Living in Tabata has been nice, but now it’s time to move on.
Actually, living in Tabata hasn’t been so nice. Crappy people live here.
I’ve had some interesting interactions with local residents. After having been to three different bars in Tabata, on six different days, I can say that I’ve definitely had some eerily similar interactions!
The first weekend after I moved to Tabata, I went to Bar08. It’s a cool place! 1920s themed, with jazz playing and the bartenders wearing bowties. A bit too expensive. The place was pretty empty, so I started talking to the bartender. He helped me practice my Japanese, and he was really fun to talk to. Then a second, English speaking bartender came. He kept speaking English with me even when I tried speaking Japanese. So annoying! Eventually, I left.
Soon I was scouting the neighborhood for another place to buy a gin tonic and practice my Japanese. That was when I found Hard Boiled. Hard Boiled Tabata sees a lot of business because it’s on the walk home from the train station, and there’s a lot of foot traffic. The place feels like someone’s basement (actually, I think it is). I liked the bartender there. Quiet guy. Nice. Professional.
Four Japanese customers were wasted, and they joked around with me for a while until around 3 AM when I decided to leave. Their English was really good, and they kept talking about how cool it was that I was American. It made me uncomfortable that my Americanness was the only thing they saw which was worth talking about. Oddly enough, as a result, I felt even more like an outsider, despite the fact that we were communicating fluently in my native language.
They all gave me their contact info and said we’d go out for curry next weekend. I never heard from them again.
This behavior strikes me as very strange, especially since the curry was their idea.
The next Saturday night, I thought I’d explore Tabata again. I didn’t want to go back to Bar 08 – it was expensive, and anyway I had shot the English speaking bartender one too many guarded looks – and I wanted to try a new place on for size. After all, I’m out here exploring the world. Why not?
Out on Route 306, past Bar 08, in a spot unmarked by Google Maps, is a small karaoke bar run by a sweet old lady.
She stood behind a broad, flat, burgundy bar, fidgeting with a fat stone in the center of a ring. The place smelled vaguely like cigar smoke. Not recent cigar smoke. Just a hint of it clung to the room like the scent of drier sheets clinging to laundry after a few days of sitting in the drawer.
A middle-aged guy sat at the bar. He was able to speak broken English. The grandma was not (actually, I think she understood more than she let on). The three of us chatted for a while, gesturing and using broken Japanese & English. I would have been happy sitting there drinking shochu (the bartender’s recommendation), but it seemed I had become the center of attention. I drank and laughed with them. The grandma brought out a cheese and grapes platter. I wrote down new Japanese words in my notebook. I used recently learned words in the conversation as much as possible.
Even though communication was difficult, we all seemed to be having a great time. The grandma had a bright, joyful smile that lit her face up. Her eyes became inverted U-shaped slits. You felt happy when she smiled, as if she were contagious with it, and through the veil of wrinkled skin you could see how beautiful she had been when she was young.
I asked to sing a karaoke song, and she helped me operate the machine. I muddled through an anime opening theme song. They clapped. I sat back down. Then she started talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
She was still smiling when she brought it up. Her eyes were still inverted U-shapes. But as she started miming radioactive skin bubbling and dripping off of her forearm, giggling, I realized that she was saying something in Japanese that contradicted the kindness on her face. She was being sarcastic.
When I realized this, I must have changed my own facial expression all of a sudden because she caught it, looked at me, and went “hah?” as if to confirm.
This reaction, “hah?” is beyond rude in Japan. It is aggressive.
Then she went on doing the same miming. Behind her, on the counter that ran against the back wall, nestled between the bottles, was an old black and white picture. Was it her mother? Her sister? I didn’t know. Had someone she’d loved died in the bombing? I felt bad, but what did that have to do with me?
The photo had been there the whole time, but I hadn’t noticed it until just then.
Quietly, I excused myself.
Walking home, I realized she had asked me how old I was just before she started going on about the atomic bombs that America dropped on those Japanese cities. I told her I was 35. I think that her asking my age was her way of acknowledging that I had nothing to do with those events, as if that excused her behavior.
I stayed away from bars in Tabata for a while. When I decided I was ready to try again, Hard Boiled was still the best place, so that was where I returned to.
Again, the bartender was nice. It was his birthday, and one of the customers had bought him a belt. Everyone seemed to know each other in this town. I actually had a lot of fun that night. The bartender helped me with my Japanese. I had study cards, and since I was the only customer for a while, he helped quiz me. He was kind, quiet, and professional.
After that, I stayed away from the bars for even longer, but that didn’t stop me from having strange experiences.
I ride my bike to work, and one morning, my tire was flat, so I asked the police in the koban if I could borrow their air pump. They said OK and I thanked the officer politely.
About 5 minutes later, an officer on a bicycle pulled me over. He rummaged through my wallet and asked me questions about my bicycle. Then he noted two empty cans in my basket and told me that Japanese people don’t like to see rubbish. During that conversation, there was a guy on a bicycle to our right. An eavesdropper. He assented in direct, rude-sounding Japanese. I didn’t understand most of what he said, but he definitely said そだよ！
This has happened three times. Every time I’ve asked for air at the police station, they call someone and have them wait on a corner for me.
Finally, last night, I went back to Hard Boiled for one last hurrah. I was moving to Asakusa that Sunday. Hard Boiled is my favorite bar in Tabata, and it was Friday night, and I had nothing special to do.
There was a very cute girl at the bar with big eyes. She asked about my job, and I told her I was an English teacher. It was downhill from there.
She said that everyone in Japan needs to learn English since World War 2. Then she started asking me if I liked Japanese girls, and then asked what the difference was between Japanese and foreign girls. In other words, she was stereotyping me as a debaucherous foreigner who has come to take advantage of innocuous Japanese girls.
She, I, and the bartender had been using translation software to facilitate our communication. I took the opportunity to tell her the story about the grandma in the other bar who had brought up the atomic bombs. I went to the toilet while she read the paragraph.
When I came back, she had opened up a tab for me and bought me a drink. She said there’s a saying, ichigo ichie, which means something like “let’s just enjoy this moment because it’ll never return.” It’s usually said in the context of a host/guest relationship.
So now she wants to be a good host. Nice. Good for her. I ignored her and started talking to this wasted guy in the corner who kept asking them to put Thom Yorke on the radio. The bartender put it on, and then he and I sang “Go to Sleep.”
Then I paid for my own damn drink and left.
I find that those Japanese people who live in Tabata, Tokyo, are more disagreeable than a platter of old sushi.
Unfortunately, my feeling as I move away is that Tabata residents are backwards, racist, closed-minded people who are stuck in the past and are unskilled at perceiving strangers as individuals.