A NIGHT IN SUSUKINO, SAPPORO'S PARTY DISTRICT
(an excerpt from my yet-unpublished novel manuscript, written in 1992)
Several years ago before I knew any better, I was trying to work for a Japanese company. Any company. I sent out shotgun resumes to all sorts of Taros, Daisukes, and Hirofumis I had met in my old English classes, thinking that if this process could find me a job in America, it just might work in Japan too. I plead ignorant, Your Honor. Hey, I'm a foreigner and don't know any better, right? If my recipients believed that too, I thought, an opportunity might just avail itself.
Little did I know what adventure was in store for me when my phone rang one evening.
It was from a Mr Kumaguchi. Aged around forty, married with one daughter, Kumaguchi had been one of my chattiest students in my advanced English class--always willing to fill in the dreaded dead space in a conversation, even if it meant playing Devil's Advocate in a debate.
I had asked him once, a year and a half ago when we wentout for a beer, "Why are you the noisiest student I have?" He shot back, gently, "We should talk as much as we can, because we are paying a lot of money for this lesson. We did not come here to sit and be quiet. That is why I sometimes say things that will make people uncomfortable. If I can get them to talk, then we get more conversation time all around. You understand that, don't you? I want to improve my English. You want to teach me. We have similar goals.
"We make a good team," he concluded.
He became my favorite student, and I his favorite teacher, which is why he got one of the 28 resumes. Now he was on the phone to me.
"Debito-san. Tegami doumo arigatou!" he said to me in gratitude for the resume-laced letter. "Nihongo ga dandan ojouzu ni natta ne!" (Your Japanese is getting steadily better and better.) He invited me out for another beer and I gladly accepted. "Is this a job interview?" No, he replied. Casual dress, please.
I still made a point of wearing that suit and tie, and two evenings later we sat down in a sushi shop in Susukino, the infamous bar district of Sapporo, where he explained to me in easy Japanese the point of our meeting:
His company was looking for a new employee to join their ranks, and he would be happy to recommend me. This would be a permanent position. I asked him doing exactly what, and he said working with his customers here and abroad in a trading company. I asked trading what, and he said a number of words I could not get.
"Is this language too specialized for you?" he asked in English.
"Yes, I can't understand."
"I am confident that you will be able to learn. I have been watching your Japanese grow over the past two years, and I am sure soon you can do our job."
Soon, the beer took effect, and the business conversation became lost in talk of politics and food. He paid the bill, and we stepped out into the Susukino night, bloated with sushi and sake wondering where to go next.
"I know a little place..." said Kumaguchi, and I nodded as the threw his arm over me for balance and pointed the way to go. We passed through the neon palaces and fluorescent-backed panels that make up the burgeoning night clubs, small bars, (called sunakku --places with whisky and munchies where you go to sing karaoke, get even more sloshed, and tell a hostess all your problems), discos, sidewalk chestnut and squid dumpling (takoyaki) vendors, one-man bands (usually gaijin with a guitar and an amp) pachinko parlors, and "soap lands" (places where you get naked with some lady who soaps you down, acting as a human sponge, working herself all over you until you're in a real lather). It was a lovely warm summer evening, and attractive women in low-cut dresses and short skirts were passing out coupons from their night club to anyone who would hold their hand out. Yakuza gang members were parking their jet-black Mercedes in no-parking zones, sauntering around like roosters, and otherwise looking tough in their close-cropped permed hairstyles and sunglasses.
There were a few obasan (middle-aged women) here and there in expensive-looking kimono, walking arm-in-arm with rich-looking ojisan (middle-aged men) who were probably their best regulars in their sunakku. There were a few couples with drunk-red faces already heading for the love hotels.
We dodged all these attractions after ogling some of the ladies, and headed for a building whose Roman arches framed a stained-glass mozaic made of plastic and strobe light bulbs. We climbed the few marble stairs, went in through the automatic doors that always swish open a little too late in this country, and picked our way through the narrow lime-green corridors with fluorescent signs jutting out at just the right height to bash my head on. These signs were all for sunakku, and each bar was no bigger than a Japanese studio apartment. Over two hundred were in this six-story building. On both sides of a hundred-foot corridor there would be about five to ten establishments, each with a different theme and doorway to match. We found one where even the walls had been covered with a grass-hut thatch, and pulled open a door covered with bamboo to find Mr Kumaguchi's favorite watering hole.
"Za Tahichi", he grunted.
"The Tahiti", maybe fifteen feet square, was packed full, and not just with people. Starting from the right half of the joint, there were a couple of bamboo tables plunked in the far and near corners, with a leopard-skin-ish sofa running the whole length of one wall. There were several drunk salarymen with crooked neckties sitting next to a few obasan "aunties" in frilly short dresses, all applauding as one of the senior members of the troupe sang his guts out to a video monitor giving him the cadence to the lyrics. This was real live karaoke, with a naked girl rolling around on the video screen, mournfully watching the horizon as a story of lost love was told once again in a song. The singer's voice, cranked out at about a hundred echoey decibels of treble, filled any possible dead space the sunakku could possibly have. Which was entirely the point.
Then on the left half of the establishment was a wall of alcohol. Two bamboo cabinets, with mini palm trees on top and between, were absolutely bursting with booze. There must have been about a hundred short, stout Japanese whisky blend bottles lined up along the cabinet window, all tagged, with a few untagged layers behind them. When one bottle was finished the next one behind would be bought and brought forward, replaced like a shark would a lost tooth. In front of these cabinets, with just enough space for a slim woman to squeeze behind, was a bar counter, containing bamboo shapes molded in mahogany-textured plastic.
Several gaudy bar stools framed it all. Only three were left vacant.
"Ara, irrashai!" (Well, welcome!) said the mama-san of the establishment, a woman in a men-dominated business world, the full owner of the sunakku. Though in her early fifties, she moved like a foal through foliage as she came over from behind the counter to greet us. She was wearing a Hawaiian-ish dress: a grass skirt, a halter top that showed a midriff that even Madonna would appreciate, a necklace of plastic flowers, and a headband of the same in her long, flowing, fine black hair.
Then I noticed the Japanese touches she had added to her costume. Because some of her clientele might find her bare feet offensive, Mama-san wore the traditional Japanese socks with the cloven toes (tabi). She came forth quivering to greet us, heavily perfumed and all made up, body braless and jiggling, and voice bubbling: "Kumaguchi-san, ohisashi buri! Ogenki desu ka." (Mr Kumaguchi, it's been a long time! How are you?)
Mr K smiled and made like he was on his way out. "Mou bisshiri darou?" (Already full to the brim, aren't you?)
She grabbed Mr K by the sleeve with hands brandishing long, burgundy manicured fingernails and said, "Ie ie. Mada mada. Nan nin irrashatta no?" (No, no, not yet. How many people have come?)
He did a peace sign and gestured towards me. "Ara, gaijin-san! Nan to ieba ii no?" (Oh my! A foreigner! What should I say to him?) she covered her mouth to stifle a titter and looked at Mr K.
"Debito-san da yo", he introduced me. I bowed and said, "Hajimemashite" ("How do you do?")
"Ara, Japaneezu ga ojouzu!" (Oh but your Japanese is so good!) she said to nobody in particular. She released Mr K in a seated position on the nearest stool and I sat down beside.
She ran behind the counter, procured Mr K's kept bottle of Nikka Blend Whisky, and asked how he and I wanted it. "On za rokku", he said, and she brought a decanter of ice. Within minutes she had given us: a warm towelette/washcloth (oshibori) for us to wipe our sweaty hands and face, a crystal ashtray for Mr K so he could add to the copious amounts of cigarette smoke billowing about, two dishes of salty munchies (peanuts, dried imitation chrysanthemum seeds made of rice (okaki), shrimp-flavored puffed corn things, dried fish spears and octopus legs, and shredded cuttlefish called chinmi).
Finally out came a microphone, along with a book of karaoke tunes. Mama invited Mr K to choose his tunes at his leisure, and he said he would. Meanwhile, the bunch of drunks in the corner were choosing song after song for their hostess to find in the dozens of stacks of laser discs behind the counter.
I thought: How the hell am I going to hear Kumaguchi's Japanese in here? Hell of a place for a job interview. As I drank the whisky Mama kept preparing and pouring for us and Mr K smoked a couple more imported Parliaments, I tried to clear my head and proceed to the next order of business.
"Kumaguchi-san, sumimasen ga, mou sukoshi hanashi ga arimasu ga." (I'm sorry, but I've got a little more talking to do.)
He said, "Out with it."
"Chouki teki na chii ga aru to wakarimashita kedo, intaanshippu no koto wa nai n desu ka? Rainen mata nyuugaku shinakereba narimasen desu kara." (I understood you have a long-term position, but don't you have an internship? Because I have to enter school again next year.) This had been the whole point of the evening, and I thought I had waited long enough to say it.
He was about to answer when suddenly the stool next to me was occupied by another older woman. She was in her late forties, and like Mama was also perfumed and painted--only much, much heavier in all respects. She was wearing a swirly black and white outfit that looked a very flaccid grey in the dim light. Her hair was heavily permed, and she stubbed out a cigarette with a lipstick-laden filter in a nearby ashtray, spitting the smoke out of the corner of her mouth.
This was where I first encountered the Japanese obatarian ("old wenchasaurus"), a type of late-middle-age woman who has come to realize that she has nothing to lose anymore by being assertive, and drops the Japanese feminine reserve with a vengeance.
This particular specimen of obatarian was drunk. Very drunk. She could have been wearing rouge, but her face was so red from the booze I could not tell. She grabbed me by the arm with enormous strength and slurred: "Hora, gaijin-san, Furansu-jin?" (Hey, foreigner, are you French?)
I looked towards Mr K to see if he was as much in the dark as I was, but he was leaning nonchalantly onto the counter, watching me out of the corner of his eye and puffing another cigarette. I was jerked again like a snagged fish. She used the same line.
I answered, politely, that I was not French.
"Sore nara nan deshou. Roshia-jin?" (If not, what are you, Russian?)
I politely informed her that I was American. She suddenly removed my glasses, chucked them on the counter, and clapped her hands against my face, scrunching my mouth up so that my lips looked like those on a blow-fish, and grunted: "Amerika-jin? Heibon da wa. Mezurashi-jin ni nari nasai." (An American? How plain. Become something unusual!)
I decided that if I humored her a little she might settle down a bit. "Boku wa kono mama de kekkou mezurashii to iu koto desu yo." (I've heard that as is I'm pretty unusual, you know.)
Mr K was suddenly in on this too. "Kare sa, ashi, 30 senchi aru yo." he said to Mama but loud enough for all to hear. (He's got a 30-centimeter leg, you know.)
Both my eyes and the obatarian's lit up, albeit for different reasons. Mr K was referring to the size of my size-13 shoes.
And so the evening went. Every time I tried to get the answer I wanted out of Mr K, I found myself being yanked back by the obatarian. After several glass of whisky, she got progressively affectionate, eventually planting a sloppy kiss on my cheek and twisting my face towards hers so she could examine what color my eyes might be in the gloom.
And what did I do? Nothing. I waited for somebody, anybody, to intervene and tell her to lay off. Unfortunately, nobody really said much to her that I could interpret as discouragement. Most of the people around thought it was actually pretty funny.
Then I began to see what it was all about: the wench was a staff member in this establishment, and she had been put up to all this by Mr K to test my mettle. If I went apeshit under all this pressure and ended up slapping her around, I certainly wouldn't look like much of a businessman--hell, I might even lose in a punch-up with her.
However, if I chose to ignore her angrily, it would appear that I was unable to put on a poker face and sell goods even to the customers I detested.
So I stayed polite, neutral, and did not struggle when accosted. Then after midnight came the clanger when the obatarian said: "Debito-chan, konban, issho ni?"
"Debito-chan, konban issho ni neyou?" (David-sweetie pie, shall we sleep together tonight?)
I swallowed hard and wondered where to go from here. I tried to explain that I was freshly-married, only about a month ago. She said she didn't care--she'd never propositioned a single man anyway.
I tried to say that I was all sexed out, or something, but my Japanese flopped in the frenzy and she tightened her grip. All I could do was turn to Mr K and say, with my eyes: Can you believe this? What should I do?
Mr K opened his eyes wide, raised his eyebrows, and nodded with a wide smirk on his face as to say, well, how about it, then?
Oh god, I thought. How far do I have to go to impress this guy?
I was just about to give up all hope when Mr K looked at his watch. It was fast approaching 1 AM, and he said that I had better be heading home. Your wife is waiting, after all, he said. He passed me a taxi ticket which would get me home free and homefree, and started to walk me out the door. Mama-san bade me a fond farewell, and the smashed salarymen and their toasted tarts sent some random regards.
But the wench wouldn't give up. "Neyou! Neyou!" she pleaded like a cat in heat, eyes getting watery, mascara starting to run. I realized she was quite serious. Just as serious as I was about getting the hell out. Never was I more relieved when we entered the elevator and the doors squished her out of sight.
As Mr K walked me outside to the phalanxes of taxis waiting for their fares, I turned to him and said, in English:
"Please answer my question about job positions in your company."
"Oh, that. I'm sorry, we don't have anything for short term. Maybe after you finish graduate school we can talk."
"Understood. By the way, that was quite a test you set up for me in there. Did I pass to your satisfaction?"
"Yeah. Test. With that woman back there."
"I don't understand what you mean, Debito-chan."
"Kumaguchi-san, that woman back there. The one who wanted me to spend the night with her? You set me up to see how I would react, didn't you?"
Mr K still looked nonplussed.
"Well, did I perform well under pressure?"
"Debito-chan. I've never seen that woman before in my life. No lie. There was no test."
I realized then and there that I did not understand a goddamn thing about this country!
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