The first shot was like a needle to the sternum, and I was trying to figure out how a bee had stung me in the chest. The next one glanced off my right thumb, and the gravity of the situation quickly dawned on me, since that’s my beer-graspin’ hand. The guy next to me took a hit to the glasses and spiraled backward off the bench with a groan. To be fair, it’s hard to keep your balance when you’ve been drinking since noon.
We were crowded around a picnic table in the shade, in front of the neighborhood civic center, just me and half a dozen ancient Japanese dudes. It was a sleepy, warm afternoon, with a bit of autumn starting to show in the leaves. The old men were there almost every day, everyone about eighty years old, drinking shochu from cardboard packs and telling stories. They’d pour a glass half full of booze, splash in a bit of water, then scoop ice from a communal bucket with their grubby hands. We didn’t have any food after the war, they’d say—-if something fell on the ground you ate it anyway. What that’s got to do with not using ice tongs I’ve never understood, but they say it every time I show up, which is about once a week, and no one’s dead yet, so I guess they’ve got a point.
Old Japanese Men
Every week, we sit around this battered wooden table and they tell stories about the war, of brothers who never returned and mothers who survived. My comprehension of their mumbled Japanese starts at around seventy percent and steadily descends to zero as we get progressively drunker, but nobody seems to notice. On this late summer day we’d been nibbling from a paper plate full of fresh sashimi for a couple hours until I finally said “you know guys, this fish is kinda warm now, maybe we shouldn’t be eating it?” and they were all like, “eh, just douse it with vinegar, it’ll be fine!” That’s when the shooting started. Probably saved us all from a horrible bout of salmonella, in retrospect. Gotta remember to jot that down in my gratefulness diary.
It was slow at first, then the pelting got faster and faster until we were under a rain of BB pellets, hitting people, nearby trees, and bouncing off cups and the ice bucket to go rolling around the picnic table. Once it stopped, we stood up and looked at the apartment building across the street.
“Same thing last week,” said Matsuda-san.
“And the week before that,” said Yamashita-san. “I think it’s coming from the second floor.”
“Motherfucker,” I said, and took off across the street.
Shou Ga Nai
Okay, lemme tell you the difference between Japanese people and American people. Japanese folks will endure almost anything with long sigh and a muttered “shou ga nai—-nothin’ we can do.” Boss chews you out in front of the whole office, eh, shou ga nai. Come home and your wife’s getting hosed in bed by some other dude, shou ga nai. Get pelted by BB’s for several weeks…gosh, what can we do? Uh, how ’bout absolutely butt nothing? Yeah, that’ll probably work. Shou ga nai.
Now, I’m about the most Japanese white guy you’ll ever meet. But once in a while my American upbringing just kicks in. I really gotta eat fewer cheeseburgers to keep it in check, I know. ‘Cause when there’s a problem, an American’s gonna fix that problem.
I marched across the street, dashed up to the second floor, and waited. The old guys stood and watched from the bench. There were six apartments, and like all places in Japan, the curtains were drawn and there were bars on the windows. It seemed like a long time, maybe a minute or two, then came a burst of compressed air—-pffft—-and someone across the street said “Ow, damn!” I walked forward, then stopped because I could hear my footsteps. I took off my shoes and advanced in socks all kung fu to the next apartment. I heard it again—-pffft. That was the place. The window was open a crack.
I reached through the bars, grabbed the windowframe and curtain, and threw them back. Inside was a man of about forty in a grey t-shirt holding a mock sniper rifle and looking, well, crazy. Just those eyes; normal people don’t have those eyes. His room was a mess of clothes, books, CDs, a computer, and stacks of magazines. The Howard Hughes of Japan.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled in Japanese.
“Nothin’,” he replied matter-of-factly.
“Dude, you’re holding a gun!” I said. “You got some sorta problem?”
“Yeah,” he said.
And I was like, Oh. Because I really hadn’t thought through the whole line of questioning. “Well, if you got a problem,” I continued, “why don’t you step outside and we can handle it.”
“Okay,” he said.
At this point, all the old guys across the street started shouting, “Ken! He might have a knife! Watch out for a knife! He’s gonna have a knife!” and I’m like, Jeez guys, shut up! Way to give him some ideas. Like now he’s definitely gonna stop by the kitchen, thanks a lot.
Fighting in Japan
He came outside, thankfully knife-less, and suddenly he was a pretty big dude. He stood eye to eye with me, looking like he was gonna eat me. I was like, man Seeroi, you can’t win a fight with a crazy person, not in socks. They can’t even feel pain. Better come up with something quick.
“You could put somebody’s eye out, you know” I said. “Ever think of that?” That’s it, reason with him. Genius.
“You guys been talking about me,” he said.
“Wha? Say what? Dude, we didn’t even know you existed till you started shooting at us.”
“I hear your voices,” he said, “talking.”
The thing is, this kind of guy, he’s not all that rare in Japan. He just sits alone in his underpants all day with the shades drawn, reading manga, surfing the web, slurping up cup ramen, until he goes batshit crazy. I’m tempted to say it’s actually the norm. And you wonder why the Japanese birthrate is so low.
So we continued our nutty conversation until a squad car showed up and the police took over, at which point I went back to the picnic bench and we all resumed drinking. Gotta love Sundays. Then a small, unmarked white car showed up with two guys dressed as a construction worker and a hospital orderly, trying desperately not to look like two police detectives with crew cuts and perfect postures.
The Japanese Tradition
Of course, the old men did what all Japanese people would do in such a situation: they talked about the shooter as loudly as possible, while he stood in front of his apartment with his head down and the police examining his rifle. “Can you believe that guy? Ken said he has a room full of dirty clothes and magazines! He should be arrested! He’s clearly insane. He needs to be locked up.”
That’s one of the Japanese things I’ve never gotten used to, talking about people in the third person while they’re well within earshot, in a weird sort of public-shaming. This went on for like an hour, because of course the Japanese police take that long for everything, and in the end did exactly what you’d expect, which was nothing. They just gave him back his gun, and advised him not to shoot people.
And that’s Japan. Everything looks calm on the surface. We sit around the table drinking, laughing, telling stories about the war and the time Ken Sensei almost got stabbed to death by the guy across the street. “Ken was like, ‘You got a problem?’ and this dude was like, ‘Yes!’” And somewhere over there, every day, behind a curtain, is a guy waiting and watching, listening, lining us up in his sights. A little like God, if you really think about it. Or the wonderful Wizard of Oz. Well anyway, I guess it’s good that at least somebody’s watching over us, after all.