Why it is that some Japanese women venture from their domiciles bearing parasols on Tokyo’s finest days is beyond me. Japanese people in general tan very well, and look even more healthy and youthful when kissed by the warmth of our sun. Nevertheless it never fails, should even a single beam of light break through the clouds, the parasol girls can be found hiding from it. At first I assumed the parasols, often lined with lace and adorned with cute ribbons, were merely yet another extension of the fashion-conscious youth rampaging across Tokyo. Sadly, after spotting several senior citizens donning similar accessories, that theory was discredited. Though the entire phenomenon is exclusive to women, I have not yet been able to draw a clear correlation between the parasol girls themselves. My Japanese language proficiency, and mostly the alarming lack thereof, is not quite adequate to embark on a bout of urban investigative reporting on this matter, so I will simply say: to be continued, and be sure it will, because these parasol wielding ladies are an enigma of which I would have the truth!
Dating in Japan is something of which I have experienced not at all a great deal. My personal shortcomings on that front aside however, I have had the distinct pleasure to observe Japanese people dating each other (or attempting to at the very least), with some regularity. A Japanese man and his special lady friend enjoy a symbiosis fraught with cultural idioms of which a casual observer can scarcely be aware. It is perfectly normal for instance for a woman to sit, quite bored, waiting for her boyfriend to finish impressing her with some perfectly honed, yet desperately useless skill. I quote here last night’s example, a couple playing darts across from our game of billiards, wherein a young man, still dressed in his ‘office worker’ uniform, with the deadly accuracy of a Army Recon sniper, tossed dart after dart into the dead center of the bulls eye. This phenomenon repeated itself several times yet impressed me more than his girlfriend who, without any attempt to mask her boredom, stared blankly around her, and fiddled with her cell phone. Though the young man spoke often and asked her the occasional question (at which time she would pretend to find it all fascinating and giggle obligingly) it was clear darts wasn’t her thing. In stark contrast, I found this entire affair to be extremely interesting; its subtleties not lost on me, and the symbolism blatant, I smiled and potted the 8 ball – corner pocket – and made a mental note to relate all this to you with a smile on my face.
My teacher at school too speaks of Japanese men, including her husband, with little sense of wonder. Romance, so she related to us, is not the forte of the Japanese man, and dating in Japan is more about finding a suitable provider for your children than finding a lover for yourself (and though she left out the fact that lovers can easily be had on the side as men are expected to work the better part of 10 hours a day, the insinuation was plainly there). As it happened we were learning to talk about our daily activities, including dating, and we were all to happy to reciprocate and ask her about her first date as she had asked us the same thing. It is extremely difficult to relate to you, through writing, the wild gestures and painful look on her face as she thought long and hard, and could not come up with that particular memory, despite several minutes of trying. Suffice to say then that her husband, though apparently a suitable partner and father of her children, failed to impress upon her during their initial romance. Likewise, some Japanese girls I met, both in their early 30s, found it extremely important that their husband and boyfriend respectively be well-adjusted and dedicated office workers, but less important that they spend any time with them. So it is that these two particular ladies eat lunch and dinner alone every day, or with girlfriends, in restaurants about town – sponsored by their significant other who they rarely see. Moreover, it is considered entirely acceptable for someone like me to enjoy the girl’s company, in the absence of their partners, in a manner which can be described only as extremely flirtatious, which brings me neatly to my next topic:
Japanese women, for as far as I can tell, are some of the cutest, most adorable, flirtatious and lovable creatures on this green earth. They are generally jovial, energetic, and up for almost anything, be it playing darts with dead-beat boyfriends, or going clubbing until the wee hours of the morning. Their flirty and fun-loving demeanor mask their true nature however, as Japanese women are as rational as their male counterparts, and every bit as shrewd. Behind the pink, glitter-covered cell-phone, immaculate make-up, cute clothes, and girlish giggling hides a woman with a plan chiseled in stone. Behind each flirty smile, touch, or hair-toss exists a set of rules and boundaries of which only the Japanese girls themselves are aware, and whose existence may go entirely unnoticed with all the consequences of such ignorance on the part of potential suitors. Again however I am foiled by limited experience with Japanese women, having dated a grand total of three, only one of whom I met here in Tokyo. Thus, as with the parasols, this subject too will be elaborated upon in future TGJA installments. Forgive me – I don’t make the news, I just bring it to you as it comes.
I would be remiss were I not to write a few words on current events from time to time. Currently, the influenza-fueled media craze is sweeping this, the land of the rising sun. Little white facemasks – always a common sight on random faces in the crowd – have sold out at many ‘konbini’ (convenience stores) as pigs everywhere are being held accountable for a disease that is entirely centered around man. My Japanese host mother, always up for laying down more rules, jumped on the swine-flu bandwagon with unrivaled gusto. I have been coughing, due to entirely unrelated reasons, for almost the entire time I have been in Japan – some two months now. Though my condition continues to perplex doctors, who have blamed all manner of things from allergies (which I do not have) to Pertussis (Whooping Cough), all of them unsuccessful in their treatment, I do NOT have swine-flu. Nevertheless, once the news casters, delighted with having something to report at last, invaded homes and minds with influenza drabble, my host mother panicked, dove for the facemasks, and told me to put one on.
Having willingly suffered the burden of the mask before (in an effort to humor her during the first week of my coughing) I politely declined and reminded her allergies and influenza are two entirely different brands of sport. Unconvinced yet utterly powerless to deny my gaijin logic, she launched into a well-rehearsed speech concerning the ever-present possibility of infecting others in the household (a real challenge if allergies are truly the root cause of my cough as the doctors now once again suspect!). The also reminded me most urgently that should I change my mind, endless amounts of facemasks would be readily available to me. Suddenly, the polite Japanese we have been learning in school seemed grossly inadequate as my mind strained to find the right words with which to tell her to go stuff it. When five expert physicians tell me my cough is most likely indicative of an allergic reaction to any number of things which are unique to Japan, it is unlikely I will let an old lady, incapable of spelling ‘influenza,’ dictate how to go about my life.
The “epidemic’ – and I loather to call it that, fearing people may misconstrue my words to mean: ‘you will all fall ill and die lest you hermetically seal your house, lock yourself inside, and throw away the key,’ continues to claim lives. Influenza, in all its different forms, has done so globally for hundreds, if not thousands of years – often at far more staggering rates than today. New this time: 24-hour news stations vying for ratings. Do not be fooled. Stick it to ‘The Man’ and take your kids to a petting zoo and go straight for the pigs. You’ll be the only ones there.
There is great order to be found in apparent madness. Nowhere is this more true than in ant hills. Each ant tends its task, tirelessly, without fail or question, as do her sisters. An ant does this, to the best of my knowledge, due mostly to instinct in conjunction with chemical messages produced by her sisters, her food, and her queen. She slaves away without complaint for her entire life – short as it may be – unburdened by ego, possessions, or consideration of self. Around her, the hive throbs, ants scurrying about seemingly haphazardly – each day very nearly identical to the last. Yet, ants have been around, and successfully so, for very much so longer than we ourselves have been. Now, the reason for this is beyond the purview of the education I have as of yet enjoyed, though I am confident we can all appreciate stipulated facts when they are presented us.
Ants then are survivors, and our story, for which this ant business is merely an analogy, echoes that sentiment.
It is the Japanese who bear an uncanny resemblance, in their actions, to the ants of this world. What they lack in size, free will, and imagination, they (over)compensate with diligence, blind loyalty, perseverance, and sheer weight of numbers.
Give a group of 1000 western people a problem to solve, no matter how simple, and the utter chaos that would surely follow can ill be described. Give the same problem to 1000 Japanese people, and students of chaos theory (the notion that there is order in apparent chaos) may rejoice, as seemingly at random to the untrained eye, the group will establish a leader, a common goal, and an unrivaled work ethic to get the job done. All this, mind you, while observing a level of social etiquette of which we have not the equal. No raised voices, no pushing or shoving, no quitters – a united people, bound by unseen forces, impervious to the failings of the individual by virtue of the strength of the collective. It is a wonder to behold, as I do, on a daily basis.
Where in other congested hubs of human development our humanity rubs raw the temperance of our fellow man – eroding social graces and common courtesy with equal vigor and proficiency, in Tokyo an unspoken truce maintains an improbably status quo. Dire-faced office workers share their world with rebellious youths sporting punk hair and androgynous clothing dyed every color under the sun. Old ladies, perched precariously atop rickety bicycles, cause mile-long pedestrian traffic jams – no one bats an eye. Subway stairs, sixty feet wide, are only fifty percent saturated, as the flow of people going up at rush hour puts to shame the trickle of people going down. Yet, without any coercion beyond arrows on the floor indicating which half of the stairs are meant for going up, and which for going down, not a soul ventures unto the nigh empty steps in the opposing direction. It would not occur to them to try.
In this place where so often truth is buried beneath socially acceptable façades, denying true understanding in favor of perpetuating a comfortable status quo, venturing down forbidden roads, trivial or great, is quite unthinkable.
Next week: more on Japanese women! Shopping – Nihon style, and blonde hair on crowded subway trains. Thanks for reading.