Loitering Inanely by a Sign I Can’t Read

This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Tokyo, May 1996. I feel privileged; Izumi has shoehorned me into her schedule. We attend a Bunraku play at the Tokyo National Theater. The audience is composed mostly of older people. Everyone is dressed up: a lot of suits and dresses, but also kimonos—black, charcoal, or navy for men, colors of spring for women. Audio guide against my ear, I listen to the English translation and doubt I’ll be able to sit through it.

Each of the lavish, near life-size puppets is handled by three puppeteers dressed entirely in black. Hoods over their heads, black veils over their faces, they trail behind the puppets like multi-limbed ominous specters. Only the head puppeteers, stars of the show, expose their faces. They move their puppet’s head, eyes, and right hand. The left-hand puppeteers move the left hand. The foot puppeteers move the feet. The puppets seem to walk on solid ground, though their feet are in the air. They’re alive and act out of passion. A chanter to the right of the stage tells the story, describes the scenery, and recites dialogues. His voice fluctuates from chant to narration, rising and falling whole octaves in a single breath. A samisen player accompanies the chanter. Other instruments are played offstage. Soon, I’m absorbed in the bizarre reality, and there are times when shivers run down my spine.

Afterward, we browse for a dining bar.

“This is where I used to go with my colleagues,” she says at some stairs to a basement entrance. “Are you interested?”

“Sure, I’d love to meet them.”

“Please wait here.”

She canters down the stairs and disappears into the bar. I loiter inanely in front of a sign I can’t read. 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, and I’ve told her whatever she wants to know about the rest of my life. 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. And when we run into her sempai in Kyoto, she doesn’t introduce me and doesn’t mention his name.

Japan benefits from the openness of the US market and from our eagerness to surrender our hard-earned money in exchange for their baubles. But we’re not invited to the party and not welcome in their homes. We’re gaijin and always will be—outsiders to be kept outside. What are they afraid of? That we talk loudly or forget to take off our slippers when we step on the national tatami floor? That we sneeze or blow our nose in public and infect everyone with our crazy ideas? That we muck up their harmony and traditions with our harebrained insistence on using personal pronouns?

Okay, I get it. It’s their country, and that’s how they do it. I respect that. But is this the way you treat your lover?

She reappears at the bottom of the stairs and nods. The coast is clear.

It’s a narrow, busy bar, but two barstools are still available at the counter against the wall. We order margaritas and some dishes. I make a few subtle efforts to find out what the deal was, but she doesn’t respond. When I ask her directly, she says only that she wanted to make sure her former colleagues wouldn’t be here.

“Why are all the puppeteers male?” I ask to change the subject.

“It’s our tradition.”

“Only in Japan would it occur to anyone to replace an actress with a puppet, three male puppeteers, and a male chanter.”

That gets her going. Bunraku is important to her. Her chest swells with each sentence. She struggles with English words to express Japanese concepts. With her chopsticks, she holds a cube of grilled beef in front of her mouth. But as she continues talking, she sets it back down on her plate, only to lift it again to her mouth moments later. But she can’t find the right spot to stop talking, sets it back down, tries again, misses another opportunity—and the cube never makes it into her mouth. When she’s talking, she’s talking, and she can do nothing else at the same time. I eat cubed beef and slimy mushrooms and finger-sized whole fried fish and grilled eggplant in sesame sauce.

“Eat,” I interrupt her after a while.

It confuses her.

“Eat,” I say and point at the cube of meat between her chopsticks.

She looks at it.

“Eat, or you’ll leave hungry.”

And the piece of meat completes its journey.

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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