Rising Sun

From the window of my hotel room I can look down on a baseball diamond, glowing under the lights at night. I think I’m the only spectator, and I think they might be 12 years old. Their game just ended, and the two teams lined up at the center of the field– not to shake hands, as it turned out; instead, the two lines faced each other, and, in unison, bowed deeply. Then both sides posed together for a photo on the pitcher’s mound, and now they’re combing the infield with rakes like a sand garden.

I’m in Japan to help a group of civil society leaders from Southeast Asia engage at the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF, if you happen to have an interest in bad acronyms), and the proceedings, covering such issues as the transition to IPv6 and the recent sale of new gTLDs are likely of as little interest to you, dear reader, as they are to some of my compatriots. (Excepting, of course, my own contribution… flatteringly mislabeled at around 27:30 and 1:25:00.)

The group, however, is an interesting one. Take my new Cambodian friend, Nana, who introduces herself as the accountant and assistant at a foundation in Phnom Penh, only later mentioning that she actually has two other part time jobs. And is a grad student in the evening. And that she writes short books to help poor people learn English, but noticed that shops marked up her prices by 150%, so opened her own shop to sell the books, subsidizing the rent by also selling shoes and handbags. And that at night, she hosts a call-in radio program that reaches… a million people, seeking her advice. Also she’s 25. I’ll eat my hat if she’s not president in 15 years.

I’ve hardly had a moment to see the city, but I have had the distinct pleasure of eating three meals each day, and the gastronomic tourism has been worth the trip in itself: raw fish, broiled fish, pickled vegetables, fried squid… At the conference, they give us lunch tickets, and we’re supposed to check off which of the half-dozen options we’d prefer. Confusion reigns, however, because “Pasta with Meat Sauce” was mistranslated as “Octopus with Meat Sauce,” “Eggplant” was confused with “Beef,” and the vegetarian option was somehow labelled “Stir-Fried Liver and Vegetables.” All pretty tasty, though, for the unpicky eater.

Saturday evening, I hopped off the Tokyo subway at an arbitrary stop, the better to know the Japanese people. Fast walkers. Obedient at crosswalks. Ineffably polite. I grew peckish and sought refreshment: “Bubble Bar, 8th Floor” read the sign outside one building. Everything in Tokyo is stacked at least five high.

I took the elevator and stepped out into a wood-paneled room, whiskey bottles lining the wall, a row of middle-aged Japanese, mostly men, at the bar, and others clustered in counsel around tables. As I emerged, the room, as though drawing on cliché, fell instantly, totally silent, and twenty blank faces turned my direction. Someone coughed, I grinned weakly, and a young woman scurried over from behind the bar. She bowed briskly, and posed a smiling question in Japanese. I continued grinning weakly. “Beer?”

“First time?” She asked, taking the hint, and I nodded. She began chattering with the patrons, pointing directorially, and they shuffled themselves to make a seat for me at the end of the bar. I sat, looked down the line, and ten heads, craning around each other, looked back, expressions now ranging from confusion, to disgust, to flabbergasted pleasure. I gave my toothiest “I’m just a big stupid white guy trying not to offend anyone” smile, and about half of them returned it. Generous, I’d say.

Miwa, my colleague and Japanese interlocutor, later explained that I had wandered into a sort of Japanese speakeasy: a place where the same group likely gathered, night after night, year after year. “First time?” was probably not an honest question. As I sat, the Bubble Bar proprietor sauntered over, dishrag on his shoulder, and explained “his system,” which included an extravagant cover charge. Not wanting to create further disturbance, I meekly handed over 25 bucks for my miserable Suntory Lager.

As I sipped, a stocky, middle aged man, his sunken eyes darkly circled, racoonlike, stood, and began reading from a document. Every few sentences, the crowd would cheer and applaud, and he would place a medal around someone’s neck. And it was a gallery of rogues: One man, his face puffy and droopy, eyes invisible, with a bouffant of thinning dyed red hair on his head. Another with the face of Kim Jong Il and the staccato laugh of Porky the Pig. Ultimately, the sunken-eyed man appeared to award the grand prize to himself. I was mercifully ignored, and made my escape as discreetly as possible, though I was noticed by one woman who, her face beaming with excited delight, waved frantically as I stepped back into the elevator.

Looking down at my ballfield, the outfield lights are off now, and with his shadow long behind second base, a lone ballplayer is still circling the infield, straw broom in hand, meticulously sweeping dirt off the outfield grass, back to where it belongs.

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