“Ah man, I’d love to have a few beers, but I promised Eriko I’d watch the kids.” This is my buddy, let’s just call him Joe, since that’s his name. He’s got two kids.
So then I Line’d Dave. His wife speaks English, so to protect his identity, we’ll just call him “Matt.” Kind of fitting, actually.
“Yo, tonight, beer?” I asked. I’m a man of few words.
“Let me check with the wife,” was Matt’s answer.
“Tell her it’s an emergency,” I said, “of the thirsty sort.”
Half an hour later he replied, “Sorry dude. Let’s try some time mid next-month.”
I ended up with my friend Robby at a white plastic table in the mall food court.
“Hang on, I’ll grab us a couple beers,” I said.
“Just one, right?” said Akane, looking at Robby. I forgot to mention she’d come along. Akane’s nine months pregnant with their second child.
“Let’s go, Dad” said Kay. Guess I also forgot to mention he’d come along too. Kay’s six.
“Great kid,” I said. Meaning, like, he’ll be great in about 20 years.
“Akane . . .” said Robby, pleading.
“Robby!” said Akane.
In the end, we had two beers each. Akane didn’t look very happy, but then she never does. Then we called it an evening.
These are my foreign friends in Japan.
Sex with Japanese Girls
When I came to Japan years ago, here’s what I thought. It’s what we all thought. We’d be foreign gods in a land of Japanese sex. Women would want to date us because we were exotic, hairy paragons of manliness, and offered something different. At the very least, we could teach them English.
And women did want to date us.
“Let’s make a baby.” This was my first girlfriend. I’d known her for a week. I don’t know where she picked up that English. Certainly not from me.
Then there was my second girlfriend. “Look, I’m not having sex with you just for fun,” she said. “I expect to get married at some point.” I’d known her for two months. At least she said it in Japanese.
This is a trend that has continued through many girlfriends.
Foreign Men in Japan
Now, this won’t be the most popular thing I’ve ever written. Ladies, you may want to take a quick jog down to the 7-Eleven for a tall can of malt liquor while I speak to the fellas for a bit.
Because if you’re a foreign guy in Japan, or thinking about coming to Japan, you need to understand the minefield you’re walking into. Dating Japanese women is like riding handrails on a skateboard. Sooner or later you’re gonna nut yourself. It’s the most common pattern ever—one minute, you’re Joe Stud, teaching English during the day, partying at night, champagne and yakitori, posting videos to YouTube. Yo bitches! Check me out in Shibuya! Check me out in Shinjuku! Japan’s craaazy! The next minute, you’re Joe Dad. Nobody’s posting those videos. Crazy.
Then what? Move back to your mom’s with a newborn and a wife who’s minimally employable while you trot around a resume emblazoned with the scarlet letter of “Taught English in Japan”? Yeah no, you’re staying. And if you thought it was hard affording champagne on an English teacher’s salary, wait’ll you see how much diapers cost. I mean, I don’t actually know, but I’m assuming they’d cut into my liquor budget. Perish the thought.
Japan’s Declining Birth Rate
Here’s the deal. If you’re a Japanese person, of either sex, there’s a really good chance that when you finish technical school or whatever cruddy college you went to, that you’ll wind up spending 12 to 15 hours a day in a cramped office pushing a mouse. Your overbearing boss will sit behind you, watching your computer screen, micromanaging your every motion. In Japan, that’s called “leadership.” And you’ll do that for, oh, about 50 years.
Okay, now . . . just pointing out some reality. Don’t hate on the messenger, as the saying goes . . .
But if you’re a woman, you’ve seen this vision: twice a day, you’re packed onto a train so crowded you can’t move your arms. You’re literally lifted off your feet and smashed against the window in the insane torture that is Japanese commuting. You can smell the breakfast and sweat of ten other people in every breath you take. And then as the train grinds over a small bridge, you catch a brief image of a park slatted with sunlight, colorful strollers around a play area, children on swings in the fresh air, and mothers smiling and drinking coffee. Then your train rushes into a tunnel and everything goes dark. The next day, and every day after, you try to catch one more glimpse of that shining park.
So maybe a plan starts to dawn on you. Maybe it’s not even a conscious plan, but if you have a kid, you know that right away you’d get 14 weeks off. After that, well, your salary is so low that you and your husband would have to agree it’d be cheaper for you to stay home than to pay for child care. Congratulations, you just won a colorful stroller and a pass to Sunshine Park, at least for a few years. Later, well sure, you’ll have to go back to work. Sorry, just kidding. I mean, have another kid.
Maybe that’s the reason the Japanese birth rate is so low—-because Japanese men understand this. And then there’s you, the fresh-faced foreigner who thinks the game is to try to bag a bunch of birds. That’s not the game Japanese women are playing. Their goal is to bag a husband. Sorry, don’t mean to imply that every Japanese woman is like this. There are women here battling the societal norms, building careers as doctors, lawyers, scientists. Women can work hard and succeed. Or they can do their nails and put on a miniskirt and some heels. If you’re a guy, you might want to go for the girl with the wrinkly lab coat and Coke-bottle glasses. Just saying.
Hey, if I had sizeable breasts, I’d opt out too. There really are fewer opportunities for women in this country. Men can advance through labor, gradually building a career. It’s not a great life, but most women can’t even do that. They’re relegated to bookkeeping, arranging schedules, greeting customers, and making tea. Meanwhile—-pardon the Donald Trump moment—-they get tremendous pressure from their families to get married. Tremendous pressure. And endless questions about “when are you going to have kids?” Just endless. So sad.
“Matt” and I finally made it out for beers.
He was like, “I just told my wife, I’ll be out with Seeroi Sensei, dammit, and that’s the end of that story.”
“Great,” I said, “now she hates me.”
“Anyway, I gotta be home by nine.”
“Yeah, all right. So, uh, how’s everything at home, the fam’ and all?”
“I’ve had sex twice in the past five years.”
“Okay . . . “ I said. “Well, that is the Japanese way. Once you get married, you know . . .”
“I mean, it’s not really her fault. She’s just tired. Taking care of two kids, plus housework and stuff.”
“Yeah, I mean, sure. She’s not working though, right?”
“Well, she’s taking English classes. But we’ve talked about her starting to work again next year.”
The Japanese Lifestyle
Maybe the only thing harder than being a woman in Japan is being a foreign man. Japan’s not set up for gaijin to negotiate their own cell phone contracts or buy cars or get loans from the bank. People assume you don’t even have the reading skills of a ten year-old. And so what if you don’t? Here’s an English menu, perhaps that’ll help. Japanese isn’t easy. That’s not your fault. The television’s a blur of crazy game shows, the radio an incomprehensible wall of noise, and your mailbox is crammed full of papers you can’t understand. Know what fixes that? A wife.
So you gradually end up becoming dependent upon her. She helps you out at the post office, goes to the doctor with you. When you walk into a restaurant, you’re welcomed, not just stared at. She legitimizes your existence in Japan. You’re not a stray anymore; you’ve got tags. The unspoken message is, “Don’t worry, he’s with me.”
Your wife also guides you through the intricacies of the social behavior. Don’t put your chopsticks there. Put them here. Don’t hang your coat like that. Hang it like this. Don’t fold the laundry like that. Don’t wash the dishes like that. Don’t scrub the bathtub like that. But don’t worry, with enough practice, you’ll get the hang of it.
Having a Japanese Wife
Last Friday, I went down to the standing bar on the corner. They call it a “standing bar” because it’s got no chairs. Kind of a dumb idea if you ask me, but the shochu’s only 70 cents a glass, so whatever. And all the drunk old Japanese men were there. Yuji’s a regular, and he always asks the same questions, completely forgetting he asked the same thing last week. That’s because he’s old. And drunk.
“Do you have a wife?” he asked, and the other guys leaned in salaciously, the way they always do.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m single.”
“Why don’t you have a wife? You should marry a Japanese.”
“Yeah,” I said, “just waiting for the right girl.”
“You should get married soon,” advised Yuji.
“And the benefit is what?”
“Then you can have kids. And one of these,” he said, and held up his pinky finger, which is Japanese for “mistress.” And they all laughed.
“Ah, you guys, quit clowning,” I said. They make the same joke incessantly.
Then we drank some more shochu and I reminded them I was from America, and that I could eat natto and raw fish, and again that I was single, until the night grew darker, and they drifted off under the streetlights one by one. Back home to their wives, waiting patiently to scold them, feed them, and put them to bed. It may not be the best way, but it’s our way. That’s what Yuji told me, anyway.