Generally seen as highly homogenous, Japan is changing fast. In Tokyo, Kawasaki and Osaka recently, I encountered quite a few non-Japanese working at convenience stores and restaurants, and saw many more on the streets. Japan’s largest immigrant groups are Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Brazilians. Though the last are mostly ethnic Japanese, they maintain a separate culture, so are perceived as Brazilians.
In Kawasaki, a city just across a river from Tokyo, I entered a Peruvian restaurant with two Japanese friends, Ryo Isabe and Samson Yee. Born in Hong Kong, Samson spent parts of his childhood in England, has traveled all over and is married to a Japanese, and his spoken Japanese is nearly perfect, I was told. Immediately, Samson identified the woman serving us as not Japanese, although she appeared native enough to me, and had barely said anything. The more she talked, the more her Japanese deficiency was exposed, however. She was Peruvian.
Ryo is a critic, mostly of rap and electronic music, and the author of a book on Kawasaki. On the ribbon over its cover is a question, “Is Kawasaki hell?” Crossing the Tama River from Tokyo, I did notice a row of shacks, erected by the homeless, but by the time the train rolled into the station, everything seemed sparklingly modern and sophisticated. Walking around, I ran into plenty of chic stores and restaurants, and a swanky shopping center, La Cittadella.
Ryo explained that although Kawasaki may appear perfectly normal, there are many underlying problems. In 2015, the city shocked Japan when a 13-year-old boy was tortured and killed, with his naked body tossed into the Tama. Since his main killer, Ryuichi Funabashi, was half-Filipino, immigration, assimilation and ethnicity became uncomfortable subtexts.
For conformity to unite and provide collective strength, it must punish deviations, but this always triggers resentment, if not rage.
On the other hand, the list of successful half-Japanese is long. Half-Taiwanese Renho Murata briefly headed Japan’s Democratic Party, the first woman to do so. Americans are most familiar with half-Iranian Yu Darvish, half-Haitian Naomi Osaka and half-American Hideki Irabu. With the last, I noticed with interest that the half-Yankee insisted on going to the Yankees. Perched on the third deck, third base side, I did manage to watch Irabu pitch at Yankees Stadium. He always seemed like a very isolated, lonely figure. In 2008, the big man assaulted an Osaka bar manager after downing 20 beers, and in 2010, he was arrested for DUI in Redondo Beach. After his uneven career flamed out, Irabu didn’t return to Japan but moved to California, although he associated mostly with other Japanese while there. As his wife and kids were about to leave him, Irabu killed himself, but we can only guess at the multilayered, complex reason.
I asked Ryo to take us to a regular, working class bar, what I’m used to, whether I’m in Kiev, Mexico City or Missoula, so we ended up in some tiny, brightly lit joint that was owned by a Korean woman. That night, it was filled with older Okinawans and a half Russian, half Japanese man who didn’t look typically either. Born in Japan, he was simply Japanese, like the rest.
“Do I look Japanese?” I joked to a septuagenarian, missing a few teeth.
“No, you look Cambodian!” We all laughed.
Sitting at my table, another Okinawan said, “I’ve never known a Vietnamese, but I’m glad to meet you. You should spend more time in Kawasaki, and get to know us.”
“I already feel very comfortable,” and I meant it.
During the Vietnam War, the septuagenarian was paid $20 a day to clean American corpses, killed in action, “It was ten times the average wage, so I was glad to have the job, but I had to quit after six months, since I couldn’t eat.”
In Kawasaki for four decades, he didn’t miss Okinawa, “I don’t have anything to return to.”
When he said he had to work later that night, I thought he was kidding, for he was well past retirement age, not to mention trashed. “I work for the railroad,” he elaborated. “I’m a painter.”
At his table sat a couple, also old, with the man in a felt fedora. “Although I’m married to Frank Sinatra,” she said of her husband while bantering with the painter, “you’re more my type!” She rubbed his bald head.
Though it was Ryo’s first time at the joint, and Samson and I were not Japanese, we were treated so warmly, so so much for Japanese reserve or aloofness, but the English, too, I’ve always found to be mostly friendly and chatty. Damn the stereotype.
Taking a photo with me, the Korean owner planted a kiss on my crown, and the old painter shouted towards the end of the night, “Now, you look very Japanese! You belong here!”
There is a universal brotherhood of lowlife drinkers. My blood brother, a Yahoo employee who says “darn” and “shoot,” wouldn’t feel welcome there, or at Philly’s Friendly Lounge, for that matter, not that he would enter either
In Osaka, the sociologist Masahiko Kishi took me and others to a seafood restaurant, Taiyoshi Hyakuban, that’s housed in a wonderfully-preserved, two-storied 1908 brothel. Wandering around, I marveled at its carved columns, beams and ceilings, fine vases and scrolls, and well-executed paintings of scenes from centuries past. Our three waiters were all South Asians, most likely Bangladeshi. They had no problems communicating in Japanese.
Taiyoshi Hyakuban is located in Tobita Shinchi, Japan’s last traditional red light districts, where the prostitutes are openly displayed through wide doorways, facing the street. Tastefully dolled up, each is seated among decorative elements, such as a basket of plastic flowers, stuffed animals, a heart-shaped pillow or a giant Maneki-neko, etc., but with an old woman, the madame, perched in a corner. Though the contrast between youthful beauty and aging ugliness is rather jarring, at least it serves its purpose as a warning and an urge. Get it while you can, and while it’s still fresh!
Tobita Shinchi is nothing like what you’ll find in, say, Amsterdam’s De Wallen, where not much distracts from the red-lit meat of the matter. Though prostitution is illegal in Japan, the Tobita Shinchi joints are kosher because, well, they’re classified as restaurants, so if you suddenly find yourself inside a waitress, it’s because she’s quite smitten by you, that’s all, and your wallet. It’s love at first sight. Maybe you’ll get lucky the next time you visit your town’s Dairy Queen or White Castle!
In Amsterdam, most of the whores are in fact not Dutch, but come from Eastern Europe, South America, Southeast Asia or Africa. The last time I was in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, most whores were also foreign, and in Barcelona, Chinese massage parlors spread. Assuming a similar situation in Tobita Shinchi, I asked Kishi-san what percentage of these lovelies were aliens, and was surprised to hear, “None!” Well, at least one corner of Japan remains absolutely pure.