Fact and Fancy
“You might say,” said N, “I moved back to Japan because of a moronic comment made four decades earlier by some redneck whose name sounds like the plural of ass cheek.”
I should clarify right off that N is an American male white Anglo-Saxon Protestant self-identifying heterosexual raised in a fourth income-quintile household by two non-immigrant parents. Otherwise, you may get entirely the wrong idea about where this story is going. Also, his name really is just N. It is not a case of using only the first letter to hide his true identity.
Whenever I write, I should do so with the objectivity and precision of a true social scientist, but minus the jargon. Jed, of whom I shall speak more, advises me to habituate this practice.
Anyway, we were drinking beer. “The comment itself is a historical fact,” continued N. “In 1976, Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture, resigned after it came out he’d said that certain people only want three things: tight pussy, loose shoes and a warm place to shit.” N ordered another pitcher of draft. “I came across this during my senior-year seminar, The Media and Ethno-Gender Empowerment in the Era of Michael Jackson and Madonna.” He ate a pretzel. “And it really got me thinking about my life.”
N’s full legal name is N Leave, which he changed from William Leave after finishing his degree in environmental communication, before moving back to Japan. Having grown up with non-stop teasing due to being called Will Leave (“Gimme back the toy.” “You don’t need it cos you Will Leave. Ha ha.” Etc.), he says he was determined to make a change.
As to choosing N, he gives three reasons: First, a single-letter name is cool, and supports his narrative of being a visual artist, rather than a guy working as an English-conversation partner. Second, N is homophonous with en (go-en, in polite form), a Japanese word learned during his year in Fukuoka. Go-en is used in connection with human relationships that bring good fortune to the particular humans involved – it seems his first Japanese girlfriend was fond of this word in the context of romance. Third, he says that N Leave sounds “like a warm breeze,” and that he is a “warm-breezy kind of guy.” Putting it all together, N says it is a good name for nanpa, that is, picking up women, particularly when he tells them, somewhat inaccurately, that Leave should be pronounced the same as Liebe, which is German for, and etymologically related to, the English word Love. N is very candid about all this.
When I first met N (in those days, Will) we were both in Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu. He was an undergraduate exchange student and I was beginning my masters in modern Japanese culture. N focused on the role of anime in society, while I was studying otaku (persons with specific obsessions, who sometimes withdraw into subcultures of like-minded individuals). My connection with the otaku world is simply a matter of intellectual fascination; I myself fall within 1.35 standard deviations of the mean on all major personality indicators.
A number of Kyushu universities had English-language programs and there were quite a few Westerners around. About half studied anime or manga and half otaku culture, though the odd one would study such things as history, philosophy, economics, science, technology, linguistics, literature or traditional Japanese art. Once, back then, N mentioned the problems of growing up as Will Leave, and I asked why he had not just told everyone to call him Bill or Billy or William. N never responded clearly and I have not pressed the point.
Early this year N moved to Tokyo, where I am doing my PhD. My dissertation topic concerns Japanese men who, while in their upper thirties, make radical changes in the focus of their obsessions, particularly from non-inflatable female dolls to toy trains or vice versa. At this stage, I should concentrate single-mindedly on my research, so I worry about still spending much time studying Japanese. N has a simpler life, working at a language school nine to five, Monday to Friday. He claims to devote himself to his artwork whenever possible, but I suspect his free time is mostly spent trying to pick up women. Or, to a lesser extent, being with women he manages to pick up.
I allow myself only three or four nights out drinking per week, and once a month meet N at the Crowned Bull, which is where he told me the Earl Butz story and its personal significance. First, “loose shoes.” Most Japanese wear loose shoes so that they can slip them on and off quickly when entering or leaving houses or temples or anywhere shoes are not permitted. In fact, stores here sell men’s shoes only in EEE width. Second is “tight pussy,” which I suppose speaks for itself; I shall omit the details and instances on which N dwelled. Third, and most straightforward, “a warm place to shit.” Typically, Japanese toilets have heated seats, as well as warm-water cleansing sprays. N said he had realized that these three phenomena were key factors in making him feel deeply comfortable during his junior year in Japan. And so, one day, right in the middle of that seminar, he made up his mind to return.
N explained all this during the evening I invited along Professor Josiah B. (“Jed”) Boating. He is, at just 36 years of age – and I say this without exaggeration – the Midwest States’ leading scholar, and among the world’s leading scholars, on the subject of Japanese persons obsessed with trains (densha otaku). Jed is my greatest mentor regarding not only my aspirations for a career in academia, but also life generally. In addition to being a brilliant scholar, Jed is extraordinarily good at getting what he wants from life.
Jed and N’s nanpa teamwork was spellbindingly efficient. Around five-thirty, women started arriving at the Crowned Bull, some in pairs and others, though alone, having arranged to meet a women friend there. Right off the bat, N explained the sorts of women who tended to show up on Thursday evenings and his own usual approach. Jed, confident and already serenely composed as a result of two quick jugs of draft, said, simply, “Bring on the babes!” It quickly became clear that Jed and N targeted women in different, but overlapping ranges in age, intelligence, English-language ability and body mass. Usually, one woman in a pair appealed more to Jed and the other more to N. So when each new pair materialized, Jed and N would consult about who would approach which, and in what order. In the rare cases only one woman in a pair appealed to either Jed or N, they quickly decided who would make the attempt. The non-attempting male would feign interest in the other woman, but would invariably end up actually interested in her.
There was a good turnover, as women patrons often departed quickly, especially after being approached by Jed and N. They were so focused, systematic and coordinated, I guess it was just bad luck that neither managed any success with his targets that evening. Nonetheless, Jed stayed characteristically tranquil and kept ordering more beer.
I myself do not pick up women, as I have a proper girlfriend with whom I share many interests. Her dissertation concerns use of social networking services among men in Saitama, Ibaraki, Chiba and Kanagawa Prefectures who are obsessed with applying make-up to female dolls. She has so far identified between nine and thirteen such men, out of the stipulated region’s total population of nineteen million people. Moreover, five have already agreed to be interviewed. She should have no trouble getting her grant support renewed.
From seven o’clock, the pub began filling up with other gaijin (i.e., foreign) men, probably coming from their office jobs. N said this always happened, and was why he thought Japanese women came to the Crowned Bull to meet foreign guys. When I suggested that he and Jed might have more success somewhere with more women and fewer foreign guys, N said he enjoyed the Crowned Bull’s variety of beers on tap. But as he invariably ordered Suntory, I suspect that he simply did not know any other bars nearby and perhaps felt more at ease around other gaijin. Jed continued to sip his beer and grin in his all-knowing way.
As the nanpa opportunities decreased, I steered the conversation in a more academic direction, noting that the otaku studies field, rich as it is, attracts great numbers of talented scholars, even in sub-disciplines such as mine. Perhaps, I suggested, changing my dissertation focus might more quickly lead to a tenure-track position. And if so, the sooner the better – before I spend yet more years engrossed with the Train/Doll Substitutability Conjecture. I was sure Jed would offer enlightening commentary, but while his attention was captured by some spilled beer N chimed in with an apposite and cautionary tale.
He said that during his year at Fukuoka Environmental University, he had a dorm roommate from Florida who studied manga depictions of otaku. One evening this roommate was invited for dinner at an off-campus apartment shared by three male Japanese students, all originally from Kagoshima Prefecture. A large roast chicken was placed at the centre of the cheap folding table they used at mealtime. After saying itadakimasu (the standard pre-dining expression of gratitude and humility), the three Japanese leaned forward in their chairs, bent their heads toward the floor and poked their elbows upward, each mimicking the shape of the roast chicken. They held that posture for several seconds. Then they started serving and eating, and nothing else happened that was particularly remarkable.
Afterwards, the roommate puzzled over this event and consulted a number of fellow gaijin. None could shed light on the astonishing ritual he had witnessed, though none had spent much time in Kagoshima, from where the ritual-enactors hailed. The roommate was sure he was on to something vital and important, and for five successive weekends took the train down to various parts of Kagoshima. He would eat at inexpensive restaurants, keeping careful notes about the other diners’ body movements. While none of these other diners made movements as pronounced as what he had witnessed that first evening, he did observe some subtle, distinct patterns in the angles at which diners held their head, arms and legs that seemed to correlate with whether the meal was primarily fish, beef, pork or chicken. He noted no such patterns when the main course was primarily tofu.
Eventually, the roommate submitted a term paper that cited a wealth of anthropological theory and posited that in Kagoshima Prefecture, at Kyushu’s extreme south, people still practiced an ancient ritual consisting in using their bodies to imitate the shape of the animal they were about to consume as a form of praise and respect. A purer form of the ritual, he suggested, may possibly be practiced only in the home. But when eating in public places, people would make subtle movements that symbolized the various distinct animal shapes. His paper drew parallels with how ancient Greeks had associated elaborate and deeply meaningful animal archetypes, thought to have mystical power over all realms of human behaviour, with constellations consisting of only two to ten randomly-situated stars.
The paper received an A+, but was an intellectual dead end. The roommate discovered that the three Japanese students, who indeed frequently adopted the roast-chicken posture when eating together, had commenced this routine but a few months earlier. It all began after one of them had, during a trip home, witnessed his precocious five-year-old brother invent the practice. They were certain N’s roommate would laugh at their re-enactment of the childish joke. But when he kept silent, the three all thought it better to say nothing in order to avoid the risk of causing offense and/or embarrassment.
Throughout N’s recounting of this riveting tale of non-verbal communication techniques and cross-cultural misinterpretation, Jed had been so still and silent I was unsure he was paying attention. But now he grinned and said abruptly, “Yup, you don’t want to get caught out when playing a game of chicken.” And so, with the benefit of Jed’s wisdom, I felt vindicated in my original choice of dissertation topic.
We stayed at the Crowned Bull until closing time and then went our separate ways. N returned to his one-room apartment, treating the 70-minute journey as the evening’s last chance to meet a Japanese woman. Jed headed to the relatively-luxurious home provided by the university at which he held a Visiting Professorship, where his attractive wife waited patiently. As for me, I set off to ponder, with renewed sense of purpose, why and how some men change the focus of their obsessions from toy trains to non-inflatable female dolls. And vice versa.
About the Author: Mark Halpern has lived since 1993 in Tokyo, where he runs his own law firm and writes stories about foreigners in Japan. Like some of his characters, he has found a way to be both an outsider and an insider.