Jumping Japanese Jail
I started many bad habits while living in Japan, and one of them, though not necessarily the worst, was drinking large botellas of Sake on the commuter trains. I would put my headphones on, cover an enormous half gallon bottle of sake in a paper sack, find a comfortable seat and sip my sorrows away.
This was not good. To begin with, I am sure that I propitiated a long-held stereotype that the Japanese have of foreigners; gaijin are lazy, slobbish, and prone to emotional outbursts, and even occasional violence. If you replaced “lazy” with “depressed”, that basically described my demeanor while living in Japan. For one thing, the language seemed virtually impenetrable, like alien microbiology. The harder I studied, the less people seemed to understand me. Eventually I began to wonder if the entire island was involved in a conspiracy to throw me even deeper into neurosis.
And the written language was even worse. Kanji is a cryptic remnant left over from the cultural invasion of Japan’s western neighbor, China. Thanks a lot, China. As the writer W. Ferguson put it, “If God had wanted me to understand Kanji, He would have given me a bigger brain.”
I am not blaming Japanese culture for my problems; it was my job that was the problem. I was a caddy for the golf superstar Fudo-san. In the Japanese golf community there are no gaijin, and there are very few Japanese that spoke English. Try bottling up your emotions and frustration for months on end, with no one to talk to, and see what happens.
This particular day had significance for me. It was my birthday, and birthdays are supposed to be joyous occasions, right? I deserved some sake. I bought a particularly expensive bottle of sake, clothed it in brown paper (as a salute to the peeps back home), and decided to stroll about Shibuya for a bit.
Shibuya is the equivalent of Caracas and Amsterdam’s red light district rolled into one; potential problems are lurking everywhere. As my birthday fell on a Friday, Shibuya’s discotheques and hostess bars were already filling up with all the Jennifer Lopez and Jon Bon Jovi look-a-likes. That’s the great thing about sake – you have the feeling that you are just floating along on a cherry blossom petal, and everything has its place, even the flock of J. Los crossing the street. They are pointing at me and giggling, “Hey J. Los,” I say giving them a plural wave. They giggle some more and point to the bottle of sake, “henna-gaijin,” one of them says. Exactly. I’m a crazy foreigner, and it’s my birthday today baby.
The sake is hitting me hard; I know this because I find myself standing in the middle of an intersection, sake bottle hanging at my side, staring at a family of Japanese midgets eating snow cones. I am holding traffic up, and it takes me several moments to realize the honking cars are directed at me. I cross the intersection and walk into what looks like a basement level bar. A huge plume of cigarette smoke greets me at the door.
As usual, I have chosen a bar that contains no foreigners, only a motley crew of Japanese locals, queuing up in front of the Karaoke machine. A man that looks like Senator Gephardt (albino face splotches and all), is giving a lovely rendition of “Gulls Jest Hanta Hev Fon.” Cyndi Lauper take that! All heads turn toward me as I enter the bar, and I hold my sake bottle high and announce, “Sake for everyone.” This does the trick.
“Hey gaijin-san!” They wave me over, and I feel a wave of relief wash over me; maybe my birthday will turn out to be a good one. When without friends, get drunk and substitute drunken strangers; it’s what makes the world go round.
Before I know it, my arms are around my new friends, and we are all happily bantering away. As usual, I am stumbling along in my horrendous Japanese, but I seem to have invented a new variant. I am replacing unknown Japanese words with Spanish ones, and everyone is nodding their heads in comprehension! Such good friends I have. I am pouring sake into half full beer glasses, and announcing, “Today’s my birthday!” Someone orders bottles of wine, and the “Senator,” as I am calling him now, serenades me with “Happy Birthday Baby.”
Everyone is cheering, and the middle-aged bartendress is sitting on my lap pouring tequila shots into my mouth. What a great time we are having, what can possibly go wrong? Well, with karaoke, everything. One should never underestimate the uncoordinated dance maneuvers of a deeply depressed foreigner singing Creedence Clearwater Revival songs. Jumping onto a table never had such implications.
The mike cord was a little too short, and when the table leg broke, it sent me in the opposite direction of the karaoke machine, which fell over into the sound system, which fell straight into the face of the giant T.V. screen. Disaster. As the tints of mechanical dust floated out from the machines, I thought, “Well, this seems about right, utter joy followed shortly thereafter by complete destruction.”
The bartender is shouting at me, “You will pay!” I decide it’s best to play dumb; maybe it will buy me time. Too late, the cops are already here, riot helmets on, like ghosts rising from Samurai Lake.
The bartender was hysterical, her fingers going back and forth between me and, you know, that pile of broken stuff. It was fairly easy to understand what was being implied here, and I am not one who likes to take responsibility.
I spot a possible exit behind a curtain, and it seems that everyone is occupied by the conversation between the police and the bartender. I think this is a good time to be leaving, but just as I make it to the door I feel a hand grab my shoulder and pull me back; it’s my karaoke friends, apparently they have formed an impromptu guardia civil. Man, I hate vigilantes.
Like some deranged bear that has escaped from the circus, they herd me back, and push me in front of the chief (I don’t really know if he was a chief). Chief spoke at some length with the bartender, none of which I understood, except when she paused, looked at me, pointed and said, “you a bad, bad man!” And every time she said that, the entire group including the police, looked at me and shook their heads, like I had been an honored guest that had taken his pants off at the dinner table. This was really starting to drain my fervor.
“You have passport?” the chief asked me.
“Maybe, we think you illegal man.”
Maybe my laughing offended him, because he grabbed me and said we had to go.
“Where are you going to take me? I have laundry to do, I have dishes to wash.”
“You go to jail because we think you illegal man.”
This actually was a relief, because it implied that I was going to get off for all the aforementioned damage.
As we were leaving, the bartender came right up to my face and started screaming a heinous, death-owl kind of screech. “Shut your horrible mouth,” I told her and she promptly dropped the F-bomb on me. That of course left me no recourse but to give her the bird. Outside, the streets were clogged with pedestrian traffic and a light rain had begun to fall, giving the city an older, less metallic feel. Literally thousands of umbrellas were unfurled; and with the umbrellas pressed together, the sidewalks looked like dozens of multicolored rivers crisscrossing the city. For some reason I am reminded of a Haiku by the itinerant poet, Basho:
“No blossoms and no moon
and he is drinking Sake
I ask Chief if he knows Basho.
He smiles warily, “Of course, Basho he is very famous man. Why, do you know Basho?” He asks with a soft voice, like the mere thought of Basho is taking him back to his schoolboy days on cherry blossom field trips.
“I know Basho, I have studied Japanese poetry. I also like Sumo, do you know Akebono?” I ask.
Chief starts talking excitedly, “You like Akebono? He is my favorite Rikishi (a Sumo playboy), he is very powerful man!”
Sumo is truly one of my favorite sports. Fast, explosive collisions combined with centuries old Shinto ritual; a great combination of grace, poetry, excess, and pure power. My knowledge of Basho, and now Sumo, was certainly easing the tension that had been created earlier. In fact, Chief seemed to have forgotten entirely about why he was there to begin with.
“Come with me, and we can talk more about Sumo,” Chief slapped the back of his police scooter. Yes, a scooter, and everyone wonders why the café motorcycle gangs in Tokyo are never caught by the police.
“O.K.,” I say with some hesitancy, “am I still going to jail?”
“We will see, let’s go to station first, O.K.?” Another statement that seemed to imply, “if you run away, we won’t chase you but if you stay, suffer the consequences.”
We are driving through the back streets, and interestingly enough all the other scooter police are far off the front. “Do you want to hear another haiku, this one by me?” I ask. Chief looks at me with no expression and nods.
“The traveler whose
heart is heaviest escapes
into the dark sky”
“What do you think?” I ask.
Chief nods seriously, “yes, very good, you are just like Basho.”
That is a good enough answer for me, and when chief stops prematurely at a red light, I am off, and running deep into the dark sky.