Eavesdropping

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On my way home on the train this evening I over heard two drunk senior Japanese business men having this conversation. It was interesting for several reasons: First, it seemed to represent the two main faces of how Japanese are feeling about themselves today, one a very polite and amiable face, the other, much more rarely seen unless the personage happens to be drunk, full of trepidation and suppressed anger and frustration. Second, because one of the men was slyly directing his comments at me, a foreigner whom he imagined could not possibly understand their conversation, their words rang against the bell of my own two-faced feelings about Japan right now. Third, their conversation budded directly from the seed that Bush planted three years ago, digging deep into the feelings the world’s populace has about their own place in the world and how outsiders see them and how they see outsiders. To a different degree I’m sure this same sprouting seed is growing throughout the Muslim world, albeit in much more explosive and anguished ways. But if a self-effacing Japanese businessman can feel like this, than just imagine what others feel.

I surreptitiously listened to the two businessmen while playing a game of Othello on my cell phone…

“Have you been to the Kabuki-cho district recently?”.

The other man shook his head, his face tomato red with alcohol. “No, my dear sir, I have not,” he replied with exaggerated courtesy. “Spend most of my drinking time around Ginza after work.”

“You should go. It’s still got quite a few good places left.”

“You mean you still go?”

“Well, yes, occasionally. My son lives near there.”

“Your son? The one with blonde hair?”

“That’s him. Gives me hell when I tease him about the hair. Now what business does a Japanese have walking around with blonde hair, you tell me?”

The other man leaned over and smiled. “You shouldn’t say mean things about your son. It’s not seemly.”

“Ah, you’re right. You’re right. But it makes me so mad.”

“What, that he has blonde hair?”

“No, no. That he lives near Kabuki-cho.”

“But I thought you said it is still a good area.”

“Well, yes, there are still a few good places left there, but my son shouldn’t be living there.”

“Why ever not? He’s got to live somewhere.”

“True, but that’s not a place for decent people to live.”

“Is he a decent person?”

“Of course! He’s my son, isn’t he?”

“Yes, yes. That he is. That he is.”

“It’s just that people don’t watch out for one another any more. These Tokyo people don’t talk to each other any more. You live somewhere and you don’t even know your neighbors.”

“Things are changing. They’re always changing. It’s the way of the world.”

“But it wasn’t like that thirty years ago. Neighbors made an effort to be there for each other then. Like back in my hometown in Kyushu.”

“You from Kyushu?”

“Small town outside of Fukuoka. You’re from the country, too, aren’t you?”

“Sort of. My family moved around a lot. Tokyo’s been the longest.”

“My son is being sent to Hokkaido next year.”

“Ah, it’s starting then, is it? The years of moving around for work?”

“Yes, and his company doesn’t have drinking after work. It’s all work until late at night, without even a little chance to have some fun. I say he ought to quit a company like that. What’s the point in working if you can’t enjoy a little of the fruits of your labor?”

The other man nodded solemnly, grunting his agreement and swaying a bit too far with the jolt of the train.

The first man continued, “Something is really wrong with the Japanese people.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, first you got them all stampeding to the cities and forgetting who they are and where they come from. Then they start only thinking about themselves and forgetting what it means to live as neighbors.” His voice rose a notch, causing the woman sitting opposite his friend to look up from her stack of computer printouts. “And finally they start letting foreigners roam the streets as if they own the place. I’ve nothing against foreigners, but this is Japan and they should remember that this is a country called Japan! Why would they choose to come to a place like this?”

The other man squinted at the first man with some concern. He reached over and patted the first man on the lap. “Whoa, whoa there old man, you’ve no reason to get so upset. We’re all on good terms here.”

The first man deflated and hung his head. “You’re right. You’re right. You’re always right. I get angry too easily…” He paused to reflect for a moment. “That’s what my wife says, at least. I get angry like an old dog. That’s why I’m glad it’s you I am talking to now. You’re an old dog just like me!”

They both burst out laughing, only realizing too late that they are making a lot of noise, and putting they’re hands over their mouths in embarrassment. The second man leaned in and behind his hand whispered, “We really are a couple of old farts, aren’t we?”

They burst out laughing again, slapping they’re knees. They laughed until they gradually fell silent. Outside I could hear the clackety-clack of the traintracks.

The first man leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. He sat up, shaking his head slowly. “But seriously, I am very worried about the future of Japan. Very worried.”

The other man nodded and grunted agreement.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the Japanese. Look at us. Here we’ve got this fool [Prime Minister] Koizumi. A fool! And we just go along with him: the Iraq war, the economy, the useless government… If I were a foreigner I would think the Japanese are a bunch of stupid gits.” He looked at his partner and shook his head. “I really think so. We Japanese are a bunch of stupid gits!” He hung his head again, a deeply pained expression gripping his face. “There is nothing wrong with our genes, that I know, but all the same we are an idiot people. We’ve got great genes though.” He looked up at his partner. “What do you think? Is there something wrong with our genes? Have foreigners got better genes than we do?”

The other man gripped the first man’s hand and held it. “My old friend, there is nothing wrong with your genes or with mine. Or with any Japanese genes. We are doing all right. Don’t fret yourself so. The world is just going through a difficult time. Everything will work itself out, you’ll see. You just have to be patient.”

“I truly hope so.”

Here the first man glanced up at me and for a split second held my eyes, before looking back down again and continuing his dialogue with his friend. “I’m glad that I ran into you here on the train. I’m so glad it was you and not my son. My son would have argued with me and just made me feel bad. It’s always like that. With you I can open my heart.”

The second man smiled and patted his friend’s hand again. “That’s exactly the way it should be, no? You and your son, me and you.”

“And me and my wife. She would have kicked me off the train with all my whining!”

They both broke out laughing again. The train arrived at my station and I turned to get off. The doors closed behind and from out in the cool night air I watched the two men continue to trade assurances from inside the warm glow of the train’s interior. The train pulled away, leaving me with a curious feeling of outrage and empathy negated. Above, the moon shone. Tomorrow would be a lunar eclipse, the whole world party to the same shadow. I wondered what the two men would say, sitting and drinking together, watching the night sky.

“It doesn’t look right through all this Tokyo smog.”

“But the tinting effect is that much more accentuated, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Hmm. Now that you point it out, so it is. So it is.”

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