuko gets a call from her niece Mika (Shiori Kutsuna), and invited to attend an English conversation class. “The teacher is friendly and very nice,” assures Mika and Setsuko decides to go, not least because she had witnessed a suicide on the train tracks that morning. For a few minutes she had felt the chill hand of death on her shoulder, and well, life is too short to spend it being miserable, right? She may as well try something new. And new it is, with a vengeance. The drop-dead handsome English teacher, John (Josh Hartnett), makes her wear a blonde wig, pushes a ping pong ball in her mouth to correct her pronunciation, and tells Setsuko that from that moment on, her name is Lucy. Then John gives Lucy a big, tight hug. Cue, Setsuko, I mean Lucy’s swooning face.

Unfortunately, her new-found happiness is destroyed overnight. The next day she goes to class and John has left for LA, accompanied by Mika who it turns out, is his girlfriend. Setsuko/Lucy PTSDs for awhile before springing to action and books a flight to LA. That she ends up boarding the plane with her prim, correct sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) who is Mika’s mom and direly worried about her daughter – can only be described as a typically Japanese female predicament. Every time one wants to do something totally crazy, a prim correct female relative appears to drag you back to sanity. No wonder so many women remain single in this country.

Every time one wants to do something totally crazy, a prim correct female relative appears to drag you back to sanity. No wonder so many women remain single in this country.

Hirayanagi’s understanding of this particular terrain (English conversation classes, being a single woman in Tokyo, the uniformity and blandness that come with being Japanese) is frighteningly accurate. “I think being able to speak English will change a Japanese person in the most unexpected ways,” she said. “The Japanese language is just not conducive to self-expression, whereas English is all about expressing yourself, your needs, your emotions. Setsuko discovers after landing in LA that in the US, life isn’t about getting by and being right, it’s all about survival. You have to speak up, you have to make your needs known and you have to convince people of your worth. Otherwise, it’s over. It’s as simple as that.” Hirayanagi herself has been living the sink-or-swim scenario since the age of 17 when she first went to LA as a language student. After this stint, she wrangled a student visa, enrolled in San Francisco State University and launched an acting career in LA while waitressing at “Nobu” in Malibu. “Back then, I loved the anything-goes mentality of LA,” she said. “I went to every audition I could get, hustled and worked and generally lived the life of an almost-actor in LA. There are thousands and thousands of people like me. But in the end, I knew that I wasn’t really cut out for acting. I would much rather stand behind the camera, work on screenplays and make something on my own.”

Josh Hartnett even shows up playing a modern-day Charisma Man

Looking back, Hirayanagi added that her experience as an actor has proved invaluable to her filmmaking career.

“I know what actors go through, what they’re up against, their joys and struggles. I also know my way around a film set, so I could establish a rapport with the actor and crew right away.” Indeed, Hirayanagi has a reputation for being wonderful to work with – no less a personage than Kaori Momoi starred pro bono, in the short film version of “Oh Lucy!” and Josh Hartnett consented to play John because he loved the vibe of her screenplay. “They say that a director loses a limb every time s/he makes a film,” laughed Hirayanagi. “I believe that. But I think this space is where I want to be. It’s never going to get easy but at least I have the conviction that I belong here.”

作品名:『オー・ルーシー!』
公開表記:4月28(土) ユーロスペース、テアトル新宿 他にてロードショー
配給:ファントム・フィルム 
コピーライト:(c) Oh Lucy,LLC

 

Setsuko/Lucy isn’t so lucky. The trip to LA turns out to be a journey of self-discovery as she learns some unsavory aspects of her personality and forced to admit that John – stripped of the Charisma-man status he enjoyed in Tokyo – is actually a loser. Mika had dumped him in short order and is nowhere to be found. Toxic animosity with her sister comes bubbling up to the surface. Unwanted and unhappy, Setsuko must dig deep in her heart to unearth what it is she really wants. Her life may be banal but her pain and struggle is real, and sure to strike a chord with women everywhere. More importantly, in the end she’s a different woman from the one she left behind in that monstrously cluttered apartment. Maybe learning English IS the cure-all antidote. Hey, I’m sold.

作品名:『オー・ルーシー!』

公開表記:4月28(土) ユーロスペース、テアトル新宿 他にてロードショー

配給:ファントム・フィルム 

コピーライト:(c) Oh Lucy,LLC

 

 

監督・脚本:平栁敦子

 

出演:寺島しのぶ 南果歩 忽那汐里 ・ 役所広司 ・ ジョシュ・ハートネット

 

プロデューサー:ハン・ウェスト、木藤幸江、ジェシカ・エルバーム、平栁敦子

エグゼクティブ・プロデューサー:ウィル・フェレル、アダム・マッケイ

共同脚本:ボリス・フルーミン

音楽:エリク・フリードランダー

 

2016年サンダンス・インスティテュート/NHK脚本賞受賞作品

 

(2017年/日本・アメリカ合作/5.1ch/ビスタ/カラー/原題:OH LUCY!/95分)

 

“The Only Woman in the Room”/ How The Amazing Beate Wrote Equal Rights For Women Into Japan’s Constitution

Unanswerable questions of the year: Is Japan really going to war? Is Japan’s peacetime constitution going to be trashed by the ruling party and returned back to the Imperial Constitution, which did not give suffrage or equal rights to women?

TheonlyThis question will be on the mind and haunt your waking hours after reading “The Only Woman in the Room” by Beate Sirota Gordon. In this memoir, she takes us through the various events in her life made remarkable by the fact that in late 1945, she became a member on the US Occupation team that drew up Japan’s National Constitution. Not only was she the only woman in the room, she was just 22 years old.

Her passport said she was an American citizen, but Beate Sirota had lived for 10 years in Akasaka, Tokyo with her Russian Jewish parents (her father Leo Sirota was a celebrated musician from Vienna and a close friend of Kosaku Yamada). For the past five years, she had been in the US while her parents had been in detention in Karuizawa. The only way to catch a plane out of America and into a ravaged, defeated Japan to see them again, was to get a job in the army. Beate’s Japan experience and the fact that she could speak, write, and read with fluency got her that position.

“The Only Woman in the Room” is honest, plain and straightforward – written not by a professional author but an extremely well-bred, cultured woman who had forged a career for herself in a time when women – even in America – were expected to marry, have babies and sink themselves in domestic bliss. Or just sink. Across the Pacific, American women her age were sizing up future husbands at cocktail parties. Beate was commuting from Kanda Kaikan to Occupation headquarters and working on the constitution 10 to 12 hours a day. She often skipped meals, since food was scarce and the work was so pressing. Her male colleagues pushed themselves harder and put in more hours – and Beate mentions that she admired and respected them for that. Her tone is never feminist, probably because she comes from a generation told to revere males and elders. Besides, she grew up in Japan where women shut their mouths and looked down when a male spoke to them, and that was exactly what she did when she first landed in Atsugi and an official asked to see her passport.

On the other hand, though her tone is consistently soft and modest, her voice is clearly her own – and when it’s time to stand up for the Japanese and their rights, she apparently didn’t give an inch. What an ally the Japanese had in Beate, especially Japanese women whom she describes in the book and in interviews she gave later on: “Japanese women are treated like chattels, bought and sold on a whim.”

Rather than change the whole world, Beate wanted to contribute to the building of a modernized Japanese society. Rather than yell out for women’s’ rights and organizing feminist rallies, she sought to raise awareness about the historical plight of Japanese women and children. And just as earnestly, she wished to help her parents, in particular her mother, who was suffering from severe malnutrition. Beate wasn’t a saint nor interested in being one. Without meaning to, she came pretty close. Her prose is never condescending, nor does it brim with self-congratulations as in the case of many memoirs. She had a story to tell and she told it and as far as she was concerned, when the story was over there was no reason for fuss or lingering.

 

beate

 

After the army stint, Beate Sirota Gordon returned with her parents to the US in 1948, married a former colleague in the Army and later worked as the director of the Asia Society and Japan Society in New York. She continued to give interviews about her work on the Constitution but only because she felt that the peace clause (the controversial Article 9) had to be defended repeatedly. She venerated her parents and remained very close to her mother until her death, while raising a family of her own, because family and love were precious and she knew first-hand the tragedy of losing them.

What culminates from her memoirs is her selflessness. Helping others, being fair, and maintaining a striking modesty in spite of her many accomplishments were the defining factors of Beate’s life. She died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer, four months after the death of her husband Joseph Gordon. The Asahi Shimbun printed an extensive obituary on the front page, lauding her work and reminding the readers how the Constitution had protected Japan all these decades, for better or worse. Mostly for the better.

We in Japan tend to take the Constitution for granted. Many people remember and harp on the deprivation of the war years but few bother to recall the dismal details of everyday life before that. Women couldn’t go to school; they were expected to serve their parents and male siblings before marrying into households where she continued to serve and slave her husband and his clan. These women brought up their sons in the traditional way – which resulted in an unending circle of entitlement and arrogance for men, and toil and servitude for females. In poor families, parents sold off their children. Soldiers and military policemen detained ordinary citizens on the slightest suspicion and beat them during interrogation. They were responsible for committing unspeakable atrocities in China and Korea.

There was happiness, peace, equality, and respect in the Sirota household when Beate was growing up, but she knew too well how the average Japanese in Japan fared; how women and children were cut off from beauty, culture, or anything out of the familial box. She wanted a magic wand that would somehow change all that, and her idealistic, 22-year old mind told her that if she couldn’t get a wand, the Constitution was bound to be the next best thing. The task was daunting – she was working for peace and gender equality in a country steeped in tradition and ‘bushido’ feudalism. At this point in 1945, not even American women had gender equality and there she was, giving her all to ensuring that Japanese women would get that right. And just for the reason, there wasn’t nor has there ever been, anything in the American Constitution that resembles Japan’s Article 9.

At the end of the book is an elegy by Beate’s son and part of it goes like this: “Your legacy is the art of living in beauty and truth, of speaking up and out for what is right, and of finding our best selves and sharing them.”

 

Shonen: How A Young Japanese Gigolo Learns To Love Life Via Hard Work (film review)

You’ve heard that foodie movies trigger your appetite. Love stories trigger tear ducts. Documentaries will cause political rants. In that vein, “Shonen,” a film about a male prostitute pleasuring his women clients with relentless energy and single-minded dedication, will…

Okay, well “Shonen” doesn’t exactly have that effect, because as a line in this brilliant film goes, “women are not simpletons.” Still, some segments were evocative.

For Japanese women viewers, the film may be a catalyst for some um, deeply stirred soul searching, if only because most Japanese women are conditioned from birth to cater to the needs of others, specifically men and ignore some basic physical needs of threir own. Confusing women further is the mixed and murky, societal message. Yeah, women are taught to appease and please men but at the same time we’re constantly warned against casual sex, couched in terms to make us feel like either victims (rape! groping! being dumped before marriage!) or sluts (self-explanatory). Men called all the shots and were the enemy but women couldn’t live without them because we’re women. It’s an image that Japan’s male-dominated culture has thrived on. As for sexual pleasure equally enjoyed by both parties? Ahhh, didn’t get the memo on that one.

(C)石田衣良/集英社 
2017映画『娼年』製作委員会  
●公開表記: 4月6日(金)、TOHOシネマズ 新宿 他 全国ロードショー
●公式HP: http://shonen-movie.com/ Twitter @shonen_movie
●企画製作・配給: ファントム・フィルム  ●レイティング: R18+

“Shonen” however, urges women (and by implication, men) to explore their pleasure spots and revel in the fleeting moment because hey, what’s wrong with things being a little transitory sometimes? And to ease any apprehensions, the film proffers a cute young guy, not so much as a seducer but a persuader or a guide, who happens to be unclothed for the majority of the film’s nearly two hour duration. Not surprisingly, the screening room was crammed with women and more were waiting in line on the sidewalk, only to be turned away with promises of additional screenings the following week. Months before “Shonen’s” official release date was announced, online rumors heralded it as the Japanese “Fifty Shades of Gray,” but with a much better cast and specially tailored for a female audience.

Indeed, only the bravest of Japanese men could sit through “Shonen” without feeling massively out of place, unwelcome, inadequate and dismally uncomfortable. The warning is written into the title: the kanji character “sho” means prostitute and the “nen” points to a young male, and in this case he’s played by none other than resident sweet boy-next-door Tohri Matsuzaka whose adorableness is matched by a good-sport, non-threatening vibe. The movie shows us that both traits are assets in the world of male prostitution because the work is One client is a 70 year old lady in a kimono (played by Kyoko Enami, who’s actually 76). Another is an older, wheel-chair bound husband (Tokuma Nishioka) who requests Ryo to rape his young wife (Kokone Sasaki) in an onsen (spa) inn, so he could video-tape the whole thing and watch it later.

In one scene, Matsuzaka’s character Ryo is recruited by the glamorous Shizuka (Sei Matobu) into her “club” of male prostitutes. Ryo assumes he is to have sex with Shizuka, but in fact, he’s ordered to perform with Sakura, a young deaf woman who happens to be Shizuka’s daughter. After it’s over, she quietly places a 5000 yen bill on the bed, telling him matter-of-factly: “your sex was worth 5000 yen.” And then Sakura plonks down another 5000. “She’s taken a liking to you,” says Shizuka, indicating that he passed the test. As far as job interviews go, this is probably more pleasurable than most and the initial pay isn’t bad: 10,000 yen an hour and any tips are Ryo’s to keep.

Just in case you’re shocked, shocked!, like Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” male prostitution in Japan has been around as long as female. Historians have written that the original kabuki actors were homeless gay prostitutes, performing on the banks of Kyoto’s Kamo River by day and selling sexual favors by night. Currently, the rumor is that there are 30,000 “hosuto (escorts)” working in Tokyo and roughly 40% are into prostitution as side hustles. Tokyo’s male escort industry is ruthless – stories abound about how they will bleed their female clients dry and when the money runs out, sell them off to Chinese sex traffickers.

“Shonen” isn’t a sweat and tears documentary about the underside of Tokyo’s sex industry. It is in fact, a fairy tale that showcases the sexual prowess of Tohri Matsuzaka, who at 29 can play an alluring 20 year old who routinely cuts classes at a posh Tokyo university.

(C)石田衣良/集英社 
2017映画『娼年』製作委員会  
●公開表記: 4月6日(金)、TOHOシネマズ 新宿 他 全国ロードショー
●公式HP: http://shonen-movie.com/ Twitter @shonen_movie
●企画製作・配給: ファントム・フィルム  ●レイティング: R18+

The very first scene shows Ryo hard at it, grunting and gyrating on the splayed body of a young woman moaning with pleasure at appropriate intervals. It’s a one night stand and the girl leaves in the morning after ascertaining that she just did it with a guy from a top-ranking university (“Wait till I tell my girlfriends!”) but Ryo can’t get no satisfaction. Later, when he meets Shizuka for the first time, he describes the sexual act as a “hassling exercise routine with all the moves already mapped out.” But as soon as he’s paid by his first client, Ryo feels more alive than he ever did. By turning his back on the normal world of sex with girlfriends, one door closes but a new one opens, one that inducts Ryo into the business of pleasuring women. It’s to director Daisuke Miura’s eternal credit that none of it is demeaning for any of the characters, even though he defies every taboo in the book of mainstream filmmaking. Audiences may find hard to stomach how Shizuka deploys her daughter to test the sexual abilities of new recruits, as she stands not three feet away, watching impassively with arms folded over her chest like an inspections officer.

In the end, a certain melancholy hangs in the air like an invisible pinata. Ryo couldn’t enjoy sex when it was free, but as a source of employment and act of labor, he begins to love it, and commits to the job like any dedicated salariman. He couldn’t be bothered to talk or be civil with casual girlfriends but with clients, he’s willing to have meaningful conversations and be kind, considerate and gentlemanly. Is work the all-controlling, always-defining core of Japanese life? One of the questions to ponder, in the midst of all that panting.

6 murderers are paroled in a small Japanese town. Will they bring the place back to life or bring more death? See “The Scythian Lamb”

Rural depopulation is a serious problem in Japan, so much that for the past decade, media fiction has devoted an entire genre into telling its stories. Bankrupt shops with their shutters permanently closed, desolate mountain and sea landscapes, no one out on the streets but a handful of old people. These are both metaphors for, and the hard facts of, most Japanese rural areas. Regional governments have been desperate to bring in new residents and to this end, they’re offering stipends, free housing, even matchmaking parties – on the governments’ dime. Rumor has it that since the early nineties, rural towns have been recruiting parolees to become part of the local populace. This information cannot be verified. The people involved will never admit to such a program even existing. But it’s there, and “The Scythian Lamb” is a brilliant fable about what happens when this program kicks in (pun fully intended) on a sleepy little coastal town. A town where, “the people are kind and the seafood is delicious.”

© 2018『羊の木』製作委員会 ©山上たつひこ、いがらしみきお/講談社

With its slow burning violence and small town melodrama, “The Scythian Lamb” is mindful in many ways of “Fargo” (the TV series) but without the broad streak of snarkiness and splashy bloodletting. Most of all, the dystopian despair that make up much of “Fargo” (and like-minded others) is missing from “Scythian…”

This isn’t a spoiler but the ending is hopeful, even happy. The final scenes close on a rural town whose residents are marginally more joyous than they were last year and there is absolutely no mention of the violence that erupted briefly like fireworks, then disappeared into the night sky. However, the journey to the peaceful end is not easy.

Six ex-cons, all who had served time for murder and now on parole, are selected to live in a fictional seaside town called Uobuka (which means ‘fish deep’). One by one, they arrive – four men and two women between the ages of early 30s to mid-60s – and are given a welcome by the city hall worker Tsukisue (played with breezy finesse by Ryo Nishikido). They are allowed to live in the town, on the condition that they take jobs provided them by city hall, and that they stay for 10 years. In other words, they’ve exchanged a shorter prison sentence for another kind of penance. Already, one of them (Kazuki Kitamura), who represents Japan’s new breed of criminal, has started to complain that he will be “bored to death” here.

Tsukisue is still young, lithe and naive though his high school pal Sudo (Satoru Matsui) assures him that living out in the boonies ages everyone twice as fast. “In your case, it’s four times as fast,”  Tsukisue jokes to the noticeably overweight Sudo. But Tsukisue may be envious of the fact that fat or not, at least his friend has a wife and daughter to go home to. Tsukisue on the other hand, looks like a guy who has been celibate for a long time, which is fast becoming the norm for many single Japanese men. But (and this is the thing about Tsukisue) the guy is NOT bitter. He’s gentle, kind and above all, conscientious. He does his job, and then goes home to take care of his dad who is recovering from a stroke. Not much of a life for a good-looking dude. But when he discovers that the newcomers he had chaperoned were each convicted for murder or manslaughter, Tsukisue’s equilibrium is shattered. Will they, you know, like, do it again? His supervisor intones to Tsukisue not to dwell on the past. “And don’t go telling people they’ve just gotten out of prison,” adds the supervisor, because this project could well have a bearing on “Japan’s future.”

Based on the award-winning manga by Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi, “The Scythian Lamb” is directed by Daihachi Yoshida. As one of Japan’s last old-school filmmakers, Yoshida has a solid reputation for churning out crime/suspense blockbusters like “Pale Moon” in 2014. “Scythian…” shows Yoshida in an unusually political mode, exploring the many woes of Japan’s rapidly shrinking, super aged population and the general feeling that ours is a no-hope, claustrophobic society. Which is probably true, but in “Scythian…,” the suggested silver bullet is violence. No one is excited about Uobuka being, in the words of Tsukisue, “a nice place with kind people and great seafood.” But when a dead body turns up on the pier, everyone seems to get a glint in their eye. A cloudy sky turns blue. An old man even gets laid.

All this is cause for celebration, considering that most of the Uobuka populace acts half-dead most of the time. Even Tsukisue’s high school crush Aya (Fumino Kimura), the supposed heroine of the story, hardly speaks and never smiles. Aya, Tsukisue and Sudo had once played in the same rock band and Tsukisue tries to rekindle their friendship by inviting them to practice again. Aya reluctantly agrees. Big surprise for Tsukisue when he learns that she has started dating one of the ex-cons: Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda) who comes off like a bullied victim but actually hoards menace like a grandmother with yarn. You know those skinny, quiet guys who may or may not be a serial killer in a Netflix series? That’s Miyakoshi, right down to his discount sneakers. (Editor’s note:And if you’re a student of true crime in Japan, he channels all the skinny sociopaths who have been responsible for some of Japan’s more horrendous mass murders in recent years–but of course, he’s not one. Not quite) 

 

A troubled young man who is quick to appreciate that the town has “nice people and good seafood.” He has one small issue.
© 2018『羊の木』製作委員会 ©山上たつひこ、いがらしみきお/講談社

The others are as compelling if not as troublesome. Still, whenever one or the other is in the frame you sense a storm brewing: Min Tanaka as the ex-yakuza who did eighteen years for killing another boss and feels that it may be too late to start afresh. There is Kazuki Kitamura’s Sugiyama who really enjoys stirring things up, and seems like a refugee from the dismantled gang, Kanto Rengo, which won fame for beating their enemies to death with baseball bats. His confrontation with the ex-yakuza rings surprisingly true. And there’s Shingo Mizusawa as Fukumoto, an ex-barber who slashed his boss’s throat with a razor. The women are given less to do but Mikako Ichikawa and Yuka try to make the most of their roles. Yuka is in her usual hot-chick mode, but Ichikawa manages to steal some scenes as a woman who had routinely been beaten by her boyfriend until one night she cracked his skull as he slept, with a large bottle of sake. “I’m a scary woman,” she tells Tsukisue and it’s moments like these that Uobuka morphs from a nice place with great seafood, to somewhere real.

Opens February 3rd.

Editor’s note: In my opinion, one of the best Japanese films in recent years. The story is subtle, the acting restrained, the quiet violence is convincing.  The movie also has a hypnotic, ethereal  soundtrack that matches well with the buried mystical theme that pulls the film together. (Jake) 

Banzai To Japanese Print Media! Kaori Shoji’s Picks For Excellence In Japan’s Written Word World 2017

 

As Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” would say with a sigh and drag on her cigarette holder, “Quelle year.” As far as bad years go, 2017 pretty much did us in and it’s not even over yet. Still, the news isn’t all bad, at least in the Japanese publication world. Paper and ink is still around. The Japanese language is not dead (though it may be mired in poop – more on that later). Here are some of the best publications that restored my faith in print, life and native country, and shone through like beacons of light on a dark and murky sea.

1. “Kimitachiwa Dou Ikiruka” by Genzaburo Yoshino

Part self-help book and part shining example of the epistolary art, “Kimitachiwa Dou Ikiruka (How Do You Live)” was written 80 years ago by journalist Genzaburo Yoshino, famed as of one of the last great philosophical writers of post-war Japan. Yoshino always wrote from a humanitarian, anti-war stance (he was arrested and imprisoned during WWII) and launched legendary leftist magazine “Sekai (The World)” a mere one year after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Lesser known is that Yoshino also wrote for children and young adults in the pre-war era. Published in 1936, “How Do You Live” is a book of letters from a gentle, enlightened uncle to his thirteen-year old nephew, as the latter tries to navigate the difficulties of growing up in a Japan controlled by militarists and headed toward a destructive war. The uncle comes up with the nickname “Coperu-kun” (after Copernicus) for his smart and always pondering nephew. What is life? Why are we here? What’s friendship and what does it mean to be human? Together they tackle all-important questions while being respectful of each other’s boundaries and getting each other’s backs. If only I could go back in time and give this to my 13-year old self, I’d discover that life could be beautiful in the bleakest of times.

The publishing house behind “How Do You Live” is Iwanami Shoten Publishers. The manga version authored by Shoichi Haga (published by Magazine House) was rushed to bookstores at about the same time as the novel, and on its own, has sold over 33,000 copies. Japan’s beloved filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki chose “How Do You Live” as his back-from-retirement project, and has said in interviews that it will take 3 to 4 years to do justice to this masterpiece.

2. “Sabishii Seikatsu” by Emiko Inagaki

Ms. Inagaki was 50 when she decided to quit her job at Asahi Shimbun, one of the nation’s most powerful newspapers. The reasons were varied but as she put it in her previous book “Tamashii no Taisha (The Soul Wants to Quit)” she was fed up with the work/spend treadmill and longed to break free. Two years on, she’s still unemployed, single and nearly 2 decades away from drawing a pension. “Sabishii…” is all about how Ms. Inagaki sustains body and soul – and has the time of her life doing it.

“Sabishii Seikatsu” literally translates as “The Lonely Life” but a more apt English title would probably be “In Praise of Solitude.” If you’ve wondered whether it’s possible to live in Tokyo on 100,000 yen a month (no, she doesn’t have roommates and yes, she likes going to bars) including rent, the pointers are in this book. And you got to hand it to her – Ms. Inagaki knows how to do semi-poverty in style. She frequents the public bathhouse instead of using her own shower, forgoes electricity for a single gas ring and candles, hand-washes her clothes and does not own a refrigerator. She finds infinite joy and fascination in adjusting her life as if this was the Edo Period, albeit with an iPhone and laptop. Her sole indulgence is a monthly trip to her favorite hair salon to maintain a snazzy afro She goes out for the occasional latte and bagel but otherwise, she’s a perky flower child forming a one-woman front against authority, energy waste and nuclear power plants. If the Abe Administration’s nuclear re-booting policies are getting you down, here’s Ms. Inagaki to tell you to stop fretting, turn out the goddamn lights and hop on a bicycle. The best revenge is written out in these pages.

3. “Moshi Bungotachiga Kappu Yakisobano Tsukurikatawo Kaitara” by Keiichi Kanda and Ryo Kikuchi

The Japanese think they see the universe in a cup of tea and a single tatami mat. Authors Keiichi Kanda and Ryo Kikuchi saw a bestseller in instant yakisoba noodles, and they got to work to make it happen. “Moshi Bungotachiga Yakisobano Tsukurikatawo Kaitara (What if the Literary Giants were to Write How to Make Instant Yakisoba Noodles?”) has its tongue firmly ensconced in the cheek, but offers preposterous fun. One of the sleeper hits of the year, the book has spawned a sequel and sold over 15,000 copies so far.

Page after page, “Moshi…” simulates how different authors would take on the same theme of making the perfect instant yakisoba, in their individual literary styles. And that’s it. There’s nothing else. You may well ask, so what IS this yakisoba? It’s fried noodles flavored with worcester sauce, a kind of soup-less version of the cup noodles we’re all so familiar with. Yakisoba comes inside a plastic square container accompanied by a packet of a few strands of dried cabbage. You pour in some boiling hot water, let it sit for a few minutes and (this is the all important factor), you then POUR OUT the water through a little hole in the container. This is called the “yukiri” process. You then prise open the lid, mix in the sauce and dried veg and there you have it – yakisoba. In this book, eminent authors from Ryunosuke Akutagawa to Haruki Murakami to Kanzaburo Oe are pulled off their pedestals and riffed on as they virtually write their own perfect instant yakisoba recipes. From the west, the exalted likes of Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, Andre Breton, Dostoyevsky and Susan Sontag are called to take a stab at yakisoba creation.

The perfect companion for the times you want to run away from the world and computer screens. Just keep a yakisoba on hand and try mimicking your favorite wordsmith as you make those noodles.

4. “Kyujussai Naniga Medetai” by Aiko Sato
The translation of the title is: “Ninety Years Old, What’s There to Celebrate?” Personally, I feel it’s closer to “So I Turned 90 – No Biggie!” Japan’s treasured granny authoress Aiko Sato is an amazingly youthful nonagenarian with a badass attitude toward life, politics and the general yuckiness attached to growing old in Japan’s super-aging society. This book started out as a column in women’s magazine “Jyosei Seven” and was published by Shogakukan Ltd. It has sold well over a million copies.

One out of 4 adults in the Tokyo metropolis is now over 70 and it feels like the nation’s dwindling population is growing grayer by the week but Ms. Sato shrugs off the hand-wringing negativity. Part memoir, part self-help guide for every generation and a sizzlingly entertaining read, “Ninety…” was published in 2016 but has marked week 63 on the bestseller list and is still the most lucrative title of 2017.

What rises from the pages is a cheerful nihilism. Ms. Sato dispenses the wisdom garnered from nearly a century of life but she warns us none of it is particularly warm or heartfelt. Nearly all of the chapters deal with disappointment and despair and in one segment she discusses love. “If you love a man to the point that you’re ready for marriage, don’t let anything stop you. But don’t bank on happiness ever after. Life is volatile and love even more so. Nothing lasts forever so be prepared for sadness and suffering, betrayal and all the rest of it.” In other words, shit happens. Or more to Ms. Sato’s point, shit is inevitable and the less fuss we make about it, the better. The mostly hilarious read is tinged by moments of sadness – for all her sharp wit, Ms. Sato admits to feeling crushed by loneliness. She has pretty much outlived her friends and loved ones and the ones that remain are “not feeling so chipper.” But navigating the minefield of depression is one of her “projects” and she considers everyday a “learning experience.”

Surprisingly, “Ninety…” is popular among children and millennials. Says 24-year old Saeko Kato, an OL who has written a gushing fan letter to Ms. Sato: “No one can escape growing old, but I like to think that there will be fun times ahead. This book fills me with hope, and the energy to face whatever lies ahead. Being a Japanese woman, I think I’ll live a long time so I need to know that it’s going to be all right.”

5. “Pen Plus” Magazine, November 20th Edition
Cover Story: “Made in Japan wo Sekaie! (Let’s Bring Made in Japan to the World)”

Once upon a time, the “Made in Japan” logo was a brand to be reckoned with, standing for quality, reliability and thousands of labor hours that fueled the nation’s legendary work ethic. This year, that logo crash-burned on the tarmac as we saw one mighty manufacturer after another indicted for falsifying data, covering up scams and more. On the other end of the work spectrum, “Premium Friday” and the whole “Hatarakikata Kaikaku (Work Style Reform)” thing kicked in. Even as demand for quality went up, Japanese workers face the pressure to go home and not spend so much time being dedicated employees. What to do?

One way out of the conundrum is to look at small to mid-sized companies. While the manufacturing giants that defined Japan’s rapid growth era are flailing sheer size and antiquity, smaller operations are full of ideas, light on their feet and zipping around. “Pen Plus” magazine is a spin off of the monthly “Pen” magazine and they’ve dedicated an entire issue to rethinking the “Made in Japan” logo. The conclusion? It’s not about high-tech gadgets and appliances anymore but handwork and craftsmanship. And thanks to the Internet, Japanese artisans can collaborate directly with offshore brands to come out with products that have global appeal and marketing power.

Kaihara Denim out of Fukuyama City in Hiroshima prefecture, has wowed fashion designers like Jean Toitou of A.P.C., and Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bone, and morphed into some of the world’s most coveted pairs of jeans. Japan’s chocolate artisan extraordinaire Susumu Koyama is now one of the most revered figures in the international chocolate industry. Toward the end of the issue, there’s an interview story with former soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata. He launched a project called ReValue Nippon, from his very own, Japan Craft Sake Company. Admittedly, it has less of an impact than Cristiano Ronaldo’s men’s underwear but hey, it’s a start.

Honorable Mention:

Grades 1 Through 6.
THE publishing sensation of 2017, “Unko Kanji Doriru (The Poop Kanji Drills)” series enables elementary school kids to have a jolly fun time while studying kanji. It gave a new twist to the heretofore ho-hum kanji learning experience, and provided entertainment for parents as well. There are reports that the series took some of the pressure off of pooping in school – which has always been a traumatizing experience for generations of Japanese school kids (for the girls, it’s the squat toilet that does it.)

Most of the practice sentences in “Unko…” are master stroke combinations of education and hilarity. Like this one for second graders: “Ima sugu kokode unko wo surukotomo dekirundesuyo (It’s okay for you to poop right here, right now).” Or this one for third graders: “Yoyaku shiteita unko wo torinikimashita (I came to get the poop that I had reserved).” And so it goes for six solid issues. Some of my friends have bought the series to use as prizes for their company Christmas parties. If nothing else they do provide solid reading for the holidays.

“Eriko’s Facebook Life”/The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of short fiction by Ms. Kaori Shoji  entitled “The Amazing Japanese Wife” about international marriages in Japan gone off the deep end. This is the first of the stories told from the women’s perspective. Any similarity to real events, persons, or incidents are your imagination and probably means that you really should have a stiff drink and contemplate the meaning of happiness, karma, and the universe. You need Suntory time. Previous chapters are below, although not all stories are clearly connected. 

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 1

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 2 “Fucked Up In Six Trees” 

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 3 “A Man Needs His Carcinogen” 

I hear his car slow down, approaching the driveway, and immediately feel nauseous. I take a breath and will the corners of my mouth to turn upwards. Americans always smile and two years of Oakland living has convinced me that Northern Californians are the smiliest Americans of all. With dazzling white teeth and clear eyes, these people broadcast an unshakeable confidence, a mineral streak of inner satisfaction embedded right in the bloodstream. At first, it was unnerving to see all those supremely happy expressions, the isense of entitlement apparent in their every movement, even in the way they waved to each other from their cars, under the bright blue Californian sky. What if they had problems, like their houses burned down or spouses betrayed them or…what then?

“The point is not to BE happy, it’s to assimilate a SENSE of happiness,” said my friend Mayu-san, about a year after I got here with my husband Douglas. “Whatever is happening in your personal life, it’s only polite to present your best and happiest self. That’s how it works around here. Anything that’s not suitable for Facebook, isn’t suitable for real life.”

I remember that moment because Mayu-san never said anything out of the ordinary and suddenly there she was, articulating words that pierced me with the spear of truth. I think I responded with my mouth agape, just looking at her. And then the moment ended, Mayu-san went into the kitchen to get more drinks and the afternoon picked up where it left off–mired in banalities.

Still, Mayu-san’s words surface in my consciousness from time to time, like right about now when Douglas turns the key in the lock and walks into the foyer. I go over to greet him and we exchange a light hug. “Hey Eri,” he says. “God, what a day.”

And I follow him into the kitchen, quelling the urge to retch. Another wave of nausea washes over me like polluted sea water. “Are you tired?” I ask in Japanese and he answers in English though I’m no longer listening. He’ll want to have a Bloody Mary, and then a bite to eat and then he’ll get ready to go to the gym. I calculate that in a little over two and a half hours, Douglas will be gone again. I feel my composure returning.

This nausea thing has been going on for the past 3 months. I haven’t told Douglas because he’ll immediately say: “You’re pregnant! I gotta call my dad!” . Then, I’ll have the horrible task of telling him that no, that’s not it and no, it’s not worth going to a doctor (because I already had a check-up four months ago) and yes, I was fine. Fine. Smile. Confidence. Happiness. Words to live by if you want to survive in California.

Not that I’m not having a good time. Everyone I know back in Japan is so envious of the life I have out here, the privileges of being a wife in Silicon Valley, with her own Honda to get around in and her own circle of friends consisting of well-to-do Japanese women. There’s a whole club of them here, and when we stroll around the malls together or have lunch at a swank restaurant, white men stare with frank interest. I never knew Japanese women had such magnetism in the US, I always thought everyone preferred blondes, period. Everyday I get compliments about my smooth skin, petite figure, my flawless fashion and femininity. At parties, men come up to flirt and seem enthralled that my English isn’t that great. I also discovered that there’s a gated community known locally as ‘The Japan Palace,’ where tech moguls like Jerry Ang and the CEO of Oracle live with their Japanese wives, in huge, splendid villas.

In my head though, I’m constantly making excuses to friends and family back in Japan about my wonderful Californian life. It’s not THAT great, I would say weakly. In these imaginary conversations, I’m mostly talking to my mother or my female colleagues back in Tokyo who are trying to juggle kids, day care and a full-time job while clutching at the last strands of youth before collapsing into middle age.

Really, I say to them. Silicon Valley is the most expensive place on the face of the earth! Our rental house costs a little under 3000 dollars a month but that’s because we have only 2 bedrooms and even then the locals told us what a bargain and an exceptional piece of luck. And: A packet of organic eggs came to 6.50 at Whole Foods before the Amazon merger lowered that by about 1 dollar, like yeah, that’s supposed to make everyone feel better! And the Californians make such a big deal about the Farmer’s Markets but the produce is about 40 percent more expensive than the supermarkets in Tokyo. We can never afford to have kids, because day care is just too costly and nannies are..

What I leave out is this: I don’t want children. I’m fine with being a Japanese Wife but I would never want to be a Japanese Mother. I think about sex with Douglas, and a spasm of pain shoots up from the bottom of my spine to the back of my eyes. Mayu-san who has two kids with her husband Michael, told me that unlike Japanese husbands, American men will demand sex after childbirth and fall into black rages if their wives refuse. Mayu-san shrugged and said it was a trade-off but she didn’t specify what she was getting in return. Something she didn’t care to post on Facebook, I guess.

I recall the thrill and slight disgust of making love to Douglas for the first time and how, during the course of our dating, he never wanted to use a condom. “In America, a lot of women would qualify this as rape,” he’d say matter-of-factly as I wiped his goo off my chest. “But Japanese women love it, don’t you sweetie?”

Last month on our wedding anniversary he took me to French Laundry for dinner and then in the car heading back, leaned over and said: “I’m a great husband, aren’t I? Now you have to be extra nice to me tonight.” The fact that he said this in Japanese secretly enraged me but I laughed it off. Later, at home, after he was finally done, I locked myself in the bathroom and gargled with mouthwash over and over and when I came back to the bed, Douglas said “hey baby, did you have a good time? Oh, by the way, don’t tell my mom I took you to French Laundry, she’s dying to go but Dad’s never taken her.”

Unsuitable for Facebook again.

Once the voices in my head die down, I find myself calmly going through the day. After all, why worry? Life is so good here, and so easy. Douglas is fine with eating cereal for breakfast, he never wants to bring a Bento box lunch like he did when we were living in Tokyo. For dinner, he just grazes on whatever’s available in the fridge, a glass of vodka clutched in one hand. I make my own meals but apart from weekends when events like pot-luck parties and brunch with Douglas’s parents crowd my calendar, I never cook anything elaborate. I don’t have to, and when I think of how hard I used to work in Tokyo, earning a steady income and being the good Japanese wife, I can’t help scoffing at my poor, overworked self. If there was a time machine, I would use that to go back and tell my 36-year old self to relax. In a little while, I would be crying to my husband Douglas that I was sick of Japan and Tokyo. I would implore him to get a lucrative tech job in Nor Cal. And then I would move to a real American home with a backyard and two-car garage. So go easy on yourself because you will be SO all right, I would say. And now? Apart from this nausea and the suspicion that deep down I hated Douglas, I was having the time of my life.

 

“Just don’t go to Whole Foods, and avoid that fucking Aveda place like the plague,” Douglas said when we first got here. “Man, talk about overpriced BS.” Already, he was mixing Americanisms in his conversations, ignoring the fact that I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. Not that it bothered me. In Tokyo, where we lived for 5 years before coming out here, Douglas would often launch into long diatribes against the Japanese government, Tokyo life, the joylessness of Japanese society and why we were so ‘insular’ and ‘defeatist’ and ‘fucking depressed.’ I didn’t really understand then, either.

 

To me, it was all the same. I grew up in a typical Japanese salariman household and there was never much smiling going on. Depression was more or less the norm. As far back as I can remember, my parents had bickered and fought. My mother sighed and washed the dishes by hand and acted tired to the very dregs of her existence, every single day. Her mantra in life went to the tune of: it was a terrible thing for a woman to be a wife and mother, tied to household drudgery for life. But equally terrible was to remain single. Either way, a woman was doomed. And then she would bend over the sink filled with dishes and it would be time for me to go to cram school, so I could at least get into a good university before becoming the ill-fated wife/mother to carry on the cycle of Japanese womanhood.

 

But even my seemingly miserable mom perked up whenever there was a family event, like my brother being promoted and sent to his company office in London. Or my sister’s wedding, when Mother splurged on a formal kimono with a price tag that enraged my father. He had just spent 5 million yen (a little over 50,000 USD) in getting his older daughter married and settled down and was devastated to see that his wife had gone and spent another million yen on what he saw as a completely unnecessary extravagance. “How can you say that?,” my mother wept and screamed. “All my life, I gave everything to this house and the family and now I can’t buy a little something for myself?” When she calmed down, my mother said plaintively that she will wear the same kimono at my wedding, so this purchase was actually a money-saver.

 

Well, she lied. Seven years later I had my own wedding in Honolulu and my mother bought a flowing silk summer dress with a hat and heels and a Fendi handbag she has never used since and is tucked away in a closet crammed with similar “little somethings” she had bought for herself over the years. “Japanese women are scary,” Douglas said to me when I told him about it. “That’s what happens when men let housewives hold the purse strings. It’s just stupid to do that, I don’t get why the majority of men in this nation insist on making their own lives miserable. I never would.” True to his word, back in Tokyo, Douglas and I had separate bank accounts. He would hand over 200,000 yen out of his payment every month. I would spend another 150,000 to cover the rest of our monthly expenses. But I had another, secret account from when I was single, in which I hoarded my personal savings. That account is still in Japan, waiting for me. I learned from watching American TV that this was called a Fuck Off Fund. Douglas was only half right – Japanese or American, women are scary. How else were we going to protect ourselves?

 

I have money on my mind a lot because I worked in a Tokyo bank for 16 years and 10 of those years were spent at the counter, counting the customers’ cash and helping them with their little financial problems. I wore a suit and heels to work but changed into the bank uniform once I got there, in the women’s locker room with 23 other females. I worked 10 to 11 hour days, rode a crowded train for 2 hours everyday and by the time I hit 30. I was exhausted. I was more than ready to quit the job and get married. Never mind that I would be tied to housework for life – at least I could stop forcing my body every morning into the bank uniform with its tight skirt and tiny vest. I told Naolki- my boyfriend of six years what I was feeling and he said, okay we may as well take the plunge.

But a week after this dicussion he injured a knee playing futsal–which is like indoor soccer for Japanese salarymen.He  was in the hospital for 2 weeks. During that time, he got real friendly with the other patients on the floor, all with sports injuries. One of them was a 17-year old girl who hurt her spine playing volleyball for her school team. She wasn’t one of those sex-kitten high school girls of Japanese media lore – she was in fact, so wholesome and exuberant she made everyone laugh just by showing up for medication at the nurse statiom. Her hair was short, her limbs too long, she was clumsy and had no sensuality to speak of. Yet, my boyfriend fell head over heels for her.

 

“She’s young, she’s SO young,” he kept saying, as if I didn’t get it the first time. He talked incessantly about the latest funny thing she did, how she bit into an apple without peeling the skin, how she giggled with her family when they came to visit, and broke down in tears when they went home. “She reminds me of what it’s like to be 17 again,” he said wistfully, and would engage her in long conversations about volleyball (he too, had played in high school) and help her with school work so she wouldn’t lag behind. By the end of those 2 weeks, I really had enough of this but didn’t know how to tell him without sounding like a jealous nag. And then my boyfriend Naoki looked me right in the eye and said: “I can’t marry you. I’m sorry. I just can’t.” I did put up a fight, telling him it was just an infatuation that would go away but he shook his head. “It’s not her. It’s just that the thought of marriage is suffocating to me. It’s got nothing to do with you personally.”

 

Three years later when he was 33, Naoki married a woman aged 26, and the whole thing was so wounding I took time off and spent three days lying in my bed at home. By that time though, I had come to realize the horrible truth about being a woman in Japan – the options dwindle with each passing year and the number 3 at the left side of one’s age may as well have been a poisonous smudge. Up until age 29, I was used to male attention and could count on a few invitations a week to ‘networking parties’ which were actually matchmaking parties. I’ll admit that on a few occasions I went to love hotels with one or another of the men who expressed more than a passing interest, but it didn’t lead to anything much and my heart was set on Naoki anyway. And then my 30th birthday came and went. The invitations dried up and at the end of that year, Naoki was gone.

 

On my 35th birthday I took fate into my own hands and started looking for a foreigner husband. A little before this, my mother’s brother – my uncle who had always praised me and said I would go far in life because I was intelligent and pretty, went to Cebu on a business trip and ended up getting engaged to a 16 year old Fillippina waitress. The whole family was dumbfounded, but my uncle was ecstatic and it turned out, so was my mom. “He says that the women over there age really quickly and by the time she turns 30, there won’t be much of a difference between them,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper. “Now I call that smart. At his age, he wants a young woman to take care of him.” My uncle was 59 at the time. It was, as Douglas said to me later, “an obscene WTF situation.” We didn’t invite him to our wedding, ostensibly because Honolulu was so far away from Cebu where he now lived with his young wife. He didn’t ask to come anyway.

In some dark and torturous way, my uncle’s impending marriage hurt me even more than Naokl’s betrayal. It seemed there was just no dignity, much less happiness, to be found in a society where men placed such value on young women. For a long time, I crossed the street whenever I saw a girl in a school uniform walking alone – she seemed like a hooker or a temptress, the symbol of all that made me want to scream and scream every morning while I waited on the station platform for the train to come in.

So I spotted Douglas one night at the gym and walked right up to him, swinging my hips as I casually took one earphone out, like I had seen some actress do on a dubbed “The Mentalist” episode. I asked for instructions on working the elliptical, in what I hoped was endearingly broken English. Sure enough, Douglas’s eyes flew open and he stared at my torso and thighs. “Sure, okay. Let me help you with that.” After that he wouldn’t leave my side. He asked what kind of music I liked to work out to, and I told him “American rock. Like…’Born in the USA’ “and I could see him going all woozy inside. No American woman would say that, it was too ordinary. But coming from the mouth of a pale, fragile Japanese woman, it was the turn-on line to beat all others. Six months later, we were engaged. Two years after our marriage, on my 37th birthday, I quit my job at the bank and threw out that wretched uniform. A year after that, I told Douglas that I wanted to move to the US and he started looking for a job in the Bay Area.

When I’m not with my Japanese girlfriends, and just by myself in a Safeway aisle, I’ll encounter a young girl who reminds me of that 17-year old volleyball player so long ago. In fact, a lot of the teenagers here are tall and lanky like her, without artifice or evil and so, SO young. They have no idea what life has in store for them. They don’t know that one day their butterfly wings would turn brown and spotted, and they would still have to flutter along, pretending that it’s all right, willing the corners of their mouths to turn up. “Ganbatte (Good luck),”, I whisper in Japanese. Good luck to you all.

And then I catch a glimpse of myself in the big mirror mounted on the wall and hastily look away. I really have to get to that Asian salon to have my hair done, and possibly get a facial before Douglas gets back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Amazing Japanese Wife Part 3: A Man Needs His Carcinogen

This is the third in a series of short fiction by Ms. Kaori Shoji  entitled “The Amazing Japanese Wife” about international marriages in Japan gone off the deep end. Any similarity to real events, persons, or incidents are your imagination and probably means that you really should have a stiff drink and contemplate the meaning of happiness, karma, and the universe. You need Suntory time. Previous chapters are below, although not all stories are clearly connected. 

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 1

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 2 “Fucked Up In Six Trees” 

***

I bought a new car and my wife hates it.

Or more to the point, I bought a new car knowing she’ll hate it. So what? So this snazzy little Mazda sportscar – a black Roadster to be precise – is all mine. I’m not particularly fond of driving in Japan, the roads are too narrow and parking is sheer torture. It’s my wife Seiko who does the driving when we go out together, in her beloved white Mercedes purchased 4 years ago on the occasion of our seventh anniversary. In Japan, the number 7 is extra special, expected to bring all kinds of luck and wealth. Besides, I had just had a windfall, business-wise and figured it was about time. “Let’s get a new car, a good one this time!” Seiko had said, and I took her in my arms and said yes because I hadn’t seen her so excited in a long time. The next day, we were at the Mercedes dealers. That’s Seiko. She always goes for the adamantly mainstream, heavily conservative Japanese choice. They all love the boxy Mercedes (which everyone here calls ‘Bentsu’) color white. The plasticky and ridiculously expensive Vuitton handbags. Those painful Ferragamo shoes. Terrible French restaurants with Michelin stars. I could go on all day.

The white Mercedes and Seiko have been inseparable. In the beginning, she had willingly drove me to the train station in the mornings and picked me up again in the evenings. I would text her the time of my train out from Tokyo, and she would be come meet me in Yokohama with the seventh anniversary car. That worked for awhile, until Seiko started making excuses and ducking out of our routine. First it was yoga classes and then it was cooking school. When she finished learning how to make the perfect roast beef, she started meeting friends from said school to hang out at that new Italian joint. I protested because it felt like she was cutting me out of her life, to which Seiko flared up. “I’m not your chauffer, I have my own life.” She said that in English and then she said it in Japanese, which is her habit when making a point.

I briefly let my mind wander over that memory and then shrug it off. Now that I have my own wheels, most things about my marriage have lost its urgency. I know this is textbook male menopause stuff – I’m 54 – but the Roadster has been a godsend. It soothes over the rough spots, especially on those days I know Seiko won’t be home to greet me. Fuck it, I thought all Japanese wives waited on their husbands and cooked elaborate dinners just for the two of them, every single night. That was the deal, otherwise I wouldn’t have…what, gotten married? No that’s not it, Seiko was the best thing that happened to me. I was tired of playing the field, tired of one-night stands and each new date with a Japanese woman who didn’t speak much English, grated on my nerves. I longed for a relationship where I could talk with the girl all night, and then in the morning, make love over champagne cocktails. I wanted to be a cooler Woody Allen, to a Japanese version of Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.”

“Even the ones who talk in English aren’t all that interesting. I mean, where have these women BEEN all their lives, is what I want to know.”

Cathy said that, a couple of months after Seiko and I were married. Cathy was a friend of some years, and since we both grew up in Houston, we got each other in a way that was impossible with Seiko. “Hey dude,” Cathy would say when we met to talk, either in a bar or at a little Mexican restaurant that served Tokyo’s most authentic burritos. “How y’all doin?” I loved Cathy with all my heart but the physical attraction wasn’t there. Banking on that, I treated her like any other guy friend and poured out my apprehensions of life with Seiko. Then one night when Seiko was at her parent’s house and I was with Cathy in her apartment, things got boozier than usual. Cathy put her bare foot in my lap, and then the foot began digging gently into my groin. And before I knew it, we were making out with the kind of ferocious hunger I hadn’t known since college. Cathy yanked her shirt off and then her bra.

“At least you don’t have black nipples. Most Japanese women do, I mean, all across Asia, women are fuckin’ gorgeous until they take off their bras, man last time I was in Manila I was with this girl who…” Then I felt a gust of wind. Cathy had quickly disengaged herself and sat up. She gazed at me like a sliver of bacteria under a microscope and said with quiet finality: “Just make sure I never have to see your face again. I mean EVER. Are we clear?” Somehow I pulled on my pants and stumbled out and that was the last time I talked to her.

My problem is this: after 20 years in Japan, I’ve gone from being an American Male to an American Male in Asia, which are two entirely different entities. I’m uneasily aware that much of what I say or how I act would never be tolerated back home. Apart from Cathy, I haven’t been close with any white women here, though I know many of them are attractive and smart and worthing talking to. At ex-pat dinner parties, I’ve noticed how some of them would just get up from the seat next to mine, to go talk to someone else. Later, someone told me how so-and-so remarked that I never spoke of anything except Japanese women, which bored her stiff and was plain offensive.

To hell with it. Of course I talk about other things, like this car. My friends all whistled and cheered when I drove into town to show it to them. They didn’t take me up on the offer to let them drive it though, because their girth would have made it it dismally uncomfortable. Okay, it’s a tight fit for me too, but one of my resolutions is to lose the weight and glide in and out of this baby with ease. Secretly, I’ve named my car Sandra after my high school crush. I sure as hell wasn’t going to call it Cathy.

And I also talk about work, because I happen to be CEO of my own translation company. It’s mostly technical translations which bring in the most cash, and I’m proud to have had the foresight to set one up immediately after my arrival here in the mid 1990s. I sold the company, moved out of Japan and went to the Philippines to start another company, sold that, moved back and here I am. So I sure as hell wasn’t about to let some broad from Oakland sit judgement on what topics I choose for discussion. She should be thankful I even took the time to talk to her. Bitch had a face like a rock anyway.

I’m driving over Bay Bridge now, and the Kawasaki smoke stacks loom on my left. I freaked out when I saw this place for the first time, and made the mistake of breathing in the black factory fumes that rose to the sky in towering spirals. Kawasaki is an ungodly sprawl of fossil fuel industry, sex shops, Korean barbecue restaurants that serve every kind of cow innard including rectums, and a sizable residential area thrown in for measure. The air is leaden with grease and smoke, mindful of late 19th century London. Not that I would know, but Arthur Conan Doyle described this stuff in the “Sherlock Holmes” books. Which reminds me, must get a new audio book for when I’m with Sandra.

It strikes me at this point that Sandra is a consolation prize for the hurtful fact that I haven’t slept with my wife in over a year, and she doesn’t seem to mind. Not. One. Bit. Some time after Year Five of our marriage, when I was on the brink of diving into the big Five Oh and Seiko was in her mid 40s, she completely turned off sex. I had to cajole and negotiate every time I felt like it, and was deeply humiliated to discover that she never felt the same.

Oh wait, there was that time when we were having dinner in this fancy ‘kaiseki’ dining bar and she started flirting with the waiter. They were giggling politely together as they discussed the menu and I looked at Seiko’s face and saw how badly she wanted this guy. He was nothing special, just a young Japanese in his early 20s, pencil thin like most of them, with glasses and short cropped hair. I watched and bided my time, and during dessert I said some of the worst things a man could say to a woman: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You do realize you’re old enough to be his mother and he’s laughing at you behind your back, you know that, right?”

Instead of snapping back at me, Seiko fell silent. She seemed so vulnerable at that moment, pale-faced and more adorable than she had ever been since the early months of our marriage. A single tear fell from her eye as she said: “he looked like my boyfriend in college. It’s just nostalgia.” I could have apologized, but like the white male idiot that I am, I forged on. “Ahhh, nostalgia. The Japanese are just so hung up on nostalgia. What the hell’s with the memory lane thing? You guys lost the war. We put you back on your feet. And your college boyfriend? He’s an old man now, he’s fat and bald and riding a packed commuter train as we speak!”

Seiko forgave me but after that little incident, we had sex less and less. I said we should get counselling but she practically snorted with derision. “Why do American men want sex so much? Are you sick? Is it a disease? I wish you would express your love for me in other ways.” And when I tried to bring it up again, she turned her face away, cried and said in Japanese: “I’m tired, leave me alone, please leave me alone.”

My American buddies who had married Japanese women had warned me this would happen, especially after babies came into the picture. Tim, who had divorced his American wife to marry a Japanese woman named Yoko (of course we called him Da Lennon after that), laid his woes on bar counters all over Tokyo. “Man, I need to get laid,” he would whine, and recount how Yoko had moved out of their bedroom and laid a futon in the baby’s room for easy night nursing. “Japanese women. They stop being women and just turn into fucking mothers. Why don’t they just tell me before I booked the goddamn church?” Poor Tim. He and Yoko are still together, and raising two boys. He’s always taking the kids out for soccer practice and baseball games but Yoko never goes. Tim always says the same thing: Yoko is resting and wants to have the house to herself. “Yeah, Seiko always says that too, and she doesn’t even have the excuse of kids!” I laugh. I let my heh-heh-hehs sink in, but no one laughs along.

Once I get past the Kawasaki rust belt, I get off the highway and ease Sandra by the curb. With some difficulty, I get out of the car and place my feet on dirty pavement. I look out again over the factories and gas tanks. I do this maybe twice a week, just to breathe in the awful fumes and contemplate the red and white checkered oil towers, the colossal chimneys vomiting up all kinds of toxic gas. And it gives me such a thrill. Men are like factories, I think. All the internal pumping and churning, the permanent furnace sitting between our legs, the enormous clanging and hulabaloo to produce…what? Something no one really wants or cares about, probably. But at these moments, I understand exactly why Donald Trump wants to brings back these factories, and the millions of men in hard hats who support him. We can’t help it, we ourselves are factories. Born to Spew.

Tonight, I’m getting take-out Chinese at my neighborhood place, and then relaxing on the sofa with Netflix until Seiko comes home. Not a bad life, I tell myself, steering the car around to face Yokohama again. Sandra and I take off, and for once the roads are pretty clear. I estimate another half hour until we get home. Later, maybe I can tell my wife about the man-as-factory thing. Maybe she’ll laugh, and we can hang out together on the sofa and be friends.

Seiko and I still share the same bedroom but sleep in single beds placed two feet apart, because she claimed my snoring bothered the hell out of her. I understand this arrangement is the most popular among Japanese couples. Salariman husbands only come home after the wife and kids are asleep anyway. Two single beds work just fine. The other day, one of the younger Japanese men at my company, said casually that he hadn’t spoken to his wife in a month even though they’re currently sharing a double bed inherited from his brother. “And that doesn’t worry you?” I asked. “Don’t you miss talking to her, what if she’s having an affair?” He smiled and said that lack of communication was the secret to a long-lasting bond. “I don’t know what she’s doing. She doesn’t know what I’m doing. But we are good.” Those were his exact words.

But we are good. Fuckin’ Ay.

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part II “Fucked Up in Six Trees”

This is part two of series of short-stories by culture commentator, movie reviewer, and fiction writer–Kaori Shoji–on international love gone wrong in and out of Japan. 

****

By my personal estimate, the lives of most white foreigners in Tokyo start and end within the confines of a town called Roppongi, which means ‘six trees.’ Apparently, before the arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships, this area was blah and nondescript save for the presence of its namesake. There were the trees and there was very little else.

A hundred and fifty years later, the trees are gone but Roppongi is prominently featured in every Japan guide book and online travel site. It heads off most tourists’ agenda in terms of must-go, must-see, must-experience. They think this is Tokyo, and a good chunk of its best offering. That’s not a lie but everyone who’s been here longer than 6 months will tell you Six Trees isn’t really Tokyo and certainly has nothing to do with Japan.

Roppongi is the white male’s extra-territorial sanctuary as well as metaphorical catacomb, where pleasure draws a last gasp before crumpling into a heap of old bones. The white man’s loop of entitlement extends from the famed Roppongi intersection to the concrete mausoleum known as Roppongi Hills, then down to a quaint little neighborhood called Azabu Juban and back again. Once you get on the loop, it’s damn hard to get off so you keep repeating the run until you’ve lost track of what life was like before you thought of moving to Japan and immersing yourself in Roppongi’s cesspool of slimey privilege.

Because hey, the deal is this: if you can’t get laid in Roppongi, you may as well move to Mars. There’s no other place on Earth that promises and delivers sex with the same reliable standard. I’d give it 90%, 100% of the time you’re there. Never mind sushi – they’re overpriced and the tuna is imported from Indonesia. Forget Toyotas, they take too long to assemble and what’s all the fuss about anyway? Sex in Six Trees – now that’s Japanese quality control honed to an art form.

Jesus, I’m getting literary which means it’s past 6 AM on a Saturday morning and I’ve drunk the night away. This is not good, no fucking’ good, I chant to myself as I lurch my way past other drunks (but very few disorderlies, because this is Tokyo), on the side street that leads to the Roppongi intersection. I was at Tim’s house with a few other guys, then we hit that bar and then went over to the Cedar’s Chop House in the newly opened Remm Hotel which is supposedly a big deal but really just turned out to be a raucous gaijin hangout with Jack Johnson on the sound track – really, who are they kidding? Still, the place was kind of cozy which is a rarity in Six Trees. Not that this nice vibe is going to last. Soon, Remm Hotel will be overrun by what I call the International Working Girl Association (IWGA) and their foreign clientele, just like every other hotel in Roppongi. With the Russian Embassy on one end of the loop, the Chinese Embassy on the other and the American Embassy on the far left of the intersection, what the hell else can you expect?

Aaaaanyway. We ended up at god knows which drinking hole though I remember the toilet was filthy and Tim bleating on and on about getting pancakes for breakfast and where should we go for pancakes? What a tiresome bastard.

This time of morning the sunlight’s still feeble and I could bear to bask in its gentle rays. I hear snatches of loud conversation and automatically straighten my back, turning my feet towards the direction of voices. A pimp with broad shoulders and a bull neck in a dress shirt, is clutching the shoulder of a thin girl with bobbed hair – maybe 23 years old, it’s hard to tell at this hour. He’s trying to sell her to a potential customer, a youngish salariman in a dark suit. “I guarantee she’s nice, sir” he says in sing-song Japanese which annoys me no end. “If you won’t take her, then she wouldn’t have had a customer all night and that’s bad for her reputation, all the other girls are going to look down their noses at her. You wouldn’t want that to happen now, would you?” The salariman mumbles a few words, casting furtive glances at the girl who’s wearing nothing but a slip dress and sandals under the pimp’s oversized jacket. She looks cold and depressed and purses her lips, not about to pull out any encouraging sales talk. “I don’t have much time…” the salariman says. Inwardly, I snort with laughter. You mean, you’re not ready to shell out 20,000 yen for a throw, that’s what.

Maybe the pimp could hear inside my brain because he notices me observing with what I hope is a casual, bemused detachment. “And you sir, what about you? Japanese girl, velly velly nice!” The last bit was spoken in English and the pimp’s accent wasn’t bad. He’s been doing this long enough to know the value of a white male in Hugo Boss jeans and I’ve been stomping these streets long enough to know I’ll be treated better if I pretended zero Japanese language skills. I amble over and the salariman makes himself scarce. I get a better look at the girl, whose glassy stare gives nothing away. Her hands are pretty and lily white though, clasping the lapels of the jacket around her body like Jody Foster in that movie. I like a woman with petite, well-cared for hands and Japanese women have the loveliest pairs in the world. We exchange a look and I feel her stiffen under her sheer, thin slip.

It’s all the same to her. BUT she does need to chalk up a number on the board in the girls’ locker room, at the sex shop where she works maybe, 4 nights a week. Who else is going to do it, if not for a benevolent white guy like yours truly?

“Okay, okay.” I say this a little too loudly, with an exaggerated shrug. The pimp is wreathed in smiles. “Okaaaaay!,’ he mimics and makes a polite little gesture toward the doorway. The establishment is downstairs in a narrow, dirty, three story building tenanted by a mahjong parlor, a reflexology salon and a pizza restaurant according to the signs out front. “You will be happy, happy!” he says and leads the way into a tiny elevator stinking of roach repellent, and pushes the B1 button. I look at the girl and smile. She smiles back, grateful for even this useless token of friendship. We both know that if the salariman had taken her he wouldn’t have cracked a smile. He wouldn’t have said two words to make her feel better about her life, just stood there and waited for her to unbuckle his pants, and then would have taken pleasure as his due. White males may be self-entitled jerks but Japanese guys are the worst. No wonder the women in this country hate the lot of them.

When I emerge back out, it’s past 8 and Roppongi is teeming with tourists. The bill was 22,000 yen and I reflect that in the past two years I’ve always had to pay for sex in Six Trees. A tad humiliating, I know. I’m not young anymore – 34, and even white male entitlement has to end sometime. But I reason that the girl had been extra willing and “velly, velly nice,” which takes the twinge off the hurt. I yawn, put on my shades and consider walking to Starbucks in the Ark Hills building down the hill from the intersection. What I needed now was an espresso kick in the nerves and a blueberry muffin.

The local volunteer group is out and about in their logo-inscribed vinyl jackets (“Green Roppongi!”). These are mostly men in their 60s or older, picking up overnight litter from last night’s debaucheries, scattered in the spaces between gutter and curb. What most foreigners don’t realize is that there’s a sizable number of ordinary Japanese folk living here and they care enough about their community to do this. I stop for a moment and watch as they shuffle methodically, wielding steel tongs in one hand and clutching garbage bags with the other. Their faces are obscured by white surgical masks (one way to tell a Japanese from an Asian tourist is to see whether or not they’re wearing masks), making it impossible to read their expressions.

When I first came to Japan as an exchange student at the age of 17, my host father also volunteered at the local trash pick-up, clearing the beach of debris every Saturday morning. He worked for the municipal office, so participation was more or less mandatory. He seemed to enjoy it and I would pitch in because no one else in the family did and I felt sorry for him. When we were done, he always treated me to matcha icecream or iced coffee and said over and over how much he appreciated my help. “Brian, you are wonderful,” he said. “No, YOU are,” I would reply like a dutiful son, and we would look at each other and laugh politely.

I was home-staying in Chiba prefecture, near the Boso coastline and I was having the time of my life. Never had I felt so welcomed, valued and protected. I was loved in a way that seemed impossible back home in Illinois – not that I was abused by my biological parents or anything. But I was nothing special, just a scrawny kid with acne and too-thick eyebrows. I couldn’t make varsity on the track team, had no girlfriend and definitely was not one of the cool crowd. At school, I dreaded prom and was deeply grateful that my year in Japan would absolve me of that particular American teen torture.

In Chiba, I was a prince. On my third day in school, a girl in my class presented me with a hand-made bento and another very nicely gave me a blow job in a public restroom down by the beach. Later I learned the two girls were best friends, and they had played ‘janken (paper, rock scissors)’ over which of them would have the bento duty and which would be in charge of rolling out the sexual red carpet. I was flattered, but also baffled. What had I done to deserve such treatment? Others offered similar gifts and liaisons – in little secluded areas around the beach, in their parents’ car at night, in their rooms when they invited me over to teach them English. They baked cookies for me, presented me with handmade chocolates on Valentine’s Day, held my hand under the desk and guided it to their thighs. One or two told me that they loved me, to please marry them so I could take them to America.

By my last month in Chiba, I had the Japan experience all figured out. It was so ridiculously easy here. My acne was gone, thanks to the sea air and the string of casual girlfriends who took real good care of my teenage hormonal needs. I had learned a lot of the language, enough to ingratiate myself to my host family, school teachers and guy friends. Having run on the track team back in Illinois helped a lot, because most Japanese are ardent runners and fiercely dedicated to school sports. “You’re great, don’t worry,” said my friend Haruhiko as he inducted me into the school’s short-distance track team. Haru trained like a fiend and could whip my ass on the track any day of the week but he was also big enough to make a foreigner feel good about himself. I was a lazy bum who skipped practice to hang out with one girl or another but Haru looked the other way and pretended not to notice.

Naturally, I was far from stoked about the idea of having to leave Chiba and Japan. In the plane to O’Hare, I said to myself over and over that I would come back no matter what it took.

What it took was an MA in theater from the University of Chicago and then a 3-year stint working as a Congressman’s assistant on Capitol Hill. I fulfilled my teenage resolution on the day before my 26th birthday, March 2010. I arrived, back in the Promised Land where I planned to get laid by the prettiest girls with the smoothest pale skin and go drinking with the Japanese buddies I would surely acquire as soon as I exited the airport. In a year or two, I would find the most amazing woman and get married. She would make incredibly elaborate meals, just like my host mom made every night – potato croquettes, Japanese fried chicken and rice encased in a fluffy omelet. We would have beautiful bilingual children who would grow up to attend Ivy League colleges on full scholarships. (Haruhiko, my old friend from Chiba, had gone to Yale and was now working on Wall Street.)

That was Plan A. I didn’t think to work out Plan B. And my line of defence is: Roppongi interfered.

As I walk down the long hill from the Six Trees intersection to the office complex called Ark Hills, I notice my eyes are suddenly itchy and moist. What the fuck, dude, a pathetic self pity party? I tell myself it’s just some unseasonal pollen allergy but I can’t shake off the sense of what, sadness? Regret? For a long time, no one has told me that I was great or wonderful. No Japanese woman has said she loved me, and to please take her to the United States. Now I had to pay for love, and friendships consisted of alcohol-infused rant fests with like-minded assholes. What the hell went wrong with the scenario? I had somehow played a colossal and perverted joke on myself, and could barely muster the courage to laugh. “Fuck this,” I mumble and thrust my hand into my front jeans pocket. My fingers touch a crumpled pink ‘meishi’ – the Japanese business card. It’s from that girl I just had intercourse with, and she had given it to me just before I left. “Come back soon!” she called out, but I was already closing the door behind my back. Now I smooth out the meishi to read her (professional) name: Amika. Uh-huh. Sorry, Amika but I couldn’t care less at this point. With a sigh, I toss it to the pavement and start to walk off. On second thought, I circle back and pick it up again.

You can say what you like, but I don’t throw garbage on the street. It’s the thought of making extra work for those volunteers in their little vinyl jackets. It’s also to honor the memory of my host-dad. Six Trees has at least, taught me that much.