Thursday, March 30, 2006

Kobayashi Gets Kicked Out

My favorite class plunged into chaos at the normally well-disciplined Nubata School. These docile 7th graders were among the first I met in May, and today was our last time together. I surveyed their gentle dispositions. Darling brown eyes beamed back.

Kobayashi’s English has improved slightly from when he once replied “NO!” to “what’s your name?” His manners, however, are still rough around the edges. First, he pretended not to have the worksheet, finding it only with great exaggeration. He again irked Mr. Yamato teacher by pulling the same stunt with his textbook. Yamato-sensei inserted a CD for a listening comprehension test.

Kobayashi slouched sideways in his seat, casually fanning himself with a Yomiuri Giants folder. He’s a baseball nut, and Giants pins cover his pen case. In no uncertain terms (i.e. both languages) did I once announce my affinity for cross-town rival Yakult. Mr. Yamato walked over to issue another warning. Get with the program, kid. This wasn’t rebellious Kanokita School.

When Yamato-sensei turned his back, Kobayashi uttered something. Something he shouldn’t have. Already on thin ice, he more than anyone should’ve known that it’s three strikes and you’re out.

Mr. Yamato has been under some pressure. He arrives at 07:30 and doesn’t leave school for another 12 hours. Yes, this is public middle school, not I-banking. Apparently such commitment is tacitly expected of teachers in their first year. One day when I was leaving work at err–12:45—he confided that they never told him about the schedule when he started.

The extra hours are like a pledge period to show devotion and prepare lesson plans. Or practice his English pronunciation, which is more painful than hearing Gregory belt out Bonnie Tyler.

Here are some examples:
She ha has a house. She, her, her, hers.
They will kill themselves. They, their, them, theirs.
Mekitchen lice is ewer favolite gay ass odor. Mexican rice is your favorite game us order. (Not a real sentence, I know).

Even my company representative, after observing one of my classes, joked about it. Anyhow, one of Nubata’s English teachers (who taught two sections while Yamato-sensei had six) broke her leg and was out for the semester. Instead of hiring another teacher, the burden was shifted to guess who?

This afternoon it didn’t take much to make him snap. He spun around. Kobayashi’s big, brown eyes filled with apology, and then fear. Sensei went for his waist. Kobayashi fought tooth and nail to stay seated – digging the latter into the window ledge. His fingers weakened and in desperation he grabbed his desk, ripping the cover of his English textbook in half.

He squawked and dragged his feet like a chicken plucked from the coop. A vain attempt to latch onto the lunch cart sent it crashing into the back wall with a metallic ping. The class was mesmerized. If a teacher confronted a student at Kanokita, the student would have grabbed back and dragged the teacher. Acting insubordinate toward Nubata teachers just wasn’t conceivable.

I, too, was spellbound. The CD was repeating the passage about Minato Chuo Park for the tenth time: “A woman is listening to a CD under a tall tree. A boy has a small cat. I like this park very much. I like this park very much. I like….”

I was alone and without a lesson plan. The class tasted anarchy, and it tasted good. They fed off the disorder to release pent-up middle school inhibitions. Noise escaped through the back door that remained open.

Skeletor poked her head in. Even the kids say that this social studies teacher is scary, more so her stern personality than her looks, which draw heavily on Skeletor’s flat but protruding cheekbones, spaced eyes and the mysterious nose.

Her sight spurred me to provide a solution instead of complicitly becoming part of the problem. I turned off the stereo, and drilled the students to repeat the Minato Chuo Park passage until they were blue in the face. Luckily I had a few pencils on hand to persuade reading aloud. Once supplies were exhausted, I forced them to sing happy birthday to me.

A red-faced Mr. Yamato returned 10 minutes later, just in time for the end of class and to award them a 1.5/5.0 on their behavior report card. Not the ending I had in mind for Nubata School, but certainly a memorable one.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Ending on a High Note

Only ubiquitous convenience stores outnumber karaoke parlors in Tokyo’s cityscape. I visit the former regularly to pick up essentials such as soft serve ice cream, clean underwear and Japanese comic book porn. Actually, not the last two.

Despite being in Japan for 10 months, tonight was my first foray into karaoke – at least the proper way, among friends – instead of with hostesses paid to sing along and pour you watery whisky.

Unlike the glittery street level parlors I pass, Utahiroba’s upstairs reception area had the neglected and dated décor of a rural bowling alley. My invited guests (plus Gregory) were led to a windowless room with clashing wallpaper and padded turquoise benches around a table. The cost covered all-you-can drink, and we quickly sent the waitress running to go fetch.

Natives Maki and Takafin kept each other company closest to the door and the telephone -- to call for more drinks not long after the first round had arrived. Team France (Delphine, Lawrence and Koya) sat together while I split up the Napoli girls because of Napoli#1’s long-standing promise to do duets with me.

Napoli#2 apparently invited Gregory, and they began to comandeer the controls to queue up songs. Two volumes the size of telephone books indexed the music library, and selection numbers were keyed into the remote. Along with the lyrics, the television screen flashed images from what I think was Chicago circa 1987.

A white chick with too much makeup and outdated hair strut through the streets in denim. Sometimes she walked around parked Oldsmobiles. Sometimes she danced in front of a graffiti mural. The worst was closeups in the park of her frizzy hair blowing in the breeze. All this to the beat of Destiny’s Child.

Perhaps stimulated by the 80s imagery, Gregory grabbed the mic and put on a show to remember, but one we're still trying to forget. Hands collectively covered ears. Mild-mannered Maki shrank against the wall. “Holding Out for a Hero” never sounded this bad.

Onchi!” I cried across to room, eager to exercise a random but suddenly appropriate word (tone deaf) before curling up in Napoli#1’s shoulder. One eye watched Koya look for the fast-forward button.

Gregory already had our attention, but he stood up and slammed his foot on the table, knocking over an empty glass. Ice cubes skated onto the floor. He pumped his fists to the chorus, and kept rasping. The noise overwhelmed such a small compartment (but one still larger than my apartment).

Then came the gratuitous crotch grabbing. Maki blanched. How long was this song? Yelling with his foot on the table and hand on his crotch wasn’t enough. Seeking further exposure, he raised his shirt. For a split second I didn’t know what I was looking at. Something four months pregnant and carpeted in hair. He caressed his belly while momentarily abandoning the lyrics to proclaim “I’m beautiful, I’m beautiful!” It was a show-stopper. To a chorus of moans he replied, “Oh, come on, it was a coked-up Bonnie Tyler.”

After a few songs, "Livin’ on a Prayer" began. Gregory, who hadn’t let go of the mic, began singing my song. I complained to Napoli#1. First my party, and now my song were being soiled by this pregnant pig. Delphine passed me the other microphone. I cut into the chorus, but was no match to overpower his husky voice.

Still, he noticed. I glared back. My song. It’s one of the few that my limited octave range can match. I stood up and continued to sing for what was rightfully mine. Gregory backed down, and rested the mic on the wet table to grab more of some cloudy drink.

“What was that?” he groaned when my voice trailed to a whisper. “That was like some Frank Sinatra version of Bon Jovi. It’s the worst I’ve ever heard.” He insisted on a more guttural approach, like perhaps Bonnie Tyler on drugs.

Midnight was fast approaching, and with it, last trains. There wasn’t even enough time to finish the current song, which happened to be Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Along with Bon Jovi, it rounds out my karaoke repertoire. I jumped up, grabbed the mic and attracted audience participation. Take that, Gregory.

About three-quarters of the way through, the waitress tapped on the door. She had a collection plate. Either pay up, or time’s up. Celine and I weren’t quite finished, so good thing Maki translated that the song must go on.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Continued from last entry.

His name was Greek, but his accent sounded English. Something about an upcoming project that I might be eligible for. A client desperately needed a model for exfoliate advertising. My first gig! This sounded promising, but what was the catch?

On account of his accent and not holding the phone over his mouth, I could only pick up one out of every three words. There was, however, no mistaking these two: “drag queen.” Alarm bells. I had to get dolled up and exfoliated for my first shoot? A queen to break into the scene?

But if the client approved of my look, for my pains Gregory would give me a handsome discount on my portfolio book and prints. I was torn between giddy excitement at the sheer lunacy of a first assignment, and the doubts of drag. Still, the client had the final say, so I put the ball in his court and offered my services.

Gregory asked me to e-mail him with sample photos. “As many as you can is fine,” I heard him say. So, I stayed up into the wee hours rooting around my digital photo library for flattering and creative snapshots. In a late-night delirium, I attached 14.

I called him that morning as he was off to an Internet café to check my pictures. How many had I sent? “Good god,” he cried. Apparently I misheard “five” as “fine.” We agreed to meet the following day.

Expecting a dapper, professional photographer, I winced when a short, round balding man in cargo shorts zoomed into sight clutching a cell phone. He was walking and talking in different directions. “Sorry lae, I bookstre reading I jus los track ime.”

His piercing hazel eyes were perhaps the only vestige of youthful beauty before time and strippers took their toll. Now in his 30s, he had lost hair on the top of his head, and gained it in less desirable parts, like peeking out of the neck of his t-shirt.

“I’ve got to apologise, mate, my studio is a mess.” A mess? The place was a sty. He had trouble opening the front door there was so much crap on the floor. I took an uneasy seat in a tattered armchair facing a table groaning under the weight of books and papers piled high. He sat by a darkened computer screen smudged with fingerprints. A nearly empty bottle of extra virgin olive oil was at his feet.

Only a few clues hinted that this was a photography studio. Sagging black fabric covered fluorescent ceiling lights. A small army of spotlights stood neglected in a corner; a few wounded ones lay knocked on their side. Pink and white feathery costumes overflowed from boxes along the back wall. A few color prints were taped to the wall, including a bare-chested Samuel L. Jackson ringer. “I’m most proud of that shot.” I couldn’t imagine much success being snapped in a space like this and in a state like this.

Instead of getting down to business, he veered off topic. Without warning, tales of his strip club escapades spewed forth like we were old fraternity buddies. It sounded like he blew his every Yen on women of the night. In Tokyo, he tried luring lap dancers back to his home. Growing up, porno cinemas were good for cheap thrills when $5 blowjobs on the street were too expensive.

I couldn’t keep track of his lurid stories, starting from 14 years old. Something more recently about going to a brothel to get an hour with a girl for free in exchange for modeling shots. But when that plan failed – and five lines of coke later – he substituted a male stockbroker for “mind-blowing sex.”

“I’m sorry,” I interjected. “Come again?”

“Oh,” he stammered, realizing. “I’m straight. I have a girlfriend. But when I’m on drugs I can’t get off with a girl so I do guys. But I don’t really use drugs.”

Although I was sitting right next to it, the door suddenly felt very far away. My question seemed to snap him from a daze. It triggered an apology and an excuse for talking my ears off about his sexual depravity.

“I’m sorry, mate. I’ve just had a nervous breakdown. I’ve gone mad.” So I’ve noticed, I thought. He proceeded to explain how he rented out a room to, unbeknownst to him, a paranoid schizophrenic.

“Aww, man, that’s gotta be the worst fucking disease.” I stared back blankly.

For the past four days he undid property damage from his tenant, who ambitiously chopped away part of the door, tore up the floor, ripped out the cupboard, and injected the walls with sealing foam to scramble electronic bugs placed by the people who were following him. The sealant’s expansive qualities caused the walls to bulge. He undertook the repair work himself. He had to give up his lease, and was in the process of changing houses. In the meantime, he was living in the studio. Now it all made sense. Except for the brothel part.

“Are you Mediterranean? I am Greek, and people think I hate Turks or Arabs, but I consider them all my brothers. We all live near the same place, eat the same foods, and I don’t think we should spill blood because of religion and borders.”

“No, my heritage is Russian, Polish and Romanian,” I said.

“Are you Slavic?”


“Muslim Russian?”


“Ah. Many Israelis have a weathered look. I don’t know why.”

“I’m not from Israel,” I said.

“And you are not weathered. You have young features, and a very masculine look. You aren’t the most gorgeous, but certainly aren’t the worst looking.”


“You have a USB, and I think – ”

“I beg your pardon?” He lost me again. How did we switch to electronics?

“A U-S-P, unique selling point. You don’t look like most people here. And you don’t have the blond hair, blue-eyed WASP look.”

“I’m Jewish.”

“I’m sorry, can I see your forearms? Are they are hairy? The client needs a hairy subject,” he added. “But also one with feminine features. Yours are too masculine, but I think you would work for the part. The client should be lucky to find someone willing to do this. He’s just not going to find a feminine-looking hairy man. Hairy men are masculine. I’m going to recommend to him that you do this.”

“I’m sorry,” I interjected. “Now what exactly is the assignment again?”

He explained the pitch for the exfoliate product. If it could remove hair on a transvestite, it would surely leave a real women’s skin gleaming. My picture would be put in a mail order catalogue, but not widely broadcast.

“Nobody will recognize you, except for some middle-aged woman in Kyushu who wants to remove hair on her ass. I love it when girls remove hair on their ass because it means they are trying to please a man, you know?”


“Do you mind if I snap a picture of your forearms to send to the client?” he continued. “Would you mind if hair were waxed from your arms? I know, I hear it’s awfully painful.”

Listening to him had to be more so. Jesus, what was I getting myself into here?

As it turns out, aside from a migraine and sore eardrums, nothing. The client found a better candidate. My forearms and dignity remained intact.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

It’s My Party, and I Can Order Chicken If I Want To

Running a fashionable 20 minutes late to my own party only added to the confusion since some of the dozen people waiting under Shinjuku’s huge Studio Alta screen didn’t know one another.

I picked through the crowd of 100 others waiting in the same spot to round up the group, and led the charge to Kaikyo, a cheap izakaya (Japanese-style pub restaurant) I had scouted out. I saw the outing less as a birthday party and more of an excuse to jilt my usual Saturday night date with the washing machine.

I worried about the dinner reservation because we only had the table for two hours, and were now running half an hour late.

“We can’t go yet!” Lawrence called out. “Delphine’s not here.” Pretty name, but who’s Delphine? I wondered. The eclectic group included Lawrence of France, his Fumi, his friends Delphine and Koya, the Napoli girls (of Naples, Italy), a teacher who quit my company, his Japanese friend Ken, my friend Maki, and Takafin, the T.G.I. Friday’s waiter I befriended last month.

I chose Kaikyo because it was an alternative to traditional izakaya fare with Western influences that I craved. Like rock music, big portions and popcorn otoshi (obligatory table snacks, usually pickled things in neon colors). Oh, and fried chicken. Actually, the biggest portion of fried chicken this side of the Mississippi. The Colonel’s got nothing on Kaikyo. Maki’s eyes rolled out of her head and onto the floor. She got full just looking at the platter.

“We’ll need two more orders of this,” I asked Fumi to tell the waitress. “And a forklift.” The Napoli girls, forever lamenting the sorry state of pizza in Japan, exclaimed, “This place is just like America – fried chicken all over the place!”

I sided with Takafin’s take: “let’s fuckin’ eat!” Takafin enjoyed eating and drinking as much as he enjoyed lacing profanity into his English with grammatical predictability. His construction of choice was: let’s + fuckin’ + verb (limited to eat or drink).

And eat we did. Communal bowls of Kim chi tofu, spinach salad sprinkled with baby sardines, radish the consistency of steak (or, “radish steak”) and baked curry bread smothered with melted cheese — not for the calorie phobic. If this doesn’t sound like your ideal birthday menu, then you clearly haven’t spent enough time in Japan. The concoctions grow on you. Of course, my priority was the fried chicken, which, depending on the batch, could have used a dunk in soy sauce or spicy Japanese mustard.

A few pitchers of beer helped wash down the juicy pork and egg dish, but nobody got silly. We saved that for karaoke. But first, a few thoughtful gifts – a bouquet from Maki, potted plants in proportion to my apartment from Fumi, and a personalized
daruma signed by the group. I looked up to smile. It was a Fuji Film moment. But then I stopped.

Gregory? Was that really he, the freaky Greek? Who the hell invited him?

Two friends of friends of friends joined the karaoke train rolling out of the restaurant and through the alleys of Kabukicho, once the seat of traditional kabuki theater and now the underbelly of Tokyo’s red light district of sleaze and sex and the gangsters who profit from it. Sort of like Times Square in the 80s, but without the garbage, graffiti and drugs.

“I know just the place,” I assured the group. Of course, all karaoke parlors are the same, but I felt loyal to one after researching it for my 24-Hour Tokyo article.

Gregory the photographer asked me how I had been, and if I had gotten any jobs. I was surprised he remembered. “There’s this Greek guy who has the same clean cut look as you,” he said. “He’s doing really well. Gets lots of jobs for suit shootings.”

We had met when I was considering getting a book of portraits photographed to show off at auditions to launch my now fizzling modeling career (okay, flat-line). Gregory was known to have the best price in town. But $200 was still too much of an investment at the time.

He offered a discount when we met at his studio one hot July afternoon. I had nearly blocked the encounter out of my mind. When I got home, I banged on my keyboard for an hour, saved the document, and haven’t opened it since. That is, not until tomorrow….

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Toilet Paper Incident

At Omiyada, there was much ado about one-ply. A mound of unraveled, slightly damp rolls sat on the vice principal’s desk. Had the school lunch of miso soup and mystery fish of the day on rice given him the runs?

Teachers were filing into the room after fifth period. Having survived my final class of 7th graders for the day, I intended to jet off to a job interview; however, before I could zip my bag, talk about toilet paper began.

All eyes were on the principal’s long face and folded arms. Murmurs of agreement rippled through the teachers’ room. Something had to be done, and fast. Iran couldn’t be allowed to enrich uranium. It would destabilize the whole region. Or that’s what you’d think they were deliberating with such somberness.

I understood the following words: toilet paper, window, from the fourth floor and outside. Coupled with Exhibit A, I got the picture. After I left, a school-wide assembly was convened to ferret out the perpetrators. Remember, this was the school where Ms. Shomatsu reacted to a piece of chewing gum on the floor as if she had found a spent fuel rod.

Justice was swift. The following day was my final one at Omiyada, and the morning meeting was the most exciting of all. I was expected to give a brief farewell speech, but three girls stole my thunder. Eyes fixed on the floor, they were paraded in to face the humiliation of the entire teaching staff, including the foreigner sitting front and center.

The usual suspects. These girls were the very same 7th grade terrors that Mr. Nishono had warned me about. From their fiefdom of picture albums and colored markers in the back of the room, class time had nothing to do with learning.

Each girl took the floor to announce her name, grade, class and heartfelt apology. The first could barely choke back tears. She was the one who had taunted Mr. “Mista” Nishono when he tried to yank her out of class. She was singing a different tune now. Her young face shriveled in fear from the hardened stares of every teacher. She apologized with deferential language, and bowed deeply before sulking away with a guilty conscience.

The few times I interrupted the second girl from her creative pursuits to ask a question, she responded in passable beginner’s English. She had potential as a student, but bellied up to bad influence by angling her desk to be within arm’s reach of photos and markers. Glasses and short hair added innocence to her now pained expression. She had to be the one just going along with the plan in the heat of the moment, never expecting it to come down to this.

The last delinquent was the ringleader. She was tall for her age, and her few freckles spoke to me that she masterminded the whole operation. But where, oh where, did she find so much toilet paper? She didn’t have much to say. In Japan, silence is not uncomfortable. It’s reflective. She muttered an apology, and stood there until a teacher showed her the door. I knew she’d be back hell-raising within a week.

This show of force and remorse provided a segue into my farewell speech, which I nervously delivered in Japanese and have translated as follows:
Today is last. That’s disappointing. I had fun. Omiyada students are lively, aren’t they? Seventh graders are cute, but sometimes I have headache [pause for laughter]. Good luck! Thank you and farewell.

Today was last indeed. That translated into clearing pencil inventory from my desk drawer. I slapped them into the hands of boys with whom I often discussed baseball over lunch. I collected love letters from two 8th grade girls, and gave pink pencils in return.

One went to a boy for reading a passage out loud. Touched by the gift, he reciprocated by unfastening a samurai pin from his pencil case. The Japanese character stands for “sincerity” and “faithfulness.”

The lesson halted, and everyone was studying the slightly emotional exchange. His outstretched hand was shaking from being in the spotlight. I graciously accepted, and instinctively fastened it onto my sweater—over my heart for maximum effect.

Swapping pencil for pin was more than tit-for-tat. Although we met only briefly and could barely understand each other, these mementos will persist. They symbolize different cultures that intermingled inside a classroom on the outskirts of Tokyo. Cultures that will continue to influence our very different lives in very different ways.

My last conversation with Omiyada students was in the unheated hallway outside of the teachers’ room. Several girls shivering in gym shorts were waiting with a rack of volleyballs for the “short, fat woman” gym teacher.

“You look like Tom Cruise,” one said. I rewarded her praise with my last New York State pencil.

I then turned to find a different girl looking at me. I had never warmed up to her suspicious stares, so I hoped the last flag eraser would make things right. Her beady eyes burned a hole in my head. “Do you know Russell Crowe? From Gladiator.”

I relaxed and smiled, waiting to soak up another handsome look-a-like compliment.

“You don’t look anything like him,” she said, adding, “Tom Cruise is sooo cool. You are just a little cool.”

“Gee, thanks. Can I get my eraser back?” As I reached, she relented.

“Okay, you are half as cool as Tom Cruise.”

Deal. Have a good life, now!

I was lost in thought walking past my favorite power line to the train station for the last time. It felt different. Kanchos aside, I had never expected kids at this slightly naughty school to touch me, but beneath my samurai pin beat an aching heart. It really did hurt. It was indigestion from lunch’s sickeningly sweet fried tofu.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Growing Up

Okay folks, time for some Tokyo Tanenhaus trivia. All of the following happened on my birthday last week EXCEPT:

(a) Played three different versions of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” at stroke of midnight.
(b) Got kancho-ed at Kanokita School.
(c) Had business cards printed in both English and Japanese.
(d) Bought 30 GB video iPod (black).
(e) Ate at T.G.I.Friday’s alone; begged waiter not to sing.
(f) Passed up celebratory drink offer to tutor privately as scheduled.

Post your guesses now. Don’t be shy. Answer to be revealed soon. All lucky winners to receive a free TT online subscription and limited edition t-shirt! Just kidding about the shirt.