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Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Caring more and judging less: fighting AIDS with compassion


"What you need is a hooker!"

These words were hurled at me three years back by a local English editor. Like most such men, he wore glasses with coke-bottle lenses and a necktie loud enough to wake up the economy.

"Huh?" I told him.

"A hooker," he repeated. "A tart. A trollop. A lady of the night."

On his desk lay a rather academic article I had finished on the state of AIDS in Japan. He tapped it with a well-gnawed pencil.

"You need a quote from someone in a high-risk situation. Like a prostitute. Get that and I'll run the article. If not . . . " He nodded at the waste bin, his favorite piece of furniture.

I minced away with one hand pressed to my stomach. "Mr. Streetwise" I was not. Until this point, the riskiest thing I had ever done was to walk my dog without a poop scoop. How was I to pick up a prostitute?

"Honey," I mewed to my wife. "I need a hooker."

That got her attention. Yet, when she learned my reason, she flew to the task with enthusiasm -- too much enthusiasm.

"Why don't we ask the neighbors, door to door! They might know someone!"

"Uh, no." "Or maybe we could make an announcement after church!" "No!" "Why not? Those people are helpful!"

I was considering perhaps gagging her, when I thought of calling an acquaintance at a Tokyo monthly, a man who hinted at knowing all things risque. Let's call this fellow "the Python."

The Python's voice growled like a coffee mill. "A tart, eh? A trollop. A lady of the night."

"It's not what you think, Python! I'm a happily married man!" "Say no more, my friend, say no more!"

So it was set. The next day the Python would lead me through the back streets of Okubo, northwest of Shinjuku. The girls would be there, he swore, but making contact would be up to me.

I met him the next day on the fringe of Kabukicho. It was early afternoon and the sky was flirting with a drizzle. The Python stood there sucking on a Marlboro. "You looking for a girl?" he asked. "Or an accounting job?"

For I had come dressed in a three-piece suit and carrying a briefcase. And was masking my nerves with a grin that began at my ears.

"Do clothes matter?"

He grabbed my arm and yanked me along. "Nope. All that matters is money."

"Money!? But . . . I'm just gonna talk!" "Say no more, my friend, say no more."

Now he offered a quick summary of the neighborhood. "Southeast Asian girls are that way. South Americans over here."

"Which are the more articulate?"

The Python eyed me, before pronouncing, "They say Spanish is the loving tongue. Let's go this way."

We headed down an alley. There, in the soft afternoon rain, were over a dozen Latin women, all dressed casually to the point of embarrassment.

"Let's party," some said in Japanese, smiling.

The Python released my arm. "You're on your own," he said.

My face flushed and, with my heart flopping like a trout, I whispered "Hello" to two or three girls . . . who were soon hanging all over me.

Yet their Japanese stopped with "Let's party" and their English didn't go even that far. They seemed to suggest they were nonverbal communicators.

I escaped this pack of pawing women and, breathing deep, searched frantically for the Python. No quote was worth this, I decided. I would rather give up.

But as I turned the corner, I came across an Asian woman standing alone under an umbrella. She wore a sort of pale-blue negligee. In the daylight, on the corner, her clothes were her calling card: a tart, a trollop, a 2 p.m. lady of the night.

"Uh, do you speak Japanese?" I sought.

"Of course," she answered. "I'm Japanese."

Maybe the girl was about 20. Or perhaps closer to 40.

I quickly explained what I wanted. Would she mind telling me about her work?

For 20 minutes then, in a voice that was fatigued but friendly, she told me. Of street corners and dark bars and shabby hotels and men. Men with cold passion and colder hands. Grinning men. Surly men. Callous men. Both foreign and Japanese. Every single day.

"After all these years, I hate men," she choked. And I could read between the lines in her face that she really didn't care for herself either. Survivors rarely do.

As a snarly lad on a bicycle pedaled past for about the fifth time, I asked, "Why do you do this?"

She mumbled about lost time and ruined opportunities and inadequate money. There was something more I needed to ask, but in the ache of her litany, my mind grew numb. I got slowly drenched and finally swallowed out a "thank you" and tromped off.

I was around the corner when I remembered. AIDS!

When I turned back, the boy on the bicycle was screaming in the girl's face -- for letting a customer walk away without paying . . . me. I tip-toed off from the hooker and her pimp, feeling as cheap as the streets.

My article thus ended in the waste bin. But perhaps the most important points are merely these . . .

Dec. 1st -- World AIDS Day 2000 -- will find over 5,000 sufferers of AIDS and HIV in Japan. Each year the number grows. Different organizations strive to help the victims, but the Japanese public in general remains sympathetic mostly only to those who received the infection through tainted blood products, the attitude being that if a person received HIV through sex, it's their own fault. They got what they deserved.

Yet there are many kinds of victims in this world. It all depends on your point of view.

"It's not right," I told the Python, whom I found smoking down the street. "Compassion is not a limited commodity. There should be plenty enough for all who suffer and all who are at risk. Maybe if we cared more and judged less, who knows what good might happen. Who knows what people we could reach."

He flicked away his cigarette. "Say no more, my friend," he said, nodding. "Say no more."



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