Well, I visited a Japanese elementary school this week and had lunch with the kids, which was some kind of sparrow egg stew or something. It didn’t really agree with me, probably because I don’t like gruel all that much. Of course, thinking about the main ingredient coming out of a sparrow did little to improve matters. And actually, I’m not all that crazy about kids either. Anyway, the triple combination made me have to use the bathroom in a big way, so I ran down the hall, jumped in the stall, and was like, Oh Christ, where the hell’s the toilet? Where the Throne of Glory was supposed to be there was just a porcelain trough.
Japanese National Exercise Program
I don’t know if you’ve used the bathroom in Japan much, but sometimes this happens, and it’s never good. It’s just not right to feed a guy stuff that greatly encourages him to use the toilet, and then not give him a toilet. You just have to squat, which takes a surprising amount of balance and thigh strength. Like, I’m sure the acrobats in Cirque de Soleil can manage okay, but for a former American whose idea of using the can includes a steaming mug of coffee and a good internet connection, this is not a desirable situation. However, as I was all out of options, I set about doing my business like a cave man. And just then, I noticed this little framed poem on the wall in front of the trough, like someone’s going to be crouching down there so long that they actually get bored and then they’re like, Oh my, a lovely poem, how delightful. Japanese people are pretty thoughtful, actually.
Happiness is always something your own heart decides
Japanese people are pretty strange, actually. Even still, it seemed like a pretty fabulous idea, being happy that is, so when I trudged back to the classroom I resolved to be happy, no matter what. That lasted exactly about a minute.
The Japanese Classroom
When I walked in, the third-graders were eating their gruel in silence, all looking like the class rabbit had just died a fiery death. So I decided to liven the place up with one of my hilarious jokes. If you take two birds from flock, what do you get? A chicken! See, there’s this play on words in Japanese, where “two birds” sounds like “chicken,” get it? It’s funny, right? A chicken! Okay, actually it’s not funny in Japanese either. Whatever, you could at least pretend to laugh. But instead everyone just stared at their porridge. And then the homeroom teacher started yelling at the kids with his brown, pockmarked face, telling them to smile and making them ask me questions.
So this one boy looks up at me, and he’s about nine years old and he’s got a mouth full of sparrow eggs and rice and he mumbles, “How many cavities do you have?” And bunches of rice are falling out of his mouth. Japanese kids love to talk with their mouths full. It’s gross. I was like, Aw, chew with your mouth closed, for Chrissakes kid. Also, I really couldn’t think of a decent response. So I said “Six.” I don’t know why. All the kids nodded thoughtfully. The teacher was pacing through the rows saying, “Ken-sensei came all the way from U.S.A.! You should ask him many questions!” You could see them all looking down and sweating hard, trying to think of something.
Eventually, this one terrified kid with watery eyes raised his hand a little. Great, I thought, finally a question like, How big are American hamburgers? or, What kind of presents does Santa bring? Or something. And he just looks at me like he’s going to cry and says, “Do you have any regrets?” Totally did not see that one coming. I was like, Wha? How’s a nine year-old kid come up with a question like that? Regrets? You mean like I wish I hadn’t been out singing karaoke and drinking shochu until four this morning? You mean like I wish I’d stayed in bed and not come to your crummy school that doesn’t even have a toilet? You mean that kind of regret? But what I actually said was, Yes, I wish I’d done my homework like a good boy when I was your age. I thought that was a pretty fabulous answer. I should be a child psychologist, really.
The Sunny Japanese Cultural Outlook
But I realized then that this little boy’s happiness was not something he could just independently decide to have. He was a product of a zitty teacher, a second-rate school, and a few thousand years of Japanese culture. And actually, I was starting to suspect that maybe I was too. Like, you ever notice that it’s a lot easier to be happy when the weather’s sunny? You feel good, everyone else feels good, and pretty soon you’re having a summertime barbecue in your backyard with fifty of your closest friends and it’s midnight and the cops arrive to tell you to turn the stereo down again. Well, that’s exactly what it’s like in Japan, only it’s not sunny and there’s no yard, barbecue, or stereo. Just a bunch of people staring at their shoes in a daze, like zombies in a monsoon. But otherwise, pretty much the same.
If You’re Happy and You’re Japanese, do Absolutely Nothing
Somehow Japanese people have managed to elevate looking bummed out into an art form. It’s like this crazy mass hypnosis. Did you know the U.N. actually has something called the World Happiness Report? Yeah, me neither, but Denmark is killing it. Meanwhile, Japan is dangling below Turkmenistan. Seriously, I didn’t even know that was a country.
But going home, crammed into a steamy train car with a hundred people, everybody sweating through their suits and typing on their phones like mad, I was trying to make my heart decide to be happy without much effect. Nobody talking, nobody smiling; everybody just heading back to miniscule apartments for a bath and five hours of sleep before getting on the train again. On the plus side, I can now touch-type about 35 words per minute on my phone. My fingers have gotten super nimble. I guess I’m pretty happy about that.
And then at the next station, three gaijin women got on the train, all sounding like they were from Alabama. I was like, Whoa, fat broads who dress badly. But they were so full of energy, talking, laughing, oblivious. I tried to remember what that was like, talking openly with other people, surrounded by supportive, encouraging friends. Man, Americans can do anything. I had a vague memory of my former life. Hanging onto the train strap in my salaryman suit, I felt mixed emotions. At least, I think they were emotions. No, I’m pretty sure. Anyways, it was very confusing, is what I’m saying. And all that emoting was building up a powerful thirst.
Ancient Oriental Happiness Secret
So when I transferred at Shinjuku, I decided to head out of the station to this izakaya I’m crazy about and have a bite to eat and just one drink. Six beers later, I was laughing my ass off with a dozen people, telling them about my sparrow gruel lunch and the toilet that wasn’t. The guy next to me turned out to be a professional guitarist, even though he looked like some homeless dude with stringy hair. So I said, If you can play it, I can sing it, which is exactly half true, and when he produced a guitar we sang this Okinawan number, followed by “Never Been to Me,” which brought the house down. I sound so much like Charlene when I hit those high notes that it’s scary. Really, trust me, it’s terrifying. Then I decided to have another beer and suddenly realized that, all reports and observations to the contrary, at that moment, I was in the happiest place on earth. Man, I love Japan sometimes.