I used to have a private student- let's call him Hiroki- who was a really cool guy! Hiroki confessed to me at our first meeting (more like stated matter of factly) that he had chosen me from a number of available teachers in the area because I was black, and he liked Hip-Hop. Lucky for me, I liked Hip-Hop, too. He was a pretty high level English speaker from the get go, so, instead of studying English, on Saturday afternoons we'd sit around Starbucks for an hour talking about Hip-Hop; me schooling him on the old school and he bringing me up to date on the new so-called hip-hop.
Sometimes our conversations would wander into the area of girls. He fantasized about getting his hands on some "big-booty black chick" (his words) like the ones he saw in the Hip-Hop videos, and I told him I felt the same about the Japanese girls walking past us every couple of seconds, sipping on Frappacinos.
One day while I was admiring some of the abundant eye-candy strolling by, he told me that the girls at the Hostess clubs looked much better and were much less trouble. Just pay and have fun and go home.
"Really?" I said, like I hadn't been hoping he'd take the conversation in that direction one day. I wouldn't have dared do it myself. Sometimes it's hard to tell where that line between acceptable and unacceptable is with private students, so I often just follow their lead.
"Soaplands are even better! Have you ever been to one?"
"Why, no...what's that?" I asked, thinking 'YES! Now we're cooking with Crisco!'
He explained that a Soapland was a sort of sex-free sex shop where customers can have good, clean fun with beautiful Japanese girls...with a guaranteed happy ending within the loopholes in Japanese laws regarding prostitution.
"There's no intercourse, sorry, but I've never left a Soapland disappointed," he said, grinning broadly, like I needed a little arm-twisting.
I'd seen the Soapland process in several porno movies and it looked intriguing to say the least. And there was little chance of catching anything deadly if there was no intercourse taking place, so it sounded great to me. Something to write about one day or one of those quirky Japan stories to tell my friends back home.
We met up the following Friday night and he took me to a spot in Ikebukuro he frequented, where he said the girls were top-notch.
We got to the door and I followed him into the vestibule where a bouncer- earphone in one ear secret service style and a I'm a LOT tougher than I look posture, was standing in there. As we passed the bouncer at the door, the man stopped Hiroki.
At the time, my Japanese was much more limited than it is now (which is why I had never braved one of these places alone and was waiting for a Japanese guy to offer to escort me.) But, I'd been fluent in body language for decades. And, what I heard from the Bouncer's finger, aimed derogatorily at my face like I were a photograph or standing across the street, was, "this guy's with you??"
"Yes, he's my friend,"Hiroki said, smiling proudly. He had been giddy up til that point, just thrilled to death that he was going to introduce me, his black foreign friend, to one of the aspects of his world that made his world the envy of the world's men.
Mr. Soap gave me another disapproving look. "I see..."
I was beginning to see, too. But, Hiroki...he'd probably never been stopped at the door before.
"Is there a problem?" he asked the doorman.
"Well, the thing is....you see," the Bouncer began, with a pantomime mask of deep regret on his face, which failed miserably to melt the ice in his eyes. They were frozen to Hiroki as if I were merely the topic of discussion, not standing before them. "We don't usually serve foreigners here! None of the girls can speak English and...well, they are really afraid of foreign guys."
Between his gestures and the few words I could pick out of his explanation (gaikokujin, Eigo, syaberarenai, kowai...) I got the gist.
"I see," Hiroki nodded. "Well, I've already explained all the club rules to him. And he's a very nice guy. And he can speak Japanese a little. So, there won't be any problems."
"Yeah, but, you see, the club has special rules, and...you understand, no?"
Hiroki didn't get it, actually. But, after three minutes standing in a doorway, I fully comprehended the situation. And started feeling bad for Hiroki. Especially when he turned and gave me a look that would break Hitler's heart.
"Come on, man, let's go!" I said, reaching for his arm. "Fuck this place! Let's go get some brews!"
Hiroki turned once more to Mr. Soap and said, "I'm never coming here again!"
We went to a bar down the street, and ordered some beers. Hiroki was depressed as hell. I kept trying to cheer him up, trying to change the subject from "That fucking place!" which is what he kept repeating. I felt responsible for putting him in that position. If it weren't for me he'd be on an inflatable mattress with some soaped-up hottie sliding all over him by then.
If it weren't for me...
And that's when I realized that, remarkably, for the first time in my life I had been the victim of outright, Jim Crow style racial discrimination, not so much because I was black (actually I'll never know if my color was a factor) but because I wasn't Japanese (or Asian.)
And, ironically, instead of feeling a victimized rage in the pit of my stomach, and an irrepressible urge to do harm to someone (which up til that point I imagined would be my reaction whenever this dark day came to be) there I was consoling a friend.
I learned something important about myself that night, thanks in part to this first. Something it would take me some time to process.
You see, I didn't feel victimized because at that point I had been living in Japan long enough to believe that it was only a matter of time before something like that happened. I mean, it was simple to surmise that in a country where the natives routinely avoid standing, sitting or even walking near you whenever possible, that they just might have a problem "cleaning" you which would require actual physical contact. The irreverence of daily life in Japan had groomed me to look indignity in the face and say, "Fuck these people! let's go get a brew!" I could just roll with the blows because I was already punch drunk, and one more punch wasn't going to kill me.
Hiroki however took the blow right in the solar plexus of his pride and national self-image, and it left him reeling center ring. You could have performed the coup de grace with a pillow after that.
The rude awakening he'd suffered for some reason overshadowed whatever humiliation I felt. He knew that his people were "shy" around foreigners, but it's a good bet he didn't know that that "shyness" clause in Japan's contract with humanity had a loophole in it wide enough for blatant discrimination to slip through. Or, maybe he did but hadn't really considered how those consequences might play out in the real world because he would never be at the business end of them.
But I'm no mind reader and that night Hiroki couldn't really put into words why he felt the need to repeatedly curse the establishment, but I imagined that considering how he felt about his country, it must have felt terribly disheartening. As for me, in no uncertain terms, this first taught me that I had a dangerously low opinion of what Japan was capable of.