Friday, July 09, 2010


"Maybe gray is the Japanese favorite color," Chiyo says, when I complain, again, that Tokyo is so gray, when I ask, for the hundredth time, why it must always be gray.

Chiyo is my closest Japanese friend. The one I see most anyway. Money is involved. I am her tutor in English conversation. She pays me a rather exorbitant sum to chat for two hours on Wednesday afternoons. Another lady chats as well -- but it is clear Chiyo is in charge.

After seven years, I know virtually nothing about Chiyo. At least, few of the things an American would expect to learn in the first half hour. I know that she travels regularly on guided tours to unusual destinations: Syria, Bhutan, Eritrea. I know that she also attends lessons in swimming and hula dancing.

Chiyo dyes her hair the green-tinged copper of a penny fished from a wishing well. It is the last color I can imagine anyone wanting their hair. It suits her perfectly. She is perhaps 60. She is perhaps 78. She is perfectly slim, her back straight. Somewhere around year five she let it slip that she was widowed. That was as much as I ever learned about that.

A year or two ago Chiyo retired. I have no idea from what. Whenever I ask her, her smiles gleams. "Please -- " she says "Ask a new question." After seven years of conversation I don't even know the answer to America's Question #1: What do you do? This is my friend -- I don't even know what she does for a living. It makes me feel like I've gotten nowhere at all.

It is also true that she refuses to answer the question with so much grace -- with such a brilliant spark of mischief -- that it really counts as an answer in its own right. Hell, it counts as a career.

Tokyo must be credited for its courtesy, certainly. To permit a foreigner to stay here so long -- and pay him for his knowledge -- when there wasn't a single day when he could say he knew for certain what the hell was going on.

I was a bookstore guy in America. I ran register. I shelved. Here I lecture on Dickinson -- or chat about the weather -- for a not gigantic sum or money, but certainly more than any other country would consider me to merit. I teach in a university. A secretary makes copies for me. It's a well-upholstered life.

I made two close Japanese friends. It took five years before there were two. They were friends like I think of friends. We drank beer and talked about our lives. No money was exchanged. Both of them dropped me, immediately and entirely, the moment they got a boyfriend. Evidently I was just a platonic foreigner, to tide them over until the real thing came along.

After seven years in Tokyo, I have not learned Japanese. How's that for shameful? I can barely manage a few basic phrases. After seven years -- and despite months of intensive lessons. Recently an old woman in an elevator asked, in Japanese, where I was from. I stuttered before I could get the answer out. And felt ashamed enough to weep.

In my defense, it is only the second time I can recall having been asked the question.

In seven years I have been inside three Japanese homes.

Of course, the problem may be me. The problem is so often me.

But in every other country I've visited there were plenty of people with impaired social skills, with shrill voices and odd habits -- and they still had friends. People who smelled bad and asked to borrow money and tended to make off with small pocket-able objects -- and they still had friends.

In Tokyo it is difficult to keep from falling into the assumption that one must have done something terribly wrong -- to wind up so alone.

Recently I have resumed reading large quantities of Japanese literature. It is my way of keeping the door open, of saying that I would still very much like to learn something, connect somewhere. It is an apologetic gesture. A good will gesture. Or at least the determination to act as though there is good will.

The narrator in Izumi Kyoka's story "One Day in Spring" mentions, as he walks through a small village, "the people here branded foreigners 'Blue Goblins' and 'Red Goblin' because of the bright paint they put on their houses." When I brought the story to Chiyo she said, "Yes, red demons and blue demons -- like in the story of Momotaro."

The demons, or oni, have sharp claws and wild hair and two long horns. Often they are shown with extra eyes, fingers or toes. A tiger skin loincloth or an iron club. When the demons weren't looking, the monkey opened the gates of the fort and Momotaro and the spotted dog, rushed in to fight the demons.

Chiyo mentions that years ago she took a trip to Mexico. "I like the colorful houses of Mexico -- but also it is embarrassing a little, I think."

I stare around me at the relentless gray of Tokyo, a jumble of gray boxes trailing electric wires as far as the eye can see. It does not seem to me to be anyone's favorite gray.

Of course I may be wrong. It has already been established that I am never sure what's going on.
However, it is not therefore required that I must pretend to be blind.

To me, the gray of Tokyo is the gray of things that have not been looked at in a long, long time. The gray of temporary and neglected things. When something is painted this color, it is because no one is intended to look at it ever. It's background. But then, what is in front?

I seldom catch anyone looking at Tokyo. Of course when Tokyoites pass by Tokyo Tower, or when a tree is in flower, they hold their cell phone in front of it and press the button.

I see people hurrying, crowds cringing, cramming themselves through Tokyo. In these last few weeks it appears we have passed an important marker: there are now more people looking into devices than out at the world.

Perhaps it is wise to look away -- the world daily becomes more frightening, more polluted and chaotic and upsetting.

The city is crowded and cluttered and gray; the screen is neat and in color.

Sitting on the train, a line of people in an identical posture. Bent over a device they hold with both hands, and stare into determinedly, without break, as though they could thread themselves through it, and away from here.

Just because I have few Japanese friends does not mean there is no one I care for. My tenderness for Japanese people is exacerbated by my inability to express it even a little. There are people I love to whom I have never asked a personal question.

On Wednesday morning I teach a class of elderly students. Some of them have now become very old indeed. I watch them struggle to climb the stairs and enter the classroom. The oldest of them were adults in World War II -- they are embarrassed by overmuch concern or praise. They want to learn the grammar. That, at least, is their excuse and they are sticking to it.

Some of these students, I reckon, have been studying English since the Occupation. I smuggle in as much tenderness as I can. They do as well, just as they smuggled sweet potatoes beneath their clothes during the war.

I am a member of a discussion group in literature and ecology. The half dozen of us are a little like scholar monks in the Dark Ages. A subterranean subcommittee for lost causes. I would like to continue talking to them for the rest of my life. I love them by nodding and taking notes on a clipboard. Our affection is inseparable from a certain gentle hopelessness. We meet six or eight afternoons a year. Each occasion is an oasis I sip at as long as I can.

What is Tokyo?

Tokyo is an enormous and complex device used for producing exhaustion. I should admit that I never understood why everyone has decided exhaustion is so valuable and worth seeking or, if exhaustion is the goal, why it wouldn't be simpler and more economical to have everyone run in place, at home, until they collapsed.

Nonetheless, millions of people participate in Tokyo every day and receive, as their reward, exhaustion, which, it should be said, is a particularly profound and comprehensive exhaustion, involving not only the physical but also the emotional and spiritual aspects.

My favorite bar is an informal and unofficial one on the Yamanote platform, a row of gray plastic bucket seats between a walled-up area of perpetual construction and a Newdays convenience shop which must do fully half its business selling cans of beer and lemon chu-hi to exhausted commuters generally who gulp it down in 90 seconds while pretending to look at the free magazines in the shadow of the convenience shop.

It is at this vulnerable skulking moment that I find Tokyoites easiest to love. Sympathy arises easily as I sit in a gray plastic seat and watch the Tokyoites flee for home. It is extraordinary to sit still, amidst the hurrying crowd, and simply watch. Great masses of people, carried off and replaced every 180 seconds.

This city resembles a mausoleum -- and everyone is dressed up for it like the wedding of a close friend. Women in white suits, men with gel in their hair. At 10:10 pm their clothes are still smooth, though their faces are crumpled from clenching them all day. They look like wealthy refugees who've been through a lot. Their money and status have not shielded them from punishment and deprivation. Indeed, it has rendered many of those humiliations even more effective. Despite all this, they still want to look their very best for their interview with the authorities.

But I am an ignorant foreigner, who has lived here seven years and never learned the language. Therefore, it need not be taken seriously when I say that what I see, when I look into deeply and intently into the crowd, is an astounding degree of misery. A level of suffering that is outrageous.

Not once in seven years has Chiyo ever admitted to being anything less than perfectly fine. That's not true -- I think she had a backache once. We are friendly and grateful to each other. Maybe this is what allows a conversation to continue for seven years -- the sense that there is so very much that has not been said.

We drink the very most beautiful green tea -- it is ever so slightly blue. The snacks Chiyo brings are exquisite. Almost never in seven years has a snack been repeated. Wednesday afternoons I am usually tired. She laughs at me if I yawn or sigh. She never praises me, is often sarcastic, and at this point would forgive me, I think, for anything short of setting myself on fire.

In retaliation for knowing so little, I pretend that I know Chiyo's occupation. I pretend she was the madame of a bustling and exuberant brothel. I think she would be an excellent madame. She's got the gaudy colors, certainly. The air of mystery.

We are grateful to each other. Friends, I hope, despite our gaps in knowledge. A bit of color amid gray Tokyo, about which we agree to disagree.

1 comment:

moonknee said...

I love this one, too. It actually makes me miss Tokyo. And it definitely makes me miss you. xx