Black and White in Japan pt.4

When I was four or five, my family and I arrived home from an outing to surprise a couple of thieves robbing our apartment. Since my father was not with us, they didn’t panic so much as they decided that they had better flee the scene with whatever they could carry and run with at the same time. My mother, once she’d finished screaming hysterically, called the cops. A while later, two big, white giants stood in our living room, jotting down my mother’s hysterics in huge black leather books. I stood there, in awe. I’d never seen a white person- not on TV – up close before that point. Maybe the doctor that had given me my first spanking was white, and the one that trimmed the foreskin from my member was probably white, too. I have no memory of them but I sure am glad they were around to make sure my black ass was alive and kicking and not walking around with excessive  foreskin on my joint.

Well, from that tender age on, I kept my eyes out for white people. When I was very young, besides law enforcement and fire fighting, they were the butchers, the pizzeria proprietors, the bank tellers, the Con Ed guy and the Ma Bell guy, the bus drivers, the engineers and conductors on the subway, the grocery store clerks, the supermarket staff, the fish mongers, the taxi drivers…They were everyone my mother gave her money to. They were everyone in any position of respect in my neighborhood. They always smiled. They were always nice. They were everywhere. And then, suddenly, they weren’t. The grocers became Latino, the fish monger became Chinese, the fruit and vegetable stand became Korean, the bank teller became black (that’s before the bank relocated entirely), the subway staff became black and Latino…only the police and firefighters remained white.

One time when I was about 7 years old I got lost in the subway and a big friendly white cop saw me crying and asked where were my folks. I told him I didn’t know between sobs. He took me to the transit police station where I suddenly found myself surrounded by a mob of uniformed humongous white men with guns. And, as TV cop shows taught me well, I was  super safe. My tears vanished. I was the center of attraction. One cop put his cap on my head and told me I’d make a great cop. The cop who’d found me came back with an Ice cream sandwich, handed it to me, told me to cheer up and asked me  for my name and phone number. Luckily I knew it. I’ll never forget the smile on his face. Sometimes I still see that face in my dreams, but never do the words, “You smell like shit!” emerge from  it.

“I what?”

” You STINK!” Greg reiterated, like I was deaf and he was one of those idiots that yell at deaf people.

“Every time you open your room door you stink up the whole house!”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Not to mention how I was hearing it. I mean, men stink. Hell, people stink in general…that’s why man-made deodorant and cologne and douche and perfumes and incense and what not, People in general produce some god awful funk, and as evolution went on I guess we just got used to human stench, as long as it wasn’t extraordinarily reeking. And, I don’t reek! I’m no Felix Unger but I shower daily, sometimes twice. I wear Speed Stick deodorant, Polo cologne. I mentioned my foot odor  in an earlier post and I thought it might have been an issue. But since we moved in my shoes have been in the entrance area and I’d been monitoring the smell carefully, marking the improvement my shoe-removing life in Japan had wrought.

I was pretty secure my hygiene was not the issue here, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it was.

“I don’t know what you guys are talking about,” I exclaimed in my defense. “I don’t stink, and neither does my room!”

“You can’t smell that shit, mate?” Joe asked incredulously. “Smells like you have an animal living in there…”

“Yeah, a dead animal…” Greg added with disgust. “You’re not doing some dodgy religious shit in there, are you?”

“I…I…” I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t even respond. The intensity in their voices, the venom in their words, I was wholly unprepared for. I wondered if they were pulling  some elaborate gag, some humor from Down Under to break the ice. It was either that or my room really did stink to high hell.

Looking at their faces, I was leaning towards the latter.

“I don’t know what to say…”

“I’ll be satisfied if you say you’ll stop sacrificing animals or whatever the hell it is you’re doing in your room that has the house smelling like a zoo,” Greg said.

“I don’t sacrifice animals…what do you think? I’m a witch doctor or something?”

“I don’t know what you are, …”

“Listen, there must be some mistake!”

Joe, the more reasonable of the two, asked what could  it be. I told him I didn’t know.

I thought back to our first day. Joe and I actually arrived on the same train from Tokyo. I saw him, struggling with his duffel bags and guitar while  I had only one suitcase, my other stuff to be delivered another day. In my other hand I had a map and a layout of the apartment, as did he, which is how I knew he was Joe and we were headed for the same address. But, I’d be damned I was going to help him. Usually I would have but that day we were racing. Or at least I was. He didn’t care I would later learn.

5 Tatami mat room

The 3 bedroom apartment we would eventually occupy was currently empty. There was a 5 1/2 tatami mat (a tatami mat is about 3ft by 6ft) room, a 6 tatami mat room and an 8 tatami mat master bedroom I presumed. This master  bedroom was next to the living room and also had a door that led out to the backyard. I wanted that room. Smoking was not permitted in the apartment according the forms I signed at the office, so, for convenience, and for size, I wanted that room. I tried to reserve it with the company but I was told the rooms were first come first serve. “You guys can move in as of the first of April.” The first of April found Joe and I on the Saikyo line headed out to Saitama. April Fool’s day found me running through a train station with my suitcase in one hand a map in the other with Joe strolling behind, looking high or drunk. He always did. Like a hippy.

I couldn’t figure out the kanji-plagued map I had so I asked the staff. They wakaranai’d (I don’t know) me. So I asked where were the taxis. I hailed the first taxi I saw, pulling on the door. It wouldn’t open when I pulled but once I’d let it go suddenly it spring open like that car in the Harry Potter movies, and I jumped back like the damn thing was going to eat me, tripping over my suitcase.

Meanwhile I could picture Joe just strolling along lackadaisically.

“Take me here!” I said to the driver, pointing at the map. “Please! Here! We go Here!” I knew no Japanese at the time. So I used universal hand symbols. At least I hoped they were universal. He glanced at me and then at me hands and then at the map then back at me and nodded “hai hai shitteru shitteru.” I turned to close the door when suddenly it lurched  at me. “Fuck!” I turned to the driver and he had a little smirk on his face as he pulled off.

The apartment is about 2 minutes by cab from the station I would later learn. I’m pretty sure that first day the driver took about 15 minutes. I kept asking him was he sure where he was going. “Hai hai hai hai hai” he replied. But I’m sure he’d gotten lost. Finally he pulled up in front of an apartment complex and the door opened on my side. I realized it was hydraulic then. “How cool is that,” I said. I paid him and got out, practically on the run. The taxi was on a long road but I could not see Joe anywhere. Fuck, did he beat me? I thought.

The apartment was on the first floor. I raced down the long hallway and finally I reached it. The door was still closed and locked. I whipped out the key they’d given me in the office and opened it slowly, listening for life within. Nothing…no sounds.


I’ studied the the floor plan so well I knew it by heart. The two smaller rooms were on either side of the hallway leading from the front door. I peaked in both as I proceeded towards the master bedroom. No Joe. They were small, but not so bad. The company had provided us with futon to get started, and both rooms had them, rolled up in the center of the waxed plywood floors. A little further down the hallway there was a toilet room on one said e of the hall and a shower room on the other. I found that interesting. I’d never seen a bathroom where the toilet had a room to itself. A little further and you enter the rather spacious eat-in kitchen, with a couple of appliances provided by the company. I’d have to go through the checklist to make sure all the items were there. The livingroom was next to the kitchen and a pleather couch was there as well as a TV, TV stand, and a large sliding window / patio door that looked out at a backyard full of weeds and chrysanthemums.

And to the right of the dinning room was a sliding door. The other two bedrooms had regular doors. I smiled. Mine was the most “Japanese”. I slid it open and a smell wafted up in to my nose like a…

“Oh shit!”

Tatami Mat

“What?” They asked at my sudden jolt.

“Come here both of you…” and I lead them to my bedroom door, slid it open and pointed down.

“Smell that!”  I said, pointing to the tatami mats. They both slowly kneeled down and gave it a whiff.

“That’s it!” Joe said

That’s the fucking smell! ” Greg agreed. “It’s this bamboo…stuff? Damn, how can you sleep with this smell?”

“I got used to it after a couple days. I don’t think about it anymore.”

“Damn, Loco,” Joe began. “I am so sorry, I….” and he broke out laughing. Greg also apologized for jumping to conclusions and regretted some of the things he’d said.

“No biggie! If either of you were stinking I would have gotten at you the same way, trust me.”

“Well, I guess we can wrap up this meeting, and go get some brews!”

“Not just yet…y’all didn’t hear my beef, yet.” I said. “The colored guy has something to say.”


to be continued…


14 Responses to “Black and White in Japan pt.4”

  1. January 26, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    “Smells like you have an animal LIVING in there…”

    “Yeah, a DEAD animal…” Greg added

    Which one of these guys is the dopey sidekick?

    Great stuff, Loco. I like the way it’s in installments. Kind of like Japanese TV. Set up a cliffhanger, then go for a commercial break, leave you hanging. The quality here, needless to say, is much much higher.

  2. 2 Jules
    January 26, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    I’m loving this thread so far .. keep em comin’ Loco.
    It reminds me of a thread I was reading last year, do a search for “basketbawful livin large” a great story about the guys college roommate.
    I’m looking forward to the fifth installment.

  3. January 26, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Fun read, as always…

  4. January 26, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Overoften, Jules and Craig, thank you. I aim to entertain and provide quality content. Please spread the word. I’ll be much obliged (-: Loco

  5. 5 kanjiwarrior
    January 26, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    Had a similar experience with a taxi driver in Stockholm, the apartment I was staying at was down the street from the train station took 20min by taxi, the next day I discovered it was like 5 min by walking.

    Great post! Looking forward to the next.

  6. 6 Maz
    January 27, 2010 at 12:20 am

    I have to say your “room mates” were making me want to punch them. (I’m a tad sensitive as one of my younger brothers is African American as are many cousins so I have heard crap like that before! It always gets under my skin.)

    Loving the posts though.

  7. 7 Sunniswagger
    January 27, 2010 at 3:53 am

    Very nice read, I knew it was the tatami haha..

  8. January 27, 2010 at 5:19 am

    Great post Loco, I have really been contemplating my new “game plan” as well and plan to study Japanese intensively this summer in preparation for a move to japan. Your posts make me wonder if, as a black man, I can handle the move. I am up for the challenge–keep the posts coming!

  9. January 27, 2010 at 11:43 am

    Your smooth segway from eating an ice cream sandwich to smelling like shit had me a bit confused at first 🙂
    A.D.H.D with too much coffee is BAAAD ;).

    They don’t make Ice cream sandwiches like they used to and they don’t even make Italian ices anymore ….not in my parts anyway 😦

    The Ice cream sandwiches from the “Ice cream man” were only surpased by the orange sherbert in plastic cones with a gumball at the bottom or those red white and blue rocket popsicles.


    Your talkin’ big stuff and I’m hung up on what must have been a good ice cream cone. iiii ne 😉

  10. 10 Ashley
    January 27, 2010 at 11:43 am

    Tatami… smells bad?! >>; Now I feel awkward because I love the smell of tatami (especially fresh tatami is so good!)… are you sure it doesn’t have mold or something? That’s the only time mine ever smells at all… and even then it doesn’t smell so much as it looks terrible. I’m actually a little sad to find out that some people think tatami smells like dead animals XD

  11. 11 sola
    January 27, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    I liked how you made the transitions in this post, the introduction was real swell. It set up this different kind of image in my head than what I have been reading in the previous part. And then BAM you brought me back to the original story with that “You stink” line very well written.
    Also that small segment from when you first came into your room and remembering “The smell” that was cool too.

    Looking forward to reading more about those 2 quirky students of yours and anything else that may come up 🙂


  12. 12 dmac
    January 28, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    As an Aussie, I am taking a particular interest in this mini series. Long time reader, but forced to comment due to these fellas representing Australia. Very interesting stuff. I enjoy your writing style and the effort you put in.

    Agree with you about Vegemite.

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