— Jake Adelstein/中本哲史 (@jakeadelstein) October 29, 2017
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Womenomics was touted by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as his progressive policy to elevate the status of women in what is still a very sexist and unequal society, where women are far from being empowered. The Global Gender Gap report published last year noted that Mr. Abe and the LDP’s pledge to bridge the gender divide resulted in actually widening the gulf, with Nippon sliding down a few notches to 111th in terms of world gender equality.
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?”
For the rest of the article, go to
*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.
Burakku kigyō (dark companies, exploitive enterprises) are probably the epitome of everything that’s wrong in Japan today. In 2013, it was among the top trending words of the year. They’re so much a part of the social misery in Japan that they even are incorporated into board games like The Hellish Game of Life. Last year between April and September, 6,659 businesses in Japan violated labor laws and were ordered to correct their illegal practices by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor.
Haruki Konno, head of POSSE, a group that helps young people with problems in their working environment, says black companies typically hire young employees and then force them to work large amounts of overtime without overtime pay. While specifics may vary from company to company, conditions are generally poor, and workers are subject to verbal abuse, sexual harassment and bullying.
“Outside of Japan, immigrants bear the brunt of such treatment,” Konno says . “In Japan, it’s young people. Originally the term was popular among college students looking for jobs. It was shorthand for a company that worked its employees into the ground.”
It was also a term the police used to refer to “front companies”––firms owned or operated by the yakuza, Japan’s mafia.
Konno says black companies are able to flourish due to existing conditions in the labor market. In 1985, regular employees accounted for 85 percent of the workforce. These days, the number is roughly 60 percent, a shift in job security caused by the easing of labor dispatch laws.
“Good jobs are hard to find and people are willing to put up with a lot before quitting,” Konno says.
It’s worth noting that black companies are not entirely a new phenomenon.
In July 2000, advertising giant Dentsu Inc. admitted it was responsible for the 1991 suicide of a 24-year-old employee who had become depressed due to overwork. Dentsu agreed to pay his family about ¥168 million in damages. Last year, they were found responsible for the death of another young employee who was so overworked that she became depressed and jumped out of the company dorm on Christmas. Merry Christmas Dentsu–you’re synonymous with evil corporation now—try fixing that brand image.
The Japanese government has long promised to do something about this problem but under the reign of “Money Over Life” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, no one expected much. However, this month, much to the surprise of everyone, the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Labor published a list of 334 companies that had made repeated violations of labor laws. Of course, Dentsu, is on the list.
The full list in Japanese is here:
For the sake of non-native Japanese readers, Makoto Iwahashi, an intern at POSSE and a budding journalist, working with Japan Subculture Research Center put together a list of companies that are listed on the stock exchange and/or are affiliated with listed companies. Why? Because perhaps if investors have second thoughts about putting their money into companies that can’t uphold basic labor laws, maybe these companies might suddenly care about how they treat their workers. They may not be afraid of labor unions but they may be deathly afraid of their shareholders. Let’s hope.
If we have missed any companies, or notice mistakes in the chart, please let us know. We don’t have an army of abused workers at our disposal (苦笑い)—nor would we want them. Comments, suggestions, or corrections, please send to email@example.com
It is indeed a shame that so many Japanese companies don’t take care of their workers better than they do. That would be good business practices and the right thing to do.
Recently Japan Subculture Research Center’s acting editor-in-chief, Jake Adelstein, and managing editor, Mari Yamamoto, published an article, “Do Men In Japan Ever Get Convicted For Rape?” in the Daily Beast on the need for change in the sexual assault laws and the handling of the cases in Japan.
An excerpt of the actual attempted assault of a visiting scholar was a large part of the article and since it has triggered a tremendous response, below is the full account. The overall response to the article has been immense and there will be a follow up but it is worth reiterating, the official numbers of sexual assault cases are most likely grossly underestimated. Sexual assault in Japan is seldom discussed even in the confidence of friends.
Long time prosecutor Kazuko Tanaka depicts the bleak landscape of sexual assault investigation in her book “Sexual Crimes and Child Abuse Investigation Handbook” published in 2014.
“While 100% of those who are victims of theft would (be assumed to) file a police report, according to a 2008 Ministry of Justice’s research of the estimated actual numbers of crimes, the rates of reports made were 13.3%. However, in the 2011 Cabinet Gender Equality Bureau’s “Research on Violence Between the Sexes” (男女間における暴力に関する調査) they found that only 3.7% of people who confided in others went to the police and 67.9% of the victims did not tell anybody at all. Therefore it can be estimated that only 4% of the cases are being reported and if the report rate was 100%, the case numbers (of sexual assault in Japan) would increase by 25 times.”
For those who can read Japanese, the book documents in great detail, many of the problems with sexual assault in Japan, both the low rate of reporting and the poor handling by law enforcement. We have received many personal letters and emails from other victims. A harrowing account of a foreign woman who was raped in Japan in 2014, was also published in the Japan Times. The majority of victims in Japan, are of course, Japanese women. And sometimes men.
Here is the account of one woman in Japan, who barely escaped sexual assault, and who experienced the police at their laziest.
“I lived in a sleepy neighborhood close to a prestigious University, a place where most residents were over sixty and my biggest fear was how I could ever make enough cakes to repay them for the treats they regularly brought me. I often told friends and colleagues how relieved I was to be spending my two years of dissertation research in an area free of the hustle and bustle of Shibuya or Shinjuku’s youth and seedy corners. Like many people, I considered Japan the safest country I had ever visited. Here, I rarely feared walking alone after dark or glanced around with the same caution I would even in the safest towns in the U.S.
But last year, as I returned home late from a weeknight birthday celebration, a man quietly followed me down a side street two blocks from my apartment. Past the cozy stoop where I normally pause to pet the neighborhood Labrador and snap photos of the local store cat, to the residential interior not visible from the main road. Unknown to me, he trailed only a few feet behind. As I passed in front of the local childcare center, I glimpsed him over my shoulder just as he rushed to quickly seize me from behind and force me to the ground. Though he groped at me from above as I thrashed in resistance and screamed a litany of English profanities at him, my attacker soon gave up and just as quickly fled the way we had come. Sprawled in the street under the lighted windows of dozens of nearby apartments and bleeding from the elbow I’d hit the concrete on, I stared at the scattered contents of my purse and the lost shoe that lay a few feet away. No one looked outside. No one opened their doors. I was alone.
As I gathered my things and walked the block to my apartment, all I could think about was what I had heard from others—that Japanese police don’t take assaults on or the molestation of women seriously. The article I had read two years ago in the Japan Times on the shamefully poor handling of one woman’s rape case was running through my mind. Shaken and trying not to touch my bloody arm, I called my best friend in America, agonizing over the thought of waking my elderly neighbors up, or having to go back to the police station alone (in the direction my attacker had run), only to face the coming ordeal in Japanese, when it was hard enough to endure in English.
I finally settled on walking back to the police box several blocks away, and there, my every expectation of being taken lightly and having the truth of my experience denied was met with an insidious subtly that was not subtle at all.
Don’t get me wrong, people cared that I was hurt. The elderly officer at the police box was immediately alert and upset. He sat me down and called someone with more haste than anyone else I saw that night. This kind of crime, I was told, had never occurred in my area. He was alarmed. Even more alarmed, or perhaps especially so, after I mentioned I was a researcher at said renowned University. Suddenly, I really mattered.
After an awkward call to a policewoman that I struggled through, not knowing the vocabulary for my attack (when had I ever had the need to learn the word for ‘physical assault’ or ‘rape’?), the tiny police box was soon filled over capacity with other officers. Only the elderly gentleman had the presence of mind to tell them to move me to the back, away from the door and windows, to question me.
I was interrogated about the attack over and over again by multiple officers, asked where, when, what he looked like, to mimic the motions of the way the man grabbed me, again, again. They snapped photos of my bloody elbows, trying to find a good way to do so crammed in the tiny back room. I wondered if this was how questioning normally occurred, stuffed into this claustrophobic space, loomed over by five officers in a room, only two of whom really fit in the room with me. But more than the inappropriateness of the space, I began to notice the tenor of the questions.
“What did he look like? He was a foreigner, wasn’t he? Was he white? An American?”
No, I said, he was Japanese.
“A Korean? Probably a Korean or a Chinese person?”
No, I said, he was Japanese.
“She said he looked like a regular salaryman [white collar worker],” the one female officer in the room interjected, “She said he was Japanese.”
“Are you sure he was wearing a white dress shirt? Wasn’t it more like a t-shirt?”
No, I said, repeating myself for the third time. It was a short-sleeved collared shirt.
“And pants like these?” A male officer suggested, tugging on his black cargoes.
No, I said, repeating myself again. They were slacks.
“Like a salaryman,” the female officer echoed. “That’s what she said.”
Interspersed with the suggestions that my attacker could not have possibly looked like a Japanese business man, the officers inserted every few minutes, “You don’t want to submit a police report, right?”
The first few times I hadn’t caught onto the word, and from context I couldn’t tell if I should say yes or no. I heard the word “higai,” damage or injury, in there, but didn’t realize “higaitodoke” was a police report, and stumbled through the questions adrenaline-addled; avoiding giving an answer to something I didn’t understand.
Not twenty minutes after this inquisition, they drove me back to the scene of the crime and for half an hour had me show them the exact spot where it happened. The how, the when, the where. This time, they wanted me to re-enact the situation with a female officer, so they could take photos of what the event must have looked like. What if I had been raped? I wondered. Or of a more delicate state of mind after this attack, like others might be? How traumatizing could it have been for four officers to take me back to the scene not half an hour later and make me walk them through it while a stranger put their hands on me in the exact same way I had been assaulted? It made me sick to my stomach to later learn this is standard procedure, and even women who have been raped are made to reenact or watch reenactments of their attack for the sake of police records.
I was asked several more times about submitting a police report, in the same manner as before. “You could submit a police report, but…”, “Are you sure you want to?”, “You know you don’t have to…”, “It’s already so late at night, aren’t you too tired?” The female office was the only one who stepped in, saying “But what if it happens again to another girl?”
I understood the meaning fully this time.
The realization that the way every male officer had been asking me about the police report, as if to file a formal complaint about my assault was a giant inconvenience, a futile and wholly unnecessary effort, made me livid. I thought about how many other women in Japan must have been encouraged not to submit police reports. To bury their stories and their (perceived) shame for the sake of convenience. It was 2 AM. I assured them a police report was exactly what I wanted.
I was driven to the police station, where two male officers took me into a small room and set up a laptop and portable printer. All of the previous information was gone through several more times, with mind-numbing repetition, and equally mind-numbing insensitivity. The same series of questions about whether I was sure he was Japanese.
“How do you know?” One officer asked.
“I’ve been studying Japanese for ten years, and I’ve lived in Japan for four years, I know what a Japanese person looks like.” I had made the mistake of mentioning a Korean restaurant nearby as a landmark in describing the small street I went down. They jumped on it.
“So it was surely a Korean man,” the officer said with confidence.
The restaurant is, in fact, owned by a very kind Japanese lady.
“He was Japanese,” I protested.
“You can tell the difference between Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people?” the officer scoffed.
“I can usually tell the difference.”
“What? Can you really? Even I can’t do that,” he countered.
Of course, I thought to myself. My truth did not fit the standard, discriminatory narrative in Japan: That Japanese people don’t frequently commit crimes, foreigners do. Sure, there is room for doubt—it was dark, I was struggling, he was a stranger. The reaction of pure disbelief at my story, several times over, layered with a healthy dose of anti-foreign sentiment was startling but not shocking. As a victim, I was unsettled; as someone familiar with the deeply ingrained racism prevalent in many areas of Japanese society at large, I recognized with disappointment what I heard.
But worse yet was the more common disbelief that is shared widely around the world: that assault on women is not a real crime, especially not if it doesn’t go too far, and that men must have their reasons. In the middle of the report, I was asked to do another reenactment, this time in a tiny tatami room on another floor of the police station. The female officer joined us again, and once more I had to relive my attack under the watchful eyes of two more male officers, one with a camera, one an observer, while the woman apologetically asked where she should put her arms on me and we repeatedly paused in awkward mid-motion so they could take photos of our positions.
Amidst the perverse recreation, the older male officer paused us, and added, “But grabbing you like that, he didn’t actually grab your boobs, did he? Or did he try to? Did he actually put his hands on them or not? He only grabbed your arms?” I gawked at the questions. Not only because I had never heard a professional use the casual term for breasts, oppai, and never expected to in such a serious situation, but because the officer seemed to want to downplay the seriousness of the attack.
“He didn’t have the chance,” I fumbled to explain. While it could have been an innocent line of inquiry, it didn’t feel that way at all from the way he asked—it was very clear that there was a line to be drawn here between assault and sexual assault. A gravity no one wanted to lay claim to in this situation. “Did you think he wanted to rape you? No, right?” Someone had asked at some point. Why else, I wondered to myself, would they think a man stalked a woman several minutes down a dark empty street in the middle of the night and attack her? Sure, it was an assault, but maybe it wasn’t sexual, they implied.
Then there was the question of alcohol. Several times over it came up. Was he drunk? Did he smell like alcohol? Did he walk funny? Maybe he was just drunk, and it was a mistake. I doubt a drunk man would have the presence of mind to stalk after me so quietly, for so long, to rush at me just as I took notice of him. To run that fast once I had fought him off too vigorously and too loudly to be worth the trouble any more. But if a man is drunk, sexual assault is perfectly normal, isn’t it? Their brief actions have little impact? Isn’t that what society tells us? Clearly Americans are not the only ones.
Even as the officers were finishing up my police report, one of them looked to me and said, “You know, you’re going back home at the end of August. If you file this report and it goes to trial, will you really come back here?” I answered sharply, “If necessary,” so fast that he looked taken aback. How many women, I wondered, did police regularly convince to deny the truth of their attack? To drop making a report, because it was unlikely to lead to conviction? Because it might hurt their crime statistics? Because assault on women didn’t actually matter?
I do not write this with the intention setting flame to the reputation of my local police or to vilify these officers that rallied quickly when I told them I was hurt. I write this because it is apparent to me— now through vivid personal experience— that in Japan, just as in many nations, sexual assault on women (to speak nothing of others who suffer as well) is taken lightly in a manner that points to a disturbing lack of proper training, sensitivity, and respect for women and victims.
Inherent cultural biases against the belief that Japanese can commit crimes, that crimes against women are important enough to report, that such crimes have to be grave to matter—all of these issues meant that my story was questioned at every step, and that subtle or not, I was constantly dissuaded from “enduring” proper procedure for reporting a serious crime.
The Japanese National Policy Agency’s informational materials on police support for sex crime victims state that “It is also unavoidable that officers, in their contacts with victims, often cause them to suffer secondary victimization,” and then lists the measures and policies the police take to support victims who suffer this type of assault, such as counseling, special investigators, or appointing female officers to offer assistance. But the fact of the matter is that secondary victimization is largely avoidable, if officers are trained to handle responding to victims appropriately.
Throughout my experience there was no awareness that taking a victim back to the scene of the crime only minutes after it occurred, making them re-enact the event several times, and using insensitive language or lines of questioning could be at all traumatizing. Every person involved was absolutely oblivious, and I was not asked once if anything made me uncomfortable. I was never formally told what the police procedures were at any point of the process (other than the option to not submit a report at all). With the exception of the contact information memo I received at the very end of my four hours at the station, only one person– the elderly man with whom I first spoke at the police box— ever showed me a badge or gave me their names. The extent to which officers failed to fundamentally understand what it meant to properly handle this type of assault with consideration of and respect for the victim was appalling.
Throughout the entire ordeal I wondered to myself, how much worse or more unprofessionally would I have been treated if I had not been a researcher at a prestigious university? If I didn’t know Japanese? Would I have been afforded any more respect if I had been seriously injured? Raped? Would they have considered me important at all if I had just been some twenty-something young tourist? If I had been a Japanese woman, even? That I even had to ask myself such questions about who matters points to the gross negligence in training Japanese police officers to handle these sensitive subjects. To see beyond their personal biases and the deeply embedded flaws in the legal system to do good police work and bring justice to those who sorely need it.
With the Olympics around the corner and a huge influx of foreigners expected to populate the greater Tokyo area in the next four years, perpetrators will find ample opportunity to harass, assault, or sexually prey upon foreign victims, especially. And without a doubt, they will be more likely to do so because they know the system all but guarantees that the chance they will be caught or punished is abysmally small.
I returned to the U.S. shortly thereafter, and the police, refusing to accept any form of contact information from me except a Japanese phone number, defunct after my departure, will never be able to contact me again.
They will never catch the man. But that police report mattered. Women matter. Their safety matters. Procedure matters. Their stories matter. Their dignity matters. Though you would not have known it to be sitting in that police station.”
We make it our mission to keep writing about sexual violence in Japan. If you have a story you would like to share, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
May 4th has become an iconic day for Star Wars fans across the universe. “May The 4th Be With You” becomes “May The Force Be With You” quite nicely. (If you already knew this, stifle that groan young Jedi, some of us didn’t know). And on this day, what better time to introduce one of the stranger and more delightful books to come out this year in Japan: Zen Wisdom From Star Wars (スター・ウォーズ 禅の教え エピソード4・5・6). It’s written by noted Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Shunmyo Masuno (枡野 俊明) and takes scenes and dialogue from the good episodes of the series to illustrate Zen Buddhist sayings and wisdom. (A full review will come later this month).
The book is well-written, with just enough English sprinkled in to make the book semi-accessible to those who can’t read Japanese or are still struggling to do so. The books works better than you might imagine.
Zen Buddhism, was heavily influenced by Taoism, and George Lucas freely admits to having borrowed heavily from Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Japanese culture in the creation of the Star Wars mythos.
The book includes such pearls of wisdom as:
山川草木悉皆成仏 (Sansen Somuku Shikkai Jobutsu)/Everything is filled with the light of life (Everything has Buddha-nature).
安閑無事 (Ankan Buji)/Feel gratitude for everything no matter how small. Or rather: appreciate peace and quiet, health and safety. Because that won’t last forever. For example, affordable health care in America? Gone. (安閑無事が懐かしい）
閑古錘 (Kankonsui)/Maturation and calm come as you accrue diverse experience.
Well, remember that Star Wars is just fiction, but good science fiction, and the words of wisdom in the movie were not said by Taoist sages or Jedi masters but written by screenwriters. However, if you want to know the philosophy and sayings that inspired the film, this book is a good place to start.
Or better yet, buy yourself a copy of The Tao Te Ching, and substitute the word “Force” everytime it mentions “Tao”. According to the Star Wars English Japanese Dictionary, the Force (フォース) is all the energy derived from every living thing. The Tao, which is often described as being indescribable, is close to the same thing.
So for your further education, here are few words from The Force Te Ching
Force Te Ching
by Yoda- chapter 81
Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.
Good men do not argue.
Those who argue are not good.
Those who know are not learned.
The learned do not know.
The Jedi never tries to store things up.
The more he/she does for others, the more he/she has.
The more he/she gives to others, the greater his/her abundance.
The Force of The Light Side is pointed but does no harm.
The Force of the Jedi is work without effort.
(adapted from the Tao Te Ching translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)
So until next year, May the Force Be With you!
Did you know that in 2013, Japanese Cuisine, commonly known as “Washoku(和食)” was named a UNESCO intangible world heritage item? For our third Zeppin 絶品 series, we are looking at Washoku, in particular the most important meal of the day, a Japanese breakfast “Wachoshoku(和朝食)”.
JSRC attended the Wachoshoku Seminar at The Hotel Okura where the benefits of Wachshoku were discussed and manners in how to consume them were bestowed upon the participants before a mouthwatering meal from Yamazato Hotel Okura was served.
According to speaker Prof. Teiji Nakamura of Kanagawa University of Human Services University President, who specializes in nutritional science, Japanese dietary trends have undergone enormous change after WW2.
Before and after the war Japanese people suffered from lack of food and a staple overemphasis resulting in various kinds of malnutrition. However, as the economic situation and short supplies of food improved after the war, there was a large scale effort for implementation of nutrition education and equal distribution of food. Dieticians were stationed in schools and school lunches became a nationwide social dietary experiment and wheat and milk imported from the US were incorporated.
The westernization of diet is a universal tendency in economically advanced countries and studies show a correlation with lifestyle diseases since it tends to increase intake of fat and calories. Japan was no exception and while many of the malnutrition issues were solved with the introduction of the western diet, the downside was the increase in the intake of calories, fats, vitamins and minerals resulting in a rise in obesity, hyperlipidemia, high blood pressure, diabetes and arteriosclerosis. This trend lasted until the Heisei Era which started in 1989, when people’s awareness started to turn towards a healthier diet. Since then Japan has come to boasts the lowest rate of heart disease in the world and the rise in cholesterol level has more or less stopped during the 1990-2000 period. Still, with the super alimentation, deviation in diet choices along with an irregular eating schedule, lifestyle disease is a widespread concern.
Prof. Nakamura also touched upon the effects of skipping breakfast, emphasizing the importance of delivering energy supply to the brain and nervous system in the morning, which leads to higher consumption of energy throughout the day, leading to lesser likelihood of inducing body weight gain.
We were served a delicious meal of hot rice, cold broiled salmon, assorted pickles, sweet egg, dried seaweed and hot miso soup. I thought it was delicious. JSRC editor, Jake Adelstein, nibbled on the fish and looked like he wanted a cheeseburger. Even after there was a wonderful lesson on proper Japanese table manners, Adelstein proceeded to wipe his face with the oshibori (hot towel) and hold his chopsticks like he was getting ready for a knife fight.
It was an amazing meal—both a pleasure to the palate and the eye.
Others tend to agree. Mandy Lynn from Metropolis, the number one international free magazine in Tokyo, graced us with a presentation based on a survey on Wachoshoku which found that it is quite a hit amongst tourists too.
From Western tourists, the meal garnered comments such as “It was well-balanced, tasty, healthy, beautifully served and I felt energized after I ate it”, “Felt much better than eating a heavy western breakfast”. Chinese and Korean tourists also raved “Japanese-style rice and the side dishes were extremely delicious”, “I usually do not eat fish for breakfast because of its smell. But it did not smell at all and was cooked just right.” It seems, if there is one thing Japan, China and Korea can agree on, it is the tastiness of a Wachoshoku.
However, it could be pointed out that homemade Japanese food is a luxury. Japanese cuisine has always revolved around a bowl of rice, surrounded by the wide array of side dishes that accompany it. As can be imagined, it takes a great deal of effort and time to prepare five side dishes. With the growing child poverty, working poor population in the country, it seems unrealistic to ask a working parent on a tight budget to buy a variety of ingredients and spend an hour in the kitchen every morning. Unless, things improve, Japanese breakfasts could soon be a thing of the past in a Japanese household.