Tokyo Blond Is Not Porn

Tokyo Blond is not a porn blog, about hair or even, as one pithy friend remarked, a micro beer or late 1980s glam metal band ("Dude, I just saw Skid Row and Tokyo Blond opened and played a killer set").

The purpose of this blog is to chronicle my experiences in Tokyo - poignantly, visually, irreverently - for fun.

Anybody can tag along...that is if I like you. This blog will endeavor to be entertaining and honest and frequent enough to keep those following interested including me.

Friday, January 13, 2012

False Impressions

I had lunch the other day with a young Japanese woman I met at the Asakusa Fireworks Spectacular back in August.  You may recall Russell and I were miraculously ambushed by a nice Japanese man who invited us to sit with his family and friends and enjoy the show.  She was one of his son's friends.

A couple of months ago she contacted me and asked me if I would mind sharing some travel recommendations as she is going to Los Angeles in the Spring to study English for five weeks.  I was delighted.  Instead of just sending her an email; I suggested lunch.  She agreed.

Our first lunch was sweet yet complicated, like trying to get cotton candy off your fingers.  She was really nice but her English was limited and my Japanese is, well, nonexistent.  She kept apologizing for not speaking English well.  I should be the one apologizing.  I don't speak Japanese at all!

Our conversation was stilted but interesting.  She works for a rental car company. She lives in Yokohama with her family.  I felt bad that she traveled all this way just to have lunch with me.  But then she explained her boyfriend lives in Tokyo.  Ok, maybe not too bad then.   No, she didn't invite him to come with her to L.A..  She wants to do this on her own.  Wow - independent woman.  She's very excited about going to L.A..  I wanted to ask her how old she is.  She looks about 22 but in Japan that could mean she's really 32.  They're always ten years older than you think they are.

We ended that first lunch with a promise I would send her all the suggestions we discussed on email.  For a few minutes I experienced just a flicker of what Russell must live through every day, albeit on a much more serious level.  It takes a lot of energy and concentration to converse with someone who doesn't speak your language. You really have to pay attention to every single word in order to attempt to understand what they're trying to say.   In America one could also observe body language to aid in the deciphering but I've found the Japanese do not exude as much body language as Americans.  They don't gesticulate as frequently and their facial expressions are much more reserved, except when they smile, which they do a lot.  They have a great sense of humor.

I was exhausted at the end of our lunch.  I can only imagine how she felt.  It must be even harder to continuously translate back and forth.  First you have to determine what you want to say.  Then translate it to the other person's language, then listen for their response, translate it back into your language and then do it all over again to respond.  Wow.  I didn't do any translating except how to split the check.

I spent a couple hours writing an email outlining my suggestions for where she should go in L.A..  She is really interested in shopping.  I found this ironic, considering Tokyo has the best shopping in the world.  She is going to be shocked when she discovers how inexpensive L.A. is compared to Tokyo.  She made it clear she was on a budget so I had to be careful of the suggestions I made.  A lot of the less expensive places I would recommend like The Gap or H&M,  have locations in Tokyo, so it was challenging to come up with fashionable, inexpensive places.  I don't think Fred Segal would qualify.  My main recommendation was Express.

I concentrated more on shopping locations so she could get a flavor of what SoCal has to offer.  Imagine if you just got off the airplane and went to downtown L.A..  You would be seriously disappointed and wonder what all the hype is about.  I confess, Los Angeles can be quite ugly if you don't know where to go.  So I tried to develop a thoughtful itinerary citing such places as 3rd Street Promenade Santa Monica, Beverly Center, Melrose/3rd and the Grove, Montana Street and of course, Rodeo Drive.  No trip to L.A. would be complete without a drive down Sunset to Hollywood and Vine.  And I pointed out the best places, on a budget, to get a great hamburger and Mexican food: In and Out, The Apple Pan, Border Grill.  You know, the usual suspects.

After I pushed "send" I realized she would have a hard time translating everything I said.  So I suggested we have lunch again.

The second lunch was far more meaningful.  After I answered questions she had about my email, we covered the gamut of subjects from Christmas, aka religion, to politics.  I was literally winded afterwards and amazed.  I had gotten so much insight from our discussion.

The conversation led with Christmas and how the Japanese celebrate it, or not.  I asked if her family celebrated Christmas.  She explained that Christmas is not a religious holiday but a lot of her friends did exchange gifts.  She confirmed the story about Japanese men and Christmas, i.e., if you get asked out it means you're expected to put out.  I stifled my urge to ask her if she and her boyfriend had Christmas plans.

Christmas unfolded into a conversation about how sad the Japanese people are this season due to the tsunami and all the people who died or are still missing.  She said the people are filled with overwhelming sadness and a deep desire to help others overcome the tragedy.  That pretty much sums up the Japanese culture "desire to help others."

She went on to say the event weakened the Japanese's trust of the government in regards to what they were told regarding the nuclear incident.  I found that interesting.  Even now reports about tainted food and dairy products are making the Japanese people anxious and wary.  It occurred to me how unwary I am about these things.  In ex-pat circles the women mention their concerns frequently, archly refusing to buy products from non-international stores for fear of radiation.  All my research on the subject indicates you would have to eat radiation tainted food in large quantities for years before it might have a negative affect on adults.  Kids are another story, they weigh a lot less, and so I understand their concern.  Hmmm. Maybe I should rethink my nonchalance if the Japanese are worried.

I pointed out how impressed I was with the progress Japan had made in the cleanup of the disaster sites. Recently an email had circulated with pictures of the disaster areas after impact, three and six months later.

The results were amazing, especially when compared to Hurricane Katrina.  They're still trying to clean that mess up and that was six years ago.  Plus I pointed out that if this disaster had occurred in America it would be a lot different.  I touted Katrina again citing the heinous crimes committed against survivors in the Superdome.  Women were raped, the few possessions people had left were stolen by other survivors, evacuated houses and stores were looted.  This would never happen in Japan.  This sparked disbelief and her eyes opened widely.

In contrast, I told her about a story I heard regarding one of the tsunami shelters in which the members would not partake of food or water if there wasn't enough for everyone.

She mentioned she had watched a lot of the Katrina television coverage and based on this she had the impression that Americans and therefore, America, is a poor country.  Wow.  And everyone in California looks like the cast of the O.C. I thought.  Yikes!  But reflecting upon it for a moment I could totally see how people in other countries could get this impression.  The realization made me shudder.

I explained that Katrina had taken place in Louisiana, which in comparison to other states like California and New York, is less well off.  Furthermore I elucidated that flooding generally occurs in low places.  Since typically in America more affluent people live on higher ground and flooding occurs in low places, more under-privileged people were affected.

If this catastrophe had happened in Southern California or Connecticut she would have formed a significantly different impression.  I hope.

Since we were on the subject of catastrophe she asked me what the whole Occupy Wall Street movement was about.  I clucked silently.  If only my good friend Conrad could see me now.  Since I abhor the news, (it's always negative), he would get a kick out of this inquiry.  I made a mental note to Google the subject when I got home.

I explained the best I could, trying to cite both sides of the story.  Basically I told her people are protesting the government because they feel the current economic situation in America is unfair and the fault of big business and the government.  They want the government to do something about it.

"Why are they mad?" she asked.  I told her they're mad because a lot of people are losing their jobs and therefore going bankrupt and losing their homes.  "That's the government's fault?" she said.

Depends on how you look at it.  There are two sides to every story.  On one hand the government and big business, (e.g. the financial institutions and finance companies), are to blame because they approved home loans that should never have been approved.  The credit card companies made it easy for people to live beyond their means, allowing them credit lines far above their ability to pay.  Meanwhile the financial system, i.e., the stock market and investors, rewards companies for profitability and growth.  The minute one of those measurements threatens to weaken, companies lay off employees while paying their leadership, who mismanaged the company to begin with, millions of dollars in compensation.

I explained that something like 5% of the population in America has 80% of the wealth.  And within that 5%, 1% has 90% of the wealth.   Actually according to the Occupy Movement the number is more like 1% and 99%.  Those that "have" being the 1% and then everyone else being the 99%.

"Oh!" She said, nodding.

However, on the other hand, in my opinion, I don't think people should live beyond their means either.  Having grown up in foster homes and worked for literally everything I have, I have a very different perspective than a lot of Americans.  I think people need to be responsible for themselves.  People shouldn't spend more than they make or leverage themselves so far that they lose everything if the economy takes a dip and then expect the government to pay for them.  That's not fair either.

America was founded on the belief that if you work hard you can achieve whatever you want.  I am living testimony to the American dream I said.   But today it seems a lot of Americans think the government owes them, not the other way around.  It's sad, especially in contrast to what I have seen about the Japanese people.

But it's complicated.  There is fault on both sides.  Do I think big business should be made more accountable to their employees?  Absolutely.  I worked for MCI Worldcom and watched Bernie Ebbers and Scott Sullivan screw everyone.  They're still rich and most everyone who worked at MCI was unemployed.  Do I think the government should tax the rich more so they can cover loans made by people who should never have qualified to begin with?  It's tricky.  Is it right for the government to bail out the financial institutions and automotive companies but not its citizens?  Hard questions I'm not qualified to answer, except perhaps, anecdotically.

Apparently there is no recourse anymore for irresponsibility.  Government bails out the big institutions for fear of losing jobs and therefore votes.  People purposely max out their credit cards and plead bankruptcy (sometimes multiple times) but continue to get loans for cars and more credit cards after the dust settles.  What has happened to our country?

I asked her if there was similar thinking in Japan.  She told me in Japan people help each other but are responsible for themselves.  Hmmm.

I suggested she watch the movie "Margin Call" which I felt was an excellent portrayal literally and figuratively of the financial crisis in America.

It was almost a cathartic conversation I mused afterwards.  I couldn't have that conversation with an American without fear of an altercation or strong judgement. Generally I don't get involved in political conversations, especially at my age.  I find that my contemporaries are unwilling to entertain a different opinion than their own. Sadly.  I'm willing to be educated and change my mind but I find most people are just emotional about their opinions and seldom have the knowledge to back them up.

I walked away with a full stomach and head spinning from too much caffeine and insight.  Dazed by the impressions she had painted, like a spirograph of neon flashing lights.

I saw a cartoon in High School once about the world from the perspective of high above.  From that perspective it seemed Earth is inhabited by just cars.  It was too far away to see the people.  The cars and trucks and even farming equipment moved purposely about each day, going to and from places from sun up to sun down.  That film always made me wonder what aliens would think looking down on our civilization.

I guess today I got a glimpse.

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