9 April 2014

"J" is for a jaunt in Japan


I am sitting in yet another hotel room in another city – in another country. This time I am in the Roppongi Hills district of the city of Tokyo. 

I am in Japan.

It has been a long and eventful day.

My trip to Japan was not a planned or scheduled one. I was ordered here. I am ordered to go to many places by the English for whom I work and in most instances I am OK with this - although sometimes it annoys me.

As do they.

However on this occasion I do not really mind. I like Tokyo and Japan and it has been a while since I was last here. Tokyo is a crazy place.

It is my sort of town.

I caught the overnight flight from Singapore on an airline that I shall not name. There shall be no free advertising in my writing.

I am comfortably ensconced in the hotel in which I normally stay – it is very luxurious and the staff are most attentive. Courtesy in Japan is the norm and I greatly enjoy the custom of bowing that goes on. The deeper the bow one receives the more respect is being displayed.

For each bow that I receive in Japan I return one back.

It is the Japanese way.

I flew here last night on the overnight service and was seated at the front of the plane. A very small, demure and immaculately dressed elderly Japanese businessman occupied the seat next to me. As I took my allotted aisle seat we each nodded and uttered hellos. Overhead luggage was stored, hot towels were received, dinner menus were distributed and not long after take off I decided to open pleasantries and initiate a conversation.

I like conversations.

It quickly became apparent that the little fellow spoke no English and it was then that I noticed that in the seat across the aisle from me sat a very tall and incredibly beautiful Japanese woman. She was quite young and was nicely but simply attired - and she was adorned in what appeared to be most expensive but tasteful jewellery.

This was no bimbo. She reeked of elegance and Chanel Number Five.

My attempt at conversation with my immediate seat-neighbour prompted her intervention and it also seemed to simultaneously generate the interest of a very large Japanese man who was seated next to her – on the window seat - and two equally large Japanese men seated immediately behind me.

The dude had an entourage.

The word entourage is quite obviously French in origin. It is derived from the word ‘entourer’ which means ‘to surround’.

I noticed the interest in my attempt at conversation by the large Japanese-men-seated-behind-me because two pairs of hands appeared on the back of my seat. Their fingernails were immaculately manicured. I felt the hands before I saw them - as my seat was pulled back slightly - and when I saw the hands I could not help but notice that of the four hands that were present – only eighteen fingers were displayed. Both dudes were missing the little pinkies of their left hands.

They were Yakuza. 

Yakuza is not an Eastern brand of yoghurt – it is the Japanese mafia.

The gorgeous and elegant Japanese lady leaned over the aisle to me and as she did so she uttered something in Japanese that made the two nine-fingered men that were behind me immediately sit down. She then informed me in a completely unaccented voice that the gentleman seated next to me could speak no English. She told me – without prompting – that she was his personal assistant and she would be happy to interpret.

I thanked her and I introduced myself. I told her that my name is Peter – because it is – and she smiled and told me that her name was Myoki.

We shook hands.

I was already a bit alarmed by the fact that Yakuza were seated behind me and I also felt disarmed by the smile of Myoki. The combination of being both alarmed and disarmed at the same time was a new experience for me. I am a great believer in love at first sight and I have been afflicted before. The Italians call this calpo di fulminate – the thunderbolt. I had no illusions though - this woman was way out of my league.

I thanked Myoki-san and then smiled again and then I shook hands with the old dude seated next to me. When he stood I also stood – and whilst he was able to stand at full height – I had to hunch a little.

We then did shallow bows to each other.

You will note that I have referred to Myoki as Myoki-san. This is a Japanese politeness thing. One adds a ‘san’ to the end of a Japanese name to demonstrate respect. When meeting someone important you should refer to them by their surname and add a ‘san’. If there is less formality you add a ‘san’ to their first name. When Myoki-san introduced me to the little Japanese dude I referred to him by his surname with a ‘san’.

I shall not reveal neither his first nor last name here for reasons that will soon become apparent.

I dare not.

We all then took our seats and some rapid Japanese was spoken between Myoki-san and the little old chap. Myoki then asked me if I lived in Singapore and whether I was going to Tokyo on business. I answered in the affirmative to both questions and asked the reverse of her. I asked whether she and her colleagues lived in Tokyo and whether they had been to Singapore on business.

She also answered in the affirmative.

Little Japanese dude fired some rapid Japanese at Myoki who then translated and asked me what I did for a living and for whom I worked. I told her. When I announced the name of my Employer she remained expressionless but I could see the little fellow get mildly excited. Some people do – as my Company is a very well known brand. I went out of my way to explain to Myoki that I was no one important in my firm but she asked me for a business card regardless.

I knew this was coming.

The Japanese love business cards.

I do not.

I do confess that I hesitated a little in this instance and I mentally asked myself the question - did I really want to give my contact details to someone who may well be an Oyabun? Then I decided “what the fuck?” I suspect that many of the English for whom I work are also Oyabun – they are simply English variations of them.

An Oyabun is the equivalent of a ‘Godfather’ in the Italian Mafia. Its literal translation is ‘family head’.

I had to stand up to remove some business cards from my wallet, which prompted both Myoki, and the little dude to stand again as well. The Japanese method in the swapping of business cards is a formal and respectful process that I am very familiar with and have done many times before. It involves the passing of the card with two hands to the recipient accompanied by a small bow. I did this with both Myoki and the little godfather and then we all took our seats again. When I was standing I took a quick peak at the big boys seated behind me. Their faces were impassive but I could tell that they were watching me very carefully. I knew that I needed to be very careful about what I said.

I am very often not very careful with what I say.

It is one of my many character flaws.

There was quite a bit of three-way conversation between the godfather, Myoki and myself over the next three or four hours which was initially very formal and general. I was asked if I had been to Japan many times before to which I replied that I had. I asked the same of them about Singapore and they informed me that they were also regular visitors. As time passed our conversation became less formal and more interesting – as conversations often do. We talked about likes and dislikes and poets and dreams. We discussed food and books and favourite things.

We laughed quite a bit.

At one stage Myoki asked me what were some of the things that I liked most about Japan and I told her that I very much liked sushi, sashimi and the samurai. At the mention of samurai the little man’s interest seemed to perk up and Myoki explained that the godfather had a very extensive collection of ancient samurai swords. She asked me whether I would have time or interest in seeing them. I replied by asking Myoki if the Pope was Catholic. She laughed at this and then translated it to the little man and he too laughed loud and long. He slapped his knees a bit as well while he laughed which I thought was a bit weird.

It wasn’t that funny.

I shall not explain the Samurai here as all should be aware that these were the once great warriors of Japan and they are famous for their fighting skills, their code of honour and their beautiful but deadly swords. If you do not know of them then I must politely but firmly ask that you return to your planets of origin and leave we earthlings in peace.  I know that we must seem like a barbaric and brutal species that appear intent on self-destruction - but some of us at least mean no harm.

After a while the elderly Oyabun fell asleep. Myoki and I talked a little more about literature and she seemed genuinely delighted when I told her that Haruki Murakami was one of my favourite writers and that I had read all of his books.

Then I fell asleep.

We were all awakened in the morning by the announcement that the plane was soon to commence its descent into Tokyo and we sipped green tea. The old chap asked Myoki to ask me where I was staying in the city and when I gave her the name of my hotel in Roppongi Hills it triggered off a long string of Japanese between him and his assistant. Some instructions were barked at one of the big boys seated behind me who grunted some “hais” in response.

‘Hai’ is ‘yes’ in colloquial Japanese – but it would also be the noise that I would probably make were I to chop off a head using a samurai sword.

Myoki then asked me if I had made arrangements to be transported from the Narita airport to my hotel and I told her that I had. I told her that I had arranged for myself to catch either the bus or the train to Roppongi Hills. I informed Myoki that despite the great wealth of my employer it did not allow such underlings as me to get a hotel car or a taxi from the Narita airport. It is a very long way from the city – nearly one hundred kilometres – and a taxi fare is generally about two hundred American dollars. I told Myoki that I had caught a taxi on one trip and used my corporate credit card and my Employer had given me a severe kicking. She laughed at this reply and she shook her black lustrous hair and I felt the thunderbolt again. I fell in even deeper love with her.

I fell head over heels.

As our plane was taxiing along the runway after landing, Myoki asked me if I would mind if they helped with my transport arrangements to my hotel and I told her that I wouldn’t mind at all. I told her that it would be an honour.

Another entourage greeted the Oyabun when we alighted the plane and there was again much bowing. Some random Japanese dude grabbed my bag and we were whisked to an area of the airport to which I had never before been. I was asked for my passport and it was whisked off and then it was returned fully stamped within a few minutes.

I was most impressed already.

We were then whisked through a little room and back onto the edge of a tarmac where a big black van was waiting.

There was much whisking.

Whisking is the act of moving very quickly.

It is not drinking whiskey.

I noticed when we got into the van that the big Japanese guys that were accompanying us all had extensive tattoos on their arms. They were very well dressed in dark suits but I got flashes of ink when they handled the bags. Any doubt that I had that these guys being Yakuza evaporated immediately.

It was very exciting.

We had but a short drive to a large helicopter that we all entered. I do not know what sort of helicopter it was – for I know little about such things. I sat up near the front and was introduced to the pilot and the co-pilot. The pilot was an elderly American guy and the co-pilot was Japanese. The pilot shook my hand warmly and told me that his name was Buzz. He seemed to be familiar with the entourage and he was wearing a brown leather bomber jacket and a slightly manic grin on his face – and pants of course. I suspect that he may well be a Vietnam War veteran and he could quite possibly have ingested a fair bit of Agent Orange.

Buzz spoke some rapid Japanese into a crackling radio and some rapid Japanese was returned. I could not understand a word apart from a Roger that” at the end of the conversation before he gave a ‘thumbs up’ to no one in particular then a somewhat insane laugh and we lurched into the air.

Roger That’ and ‘Roger Wilco’ are pilot speak. ‘Roger’ is a word used in one prominent radio alphabet to stand for the letter ‘R’. These alphabets use words to represent letters and such alphabets are known as "radio alphabets" or "phonetic alphabets". They are international. The alphabet in which Roger stands for ‘R’ begins "Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog" - and was the official radio alphabet of the U.S. Navy up until 1954. Another familiar alphabet - the NATO phonetic alphabet - which is now used by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Federal Aviation Administration, begins "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta". This alphabet uses the word ‘Romeo’ for the letter ‘R’.

The ‘R’ that the word ‘Roger’ is substituting for stands for ‘Received’ and indicates that a radio message has been received and understood.

‘Wilco’ is not from a radio alphabet – it is a military abbreviation for ‘will comply’ and is used to indicate that a message that has been received and will be complied with. In military circles it is necessary to acknowledge receipt of a message by saying ‘Roger’ before indicating compliance with a ‘Wilco’ – and hence the frequent combination “Roger. Wilco”.

Roger is also a slang word for a penis – used most commonly by the English. It arose in the seventeenth century most probably because of its vague association with a spear shape. To the crass population of England – of which there are many - the term "to roger" became a slang verb form meaning "to have sex with or to penetrate" and for reasons completely unknown by me often particularly refers to anal sex.

The English are a very nasty and vulgar race at times.

The flight from Narita to the city took about nine minutes in the helicopter and the views of Tokyo were simply spectacular. The bus or train journey that I normally take is generally at least two hours in duration. We landed on the roof of the hotel that I am booked into and two butler type dudes greeted me. I thanked my hosts and the angel that is Myoki told me that they would send a car for me this evening. She told me that I would be driven to meet with the Oyabun and to see his samurai sword collection. Buzz gave me a military salute and then he tilted his head back in another mad laugh and then the big bird took off again.

I was ushered straight to my suite where I had a shower, made some work calls and sent some emails. So here I now sit awaiting a call from the concierge to tell me that the car from the Yakuza dudes has arrived.

I have not written too much here about the Yakuza and their history. 

I will leave that for another time.

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