Last summer at the beach

recent op-ed piece about the sorry lot of foreign men "trapped" in Japan reminded me of the following story:


Last summer at the beach, I met a French guy, an architect living and working in Tokyo, who was passing through Fukuoka on his way to Kagoshima. He asked if I minded sitting down and talking with him. Not at all, I said. 

You seem to have made it, he said.

He was referring to my family who was with me at the beach that day. I suppose we looked like a happy, carefree family, the four of us playing in the sand.

What’s the secret, he asked.

Time, I replied. I’ve been here for over twenty years and have been through more rough patches than I can count along the way—financial ups and downs, problems at work, frustrations and heartbreak, to name a few.

The Frenchman explained that he had recently been dumped. Happened right out of the blue. One day they were living together, just as happy as a couple could be, and the next day she vanished. Poof!

That happened to me about three times, I told him.

He looked like he was about to start crying. 

Let me buy you a beer, I said, getting up.

When I returned with the beer, I had the following advice: one, you’re lucky you found a sympathetic ear today because I’ve been there myself. You probably won’t be so lucky next time, so do what you’ve already told yourself to do—he had scrawled SHUT UP! on the inside of his forearms. Two, start fucking. Put some bodies between you and the girl and, trust me, you’ll feel better. Three, focus on your career, pour yourself into you work. And, four, be patient because nothing heals like time.

Cheers, we said, clinking our beer bottles together.


Speak of the Devil and She is . . .

As a rule, I try to avoid former girlfriends, particularly the ones I cared for.

Such as Mié?

Such as Mié, yes.

So, the two of you never met again after that night?

No, not even once.

And if you were given the opportunity?

To meet Mié again? I would probably take a pass on that.


Because old girlfriends (past flings, too) are in a sense time capsules, vessels containing the memories, hopes, desires, and pains of the time you dated or slept with them. And anytime you meet an old girlfriend it’s as if you are uncorking the capsule and letting it all come spewing out again. It can be . . .


Unsightly is more like it.

Why so?

Well, suppose I bumped into Nahoko.

That was the young college girl who dumped you after sleeping with you once . . .

Yeah, that’s the one. The girl just vanished right off the face of the earth, and, well, as hard as that was to take for a few weeks, it really was for the best. Nice and clean, like a surgical cut. Now, suppose I had bumped into Nahoko six months or so later, after I had gotten over the disappointment. Meeting her again, I’d probably discover that she wasn’t nearly as pretty or intelligent or engaging as I had built her up to be. That reminds me of a saying in Japanese—nigeta sakana-wa ōkii (逃げた魚は大きい)—which means “The fish that get away are big.” Well, this fish, Nahoko, that wiggled out of my arms starts getting bigger and bigger and bigger in my mind and the regret of not being able to reel her in, so to speak, also grows and grows. But then I bump into her and, now that I can look at her with fresh, objective eyes, I see that I had been tormenting myself all this time over a girl who was at best mediocre.

Mediocre? That’s a tad severe, isn’t it?

Reality is fucking severe.

And Mié?

As for Mié . . . Mié, on the other hand, truly was a lovely thing . . . special . . . But, let’s not kid ourselves: over two decades have passed since we parted and Time is not very kind—it can be especially cruel to a woman after she’s had children. But that Mié I fell in love with, that Mié who broke my heart all those years ago, she is, in my mind at least, still a woman only twenty-six years of age, full of life, hopes and potential; she is still agonizingly beautiful. The reality, I fear, is probably very, very different.





Speak of the Devil and she’s sure to appear.


I had no sooner written the above piece for a novella I’m working on when I noticed that Facebook was suggesting one of my ex-girlfriends as a friend. Not sure what algorithm Facebook was using, but in spite of “Umé” and I not having any mutual friends nor my having worked at the university where she studied, we were being asked whether we knew each other, and if so, whether we would like to “friend" one another. Yes, we did know each other, in the biblical sense, but, no, I was not interested in friending her. 

It’s been over ten years since Umé and I dated. It was during a rocky patch I was going through with the woman who would become my wife, that Umé and I had our little fling. She was going through her own rough patch with the man, I assume, became her husband. He was a resident at the time, terribly busy with his training to see Umé who turned to me out of loneliness. (Or was it desperation?) At any rate, Umé is now a mother of three.

The last time I saw Umé was about two years after we parted. She was pregnant, about to explode, and my first thought was: “Aonghas, you dodged a bullet there."

Seeing her in photos again after all these years, I must admit that she has aged fairly well despite the three kids. (I wish I could say the same about myself after only two.) Funny thing, though, as I looked at her photo I kept saying things to myself like “Was her chin always that pointy?” “Was her mouth always so small?” At the time, Umé seemed like the cutest thing I’d come across in years. I just wanted to eat her up. As for now? I’d have to say, my wife was a much better catch. 


Just yesterday, I came across yet another former girlfriend, one I dated Lord only knows how many years ago. (I am reluctant to specify as I don’t want to needlessly self-incriminate myself.) 

“Miki” and I dated briefly and sporadically. Nevertheless, there are things about her that I will never forget. One of the lasting images I have of Miki is when she stripped down to her bra and panties which had a dalmatian pattern on them and barked playfully, “Wan-wan! Wan-wan!”

Miki, in spite of the years, hasn’t changed much either, though she is not quite as slim as she once was. As for wanting to stop her and talk about old times, I passed. The very last thing she said to me was “Hikyō!” (卑怯)

I didn’t know what the word meant at the time and had to look it up. The dictionary will tell you it means “cowardice”, but, judging from her body language, a better translation might be: “You fucking arsehole!”

It’s true. I was an arsehole back then. But no more! Mark my word; I am no longer an arsehole.


A Handy Guide to Tipping in Japan

Waitbutwhy posted these stats on tipping in the U.S. I thought I would go a step further and provide some helpful information on tipping in Japan for those of you who may be visiting this country.


WAITER - Bupkis*
TAKEOUT - Bupkis
BARISTA - Bupkis
CAB - "It's not much, but keep the change." (When you're drunk or your kids were noisy. Otherwise, bupkis.)
VALLET - What's a vallet?
BELLMAN - Bupkis
DOORMAN - What the hell's a doorman?
HAIR SALON - Bupkis, they charge enough as is.†




* Bupkis (also bupkes, bupkus, bubkis, bubkes): emphatically "nothing", as in "He ain't worth bupkis." (indeterminate, either 'beans' or 'goat droppings', possibly of Slavic, Vlach, or Greek origin; cf. Polish bobki 'animal droppings').

Learned yesterday that the cost of running a typical hair salon in Japan is only 11%. I always figured the profit margin for salons was high, but not that high. Seems that with one squirt of shampoo, some warm water, and a towel, you can earn six to ten thousand yen. Hmmm.


Wrong, Very Wrong

A few months before I was to move to Japan, I looked at a map of the world I had on my bedroom wall and trace my finger in a horizontal line from Fukuoka City, across the Pacific Ocean, all the way to San Diego, California. 

"Perfect!" I said to myself.

Having moved to Portland, Oregon after living in Southern California for the first half of my life, I was never quite able to tame the longing in my heart for the subtropics.

I'd had enough of Oregon's miserable weather, the rain, the drizzle, the sprinkling, the showers, and the constantly gray, overcast skies. I was sick of the mud on my shoes, the musty smell of Pendleton wool as I chopped wood for the fire, and the firewood that was always too damp to catch fire. I'd also had it up to here with the runny nose, the pasty white skin, the bronchitis. I wanted to escape. And now Japan was beckoning me like Bali Hai. 

And so, looking at that map, I recall saying to myself, "I guess I won't be needing my sweaters. Won't need that heavy coat, either. Gloves? I'll toss those in the Goodwill pile . . ." 

And then I came to Japan and for those first few weeks in late March I nearly died from exposure (and hunger, but that's another story).

This morning, March 11th, it snowed, if you can believe it. Not enough to stick, of course, but enough to remind you that living in a subtropical climate comes with no guarantees.

I wore four layers, a scarf, and my heavy peacoat when I took my son to kindergarten. I was still cold. When I took a look at today's weather, I was both amused and chagrined to discover that it was 18°C in Portland.

All I can say is, thank God I don't live in Korea.


Some boys have pictures of large-breasted women on their walls. I had maps and posters of world destinations. That is the kind of nerd I was. (Am.)


The Possibilities are . . .

“You know, last night I was walking around Daimyō when what must have been three Dutch swimmers walked by me. These guys were huge! Well over two meters. Like superheroes. I didn’t even think people came in that size.”

Azami asks if they were good-looking.

“How could I tell? These giants’ shoulders alone were in the stratosphere!”

“I want to meet them!”

“Oh, I’m sure you do. Seeing them, kind of helped me understand how I must make some of the men here feel.”

“But you’re not that tall.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“I mean, you’re tall, but you don’t look big.”

“Thanks again. Must be my lack of personality.”

“I mean, you’re just right. You’re perfect.”

“There’s no need to patronize me.”

“C’mon, don’t take it so seriously.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t.”

And to be honest, I don't. After all, I have never harbored any complexes about my body. Sure, I wouldn’t mind being taller, stronger and so on, but as tall as those swimmers? Nah. Being tall like that must come with its disadvantages. And think of the limits it must place on your choices of something so basic as clothing. And how would you fit a body like that into an economy class seat?

“Still,” I confess to Azami, “as those three massive ships sailed past me and I bobbed violently in their wake, I couldn’t help think that there was yet one more thing that I would never be able to do, that options had just been taken away from me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Seeing them, it dawned on me that I would never be a champion swimmer. That no matter how hard I practiced, my efforts would never compensate for what nature failed to provide.”

“I didn’t know you swam.”

“Oh, I don’t.”


“What I’m trying to say is that the option became a non-option without my even knowing it, without my even having the chance to consider it. It’s as if you’re in a restaurant, looking at the first page of the menu, when the waiter comes by your table, takes the menu from you and rips a page out of it. ‘Sorry sir, but you can’t have any of these.’ And it’s not just swimming, it’s pretty much everything in life. Every day, month or year that passes, you have fewer options, there are fewer things you can do or accomplish or even try. No sooner did you take your first steps than you’re old and decrepit and the only option left you are: eat or shit, continue to live or just give in and die.”

“You’re crazy,” she says, laughing.

“Yes, it’s one of the options I choose to exercise.”

“I’ve always thought of it differently.”

“How so?”

“I’ve always believed that my options were limited or non-existent from the very start, that only by practicing or training hard, learning new skills, getting experience and so on could I finally have some choices.”

“Well, yes that’s true, but I just see it as more options. You have the choice to study or not studying and how you decide will have a big impact on what the subsequent options are. Choose to study and then you find yourself with a ravenous appetite looking at a seemingly endless menu. Choose not to go to school and you’re standing in front of a counter, well, probably behind the counter, choosing between a large order of french fries or a small one. I don’t know. I guess, I’ve always been foolishly optimistic and considered the possibilities to be infinite. You know, like Fujitsu.”


“Fujitsu. You know, the company. Their slogan is ‘Fujitsu: the possibilities are infinite.’”

“Oh really?”

“Funny thing is, a student of mine recently applied for a research job at Fujitsu but didn’t get it. You’d think that with such an encouraging slogan, he’d be able to land the job. Guess the possibilities aren’t infinite after all.”


I found this infographic. Happy to say, that my height is slightly above average for an American and my waist is 20 cm slimmer. (Been a busy year.)

Speaking of averages, Kurt Vonnegut wrote about them in his Breakfast of Champions:

"Trout wrote a novel one time which he called How You Doin’? and it was about national averages for this and that. An advertising agency on another planet had a successful campaign for the local equivalent of Earthling peanut butter. The eye-catching part of each ad was the statement of some sort of average—the average number of children, the average size of the male sex organ on that particular planet— which was two inches long, with an inside diameter of three inches and an outside diameter of four and a quarter inches—and so on. The ads invited the readers to discover whether they were superior or inferior to the majority, in this respect or that one—whatever the respect was for that particular ad.

"The ad went on to say that superior and inferior people alike ate such and such brand of peanut butter. Except that it wasn’t really peanut butter on that planet. It was Shazzbutter.

"And so on. 

"And the peanut butter-eaters on earth were preparing to conquer the shazzbutter-eaters on the planet in the book by Kilgore Trout. By this time, the Earthlings hadn’t just demolished West Virginia and Southeast Asia. They had demolished everything. So they were ready to go pioneering again.

"They studied the shazzbutter-eaters by means of electronic snooping, and determined that they were too numerous and proud and resourceful ever to allow themselves to be pioneered.

"So the Earthlings infiltrated the ad agency which had the shazzbutter account, and they buggered the statistics in the ads. They made the average for everything so high that everybody on the planet felt inferior to the majority in every respect.

"And then the Earthling armored space ships came in and discovered the planet. Only token resistance was offered here and there, because the natives felt so below average. And then the pioneering began."


While I’m on the topic of heights, who you do you think the tallest Asians are?


Two Kinds

   Many authors confess to having the scales fall from their eyes when first exposed to certain authors or works. Gabriel García Márquez wrote in his autobiography Vivir para catarla (Living to Tell the Tale) that reading Kafka was like a revelation to him. He learned from Kafka that “it was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice.” I had similar revelations when I was first exposed to Camus, Roth, Vonnegut, Salinger, and el Maestro himself, García Márquez. 

   I’ve noticed that when it comes to the arts there are two kinds of people: the majority who are satisfied to merely enjoy and appreciate creations of art, and a small minority who are not satisfied unless they create them themselves.[1]

   Whenever I read a great book, eat an excellent meal, see a beautiful work of art, or watch a good movie, my first reaction is not to read, eat, see or watch more. No, I find myself more often than not more eager to write a great book, to cook an excellent meal, to make a beautiful work of art, and, yes, to even direct a good movie myself. Obviously, someone must have dropped me on my head when I was an infant.


[1] Many, many, many years ago when I was leaving a “kegger” with a friend and somewhat disgruntled, I made the following drunk observation: “There’s the hippies. And there are people like us. And then there’s everyone else! Fuck ‘em!”