HOW TO BE ICONIC: Onitsuka Tiger’s World Domination Strategy

 

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It was the summer of 2004, a blistering humid day in August when we touched down in Kansai Airport in Osaka, Japan. I was 12 and it was my first time in a foreign country, accompanied by my twin sister and father. Exhausted from the thirteen hour flight but elated that we had finally arrived, we waited excitedly in the sterile white paneled baggage claim area to collect our luggage and see this land of the rising sun for ourselves.

Bags came out of the shoot. A lopsided one, a pink one, those hard cases which Americans haven’t caught onto and only seem to be owned by East Asian travelers. One after another they came toppling out and then finally, a diminutive black suitcase dropped out with a small thud. The belt continued to move for a few more moments whirring until coming to a sudden complete and final stop. A lot of suitcases and bags. None of them appeared to be ours.

“Where are our bags?”

I turned to my father, perplexed and not quite understanding what this meant.

“I”m not sure let’s go check with the United customer service,” he replied with a hint of worry, gathering our carry-on baggage and belongings.

But the bags never came that day.

They hadn’t made the connecting flight and were still in Los Angeles.  “They will be on the next flight from LA, “ the United staff said.  “You should receive them sometime tomorrow.”

They handed us the yen equivalent of aboutt $300 US dollars to buy clothes in the meantime.

With only our carry-ons we clamored onto the shuttle bus which would take us from Kansai airport to Downtown Osaka.

What’s the first thing you do with apology money?

Go shopping of course! It was amazing wandering around the mall. It seemed familiar in many ways but still reverberated with that mystique which everything in Japan seems to be coated with in the eyes of a western foreigner.

We passed by one unfamiliar Japanese brand after another and there it was. A humble but sturdy bold sign that read Onitsuka Tiger. Surrounded by an array of familiar brands like Nike, Puma, and Adidas there stood out this very Japanese sounding brand with a fierce tiger as its logo. The shoes were flashy and bold but elegant at the same time.

“Pick whichever one you want!” my Dad said.

That day a pair of Onitsuka Tigers became my first and most useful souvenir from Japan.

What was it about these shoes that fascinated not only the 12-year-old bespectacled me but my 48-year-old father?

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IMAGE El Japatillaz Tio

For the past 50 years Onitsuka Tiger has been a worldwide powerhouse promoting athleticism from its inception. Arguably the most popular and recognizable Japanese shoe brand, Onitsuka Tiger, and the  parent company ASICS, traces its roots back to 1949. WWII had recently ended and Japan was in a state of rebirth. Former military officer Kihachiro Onitsuka took that mindset and ran with it creating a shoe he hoped would raise spirits and promote youth health through athletics.

The brand quickly grew in popularity through strategic athlete partnerships. In 1955, it partnered with 500 sports shops in Japan, with its first US sales occurring in 1963. The great ASICS stripe made its debut in 1966 at the pre-Olympic trials for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico – this was to be the start of their most famous line, Mexico 66. Today the once small Japanese athletics shoe company reports 428 billion yen (approximately 4 billion dollars) in  net sales for 2015 (reports for 2016 will be released in the coming months), growing year after year into a mecca for “Intelligent Sports Technology” and “highly functional products developed with human-centric science” (ASICS).

ONITSUKA  POPULARITY DECONSTRUCTED

The brand has the incredible ability of evoking reminiscence and at the same time a refreshing modernity.

What is the Onitsuka secret? How has this brand remained popular and hip in Japan while so many have fallen? Asahi Shimbun Digital back in 2015 published an article identifying four major secrets behind the Onitsuka success.

 

#1 Modern Retro Design Born from Performance

Onitsuka started with athleticism in mind and has kept that a core of its business. With its narrow long nose silhouette, thin sole, and striking color combinations, the Onitsuka retro design  is instantly recognizable. It’s a unique and understated recognizability that remains classic.

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#2 Limit Sales Channels to Maintain an Expensive Brand Image

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Think about it. You’ve just put on your fresh straight out of the box Onitsukas and slipped into your freshly purchased and pressed outfit (that you paid a bit too much for).  You step out of your apartment, it’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining and you look amazing. You’re strolling head held up high with a knowing smirk, people are looking and suddenly out the corner of your eye you spot it. The end of your moment. The shock of an older gentleman completely lacking in any fashion sense, wearing the exact same pair of  your  beautiful shoes. Now that is a fashion tragedy. A tragedy that Onitsuka has strategically strived to avoid. It’s incredibly difficult to get your hands on a pair of Ontisuka Tiger shoes within Japan in today’s discount stores. They aren’t sold in outlets or warehouses. As soon as a shoe enters the discount world its brand image is immediately at risk of degradation. Onitsuka’s bold and daring strategy heralded by President Oyama in 1999 to avoid the tempting wholesale market ensured that Onitsuka Tiger would become a high-end brand. In addition to limiting sales channels, the heightened brand image would start from the construction of their products, putting high quality materials at the forefront. That’s an image to be proud of.

#3 Establish Reasonable Pricing

Onitsuka Tiger manages to deliver high quality with the NIPPON MADE label at pretty economical prices. You can attain a heightened NIPPON MADE sensibility without the crazy price tag. Mostly all of the shoe models sell for less than 13,000 yen. The Serano which uses natural leathers is priced at 8,640 yen, the all natural leather upper Mexico 66 you can get your hands on for 12,960 yen.

#4 Surprise of A Mysterious Brand Name To Remember

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From the name “Onitsuka” to the roaring tiger image the brand screams Japan to even those with the faintest familiarity with the country. It’s a striking brand image and this has definitely played in Onitsuka’s favor.  You look at it and think this is a Japanese brand. And that is enticing for the overseas consumer because along with it come all of the positive adjectives characteristics you would attach to a Japan-made product – quality, cutting edge, reliable, built to last, different. This is the “Cool Japan” that the Japanese government doesn’t get.

 

THE FUTURE OF ONITSUKA

This past year Onitsuka Tiger celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original Mexico 66, arguably the flagship and best-selling shoe from the storied Japanese brand — The company touts it as a fine footwear “discovered on the track, and later on, worn on the streets” . It has sought some of the most exclusive collaborations reaching and securing even the most obscure underground influencers and artists. Pop culture phenom homages, independent Japanese labels and exclusives marketing deals with high end shops like Barney’s New York.

The legend continues to thrive as they expand more and more, recently pushing for raising their presence in rugby. With a Vegan line, it’s riding the wave of eco-friendly animal-friendly fashion consumerism as well. (Editor’s note: The vegan line of shoes are not designed to be edible. Consume at your own risk)

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They’ve reorganized the company to support globalization as well as acquiring technology company FitnessKeeper, Inc, and entering into the world of smart apparel and wearables.

Onitsuka has recently announced its introduction of shoes which are a step away from its iconic stripes but with the same motto paying homage to the past with a vintage feel and performance in mind.

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The new line are Inspired by the Japanese “furoshiki” or the art of cloth packaging – The CHIYO. Available online and instore, it’s a refreshing take enabling the wearer to customize and create their own idea of beauty. The upper consists of soft cloth, like packaging cradling the top of the foot. The lucky owners  can knot and style the shoe however they wish according to the look they’re rocking that day. The line comes in 3 colors-  blue, black, and pink priced at 7,000 yen.

Onitsuka continues to take innovation and trends and instill them with a retro twist. It stays true to the spirit of a Japanese brand with refreshing relevance and distinction.

As you know, last year marked the 50th Anniversary of its iconic stripes logo and it’s looking like Onitsuka is here to stay.

The company that owns the line,  still known as ASICS “Anima Sana in Corpore Sano” or “A Healthy Soul in a Healthy Body.”, continually pushes the envelope looking for opportunities for constant growth. Can we call it world domination with retro class? I think so. However, the best way to appreciate Onitsuka shoes isn’t looking at them—it’s wearing them. Put on a pair and go for a run, you’ll catch on to what I’m saying.

 

 

要約:12歳のとき初めて降り立った日本。荷物を失くされた航空会社にもらった金券でお土産としてオニツカタイガーを購入した。以来すっかり私を魅了してきたオニツカタイガーは、外国人観光者に絶大な人気を誇っている。

オニツカタイガーの代表作Mexico 66 の50周年記念となった2016年。オニツカタイガーはなぜ支持されるのか?ほかと一線を画すブランディング、そして強力なセールス力の秘密とは?

これらの問いに関して朝日新聞デジタルで”アシックス快走、世界3位も射程内 海外で人気の理由は”という記事が掲載されている。そして人気の理由の次のように分析している。

1「性能追求の結果生まれた現代的なレトロデザイン」

2「販売チャネル限定、高いブランドイメージの維持」

3「リーズナブルな価格設定」

4「ミステリアスなブランド名の響き・イメージ」

限界に挑む会社として継続的な経済成長を達成し、グローバルリーチを支えるための構造を整備するオニツカタイガー。世界征服する日は近い。

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Hotels Are Not Meeting Rooms. #MeToo doesn’t take off in Japan’s Hollywood

I’m a female actor in Tokyo. I thought I was safe from the filth of Hollywood, safe here in “innocent” Japan. But the truth is that Japan’s entertainment business is full of Harvey Weinstein-like individuals. Here is my first-hand experience.

In December 2016 I responded to a casting via a Foreign Actors facebook page. After some discussions with the director, Mr. X,  online and on the phone, we had a meeting in Ikebukero. The meeting was casual, but professional, discussing only matters pertaining to acting and film. After the meeting he requested I send him some photos of my body which were necessary for him to overlay a fake tattoo for the character. I sent only semi-nudes, and I didnt think this was particularly unusual (as a former photographer, I made these sort of requests of my models on occasion).

“Let’s meet at a love hotel. Everybody does it.”

A few days later he wrote, “I want to date with you. If you agree, 70% final you are in my project.” I was very shocked by this! But being polite and professional I explained that I do not mix business with pleasure, and “for now I prefer to keep a professional relationship.” He responded that it, “is necessary”. Necessary? He explained that Japanese actresses never question it, they want to have “good communication” with their director. At that point the conversation ended, and over the next year he would send me an occasional “hello, how are you” messages. I obliged, but the conversations never went anywhere. I ignored his messages for a few months, even the message in July 2017 asking to meet me. Last December, I decided to reply to his “good morning” message. His reply was, “I actually wanna meet…I like u”. I responded politely, “I would like to work with you professionally, but I have a boyfriend.”

Like this was going to stop him? No.

He replied, “its ok, but we can make relations.” “Relations”? I asked. Who says that? He replied, “relations. Of course we will work together”. 

The conversation ended there, until two weeks ago, when he wrote that he was starting work on a new project, and if I wanted to meet him. I thought about it, and felt that after all this time he still wants to work with me, then okay I’ll meet him to discuss the project. We discussed dates/times to meet over a few days, and he then wrote that he has a location for us to meet. He then sends me the address and photo of a love hotel. I couldn’t believe it! When I asked him, just to clarify,  “Is this a love hotel?”

His only response was, “Problem?”

I laughed with disgust and told him there was no way I was going to any love hotel. He said, “Everybody is doing that, I thought you understood me.”

“Hey can you send me some naked pictures…for the tattoo overlay shots?”

The gall of the director is incredible.  But all I could think about was that he said in defence of himself, “Everybody is doing that”. Really? Are there really actresses doing this regularly? This disgusted me even more. After sharing this conversation with the community of foreign actors, I was enlightened about the darker side of the Japanese film industry. I am both saddened and appalled. Many have reached out to me, sharing their sick, sad stories. This needs to be shared, awareness is needed here, too.  The #Metoo movement started in Hollywood in the US. I wish it would strike a spark in Japan’s entertainment industry as well. 

–Ilana

Editor’s note: There may be readers of this blog who will snigger that Ilana hadn’t caught on to the seedier side of Japan’s entertainment industry (芸能界) much earlier but she’s not alone. Many newcomers to Japan only see the country as a safe, polite, and pleasant little island nation until they start working. 

Another tragic case of death from overwork (過労死) highlights a culture of labor abuse. Reform is needed.

As the Abe administration tries to accelerate “work style reform” to address the issue of chronically long working hours, probably in an ultimately negative way, another case of karoshi (過労死) also known as death by overwork, was made public by family members of a victim last month. A 51-year-old sales manager working for Sansei, a mold manufacturing company in the city of Oshu in Iwate Prefecture, passed away after an intracerebral hemorrhage in 2011. The family waited many years before finally deciding to take the case to court. The man had been working up to 111 hours of overtime in a month. Family members of the victim insist that the company should have taken necessary measures to lessen his workload. They held a press conference this month.

The business friendly Japanese government fails to prevent death by overwork.  In January, the Labor Ministry did put up signs saying” Stop Karoshi”,  urging an end to death by overwork, “for a society where people can continue to labor”. In essence, “work overtime but don’t die on the job”.

 

The father of two children, the karoshi victim, was hired as an engineer working at the company’s plant in his hometown of Oshu in 1989. After being assigned to sales manager’s position, his daily tasks included sending out invoices and promoting the company’s supplies to potential customers, making several business trips a month. In addition to those tasks, he had to assess the work of his team members to determine their bonuses. He was also asked to organize company sponsored softball games and annual end-of-the-year parties. His workload began to gradually increase and the records his family members were able to collect show he continuously worked 60 to 80 hours of overtime a month since 2002. His son recalls that since he always left home at 7:00am and came home very late at night, sometimes later than 11:00pm. They were able to dine with him just once a week, on Sunday nights.

Even the worker himself became aware of being dangerously overworked. He once told his wife, “I’m working way too much so that if something happens to me, don’t hesitate to sue the company.”

Several months after he collapsed in his home on a Saturday afternoon in front of his family, his wife, certain that it was the work condition that pushed him to die, applied for worker’s compensation which was later accepted by the labor standards inspection office in Hanamaki, Iwate. However, the company insisted it was actually his preexisting health conditions that was the main cause and refused to apologize or compensate for his death. His wife and the two children decided to take the case to civil court. “The government concluded after investigation that this is karoshi but the company decided not to admit. Now, it needs to be held responsible for what it has done to my father,” the son stated. The first hearing is to scheduled to be held in January 2018.

Cases like this are not at all uncommon in Japan. It was 1978 when a doctor specialized in occupational diseases first introduced the term karoshi, literally translated as “death from overwork” in Japanese[i]. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, one in eight (12.6%) full time workers work more than 60 hours per week; the government considers death from overwork becomes a serious possibility if working more than 60 hours a week[ii]. The government finally passed legislation, the act on promotion of karoshi prevention countermeasures, in 2014, amid increasing pressures mainly from a group of karoshi victim family members[iii]. However, the number of karoshi incidents has been held steady. In 2016, 198 cases of suicide karoshi (or karojisatsu) were filed to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in addition to 261 cases of karoshi from brain and heart related disorders[iv]. Experts say this is an extremely conservative figure because many workers and their families simply do not know what to do when their loved ones suddenly pass away. Even if they come to conclude work is the cause, they must find ways to prove victims actually worked excessive overtime. Many companies forge timesheets, ordering to clock in and out on a fixed time everyday, and the rest do not keep track of work hours at all.

“It is extremely difficult for family members to find evidence of overwork. They are not experts of labor law and often those companies hide the evidence or even try to persuade family members not to speak out by offering a small compensation,” Haruki Konno of POSSE, a labor rights organization that has been supporting the family in this case. “There must be so many cases that fly under the radar. We need to support karoshi victim family members or those faced with bad working conditions so that they can to take actions against management.”

 

[i] http://www.ilo.org/safework/info/publications/WCMS_211571/lang–en/index.htm

[ii] http://www.jil.go.jp/kokunai/blt/backnumber/2017/01/064-072.pdf

[iii]https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/11/15/editorials/getting-a-grip-on-karoshi/#.Wi4TzUtpHOQ

[iv] http://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/houdou/0000168672.html

Hey, Baby? You’re fired, don’t come back. Maternity Harassment (MATAHARA) and The Working Woman in Japan

Fighting Against Maternity Harassment is a grass roots effort
Fighting Against Maternity Harassment is a grass roots effort

 

Working at one of Japan’s megabanks, a workplace notorious for old-fashioned male attitudes, it wasn’t uncommon for Mrs X to be told, “Don’t you dare get pregnant!” or “If you get pregnant, we won’t give you any work!” from her colleagues.*

It was then that she became pregnant from her long-term partner. Unmarried unsure of how her workplace would react, she consulted with one of her colleagues.”It was then that a manager from another department heard from chance. He got angry and said, ‘Quit messing around! I will never allow the pregnancy of someone who isn’t married. If what you’re saying is true, then I will not treat you like a human being!'” she told JSRC.

“Eventually I couldn’t stand the atmosphere and fear in the workplace and chose to abort (the child).”

The Peeling Face Of Womenomics 

Japan faces a tough hurdle of an aging population coupled with a low birth rate. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2013, pledging to solve the low birth rate and impending labor crisis, embraced a policy dubbed “womenomics,” and reviving the economy by raising the number of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020. A pledge he has since backed away from.

It’s a hard task, considering that Japan’s business world is dominated by deep-rooted sexist attitudes that favor male workers over females and women, who are considered a bad investment due to the belief that they’ll quit when they marry and have children. Japan ranked 101 out of 142 assessed countries in 2015, according to a study released by the World Economic Forum.

And if a woman does become pregnant, while working, some are subjected to what the media has dubbed matahara (マタハラ).

According to Japanese Trade Union Confederation, matahara is an abbreviation of “maternity harassment.” The word refers to mental or physical harassment that some workingwomen go through when they announce to their colleagues that they’re pregnant or after they come back to the office from maternity leave. Some women come back to find themselves demoted or receiving a pay cut. In the worst-case scenario, some are even pressured to quit or fired. Harassment comes not only from men in the office but other women as well—sometimes out of irritation that their workload will increase, sometimes out of a kind of jealousy.

Prime Minister Abe’s former education advisor, Ayako Sono, infamous for publishing a column in a major Japanese newspaper advocating apartheid as part of immigration policy, said that “maternity leave is an unfair burden on Japanese companies” while still advising education policy.

Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, employers are required to pay consideration to pregnant women by offering them shorter work hours or flexible work schedules. They’re also banned from firing or demoting expectant mothers due to pregnancy and required to give them maternity leave. (Men are also technically allowed to take maternity leave as well to help in the first few weeks after a child is born.)

In practice, however, the law is hardly followed—and the local courts are hardly sympathetic. A physical therapist in Hiroshima was stripped of her job title and her managerial allowance following her second pregnancy—and her request for a “lighter workload”–in 2008. The woman, who had been working at the hospital since 1994 and was promoted to vice-director of her department in 2004 was told that there were no vice-director positions available when she came back. She sued her employer for violating Article 9.3 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and Article 10 of the unwieldy Act on the Welfare of Workers Who Take Care of Children or Other Family Members Including Child Care and Family Care Leave and gender discrimination.

The Hiroshima District Court and High Court rejected both of her claims on February 23 and July 19, 2012, with the District Court arguing that “the plaintiff never objected to the shift to a lighter workload.”

It took until October 2014 for the Supreme Court to strike down the decisions make in the lower courts. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the Supreme Court ordered the woman’s former employer to pay 1.75 million yen in damages. The court sent the case back down to the Hiroshima High Court, arguing that the proceedings regarding the necessity for a demotion were insufficient.

Maternity harassment sometimes extends outside of the workplace. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has been producing pregnancy badges since 2006 that say “I have a baby in my stomach” for expectant mothers to wear on public transportation to let other passengers know that she is pregnant.

A large percentage of the Japanese male public is unaware about these badges. A government survey released last September revealed that over 60 percent of Japanese men had  never heard about the badges, Jiji press reported.

In some instances the badges have instead become a source of trouble, even harassment for the women who wear them. One Mainichi Shimbun reporter who followed an expectant mother on her daily commute and found that even though her source stood in front on the priority seats—special seating on the train reserved for elderly, disabled, and pregnant passengers—other passengers rarely stood up to give up their seats.

Other expectant mothers wearing the badges have alleged on social media websites such as Twitter that they had experienced verbal and physical harassment from strangers such as being  elbowed or knocked down.

One anonymous poster on an online forum wrote  in regard to the pregnancy badges, “Do [these badges] mean ‘I want you to reward me because I’m pregnant’? I just think it’s strangely brazen.

So Abe faces a tough task in changing business and societal attitudes towards women in order to solve the country’s labor shortage, especially when members of his very own party display the same chauvinistic attitudes that pressure women in the corporate world to leave their careers.

The policy has failed horribly. Of the record five female ministers appointed to Abe’s second cabinet to set an example, two resigned in the same day due to misuse of campaign funds. Two other female ministers came under fire for links to extreme Nazi groups.

Deputy Prime Minister—and Shinzo Abe’s second-in-command and a likely candidate for being the next Prime Minister—Taro Aso said at a speech in December of 2014  in Sapporo, “There are many people who are creating the image that (increasing numbers of) elderly people is bad, but more problematic is people who don’t give birth.”

The Abe government even abolished the babysitting discount ticket system,  the Sankei Shimbun reported. The tickets, which were distributed to 3, 000 people through 1, 300 companies, allowed working women to place their sick children, who are unable to attend a daycare when ill, with babysitters for a discounted price.

On March 31st 2015 the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare decided to consider the termination of a female worker’s employment within one year after the end of her maternity leave as “illegal” and issue warnings to companies who violate this law.

“In regard to companies that violate the law, we will provide administrative guidance to rectify the situation by advising them, then guiding them, and then making recommendations. If they do not follow our recommendations, we will publish their company name,” said Hitomi Komorizono, an official from the Equal Employment Opportunity Policy Division of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

However, the move still has victims doubting that it will change the situation.

“I don’t think that just because this notice came out the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, that things will improve,” says Sayaka Osakabe, a former victim of maternity harassment who founded an online network for other victims called Matahara.net.

“However, because of this notice, I think that it will be easier for female workers to raise their voices.”

During a session of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, when Ayaka Shiomura was giving a speech on women’s issues, members from the Liberal Democratic Party section of the room yelled out jeers telling her to “hurry up and get married” and “why can’t you have babies?”

It’s a tough spot for Japanese women. On one side of the spectrum they’re being punished in the workplace for giving birth to children. On the other side they’re being told to breed. Either way, simply existing as a woman in Japan seems to be considered an inconvenience. The lack of affordable day care is another problem altogether.

Is it any wonder the number of women giving birth declines?

* Previously published on September 16, 2016.

 

 

 

 

Japan’s PSA: “Don’t Work Yourself To Death So You Can Keep Working!”

The Japanese government, particularly the Abe administration, has had a lacklustre attitude towards basic human right and worker rights, since taking power after Christmas in 2012. By 2013,  the word ブラック企業 (black company/burakku kiygo) meaning “evil corporations” had become a well-known buzzword. Japanese labor conditions are getting worse, hours are getting longer, and wages are stagnating.

Death by overwork has always plagued Japan but in recent months, one case after another has come to light. As noted in this article written for Forbes, Japan Is Literally Working Itself To Death: How Can It Stop, “NHK, Japan’s state-run news channel, reluctantly admitted this year that overwork had caused the death of a 31-year-old NHK female reporter in 2013. The Labor Standards Board reached the conclusion in 2014 but it was not publicized. Miwa Sado, who worked for NHK in Tokyo, died of congestive heart failure in July 2013. She had worked 159 hours of overtime with only two days off in the one-month period prior to her untimely death (She was found dead with cellphone in her hand). Chronic overwork, even when it doesn’t result in death, is a serious blight on Japan’s society. There’s even a word for it: karoshi (過労死). Her death is only one of the suspected thousands of deaths from overwork each year.”

Well, just when it seemed that Japan Inc. just didn’t care, the Ministry Of Health, Labor, and Welfare took decisive action. They declared November to be, “Special Month Of Raising Awareness Preventing People From Working to Death And Other Things”  and have adorned the stations with these powerful (not) eye-catching (not) posters.  But the unintentional irony is the sub-text of the poster which loosely translates all together as, “Don’t work yourself to death so we can have a society where you can keep working!”.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan is combatting death from overwork (過労死)with a sign that says, “STOP death from overwork!”. Brilliant. The subtext is “(Don’t work yourself to death) so we can have a society where you can keep laboring away.”
Work will set you free in Japan, if you work hard enough.

 

 

 

 

Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare offers plenty of tips for not working to death but what is needed is a change in laws, more labor inspectors, and a fine for more than $5,000 dollars for companies that work their employees to death. Human life should be a little more valuable, one might think.

I searched for the words, “Work Will Set You Free”, but they haven’t added them yet. However, in consideration of how much the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his second in command, Aso Taro,  admire the Nazi regime— I guess it’s only a mater of time.

 

Note: Thanks to Rachel Padilla who copy-edited this article. 

Have you been a victim of sexual assault in Japan? How did police respond?

Good signs: Japan’s APU graduate creates successful deaf cafe in Indonesia

“Fingertalk” a cafe run by the deaf in Indonesia has become a successful philanthropic business in Indonesia. It owes its success to the experience and determination of Dissa Syakina Ahdanisa, a graduate from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU). APU is a university located in the famous hot spring city of Japan — Beppu, Oita prefecture. It was after her graduation that she has embarked on a path to become a social entrepreneur focusing on helping the deaf community in her home country of Indonesia. APU is renowned for having multicultural environment with foreign students from 86 countries (as of May, 2017) and for having a strong bond between the university and Oita community through various local activities. The school aims to give students more than just a four-year higher education, but also a unique life experience, which is hoped will result in producing open-minded, brilliant, and inspiring graduates who embrace the term ‘differences’ and challenge the world to do the same.

Dissa founded ‘Fingertalk’ in May 2015, a business which has expanded from a single cafe to two fully operating cafes, one workshop/craft store, and a recently branched out into a car wash business. What’s special about Fingertalk’s business model is its goal to connect the deaf community with the hearing community by hiring all deaf employees. While aiming for that long term goal, Dissa hopes that for now, Fingertalk can create job opportunities for the deaf, be a fun place where people enjoy universal pleasures, such as food and artwork, and be a place where people can learn something new — particularly sign language. Hence, ‘Fingertalk’, named by the young social entrepreneur herself, represents the way the deaf community communicate by sign language. In Indonesia, sign language is called Bisindo.

On 2 June 2017, Dissa came to APU’s Tokyo campus to give a talk about her life after APU, specifically about the Fingertalk business and her recent visit to schools for the disabled in Oita prefecture, supported by the local government. The event was flooded with interest from APU alumni owing partly to the fact that in September 2016, the former president of the United States, Barack Obama, had spoken of Dissa and praised her for her inspiring work in the Youth Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) in Laos.

Dissa said when she was 10 years old, she became fascinated with sign language having met a deaf person who taught her how to spell her name at an event in an old folks home where she accompanied her mother. During her time in APU, she found her passion for volunteer work and took several trips to many countries with a mission to contribute in some way to a better society. After graduating from APU, Dissa obtained her masters’ degree in Australia and worked in the Singapore headquarter of one of the world’s top financial institutions. However, she continued to pursue her passion for volunteer work. During one of her volunteering missions, she spent three months in Nicaragua where she heard of a cafe with deaf employees called ‘Cafe de Las Sonrisas’. She decided to visit the cafe and was very inspired by the concept. Having remembered the man she met as 10-year-old combining with her passion for the non-profit field, Dissa felt an urge to create a similar cafe in Indonesia. After  a considerable amount of research, she found that Indonesia has more than 6 million people with disabilities, and of which, more than 470,000 are deaf. And the more prominent problem is that more than 70% of people with disabilities there are not working, let alone receiving proper education.

Fingertalk cafe & car wash business

At the event in Tokyo, when asked about her biggest obstacles in opening ‘Fingertalk’, Dissa admitted that she had a rough beginning. Though some people supported her idea, it was hard for her to raise funds to realize her cause. So, she decided that she would have to do it all by herself. She intended to save as much money as she could from her job in Singapore and at the same time, she started learning Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) in order to understand more about the deaf community and make new friends. Eventually, she kickstarted ‘Fingertalk’ in Tangerang City, Indonesia, and soon after, left her job at the financial institution to pursue her dream full-time.

‘It all started by getting to know someone from the deaf community. Then, they started introducing me to their friends and people they know. That’s how I started recruiting people for Fingertalk. I started by interviewing them with pen and paper when I wasn’t fluent at Bisindo. I needed to find out what they can do, and what they aimed to be. Through the process, I luckily met one deaf lady who allowed Fingertalk to use part of her house as the first cafe for free. This jumpstarted our business.’ says Dissa. Despite the hurdles of the financial obstacles, the location, and the staff recruiting she had to manage, the cafe took off and people started coming into the cafe. In the cafe, there are sign language posters everywhere in order for the people from the hearing world to try and communicate with the employees. With this, Fingertalk took one step closer to its mission—connecting the two worlds and teaching people something new. With more and more people coming in, the employees also feel more motivated to communicate and work hard. More importantly, this help them to believe in themselves and their abilities. According to Dissa, the biggest challenge she faces is ensuring that the employees’ self esteem remains intact; that they don’t feel any less confident than those who hear.

This year, Dissa and some of the staff from Fingertalk came to visit Beppu, Oita where APU is located. She also visited schools for children with disabilities. The city government of Oita Prefecture generously supported Dissa fully in all the trip arrangements. Together, they visited Oita School For The Deaf  (大分県立聾学校) and Beppu Special School.

Oita School For The Deaf

According to Dissa, the schools have such great facilities for children that can support their learning and creativity. The atmosphere was warm and fun. Even in a deaf school, they have a piano where the children can enjoy music through the vibrations on the floor. Dissa felt like Japan is at least 40 years more advanced than Indonesia in terms of educational and life opportunities support for people with disabilities. She was also impressed with how caring the teachers are. One teacher in particular, a deaf teacher who did not let his abilities be an obstacle for him to doing things such as learning English, she found to be very inspirational. Other than the schools, she also visited Taiyo no ie (太陽の家)or ‘The Sun Industries’ — an organization established in 1965 after the Paralympics in 1964 with the motto that more than charity, what’s more important today is creating employment opportunities for disabled people. To provide employment opportunities to people with disabilities, Sun Industries have made partnerships with large companies such as Sony, Omron, Denso, Fujitsu, and others. This is another example of a good support system that Japan has for people with disabilities. After the trip, Dissa is determined to make use of her new knowledge to help people in Indonesia through Fingertalk.

Dissa mentioned how supportive APU alumni and the faculty members have been to Fingertalk.

APU event in Tokyo campus – Dissa signing ‘Fingertalk’

Not only have friends from APU  paid visits to the cafe, but also Professor Kenji Yokoyama, a vice-president of APU. Dissa finds suggestions from alumni from all over the world useful and interesting since each country has different pros and cons in the support system toward people with disabilities. At the event, one alumni even suggested a tool similar to Google Translate for sign language, something to consider in the future. Some others asked about the future of Fingertalk whether it is the expansion of business into different areas or expanding its focus to people with other types of disabilities. Dissa’s answer was that she is now focused on helping deaf people but the long term goal is to definitely help people with other type of disabilities as well. Now Fingertalk is still small but she is aiming to expand its services and footprints.

After two years of founding Fingertalk, the business has attracted interest from media and local government and received awards such as Tokoh Metro 2017. Fingertalk’s crew have also been invited to attend many events such as Inovasi Indonesia Forum & Expo and Festival Kewirausahaan. When asked of what keeps her going with such positive energy, her answer was that “I want people to learn something from me when they meet me, even if it is just the sign of Beppu”. She taught use our right hand to create something that looks like number three and our left hand as a horizontal C to cover the base of our right hand, making the three fingers visible. With two hands pounding each other twice, it becomes ‘Bep-pu’ — the three fingers represent steam wafting from hot water, for Beppu is famous for its hot springs. Later, she personally taught me how to say ‘Thailand’ in sign language. It’s a very clever and fun way to sign my homeland. You use an index finger to point to one’s nose and slide the finger down and outward from yourself. This represents elephants, the symbol of Thailand. It’s something I’ll never forget. And that is part of why Fingertalk works so well, because the people working there and those visiting are always learning something from each other. It’s not just a meal and a drink, it’s a rewarding experience.

Bisindo (Indonesian Sign Language)

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

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

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 1

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

***

I bought a new car and my wife hates it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we are good. Fuckin’ Ay.

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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