“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.
Five days ago, I got a call from a recruiter at Pixar. She told me that, thanks for my time, but they were moving forward with another candidate. Three weeks ago, I’d interviewed up at their gorgeous campus in Emeryville. I’d felt welcomed, appreciated, accepted.
One week ago, I got an email from a well-known comics creator, informing me he’d have to pass on my short comic pitch for the time being. Five weeks ago, at the insistence of a mutual friend who’d loved my idea, I’d emailed the comics creator with my pitch. I’d thought it’d gone really well.
A month ago, I broke up with a very fantastic girl, whom I haven’t seen since. Three months ago I’d met her at a JET alumni event, and we hit it off immediately. Two months ago, we started dating, holding hands while watching Easy Rider in a cemetery. Five weeks ago, faulty communication and paranoia started putting stress on our relationship. Four weeks ago, I opened up her apartment door to find her drunk, afraid to talk through our issues.
Three months ago, I completely cut off ties with a close friend. We’d met six months earlier, and had grown very close very quickly. She confided in me and I in her, and we even dated briefly. Four months ago, we went on a trip to Las Vegas with friends, and she spent the entire time hanging off the arm of a mutual acquaintance. Two weeks after that, I gave her several expensive baseball tickets as a parting gift, and told her I didn’t want to see her again. Three months ago, I drove off as she threw them at my back window.
Four months ago, I told my workplace I didn’t want to stay around. Three months before that, I’d been made a liaison to the supervisors for my department. One month after that, my boss called me a liar and insulted my work to my face. One month after that, I worked 27 hours in a row to help out a company I didn’t feel respected me. Two weeks after that, they offered me a staff position as a tool-maker, not as an artist. Four months ago, I said no, and next month, I will finally stop making tools for them and go back to being an artist. An unemployed one.
One year ago, I left my job as a teacher. Three days later, I started work at a company that would come to make me miserable. Thirteen months later, I will finally leave it.
One year ago, one of my best friends broke my heart. Four months ago, a good friend broke my heart again. One month ago, I broke someone else’s.
One year ago, I came back from Japan. Tomorrow, I will be in the same place as I was then.
I lost a friend today.
I met Maa at a Christmas party in Japan — his mom was one of the people organizing it, and he was there helping out. From the get-go, it was clear that he was a little bit off. I’d soon learn that he was diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and light schizophrenia.
Still, he was a delight. He’d dance around and act goofy and make funny faces. We started inviting him out to karaoke and dinner, and he’d always show up on his little yellow scooter, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He loved the color yellow, and would excitedly (and exaggeratedly) yelp out “ye~e~errooo~” whenever we showed him something yellow (including my friend Ananda’s hair).
Maa was going to design school and wanted to make sports shoes for a living. He worked very hard, struggling with his tests, but making good grades. He worked so hard that it was sometimes difficult to get him to come out and join us for our frivolities, but we tried nonetheless. His mom would tell us how much she appreciated it — he didn’t have many other friends.
Almost one year to the day after I met him, Maa killed himself.
I didn’t learn about this until today. My friend Amy, who is still in Japan, went to lunch with her Japanese “grandmother,” and asked about Maa, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile.
“He’s dead,” was the reply.
Amy stammered. “…what?”
“Jisatsu. He killed himself. Suisaido. On Christmas.”
Amy began to tremble. The grandma continued. “Long hair boy right? Yeah, he’s dead. Shinda.” She didn’t even phrase it politely, the way a Japanese person would, by saying “nakunarimashita” (went away).
She then started talking about how delicious the salad was.
When Amy began to cry, the grandmother comforted her by informing her that Maa’s dad had two sons, so it’s okay.
And it’s about there that I completely lost my shit and started crying.
It was preventable. The whole fucking thing was preventable. Maa was always full of life and energy and willing to hang out. And we were the only people who would talk to him. Everyone else ignored him, even his own family — actually, especially his own family.
And I think, if I’d just emailed him a bit more since I came back, invited him out a couple more times, just… done something… he might still be alive. I know I can’t blame myself for this, but…
…this was preventable.
As Amy and I sat there, typing to each other from across the planet and crying, I felt so alone. Like I’d witnessed some sort of secret tragedy, one that nobody would ever know about, that nobody would ever care about. Something I’d carry in silent, in the dark.
And that’s why I’m telling you. I’m telling you that once there was a bright and beautiful person named Maa. He always did his best and never stopped smiling. He was my friend. And now he’s gone.
I wrote a little bit ago about the â€œwarai geninâ€ style of Japanese humor, and how difficult it is for me to grasp. Well, a new meme started going around Japan this month, further illustrating how much of a gaijin I am, because I think it’s the closest thing I have to concrete proof that Japanese people are fucking crazy.
Been a looong while since the last update, and a lot of stuff has happened. Will try and catch up on posts this week, but in the meantime, there was an excellent article in Variety highlighting one of the big reasons I got out of effects as a career. It’s originally posted here, but I’m copy-pasting it in case that link goes offline.
And apparently I was summoned for jury duty in LA this week.
Gonna be a hell of a commute.
So I’m coming down the home stretch on my stay in Japan, and in the span of one week, I’ve had a bevy of experiences illustrating exactly what I’ll miss and what I’ll eagerly try to forget about Japan.
First, the good. This weekend I went to a fertility festival in Kawasaki, a bit outside Tokyo. It was stupendous. Statues of penises everywhere, transvestites in kimonos, genitalia-shaped candy, the whole nine yards. I went with a troop of foreigner friends, and we had a LOT of pictures taken of us â€“ specifically Amy, who has large breasts, was wearing a tank top, and working away on a giant cock lollipop.
The Monday after the penis festival, I went to my favorite elementary school, where I’ve been able to establish a great rapport with the teachers and staff. They like me a lot there. So much so that when they changed up my shoe locker (we have different shoes for inside versus outside), they gave me a special nameplate… with my name in kanji.
I should explain that both my first and last name are nearly impossible to write in kanji. There is no naturally-occurring â€œjeiâ€ sound in Japanese, nor is there a â€œpoâ€ sound. My teachers got around that by writing it out as â€œjieisonâ€ —æ…ˆè‹±å°Š. The kanji mean [love][english][revered]. Pretty much everyone agrees it’s a kickass name.Having kanji for my name meant a lot to me. It made me feel included in a culture where inclusion is everything. Sure, I still have people staring at me on the street, old ladies amazed I can write kanji and use chopsticks, and I still get the â€œWow, you’re really good at Japaneseâ€ every time I so much as say one word, but at that elementary school, I really feel like part of the family. Everyone talks to me. They invite me out for get-togethers. They keep me in the loop as to what’s going on. I really feel at home.
Contrast that with my junior high. Recently, with the school year ending and starting again (my contract actually started me in the middle of the Japanese school year, weirdly enough), a lot of teachers have come and gone. Because I wasn’t able to go to their going-away party (they forgot to even tell me there was one until the day before, let alone invite me), I wrote each and every one of them an extensive goodbye note in Japanese. It took me literally all day.
Apparently, several of my favorite teachers actually wrote me back. But I’ll never know what they said. Because the other teachers lost the goddamn letters.
Because of all the new-year hubbub, they moved me around, so now I’m sitting next to the English teacher who isn’t actually very good at English. More than that, she’s incredibly awkward to talk to, and chronically absent. This wouldn’t be a problem, except every single teacher in the entire school is somehow terrified to talk to me in Japanese, afraid I won’t understand them, or that I can’t look up the words I don’t know. They don’t even try. They just route all replies through her, and will never talk to me face-to-face. They have incredibly involved impromptu meetings, water cooler chats, and whatnot, speaking as fast and in as much slang as possible, so that I can’t even understand what the hell they’re saying. In the rare event that I do understand, it’s all going so fast that I can’t formulate a response in the time it’s taken for me to decipher what they’re saying.
Sometimes all the teachers will spontaneously get up and leave the room, or crowd by the window, and I won’t know what’s going on. I have literally had intense, hushed conversation conducted in a circle around me, and nobody bothered to so much as look at me. I have had people pretend they can’t hear me so that they don’t have to talk to me.
It’s honest to god the most frustrating work environment I’ve been in, bar none. I think I actually preferred the CEO of Digital Domain calling me a worthless idiot (to my face) to being the invisible man.
I know I’ve got a reputation at this school for being quiet and reclusive, using my computer to do god-knows-what (usually I’m working on that lesson-sharing website). This really bothered me for awhile, but at this point, I’m just sort of giving up. Every time I try to initiate conversation, it fails miserably. I try and maintain perspective and remember all the good times I’ve had in Japan, but given that I’m here 3 out of 7 days in the week, it’s kind of difficult.