Culture Shock

Sunday Photographer

Tokyo, June 1996. Satoru-san is already at the izakaya near Mita Station when I get there, and I’m early. Despite the swelter, he’s unflinchingly dapper in his charcoal blazer, gray shirt, and silver tie. “I’m sorry I’m early,” he says, perhaps his standard greeting when he isn’t late, which he probably never is. “I benefit from my freedom. My wife doesn’t allow me to drink. Like many Japanese, I lack the enzyme that breaks down alcohol.”

Communication Problem: Buying Ointment for Ji

Tokyo, June 1996. Ji is the word for “hemorrhoid.” I looked it up. The sound is identical to chi, “blood,” and only the Japanese can distinguish them. My problem is I’ve run out of hemorrhoid ointment. A wiry lady in a lab coat, the only person in the small pharmacy, greets me apprehensively. I greet her in my best Japanese. “I’m sorry to trouble you,” I add, a fixed expression used in front of a question. It comes out smoothly, and I feel more confident. Her apprehension grows.

It’s in his DNA

Tokyo, June 1996. Satoru-san, wearing a chocolate blazer, cinnamon shirt, and hazel tie, is already at the Nishi-Azabu intersection though I arrive before 6 p.m. He greets me with a handshake and a nod. “I’m sorry I’m early,” he says. Is this a translation of something that makes sense in Japanese? Or is it one more aspect of the Japanese art of turning apologies into subtle accusations?

Almost Spilling Her Scotch

Tokyo, June 1996. We go see the French film Le Zebre, and afterward at a dining bar we discuss it, how great it is, how French love stories have a special charm, how they’re more honest because they don’t have happy endings but French endings that leave you confused and searching for answers. Our lips are moving on autopilot while our hearts are communicating via our fingers that are intertwined across the table.

Those Scammers on Wall Street

Tokyo, June 1996. Wouter the Dutch guy’s words course through my head like a refrain in a traveler ballad: You’ve got to go to Russia, you’ve got to go see Inga in Irkutsk. And I’m researching the first steps in that direction at the Maruzen Bookstore in Ochanomizu, which has a gaijin corner with a Lonely Planet shelf. I pull out Russia. But next to it are other evocative titles, like Vietnam, China, and Mongolia.

Deer Sashimi

Japan, June 1996. With 40 minutes left before the departure of our train, we make a beeline for the restaurant, a boisterous Formica-steel-and-plastic kind of place. Izumi orders mountain-vegetable pilaf. I order deer sashimi, a mountain specialty. The thin slices of raw deer are served with raw onion rings, fresh garlic, fresh ground ginger, and a vinegar-soy sauce. Possibly the best meat dish I’ve ever eaten. But I shouldn’t have eaten it.

Bluebelly Mousse

Japan, May 1996. The joys of eating cement us together, and the harmony between us emboldens me. We finish the fifth course, sautéed almond trout, and as I’m pouring the remainder of our bottle of wine, I broach the subject that has been on my mind for weeks and that I’ve broached in subtle ways before without getting a response. Now I want to violate yarikata. I want to communicate with her clearly and directly, with personal pronouns and all.

Poverty, Violence, and Crime

Tokyo, May 1996. At the immigration office in Otemachi, I’m asked to write my request in English on a piece of paper and submit it. After a wait, I’m directed to an office. A middle-aged white woman with puffy cheeks and a gray-blond perm thrones behind a desk.

“So, you want to stay in Japan longer,” she says with an icy British accent.

Loitering Inanely by a Sign I Can’t Read

Tokyo, May 1996. My relationship with her exhibits all the characteristics of the one-sided trade relationship between the US and Japan. I pay a fortune to be in her country. Though I’m learning Japanese, she refuses to speak it with me. She has seen every aspect of my life in Japan. But I’m not allowed near her house, and her parents don’t know I exist. I haven’t met any of her friends, don’t even know their names.