Japan, the Beautiful, and Concrete

Reading Henry Scott Stokes's The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima I came upon the following passage:

“As we left Odawara and reached the coastal expressway beyond, the car passed the first of the succession of big industrial plants which we would see on our return to the capital, still an hour away at least. There was no beach below us, only a dreary series of massive reinforced-concrete tetrapods, intended to break the force of the sea as it hit the might wall below us. ‘I believe in culture as form and not as spirit,’ said Mishima, referring to the leprous Khmer monarch Jayavarman III and his building of one of the temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon. He seemed very tired as he talked. ‘I want to keep the Japanese spirit alive,’ he added, as if unaware that he was contradicting himself . . . A few minutes later, he cradled his head in his left arm, leaning back in his seat, and fell fast asleep. The car sped swiftly on toward Tokyo, which we would reach in another half hour . . . From time to time I caught the sight of buildings, new factories, other expressways. As we passed Chigasaki, there was an occasional pine tree to be seen by the road, still standing on what had once been the historic Old Tōkaidō Road to Osaka, three hundred miles to the west. That was all that was left of old Japan, perhaps—a few pine trees.”[1]


It occurred to me that if in the late 60s Japan’s landscape had already become a scorched earth of industry and “modernism”, then it was stupidly naïve of me to embrace the romantic image I’d had of Japan before I actually came almost a quarter of a century ago—the sensitivity devoted to the most mundane of daily items, the beauty of manicured gardens changing with the seasons, quaint Japanese houses with tiled roofs and a zen-like simplicity inside, young pearl drivers lowering their lithe bodies deep into the pristine sea, a respect for nature that exceeded worship . . .


Thirty years after Stokes biography was written, humorist David Sedaris had this to say about Japan:


“Riding the high-speed train—the Shin-kansen—to Hiroshima, I supposed that to the untrained eye, all French cities might look alike, as might all German and American ones. To a Japanese person, Kobe and Osaka might be as different as Santa Fe and Chicago, but I sure don’t see it. To me it’s just concrete, some gray and some bleached a headachy white. Occasionally you’ll pass a tree, but rarely a crowd of them. The Shin-kansen moves so fast you can’t really concentrate on much. It’s all a whoosh, and before you know it one city is behind you and another is coming up.”[2]


Out of fairness to my adopted country, I should note that Japan is seventeenth among nations in the world (and the third industrialized nation, after Finland, 72.9%, and Sweden, 69.2%) for forested area. 68.6% of the land in Japan is covered by forests. It is also one of the few countries in the world where the percentage of forested land is increasing.


The title of this post might not ring any bells for most readers, but this was a play on the title of Yasunari Kawabata's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature: "Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. Kawabata won the prize in 1968, and, four years later, killed himself.



[1] Stokes, Henry Scott, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, New York: Cooper Square Press, 1974, pp.234-35. 

[2] Sedaris, David, When you are Engulphed in Flames, London: Little, Brown, 2008, p.295


Selling Snake Oil in Japan

After cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, a fifty-something-year-old American man, someone I have never seen around town, taps on a microphone a few times then jumps right into his presentation.

From the get-go, it stinks of some multilevel marketing scheme and, looking around the room, I can see that it’s the same old crew that has come together to push it: guys who were doing Amway, then NuSkin, then Noni. And now they’re gung-ho about something called Rexall Showcase: a new name to the old scheme of pushing overpriced supplements and dubious weight loss products on family and friends and kicking the profits up the pyramid.

“This is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for, folks!” the speaker exclaims. “This is The Golden Opportunity! The chance to get into a business when it’s just getting off the ground. Amway, NuSkin, yes, they’re all good business models, excellent business models, in fact, but if you really want to make money with them, why, you should have gotten into the business twenty, thirty years ago. Folks, I’m tellin’ ya, Rexall Showcase is the opportunity you’ve all been dreaming about!”

As I listen to him, I must admit that what he is saying doesn’t completely lack merit. Imagine being able to have entered into a business like Amway when it was first taking off, before overeager fools irretrievably ruined its reputation. But today? Try to become a millionaire in Amway today and you’ll probably die trying. Your hair and skin will look fantastic, though. You might even feel fantastic, too, if you can manage to swallow their horse-pill sized megavitamins.

The American tells us he has been living in Japan for over thirty years, longer than anyone else in the room. “I’ve been here since Nixon was president!”


“And all these years, I have been running a business. Several businesses, in fact!”

He’s quite successful, he assures us, saying that he even supplies Fukuoka Airport with his products.

There are oohs and ahs.

“And, let me tell ya, folks, I know a good opportunity when it comes up from behind me and kicks me in the ass.”

More laughter.

The American talks like a snake oil salesman, but the others in the room eat it up; so eager they are to get their grubby little hands on cold hard cash that what he is saying must sound like the sweetest of music to their ears.

And then, he invites a long-haired douchebag by the name of Clive up to the front and says, “Clive has been blowing us away . . . Tell me again, how much did you earn last month?”

“Two million yen.”

There are whistles of astonishment and why wouldn’t there be? Two million yen for a month’s worth of work is a respectable amount of cash, twice what I am making, working what amounts to three jobs. But, why is this “very successful” guy dressed like someone who is only earning a tenth that amount? The Canadian, a former strip dancer at a “ladies’ club” that went bust years ago, is wearing ripped Levis, old cowboy boots, and a dowdy sports jacket. Any moment now I expect him to tear the jeans off and start jiggling his nuts.

“See, I told you it was fishy,” Akané whispers into my ear.

“Fishy doesn’t even begin to describe it. This is borderline fraud what they’re doing. Let’s get out of here.”


This is an excerpt from A Woman's Hand, a sequel of sorts to the novel A Woman's Nails. The novella was inspired by events which happened about fifteen years ago.


Beatitudes of the Republican Jesus

Blessed are the rich: for only they have earned the kingdom of heaven the hard way.

Blessed are the bold: for they shall possess the land and the mineral rights below the surface of it.

Blessed are they who rejoice in their success: for they shall be comforted in the lap of luxury.

Blessed are they that have eaten their fill: for they shall have seconds and thirds after they loosen their belts.

Blessed are the vengeful: for they shall mete out retribution upon the Darkies and have mercy on Whites suffering from Affluenza.

Blessed are the conservative of heart: for they shall see God in their own likeness and it will be very good.

Blessed are the chickenhawks: for they shall be called the children of both Patriots and God.

Blessed are they that persecute others for law and order’s sake, for they will have the keys to the kingdom of heaven as well as the keys to the for-profit prisons.



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.