Tuesday, January 27, 2009
I'm sure many of these girls (if you'll excuse the expression) have gone to good schools and know how to type, but the fact that there are so many Secretary-Professional marriages is no coincidence in my humble opinion. Why, they are hand-picked and strategically placed in an environment where the men rarely leave the office, making them the most often seen women in their lives. It's a beautiful and well-oiled system, this match and baby-making machine fronting as a Kaisha.
But back to the new lunchroom. At the risk of adding to my lonely girl status by taking a book with me to the lunchroom, I simply avoid it during the Secretaries' compulsory lunch hour. Needing to know where they are at all times, the Kaisha limits the Secretaries to the same lunch hour every day, which in a way allows me to avoid them with ease. I showed up the other day after the S lunch rush and the lights had already been turned off. Flicking one on in a section by the windows, I opened my Tupperware, overly-conscious of the pop it made in the cold and heavy silence left in the wake of the departed Secretaries. It seems a pitiful waste of perfectly good space to only encourage non-Secretary peeps to eat there when the Secretaries do, although I have to say that three days out of five, I would prefer truly good company at lunch to a book and an overwhelming silence.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
I love the Softbank ads featuring the "White Family", as I've been told they are called. This is not your traditional family, with the mother and sister being Japanese, the father a white dog and the brother a Japanese-speaking black guy. A little trawling on the net tells me that some people think the name "White Family" implies this family tries to emulate and promote white family values or some shit, which I am not buying. I don't even know what white family values are! Do correct me if I'm wrong but I think the whole white family, white calling plan thing comes from the fact that Softbank's colour is, well, white.
I was a little taken aback though, when I saw the ad above where the mother tells her son that he looks like Obama and asks him to do an imitation using a banana as a phone receiver. He complies with a moshi moshi and the mother admits with disappointment that it wasn't a good impression.
Maybe mine was a knee-jerk reaction but I found it a little strange. Sure the guy is black but I don't think he would even be mistaken for Obama 100 metres away. I suppose we could employ the excuse that such kind of "skit" is funny to Japanese people or that to Japanese people, all whites look the same, as do all blacks (funny how some people think the same about Asians), but I thought it was a little off. Thoughts? (I may have to revise the script as I can't listen to the ad at the moment and am going off when I saw it on TV and a little lip-reading.)
Monday, January 19, 2009
After a pre-birthday party involving champagne and a bottle of 1985 Margaux, followed by some much needed sleep, we headed out to 57 in Roppongi, a big sexy space with plenty of bar area and lounginess separate from the dining room. For a weekend night the dining room was a bit quiet but the attentive staff more than made up for it. We were given true service by a waiter who introduced himself to us and took pains throughout the evening to make sure we were taken care of. Such service is not so easy to come by, even in Tokyo, city of the expensive restaurant and home to the polite Japanese citizen. Most service at nice Japanese restaurants is polite to be sure, but there isn't the same feeling of being taken care of that a lot of nicer restaurants are trying to emulate by looking to their equals in North America. There is usually no follow-up once the main is brought over and no personable smiles, I often feel like I am being served by a robot here. The North American model can and is taken too far sometimes, a prime example being an overly-friendly waiter who took to hugging my friend and I after 5 minutes of conversation. That shocked me with my newly-found Japanese sensibilities. It also made me miss some of the craziness to be found in North America where there seems to be more than one interpretation of social conduct.
But I digress. After dinner our waiter invited us to move to a space "where we could relax" and with no prompting set up a private room for us with rose petals strewn all over the table. Nice. Actually I felt more than a tad cheesy but if you can't be taken to a private room on your birthday, when can you? I'd only had drinks at 57 before but after dining there it is now one of my favourite places in the city.
After leaving the restaurant we made a short journey over to a bar run by a friend and proceeded to totally overdo it on the alcohol front. And I was once again entangled in some boy talk with the beau and 2 of the bartenders, one of them being our friend. I can't even try to tell you how we got into the conversation but I soon found myself listening to one of their girlfriend woes and dispensing advice. He compared his situation with his Japanese girlfriend with that of the beau and I and the other bartender who is dating a foreigner, complaining that his relationship is "all Japanese", inferring that the sex is dwindling and not as interesting as before. He wants his girlfriend to talk dirty to him. I listened and nodded, agreeing that yes sex is vital to a relationship and told him that he should mention this request to his girlfriend before they start doing the nasty to avoid any mid-sex hurt.
His comment about his relationship being "all Japanese" really got to me. For the country that birthed shunga and is truly filled with sex-related stuff, when did the Japanese start thinking of themselves as less sexual than the rest of the world? Maybe the oft-cited Durex survey has played a role in this. I can't help but get the impression that Japanese view foreigners as being crazed sexual maniacs, with insatiable appetites. I also often see this tinged with envy. So why not do something about it? Instead of being resigned to its place as the country with the lowest frequency of sex, why not stop blaming it on being Japanese and go out and well, do it? It frustrates me to see our friend who wants the royal treatment from his girlfriend silent on the issue with her but overly vocal with me, and I have no doubt there are many others like him in Japan.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
When above mentioned polite emails get translated into English and sent to me the formality level gets all out of wack. It's fine to send shit like that in Japanese but in English it sounds over the top, or could even be construed as rude if the recipient thought the writer was putting on fake airs. I want to tell my colleagues that emails containing lines such as "We would be so extremely grateful if you would please kindly consider sending us a copy of that" or "Your advice is precious!" don't really fly in the real world. When asked for advice on email-writing in English by my peeps at the Kaisha I inevitably go about making their correspondence less formal and when they protest that they want to be polite I have to explain that they are being so over-the-top polite it is getting ridiculous and the recipient is going to think they popped out of a Jane Austen novel.
With the Secretaries, as soon as you've had a two-minute conversation with one of them you start getting emails ending with a couple "x"s that just feel wrong. Or you go to lunch with a couple and after the lunch get profuse thanks for such a super happy fun lunch emails, thanking you for a lunch that bored you on the point of tears and you personally felt was a huge failure. You must have done something right with that gaijin wit of yours!
Then there are the emails that serve to make me feel mean and like a Big Harsh Foreigner. Case in point: last night I told a Secretary that I wouldn't be able to do something for her until this morning but squeezed in time for it before leaving the office. This morning I got an email from her saying "I'm terribly sorry for making you work late. Thank you so much for your kindness". Why do I even both refusing things? It only leads to thank you-apologies like this where I then have to send a reply saying, Please don't jump in front of a train because of it, it only made me 3 minutes late. Then I throw in a little heart or star mark to make it Cute and Non-threatening. It's a delicate balance. In all seriousness though, I've sent emails out before with very gentle outlines on how to do stuff (usually in response to the recipient mildly pissing me off) and when I get a heart-wrenching apology I just feel bad for sending anything in the first place and end up sending an apology for making them worry right back.
The funny thing is though, I don't think this makes my Japanese colleagues more polite, as the lines they send me are simply translations of what they would say in Japanese, the weight and meaning of which really can't be translated into English without sounding phony or off. It's simply a mechanism for helping the Kaisha's ningen kankei or human relations, go smoother. I will go further and say the same for any situation in Japan, which may shock people who have visited this place and can't stop gushing over how polite those Japanese are. The honne/tatemae dichotomy works wonders in keeping a whole society of people with the same hurt, anger and real feelings as anywhere else, with constant smiles on their faces and sweet, sweet words filled with politeness but not sincerity coming out of their mouths.
P.S. I've grown so accustomed to the sound of the little dude clipping his nails in the office down the hall that I'm only reminded of how strange slash nasty it is when visitors to my desk look around with a confused expression on their face at the sound of the nippers clicking away.
I've talked a little bit about the ladies of Japan before and just what it entails to be a lady in this fair city. There are a veritable host of products with the word "lady" in the title aimed at us and just waiting to be picked up from a drugstore shelf by a manicured and bejewelled hand. Today I'm going to introduce you to Lady Guard, a new anti-pee product from Kowa. These pills are 9mm in diameter (the website is very clear about the size so we know they will fit down our lady-sized throats) and when taken just three times a day you won't have to use the bathroom so frequently! Isn't this something we all worry about? According to Kowa's "study" of over 1000 ladies, around 60% reported having to go upwards of 8 times a day and more than once in the middle of the night. Kowa's pretty pink website tells us we don't have to worry about this kind of thing alone any more. Well thank god for that! Before I go any further however, I would like to say that I am not making fun of people who actually have health issues when it comes to this kind of thing but the masses of people here who blow everything out of proportion.
I think it can be said that Japanese women are built differently in some respects but if most of the women who are worried about going to the bathroom so often are doing so because of stress or some other ailment, wouldn't it be better to try and treat that first rather than running to the drugstore for this over-counter-drug? I can't see how self-diagnosis and then a continued course of pee-suppressing pills is going to be good for one's overall health. I will be the first to say that women in North America are a constant advertising target and are told everyday that a slew of products will improve them or their quality of life in some way. But the kind of things advertised here makes me think Japan is going through a period not unlike the US 50s or 60s when lots of strange diet fads and health products came out that we would laugh at today. Which is exactly what I do, I laugh at these anti-pee pills, at stockings that claim to burn calories and at plastic toggles that are supposed to make your nose thinner while you sleep. Why is Japan so behind in this aspect or are they simply media unaware?
Kowa's web site tries to appeal to more women than actually need these pink pills by giving four examples of potential pill-poppers.
1. You're on vacation but can't enjoy it because you have to go to the bathroom: "I should have gotten an aisle seat". Not only that but you wouldn't want to inconvenience your travelling companion by having to find a bathroom, oh no you wouldn't.
2. You like going to the movies but always have to sit in a seat close to the bathroom: "I can't hold it until the last scene!"
3. You always go to the bathroom before meetings at work but you still wind up having to go halfway through. You can't really get up and go in the middle so you end up losing your concentration.
4. You get irritable when you have to work for long hours (retail etc.) without being able to go to the bathroom. Your stress builds because of this and you end up making careless mistakes at work as a result.
I always have to go to the bathroom at the movies so I either accept it and go or I try to drink less throughout it. Maybe I should be considering this wonder drug?! The website obviously has a small-print disclaimer on the use of these pills and who should really be using them but this problem is paraded in front of us a "woman's problem". This makes me wonder whether women who do in fact have health issues will be helped by this, or whether women in Japan will grow even more self-conscious about what is a natural bodily function being slammed as inconvenient and inherently a problem unique to ladies.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
I've gradually met the beau's friends for the most part, except for the time we went to a wedding after-party (nijikai) for one of his elementary school friends and I got to meet about twenty of them, from every grade of school. I'm usually well-received and this time was no different: when we entered the tatamid party room there were some incredulous stares and one guy even shouted out, Is she yours?! You have to keep in mind though, these people are from the countryside and the beau is probably the least likely candidate to bring home a white girl. I was immediately taken into the fold, one guy even felt we were tight enough to ask to see my nipples within the first hour of conversation. At the end of the after-after-party (sanjikai), there were some whispered conversations held and it was decided the beau and I would not be carrying on to the after-after-after-party because they were gender-specific and the bride was going off with her friends while the groom went off with his to a kyabakura.
I don't know if its just so boring in the countryside that the-paint-hasn't-even-dried newlyweds don't even want to spend their wedding night together but my jaw dropped when I heard that little nugget of information. The beau told me the bride and groom would meet up at the end of the night but come on! No wonder the divorce rates are spiking in this country, husbands can't even skip a visit to a cabaret club on their wedding nights! This is probably (hopefully) not a common situation however, as I don't know a Japanese woman who would stand for that on her wedding night. Then again, I'm only acquainted with Tokyo princesses.
Another time I was out with the boys I got to see the senpai-kohai relationship at its finest. One of the guys is remarkably younger than the rest and is without a doubt kohai to them all. He got to enjoy his position as kohai by being continually teased, which included punches to his abs to see how hard they were and more ill-intended ones to his groin area. And after that he was expected to go hit on whoever he was directed to by his loving senpai. It's a beautiful thing, isn't it? The beau and I often invite out the 3 university students who work for him when we go out drinking and the first couple times this happened I noticed that the beau always paid for them. And we weren't going to cheap izakaya either so the next few times I was a little hesitant to bring them along on our adventures so that the beau wouldn't have to be strapped for cash the next day. It was then explained to me that like many things here, "that's just the way it is". When the beau was younger and went out with his senpai, they always paid for him so now it's his turn to return the favour in a way, to his kohai. There is a plethora to be said on the senpai-kohai relationship among guys in Japan, but suffice to say it's a lot of mutual back-scratching, and some loving physical pain too.
This brings us back to our recent trip up north. Or maybe it doesn't but this is where I am taking us. We went to chill with the beau's friends at one of their houses and as is often the case, I was the only one without a penis in the room. Lucky for me, that still didn't stop his friends from discussing the fuzoku in the area. While exploring his fair village, the beau and I have talked about the entertainment to be had there and I learned that while he was growing up, there had only been kyabakura and snack bars (god I love how they use the word "snack") and to get any paid skin action, you would have to go to the next village over. According to his friends however, there were now a couple places in town where you can get your cork popped. I don't know if the guys assumed I wouldn't know what they were talking about when one of them asked "nuku toko aru no?" (basically, Is there a place to ejaculate, but the verb is slang and also means to omit or take out) and another, "honban? kuchi dake?" (Actual sex? Just oral?). By the time they got to "nan bon?" (How much?) I knew I hadn't heard incorrectly. You all know I have a morbid fascination with fuzoku but the guys certainly aren't aware that I've read enough about it to understand what they were talking about. In any case, a few of them are married and most of their talk can be chalked up to meaningless chatter but I do know that at least one of them has been known to pay visits to blow job establishments. I don't have a problem with paying for it, in fact I think prostitution should be legal. And if the beau's friend who is single and probably will be for the foreseeable future wants to go and pay for some pleasure of the flesh I don't care.
I did meet someone once however, who is not single and has gone to pay for blow jobs only to wind up also having intercourse. That latter piece of information is beside the point really, as my main issue, my only issue actually, is that his girlfriend thinks they are monogamous. I have no idea why he has gone to these places, the couple times I have heard about he was out drinking with a group of friends and they decided to ejaculate before going home. This guy is young and cute, and if I am to go by what I think is the prevailing feeling among many people Back Home, he shouldn't be paying for sex.
As I said, I do understand why the beau's friend visits fuzoku. I also understand that not everyone wants to be monogamous, although I do think those who don't should be honest about it. I just can't imagine being in Canada with a group of my ex's friends and listening them talking in any seriousness about paying for it. Maybe I was just chilling with the wrong crowd? Or, is it more a situation of opportunity? I do wonder what the story would be if Vancouver had parlours offering $50 blow jobs and there was a culture as such that supported it, whether outwardly or not. Would I be hearing the same kind of guy talk as I do here?
After establishing how much it would cost to visit a local fuzoku, the guys went on to other topics like work, home theatres and how much it would cost for a gravestone, and even did some internet shopping on our host's computer. I love hanging out with the beau's friends, as I usually find Japanese guys easier to be around and much more interesting to talk to than any Japanese girlfriends I've had in the past. I'm learning that this does come with a price though, as I often hear things I sometimes wish I didn't.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
I got on the shink (shikansen people) heading north with a certain amount of trepidation that was soon smoothed over by the Asahi Super-dry tallboy that I promptly cracked open and let slide down. I really shouldn't complain (but you know I will) about visiting the beau's family because they are better to me than I could ask for, especially in light of the whole you know, not being Japanese thing. When the beau first swept me up north he wasn't really sure how to break the Foreign News to his parents beforehand so he simply didn't. I luckily discovered this before getting on the train, which was nice because I avoided showing up at his parents' door and having them think I was either an American from the nearby base selling girl scout cookies or a Russian hostess who got lost on her way from Hokkaido to Tokyo. Things went a lot smoother than that, as his mother went practically comatose over the phone when he broke the news that not only would a lady friend be accompanying him home, but a barbarian gaijin at that! It seems it was one of those situations where the words were coming out of his mouth and she just wasn't able to understand what he was saying. There was a silence of disbelief (shock, and dismay) but when the beau assuaged her fears by telling her I was just a Whitie from Canada trying to make it on the mean streets of Tokyo, she felt much better. In case you don't get my drift, she was relieved that I wasn't Korean, Thai or of any other non-Yamato Asian Persuasions.
Aside from that fantastic start, ever since I first met the beau's parents they have been nothing but kind to me. Part of it could be that after 3 boys they have always wanted a daughter and in that way it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I don't think it hurts however, to also be smart, pretty, decorous when the situation calls for it and a kimono-dressing master to boot. After that first visit north we made the life-altering step of staying at the house from then on, rather than at a hotel. Big. SNAFU.
Everyone knows Japanese houses are small and lack privacy but I failed to consider this when we made the change and it has haunted me ever since. I mean really, after staying at their house once, how could we ever justify staying at a hotel after that? Believe me, I have considered a litany of excuses but judging from the fact that we haven't since stayed at a hotel, I'd say they all failed. The sleeping situation is not bad, we have the whole upstairs to ourselves but given it is a hot box in summer and Siberian in winter AND that I can't say, "OK, alone time!" to everyone gathered downstairs and head up there to chill, we may as well be sleeping right next to everyone else. Then there is the bathroom that is right off the living room. The only bathroom. That you can't really spend an hour in showering, setting hair and primping while people line up outside the door for a piss. I tried to take it upstairs, and just when I thought I might be able to dry and style my hair using a handheld mirror smaller than my actual face, my hairdryer didn't like the plug which resulted in some singed hair. Sound like a holiday in Tahiti yet?
Then there is the language barrier. But Geisha, don't you speak Japanese at home with the beau? We sure do but it does nothing to prepare me for the Aomori-ben (Aomori dialect) they speak up there and frankly, I'd have a better chance of understanding Swahili. The beau's parents don't use it much but get his uncle over (which is often) and I just tune out. Except of course, during the millions of times when his mother asks me, You don't understand that, do ya? Do ya? No I don't, I feel like replying, We've been over this many times before. And yet it never fails to amuse them that my white ass can't understand their regional dialect. So instead I just blush and say No, I can't, Japanese is very hard. Which it is without throwing some crazy fucking village speak into the mix!!! I don't expect everyone to speak non-regional Japanese just for me and in fact I recall crying in the bathroom last year when the beau's aunt kept insisting we discuss something other than what was being discussed at dinner so that I could understand, despite me understanding it. I can't win. I either feel like I'm hearing Korean or when I do understand I'm told I don't. And yes, for the record, I realize most of what happens is in accommodation to me, but I would rather be left to fend for myself.
Did I also mention that there is literally nothing to do up there? At least pleasant strolls can be had in the summer but it is truly the ass hole of Japan as far as I'm concerned and it has gotten to the point where I beg the beau to take me out on the town, to a ghetto club full of Base Americans, so that I can get drunk and shake my ass and forget about the fact that I am stranded on what should be classified as an island.
Last New Year's at la casa de beau we spent far too long up there and the beau would often find me hiding upstairs under the covers trying to read a book if only I could get my head to stop shaking from the cold. It was also the first visit I learned that the family played mah jong with more glee than a bunch of Jewish retirees. Because it was the New Year the incomprehensible Uncle and Aunt were over at the house several nights getting blitzed on sake and of course, playing mah jong. Now mah jong is a pretty retro-hip game and I truly wouldn't mind learning to play, if only for the satisfying clicking sound the tiles make. Learning how to play through a heated family game is a whole other story. The beau's mother, god love her, got it into her head that I just have to learn and so for a while I looked over the beau's shoulder and pretended to be "learning". After one game she declared me fit to play with someone helping me from the sidelines and I firmly declined. There was no fucking way I knew how to play and I wasn't going to let her bully me into it. In a situation like that, the more I am pushed the more uncomfortable I get, which makes me resist even more. She eventually gave up squawking about how I would never learn if I didn't try and needless to say the next time I heard the beginnings of a game being set up I fled to my cold cell like a fugitive and waited for the beau to come and tell me, Baby it's all over now.
SO, in summary, while there are some fun times and good food to be had up north, most of my recent experiences have been clouded by situations in which I cannot relax, go to my room, understand half the conversation, take a shower without walking in front of people or generally be myself. On visits I am cordial and sweet, I drink lots of beer and try my very best to speak politely. But on the whole I feel like I am stuck in front of the TV most of the time with my Japanese family and I have absolutely nothing to say nor can I carry on a conversation with the normal ease I am used to. In short, I become the Mute Geisha.
These were just a smattering of the thoughts that I tried to wash away with a little help from my friend Asahi-san, as I sat on that speeding train north. This year's visit went by fairly uneventfully, which has much to do with a 2-night onsen stay that I tacked on to the end, both to lessen the nights spent at the beau's house and to give me something to look forward to. The only real news fit to print is that the beau's brother brought one of his young girls home to meet the family! I love his brother and we get along really well but as I've mentioned before, everyone thinks he has a loli-con due to his penchant for younger women who are small and childlike. I'm going to make a huge generalization and say that for the most part, meeting the parents is a big deal in Japan-I was the first lady friend of the beau's to be taken north-and yet his brother has brought home a string of girls in the past, each one younger than the first.
The beau and I hadn't met this particular girl but the beau told me beforehand that she was 20. This is going to be good, I thought. I really don't care much about age gaps in others but I do not know why a 20-year-old would want to date someone 10 years older (I certainly didn't) nor can I understand what the brother sees in someone so young. So we met her and she is nice enough, it was definitely a learning experience for me to see how a Japanese girl might behave on her first trip to the boyfriend's house. One tip: when you are about to light a cigarette you should say tabako o shitsurei shimasu or please excuse me for (being rude and) smoking. I don't recall how it came up, but during the family dinner on the 31st we all discovered that the girlfriend is in fact 19, making her an actual child in the eyes of the law. I just about choked with laughter when I heard, as she had just finally been persuaded to have a glass of beer. After that coming out the beau's parents made it clear she wasn't really welcome to smoke or drink under their roof until she is at least an adult. Aw.
I wonder what her parents think about their 19-year-old staying at her older boyfriend's house for the holidays. I really do.
The incomprehensibles came over as usual but since the girlfriend was new most of the You don't understand, do yas were deflected on to her and I could carry on in my seen-but-not-heard silence in relative peace. The following morning the beau and I and his parents sat down, passed around a small cup of sake and bowed to each other saying akemashite omedetou gozaimasu, kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu, which is basically Happy New Year. How do you translate the last part? Wiki says "I hope for your favour again in the coming year" and I think that's as good as it gets. For co-workers it's more of a mutual, let's work together well again this year. In my case with the beau's parents, I am asking for their continued love and support as their son's girlfriend. As we dug into our ozoni soup with mochi (yes!) I was relieved that the incomprehensibles didn't decide to drop in for new years greetings as last year was a bit awkward. For white old me at least. I had never spent the new year with a Japanese family before so when the imcomprehensibles came over and everyone got down on the floor and started kowtowing to each other while saying the above I started to panic. I knew I was in-group enough to be down on the floor with them greeting the incomprehensibles as a member of the beau's family, but I felt so foreign and out-group that I froze and didn't make it to the floor in time to catch the action.
Some other highlights include the four of us making tempura and soba on the 1st, frying up all the left-over sashimi from the night before in a golden batter, and having an actual conversation where I laughed and contributed and felt like a human again. After we moved over to the onsen I felt bad for pulling the beau away from his family and wished we had decided to go to an onsen closer to Tokyo or during the holiday this coming weekend. The rotenburo was gorgeous, especially at night with the stars, steam and lit up trees. There are always stories about rotenburo where you can see into the ladies' bath, well this was one of them! On certain emergency exits of the hotel (don't ask) and from our room window (if you crane your neck), you have an unobstructed view of the ladies' rotenburo! It was far enough away that you couldn't make out more than that the shapes were female but it was a funny surprise nonetheless.
Fast forward to now, first week back at work after the vacation and I am feeling pretty crap. While the actual onsen was lush, the hotel was old and timing-wise, it would have been better to save the exorbitant amount paid for a long weekend around these parts. After such a short family visit and some private family issues, the beau didn't even relax much and we returned to Tokyo feeling a bit spent. I am discouraged after spending almost a week in vain to relax, that I'm now back at work with a cold and feeling pissed off that in a fit of "we have to go somewhere" I insisted that we go to an onsen up north, instead of calmly waiting a few weeks to go. As many of you know the Cowgirl is gone and I am more than sad to announce so is Other Whitie. It is also going to snow tomorrow. But on the upside, no one at the Kaisha has called me Lonely Whitie yet!