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Saturday, March 15, 2003

JAPAN LITE

The queen of England at a hostess bar


Every Tuesday evening, I teach a private "English lesson" to a doctor. The lesson takes place at a hostess bar, or a "snack" as the Japanese call it. This doctor has about 10 snacks he goes to regularly, and I know most of them. In one lesson, we will hit one or two of them.

But one Tuesday night, we walk into a different snack. The hostesses recognize the doctor and quickly pour four glasses of whiskey and water from his "bottle keep." The mama-san welcomes him, and she and one of the hostesses sit down next to us. A man is never left unattended in a hostess bar.

But the formality is what I dislike most about snacks. The "tatemae" (social "mask") is so thick, you could cut with a sword. It starts out with the introduction of the foreign lady as, at the very least, the queen of England. Every small accomplishment will be filtered through a tatemae magnifying glass: I am a downhill ski champion, I speak 10 languages, I have traveled around the world in 80 days, twice. And would you believe that I can speak Japanese "better than a native speaker"? Oh yes! And, by George, I am more Japanese than the average Japanese -- the highest compliment imaginable! The much abused word "famous" gets bantered around to no end. This is all to elevate me and put me on a pedestal, as is the Japanese custom. I am not comfortable and am teetering on top of the pedestal. All I can do is keep quiet, as is the protocol. I start thinking of how I can escape: jump from my pedestal and run home. But how would I get past the crowd of people at the door waiting for photos and my autograph?

Finally, the doctor reveals that I am not the queen of England, but even better, his English teacher. The hostesses ooh and ahh. "Can she eat Japanese food?" they ask the doctor. "Oh yes," he answers. "She is very good at using chopsticks!" More oohs and ahhs.

There is a knock on the door, a man steps in, bows, and announces a delivery of whiskey. The doctor opens his wallet, packed with 10,000 yen notes for the evening, and pays the man 30,000 yen for the whiskey. The mama-san pours the doctor another drink.

After the delivery man leaves, the doctor pulls out an envelope, which the mama-san graciously accepts. "We are very grateful to the doctor," she tells me. "He is paying to reupholster the furniture in here."

At this point, you have probably guessed that there is something else going on here between the doctor and the mama-san. But I assure you there is not. The doctor is a very straight man and is merely following an old Japanese custom. In the old days, a man might have supported his favorite geisha by buying her own shop. These days, many Japanese men still believe that women need financial help from men.

The doctor is also fulfilling his role as one of status in Japanese society, where one often shares his wealth among friends. Although the Japanese are not known to give their money to charities, they have their own system of distributing wealth. There is no such thing as "going Dutch" when it comes to paying the bill in Japan. The person of higher status always pays. Luckily, the doctor is of a higher status than the queen of England, at least in this snack.

The bill in the snack is determined by the mama-san based on the customer's status. No doubt the doctor pays more than most for the same bottle of whiskey. When the "English lesson" is over, we leave the snack and I take a taxi home. But the doctor doesn't. He's got a few more snacks to visit yet.

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.


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