For various reasons, of which I may well write at a later date, I have very few male Japanese friends. Acquaintances, yes, real friends who can make you belly laugh, no. I’m not a weirdo and it’s not as though I enjoy dressing as an adult baby or anything, but despite being quite open to making Japanese male friends, my tally after so long in Japan is pitiful.
Of course, opportunities for new friendships do come around every now and then, but so far, for me they’ve been a bit disappointing. My latest chance of a friend came at the pool, where a Japanese guy seemed very keen indeed to become buddies. His name was Fumi and he met me in the hot tub. Never a good start, I feel. When we started talking my doubts became greater. Fumi, you see, made it abundantly clear that he likes talking to me because he enjoys getting an opportunity to use his English. He peppers his conversation with the phrase, ‘It is my pleasure to talk in English with you!’ This alone should have me running a mile, because usually it is people who can barely put a simple sentence together that insist on speaking English with me. But Fumi’s English is excellent. He speaks fluently and has no problems understanding me. His English is better than my Japanese, and therefore, were we to talk in Japanese, I would probably be like one of those painfully irritating language leeches I try so hard to avoid – trying desperately to make him understand my Japanese when it would just be simpler for both of us to use the language which most facilitates communication. He may have just wanted to get to know me to practice his English, but at least we would be communicating in the simplest way. It wouldn’t be in any way bothersome to either of us.
More troubling than his reasons for seeking friendship however were the facts that he is a single forty-seven year-old man who doesn’t drink and wears Speedos. I know that I am no spring chicken, but somehow forty-seven still seems like the sort of age more suited to a person that my dad should be friends with. And were my dad to come home one day and say he had been asked out for dinner by a single Speedos-wearing man he had only just met in the gym jacuzzi, I would, quite frankly, be somewhat aghast. I mean he gave me his business card in the changing room when I was dressed only in my underpants, for heaven’s sake! I was on the phone to another friend and I told him of how I had met Fumi and I think he summed up my reluctance perfectly when he said, with some obvious angst, ‘Oh dear. He wants you to pee in his mouth.’
Well, I didn’t e-mail Fumi but I did run into him in the pool a few more times and after deciding he was just being friendly agreed to go for lunch with him.
‘Okay, it’s a date!’ he said.
‘No, that it’s fucking not!’ I wished I had the nerve to say, but in my own cowardly way I smiled and said I’d see him the next Sunday.
We met outside the gym and I followed him to a restaurant which Fumi told me was ‘very famous’ for its healthy food. It was alright, I suppose, but it certainly didn’t merit being very famous.
We sat down and Fumi handed me a brown paper bag across the table. ‘Here are some DVDs,’ he said.
‘Oh, right. Thanks,’ I said wondering if I dare take them out of their bag in a respectable restaurant. ‘What are they?’
‘You will love it, I think,’ said Fumi. ‘It is an American drama, Smallville. It is the story of Superman when he was a teenager!’
I tried to look pleased, but I didn’t even like Superman when he was grown up. I didn’t care what he was like as a teenager. I looked in the bag and was dismayed to see a box set, which I was no doubt expected to watch and be questioned about next time we met at the gym.
‘Oh great! Superman DVDs!’ I said quite loudly, holding them up in a conspicuous manner lest anybody in the restaurant got the wrong idea about two middle-aged men having lunch together and exchanging DVDs in plain brown wrappers.
‘Yes, but they are mine,’ added Fumi, ‘So you have to give them back.’
I wanted to tell him that I didn’t actually want them in the first place and certainly had no intention of stealing them, but thought it best not to pick an argument straight away. As lunch dragged on, though, it got harder and harder not to.
The first annoyance was when the menu arrived and Fumi asked if I could read it. The question itself wasn’t annoying, but his apparent refusal to believe my answer was. It was written mostly in katakana, a syllabic alphabet which is primarily used in Japan for words of foreign origin. It is not hard to master and most people learn it fairly quickly. Certainly it should pose no difficulty to anybody who has spent years in the country. I told Fumi it was no problem and he said, ‘Really?’ with evident surprise and then proceeded to translate it all anyway.
I ordered a spicy pilaf and he had omraisu, which is basically omelette with rice. Then he began talking about his health check at work and, after confirming that I, as a foreigner, could use the same health system as he, a Japanese, he said that he strongly recommended I get a health check. I did have a bit of a cold, but I suppose I must have looked worse than I thought.
From his health check we got on to the cheery topic of cancer and I commented that I had heard that stomach cancer is one of the more common cancers in Japan.
‘That is because of stress,’ said Fumi, ‘because we Japanese work much harder than other countries’ people.’
‘Do you think it could be diet related?’ I asked, genuinely curious. ‘Because there isn’t much fibre in the typical Japanese diet and there is a lot of salt with all the soy sauce.’ I have no idea whether diet plays a part or not, and am quite sure many a Japanese businessman falls ill due to the effects of stress but I was just trying to make conversation and it didn’t seem to be as outlandish an idea as Fumi obviously thought it was. He laughed heartily and said dismissively that no, it couldn’t be diet related because, ‘We Japanese have the healthiest food in the world.’ He reasserted that it was because of stress and then began telling me some statistics of work-related suicides in Japan and stressing that almost as many people commit suicide in Japan each year as die in car accidents. He almost said that as though it was something to be proud of! I don’t know from where or why he knew these figures, but it wasn’t shaping up to be a particularly mirthful lunch.
In fact, there was virtually no humour at all. We spoke of his favourite U.S. dramas and actually managed to find one topic of mutual interest in the author Haruki Murakami, but all in all I just felt it was a bit dull and couldn’t help but remember that the only reason he wanted to befriend me in the first place is because I speak English. Had I insisted on speaking only Japanese to him at the gym, I am quite certain he would not have invited me to lunch at all.
After lunch we went to a local coffee shop. Fumi told me that the coffee shop was ‘very famous’ for its excellent coffee. His friend had introduced it to him and his friend was very clever and had graduated from Tokyo University! Fumi ordered us a coffee each, and a piece of cake for himself, and when my coffee arrived in a pleasant tartan mug, I commented that it was quite Scottishy.
‘Yes, they did that for you,’ said Fumi.
I laughed, as I thought I ought to, but his expression turned quite serious and he said, ‘No, really. It is not a joke. This coffee shop is very famous for matching the cups to the customers. Look, my cup is different from yours.’
‘But they don’t know where I’m from,’ I said.
‘Perhaps they guessed you were Scottish,’ said Fumi, which I wanted to point out was quite ridiculous. I was not dressed in a kilt, I don’t have ginger hair and I wasn’t eating a deep fried Mars Bar. I can confidently make the assumption that never has a Japanese person watched me walking down the street and said, ‘There’s a Scottish guy!’ A foreigner, often, an American, quite often, but a Scotsman, never.
‘That is why this is a very good coffee shop!’ said Fumi.
But the other problem with his theory was that he had ordered both our coffees, which were different kinds, and so the waitress had no idea who was having what. He had a fifty-fifty chance of getting the tartan cup himself. If I had been with a British friend, I’d have pointed this out and perhaps good-naturedly called him a cock. But, I could feel that Fumi wouldn’t be able to laugh at himself and would just think me rude. That’s the thing with a lot of the Japanese males I’ve met – they get a bit sensitive if you take the piss. Perhaps I am wrong. I would like to think so, but that’s often how it seems. And so, we finished our coffees and I went home with a box set of Smallville DVDs knowing I would have to meet Fumi again in order to return them.
We met over a joke-free lunch in a ‘very famous’ Italian restaurant. The food was good, but there were no other customers. However, it turned out to be quite an interesting lunch, despite the lack of laughs, because Fumi confided to me he had once paid a company to try and find him a Chinese bride. He said he had told nobody outside his family about this, and that his family had been very opposed to it. As an only son he was feeling the pressure to get married, and not having had much success with the ladies in his own country, he signed up with an agency that helps people find Chinese brides. He told me he had to pay about ¥250,000 yen up front and then, if he found someone he decided to marry he would have to pay three million yen to the agency.
He flew to Shanghai, he said, and was met by two representatives from the agency. He was then taken immediately to a hotel where several young ladies had been lined up to meet him. He had a brief chat with them and told the reps which ones might be suitable. He then spent a bit longer in the hotel room with the chosen ones – at different times, of course – and revealed that maybe he ‘could have done something’ but he didn’t. One woman, he said, was beautiful and told him she loved him. I began to laugh but then pretended I was coughing when I realised how deadly serious Fumi looked. He thought she was nice, but, in the end, he said, he just couldn’t be sure she was right for him. ‘It was very difficult to say no,’ he said, ‘especially as she loved me.’ Again, there was no smile as he said this, no iota of a hint that he might not have believed the woman. And that’s when I realised I was making friends with a maddie. And then the spaghetti arrived and he slurped it as though it were ramen. ‘That,’ I wanted to say, ‘is partly why you can’t get a girlfriend!’
Well, I didn’t see much of Fumi after that. So, still I have many more Japanese acquaintances than real friends, and I have accepted that you just have to let friendships happen naturally. For me that seems harder here in Japan than it ever has anywhere else, but I’d rather be lonely than desperate. ‘Join facebook,’ people say. But I’m scared to. After all, when you suspect you have far fewer friends than you should, the last thing you want is someone counting them for you and sending messages to other people letting them know how unpopular you are and encouraging them to help you find your friends. You don’t want to see that in writing. Facebook, I’m sure, can be a useful social networking tool, but it can be awfully cruel, too.