Part I: Tokyo Guys
Japan has a way of making you feel very lonely. The Japanese, while overtly friendly, accommodating, and above all extremely courteous, are nevertheless indescribably aloof, curiously cold despite all the apparent manifestations of warmth. The proliferation of host and hostess bars in Japanese cities is testament to the fact that this is not simply a gaijin stereotype which has been lost in a clumsy translation, it is inherent in Japanese culture. The Japanese themselves seek companionship and comfort in these hospitality bars: men the polite, shy giggles of pretty young ladies; women, the firm, confident, off-the-cuff banter of faux familiarity provided by fashionable, if somewhat effeminate, young men. Sex is not usually part of the deal – though, of course, after hours arrangements are sometimes made, sex is not the product which is being sold. Japan is not, after all, short of vendors selling sex. The commodity being sold in these bars is a strange form of simulated companionship, paid for by the bottle. Along with a relative degree of charisma, one of the most important requirements for an aspiring host or hostess is a high tolerance for alcohol.
While men are more likely to seek out physical gratification in brothels or no-touching visual gratification in strip-clubs, women, more likely to seek emotional gratification than men, are the primary consumers in this market. Tokyo’s Shibuya district reflects this trend. Shibuya is positively swimming with young men who aspire to make a living doing what overzealous volunteers in other cultures do for free.
These young men are the so-called ‘Tokyo Guys’. They make up one of Tokyo’s many rigidly structured youth sub-cultures. Japanese sub-cultures often seem strange, even slightly comical to western eyes, primarily because of the even stricter regularity of the dress, the hairstyles and manner. Where European, British or American sub-cultures may allow for some flexibility of styling, even despite an overall rigidity, Japanese sub-cultures seem to manifest in a strict uniformity which, even for someone brought up on the heterogeneous homogeneity of consumer culture, is slightly unnerving, not to mention comical. The oxymoronic tension between the ostensive non-conformity of youth rebellion and the actual conformity of consumer culture is nowhere more obvious than in Tokyo. The first confrontation with these scores of uniformed youths, clones in all but genetics, leads to the immediate assumption that there is some kind of wanker-themed parade taking place on that particular day. Then, of course, you realise that that’s precisely what’s occurring – the parade just happens to take place every day.
That many among this army of boof-headed clones earn a good living by somehow charming conservative, single, middle-aged, middle-class women into parting with money for conversation is one of the many great puzzles which confronts the traveller in Japan. Japan is, if nothing else, opaque – it can only be apprehended and accepted, it can rarely be understood.
Part II: Dotombori Bitches
Dotombori Plaza in Osaka is said to have provided the inspiration for the gritty street scenes in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, Bladerunner, but the resemblance has long since ceased to be obvious. Dotombori these days is all neon and gloss and very little substance or grunge. The streets of Bladerunner, with all their seedy chic, their steaming food stalls and their shifty, eccentric characters have probably been relocated to China or to other parts of South-East Asia. While it’s not quite family friendly, at least at night, Dotombori is as clean, safe and sanitised as anywhere else in Japan, even despite the sleaze that collects just beneath the surface. Still, Dotombori and the nearby Amerikamura (America Town) encapsulate all the clichés and the contradictions inherent in Japanese culture.
Amerikamura captures the Japanese fascination with American culture, complete with all the quaint misrepresentations, the clumsy translations, the awkward faux-pas misappropriations and the eccentric, selectively focused fetish for obscure accidental resemblances between Japanese and American culture. Dotombori, just a few minutes away, captures the contradiction between the surface of Japanese consumer culture – the ostensive naivety, even innocence of the incongruent reinterpretation of an imported consumerism – and the much more sinister elements that lie just beneath the surface, hidden behind the same big-eyed manga facade. The differentiable cues are often very subtle, even for native Japanese, and for the effectively illiterate foreigner wandering around Japan’s overwhelming nightlife districts, these cues are more or less invisible in the cacophony.
In Japan, I was an obnoxious deaf mute illiterate with no real understanding of Japanese culture and no ability to deal with the reservations of Japanese people. I was a cultural clutz who could have played the American in a slapstick Japanese comedy. On one occasion, I wandered into what I thought was a manga comic book store only to be confronted by walls of video and magazine covers bearing photographs of pre-pubescent girls posing innocently in bikinis, riding pink tricycles and eating melting ice creams. One can only guess what would be available under the counter. I floundered about the store and expressed my horror in charades to more than one of the men perusing the aisles, as if they, too might share my surprise. On another, equally disturbing occasion, feeling lonely and disoriented in Dotombori after weeks travelling in Japan by myself, I succumbed to the need for company.
A young woman was playing with a black and white border collie at the entrance to what appeared to be a pet store. The dog was dressed in a red polka dot skirt and a black top with a picture of Minnie Mouse on it. To attract the attention of passers-by, the young woman was making the dog perform tricks outside the store. I was alone in Japan and I missed my dog, Myah. I was weakened, an easy target, fresh meat. The young woman saw me taking a photo and made the dog perform a new, different trick, twisting its paws around to make it pose for the photo. And yes, I snapped away like a crazed Japanese photo-tourist and then I approached and patted the dog, speaking to the girl in embarrassed broken English as if reducing my ability to speak English might improve hers. The girl gestured at a noticeboard beside her, then upstairs. There were photos of a number of different dogs on the noticeboard – portraits, I assumed, of the dogs for sale upstairs. She gestured upstairs and then called me, and the border collie, to follow her.
The store was not quite what I had imagined. There were no pet accessories on sale, and there were no cats or dogs in cages. Instead, on the other side of a low, child-proof gate, there was a cafe-like area full of low, pastel plastic chairs and vinyl coated tables. Another girl showed me to a table and offered me a menu while the first girl went into a room behind a glass wall. I glanced at the menu, but I wasn’t really hungry. I put it down and called the border collie over. At first, the girl who had given me the menu thought I was calling her, but a quick gesture at the dog put her right. The dog seemed much more reluctant to come, not out of any sense of fear or apprehensiveness, but simply because she wasn’t interested. The girl went over to the dog and encouraged her over with strangely curt, disproportionately harsh words. Immediately, with a kind of on-command automatism, the border collie swept over to me. I put my hand down to pat her, but she kept moving her head away, trying instead to sniff my outstretched hand, as if she expected something to be in it. Eventually, she simply shuffled herself back out of reach and looked at me. Suddenly, she looked to the left and ran towards the glass door.
The room was all at once full of dogs – most of them small ones – and a dozen different barks. For the first time in weeks, I was the centre of attention. Many of the dogs had bandages wrapped around their abdomens, and I assumed that they had recently had a spate of spayings. It later turned out I was wrong – the bandages were put in place to stop leakage if the boy-dogs decided on a spot of leg-humping – but my sentimental nod to the fraternity of those with testicles was heartfelt. I looked sympathetically at the miniature poodle, even at the chihuahua, and offered a few disconnected bubble-words of doggy-condolence. They each took their turn to sniff and lick at my hand and then, one by one, they moved over to where the girls were sitting, on the other side of the room. Soon, despite the sympathy, the patting and then my efforts to call them back, I was sitting alone at a table on one side of the room, the dogs – and the girls – on the other.
I made increasingly meek attempts to call over a few of the dogs when I caught their eye across the room, but, eventually, feeling utterly rejected, hurt beyond humiliation, I gave up. I was so completely lost that I didn’t even think to get up and go. Instead, taking whatever face-saving distraction was available, I clutched the menu, waved over one of the girls, and ordered a milkshake. In fluent Japanese, she directed my attention to the other side of the menu – the dog side. On it was listed a variety of dog treats ranging in price from ¥1000 (~$10) to ¥5000 (~$50). That penny dropped. I was not in a quaint Japanese pet store, I had been lured into a doggy-hostess bar. My face involuntarily revealed the perfect mask of that feeling that accompanies the discovery that you have been suckered and that, despite the fact that you and your suckerers know that you have been suckered, you will continue to play your part to its logical conclusion – coughing up cash. A smile which is also a snarl which is also a smile.
I pointed at the cheapest option on the menu – all I could read was the ¥1000 price tag. Along with a disappointing, flavourless milkshake, I was served a small clear bag of dog pellets. Even before I could reach for the bag, I was once again the centre of dog attention. I doled out the pellets like a reluctant conscript Santa Claus handing over presents to a bunch of rude, greedy, ungrateful human brats. I offered each dog a short, condescending pat and pushed them away. Soon, after a couple of pellets each, my bag was empty and the dogs were back over the other side of the room. The girls made a few genuine attempts to coax the dogs back over to me, but the bitches knew their business well and they weren’t giving anything away for free.
I avoided eye-contact for a few long, awkward minutes. The dogs, having worked out that I was a cheapskate, or worse, an innocent naïf who had arrived there by mistake, made quite clear the fact that I was no longer welcome. I slurped up the last of my milkshake, settled the ridiculous bill, stood up, and walked down the stairs in shame.