So here I am rushing home from my Japanese grocery store last month, and it’s dark out and I’m carrying bags and bags full rice and vegetables and seafood. This is all part of my new diet plan, whereby I eat healthily by schlepping home nutritious groceries, which also counts as exercise. So that’s a win-win. Anyway, the road’s got no sidewalks and it was a dangerous sensory overload of headlights and engine noise as I hugged the buildings to my left and clutched all these plastic bags in front of me so they didn’t get smacked by a Honda or Nissan or something.
Then as I was hurrying, I passed a small Japanese child, crying like mad. He’s just standing there in the cold, on the side of this busy road in the dark, looking about three years old and bawling his eyes out. So naturally, I kept going. I mean, rice is really heavy. Know how much five kilograms weighs? That’s like a hundred pounds, or something. Anyway it’s a lot and I was hungry and dreaming about stir-frying up these scallops and asparagus with a bit of white wine and ladling them over the rice. Maybe accompanied by a little arugula and tomato salad. Man, that was sounding delicious.
Saving the World, One Child at a Time
I mean, what is up with this country, anyway? I’m like the only Caucasian dude for ten square miles, and somehow it comes down to me having to save forlorn children from being run over by stray Toyotas? Enough already, let some Japanese granny deal with it, preferably one who’s not hungry or carrying the makings of a delicious and heart-healthy dinner.
I looked back. And sure enough, there he was, painted white and black by the passing lights, just standing alone and crying. Ah, jeez. I mean, really?
I went back and knelt down beside him.
“What’s your name?” I asked, using my un-scariest voice. He cried something I couldn’t understand. Off to a great start already.
“Where’s your mother?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he bawled. No, of course you don’t. “Where do you live? Do you know your phone number?” I continued. He looked around, confused, and I realized how stupid my questions were.
“I dunno,” he said again, and kept on sobbing.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I said, but it was pretty clear to both of us that I was lying.
Now is not the Time to Panic. Okay, How ‘Bout Now
So now I had a problem. I’m crouched on the side of this busy road in the dark with a crying three year-old, and I have no idea where he lives, what his name is, or what to do. The nearest police box is half a mile away. So what do you do? Think, Seeroi, think.
“Let’s sit down,” I said. I always like to sit down when I have a problem to solve, because it’s easier than standing. So we sat on the dark step of a closed shop next to the roadway and I weighed my options. Call the police. Flag down a taxi. Adopt an Asian boy. They all seemed pretty extreme, not to mention time-consuming, and those scallops weren’t going to cook themselves. I knew he had to live close, so if I could just ascertain the correct direction, maybe we could go there step by step. I resumed my interrogation of the little bugger.
“Which direction is your home? Do you have a sister? A brother? How about a cute doggie? My name’s Ken. I like doggies. Do you like doggies?”
I do not believe he liked doggies, for the very mention of them made him cry harder and harder.
Japanese Love is Tough Love
Then, from out of the dark, suddenly a young woman appeared, and grabbed him by the arm. And in one second, I knew what was going on. This was his mother, and she’d done that thing that Japanese mothers do. You see this once in a while. When a child is being stubborn or pouty, Japanese mothers will smack them, yell at them, or simply walk away. I’ll show you, you little bastard. This’ll teach you not to act up.
So his mother had just left him alone on the side of the road on a January night, to contemplate the error of his ways, and reflect upon how he might become a more responsible individual, like by the time he’s four.
And when she came back, she didn’t say a word, and neither did I. She just took him and he slowed his crying and they walked off. I picked up my rice and vegetables and seafood and went home and drank a bottle of wine, then ordered a pizza. Thank God for Dominoes.
Another Road, Another Night
Cut to two days later, on an even busier thoroughfare, and it’s close to midnight and I’m walking to the video store after enjoying a relaxing dinner and several cocktails at my local izakaya. That is, if you can call potato shochu mixed with hot water a “cocktail.” Whatever. I was on my way to rent a movie when heard a bunch of honking and looked over and in the middle of the road is this old man, sitting cross-legged. I saw him, but also somehow didn’t see him, since I was deep in thought about how I’d get an action flick, like maybe something with Tom Cruz. I don’t really like him as a person, but his movies are invariably good. Anyway, this was a major four-lane boulevard and this old guy was just sitting there pretending he’s Buddha or something, while behind him a woman in a red satin dress is pushing on his shoulders as a stream of cars swerves and honks around them.
You know, you never really know what constitutes “normal” in Japan, especially after a few cocktails, so I just kept on walking. Somehow it didn’t seem that unusual. But then I looked back thought, No, that’s—-what’s the word?—-peculiar? And I stopped, because I hate when I can’t remember a word. Remarkable? Noteworthy? Unseasonable? Then I looked up and realized, Holy shit, something’s, uh, not good.
“Do you need help?” I called out to to the woman.
And here’s the thing about Japan. A person could be dying and you’d ask them if they needed help and they’d say no. Like if they were drowning in a lake and you were on the dock shouting “Should I throw you this life preserver?” they’d be like, “No no, I’m fine. I’ll just float on my face for a while.”
So the woman in the red dress looked up at me—-in the middle of the road, at night, with cars rushing all around, and this guy sitting immobile in front of her—-and she screamed, “Yes! Help!”
Well, so apparently I was wrong about the whole not-asking-for-help thing. Still, I knew then that this was no minor aberration. Ah, that’s the word. Aberrant. So as I ran out into the road, I realized that, Crap, this is actually dangerous, and I quickly grabbed the guy like he was a big sack of rice and dragged him onto the sidewalk. At least this road had sidewalks. See, there are many good things about Japan.
“Thank you so much,” said the woman in the red dress. And then I realized she was about thirty-five, and that the guy was blind drunk, and in one second I knew what was going on. The woman in the red satin dress was a snack bar hostess and this was one of her customers.
The Japanese Snack Bar
Japanese “snack” bars are where men go to have drinks and talk with attractive and occasionally older women who serve drinks. They’re basically the budget version of a hostess club, which is the same thing plus young women and couches. Both exist solely because it’s impossible for Japanese women to go to bars, so men consequently have no one to talk to.
There’s basically no bar scene in Japan. Tokyo has, what? maybe 200 bars for a city of 13 million people, and half of those places are filled with “foreigners” (many of whom probably think Japan is just full of bars). To remedy this situation, ever-resourceful Japan invented the snack bar and hostess club, places that come pre-stocked with women. There are thousands of these establishments, where drunk men can talk to women without worrying about “the approach,” and women can get paid for having to deal with drunk men. Leave it to Japan to work out a system.
A Little Karaoke, a Little Popcorn, and a lot More Shochu
The hostess flagged down a taxi, I picked up the drunk guy and stuffed him in, and away he floated into the night. She thanked me again. “Come on in and have a drink,” she said.
“I really shouldn’t,” I countered. “I already had more than plenty down at the izakaya.”
“Just one,” she said, and did something with her face that made her look pretty. “For free.”
Now you know, if Odysseus had sailed his ship between the Sirens on one side and “just one for free” on the other, he’d have wound up in a snack bar too. I mean, strap me to the mast, already. So in I went, and had a beer, just one. And then another, and then this amazingly delicious popcorn from a little glass bowl, plus a couple tumblers of shochu, sang some karaoke with the guys at the bar, and told them all about the old man in the road and the three year-old boy and before long I felt plastered enough to go sit in the road myself, so I got up to leave. The hostess lady walked me to the door. Suddenly she looked so beautiful.
“You look so beautiful,” I said. “And that’s not just the shochu talking.
“You’re very kind,” she said, because she was kind and knew it was just the shochu talking.
“I owe you anything for all this? By the way, your popcorn’s really delicious.”
“Thanks,” she smiled. “No, just come back soon, okay?”
“You know I will,” I said, and we both knew I wouldn’t.
Then she stood in the doorway and waved after me as I staggered in the general direction of my apartment. Of course, when I got home, I realized I’d forgotten all about damn Tom Cruz, so I just watched some late-night TV, ate a bit of leftover scallops and asparagus over rice, which turned out amazing by the way, and fell asleep under my toasty electric blanket, dreaming of mean mothers and sweet hostess ladies. Ah Japan, how fickle you are.