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.
Japan is getting serious about gender equality—and there were absolutely no bribes paid by Japan to win the right to host the 2020 Olympics—and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima is under control. Decide for yourself which of these three statements is the most untrue.
It’s hard to see women in Japan being “empowered” when they can be sexually assaulted with near impunity. The odds that their assailant will be arrested, or prosecuted are low–less than a coin toss. And if he is actually prosecuted–he can sometimes walk free, with no jail time and no criminal record, by paying damages and saying, “I’m sorry.” It’s a situation that the Abe administration could have changed but neglected to do so, tabling newly revised criminal codes to instead focus on passing a conspiracy bill that the United Nations warns could erode civil liberties.
Of course, some would argue that “womenomics” have never been about elevating the status of women in Japan—it’s always been about keeping Japanese business thriving and hopefully encouraging woman to work—and breed. Of course, pregnancy in the workplace often is greeted with bullying from all sides. Abe’s vision of Womenomics has certainly never been about improving the lives of Japan’s single mothers, 50% of whom live in poverty. In fact, other than talking about “shining women–it’s not clear exactly what he wants for Japan’s future potential birthing machines.*
The current Minister of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, is of course, also a man, and also in charge of improving Japan’s birthrate. Do we need to say more?
Recently, Bloomberg published an interview with Democratic Party leader Renho, in which she pointed out the obvious, Womenomics is all talk and no walk.
“They should be ashamed to use the word ‘Womenomics’,” Democratic Party leader Renho, the 49-year-old mother of twins, said in an interview in Tokyo late Thursday when asked about the term Abe often uses to describe his efforts. “It’s an embarrassment.”
Abe had vowed to eliminate waiting lists for childcare in a bid to draw more women into the workforce to make up for Japan’s shrinking population. He also sought to have women take 30 percent of management positions in all fields by 2020.
On both goals he’s falling well short: Japan was 111th in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap ranking for 2016, down 10 places on the previous year.
“About 80 percent of those who take childcare leave are women, and if they’re forced to wait for daycare, that means unemployment,” Renho said. “You either get demoted or you give up on work. What’s womenomics about if women are being forced to make such sad choices?”
*Reference to women as “birthing machines” is sarcasm. We know that the LDP also thinks of women as much more than that–as potential nurses for the elderly, expert green tea brewers for the office, and caretakers of the children that they should be giving birth to right now for the greater prosperity of Japan.
Japan Subculture Research Center is proud to present a series of short stories, by our resident book reviewer and social commentator, Kaori Shoji, on the often tragically mismatched marriages of foreign men and Japanese women. If you see echoes of someone you know or yourself in this story, be rest assured that you’re a cliche—but take solace in the fact that misery is universal.
Note: Ms. Shoji should be credited for coining the word WAM (Western Anglo-Saxon Men) also (White American Men)–a more understandable term for the Charisma-man type of entitled self-important foreigners that once flooded these shores but now mostly live in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Singapore. Also, it should be noted that Ms. Shoji has always been an equal opportunity misanthrope, as evidenced in her book review entitled 21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck.
Without further ado, welcome to the first in the series…..
Smothered in Silicon Valley
We are on the patio of my parents’ house in Palo Alto – my wife Eriko and I, on a sunny Sunday morning in March. There’s a sharp nip in the air but no wind, and the lone cherry tree in my mother’s garden promises pink blossoms later in the month. Sunday brunches at this house has turned into a weekly ritual, ever since we left Tokyo for Northern California a year ago. When I tell that to people, and that I Iived in said Tokyo for 16 years before returning to the Land of the Free (note the irony in my voice), eyebrows go up. In some cases, mouths turn downward in a reverse arc, depending on the listener’s experiences or their image of Japan. (Pearl Harbor. It’s always Pearl Harbor.) I was 24 when I finished up my graduate studies at Cal Tech, and took off for a country I hardly knew. Cool Japan wasn’t yet a thing. Anime was for hard-core geeks. But I had read two novels of Haruki Murakami and decided that in some tortuously inexplicable way, I belonged in the Far Eastern capital.
“So how did you like that? Wasn’t it just very busy and expensive?” asked Tim, my supervisor during one of five interviews I had, in order to land the job at a tech company in Oakland. “Oh yeah,” I replied, with a self-deprecating chuckle – a mannerism I picked up from living in Japan. The Japanese are excessively modest, and self-deprecation with a laugh is a national pastime. “Seriously though, I learned a lot. Japan’s been good to me,” I added cautiously. What I really wanted to say was that I poured my whole youth into the experience. I made my bones. I fell in love, time and again. And if you really want to know, Tokyo is a lot cheaper than the San Francisco Bay Area. But all that would have been inappropriate in a job interview. Besides, Tim – who is laughingly WAM (White American Male) and whose trips abroad has been limited to London and Mexico City, couldn’t care less about my back story.
I stretch out on the deck chair. Behind my Oakley shades, my eyes are closed and I’m only half-listening to my wife Eriko converse with my mom about the new farmer’s market that went up near Safeway, 5 blocks from my parents’ place. I reflect that my brother and I grew up here, and the chair I’m sitting in has been around since my teens, and my mom is basically the same woman she’s been for the past 30 years.
Eriko is saying what she’s always saying. “It’s very expensive, everything is expensive. One daikon is 3 dollars! In Tokyo, I bought daikon for under 200 yen.” My mom clucks, and sighs that Palo Alto has gotten so expensive and crowded they are thinking of selling the house and moving. I let out an exasperated sigh. How can my parents move? Three years ago my dad’s name was struck off the faculty list at Stanford where he had taught American Literature for 30 years. They’re still paying mortgage on this house.
Mom and Dad are used to this 3-bedroom place with the 2-car garage, their friends and Safeway where the Mexican staff always helps my mom carry groceries to her car. If they moved, they couldn’t afford to buy, at least not in the Bay Area. The housing market is astronomical and prices on everything including water, have gone through the roof thanks to the protracted California drought. Young techies fresh out of coding boot camp are told off by their bosses that they can’t afford to live here, not even on a six-figure income. Right now, the median rent for San Francisco is something like 3500 dollars. The average monthly daycare cost for one pre-kindergarten child in the Bay Area is over 2000 dollars. (Eriko and I don’t have kids but that could change.) The Thai salad with quinoa I had for lunch the other day? Fucking 18 dollars.
“You’re much better off where you are and you know it,” I say to my mother. “Just don’t get a new car.” My parents are living off their savings and what money Dad gets from tutoring jobs. An awkward hush settles over the patio like a foul odor and my mom purposefully looks in another direction.
As soon as the talk turned to money, my dad shuts down like an old, clunky computer. He gazes at the sky with his coffee mug cupped in both hands and I feel a sting of real sadness. I know what my father is thinking, he’s thinking that he’s fine, that this is all good. But it could be better and as a WAM with a Ph.d and his Stanford career, he should have more. A better car than his 10-year old Honda, a nicer home, all the latest gadgets, vacations, dinners out with my mom and their friends. A glittering Facebook update. They’ve never even been to French Laundry though that’s been on my mom’s wish list for a decade.
Eriko gets up and goes inside the house, undoubtedly to the kitchen. I watch her retreating figure with…what is it, boredom? I actually feel bored when I look at my wife of 6 years, though I tell myself it’s more like placidity, contentment. She herself is very comfortable in Oakland, and professes that she never wants to go back except for short vacations to her parents’ place. When we lived in Tokyo, life was much harder for Eriko. She cooked 2 meals a day, worked in an office and had a daily, two hour commute. She was also about 12 pounds thinner and seemed oh, so fragile. I’d give her a hug and feel her small rib cage under my big hands, her little breasts and narrow hips. We were both in our mid-30s when we met but she looked to me like a girl in college. Now I get comments everyday from people who have met my wife about how pretty, how slender, what a good cook, considerate, polite, supportive, accomplished…Even Tim likes her, and I’m not sure if he’s about to make some moves on her, the bastard.
The truth is, Japanese women are amazing. Half the time I spent in Japan was about chasing them down, chatting them up in my appalling Japanese and getting them in the sack as soon as humanly possible. The other half was spent bragging about my astonishing success rate to expat bros. But then it was like that for most white men anyway, unless they were spectacularly ugly or had hygiene problems, and even then they never had much trouble finding sex. Life in Japan frequently turns white men into sexist, racist, male chauvinist assholes, without our being aware of it. I call it the Japan Creep. I have said things to Japanese women that I would never say to a white American female. I took it for granted that they were only too happy to do things for me, including schoolgirl cosplay during sex (don’t judge me) and sushi dinners on their tabs. No Japanese woman I slept with seemed to resent any of that. They in turn seemed to take it for granted that they should please American men because…well if it wasn’t for us and our democracy, they’d still be wearing raggedy kimonos, they couldn’t eat at Shake Shack and they’d be forced into god-awful marriages with god-awful Japanese men, whose international popularity rates just a notch above Nigerian, according to some poll I read once. Right? I mean, COME ON.
But a couple of years after turning 30, I realized that the classiest and most well-bred of Japanese women rarely have anything to do with the average white man apart from gracious socializing. To them, we were loud, stupid and ill-mannered. And the pool of casual sex was slowly but surely, drying up. It just wasn’t as fun anymore and I felt less inclined to spew the same old tales to the same old bros, who suddenly seemed obnoxious beyond words.
And then I met Eriko at my local gym. She asked me with a shy smile if I knew how to work the elliptical, and I could tell she was trying hard to carry out our conversation in correct English. I was so touched that a sob caught in my throat. It hit me that I didn’t want to date anymore. I wanted a Japanese wife – to iron my shirts and cook my meals and greet me with a smile every time I came home from work. Japanese men had that for more than a millenia, so why couldn’t I, I mean we – all of us American jerks? Three months later, I proposed and Eriko said yes, on condition that we have the wedding in Hawaii with just our families and closest friends because we were both in our mid-30s and “too old” for a big ceremony in Tokyo. Eriko adored Hawaii. Her girlfriends adored Hawaii. Most Japanese women do.
It’s regrettable to say but Japanese women lose some of their flavor once they leave Japan. It’s only been a year but Eriko has assimilated so completely to American suburbia she may as well call herself Ellen. Not that she’s become part of the white community of Oakland. She bounces inside a comfortable bubble consisting of our house, her car (a Toyota Corolla) and a close-knit circle of Japanese housewife friends. She’s with these women all the time, texts them incessantly to cook Japanese dishes together and schedule jogs around the neighborhood. Now Eriko’s ribcage no longer feels like it might break if I squeeze too hard. She no longer smiles in silence, but laughs out loud. Her hair and skin – once moist with Asian humidity, is drier, tougher. Her neck is thicker, connecting to shoulders that suddenly seem broad and strong. I’m happy that she’s happy here. But inside a secret, inner recess somewhere in my soul, I feel like I’m being quietly smothered.
Before marriage and Eriko, I lived the Tokyo bachelor’s life in a place called Zoshigaya. The area had several temples and a big shrine, with a rickety candy shop that’s been around since the mid 18th century. My abode was on the third floor of an old apartment building, standing on a narrow street that led to the shrine. Two fairly spacious rooms facing southeast, and a wrap-around veranda for a cool, 790 a month. (Our current 2 bedroom house in Oakland is 2850, which everyone assures me is an absolute steal.) Most of the time, I complained. I whined about the heat and humidity in summer, the whipping cold winds in winter. I hated the commute to work, and the subway cars with announcements in three languages (Japanese, English and Chinese) that came on before each and every stop. I cringed every time I heard a salariman cough or talk too loudly, because most Japanese men have really ugly voices.
I longed for sunny California, and the sight of white womens’ tanned legs stretching out of denim shorts, strolling the malls on a Friday afternoon. California Dreamin’. It had developed into a definite thing.
After my 40th birthday and 5 years after my marriage, I was done with Tokyo. I got my Japanese wife so had no further use for Japan, like a mercenary with his loot looking for a fast exit. I wanted to go home where there were no puddles on the sidewalks. Never did I want to stand in a crowded train again, chest to chest with a salariman. I wanted to back my own car out of my own garage, and drive my ass over to Crossfit classes. I would work on my abs. Binge watch on Netflix USA. And I would finally get to watch Superbowl with my dad. Besides, Eriko made it clear, during our numerous discussions about crossing the Pacific, that if she had wanted to stay in Japan she would have looked for a Japanese husband. “I want to go away to California” she said. “I want to change my life.” That clinched it. I applied to job openings in 5 mid-sized tech companies in and around the Bay Area, and landed one after 2 months of meetings and interviews.
Not surprisingly (for isn’t that how things work out?) I regretted the move to Nor Cal almost immediately. I missed Tokyo’s tiny alleyways, the narrow, labyrinthine streets. Most of all, I missed the complex texture of things like linen shirts and tatami mats, women’s arms, the taste of Japanese citrus. I missed the air, sticky with fumes and redolent of centuries of history. I missed the rain and how the thick, gray clouds seemed to hold the city in an unclenched fist. Sixteen years in Tokyo had spoiled me in many ways but I didn’t bargain for an annoyance – an irritation really – for the blithely ignorant, have-it-all American lifestyle. I had dreams of walking down an alley, turning the corner and seeing a cat bound across the pathway and my heart will be filled with gratitude, before I woke up to relentless sunshine streaming through the window. No fault of Nor Cal and certainly no fault of Eriko. It was me. Too far away, too long. Adjustment was going to take some time.
“Hey Eri,” I call out. “We need more potato salad!” “Okay!” I hear her yell cheerfully and I feel my mother cast an ironic glance in my direction. She doesn’t like it that my wife is the one doing the chores while her son sits around like a big galoot. On the other hand, I could see that she thinks it’s maybe okay – about 70% okay – because Eriko is an Asian. If I had married a white woman, it would be different. I would probably go into the kitchen with her and help her prep the salad. And our conversation on the patio would be more…lively? In-depth? Friendly but a little controversial? I ponder these things as Eriko emerges with a large wooden bowl. “My special potato salad,” she beams.
And my dad rouses himself from his torpor. “Did I hear potato salad? You have an incredible wife, you know that,” he says to me. “Of course I do. That’s a given,” I reply. And then we all gather around the table to help ourselves.
Hey, Asian guys! You’re hot! Don’t you feel better now. As a reward here is an unasked for smooch from a white woman—for free. She’s even blonde! Feel better now? No? Wait this isn’t the Valentine’s Day gift you always wanted?
As they say, all roads to hell are paved with good intentions.
It is unclear though, if the intentions of Leela Rose, an actress and self-proclaimed activist/Youtuber, were purely altruistic as she claims.
On September 30th, last year, Rose unleashed a now infamous video (trigger warning) titled Kissing Guys In Tokyo an instant sensation on the internet that went viral in a chickenpox kind of way. She prefaces the video with her sentiment that “white women can find Asian men attractive and that Asian men are not represented in Hollywood to her liking as romantic leads”. She declares that by going around Tokyo and kissing Asian men in Tokyo she wants to help fight the stereotype that Asian men are not desirable.
At this point, which is only the prelude to a white privilege nightmare, so many questions come to mind. How is a video of a white woman kissing random men on the street going to change the minds of those who run Hollywood? Moreover, her tone is completely devoid of any perspective from Asian actors who are fighting this stereotype on a daily basis, she speaks on the issue as a savior for the powerless who, conveniently are the object of her desire.
Does anyone remember Julien Blanc? Raise your hand if you do. Some are called Leela Rose a female version of the Pick-Up Artist—aka Juliette Blanc—but that is missing the point.
As her “social experiment” begins, there is a stream of horrific imagery of a blond woman forcefully launching surprise attacks on the faces of many bewildered Japanese men.
Many, after a stunned moment, go along with it.
The video continues to make the rounds on the internet but it has met with some harsh criticism, as well as scattered praise.
Japanese American playwright Leah Nanako Winkler, a vocal critic on the lack of Asian American representation in the US entertainment industry, weighs in on the issue.
“I think this white woman exemplifies clueless American entitlement–and reeks of privilege in such a destructive way that is embarrassing for our country. She is claiming to represent all western women-and I genuinely think she believes this because of the exact cultural biases she is claiming to criticize: she’s white and blonde and fits into the ‘ideal’ female beauty standards perpetuated in American culture -when in reality she cannot speak for anyone except for herself. As an American Woman- I’m mortified people like her are the clueless avatar for our country.”
Winkler further dissects “She is still fetishizing Asian men because she’s conflating all Asian identities into one- and making assumptions about an entire country (Japan) and its social politics regarding male desirability. Men in Japan as a whole don’t have problems getting laid in Japan.* How dare she assume they want her? It’s a level of entitlement that is next level honestly. American white women need to educate themselves before they speak up on Asian American issues…look what happens. It’s like white savior complex dressed in glitter and stupidity.”
It is worth repeating that Asian-American culture/people and other Asian cultures/people are not the same thing as Leela Rose assumes. Sexualizing one does not elevate the status of the other. In other words, objectification has never been empowering.
Another angered viewer, Greek woman Persephone Narra and her Korean American husband Kim Du Han uploaded a Youtube video in response. Han claims that if he was suddenly kissed on the street by a white woman he doesn’t know “he would know that she invaded my privacy and that it was sexual harassment and completely inappropriate.” Persephone stresses that if this were a man kissing random women, it would be sexual assault and the man would be in jail. She concludes the video saying, “No one in Hollywood is going to consider Asian men desirable because a girl sexually harasses them on the street.”
They go further by confronting Leela Rose on Facebook. When pressed to take the video down, Rose claims that she has apologized multiple times and that, “I’m not taking anything down because what I feel that I’m doing is right and I’m taking a stand for something that I care deeply about! I’ve gotten too much positive remarks from the Asian men to take this down. I will continue to try my best to promote more leading Asian men in the film industry whether people agree with my method or not.”
In other words: Watch out Asian men! Blond Face Sucker is on the loose!
As an Asian woman, writer and actor, I thought I’d ask Rose a few questions. She has yet to respond and she may never do but here they are. Some food for thought.
-Do you have Asian actor friends?
-Have you had conversations with them about their lack of representation in the industry? If so what was their response to your video?
-Have you gotten any positive feedback from the Asian American actor communities?
-Did you know that this would be controversial when you were making it? Were you surprised that some people are offended?
-Did all the men you kissed in the video consent to you before the shooting? (It seems in one instance you are informing them of the shoot after you have made out with them)
-Some people are drawing comparisons to you and Julian Blanc, a dating coach, who went around in Tokyo pushing Japanese girls’ faces to his crotch and preaching that foreign men can get away with this in Japan. How would you differentiate yourself?
-What other things can you do to help the Asian actors on their lack of representation?
-Would you recommend that other white females make these videos too so it becomes a movement?
-Other than Hollywood not thinking Asian men are desirable/fit for lead roles, what other problems are causing lack of representation in your view?
-How do you feel about the lack of representation in Hollywood for Asian actresses?
-You have said in other interviews that you are sexually attracted to Asian men. Would you say, you took advantage of this cause to help them being acknowledged as an opportunity to simultaneously fulfill your personal desires/agenda?
-In a different interview you stated you are attracted to Asian men. In your mind are Asian Americans and Asians for instance Japanese men the same? You point out that Japanese men are shy to approach women but also rail against the stereotype Hollywood has given them as nerds and losers. If you wanted to change the image of Asian American men, would it not be more effective to carry out this “experiment” in the US on Asian American men?
Gentle readers, how would you answer these questions?
*The writer would like to point out that while this is true, not many people in Japan are having sex these days but this is another issue entirely.
One of the abiding myths that exist among the Japanese is that we are a single race nation. The school system teaches among other things, that no one, but absolutely no one, lives here except us Japanese-speaking, NHK-loving folk, firmly entrenched in samurai values and our ethical values personified in our being workaholics. Those who aren’t a member of this clan? Well they just happen to be here by accident, and should be tolerated without being truly welcomed. Facts like the systematic pillage/plunder of the Ainu race in Hokkaido, the enslavement of Koreans brought here during the late 16th century, the Chinese laborers who came via Okinawa during the country’s modernization process in the early 20th century – such things are swept under the futon and politely ignored.
The myth swells up like an unwieldy monster when it comes to marriage. Among many respectful families in the Kansai area, prospective brides are literally put under a hot lamp and examined minutely. Family lineage is a huge issue and woe to any young woman if there’s a record of a non-Japanese tarnishing her family tree. Never mind that Kobe has a sizable Indian population (the biggest in Japan) and in Osaka, 1.28 people out of every 100 are “zainichi,” or Japanese Korean (Source: todo-ran.com). Kansai families are renowned for their conservatism and adamant about protecting their blood. And on the rest of the archipelago, many Japanese women will date “gaijin” or foreign men, but only a fraction of those couples ever make it to the altar.
On the other hand, once you go out of the major cities and into the countryside, you’ll see that Japanese men have been willing to marry outside the Japanese bracket, for the past 30 years. As elsewhere in the world, young Japanese women refuse to marry into farms that translate immediately to a life of endless toil. Consequently, men in rural areas consider themselves lucky to marry women from the Phillippines, China and South America, claiming that foreign women are much more hardworking helpmates than their cold and calculating Japanese counterparts. As for the language barrier, it could be just be the glue to bind a lasting union. As Tokuo Miyake, a dairy farmer in Matsumoto City says of his Phillippinna wife: “I like it that we don’t speak each other’s language very much. We live with my mother, and my wife doesn’t understand it when my mom lashes out at her. Because we understand only the bare essentials about each other, there’s less to be annoyed or irritated about.”
Opening March 19 is a French movie about this very subject called “Serial Bad Weddings” – a hilarious and sometimes poignant observation of the merge between traditional values and foreign culture. The French sleeper hit of 2014, (one out of every five people in France saw it) it has finally reached our shores, just in time for the Abe Administration to contemplate opening the nation’s doors to refugees another couple of centimeters this year. (Editor’s note: That might allow a small child to slip in)
Director/Co-writer Phillippe de Chauveron himself has been involved in an intense relationship with a Ghanian woman for the past decade and is now ready to tie the knot. “Speaking as a Frenchman, I think that my country can best be described as schizophrenic,” he said. “On the one hand, there are the ultra-rightists who want to crack down on foreigners and refugees, and then there are the liberals who are all for opening the gates. There is evidence of rampant racism but we try to take a stand on systematic discrimination and to help refugees start their lives anew. It’s very chaotic, but we’re always evolving.”
Intriguingly, France has the highest rate of mixed marriages in the EU – close to 20% of married couples are of differing nationalities. For the rest of Europe that number on average, is a paltry 3%. In Japan, mixed marriages have soared since 1965: one out of every 30 or so couples who got married between 2006 and 2013 fit that bill. 50 years ago, it was one out of every 230. (Source: nippon.com). De Chauveron says that the French are probably “more willing to experiment and try out things. Also, we are more likely to tire of relationships that go too smoothly. We thrive on arguments and passionate discussions and we love poking fun at each other’s racial foibles.” De Chauveron added that every mixed union is, “fraught with disaster and laced with laughter. It’s a matter of finding the right balance.”
The story unfolds around the 4 daughters of the Verneuil Family, one of the most respected old names in the Loire Region. The dad (Christian Clavier) and mom (Chantal Lauby) are a little dismayed when their daughters (whom they brought up to be good French Catholics) all marry foreign men: an Arab, a Jew and a Chinese man. They pin their last hopes on their youngest daughter, but she commits the ultimate faux pas by getting engaged to an African. Chaos ensues. “The French are still struggling with the ills of our colonial legacy,” said De Chauveron. In his view though, “at least we are struggling, and very much aware of these issues.” That’s much more than we can say for how things are in Japan.
But there’s one Japanese chipping away at the mixed marriage ice, so to speak. That would be Manga artist Jean Paul Nishi (despite his pseudonym he’s a total Nippon male). He is the author of a manga series about living as a Japanese in Paris, finding the love of his life and then bringing her back to Tokyo where they are now raising a son. “I liked the movie a lot,” said Nishi who was at the press screening. “I especially identified with the dad. In real life, I’m one of the husbands you know, one of the guys who marry a French girl and tick off the family and all that. But I could really tell what was going on in the mind of the father, probably because I’m Japanese and conservatism is in my blood.” Nishi said that having lived in both countries, he’s become hyper aware of the cultural differences between Japan and Europe. “The Japanese think that being an an enlightened adult and a global citizen and all that, is to ignore the bad stuff, sweep all that aside and pretend like they can’t see the elephant in the room. The Europeans and particularly the French, are the opposite. They want to have it out and engage in deep discussions or fling insults at each other and then finally reach an understanding with each other. The Japanese think it’s a virtue not to say what’s on their minds but in Europe, not speaking up and or being dishonest about your feelings can lead to irreparable results. I think the Japanese have a 50-year lag compared to the French, in terms of interacting with others not from these shores.”
On an optimistic note, we could probably shave off at least 5 years from that lag, when we start admitting to certain historical facts about the country and our own bad legacies.
Glico (Pocky) and the makers of Gogo no Kocha (Kirin) “afternoon tea” have teamed up to produce a special limited edition packaging for their products. Japan releases limited edition packages and flavors on a monthly basis. The Pocky flavor of the month is lemon, and it is supposed to match the new Gogo no Kocha flavor “teagurt” which is yogurt mixed with milk tea.
The pocky package features a spring design with featuring a girl or a boy on the edge of the box. The idea is to buy these two products together, because when you hold the bottle of tea next to the Pocky box, the boy and the girl appear to be kissing, or in a flirty pose.
We discovered something amazing after we flipped the bottle of tea. On the reverse side, it has picture of the opposite gender– meaning you can make a boy kiss a boy and a girl kiss a girl. These products are gay and lesbian friendly! Are Glico and Gogo no Kocha sneakily marketing to same-sex couples? Or are they unaware that they made their packaging to include them.
Same-sex couples are slowly gaining recognition from the Japanese government. Last year, Tokyo’s Shibuya and Setagaya wards began issuing marriage certificates to same-sex couples. Iga in Mie prefecture soon followed, becoming the third ward in Japan to allow same-sex couples to wed. The ban on dancing at Tokyo clubs was lifted. (Apparently this law was only enforced at gay bars.) Panasonic just recently made headlines for considering benefits for same-sex couples, which is a rare move for a huge mainstream corporation.
Japan is gradually(although slowly) becoming more accepting of gay rights. We hope this marketing campaign was intentional. It would be a shame if it was a mistake! Whoever gets the official answer from Kirin or Glico—wins a set of Teaghurt and Pocky!
Consider these 2 pictures. Before: Single, living alone in a 29 square meter apartment in Tokyo. The place is so filthy it’s a struggle every morning to shower, get dressed and get to the door. The toilet hasn’t been cleaned in 4 months and the tiny kitchen defies description. After: Living with a younger, handsome boyfriend in a new apartment twice the size of the old one. Clean hardwood floors and ample closet space. The bathroom decor features rose pink wallpaper and every household item is put away as soon as it’s used.
Needless to say, Japanese women toughing it out in the big city aspire to the “after” picture. Yet for many women trying to get by on this archipelago, reality edges ever close to “before” if not actually a precise duplicate.
Japanese women were once famed for being fanatical in their pursuit of cleanliness in the home and willing devotees at the altar of household chores. Now for many females, the mere thought of picking up clothes strewn on the floor, washing dishes piled in the sink and sorting combustible trash from the non-burnables and actually taking them out to designated spots on designated days of the week – all this is enough to bring on a mild case of eczema and/or insanity attack. We all have viable excuses to pull out at a moment’s notice: not enough time, not enough motivation, not enough cash left at the end of the month to buy cleaning products, not enough love during childhood, sibling troubles, boyfriend troubles…the list is enough to give Freud himself a nervous breakdown.
Enter the clutter consultants or chore specialists, all of whom comprise a huge chunk of the TK billion yen decluttering market. Among these, Marie Kondo or “Konmari” as she’s called in the US, has taken the concept out of the country and out into the big leagues. Time Magazine sited her among the “100 Most Influential People” alongside the other Japanese: Haruki Murakami. Apparently, a personage no less than Jamie Lee Curtis recommended that she make that list. Konmari’s book (US title: “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) is a New York Times bestseller. There’s a rumor that Michelle Obama picked it up, read it and loved it. Her oft quoted advice about de-cluttering: “Don’t keep anything in the house that doesn’t spark joy.”
Over on the homefront though, Konmari is just one among many decluttering specialists who exhort Japanese women to take control over their lives by taking control of their stuff. It’s an interesting philosophical proposition: no god, man, ideology or diet is going to be that magic wand, but the will and strength to clear out one’s closet and scrub the toilet. Once you’ve made de-cluttering a habit, “everything in life will follow,” according to Konmari. Uh-huh. Kinda like “Field of Dreams” without the baseball. If you clean it, he (or romance) will come.
In this journey of de-cluttering, the Japanese woman will encounter two enemies: her possessions, and her mother. She wants to follow Konmari’s maxim of throwing out everything that doesn’t spark joy. She will start out with every intention of doing so. But every time she tries to trash her belongings (her high school year book, old boyfriend photos, clothes bought at bargain sales and never worn, shoes growing moldy in the cabinet, body shaping underwear, cosmetics, bags of rice from three years ago, exercise equipment galore are among the popular items) her resolve falters. She is after all, a Japanese woman who has the word “mottainai” stamped into her DNA. “This might come in handy someday,” is a refrain she’s heard since childhood – from her parents, from schoolteachers, from relatives and friends her boyfriend’s mother. Besides, it’s a huge hassle to sort out the trash. Better just let sleeping garbage lie around until the right man comes along and asks to stay over in her apartment. THAT’S when she’ll clean up. Really.
Often, her mother enables her in the task of clutter fossilization. Every Japanese mom over 50 is a sucker for stuff anyway and the older they get, the stronger their obsessions. Take the case of my grandmother, whom I revered in childhood as a cool old lady. She could speak a little French, she smoked a pack a day and quoted Spinoza when the mood hit her. But when she died, the entire family were dumbfounded to discover huge boxes of horded bottle caps (used) and disposable chopsticks (unused) pushed into a dark corner of her closet. Kimonos that she hadn’t worn in decades were rumpled into another box, every one of them black with mold. In the kitchen, she had 4 kettles that were never used and about 500 spoons pushed every which way in a huge drawer. We finally gave up trying to clean the place and hired an expert team that deals exclusively with dwellings of the elderly. They charged 200,000 yen for the first 6 hours, and 150,000 the next day. Her daughter (my mother) complained endlessly about the expense and my grandmother’s hording habits but she’s now exhibiting the very same behavior. Last month, I discovered a box full of unused disposable chopsticks and nearly had a panic attack. Et tu, Mom?
Indeed, every de-cluttering specialist warns about mothers, especially if you happen to live with her. De-cluttering specialist and blogger Mai Yururi lived with her mom and grandma in an old house in Sendai – when 3.11 hit, the house was left standing but the colossal amount of stuff, accumulated over the years, came down in an avalanche and nearly killed them. After that, the two older women finally agreed to throw out some things, but if not for the earthquake, Yururi writes: “I could have never convinced them to de-clutter.”
There’s no doubt about it, the path to a clean, spare room with things that only spark joy is not just littered with stuff no one wants anymore, it’s practically a hallucination glimpsed among the dunes in the Sahara Desert. Oh, for a bottle of water.
Jake’s note: I meet a lot of people and BG is a friend of a friend. So I took him to my usual haunts. One thing that you learn in life, is that there is a huge gap between how people see you and you see yourself. 灯台は元暗し. BG is an incredibly bright fellow and I hope he visits Japan again soon. The opinions expressed here as his own although most of them I found pretty true.
Trying to sum Jake Adelstein up as simply “a character,” as I attempted to do so with my colleagues, doesn’t do him a shred of justice. The Missouri-born journalist has been opening the kimono to expose everything from the complexities of the Yakuza to the expectedly bizarre Japanese porn industry for nearly 20 years now. In addition to being print published hundreds of times over, he is also a prolific online publisher for the likes of VICE and the Daily Beast and is one of the most active journalists on social media, clocking more than 50k tweets to his handle. However, despite his apparent digital fluency, he strikes me more of a throwback to a hard boiled, hard drinking detective meets justice above all gumshoe reporter.
I met Jake through a high school pal, a producer on the film adaptation of Jake’s personal memoir, TOKYO VICE. Apparently, Daniel Radcliffe is in negotiations to play Jake-san. I was intrigued a year ago when I saw the book on my pal’s shelf, and borrowed it but never got to reading it until I boarded a plane for Tokyo last week.
I read half, and listened to the rest on mp3. The stories were gripping and Jake’s commitment to his zig zag path was compelling, there was no question I had to meet dude.
The person that snuck up on me in the cinematic 25th floor Ritz lobby in Tokyo Midtown was not who I had expected. I’m a pretty good gauge of character when I meet somebody in person, but it just goes to show that a book on tape, a one-way monologue, reveals only a shred of insight.
I expected a soft-spoken ex-pat with a respectful low pro, which would make sense on an island that has a derogative term for foreigners (gaijin.) Or a writer who had chronicled his experience in TOKYO VICE as a nostalgic memoir, reflecting on the many brushes with death, unimaginable sex-capades, but who had thrown in the towel in exchange for some peace and quiet.
To the contrary, Jake is an anxiety ridden Tasmanian devil, both nervous and cocky. He surprised me as I contemplated my glass of Hibiki, instantly making me feel like a bourgeois pig.
“Here you go”
He presented me with a crumpled shopping bag containing a Foreign Reporter Press Club t-shirt, a gift of sorts and gesture that embodies his menschy Jewish roots with a far Eastern sensibility of hosting.
“You eat dinner?”
“No. Let’s do it.”
I threw the 40 bucks of whiskey back like I had just joined the Tokyo beat, gumshoes have not time to swirl. And then we were off, ears popping as the elevator free fell to the pristine Tokyo streets, the cleanliness now only a veneer after having read Jake’s book.
As we sped walked through the underground channels, I couldn’t help but feel like somebody may be following us, or maybe my imagination had grabbed a hold of TOKYO VICE and was running amuck. Regardless, Jake walks like a shoplifter who knows better than to run and call attention to his lift. I think this is his natural disposition, a neurotic energy, that if he were to cease moving may induce sempuku. A clumsy shark of sorts.
“I know this great Chinese place – it’s cheap and you can get a whole Peking Duck for next to nothing… you’ll like it and we can walk there.”
Cut to me just trying to keep up with his furious pace. He navigated us starting from the Ritz and through the underground walkways to our destination, the entire time, rifling from yakuza, the movie, and the Japanese porn industry. He led me into a magazine shop with no explanation, nearly bulldozing a few locals in the process. He operates with either reckless abandon only a person with little self awareness can in a country that takes politeness very seriously or with over-confidence, only afforded to those who’ve managed to penetrate the most protected institutions in Japan, never mind as a gaijin… Another dichotomy Jake embodies.
He grabs two magazines that look to may be porn, “these are really rare now. Here’s one for you and one for Adam [our mutual connection], I’ll explain what they are later.”
He never explains, but I know that they’re Yakuza fanzines from a reference in TOKYO VICE. Think People magazine for mafia fanboys.
We continue on our way. I consider jogging, two feet off the ground at once would be less strenuous. We arrive at a hidden restaurant up a flight in a non-descript building, only to walk in and find a bustling dining hall filled with locals and smoke.
We get a vat of sweet Chinese wine that tastes like shit. Jake insists he can only have a drink or two as he’s on deadline. We’re seated next to a gaggle of Japanese girls in their mid twenties. Our duck finally arrives, I’m drunk, and Jake offers the remaining bits to our neighbors. He has them cackling, he’s a naturally charming guy – though questionable whether he’d have the same mojo stateside. At this point, probably so. His triumphs in Japan, cracking a notoriously isolationist society has earned him stripes of confidence he can take anywhere, that much is obvious.
His phone rings and he takes the call at the table, leaving me to kibitz in broken Japanglish with the girls.
He barks into the phone in a familiar tone that tells me he has a lady at home expecting him not to be home too late. I can’t make out the conversation, as I’m struggling to not completely embarrass myself with my poor Japanese.
“I’ll do the translation tonight, don’t worry. [pause] Yes! I’m with a friend of the producer of the film right now. We’re eating. I’ll be home in an hour and do it, I promise.” The call is actually work related, however, all work for Jake is personal.
It seems that Jake’s always on deadline in an obsessive sort of way.
Jake shows me his phone, sharing a photo he claims is worth a billion dollars. It’s a yet to be released shot of a crime family boss with the president of Japan University, who’s also the head of the Japanese Olympic Committee. The implications for corruption are obvious. “I’m publishing a story on this. The reporter who originally had this was beaten severely.” It was my idea that we meet and get dinner in the first place so I naturally offered to treat when we first corresponded. When the waitress brings a to go bag with dishes never intended to be eaten during dinner I can only laugh to myself… journalism never has, and maybe never will pay, but I’m more than happy to subsidize the honest work of a damn good investigative journalist.
Jake clearly feeds off the danger. Sure enough the piece was published days later. I get a strange feeling, not that I’m a clairvoyant, but just sometime tells me that Jake is pushing his luck. He insists that he knows what he’s doing. But that’s what I’m afraid of.
It was my idea that we meet and get dinner in the first place so I naturally offered to treat when we first corresponded. When the waitress brings a to go bag with dishes never intended to be eaten during dinner I can only laugh to myself… journalism never has, and maybe never will pay, but I’m more than happy to subsidize the honest work of a damn good investigative journalist.
TOKYO VICE the movie is scheduled to start production in 2015 – but it’s a small miracle getting a feature film made in today’s market. I’m a fan of Daniel Radcliffe, so nothing against him, but I’ll be shocked if he can do justice to the real Jake-san.
Punching someone properly is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It was not enough to simply drive my fist forward and connect with the target. No, when selected to play the role of the model attacker for the Aikido training of a Japanese police officer, this is nowhere near sufficient. Hips must be aligned with shoulders. The wrist must only extend at the peak of the strike. And I must always, without fail, put my full weight into the punch, driving my front knee forward, as if it is the last punch I will ever make. “Chigau! Chigau!” my teacher screamed. Wrong, wrong!
Everything I was doing was wrong. I had to focus every fiber of my being on what the Fieldman, the head teacher, was saying to me. In all things his word was final; in all things he was right. “What you are throwing is not a punch,” he said as he towered over me. I knelt obediently on my knees. “What you are throwing is shit!” I planted my face into the mat of the Tokyo dojo in apology.
This was yet another day in the 11-month senshusei (専修生) course, the professional instructor training course of the Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu Dojo (養神館合気道本部道場), known to be one of the hardest martial arts courses in the world. Participants are taken from the absolute basics to a black belt and instructor certification in less than a year. The process to become a black belt in most martial arts normally takes several years of training. Yoshinka Akido typically takes four. But the full-time senshusei course is not normal. Training like the live-in dojo students of a foregone age, we braved 8 hours of exhaustion and injury day-in and day-out. My day as a punching model ended like many days did, running around the mats with a rag in one hand and disinfectant in the other. I cleaned the blood that had spattered out of my knuckles, rubbed raw from hundreds of full-contact punches. Far from thinking about the pain, my only concern was that if I did not work fast enough the Fieldman or his assistants would see the red spots and yell at me for having carelessly sullied the mats yet again.
If you had asked me anytime before 2011 if I would consider joining a program like senshusei, I would have laughed. Me? The computer nerd who only started studying Japanese in high school because he wanted to play the video games and read the comics that hadn’t come out in America? The self-confessed “otaku” who spent whole days in the giant video arcades in Japan hunched over a screen? Prior to Yoshinkan I had never set foot in a dojo, let alone thought I would one day be a certified instructor. In fact, I had pretty much given up on myself athletically.
Secondary school for me was an all around horrible time of life. I spent more than half of school involved with junior varsity level athletics, but never achieved any level of success. When I think back to these times, I mainly recall struggling to keep up with stronger classmates, most of whom had a year of puberty on me. It’s easy to realize in retrospect how much of a difference one year of growth can make in athletic ability but I couldn’t fully comprehend this as an 12-year-old preparing to start 8th grade. What I could comprehend was that I needed to pick a sport. Afraid of the beating I would receive were I to pick football, I chose wrestling, where at least only one person could beat on me at a time.
Junior high school wrestling was not too bad. I had a wonderful wrestling coach in 8th grade named Scott Schulte who encouraged me to never let myself down. The only athletic figure in my teenage years to ever take me seriously, Coach Schulte was one of my favorite memories of that year, often letting us take breaks from practice as he told us anecdotes from his side business installing stereo equipment for Japanese clients (“You must unprug machine!”). At the time, my only athletic successes in life had come from using my Nintendo controller to propel an 8-bit avatar to victory in the many video games that cluttered my room, so I always enjoyed hearing Coach’s stories. Unfortunately, I remained as inept at the end of the year as when I started, and Coach Schulte left the school soon after.
The rest of my coaches for junior high and high school sports – cross country, track and field, and wrestling—were not as supportive. Some tried to help me as I flailed around with a javelin or discus, but most gave up quickly. Many were content to simply watch me run clumsily about.
My first high school wrestling coach was a good man who simply didn’t know what to do with someone as uncoordinated as my 98-pound weakling self. While he had worked with improving athletes before, it was as if I was the first specimen of a completely talentless teenager he had ever seen. I enjoyed the wrestling itself and can still remember techniques after not having done them for close to 15 years, but nothing I ever did was right and most of it was so wrong it didn’t even merit a comment from him. When I attempted to replicate the moves he had just demonstrated, he would watch from the side and just kind of shake his head.
The one time I remember him actually correcting me is during the last day of practice in 10th grade. We were going over one of the fundamental techniques in high-school wrestling: the one-handed takedown. This was one of the first moves a young wrestler learns and I had known how to do it for almost two and a half years at that point. Of course, like all of the other moves, I still couldn’t do it right. I remember being told to do the move again and doing it wrong— and then being told to do it again and losing my balance and falling. The coach then turned to me and said, “Ok, Ben. Last chance. This is your absolute last chance to get something right before the end of the year. Now do it right!” I took a deep breath, focused, and looked my partner straight in the eye, prepared to do it right and show the coach I was capable of doing at least one basic move.
I did it wrong.
This wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the coach’s reaction. Instead of consoling an obviously miserable me or even getting angry, he said, “Well, I guess that’s that,” and walked off. That was the last wrestling practice I ever attended. This was also the moment that I remember more than anything else from my teenage brush with athletics: me failing and the coach walking away. I didn’t even merit a correction because I was just that bad.
While my failures with the wrestling team were probably the latent trigger for my interest in martial arts, it’s my memories of the running teams I was on that were most painful.
Running wasn’t an organized sport in my school until the beginning of high school so I waited until the spring of 9th grade to finally join the track team. I was very excited about this. I learned all of the coach’s names before the first day. I learned all of the captain’s names and what events they did. I figured I should be able to make captain myself in 3 or 4 years.
Things did not happen this way. I initially only did running events and although I wasn’t the slowest person, I was the slowest boy. Far from making varsity, or even junior varsity, I was relegated with the other underdeveloped boys and girls (mostly girls) to “thirds,” where our main job was to fill in slots at track meets for the less-popular events so that the races looked full. I was normally assigned to the hurdles, a race I grew to enjoy, having remembered playing the virtual equivalent so many times as a child on Nintendo’s World Class Track Meet. My skills with the Power Pad did not, however, translate to a physical track and I performed pitifully, often finishing in double the time it took the 1st place finisher to reach the goal line.
Like any human being, I have had plenty of failures in life and these sprinting non-successes would not stand out so much had it not been for the nightmarish presence of my cross-country coach. Sure there was the track-and-field coach who reminded us all that a sports team is like the human body, “and there’s only room for one asshole and that’s me.” There was also that fencing coach who insisted that any student who didn’t practice enough to get blisters on his hands was “not an athlete of mine.” But this was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the sheer malevolent force of my high school’s most successful running coach in history, the aptly named Mr. Swift.
To put it simply, the man had presence. This was probably the main reason why our school began winning championship after championship soon after he became head coach. Runners treated him as if he were a demi-god, all chipping in to buy team T-shirts that read, when viewed from the back by an opposing runner they had passed, “You’re not Mr. Swift.” Standing at 6 feet with an ever-present smirk visible under his Lucifer-esque goatee, Mr. Swift had certain beliefs – namely in winning. He did not believe in many other things, including the concept of an injury.
“It has come to my attention that some of you are not attending every practice,” he said during a team meeting, pausing to hold one finger to his left nostril and blow the contents of its pair onto the grass beside him. The issue at hand, which had given rise to the team meeting, was that one of the captains had taken off for a sprained foot. “I will not have my captains setting a bad example. I do not believe in injury.” The captain in question, Keanu, who was normally Mr. Swift’s star pupil, shifted nervously beside him. From that point forward, injuries on men’s cross country team ceased to exist and were replaced by shame, the only recognized reason for an athlete’s absence.
Mr. Swift soon took an interest in me as the slowest member of his “pack” and began sending “encouragement” my way. During roll call, my name was left off the roster. After a few times, I spoke up and Mr. Swift grinned and replied, “Oh! I forgot Benboas!” pronouncing my first and last names as if they were a single word. From then on I was either “Benboas” or “Boas,” the only two names I now dislike being called.
Another day, as I huffed and puffed my way up yet another trip up the long slope leading from the road to my alma mater, Mr. Swift would trot gracefully behind me, always staying only a few steps away so that I could hear the jazz-like crooning he used to remind me of the task at hand.
Oh why do I even try That hill is just so high It’s just too hard for me Why won’t he let me be?
At one point I asked him what song he was quoting. He blithely replied that he had written it on the spot for me.
This “encouragement” continued for some time, but Mr. Swift realized that a special case such as me required special attention and thus decided to assign his top acolyte, Keanu, to supervise my “improvement.” The captain of the running team, Keanu, was everything I wasn’t. He was tall; I wasn’t. He was fast; I wasn’t. He was good-looking. I was covered in pimples. Keanu had a girlfriend and would regularly discuss with his teammates the potential demerits of exhausting yourself by having sex before a track meet. The closest I had ever come to sex was asking out my math class partner and being told that she was a lesbian.
While Mr. Swift’s methods of encouraging me to move faster were somewhat subtle, Keanu eschewed indirect shaming for out-and-out bullying. Runners under Keanu’s command would shadow me as I struggled along, throwing rocks at my head and then giggling when I turned around, saying that I must have kicked the dirt up myself “because you were running so fast.” One day while dealing with shin splints, Keanu decreed that because I was moving so slowly, I should spend the rest of practice out of sight in the nearby construction workers’ port-o-potty. After this day, another hated moniker was added to my list of nicknames: “Royal Flush.”
It was a rainy day when Keanu decided to unleash his worst on me. We were running around the lacrosse field in the pouring rain, because Mr. Swift apparently did not believe in unfit weather conditions, either. As we ran through a particularly muddy patch, Keanu stopped. He looked up at the sky for a moment in silence, raindrops pelting his face, then at the rest of the runners, and then at me. He seemed to be considering something. Then, suddenly, the rhythm of the raindrops was broken by his clarion call:
“It’s beat up Boas day!”
All of a sudden, I was surrounded by muddy figures. The pushing immediately began and I was thrown from runner to runner, struggling to keep from falling into the mud as a cackling Keanu hovered beside me kicking sludge high into my eyes. Slipping and sliding as I tried to keep my balance, all I could think about was how much I hated Keanu. I hated his stupid laugh, I hated his talent. I hated everything about him, and craved to be the one inflicting punishment on him for once. Finally gaining purchase on the ground, I ripped myself free from the pushing and charged him, yelling as loud as I could, consumed by rage as I tried to get my hands on him. My mind was blank with pure unadulterated rage as I lunged forward at Keanu. Once, just once, I was going to be the strong one. I was going to be the one in control.
Keanu waited for me to get a foot away from him before neatly jumping back, laughing as I finally lost my balance and fell into the mud, my yell turning into a pathetic gurgle. Keanu went back to kicking mud on me and then, satisfied with his work, rallied the team and ran off without me. It was the most powerless moment of my life. I will never forget the rage and frustration I felt then. Like so many other times, I was a failure and there was nothing I could do about it.
I dropped out of the running team the next year and spent the last two years of high school having nothing to do with organized sports, instead doubling my focus on video games. Deciding that I wanted to be able to play video games that had not yet been brought over from Japan, in my senior year I successfully petitioned my principal to allow me to study Japanese and the next year went off to college as an East Asian Studies major. Some years later I graduated and found a way to move to Japan, the video game capital of the world. Having moved to the homeland of Mario and all of my virtual athletic successes, I thought I might be able to find solace from my physical failures. But during all those years, the rage and hurt never went away. I wondered what Keanu was up to, if he ever faced restitution for what he had done. I wondered what would happen if I ever met him again. Of course, even if I were able to confront him, what could I do about it? I wasn’t capable of harming anything, let alone someone bigger than me.
The mind works in mysterious ways. I had never thought I’d wind up doing athletics again, but after several years working in Japan, my subconscious sprung a trap on me. After a bad breakup and subsequent existential crisis, everything seemed pointless. I was so desperate to get out of my head that I told a good friend that I would try “anything” to get my ex off of my mind. “As long as you’re in Tokyo, why not try Yoshinkan?” he said. The very next day I called the dojo to ask if I could join. After receiving a brief reply in the affirmative, I informed them that I was coming over right then. I did not tell the man on the phone that I had very little idea what Yoshinkan was. But my subconscious seemed to have had a good idea.
Yoshinkan is a branch school of Aikido, a Japanese martial art that is known for being non-confrontational. Founded by Morihei Ueshiba in the early 20th century, it is one of the newest Japanese martial arts and arguably the most unique. Instead of defending by dodging or counter-attacking, Aikido practitioners use the energy of their opponents’ attacks against them, redirecting their energy in such a way that not only is the attacker subdued, but also left unharmed. Philosophically, Aikido is perhaps superior to all other martial arts in that, if done right, it results in the fight never having occurred in the first place. This philosophical side is probably what Aikido is most known for in the West. Most of the time the Aikido that is taught in America is presented as very peaceful and harmonious; many of the techniques looks almost like a martial arts version of ballet.
The Yoshinkan School is a bit different. Founded shortly after the end of World War II, it quickly grew to prominence as the dojo where the Tokyo Metropolitan Police sent their instructors to be trained. Instead of smooth techniques that flow peacefully, Yoshinkan practitioners focus on form and precision, preferring to do a technique powerfully rather than peacefully. Although the school is no different from mainstream Aikido in that the aim is to defend from an attack without injuring the attacker, Yoshinkan tends to cause a lot more pain along the way— non-injurious pain, but pain nonetheless.
Yoshinkan was founded by Gozo Shioda, known to be one of Ueshiba’s top disciples. Gozo was known as the “god of martial arts” back in Japan’s post-war period and is the only person to have been awarded the top dan level in Aikido by the International Martial Arts Federation. Although barely over 5 feet fall, Gozo was a monster in his heyday, taking down everyone from yakuza gangsters to judo masters. After the war, he began his own dojo, specializing in teaching Japan’s growing police and corporate security forces.
Gozo’s skills were so amazing that he soon became legendary. Famous figures ranging from the Japanese crown prince to Mike Tyson visited his dojo. When Robert Kennedy made a visit to Japan, he ordered his 6-foot-tall bodyguard to face Gozo on the mats. Although a full foot shorter, Gozo easily pinned him down – much in the way a spider effortlessly spins a fly into its web. The man was a true master.
Of course, it being my first day at the dojo, I was a long way from mastery. Beginners in Yoshinkan are drilled in a series of six basic movements to develop body coordination and lower-body strength. Although simple, actually doing the movements is brutal. All six emphasize a low center of gravity while extending the front knee, putting as much weight as possible forward while keeping the back straight. It’s like doing a forward lunge, but in a completely controlled way in which the final hyper-extended pose is held.
The worst of these six movements is a horrible number called hiriki-no-yosei-ni (肘力の養成二). Imagine being precariously perched all the way on your right knee, lunging all the way forward with your arms held up in front of your head. From here, you slowly shift your hips 180 degrees while extending your left arm directly forward as your weight settles onto your left knee. You’ve gone from being extended on one knee to being extended on the other, keeping your center of gravity down the whole time. Holding this position for any amount of time causes your knees, arms, and hips to burn.
It was this burning which was at the core of my relationship with the Fieldman. The head of the main Yoshinkan dojo, the Fieldman, was a piece of work. He came to Tokyo from the countryside hoping to find a martial arts master to apprentice under and found one in Gozo Shioda, the founder of Yoshinkan. The Fieldman then spent the next ten years living within the dojo itself, tending to Gozo’s every need and dedicating himself to the man and his practice.
The Fieldman, like Gozo, was not tall at all. He was also not much of a talker. Shying away from long lectures, he preferred body language to communicate. So when he came over to me struggling to move correctly, instead of telling me what to do, he pushed down on my hips as low as they went and then slowly pulled on my outstretched arms so that my center of gravity was gradually moved further and further forward. My knees began to burn more and more, and my body began to gradually shake and shake from the pressure.
And then, I fell. Just like so many times before.
From my vantage point on the ground, I looked up to see the Fieldman looking down at me. His lips slowly formed a round shape. “Hoo!” He half-hooted, half-laughed at me as he turned his back on me to walk towards another practitioner.
Well, I thought to myself as I got back up to my feet, I guess nothing ever really changes. Another attempt at something athletic. Another failure. And another teacher giving up on me.
With thirty minutes still on the clock until the end of the training session, I figured I didn’t have anything better to do but try doing hiriki-no-yosei-ni again and slowly eased my way back into the painful position, closing my eyes to calm myself from the strain.
When I opened my eyes the Fieldman was in front of me. “Hip down,” he said as he again pushed my lower back down so that my center of gravity was as low as it could painfully go. “Knee bend,” he said as he pulled my hands forward so that I was yet again precariously teetering on the brink of falling. My knees burned. My body once again shook from the strain. And then, I fell again.
“Hoo!” hooted the Fieldman as he looked down at me again and wandered off.
Not really understanding what had just happened, I got into position again only to find that the Fieldman was already behind me guiding me back into a body posture that I had now decided was actually impossible for me to maintain. But no matter how many times I fell, as soon as I was up again the Fieldman was ready for me, helping me to face the impossible yet again.
While changing out of my martial arts uniform after class, I tried to wrap my head around what had happened that day. I had failed, and people had laughed at me. This much I was used to, but it didn’t usually happen multiple times in a session.
From then on, I started going to all the Fieldman’s classes.
As the weeks went along, I continued my twice-weekly pilgrimage to the dojo to huff and puff as the Fieldman continued to chuckle at my attempts to become adept at the basics. Eventually, I progressed to actual techniques, although these were not very effective. “Your technique should be strong, but it’s weak!” the Fieldman would say while pointing at my partner who had been unaffected by my joint lock. “Your partner is supposed to be straining, but he’s relaxing!” He then bent his arm behind his back to imitate being held in my hold and then used his other hand to mime smoking a cigarette, emphasizing how ineffective I had been. Mou ikkai! “Again!”
This routine continued for some time. As I became a regular, I started to become familiar with the other members of the dojo. There was the 64-year-old black belt who loved Aikido for its accessibility, having only started four years earlier at the age of sixty. There were the office staff, who were all black belts themselves. And then there were the senshusei.
Part of a program, which dates back over fifty years, the Yoshinkan senshusei are a special group of students who undertake an Aikido apprenticeship. Unlike regular members of the dojo who can come and go as they please, senshusei must treat their training as a full-time job, coming in early five times a week to clean the dojo before beginning their training, which involves at least four hours on the mats. Made up mostly of full-time policemen with an emphasis on those with riot duty, the senshusei course had opened itself to foreigners twenty years ago in the hopes of spreading Gozo’s teachings abroad.
I soon met two foreigners taking the course that year, a Canadian and a Scotsman. From their heavily battered arms and constant exhaustion, it was clear that the course was not regular training. Whereas I had struggled with maintaining hiriki-no-yosei ni for ten seconds, senshusei from their first month are forced to hold it for close to sixty seconds multiple times an hour. Participants toughen their arms by repeatedly striking them against their partners’ and regularly participate in usagi tobi (うさぎ跳び), rabbit jumps, an exercise so bad for your knees that it was banned in all Japanese schools thirty years ago.
The course is, to put it bluntly, a year of hell. Known throughout the martial arts world as one of the toughest courses on Earth, the dropout rate for the course is close to 40 percent. One day in the locker room I asked the Scotsman what the toughest part of the course was. He looked at me and gave a weary shrug. “It’s not how bad you get beat up. It’s showing up every day. Every damn day. The slog. That’s what gets you.”
Weeks turned into months and I continued my visits to the dojo. January came along and still dealing with my existential crisis, I decided that my job as an academic researcher was pointless as well. I had no idea what to do instead and surprised myself by beginning to consider what would happen if I were to join the senshusei course.
God knows why I thought this, since I was bad. I was really bad. Really, really bad. I couldn’t do a single technique right, my break falls were more like thud-falls and seiza (正座), the kneeling position that forms the basic stance of half the techniques, was so painful for me that I would keel over after two minutes of it. Although it had been over ten years since my wrestling coach wrote me off, I felt as if nothing had changed. I could not do a single thing right and there was nothing I could do about it.
Oddly enough, there was something very freeing about this realization. If my studies were all pointless and my efforts at training completely fruitless, then in effect I had nothing to lose by training for a year since anything else I would do was pointless anyways. I had become so depressed that in believing everything was impossible to succeed at, I had ironically made it possible for myself to do anything.
But even this sense of existential bravery wasn’t enough to keep my hands from shaking as I approached the Fieldman during the only occasion I had to see him outside of formal training: the annual party held near the end of that year’s senshusei course. I held a beer bottle in one hand as I approached so that I could offer to pour his drink, giving myself an excuse to ask him the question that had been on my mind all month: “Do you think I might be able to join the course?”
I politely got his attention and, after ritually pouring him a glass, asked my question. He took a sip of the beer and then looked at me. He spoke slowly. “To be senshusei you must be physically tough,” he said. “And also mentally tough.” Before he could say anything else, another student had come up offering another refill. I was left alone to ponder the meaning of the words, “mentally tough.” In keeping with my earlier thoughts, I decided to take it as follows: Even if I spent the year failing every test and not being able to do anything, as long as I didn’t quit, then I would have been “mentally tough.” And so, without anything better to do for the next 11 months, I handed in my application to become a mushikera (虫けら), a worm at the very bottom of the totem pole in one of the most hardcore dojos in the world.
Being a senshusei is the equivalent of a full-time job in martial arts and then some. Senshusei show up every day before 7 A.M. and race around the dojo cleaning every inch until it’s time for the first hour’s lesson. Then the daily formal greeting to the administration, in which the senshusei squad leader must, at the top of his lungs, formally announce that all members are present. Then another ninety minutes of training, half an hour to gulp down lunch, and finally another ninety minutes of blood, sweat and – particularly in my case – tears.
Once a crybaby, always a crybaby. The tears came nearly every single class. Anything the class was told to do, I couldn’t do. Movements that I struggled with during my time as a “normal” student became hell since, once I had become a senshusei, I was required to do moves not only correctly, but also at top speed. Any mistakes at all are quickly reprimanded by a scream from the instructor at which point the offender must repeat the technique from the top while the rest of the class waits. As I picked myself up from the mat after falling from the strain of yet another hyperextension exercise, painful memories from my adolescence started forming in my vision. Through the pain in my knees I was somehow aware of my wrestling coach walking away from me, Mr. Swift jeering at me from behind his perfectly groomed goatee, Keanu gloating over my mud-soaked self. Everything was impossible and there was nothing I could do about it. Every day, every hour, I wondered why the dojo didn’t tell me to stop coming. But management never said a word and so I kept showing up. The months passed, and the blood and tears continued.
It was halfway through the course when I found out that there was, indeed, something that I could do, though it was not related to technique or form. Even after six months, I still flailed my way through most basic techniques and even had problems simply standing in the basic stance. Two tests had come and gone, both of which I failed, and my reputation as the weakest link had largely been accepted by my training partners, the foreigners so gung-ho to learn Aikido that they travelled halfway across the world, and the cops who largely accepted my existence on what I can only assume was a Japanese sense of mercy for the underdog. Thankfully there was one thing that I had that no one else in the course could even hope to obtain, but it didn’t come out until the most grueling day of the course.
Tasudori (多数取り) means “taking on multiple attackers.” Aikido places a special importance on being able to deal with multiple opponents and, as a result, nearly all forms of the art incorporate practice sessions involving as many as five attackers all converging on the same defender who must navigate through them, interrupting their flow as s/he nimbly evades and parries. Yoshinkan is no different and requires all practitioners testing for anything higher than a first-degree (lowest) black belt to take on two or at most three opponents at once.
The thing that sets Yoshinkan apart, however, is that the attacks are more-or-less for real. Whereas mainstream Aikido involves attacks that are largely for form and will not do much damage if they connect, participants playing the attacking role in a Yoshinkan test will punch and strike with almost full force. Bruises and blood are not uncommon.
Naturally, the senshusei take this a level further. First, there are four attackers, something which even the highest black belts never have to face. Second, they are armed. One of the attackers holds a wooden dagger and the other a wooden sword. Third, rather than the attacks being more or less for real, they are for real and anyone who happens to connect with the dagger or sword will feel it for at least a week.
It was in this class in which I finally proved myself useful. I couldn’t do any techniques right and I didn’t have proper balance. My knees had never gotten flexible enough to even do a proper seiza. But being a good attacker tasudori is less about precision and more about endurance. You must become a meat bag, being hit and hit again, getting up every time as you lunge at the testee another time. And I’ll be damned if I wasn’t the best meat bag in my group.
I’m surprised I hadn’t noticed it earlier. All those years of only being able to see myself as physically weaker than those around me had rendered me unable to see the truth: I was physically bigger than every other senshusei. The Japanese cops may have learned more technically from the training, but going to the dojo every day had put 20 pounds of muscle on me and made me bigger than anyone there. I couldn’t use the muscle properly, my techniques still didn’t work, but that wasn’t my job during tasudori. I didn’t have to be accurate or remember complicated steps. I just had to chase the other senshusei like a man possessed.
How would you feel if you had license to run up to a martial artist, an actual law enforcement professional, and punch him as hard as you could, not needing to fear any sort of violent reprisal? And not just a regular punch either, a full lunge with all of your body weight in it. As someone who had spent his whole life only being on the receiving end of beatings I can say that it felt, well, liberating. All of a sudden, I was the one with the strength. Other people were running away from me. In the real world I would have never wanted to play this role— the last thing I ever wanted to do was become someone else’s Keanu, but this day the dojo required me to. And I was good at it!
For nearly an hour, I ran around punching Japanese policemen again and again, getting thrown and rolling off the ground to run up and punch again, punching so hard and so repeatedly that by the end of the day half the class was covered in my bloody knuckle prints. I had beaten my knuckles into so many uniforms so many times that the bleeding took two weeks to stop. If you look at my right hand today you can still see two pink scars on my knuckles.
The practice ended, like so many others, with the Fieldman telling all of us that we had done it completely wrong. I was told to get up and demonstrate my punching posture to the rest of the class so that the Fieldman could imitate it and show exactly why it was, to return to the beginning of my story, a shitty way of punching. But as I bowed in apology for my imperfect form I hid the biggest grin I had had that year. The Fieldman had used my mistake as a demonstration for the class. This meant I had actually done a good job!
Training ended and after mopping up the blood from the mats I still couldn’t believe it. Although indirectly, the Fieldman had actually complemented me. It was like being hit by lightning. Dazzled, I had to take my time changing into my street clothes. As the cops changed out of their dogi and into the suits they were required to wear, I overheard a couple of them talking about their new Nintendo 3DS games. One of them mentioned that he was saving up to buy the newest title in the Zelda series.
I began listening closer since they had never talked about video games before. Excited to have found a fellow connoisseur, I turned around and the atmosphere chilled. The policeman who has been talking cut himself off and rushed to finish putting on his belt. The rest of them avoided eye contact as they put on their jackets and shuffled out of the room silently.
Figuring I had made yet another cross-cultural faux pas I blithely continued changing. Then it hit me. The cops were just like me. They liked video games; they just weren’t allowed to talk about them. They were there because of their job so they had to put up a tough act but inside they were no different from I was. I hadn’t realized it because I spent the whole course assuming that I couldn’t do martial arts because I was and always would be a nerd. For all I knew, some of them were thinking the same thing. After all, they had just gotten beaten up by someone bigger than them.
The rest of the course was a blur. We soon reached our next test, which I naturally failed. Then it was time for our performance at the annual winter party, where only a year ago the Fieldman had told about being mentally tough. After the performance, an old man came up to me and explained that he was so happy to see a young American trainee because it reminded him of the time when he was my age and an American named Robert Kennedy came to the dojo. I convinced him to do the technique that had pinned Kennedy’s bodyguard on me. Weeks later we took our instructors exam and all passed.
Finally, the last day of the course came. It was my turn to face the multiple attackers punching me so hard and so properly that their fists bled. Fists pummeled into my sides and the wooden sword came crashing down on my arm, turning it purple. And then – it was over. I got my black-belt and instructing license and woke up the next day trying to figure out what to do now that I had completed my senshusei tenure.
It’s been over a year since I finished my year-long martial arts course and I have now settled into a lifestyle that doesn’t involve getting my butt kicked for hours a day. When I decided to sign up for the course, I had expected things to be different when I finished, but they don’t really feel that way. I still don’t know what I’d do if I found myself in a fight. I still don’t feel like I’m athletically adept.
Of course, even though I don’t feel like things have changed, I can still point to things that actually have. The coolest change is that I can now do flip-breakfalls on a carpeted floor. This is excellent for entertaining children. I’ve also probably gotten better at dealing with stressful situations. Calmness is perhaps the best thing you can learn from a training environment.
Sometimes I wonder how the calmer me would have handled the situations I struggled so much with as a teenager. A little while ago, I decided to look up some of my primary tormentors from my school days. The coaches have aged and the adolescents have somehow transformed into adults. It didn’t take long to find a photo of my old track and field tormentor, Keanu. Back in high school he was tall, handsome and a pretty good athlete, all things I thought were completely out of my reach. Now he’s fat, pimply, and works in an IT office. And the boy who he used to torment is a black belt.
Part of me wants to say that it’s karma that the tables have turned. Keanu was the only person in my life who ever regularly physically roughed me up. Now I could do the same to him if I wanted.
But I don’t. I don’t want to do that. There’s no real use dealing with schadenfreude and besides, Keanu’s not a bad guy. Goodness knows he probably had his own problems. I may have been the originator of some other poor teenager’s high school nightmare. Keanu and I met when we did and I’ll probably never forget what happened then. But neither of us are who we were then. Things change. He’s different now. And so am I.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember I’m not who I was before. I still go to the Yoshinkan dojo and there is a new crop of senshusei who didn’t know me during the course. They only know me as the big foreign black belt and insist on calling me sensei, teacher. I don’t see myself as anything near a teacher-quality model, but they nevertheless compete to be my training partner and ask advice about how to perfect techniques that I myself am still working on. I suppose this is just how things work. My time as a trainee has passed. No matter how much I want to see myself as an inept practitioner, to people who are new, I am nothing other than a seasoned veteran.
It’s a role I’m still new to playing, but, thankfully, I’ve realized that I don’t need to be perfect. A part of me will probably always see myself as a weakling. I’ll certainly never become the best martial artist around. I’ve realized that I don’t need to be perfect to contribute; I just need to be a bit better than I was the day before. Going from a nerd to a black belt didn’t solve all of my problems, but it did help me move on.
“In life, we only encounter the injustices we were meant to correct.”
Igari Toshiro, ex-prosecutor, leading lawyer in the anti-organized crime movement in Japan. 1949-2010.
Igari Toshiro, was my lawyer, my mentor, and my friend. In the sixteen years I’ve been covering organized crime in Japan, I’ve never met anyone more courageous or inspiring–or anyone who actually looked as much like a pit-bull in human form. Igari-san was a legend in the law enforcement world, the author of several books on dealing with organized crime and preventing their incursion into the business world. He was the father of the “organized crime exclusion clause”, a simple but brilliant idea that is now embedded into most contracts in Japan and requires the signer to pledge that he is not a member of an organized crime group. It’s already been used to arrest one high-ranking yakuza boss, and is the basis for the legislation being adapted prefecture-by-prefecture that will make it a crime to pay off gangs or provide them with capital. He was rather disliked in the underworld.
The last time I spoke face-to-face with Igari was on August 8 2010. It was a Sunday; he had come back from Brazil and went directly from Narita Airport to his office to meet me. I asked him if he would cooperate in a documentary I was working on as consultant and a reporter for ●●● television, owned by NewsCorp, on the yakuza.
I also had a problem.
It’s rather simple: In 2008, I angered a yakuza boss named Goto Tadamasa, who was head of a 1,000-member strong faction of the country’s largest gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi. In an article published in the Washington Post, I wrote how he had sold out his own group to the FBI in order to get a visa for the United States so he could receive a liver transplant at UCLA. The article along with a subsequent book I helped write for Takarajima Publishing resulted in him being kicked out of the Yamaguchi-gumi on October 14, 2008. Takarijma, without bothering to warn me, published his biography this May. It’s a great book–except for a bit of subtle language that amounts to a yakuza-style fatwa on my life.
I asked Igari to help me deal with the fallout from the book. After much discussion, he and his two colleagues came up with a plan. His parting words were: “It’ll be a long battle. It’ll take money and courage, and you’ll have to come up with those on your own. But we’ll fight.”
On August 28th, his body was found in his vacation home in Manila, wrists slashed. Time of death unknown. It’s been ruled a suicide. Personally, I believe he was killed. I probably will never be able to prove it.
Igari had been working on his final book, Gekitotsu (Collision). It’s an amazing work that pulls no punches, using the real names of the yakuza and the politicians and individuals connected to them. He wrote, “Wherever it was possible, I made it a point to use the real names here. I’m aware that poses a huge risk for myself. I took that risk because I wanted to honestly write about my battles with the injustices hidden in our society and the results of those struggles. It’s proper to write the name of those you’ve fought.”
Igari has been probably more influential than any individual in the anti-organized crime movement in Japan. As discussed above, he was the lawyer who first came up with the idea of the “organized crime member exclusionary clause” (暴力団排除条項). It was inspired by problems the Westin Hotel had when Goto-gumi and his posse stayed there and refused to leave, pointing out, “there’s nothing that says yakuza can’t stay at a hotel.” Igari realized that legally that could be accomplished since the Japanese government does designate organized crime groups and members officially. All it would take was adding a clause to any contract in which the individual signing has to clarify whether or not they are a yakuza, and if they are, the establishment reserves the right to unilaterally nullify the contract. It’s now part of almost any standard contract in Japan, even Sports Clubs. It has been used effectively by the police. A yakuza boss opening a bank account this year was later arrested for fraud because he lied about his yakuza affiliation on the contractual agreement with the bank. The organized crime exclusionary ordinances （暴力団排除条例）which are sweeping the country, prefecture by prefecture, were also his brain child. This year I met up with a high-ranking member of the National Police Agency, who had a copy of Igari’s book on his desk, and said, “In the war on organized crime, Igari-sensei was the equivalent of a five star general. He will be sorely missed.” The current head of the National Centre For The Elimination of Boryokudan was also very vocally supportive of Igari, adding, “the organized crime exclusionary ordinances would have never made into legislation if it hadn’t been for the man.” (There are now more than ten local governments in Japan with these ordinances on the book, which differ from prefecture to prefecture, but generally ban pay-offs to the yakuza or providing them with capital. Violators can be fined or jailed. Corporations that do business with yakuza will be publicly named. The ordinances have the potential of being a huge body blow to all organized crime groups, depriving them of protection money and capital. By punishing the individual or firm that capitulates to organized crime, it may have the same efficacy the change in the Commerce Laws had in eliminating racketeers-総会屋.)
Before leaving for Manila on vacation, he told his editor, “I’m nosing around in dangerous places. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. Let me sign the publishing contract now.”
In September, my best source in the Yamaguchi-gumi told me point blank: “Igari-san was murdered by the yakuza. It wasn’t Goto’s direct order. He was exposing yakuza ties to Sumo and professional baseball. It angered people. You should be careful too. The yakuza don’t warn people anymore, they just act.”
It’s a dangerous thing to expose the worst of the yakuza for what they are. Itami Juzo, directed the first realistic film about the yakuza, Minbo, in 1992. Goto-gumi members attacked him for doing it, slashing his face open. He would later tell the New York Times in an interview, “They cut very slowly, they took their time. They could have killed me if they wanted to.” Eventually they did. On December 20, 1997, after a weekly magazine wrote about his extra-marital affair, he allegedly killed himself. A former member of the Goto-gumi told me in 2008, “We set it up to stage his murder as a suicide. We dragged him up to the rooftop and put a gun in his face. We gave him a choice: jump and you might live or stay and we’ll blow your face off. He jumped. He didn’t live.”
In 2005, yakuza fan magazine writer Suzuki T wrote an article that poked fun at a yakuza group. They broke into his office and beat him to a pulp. In 2006, Yamaguchi-gumi thugs stabbed the son of non-fiction writer Mizoguchi Atsushi, because their boss was unhappy with one of his articles. Two members were arrested. Their boss was not. On April 17, 2007, the mayor of Nagasaki was gunned down after refusing local yakuza involvement in public works projects.
I try to be very careful when writing about the yakuza, and mindful of my sources, some of whom are members. I hate to admit it, but there are still those in the organizations that do follow a code of honor.
I understand the unwritten rules in Japan. Yakuza fan magazines are sold here in the open: three weeklies, three monthlies. They do interviews with current yakuza bosses, but the questions are limited and there is an implicit understanding that even after the interview is done, the boss reserves the right to edit or scrap it. As one veteran detective explained to me, “if you violate that rule, there will be harassment and often retaliation.”
I probably didn’t communicate that fact well enough to the ●●● television production crew that came to Japan. Through the sources I introduced they interviewed three current yakuza members, but didn’t alert me that they ran into trouble. The best I could do was warn the local National Geographic offices about it and talk to the head office in Washington DC. They were very responsive and hopefully nothing will come of it. But if it does, it will be my sources and the local Japanese staff who take the hit. I’m not an easy target because I’m under police protection. The staff are not.
The yakuza don’t have much pull in the US. They harass whoever will give them leverage. It’s why I don’t move my family back to Japan and why leaving Japan is not an option for me. I have to take care of my sources. It’s my responsibility.
I went to Igari’s offices in September to pay my respects; there was no funeral. There was a little shrine for him in his office, but everything was pretty much as he’d left it. On his desk, was an article about the Sumo Association and match rigging, heavily noted. His secretary told me, “Igari-san was really happy to take your case. He laughingly bragged to everyone, ‘I’m representing a reporter for National Geographic–that makes me an international lawyer!’ ” I could visualize him saying that with his deep, rolling laugh.
Grief is a funny thing. Seeing his empty desk, for the first time I got a little misty-eyed. Not too much, because there were people around, you know. It wasn’t very manly, but I didn’t cry.
You may wonder why I keep doing a job that is increasingly dangerous. I wonder myself. Partly, it’s because Japan is my home. I’ve lived here for more than twenty years. I’d like it to be a better place. In the old days, we’d call that civic duty.
I once asked Igari-san over wine, “Have you ever been threatened? Do you ever fear for your life?” He didn’t answer my question directly.
“I became a prosecutor because I wanted to see justice done in this world. When I quit and became a lawyer, I didn’t go to work for the yakuza like many ex-prosecutors do. I continued to fight them. Not all yakuza are bad guys, but 95 percent of them are leeches on society: they exploit the weak, they prey on the innocent, they cause great suffering. If you capitulate, if you run away, you’ll be chased for the rest of your life. And if you’re being chased, eventually what is chasing you will catch up. Step back and you’re dead already. You can only stand your ground and pursue. Because that’s not only the right thing to do, that’s the only thing to do.”
And so I stay. Igari-san wasn’t an investigative journalist and he wasn’t a saint. But he fought for justice and for truth, and as an investigative journalist, I’ve always believed that’s what our job entailed. Forgive me if that sounds naive. I believe that, if no one stands up to the anti-social forces in the world, then we all lose.Igari-san wasn’t an investigative journalist and he wasn’t a saint. But he fought for justice and for truth, and as an investigative journalist, I’ve always believed that’s what our job entailed. Forgive me if that sounds naive. I believe that, if no one stands up to the anti-social forces in the world, then we all lose.
When I called Igari’s editor, he knew who I was. He told me, “Igari said you’re the most trustworthy, crazy, and courageous journalist he knew.” It’s the first time I’ve ever been praised by the dead, and more than I deserve. But it made me feel an obligation to live up to those words. Sometimes, the only way to honor the dead is to fight for what they died for. It’s the only way I know how to mourn.
Memo: Autopsies are only done for 4% of the suicides in Japan. In the last two years several cases ruled to be suicides later turned out to be murder. Check out this excellent investigative article translated from the Yomiuri Shinbun. I would imagine staging a murder as suicide in the Phillipines is even easier than doing it in Japan.