by Steve Quasha
In the life of corporate Japan, there is no better monitor for success than being invited out for an evening of libations with the president of a company. It is not a time to “get down to business” – as it is in Western after hours business protocol – instead it is appropriate to let down one’s collar, enjoy each other’s company and bond over booze.
As fate would have it, I found myself in this enviable social position during the middle of winter. Foolishly working well past 6:00 PM, like so many of my kaisha brethren, I was accosted by the president of our mid – size company, who – after glancing at his Rolex to inspect the time – insisted he treat me and the section chief to dinner.
After diligently working company for over a year, I certainly felt the invitation was overdue. And since my working visa was to to expire soon, it was best to get all the informal ass-kissing in I could before my benefactor / patron granted me another year in Japan. No faster had I wanted my third yoroshiku onegaishimasu thanking the anointed one for the invite, than we were plopping ourselves down at a small exclusive teppanyakiya just around the corner from the office.
As standard procedure, we ordered a bottle of beer to pour for each other – and while warmed our hands on the oshibori – carefully contemplated what to order from the paper menu hanging on the wall. Immediately Shacho started needling me about what I couldn’t eat. I glanced at the menu and told him it all appeared palatable to me. “Wait”, he caught himself, “you can read Japanese?” “Yeeessss”, I slowly nodded. “Why do you read Japanese”, he queried? “Do you mean how can I read?” I asked in a subtle attempt to correct him. “No, why do you read he shot back.” “I like to know what I am eating” I said. “Besides, I studied Japanese at my University In The States.” “Saaa” Shacho sulked and muttered “henna gaijin”. Since I already thought I was a weird foreigner, I added that my specialization was in teppanyaki kanji. “Oh I see”, Shacho nodded, not for an instant catching on to my sarcastic remark.
“Wait one minute please”, he said gloatingly, “what about natto? Gaijin can’t eat natto”, he proclaimed with some sort of culinary nationalism. “Actually, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I usually eat natto once or twice a week.” Not a total lie, nor the whole truth, but nevertheless well worth the reaction if you can actually eat the substance when faced with the challenge. My reply left Shacho dumbfounded. The sticky fermented beans had been his gaijin trump card in the past. He slowly sucked on his cancer stick, as the smoke wafted through his slicked back hair, Shacho pondered his next question. Meanwhile the section chief silently poured us another round of beer carefully managing to stay out of the discussion.
After gazing at the wall, Shacho finally broke our moment of silence. “What about ika? Ha ha that’s squid you know.” “Yes ika is fine by me”, I replied. He squirmed in his chair. It was then that I suggested supplementing our diet with something… less cephalopodic… in this case nasu, Japanese eggplant.
A big mistake according to my host. With the chef leaning over the grill patiently waiting for our order, Shacho went on a tirade explaining that eggplant is not a winter vegetable. Therefore don’t order something that would taste mazui. I listened to his eggplant assault and watched the chef’s face twitch with anger. Shacho went on for about another minute before the chef cut him off and told him that in Shikoku they’re able to grow high quality eggplant year-round. Our fearless leader mumbled some inaudible country slang while the other customers looked on in disbelief. The man next to us gave us a puzzled look that seemed to say, “he doesn’t get out much, does he?”
After all the theatrics, not only did I not get my eggplant, Shacho ordered beef tongue. I associate this dish with liver and onions as one of those avoid-at-all-cost dinners. “You’re American he reasoned, you must like beef. Yeah, and I used to have blond hair, blue eyes and surf everyday! I smiled and said that I was sure the dinner would be very delicious.
Truth is I gave up eating red meat – except for the occasional 2:00 AM inebriated gastronomic assaults at cheap restaurants – a long time ago. However explaining that choice to a man raised on John Wayne movies and indoctrinated with the Hollywood portrayal of America was too difficult a myth to shatter.
It didn’t take the master long to cook up our order. When the time came to savor our cattle, I chewed that tongue up real good… swigged down lots of beer… and kept on chomping till my mandibular nearly gave out. I must admit that the chef’s sauces nearly made me forget what I was eating. After a few more obligatory biru quaffs, my taste buds were numbed to the point that I could probably eaten a pair of Doc Marten’s.
Lacking the particular enzyme which prevents alcohol induced people from becoming red-faced, my two dinner companions were in full bloom.
With our counter resembling a bottle recycling center, we stumbled out the door to another establishment.
Down the road and around the corner we snaked our way through a maze of snack clubs and landed ourselves in a basement palace known as the “Kitty Kat.” As we descended the steep, narrow stairwell, Shacho assured me that I would like the environment inside. After breathing in their second-hand smoke all evening, I silently fantasized that the club would feature a rain forest or an ocean breeze. Or at the very least… ventilation.
Decked out in traditional kimono, the mama–san greeted us at the door and led us over to a pair of red velvet love seats where two young, mini-skirted Japanese ladies removed our overcoats. Shacho belched some unintelligible English to a woman standing behind the bar who smiled back and said hello in a tagalog-tainted greeting. I laughed to myself quickly that in this rural setting my American heritage and the Filipina maiden represented a warped version of internationalization.
Maybe it was something about entering new places and establishing turf – he must have been a nasty looking mutt in a previous life – because again, within five minutes Shacho got us involved in another imbroglio. As one of the pretty young maidens mixed our mizuwari – whisky and water – Shacho gave he the once over and asked me if I knew what prostitute meant? The table grew silent anticipating that our great leader (read: the man paying the bill) had said something prolific.
Taken aback by the remark, I winced a bit and sucked my teeth in an attempt to culturally assimilate. The caberet cuties leaned forward on their stools waiting for a translation which Shacho witheld. I replied with all the diplomatic skill I could muster, “The meaning I understand, but I wouldn’t apply the word here.” Strangely, Shacho found my explanation hysterical and nearly fell off the velvet love seat laughing. The girls uttered “sukebe” guessing at the nature of his remarks while the section chief silently maintained his Swiss position.
The snack bar formalities droned on. Light conversation about female anatomy, alcohol and the economy ensued… in no particular order. Shacho quickly became bored with the small talk and demanded the karaoke song play list. With a push of a remote, his selection appeared on the monitor and Shacho belted into a melodramatic karaoke convulsion. As he gripped the microphone and poured all of his energy into the song, for a fleeting moment the whole concept of karaoke made sense to me. All the day’s stress emanated from Shacho’s performance as he closed his eyes and became part of the song. The girls cooed with delight while Shacho serenaded us.
Unable to escape the circulating microphone (I never did learn the Japanese word for tonsillitis) I succumbed to everyone’s wishes. Feeling bloated, I chose an Elvis tune and did the king no justice – improvising with yeah, baby on every chorus – while my hosts responded with affirmations like “sugoi” and “jozu.”
Luckily, other customers trickled into the bar, so the girls were forced to juggle their time between us and another table. Shacho sensed his audience heading for thicker wallets and quickly decided our evening was complete. He raised his hands in a cross and demanded the check. A swarm of ladies gathered our overcoats and Shacho paid the bill. As the girls escorted us out the door, he mumbled something to the cutest one to which she punched him gently on the shoulder and responded with “ecchi.”
We found our way out of the mizu-shobai maze and Shacho asked me if I had a good time. Of course, I responded… it was very educational. “Educational?” Shacho contemplated the word for a second and then laughed while slapping the section chief in the back.
Somehow we each found our way home that evening and made it to the office on time the following morning. And while I surveyed the slept-on hairdos of my co-workers at the 9:00 am meeting (bathing at night may be therapeutic but what’s with the slept on hair?) Shacho sat slumped in his chair. I thanked him for the previous night’s festivities and much to my surprise, later that day found a new one-year work contract on my desk after lunch.
A little tongue can go a long way.