How to be Popular in Japan

I’m the most popular guy in town.  And given that about a million people live in my town, that’s quite a distinction, seriously.  So recently I bought a jump rope.  Look, it’s not easy keeping in shape in Japan.  Like I’d just gotten home last Thursday night when I got a call from this old guy that I teach English to.  He’s about seventy years old and some president of a company or something.  Actually, I don’t even know his name.  I just call him President-san.  Anyway, I pick up the phone and he says, “Can you sing The Beatles?”  And I’m like, “Who is this?”  And he says his name, but of course I still don’t know who he is because I don’t know his name, and he says, “There’s a band at the izakaya.  Come here now and sing English songs!”  And he says all this in Japanese, which is kind of ironic, and a bit depressing since it’s my fault his English isn’t getting any better.  But I still hopped on my bike and reluctantly raced down there.  I discovered singing with a band is a whole lot harder than karaoke.  You never think about how many words are in a song until there aren’t any lyrics in front of you.  Still the crowd went wild when I sang “Imagine.”   I sound just like John Lennon.

So anyway, it’s hard to maintain one’s fitness when one’s exercise for the week is biking to and from izakaya.  So I got this jump rope, which by the way only cost me a dollar, and that’s about the greatest deal ever.  And I took it to the park at dusk, just as it was starting to get dark.  Actually, I think the Japanese word for “park” translates to English as “miserable patch of dirt.”  Somebody seriously needs to introduce the Japanese to the concept of trees and grass.  But since it’s an open space and close to my apartment, that’s where I went.

If there’s something more physically challenging than jumping rope I don’t want to know what it is.  Jumping rope for five minutes is like running a marathon, only harder.  And at the end of five minutes of hopping up and down in the dirt I finally stopped and was going to quietly have a heart attack and die when I looked up and in the dark, all around me, were little pairs of eyes.  Children’s eyes.  It was like some effing weird horror film, where all these little kids form a circle and close in on you from all directions.  Instantly, I was mobbed by Japanese children.  They wanted to know why I was jumping rope, and where I was from, and if they could too.  So I said Go ahead, and didn’t see my jump rope again for the next half hour.  Bunch of little thieves, the lot of them.

After I finally retrieved my newest prized possession, I decided to stop by the 7-11 for some electrolyte replacement drink in the form of a malted beverage.  That’s when I noticed I had a problem.   Something was missing from my wallet, and it wasn’t just money as usual.  It was my alien registration card.  The little ID card that allows me to legally stay in this country.  Somehow, somewhere I managed to lose the only thing I actually need in Japan.  Where it went, I have no idea.  I am an idiot.  Whatever.  I still bought two giant cans of malt liquor, since nobody’s ever carded me in this country anyway.

So the next day I had to go to City Hall, which was a pain in the ass.  And they sent me to the police station, which was a bigger pain in the ass.  And the cops were like, Where’d you lose it?  And I was like, Man, I don’t know.  I went to this bar, sang with a band, jumped some rope, and bought some booze.  That’s all.  And the one cop sits up and says, “Oh, you’re that white guy who jumps rope.”  And I was like, What, you know me?  And he’s like, Yeah, my kids love you.  And then I felt bad.  Not because I thought ill of his kids, but because this nice man obviously believed his kids weren’t a bunch of thieving hooligans, when they clearly were.

So I got my police report and went back to City Hall, took a number, and had to wait for about an hour, and I was sure wishing I had something cool and refreshing to drink.  City Hall is really boring.  They have magazines and television, sure, but no internet.  What kind of place is that?  I made up my mind to stop by the 7-11 on my way home.  So after forever of watching TV with no sound, eventually they call my number.  I go up to the desk and give the lady my police report and she’s like, Oh, you’re that white guy who sounds like John Lennon!  And I was like, Jeezus, what the hell is up with all you people?  I need to get me a disguise like Clark Kent or something.  So we talked for a while and she was thrilled as punch.

Then eventually I made it to the 7-11 and picked up a can of some grapefruity booze and a package of these delicious potato stick things.  My diet here has gone to hell.  When I get to the counter I can see a flash of recognition in the clerk’s face, but I shoot him a look, like, Don’t you say it.  And then just when I think I’m going to make it to the door without comment, another clerk comes running from the back and is all like, “Ken-san!”   And so we talk and joke around for a bit.  And instantly I’m in the middle of a circle, telling the whole store about how I lost my ID card and about my new exercise program.  Everyone’s nodding their heads and then they all start saying how they’ll buy jump ropes and come down to the park too.  And I’m like, Oh my God no.  In about one second I went from being the Man of Steel to being the new town gym teacher.  I really gotta stop being so darned popular.


20 Replies to “How to be Popular in Japan”

  1. LOL, great post.

    It’s funny how when you need something, it’s never there in your possession!

    Seems everybody knows you Ken! Popular guy you are;)

    1. Yeah, how it is that one can feel both popular and isolated I have no idea, but that seems to be the case. As it is, I can’t figure out if I want to be more “popular,” or less. In Japan, you gotta be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

  2. Hilarious…. I’ve only ever lived in small islands, so of course, everyone knows who I am. (One of the ladies at the supermarket had me wait while she got her phone she could take a picture of me last night… apparently ‘she’s a fan’) It would be interesting to see what would happen to me if I lived in a big city like you, however, it sounds a bit like you’re popular just because you’re you. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Living on one of those small islands always sounds nice. But I’d probably miss the big city after about a week. I’m worried enough as it is every time I come back from the store and meet someone I know. They’re always looking in my bag, like, What’d you buy? Six beers and two cups of instant noodles? I’m like, Oh this?–oh, this is for a friend. God knows what they think about me.

      I’ve never had anybody take my picture though. That’s a whole other level of stardom. Have you tried signing glossy 8x10s and handing them out as presents? They’d probably go like hotcakes.

  3. Very interesting and funny read.

    Actually I hate being the center of attention, but being foreign you can’t avoid it.
    I live in quite a small place, too, but luckily I’m not recognized that easily! I’d hate that.
    I’m female and I’m shy anyways.
    You’d think that after over 4 years here, one gets used to it, right? Wrong!!!

    1. I don’t mind being the center of attention for something I do, like jumping rope or singing on stage or tanuki wrestling. But I doubt anybody wants to be singled out because of their race.

      I’ve come to believe there are 3 kinds of people, in roughly equal proportions.

      1/3 of all people act as if race defines a person. If you don’t look Japanese, you’ll forever be “foreign,” no matter how much Japanese you speak or how many squid innards you eat.
      1/3 just really don’t notice. To them, race is about as significant as eye color. Like Stephen Colbert, they don’t see race.
      The remaining 1/3 are somewhere in between. They think of you as foreign, but they probably won’t make a big deal out of it other than asking mildly annoying questions like if you can eat sashimi or drink green tea.

      This seems to be pretty much the same in both the U.S. and Japan, and it doesn’t seem related to education or exposure to foreign cultures. Some people are just born to see race more than others. I don’t know why. Maybe that’s the real difference between people.

    1. I know, right? All this English really takes time away from Japanese. I swear I don’t know why people say technology is so great for learning. The Internet is the greatest thing ever invented for keeping me from studying.

      I read somewhere about this Japanese dude who just locked himself in his room for like a year with a bunch of English books and came out and aced the TOEIC test. That’s my goal for 2013. Just have pizzas delivered and grow a crazy long beard and read nothing but manga and watch Japanese soap operas.

  4. This sounds almost exactly like how I lost my foreigner registration card. Except it was running, not jump roping. Since I bought a jump rope very recently, there’s still a chance for me to lose it that way. I’ve made sure to lessen my chances of losing the card, though, by not actually using my jump rope.
    Seriously hilarious story.

  5. Hey Ken!
    I’ve been reading your posts for the past 3 days (I think I’ve gone through 10 or 15). I’d read more but Anki and Real Kana are slowly consuming my soul.
    I really enjoy reading your blog. My favorites so far are “How Japan Made me Gay,” “How the Japanese Police Stole my Bike,” “Why all the White People in Japan?” and “Who’s Really Japanese?”
    I really enjoy your style of writing.
    I’m a linguistics nerd (actually considered it as a minor with my medical studies) and reading about your obsessive study habits with Japanese reminds me of what I do (in the last 5 days I’ve spent more than 30 hours studying, and I just started summer vacation).
    I hope to go to Japan in a couple of years, maybe consider a job as an English teacher, if possible, but I would mainly want to do photography of Japan (I’m also a photographer). If I do go and you’re around I’ll buy you a bunch of beers.

    1. Thanks for the props, Rafael. I’ve actually slowed down with my writing here lately because my Japanese studies have become even more intense. I’ve been getting up at 5 a.m. to cram in an hour and a half before work. I question my sanity, but I seem to be making progress, so I’m going with it. As always, I endeavor to be a shining example of what people should not aspire to become. So thanks for reading my crazy stuff.

  6. You don’t know how jealous I am of you right now. I mean, you are in Japan and you could communicate with them. I’ve always wanted to go there and be able to speak Japanese. That was a nice read by the way.

    1. Well, thanks.

      I wouldn’t consider the language to be a barrier. You can get by just fine in Japan without speaking Japanese (arguably even better). Of course, you still have to get here. And then once you’re here long enough, you can be jealous of people who live somewhere else.

  7. Just came back from the annual trip…it feels like I got less of the gaijin treatment even out in the inaka, things changing for the better or just my imagination?

    1. Yeah, Japan’s probably progressing, although it’s hard to really know.

      Sometimes I’ll go days here just existing like every other human being in the nation. That’s great. And then suddenly it all comes rushing back—random strangers approaching me in English; store clerks simply not speaking at all. Kids shouting “hello” as they bicycle past, and grandmothers commenting on the fact I can eat rice.

      “Wow, you’re almost like a Japanese.”

      Thanks. You drive a car almost as well as a man.

      So I guess it comes and goes. Makes it kinda hard to live in Japan, never knowing how you’ll be treated at any given moment, but that’s the gig. That’s what you sign up for when you come here, lookin’ all non-Asian.

      But hey, at some point, Japan’ll turn the corner. I kinda think we’re not there yet though.

      1. Ah yes, that’s what I figured, the sample size was once again too small to tell. I still keep playing around with going back to Japan, despite how much of a pain it was to get out. I’m guessing I should still hang out in the US…at least until I don’t need to work for the man…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *