We are walking home after the last class at about 10 pm, bundled up and under umbrellas. It’s dark and a light rain comes down, mixed with patches of snow. The temperature hovers around 2 or 3 degrees Celsius. Thankfully, the wind is low tonight, just a few gusts now and again. The coastline of the stormy Sea of Japan is perhaps two miles away; but it seems to hover just above us. The weight of the sky is huge and threatens to drop entirely at any time—Kanazawa in winter. The nearly constant cold rain and wind, it’s like living on the prow of a ship.
No one else is on the street and we trudge along over soggy piles of yesterday’s snow without much noise, past a strange mix of traditional Japanese wood houses with tiled roofs and dainty trees in front and modern 3-storey concrete buildings and parking lots. All are dark at this hour. Everyone seems asleep. A few cars go by, but not many. We’d take a bus, but there are no buses to take. The last bus is at 8pm because, well, this is Saturday night. On weekdays the buses run until 11:30 pm. But not on weekends. These are strange seas.
We are heading for a local all-night market to buy chips and beer to take home by taxi.
The 7 Eleven is so bright, the fluorescents inside hurt my eyes from around the corner. It looks utterly out of place like a sterile and modern oasis in the middle of this Melvillian world. We walk inside and it’s as if we have been transported to New Jersey, 2017. The same shelves stuffed with shiny bags of chips, nuts and candies. The same hot case with rotating hotdogs, pretzels and deep-fried breaded chicken. The same premade sandwiches in an open refrigerated display. The same fridges along the back wall with sodas, juices and beer. The same awkward employees in polyester uniforms busy with something one corner.
But this is Japan, so everything is slightly different. Nothing in the hot case has a recognizable shape except the hot dogs. They are breaded, greasy and deep fried, but their oblong and polygonal shapes suggest alien sea-creatures instead of chickens and cows. The sandwich case has plastic boxes of sushi, sandwiches with tentacles curling out from them, and what look like leather straps that have been rolled in dirt. I am left uncertain. The chips bags have pictures of things on them that I do not associate with chips, such as shrimps and lobsters and… is that roe? Hmmm. Well, I just have to try that, then.
At least the beer looks normal.
The case has a range of cheap malt liquors, regular beer and high end stuff. I pick one of the top shelf bottles, something by Kirin, a recognizable brand.
On the way to the register, we pass by a long shelf of magazines and books. I note come-hither eyes peeking out at me from all the shelves. All the magazines have young women on the covers. A glance confirms that this is the porn section, and it is peculiarly varied. An entire magazine dedicated to Nurses? Pregnant Russians? You have to be kidding me. And the huge bookshelf of manga next to the magazines, well, hmm, let’s see. I take one off the shelf and flip open to a random page. Sure enough it’s pornographic. And is that position even humanly possible? Then I swivel my head to confirm. Yep: the shelving space dedicated to porn is pretty much as big as the wall dedicated to beer. And I don’t believe we’re in a bad part of town. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
We pay up, draw a prize, which happens to be a package of cooking roux, cream of chicken flavor, and head back out into the cold in search of a taxi to get the rest of the way home. Slogging along the road again a police car passes us.
“Two gaijin walking at this time of night? That’s too suspicious. Watch this,” my friend mutters. I look behind to see the car slow down and stop. It then pulls a u-turn and begins to tail us, driving at the speed we’re walking but about 100 yards back.
The police car follows us. It’s a bit unnerving. Will we be stopped? Should I have my passport on me? Is it a crime not to in Japan? What rights do I have if they pick us up on suspicion of being suspicious? We keep walking at a steady pace, silently, not looking back.
After a good five minutes that seems like a lifetime, the car passes us slowly. I don’t look over at them. I figure eye-contact would be considered aggressive.
After they leave, I hear some sobering talk from my friend about the difficulties of living in Japan as a foreigner. The cops come by his house on a regular basis, just sort of to make sure everything is OK, but don’t seem to offer this service to his ethnically Japanese neighbors. They follow him on his bicycle home after work without ever stopping him. The cops make it very plain that they “know where he lives.” The news trumpets stories of the crimes that foreigners commit. A wide variety of official institutional hurdles make it more expensive and more difficult for foreigners to settle long-term or permanently. Even second and third generation immigrants are not treated equally with native Japanese. Being white in Japan, he suggests, is a bit like being Black or Hispanic in America: the lack of integration, the social uncertainty and suspicion, and media-fanned fear, the subtle and not-so-subtle harassment. Japan has ocean all around it, so no rhetoric about building a wall, just the very-real threat of deportation.
At the cross-walk, we wait for the light even though there is no car in sight, and little chance of one at this hour. After all, the parked car over there could be the police waiting for an excuse to pick us up. Or maybe they’re in that car over there.
We get back home without further incident, unpack the goodies and get to work.
The chips turn out to be “spicy cod roe and butter” flavor. They’re quite good and very buttery. Can’t quite make out the roe taste, but I’m sure it’s there. I munch down the bag and wish we had them back home in Connecticut.
The beer is a “Dip Hop IPL” which doesn’t make any sense, but I do feel the slight urge to dance around the room after drinking it. On the back of the label is a drawing suggesting the correct response to drinking this bottle. I don’t quite get there, but I am put in mind of the delights of Japan, the other side of life here that has captivated my friend. Yeah, it seems that foreigners will never be “accepted” by strangers, the media, or the police; but my friend has been happily married to a Japanese woman now for 20 years, has two sons who are bright, handsome and at the top of their class in school. He runs a very successful language school, gets along brilliantly with his students, their parents and everyone else in his neighborhood. And after 27 years here, he considers himself a first-generation immigrant, engaged, and thriving.
What makes Japan such a delight? For me it’s obviously the froth of a wild new world, a broad expanse of the unexplored, a cultural white whale for a happy go-lucky type of Ahab. For him it’s something else, more abiding and substantial. In any event, one thing I have learned is that the level of English instruction here is exceptional. Piko Taro deftly explains the etymological, agglutinative and everyday practical relationships between pens, apples and pineapples to eager Japanese students. At over 110 million views, I’d say the Japanese have these concepts down pat by now. Maybe if I could do the same justice to the relationships between sand, a witch and a sandwich, they’d put me on a game show.