Sunday, June 30, 2013

About My Japanese Neighbors

I meant this as a comic story, a fictional essay in the style of Lydia Davis, but it has turned out rather bleak, or so it seems to me.  I do not mean to complain.  I am certain that it is more difficult to be Japanese in Japan than to be a foreigner in Japan.  As for my Japanese neighbors, I mean no offense.  How could I?  I do not even know them. 

About My Japanese Neighbors


For many years I have lived in Tokyo with my husband.  Not exactly downtown.  Near enough.  As you can imagine, I have many Japanese neighbors.

I have one Japanese neighbor who acknowledges me, who will nod and smile and speak to me.  She lives across the street and one house to the left.  Once, when I’d been away for a long time, she brought over a small, homemade cheesecake.  The sight of this cheesecake brought tears to my eyes.  A few days later I brought her homemade turkey soup.  She seemed to find this extremely embarrassing.  Neither of us ever attempted this level of intimacy again.  She never returned my Tupperware. 

She still speaks to me sometimes if she happens to be at her door, for example while sending her two small daughters off to school, while I’m across the street tending my geraniums.  She is always smiling.  She is always a little tired.  I suspect that she is bored, home all day caring for her children, preparing meals for her husband the banker who often travels on business to Paris or Madrid, to Sao Paolo or Singapore.  She is always at home.   I have watched the first strands of gray appear in her hair.

My neighbor questions me about my work, my travel plans, my visitors.  I am not sure if she asks because she cares -- because I am her dear American friend -- or if she is simply trying to fill in whatever gaps in her knowledge she has been unable to resolve through non-stop surveillance of the neighborhood.  She never misses anything, as far as I can tell, neither the departure of a lover nor pizza delivery.

But it’s no sin to keep an eye out, is it?  In this neighborhood, only foreigners have transparent windows.  Who else is there to spy on?  Even if she is only arming herself with gossip to entertain the other neighbors, the ones who never speak to me, I do not mind.  In a way, she is my only neighbor.  She is precious to me.  Every time she greets me, I wave both hands and talk in a big excited voice as if I were a foreigner on a Japanese game show, a big dumb friendly gaijin, as if she were my very bestest friend and the whole neighborhood, one happy family.


I said that I only have one Japanese neighbor who acknowledges me.  But that is not exactly true.  Several of my neighbors will acknowledge me, particularly when there is no alternative. 

For example, if we have both taken out our trash at the same moment and are within two feet of each other.  Then, if I say, Ohiogozaimas! in a loud happy voice, they will also say, Ohiogozaimas!  Not that they always will, even in that situation.

In Tokyo, acknowledgement is always optional.  Even if you run smack into each other, or if blood or alcohol are involved, or if there’s just been an earthquake, or if some part of yours is significantly embedded in them, or if some part of theirs is significantly embedded in you, that’s no reason why you should therefore go so far as to acknowledge each other.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can’t pretend you don’t hear, don’t see, and don’t feel. 

This is the natural result of so many people living so close together.  Or that is what everyone says.


Next door on the left side, an old woman lives behind a high wall.  She lives in a very large house with a traditional tile roof.  Or maybe it’s actually two houses, both regular size.  There have been rumors, but no one, as yet, has been able to verify either the ‘one house’ or the ‘two house’ theory.

Years ago an old man lived next door as well.  He would sometimes smile and wave.  He was senile presumably.  No one has seen him for years.  He must be dead. 

The old woman says Ohiogozaimas to me, once or twice a year, if I catch her at the exact moment at which she is opening the door to her garage and if I say Ohiogozaimas first.  She always seems terribly embarrassed, as if I’d caught her sitting on the toilet.

A large upper window in the old woman’s house directly faces the glass room in which I daily pursue the unseemly habit of writing.  The old woman’s window is covered by blinds, like almost every window in the neighborhood, and it is impossible to see anything through it.  Nonetheless, every night she covers this window with a metal shutter and every morning she un-shutters it.

In order to do this, she must open the window which faces my glass room.  She has found a way to do this so that her face is never seen.  I only see her old white arm.  In all these years I have never once caught her glancing out.

The old woman is a piano teacher.  I often hear her playing at night.  She is uncommonly accomplished, her music is not only correct, but also rich and full and generous.  When I hear it, I always feel sad.  My husband, you see, was a teacher of vocal music.  Her colleague, so to speak.  Even though he has lived next door to her for twenty years, she has never learned that her neighbor is also a teacher of music, nor will she ever.  We are foreigners.  Foreigners is all that we are.


 Few of my neighbors are trees.  Nearly all my bird neighbors are crows.  My neighbor the sky is heavily cross-hatched by my neighbors the electrical wires.  Almost none of my dog neighbors run around in the street naked.  They were sweaters and raincoats and sometimes little boots.  My flower neighbors live exclusively in pots, except for one petunia, who grows from a crack in the sidewalk three houses down, between the cube house and Supermax.  Every time I walk past I check to see how she is doing.  I make sure she has enough water, that her spent blooms have been pinched off.  Even though she grows almost in the street, her condition is excellent.  I believe that I am not the only one who has chosen to look after her, my cheerful and determined purple petunia neighbor.


My next door neighbor on the right side lives in a house that is a nearly perfect cube, almost windowless, and surrounded by a high wall.  To an American, the place might call to mind a small exclusive museum of modern art.  To a Japanese, it is simply the kind of house that is popular nowadays, if you happen to be very rich and living in a fashionable part of town.

Many years ago, when the family next door first moved in, they rang our doorbell to introduce themselves, to apologize for the construction noise, and to present us with a giant box of shrimp-flavored crackers.

My husband and I were thrilled.  Father, mother and son were all warmly courteous.  They had spent time overseas, and were obviously relieved that my husband spoke fluent Japanese.  They mentioned that they liked pizza parties and we all enthusiastically agreed that we’d all get together for a pizza party very soon, so that we could properly get to know each other.  Everyone was delighted, or so it appeared.

Nearly ten years have passed since that day.  They’ve never spoken to us again.

My husband and I often wonder about this.  (As is not doubt already evident, when you never talk to your neighbors, you have too much time to think about them.)  We could not help but wonder if it might not be because we are homosexuals, an American gay married couple.  The family had a small boy – he’s a teenager now – perhaps they were concerned that we might be pedophiles.  It is a well-known fact that many foreigners in Asia are sex maniacs. 

Actually, this is the truth.  Many long-term foreigners in Asia are sex maniacs.  But not pedophiles.  Seriously, why else would anyone stay so long in Tokyo?  (You don’t seriously think it’s for the money.)

After all these years I admit that I still sometimes feel angry at these unfriendly neighbors, at their blank stare of a house.  I feel it especially when my husband says, “They said they loved pizza parties!” in a sad, uncomprehending voice.


Although the almost windowless cube house next door may seem to us oppressive, it’s Cinderella’s Castle compared to a house further down the block on this side, a house with an even higher wall, with a militaristic gate and slits of windows appropriate for bow and arrow battles with blood-thirsty Native Americans on horseback.  It appears that they went to their architect with several million dollars and said,  “Our theme is Supermax”. 

This could be the home of the richest warlord in Afghanistan, a stronghold amid anarchy, instead of a luxury home in Tokyo, a city which is still so safe you could walk almost anywhere, at 3am, alone and entirely naked, with pointy nipples, at the age of 14, without anyone laying a finger on you, until a policeman swooped upon you, with an overcoat and copious apologies, and escorted you in the direction of affordable public health care.

It is popular, among the upper class, to build oneself a fortress.  And this is not only an appearance.  Of all my neighbors, the mousy couple who live in this house appear the most afraid, if I happen to walk past while they are passing through their gate.  They appear convinced that I am going to rape, rob and disembowel them, and never mind that I have so far lived ten years in this neighborhood without so far assaulting anyone. 

But then again, perhaps they are correct.  Maybe I am dangerous.  Because sometimes when I see them, cringing at their gate, fumbling with the controls, I have to fight back the urge to let loose a booming roar, like an anguished American Grizzly Bear.


One possibility that should never be overlooked is the possibility that we are simply atrocious people.  Indeed, there is some evidence in that direction.  I am a sex maniac -- as will become clear momentarily -- living abroad as nearly all sex maniacs yearn to do.  I am the sort of person who writes

My husband, on the other hand, does a mean impersonation of The Perfect Foreigner.  Speaks, reads, writes Japanese, has beautiful manners and twenty years experience in Japan.  He is as threatening as the host of a TV show for pre-schoolers.

However he receives the same treatment I do, despite drastically better behavior, despite the fact that, as surely is apparent by now, he is a sweet-natured optimist and I am a moral swamp of self-regard and petulance.  How unfortunate for my husband.  On several counts.  But in Tokyo there is no reward for being good. 

It is common for long-term foreigners in Tokyo to get twisted into some very peculiar shapes.  Tokyo Monsters, that’s what I call us.  It is ordinary for foreigners in Tokyo to act in ways that are heedless and appalling.  I am often ashamed of others’ actions.  I am often ashamed of myself.  Why can’t we just follow the rules?  Why can’t we just behave?

The truth is, it is difficult to follow the rules when you know you will never be admitted anyway.  There are rules, there are infinite rules, and after awhile it is hard to feel that they matter.  You can behave and behave and behave – Tokyo will continue to stare through you.  After awhile you think, I might as well cross my legs and drink beer on the train.


Our neighbors directly across the street are accountants.  The office is below and an old man and old woman live upstairs.  The old man is the accountant, I believe, and there is also a solid-looking middle-aged man in a suit who comes each day to work for them.

The old man and old woman will not acknowledge my husband and I under any circumstances.  They stare through us even when we stand directly in front of them.  Attempts to appear cheerful and harmless avail us nothing.  We are ghosts.

For a long time it seemed that, every time I looked across the street, the old woman was standing on her balcony or at her window, peering over at us.  Any time we played music or danced or had guests or embraced, there was the old woman, staring at us.  It got so that I grinned and waved frantically at her, with both hands, like a Japanese Junior High School girl ecstatically greeting teammates at the airport.  Recently I have not seen her spying on us, which does not mean of course that she isn’t spying.

I wonder what she could possibly see that would make us so wholly unacceptable.  I wonder if she ever thinks, They look lonely.


I had an embarrassing encounter with the accountant who works downstairs across the street, a nice-looking middle-aged businessman.  Well, not exactly an encounter.

It was a stormy afternoon.  Actually it was raining quite heavily.  And there is something about pounding rain which produces in me heated expressions of universal friendliness, which regrettably I am often compelled to take care of by myself.

Anyway, during the pounding rainstorm, during an escalating crisis of extreme friendliness, there was a very large flash and a very large boom.  Startled, I jumped to the sliding glass door to look out, at exactly the same moment at which the accountant looked out, and saw me, in an all-too-evident state of total and urgent good will. 

The look he gave me was, in my opinion, a very thorough and appraising look, as you’d expect from a professional accountant.  A downright neighborly look.

Of course I could be mistaken.  The look, long though it seemed, lasted hardly longer than the flash of light.  Even among straight men there is of course. . .  a certain curiosity about cultural differences.  Naturally I felt profoundly ashamed.  Mortified.  And also somewhat hopeful.

I hold out hope for this gentleman.  What a boon it would be to have a friendly neighbor!

Please do not imagine that I am some kind of hedonist.  Heavens, no!  My husband is innately conservative, from a first-rate Iowan family.  Like all gay married couples, our only aspiration is to live in a way that will allow us to fulfill all the dumb assumptions about marriage that straight people see fit to hoist upon us.  Monogamy is the cornerstone of this.

Nonetheless, I am certain my husband would excuse me if I seduced the accountant across the way.
He knows that good behavior, however laudable, is no way to meet people in Tokyo.  Bad behavior is the only way.


 If you want to get along with your Japanese neighbors, garbage is an essential consideration.  And, in Tokyo, garbage is highly complicated.  After all, there are 37 million people in the metro area.  We can’t all just throw out our trash willy-nilly.

There are burnable days and non-burnable days.  (I like to say this aloud.  It’s a burnable day, I proclaim, and feel myself ready for the pyre.)  There is a special way to cut milk cartons.  Cardboard boxes must be flattened and secured.  There’s a special place for cans and bottles; all plastics must be pristine.  There’s a schedule for large items, which require special stickers and an additional fee.

Although garbage is somewhat complicated, the situation with garbage and neighbors is clear-cut.  If you do the garbage wrong, your neighbors will hate you.  Forever.  OK, maybe not forever.  Three generations minimum.  Their resentment is unburnable. There is no special sticker, there is no special fee.  It can never be taken away.

Naturally we are extremely careful about garbage.  We double-check the days.  We study our neighbors’ garbage to make sure our garbage matches.  We even arranged for a special tutorial with our friendliest neighbor, in order to learn the correct way to cut and bundle milk cartons.

Nonetheless, over the part decade, we have been wrong several times.  Once we even put out our burnables on a non-burnable day.  The crows scattered them all over the street. 

So that’s it.  We’re finished.  Of course we still try to be good.  Just the same we can’t help but feel that, good intentions aside, it’s simply too late for us.  We did our garbage wrong.


Secretly we wish for our neighbors to love us.  Not only because we are sex maniacs, but also because we have been saddled with ardent hearts, hearts hungry as a pack of wild dogs.  Our neighbors’ attempts to keep a distance only cause us to clutch them more tightly.  We love them all so exceedingly much.  We resent them as much as if we’d given birth to them. 

We would like nothing more than to have the neighbors over, now and then. For rice crackers, green tea, and hard liquor.  For orgies and high tea.  So that we could feed them and grin helplessly.  And beg their forgiveness.  And forgive them everything. 

Surely it is no wonder that there are sometimes misunderstandings.  Knowing each other so little, and needing each other so much.  Living as closely as we do, here in Tokyo, the city ranked highest for convenience.  And lowest for sexual satisfaction.  Tokyo, the loneliest city in the world.

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