Posts Tagged ‘tokyo

08
Dec
08

10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama #5: Make Japanese friends!

Making Japanese friends is important, and can have the added benefit of helping you maintain your sanity. Here are my top four reasons why:

1- If  you’re studying Japanese, they are an invaluable resource for natural nihongo.

2– They can help you with the array of things you have to do to maintain your life in Japan

3– If  you want to experience Japan away from the typical Gaijin friendly places

4– Being with a Japanese person relaxes the other Japanese around you.

1-Studying Japanese will help you preserve your sanity, as I mentioned in #3 Learn that Japanese. What I neglected to mention is how Japanese friends can help. They are native speakers, so obviously they can speak fluently, duh! But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can teach it. I’m an inquisitive mofo so anytime something doesn’t make sense I always ask the magic question: why? Why is a question only a teacher or someone who understands the language, culture and history very well can answer. Most Japanese cannot answer why about anything having to do with their language, I’ve found. So, I did what any inquisitive mofo would do: I read books and searched the net for answers. Now, sometimes, I feel like I know more about their language than they do.

To be fair, the reverse is true too sometimes. Have you ever tried to take the TOEIC Test? If you have an ego about your English proficiency or grammar knowledge, do yourself a favor and don’t. It’s like something most of us native speakers have never seen. I have so much respect for my students who scored high on that test. Or, if you ask anyone who isn’t a wordsmith with a thorough knowledge of etymology to explain why, for example, in the word photograph the first syllable is stressed while in the word photography the second is stressed,  I’m sure they’d look at you and say, “Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? How the fuck should I know?” These were the kind of why questions i was asking them.

As I mentioned before, one of my initial reasons for pounding the Japanese books was so that I could do some nanpa. Nanpa is basically flirting or picking up girls and frowned upon by Japanese, but as you know I’m not one of them. My first male Japanese friend was

Fuyuto

Fuyuto

Fuyuto. We met through an American friend of mine. He could speak English a bit and was kind of cool. He was a Salaryman, but a rock star in his dreams, so he moonlighted as lead singer and guitarist in a punk rock band. Life as a salaryman was plan B so he had tattoos on his fingers that he had to hide everyday by wrapping them with bandages. He was in love with white girls, any white girl. He fancied some bleached blond from Alabama he’d met on the internet and took to obsessing over her til I couldn’t stand him anymore.

He taught me my first nanpa. I can hardly remember it now. Something about Ocha shimasenka (Shall we have tea?) which was supposed to be code language for let’s get to know each other better right now, and kimi wa ichiban kawaii nanto ka nanto ka (You are the cutest girl…and something or other) Before Fuyuto  the only Japanese I knew I’d learned from books like Japanese for busy people series (which are pretty good actually) and the likes. But, were useless when it came to my new goal: getting my hands on some of this Kawaii-ness running around half-naked all around me.

I should’ve known Fuyuto was useless in this regard. While I was breaking my neck with every step at the over abundant eye-candy, he hardly noticed. He had about as much interest in Japanese girls as I had in Japanese guys. Having watched this movie I was watching for the first time for his entire life, perhaps it was difficult for him to get excited about it. What was exotic to me was totally commonplace to him. We started drifting apart. I needed someone on the same track as me, and so far that had only been my fellow gaijin.

Before we went our separate ways though he did school me about a few things. I’d been seeing a girl at the time and she’d taken to helping me with my Japanese as I helped her with her English (surprise surprise, eh). I’d listen to how she spoke and I mimicked her sentence structure and what not. She’d say things like: Oohhh! You sound like a Japanese! I’d smile ear to ear. (I’d later learn it was Oseji –apple-polishing flattery) When I got with Fuyuto I’d use some of that Japanese sounding Japanese I’d learned.

“Samui yo!” It’s cold!

Fuyuto smiled. I could tell he was trying not to laugh.

“Fuck you smiling at?”

“You sound like a girl!”

“Really?” I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was. “My voice?”

“No, your words. Don’t use Yo like that. Girls talk like that.”

That fucked me up. In Japan, you hear “Yo” and “Ne” all the damn time. Back in NY we use Yo for everything, too, so I thought I had found something that I was already comfortable with using. The text book says that “Yo” places a stronger emphasis on the preceding words so I thought “Samui yo meant something to the effect of  “it’s fucking cold!” But, according to Fuyuto it did just the opposite the way I’d used it. It made it softer. I sounded gay, he said, and finally released the laughter he could no longer contain.

Great. Him, with his perfect hair he spent half a day in the hair salon getting done, calls me gay. But, he had explained why I had been getting giggled at by my students and being called Kawaii by all the girls I’d spoken to before gleaning this info from Fuyuto. Most Japanese won’t tell you if you’re making an ass of yourself because you’re a foreigner and the expectations are very low for foreigners here anyway. And, this illustrates my point about the value of Japanese friends: They can give you the inside dope that those textbook writers may not be privy to or overlooked. Thanks Fuyuto-san!

2- When I first came to Japan, I came under the aegis of NOVA. They were totally responsible for me. And, as a benefit I totally took for granted at the time, they took care of everything from getting me an apartment to arranging my healthcare benefits. They even got me my first Japanese cellphone. Very convenient. Of course NOVA had relationships with these Japanese companies which gave them an unfair advantage over the competition, but that’s  how it goes. It also cost us instructors a little more for we could have gotten these services for less money in some cases if we could speak Japanese and had shopped around…or if we had friends who spoke Japanese. But few did. So, the headache / expense ratio was acceptable at the time.

After I met my first true friend in Japan, Aiko, I learned most of this. I told her about my cellphone and how much I had paid. she laughed and took me to a another company where I got a better deal and a better phone. She handled all of the conversing and I signed  all the contracts. I told her about how much I paid for rent and she laughed and took me to a neighborhood realtor so I could learn that my Japanese neighbors were paying in most cases a third less.

Mamachari

One day, I had taken a nasty spill off of my Mamichari and had to go to the hospital. Aiko was right there beside me explaining everything to the doctor and to me like my handy translator. Another time I threw my back out. If you’ve read “ducking and Bobbing” you know my drama with my back. Aiko’s mother also used to have back problems. Until she found this Chiropractor / miracle worker out in Saitama. Aiko brought me there and he, using a combination of Western & Eastern techniques he’d learned in China, sent me home feeling like a new man.

I was a very independent person in New York. As a bachelor, I did everything myself for many years. Whatever I didn’t know how to do I could learn how to do or hire someone to do for me. But, in Japan, I felt like an invalid. A man stripped of his ability to see, hear and speak. A friend like Aiko took the sting out of this feeling so much. I wish I could have done half as much for her as she did for me but she was a totally self-sufficient person.aiko-chan1

Now, that I can speak a little I can handle some of the above tasks. I still can’t handle a good number of the tasks required for a full life here, but I haven’t given up. I’m still studying and practicing whenever I can.

Thanks for all your help, Aiko-chan! You were the best!

3- I used to ask my students of a certain age for recommendations of cool places to hangout in Japan.

“You should go to Roppongi,” the majority of them would tell me. I’d already been to Roppongi of course. Not a foreigner in the Tokyo area hasn’t. But, I wasn’t keen on the place, for a number of reasons. It’s a dodgy place, first off. It’s the Tokyo version of Bangkok, only much more expensive and you get less for your money. Secondly, it’s full of foreigners and the Japanese girls who prey on them-usually pretty skanky. If I wanted to hang out with Americans and skanky girls I wouldn’t have come to Japan to do it. There’s plenty in NY.

“Why Roppongi? Do you like Roppongi?” I’d ask them. “How often do you go there?”

“No,” they’d inevitably say. “I  don’t go there.” Of course they didn’t. Only skanky hostesses and future skanky hostesses or girls that had been dragged there by their skanky hostess friends, or Japanese guys who like skanky hostesses and are willing to confess that to me go there.

“Why?”

“It’s so crowded!”

“Oh, I see.”

“Abunai, deshou?” Dangerous isn’t it?

“Why would you recommend that I  go to a place you don’t like and you don’t go to?”

“You are foreigner, deshou? Many foreigners go there. Foreigners like Roppongi! And many beautiful girls go there to meet foreigners dakara.”

I’d let it go…sometimes. These conversations were my first insight into the Japanese mind, especially when it comes to foreigners. The fact that the person didn’t see any problems with what they’d just confessed about themselves and about their culture spoke volumes to me.

Sometimes I didn’t let it go.

“So, you recommend I go to a place you think is dangerous? Do you think I like dangerous places?”

“Eeetooo.” Well…..

“Oh, wait! I understand now. Because there are other foreigners there, and beautiful girls, I won’t mind a little danger…is that what you mean?”

“Eeetoooo” Well….

I refrain from confronting Japanese about their bullshit nowadays, because maintaining a smile while discussing something like this is still a struggle. Some kind of emotion peeks from behind the smile and spits at them. I wind up unintentionally showing some kind of feeling and then they get all uncomfortable and shit goes downhill from there. But, back in the days, I used to get a thrill out of it. it was like getting revenge on them for the ignorance and offenses they had no problem flagrantly displaying before me.

But, if you make a friend, then you can get some solid recommendations.

They’ll hip you to some places that’ll bend your ears back. Every onsen I’ve ever been to was recommended by a friend (who usually accompanied me). Every cool bar or club, not located in a gaijin-friendly zone, I was directed to by a friend (often accompanying me.)

Satoshi: Coolest Mofo you ever want to meet. I was looking for a cool ass nihonjin- male for a change– that I could hangout with and could hip me to some cool places to hang out (I’d had it up to here with Roppongi and Shibuya and the other gaijin-friendly places.)

There was a beauty salon next door to my job. Sometimes when I’d go out to the smoke area there’d be this guy who worked at the salon out there puffing his Seven Stars. seven-starHe had perfect bleached dirty-blond hair, a big smile and a goatee. One of them cool guys I’d see around Tokyo who’d whisper to each other like girls whenever I pass by them. When I’d see him through the salon’s main window, massaging conditioner into some cutie’s hair, I’d say to myself, “Now there’s a job that’ll- if he isn’t gay- turn any man misogynistic after a couple of years. Chances are he’ll have an edge.” I like people with an edge. Most New Yorkers are edgy in every sense of the word.

It wasn’t long before we bumped heads in the smoke area and he said what’s up. And, over a smoke, he asked all those typical When nihonjin met gaijin… questions, or rather, When Nihonjin met kokujin… (When a Japanese met a black man) cause he seemed to zero in on what seemed to be race-related inquiries. I’d gotten used to it. It’s my selling and repelling point in Japan. He couldn’t speak a lick of English, though, which was good.

I’ve found that most of the Japanese people who can speak English tend to be overly arrogant. Like their English speaking ability makes them special (which, unfortunately, it does in Japan) and that having been exposed to the West (which is, I’ve found, the only way a Japanese person can learn English to any significant degree) they feel obligated to show you in an overt way that you don’t intimidate them at all. Perhaps to compensate for all the years they’d felt intimidated by English speakers before they’d gone bilingual.  And, God forbid, their exposure to the West was in England. FORGET IT! You want to throw them thru a fucking window, they’re so goddamn arrogant! (No offense to my British readers…gomen ne!)

“You like Hip Hop?” He asked, while I grimaced inside.

“I guess so. You?”

“Of course.”

“Who do you like?” I asked, bracing myself to hear Emenim or Snoop Dog. At that time, I’d spoken to several Japanese Hip Hop heads who knew Eminem very well but couldn’t tell me who Slick Rick was if I’d shoved my I-Pod up their asses.

“Rhymester. Do you know them?”

“Rhymester? Nah, never heard of them…”

He whipped out his handy I-Pod and plugged me in. It was Japanese, with a lot of English mixed in, and the shit sounded tight, like old school Hip Hop. I started having visions of myself rapping in Japanese. he obviously had decent taste in Hip Hop but I had one question I asked of any Hip Hop head:

“Who do you think is the best Hip Hop artist of all time?”

I told myself, even if he says Tupac, which I would whole-heartedly disagree with, I’d give him a pass.

“Nas,” he said without hesitation. My jaw dropped. We were going to be friends.

“No, make that Rakim!” he said. Make that Best Friends, I thought.

The next weekend he invited me over to his crib. His roommate, Takuto, from Hokkaido, is a DJ, and they had cartons of albums, two turntables, a  mixer with a chalice on top.

Satoshi & Takuto

Make that REALLLLLLY good friends I decided then and there.

dsc04591

We got lifted listening to some 80’s Dancehall reggae I’d hipped them to. Just like I used to do with my friends back in NY. Sometimes they come over to my crib and we just hangout, bungle communication and laugh. I love these guys!

At a time when I was coming to think that Japan just didn’t have any cool people (just nice people) cool places (that would let me in the door) or anything worth listening to, I meet Satoshi and Takuto and they prove me wrong. If you hang around long enough, Japan will surprise the hell out of you. Big shout out to my boys, Toshi-kun and Tak-kun!!!

4- I was kicking it with Satoshi one day on the train to his apartment. He was standing against the door. A women beside him was writing a text message. A TV above his head was showing this commercial:

A man beside me on my right was not flinching. A woman on my left was standing against me and not looking freaked out about it.  He noticed me looking around and nodding my head and asked me what was I thinking about.

“My life in Japan,” I said.

He asked me, for the first time, what did I think about Japan, so I told him quite directly since he was my friend, “Japan would be great if it wasn’t for Japanese people.”

He laughed. The woman besides him smiled, too, revealing that she was listening to our convo though she appeared to be engrossed in her cellphone. Satoshi likes my sense of humor and he’s getting to know me well enough to know when I’m fucking around and when I’m serious. He knew my answer was half both.

“What’s wrong with Japanese people?” he asked.

I didn’t know how to say, “nothing a little waterboarding couldn’t fix” in Japanese so I said “Nothing right now, because you’re here.”

“Eeeeee!”

Something was happening at that very moment that he couldn’t notice because it was way below his radar. But my antennae are always up and alert like a cockroach’s. Anyone who’s read my previous posts knows what the trains are usually like for me, but to sum it up: daily hell. But, the difference between my daily experience on the trains every morning and that moment right then was I was with a Japanese person.

When you’re with a Japanese person Japanese people react differently to you. Mind you, it’s no less offensive because of the contrast with how they behave when you’re sans nihonjin. It’s like by virtue of your being with a Japanese person, it suggests to the Japanese in your vicinity that you’ve been vetted, appraised by a trustworthy authenticator (one of their own) and found true.  Actually, I’m trying to be nice. It actually feels more like you’re some type of animal that if allowed to roam free is dangerous but in the hands of a master trainer (one of their own) you’re safe to approach and in some cases even pet. I’ve noticed this phenomenon hundreds of times over the past five years so trust me this one is a sure bet. If you can forget the statement this change in behavior makes and just luxuriate in these moments of normality, it will do wonders for your sanity.

I couldn’t express any of this well enough in Japanese, either so I just told my friend, “You’re so ugly you make me look good.” (-:

Loco

Up next: #6 : Avoid Gaijin,  Gaijin Bars, Gaijin friendly areas and the Japanese girls who dwell there

01
Dec
08

10 ways NOT to go loco in Yokohama #3: Learn that Japanese!

This should go without saying but I’m gonna say it anyway: #3 Learn that Japanese!

I studied French for 2 years in JHS, 4 years in HS and 2 years in University, and if you asked me right now how to say anything in French except “Would you like to do the nasty with me tonight?” I’d be hardpressed to answer you. Btw, it’s: voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir? Thanks for the French lesson Patti LaBelle (-;

Demo, Go-nen ni Nihon ni sunde ite mada perapera jyanakute mo kekkou syaberemasuyo. (But, I’ve been living in Japan for five years and even though I’m not fluent yet, I’m pretty good.) Listening is still difficult, my vocabulary is still embarrassingly low and the improper pronunciation of certain sounds persists despite my efforts (つ and す are my nemeses,) but I can get by until i can get there.

And, at the risk of overstating the obvious, it’s very useful, not to mention good manners, to at least try to speak the language of the people in the country where you live. Unfortunately, there are some people in the world who don’t agree.

“Why are you studying English?” I always ask potential students when I first meet them.

“I’m going to abroad so I want to communicate to foreigners.” (This is an exact translation of Japanese thinking. Notice that abroad is considered a place, meaning any place but Japan, and foreigners are people encountered in these places, meaning anyone not Japanese, no matter where they go the other people are foreigners, or rather outsiders.)

“Where are you going? I mean, which country?”

“France.”

“Don’t you think you ought to study French?”

“France people speak English.”

I don’t push the issue. Last thing I want is ¥4000 yen an hour walking out of the door looking for Pierre or Jean to give their money to. And, he’s half right. I’m sure a good number of people in France can speak English. But, that doesn’t mean they want you to come there presuming they can speak English and totally disregarding their native language like it’s some kind of relic or outmoded or obsolete custom like slapping someone in the face with your gloves to indicate you want to have a duel (I’ll have satisfaction! swords or pistols? ah,the good ole days!) or wearing kimono on a daily basis. The statement you’re making: French is passe. English is the future! What country wants to hear that said about their national language?

Apparently, Japan does.

The Japanese, in general, do not care whether you study or speak Japanese or not, I’ve learned. I used to think it was because they considered their language a dead, dying or useless one. I later learned that, in fact, in most cases, the assumption is that we foreigners do not or cannot learn their language. Why? From what I could gather over the past 5 years they believe that our foreign brains are too limited to handle such a complexed language as theirs; accustomed, as our brains are, to the simplicity of (in the case of English speakers) a 26-letter alphabet and what not. So, of course we are forgiven well in advance for not even attempting to accomplish the virtually impossible. No offense taken. We understand. They’ll dish out offenses like these in heaping bowlfuls. And, I used to believe they were aware of how offensive this position is. It spurred me to study harder and prove them wrong, so i’m kind of glad I misunderstood.

But, you know what? They are oblivious….really…I’m not kidding, and I’m not exaggerating or defending Japanese. To them, obviously Japanese is more complicated than English…I mean, look at Kanji compared to the alphabet. Those little stick figures we use to make words as opposed to those perplexing pictograms they use. And, obviously that means that Japanese brains are more complexed than Foreigners’. Obviously moisture collects in the atmosphere and falls to the earth in the form of rain or snow. And obviously E equals MC squared.

And, obviously, other country’s people speak English and we speak Japanese.

This problem is not solely a Japanese one, of course. Americans are perhaps more guilty of it. They really expect everyone to speak English.

In New York, English is useful but not mandatory nor essential. Many Haitians, Latinos, Middle Eastern, Eastern Europeans, Russians, and other Asians can’t speak it a lick, but they survive, and even thrive in some cases. It can get a little annoying sometimes, like when you get a cab driver who can’t understand the words coming outta yo mouth, but usually it doesn’t cause any unresolvable problems. But, in other areas of the country, they get really uptight about foreigners living in their country and not deigning to learn their language.

I would not be party to that so I studied Japanese for a few weeks before I came to Japan. Got myself a little head start. Then, once I arrived here I continued studying. I nailed all the basics. I could kore sore are dare, kono sono ano dono, koko soko asoko doko, etc…greetings and salutations were mastered. I used to go shopping just to practice…

Sore wa nan desu ka? Ikura desu ka? Ah, so desu ka. Ja, kore wo kudasai. Arigatou gozaimasu.

Shopping is a great place to practice. The staff at most shops are always polite. If you make a mistake, mispronounce a word or two, no problem. They’ll praise your Japanese ability profusely, regardless. In fact, all Japanese will praise you the same way.

“Ohayou Gozaimasu,” you say to anyone.

“Oooooo! Sugoi desu ne. Nihongo ga umai desu ne!” WOW! That’s wonderful! Your Japanese is great!

Yes, the Japanese will applaud the tenor for clearing his throat. It’s their way. Flattery is like a cultural icebreaker. Ignore your feelings about this mannerism. It means nothing, You must learn to accept it and not let it distract you from your study.

Also, there isn’t much room for error in Japanese. Nihongo is fraught with subtlety so it’s a very delicate and inflexible language…especially for foreigners. All Japanese are linked almost symbiotically so instinctively they know one another’s thoughts and feelings. But, you, as a foreigner, start any conversation with two strikes against you. You’re a foreigner-a swing and a miss: STRIKE ONE! You can’t speak Japanese and they can’t speak English (the automatic presumption in any conversation with someone you don’t know;) A knuckleball on the inside corner of the plate: STRIKE TWO! If you do not say what you want to say almost to perfection you will definitely be misunderstood. Yappari! STRIKE THREE! you’re out!

It will feel like they don’t want to understand you, trust me. Like there’s a conspiracy to discourage you, and they’re all in on it. But, I implore you: don’t go down that road. You will quit! And with a good deal of anger and resentment to boot. I’ve quit so many times. Just hang in there. Sooner or later things will start falling into place. Don’t expect any encouragement, though. You have to be a self-starter and self-motivated, like with most endeavors that are worthwhile in life.

I’ve put together a list below of the 10 most used and useful Japanese words I know. If you understand and can use these words effectively you’ll find yourself well on your way to understanding Japanese language and people.

1-Sumimasen (sometimes contracted to suimasen)- It’s the magic word in Japan. It means…everything. Sorry, excuse me, pardon me, thank you, hey you, repeat that…it’s used in so many context that I’m still learning new contexts from time to time.

2-Gomen Nasai – Basically, it means I’m sorry. That’s the easy part. Knowing when to say I’m sorry is the tricky part. I still have trouble with this one. I use Gomen nasai when I should have used Sumimasen, and vice versa. You just gotta listen to Japanese people use it and understand the situation (which is more difficult than it sounds) and you’ll pick it up. It also depends on the relationship with the person you’re speaking to. Gomen nasai has more emotion that sumimasen so you probably shouldn’t use it in public. But, I hear it done all the time. It’s hit or miss, but if you use it in the wrong scenario, chances are you’ll never know.

3-Yappari – (Aka Yappa) Loosely translated it means: As I thought or as expected or I knew it (as in, “I knew you was gonna say that shit,) but in the cultural context of Japan it indicates a certain comfort. It’s only used with people you know. It’s kind of rude otherwise. I used to call Japanese the Yappari hito (The As Expected People) because they’re always looking for consistency, predictability or confirmation of their beliefs. Most questions begin with “Do Americans…” “Do black people…” “Do foreigners…” Every time I turned around someone was using Yappari in reference to me. I used to stop at McDonald’s most every morning and pick up breakfast, usually the same thing: sausage mcmuffin, hash brown and orange juice. My co-workers would see me when I entered, glance at the bag and the “Yappari”s would begin. At lunchtime the Yappari parade was for the Coca-Cola I wash down my bento with. With the students, in the gym, it was for my jump shot (it’s about 65% accurate on a good day). I still think it’s kind of rude. So, I started eating rice balls, drinking Green Tea and shooting bricks on purpose just to stump them. And whenever they say Yappari, I say, “Yappari. I knew you were gonna say Yappari.” It’s always good for a laugh. Usually I’m laughing alone, though.

4-Ganbatte / Ganbare! – I have short love affairs with Japanese words and phrases. I love them and I leave them. My first affair was with “Sumimasen.” It was a hot, steamy, tumultuous rendezvous, with no strings attached, that lasted about six months. Now, she’s just a booty call. The second was with Ganbatte! Loosely translated it means “do your best” or “hang in there” or good luck.” I fell head over heels with Ganbatte and her twin sister, Ganbare. But, she was a cruel one. In the end she broke my heart. I was in the hospital room with Aiko’s mother and sister while she lay in the bed dying of cancer. She had gone into a coma that morning and her lungs weren’t working properly, so they had to feed her oxygen. Death was en route. So was her father. He was stuck on a train, some kind of delay. We were all taking turns talking to her, not knowing if she could hear us or not. Her mother, hoping her father would arrive before she passed kept saying, “Aiko, Ganbatte…Ganbatte ne,” through streaming tears. I’d heard and used the word a thousand times before then but I never truly felt it until that day. I’d never felt Nihongo at all, until that day. it was like some kind of tool, or weapon, or parlor trick before then. It was never real to me. Now, it’s real, and Ganbatte is the most real word in the Japanese vocabulary to me. When I use it, I feel it. I understand it.

5-Sou desu ne / Sou desu ka- (Aka: Sou da ne, sou ka) The Japanese are all about synchronicity and avoiding confrontations and Sou desu ne / desu ka achieves this to an extent. It doesn’t mean you agree, but it smells like agreement. It doesn’t mean yes but it suggests a respect for the speaker. It basically translate into something akin to when Americans use right, or uh huh, uh huh, so basically it means nothing. But, it’s used in virtually EVERY conversation you’ll ever hear in Japan, so listen and learn. but be careful of the other sou desu which means I’ve heard or there’s a rumor going around, but that one doesn’t stand alone. it usually follows a verb.

6- Otsukaresama desu – (AKA Ostukaresama deshita, Otsukare, Otsu) Here’s one of those ubiquitous Japanese phrases that simply can not be translated accurately into English. But, you’ll hear it everyday, all day, and eventually you’ll get a feel for when to use it and what it means. It’s something like “You must be tired” or “thanks for being an active contributor to our great society…this Bud’s for you!” or “I’m outta here! Peace!”

7-Sugoi / Kawaii – (Aka Suge, moe, moeeee) Well, not a day will go by in your life in Japan when one or both of these words will not be heard. Sugoi translate as wonderful or terrific, or awesome. And, Kawaii might as well be the name of this country. I call it Kawaii land sometimes it’s such a cultural staple. it translates as cute or pretty. But, it’s a feeling attached to it that pretty much sums up the ambition of an entire culture. It’s pretty scary sometimes. Actually Moe can be used for stuff that is cute and disgusting simultaneously like Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty.

8- Wakarimashita / Wakarimasen – (Aka: Wakatta, wakachatta, Wakannai, wakaranai, etc…) You got it? Got that? Understood? You with me? You there? Got it. Gotcha. I’m with you. I got it already. Alright already. I get it goddammit. I don’t know what the hell you mean. I don’t get it. I don’t know. Beats me. I don’t know anything about that!

9- Kanaa / Kamo / Tabun/ Deshou – The subtlety of Japanese is expressed through words like these. Basically they are ways of stripping anything you say of any directness or surety or accountability. Would you like to go to the movies with me? Tabun iku. Iku kanaa. Iku kamo. Maybe I’ll go, I might go, I’ll probably go. By the time you get a straight answer the movies on DVD.

10- Onegai Shimasu – You want something? Stick this at the end of your request. It’s hard to refuse. it roughly translates as do me a favor but it’s much nicer. I use it all the time. I probably overuse it. Wanna put a cherry on top? Change the shimasu to the more formal itashimasu.

Shitsurei shimasu – (Aka shitsurei shimashita) Also deserves honorable mention. It means something to the effect of Pardon my intrusion or forgive me for disrupting this harmonious gathering. It’s another veritable staple.

One more thing. I mentioned that you shouldn’t expect any encouragement. But, you need to find something to keep you motivated. I went through several stages. Initially I wanted to impress people back home. Then I wanted to nanpa (pick up girls.) Then I wanted to spit in the face of the Japanese assertion that their language is incomprehensible to foregners. Then I wanted to learn how to cut them down to size verbally in their own language. Then I wanted to get a better job. Then I wanted to improve my quality of life and gain some independence from the circle of Japanese people I’d recruited to assist me in all task that require a high proficiency in japanese. Then I wanted to…Well, you get the idea. It doesn’t matter what you use to keep yourself going, just keep going! Just keep going!

That’s about all the leads and incentive I can give you on studying Japanese. Hang in there and you’ll be glad you did. You’ll be smiling all the way to the Immigration office to renew your visa (I just got a 3 year extension so I’ll be smiling til 2012 (-:

By the way, that leads me into #4: Just keep Smiling (-:

Loco

20
Nov
08

Gaijin Hygiene

One of my favorite things about Japan are onsens. I was introduced to onsens on my first visit here, before I decided to relocate. I came to visit my friend and stayed with him for a couple of weeks. During that time he, his girlfriend (now his wife), a friend of hers and I went out to Saitama to a town called Chichibu and made papier-mache at a paper factory, picked grapes in a vineyard and spent the night at a hotel with an indoor onsen. The paper making and grape picking was a little provincial for my taste but the hotel and the onsen were all that! Turns out, it was a fateful night. Laying in the soft embracing warmth of the futons laid out on the tatami floor mats, feeling all squeaky clean with sulfur and other minerals coursing through my body and tingling my skin, I thought to myself, “I could do this…live in Japan for a spell.”

Well, that spell is five years and counting…

My friend John had explained to me at the time that you must wash yourself thoroughly before getting into the onsen because other people were going to use it and who wants to bathe in your scum?

“Wash before you bathe…ok, I’m with you.” Made sense to me. Like when you go to the swimming pool.

“Not wash…wash thoroughly!

Well, I didn’t think I needed anyone telling me how to wash my own ass. Until the first time I watched Japanese washing their asses.  Like surgeons before surgery, only their entire friggin’ bodies.

“Come on, man. Won’t a shower with soap and water suffice?”

“Not in Japan.”

“I don’t have to use antiseptics and disinfectants and shit, do I?”

“Nah, just soap and water.”

So, that night I took my first Japanese pre-bath bath. I stood near the door to the onsen and watched a Japanese guy do it first. He got a kick out of being watched by a jolly black giant, I gotta tell ya. He sat on the stool and used a large ladle to pour water on his hair, then used the liquid soap and washed his hair. Then he used the ladle again, pouring the water over his hair to remove the soap. Then he repeated this ladle-soap-ladle thing for every part of his body until I had to restrain myself for grabbing the shower head that was right in front of him and hosing him down.

Then he stepped over to the onsen and eased himself into it without a grimace.

OK, I can do this. John was on the opposite side of the washroom doing it like a pro. He’d been living in Japan for a couple of years at that point. The stool looked bigger when the other guy had been sitting on it. He looked absolutely relaxed and comfortable, and he wasn’t short. But, when I sat on it -after hosing off his hiney juice cuz he had been butt naked sitting on it a few seconds ago- I concluded that unless you were a midget, a dwarf, a child or some kind of contortionist, comfort on this stool was not an option. It was clearly for people accustomed to squatting or resting on one’s haunches. And though I’m a quarter Jamaican, and they squat a lot too, I wasn’t feeling this position at all.

I repeated what I had seen as well as I could, standing up every couple of minutes to stretch my legs. John had finished and had gone and got in the onsen. I sat there feeling all awkward trying to ladle water to reach the soap in the crack of my ass. I had to be doing it incorrectly. I envisioned soap bubbling to the surface once I got in the onsen. Once I was satisfied I’d reached every nook and cranny I walked over to the onsen. And, the guy who’d been my bathing role model decided it was time to go.

I eased myself into it, step by step. It eventually felt wonderful! I’d kind of felt like Ken Norton in Mandingo for a few

Mandingo / slave onsen, bottom right

Mandingo / slave onsen, bottom right

minutes (he was a fighting slave whose master had boiled him in oil to toughen up his skin) but it got better little by little.

“Yo, what’s with the ladle?” I asked John.  “Why can’t we just use the shower head?”

“How the hell am I supposed to know? I’m not Japanese.”

5 years later, I still don’t get the ladle…I guess it’s like those people who still use matches to light their cigarettes.

I’ve now been to onsens all over Kanto. Izu, Atami, Gunma, Saitama, Nikko, Hakone, Kusatsu, etc… But, my favorite is in Kusatsu. Wanna know why? Bliss, baby! (see pics below)

Onsen in Kusatsu

Onsen in Kusatsu

The entire river is an onsen and it’s located in a valley surrounded by snowy cliffs. Ahhh… Any of you asking why I’m still here, onsens would be high on that list. They make (almost) everything else worthwhile.

I joined a rather expensive gym not far from my house for two reasons: It has a basketball court and an onsen. They actually import onsenized water from an onsen in Nikko! So, after I work up a sweat in the gym, I can take a dip in the waters of a natural hot spring…

That is, after I make a show of washing my ass before all of the Japanese men made anxious by my presence in their midst.

Kusatsu Onsen

Kusatsu Onsen

It’s a show because I refuse to go to the area to the side of the onsen and straddle that stool and ladle water all over myself. That shit is played. And, generally, it’s from that direction that people enter the onsen. When I come from the other direction, where the showers are located, how can they be sure that every crack and crevice of my body has been de-gaijinized?

So, here’s what i do, for their benefit: I enter the rather large room and make a big show of stretching like it’s my pre-shower Gaijin Hygiene routine. Give everyone in the joint enough time to catch a glimpse of me, especially the gentlemen already bathing in the Onsen…it doesn’t take long, trust m. Even after having been a member for over a year now, and even having made a couple of member friends, I am still a Mack truck on the sidewalk up in there, people diving out of my way.

Once I’m sure everyone has peeped me and are then wondering what the hell am I doing stretching in the bathing area when there’s a whole 3 floors of gym outside the locker room designated for that, I make a beeline for the shower room. While I’m in there I whistle Rakim’s “Move the crowd” while I wash my ass oh so thoroughly. Only then do I make my way to the onsen.

They still look extremely ill at ease sometimes but they don’t head for the doors as soon as I arrive as often as they used to.

i guess that’s something…

Loco

08
Nov
08

A little about me and Japan: Part 2-Kokujin Anjin-San

I’ve gone through several phases since my arrival here in the land of the Gods.

The first phase was, well, exhilarating. It was all wonder and surprise, discovery and exploration. The bloom was on the rose. During this phase I guess I could best be characterized as a Japanophile. I’d come here with a profound desire to start a new life; an improved me- Me 2.0. I like to call it my Kokujin Anjin phase.

I’d be that black guy inserting my two-yen into a Japan bashing session at a bar, saying shit like: “Man, how can you say that about these people?” or “You know what your problem is? You think your culture is superior to their culture. You have a superiority complex. You’re the reason you feel unwelcome here. Not them.” i took great pleasure in interjecting platitudes and cliches like, “Be part of the solution not part of the problem,” and “be the change you want to see here!” Yep, that was me. That guy whose head you wanted to crack your bottle of Kirin over.

My roommates didn’t know what to make of me. They must have thought I had gone loco already. I lived with two white guys, a Kiwi and an Aussie, both music lovers, one, a serious guitarists, the other a guitar enthusiast, two of the coolest guys you ever want to meet, both heavy drinkers and a little on the “fuck that, I pay rent just like they do” tip, and here I was, a Black guy…from Brooklyn New York, no less, scolding them for being disrespectful to our neighbors and of our host nation.

I came to the defense of the Japanese in almost any situation. My head was chock-full of Clavell and a wildly romantic image of a Japan that could be penetrated by a foreigner of some intelligence, skill, and with the right mindset; someone like, well, me. I felt I was in possession of the prerequisite disposition to tear through the silk curtain and say, “Heeerrre’s Loco!”

Hell, I wanted to be a Kokujin (black) Anjin-san.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t entirely delusional. I mean, I read Crichton’s Rising Sun, as well as Clancy’s Debt of Honor. Clancy and Crichton (may he rest in peace) are two of my favorite authors, but both I thought did a bit of Japan bashing. And I too wasted 2 hours and $10 bucks on Lost in Translation. Personally I thought it was a boring, pointless movie full of the type of people who could never be Anjin-sans. I love Bill Murray, but I thought his character in the film was too convinced of the cultural superiority of his own world to step outside of it and fully experience the opportunities that this new world, Japan, presented. He was too stuck on its strangeness, like some kind of xenophobe on vacation abroad. No wonder he was lost.

He was the kind of foreigner I didn’t want any parts of, which is why I detested Gaijin Bars. I felt about these bars the way Clavell’s Anjin-san felt about the place where his shipmates were being held, in the district where the “Untouchables”or “Burakumin” or “Eta” or “Hinin” lived. After he’d left from reuniting with them he shed his kimono and demanded a bath. This is how I felt about Roppongi, as well. It was the modern day version of this area, a place where Japanese allow foreigners to carry on like the barbarians they are thought to be. And where low-life Japanese go to consort with and handle the contaminated flesh of Gaijin. I felt about my co-workers the way he felt about his crew: ignoramuses, with a crude idea of the superiority of their respective societies, whether it be America, Canada, Australia, England, France or Germany.  European values, Christian morals, rigid, self-righteous, close-minded hypocrites, the majority.

I couldn’t even spend too much time with other black people. Most were military types who held nothing but contempt for the Japanese and thus were on a mission to be as Gaijin as possible, especially those who’d been here for a while. We call it “showing your ass” back in NY, and these guys love to show their asses. Downright embarrassing. Most conversations I’d have with these guys would inevitably lead to a shitload of bad experiences being spewed at me. They took great delight in what they considered an imparting of the wisdom they’d acquired. Most of these guys regarded the Japanese as unblushing racist as well as proudly, inexplicably and, in most cases, irredeemably ignorant of the world surrounding their tiny island.

The only black people I could talk to were the Africans, ironically. They mostly immigrated (and I use the term loosely) here from Nigeria and Ghana, and I’ve met a couple of Kenyans and one Ethiopian. The Africans are very different. They were not forced to come here, like the military guys. They came here with a certain eagerness to improve their lot in life. Thus, they don’t let racism and xenophobia distract them from their ultimate goal: Make Money! You gotta admire them. I’ve had a very strange relationship with Africans, dating back to my childhood…I’ll get into that in a later post.

As for the African-American soldiers, I can understand their rage. Here they are, fancying that they are the only thing standing between Japan and a Kim jong-il invasion, or Chinese vengeance for atrocities committed against their citizens during WWII, and they get treated by their protectorate like a disease.  Any day now, that crazy maverick Kim Jong-il could launch an attack, and these soldiers would be forced to risk and in some cases sacrifice their lives for people who have the audacity to refuse to serve them at Soaplands and “Fashion Health” parlors all over the country. But, at the time, I was all about making the most of this experience. I wasn’t about to let my brothers rain on my parade.

I wasn’t really a Japanophile, though. I was just being the Devil’s Advocate. Something I do to keep my mind open to the possibilities, to walk in another person’s shoes, so to speak. It’s something I picked up in America and it’s very useful in gaining some objectivity. Part of my motivation for coming here in the first place was to learn for myself about Japanese people and culture. Not to have it dictated to me by a bunch of disgruntled expats and haters.

Instead, it was my intention to take on each new circumstance and every new encounter unfettered by a negative predisposition. And that, to a certain extent, is exactly what I did.  And, I’m lucky I did because during this time I’ve had some of the most wonderful experiences and met some of the most extraordinary people I’ve met in my entire life. Aiko-chan, for one, who would become my greatest experience in this country. In fact, I think this phase ended around the time Aiko was taken from me.

Phase 2 was not pretty. Suffice it to say Kokujin Anjin came to the realization that Clavell’s novels, while thoroughly researched, were written about a different period and about essentially a different people than the ones who now populate this tiny group of islands and, upon this rude awakening, yours truly, to put it mildly, got a little vexed.

More to come…




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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