Written in May of 2006
“I just want to say, I love this place. I love Tokyo and I love this place.”
“Do you live here or are you just visiting?”
“Oh, I’m just visiting. I’m from Canada, Vancouver. I just came out here for a 16 day vacation. This rocks, I love this place. Everyone is so nice. This band rocks. I can come here and talk to anyone and I connect with them. Even if they’re Japanese, you know, we don’t speak the same language, but that doesn’t matter, they are interested, they see the foreign guy, and they think, ‘well, he’s interesting, I wonder what he has to say to me?’ And we can communicate, you know, I don’t speak his language, but they want to know me. This place is great. I love this place. This guy over here (a Japanese man) can just come out and play the bagpipes, and I feel him, man, I feel him.”
I am speaking to Conrad in the Warrior Celt in Ueno. The Warrior Celt is my pub. I don’t own it of course, but I go there most Friday nights, and know many of the regulars. The Warrior Celt is about as big as a walk-in closet. There is a four-piece band here, and there are about 30 people watching this band. I have just finished banging heads and thrashing random Japanese men and visiting English women with Conrad. Conrad and I did this because the band, the White Snakes, played “Seven Nation Army,” just like we begged them to, and I for one can not sit still during that song, and apparently neither can Conrad.
I sense that Conrad is having a profound moment here, his Japan epiphany (and it is coming early for him, as he has only been here for 26 hours), feeling the love and brother-and-sisterhood that can only come in Japan when you jam a four-piece rock band in with 30 fans in a space about as big as the shower I took this morning. I myself was just 30 minutes ago contemplating how many American fire codes this setup would be violating, and thinking that perhaps this is one of the many reasons that Americans feel so disconnected from each other. It’s a lot harder to feel the love from your fellows when the fire chief dictates how much space you have to keep between you in the local bar.
I know this script. He landed in Narita. He saw crazy exotic Asian Japan for 24 hours. He was overwhelmed and amazed, bowled over and lost. Then he wandered into this pub and suddenly was shocked to find himself home, but not really home, a twisted, mind-bending version of home where they have many of the same elements of home but not in the same order or on the right scale or with the same attitude. The attitude especially is better, much more welcoming. Like many actual pubs in England, most of the patrons here in this English pub in Japan know each other, a situation that is increasingly rare in North America. And there is no hierarchy or aggression here, just two levels, the foreigners and the Japanese. The worth of all of the foreigners has been compressed to a flat line, the low brought up and the high brought down, so we are all on the same level, and Conrad is feeling this. And perhaps it could be said that we have been raised just a couple of notches above the Japanese. This is one of our pubs, after all, and many of the Japanese come here to commune with the foreigners. Many want something more from us than we want from them. Conrad doesn’t compute this disparity, this two-tier hierarchy, because he is new, and he doesn’t realize that this is one of the elements that is making him feel so good tonight, the fact that he is in a space where the gaijin are viewed as exotically interesting by many of the Japanese, especially the tall gaijin with crazy long curly hair who flail around to “Seven Nation Army”, and he is feeling this love. If this is not true (and I will not pretend to read the minds of all of the Japanese people present), then another factor is surely at work, in which those people who are getting pissed off at our behavior just smile politely. Either way, this is something Conrad doesn’t really notice and is thus able to keep his spirits aloft.
The music is loud, so we are talking close and loud.
“So Conrad, what do you do? Are you a student?”
“No, not yet. I’m only 20. I work in the produce department of a grocery store. Its cool, they’re good people, we have a lot of fun. Someday I will be a student. I’m just experiencing life right now. I just got to Tokyo. This is great. I feel so connected to people. This is seriously one of the best nights of my life. You know, back in Vancouver people are so snobbish, they have their things, and they want to know who you are, what you are, and everyone has their place. But tonight, here, I really feel connected, everyone accepts me.”
Of course, I am feeling Conrad’s vibe. I wouldn’t be a 5-year resident of Japan if I weren’t feeling Conrad’s vibe. I take it for granted, most of the time. You can’t live somewhere for 5 years without taking it for granted. But Conrad is reminding me, not in a profound way, really, not in a ‘holy cow, I had completely forgotten way.’ No I’m not having that epiphany, that one is long over for me.
But I am reminded that I don’t work in the produce department of a grocery store. It hits close to home because that’s where I was before I came to Japan. I worked at both McDonalds and a grocery store after graduating college. These were actually sort of better jobs than the one that used my degree, being a science teacher at an underfunded private school. I am reminded of the leap I took when I came here and how I hope I have grown enough to not have to take that huge step back when I return. I am reasonably certain I won’t, but it is always a possibility that I will have to do as men throughout the ages have had to do when push came to shove, and that is do any work available to feed myself and perhaps a family. At least in Tokyo I have been sheltered from this, having been assured of at least a middle class living teaching English at any moment that I need it.
But I am just briefly reminded, it is not an epiphany, it is not profound. I’m reminded of the instant connection you can have with people in this country, and how that can salve so much of the loneliness and isolation many of us feel in our own countries, that in fact so many Japanese feel in Japan. It’s ironic that for many Japanese the only way to stay sane is to leave Japan and all its structures and stultifying social pressure, and for many foreigners Japan ends up being a refuge of sanity and acceptance and access to the most basic communal human contact we are cut off from in our own country. Conrad, though, has brought me back to being 20 again, or maybe to being 26 when I first came here, and I feel as though I can help him, give him some sage advice from my limited experience. What follows may be the only advice I’d know how to give to someone in their twenties about living the good life, and it may actually be horrible, life-ruining advice.
“Conrad, you are having the Japan experience right now. You should live in Japan.”
“Yeah, you might be right. I’ve been thinking about it.”
“Get your four year degree, and come here to teach English. Heck, just get a forgery of a degree and come here to teach English. They may not know the difference. But you are a perfect candidate for an English teacher in Japan. You were born to be an English teacher in Japan. Come back to Tokyo to teach English.”
“Wow, yeah, thanks man. I’m really honored that you think that. Thank you.”
I’m relieved that he is honored. He could have just as well socked me in the jaw for saying such things.