First of all, I did not come to Japan to be a model. Secondly, I did not come to Japan to speak French. Nor did I come to Japan to eat at a Denny’s or its equivalent.
And yet…. I seem to lead a surreal life. So, apparently, I did come to Japan to do all of these things.
It began with a letter in the mail. My friend read it, looked up and asked me: “Do you want a modeling job?”
“What?” was all I could come up with.
“As a model. A paid model. The agency needs five gaijin business people for a photoshoot. I don’t want to do it, but if you want….“
“Well sure. Why not?” I heard myself reply, as a dozen disconnected thoughts went whizzing through my head.
“OK,” he said. “I’ll let them know.” And that was apparently that.
A little background – gaijin in Japan do not just automatically get letters asking them to model. My friend has two very handsome sons. They are also what is known as hafu, which is to say they are of mixed parentage. And that “Asian light” look is apparently highly desirable among Japanese modeling agencies and clients. Both of his sons had been recruited in grocery stores by talent scouts, and both had starred in ad campaigns across the city and on TV. So the modeling agency knows my friend exists – so when they need a straight-up middle-aged gaijin for a job, they call him.
“Do they give a damn what I look like?” I had started to think about it. Modeling agencies use, well, models. I mean, I don’t crack mirrors, but then again I’ve never been told I was model material, and never told myself that either.
“Not really. The letter just says they need ‘five foreigners and five Japanese, business attire.’ But we’ll send a cell phone image ahead of time just in case.”
“And I’m here on a tourist visa. I‘m not supposed to be able to work.”
“Good point. I’ll ask and make sure it’s all right.”
“And I didn’t bring any business clothes whatsoever.”
“Boy, you are just Mr. Endless Problems, aren’t you. You can borrow one of my suits.”
“And I don’t speak the language.”
“Someone will speak English. It’ll be just like Lost in Translation.”
While I only saw that movie once, and many years ago, I have very fond memories of it—Bill Murray listening intently to a Japanese photographer explain his vision at length, not understanding a word, the translator summing it up with “more intensity.” And then there was Scarlett Johanssen. Yes there was Scarlett Johanssen…
The night before, I went through my friend’s suits to find one that fit. Sadly, he’s about 40 lbs heavier and an inch taller than I am. Most of his suits made me look like later David Byrne. Happily, we found an old black suit jacket from his youth that was just very big on me, but believable. The shoulders were white with dust, but we brushed most of it off and it wasn’t too noticeable at a distance. He then found some baggy wool trousers that, with the help of a belt, didn’t slide off if I walked anywhere. A conservative tie finished the ensemble, and I was ready to go – except for the shoes.
“All I have are my red suede shoes. But they’re not ‘business’ attire,’” I whined.
The only other shoes I had were a pair of over-sized gumboots I had bought in a hardware store to get around in rainy/snowy Kanazawa. They might have said ‘agribusiness’, but neither of us thought it would be a good idea to wear them.
“Chances are good that they’ll never take a photo of you with your shoes on. It should be all be inside shots.”
“But the letter said the women should wear heels.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
So I didn’t.
The morning of the shoot, I set off wearing red suede shoes, very large and baggy gray-tweed trousers, an equally-oversized black suit jacket from the 1980’s with dusty shoulders and a tie with some made–up school crest on it. I felt a bit as if I’d just been hit by a Thrift-shop truck on my way to stand around a lot of beautiful people. Thankfully, my friend’s (very attractive) Japanese wife came along, and she speaks near-perfect English (and Japanese).
We arrived at a temple that was partially under construction, unsure where to find the entrance. The model agency manager found us and guided us to the temple’s café, down a very muddy pathway with jackhammers running on either side. My friend’s wife had sensibly worn her gumboots and brought along heels if needed. I hadn’t.
We left our muddy shoes at the door of the temple and were ushered into the unheated hall outside the café, and asked to wait in our socks. The temperature outside was about 2 degrees Celsius, and not much warmer inside. We could see our breath as talked, and I swear the floor had a refrigeration unit installed beneath the tatmi mats. Looking around, I noted a poster showing a very cheery priest with a microphone, dates, and lots of kanji that I couldn’t begin to understand. I began to worry that my photos would be used to promote a political campaign for a Japanese nationalist party, demanding the expulsion of all foreigners, or some such. But my friend’s wife told me not to worry.
We met and talked with a man named Honda. He was very nice.
Another of the models arrived, a very nice fellow who introduced himself as “Honda.” I noted he didn’t look spectacularly handsome, and I felt much more at ease. They really did seem to want regular-looking people for this shoot.
Then the rest of the models arrived. Walking up to the temple I saw three utterly gorgeous Western women in spike heels and miniskirts tottering through the snow and mud. Following them were two utterly gorgeous Japanese women, also tottering in heels.
Behind them was a dashingly handsome Japanese man. I looked back again at Honda and realized that from certain angles he was rather handsome. I tried holding my breath to fill out my suit jacket. But then a Westerner arrived, and he looked rather hang-dog.
The agency manager ushered us into a relatively warm room, where at least we couldn’t see our breath. Then the awkward silences began. Honda spoke to me in Japanese and I stared back or flipped through my phrasebook and produced replies as best I could. The other gaijin all seemed to speak fluent Japanese and weren’t paying me any mind. I stood next to the hang-dog looking fellow, noted his long nose and sunken eyes made him look a bit like Gru with a hangover. But he didn’t say anything.
So I just stood there.
After about a half an hour, the manager ushered us into one of the Temple’s larger (and unheated) rooms where a number of tables had been spread out in horseshoe fashion. The manager placed everyone at specific spots, some had papers in front of them, others had laptops. Everyone sat around the horseshoe as if they were having a business meeting. With no shoes on. In the frigid cold. Our breath visible. Enviously, I noted the photographer wore a big down jacket and hat.
The photographer walked up to me and said an awful lot in Japanese. At the same time, thankfully, the motioned where I should stand, which happened to be in front of the entire group, as if to address them. She then handed me some papers to hold. Lights Camera Action.
“Talk!” said the manager. So I did. With beautiful people staring up at me, pretending I was delivering something of note.
Do you have a fear of speaking? I do. It’s not enough to prevent me from doing it, but it is enough to make it exciting...
This time, I had no clue I was supposed to speak until I was standing in front of the crowd. And I had absolutely nothing to say. And I didn’t have a language to say it in. And I was saying it to a crowd of spectacularly beautiful people and Gru. So I felt the gremlins start to crawl up the insides of my eyeballs.
“Just speak,” my friend’s wife said, looking up at me, the photographer also waiting.
“In Nihongo?" I asked with a squeak. The group all chuckled. They knew exactly what was going on inside my eyeballs, and may have been enjoying it.
“Um, well, we’re today for this important business meeting, ah yes,” I began. They stared at me with professional interest. Such rapt looks!
“So um, yes. Well, then next we should look at these papers….” Their unwavering attention at my every word was really off-putting, the camera clicking away.
“And furthermore, um, watashi no hobakurafuto wa unagi de ippai desu,” they started to laugh. Click click click went the camera.
“and this, um contract doesn’t say anything…” I searched for the stock Japanese phrases I had learned, the ones that came to mind immediately were utterly filthy, and I had to bite my tongue to not use them.
“…because watashi no atama wa konkureito de dekiteimasu” which fetched a bigger laugh, clickety click.
I rattled on a half-baked stand-up comic, successful only because the audience was paid to laugh.
“Daijobou!” It was over nearly as it had begun. Shaking with cold and nerves, we all got up and went back to the warm room to wait again.
While we waited again, I discovered that one of the pretty models and Gru were Russian. Another of them was Ukrainian. The three spoke excellent Japanese, but not a word of English, all emigrants to Japan of many years. Another one of the models was French, so I chatted with her for a while. While her Japanese was excellent, she seemed delighted to find someone who spoke her native tongue, albeit very imperfectly. It took a huge squeeze of the brain to get from trying-to-think-in-baby-Japanese to trying-to-remember-French, and a lot of words came out sideways.
Honda amiably drove us in his Toyota to the next location, another temple on the other side of town. He had a stink bug in his car. It looked just like the ones back home. The French model said she had them in her Paris apartment too. A little global citizen. No one else wanted to touch it, so I helped it to exit the vehicle.
The next shoot was in another grand hall, also unheated. We were to show a Summertime meeting scene—so off came our jackets, up rolled our sleeves, our breath still visible. I sat with a dummy laptop in front of me and pretended to be thoughtful as two other models debated the origin of French Fries in shaky English because it was funny and made everyone laugh.
Then we went for lunch. Honda drove us again.
We arrived at what looked all the world like a Denny’s. Inside were the same kind of vinyl bench seating around Formica tables. The waitresses wore similar uniforms. There was a self-serve drink bar. The menu had beef stew with potatoes and carrots, burgers with gravy, and spaghetti dishes. But this was Japan, so the spaghetti carbonara had nori (dried strips of algae) sprinkled on top, and the drinks bar had a soup dispenser and a green-tea dispenser. I sat amid that group of beautiful people eating spaghetti with chopsticks feeling, well, surreal.
The third location, it turned out, was up in the mountains, at an onsen, a Japanese bath. Honda obligingly drove us.
The first shoot was in a partially-heated conference room. We sat at tables arranged classroom style. At the front, the Russian model taught us the Cyrillic alphabet on a white board. The photographer stuck me up front, and when I glanced at him, noted he was pointing the camera right at me.
Afterwards, we were herded to a banquet hall where the onsen staff had laid out a huge spread of the most delicious-looking food: sushi, salmon salads, desserts, a beef stew (what is it with beef stew in Japan?), desserts, beer and wine.
They arranged people here, there and stuck me at the head. Apparently it was my job to be the big cheese and say “Kampai!” They handed me a glass. They filled it with brown ice tea, I suppose to look like whisky, or perhaps like ice tea, who knows. I stood there and toasted standing up. Then sitting down. With my right hand, then with my left. The photographer took me by the arm and talked to me in rapid-fire Japanese. I really wanted to ask “more intensity?” when he finished, but I didn’t. My friend’s wife said “he wants you to lower your arm a little, and toast lower.” So I did.
I had super-happy, beautiful faces staring at me, the cream of the integrated global business elite, and I was toasting them to celebrate our decisive conquest of the Kanazawa market through whiteboards, lectures and presentations, shoeless in cold temples. What a moment.
And then the photographer said something. We were done. And we could eat the feast. So we did. And it was just as good as it looked. Then we got paid and went home.
Apparently, my fifteen minutes of fame happened yesterday. I was Big in Japan for a day. Now with my nerves settled, I’m back to a simple life in the Kanazawa suburbs, working on book proposals, washing dishes and helping my friend’s kids with their English homework.