Contrary to what you might think, my trip to Japan was, despite some frustrations, actually a lot of fun. Some of the high points:
“Your voice is different,” my ex says to me on the phone. “It’s lower, somehow.”
Of course it is.
My Japanese voice has always been different from my English one. It’s exacting and polite, engineered for small talk. It starts high in my throat, birthed two doors down from its graveÂ — a punch from the elbow instead of from the shoulder.
This time around, my voice is worming its way up from the pit of my stomach. A gut punch. My Western voice.
High and low. Head and heart. East and west. As ever.
I’ve come back to Japan after a year and a half, to see old friends. Only a handful remain, with most back in their home countries. With so much free time and so few people left, I find myself alone a lot of the time.
Two days into my stay, I meet up with my friend Megumi. We go out drinking, shouting across the table to be heard. We sing karaoke, my voice reverberating deeply enough to be heard in the bathroom. Later, we’re talking and I ask, from my gut, “what’s going on in your life?” She replies: “Nothing.”
“Okay,” I say. Japanese voice.
Years ago, I watched Paranoia Agent, an anime that I feel is more important than many realize. It’s a series about Japan’s troubles post-WW2. How they can’t face what they’ve done or what’s been done to them. How they’ve sanitized reality with Hello Kitty. How they look at cell phones more than each other. How they’ve retreated into their shells, never to stick their necks out.
Weeks ago, I am telling my friend Satoshi Okabe exactly this. I jokingly call it Okabe no kabe (Okabe’s wall). He smiles. He says he agrees. Then he talks about the weather.
A week ago, I am in my ex-girlfriend’s living room. We are talking about her job, her health, her desire to travel. We are talking in Japanese, and I am speaking from my throat. She says my English voice weirds her out. After an hour, we stop talking and watch a rented movie. She asks several times if I’m hungry, or cold. Three hours later, I give her a chaste hug and leave. Her last words to me are “Enjoy your new job.”
My last night in Tokyo, I am at a club with Megumi, and she is very drunk. She is leaning towards me, speaking in English, a voice several octaves lower than what I’m used to. She is telling me about her life for the first time.
Within minutes, though, the conversation’s over as she rushes to the womens’ restroom to check on her sick friend. After a half hour, I am standing outside the restroom, knocking on the door to make sure they’re okay.
And there we are, on either side of a door.
I am knocking and there is no answer.