When a young hot-headed Japanese wants to impress a Gaijin (foreigner) he will say, in his best possible American-style ghetto slang: “I’m Yakuza!” and strike a rapper pose. I can imagine that this might have the desired effect when dealing with timid, or insecure people, but all it makes me do is buckle over with laughter. One kid especially comes to mind who, earlier today, obstructed the small sidewalk with his ‘gang’ of ‘thugs.’ Japanese people are generally extremely polite and not likely to confront such problems, preferring instead to simply walk around. Thus, 5 kids barely out of high school cause a pedestrian traffic jam lining several city blocks in both directions. Having not immediately noticed the source of the busy sidewalk, I had failed to notice everyone was funneling into a small gap to the side of this group of youngsters and walked right up to them and came to a sudden stop. I gazed up, caught the eye of the leader (I think?) and gave him the “hey buddy, care to step aside?” look. When that did not work, I excused myself Japanese style- and pushed him gently aside as I squeezed past. As a Gaijin, and unaccustomed to the rule of the streets here in Tokyo, I am excused for many social transgressions I am sure, but this kid wasn’t having any of it. “YO!” he called to me (this, I am told, is an extremely cool phrase used only by the elite of Tokyo’s underworld) “Yoo, hey, hey, hey!” he called again as I turned around to regard him curiously. “Yo,” he continued as we looked at each other, “you pushing!” He was right of course; I had gently nudged him aside so as to allow for a bigger gap through which to let myself (and many, many others) pass. “You were in the way” I said indicating the sidewalk and the vast number of people trying to walk there. I turned to walk on, but again he persisted: “why you pushing me?” Then he did something that I could not simply let go – I had to laugh. He motioned for his posse to come stand beside him, indicating where each of them should stand, and then they all, in unison, struck well rehearsed poses. It was like the Spice Girls had just thrown down the gauntlet. I laughed so hard I nearly cried. This angered the young gentleman even more and forced him to play his trump card: “I am Yakuza!” he proclaimed out loud for all who cared to hear (exactly no one cared, incidentally), which drew another good laugh from me. I then assured him his secret was safe with me and walked off.
At home, Okasan told me that Yakuza are not a problem because Japan is a civilized country. At least, I think that is what she said. The smile on her face however says everything I need to know: I haven’t seen any real Yakuza yet, and when I do, I doubt their bold scheme will be to hold up pedestrian traffic.
To be a dog in Tokyo is to face many challenges other dogs just do not face. First and most obvious is the lack of trees against which to do your daily business. Further problems include having nowhere to run, and, should you break free of your leach and run away, running into Chinese people who may eat you. Then there are the Japanese themselves who, amongst other curious habits, like to dress their dogs in doggy clothing. This ‘fashion’ movement includes subjecting dogs to hats, jackets, pants, little doggy shoes, accessories, and even fur-dye. Now some dogs, usually dogs that I consider to be too small to qualify as dogs (rats in baskets), do look extremely cute with their poofy eyes and little leather biker jacket. Golden retrievers however should not wear MC Hammer pants without a crotch – it’s just not right. For fear of my meaning being lost in translation I have not yet brought this up with any of my Japanese friends. More on this subject as developments occur.
The “supa-highuwayu” which runs right through town near where I live and provides even some small buildings with full coverage shade, have curious shackles and chains suspended from their massive joints. At first I was puzzled by there seemingly random additions to the structure but then it hit me: earthquakes! The shackles are to prevent the highway from falling down completely should an earthquake sever the link between the sections suspended some 50 feet above the ground. Despite deciphering their function I now feel far less happy to cross beneath such “supa-highuwayus” as I have received word Tokyo is overdue for “The Big One.”
Japanese people do not seem to mind, nor do they live in constant fear of earthquakes. I suspect that even should the capital be rocked by a major quake, everyone will simply tidy up the rubble, re-build what was destroyed, and praise the good name of the Emperor. I really like these people. They remind me of worker ants (in a good way), totally committed to their tasks. How deep their devotion goes? Only ime will tell… only time will tell…
Today in class we did basic Hiragana recognition. After a while or repeating after the teacher, flashcards were produced one at a time at random with one of the10 first hiragana printed neatly on it. We were to produce, as loud as possible, the appropriate sound for each card. After a while (and rapid improvement from stragglers) the cards were held up, the sound was chanted, and then the cards were flipped to reveal a picture whose first letter corresponded to the sound on the other side of the card. We would then go around the room finding out from students of all different nationalities how the portrayed object or thing different in our native lands. When it came to the sounds animals make we hit an impasse: Japanese dogs apparently make a sound close to “wow wow” whereas Korean dogs, according to our students, make a sound more akin to “bow wow.” This was bad enough, but Swedish dogs have a different language again from Ukrainian dogs, and so forth and so on. Our teacher, who was very surprised by all this, decided after some minutes to drop the debate, and move on to other animals. Little did she know that when she got to the card showing the monkey things were about to take a turn.
As Sweden, the Ukraine, France, and America are all devoid of native species of monkeys (barring the politicians who act like them) many of us had limited knowledge with which to provide an appropriate “local monkey sound.” My housemate, Tazuno, being both from Taiwan and very shy at the same time was last to be called on to do his nation proud by producing a suitably unique monkey noise. In dead silence the class, and the teacher, awaited his response. It did not come. Scratching his head and looking to me for an escape, I did the only thing that came to mind. I leapt up from my chair, sank low through my knees, threw my arms above my head, waved them around frantically and whilst hopping back and forth from one leg to the other, made like a Chimpanzee on banana day shouting “AA AA AA OOU OOU OOU!!!”
The class was beyond salvaging. Lest mine ears deceive me, some people actually fell out of their chairs laughing, all the way to the floor. Even the teacher (who had reviewed classroom etiquette with us prior to the start of class) could not contain herself. When the laughter died down, our teacher walked up to my desk, bowed deeply, and respectfully thanked me for saving poor Tazuno and at last doing some justice to her desire for monkey sounds. The rest of the class was lively and fun. I like to think I did my part to break the proverbial ice.
The Sakura blossom, though incredibly beautiful, begin to lose their petals almost as soon as they appear on the trees. Today, only a week or so after they began to blossom, and only 2 days after being in full blossom, a slow rain of petals carpeted every surface near the Imperial Palace. So we are reminded most vividly of the transient nature of beauty – just when you begin to appreciate its value, it disappears. Let that be a lesson to us all, cherish what beauty exists in your life or wake up one day to find it gone.
On the first day of residency at the Karasawas, I gifted my housemate, Tazuno, a key chain with a pair of miniature clogs – Dutch wooden shoes. This token gift was received with much bowing and thanks, and then appeared the next day on his school bag. Proudly he showed me its prime location and thanked me again for the thoughtful gift (which my mom bought along with all my other gifts at a Dutch souvenir store. Thanks mom.) Still coping with a massive linguistic barrier, we continued our 40-minute journey to school mostly in silence, which works fine for me. Also, because I am older and have longer legs I think, Tazuno insists I walk in front of him at all times. When I gesture for him to walk next to me, he bows frantically and refuses in the politest way he knows how. Again, works for me, despite it being somewhat strange.
The next day, quite without further provocation, Tazuno knocked on my Japanese silk-screen door (which makes no knocking sound but rather a brushing sound barely audible over my iTunes) – he had something to give me in return. Having deduced from my screensaver (which he only possibly could have seen for the brief moments I use the lavatory) that I liked cars he humbly offered me a Nissan GTR dangling leather cell-phone accessory. I was pleased as punch. A GTR badge of my very own! Now only the car was missing in my life! One down, one to go. Immediately following that sense of jubilation however I worried my gift to him had not been quite so personal or quite so cool. Thus it came to be I hatched that very night a cunning plan! The next morning, while enjoying the sunshine and our silent walk to the subway station, I beckoned Tazuno to join me, pointing with a mighty great smile at my very own GTR badge, dangling proudly from my school bag. Happy his gift had been so well received I actually managed to get him to walk close, albeit not quite next to me for some time. Then I executed last night’s bold plan. In a blatant lie fueled by guilt and patriotism I tried to explain to him that in the Netherlands wooden shoes are just as cool as $100,000 supercars that do 300km/h. Surprised, but buying it hook, line, and sinker, Tazuno reached for his set of miniature wooden shoes and inspected them with new respect, wanting to covet this Dutch national treasure I had so graciously bestowed him. I think my little white lie has gone a long way to cementing our quiet bond.
Sakura season, short as it is, is coming to its end. Still, the Japanese interact with this particular tree and its blossom in many curious ways. Today, a woman well into her 80s was sweeping her patch of completely mundane, featureless sidewalk so as to rid it (a stretch of sidewalk covering no more than a few meters), of Sakura petals which had fallen from the tree above. Despite her obvious physical difficulty with the task, she swept unceasingly even as a rain of petals negated the meticulousness and diligence of her efforts. Still I find moments like this to resound with Japanese dedication and stoicism. This woman would shovel snow in a blizzard, or plug holes in the bottom of a boat taking on water over the sides – to abandon her task, so it seemed, had simply not occurred to her.
Next time: Rice and seaweed for breakfast, vinegar shots, Pachinko, Onarimon Temple, and bicycles!