Sunny Sunday morning as we dock in Osaka. Straggling along in lines of Japanese tourist kids, schlepping through a transit terminal as shiny as a new shopping mall. I am struck by the tininess of everything — Japan seems a land in miniature.
It took three days to steam between Shanghai and Osaka, and during those days I stood on deck gazing at wild islands of volcanic pumice, inhospitable and lovely crags piercing the spray like the spines of some huge sea creature. I reveled in the clean and orderly Japaneseness of the boat, the high school kids with their pressed jeans and Hello Kitty backpacks, the older folks reading inscrutable kanji newspapers and practicing putting on their life preservers.
Once my Papers Are in Order, I decide to head for Adam's House, a so-called "gaijin mansion" — a boarding house, really, for assorted English teachers, yobbos, illegal immigrants and other flotsam from the West. Among them I meet a little mousy blonde who teaches black-market English without benefit of a work visa. She gives me the name of a place that’s looking to hire, and the next day I set up an interview.
The meeting’s informal, held in a coffee shop. Paul and Megumi run a small juku in Izumi City, in the suburbs, and we hit it off well. Paul's not much older than me, but he's been in Japan for years; he'd come here from Sydney right out of high school. After years of practice, his Japanese is perfect, but there had been some potholes along the way. At the prompting of a friend who had a nasty flair for practical jokes, Paul had once innocently asked a waitress for a hot shit.
Izumi City is way out in the sticks, not another gaijin in sight. My morning commute is a rush of bodies, grim men in gray, prim girls in blue. The girls innocently seductive in their sailor suits; the schoolgirl is a staple character in pornographic manga comics.
My students vary wildly in their abilities; most of the housewives manage a workmanlike proficiency, a few younger company girls from Panasonic can chat comfortably. Then there are some who act like they can't even speak Japanese, much less English. Still, a 10 year old could teach these classes, following along in the meticulous workbooks Paul and Megumi have prepared. I ask the students probing questions like, "Is there a chicken in the picture?" and teach them useful phrases like, "How do you feel about chlorofluorocarbons?"
Weekends I explore the back streets. Japan is a wonder of contradictions — a spaceport to the next century, reamed full of microelectronics; a playland of Lilliputian buildings, with smiling people so polite they wear surgical masks to keep from spreading colds; a quiet mountain temple, home to the most fragile, deliberate aesthetic I have ever seen. The scents of green tea and miso, raw maguro tuna lingering on the tastebuds; delicate rock gardens so flawlessly arrayed that to move one stone a foot to the left would ruin the effect. The lovely clichéd pinks of sakura blossoms, eye-soothing layers of green and blue and gold kimonos glimpsed among business suits.
The other gaijin come out to prowl en masse on gomi nights, when the Japanese take their trash to the streets. The piles usually include perfectly workable televisions, VCRs, rice cookers, boom boxes. There's simply not room in the tiny Japanese homes for surplus stuff, and of course, everybody needs to have the newest, fastest, smallest, most stylish of everything. Gaijin make out like bandits on gomi night.
That’s not the only money-saving tip that makes it way around the gaijin ghetto. Somebody somehow figured out that if you remove the glass over the LCD displays on the pay phones, you can short out the wiring inside with a piece of metal. So I join the ranks of foreigners carrying soda can pop-tops in our wallets; buy a 30-minute phone card and call whoever I please back home, then zip, the pop-top touches the wiring and when the card jumps from the slot it magically has all its value restored.
I learn this trick in a restaurant Rapunzeled in the upper floors of some miniature office building. The manager is an Aussie who’s one of the unofficial captains of the gaijin expat colony, whether by virtue of tenure or simple magnetism I couldn't say. He moves fluidly around the little restaurant, black jeans hugging his shanks. After demonstrating the phone trick, he brings my food and I thank him. "Cheers," he purrs in Australian, and it feels like he's let me in on a secret password.
Finally comes the day I have to make a visa run to Korea; my stamp is due to expire in a week, so I have to leave the country, then come right back in. Most of the other passengers on the overnight ferry are regulars, loaded down with brand-new appliances bound for Korea's black market; they make this trip every day, I've heard. We dock in Pusan early in the morning, giving me a day to explore.
I tool past rows of shops selling counterfeit American clothes, “Nike” shoes and “Calvin Klein” shirts, and wander into a shoe store. "You can look, very nice, I make good price for you," the shopkeepers immediately start to chant in the Geneva Convention-approved routine of the Asian merchant.
"Really, I'm just looking," I smile at them, which they interpret as an obvious bargaining ploy. "Twenty-five thousand won," the woman bellows, pointing to a pair of "Converse" All-Stars. Her husband has stationed himself by the door with a broom. "Twenty thousand won," the woman insists, attaching herself to my arm. I look at the shoes appreciatively, stroke them, waggle my eyebrows. "Very nice," I tell her. "Very nice, very nice," she sings in agreement. Now it becomes very clear I will not leave this shop until I buy something. "Fifteen thousand won!" the woman shrieks, as her husband tightens his grip on the broomstick. I slump and nod, defeated. I've successfully bargained for something I didn't want.
Back across the strait the next day, a suspicious Japanese customs boss sweats me. "You came here three times," he says, pointing to my passport. Just visiting friends, I mumble, trying to smile politely. He reluctantly gives me a stamp, warns me not to expect another one.
I've pushed my luck, but I have to dare the gods of Japanese bureaucracy one more time; I'd promised myself I'd see Hiroshima on the way home. I hurry past the bullet train conductors, flapping a long-dead Japan Rail pass I’d bought months ago and pretending not to hear the shouts that follow me through the turnstile.
The city face is calm and ringed around by quiet hills. But the sense of the commonplace ebbs as I walk toward the Atomic Dome, that familiar skeleton seen in how many millions of textbooks and TV screens. Nobody’s around as I move slowly toward the Manhattan Project's crowning glory. There seems to be a droning in my ears, the psychic weight of so many lives gone snuff... It is exactly the feeling I encountered on my first trip to Pearl Harbor, twin tombstones to bookend the American war.
I stand there for a very long while, trying and failing to stretch my mind around what this truly means. The carcass of the former Industrial Promotion Hall lets sunlight and clouds drift through its naked ribs. Some promoter of industry it is now, this temple to the dead and oracle of world's death.
Silently I cross away into the side streets, passing a nondescript building with a metal plaque out front. It was above this very spot that Little Boy detonated; now it's a medical clinic, and that makes a kind of sense to me. Yet I also can't help feeling, as I stand surrounded by placid faces in a country known now for gentleness: I could never live in this urban Geiger counter, with its radiation seeping into my bones and its leaden ghosts whispering. No half-life can ever wring such poison clean.
A few weeks later, I'm standing on a train platform with a trash can lid tied to my head. I've stuffed my torso into a plastic trash bag, and on the front, in two sloppily-lettered languages, I've written "Gomi." It’s Halloween. God, don't let my students see me now.
When you’re an expat, you do what you can to make life feel a little bit familiar; on Thanksgiving I enjoy a delicious poultry meal with my gracious host, Colonel Sanders. On Christmas morning, I wake early and ride the rails to a tiny Anglican church in Kyoto, a city packed with some of Japan's most ancient and fragile temples. They have musical names like Kiyomizu-dera, Sanjusangendo, Yasaka-jinja, Eikando.
And when I wander Osaka like a homeless ghost, my tongue traces the exotic syllables of Namba, Tennoji, Umeda, all the magically named neighborhoods … hostess bars sleeping in the daylight, grandmothers in wooden zori sandals. As I walk the streets I am aware of each breath, of the foreign alphabets and careful dance of etiquette.
One early misty morning, I'm spelunking through a dead-end neighborhood when a fantastic figure cuts through the quiet. It's the gaijin poster boy who'd taught me the phone trick. He's decked in pink jeans and a wild pink jacket, black shades hiding his eyes, a hot pink scarf knotted around his head. Slung over his back is a black leather satchel, and he struts to the tunes from his Walkman and looks for all the world like the harbinger of the Great Alternative Revolution.
For Osaka's gaijin, everyday is Halloween.