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The Tokyo commuter
train slowed to a stop alongside the Shibuya Station platform before its doors
opened and a sea of black hair flowed first out of the train, then another tide
flowed into the train. The sea was parted by the occasional teenager or grandmother
sporting green and purple hair, but not nearly as much as by the blonde American's
hair, which parted it now. Until the train became so crowded that all bodies
touched and swayed together, an empty circle remained around the unique man.
The train, packed
as it was, made another man who also was a stranger there grimace as it pulled
up to the platform a few stops down the line. The second foreigner's only consolation
was his quasi-compatriot's face. The newcomer was only able to crowd onto the
train with the rest of the homeward bound commuters and had to wait another
stop for the chance to make his way to his friend. The latter had already seen
his near countryman board the train on the same car and greeted him with a slight
"How was class
today?" the approaching man asked.
"Same as always.
It was hard to explain the grammar. I had this shokyu class that got
stuck on 'is, am, and are.'"
of my students, an old guy in the jokyu class," the other started
as if his companion had asked him in return how his day had been, "He wouldn't
believe me that 'I took my kids fishing' was correct! He insisted that it was
'I took my kids to fishing.' I tried to explain that it was like 'I go
shopping,' not 'I go to shopping,' but he wouldn't believe me! He said,
'I think I'm correct' in front of everyone!"
his friend sympathized, shaking his head.
the native English speaker!"
died momentarily as Owen, the blonde foreigner, stared at a suggestive advertisement
on the train wall. Such an ad, though in the minority among the thousands of
posters striving to grasp the attention of commuters, was nothing new in the
once conservative Japanese society. The look on Owen's face seemed to say, "Never
in America would you see an ad like that."
Sanders, did not share his expression as he glanced at a different poster, one
showing the rolling hills of rural Japan. Dense forest covered the terrain like
a dark green blanket, and in the foreground of the picture was an immaculate
and ornate Japanese castle. The contrast of the ancient building's bright red
and white against the forest caught Sanders eye. He could not read the characters
written on the ad, but he seemed drawn in by their mystery. "You ever get
out to the countryside?" he asked Owen as he lifted his forefinger towards
"No. I wanna
sometime though, at least before I go back to the states."
Neither of them
had ventured outside the gray walls of the city. They stayed on the train lines
they knew and supposed that they had seen all there was to see. All they fathomed
of the traditional Japanese culture were petite women walking in kimonos
with hands clasped together under concealing sleeves. Never did the notion enter
into their imaginations that the Japan before their eyes was a world transformed
by the imperialism of the western world, especially American culture. Traditional
Japan had been preserved only by the prior xenophobia of the island nation.
Now, centuries later, the doctrine of taking the best of the outside world and
making it their own had brought with it the worst of the world as well.
The train jerked,
sending its standing passengers scrambling to keep their balance. The doors
opened, and after an exhalation of bodies, an even larger wave of newcomers
invaded the already full car. Among these were a few kokoseis, apparently
coming from long hours of study wearing their dark uniforms, and more likely
going to spend their off hours with their peers than at home.
One of these promptly
got shoved by the crowd to the back corner of the car. Like a weak wildebeest
separated from the herd by lions, the young girl was pinned with her back against
the wall. Other elderly passengers were caught too close to the doors when they
opened and were sucked out with the out going rush like ice cubes in juice being
poured. These reboarded the train once the tide of bodies turned inward. Sometimes,
when the train was not so crowded, a brave and courteous young person would
give up their seat along the walls of the car to one of their elders while others
pretended to be asleep so they would not feel awkward while pretending the aged
person was invisible, but not when the train was this crowded. Now, those unfortunate
enough to be standing in front of the packed seats were nearly shoved into the
laps of those sitting.
The slender kokosei
who had been herded to the back of the car was smaller than average height.
She wore overly thick soled shoes and a hiked up, pleated skirt to compensate
for her stature. Anyone could see that she obviously subscribed to the common
belief that a short skirt would make her legs look longer, and her taller. Her
white blouse and slightly tinted hair contrasted with the darker jacket and
skirt of her school uniform. Though an American might have been fooled by her
young face into thinking she was a middle schooler, any native could tell by
her high school uniform that she was a third year kokosei. The long,
white socks that ran all the way up to the base of her knees were far too baggy
to stay up if not for the glue that held them against her shaved legs. In other
words, she was a typical kokosei.
At first, the outrageously
overcrowded commuter trains were a novelty to the two foreigners. But as time
wore on, they felt the monotony that the native passengers had known all their
lives. The uniformed station workers who pushed people in tightly with their
white gloves so that train doors could close were no longer interesting. The
occasional suicidal jumper meant only delays and worse than usual crowding.
The stink of millions of sweaty bodies who didn't use deodorant would have been
unbearable on the commute home if not for the fact that the two strangers were
the tallest riders on the train.
Owen was the ideal
foreigner to sojourn in Japan. He was a young, blonde, blue eyed American with
a quiet demeanor, which made him extremely popular. The rising generation would
indiscreetly finger his surreal hair and would touched his eyes too if he would
let them. Adults mistook his quiet manner for tact, giving them the impression
that he had been assimilated into the stiff culture.
To some extent
Owen had been assimilated. He judged other gaijins or foreigners by how
long they had been in Japan. He was no longer shocked by the infinite differences
with his former world, such as the ever present scent of cigarette smoke, or
the daily pornographic flyer in his mailbox, or even the trains so crowded that
he could lift his feet off the floor without falling over. In his thirst for
alcohol, Owen had even acquired a liking of sake, though he could still not
bring himself to like sashimi or sushi.
Sanders was not
as well suited for Japanese living. He had yet to drink mugicha without
cringing and could not even proficiently manipulate chopsticks. His hair was
an unfortunate brown which was not as envied as his companion's natural blonde,
but was still better than the black hair of other Westerners who would not stand
out at all if not for their conspicuous height and long noses. Most of all,
Sanders had not been teaching English in Japan as long as Owen, which made him
the obvious subordinate to his experienced superior.
Owen prided himself
on being an American and not a Brit like Sanders. He would sometimes tease him
about the last letter of the alphabet being "zee," not "zed."
Still, most of the students in his English classes had been taught it was "zed,"
which Owen made a point to correct them on.
In the United States
or United Kingdom, the pair would have been ordinary and rather boring people,
but here in Japan they were special outsiders, and they knew it. "You ever
notice how people avoid crowding us on the train 'cause we're gaijins?"
"You see that,
too? Yeah, I figure maybe they think we smell funny, or maybe they're scared
we got a gun or something. I've had so many students think that guns and drugs
are everywhere in America, just like on TV and in the movies."
at the same time, they all worship us," Sanders replied as if he weren't
from Britain. "All those teenagers that dress like gangsters and dye their
hair want be Americans," he retorted. "I've even had some of them
tell me they wish they weren't Japanese but Americans. That's so ridiculous
that they envy us and are afraid of us too."
you mean, but you don't always get avoided on the train. I've heard other guys
say that sometimes they get people that press up against them when it's really
not crowded, trying to cop a feel off them."
"What do you
mean, 'Cop a feel?'" Sanders asked.
heard about what happens on these trains?" Owen looked about cautiously
before he made his next remark. No one there looked to him like they understood
what he was saying, so he continued. "There are perverts that take advantage
of when the train is crowded, to touch people."
The pair spoke
in a hushed tone, but neither of them feared too greatly that the Japanese around
them understood their conversation enough to get offended. They were too engrossed
with each other's company to notice what was going on around them. Among the
dozens of black haired heads surrounding them, they did not notice a man standing
a short distance away, facing the kokosei pinned against the wall. The
middle-aged man wore the inconspicuous, dark business suit just like almost
every other male his age on the train, making him appear to carry the prestigious
title transliterated from English of sarariman. His wrinkled and crevassed
face distracted from the pepper hair of black and gray. The two Americans did
not see what he was doing. No one else in the crowded train car noticed either,
or they saw but did nothing.
think about doing something with the girls here in Japan?" asked Sanders.
Owen recoiled. "Did I ever tell you the story of the oats and hay?"
"No, I don't
was this horse whose owner always fed him oats. But then the owner fell on hard
times and had to sell the horse to someone who fed the horse hay. Well, at first
the horse was like, 'This stuff is disgusting,' but then he got used to it,
and eventually he started to like it. But then the horse's original owner came
upon enough money to buy the horse back, and so he bought the horse back and
fed him oats all the time again. And the horse was like, 'Man, what was I thinking,
believing that hay was good?'
like oats better than hay?"
the point of the story is that we've been surrounded by American girls all our
lives, or British girls in your case. Then we come here and at first think all
the chicks here are butt ugly, but after a while we get used to them. Just wait
till you get back to England . . . ."
Owen cut off his
comment suddenly when he looked to his side and saw the short Japanese girl
who had made her way from the back of the train car, standing there with tears
rolling down her cheeks. Owen hadn't seen her there a moment earlier. Both aliens
looked first at the kokosei, then at each other, then down. She remained
silent and exited the train at the next stop, running away on the platform and
up the stairs as soon as the doors opened. The old man still near the back wall
of the car watched her through the train windows as she ran out of sight.
Neither of the
foreigners said anything, but their faces and ears coloured. They got off at
the very next stop just to switch train cars. They never even saw the man wearing
a business suit who exited a stop after them to do the same.