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The Birth of Japan Game: Episode 3: The Nanpa Intro

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.

After her year of exchange study finished, Maya went back to Japan, and we continued on in a long-distance relationship. I tried to stay faithful to her, even though I was tempted daily by other girls, some of them new Japanese exchange students. There were a few unsanctioned encounters, but for the most part I managed to stay focused on my studies, as I was now set on becoming an exchange student myself and heading over to Japan.

Over the past two years I’d steadily risen to the top of my class. There’d been some stiff competition – particularly from the Chinese students, who had a natural advantage in already knowing the kanji – but somehow I came out on top. As I lived on campus, I also took an active interest in events put on by the Japanese Studies department, and I stayed in contact by email with friends like Hayato, who introduced me to the outgoing exchange students from their universities. Soon my high grades and extracurricular efforts came to the attention of the department head, who asked me to become president of the university’s Japanese Society. Bemused at first, I eventually accepted.

It was the first time I’d ever been in charge of anything. I had always been something of a loner, but now I was…well…a leader. To be fair, the responsibilities weren’t great – putting on dinners, meeting the new exchange students and showing them around the city, organizing the occasional movie night – but it still seemed like a prominent position. Suddenly I was confronted with political decisions, albeit those of an exceedingly trivial nature: who should be treasurer, Lisa or Sarah? Which student should I recommend to become next year’s president, Jason or Minh? It was a great foretaste of future office politics and other universal human bullshit. I didn’t take any of it too seriously.

The time came to apply for my year abroad. Now my grades and time spent running the Japanese Society paid off, as my application was accepted and I easily passed the interview. Most of the exchange positions were in places like Kyoto and Hyogo, but I managed to secure the sole spot in Tokyo. I would be living in Shinjuku, which seemed sublimely urban in contrast with the small Australian cities I was used to. Maya, who now lived with her divorced mother in central Tokyo, was ecstatic.

The day came and my parents drove me to the airport. I’d decided to arrive in Tokyo well ahead of the new semester’s start, to give myself time to get my bearings and settle in. Or at least that’s what I told everyone. In reality I wanted a week or two to myself to experience the city’s night life. The university I would be attending offered to send someone to meet me at the airport but I declined; true to my solitary nature, I preferred to figure things out for myself.

Stepping out of the terminal at Narita Airport, I felt a breathless sense of expectancy. I had arrived in Japan at last and the future with its infinite possibilities stretched before me. Compared with native speakers my Japanese was still rudimentary, conversational at best and riddled with errors, but I wasn’t lacking in confidence. I hailed a taxi and lugged my bags to the student dorm where I would be staying. Mrs. Murata, the kanrinrin or dorm manager, came out to meet me. She was a short, stooped middle-aged woman with a subservient demeanor and what I would soon discover to be an almost infinite patience with the raucous ways and irregular hours of her student charges. Since I had arrived two weeks ahead of anyone else, we were the only people in the dorm apart from Park, a Korean graduate student in his thirties. Park took me under his wing and helped me get my resident card, health insurance registration and mobile phone contract.

“I’m still rubbish at Japanese,” I told him. We were sitting in the dorm’s lounge watching television and drinking cans of Kirin beer.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve been here for ten years. Just watch TV every day and you’ll be able to understand everything after a year.”

At night I went into the city by myself and spent time in bars and clubs with names like Atom and Womb. Sitting alone in a darkened dive with a glass of beer and a cigarette in hand, I felt that I’d arrived. And when I wasn’t exploring new areas, I was making up for lost time with Maya, staying overnight at her house or meeting in the city for love hotel visits.

Eventually the other exchange students showed up, and I found myself with a veritable United Nations of new friends: British, American, Thai, French, Swedish, German. There were a few Anime Club-style shut-ins and misfits, but for the most part they were a personable bunch.

I also had Japanese friends in the city who I’d met through Hayato and other connections back home. One of them, Ryu, was a young salaryman with a broad outlook and devilish personality. Short of stature even for a Japanese, his looks and mindset had earned him the nickname “Lil’ Satan.” Not yet thirty, he’d spent time in America and Australia, ostensibly to improve his English but really to sample the bars and clubs and hopefully hook up with a Western girl. This he did with great success, even if he at first misunderstood foreign strip club etiquette, taking “ten minute private lap dance” to mean “ten minute round of aggressive sex.” Getting kicked to the curb by the bouncers didn’t dampen his enthusiasm, and before long he was on his way to victory. Now, back in his hometown of Tokyo, he was eager to show me around, and we often did the rounds together, hitting up bars and his favorite, the hostess clubs, where he’d haggle with the promoters outside for reduced prices.

Surreal encounters abounded. One night we wound up at a Middle Eastern-themed shisha bar in Koenji, sucking fruit-flavored smoke from a water pipe on the second floor. Before long a pair of girls wandered in. One was a standard university type with prim clothing and wavy brown hair, but her friend was a full-blown visual-kei goth with facial piercings and blonde extensions, wearing clunky black platform boots and a fake leather corset. Her expression conveyed a detached boredom with life.

Ryu and I engaged them in conversation. We’d been to a tobacconist earlier in the day and picked up some cigars, which we now handed out to the girls. Ryu seemed interested in the more conventional one, Saori, while I took a liking to Miyuki, the goth. The conversation was slow going at first, but between my gaping foreign enthusiasm and Ryu’s practiced Japanese cool, we soon had them talking. Things looked set for a quick bounce to karaoke or even directly to a hotel, when Saori suddenly stood up.

“I’ve gotta get up early for my part-time job,” she announced. “But you guys have fun.”

Nothing we said could convince her to stay, and Miyuki barely seemed to care. Sitting in the darkened lounge, she sucked on her cigar and stared vacantly into space. After a few moments of silence she excused herself to go to the bathroom.

“I want to fuck her so bad,” I told Ryu. “I don’t know what I can do, but she’s totally my type.”

Ryu nodded sagely, and when Miyuki returned, his impish – or perhaps merely practical – side took over.

“DG wants to fuck you,” he told her, employing the crudest, most direct Japanese locution.

I could have strangled him, but I remained calm. Getting pissed and losing my cool wouldn’t get me anywhere.

“Too bad,” Miyuki said. “I have a boyfriend.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Ryu countered. “He isn’t here now, is he? It doesn’t matter.”

Miyuki exhaled a puff of smoke. “I guess not,” she said. “It doesn’t matter, does it?”

Utterly lost, I stared at them both. Was Ryu actually helping me rather than fucking me over? It was impossible to tell, but I was already on my fifth or sixth beer and, suddenly emboldened by the strange atmosphere, I leaned over and kissed Miyuki on the neck.

“Don’t try that again,” she said. “Or you’ll be sorry.”

Now Ryu made his own move, even more brazen than mine. Sliding over to Miyuki, he threw his arm around her and kissed her on the lips. In response Miyuki opened his mouth with her own, waited until his tongue slipped past hers and then seized it with her teeth.

Then she bit down with all her strength.

Ryu started to struggle. Shorter than Miyuki, he was probably stronger than her, but now he flailed about helplessly and tried to shake her off. Miyuki held on, gazing directly into his eyes as his face reddened, engorged with blood.

Finally she drew back and let him go. Ryu clutched his mouth like an injured child, blood dripping from his lips.

“That’s what I do to people who try to kiss me,” Miyuki said.

In my drunken state, I took this as a challenge.

Pulling her into me, I kissed her neck again and moved up to her mouth, pushing my tongue into hers. As expected, I felt small, sharp teeth closing around it, followed by a blossom of pain. My tongue felt like it would burst, and I could taste something coppery in my mouth, but rather than pull back I gripped her tightly and stared into her eyes as my blood mixed with her saliva. Then I moved my hand down to the space between her legs.

I seemed to have passed some kind of test, because now Miyuki was kissing me back forcefully – sans teeth – and moaning as I massaged her firm thighs through her black tights. I could tell she had an incredible body beneath all the protective covering. I went for her breasts and then she got up and straddled me.

“Let’s go to karaoke,” Ryu said, desperate to reassert his claim. But Miyuki was having none of it.

“Not you,” she told him. “Only him.”

To his credit, Ryu took this with admirable dignity and excused himself immediately, a barely perceptible frown the only sign of his displeasure. Soon after, Miyuki and I made our way back to my dorm, where we evaded Mrs. Murata and high tailed it up to my room. Her body exceeded my expectations, and I realized that her initial violent defense was only a means of screening out those incapable of matching her passion. We stayed up all night drinking, talking and fucking.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t the only one in the dorm interested in girls, and the other exchange students and I often went out looking for them. But I was more interested in making Japanese friends of the same persuasion, hoping that I could learn from them. Expat writers of all kinds are quick to malign Japanese men, characterizing them as superficial, uncommunicative and emotionally distant. To me, these stereotypes always said more about the men making them. If you didn’t like Japanese men, I decided, then you didn’t like Japan: they were, after all, half the population. Even as a student I saw all too many foreigners falling into the trap of associating only with Japanese girls and picking up feminine speech and mannerisms as a result. Japanese speech patterns are more distinctly gendered than English ones, but too many of the exchange students and even long-term residents I knew seemed oblivious. I realized that a man who associated only with women would always be half a man, not understanding the other side of the dynamic. Japanese women didn’t want men who spoke and acted like them, they wanted men who spoke and acted like men, or at least their culture’s conception of the term.

More importantly, Japanese men were with the women I most desired. I almost never saw foreigners with girls I wanted; my envy was reserved for the locals and their stunning paramours. Countless times I saw small, ugly, poorly-dressed men with fashionable stunners, or browsed magazines to find lanky, effeminate boys with phenomenal teenage beauty queens. In contrast, foreigners always seemed to be with the same kind of girl: short, plain, and recently returned from homestay in Idaho or some other middle-of-nowhere American state. These were the international party girls, those who thronged terrible Roppongi clubs like Gas Panic and Muse. Appearances aren’t everything, and I’m sure many of these men genuinely loved the women they were with, but time after time I heard the same complaints in bars:

“Akiko (or Yuka, Maki or Kaori; the names were always the same) is great, but…I always wanted to try one of those other girls. You know, the flashy kind. Shibuya girls, the type who shop at that 109 store, or the girls in the clothing ads.”

Worse, Akiko was often not a casual fling or girlfriend, but a wife.

Call it shallow if you want, but I’ve always felt it’s better to live your desires rather than sublimate them into tedious complaints. So it made sense that I would have to imitate Japanese men if I wanted to get with my ideal girls. As a result, I quickly dismissed not only my foreign friends but also Western “pickup artists” and others of their kind. What did they know about Japan when they couldn’t speak the language, when they’d never even been here? To this day, when I’ve met several of these vaunted “instructors,” I can’t say I’ve seen them achieve anything other than a beginner’s success in Japan. In fact there are only a handful of foreigners who I’ve seen with truly exceptional Japanese girls.

Then as now, my approach was to treat Japanese men as equals and afford them the same respect I would any of my friends. I did not allow myself to be offended by any flippant comments or “insensitive” remarks they made; in this age of ever-narrowing political correctness, getting pissed and leaving in a huff seemed like the weakest possible option, particularly when the offense was almost always unintentional.

But I still get queries from friends and acquaintances who see Japanese men as the enemy and want to know how to “deal with them.” I always tell them that chest thumping and open hostility will quickly get you ostracized. If you really want to destabilize a Japanese man, praise him in front of his friends. The more humble you seem and the more knowledge of his culture you demonstrate, the more your standing in the group will rise. Use perfect Japanese to talk about his handsome face and effortless style; he’ll soon loathe you. With the louder, more aggressive types, it’s often necessary to get your girl and get out, not giving them a chance to engage with her at all.

But this sort of thing is almost always childish and pointless; non-engagement is the better strategy. I’ve defused fights and turned enemies into friends simply by caring less than the other party and approaching situations with an open mind. The principles behind Japanese martial arts are similar. Karate, after all, means “empty hand,” and aikido depends on turning an opponent’s strength against them.

One night I set out from the dorm alone and headed for a nearby bar. I’d sat through a full day of classes and now, bored and restless, I felt like getting away from the dorm atmosphere, which had quickly become suffocating. Apart from the other exchange students, there were a number of residential assistants – Japanese students who lived with us. They were studious types, more interested in formal language exchange than actually learning the mindset of people from a different culture. Worse, they acted like spies, reporting our activities to the head of the exchange program. They’d already formally complained about me for letting girls spend the night in my room. I didn’t care to be around them any more than I had to, and my close friends were at a party somewhere, so I was on my own.

On this night the bar was crowded, so much so that it spilled onto the street, with customers sitting outside on stools in the warm summer air. I took a seat next to two young Japanese men and struck up a conversation, and they introduced themselves as Hiroyuki and Rintaro. Though we were in an area with several universities, they weren’t students; instead, they worked a series of part-time jobs in noodle houses and convenience stores.

Hiroyuki had a face like a brick. Just nineteen, he looked at least thirty. He was heavily built and would have been handy in a fight; I wasn’t eager to see him angry. Rintaro was more of a pretty boy, except he wasn’t actually pretty. Like his friend, his face looked older than his stated twenty years, but displayed more surface cunning than Hiroyuki’s flat, amiable features. Hiroyuki seemed happy-go-lucky, but Rintaro was the brains of the operation: a canny, practical intellect.

Before long the conversation turned to girls, and they regaled me with tales of “delivery health” hookers and fast pulls with teenagers in Shibuya and Shinjuku. I told them about the kind of girls I wanted, the fashionable kind seen in magazines.

“Oh, you mean gyaru? Yeah, we get with them all the time,” Rintaro said. “We can introduce you to some of them, but…can you hook us up with some Western girls?”

I could tell right away these were dodgy characters I couldn’t fully trust. They were outwardly friendly, even comically so, but I sensed they would use me any way they could and probably not make good on whatever promises they made. Still, I was excited to be hanging out with them; I felt they could grant me access to a side of Japan I’d glimpsed in books and films, an underworld of illicit beauty.

“I’m up to my neck in Western girls,” I said.

This wasn’t untrue. There were more female exchange students in my dorm than male ones, and some of them were on the adventurous side. Their Japanese was still basic, and they didn’t seem to have many Japanese friends. I could tell they were lonely. One of them, Aleksandra, a Ukrainian girl, had propositioned me fairly directly, but I turned her down, not wanting to generate more gossip for the residential assistants. Another, Lindsay, was a young Australian with a somewhat spacey disposition. Blonde, thick-limbed and reasonably outgoing, she’d until now been frustrated by the hesitant approaches of Japanese men, so different from the blunt propositions back home. I decided that an encounter with Hiroyuki and Rintaro was exactly what she needed. In a reversal of the typical Madame Butterfly scenario, the pair proved no match for her Occidental wiles when she ended up dating both of them at the same time and playing them against each other in a way that almost destroyed their friendship. She eventually grew tired of them and moved onto a Chinese exchange student, leaving my new friends frustrated and heartbroken…for at least a few days. To find new girls, it was only necessary to walk outside. Before long they were back to their usual unflappable optimism.

Now that I’d proven myself by getting them laid, Hiroyuki and Rintaro were as eager to hang out with me as I was with them. They called me multiple times a day and asked if I was putting on parties or meeting any new girls. As I’d expected, they didn’t come through with the gyaru I wanted, but they still took me along drinking with them often enough that I didn’t mind. Hanging out with them was an exhilarating but constantly disorienting experience, as their crude, street-level Japanese was miles away from my rapidly developing but still bookish speaking style. And while I’d expected them to support my approaches to girls in the manner of a Western wingman, they were just as likely to steal my targets or blow the whole thing up with an explosion of vulgar mockery. Some of their tactics, if that’s what they were, left me shaking my head, but there was no denying how successful the pair were. I often saw them carelessly discarding girls who would have been the highlights of most men’s lives. In particular, one of Rintaro’s girlfriends, Rimi, was a stunning young woman who could have worked as an adult video star, an eighteen year old nymphet with the face of an angel and the body of a toned and rangy stripper. I fell in hopeless lust with her the moment I saw her, but he constantly cheated on her and eventually broke up with her by simply deleting her contact info from his phone; apparently she didn’t even merit a goodbye. Hiroyuki and Rintaro’s emotions were broad strokes on a canvas of plain primaries, and the whole business of relationships a Rabelaisian joke. I decided that I needed to be more like them: flexible and free, living in the moment, full of violent cheer and meaningless laughter. If nothing else, they were teaching me how young, working class Japanese men really talked.

One day as we were walking the streets of Shibuya, Hiroyuki did something that changed my life. I’d noticed an outstandingly attractive girl walking ahead of us, a petite blonde with an ultra-short miniskirt and a handbag covered with rhinestones. She might as well have been the archetype of young, fashionable Shibuya ostentation. Until now, encountering girls like this had always obscurely wounded me – what could I do about their existence? Was there any way I could enter their world or (even more impossible) draw them into mine? My longing always faded into hopelessness.

“That’s it, that’s the type,” I said in Japanese. “I’d kill to get with someone like that.”

“Huh? Her?” Hiroyuki replied. He looked at her as if inspecting an oddly-shaped rock.

Then, without warning, he darted forward and caught up with her.

Smiling and gesturing while proceeding with absolute calm, he spoke to her in a way that resembled a talk show host crossed with a criminal prosecutor, combining rapid fire statements about her clothing and appearance with a torrent of questions – who was she? Where was she from? What was she doing? Did she have a boyfriend? – that continued even as the girl ignored him. Finally, bafflingly, she stopped walking and gave him her undivided attention.

“Now! What are you doing now?” he repeated.

“Nothing, just….nothing.”

“Let’s go get something to drink. We can go to karaoke, over there.”

Now the girl appeared to be considering the offer as if it were a matter of life and death. Finally she gently shook her head and said, “I’m sorry…I have a boyfriend.”

Hiroyuki turned and left her without another word. Soon he was by my side again. Stunned, I asked what he had just done.

“When you get one to stop, you take her to karaoke or a hotel,” he explained. “From there it’s easy.”

I’d met Momoka in a similar way two weeks earlier, so I was familiar with the concept, but I’d done it unconsciously while drunk. Hiroyuki had done it in broad daylight with total nonchalance, as if greeting an old friend. The girl’s initial reception and ultimate rejection of his offer had had no apparent effect on him. I could readily believe that he tried this multiple times each day – perhaps hundreds. It was my first real experience with nanpa.

It’s best to give a brief history of nanpa (don’t worry, I’ll dispense with the italics). Dating from the Meiji Period, the term originally denoted “the soft bunch” of layabouts interested in spending all their time with women, as opposed to those presumably chaste young men espousing the martial and manly virtues. In the modern sense, nanpa refers to picking up girls in public, often directly from the street or crowded public areas.

Nothing like this exists in the modern West. Sexually propositioning women in public has no even semi-respectable context, and is seen as inappropriate behavior at best and borderline criminal insanity at worst. Western “pickup” has barely legitimized it under the “day game” heading, but it’s still largely seen as a form of harassment. Just imagining it probably makes you think of leering construction workers shouting obscenities at passing women, or try-hard divorcees walking their dogs in the park in the hope of a “chance meeting.” Certainly few men outside of the self-styled “pickup community” would directly and confidently approach women on the street if they wanted to retain their social standing and avoid being maced.

But in Japan, this context exists. Japanese women, I discovered, were used to shrugging off nanpa, and most considered it a distraction that barely registered on their mental radar. Although genuine harassment exists as it does in every country and should not be trivialized, the majority of women I’ve spoken to have admitted to meeting at least one past boyfriend through nanpa. And in practice, I’ve had sex with hundreds of women met in this way and enjoyed long, fantastic relationships with many of them. The Japanese girlfriends and other sex partners I’ve met this way vastly outnumber those I’ve met through “traditional” means such as bars, parties and friends’ introductions, and even more modern methods like online dating. By “vastly” I mean at least two times more than all the other methods put together. Simply put, I’ve spent a lot of time doing nanpa, and can vouch for its effectiveness.

But I’ve met all too many foreigners who view nanpa as a dirty word. They prefer the “chance meeting” model, where everything is supposed to look natural. They’ll shyly start a conversation in Starbucks by asking how to read a particular kanji, or else ask for directions in public and then desperately try to segue into a personal conversation. These methods always struck me as unbearably phony, and in my experience they strike girls that way too. Those who use them are still bound to the Western paradigm that street approaches are something crass or abnormal. But the young Japanese men with the stunning, fashionable girlfriends don’t do “chance meetings.” They do nanpa.

If all this sounds a bit weighty, it’s important to emphasize that successful nanpa should be fun, light and witty. If the girl doesn’t feel engaged and won over by a cool, confident guy, you’re doing it wrong. And you’ll really know you’ve succeeded when she thanks you for approaching her. It might seem difficult to imagine, but the thought of being approached at random by their dream man is exactly what many girls want. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “aite yokatta” – “I’m glad we met” – when our “meeting” was me walking up to her on the street as a complete stranger and talking to her as if I’d known her for years.

Some girls actually go out with the intention – subconscious or not – of being picked up: wandering around in public, or sitting on a bench at night alone looking bored. Often this isn’t planned: they were out with their friends, and then their friends went home, leaving them with nothing to do. Having grown up receiving constant attention, they know on some level that all they have to do is look receptive.

Look for girls who are walking slowly, Hiroyuki told me. They’re probably not doing much, and are receptive to approaches.

This isn’t to say that girls won’t ignore you, run away from you or have other unpredictable reactions. But there’s no law against talking to strangers, and as long as you’re not a complete psychopath or groping menace (hint: don’t touch them, it isn’t necessary), it’s rare to have heavily unfavorable reactions. In fact, much of what someone new to nanpa would interpret as “unfavorable” is often an expression of shyness or bewilderment rather than a real lack of interest. If a girl doesn’t know why you’re talking to her – particularly a girl who’s had little experience with foreigners – she’ll be less likely to respond. Complicating the issue are the scouts and hosts who approach girls hoping to recruit them for their clubs or turn them into customers. But if you make her laugh or, more powerfully, put her at ease by demonstrating that you understand and can relate to her, she’ll quickly open up.

Okay – sounds good, right? But like many things, nanpa is easier in theory than in practice. It would take me hundreds of encounters and a few more years to really internalize the process. At this point it was still beyond me, and I could only react with awe to what Hiroyuki had done.

Of course, I had other things on my mind too. Over the course of the year my relationship with Maya had grown strained. She was an amazing girl, but my sexual ambitions had grown, even if they still seemed so much idle fantasy. I wanted more girls: sexier, flashier, and more accommodating, girls who would fulfill my every fevered dream. I wanted tall, statuesque models and writhing porn stars. I wanted girls glittering with jewels and dressed in stylish clothes, girls with sparkling nails and shining eyes, from rough ghetto hostesses to high-end university students and jet-setting society ladies. I wanted inexperienced teenagers and mature women, feminine waifs and boyish athletes, stick-thin sylphs and filled-out, curvy goddesses. My tastes seemed to change on a whim. One moment I was obsessed with classical beauties like the actress Ryoko Shinohara, the next I wanted voluptuous goofs like the adult video star Aoi Sora. A single picture in a magazine or album cover was enough to send me into a frenzy. And above all, I wanted to be the kind of man these girls would be proud to have their arm around.

But the reality was different. My clothes were dull and unfashionable. In social situations I came across as diffident, even withdrawn. If I’d directly stated my desires, the women around me would have written me off as a daydreamer at best and a creep at worst. And looking back, I wouldn’t blame them. Incongruity is always unattractive.

Imagine a strong, conventionally handsome man with a great job who treats his girl like a prized possession, but is so jealous and insecure that he monitors her every move and seizes on every conversation she has with another man as a sign of her infidelity.

Now imagine a beautiful woman on the arm of a fat little man, old and grey-haired. He’s shorter than her, and seems otherwise unimpressive. But suddenly that fat old man tells an amazing story, demonstrates himself to be a man of the world, a gentleman of refinement. Other people cross the room to hear what he has to say. He makes a joke at his own expense and casually disarms his audience. Suddenly we, and the women around us, are enthralled.

So, which is really more attractive? The outwardly desirable man who lacks any inner strength, or the man you’d pass over without glancing at twice who’s comfortable with himself and in complete control of his life? I wanted to be more certain of myself, even if I had no idea how.

My encounter with Momoka proved to be the catalyst for breaking up with Maya. Now that I’d been with a girl who could have stepped from one of my dreams, it was time for me to do the right thing and break up with my girlfriend. Even though I’d spent only one night with Momoka – in contrast with the nearly two years I’d been with Maya – I was convinced that we shared a deep connection. There was a hint of sadness to her, an existential depth that Maya utterly lacked. And with her tall stature and stunning body, she was clearly more desirable. As soon as I broke off with Maya I would make Momoka my new girlfriend.

But the grand relationship I’d planned for us proved to be an illusion. Momoka met up with me a few times more but, perhaps frightened by my ardor, eventually decided she wanted nothing to do with me. In the caprice stakes, men and women are just as bad as each other, and looking back I can say that I fully deserved what I got. But at the time it struck me as a cosmic injustice, and I was ruined for weeks, pining over my lost dream girl. You can imagine the pathetic sight I made, sprawled on my bed listening to the same bands I’d shared with her, now feeling even worse than they had made me feel as a teenager. I still can’t listen to Bjork.

And even before all that, the breakup with Maya was painful and protracted. I’d given too much of myself away, and in my youthful exuberance I’d become excessive: writing her poems, declaring my love, projecting future happiness. Maya, a country girl from Hokkaido who’d moved to Kyoto for university, had never experienced anything like this. She took my early, infatuated hints at marriage seriously, and I’d met her mother.

In fact, I’d slept with her mother.

This requires some explanation. I first became aware of Maya’s mother, Mrs. Tanaka, when she wrote a letter to her daughter in Australia. Evidently Maya had mentioned me, as the letter contained a paragraph addressed directly to me, inviting me to Japan for “karaoke and bowling” and asking various personal questions. I considered this somewhat odd, but chalked it up to cultural differences. From Maya I learned that her mother was in her early forties (Maya had been a teenage pregnancy) and divorced, and was looking to relocate to Tokyo. Later, once I’d moved there myself, I was able to meet her in person.

Mrs. Tanaka – Eriko – resembled her daughter enough to be an older sister. But while Maya dressed somewhat conservatively, Eriko wore high heels, skin-tight jeans and revealing tops along with flashy golden belts and shiny jewelry. Like her daughter she was tall and had an impressive figure, slender and gently curved. Maya loved her but complained about her “noisiness” – literal translation – and transparent attempts to ingratiate herself with a younger crowd. I got the impression of a stifled party girl who’d married too young and still craved affection. Once she realized I was in Tokyo for at least a year, she took every opportunity to invite me around, going so far as get my phone contact information and make me promise not to tell Maya. I considered this eccentric but harmless; after all, what could happen? I had no intention of doing anything with her; in fact the prospect frightened me. But I couldn’t deny that I found Eriko’s slutty flightiness exciting, and the idea of bedding both mother and daughter intrigued me. Still, it seemed too ridiculous to take seriously.

For the first few months Maya was always present whenever I encountered her mother, and for the most part Eriko and I kept an appropriate distance. But over time I found her sending me more and more text messages, most of them open-ended and innocuous, but still clearly requests for attention. Eventually she invited me to go shopping with her, and I followed her through Shinjuku’s Takashimaya department store while Maya was at work. There was no real sense of an illicit encounter, but I couldn’t deny a strange undercurrent to our interactions as Eriko asked for my opinion on various new clothes and eventually treated me to lunch at an Indian restaurant. Our conversation was resolutely trivial, but I could tell from her body language and facial expressions that she was enjoying my presence in more than a friendly way. I finally said goodbye to her outside the station, uncertain how I should feel.

The situation progressed over the next few weeks, with Eriko eventually inviting herself over to my university dorm. While our shopping date had seemed light and unreal, occupying a weightless dimension of its own, as soon as my girlfriend’s mother stepped over the threshold of my building, reality sunk in…and was immediately compounded when Mai, one of the residential assistants, came out of the laundry room and stared in surprise at the older woman standing next to me. True to her background as a gregarious country type from northern Japan, Eriko struck up a conversation without missing a beat, and I had to hurry her along to my room, certain the Orwellian-minded RA would be taking notes.

Once inside, Eriko busied herself picking my scattered clothes from the floor, folding them neatly and arranging them into piles. It seemed more reflexive than considerate, an unconscious desire – partly cultural, partly personal – to impose order on disorder, form on formlessness. Or perhaps it was only a way of making herself feel at home in my charmless student’s room. When she had finished, she sat down on my bed with an air of mock exhaustion. I joined her, and before I knew what was happening I found myself massaging her shoulders and kneading the hard but soft-skinned muscles of her neck. Eriko relaxed and leaned back into me, and I spent several minutes exploring her body with my hands before finally resting my chin on her shoulder and then bringing my mouth to her neck. She broke the tension with a burst of meaningless laughter. We seemed about to have a conversation, but finally there was nothing to say, and soon we were locked in a tight embrace. I found myself overwhelmingly but almost impersonally excited, and Eriko pressed herself against me with undeniable force.

When it was over we resumed our earlier manner. There was no question of letting it mean anything, as the event had been essentially meaningless, two displaced individuals falling into each other’s orbits and colliding under the force of an inexplicable attraction before drifting away to a safer, reasonable distance. As if to emphasize the point, after expressing how happy she was that Maya and I were going out, Eriko made a show of talking about the future relationships she desired – was there anyone I could introduce her to? I told her I’d keep my eye out.

Needless to say, this experience put me into an unusual head space for a while, but it was only one of the factors leading to my eventual breakup with Maya. I procrastinated for weeks, paralyzed by cowardice, until one night I met her at a restaurant close to my station and managed to tell her that I didn’t think we had any future. I was still too young, and wanted to explore life more.

Maya didn’t take it well. In fact, the relationship died in stages similar to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Except instead of acceptance, it was more like anger and depression II: angrier and more depressed.

“So you’re just going to throw me away,” she said, and seemed almost on the verge of punching the glass window close to our table.

“I’m not throwing you away.”

“You are!”

I’d naively hoped to wrap things up in an “adult” manner and see her off at the station, but she followed me back to my dorm and insisted on staying the night. As she gradually came to terms with the reality of my leaving her, she struggled to project a future in which we were still somehow connected.

“I still think I can trust you,” she said. “Ten years from now when we’re married to other people, I can see our children playing together in a garden somewhere…”

I felt myself close to tears. Even then I doubted I’d ever have children, but the dreamlike image affected me deeply, and I felt utterly destroyed.

Then it was time for one final attack. It was the small hours of the morning, and we were both highly-strung. She demanded to know the real reason I was leaving her, why I wasn’t satisfied.

“Okay,” I said. “I really just want more experience. I want to fuck other girls.”

Depending on your temperament, your sympathy for me at this point – still fairly early in the book – has either been cemented or evaporated completely. In the case of the latter, I’ll say that, in my defense, I met Maya years later in a coffee shop and found her a mature, confident woman, successful at her job and happily married to a prosperous, upwardly-mobile Japanese businessman. Despite the callous way I’d treated her, she bore me no ill will and said she looked back on our relationship with fondness. I wanted desperately to believe her. With the passage of time, she now felt free to joke about the past, and she brought up an incident that had stuck in her mind.

“There was that one time I went to your dorm and saw all the clothes neatly folded on the dresser. I remember thinking there was no way you would ever have folded them that neatly or stacked them up like that. You said you’d done it yourself but I knew you were lying. It was another girl, wasn’t it? You had someone else in your room.”

I conceded that she was right; it had been another girl.

But I couldn’t bring myself to say, “It was your mother!”

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