Japanese Snack Bars and Some Tough Love

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.

48 Replies to “Japanese Snack Bars and Some Tough Love”

  1. Awesome post Ken. Highlights some interesting peculiarities in Japan, your mad cooking skills and reminds me to get some satsuma sochu on the way home.

    I undoubtedly will read this entry a few more times as it’s a great read.

  2. Another masterpiece Ken and it appealed to my sensibilities on so many levels. I felt for the small crying kid as I have seen similar examples of Japanese parenting so often in Japanese TV, movies and anime.

    Do they treat nearly adult children the same? I was watching an anime called “Golden Time” the other day and a college age daughter of a wealthy family fell asleep driving and had a car accident and later as her father came to get her, he hit her so hard that he knocked her shoes off and tumbled her across a parking lot in front of the police station. The most shocking thing was that her boyfriend and witnesses did nothing after he seeing this. I just can’t imagine doing that to such a frail beautiful and otherwise exemplary girl that is in college. Later the Father and daughter act normal as if that kind of thing is expected, which really made me wonder. I might expect that of people living in poorer communities, but not one of extreme well breeding. Is this kind of thing normal in Japan!

    I felt for the drunk and I felt for you also. I applaud you for helping the drunk and I know it was probably a thankless task since he will never remember you; but at least you got to meet someone nice (the red dress lady), warm hearted and “so beautiful”. What really became noticeable about this post is that you really need a long term relationship with a “kindred” soul. This post just screams loneliness and depression and it sort of worries me too because I don’t like that my Pal is so neglected!! Maybe you need your own child to care for and a loving wife to tuck you in at night before you can settle down and write that book, hmmmmm!

    1. So wait, having a wife and kid is going to free up time? This is important new information. If I have more kids, and more wives, then does my free time also correspondingly increase? If so, fantastic.

      Ah sarcasm, how you’ve served me well oh these many years.

      But never fear, Bud, I’m going to have a lot more to say on Japanese women and relationships in the very near future, so stay tuned for that. As for loneliness, don’t worry too much about these little snapshots of my life. In one picture I’m sad, but in the next I’m happy. As long as I’ve got my health, a bottle of wine, and a screamingly fast internet connection, I’m fine. Man, that reminds me, I gotta run to the convenience store.

      As for parent and adult child relations, I’ve never observed any overt violence. Instead, what I see a lot of is detachment. A great many people have little or no contact with their parents, particularly their father, even if they live in the same house. I get the sense that they established the terms of their relationship years ago, and at this point, there’s little left to discuss. It’s pretty hard to imagine a Japanese parent sitting down at the dinner table and asking their child, of any age, “So, how was your day today?” That’s just not what’s on the menu here.

      1. That’s correct, if you have more wives – your free time will increase geometrically, but your ability to produce work is reduced inversely proportional to the number of booty calls you have to make in a week per nookie. (j/k)!! Thanks for the comments on Japanese parenting you’ve observed and to J also for her wisdom on the subject.

        I know that I’m just playing the part of the peanut gallery not seeing or understanding the real scope of things. I’m just wishing for something better for you and throwing things out there helter-skelter because I like you. I have always been the kind of person that has been lucky enough to be encouraged and helped along the way in life by complete strangers and I honestly try to pass it forward to those I feel deserve praise for exemplary accomplishments and you my dear friend are certainly one of those people!!

        Please know that I’m sorry for being so nosy, but I have to make up for the lack of interest in my own personal life, so I’ve sort of decided to burden you, Gomenasai (you can’t see it but I just face planted my key board just now). BTW, I’m really looking forward to that next installment on Japanese relationships you hinted about. After having read a lot of good stuff on Zooming’s site about Japanese/Gaijin relationships, it would be nice to have an opinion from another respected well-informed writer like yourself.

        1. Ah, it’s all good, Bud. I appreciate your encouragement, and shall begin trying to acquire several wives, in order to free up as much time as possible. Thanks for the tip.

          1. Hey you should marry Bud – I think that proportional free time sh*t could work whoever you marry. Man, marry me too, you make me laugh at loud everytime I read you, I’m not asking for more.
            Then just marry someone working at Dominos pizza and hey, you’re all set.

  3. As always I truly enjoyed your daily life stories! *g*

    I’ve heard of mothers locking their kids out, preferably on the balcony. They don’t seem to care how cold it is.
    Sometimes I really wonder what’s wrong with Japanese parents. Either they spoil their kids way too much or they are way too strict.
    In my job, I see this every day. 🙁

    1. When Japanese people want to punish their kids, they lock them out of the house. In America, they lock them in. One of the big differences between the countries is that in Japan—and this applies to a wide variety of situations—things are just more visible.

      All the things that play out in homes and cars of the U.S., they all happen in public view in Japan, in train stations and on the street. So some of this isn’t that there’s more craziness; it’s just that it’s more evident.

      Don’t know how it is in Germany though . . .

      1. Ken,
        Check this news story out!

        Boy aged eight stripped naked, tied to a tree and beaten by his dad for skipping school

        Quote from article:
        “A Chinese boy who was caught truanting by his father was stripped naked, tied to a tree and beaten with sticks by his irate dad.
        In western countries, the father would have likely been put in prison, but in China his discipline was hailed as an example of what families should do to errant children.”

        This is the really old, OLD school way of disciplining a child done Chinese style.

        What say you, Ken?

        1. I’m sure it was very traumatic for the father to discover his child was skipping classes and playing outside. I hope he’ll be all right.

  4. Loneliness is a part of life in Japan. I think mother disciplining that kid that way was sort of lesson in loneliness. I’m not a parent so I can’t say if it’s good or bad for kids in the long run…
    I have to say, however, that in Japan you meet kids that can self-organize, ride trains, and even figure out how to get home if subway line is closed and they need to take a detour…
    I observed the following once:
    Mother with a kid pass by a ,line of shops. Kid, being around 5, continuously says “I want this”, “Can we buy that” etc. Then mom said “No”. Kid said “OK” (in English) and they proceeded quietly from that point on. It was weird.

    1. That is weird. But not weird too, at least here.

      And yes, I agree. Loneliness is part and parcel of life in Japan. Especially if you’re Japanese.

  5. Amazing post. i was smiling throughout the whole entire text, looking like an idiot in front of my flatmate.

    The punishment of just leaving a kid, in my opinion, is quite reasonable. I remember, years ago, when my brother used to be very stubborn about going/not going somewhere, getting something, etc. we would just walk away… and that worked like magic. Well… that is, either he would run in our direction in a few minutes, or he would end up crying like the kid you’ve encountered. Then a stranger would come by and try to sort things out(usually some kind of old lady) and give us the evil eye when we came back to pick him up. BUT. getting the evil eye was worth it each and every time.

    1. I know since I don’t have kids, I can’t really say. I’m pretty sure raising them is harder than it looks. I guess I’d worry about the whole karma thing. Like someday when that mother’s an old woman in a wheelchair and complaining about how hungry she is, that same kid’s gonna be like, Enough Ma, I’m parking you in the corner of the vegetable isle until you stop whining. Be back after I play a couple games of pachinko.

      They don’t stay young forever, I guess is what I mean.

  6. That’s so true about Japanese people being lonely and non-communicative with each other. The tragedy is that that kind of cold-hearted parenting instills this in them from a young age. Cruelty, bullying, and lack of empathy is the norm. In fact I’d go as far as to say that Japanese people aren’t really human beings at all but a kind of devolution. Thanks for exposing this to Westerners who might not know about it otherwise.

    1. I tend to see this systematically. Japan’s a very organized and rigid place, and that brings with it a number of positives. It’s the reason the nation is so clean, prompt, safe, and offers such good service. Everybody loves that about Japan. But it also has negatives, most notably when it comes to human relations. Unfortunately, you probably can’t have one without the other.

      Ironically, too, I think this is one reason Japanese people are so friendly towards “foreigners.” Finally, it’s a chance to talk to someone non-critical and supportive, someone outside of the hierarchy, someone not Japanese.

  7. Oh no. They are definitely not friendly to foreigners. All Japanese have an innate distrust of foreigners, possibly because foreigners are capable of warmth and emotion. They probably want something from you or at laughing at you secretly.

  8. Yay, a new post from you! I was beginning to think the winter had got to you like it has me – what’s with the snow in Tokyo!? Craziness.

    I guess just like you said, Japan (and a ton of other Asian countries) really like the “tough love” approach. My parents are (thankfully, imo) unconventional Asian, so there wasn’t that much tough love for me when I was growing up (though I do recall being terrified of getting hit by a chopstick on the hand and hiding out in the bathroom on occasion). I personally don’t think that the extreme tough love really works well for the long-term, but I guess it’s a quick fix and effective in making a point.

    Kudos for you for helping out to those strangers! 🙂

    1. Yeah, thanks. I gotta quit throwing so many life preservers and start a swimming class instead.

      As for tough love, I think that if a kid won’t brush his or her teeth, then smacking them or locking them out in the cold will solve the immediate problem. But what you’ve really taught them isn’t the importance of dental hygiene. The lesson they learn is that if someone doesn’t do things your way, then it’s okay to punish them. That’s a message this society seems to understand all too well.

  9. Hi Ken,
    I’ve been reading your blog for some time and I’d like to say how much I enjoy it.

    Now, my story of a drunken Japanese man.

    I am a middle aged female so need to say that up front to set the scene.

    I was on my way home from work – after 11pm and I had just gotten off the express train and was waiting on the platform for the local train to take me the last two stops. A middle aged to elderly man also got off the express train and stood near me on the platform. He was dressed in a business suit, holding a brief case – your typical salary-man on his way home on a Friday night. Unfortunately he was also very, very drunk.

    He was staggering around and having trouble keeping his balance. He swayed very close to the edge of the platform so I reached out and grabbed his arm and pulled him back and probably said something like ‘careful mate’
    He then said to me ‘thank you, excuse me, sorry, hello’ – obviously the only English words he knew or could recall in his inebriated state. The local train came along and I got on. He also got on, and sat beside me. He continued to repeat the four words/phrases for the next two stops. He was quite aggressive and demanding attention.

    I said ‘sayonara’ and got off the train. He followed me and continued to call out these English words. For some reason I was now his best friend. When I got to the ticket gate, I managed to get through quickly and head up the stairs to the street. I looked back and he was looking through his pockets for his ticket but still calling out to me.

    When I was half way up the stairs, I noticed another middle aged man who lives near me, and often travelled on the same train home. He had never spoken to me but obviously recognised me from the neighbourhood.

    Instead of walking off ahead as he usually did, he hung back and then followed me to the turn off to my laneway. Just before turning off, I turned around to him, we bowed to each other and went our separate ways. I suspect the drunk was still at the station perhaps going through his pockets searching for his ticket, trying to stagger up the stairs or even heading to the nearest bar for a top up. I never saw him again.

    1. Oh man, is that familiar. I feel like it’ll happen on a weekly basis if I’m not careful.

      The thing is, Japanese people won’t say a word to one another, ever. So a lot of folks—especially aging men—are super lonely. Enter someone of a different race, i.e., you or me. I think in the Meiji Era somebody circulated a flyer saying that foreigners are friendly and it’s okay to talk to them, so if you enter into anything like a conversation, before long they’ll want to text you, call you, take pictures with you, and hang out with you. It’s terrifying.

      Somehow when people talk about Japanese politeness, these episodes seem to be missing. Strange.

    1. Thanks much! I just type up a bunch of things on little pieces of paper, put them all in a paper bag, shake, and presto! Instant narrative. It’s very similar to the way I cook dinner, actually.

  10. Hi Ken,

    you don’t know me from a can of paint, but I stumbled across your blog after a French gaijin friend of mine shared one of your posts on Facebook = been hooked ever since.

    Would there be any way to get the frequency of your postings to escalate? Like Pringles, I find it hard to read just one post, and instantly crave more…have you considered going all out & launching into writing a book? It could be “just” a whole series of blog-posts…? I’d buy it! 😀

    Look forward to reading you again soon. 🙂

    Sayonara from Denmark,

    1. “You don’t know me from a can of paint”? Is that a Danish expression? I like it, so kudos to your countrymen. Might just use that one of these days.

      No one wants me to write more often than me. That’s one of those “should”s, like I “should” study Japanese, I “should” exercise, and I “should” take a shower every day. Sure, we all know those are good ideas, yet somehow they always take a back seat to more important tasks, namely drinking and womanizing. I am awash in priorities.

      Seriously though, thanks for the encouragement. I’ll try to type faster, I promise.

        1. I find your alternating love and hate emotionally disturbing. If I promise to swab my body with Wet Wipes on a daily basis, can I come back in? It’s darn cold out here.

          1. Huh…I confirm, it IS cold out there (http://nekohanabi.blogspot.jp/2014/02/aint-going-anywhere.html).

            You can come back in but I would strongly advice water and mild soap (a bit like for precious porcelain) instead of wet wipes, they will seriously harm your skin if you use them too much.

            I am emotionally disturbed by,
            I am emotionally disturbing x.
            from the regular verb to emotionallydisturb.

            I’m sorry Ken, I didn’t mean to disturb you, or emotionallydisturb you.
            I shall think more before writing to you in the future, so as to not get you emotionallydisturbed (sorry, i’m not getting tired of it, I have a thing for repetition, what can I say…). I didn’t mean to sound like hate. A lot more would need to happen for that. No hate intended.

            Thank you for the laughing sounds flying out from my chest.

  11. Hi Ken.. Niceee story, as usual..

    About, the though love, I think you saw it many times everywhere, don’t you think so. I mean, it’s not particular in Japan, in my country, Indonesia, I see thing like that many times. Eventhough I’m not sure it’s “love” in every occasion 🙂 Sometimes parents just reach the limits and just yell to their kids. I once yelled and pinched my 2 yo son because he hit his sister, and he cried like half an hour. I just regret it and promise my self not to do it again 🙂
    Anyway, you see many “strange” thing there eh? Have you ever heard about Jakarta? I bet you’ll find muuuch more strange things there.. lol.. Like tokyo, it has huge population, has many bars too 🙂 Never been to Tokyo, but I’m pretty sure that Jakarta is just a mess compared to Tokyo, not to mention the slum area. If you come here, I’m sure you’ll find many crazy things to write about 🙂

  12. The kid thing…yeah. My parents did that to me too. That and they’d slap me if I did something incredibly stupid. Needless to say, I learned pretty quick.

  13. 5 kilograms = 5 * 2.204 pounds = 11.02 pounds. rep those arms ken! 😀

    Those bags of rice will last you a week. Go econ, get those year supply of rice that weights 20 kg . You’ll have to heave them on your shoulders while walking home.

    looking forward to your next one…

    1. Yeah, when I lived in the States, I used to buy those 20 kg. bags. You really gotta like rice to go through a bag that size. You’re right, it’d be a serious workout to get home one of those, and even if I did, I don’t think I’d have room for it in my apartment. Maybe I could use it as a really hard pillow.

    1. That’s high praise indeed. Yes, I actually have a copy of Catch-22 signed by Joseph Heller. He was a pretty funny guy, but then he had a war to write about, so that’s naturally hilarious.

      1. A signed copy huh. That’s pretty impressive. I would like to re-read it but these days I’m pretty busy, especially in light of all that alfalfa I don’t grow.

  14. As of last night Snack bars have to close at midnight?? Well there allowed to stay open but no singing duets, sitting in booths with customers.. So the girls have to stand after midnight. I know these laws always have another purpose can someone explain the real reason the police have started enforcing this law in Nagasaki.? It hurting the girls as customers are now leaving at midnight. Just strange and am curious of the real intent. Any ideas?

    1. That’s weird. But then a lot of stuff is, so it doesn’t really surprise me.

      I’ve always felt that there was some strange Puritanism behind those sorts of laws. Not religious, but rather related to the nationally imposed work ethic. Take Tokyo, for example. Please. Anyway, when I first came to Japan, I naively expected that the trains in the biggest city in the world would run all night. Nope. But the effect is that it forces people to head home and get some shut eye, thus enabling them to wake up the next day and go back to their grueling jobs. Maybe that’s part of it.

      Also, don’t forget that Japan’s a pretty conservative place, although it doesn’t always look that way.

  15. Just recently a news article was sent around the world about some Japanese parents that abandoned their young son in a bear infested forest to teach him a lesson and I was reminded of this piece… hmmmm!

    1. It probably not tough love but a way for a Japanese parent to let fate intervene to remove the responsibility of caring for a child in an already stressful existence, its so Zen too!

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