Book: Black Passenger Yellow Cabs

Editor’s note: Mr. Bryan sent us JSRC the book a few months ago but as we were getting ready to post the review, 3/11 came upon us. It seemed like a very wrong time to publish it.

Many people may find this book a little offensive, some may find it eye-opening. Amy Seaman, one of the JSRC staff writers reviewed the book, because I felt that a woman’s perspective on it might be more useful and because she’s a better reviewer than I am.

If you think the term “yellow cab” used to refer to Japanese women itself (easy to ride, easy to leave)  is offensive, the term came into vogue in Japan in the year 2000, with the publication of YELLOW CAB (イエローキャブ) written by noted author Shoko Ieda (家田 荘子), who is a woman and also a Buddhist priest. The book describes the adventures of  young Japanese women and exchange students who went to America and describes their sexual and romantic adventures with foreign men in lurid detail.  In some senses, Mr. Bryan’s book is an English language counterpart to the Japanese “classic” reportage.

Please remember, the reviewer is not the same as the book being reviewed. Love the book or hate it, it’s an interesting read—Jake.

Black Passenger Yellow Cabs

Black Passenger Yellow Cabs chronicles the sexual adventures and escapades of foreign man in Japan. The book is controversial but so is everything in the world.

Reviewed by Amy Seaman

Black Passenger Yellow Cabs is a more than fitting title for Stephen FD Bryan’s self-termed erotic ethnographic memoir. The book chronicles Bryan’s sexual exploits during his seven years as an English teacher in Japan, Japanese girl by Japanese girl, one by one, two by two. A acknowledged sex addict, Bryan narrates the numerous affairs he had in Japan from an explicit—if not sometimes superficial—perspective: The majority of the chapters are named for each woman he sleeps with, almost as if he wants readers to keep a running count of his exploits. There’s his Japanese teacher Karin, the half-Japanese, half-Dutch Janelle—who does not catch Bryan’s fancy because of his “yellow fever”—and his wife-to-be Shoko, just to name a few. Sure, there are bits and pieces in there about what it was like to be an English teacher, how it felt to meet parents and descriptions about life in Jamaica and various Japanese phenomena, but the majority of it is focused on the girls.

While readers interested in the fine art of picking up Japanese women may learn a helpful thing or two (speak English even if you aren’t sure your target speaks the language; they will most certainly be flattered by the fact that you think them cosmopolitan (!))those looking for a comprehensive and well-substantiated analysis of Japan’s sex culture should look elsewhere. Perhaps that was not what it was meant to be and I am being unfair by reviewing this as a somewhat academic text, but Bryan’s citations of news articles and statistics, though few and far between, make the book feel somewhat research-based at times. That said, Bryan provides a plethora of interesting tidbits about Japanese culture and formulates a theory about how the many women who are eager to sleep with him are so because of their past experience—he concludes that these women suffer from low self-esteem, perhaps a result of childhood trauma. It’s hard to take his claims seriously though, because they are nestled between chapters boasting how many orgasms he was able to coax out of his newest play toy and how he balance multiple affairs simultaneously.

If you can look past the blatant racism that Bryan demonstrates in the book (he pride fully refers to himself as a Negro because “black does not require capitalization in print, to which I take great offense,” but maintains a somewhat consistent usage of the age-old “yellow” slur when referring to Asian girls), and that many of his universal conclusions are based merely on personal experience, then you will see the true beauty of this book. It is the story of a Jamaican man who followed his sexual cravings to Japan in 2001, satiated them, and returned to America in 2008 to wed his Japanese wife. If you can ignore the fact that many of the chapters are play-by-play descriptions of how he managed to get a certain girl into his bed that leave no detail up to the imagination—and little more than that—then maybe you too will believe Bryan when he says that he is not attempting to brag about his sexual expertise by narrating his tales, but is instead trying to show how easy it is for people to initiate relationships.

Black Passenger Yellow Cab is the story of a black passenger who rode in multiple cabs until he found the best one. It takes readers through Bryan’s seven years in Japan and explains how, out of all of the women he slept with, his wife was the one. It describes a man’s fight to understand Japanese culture and why things work the way they do in a non-euphemistic way, and above all, it is honest. Bryan shows no shame about his addiction to sex with Japanese girls and speaks objectively about the girls he sleeps with to fulfill his desires, which is what makes the book so disagreeable yet engaging all at the same time. True, there were times when I was disgusted by Bryan’s seemingly insensitive behavior, but others when I completely empathized with him, when I empathized with his very true statements about underreported sexual harassment and the subordination of women throughout Japanese history. If you have the time for it and can stomach reading about the sexual exploits of another, Black Passenger Yellow Cab is a intriguing, honest read about a rarely discussed topic that dares to go where few books do.

Death by Pufferfish: A short story by Mayumi Shimose Poe

Jake’s note:
In a departure from our usual hard-boiled news about Japan, we’re honored to be republishing a fascinating short story that illustrates many cultural aspects of Japanese society and is simply an excellent piece of fiction.
Pufferfish, part of the title of the story,  is English for  (河豚/fugu) which is a delicacy in Japan often eaten raw as sashimi.  When improperly prepared, it’s also quite lethal.  Chefs operating without a license to handle the fish have been arrested in the past. The neurotoxin in the fish is extremely fast acting. There is a line I once read about the death of a Kabuki actor who made the mistake of eating fugu liver, poorly prepared, and it has always stuck in my mind: “He was dead before his chopsticks hit the ground.”


by Mayumi Shimose Poe

This illustration is by Mari Kurisato・

I. Kazuo Ikeda’s first and last taste of fugu had been the spring he turned seventeen. Seventeen was practically adulthood. Kazuo’s goals for his adult self were:

  1. Do something interesting. This did not include camping in the car amongst redwoods with his parents; eating salted toffee while visiting historic Old Sacramento and nearly as historic old relatives; or catching the cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf only to end up overstuffed at Ghiradelli Square.
  2. Interact with a girl.
  3. Become a man. A helpful diagram:

Another way to chart it would be simply to frame a picture of his grandfather Masayoshi, who was up from Los Angeles for a few days’ visit.

His goals seemed causally linked. Doing something interesting would make him more of a man, which would make him more desirable to the opposite sex. And Kazuo knew just the thing: he would eat pufferfish. It struck just the right note. A cultured carelessness, weighing his very life against the pursuit of pleasure. Filleting open the underbelly of fear itself. And unique because San Francisco had just opened its first restaurant where fugu was legally on the menu—“Tora Fugu,” meaning tiger blowfish. Even its name sounded fierce, masculine.

Here was where Grandpa Masa was key. Grandpa Masa wouldn’t tell him Tora Fugu was too fancy. They wouldn’t end up, after exhaustive debate, at a tourist-trap restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf. And Grandpa Masa did not disappoint him; in fact, he upgraded Kazuo’s dream.

“Of course you can get fugu in the U.S.—San Francisco, New York, L.A., et cetera, et cetera—but it’s not the same, ne, Kazuo-san?” Grandpa Masa’s tone was a pat on Kazuo’s head, but Kazuo beamed at the respectful “-san.” Although it had been tacked onto his first name instead of his last, which docked a few points of respect from the greeting, “-san” was still infinitely better than “-chan”—a notable upgrade from Grandpa Masa’s last visit.

“Totally. What’s the point,” echoed Kazuo.

Masayoshi’s son and daughter-in-law were hiding their smiles. Masa saw all of this—Kazuo’s eagerness, his parents’ amusement, that they had raised the boy so weakly that he grasped onto anything stronger to emulate it. It was up to him. The boy was already sixteen. Masa hoped he wasn’t too late. He should have visited more. Kept a closer eye on things. “I’m taking him to Japan,” he announced. “For his seventeenth birthday. We are going to eat real fugu.”

Continue reading Death by Pufferfish: A short story by Mayumi Shimose Poe

Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future that Works

What is the future of Japan? Can the country get back on its feet? It’s a question that the world and the people of Japan are asking themselves. McKinsey & Company have edited a book that aims to answer this question.

Reimagining Japan is a collection of eighty essays that aim to shed light on how Japan can rebuild itself in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. The contributors come from a variety of backgrounds – from CEOs to journalists, to academics – also include a fair amount of both Japanese and foreign writers. Roughly half of the contributors come from the business sector, and 14 of the 80 come from McKinsey itself.

Though the topics explored range in subject, there are a few recurring themes that run through the collection. Outlined in the introduction, they include the need for openness (the unwillingness of young Japanese to venture outside of their country, and of companies to take their ideas global), diversity (Japan has a relatively homogenous population), innovation (Japan’s need to move away from labor-intensive industries) and leadership (strong company and government officials who can act boldly and expediently). Though sometimes the reemergence of these themes can be tiring, and even seems like a bit of a broken record, often the authors provide enough of their own unique insight to keep it interesting.

There are also a few authors who break hard with the general consensus. Just when you think you have certainly heard enough about the  “change-resistant” personality of the population, John Dower shakes it up with several historical examples that belie this characterization of the Japanese. Forced to reconcile these conflicting assessments, it’s a rewarding experience to recognize the truth in both and thus gain a deeper understanding of the problems facing Japan.

I noted this kind of mental progress several times through the reading of these articles; how is it that Japan ranks 4th in Innovation in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, yet one of the most consistent charges against the Japanese is that they fail to innovate? It’s actually hard to put the book down once you get into the discussion.

Chapter 3, Restructuring Japan Inc., was particularly interesting and well-edited, with each consecutive chapter offering a challenge to the one before. Macroeconomic policies, such as decisive quantitative easing vs. restructuring, were debated as each policy expert laid out his case. The article “Reforming Japan, Nordic Style”, I found particularly interesting; author Richard Katz points out the egalitarian ethic and homogenous, well-educated society that Japan has in common with the Nordic countries, and proposes that Japan should consider how these countries have been able to foster growth and improve efficiency through their policy of government provided employment security rather than individual job security.

Interestingly, the Japanese writers were the most critical of their own society, the quickest to bemoan the complacency and resistance to change. Yasuchika Hasegawa, president and CEO of Takeda pharmaceuticals said, “…until this country hits bottom, our people will never get serious about change”. Tadashi Yanai, chairman and CEO of Fast Retailing, which owns UNIQLO, had even harsher words: “Japans biggest problems are conservatism and cowardice”. Foreign contributers, on the other hand, it seemed couldn’t help but temper their criticisms of Japanese politics or economical policy with praise of all the things we foreigners have love affairs with the Japanese over.

After a few days of reading these essays back to back, dissecting Japan’s dysfunctions and prescribing elaborate solutions, I felt overwhelmed by the work ahead of my adopted country. Japan has been lagging not only economically, but also losing global influence, its once formidable share of the tech market, and having recently lost its status as the “linchpin” of American strategy in Asia to South Korea, even its political prominence.  Several authors, noting the shifting power structure in Asia that has accompanied the rise of China, and more than half of the authors inn “Redefining Japan’s Foreign Relations” chapter argues the need for a pan-Asian alliance–one which Japan must lead.

However, the aforementioned broken record comes in handy here: it does the powerful task of affirming the consensus among experts on Japanese culture. Our problems aren’t so varied, and at the end of the day we really aren’t in disagreement about them. In many cases, we aren’t even in disagreement about the corresponding solutions. And indeed, many solutions were offered, particularly by the writers who dealt with political and economic problems.

However, while many also mentioned social issues, (a great number encouraging the use of women in the work force), few offered any solutions to those problems. Here, the heavy reliance on business-sector contributors is seen. Sure, nearly half the population is underutilized, and that could be a great source of labor for a country that faces an aging population, but how does this happen when an increasing number of Japanese women say they would like to get married and stay at home?

And how do we deal with an aging population if women say they only want one child because doing all the work by themselves is too 大変 (taihen/difficult)? As Kaori Sasaki says in her contribution “Putting Families First”, “changing the law can only do so much; our value system needs to change, too”. I had lengthy discussions with my roommate, Shigeaki Baba, about the theories and policies here, and he said, they are missing the biggest problem- there are a lot of ways in which Japanese society sucks. For a country that prides itself on efficiency, the current family set-up seems disastrously inefficient; one member puts in enough work hours for two, and sacrifices time that could be spent with his children; and the other is deprived the individual necessity comes with a fulfilling career. Of course, this model works for some families, but I think that for many Japanese people, both men and women, this set-up greatly contributes to their unhappiness. Maybe people don’t want to get married, pursue careers, or have kids, because in Japanese society these are difficult things to manage even one at a time. I would have liked to have seen more authors elaborating on that.

Overall, this is a highly thought-provoking and inspiring collection of works and recommended reading for anyone interested in Japan. This certainly sparked great discussion among my friends and roommate. I think if you care about Japan, this is an important collection to read, and hopefully add too as well.

Jake’s comment:

The book would have benefitted by having an essay by Kathy Matsui, who at this year’s TokyoTedX, gave a scathing review of Japan’s sexist polices and demonstrates how incorporating women into the workplace could save Japan’s economy and help solve the declining birth-rate. Personally, I also felt that there should have been some focus on the endemic problems of organized crime in Japan’s politics and business. The culture of corruption, collusion, and corporate malfeasance is a huge stumbling block in re-imagining Japan. I hope that the book is read by more than just the foreign population and that some wise souls in the government of Japan pay attention. Unlikely, but one can hope.

The book is also available in Japan from Amazon as well.

People Who Eat Darkness (闇を食う人々)An amazing book and a tissue sample of Japan's social pathological elements

People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman*
By Richard Lloyd Parry (Jonathan Cape 404pp £17.99)

When the disappearance of Lucie Blackman made the news, I was covering it as a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. By necessity rather than by choice, I was already familiar with the darker side of the country: I had spent 1999 to 2000 as a police reporter assigned to the 4th District, home of Japan’s largest adult entertainment area, Kabukicho. Despite being from different papers, Richard Lloyd Parry and I worked the story together, exchanging information, contacts and tips. There was a chance that Lucie might still be alive, being held captive somewhere. The hope that reporting on it might make a difference superseded any journalistic rivalry. Now Parry has written a compelling book about the depravity of man, the difficult pursuit of justice, and how we deal with the wrongful deaths of those whom we loved.

Lucie, a young English woman, came to Japan to have fun and make money as a hostess in order to pay off her debts. She never went home. Her alleged killer, Joji Obara, is a clever man and a graduate of the law department of an elite Japanese university. I write ‘alleged’ because, despite all the circumstantial evidence that he was responsible for her death, the Japanese courts have only convicted him of dismembering her corpse. The charges were of rape resulting in death, but they have not yet been proven to the satisfaction of the judiciary. Obara knows that without a full confession, the Japanese police are handicapped, and prosecutors loathe such a case. He also knew enough of the law to prey on foreign hostesses. Hostessing is not allowed on foreign visas. If foreign hostesses go to the police as victims of sexual assault, they themselves are arrested and often deported, and no charges are generally brought against their assailants. (For years, human traffickers in Japan exploited this same fact.)

Every year, roughly 80,000 people go missing in Japan. The police don’t investigate each disappearance, or even a significant fraction of them. Perhaps if Tim Blackman, Lucie’s father, hadn’t raised hell, the case would never have been seriously investigated. But once the Tokyo Police realised that this was not just another missing persons case, they pursued it with vigour and determination. While the police are generally treated fairly in the book, Parry implies that they were uninterested in the case, and this is not so.

Parry’s book describes in detail Tim Blackman’s frustration with the police efforts to track down the phone number of Akira Takagi, one of his daughter’s friends, a few days after she vanished. Explanations of why they couldn’t do it probably seemed disingenuous to the Blackman family. I’m sure they were. The truth is that because of the no-caller-ID setting Takagi had placed on his phone, it wasn’t possible to trace the call. According to Shoji Takao’s Keiji No Banka (‘The Detective’s Dirge’), an in-depth account of the police investigation written with the aid of the detectives who worked the case and published in Japan last year, a huge amount of time and energy was spent examining the fraction of recoverable phone records and developing. a lead on the case.

The Japanese police as a general rule do not reveal information about an ongoing investigation to anyone, because it would hurt their case in court. The usual practice is to conceal critical data that only the criminal could possibly know, in order to obtain an ironclad confession that can’t be explained away by saying, ‘I was just repeating what I read in the papers.’ If the police come off looking lazy, bureaucratic and disinterested, it’s simply because they care more about getting the perpetrator then they do about social niceties. One detective who worked the case put it this way: ‘The best thing we can do for the family is to see that justice is served. Everything else is secondary.’

One of the ironies of the case was that some of the key sources who helped the police track down Obara were yakuza affiliates of a Tokyo-based crime group. They are not generally good Samaritans but there are three things that the group bans and that are cause for immediate expulsion: theft, robbery and rape. Obara was scum even in their eyes. When Lucie’s body was found, one member of the group contacted me with a message: ‘If Obara doesn’t get the death penalty, we could administer it. Prisons are full of accidents. Let Mr Blackman know. If that’s what he wants, we’ll see that justice is done.’

Obara has also been found guilty of raping several other women and of killing Carita Ridgway, a well-liked girl from Perth, Australia. (Ridgway and I had a mutual friend, a classmate of mine who worked at the same hostess bar as Ridgway and whose testimony was used to convict Obara. It’s a small, ugly world sometimes.) People Who Eat Darkness is also about these other women, and the suffering of their family members and friends. Furthermore, it is an indictment of Japanese society, in which sexual crimes against women, especially those working in the adult entertainment world, frequently go uninvestigated. Rape is a crime punishable by as little as three years in jail; at the time Lucie vanished, the penalty was only two years. Even today, a first-time offender, if he admits guilt and pays damages to the victim, may still get a suspended sentence.

Parry has spent years researching and writing this book. It allows readers to experience Japan’s S&M subculture, the police bureaucracy, and the tightly controlled press club system, parts of Japan that most Japanese never know. One also feels one is reliving the tragedy as a friend of the family, with all the agony it involves. It’s a journey worth taking, if you have the stomach for it.

I never passed on that message from the yakuza. After finishing Richard Lloyd Parry’s book, part of me wishes that I had. However, there are some choices that I think people should be spared from making. We are all responsible for our own choices. The choices that Obara made ruined the lives of many. The choices of Lucie’s family and some courageous victims are what put him behind bars. Like every exceptional book, there is a moral to this tale. But it’s up to readers to determine for themselves just what that moral really is.

Note: In June this year (2011) Richard Parry had a book talk at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan that was enlightening and informative. My live (at the time) tweet feed on the conference can be read by clicking here. Thanks to @nofrills on Twitter for compiling it. Many other related books in Japanese can be found at the bottom of the page.

*This review was originally published in the British periodical, The Literary Review and is reprinted with their position. It’s a great magazine for those who love reading.

Book Review: 図解裏社会のカラクリ

Purposely vague, shadowy and difficult to understand, the Japanese underworld is a puzzling and ever-changing realm of secrecy, even for those who study it. There’s no quick-and-dirty tutorial or handbook for learning about the seedier side of life (there is, however, OJT–a different topic all together), and while it’s simple for some gifted purveyors of all that creeps between the cracks of society to just dive right in, some of us need to take things slow and get our bearings before dipping our toes into the sleaze and corruption.

Zukai - Ura Shakai no KarakuriBut fear not, fellow students, because there is a way in. 図解裏社会のカラクリ (Zukai Urashakai no Karakuri – Illustrated Guide to How the Underworld Works) documents the ABCs of the “anti-social” world in easy-to-manage two-page bites, one page covering a topic in relatively simple Japanese then summing up the key points with textbook-worthy illustrations on the facing page. The concept is simple and works for the broad range of topics available, from the down and dirty on yakuza traditions to how the ghouls and ghosts of the ura shakai have their fun.

The first chapter does indeed begin with Japanese organized crime groups, laying out simply the hierarchy of organizations, “A day in the life” of an underling and a kumi-cho, and how exactly that whole pinky finger thing works. I actually received this book after lamenting about seemingly archaic customs harboring unusual words like sakazuki and gobun kyodai. But there it is, laid out all nicely in the first section. Ever wondered what kind of duds an Armani-wearing yak might sport on the weekend? What the layout of a typical office might look like? Where gangsters get their guns? All covered in easy to understand brevity.

Zukai Urashakai no Karakuri goes even further in the section section, hitting up lesser-known but just as intriguing points under the surface of society, like the legal boundaries of private investigators, the difference between right wingers and left wingers, and the business cycle of peeping tom tosatsu videos. “Do assassins really exist?” the question is posed atop one of the illustrated pages. Yes, the book says, and they’re oftentimes foreigners who can escape penalties for the crime by returning to their home country.

Underworld entertainment–sex, drugs, rock n’ roll with a splash of gambling–is covered in the last section. The invasion of Japanese ladies into foreign streetwalkers’ territory, the affects of drug addiction, fake DVDs, even the Shinjuku gay district. Each entry is written very matter-of-factly, neither condoning nor criticising, and graciously avoids being as detailed as a “how to” book while still providing a decent explanation. The beauty is that Zukai covers not those nitty-gritty things one would normally feel apprehensive about asking a local, but actually things your average Taro would have no idea about. A quick flip through would do wonders for impressing your friends with intimate knowledge of underworld trivia–as long as you don’t mind coming off as a creep.

Admittedly, though, finding some of the vocab used here was a pain in the ass, both uncommon terms and slang. Even with a normal dictionary, Zukai isn’t exactly a book to read while relaxing in the park (especially if you’re self conscious about getting strange glances) and is best done with an Internet connection nearby. Although this certainly isn’t oriented towards an audience that would typically need it, a smear of furigana would have been appreciated here and there. What the book really needs is a quick-lookup glossary in the back with things like 破門回状 and マルチ商法. Small complaints, though, considering Zukai was written for native Japanese speakers with little to no knowledge of the underworld.

This is a book that, as you read it, you’d wish someone had made something just as fun to peruse for your own country. I’m waiting for a follow-up, perhaps some special editions that go into further detail about uyoku, the geino-kai, perhaps something about this ‘wave’ of foreign crime Japan seems to be constantly experiencing. Or perhaps, if Jake can pick up an illustrator, that will be our next project here at JSRC?