Posts Tagged ‘japanese trains


Anti-Acts of Retailiation #3: Team Chikan

This morning, as I passed through the ticket gate, I could hear the train pulling into the station so I sprinted up the endless staircase taking the steps two at a time. By the time I reached the top the passengers had already boarded and as I rushed towards the nearest door the passengers facing my approach liked to jump out of their skin. I had to touch people a little to get on…something that was never really an issue until I came to Japan. Now I avoid it whenever I can… A woman on my left and a man in front of me decided this was entirely too close for comfort and hopped off the train running to the next door which was equally if not more packed.

This gave me a little breathing room so I was grateful for their iwakan. I needed it. Being a smoker, I was winded by my climb, full-tilt up Mt. Fuji jr., to catch this sucker.

I was facing the door. Someones briefcase was being shoved against me. I peeked left and right to see if there were any way he could put his briefcase where it wouldn’t be up against my back. Of course there was space. He was using as a barrier between us.


So I turned around to face him, daring him with a glare to put his briefcase against my stomach or chest. He didn’t dare. Rather he avoided looking at me and turned his body so that his shoulder was now wedged between us.

Actually, not typical…

Typically Japanese men are not even this aggressive. Japanese men that actually get physical with me scare me a little, to be honest. They behave as if they have something to prove. Like they know they ought to be intimidated by my size, or my strangeness, or even my color. But defiantly go against that inclination, somehow blaming me for producing the fear they feel. Of course all of this is conjecture based on my interpretation of body language, which I’ve learned since I’ve been living in Japan is notuniversal, so I could be misreading theirs. But, avoiding looking at me while directing a menacing stiff shoulder towards me, in my face vicinity…hmmmm, I wonder if some body language is universal.

Fortunately, the next stop was only 2 minutes away. I can ignore him for 2 minutes, I told myself. And then I can move. We pulled into the next station and I prepared to do just that. A good number of people got off  including my aggressor. I wanted to trip him but I didn’t. I waited until they had all exited amid the line of passengers waiting to board…as Japanese etiquette decrees. Some of the waiting passengers scrutinized me and retreated to other lines extended before other doors, as, apparently, Japanese prudence decrees.

I took a deep breath of patience, boarded, and made my way to a strap near the corner to the right of the door between the cars. I whipped out my cellphone and started playing Tetris. I try not to look at Japanese people as often as I possibly can. It’s the only way I’ve learned to not start to really hate them. I know what they are going to do, that they really can’t control it…most of them. It’s instinctual like blinking when something is headed towards eyes, or ducking when something airborne approaches your head.  It’s even predictable that one or two people might do something unusual like stand comfortably near me…like I’m a regular person. It happens often enough. I used to feel hope at those moments but it’s mostly fool’s gold. So I really don’t need to see it- the good nor the bad…Something inside me wants to see it…some feeling inside me wants to be felt… But in a self-therapeutic measure I’ve chosen Tetris over torture. I don’t need to play with that scab, rub that itchy eye, scratch that itch.

As the passengers boarded and the car became more and more densely crowded I noticed something peripherally that drew my attention away from my high scoring session with Tetris. A high school girl entered with a Salaryman on her tail practically glued to her. Maybe he was even holding her. I couldn’t see his other hand.  Yappari, chikan, I thought.


I wasn’t far from him… They had been pushed along until they were practically standing behind me, separated by one man in-between us. I considered cockblocking, running a little interference. But, I was still fuming a little over the behavior around me and besides I actually hadn’t seen him do anything aside from be pressed against her and considering the compactness of the car, and all the pushing and shoving that goes on, it’s hard to distinguish between the incidental and the intentional. I moved a little to the left to see if I could catch a glance of his other hand. I could see her sailor uniform- her navy blue skirt -very short-  rolled up high on her thighs. She wore the thick white socks bulging around her ankles and she was standing on the backs of her penny loafers, wearing them like house slippers. Her hair was bleach blond and long and the wire for her I-Pod snaked out of it.

I noticed there was another man on her left and he was closer to her than it appeared to be necessary. Or rather he didn’t appear to be trying to conspicuously stay away from her which is what half the Salarymen do when they are in close proximity to schoolgirls on crowded trains. They like to keep their hands where they can be seen at all times, in order to avoid any accusations or even suspicions. You’ll see them reading Manga (even if there is no room to do so smoothly they’ll have it almost pressed against their faces) sometimes they hold on to straps with two hands, cellphones are always held high so people can see, sometimes they even just play with their faces or put their hands to their mouths as they pretend to read advertisements…anything not to be mistaken for a chikan. Which makes chikan easier to spot. They are among the minority whose hands are not visible. And even from a rather close distance, this guys right hand was not visible. The first man’s hands I couldn’t see either but from his shoulder’s position I could tell he was doing something with his cellphone. Maybe I was wrong about him. The man between us suddenly opened his newspaper fully and began reading, only the top of his head was visible. This pretty much prevented me from seeing anything. He seemed to be unaware that he had accomplished this so I didn’t think anything of it.

At the next stop, a bunch of people got off. But the HS girl and her parasite remained, as did the other man. I could see her face for a moment.  She wore heavy eyeliner and and long fake eyelashes and had really shiny glossy lips. She didn’t appear to be in any distress…but, like I mentioned, Japanese body language can be misleading. I turned away and noticed there was a long line to get on, so I decided I would use the surging boarding crowd to adjust my position and get closer to the girl and see what was happening and possibly in position to intervene. As I maneuvered to the spot where I would be pushed towards the girl if the surge had proceeded naturally, as I should have expected, upon seeing me, the surge diverged like a river around a rather large rock. A river of people pretending not to see me. Suddenly the river ran out of space and burbled awkwardly towards me like the tide lapping at the shore. I turned away from the door and faced towards the girl, the crowd lapping at my back. I couldn’t use the crowd to inch me in closer because they wouldn’t touch me. Great.

But, now I had a different angle and I could see what I couldn’t see from behind the guy reading the paper. The girl was  hemmed into that location by the first guy who was still glued to her and appeared to be rubbing her breast  through her white cotton sailor blouse while holding his cellphone against her, but I wasn’t 100%, and the second guy was still extremely close to her…and his hand was sliding up and down her thigh…of this I was sure. Two chikan!.

Not typical…

I’ve seen two chikan in a car before. The Saikyo line was infested with them. But, they always worked separately. These two…they seemed to know each other. They seemed to be complimenting one another, covering for one another. Of course the people around who could see what was happening more clearly than I were pretending to be oblivious. Then the guy with the newspaper moved slightly into my path again and I suddenly I realized something. The man with the paper had his back to the girl…and his paper was making it difficult to see clearly what was going on. Oh man! He was working with them, too!!! A three-man team, or was there another man? I started looking around for other possible accomplices…There was another guy on the right with a newspaper. It wasn’t opened and he seemed to be…I don’t know…solid, like a solid citizen. He was dressed as a Salaryman. In fact, they all were. There was nothing distinguishing them from regular Salarymen.

The first guy’s shoes were a bit worn down and the other guy, the thigh rubber, his sports jacket was a little threadbare, the guy with the Newspaper was flawless…maybe he needed a shave, and this new guy, his briefcase had seen better days. But that was it. Otherwise they were your typical everyday Salarymen.

I’m not a fool. I wasn’t about to play hero when there was clearly a gang at work here. I mean, shit, this is their country and their turf and all these cowardly fucks are just standing around, afraid of me, afraid of these three (or four or more) chikan plying their perverted trade right before their eyes. If they go out of their way to avoid touching me now I know they wouldn’t lift a finger to help me if I were dying, especially since they won’t even help the most helpless of their people, their women (or in this case adolescent.) So, I was tempted to just let it be…mind my business… to write the whole scenario off as one of those When in Rome…things the way many here have written chikan-ing off as one of those Shouganai  things like atomic bombs and Perry’s Black Ships…

But was I allowing my experiences here in Kawaiiland to diminish my personal sense of common decency? Probably.

At the next station many people got off and another mob was waiting to get on, but  Team Chikan hadn’t budged. In fact, even when people tried to get by they wouldn’t budge. The 4th guy with the newspaper had gotten off so there were at least 3. The crowd waiting to board took a gander at me as they prepared to board and I could see the distaste in their faces, the raw fear, the desire to evade…and it gave me an idea.

I quickly moved over to where Team Chikan was. The Newspaper guy only had one direction covered so without a good crowd encircling them they would not have the privacy they obviously desired. So I stood in the area which would have given them optimum cover and privacy, and the predictable Japanese went the opposite direction scampering as far away from me as they could. One man boarded, saw me, started finger fucking his face and then turned around and started walking backwards like he was a mentally challenged crab. A woman literally took to her heels and ran…maybe she owes me money, another man…etc, etc… I’m sure the chikan behind could see what was happening and the reason but I don’t think they knew I was doing it purposely. I turned so that I could see them and their hands. The first guy was sending an email or something on his cellphone but now that he had no cover and could be seen very clearly and easily, here in the gaijin perimeter I enmeshed them within, he lost his confidence and had released her breast. And the thigh rubbing second guy was looking at me like he suspected something. But his hands were nowhere near her thighs… And the newspaper guy, well, he just read his paper.

The girl looked exactly the same way she had when the chikan had had their hands all over her body…

…like it had never happened…

dou itashimashite (you’re welcome)




Acts of retaliation #2: Joystick

A while back, in my efforts to maintain my sanity, I’d taken to avoiding looking at Japanese people by walking through the streets of Yokohama with my head down.

Sounds ridiculous, I know, but I’m dead-ass serious! I still do it, sometimes.

Enter, or sometimes even approach, a space currently occupied by Japanese and the atmosphere palpably changes. The Japanese body language of uneasiness ensues everywhere you look.  If I enter a confined space like a train car or an elevator, at best, the atmosphere becomes something akin to the atmosphere of a room where everyone is catching everyone else up on the latest bit of nasty gossip and it’s about me. I enter and the people around me transform into stiff and self-conscious caricatures of themselves. Faces turn from joyous to grim, or freeze into a plasticity that is painful to watch. That’s on a very good day. Typically, though, the space becomes a classroom and I’m a notoriously strict teacher who has been known to occasionally behead students in his immediate vicinity with no provocation; a mortified hush comes over the trembling student body as they silently pray to exit the classroom in the same condition they entered: with their heads intact.

The overall effect is it leaves me feeling like such a ruiner; the rain on the Japanese parade, the fog creeping over the hanabi, the typhoon threatening the hanami season. It’s a disheartening feeling because you’d like to ideally have just the opposite effect or, after you’ve been here a while, just to be ignored. It’s also a sickening feeling because you know it really has nothing to do with you personally. It’s spawned from an ignorance you have very little hope of addressing and there’s  little or no recourse. It’s an unavoidable aspect of  life in Japan. One of those syouganai things that require patience to the Nth degree.

That’s why I resorted to keeping my head down as often as I could. And, you know what? It actually helped a lot!

Back in NY, people who walk with their heads down or avoid looking at people are flagged as shady, dodgy, and potential evil-doers. Or suffering from some kind of mental derailment. But, here it’s quite the opposite. People tend to avoid eye-contact as well as any kind of confrontation or conflict as a matter of course.

I found that keeping my head down served two purposes. One, it impacted the behavior of Japanese people significantly.  A good number of Japanese people, it seems, feel better if they believe that they are flying below or above my radar; invisible as ostriches with their heads in the sand. The difference between those whose presence I acknowledge with even the merest glance and those I go out of my way to avoid acknowledging whatsoever is measurable. The behavior I mentioned above is reduced by at least half. They can walk past me with a reduced concern for their well-being.

The second purpose walking around looking like a mental patient (from my perspective) serves is if I’m not paying attention to them, then, if I really try hard, it is unlikely I’ll see the actions  they are almost certain to take to indicate their discomfort with both being seen by me and being in my vicinity and, consequently, I feel a lot less like a pariah and a killjoy on a daily basis.

It works like a charm usually!

However, walking around like this did not come natural to me at all. I mean, I’m not a confrontational person per se, but I don’t shy from it, either. And, conflict…well, it’s my belief that the best stories are derived from conflict (at least that’s what my writing teacher used to say) so why in the hell would I avoid it when I’m endeavoring to be a solid writer?

As I walked around, looking like I’d lost my winning lottery ticket somewhere, I’d ask myself questions like if they’re ignorant and xenophobic then why should I care what they think and do? I’d have arguments in my head. Part of me defending them, echoing the excuses they always spew in my ear like: our culture is homogeneous and we are shy and we can’t speak English etc, etc. And another part of me would argue on behalf of my creative self reducing Japanese, by virtue of overwhelming evidence, to simple statements like: If it slithers and hisses and sheds its skin like a snake, then it’s a snake.

But, whenever I could stop playing the blame game and take a recess from the courtroom drama playing out in my head, I’d think seriously, and rather selfishly, about my life here and the impact it was having on my character. I’m a fairly proud person and a really observant one. So, I had to make a decision: shall I keep my head held high and endure, or keep my head hung low and evade?

The idea of keeping my head down, thereby denying myself the visual stimulation that spurs my creativity, in order to appease ignorant people, was not only stupid, I’d concluded, but worse: counterproductive and counter-creative. Like a paparazzi photographer scared to take pictures of people without their consent. So, little by little, I started lifting my head again, and every time I did I told myself, “you can handle this. This is nothing. grandma went through worse. Take it like a man!”

The bombardment of offenses would still disturb me, somewhat, but the knowledge that I was going to use these emotions to spur creativity soothed me. Yes, it took a bit of soul searching but eventually I decided that this kind of ignorance I would not encourage nor reward, nor would I let it mold me into a bitter, cynical person. I decided I would face it head-on. They say whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (god, I love cliches) so I started working on ways to keep my head up, to not let them beat me.

It was at this time that I stumbled upon something that made keeping my head up a little more fun.

I realized, quite accidentally, that I had the power to manipulate Japanese people into performing some pretty bizarre behavior simply by being near them.

One day, I was walking through Yokohama Station on my way to work, with my head held purposely up, exposing my chin, hoping it was not made of glass. A man was coming towards me. Our eyes met for a moment. I could see the recognition and the fear, the desire to evade, seize him. My temper flared a little. On his current path we wouldn’t walk into each other but he would pass dangerously close to making physical contact with me (our arms might brush or maybe our briefcases would brush one another’s) and this was apparently too close for his comfort. He suddenly stopped, looked around as if to non-verbally say ‘now, how the hell did I get here?’ Like he’d been beamed to his current location without his knowledge.  Then, just as suddenly, he displayed the body language of  “oh, I know where I am now! I need to go that way!” That way was out of my path…he darted that direction. I see this behavior at least 5-10 times a day so, though it vexes me, it hardly surprises me. However, in his hasty detour, he ran smack into a woman, dislodging her purse from her arm and almost knocking her over. I laughed out loud. This was something that happens occasionally but I never used to get much of a kick out of it. That day I found it hilarious, though. It felt like instant karma.

He apologized to her and kept moving. I tracked him visually, watched him make a another sharp turn back onto the path he’d detoured from a few feet past me. The woman had continued on her way, too.

That got me to wondering…if I shifted directions at just the right time could I cause the person trying to avoid coming near me to crash into another person? Could I actually cause a collision? Certain conditions had to be met for it to be possible, of course. First of all, it had to be a fairly crowded space. Secondly, the person had to be headed towards me at a fairly rapid clip. Thirdly, the person had to be of a mind to avoid me, as opposed to one of over a dozen other ways Japanese display their discomfort at the potential impending graze against me.

And, there had to be a third person…so the timing had to be impeccable.

I decided to give it a shot. The next day, as expected, I met eyes with an approaching salaryman…but he turned before I could find a third person. He only turned slightly, and not very abruptly, like if he were avoiding a puddle. A couple of days later a woman was coming my way and our eyes met. Fear. She stopped, and spun around slowly, timing her spin perfectly with my passing  so that our eyes would never meet again yet she could confirm I had passed at the tail end of her spin, and that she was once again safe to go about her business in the gaijin-free world that existed only in her warped mind. It’s a pretty drastic maneuver I unfortunately know all to well. I get it at least 10 times a day, but that day I did the unexpected. Just as I was passing her I stopped. When her eyes came around to confirm that I had passed, there I was behind her. She liked to have jumped out of her skin! I looked off as if I had stopped to see something off to the left. I didn’t even acknowledge her alarm. Then I continued walking.

This was going to be harder than I had anticipated.

It was a week of practice and failures before I was able to get to the next level in this game I had created. Nintendo, step aside. It’s Ningendo! (ningen means human) A man was coming my way. Our eyes met. He becomes a mask of utter disgust.  I looked for a crash dummy. Another man was approaching from his left…I veered right abruptly placing myself on a line that would take me to a kiosk and would make our passing that much closer. The disgusted man veered left suddenly and bumped squarely into the third man. I think their foreheads collided! Yatta ze! (I’d done it!)

I’d become a human joystick in a not-so virtual reality game!

Though I got a kick out of turning their xenophobia against them I didn’t like the idea of  involving an innocent person. So, I wondered  if I could make the offending person walk into an obstacle like a wall, or even stumble and fall, or something like that?

Well, it’s only been a a year or so since I started my game and I don’t play too often. Only when I need to release a little steam. And I’ve yet to make anyone walk into a wall or stumble or fall. I haven’t reached that level, yet. There have been several unintentional collisions, though.

And I relish each one.



PS: I’ve written, and am in the process of revising, a novel. It’s unrelated to my experiences in Japan. If you enjoy my writing and have a little free time please check out: Real Gods require Blood. I’ll be posting it chapter by chapter.

Thanks in advance


10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama #9: Be patient

The Christians  say, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, … See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient.” (James 5:7-11)

The Jews say, “The patient man shows much good sense, but the quick-tempered man displays folly at its height.” (Proverbs 14:29)

The Muslims say, “Verily man is in loss, except such as have faith, and do righteous deeds, and join together in the mutual enjoining of truth, and of patience and constancy.” (103:2-3)

The Chinese say, “In the struggle between the stone and the water, in time, the water wins.”

In Buddhism patience is essential to realize perfect enlightenment (bodhi) and in Hinduism patience is recognized by the Sri Krishna in the Bhagavd Gita ( Sanskrit Hindu Scripture)

Nietzsche said, “Passion will not wait. The tragedy in the lives of great men often lies not in their conflict with the times and the baseness of their fellow men, but rather in their inability to postpone their work for a year or two. They cannot wait.”

And maybe my favorite: Thomas Edison said, “I never failed once. It just happened to be a 2000-step process.”

I used to go to church on New Year’s Day. Which church didn’t matter. I love to bring in the new year listening to a great Gospel choir and an uplifting sermon. As the hour approached midnight, I would sit there in the pew, hands clasped, head bowed, eyes closed and pray for good health and prosperity for friends and family. Yet, I am not Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim, nor Buddhist, nor Hindu, nor even Shinto for that matter (though I ain’t above tossing a few coins, clapping, bowing and giving some kamisama a shout out at a Shinto shrine). I’m not a Nietzche disciple, either. I’m just your friendly neighborhood agnostic, who loves to read and write and learn new things. One of the things I’ve learned in Japan is that the Japanese have turned #9 Being patient into practically a religion in and of itself. The whole society is a church founded on patience. And my tip to you is if you’re gonna live here, whether you have a religious background or not, and if you are serious about remaining sane: consider converting.

In the US many people say Patience is a virtue. It’s been hammered into the collective American skull alongside other dubious tenets like distance makes the heart grow fonder (tell that to the girl I was seeing when I left NY…umm whatshername again? Starts with a K, I think,) two wrongs don’t make a right (but revenge is sooooo sweet,) and communism and Socialism are evil (I think the French, the Spanish and the Cubans might take issue with that though). Whether people believe it or not is another story. But, to the Japanese, it is beyond a virtue. The Japanese call patience, Gaman 我慢which basically means they endeavor to endure what seems to be unbearable or adverse circumstances beyond their control  and somehow manage to retain an expression of calm forbearance in the face of it.

In other words, Patience 5.0

I know I said tip #1: Don’t be you is the most difficult. But, being patient is the most difficult part of not being me. I was shamelessly impatient before I came to Japan and therefore I was not being me when I was trying to be patient with the Japanese. I was lying through my teeth. I was the biggest fraud on this tiny island and felt so every breathing moment. In fact, I felt that way up until relatively recently.

I also briefly mentioned Honne and Tatamae in an earlier posting. I have no problem with Honne…Honne is my forte. But, Tatamae arguably, requires a great deal of patience to attain. Well, I realized recently that I had basically acquired, through the ins and outs of life here, a modified Western version of tatamae. I think the Japanese (those who bother to even notice) can see right through my tatamae but, like they must do for one another from time to time, they pretend not to see the seething impatience beneath my plastic smile, and they send me some plastic cheese in return. God love ’em! 9-:

They say the first step to solving a problem is knowing of its existence (another one of those Western maxims reeking of l’air du cliche.) Well, the biggest problem for me was acknowledging that impatience is indeed a problem. In my life, impatience had been rewarded almost as often as patience; at least enough so that I knew it was often useful and not to be discarded out of hand. I was reared in an environment where in order to get ahead you needed to not only adapt yourself to the chaos around you but thrive within it. And, if you were able to feign patience, that feint was often enough to achieve whatever goals your impatience would have proven inexpedient in achieving. In other words, breaking rules was in the rule book much to an honest person’s chagrin. Cleverly breaking the rules was praised. Flagrantly breaking the rules was respected.

Patience was an ideal. Something people admired and when they happen to stumble across it within themselves say to themselves, “wow, it’s nice to know I’m capable of both.”

I guess I should make it clear what I mean when I talk about patience. After all, there are several senses of the word, aren’t there? The first definition that comes to mind is the ability and willingness to tolerate delay. Tolerate delay, hrmph. I don’t tolerate delay well. Not at all. At least I didn’t until after I’d been here for a spell . For instance, here in Japan, when there’s an announcement on the train platform that the train that would have gotten me to a time sensitive appointment in a timely fashion will be delayed because someone decided to take his revenge out on his family, and the society at-large that had made his life a living hell, by jumping in front of MY train. I know I should take a deep breath, call ahead to inform my party I will be delayed unavoidably and apologize profusely (though I’m not responsible at all) and then resume playing Tetris on my cellphone. And, nowadays I am likely to do just that. But up until recently that has not been the case. I would immediately audibly disparage this psychotic tendency of suicidal Japanese people to splatter their fellow commuters with their guts and brain matter into the ears of every Japanese person within earshot, while trying to figure out if there is an alternative route that will get me where I need to be when I need to be there. (This might seem like a strange scenario to use as an example but only to those of you who don’t live here. What I call Splattercide, or suicide by leaping in front of a speeding locomotive, may not be the number one method of doing oneself in in Japan but it is definitely the most sensational and in my experience the most common cause of rail delays on what is reputed to be the most efficient rail system in the world. The reason it is a way to take revenge out on one’s family is, believe it or not, the family must compensate the rail company, sometimes as much as a million dollars, as a delay fee.)

In NY, we try to make everything happen ASAP. There are whole industries built around ASAP. Delay is not expected nor is it in many cases tolerated. It either has to be there ASAP or it doesn’t matter when it happens. For example, the product my client just ordered either has to be there, like Paulie said to Adrian in Rocky, instamatically (via teleportation/beaming), by that day Close Of Business  (via Bike messenger), the following day first thing (via Fed-Ex), or it isn’t important so whenever it gets there it gets there (via USPS/Snail Mail).

Even suggesting to a client that they need to be patient is the equivalent of telling them that their business is not important to you and better left in the hands of someone who shares their impetuous values. Telling a customer outright to be patient is like telling them to shut the hell up! (“Sir, please be patient.” “Who you think you talking to like that? I wanna see the manager! Be patient. I got your patience right here!”) Telling someone patience is a virtue is an insult. (Patience is a what?? Yo’ Mama’s a virtue!) Telling someone good things come to those who wait begs for a sarcastic response.  (“Listen…what’s this? Our second date? I’ve been patient enough. When you get ready to part with summadat good thing, you give me a call, alright? Cuz I ain’t about to spend another dime on wine and dine! I’m out, peace!”)

Moreover, I was easily provoked, easily annoyed, misfortune or pain were only tolerated if necessary and always with complaint, my temper was short, I could become irritable at the drop of a hat, etc, etc…I was a goddamn case study in impatience. I had worked out some of it before I came to Japan. At least I thought I had. But, life here exposed the truth about me. I realized that I came to Gaman-Land with very little Gaman and was unaccustomed to and fairly intolerant of Gaman from others as well.

But, what do I encounter here: perhaps the most patient people I’ve ever metcomet_hale-bopp in my entire life. Eerily patient. Creeped me out, actually. They’d give that bible guy, Job, a run for his money. So, naturally, I found it confounding and a little freightening. Patient people scare me. They can endure what I can’t for some secret reason. Maybe they’re aliens or part of some Cult of Patrience waiting for Hale-Bopp to come around again cuz their mothership is hiding in its tail. Patience is borderline foolishness in my neck of the woods, so I felt like I had arrived in the land of Suckers. Why wait for a green light when the coast is clear for blocks? Why stand on line on a train platform when the odds of your boarding the next jam-packed train that arrives improve considerably if you rush the door? Why not elbow that asshole who pushes you on the train? Why smile when your English teacher is clearly trying to provoke you with his line of questioning?

Why ask why? The answer is simple: They are Japanese and that’s how they get down and if you’re gonna live here I suggest you forego your own way of getting down in favor of their way. Why, you ask? because the only thing you’ll accomplish with your impatience is more frustration on your part.

I’ll try to illustrate this using computer terminology (though I know squat about computers, I have enough general knowledge to make this modest analogy.) Think of Japan as an operating system. An OS written in the Gaman language. Sure, their OS was inspired by Western operating systems, so on the surface it might look a lot like your own OS. Has many of the same features and principles, like the difference between a MAC and a PC, or a Toyota Camry and a Ford Taurus. But, when you come to Japan and try to run your software in their OS, forget it! You’ll get all kinds of system errors. Keep it up and at some point you’ll get that Blue Screen of Death error and you’ll know you really fucked up! I know. I’ve gotten it at least once!

So, that leaves you with two options, metaphorically: Bring your own software and  live defiantly among others who refuse to switch OS and exist virtually outside the Gaman system by choice (There really is no complete escape from it but I certainly don’t fault the people who try…the Japanese level of patience is not for everyone, and besides there’s a whole industry in Japan waiting to cater to you if you do, but you had better be rich cause it can get pretty expensive to live in Japan that way,) or you can replace your Western OS with the Gaman Operating System.

I chose the latter.

I mentioned in #3 Learn that Japanese some words and phrases I think any foreigner living in Japan should be familiar with. But, I neglected to mention a very important one, and what an oversight!!! The phrase is: Syouganai. I guess the best English equivalents of this is: Whatchagonnado. Life’s a bitch! Can’t catch a break! It’s in the cards! My Mama told me there’d be days like this. Gotta take the bad with the good. It’s useless to complain about it, etc, etc… Only, in Japan, syouganai is almost a spiritual proclamation of hopelessness and an utter acceptance of the issue before them. It is a phrase born out of Japanese patience. Like a mantra against impatience that fuels the spirit and keeps their tolerance strong.

I found a post on the net written by a British bloat a couple of years back that captures syouganai so well I’m gonna refer you guys to him. SYOUGANAI! After you read his posts you will understand the level  of patience Syouganai captures and the necessity of patience if a foreigner wants to survive here.

I’m still not a whole hearted convert. Japanese society proselytizes about patience and yet I’ve still managed to retain my impatience.  Patience avoids me way too often to claim myself to be converted. I’m not even sure I want to be cured. I have to go home at some point and if at that time I’ve taken to being patient I’m afraid I might not be able to adjust back to life in the impatient city I call home. I have a hard time believing that patience would behoove me there. I suspect the spirit of Syouganai will turn me into a pinata in New York.

One of the most important things I learned through my interaction with Japanese culture  that I think will benefit me wherever I might find myself in the future (as well as those of you who live here or intend to live here) is that the reason Syouganai is so prevalent is because it consummately compliments Ganbaru or ganbatte (which I also discussed in #3 Learn that Japanese.) In other words, in theory, you can find solace in accepting the things that are out of your control if you are constantly doing your very best. You attain a certain amount of solace in knowing that there’s absolutely nothing you could have done to change the results or that the result is directly related to some flaw in your effort. It’s usually when you don’t strive for, at a minimum, competence and, at best, perfection that you feel intolerant of incompetence or imperfection. In Japan, the vast majority of the people around you are pouring their life’s blood into accomplishing something they deem valuable to their society and to the quality of their lives. And in this they feel (I suspect) a certain camaraderie with one another which binds them in a way you might find in groups and cliques in NY but rarely in the culture at-large.  It warrants and supports the respect for and patience with one another they all seem to possess. This is virtually impossible not to admire or at least stand in awe of. And, of all the things I’ve learned about Japanese people, this is the quality I wish to emulate and partake of the most.

Accepting Japanese tenets like Ganbatte and Syouganai and converting to the The Church of Japanese Patience feels like you’ve joined AA. Like that serenity prayer says:

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, (syouganai)
courage to change the things we can, (ganbatte)
and wisdom to know the difference.” (Gaman)

God help me stay on the wagon.

Next up, last but not least, #10 ?????????




Translated it means:  Don’t distinguish between Japanese and foreigners, just sit down like a well-mannered samurai! (It’s kind of a Japanese joke to make light of the serious subject)

Something interesting happened today. I discovered a Japanese blogger had linked to my blog post:  An empty seat on a crowded train.

What he said I found quite interesting, as were the comments left to his post. It’s in Japanese of course but what it amounts to is that he feels it is very rude to treat foreigners in such a way, and he imagines how he would feel if for example he were to go to NY and New Yorkers treated him the same way (as if). He would feel sad and angry and a little like Frankenstein.

He welcomed comments no matter how rude and the comments ALL, initially, suggested that:

1- Gaijin smell (ie, perfume or cologne or our carnivorous nature emanating through our skin and clothes contrasting harshly with the odors they’re accustomed to) or,

2-Gaijin have fat asses (take up more space than nihonjin)

LMAO !  What do you think? (let me know below)

…anyway, I thought I’d share this with you guys. If you can read Japanese well (unlike myself, I needed help) it’s interesting inside dope. Here’s the link:

(It’s pronounced sora or ku and it means sky or empty -depending on the situation- for all of you tattoo enthusiasts)

By the way, I want to give a big shout out to Sora-san / Ku-san for his kind words. Arigato Gozaimasu!!!


PS:  If you need a translater just cut and paste them into Excite but it will probably give you some really weird results…but even the results are good for a giggle! (-:


10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama #2: Props and Camouflage

As I’ve mentioned, #1: Don’t be you, is by far the most difficult step. A lot of water has to pass under the bridge before that kind of transformation can occur. So, what do you do in the meantime? My mother used to say, “fake it until you can make it!” In other words, pretend not to be you. This is much simpler.

I used to work for NOVA. Those of you who live here know of it, I’m sure. For those of you who don’t know, it used to be the biggest language school franchise here in Japan, focusing primarily on English instruction since English is in the greatest demand here. I won’t get into my life at NOVA. It’s not essential for this post (maybe I’ll tackle it in later post.) What is relevant is that the uniform for Nova instructors was at minimum slacks, shirt and tie, but they preferred you wear a suit. And so most everyday I left my house dressed very conservatively. This was not my preferred mode of dress.

Before I came to Japan, I used to work at a reputable company in New York and there, too, the expectation was for all account executives to wear suits. And, so, for the money, I did.

At first, I loved it. I loved the way wearing a suit made me feel. Like I was successful. Like I had made it, climbed out of the ghetto, scaled above the low expectations of the people I grew up among. I was a suit, goddammit, you better recognize! I loved the attention…some of it anyway. Girls went crazy for guys in a suit. Yes, I work somewhere where the requirement is that I look like this on a daily basis… What a statement to shout at some cutie looking to upgrade from the lifer she’d just sent two pairs of Timberlands and some Long-Johns to Upstate. (aka Prison)

But, it wasn’t long before I started hating suits. My hate was prompted by a number of factors. I didn’t particularly like the way my suit spoke to people on my behalf without my permission, sometimes without even my knowledge. It confessed  things I’d rather people didn’t know with a glance. It told people things about me that weren’t necessarily accurate. Things i often found myself having to retract or modify. Sometimes it even told all-out lies and, inexplicably, people would eat them up. It whispered to girls that I had money and security, education and standing. It yelled at my friends and people in my neighborhood that I was pretentious and thought I was better than them. It told salespeople and con-artist that I was an optimum target. It told some people, “He’s a hustler…so, you better be careful,” and told others “He’s a Jehovah’s Witness…get ready to get solicited!.”

Not unlike a soldier in uniform, a Police Officer or a Firefighter, unless you knew me already, I practically ceased to exist in a suit, the symbolism was so powerful. I used to practically tear it off of me whenever I’d leave the office for the day. When I quit that job I swore, unless necessary, I would never take a job where a suit was the uniform ever again.

But, I wanted to come to Japan and NOVA was my opening so I broke down and broke my promise. Their explanation being that in Japan, as in other countries, a suit says professional. that was understandable.

Now, here’s the thing: While I was working for NOVA, I lived in Saitama and, of course the same offenses that occur now occurred then. Japanese people behaved the same way in Saitama as they do in Yokohama. But, to a significantly lesser degree. After I quit NOVA, I had to move out of the apartment they had furnished, and eventually made my way to Yokohama. I was told (by Japanese friends) that Yokohama people are accustomed to foreigners, what with all the military cats and whatnot. A Gaijin-friendly environment that won’t set me back considerably? Hell yeah, I was in. I started working at a Japanese public school, which is an entirely different environment than the one NOVA provided. And, in this environment, to my extreme delight, suits were not required. That was a bigger fringe benefit than the six-week vacation in the summer. At the same time, I noticed that the Japanese in Yokohama were not as tolerant of me as the Saitama Japanese were. Which went contrary to what I was told.

Well, you guessed it by now, I’m sure. It was the fucking suit! It took me a few months to catch on, though. And an even longer time to breakdown and wear one again. The idea of being forced to wear a suit just so that Japanese people would feel more comfortable around me was offensive as well. If your child is acting out in the supermarket over some candy they simply must have, sure you might go ahead and buy it just to shut them up, or you might pop them upside the head, like my mother would do, and they’ll learn how to behave out in public. if your dog shits in your slippers, you might give him a Scooby snack or you might put your foot in his ass. I felt like I was betraying a rule of nature. It felt really wrong, soulfully wrong, to reward the Japanese misbehavior.

But, in the interest of maintaining your sanity (and your freedom), and unless you think you’ll get a kick out of putting your foot up dozens of asses and popping dozens of Japanese upside the head every day (I’ve been there and trust me your foot and hand, metaphorically, will get very tired and in the end they’ll just be more asses to kick and heads to pop), you had better take tip #2: Props and Camouflage to heart. It can put a big dent in the number of offenses you incur daily. Trust me.

Of course, if you wear suits daily anyway, you’ll be glad to know at least partially why you haven’t experienced the obscenities that prompted this tip making the list.

In addition to a suit, I’ve experimented with a few props that you might find of use. One of the most popular reasons Japanese give me for their behavior (yes, I’m an inquisitive mofo) is due to the fact they can’t speak English and they’re afraid that foreigners might try to communicate with them and create some kind of embarrassing international incident. Fine. Unacceptable, but fine. I didn’t believe it, however. I thought it was my skin color for sure. So, I put it to the test.

Let’s see now…how could I make it clear to the people around me that I could speak Japanese? That way, I could see if their manners would improve.

There are a few ways, some more effective than others.

While I’m standing in line and the Japanese in my vicinity begin their dance of discomfort, (and in lieu of doing my daily dance of despair and disillusionment) i whip out my cellphone:

“Moshi Moshi!” I stage whisper.

No answer. Of course there’s no answer. It’s a fake call. I’m actually talking to everyone standing on line.

“Ah sou nan da!….Eeeeeto ne…Honto ni?… Maji de?… Ja, kinyoubi yoru hachi-ko de aou ka? ku-ji goro? Ii naaa. Ii naa…Hai! Hai! Sou sou sou sou. Hai! Wakatta! Ja ne, bye bye.” You don’t say! Well…really? Seriously? Ok, let’s meet at that famous statue of a dog in Shibuya on Friday night…about 9? Cool! Cool. Right, right, yeah yeah yeah yeah. Alright. You bet! Later.

While you’re having this conversation with the people on line, via yourself, you might notice some of them, upon hearing your fairly native sounding Nihongo, visually relax, like they’d been waiting to exhale ever since they first noticed you. Try not to laugh. It’s important to learn some native sounding phrases and practice them over and over until they feel natural to you. Some of the people on line couldn’t care less if you were fluent or not. But, you’ll relieve the anxiety of a handful, guaranteed.

And that’s what these tips are all about: reducing the number of offenses, which will increase your chances of keeping your sanity intact.

Also, you might try picking up a Japanese language newspaper at the newsstand. I know, feels like a waste of money, but it does wonders. Make all kinds of faces like you’re comprehending what may to you be totally incomprehensible (actually I can read a little now so my facial expressions have become pretty authentic.) You know, go through the motions. And, make sure you read from the top to the bottom of the column then start at the top of the next column, right to left, otherwise you’ll expose your deception in the most embarrassing way. Might even draw some snickers. (Been there, done that) It sounds silly, and you might even feel loco doing it at first. But, compared to the daily feeling of repressed rage and the stress of not opening up a can of whup-ass on someone who has given you clear indication they need it bad, It’s a marked improvement. It might even inspire someone near you enough to do something as neighborly as speak to you–which could backfire if you can’t speak any Japanese.

Which leads me to my next tip: #3- Learn that Japanese!



Me and Japan pt 3: Vexation and Vigilantism

…and once I get vexed, well…what can I say? I’m a New Yorker. I have to represent. If you violate personally you should expect some kind of personal repercussion. That’s a simple maxim, and a universal one, I thought. And even if that maxim doesn’t mean a thing in Japan I’m pretty sure Newton applies here…evidence to the contrary, Japan is still on the planet earth, so it ought to be understood that: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Y’all remember Death Wish, right?

I think there were 5 sequels. I’ve only seen parts 1 and 2, but that was enough. Charlie Bronson was violated, and he reacted! I think he overreacted a bit. All of those crooks didn’t have to die. But, they needed to be taught a lesson. I came to Japan to teach English, but, like Charlie, I felt thrust into the role of teaching something else: A little common decency; American style.

I ought to apologize, though. I probably made the lives of a number of foreigners in the Tokyo / Yokohama area a little harder…their experience here a little more intense,…the Japanese a little more afraid of them, especially the black guys. Gomen ne. (Sorry) But, living in Japan had become a daily vexation…if you’ve read some of my other posts (an empty seat, the crush, Shaking Shit Up, etc…) you have an idea of what I’ve been tolerating on a daily basis: Basically, the intolerable.

I thought a little retaliation was in order. At least i thought so in this 2nd phase.

Granted, I was warned. By people, by books, by movies…the word was out: Japanese people are shy (a pleasant little euphemism for xenophobic and/or racist) and not prone to displaying their true emotions. I could have come here and accepted their “shyness” on face value. I actually tried. But, I’d never seen such active and aggressive shyness before. It was fascinating at first. Almost comical. Until, come phase 2, when I lost my sense of humor about it entirely. I mean, sometimes it’s just offensive, and that’s barely tolerably in itself. And, other times…well, it’s taken to a point that no man with a sense of his own humanity can stand, that anyone with feelings can bear. It’s taken overboard.

Innocent or not, it had to be addressed.

I tried to understand it, first. To find some rationale for accepting it aside from this is their country and if I don’t like it I can go back to my own country. That’s certainly a sentiment a certain segment of Americans would spit at foreigners complaining about being abused. So. that one held me in check for a long time…until I paid a big fat tax bill, and then another and another and another…And I graduated my third-year students and found myself in tears, and helped carry a shrine through the streets of Yokohama, and had run into a former student from a few years back on the train and been told (with eyes welling and in pretty damn good English) that I was the best English teacher she’d ever had and thanks to the advise I’d given her she was able to secure her dream job as an English language tour guide in Japan, etc…In other words, I LIVE HERE, TOO.

Yep, the flame of self-righteous indignation was ablaze.

In my effort to understand it, I went into a long period of deep observation and experimentation. The results of which I hadn’t truly finalized until phase 3 (which I’ll discuss in later posts.) They say, don’t drive mad. Well, don’t research mad should be a saying, too. It can really bungle your results something awful. I mean, I should have started my research with a more careful examination of my own issues. But, at the time, I was seeking blame externally, and only incorporated any internal issues that supported the conclusions I wanted to arrive at, the foregone ones.

I asked myself a series of leading questions. For example: Why are Japanese so insensitive to my feelings? Can they be so obtuse as to believe that since I come from a different country and culture that I don’t share the capacity to feel as they do? I thought this, mental pen and pad in hand, while I watched (without making it obvious I was watching…like a Conservationists observing some endangered species’ mating rituals in the wild) an occurrence that takes place about 5-10 times a day: a man on the train shifted to an unnatural angle in order not to have me in his direct line of sight yet still be able to observe me peripherally, like a fish. Another man on the other side of me is stealing glances when he thinks I’m not looking and when I glance up purposely to test his reaction, he, as expected, darts his head away, like a fish when you tap your knuckle against the bowl. I generously chalked this kind of behavior up to their curiosity overwhelming their decorum. They know they shouldn’t be staring, and in their misinformed, stereotype-plagued minds it’s actually dangerous to do so, but they can’t help themselves. Even at the risk of being rude they feel compelled. They would prefer to be natural, to look or not look and feel no ways about it. But, because I’m not Japanese they are placed in this awkward situation. So, I wondered: Do they blame me? But, that would suggest that they weren’t insensitive to my feelings. That they were well aware that I possessed the same feelings as they but somehow this was retaliation. I’d made them uncomfortable by being in their vicinity so they were going to make me uncomfortable by treating me like a spectacle.

Was that the rationale? I didn’t jump to conclusions, though. I’m a piss-poor researcher for sure but I’m not an idiot.

When there’s an empty seat beside me on a crowded train, which occurs quite often, I pretend to read my book (it’s just a prop when I’m in research mode) and watch as well as I can the reaction of people on the train to the seat. Sometimes a man will board and see the seat. Though I avoid looking up at his face, I can tell by the position of his feet that he is facing it. He’s close. He’s huffing and puffing, making guttural Japanese noises I’ve learned indicate annoyance. Annoyance at what, I wonder. At being put into such a position by my mere presence? Annoyed at an empty seat’s shout of, “sit on me you asshole!” exposing the things he’d rather not know about himself, and about his brethren? It yells “you are all cowards at best, racists at worst.” It sighs, “you are so easily manipulated.” It belittles him. The empty seat ridicules them. Hell, I would get angry too if a seat made me feel like shit.

But, this was all projection on my part. I needed confirmation.

My first experiment was performed in order to confirm that they shared my feelings. One of those values embedded in Western culture is “do unto others as you would have done unto you” or something like that. Well, I decided to do some doing unto them. See how they like it. So, for a few months, I pretended to be Japanese. As soon as I began this experiment I knew it was going to be a total failure.

On the first day, I was nervous. I felt…bad. But, hell, they needed a taste of their own medicine, i just didn’t know if i was up to the task of administering it.



Maybe you’ve seen me. I was that black guy on the train not sitting next to a Japanese person. Funny, right? If anything, they were relieved. So, I had to be overly overt. I’d rush to an open seat, get half-way into the seated position, time enough for the person sitting beside it to notice that a Gaijin was about to sit beside them, and then I’d look at the person, and pretend to be shocked to find a scary-ass Japanese person there, donning the best look of fear I could muster. I must have looked like Buckwheat in the haunted house. I probably scared them more than I was pretending to be afraid. Tell me I ain’t going loco. The person looks and visually is so relieved I didn’t sit down that they actually exhale audibly “Phew!”

Have you seen me? I was that black guy on the crowded train surrounded by Japanese people, looking terrified (see picture again)  bouncing from person to person, with a look on my face and a manner in my body language that indicated I believed coming into contact with any of them would expose me to a lethal disease that kills slowly and painfully and for which there is no cure…and receiving the most bizarre looks you can imagine in return. My fear scared them more than my book reading and Tetris playing ever did.

Sometimes I’d strike pay dirt. Like if some guy would bump up against me on the train, I’d turn around and give him a dirty look and then, most conspicuously, pull my wallet out of my back pocket, gesticulating a bit to draw attention (as if that were necessary), repeatedly peeking back at him, with a lot of tooth-sucking and eye-rolling, check its contents, and then place my wallet in my front pocket and give him one last dirty look. You know what pay dirt looks like? He’d wince ever so slightly, like maybe someone stepped on his toe. He wouldn’t even acknowledge me. That’s the most reaction I’ve ever gotten.

Yes, it failed miserably. Yappari, deshou? (As expected, right?)

This vexed me further. How the hell could someone ignore what I’d been doing? Acknowledge me goddammit! I mean, I’d mimicked their most offensive reactions to me as best I could. It was really difficult. I’d never really snubbed people before, not conspicuously anyway. I’ve had precisely zero experience doing this kind of thing. I’ve never even had cause to treat people with seething contempt or malice… And, I’ve never been afraid of a people, per se. A person, sure. But, not a whole race, and of course not any race other than my own. That’s just too absurd a notion for a New Yorker.

I wanted some satisfaction! It was time to take the gloves off.

to be continued…


How I learned to bow

I was on the way to work my first week in Japan, when I saw this gorgeous girl giving me the eye. I mean really beautiful. In America she wouldn’t need a stick to beat them off, she’d need Chuck Norris.

I was reading a Japanese textbook…ok, I’m lying. I was reading a book on pick up lines to use on Japanese girls, Nanpa it’s called, and when I looked up, she was across the car from me ogling me. I gave her a little smile of acknowledgment, kept my cool, though my heart and brain were racing. I scanned the book quickly, trying to find just the right phrase, but the book must have been written by some corny-ass, no pussy-getting-ass Canadian or something cuz the closest phrase I could get to what I had in mind to say was, my, what a beautiful handbag. I like your style, when what I really wanted to say was more in the spirit of “players wanna play, ballers wanna ball, rollers wanna roll…” Maybe I should write one of these books. Once I learned the language I’d certainly think about it.

When I looked up again, there were those eyes again.

They were heavily made up, like a porn star’s and they made me want her even more. I’d been a big fan of Japanese porn for as long as I could remember. I can attribute the broadness of my triceps to them. Her skin was tanned like Malibu Barbie. She smiled this time and her teeth, a little crooked and one seemed to protrude from her gum a little, but the smile took about 5 years off of her so that she looked about 13. Her blue jeans hugged her curves like latex and even seated I could tell she had a body. The Tim boots and the Yankee baseball cap on her head reminded me of how a girl back home might run out to the store on the spur of the moment to get some grits for breakfast on a bad hair day. Only her hair was unmistakably done, and her look was plainly on purpose. She was a Hip Hop chick, I realized…minus all the glam of the excessive make up and perfect hair and the cubic-zirconia studded crucifix dangling from a faux-platinum chain over her miniscule cleavage, she was trying to impersonate a black girl…even her fingernails were an attempt at ghetto glam. She looked like Lil’Mo in a music video.

Maybe she was trying to find herself a FabOlous.

It didn’t really matter though because if I knew me, and there are some things I know about me, I wasn’t going to say a word to her. My MO is to gas myself up then drive around aimlessly and hope to God I crash into something interesting. The book was just for entertainment purposes, mostly. So, as the train pulled into Yokohama Station, I shoved my little passport to Asian booty, replete with useless information and whack ass lines, and queued with everyone else to get off the train. I glanced at my cellphone and saw that I was about 20 minutes early for work. When I glanced up I noticed that she had worked her way to the space beside me. To look at her you would think it was purely coincidental. She was eying me peripherally with a knowing smile on her face. She just knew she was about to be hit on, and to me the smile meant Green Light. This time I inclined my head in a bow she returned it. Wow, this bowing shit works, I thought.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hello,” she replied a little too eagerly…she’d lost all of her coyness so abruptly that I didn’t know what to make of it.

“What’s your name?”

“Atashi?” She asked, pointing at her nose.

“Your name is Atashi…that’s pretty…” she looked unsettled. “Atashi,” I repeated because I didn’t want to forget it. She giggled for some reason. “My name is Kevin,” I said, pointing at myself.

“Ke-bean?” she asked, still giggling and blushing, all of her coyness returning just as suddenly as it had left. “Ke-bin! Ah, sou desuka. Nice to meet you, Ke-bean-san, Atashi wa Natsumi desu. Anooo…my-namu ee zu Natsumi.” And, she smiled some more, and brushed a couple of stray strands of hair from her the edge of her face to the side of her head with a stroke of a cluttered fingernail.

I’d learn in my class that the Japanese have trouble with the pronunciation of certain sounds like Vee so I wasn’t surprised by the distortion of my name. And, I didn’t care anyway because she was so fucking cute and had a banging ass and I didn’t care what I had to do, I was going to get me some of that…WHAM! My head versus the doorway! It lost! She turned to look, as did everyone, and guffawed, covering her mouth, as I stood there rubbing my head like a Aladdin’s lamp and going through the motions of “it’s not that bad…” for my ego’s sake when what I was really feeling was a needle-sharp agonizing stab of hurt. The ledge I’d walked into was metal and sharp and there was a strong chance there was going to be some bleeding, but my desire to make a move on her countermanded any idea I had about immediately seeking medical attention, she was that fine!

I could tell by the “how do I convey concern?” face she was making that she was English-free. She kind of pantomimed “are you ok?” and I nodded, feeling as far from ok as Marselis Wallace was in Pulp Fiction after getting raped by Zed. I checked my palm for blood, there was none, but, my god, there should have been. This much pain without the accompaniment of blood is almost an obscenity.

I couldn’t think, much less think in Japanese, so I just stood there. “Kimi no kabin ga totemo kawaii desune…” That Canadian’s words were the distraction I needed to clear my head. We had an awkward moment of silence while the train announcements said incomprehensible shit and thousands of people raced around and between and nearly over us. And then she looked around and her body language was like, well, it was nice almost meeting you, and sorry about your head but I gotta go… And I thought: hell maybe this happened for a reason. Maybe I should just let her go. Maybe this was the Creator’s way of telling me that she was a no-go. Maybe she’s a transvestite, or has herpes or AIDS or something, and the Creator is trying to look out for me.

One of the first things I learned to do was bow. You would think that learning the language would place prominently in the hierarchy of things to get out of the way, right? So did I. I tackled Japanese for 3 months before my departure; got all that Konnichiwa-ing and Sayonara-ing out of the way, and I was ready for the show…or so I thought. But, right out of the gate, bowing bogarted its way to the front of the queue like a gorilla on meth. I know what you must be thinking: Does Japan have some sort of roving Courtesy Patrol enforcing their customs? Up against the wall, punk! -Gut punch- Oh, now you know how to bow!

No, nothing like that.

It would be unnecessary anyway. From what I’ve seen so far, bowing is as instinctual here as it is for my boy, Darryl, back in NY, to critique every ass that passes by. Some people even bow when their talking on the phone. No, Japan has other ways of commanding your capitulation, and trust me you learn them right quick if you’re 6 ft tall or more. Now, 6 foot ain’t shit back in my neighborhood. It’s average. If you got a wicked crossover and hops like Spud Webb maybe you can make point guard on a junior varsity squad in high school. Don’t get me wrong; no one’s going to call me Shorty but I ain’t raising any roofs, either.

Saying I had to learn how to bow is a little facetious. Tongue in cheek aside, I had to learn how to not get a concussion on a daily basis. I had to pay careful attention to where I was going and what I was doing, at all times, even more so than when I was home in Brooklyn. Why? Because many of the things I took for granted back home- from complicated ideas like the general direction danger comes at you from (primarily from the left, check me if I’m wrong),  to simple ideas like the height of doorways- could not be taken for granted here. And so upon entering restaurants, trains, homes, anywhere with a doorway, I often have a Gandolf at Bilbo’s crib, Lord of the Rings type experience. Like most things in Tokyo, the price for not staying alert is high, and the scar tissue on my head can attest to that.

Even if a Japanese person is cursed with the height of a foreigner, by the time they’re adults they are so accustomed to bowing that low clearance is a non-issue. But, I’ve never bowed, except as a joke or in mock humility. I can see myself as a child performing before an imaginary audience, strumming, blowing or hammering the keys of some imaginary instrument, singing a song so heartfelt, so lovely that the crowd in my mind roars and applauds their gratitude. I’d bow low and thank them. “You’re too kind!” I’d say.

But, the doorways here in Japan are not kind, and too frequently I find myself on the losing side of a clash: the forehead of my 6 foot person versus a doorway an inch or two shy of my height. It is remarkable how deceptively adequate a 5’11 doorway looks. Your brain tells you, it’s a doorway, by God, designed for care-free entry and exit. And you trust your brain, don’t you? That 30-something year old bundle of pink and gray matter you’ve grown to trust and distrust, adore and despise, who, along with your heart, has conspired to bamboozle you into believing you are at the helm, and that you make of your life whatever you set your mind to and put your heart into. Equipped with this consummate hard drive of veins and nerves, slow to acclimate and accustomed to rooms that offer, at least, minimum clearance and virtually unfettered access to subway cars, you rush head long into a collision so painful that it’s all you can do not to scream murder.

A pain as merciless as sitting on a ripe boil on your ass that’s dying to be lanced, as ruthless as the scolding spray of your own shower if someone flushes the toilet depriving your perfect mixture of cold and hot water of the cold in a brownstone. It’s the kind of pain that clears your mind of everything, aside from the pain. First there’s a paralytic silence for an incalculably brief moment during which you try to will the synaptic responses of your nerves to take a coffee break- just this once, PLEEEEEZE- and not perform their sworn duty to alert your brain to any and all sensations…this moment is just long enough to wish you were Paul Maud’dib, the Kwisatz Haderach, with your hand in that box of pain, chanting the Bene Gesseritt litany against fear, opening your mind, expanding your consciousness, and sometimes, yes, sometimes, enabling your often disabled link to the Creator…yes, suddenly, your spiritual inbox has one unread message, you’ve got mail from the almighty himself: Call it what you will, a sign, a signal, an overactive imagination…

And its timing is often impeccable. Don’t let me be planning to do something of dubious morality, or in the middle of doing something that my conscience had been pinging me about. For instance, like that booty-call I’d just made and succeeded in setting up, and while rushing around my bedroom getting dressed to go do the deed, wondering if I should do at all, knowing that my girlfriend would not approve at all, and this is just the kind of thing that has lead to the lost of most of my previous girlfriends, one of which attempted suicide as a result of my betrayal, and that’s when I would stub my corned pinky-toe on the razor-sharp wooden foot of my bed frame, or bang my knee-cap on the solid oak TV stand, the one with as much give as the IRS. Well, while I’m gritting my teeth and my eyes are popping out of my head, and I’m kneeling– prostrate in this temple of mind-numbing pain, searing, throbbing agony, tears threatening if not streaming, so alive, too alive, mind cleared of all delusions—at this, of all times, clarity makes a rare appearance, like a message from the Creator. Actually I shouldn’t say appear…I should say that’s when I tell myself that whatever dastardly deed I was about to embark on, or whatever mischief I was involved in was something I ought not to, for there’s no evidence whatsoever of any other intelligence involved. And, sometimes, depending on the severity of the pain, or the clarity that follows the pain, I would postpone or even refrain from the act I was about to commit.

Yes, my private little superstitious practice; to hell with black cats, broken mirrors and ladders. I couldn’t care less about them. Pain was my primary prognosticator.

This clarity had saved my ass on many an occasion so it’s infallibility and perhaps its divinity is rarely questioned.

That is, not until I moved to Japan. Now I question every goddamn thing.

Here in the land of all that is Meek and Humble, the kind of pain I attributed to clarity happens regularly, so my superstition has subsided some. It wasn’t easy, I tell you. I still connect that omniscient pain with future events, but just as often I connect it with the failure of my brain to adapt to the challenges of a new environment and remain alert at all times.

Case and point: my home, full of doorways and furniture and appliances which require a bit of stooping, kneeling and bending on my part which means, basically, that I have to genuflect before entering my apartment and any room within. Just a little bow for the toilet bowl, show some respect for the shower room, a little obeisance for the bedroom, a little curtsy for the contents of my closet; the kitchen sink is lower so I have to defer to the dishes; the table is about a foot from the floor so I have to be meek to eat, humbled by hamburgers, show humility before hanging light fixtures… I don’t have a problem with the cultural differences…well not a big problem and, I guess, what must be the worst kept secret is that I want to fit in here and be respectful, as well. I have this idea about other cultures: They are to be shown the same respect that you would expect your culture to be shown.

And I want to learn…Though all I’ve known throughout my life is the Eurocentric idea of civilization I’m not convinced that theirs is the best (and not for lack of their trying either.). In fact, knowing historically that my people were forced to adapt to these Eurocentric ideas, and that it’s unlikely I’ll ever learn my actual ancestor’s ideas, I’m extremely open to other ideas, if for no other reason then to spite the ideas that were forced on Great grandma and grandpa. I grew up in a household that held these ideas in contempt, as much as one can do so in a Eurocentric society. My mother was as African as an African American separated from the bosom of her ancestry hundreds of years ago, living in a Europeanized culture that equated Africa with primitive, savagery, barbarism, and cannibalism can be. We didn’t eat with our hands or anything but you better believe I was wearing Dashikis and speaking Swahili at home.

And, from her I learned not to judge to harshly another’s culture for that’s exactly what was done to ours. Yet and still, my relationship with my Creator or my superstition, was mine, and not easily discarded. So, with the pain in my head acting as my guide, I bowed good bye to Natsumi.


Copyright © 2010 Loco in Yokohama / All Rights Reserved

Please know that this blog is my original writing and may not be reproduced in any way without the expressed written permission of the author (that's me!) Thanks!

Words I love…

Everybody is a star
I can feel it when you shine on me
I love you for who you are
Not the one you feel you need to be
Ever catch a falling star
Ain't no stopping 'til it's in the ground
Everybody is a star
One big circle going round and round

Words by: Sly Stone

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