Uh, sure you do
I made a lot of mistakes with Saki, my first Japanese girlfriend. The most notable of which was attempting anything resembling a conversation.
“So you said you’ve got a sister, right?” I asked. “Does she live in Tokyo too?”
“I think so, maybe.”
“Well, when did you last see her?” I continued.
“Huh. Okay…well, um, does she live by herself? Does she have a boyfriend?”
“Mmm,” she said, “I’m not sure.”
“So you don’t know where she lives then, your sister?”
“Mnnnn,” replied Saki, “maybe Chiba?”
In the Land of Tiny Cakes
We were sitting upstairs in a tatami room in a cafe in Azabujuban, having tiny cups of green tea and even tinier cakes. My legs were killing me. Why a nation renowned for its technology has yet to embrace the chair, I’ll never understand. And hey, I’d voted for a round of darts with some spicy fries and beer, but somehow that motion got overruled. Now all we were lacking was a Victorian doll house and a couple teddy bears. Care fo’ a spot o’ tea, Mista Pibbles?
But Saki was remarkable for two things. The first was the eye- and lip-liner she’d had tattooed to her face. Hey, that’s time efficiency, which I appreciate. If you still think tattoos are limited to yakuza, you’re living in the 1990’s. Younger Japanese are picking them up like wildflowers, onsen be damned.
Saki also had a wildflower tattooed on her outer thigh. I thought it looked godawful, but that just goes to show what Ken Seeroi knows about fine art.
That wasn’t the second remarkable thing though. That thing was that Saki seemed to possess almost no knowledge of her own family. At the time, I thought this unusual.
“So your father,” I continued, “what does he do?”
“Oh, he works for a company,” she replied proudly.
“Great, and what’s his job?”
“Ummm, he’s a salaryman,” she answered.
“So, uh, you don’t know what your dad actually does? Is it a new job?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Huh. All right, um yeah, does he speak English?”
“May….be…” she said.
And that, right there, is the trouble.
The Trouble with Japanese People
Now, don’t get me wrong. Japanese folks are great. Well, except for the ones who aren’t, but whatever. As a group they’re pretty okay. The challenge, however, is actually knowing them at all.
Here’s what I mean. Particularly if you’re an American, the instant we meet, I start to pick up things about you, like…
- Republican, Democrat, or one of those crazy Bernie Sanders people
- Atheist, Muslim, Jew, Sikh, Christian, Scientologist, Pagan, or whatever
- Hummer, Tesla, or AstroVan
- Smoker or non-smoker
- Gun or forgot yours at home
- Vegetarian, vegan, or just enjoy chewing animals
- Anti-abortion or anti-choice
- Pro-marijuana, pro-crystal meth, or pro-martini
- Went to Columbia, LSU, or failed high school shop class
- “Support our troops” or want a world overrun with Commies
- “Build the Wall” or prefer not to pick your own lettuce and strawberries
- What you think about the stock market, universal health care, food stamps, the World Wildlife Fund, Fox News, fake news, iPhone versus Android, thick crust versus thin, chunky versus smooth, and a thousand other things.
And by the way, this isn’t a shopping list. I’ve got friends both Christian and Muslim, Gay and Straight, supporters of Obama and Trump, and everything in between. Being in one camp or the other doesn’t make you virtuous or deplorable—it just tells me something about you. It’s a start to actually knowing you. Who you are.
And when I meet a Japanese person, here’s what I learn…
- How hot or cold the weather is
- How delicious this food is
- How much you want to speak English with me
Usually, that’s about it.
You can easily see why Japanese folks are so keen to meet “foreigners.” Within one minute—boom!—you know everything about ’em. You don’t even have to ask; it just oozes from the foreigner’s every pore, saturating clothing and car choices, the red trucker hats, college sweatshirts, Jordan high-tops, rainbow bracelets, NRA bumper stickers and NPR bags.
Your Foreign Boyfriend
So I was having lunch with a Japanese colleague, a rather unremarkable mid-30’s unmarried office worker, when she blurted out a familiar refrain: “I want a foreign boyfriend.” So I thought I’d follow this up a bit.
“Does it matter what country he’s from? Like, Spain, New Zealand, Greece?”
“No,” she said, “Probably anywhere’s fine.”
“Jewish, Muslim, Christian…?”
“What’s the real difference?”
“Fair enough. Would you care if he was Democrat or Republican, in the Navy, wore hemp pants, owned a dog or a cat?”
“I just want to meet a nice guy,” she said. “Okay, maybe with a dog.”
“Well, you know,” I said. “Everyone’s nice at first.”
I want a Japanese Girlfriend
On the flip side, I hear this a lot, especially from guys online. And I wonder, does it matter…
- Region: whether she’s from Gifu or Ginza
- Religion: Kofuku-no-Kagaku or Souka-gakkai
- Politics: Jiyu-minshuto or Minshinto
- Food: tonkotsu ramen or shoyu ramen
- Booze: shochu or umeshu
- Fashion: Louis Vuitton or Hideo Wakamatsu
- Make-up: Gyaru or suppin
- Language: Osaka-ben or Tohoku-ben
- Occupation: OL or freeter
- And what she thinks of immigration, the aging population, China, Korea, whether she speaks English, actually cares about you learning Japanese, wants to move into her parents house after marriage, wants kids or not, will insist you do the laundry and the dishes, and a thousand other things
My sense is no. Just so long as she’s “Japanese,” that’s good enough. Frankly, I’ve seen tons of couples rush to get married without even understanding basic information about each other. Hey, nothing wrong with hooking up for a night or two, but when it comes to shacking up, I mean, you might wanna…I’m just sayin’…ahh, nevermind. I’m sure it’ll all work out just dandy.
But I Still Want a Japanese Girlfriend
All rightee. Then you’re facing several hurdles:
- It’s not easy to understand a wholly different culture, especially if you don’t speak the language. What do people notice? What do they care about, and why? Will anyone even clue you in to what’s significant? Does it matter if you carry a pocket handkerchief, put your wet umbrella in a plastic bag, or pour beer in your own glass? (Pretty much all yes.)
- Then there’s the Japanese language, with at least ten different words for “I” and “you.” Your entire interaction depends upon which you choose. Forget speaking—can you even pick up on the differences when you’re listening? Whether someone refers to you as “dude,” “sir,” “ma’am,” “girl,” “boy,” “fatty,” or “mofo” tells you a lot about who you’re dealing with and how they view you. This happens every day in Japanese, only you’re blissfully unaware. Everyone just seems so polite. They’re laughing with you, not at you, right? Yeah, let’s just go with that.
- Japanese folks tend not to talk about themselves much, or at all, even to their close friends and family members. A lot of conversation is mind-bendingly superficial. They’ll reveal surprisingly personal information, yet hide things that you’d think were unimportant. I don’t want to say they keep a lot of secrets, but well, they keep a lot of secrets. Don’t tell anyone I told you.
More than One Kind of Japanese
Think about it from a Japanese person’s perspective. To them, Americans are just one big group. They don’t know Bakersfield from La Jolla, Chevy from Tesla, Wrangler from Dickies, Italian-American from Mexican-American, shit from Shinola, or the difference between “y’all,” “you,” “yuns,” and “you guys.”
Japanese people know they’re not all the same. And honestly, a lot of the “Japanese” women you’re likely to date or marry aren’t all that Japanese. They’re choosing foreigners because they themselves don’t fit into this society very well. Maybe they look subtly different, like there’s a touch of Korean, Dutch, or Mongolian blood that you don’t notice. Hey, Asian is Asian, right? But everyone around them notices, and lets them know. Maybe they lived overseas for years. Maybe they were even born overseas. Or maybe they just watched a shit-ton of “Sex and the City.” But somehow, in either appearance, thinking, or attitude, they’re not very “Japanese” any more. And that’s why they’re choosing you.
The Right Japanese Girlfriend
So I was having lunch in Ueno Park with a friend of mine recently. And since he’s a “foreigner,” of course we both enjoy sitting outside even though it’s hot as eff, unlike Japanese people who are allergic to sweat. And over a plastic bag full of onigiri and a couple cans of cold coffee, we talked about this stuff.
“Look,” he said, “I get it. But whatever…I want a Japanese girlfriend, what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothin’, man. Okay, so what if she was like Chinese or Vietnamese, but, you know, looked ‘Japanese’?”
“Well, nah, that’s not the same.”
“So ‘Japanese,’ that’s all? That’s the only requirement?” I asked.
“Well, I mean, yeah, as long as she’s not a total bitch.”
“So okay, someone nice,” I said. “What if she’s born in Japan, but raised overseas?”
“Yeah, that’d probably be okay,” he said.
“Born overseas, lived there till she was five, then moved to Japan?”
“Does she look Japanese?”
“Is that all that matters?”
“That and that’s she’s really Japanese. Pretty much, yeah,” he said.
“Man, we are some superficial people,” I said.
“Welcome to the human race.”
“So humans are really all the same?” I mused. “Kind of ironic, isn’t that? Anyway, what time you got?”
He looked at his watch. “Way past beer-thirty,” he replied.
“Thought so,” I said, standing up. “Let’s go get some booze and Japanese girls.”
“Does it matter what kind?”
“Of course it matters,” I laughed. “I only drink Asahi.”
“Seeroi, you’re one picky motherfucker.”
Yeah. Yeah, not very often, but sometimes I am.