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The Birth of Japan Game: Episode 2: The Backstory

The Birth of Japan Game is a chronicle in ten parts, recounting the early years of Dorian Gray’s journey along the path. The narrative begins some time in 2006 and concludes in early 2012. Names have been changed to protect the guilty and innocent alike. Previous episode here.

Let’s flash back to two years before I met Momoka, when I was a tall, lanky eighteen year old with a forgettable face and dreamy disposition. When I wasn’t working deadening rock bottom jobs such as cleaning hotel rooms, I had my head buried in a book. I’d had girlfriends before and the occasional one night stand – okay, “drunken hook-up” is more accurate; I don’t believe teenagers can actually have a “one night stand,” which sounds like something a heavily sweating, hard-driven lawyer might do with an aging beautician after meeting in a hotel bar – but I was prone to depression and easily became discouraged; my identity did not allow for the active, much less aggressive, pursuit of women.

I first encountered Japanese people while wandering the campus of my university in Australia as a first year student. I’d moved to the city from a small town and had few friends, so instead of sitting in my room all day I decided to walk about and see if anything interesting was happening. I was awkward and naive but desperate to live; my high school years had been burdened by my failure to connect with the right crowd and the girls I wanted most. Now it was time for a new beginning. I’d even started visiting bars and clubs in the city, though I was usually too nervous to do much but stand around like a spectator.

It was the start of the first semester. The weather was sunny and clear, and students filled every corner of the campus’s open lawn. There were food stalls from other countries – Singapore, Malaysia, India – and hundreds of girls, both domestic and foreign: bronzed Australians in mini shorts, tall African goddesses, severe-looking European blondes with high cheek bones, and all manner of Asians. While walking across the grass I noticed a small group of the latter sitting in a circle and enjoying chicken kebabs from one of the stalls. On impulse I sat down and introduced myself to a young man with a mop of shiny black hair. His English was halting at first, but he seemed eager to talk and introduced himself as Hayato, an exchange student from Kyoto. He’d arrived in Australia two months earlier. Soon we were deep in conversation, drawing amused stares from the other Japanese students. I confessed to an almost total ignorance of his culture, and he promised to explain it to me if I’d help him with his English.

The part about my ignorance wasn’t strictly true. Like many my age, I’d grown up on Nintendo, and I enjoyed the occasional anime or Japanese film – the works of Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano being particular favorites. But my image of Japan had been formed entirely by the motley assortment of cultural products that had made it through to the West; I saw it as a land of flashing lights and flying ninjas, a garish mixture of the rigidly traditional and surreally post-modern. It was a land of raw fish and flashing arcades, unreadable glyphs and gleaming perversions. I hadn’t given any thought to the everyday lives of the Japanese; hadn’t, in fact, seen them as people at all. There had been no Japanese or other Asians in my small hometown, so I’d never had to test my preconceptions against reality. On a whim I’d joined the campus Anime Club, but had found it full of social misfits with doubtful hygiene – not the best place to make friends. Most of the members were bitter cosplaying lesbians and obese shut-ins unable to make eye contact. I stopped going after the second meeting.

Later in the week Hayato invited me to a party at his flat with the other exchange students, and our friendship developed quickly. I helped him with his English, often completing entire assignments for him, while he introduced me to his culture – and more importantly, his psychology. Hayato (who is now the editor of a major Japanese newspaper) was a clever and sometimes cruel young man who enjoyed amusing himself with his wide-eyed Australian friend. He taught me all kinds of obscenities which he claimed were common greetings, and I dutifully repeated them to the female exchange students, earning some truly shocked and withering looks. But he was right about Japanese food, which I quickly came to love: the subtle flavors and tart simplicity, how I could eat as much as I wanted without feeling full. I learned the names of all different kinds of sushi – toro, maguro, ikura, uni, buri, engawa – fish whose names I barely knew in English.

But Hayato’s greatest gift, and one of the most decisive influences on my life, was his encouragement to learn Japanese. The first time he brought it up I smiled and nodded but dismissed him immediately: how could anyone really memorize thousands of kanji characters and the fiendish intricacies of that alien, arcane grammar? I’d picked up remedial French and Spanish in high school, but at least those used the Roman alphabet. Japanese was uncharted territory, and nothing I knew would be of any use.

“You’ll pick it up quickly,” Hayato assured me. “Don’t worry – we’ll all help you. Once you get a Japanese girlfriend it’ll be easy!”

I was just naive enough to believe him, and the next semester I enrolled in an introductory language class. My motivation was as much practical as idealistic; my Media Studies degree was looking increasingly useless, and I wanted a certifiable skill I could write on my resume. The prospect of a future translation job seemed incentive enough to continue. Speaking a bit of French and Spanish seemed trivial in comparison with reading a Japanese newspaper or watching a Kurosawa film without subtitles, and the fluent Australian students in the classes above me struck me as incredibly worldly and sophisticated. Many of them showed me pictures of their Japanese girlfriends, some of whom showed up to meet them after class. I was certain that at last I was on the right path.

Learning Japanese proved to be an adventure beyond the scope of this book – those interested are advised to consult the numerous websites on the theme. The language was demanding but curiously logical – more so, in fact, than English, with its numerous irregular verbs and irrational spellings. As expected, the kanji writing system was the biggest challenge, but even it yielded unexpected felicities. Once I cleared the initial hurdles, I discovered that a pictorial rather than phonetic writing system made sense in ways I hadn’t imagined. I gained a feel for the character combinations and learned to figure out the readings of unfamiliar words. The language, which had once been forbidding and inaccessible, became practical, even poetic.

More importantly, learning Japanese was my key to understanding Japanese culture. I was suddenly introduced to an unsuspected world of music and film, art and fashion. Why had I never heard of Ayumi Hamasaki and Shiina Ringo? Or read FRUiTS magazine, with its cavalcade of front-line Harajuku fashions? What about the Shibuya-kei music scene of the 1990s with its links to French pop and American indie? Japan was no longer a cliched planet of craziness, it was an entire world with its own codes and jokes, clothes and trends and thousands of years of history. I took another language class, and another, and then ones on culture and economics. Before I knew it I’d taken on a whole new major: Japanese Studies.

While all this was happening, I maintained my close association with Hayato and the other exchange students. Most of them were a few years older than me, and looking back I can see that they thought of me as a little brother, pardoning whatever ridiculous cultural faux pas I made and indulging my fumbling attempts at speaking their language. All of us lived in the university’s student housing, so it was always easy to meet up for drinks and study sessions. Sometimes they invited me over for massive fry-ups of Japanese dishes I’d never heard of, like okonomiyaki and takoyaki – or in other words, savory cabbage pancakes and deep-fried chunks of battered octopus. They’re both much better than they sound.

The student housing was filled with young people from countless different countries, and in addition to my Japanese friends, I picked up all kinds of knowledge from Ethiopians, Mongolians, Indians, Malaysians, and a variety of Europeans. And of course, there were other Australians. One of them, Daryl, was a slick character with a salesman’s smile and natural Aussie charm. He had no interest in Japanese language or culture but still hung around the exchange students, often showing up at parties and dinners. I was a bit suspicious of him at first, but he seemed harmless enough.

Before long my thoughts returned to what Hayato had said about getting a Japanese girlfriend. Obviously a personal language partner would be helpful, but I already had several competent teachers, and now I wanted a cool girl I could connect with. And so I considered the female exchange students. One of them, Tomomi, was more attractive than the rest. The others were short, squat and a bit chubby, and they didn’t seem to bother with makeup or suggestive clothing. Only Tomomi commanded attention. She was tall, with a curvy figure and a mischievous face that suggested a preference for partying rather than studying in her room. I decided that I had to make her mine, even though I had no idea how. She was in my social circle, if that term could be applied to the loose crowd cohering around the student flats, but it never occurred to me that I could simply knock on her door and invite her to dinner. My earlier overtures to girls had been either laughably grandiose – I once sent a girl an enormous, needlessly expensive bouquet of flowers, and wrote poems to others – or so subtle that they never registered at all. I was about as far from a natural as anyone could be. Still, I felt certain that if I remained in Tomomi’s orbit, the right chance would come for us to connect.

So I was taken aback, as you might imagine, when Daryl started fucking her.

His tactic had been everything mine wasn’t: casual but fearlessly direct. He’d gone around to her apartment with some drinks, and before long they’d started making out. Within a few days they were inseparable.

I’d been beaten to the punch, and I wasn’t happy. Predictably, I became depressed and moped around for days.

“Don’t feel so bad,” Hayato reassured me. “There are lots more like her.”

He wasn’t wrong, and the next year, when he returned to Japan, Hayato made good on his word. A new exchange student would be arriving from his university, he told me, and he wanted me to show her around campus and help her settle in. His meaning was clear: this girl was for me. Her name was Maya.

If the implication that Hayato could simply give her to me like a gift seems demeaning, it’s important to remember that these kinds of introductions are common in Japan, where women often meet their boyfriends through a mutual acquaintance. The hierarchical system of sempai (senior) and kouhai (junior) means that these acquaintances are usually older students at their high school or university, or a boss or manager at their company. The culture is gradually changing, but it’s still common and considered normal. Looked at this way, Maya and I were both Hayato’s kouhai, and as such it was natural that he should introduce us. Maya later told me that he had written her a long email praising my character and encouraging her to go on a date with me if she were so inclined. In other words, I was a gift for her as much as she was for me.

(Daryl, incidentally, tired of Tomomi within two months and moved on to seducing other foreign students. Even to this day I can’t think of him without feeling a twinge of jealousy, but now it’s leavened with amusement).

When I heard that Maya had arrived, I went around to her flat and left a message for her. We met up the next day in the university cafeteria. She was a tall girl, very thin, with an angular body, elfin features and slightly crooked teeth that actually enhanced her smile. Talking to her, I saw that she was a genuinely good-natured person without a trace of negativity. I showed her around campus and later took her around the city, all the while planning how to make my move. I eventually decided to invite her to Zero Hour, a bar on campus. It had a balcony and lots of dark recesses for private conversations, and the music, though loud, usually wasn’t deafening.

Maya accepted the invitation, and we met in front of the bar on the night I’d specified. Soon we were inside and sharing a pitcher of beer. True to my calculating nature, I’d gotten some Australian friends to “accidentally” wander by and talk me up, which they dutifully did. I’m sure a more cynical girl would have been suspicious, but Maya didn’t seem to suspect anything and acted duly impressed. An hour or two passed, the bar filled up and the music got louder. Both of us relaxed and moved onto the dance floor. I reached over and took her hand as Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” came on over the speakers. The ridiculous camp atmosphere perfectly matched my overblown emotions. With no destination in mind, I led Maya off the dance floor and out of the bar. It was a warm night and the stars were out; a crowd of students milled around the entrance. My heart was racing as I led her along the path leading back to the student flats. We eventually stopped in an out-of-the-way area between buildings, where we sat on a disused office table that was waiting to be placed in storage. We were both drunk enough that our trivial conversation seemed momentous, and before long we were making out. Then I pulled a kokuhaku, or confession, formally asking her to be my girlfriend. She accepted, and more kissing ensued. Not long after, a random drunk Australian wandered by on his way home.

“You guys are a good couple,” he said.

I could have led Maya back to my room right then – our flats were not far from each other’s, and she was clearly willing. In fact, she later asked me why I hadn’t immediately taken her back to my place. I honestly didn’t know. Perhaps I still had some nonsense idea of how a gentleman was supposed to behave or, more likely, I simply hadn’t thought of it.

The next day I went to her flat and an all-day sex session commenced. She was as eager as I was, and seemed surprised that I was interested in her.

“I wasn’t sure last night really happened,” she said. “I thought you’d wake up today and not want to see me again.”

I reassured her that she was all I wanted. Soon we were a serious couple, sleeping over at each other’s flats most nights and travelling around Australia together during our vacation time. Our groups of friends merged and I ended up staying with her for nearly two years, even after she returned to Japan, as I continued my education in her language and culture. I was hopeless at first, and we almost always spoke in English, with her encouraging my fledgling attempts at coherent Japanese sentences.

This was one of the happiest periods of my life, and for a while it seemed that all my dreams had come true. Maya had a sunny disposition and no sexual hang ups; in fact she was open to experimenting with costumes, role playing and other things which I’d been too shy to suggest to my previous girlfriends. I confessed all kinds of fantasies, and she embraced every one of them with naive enthusiasm. Our mutual foreignness made us bold with each other, and our erotic life quickly became colorful.

The year passed quickly in relative bliss. By now I’d set my sights on studying in Japan and perhaps even living there for good. At the time I imagined this as the next step in my relationship with Maya – or at least that’s what I told myself, and looking back, I think I believed it. But I was gradually changing, becoming more confident, looking ahead to new experiences. And somewhere in the back of my mind, the hunger for more girls was already growing.

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