The Joy of Agony

black and white photo

I am paid every month to be a 72-year-old woman. Though the payment is only on paper, so is her mode of expression. She is, in British parlance, an “agony aunt.”

Dear Granny Gaijin,
My name is Nathan and I am a gaijin. I haven’t committed a stupid-gaijin act in nearly 48 hours.

That form of opening – modeled on how television shows have led me to believe people introduce themselves at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings – is mandatory for all supplicants. In case you don’t know, gaijin is Japanese for foreigner.

Without those opening words, letters don’t get a reply and certainly don’t get published. Except that if a letter is extraordinarily good, I myself insert the requisite opening – which is no more intrusively corruptive than the rest of my peculiar editing. Artistic license and all that. Why begrudge me the joy of taking charge in the one area of my life where I can fully do so? And if I don’t get enough proper letters for my column, I just write some myself.

Dear Granny Gaijin,
Yesterday I picked up my weekly load from the dry cleaners, but I could see that a button had gone missing from one of my “Y shirts” (why do they call dress shirts that?). This is the second time. I told the clerk and got a blank stare. When I asked that they sew on a new button, she said it would take fifteen days and they’d charge 378 yen. They already make a ton of money from me. Also, the only other dry cleaners in my neighbourhood is even worse.
What’s up? I thought Japanese stores always gave pretty good service.
Nat from Nashville

It’s harder to reply to the letters I’ve written myself, perhaps because I’m uncertain there’s even one person curious for my answer. Without raw curiosity – coming mainly in the shape of voyeurism – all is lost. But I try. This is not some great literary enterprise, where the narrator-hero’s frail nobility is revealed tiptoe by graceful tiptoe along a fine high-wire of delicate words, his arms outstretched right and left to give balance just as they fend off the brutalizing forces – some personal, some impersonal – that define a fate we’re all duty-bound to flee. That I leave for another day.

Dear Nathaniel,
Several decades ago, a young foreigner of my acquaintance politely asked a Japanese dry cleaners to replace a button and they responded, “we do not offer that service.” He then told them angrily that they therefore should not offer the service of tearing off buttons. You may try saying something of that nature, but smart-alecky talk will surely earn you nothing but another blank stare. Unlike other shops here, dry cleaners mostly – how might I put this delicately? – suck rotten eggs.
You seem like a nice young man who probably wears Y-shirts every day to a fancy job that pays oodles more money than is earned by an old pensioner like me. So I suggest you patronize one of the harrowingly expensive dry cleaners near the majestic office tower where you work. They tend to leave buttons intact. You can go during your obscenely long lunch break or perhaps just improperly burden your pretty, young secretary with this non-employment-related task.
Also, Y-shirts are so called because: (1) in olden days, men’s dress shirts were always white; (2) “Y” is pronounced like the middle two syllables of ho-wa-i-to, the local four-syllable local pronunciation of “white;” (3) “Y-shirt” is reminiscent of “T-shirt”; and (4) Japanese schools do not specifically teach that “T” can denote a shape.

The Cayman Islands-incorporated publisher of Living Better Than Others – Tokyo is a public relations-advertising-educational-translation business with diverse ventures in Japan. In consideration of assorted monthly duties, which extend well beyond Granny’s literary efforts, my contract stipulates that I be paid $2,600 per month, all of which is formally allocated towards my employment as a “full time journalist.” After deducting the portion that is not actually paid, as well as expenses and a kickback to the editor, I retain $1,100. Of this, I would, were I an economist, notionally allocate positive $1,500 to my freelance website maintenance business and negative $400 to Granny. But thanks to her, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued me a Foreign Press Registration Card, which is worth its weight in ether. It improves my life multifariously – including, especially, my fantasy life.

… I am a sexy, beautiful Japanese woman in my early twenties. Presently, I am being hit upon by a gentle-mannered, though somewhat physically-unappealing, foreign guy. Although he has a degree in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, where he studied on a scholarship, people seem to regard him as a loser and he lacks most of the usual hallmarks of credibility. However, he does possess an FPR Card. Should I trust him? …


Dear Shikibu-san,
Apologies, my pet, but I only give advice to gaijin.

Some other benefits of my writing job: (1) I can truthfully present myself in society as a professional, salaried “social commentator” whose monthly column appears under a pseudonym in a broadly-read magazine, which claim is backed up when necessary by my written contract (“broadly” here indicating diversity, rather than numerousness, of the readership); (2) I experience the overblown satisfaction of being a published writer; (3) I may air my complaints about Japanese society in print and even bleat away at nature’s harsh and unrelenting oppression of man;

… How come so many public toilets here still don’t provide hand soap? Or, like most Starbucks in Tokyo, they seldom refill their soap dispensers and take months to repair them when they break? My Japanese girlfriend doesn’t seem to think this is a problem, insisting that she and her compatriots still maintain a completely sanitary existence. And while we’re on the subject, how come women use approximately one hundred and thirty times more toilet paper than men? What is it you women actually do in the toilet that is so different? …


Dear Atticus,
As to the lack of soap, many Japanese people are not as clean as they think. But I cast no such aspersions on your girlfriend. Perhaps she is simply, like some Japanese, unable to tolerate any suggestion from a foreigner that even one subatomic particle is out of place in their flawless biosphere.
As to what women actually do in the toilet, we are not permitted to reveal that mystery to men.

and (4) I get to air my complaints about other foreigners.

… I haven’t committed a stupid-gaijin act in over two weeks. Since moving to Japan early this year [blah blah blah] …


Dear Holden,
Having moved here so recently, you doubtless engage in stupid-gaijin behaviour daily without realizing it. Wake up and conduct olfactory detection of the coffee.

As to my explanation about “Y Shirts,” I just made it up; yet I think it’s probably all true. And while the slovenly use of the English language by many gaijin certainly disentitles them from complaining about its abuse by the Japanese, I’ve nonetheless permitted the latter to become a recurring theme.

… I have back home a certain maiden aunt who is graced with the type of gentility of spirit that can only be engendered by a highly sheltered upbringing. Last week, this sweet, silver-haired angel, whom I hold very dear, visited Tokyo for the first time. Her own character being like that of a rose lovingly tended in a glass-walled arboretum, I decided to escort her to a flower arrangement exhibition in Shinjuku. Afterwards, we went to a tea salon that, from the outside, looked entirely respectable, where we waited fifteen minutes in line. Finally, we reached the reception counter, only to confront a large sign proclaiming, “We now provide S&M at your table.”
Needless to say, we departed instantly. But this was mortifying all round. How might I avoid such unpleasantness in future?
Dora from Delaware


Dear Eudora,
Among many other duties, the good hostess must forewarn guests from abroad simply to ignore all English words proffered by restaurants. Menu descriptions in particular – “sir-fried galaxius maculatus with assorted mold,” “greasy sticks wrapped in lousewort,” “pork with ears of brown fleg” – may be as misleading as they are off-putting.
By contrast, in Japan general appearances are highly reliable. As to the particular tea shop sign that caused your discomfiture, I believe it was likely intended to alert patrons to a newly-introduced offering of Siggersfield & Martinson brand fine jams with the shop’s high tea service.
These jams are, by the way, a lovely treat.

My readers – many of whom know Tokyo better than I – neither expect nor desire accuracy. The very best letters they send are as imaginative as Granny’s replies. But though she makes up all the details, she still speaks truth. As to restaurants, while the real me usually packs my own bento lunch or eats at cheap chain shops, I occasionally splurge. And when visiting client offices in Ginza or Nihonbashi, I often poke my head into the higher-class eateries to check out their English menus. Also, I have lots of time available, owing to the fact that I don’t work very hard. So in addition to my admittedly-imperfect knowledge of things Japanese, I have a well-educated imagination and enough leisure to allow it free rein.

That being so, and I being a weak, wretched, troubled and unappreciated creature, I often fantasize about what I should have done in some or other challenging circumstance. What I would have done, that is, had I not been me. What I will do once I have the confidence and power that come from advancing one’s position in society. Meanwhile, the writing process requires a focus and precision that lets me lose myself in fantasy – that lets fantasy utterly overwhelm memory. I am left all puffed up, though it is a transient satisfaction.

… The typhoon passed, but the re-ticketing was chaos. So I just returned to the platform and jumped on the next uncrowded train heading back to Tokyo, figuring to find an unoccupied seat once everyone else had boarded. Though I tried staying out of the way pending that resolution, I somehow found myself blocking a slick-haired, shiny-shirted Japanese guy in his forties from instantly accessing his seat. He was probably agitated by the train’s delay, but that cannot excuse his coarse rudeness. Although his venture at human speech – an aggregation of disjointed syllables rendered into Osaka dialect – was mostly incomprehensible, I gathered that he expected an obsequious, sniveling apology. I declined to give him satisfaction. I, too, was justifiably agitated by the delay.
Some minutes later, the uncouth lout made his way down the car to where I’d next planted myself, delivered a few more incoherent utterances, and stood there scowling. I rose from my seat, flexed my muscles tight, and brought my body extremely close to his. He continued to scowl and grunt, but was otherwise motionless. Nonetheless, I shouted in Japanese, firmly, forcefully and at slow, even tempo, “How dare you strike me! Everyone here is a witness! Get your pathetic self back to your seat and sit down and shut up, or I’ll have the police on you! I have already taken your photo with my cell phone and posted it on”
This strategy was 100% effective. But later my friend said the guy might have been yakuza, so I should have just debased myself in apology and then hid away in another car as unobtrusively as possible …


Dear Lancelot,
Brilliant. I applaud your manly courage and nimble, creative intellect.

But it’s not all self-indulgence. There is a true public-service element. I really do explain how we foreigners must go about conducting our daily lives if we are to live harmoniously in this country.

… I write on a topic already canvassed extensively by Miss Manners, Ann Landers and Dear Abby, but wonder whether special considerations might apply for Japan. I have been invited to a wedding celebration for a Japanese friend. When I asked her mother what sort of gift might be useful, I was shocked at her recommendation that I bring cash. A specific sum was mentioned, making the mother seem even more vulgar. Is there any chance I am wrong to think this way? …
Dear Flannery,

It’s not necessarily my inability to find a rewarding full-time position in corporate Japan – ever since an early-career debacle – that keeps me freelance. Currently, my paid endeavours include not just website maintenance and related grunt work, but also copywriting for a few Japanese tourism businesses. So I am, truly, a professional writer. Further, the modestness of my overall income is justified by the hours left available to work on the great undertaking that is my first novel. For the moment, though, Granny Gaijin provides my sole opportunity to leave a literary footprint on our sometimes muddy, sometimes dusty, often cold and lonely planet. And several years back, before the internet had blown away the glossy print editions of Living Better Than Others everywhere but Tokyo, my stronger efforts were often reproduced in hard copy for readers in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City – though without additional remuneration. Usually, these were stories about career opportunities, which, given the movement of Westerners within the Asia-Pacific region, have always been hot.

Dear Granny Gaijin,
… early last year I accepted employment at a major Japanese company as their first foreigner permanent employee (mere technical specialists aside) … arranged through a well-placed family friend … I was already perfectly fluent in Japanese and … possessed a double-first from Oxford, where I read … many obscene exaggerations … some staff resented my presence from the start … and the situation worsened steadily … after eighteen months I was sacked … this … blatant discrimination of the most egregious kind … left me no choice but to institute a lawsuit …
Fortescue-Roy from Framlingham


Dear Fauntleroy,
Owing to space limitations, I have not reproduced your letter in entirety. Yet I am uncertain whether the nineteen single-spaced pages comprising its main body and itemizing the relentless victimization inflicted by your cruel Japanese masters, nor the booklet of end notes detailing and cross-referencing the relevance of each sub-clause of Japan’s Labour Standards Law, would in any event necessarily convey to our readers a proper account of your situation. To do so requires balance.
Noting that you have already cast aside the offer of a generous termination package in favour of delivering your fate into the fat, grasping, grub-picking, oleaginous fingers of lawyers – presumably relying on some esoteric principle of Old World ethics to justify diverting your family’s wealth toward funding the exorbitant legal fees necessary for a battle against a corporate giant to vindicate your besmirched honour – I think you are not actually seeking my advice. Let me thus just comment on a few particulars. I emphasize that the points touched on below are not more problematic than the others raised in your unabridged letter.
First, your nonstop sarcastic criticism of senior executives’ poor English pronunciation, though accurate, was likely unhelpful and certainly embarrassing to them. And perhaps that karaoke singer did not “want to hold your hand;” perhaps the old gentleman, likely being neither Jewish nor Muslim, actually “wore a holy ham.”
Second, the degree conferred by your elite university is not a license to crash “old boys” gatherings of colleagues who studied elsewhere. Also, some people achieve distinction at work merely through effort and accomplishment.
Third, your demand for wages based on each and every hour spent on company premises does not accord with customary business practices. In Japan, one is simply not paid for “voluntary overtime,” even when such is undertaken out of pressure to conform for the sake of career advancement.
Fourth, repeatedly using the office microwave to warm up goat cheese sandwiches is a bad idea anywhere. The complaints do not constitute discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin. You are the guilty party. You have committed sume-hara, “smell harassment,” against your more delicately-sensibilitied co-workers.
As to Japanese social norms, one need not fully embrace all of them. But if one chooses to live here one must accept them, even when at odds with Japan’s own formal laws and regulations. Foreigners before you have made similar errors, but the follies of extreme youth are to be forgiven if one can mend his ways. Good luck, dearie.

And I really do spend most of my free hours slogging away at my novel. It’s a coming-of-age story, featuring a struggle to regain lost purity. It will be my vindication and my redemption. I am more than half way through.


Image: “Woman reading, Kyoto” by Mark Roy, licensed under CC 2.0

Mark Halpern
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