Identity theft, redux

You are walking down the street drinking a beer.

There is nothing unusual about this: Since having become unemployed, it’s been pretty much a given that if you are walking down the street — hell, if you are engaged in any ambulatory act whatsoever — you will be drinking a beer. Today’s beer is a sweet, hoppy microbrew, a splurge from the bargain-basement stuff you’ve been imbibing recently to save a bit of coin. You take another sip, savor it.

menuAnd that’s when you notice Mr. Charisma bicycling toward you.

You’re not on close enough terms with Mr. Charisma to call him a friend, but he’s at least an acquaintance. He’s a bit older than you, married with a third kid on the way — but with his dashing blonde-haired, blue-eyed American looks, he’s still got charisma to spare. He’s a good deal more charismatic than your jaded and bitter ass, that’s for sure.

Mr. Charisma is pedaling while talking to someone on his cell phone. As he approaches, you hear that his conversation is in English. Again, there’s nothing too unusual about this; he and his wife communicate mainly in English, and his Japanese is still a bit shaky.

The two of you make eye contact. Mr. Charisma lowers the phone to his chin and calls out to you.

“You doing all right?” he asks in Japanese.

“Doing great,” you reply, reflexively, in Japanese.

“Keep fighting the good fight,” he says. Again, in Japanese.

And then he goes back to his phone conversation.

In English.

He pedals past you toward a nearby intersection. You take a sip of your beer, cock your head a bit to the side.

And wonder just what the hell that was all about.

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Fast times at Ojisan High

This is my first entry into the Japan Blog Matsuri. Thought I’d give it a shot.

You are in the bathroom.

You’ve been in Japan for just over a week. Having studied the language before you got here, you’ve been able to at least navigate your way around this new environment … but to say that things have been “unfamiliar” would be an understatement.

Moments ago, you and your friend had entered the restaurant bathroom together. A few seconds later, Lady Forthright — a mutual acquaintance who had come with you to the bar — had swung the door open and peered in, laughing loudly.

“I wanna see!” she said, her voice full of mirth.

“Get the hell out of here!” you said, shooing her away, equipment still in hand. Lady Forthright, laughing, closed the door and retreated.

A moment later, the restroom door again opened. You are about to berate Lady Forthright for her continued shenanigans when you realize that the person opening the door is in fact a middle-aged Japanese fellow. He walks forward, takes the urinal that separates you from your friend, and begins to relieve himself. There is a slightly awkward pause.

It is then you realize that the fellow has his eyes fixated upon your junk.

There’s a moment where you think to yourself, This isn’t right. I’m not quite sure what to say, but I know this isn’t right!

It is a rather unpleasant moment.

It’s also at this moment that Mr. Peeper straightens himself up, looks both you and your friend in the eye. He seems a bit unsteady.

“I am!” he exclaims loudly, in English, “A rice…”

There is a long, bizarre pause as you wonder what exactly this fellow is trying to convey to you. Or why. Frankly, you’re a bit lost.

“Farmer?” your friend asks timidly.

“Yes!” Mr. Peeper exclaims, his face alight. “I am a rice farmer!”

He gives you both a slap on the back before leaving the bathroom looking quite pleased with himself. You and your friend exchange glances, shrug.

Japan.

You exit the bathroom and re-enter your drinking hole of choice, which consists of several restaurants and drinking establishments gathered under a single roof.

A girl in a yellow-and-black bunny outfit runs up, offers you a few darts.

“Would you like to try?” she asks, gesturing toward a large dartboard. “Hitting the black bars gets you a gift. Anything else is free drinks.”

You and your friend exchange glances.

And with the strength of champions behind you, you play to lose.

The cleaning lady

I like the cleaning lady. She’s nice. She keeps our bathrooms clean, and always has a nod and a greeting for me whenever we meet.

wizardThere is, however, something quite disturbing about the cleaning lady — in fact, about every cleaning lady I’ve yet to encounter here.

There’s no advance warning.

No knock on the door, no Shitsurei shimasu to announce she will soon be entering the men’s room — she just charges right in and starts cleaning. And nobody seems to mind.

The thing is, I mind. My John Thomas minds, as it has now been spied by the cleaning lady on more than one occasion. Call me crazy, but displaying my genitalia to the nice woman I exchange pleasantries with in the hallway just isn’t my idea of a good time.

I do appreciate the cleaning lady. I just wish she’d stop catching me with the equipment still in hand.

Idiots of the workplace

Like pilot fish clustering around a shark (an apparently quite deranged shark), Japan’s business districts tend to attract a few distinct, rather bizarre types of worker that are plentiful enough to be seen on a daily basis.

And predictably, I take issue with them all.

The Outdoor Napper
I understand you’ve had a rough first half of the day, Mr. Construction Worker. I can see how delivering things on your moped could be quite taxing, Mr. Transporter. But when noon rolls around, is it really necessary for you all to go lying on sidewalks, dangling over motorcycles or reclining open-mouthed inside your cars? In case no one’s told you yet, you look very, very foolish. Keep it up and I’m going to start sticking your hands into bowls of cold water.

The Bathroom Brusherwater
Dental hygiene is a good thing, so in that sense The Bathroom Brusher is to be commended. It’s his choice of brushing locales I find questionable. Personally, I associate the toilet with things like, oh, excreta and other dubious forms of particulate matter — sticking things in my mouth in there just doesn’t seem like the best of ideas. Especially when there’s a kitchenette right down the hall.

Incidentally, I have observed an offshoot of this fellow, The Inquisitive Bathroom Brusher. While the applying of toothpaste to brush and the brushing itself will begin in the bathroom, The Inquisitive Bathroom Brusher, or TIBB, will occasionally wander out into the hallway — while still brushing — in order to keep tabs on what everyone else is up to.

Golf-practicing Man
I once worked with a guy who would take his golf club outside on his lunch break and practice his swing — with no ball. Weird, but OK. At least he had a club.

The Golf-practicing Man of downtown Tokyo, however, will have nothing.

No ball. No club. Nothing whatsoever.

Yet practice his golf swing he will — in back alleyways, by the side of the road… Anywhere there is sufficient room for lateral arm movement and making an ass of oneself, there Golf-practicing Man shall be.

Sir, you are swinging at nothing. And with nothing! I put to you that this is a tremendous waste of time.

I once saw a variant of Golf-practicing Man, the elusive Baseball-practicing Man, repeatedly swinging his canned tea while passing through the doors to my office. It was the silliest thing I’d seen in a good while, and I hope my look conveyed as much.

bowThe Random Stretcher
There is no shortage of Random Stretchers here in Tokyo, and frankly I don’t know what their problem is. Stretching is always a good idea prior to engaging in physical activity, but most of these whackos look like the last time bit of physical activity they engaged in was heading to the toilet to go brush their teeth.

Without fail, The Random Stretchers’ stretch of choice is the bow-and-arrow stance, which they will enter into dramatically and start bouncing up and down, a spectacle that says, “Make no mistake, I am stretching, goddamit!”

That you are, friend. You’re stretching your hamstrings. And unless your job is to lift heavy objects with your crotch, I would suggest that you are in fact stretching the wrong body part. Not to mention making yourself an object of ridicule in the process. But that’s just me.

Mr. Slipper
I have a strong, almost irrational hatred of Mr. Slipper.

I understand the concept of the slipper — you’ll be at the office all day, so screw it, you might as well take the old shoes off and get into something more comfortable. So far, we’re in agreement. It’s the fact that you never change out of those slippers that makes you a silly enough bastard to get you onto this list.

When you go to the bathroom … When you walk down the street to get your bento … When you’re at the convenience store … When it’s fucking raining outside … There you are, undaunted. In your slippers. And on a good day, in socks shaped to fit around each individual toe.

You silly, silly bastards. A plague on your houses, all of you.

p/s – Just to show that I haven’t been entirely consumed by hate and anger, I’ll round this post out with a rather interesting person of the workplace. The first time I encountered this person, I thought for sure my ears were playing tricks on me. I walked toward the fenced-off construction site, peered through one of the slots … and sure enough, I had actually heard what I thought I’d heard.

While his fellow construction workers lolled around napping on tables or on the ground, one worker was seated in a chair — from which he played the didgeridoo for his entire lunch hour. As well as every subsequent lunch hour I’ve passed by.

You, sir, rock.

Strange and fitful days

It’s midnight and you’re in an unfamiliar kitchen. Your hosts are asleep — as should you be — but even as tired as you are, you feel restless, tense with nervous energy.

You make the frog rattle.

What seems like a lifetime ago, there were people who would snap to attention when you entered a room. You never considered yourself particularly skilled, but the same stubbornness that now drives your study of Japanese was once channeled into the martial arts; five days a week, for both noon and night classes when your schedule would allow, you would train at your dojo, arriving sweaty and out of breath from the hour-long bicycle ride it would take you to get there.

You make the frog rattle.

You remember with clarity the day you decided to quit. You had arrived an hour early to get in some training before class, and G — a fantastically gifted practitioner just one stripe away from his black belt — was entertaining a few of you with a story. He related how he and his girlfriend had been out for a jog, and when a group of men made some inappropriate comments, G went over and beat the shit out of all four of them. Those of you listening, yourself included, had practically cheered. But then the pit of your stomach felt heavy and sick, as you realized you were in danger of becoming what you despised — someone who could take pleasure in inflicting pain upon others. You quit the dojo that evening.

roopYou make the frog rattle.

Hoping to undo any violent tendencies you’d acquired, you threw yourself into Tai Chi — specifically Wu style, a blend of hard and soft that included both forms and practical applications. After years of street-ready karate, it was a welcome and invigorating change. Your classes only met twice a week, but you constantly practiced what you’d learned, such that your teacher often remarked how you had improved from one week to the next.

But then your teacher was gone, work having taken him back to Taiwan. You found yourself directionless again.

You make the frog rattle.

A chance meeting led to you encountering not one but two schools of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian dance/martial art. You cross-trained in the flashy, acrobatic Regional style, but your preferred choice was Angola, with its slow rhythms and emphasis on groundwork. It was the last martial art you would study before coming to Japan, and you have yet to practice any since.

It’s midnight and you’re in an unfamiliar kitchen.

You haven’t spoken your native language in a week. The people here stare at you constantly – even more so when you speak Japanese.

Your job will soon be no more. Your chosen work sector is in meltdown. You question what your life has become, and you increasingly find that you don’t like what you see. Your outlook is, frankly, rather bleak.

But for just these few moments, none of that matters.

The light in the kitchen is fluorescent. It’s activated by a pull string, at the end of which a small plastic frog dangles at just above eye level.

You launch another right hook kick. The hem of your jeans smacks loudly as your foot again strikes the plastic ornament.

And you make the frog rattle.

Four homeless men

I’ve actually been sitting on this post for the past couple days while contemplating the potential moral backlash.

It then occurred to me, however, that in a previous post, I not only insulted most of Tokyo, I capped it off with a picture of Jesus Christ flipping the bird. Thus, it would seem the moral outrage boat has already well and truly sailed. And so here goes.

Your day at work has concluded.

As usual, you feel angry and unfulfilled.

gatedNormally, both of these sentiments can be addressed by slugging down a vodka-infused chuhai on your walk to the station. Today, however, a single chuhai just doesn’t do it. You stop at a convenience store along the way and slam another. It still fails to do the trick — upon reaching your destination and exiting the train, the thought of having to transfer to yet another train makes you want to disembowel yourself. So you decide to leave the station and go get yourself a couple beers.

The weather in Tokyo has been chilly recently, and on this night, a number of homeless people have taken up shelter in the station’s underground. They line themselves up against the walls, mostly alone but sometimes in small, disconsolate-looking groups. By far the majority of them are asleep or insensate — one group, however, catches your eye. In contrast to their peers, this group of four is laughing amongst themselves, sitting side-by-side and drinking cans of Kirin Tanrei. There is nothing drunken or exaggerated about their manner; instead, it says, “At least we have friends, and — for the moment — we can toast one another.”

You walk past them, going up the stairs toward the liquor shop that is your destination. You grab a few cans, place them into your basket.

Heading back into the underground station, you again see the group of four homeless men. They have since finshed their beers, and their mood is quieter, almost introspective. You walk toward them, offer them the bag in your hand.

“Here,” you say in Japanese. One of them makes a small utterance of surprise.

There are any number of arguments for you not to do what you’ve done. But in the end, flawed as your logic may be, you’ve decided you’d rather treat these men as equals than something to be pitied.

There are four beers inside.

The man to the far left bows his head stiffly. “Sumimasen!” he says, nodding again. Contextually, the word means “Thank you,” but translated literally, it means, “I’m sorry.”

You give a small nod in return, begin walking away.

“I’m sorry!” he calls out after you. “I’m sorry!”

You board your train. You put on your headphones, slip your iPod into the pocket of your new jacket. Then — in full view of the angry-looking housewife staring disinterestedly at her book … of the cellphone-stabbing salaryman swaying crazily behind you … of pretty much anyone in the train cabin who happens to glance over at your foreign self — you’re crying a flood of hot, bitter tears.

But for some reason, only out of the left eye.

October 9, 2007

In the present, your pointless day at work has concluded.

You are walking down the street toward Shimbashi Station when a propaganda-blaring loudspeaker van comes idling up behind you. Like all propaganda vans, it is loud and gleefully obnoxious; in contrast to its brethren, however, this one is narrated not by a man but by a strange semi-male, semi-female Dalek-like voice. Despite your fluency in Japanese, you have no idea what it’s saying.

“What the heck is it saying?” a Japanese person behind you asks his friend. “Beats me,” comes the reply. You feel a bit better knowing that even the locals have no idea what the thing is blathering on about.

And then, for some reason, you recall October 9, 2007.

On that day, the black loudspeaker vans belonging to the uyoku, Japan’s radical right-wingers, had been blaring non-stop since morning. You’d decided to walk outside your office and see what all the commotion was about… to find what appeared to be every single policeman and riot policeman in Tokyo barricading every single side street as far as the eye could see. Every uniformed one of them stood at attention, batons drawn and ready, should there be any trouble from the uyoku vans.

yokuAll two of them.

To your left, a trio of riot police watched while the vans cruised slowly — very slowly — past their vantage point. As the vans inched away, one of the riot police muttered, “Y’know, we could walk after them and follow ’em.” Shrugging, they deserted their post and begin walking after the departing vans.

You quickly fell in behind them.

Your little group bravely followed the menacing duo of vans, whose occupants alternately bitched about North Korea and taunted the cops with zingers like “Are you really friggin’ protecting the wealth and welfare of we Japanese?!” Tiptoeing, you were able to peer into the louder of the two vans; inside was the driver, a young-looking fellow shouting belligerently into a microphone, and a single passenger in the back seat with his face buried into a manga.

Several blocks and loudspeaker-delivered rantings later you arrived at Shimbashi Station, which had apparently been set as the meeting point for your vans to rendezvous with five or six others. As with the previous vans, these newcomers were stuffed to capacity with a full 1-2 uyoku members. Truly a force to be reckoned with.

Having merged, the two groups of vans began trundling their way toward an intersection bustling with cars and pedestrians. It was clear that if something wasn’t done, massive congestion — if not an outright collision — was imminent. Just then, one of the riot cops sprang into action. He leapt out into the street…

And began directing traffic.

Including the uyoku vans.

If you were smart, you would have been out robbing a bank. After all, practically every cop in Tokyo at the time was busy helping the mafia out with their little demonstration.

As opposed to doing any actual fucking police work.