Yesterday started badly. Overnight, I turned into a snot factory and a coughing, tummy-ache ridden snot factory to boot. And we had our first interview, for the long-hoped for dream job as wedding celebrants. I guzzled down some drugs and suited up, dreading the interview. Mr N was waiting at the station for us, a tiny man with a walking stick. He beamed at us and filled the air with pleasant chatter on the walk to his office. Once there, he adroitly skirted the issue of the job for the first ten minutes, to our confusion. It was my first encounter with Japanese-style negotiation. Every time I tried to turn the topic to work, he'd beam, offer some tea and talk about Australia and his honeymoon there X decades ago. Finally, we passed the threshold of polite exchanges, and he turns the conversation to work. "Our company is dedicated to working to spread the word of Christ through marriages," he said. Row and and I look at each other. This wasn't what we'd anticipated. "Two percent of Japanese are Christian, but upwards of 40% of marriages are Western, which means Christian," he said proudly. "We try to convey Christianity through these ceremonies, and we want serious celebrants to help us pass on our religion." Turning to a DVD player, he stabbed at a button and we're watching a practice ceremony. The celebrant is dressed as a full priest, robes, sashes and all; there's a small choir and it's in a huge chapel. Most of the ceremony is in Japanese. The DVD ends and Rowan talks up his Japanese and Christian abilities, while I stay quiet (nonexistent and lapsed through nonuse respectively). It seems to be going quite well, until the head administrator arrives and sits down across from us. He looks at us, says "young!" in Japanese (Row translated later) and directs a stream of indecipherable, speedy Japanese at me, as the oldest. I wear a blank look (I'm getting very, very good at looking blank. Holding my hands out, palms up, helps too). He's sharp faced with darting eyes and I see our chances of novelty employment sinking. After some increasingly awkward dialogue (interspersed with loud sniffs from me), we escape. Mr N farewells us diplomatically, saying that we might be a little young, but that if we practice the ceremony at home, perhaps we might be able to get a job. He blesses us on God's behalf as we leave. Free!
Row and I talk it over, and laugh a little at the idea of acting as covert missionaries to wannabe Westerners in a wedding ceremony chosen as a lifestyle statement. I read the sample ceremony text on the train and gravitated to the celebrant's message, written for each wedding in order to convey Christianity-in-a-nutshell. The sample one runs like this: 'God is love. God sent His only son, Jesus, to reveal His unfailing love ... Some religious leaders did not like [Jesus] because he was free and was setting people free. They decided to have him executed. It looked as if Jesus and his love were defeated'. You can guess what happens next. Wow. I think that was myfirst Only In Japan moment. No job though.
That night, we went to Kyoto (as in the Protocol) for the second time. I didn't really want to go, but I'm glad I did. The train was slow and the windows steamed up; a plain rainy night in concrete Osaka. But in Kyoto, the rain was beautiful - a hazy tracery of lights on water, the dipping fronds of willow. I'd emailed a local English language magazine, asking if I could get involved, and received a courteous invitation to their monthly drinks in Kyoto. The magazine looked like it was gunning for expats between twenty and forty, so I was expecting a young go-getter of an editor. We arrived; it was an Irish pub and a gentleman of distinction opened the door for us; kindly eyes, a woman's lips, hair halfway between middle and old age. "Red hair; you must be Doug," he said - it was the editor - and ushered us upstairs to a smoky table populated with distinguished gentlemen and a couple of up and comers. They smiled at me with expat smiles, holding out our commonalities, a sense of instant community based on skin and cultural history and non-Japaneseness. I sat next to a middle aged man, J, who beamed and extended his hand and his friendship. This man deserves description. He had a ruddy face (English), his hair lightening and lifting away from his scalp like fairy floss, an expansive man, a man who looks good when he gestures with a wine glass in one hand. You could tell by his tongue that he was a sensualist - the lithe tip flicked between his lips when he spoke, or even at rest, unconciously. Almost immediately, we were talking about sex, or rather, talking around sex. It was old lion to young lion; he exerted a jovial magnetism, a magnamious conferral of Male Knowledge. How long have you been here, I ask. He laughs. "I was one of those blowing through, 15 years ago, and I've stuck around. How long are you planning to stay?" Six months, I say. His smile broadens. "Six months! That's a story we've heard before, isn't it M?" M laughs too, a knowing conspiracy. "M was planning to stay six months. He's been here four years now. D (the editor) was just passing through. He's been here - well, I went to his 25th anniversary years ago, so a long time." Why, I wonder? If possible, his smile broadens further and he points at each member at the table. "Japanese wife. Japanese girlfriend. Japanese girlfriend. Me, I've got a Japanese girlfriend. Best girls in the world, Japanese girls. After two to three years here, you won't find white girls attractive at all." I'm taken aback by his candidness. I was expecting polite talk about the magazine and perhaps some talk of Japanese culture - he was a professor, after all. But this? His charm is strong, his face compelling and he knows he controls the conversation. There's a brief lull. Then: "It's why we stay, we long termers. Japanese women are something else. Elegant, graceful, beautiful. And as for their bodies..." Here he briefly enters a reverie, eyes closed, then flickering open to find mine. He's testing me out, this man, to see if I'm of like mind. I'm fascinated by him. But what about their famed submissiveness? Doesn't that irritate you, I venture. Another broad grin. "No. No, I like it." He must have seen something in my eyes - too much too soon - and backpedals, tempers his last sentence with pontification. "It's mostly only on the surface," he says, subsiding a little. "A friend of mine once said that American women are strong on the outside and weak on the inside, while Japanese women are weak on the outside and strong on the inside. I happen to agree. Do you know what happens when Japanese salarymen bring home their wage to their wives? (I don't) Their wives take their salaries and then give them a spending allowance. If the salarymen step out of line, their allowance is cut. It's why you see businessmen eating at McDonald's." Ah. Well then. The terrain of the conversation soon shifts to safer climes. "You know, the Japanese don't read much at all," J declares. I express disbelief. "It's true - I'm an English literature professor, and when I ask my students what books they've read recently - or ever - they come up with one or two books, no more." M joins the conversation and agrees. "That's mostly true. Although I had an student taking English lessons once who I'd nearly given up on when one day she asked me if I liked Nabokov. It turned out she'd read Proust and many of the European greats. It was amazing." J is waiting his turn. "Is that right, M," he says. "Well, I was in a hostess bar once and I met a Romanian hostess who had a formidable knowledge of Proust." At the first mention of a hostess bar, ears prick up around the table. "She was so tall, she terrified all of the salarymen. She forced one to dance with her and the poor man was quivering. She was going to pay for her entire university degree with three month's hostessing work." Another man - older, even more venerable - jumps in with a quip and a wink. I find him disgusting. But why? Why shouldn't old men think about sex, especially if they're actually having sex rather than dreaming? Why is lovemaking reserved for the young? Perhaps it's the obvious obsession, the constancy of thought about it that old men should leave in their youth. J couldn't leave it alone. Five minutes later, a nice little conversation about youth subcultures had started. M told me that last year, bandage chic made a brief appearance, birthed in Tokyo, of course. Healthy young women would swathe a limb in bandages and walk down the street. Magazines homed in, the trend flared briefly before fading, but not before puzzling many, many visitors. But don't forget the Lolita subculture, offers J. (How could we?) Have you seen those girls who dress up as Bo Peep, he inquires of me. I haven't. "Oh! The shoulder puffs, the bonnet - I even saw one with a crook, just walking down the street. It's amazing what freedom they have here in Japan - could you see someone wearing that on a Saturday night in Glasgow? Not a chance," he says. "And then there are the true Lolitas - I taught one once, bleach blonde hair, cut like a little girl, wearing a school uniform at university. Pretty girl, but her thighs were much too thick for the skirt she was wearing." Nice. My first encounter with the sexpats.
Between the fleshy stories, there were a lot of fascinating tidbits I gathered. J told me of how the Yakuza (Japanese organised crime) were only criminalised four years ago - prior to that, they had offices and wore uniforms. I suppose there's a logical link between the heavy emphasis on corporatism and the existence of the Yakuza - someone has to organise the grey and black economies, I suppose. And without the Yakuza, the art of back tattooing in Japan would fade. Some Yakuza get their entire backs tattooed into tremendous works of art, and showcase them in hot spring baths, tipping hot mineral water down their backs.
As J and I were running out of steam, D, the editor, pushed a piece of paper at me: an application for a job. He hadn't talked to me at all, beyond a few niceties and a promise of a chat. I filled it in and handed it back, he scanned it quickly and looked at me. His eyes held mystery and I wondered at him. He hadn't been part of the sex conversations, or let anything about himself slip. He came to Japan in middle age - a widower? a divorcee? a desperate man? - and I was curious. We talked for a little while before he called out to the rest of the table. "Right, we have a student here, fresh from journalism school, and he needs an assignment." A table full of grizzled writers turns to me (I beam brightly) and then back to D. "He can't speak Japanese - hasn't even been in the country a week," says one. "He should interview a long time expat - the oldest expat, the one who's been here the longest." "That would be Rudy," says another. "Fifty years, he's been here." The ideas keep coming, and J suggests focussing on second generation expats, those caught between Japan and their former culture. D likes it, and I have an assignment. It's a little exciting, in a cub reporter kind of way. D fishes out some glasses, and I look at him, expecting them to add to his air of quiet command, but they're small and maroon and bohemian and make him look like an aged hippy with an air of quiet command. "I don't like grilling people," he says. "I'll give you a chance - everyone should get a chance - and I'll see what I can do." I say a few nothings - fair enough, I know lots of old journo's don't think much of journalism school, the only true learning is doing. He pauses and looks at me with a twinkle in his eye - he looks like I'd imagine Roald Dahl would look, if still alive. "The only thing I've ever learnt to do is how to add ice to scotch. Everything else I've done." I heard scraps earlier: working as a boilermaker in Australia, scorned for being a Pom. Now here, an editor of an English language magazine, living in conservative rural Japan. His conversation rambles a bit, as older men tend to do, and he tells me the story of a girl in Japan who was crushed to death by her school gate, which shuts automatically at nine am no matter what. "A newspaper asked me for foreign comment, and I told the reporter that criminal charges should be laid," he says. "The reporter replied that it was the Japanese way. The Japanese way!" He clucks to himself. "You know, I've been here perhaps thirty years and I'm still not Japanese. I'm somewhere in between, like my magazine. We straddle both cultures. Master of none."
The night winds up; bikes are saddled and trains caught and D farewells me. "You should come and visit my house sometime," he says. I think I'd like that.
Here, twice now I've seen the Japanese make delightful use of the Statue of Liberty. Once, on television - the statue turns into a Japanese girl who uses the flame to balance upside down on a tall building, before giving her blessing to Japanese consumers, the users of liberty. A second time, today, I caught a train and saw a pachinko parlour (the Japanese version of pokies) crowned with a denuded Statue of Liberty, complete with icecream cone flame. There's also an otherwise bland apartment block which has a large concrete triangle atop it, marked "SPACE VILLA II". I love it. Also! Men in green uniforms and white gloves walk through the trains, bowing each time they enter a carriage, trying to sell monthly or weekly train cards. It's great - they have to bow every single time they enter, hundreds of times a day.
It seems that in poorer Asian countries, imitation is not a threat but admiration. A successful restaurant in Vietnam can spawn imitators, who take the name and add a number to it. It might be aping success, but it is also recognising success. The close copies of Western brands irritate Western content producers to no end - watches, clothes, software, music - but the poorer countries are unfazed, unencumbered by draconian copyright laws. In communalist societies, what need of individual creators?
Japan is similar, but its advanced economy allow it to look to global success - the West - and reverse engineer Western technology and institutions, picking them apart to see how they tick and then putting them together, but better. Japan has gone from imitating to pioneering in a few short generations. To pick a silly example, the expats spoke admiringly of the rapid uptake of breakdancing in Japan. "Better than anything I ever saw in the States," said one. "Truly amazing." Another silly example: the pizza I've had here has been the best I've ever had, better than the pizza I sampled in Italy by a long way.
Mystery solved: I was wondering why so many people were wearing cotton masks on the streets and in trains. Apparently, it's to prevent colds, but they're also worn by cold-sufferers in a spirit of civic mindedness, to prevent the spread of the illness.