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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible






Drinking in Shinjuku

Tokyo, Japan, May 1995: I have never been to Japan before and I'm not particularly looking forward to this trip. No-one there speaks English; the Japanese are racist. Just getting from one appointment to another is going to be a major hassle. I'll get lost and no-one will help me. And I'll starve for the five days I am there because I won't be able to order anything in a restaurant. Prejudices; where would we be without them?

Somehow, everything goes fine. At Narita, I'm alert and awake although it's mid-evening and I've just come off a twelve-hour flight from Los Angeles compounded by hour- and date- change. Signs clearly point the way to the rail link into Tokyo; at the booth where I buy my ticket the clerk smiles as he responds in good English. Suddenly I feel welcome. The train leaves promptly, fast, smooth and comfortable. The good mood remains as in the city centre I easily transfer to a metro that takes me to a stop near my hotel and the room itself, although expensive, is not as small as I had feared.  I unload, shower and climb into bed, intending to channel hop, but sleep catches up with me and I am almost immediately unconscious.

The next three days are taken up with meetings at the Foreign Ministry and various charitable foundations. The lady at the foreign ministry is young and informal; I might be in Norway or Denmark. The men in the foundations are middle-aged and as formal as in Europe thirty or forty years ago. Everyone listens politely as I explain the goals and work of the non-profit institute I work for. There is some overlap with most of the organisations I meet - or I would not have contacted them - but nothing so crass as funding is mentioned. After all, all the guidebooks to doing business in Japan advise that it takes time to build up a relationship, but once that relationship is built, it is strong and dependable.  When I am back home I will send a full report to our fund-raisers, suggest next steps to keep contact and raise our profile with those I met (angle, perhaps, for a second visit to a city I want to explore), but London is thousands of miles away and my colleagues have enough work on hand to keep current, nearer to home, funders happy and the ideas I put forward, including even a Tokyo office, are gradually forgotten.

I am enjoying myself. With only three or four appointments a day, my schedule is light. Getting from one office to the next is relatively easy, because each has provided address and clear directions in Japanese and English. At times I take the metro, and spend the few minutes waiting for a train in a trilingual comparison of the few Chinese (and therefore also Japanese) characters I am familiar with and the roman transliteration. Or I sit in the back of a taxi as a silently polite driver ferries me across the city. Occasionally I need the help of a resident, as in an Italian restaurant where the menu is unexpectedly only in Japanese, and there is always someone, middle-aged, male, besuited, to help me.

By the third day - my second last in the city - I have enough energy to explore the nightlife. It is a Wednesday, so I expect very little, but at least I can look around and buy one or two drinks in a bar. So I get on the metro and get off at Shinjuku, one of the areas where, according to the Spartacus Guide to the Lonely Gay Man's Planet, several gay bars are to be found. Several, intriguingly, carry the information "foreigners not welcome" and while in other circumstances this would be a challenge to find out why they were not welcome and in what manner that unwelcomeness was made apparent, tonight I only want to orientate myself where the natives are friendly.

Around 8pm therefore, when it is already dark but still early, I step down from Shinjuku station into the street. The blaze of neon signs around me are reminiscent of the Los Angeles of BladeRunner, but not far away is the dark warren of old streets where most of the bars are found. The problem is that Japanese buildings are numbered, not according to their position on the street, but in the order in which they were built, and so while I can usually be fairly certain which street I am on, that is little help finding the address I want.

I wander around for twenty minutes or so, getting my bearings. I pass one street level bar that I know is gay but it is in the American style and, since I am currently living in the United States, it holds no attractions for me. What I am looking for is a Japanese bar, of the kind I have seen in two or three films, where the premises are little larger than a living-room and where the host(ess) sees customers as friends. And these, it appear, have no signs.

Nonetheless, I am considering handing in my explorer's badge and heading for the American bar when three figures pass me. Two of them are speaking middle-class British and one switches to address his companion in fluent Japanese. All are very definitely gay. Bingo! I turn and follow them as they turn into another street. A minute later and they have disappeared into the darkened doorway of a four or five storey. Less familiar with my surroundings, I approach slowly. This is the street where Spartacus lists a gay bar that is not foreigner-hostile. And, luckily, this is the number of that bar. I walk in to a narrow stone stairwell and am reminded of the tenements of my Edinburgh youth. Above me, I hear the English and Japanese voices climbing the stairs, opening a door. I follow. On the second floor there is a single door and a notice. I can't read it, but it suggests a commercial establishment and there is nowhere else the three strangers can have gone. I turn the handle and walk in.

A small, softly lit room with a curving bar. It can hold, I work out later, perhaps ten people sitting at the bar and another eight or so on the sofas that surround the single low table. All five people in the room turn and look at me  -  the middle-aged man and his young assistant behind the bar, and the three members of the public that drew me here, now sitting at the far end of the bar. There is a moment's silence, then the three turn away, the older man says something which I take to be a greeting, and the young man comes over to where I take my seat by the bar. He, it is obvious, does not speak English, and apart from hai, sayonara and moshi-moshi do not speak Japanese. This is going to be either painful or fun.

I speak loudly enough for the others to hear I want a beer and wait for them to call over a translation. But Translation Came There None. Instead, from the corner of my eye I could see them huddling together, willing me to go away. The English that I had heard in the street has disappeared and I can only hear Japanese, presumably the equivalent of "Why the **** doesn't he go away?" Well, **** you, I think, if you can't help a stranger, and I am now determined to stay. The message gets through that I want a beer and welcomely cold bottle is placed in front of me. The price is less welcome. One thousand yen; twelve dollars; eight pounds, four times the current rate in London or Los Angeles. Well, perhaps only one drink tonight.

My server is about 23, with the wisp of a beard, a plain face but obviously willing to please. Having poured my drink, he does not return to where the owner and his obviously regular customers are deep in conversation, but hangs around me. At this point I remember that Japanese bars are homes from home and that a barman's duty is to make conversation as much as to serve drinks. And so we try. I get through to him that I am British - or at least I show him my passport so that he may have thought that I was from the US or Australia or even Iceland. But, despite several attempts and a lot of embarrassed smiles, the only other substantive information we exchange is the fact that I am sitting in this room trying to talk with him, thanks to the Spartacus Guide. To achieve this, I pull out the scrap of paper with the bar's name on it. He makes a deep sound of recognition like a samurai in a Kurosawa film and points to the ceiling. Oh. It has not occurred to me that there might be more than one bar in a building. So the foreigner-friendly one is upstairs. Ah well, that explains why here even the foreigners-who-have-turned-native are unfriendly.

The seconds pass slowly, the minutes even more so. Suddenly, the door behind me opens and a small middle-aged man in a suit and carrying the cares of the world scuttles in and is greeted by Mine Host and His Assistant. Salaryman takes a seat by the low table. Mine Host brings out a small glass of what looks like whisky. Salaryman drinks, mutters a request. Mine Host gives him a book and a microphone. Salaryman makes a request. Mine Host switches on the karaoke. Music plays. Salaryman sings monotonously,  without feeling, staring at the table in front of him. Song comes to an end. We all clap politely. Another glass of whisky is delivered. Salaryman bows his head slightly in acknowledgement. Salaryman gives another number. More music, the same slow beat. Salaryman sings again, still without feeling, still staring at the table. Song comes to an end. We all clap politely. Salaryman bows again, finishes his drink and leaves.

It was a ritual. This is what overworked Japanese businessmen do at the end of the day. They go to a bar and relieve their tensions by drinking and singing. The problem is, he has gone through all the motions and the tension is still there. Indeed, I suspect, the tension is greater because he has performed these acts not because he wants to or enjoys them but because he feels he must, and having performed them and not enjoyed them the tension is even greater.

Whatever. My beer is almost at an end. It will be eleven o'clock by the time I get to bed and I have another full day tomorrow. I finish it, smile and nod at my host, who smiles back, obviously relieved to see me go, and at Mine Host who acknowledges my departure, although without a smile. The two Brits and their Japanese friend are deep in conversation. I am tempted to call over "Thanks for not helping" just to see their reaction but at times like this I can control myself. It's funny, I think as I walk down the stairs, that the most unhelpful people in Japan just happen to be people who share my nationality.

2009 update: Gaijin visiting Shinjuku can expect a friendly welcome in GB - one of the oldest Gay Bars in the district - and Arty-Farty. Barmen and strangers will be happy to offer you further information and suggestions...

see also: Azure Love in Gion

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