WITNESS the seedy underbelly of the Visual Kei scene

Everyone, stop what you’re doing and read Tokyo Damage Report’s epic piece on the visual kei music scene. The way it’s written makes it hard to quote, but here are some relevant facts. The interview is long but well worth your time. Read to find out:

  • The coming together of of shojo manga and glam rock that created Visual Kei in the 80s.
  • How Japanese recording acts are formed and popularized.
  • How popular bands find ways to maximize revenue from fans (selling photos, lots of “limited edition” merchandise, and special izakaya parties for the most gullible/hardcore fans)
  • Where the labels go to find talent (it’s mostly ex-thugs).
  • Why Japanese record producers — think Yasushi Akimoto of AKB48, Tsunku of Morning Musume, etc. — are so heavily relied upon to produce every aspect of the final product that they become drug-addled auteurs.
  • The typical salary for a visual kei band member (lots of in-kind perks, very little cash)… and why they put up with it
  • The willingness of label bosses to forego short-term financial gain in favor of long-term connections (perhaps an ubiquitous aspect of Japanese business relations)

For some reason he’s been sitting on this gem since 2008! Shame on you, man.

It’s hard to tell the credibility of some parts, but I think it’s easier to swallow as a true-to-life mockumentary than as a faithfully transcripted interview.

To close out, here’s the video for one of my favorite viz-k songs, Luna Sea’s “Tonight”:

Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein

Tokyo Vice
Tokyo Vice

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan came out this past Fall. A tale of sex, scandal, and gangsters, it was written by Jake Adelstein, a former vice reporter for the Yomiuri and the only American to have been admitted into the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department press club. If you’re interested in hearing more about the seedy side of Tokyo, I recommend picking up a copy. It’s a great read, at least as interesting as Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld.

Some of you may have heard of Adelstein when his name popped up a year or so ago as the author of a Washington Post article about the yakuza (Japanese mafia). He is an interesting fellow; besides his unique former press credentials he also was instrumental in the 2006 TIP report that embarrassed Japan into adopting stricter anti-trafficking measures. Additionally, he runs the “Japan Subculture Research Center,” a blog devoted to the Japanese underground. He is currently running around the world promoting his new book. This isn’t just to generate sales. The publicity he generates keeps him alive.

Continue reading Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein

Day 1 in the Philippines: Chatting with communists

After my mishap last week I made sure to get to the airport about two hours earlier than I needed to, and so naturally the plane was an hour late-which would have easily more than made up for the amount of time by which I had missed my plane last week.

I found a place to crash for the night in the backpacker/tourist district near downtown Manila as it is not too far from the airport, although I will be staying for the next couple of days in the University of the Philippines area up in Quezon city, about an hour away from the airport.

I took a brief stroll around the area after checking in to pick up some toiletries at a 7/11 and grab a snack. This is not the nicest part of Manila to walk around at night, as you have to dodge both men trying to sell you women and women trying to sell you themselves. Even if that had been the goal of my walk, as opposed to toothbrush and stuffed bread thing, I am perfectly capable of reading signs and walking into a store and don’t need anyone following me and gabbing in my ear, thank you very much.

In the morning I took another stroll around to get breakfast, and instead of being accosted by pimps and whores met with watch and viagra merchants. Shouldn’t the viagra sellers be out when the prostitutes are? Doesn’t anybody coordinate their schedules? Such are the mysteries of the cosmos.

Walking around with my new camera, I was reminded of one of the peculiarities of the Philippines, being that a foreigner wielding a fancy camera will actually be stopped by locals asking you to take their photograph. “One shot, right here.” They say. Needless to say, this is the reverse, or at least crossverse, of the usual relationship between the tourist photographer and the busy local. It takes a few times, initially, to realize that there is no scam, no demand for money involved, but merely some globally rare but nationally common enjoyment of the experience of being documented.

After being called upon to photograph one smiling old man-a pleasant enough interaction-I had the misfortune of stepping on a sidewalk stone which shifted in a downwardly spinning fashion beneath my foot, plunging it into the murky sewery depths beneath, soaking my foot and mildly scraping my shin. A couple of people on the sidewalk nearby hurried over to ask if I was all right, and  no serious harm done I said that I was, as one man hawking cigarettes nearby shifted the slab back into a less precarious place.

Just before getting back at the hostel (whose wifi I am currently perusing) I stopped to briefly admire a well-maintained fire truck parked on the street, whereupon I was greeted b its crew, relaxing at the side of the street across from it. Exchanging hellos, they asked me where I was from, I told them “US, New Jersey, currently studying in Japan”, the usual introduction, following which I become absorbed into a nearly hour-long conversation with one of the men. They were volunteer fire fighters, not city employees, and even the fire truck is privately owned. I saw a Rotary Club emblem on it, presumably one source of funding.

This man, whose name I will not mention for reasons that will be apparent, looked to be in the general neigborhood of 30. When I started to expain to him that I was studying the area of colonial history he gave his widely-shared opinion that education was the best thing that America had given to the Philippines. He then followed up by expressing dismay that America and the Philippines, having been engaged in building a system of education generally maintaining a high level relative to the region, had not carried those high standards into the realm of Philippine history, choosing instead to present a slanted and incomplete version of that history, particularly where the Community Party of the Philippines is concerned.

He asked me if I had heard of Jose Maria Sison,  which I had. Sison, now elderly and living in political exile in The Netherlands, is the leader of the CCP who has written many revolutionary tracts over the years. I mentioned that I have one of his books, “Philippine Society and Revolution”, written in the 1970s, which I had downloaded from a website. I mentioned that I had read more of Renato Constantino, the most famous left-wing historian of the Philippines, to which he replied, “well he’s OK too,” clearly indicating a strong preference for the writings of Mr. Sison. Out of both interest and politeness I then asked where I might find some more of Sison’s writings, to which the reply was “well, for that you have to go up there” by which he meant, to the mountain camps where the communists hide out and train. His writings are banned in the Philippines, and cannot be bought or sold or even possessed openly.

He, or perhaps I should say The Young Communist, which is what he gradually and eventually came out as, was originally from Manila, of middle class background. Of partial Chinese descent, his grandfather had married a non-Chinese Filipina and been disowned, which says enough to The Young Communist about Chinese society for him to want no part of it. He went to Polytechnic University of the Philippines,which he described as the second most communist university in the country after UP (University of the Philippines), where he had been recruited by one of his professors. UP, he said, while containing the highest proportion of communists and communist sympathizers, is also by far the most elite and wealthiest of the nations universities, with over 80% of the student body themselves coming from an elite background. While people there may be intellectually communist, and may even join the struggle, they will never have the full level of understanding of the need for revolution possessed by those of a more humble background. “Poverty is part of the education.”

He had then spent his university career traveling back and forth between the city, where he studied in class, and the mountain regions, where he studied in the communist camps. He never lived full time in the mountains, because (and he stressed this) he “never had a job up there” due to not being a member of the armed struggle. Instead, he studied comunist philosophy and methods for organizing and activism, and worked in some aid programs for the aborigines. The aforementioned writings of Sison were studied, but he said he would always shred or burn a copy after reading it.

After university, he stopped going to thee camps in the mountains to concentrate on work in the city. He mentioned that there was some sort of amnesty for CCP memberss, which applied to him perhaps since he was not in the armed faction-I did not adequately get the details. The Young Communist then gestured at the fire truck saying that it was part of his work, to do something for the community. While he does consider himself a communist and refers to other communists as “comrades”, he is pragmatic and considers himself a realist. He says he works for revolution, but not in the radical and dramatic sense of a popular uprising and the establishment of a People’s Republic, but in the sense of changing the social order in a gradual and peaceful fashion. To this end he is involved in organizing in the labor movement and in the promotion of revolutionary art, and even the volunteer fire fighter duty, and makes money to live off doing some kind of event organizing thing, which I got virtually no sense of due to his clear lack of interest in talking about work when he could be talking about the real work.

Having seen the results of revolutions throughout the 20th century, he does not believe that an armed uprising will actually improve things long-term except, and here I dare to presume, in the case of a violent and oppressive dictatorship. He had particular venom and bile for Marcos, whom he considers perhaps the worst person in modern Philippine history-a statement that many would agree with. In his view, following the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution, which toppled Marcos, there was a window of opportunity for real reform, which was squandered and undermined by the same old elite, and each president since Corey has only been worse. Like many here, he bemoans the fast that the best and brightestt and most educated leave the Philippines behind to go work in the US or other foreign countries, which “is bad for the Philippines on a macro level, but you really can’t blame them for taking care of their families” even as it continues the cycle of underdevelopment.

While I can understand how an espoused communist might not be in favor of armed struggle for both moral and pragmatic reasons, I am both startled and puzzled to hear him say that he considers Marxism to be unrealistic and Marxists to be mistaken. When he goes on to say that national democracy is the only framework that makes sense to work within for the foreseeable future, I am left wondering what actually makes him a communist as opposed to merely a very progressive liberal. What, aside from self-identification, is different from my own views? We seem to have similar views on both history and current events. Neither of us is calling for the overthrow of the state, but think that dynasty in electoral politics (a far more serious problem in the Philippines, but one that is distressingly on the rise in the US) is unforgiveable. Perhaps he has a dream of some distant communist society, but what person with any spark of imagination and optimism doesn’t fantasize about a future utopia? I certainly don’t pretend to think that any society in existence in the world today, however much better things may be now than in the past, is more than a shadow of things to come. But I also don’t pretend to have any glimmer of what future society might be, as fun as it is to guess or imagine. And I wonder, does The Young Communist even believe in communism? Does it matter? If someone can follow a religion-say Christianity-as a set of moral guidelines but not a literal description of history or roadmap to the future, why can’t someone calling themselves Communist approach that doctrine in the same way?

Taiwanese aborigine former comfort woman speaking in Tokyo this Fri/Sat

I should have posted a notice about the talk by a different woman here in Kyoto a couple of weeks ago, but it just didn’t occur to me even though I went to it. Anyway, here’s the info that I got through a mailing list. No point in giving the details in English since you’d need to understand Japanese (or Taroko, which is rather unlikely) to understand anyway. I’m sure there are people with all manner of views on the comfort women issue reading this, but hearing some first-hand testimony may be interesting to any of them.

Details below, for those who may wish to attend. It mentions a “texts fee” of 1000 yen, but I believe (no promises) that it is not required for admission.

Continue reading Taiwanese aborigine former comfort woman speaking in Tokyo this Fri/Sat

The Viceroy’s many connections in the Orient

Two of the three bloggers at Cominganarchy, who go by the online handles of, Curzon and Younghusband, were in the same university in Kyoto where Adam and I did our undergraduate study abroad exchange program while we were there. Curzon, like Adam and Joe, had previously participated in a one year high school study abroad exchange in a different part of Kansai (and a different program from the one Adam and Joe were on), and even before that-12 years ago now-had done a summer program in which he stayed for a month with a host family in Otsu, a small city in Shiga Prefecture located just across the mountains to the east of Kyoto.

Although Curzon spent his first few months of undergraduate study abroad living in the same international students dormitory that Adam and I later lived in (Curzon arrived before us), and which Younghusband had lived in a couple of years earlier, he soon moved out and into one of the very cheap and very old fashioned dormitories that lie somewhere on the continuum of housing between hovel and tenement, with facilities so bare that they would never even be considered a legal residence back in the United States. I say dormitory because while each resident has an individual room-which cost a measly 13,000 yen (around $130) per month-for that price you got just a room, with only a shared toilet and no bathing facilities anywhere in the building. This sort of arrangement used to be typical in Japan, where neighborhood bath houses are still common in many areas, but has understandably fallen out of fashion in a period when most people can afford better.

When I returned to Kyoto earlier this year, I spent the entire month of April living in the spare bedroom of a friend’s apartment, down in Kyoto’s far southern ward of Fushimi so that I would have a base from which to look for someplace else to live. Since I have another friend who was in fact studying with Cuzon, Adam and I back in 2002-03 who will be moving back to Kyoto in September to engage in some other study program, we had decided that, so we would be able to live cheaply and yet still have a decent amount of space, we would rent a house to share after he arrived. However, not wanting to be stuck with a double share of rent for the intervening months, I decided that it would be best to find somplace both cheap and temporary, and if at all possible also located close to campus.

The biggest difficulty here has to do with the way rental leases are often structured in Japan. Even when the actual monthly rent is low, is it typical here to pay an outrageous reikin (often translated as “key money” equal to several months rent, in addition to a month or two of rent upfront, and a deposit equal to a couple of months rent. I considered living in one of those foreigner guest houses for a couple of months, but I visited one and it seemed fairly lame, and I thought I could do cheaper. And I did. I managed to get very lucky and find a place which is very cheap, very well located, and has a contract that I can leave with no penalty. The building is, rather oddly, owned by a monk who actually lived inside the temple on Hiezan, the holy mountain on the NE corner of Kyoto, who is so seriously monk-y that he spent twenty years engaged in a special Esoteric Buddhist meditation where, although he could interact with people, he did not leave the mountain at all. Needless to say, his grasp of modern technology is rather weak.

The apartment is, while old, low-class, and rundown, is however, unlike Curzon’s aforementioned former place, actually an apartment. A small one, to be sure, (a single 6-tatami room and a 2.5 tatami kitchen area separated by sliding doors) but with a (very basic) kitchen, a (Japanese style) toilet, and a bath. What it lacks, however, is a shower. And the bath tap only produces cold water, so you have to fill it up, heat it up with the gas bath heater-that very annoyingly must be turned on from the veranda- and then wash yourself by sitting next to the tub and pouring water on yourself in a sort of poor-man’s psuedo-shower. But, at least there is an air conditioner. While far from ideal, the price was right. ¥25,000 a month, with no reikin, and only a one-month deposit that the monk landlord promises I will get back as long as there is no extraordinary damage. But considering the ragged tatami and old paint that was here when I moved in, the bar for that was set low. I believe that this is the lowest price you could possibly get in Kyoto for a room with private bath, and while on the shabby side, is still a solid two or three steps above the ¥13,000 room.

The landlord occasionaly drops off various gifts, senbei, expensive chocolates, fancy tea, etc. which I find hanging on my door handle every few weeks when I get home from somewhere. These are most likely gifts brought to the temple by parishioners, which the monks then redistribute for some reason. Two days ago I returned home to find a new treat, with an envelope containing the following note attached.

Mr. Roy Berman

It is my very pleasure and astonishment that you and Mr. Curzon my acquaintance should be good friends from the same province.As you know, he stays in Tokyo now, and orders me to serve you as possible!


Naturally perplexed, I emailed Curzon to see how this might be, and it turns out that Mr. Koutai (first name) was a friend of Curzon’s host father from his very first stay in Japan, 12 years ago in Otsu. The hostfather had taken the then-teenaged Curzon up Hiezan to meet the monk, and they met again a couple of weeks ago when Curzon visited the old host father in Otsu.

Another Western family with old ties to Japan

The Asahi English website has a very interesting article entitled “Family planted Japan roots over a century ago“, on the history of the Apcar family, who first came to Yokohama around a century ago.

The family business, A.M. Apcar & Co., was established by Michael Apcar’s grandfather and run by his grandmother, Diana Agabeg Apcar after her husband’s sudden death in 1906. A.M. Apcar was born in what was then Persia and moved to India, then under British rule, and married Diana Agabeg. They were both from well-off Armenian families and decided to settle in Yokohama after spending part of their honeymoon here.

The entire history presented in the article is quite fascinating, but the following section is the one that really jumped out at me.

Life took a terrible turn as Japan moved toward a war footing.

In hindsight, it is curious the Apcars did not join other Westerners who left Japan before fighting broke out with the United States.

Leonard M. Apcar, Michael’s son, recalls a passage from memoirs written by Michael’s mother, Araxe, about an exchange with her husband about leaving Japan. Araxe asked her husband if Japan would ever go to war with the United States.

Michael Apcar Sr.’s reply was: “No, it would be suicide for the Japanese to go to war with the United States. It’s crazy and wouldn’t happen.”

On Dec. 8, 1941, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, military police surrounded the Apcar home and hauled Michael Apcar Sr. off to prison.

Among the reasons for the detainment was the fact that the elder Apcar was the highest-ranking member of his Masonic lodge in Yokohama.

He was imprisoned for 14 months, during which time he was often tortured for information about his fellow Masons, according to his son.

During his father’s imprisonment, Michael’s sister, Dorothy, died. Her tombstone was made in the United States and he had never seen it in the cemetery until Tuesday.

Life did not get any better after his father’s release. The Apcars were given the choice of moving to either Hakone in western Kanagawa Prefecture or Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture. They chose Karuizawa because it was thought there was a better chance of bartering for food with local farmers.

“My father knew the war was on and there was no business to be conducted, so he sold everything in the house,” Apcar said, noting that the family moved to a much smaller cottage in Karuizawa.

“(My father) knew he had to get enough money to live on during the war and he didn’t know how long the war was going to last,” Apcar said.

The Apcars lived in Karuizawa for about two years, raising goats and chickens and growing potatoes after clearing land filled with tree stumps.

“The winters would get terribly cold,” Apcar recalls. “If we spilled water anywhere in the house, it would immediately freeze.”

What turned out to be a lifesaver for the Apcars was a makeshift oven for heating and cooking that was put together from sheet metal saved by Apcar’s father from crates he received as an importer of horse liniment.

As the war situation facing Japan worsened, conditions in Karuizawa grew harsher.

“It got so bad in Karuizawa that my father and I had to keep watch because people were so hungry they would come and dig up the potatoes,” Apcar said.

One of the few advantages to living in Karuizawa was the fact it was not a target for Allied bombing raids.

The same could not be said for Yokohama. After Japan surrendered, Apcar found work as a guide and interpreter for Swiss officials who were seeking permission from the U.S. Army to move the Swiss Embassy from Karuizawa back to Tokyo.

He went to his place of birth.

“Yokohama was flat,” Apcar said. “I couldn’t find my way in Yokohama because the house where I was born was gone. All I saw was a bathtub. Everything was burned up, gone.”

Apcar eventually sailed with one of his sisters in September 1946 to San Francisco, where they had relatives.

This particular episode is in stark contrast to another long term expat family who remained in Yokohama during World War 2, which some readers here may remember. Almost two years ago I made a long post on William R. Gorham, an American engineer who moved to Japan for business, helped to found the predecessor to the Nissan Motor Corporation, and eventually became, along with his wife, a Japanese citizen in May of 1941-about 5 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Gorham children returned to the US around this time, having been raised and educated in Japan but never naturalizing there. William R. Gorham survived the war with no particular hardship, was treated well by the occupation authorities-who he worked for as an advisor-and had a successful consulting firm in the postwar period, which helped such companies as Canon. His son Don Cyril Gorham, who was perhaps the first (or at least among the first) Westerner to receive an undergraduate degree from Tokyo University, served as a translator for the US both during and after the war, and visited Japan as recently as last October, at the age of 90.

The question looms of why one Western family, who as Americans were citizens of the very country Japan was going to war with and had been in Japan only for a couple of decades, was given the royal treatment, while the other, who had lived in Japan far longer and had no ties to the US (although they did move there postwar) were imprisoned like POWs. It seems likely that family connections were key.

While the Apcar family presumably had strong connections to the Yokohama business community, the many overseas contacts needed to run a successful trading company may have alarmed security officials. And as the article points out, membership in the Masons was also a key factor. Foreign-based quasi-mystical secret brotherhoods would not have been well regarded by the militaristic government of 1941 Japan.

By contrast, William R. Gorham’s business interests were pretty much Japan based. He was an inventor and engineer more than a businessman, and seems to have been little involved in any sort of international dealings. The Gorhams moved in high society. His wife studied traditional arts such as ceramics and ikebana with masters of the crafts, and even tutored a princess in English. Mr. Gorham’s close friend and business partner was Yoshisuke Ayukawa, famous for expanding Nissan (which Gorham himself contributed greatly to) into a zaibatsu, and helping develop Japanese industry in Manchuria. In fact, Don Cyril-his son-speculated in an email to me (actually transcribed by his daughter) that Ayukawa used his personal influence to fast-track the Gorham’s unusual eve-of-war application for citizenship.

Another obituary: My Osaka alma mater

My first trip to Japan was to spend a year in the Rotary Youth Exchange program at a high school in Osaka. The school hosting me was Ogimachi Senior High, which closed its old campus earlier this year in order to prepare for a 2010 merger with Konohana Sogo Senior High. (The two schools will share a new campus near Nishi-Kujo for the next two years.)

Ogimachi was founded in 1921 as a girls’ high school in the Ogimachi district of northern Osaka, just east of Umeda. After the school was destroyed by American bombers in 1945, it wandered around nomad-like to temporary facilities in Temma and Horikawa before getting a new dedicated facility in Dojima, west of Umeda, in 1948. It became co-educational at that time by swapping students with Osaka Senior High School.

The school moved to a new campus on Nakanoshima (between the Rihga Royal Hotel and the science museum) in 1957, and was still located there when I was a student. By that time, the place was basically falling apart: we could peel the tiles from the floor. It was miserably hot in the summer, when only the computer room and language learning lab had air conditioning, and miserably cold in the winter, when we had to hurriedly warm our hands over a gas heater between classes just to keep holding our pencils for the next hour.

As the state of repair might indicate, Ogimachi was not a very high-grade school. I was in the “humanities course,” which sort of resembled what Americans would call a magnet program, but even the kids in that course were lower-middle-class at best and didn’t have particularly high academic or career aspirations. This shattered many of my preconceptions about Japanese education, since I had always assumed (in my teenaged intellectual shell) that they had high levels of ambition in order to put up with the rigmarole of crazy exams.

I try to keep in touch with classmates when I can, and had a chance to meet many of them again at a reunion a couple of years ago. (This was the trip during which I photographed Mount Fuji from the plane.) They were all basically shocked to hear that I was working in Japan, and even moreso to hear that I was working at a law firm in Tokyo. Nearly a decade since we went to school together, here’s where they are:

  • Two, who I always considered to be “goofy,” are working as salesmen at a pharmaceutical company in Osaka (I went out drinking with them when they visited Tokyo for a trade show). They were into fishing when we went to school together, but have since switched hobbies to motorcycles.
  • One is a JR conductor. At our reunion people were egging him to recite announcements for various trains (e.g. “Do the Yamatoji Rapid Service!”)
  • One, who I always considered to be the most intelligent (a Chinese kid from Shanghai who spoke perfect English in addition to Japanese and Chinese dialects), sells AU phones in Shinsaibashi.
  • One very otaku-ish girl, who was in the art club and kendo club, is now apparently in the Self-Defense Forces. (I had a crush on her back then and I think the SDF bit has made it stronger.)
  • The Judo Nazi, who I wrote about in my very first post at Mutantfrog, has disappeared and nobody seems to know what happened to him.
  • My two best friends from the school are working as a social worker and a truck driver.

Anyway, it saddens me to know that one of the key institutions which introduced me to Japan will soon be no more. It saddens me even more to know that the post-merger school will have one of the most obnoxious names ever conceived for a school: “Saku Ya Kono Hana Senior High” (咲くやこの花高等学校).

Oh well, there goes what little alumni pride I had. At least I can still say I went to Carnage Middle School (albeit for about six months).

Mr. Chang – Mr. Oyama

After having my aching knee MRI-ed and examined by a sports medicine specialist at Kyoto University Hospital last week and been told that the problem wasn’t particularly serious and that riding a bicycle should be safe, I decided to finally go and buy one. I asked a Japanese girl I know who is a bit of a bicycle otaku to accompany me on the shopping trip so I would be decently advised in buying something a few times the price of the crappy mama-chari I rode during my previous two periods of residence in Kyoto, and she took me to a shop she likes inside the Sanjo Shotengai. After picking out the bike I wanted and the accessories that needed to be attached, I went out to the east exit of the shotengai to withdraw some cash at the 7-11 and grab something to drink.

With a cold drink in hand (Thursday was a bloody hot afternoon in Kyoto), I sat down on the bench just outside the convenience store next to a middle aged man smoking a cigarette, in the typical fashion of a 50-ish Japanese guy who would be hanging out with a cigarette in front of a 7-11 in the middle of the afternoon, and looking over his envelope of documents. I had my headphones on, listening to some podcast or other, but the man said hello, and having an hour to kill before my bike was ready I took off the headphones and talked to him for a bit.

When I asked his name, instead of just telling me, he reached into his wallet and pulled out, to my mild surprise, an Alien Registration card very much like mine. I say very much, because there were a few important differences. The first being that, as the card of a Korean national permanent resident, the fields for such information as “Landing date” and “Passport number” were filled with asterisks instead of numbers, and the name field contained both his legal Korean family name of Chang (I will leave the personal name out) as well as a Japanese family name of Oyama, in parenthesis and with the same personal name for both.

Mr. Chang was born and raised in the south part of Kyoto, where the so-called Zainichi Koreans are clustered, and described himself as “basically half-Japanese” despite having Korean citizenship and speaking Korean. He is the oldest of three children, at 55, with a younger brother practically half his age at 29 who is currently in graduate school at Kyoto University and a younger sister in the middle, around 40 years old. He mentioned that when he was younger his Korean was good enough to do simultaneous translation, for which he would practice by reading the Japanese newspapers aloud to himself in Korean, but these days he has gotten a bit rusty. Although he was actually born with North Korean (DPRK) citizenship, he changed it to South Korean (ROK) years ago, as traveling abroad is extremely difficult for DPRK citizens. He mentioned having visited New York, which I presume would have been virtually impossible as a North Korean. He also spoke more English long ago, when for a time he lived with an English woman who had no interest in learning to speak Japanese (or, presumably, Korean, although he did not even mention that possibility) but says that these days he would not even be able to string a sentence together.

Now essentially retired, aside from having to take care of certain kinds of corporation registration and tax documents such as the envelope he was holding, he is the owner of three different companies, which include several drinking and eating establishments in Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya. He started with one izakaya 30 years ago out in the “sticks” of southern Kyoto, then opened another in Nagoya, and now at the end of his career has reached a high level of success as owner of a highly priced Gion hostess bar.

He was quite keen to talk about how the hostess club is an important part of Japanese culture, the high pricing of and lack of sexual availibility therein often baffles and angers foreigners. He mentioned that on a few occasions foreigners came to the club, and were then outraged at the final tab, not understanding that this was not the sort of place one goes for a drink if one is the sort of person who worries about the tab. There was a specific anecdote about a Turkish man who, while not outraged about the price per-se, was quite angry that such a sum of money did not allow him to bring one of girls home with him. The problem, Mr. Chang explained, was that in the West there is not such a clear distinction between businesses which provide girls for “fun” (i.e. hostesses) and those which provide girls for sex. In his own country, the Turkish gentleman would be able to take the girl home for a night of what he might consider “fun” but in Japan, there are entirely separate businesses which cater to the physical. This is, he said, the modern version of the Geisha system, which in the past also separated the working girls into those for higher and lower pleasures.

But Mr. Chang does not actually spend time in any of his bars or clubs anymore-not even the hostess bar in Gion. He has cancer, and it has metastized beyond the realm of surgical efficacy, not leaving him long for this world. As owner he takes care of the paperwork, but no longer does anything one might actually call work. The pain of the cancer is often intense, and he has trouble sleeping at night. He is close with a singer in Tokyo, who sings to him over the phone when the cancer pain keeps him up at night, until the gentle voice lulls him to sleep, with the reciever falling off to the side.

He never had any children, but he wanted to do something positive for the world, to “make up for [his] sins.” To that end, he has become the official sponsor of an AIDS hospice in Chiang Mai, Thailand, whose several-dozen residents are all, as he says, his children. Although he is the active sponsor, he was not the sole fundor. To gather funds for the community, building their bungalows, providing their education and health care, he went around to all of the “shady characters” he knew from his business dealings over the years- the fellow bar owners, the real estate people, the local yakuza-and strongarmed donations out of them. “Think about what you did to get that money,” he says he told them, “surely you can spare a few yen for this.” It turned out that they could. Tragically, every time he visists there are “those who are no longer there.” He can afford to make them comfortable and provide some level of treatment, but the drugs cocktail that keeps wealthy first-world AIDS patients alive indefinitely is still too expensive in mass quantities.

And so it was time for Mr. Chang to pick up his laundry and drop his papers off at city hall, and for me to pick up my new bicycle. He asked if I would be willing to give him some English refresher lessons, so he could have some simple exchanges with the foreigners that came into his establishment, despite having said that he no longer spent any time there. While I do not normally have any interest in English conversation tutoring, I gave him my phone number.