Japan By Male (Part 2)


Japan By Male (Part 2)

By Alexei Esikoff (Fukushima-ken, 2001-02)

(Fall 2004 Issue)

A summary: Some more of the introductory chapters from my work-in-progress novel about Peter Szeikaly. He is a study abroad student from Pennsylvania living in Aomori, and a bit of a dork. Maggie is is half-Japanese friend from England. Ravi is another English student, and Brad is a Californian that Peter, inexplicably, doesn’t like.

Never let it be said I lack goals.

I went into Super Electron, the aptly-named electronics store, with a wad of yen and a dream. I wanted to become the Playstation 2 Master before my return home. So I also purchased ESPN NBA 2K and SFX Tricky.

Passing the display of digital cameras, I stopped and shuddered, because I wanted one of them too. (The one I had brought with me to Japan was the Konica with the cracked case I’d received for my fifteenth birthday.) There was a nifty little Canon that promised “Big Power!” and boasted a 50,000 yen price tag.

I bought it. I didn’t have the cash, so I charged it to my emergency credit card, linked to my mother’s address in Pennsylvania, not mine.

How can I rationalize it? The technology this camera contains wouldn’t be available stateside for another two years, at least.

(At least that’s what I told my mother on our monthly call when she complained about the $450 charge.)

I lugged my packages home, panting by the second floor. The Playstation instructions were only in Japanese but the set-up was pretty easy.

Before I started to play, I took a picture of the Playstation resting on the tatami mat, because I liked the juxtaposition of New and Old Japan.

In my drawer were a pair of Adidas shorts usually worn (though rarely) as a bathing suit. Paired with a shiny-thin old gray T-shirt, I was ready to run.

On the stairs, Ravi and Bob were coming up, backpacks slung over their shoulders. “Hey mate!” said Ravi. “Going for a run?”

Well, what did it look like?


“Good for you.”

Bob, in his Kiwiness, said, “Come down to the pub later.”


“You seen the one around the corner?”

Ravi laughed and nudged him. “How would he have seen it? It has a sign that’s like the size of Luxembourg.”

“Yeah, well, it’s around the block to your right, and it says in English “Tomorrow.'”

“Uh, okay.”

Ravi put his hand on my shoulder. “A whole lot of us will be there. Simon and Joe and Brad and Darren and Maggie and I think even Heather will join us.”

“I’ll try,” I said, and moved down a step.

“In like an hour,” Bob continued.

Ja ne,” one of them said, but I’d already turned around, and people lose their accents when they speak foreign languages.

It’s an odd thing, running. There’s no destination in mind. It’s just one foot in front of the other and causes rank armpits. Mine stunk.

I jogged past the 7-11 and turn the corner. There was a sign that said “Tomorrow Bar Snack,” all right, but nothing else about it suggested a bar. Move on.

There was a rice paddy, unbelievably, in the next plot. Rows of green tufts intermingled with dirt.

At the edge there was a shrine the size of a mailbox, stone with a red curtain. Someone was kind enough to donate a jar of canned peaches, sitting nonchalantly next to the incense. I reached inside.

Two schoolgirls in those omnipresent sailor dresses stopped and held their hands to their mouths to suppress giggles. I turned around and went home.

Maggie came down the stairs as I went up. “Hi Peter! You’ve been jogging, haven’t you?”

Why did everyone on this program revel in stating the obvious?  “Yeah, a little.”

“Well, are you coming down to the pub?”

“I don’t know. I should shower.”

“Shower, then, and join us.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“You know to look for the little sign?”

“Ravi told me about it.”

“Right, okay. Ja mata!” And she trotted down the stairs.

In my apato I kicked off my smelly shoes. Left them jumbled up in the entryway. Shed my shirt in front of the stove, my shorts by the toilet. I stood in the bathtub and held the shower-attachment-thingie, running the water all over my sweatiness.

Then on the concrete porch I smoked the final Marlboro. Lungs content and smoky, I watched the customers go in and out of the 7-11.

Maggie knocked on my door and asked me if I knew where she could buy a mobile phone. I offered to take her to Super Electron to buy us both cell phones.

“Sometimes,” she responded sardonically, “I think I’m learning more about Americans being here than I am about the Japanese.”

“You must’ve known we call it a cell phone.”

“I did. But that’s not what I meant.”

She attempted to play Tricky while I shuffled around for a satisfactory shirt. “I’m really shit at this!” she called, so I sat, clean-smelling, next to her and finished the course. Her weak beginning prevented a high score.

Down the main road we walked, mocking the endless concrete. How can a country that’s so obsessed with outward appearances allow their streets to be this hideous?  Maggie suggested we cut through the Shinto shrine. When I told her it wasn’t a shortcut, she said we should go anyway, for the aesthetics.

Inari-jinja stood in contrast to the rest of the town. The red torii gates were two stories high and striking. Underneath ran a boulevard of sparkling silver granite, up to the wooden temple. It was guarded by two stone lions.

We watched a middle-aged businessman approach the temple. He walked up the three steps slowly, tossed something (money?) in an iron pot, and pulled the thick braided rope next to it. Then he clapped three times and bowed in prayer. Maggie stopped me a moment and ran to the side of the temple. In a box of ashes she lit a stick of incense with the lighter in her pocket. She closed her eyes. So I went to sit on a wooden bench by the entrance. The incense reminded me of smoking, so of course I lit a cigarette. After a moment, she ambled back over to me. I offered her a cigarette, which she took.  “It’s a lovely temple, isn’t it?” she asked. I nodded.

Back on the street the noise and concrete and wires took over again. We crossed the train tracks and stood in front of my temple, Super Electron, the warehouse of shiny beeping things. Maggie found their uniforms funny (blue t-shirts that said “Super Electron May I Help You” and orange pants). “I’ve noticed one similarity between the UK and Japan.”


“We’re both obsessed with uniforms.”

“Did you have to wear one growing up?”

“Everyone did.”

I took her to the back, passing the video game section longingly, where the cell phones were displayed. To say they were amazing doesn’t begin to describe them. Magical phones: pay bills, buy drinks from vending machines, shoot and edit videos. The screens were as crystal as digital TV. In contrast, all my American phone could do was make and take calls.

A man wearing a nametag that said “Watanabe” asked if he could help us. I attempted to pick up a particularly flashy number, but it was strapped to the counter like a child in a safety seat. “I’ll get you one,” said Watanabe, opening the storage cabinet with a key.

Then I looked at the price. “Jesus Christ.” When Watanabe handed me a box, I apologized and said I need a cheaper keitai. Much cheaper, in fact.

Watanabe walked Maggie and me further down the display. The one he suggested was light blue and took pictures. It had internet access but that cost extra.

“Can I buy drinks from a vending machine this this one?”

Watanabe laughed. “No. But it comes in different colors. Would you like a pink one?” he asked Maggie.

“I want a blue one too,” she said, and I realized it was the first time I ever heard her speak a full Japanese sentence. Her accent was good, but her speaking was slow and deliberate.

Watanabe took two boxes from the cabinet. “It will take a few minutes to do the paperwork.” He hustled us back to the counter. “You are both very good at Japanese.”

“Thank you,” I said, as Maggie countered, “No, I’m not.”

Watanabe, unlike some store-people who seemed frightened at the concept of helping foreigners, was somewhat amused by us. “Are you boyfriend and girlfriend?”

“No,” Maggie answered.

“Friends only,” I added.

Watanabe leaned towards us conspiratorially. “Want to know a secret about Japan?”


“In Japan, men and women can’t be friends. Only lovers.”

Underneath my feet there was a rumble. In fear I gripped the counter. Maggie gripped me. “What’s going on?” I asked Watanabe-san.

“Earthquake,” he said.

“Oh my god,” said Maggie in English.

“It will only last another minute,” assured Watanabe, and went back to his paperwork. (That’s why merchandise was always strapped in!)  Without fanfare, the rumbling stopped.

He described our DoCoMo contract (great name, DoCoMo) and what services we were paying for in easy Japanese. Calls seemed expensive, but text messaging was cheap. He turned on both phones and switched their menus to English. And then he pointed to a display of flashing antennae lights. “Pick one,” he said. “A present.”

It’s rude to refuse a present. We selected the same fire-alarm-flashing thing and Watanbe attached it to our anttenae. Then he presented us both with paperwork.

“Use your inkan here,” Watanabe pointed out a spot on the page to Maggie.


“Name stamp,” I whispered.

“I know. I didn’t bring it with me.”

I hadn’t either. It hadn’t occurred to me, and it should have-I was signing a contract, after all. Dumbass. “Watanabe-san,” I explained, “We don’t have inkans. In our countries, we sign a contract. Can we sign?”

Watanabe looked hesitant. “I cannot answer that question. One moment please.” I shrugged at Maggie. He came back with an older man, one in a blue shirt and tie instead of the Super Electron t-shirt. Watanabe explained to him that we were inkan-less, but we were good people who had come a long way and he trusted us.

The manager said one thing: “Hai.

Maggie and I bowed deeply and thanked him profusely. The manager went off to do something more useful like find merchandise to strap in.

We signed and Watanabe handed us each a Super Electron bag. Maggie smiled graciously and said, “Thank you. You were so helpful.”

“Do you like music?” Watanabe directed at me.

“Uh, sure.”

He took a business card out of his back pocket. “I’m a DJ. I spin Friday nights at Club Neo. It’s reggae night. Please bring your friends.”

The card said: DJ RASTA.

“Don’t tell my boss what I do on weekends,” he warned me.

“I wouldn’t. Thank you.” Making a show of admiring the meishi, I tucked it into my wallet, then shook Watanabe’s outstretched hand.

“Goodbye!” he called.

“That earthquake was bizarre,” said Maggie immediately when we were outside.

“I guess we have to get used to them.”

“Wasn’t it strange how calm Watanabe was?”

“A little, yeah.”

“He seemed nice.”

“Unusually nice.”

“Well, I liked him.”

“How much?”

She swung her bag at me. A corner caught my arm and left a red mark. “I’m allowed to find somebody just nice.”

“Sure you are.”

“You’re insinuating something!”


“Unfair. I’m trying to find things I like in this country.”

“What’s there not to like?”

“There were some things my mother hated about Japan. She called it the country of “hidden ugliness.'”

“So she won’t be coming to visit you?”

“She’s dead. So she wouldn’t be coming, would she?”

There are times when I am such a social retard. Family death has never truly touched me (mom and brother, healthy; father, healthy and a jerk, grandfathers, dead before I was born, grandmothers alive and dottering, handful of cousins seen only at Christmas). What is the right thing to say when someone’s just admitted to you they’ve suffered a lot more than you have? Maggie’s mother must have died in the last decade or so for her to remember such specifics. But I couldn’t ask her about it, could I? The pause in conversation weighed like lead. “Do you miss her?” I asked lamely.

“So much so that it hurts physically.”

Cautiously, I put a hand on her shoulder. Somehow we weren’t walking anymore. Maggie rested her DoCoMo bag on the ground and then her arms were around me. We stood there oblivious to the world for a moment, my mind blank. Then we both heard kissing noises. I released Maggie and saw a group of teenage boys in overalls cooing at us. Maggie picked up her bag and walked past them without a word.

In the school’s computer lab I opened my Hotmail for the first time in a month. That it wan’t full is pathetic. A few from my mother (with chronological cascades of !!! in the subject headings), two from my brother, one from my father, and one from Jeff, my old roommate. I opened his first.

Evidently I left a stack of Supermans in the closet and he wants to take a girl out. Running low on cash, she’s great, can he sell them?…No, he better bloody not.

My mom, reminding me of my brother’s approaching birthday.

My brother, reminding me it’s almost and then it was his birthday.

I didn’t read my dad’s. Think what you will about that. I don’t care.

While I was ensconced so quietly in this lab, I wanted to see what was going on in the world. I read the Examiner for about five minutes before it starts to bore me. Same old shit: people without health care, political windbags, stupid lousy local teams. The news can really depress you if you let it. So I read The Onion instead: “Microsoft Patents 1s, 0s.”

I attracted the attention of the kid next to me. He seemed to understand English. Probably thinks The Onion is real. I flipped to another headline, the dirtiest one I could find: “Pat Robertson Rethinks Homosexuality After Casual One-Nighter.” Sensing his craning neck, I chuckled. Then I realized he didn’t know who Pat Robertson was and probably thought I was gay. So I clicked back to Hotmail.

As I logged off, of course I noticed there was nothing from Katherine.

Three of my classes were in Japanese. The lectures weren’t a problem-I was surprisingly well-prepared for academic-speak-but the reading was a bitch. Just because I knew what a word sounded like didn’t mean I could read it. There seemed to be endless archaic kanji. To be expected in a history class, and my dictionary was a well-thumbed, hateful thing. In the Meiji period, uh…(flick flick flick) thanes depended on their master for uh…(flick) commodities. (Thanes?!? If I wanted to read Beowulf I would’ve stayed in the US.)

In my Japanese Lit in Translation class-the only one in English-was the bulk of the study abroad students, along with a handful of Japanese kids who spoke English. I gathered that most of these locals spoke such unusually good English because of their exposure to the language, and not because they learned it in school. Most of them lived overseas at some point, and a couple have Western fathers. Only one, Naoto, was a guy, and Maggie told me he was gay. (How does she know these things?)

We went out as a class sometimes afterwards. Well, Brad and Maggie and Ravi and the Japanese girls always went out, and sometimes I did too. This one particular time I felt rather (inexplicably) genki, and found myself guzzling nama beeru at Catfish Johnny’s.

Catfish Johnny’s was obviously done by someone who thought he was cool. Someone who took an interest in American blues and 50’s pop (not to suggest he understood American blues and �50’s pop, but he was passionate) and collected all the memorabilia he could find and Krazy-glued it to the walls. Upside-down double basses served as the counters, blue neon announced this was Chicago Chicago, and there was even a trunk in the corner full of curly wigs (presumably meant to look like Jheri curl) and sequined vests. Unfortunately I never saw a businessman drunk enough to don one, though Brad tried once, and looked ridiculous.

It’s a little embarrassing how little it takes to get me drunk. I’ve never been a big guy, but I can barely out-drink the Japanese girls, who by their second are making goo-goo eyes at…well, me.

“Did you like Noruwei no Mori?” asked Satomi, a particularly fetching girl who always carried her books in a see-through backpack.

“What’s Nor-oh, you mean Norwegian Wood?”

She laughed, cupping her hand to her mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry! I said the Japanese title!”

“It’s okay. I knew what you meant.” Your eyes are luminous.

“I read it in Japanese first.”

“Do you like it better in Japanese?”

She cocked her head to the side, bringing her cherry mouth closer to mine. “I don’t think so.”

“But it seems like a very Japanese book.” Oh, shut up.

“But it is a strange book, I think. Murakami is a very famous Japanese writer. But mostly he writes science fiction-”

“Sci fi,” I offered.

“Yes, sci fi. But Norwegian Wood is like an American movie.”

“It’s based on a Beatles song.”

Subarashi. I love that song.”

From the other end of the double bass Brad cawed: “Next round’s on me! Whaddya want?”

Satomi leaned in. I smelled the Asahi. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Yes. Yes you can. Anything. “Sure.”

She held her tiny hands around her mouth. “I don’t like him.”

I loved her for a moment. “I don’t either.”

“He’s loud.”

“He’s from California.”

But she didn’t understand why that was a bad thing, and I lost her. [Satomi had already gone home by the time we left, not even saying goodbye, just leaving in a whirl of pink booze. Ravi (drunk again) balanced on me for most of the way and Brad was ahead of us chatting up Ayako (Ayako, to Brad: “My name means “Love Child.'” Brad, to Ayako: “I would love you, child.” Could I make this shit up? ). Ravi was heavy for such a skinny guy.] At home, in front of the bathroom mirror, I flexed. The frame cut me off at my bellybutton. So I jumped, and glimpsed my penis. Booze had left it flaccid. The local porn didn’t help. I tried this one magazine that caught my attention because it had the same name as my brother, Daniel. (An extra copy, very lonely, sat in the desk with the intention of being sent.) It didn’t really work: The women, breasts pendulous, looked like they were in pain. None of the fake-happy smiles of American porn. In my futon, I lay naked and imagined Satomi’s breasts, probably flat like pancakes, but still beautiful with a dark aureole.

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