Japan By Male (Part 1)


Japan By Male (Part One)

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

(Summer 2004 Issue)

My school had a language requirement. I could have continued with Spanish, but after six years of the language I was, despite my high school’s best intentions, nearly fluent, and also bored with it. Perusing the undergraduate schedule, I saw that Modern Greek, Urdu, and Japanese met at the most inoffensive times; that is, after 11 am. (I was determined to do college right.)

So I took Japanese. I wasn’t a manga geek. It just held the most appeal, and turned into one of those arbitrary decisions I make that changes everything.

In the airport, a joyous discovery: I was tall!

At the baggage claim, I stood in the back of the crowd and was able to see my beat-up bags over the tops of their heads.

At the trains, the petite woman gazed up at me when I asked what shinkansen I should take.

On the train, I placed my bags in the overhead compartment with little effort.

This was a smoking compartment. Further convinced of Japan’s infallible understanding of zen, I lit up a Marlboro happily and read through my new university’s course bulletin. If it was going to take another two hours to get that far north, at least I could fidget.

The apato: From the outside, it looked like a Soviet-style concrete block. I hoped the inside was a little homier.

Described in the welcome letter as “six tatami mats” in size (what the hell was that supposed to mean? I thought the Japanese had the common sense to use the metric system), was too tiny to be considered charming. Sure, it had a full kitchen, but I could have sauteed mushrooms and crapped at the same time, the toilet was so close. In the large closet was my futon, a pillow (buckwheat), and some wire hangers. There was also a concrete porch with a real clunker of a machine sitting on it. I had no idea what it was for, as the kanji was indecipherable.

It was 5 PM in Aomori.

That meant it was 3 AM in Pennsylvania.

The flight was fourteen hours, of which I napped one.

That means I was too tired to figure out how little I slept.

It was midnight in Aomori, 10 AM back home, and the buckwheat pillow had to be the stupidest invention ever. Left fuckin’ pockmarks on my ears.

I opened my last pack of cigarettes. On the porch it was cold and my hands shook. There was a 7-11 (a 7-11 up here?) across the street that looks open. Snuffing out the cigarette, I put my shoes back on in the genkan (how Japanese of me, already taking off my shoes in the entryway) and thumped down the stairs. The 7-11 glowed like Mecca in front of me. When I entered a chime sounds.

Irashimasen,” the pimply kid behind the counter says. I was red; I hadn’t expected to have to talk to anybody yet. So I rushed to the back, where there was liquor. Lots of liquor. Kirin Ichiban should bring on some sleep.

In the aisle were salty snacks. The squid chips I could have done without, but the oyster crackers had a nice smiling shellfish on the front. I also picked up a package of Country Ma’am Chocochip Vanilla cookies, because the name was so righteous.

At the front the kid was waiting, as I am the sole customer. He rung up the beer, crackers, and cookies, and gestures to the 800 yen total, which in American dollars is…oh, who knows. In my hand I got confused by the new coins. Also by the beige bill with a greenish-blue man staring critically at me. The kid reached over to my hand and made a reluctant allow me gesture. I stretched it across the counter and he plucked out a handful of coins and I had no choice to believe him.

Outside I looked at my new home. In the dark it wasn’t so ugly. There are frogs chirping from somewhere. Someone whizzes by on a bicycle. On the fourth floor I see the lighted ember of a cigarette, but I couldn’t even make out if it was a man or a woman.

At the orientation there were more guys than girls. A number of the guys looked

like typical anime geeks (you know the type: pale, with creative facial hair and sizable guts).

The leader of my get-to-know-you group was an Australian girl named Heather. She had that glowing look you associate with Australians and her accent was killer-cute. She worked in the international student center, so if you have any problems don’t hesitate to speak with her, okay mates? She got us to laugh when she lamented the way her name was butchered in Japanese-Hezeru. Then she wanted us all to get to know each other by saying who we were, where we were from, and by telling three things about ourselves, one of which had to be a lie. We were supposed to guess the lie.

Shaggy blond guy was from California-could he possibly have sprouted from anywhere else?-and his lie was that he knew the Coppolas. How lame.

The Indian guy from England’s lie was he was arrested in a political rally for threatening the Prime Minister. None of us guessed that.

The only girl in our group, besides Heather, was a smiley but sort of shrunken-in English girl. You wouldn’t have guessed she was English-her eyes were pure Asian. Though when she said her name was Maggie Cotter, and you looked at the rest of her, it was obvious what her parentage was. Her lie was that she was an unwed teenage mother. She had a quiet voice and it was hard to hear her, but when we did it got a big laugh.            The choices I offered were: I smoke cigarettes, I have Gandhi’s autograph, and I turned twenty right before I came here.

Everyone moaned. “Gotta be Gandhi,” said California Kid.

“Uh-huh,” I said, and we moved onto the Kiwi next to me.

Maggie whispered-did she want me to hear?-“You didn’t reveal anything about yourself.”

Having a nic fit, I asked if I could step outside.

It was hot to the point of suffocation. Fucking tie was trying to kill me. My last pack of Marlboros was dwindling. That didn’t stop me from smoking three in a row. The Indian guy, Ravi, appeared outside as I finished the last one. “Bum me one?” he asked

With great reluctance, I handed over a precious cigarette.

“Thanks, mate,” Ravi said, loosening his own tie. “Or, you’re American, right? Should I call you ‘dude’?”

I lit up a fourth (that left two in the pack). “I don’t really like to be called ‘dude.'”

He laughed. “What was your name again?”

“Peter Szeikaly.”



“How on earth do you spell that?”


“Never mind. Ravi Shekar.” Simultaneously we put our cigarettes in our mouths and shook hands.

I took a long drag. “I think we should go inside soon. We might miss registration.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Ravi restored his tie’s dignity and we stepped into the air-conditioning.

We were at the end of the line. Being Japan, you can’t just go online and pick your classes. No, the Japanese love their paperwork and they love suffering. You don’t merely take a class, you spend hours waiting for permission to take the class. Then you thank them profusely of course, for the great honor of education bestowed on you, bow, promise them your first-born children.

After fifteen minutes the line had made no progress. Accidentally my briefcase swung forward and hit Maggie, the half-Asian girl. She turned around and smiled at me. “Bit of a queue, eh?”

“My god,” I guffawed, “you are so English!”

Her look was puzzled, baffled, and befuddled. She turned back around.

Aomori-shi was gray. Population wise, it was a city, but lacking in something vibrant. Hell, even Pittsburgh was more cheerful. There where a couple malls where the high schoolers (girls in their pediphilic-fantasy sailor uniforms, boys in Prussian Army suits) hung out and play noisy games. I tried playing a shooting game but the words zoomed by too fast-god, and here I thought video games would be the one thing I’d excel at. Life outside the malls is what happens when a city is depressed, post-industrial, and located nowhere: No space. No parks, just streets crammed against gray buildings (some with shops no one ever goes in, dusty fabrics and clothing and batteries tended over a hunched men) crammed against train tracks and concrete, be it sidewalks or streets, everywhere. Every apartment building, I noticed, had a concrete porch too, with futons draped over the railings. And there seemed to be an obsession with wires, which hung in the street from every edifice and streetlight.

I walked in the direction of the shinkansen. Things cheered up nearer to the station. Hungry, I went into the most uppity place: a yellow-and-orange fantasy called Mr. Donut.

Irashimasen!” went a high-pitched female voice, connected to a grinning teenager in a Lego-looking uniform, who then asked if she could help me.


The menu was in katakana, which was frustrating, because katakana is essentially a Japanese version of English, except written in round symbols that don’t resemble their Roman sound in any way. Eventually I deciphered I could have:

Ku-ra-si-ku donuto

Cho-ko donuto

Ku-ri-mu donuto

(Say it out loud to yourself, and it may be apparent that these are Classic, Chocolate, and Cream donuts. Or, like most people, you may realize that this is the kind of English only spoken by insane or drunk foreigners.)

At the table to my right were some girls cooing over little sticker photos of themselves. To my left were boys, one of whom took it upon himself to say, in English, “Hello.”

“Hello.” I took a bite of my chocolate donut. Gooey goodness.

They laughed. The bravest one, Hello Boy, followed up with “This is a pen.”

He wasn’t holding a pen. “You have a pen?”

“I love you.”

Of course I left.

I stopped outside a 7-11-looking place called Sunkust to tie my shoe. When I raised my head back up, there was a wizened grandmother grinning demonically. In no way was she over 5 feet. She said, “America?”

I responded in Japanese. “Yes, I’m American.”

Delighted, she clapped her hands together. “Please, wait just a minute,” and disappeared into Sunkust.

A Marlboro beckoned. Two puffs in, and the tiny obachan was back outside. She was quick despite her cane. She handed me a plastic bag with both hands. “A present to thank you.”

I bowed deeply, thinking, um, for what? “Thank you very much.”

She bowed back, patted as far up as she could reach (my elbow), and continued on her merry way. She didn’t seem to want anything else.

In the plastic bag was a salmon rice ball, a package of radish pickles and-fireworks?!?

I looked up and she was waiting at a red light to cross. There were no cars in the opposite direction. Still she leaned on her cane patiently.

What are you thanking me for?

-and then-

Didn’t we bomb you?

Heather organized a gaijin night at an iizakaya (Japanese pub, though with its tatami mats and hobbit tables, it looked nothing like a pub). All the people from the orientation were there, along with the international office staff and an assortment of her Japanese friends. Instead of suits, it was an informal occasion. (Read: beer-filled.)

People naturally grouped off in the same way they had at orientation, which meant I was stuck with California Brad again, so I sat in the corner next to Ravi. He handed me a cigarette. “Thanks for the other day, dude.”

Dude. I gulped my beer. Someone had ordered sashimi, glittery pink and tasty, for the table so I helped myself. Next to it was a pile of uncooked chicken, also pink [but a bad way (the Japanese love salmonella!)], and some sort of seaweed salad. I picked up the laminated picture menu and searched for other things to order.

In the middle of the room (the paper doors had slid together to ostracize the gaijin into one room), Heather pierce-whistled with her fingers for us all to be quiet. Or, some of us: Brad was still chatting with one of Heather’s slinky Japanese friends, causing Heather to yell Urusai! Shut up!, and we all laughed, and Brad flung his hands up-Gomen ne!-and everyone laughed again.

Heather held up her beer. “To my fellow foreigners, welcome! To your new Japanese friends, welcome! Here’s to a year of international cooperation and alcohol!”-Laughter-“Beers and cheers! Kampai!

Kampai!” the room toasted. And they were off! (Conversationally, that is.)

I asked if anyone wanted more food, but it was so loud no one heard. So when the waitress came back to our table, my hands cupped around my mouth, I ordered yakitori.

When it arrived half an hour later not only was I hungry enough to chew Ravi’s ear (which hovered at eye level as he spoke to Kiwi Bob next to him), but I was drunk. Spinning drunk. I took a skewer hoping it would sponge up the alcohol wreaking havoc in my stomach.

Ravi smelled it and turned around. “Excellent. Cooked chicken.” He took a skewer and called down the table, “Anyone else want chicken?” Bob and Simon took a skewer each, and I was left with one.

“Hey,” I started.

Ravi looked at me, glassy-eyed. “Shit, was that yours?”

I backpedaled. “Not really, but I …”

“I’m so sorry. Look, mate, I’ll order another one.”

“It’s no big deal-” but Ravi was already calling over our waitress. She hadn’t quite made it to the table when he yelled “Yakitori futatsu onegai-shimas.”

Hai domo!” the waitress yelled back and scuttled out of the room.

Drunken Ravi, his arm on my back: “No worries, Peter. They take care of us here, you see? No worries.”

Across the table Maggie was chatting to another one of Heather’s friends. “Sorry,” she was saying, “but it hurts my knees to sit like this for so long.” And when she unfolded her legs from under her she smacked my shin. She didn’t notice.

“Ow!” I said. (Maybe too loudly.)

Her reaction was delayed. “Peter, was that you? I thought it was the table leg!”

“It was me.”

“I’m so sorry!” (I take it the Brits are always so sorry.)

“I’ll live.”

She smiled and gestured to her new companion. “This is Mitsuko. Mitsuko, this is my friend Peter. He’s American.”

Mitsuko was something else. Dusky-skinned, long-limbed, actual-breasted, she glowed with the light of a thousand suns. When she opened her mouth to speak, her only flaw became visible-her crooked teeth. (But in a cute, Jewel-like way.)

“Nice to meet you, Peter.” Her accent was good.

…And somehow, maybe because of the beer, conversation unfurled organically. Maggie was a sort of mediator, telling Mitsuko the few things she knew about me. Like we were teammates or something. Mitsuko smiled a lot and rearranged her lovely arms on the table, gradually moving closer to mine.

(I’ll admit to rearranging my body to face the girls, dropping Ravi’s arm away.)

Maggie, her face mottled, left around midnight. I found myself on the other side of the table, taking over her warm spot. Mitsuko and I sat, our legs crossed, speaking in quick child-breaths and laughing. She told me about her childhood in Perth. She told me how hard it was to readjust to Japan when she was thirteen, how far behind she was in kanji. I told her I hated kanji too, but that I was the Hiragana Master. She thought I was funny. (You know those nights you’re just on? That you think of one unusually funny thing, which brings on another funny thing, which someone, like the beautiful stranger next to you, compliments for being funny, which brings on a whole slew of further funny things.) When I told her about the old woman and the fireworks, she giggled so hard her long black hair fell forward and grazed my knee. “Oh! I’m so embarrassed when Japanese people act like that!”

It was magical.

And then-

Ravi fell onto the table. Not fell, passed out drunk in a melodramatic way. The soy sauce went airborn; Mitsuko shrieked as it landed on her red shoes. I grabbed napkins and blotted. “It’s okay. They’re just shoes.”

“They’re Prada!”

I stumbled, still drunk, around to the other side of the table. Kiwi Bob laid Ravi on the ground. He threw a cup of water on his face and Ravi opened one eye. “We should take him home.”

“Yeah.” We heaved him in a sitting position.

I want to get your number.

Outside it was chilly and neon. I couldn’t focus on the ground, and half of Ravi’s weight wasn’t helping. “Bob?”


“I left something inside. Can you wait a minute?”

“What am I supposed to do? Let him drool on me?”

“Uh, if you don’t mind.” Manuevering Ravi’s arm over Bob’s free shoulder, I hustled back inside where Mitsuko had corralled another friend into the Great Shoe Blot.

“Mitsuko?” I breathed, and her friend giggled and looked away.

She looked up from her feet. “I thought you were helping your friend.”

“Bob has him.”

“I see.” She took a good look at me.  She didn’t seem drunk. She seemed perceptive. “Bob can probably carry him without you.” Was that a backhanded compliment?

With as much courage as I could muster, I wrote my number on a napkin and handed it to her. I don’t know why I didn’t take her number. Instead I fled.

Bob was struggling with Ravi. “Bastard’s heavier than he looks.” His arm reinstated over my shoulder, we began the drudge home.

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