Memoir

Tumbleweeds

IT WAS SOON after I arrived in Japan that I met the sexpats. The long-term sex holidaymakers. You know the type. Asia is full of them – Japan especially, though it's a little harder to find obliging children there, in the second biggest economy in the world, the inventors of Hello Kitty, breast-enlarging gum, death from overwork, love hotels and karaoke. What an astonishing place. A living, breathing patriarchy. Rape isn't reported. There are women-only carriages on the trains to fend off the gropers. I saw a woman groped in a unisex carriage – a brief gasp as her shoulders stiffen, as she endures. Is it any wonder that Japan attracts refugees, white men fleeing from feminism? When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Rome, do the Romans.

I've been back five months, but Japan still comes back to me in flashes overlaid on my normal reality. Here, a cheap red-brick share house, the smell of frying onions, my mid-twenties search for direction; there, a dreamscape shot through with a startling intensity of being. When I was in Japan I felt I was floating, but now that I'm back it feels much, much more real than here.

How personal should I be? Should I mention Kiyono? It might be better if I leave her out. More distanced. I can be more scathing if I'm good, sexless, needless and the other whites are horrible men. But I should sketch her in to be honest. I thought I loved her – that makes me different, surely? Turned out I needed her and she needed me but home was the escape from that escape.

 

DEAN WAS CREEPY, an unusual set to his shoulders. I always kept an eye on him and never left him alone with the kids. He used to touch Jess, our fellow kindergarten teacher, despite her protests. Far too familiar, that man. Fingers like spider webs. I avoided him when I could. He was just another horny white guy hunting Asian pussy.

Tanner organised the trip during the sweltering summer. They never tell you about the weather when they advertise Japan. Snow tickling cities in winter. Humidity beyond belief in summer, sararimen fending off sweat with fans at eight in the morning. The trip was to a pool at Dreamworld, near historic Nara. An ancient capital makes for modern tourism, so it goes. The pool like a figure eight, jets rushing everyone past each other. We three, the only gaijin in sight – Tanner, Dean and me. If our friends had come, white girls, it wouldn't have been so excruciating. The current takes us past other people, floating, talking, making eyes. Dean, in his element, slipping off his tube through the water and appearing like magic in front of groups of girls, dripping, shaking, making bad conversation. His hand gestures reining Tanner and I in. He moves far too swiftly, claiming touching rights within minutes with spider web fingers. Most shrink away – all but the brave or foolhardy.

It was embarrassing, his drive. But it paid off in sex for him – a borrowed car, fucking his conversation-school students atop the bonnet. He drove them up into the mountains which encircle the grey thrum of the great conglomerate, Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe. Every week, different girls, same cock. His girlfriends in Canada were too strong, he said in the pool when I asked why, always fighting, never giving enough. So he came here, where women could be pursued and had, sometimes with promises of love, other times without, where a night out would mean nanpa, girl-hunting. This country, where white men held fascination, exotic appeal for Japanese girls who were nearly always disappointed by what they found; this country where white men – scuttling through, fleeing something, lodging like tumbleweeds – could find a different coloured flesh, a slant to the eyes, a legendary docility, the essence of uncomplaining femininity. This country, where my Kiyono chose her last boyfriend – a childish, selfish refugee from reality who expected meals, sex and washing as if it were the 1950s – because he had a three-year working visa and might actually stay with her.

Kiyono's best friend was Akihiro, who used to meet businessmen and accept their cocks up his ass for money at love hotels. Then there was Rumi, a sweet girl, prim and demure. A waitress by day, blowjobs by night. You'd never guess, but she was the second most popular girl at the men's sauna, madly in love with her pimp. One of her customers, lonely at forty, fixated on big breasts and terrified of vaginas, pays her two hundred dollars an hour to fondle her and talk to her; when he dies (rich, no dependents), he promises he will give her his apartment.

The mizu shobai – the water economy, they call it, this night-work of hostesses and prostitutes. Kiyono's friends. They all seemed fine, regardless of their transactions with cocks – even Yukina, snatched from the street when she was fifteen and raped for three days in her attacker's apartment. That was how she lost her virginity. Even her. They all seemed fine. Akihiro, self-tattooer and poet, met his girlfriend-cum-torturer, Misaki, on a group suicide website years ago, both floating round the edges, wondering at the committed. Akihiro, with the kanji for death tattooed on his forehead, forced into living with Misaki after she swallowed too many pills and called him to inform him of her blackmail – love or death – and he decided to help her become pregnant so she'd have someone to love and care for, to stave off loneliness.

Kiyono was a hostess, a geisha for the masses, on the outskirts of the water trade, and every night I'd watch in astonishment as she transformed her face into that of a sixteen-year-old and went off to work, resigned, to don a school uniform and flirt with businessmen, to laugh at their weak jokes and flatter their egos and accept their money. She told me it was her business to make them fall in love with her, because that kept them coming back to her bar to see her. Men are foolish, she said. Many were in love with her, bickering for her attention, throwing evil looks at rivals. One convinced himself that marriage was imminent and kept asking her when the service could be held. Kiyono cited ill-health, work, festivals – anything to delay him and keep him a satisfyingly unsatisfied customer.

 

JIMMY, LET'S CALL him, towering but not so tall in Australia; a small goatee cultivated to hint at more than his twenty-three years. He told me he was here to escape Australian alcoholism. I thought he was joking at first, but he wasn't, and then I thought he was joking again, because what do gaijin do but drink, drink, drink and sleaze, the freedom of living in someone else's society – like a constant party of a hundred twenty million you're not invited to, a party you gatecrashed, where you never have to clean up in the morning? The white foreigner's niche well-worn by hundreds of thousands of postwar Americans, the niche of the tolerated – the drunk and rude opposed to the drunk and polite, the catcallers, stealers of women, a colonialist party made up of the misfits and adventurers of the West, the best and worst of our society.

Jimmy worked in the kindergarten with me, and his patience was strained constantly by full diapers (teaching English is teaching American) – and I knew nothing of him until our first nights at the local izakaya, eating and drinking. We began invading regularly despite the uncomfortable sense of something quietly breaking as we entered, forming a pink-white laughing mass clotting around the table. The first night, one man came to us and asked how long we had been in Japan and when we would be leaving. In a group, we were oblivious and strong.

Like many other nights, we were fuelled by alcohol and a bursting rush of confessions, this forced trust in near-strangers coming from the closeted feeling we all had of being penned and pinned by our own choices to another society, our experiences of being first-generation migrants in a near-monoculture. I worked alongside a Nigerian doctor and two Nepalese with doctorates in soil engineering, their hands as covered in Japanese kid poo as the rest. They were frustrated, perennially waiting on the outside, trying to break in.

Still, life was better than at home. The whites came to see what the Japanese had done with modernity, what remarkable twists a proud, underlying culture can put on technology and democracy and industry – or so we told each other, while secretly some were running from former outmoded selves and some had Asian fetishes and some were explorers and some were concealing their unpleasantness by being foreign for the first time in their lives. So candour flows around the table, almost before we've finished our first drinks –shochu, a wheat spirit, a smooth drunkenness – and Rachel confesses losing her virginity in a karaoke booth last week to a Jamaican engineer; we're shocked and entertained until Clare comes back and tells the story of her Indonesian boyfriend who came to take advantage of the currency imbalance and need for cheap foreign labour so he can go back to his island archipelago a rupiah billionaire.

Then Jimmy, lurching on his seat, already drunk, says: "You know, you all think I'm a drunk", and we laugh as if at a twenty-first speech, continue, aren't we all, what are we doing here, and he goes on: "I was much worse, you know. It was Harold's influence." I knew Harold: Columbian, always dressed in black flowing clothes to hide his weight, pleasant, smooth, violently homophobic in a Latin American, overly protesting kind of way, married to a Japanese woman with whom he'd come to an agreement: a marriage visa, sleeping rights and a blind eye to his girls in exchange for brotherly warmth, an exotic to look after. Harold, in charge of a class of four-year-olds with Jimmy for a year.

They egged each other on, gave the kids a hell of a time, raucous, the expansive, irresponsible uncles teaching their charges "shit" and "fuck" and how to use them: grammar, context, Ren, Ren, go and tell Harold he's a fat shit. This was when they were in the grip of coke, flowing to them from the Colombian bar in downtown Osaka; this was when they'd pull out their car-keys at lunchtime and come back to work beaming and snuffling; this was them in charge of children; this is what Jimmy told us that night in a faltering voice, perhaps wondering whether he was sufficiently drunk – the most extreme confession so far and there was a hush amongst us. Later, Jimmy said come out one night and I did, to the room he'd told me existed upstairs behind closed doors, with a watchful man behind the bar. He vouches for me and cocaine arrives in tiny white nuggets though I don't really want any, and Harold badgers me into the toilet which is well designed for sniffing, scrupulously hygienic, and I sniff the vile stuff and my eyes water and my throat spasms with the taste and I find myself talking loudly, ego blooming, the joy of chemicals filling me, and for a while I feel at home, and the streets are pulsing with neon life and backlit hostesses and people spilling forth from themselves after the tight constraints of the working day.

 

MY BOSS DAVID was a typical long-term foreigner and over time had developed the standard complex love/hate relationship with Japan, with his institution. He spoke Japanese, had a job outside the English teaching ghetto, bullied his underlings, possessed a wife, kids and a mistress or three. Japanese culture is fantastical, complex, a constant source of wonder. But still these long-term refugees complain, clustered in gaijin bars with other white foreigners. They complain of never feeling at home, of the racism taught in schools, the standoffishness, the pervasiveness of nihonjinron, the sense of Japanese superiority and uniqueness that survived World War II – Japanese, not Asian – while Germany twisted in the throes of guilt.

Being white in Japan is such a mixed blessing: working-holiday gaijin curse their treatment, the racism they partly deserve, children gazing with fearful eyes like hill-tribes in suburbia, and they complain while toting Japanese girlfriends obtained easily, through a mutual exoticism that boosts their attractiveness far out of proportion. At home, they were losers, geeks, proficient fantasisers; here, they are gods in one sense, but with few to brag to and a tenuous purchase on the surface of Japanese society.

It's an open secret why they're there. You can read about it every month in Metropolis, the Tokyo expat magazine which features the cartoon exploits of Charisma Man – a hapless nerd in America who becomes a white god in Japan, ploughing through women, soaking up sex. And the offcasts? All I ever heard were stories second-hand: Peter, who raped a woman who'd had a crush on him and run away up north; Diego, who had a long-term girlfriend and had soaked up the local traditions – a partner for comfort, other girls for sex. He'd come to work and bounce children on his knee, grinning furtively, telling me of last night's exploits. All went well until he embroiled himself with a Yakuza woman and had to beat a quick retreat. Matt, appreciatively watching Rachel ahead of us on the elevator: "She's be a great fuck. If only she weren't so talkative," he says of my friend. "You'd have to cut out her voicebox." He mulls over his own thoughts meditatively. Matt, who married for a visa and now works the gaijin bars, fuck-hunting every Saturday night. Matt, Peter, David, the worst white men I've ever met, fleeing to the land before feminism, refugees from strong women. I like to think I was none of these, but I do not know whether it is true.

 

IN MY FIRST month there, I met a middle-aged man in a Kyoto bar who beamed and extended his friendship to me. He had a ruddy face, his hair lightening and lifting away from his scalp like fairy floss, an expansive man, a man who looked good when he gestured with a wine glass in one hand. You could tell by his tongue that he was a sensualist – the lithe tip flicked between his lips when he spoke, or even at rest, unconsciously. His name was John. Almost immediately, we were talking about sex – or rather, talking around sex. It was old lion to young; he exerted a jovial magnetism, a magnanimous conferral of "male knowledge".

"How long have you been here?" I ask.

He laughs. "I was one of those blowing through, fifteen years ago, and

I've stuck around. How long are you planning to stay?"

"Six months," I say.

His smile broadens. "Six months! That's a story we've heard before, isn't it, Matt?" His drinking buddy laughs too, a knowing conspiracy. "Matt was planning to stay six months. He's been here four years now. And David was just passing through, 25 years ago."

"Why?" I wonder.

If possible, his smile broadens further and he points to each person at the table. "Japanese wife. Japanese girlfriend. Japanese girlfriend. Me, I've got a Japanese girlfriend. Best girls in the world, Japanese girls. After two to three years here, you won't find white girls attractive at all."

I'm taken aback by his candour. There's a brief lull. "It's why we stay, we long-termers. Japanese women are something else. Elegant, graceful, beautiful. And as for their bodies ..."

He briefly enters a reverie, eyes closed, then flickering open to find mine. He's testing me out, this man, to see if I'm of like mind. I'm fascinated by him.

"But what about their famed submissiveness? Doesn't that irritate you?" I venture.

Another broad grin. "No. No, I like it."

He must have seen something in my eyes – too much too soon – and back-pedals, tempers his last sentence. "It's only on the surface," he says, subsiding a little. "A friend of mine once said that American women are strong on the outside and weak on the inside, while Japanese women are weak on the outside and strong on the inside. I happen to agree."

He drinks his wine, content.

 

JAPAN STILL COMES to me as I try to sleep in Australia. Neon nights, the joy of children leaping in my classroom. Sumo wrestlers palming babies for photo-ops. A Richter 6 earthquake in Tokyo, the buildings bowing low to each other. Ten million frogs erupting out of rice paddies in Osaka's suburbs, 40,000 balloons fizzing around a baseball stadium, a riot of colour.

I've accustomed myself to my old personality, settled back in. But Kiyono still visits me in my dreams and cuts herself for me again and asks me why I left her and why I could not love her enough to stop her cutting herself so deeply. She asks me what's wrong, why I couldn't love her and I tell her again from the safety of dreams, from the safety of Australia, that love is not the desperate clinging thing we had, that swallowing twenty sleeping pills was blackmail, very effective blackmail, but she doesn't understand the word in English and my Japanese is horrible and so like everyone else we end up silent, staring at each other across the culture gap, she in her hospital bed and me in my skin, wondering how, exactly, I ever got to that point and whether I'd have been better off as one of the many, many men who use and abuse Japanese girls so easily.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review