A LUCKY DAY FOR ME IN JAPAN
THE CHUUSEN (抽選) LOTTERY
(originally sent to Fukuzawa and Friends around May 5, 1995)
Who knows what fate has in store for us? We face it every day, even at the mailbox. Everybody gets those tasty items of junk mail where they encourage you to open the envelope because "you may have won ten million dollars". But too many times bitten, I've become shy about my ability to have good luck.
But one day in Sapporo, I had nothing but.
It started off badly . The day before, I had the misfortune of leaving my eyeglasses where I could sit on them, and, despite my diet, squashed them flat. The lenses were intact, fortunately, but the frames were bent beyond repair. Though I am one of the stingiest people on earth when it comes to things that should last longer and cost less in Japan (such as windshield wipers, sneakers, umbrellas, and eyeglass frames), I took one look at these poor rims--nooks and crannies leaking about four years of haphazard cleaning, eargrips caked inside with green rust from miles of sweaty hiking, nose cushions falling off and being reglued ad nauseam, and now mangled to boot--and decided that enough was enough. I headed off to a downtown shopping area called Tanuki Kouji, entered an eyeglass shoppe, and asked for an estimate.
Brief digression. Eyeglass stores in Japan (like Fuji Megane) are not quite the same el cheapo affairs (like LensCrafters) you see in American malls. Here they have enormous staffs (like some public works project for the eyes) of a couple dozen well-dressed and attentive men and women (almost all, inexplicably, wearing glasses) all just waiting to sell you their frames. Their apparently high profit margins enable them to offer you lots of presents--included in the price were an eyeglass case, a lens cleaning cloth, eargrip extenders, and other little nicknacks that are nice to have but I'll never get around to using. Not to mention all sorts of shop externalities, such as clever lighting, mirrors, video cameras so you can see how attractively your eyes are framed on a TV screen, and odd cleaning and melting machines scattered around the shop to give you the perfect, sanitary fit.
I asked them how much are frames for my type of lenses (frameless, female-grooved jobbies that are relatively hard to find, apparently). They pulled out a small assortment, the cheapest being about $250, the most expensive Japanese-made around $400. Thinking of the high yen and the resultant cheapness of imports, I asked them to bring out some foreign-made models.
Hah. French- and German-made (brands I hadn't heard of--these weren't Pierre Cardin or Givenchy or something like that), they started at around $500 and reached near $1000. The fruits of free trade? I shrugged, and selected a medium-range pair of Japanese-made frames with reinforced hinges (just in case I got the urge to sit on them again).
Cost: \33,000 plus tax, down from the list price of \38,000 (I have a friend in the store, which is why I went there in the first place, and he gave me that 20% discount without even the slightest hesitation. Nice profit margins, huh?).
They took my credit card and asked me if I could wait. Their frame-fitters were in another building and it would take about 45 minutes to make the world visible to me again. Fine, I said. I had a class across town in a couple of hours, but without my glasses I couldn't very well drive there anyway. They gave me a cup of green tea and told me to have a seat in their waiting room and enjoy their wide-screen color TV with large stereo speakers. They also threw in some lottery tickets since it was lottery time in Tanuki Kouji again.
Ah, yes, the lottery. This lottery system, called chuusen (抽選) in Japanese, is unusual in that it's not a state- or nationally-run event. It's simply a gimmick by local shopkeepers to promote business. At specially-selected times of the year (year-end, spring campaign, etc), if you buy something at this shopping area, you get tickets reflecting your purchase amount.
Then you go to a flashy booth manned by attractive young ladies or old crocks in happi coats and bandannas, and approach this odd hexagonal box. It is suspended on an axle between two supports, like a mountain bike's kickstand. You grab a crank and spin the contraption like a hurdy-gurdy or a bingo machine. The whole box, full of little balls by the rattling sound, whirls, scoops a ball from inside, and spits it out a little hole onto a tray for all to see. Depending on the color of the ball, you win a prize, lowest being some pocket tissues and/or coupons for \100 discounts on your next purchase, the highest some nice sum of money.
The amount of times you can spin the box depends on the amount of your purchase. In my case, the chuusen gave spins in \5000 units, which meant with \33,000 spent I got to spin six times (while the \3000-worth of leftover tickets didn't count. If I went and spent another \2000 somewhere, then okay, spin again. That's the point of the chuusen--buy more and try your luck. I usually can't be bothered and give my leftovers to the next person in line.).
My turn came and I stood up and gave it a whirl.
Spin one. Got a green booger ball. Two. Got a red blood-clot ball. Three, green again. Four, red again. Five, yet another red. All meant nothing more than discount coupons redeemable in Tanuki Kouji shops.
My sixth and last spin, I felt time slowing somehow, Tangerine Dream music crescendoing in my head. I slowed my spin, felt the ball plop into the pocket inside, and completed my range of motion. Out popped a white ball, which glistened like some pristine plastic pearl. It had Tanuki Ichi (Raccoon Dog One) written in characters on it.
The ladies there gasped and said I had won first prize. I asked what that was. They said, Go-sen en satsu tsukami dori, which I couldn't understand. They explained that they wanted to contact the proper authorities, newspapers, and TV crews, and asked if I could come back in an hour.
I should have been taken aback by all this trouble, but I wasn't. I could smell yet another adventure in Japan brewing, and I wanted to see just how far this would all go. I gave them my name, address, phone number, and age, then went back to Fuji Megane's luxurious waiting room to await my glasses.
An hour later, at 12.30, a gaggle of about ten reporters were waiting for me at the booth, wondering amongst themselves how the hell they were going to talk to me. About five cameras were setting up, each from a different network. Even the Fuji Megane ladies, this being their lunch break, had followed me out of the store to join the crowd swarming around the chuusen booth to witness me claiming my prize. The chairman of the Tanuki Kouji Chuusen Iinkai came up, spoke a little English, congratulated me on my winning, shook my hand, and asked me how I felt and what country I was from. The reporters, seeing that I could speak Japanese, did the same, asking me what I was going to do with my money and if I could eat nattou and how old my child was and did I have anything nice and American-style lovey-dovey to say to my wife. I gave them an earful, as is my wont.
By now you're probably saying, what money, and why all this fanfare? First, the fanfare. This chuusen, a large annual event for this shopping district, had been in business for about a week, and nobody had won first prize yet, which was highly unusual. Not only was I the first to win, but I was also the first foreigner to win, and that mattered to the organizers who had been doing this for over forty years.
Second, the money was not a fixed amount. I had to earn it, as you will see.
They wheeled out a goldfish-bowl shaped plastic container, about the size of a pumpkin, with a relatively narrow neck. Inside it were \5000 bills all crumpled up. 40 count. I had to stick one hand inside, grab as many as I could within one minute, pull my hand out, and put my gains in a basket. Every note in the basket would be mine. Not as easy as it sounds--since if you ball your fist up too much, you can't pull your hand out without loosening your grip or shaving off a few bills. And with each bill worth (at the time) over US$50, I wasn't about to botch this.
To my surprise, the chairman took me aside for a minute and gave me advice on how to get as much money as possible. First trick is to push down on all the bills and squash them flat onto the floor of the jar--so they're under, not atop, the hand and thus grabbable. Second, don't bunch the notes into the fist--thread them through the fingers, and out will come your hand easier.
A bell sounded and off I went, doing exactly as the chairman suggested. I took my time, squishing and threading, and within thirty seconds fate played my hand. There was a gasp from the crowd as I scrabbled up every single note, shaking my hand inside to make sure nothing was going to fall out prematurely, and found I had a secure grasp. I pulled my hand up, catching my forefinger knuckle on the lip of the jar, but the chairman held the bowl down as I scraped my way up, allowing knuckle after knuckle to escape.
Out came all the money, which I held up for all to see, and I reached for the basket. I was about to let go when the TV cameras asked me to raise my hand again and show the money. I obliged, and still not a note fell out. The audience roared, I released the money into the basket, and the chairman announced I had won the full amount possible, \200,000, or well over $2000. He presented me with an ornate envelope with 20 crisp, fresh \10,000 notes inside, and the TV crews came in to film my first impressions and give me fifteen minutes of fame.
That night and the next morning I appeared on all the local networks and newspapers. Seemed everybody saw me or knew somebody who saw me. My wife and family were flooded with calls from friends congratulating me on my winnings, and, as I noted to the TV cameras, the number of people calling themselves my friend increased.
Not bad. Spent a few hundred dollars on a pair of glasses, and got a couple of thousand back in change.
But that's not all. That evening, I had a drink with one of my older friends who had invited me out for a beer. He said, "I've got a present for you," and told me about this rock star named Oguro Maki, a Sapporo resident, who was apparently famous in Japanese Pop those days. Verily this is the case, since practically all my students, I found out in my classes later, know her. He just happens to know her father, and through him got me an autograph. He pulled out a poster board with a Japanese-style swirly signature on it, with a beaming "To David" in capital letters. "This is for you," my friend said.
I accepted it with bewildered gratitude. Now all I have to do is find out who she is. My students are all slavering over the fact I got an autograph without even being a fan.
I drove home that night very carefully. Like the character in Stephen King's DEAD ZONE, I had the irrational fear that somehow I'd used up all my good luck for the next few years.
This sort of thing happens to me here all the time. That's one reason why I live in Japan.
(skeptics, click here to see a JPEG of a Japanese newspaper article that appeared afterwards)