I probed him over some of the more complex and sensitive topics within Japanese society.
The Kuril islands, North-East of Hokkaido, were a natural place to start having been shown a few covert protest signs inside the garden of the old government house. These islands were seized by Russia the day the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and have remained under Russian control to this day. The WWII peace treaty between Japan and Russia was not signed due to the dispute, and so the two nations remain in a technical sense in a paused state of war. Japan had only begun to settle the islands in 1875, and when the Russians came all the residents were expelled. Many of the current 30,000 strong population are either military or involved in the extraction of valuable resources found there.
Current Japanese society defies this reality however. Phil told me a story of an english lesson he was giving, he was teaching geographic terms, and asked the pupil for the most Easterly point of Japan. Rather than say Cape Nozipo, near Nemuro - our final destination, the pupil calmly answered with the furthest Kuril island. Phil corrected her in front of the class, but the girl pointed to her japanese textbook, which supporter her answer. Russian ownership and Japanese ownership are two incompatible narratives, but due to the power of propaganda and the prevalence of doublethink in the Japanese psyche they coexist fairly peacefully. I was told the issue is as unknown in Russia, as it is anywhere else.
The island of Okinawa, far south of the larger Japanese islands, have a parallel here. Although still owned by Japan, 40% of the island is a gated American military base, also set up in the wake of WWII. There have also been calls for the ‘foreign power’ to relinquish the territory, but in the current context of a rising China, these will certainly fall on deaf gun-metal ears.
After wandering through Phil’s life story, the conversation took a racier turn to the bizarre economics of flirting in Japan. Here I had to get my head around the finely differentiated grades establishments from girl bar, to snack bar, Kyabakura, Lounge, and full-blown club. These places have different customer demographics, different prices and price structures, but all have women of various ages who will chat, laugh and flirt - but absolutely no more - with paying customers. Mostly the conversation will not escape the basic pleasantries or travails of man’s working day, the hostess are there merely to listen albeit attractively. This drew the first rising of eyebrows, when Western customers pay into these sorts of arrangements there’s usually a fair bit or a great deal more on offer. Such a standard conversation with a member of the fairer sex is too common to mention, and certainly not valued enough to shell out for.
Why these bars exist in Japan and dominate much of the nightlife here is anyone’s guess. Phil had read deeply on this and had discussed it with hostesses, but even after 7 years he was not a veteran of these sorts of places, and we tried to piece it together. Phil theorised that it was a cocktail of the world-renowned intensity and crushing hierarchy of the Japanese workplace, stirred with the societal mechanism that tries to minimise and automate interaction with strangers, with a dash of the patriarchy thrown in. My audiobook Musashi had centred on a couple of courtesan characters, who in their time were also not expected to give sexual favours to their patrons, but would either play the role of hostess or decoration. It seemed to me that Japan had preserved the classical courtesan and updated her to the digital age: flat screen tv’s outside some of the bars show flattering highlight reels and bios of the hostesses on duty. More worrisome than the causes of this phenomenon are its social effects. When intersex conversation becomes commoditised so, it follows that it becomes progressively harder to initiate ‘natural’ conversation and flirting. The less often and more difficult that becomes, the greater the demand for paid mingling, and so the mechanism spirals on and tears away at the fabric of flirtation - and crucially all that results from mingling. Japan has the world’s lowest birth rate for a host of reasons, I’ll say no more.
The various grades mentioned above have their quirks, snack bars tend to have older, more staid women as hostesses, we went to one where the maitre-de or ‘mama-san’ was a wonderful magician. Asli and I went to another where a hostess who spoke little to no English knew a large part of the Beatles repertoire by heart, purely from extreme karaoke exposure. Kyabakura tend to have younger girls often in ‘kawaii’ (cute) costume. Lounges and Clubs get exponentially more expensive, with guests often paying £70 or £80 per hour, still ‘the line’ is unlikely to be crossed.
This is the 21st century and there is a male counterpart to this in host bars. My first experience of this was wandering through the downtown of Sapporo, street beer in hand, taking in the change of the tide experienced each night. At this inflection point, the red-faced salarymen are milling out of the bars and obligatory afterwork drinks, whilst the somewhat androgenous party kids with cutting-edge hair, make-up and outfits are milling into the same area. This is the only setting, time and place where these two demographics could ever collide, they form a surreal cross-section of Japanese stereotypes.
Along the corner of a single office building there were two dozen boys-cum-men standing individually, like elaborate fence posts. Most of them were fixed in the eternal leaning rebel pose, attuned to the modern age by virtue of an impassioned stare at a smartphone screen. None of them had the genetically mandatory black hair, and all of them had long and often greased fringes pulled over their faces: trying to replicate BTS, but mostly failing into a nineties grunge look. The only word to succinctly describe their clothing was experimental. I was told by Phill this cohort were the hosts. If their
female counterpart the hostesses hail from the courtesan and not the prostitute, then these chaps could trace their lineage back to the dandy, and were a not-so-distant relative to the gigolo. I was utterly bemused by them, and a promo-girl seeing the look on my face offered an explanation:
‘Well they’re meant to be, girls come, hunks ask them on a date, and the girl pays.’
And sure enough whilst most of the K-pop scarecrows looked woefully unemployed, there were a couple who seemed mid-catch. This gender reversion of the traditional pay-for-favours (/flirtation) model could hint at growing equality of the sexes, or more likely a growing rift in Japanese society. If there were so many of these ‘hunks’ then there must be reasonable demand, and these paying women fall into the equivalent bracket as the male customers of snack/girl-bars. This suggests the situation is more than just a disparity between the sexes, that is more guys out and about for fewer girls. Instead the plentiful numbers of hosts and hostess points to a problem in connecting people of the opposite sex without using money as a direct lubricant. This is an issue for more than just the birth-rate, repression or rejection of sexuality is not a healthy state of affairs for a growing portion of any society.
The talk with Phil in the attic encompassed some of this, a walk through downtown on a Saturday night covered the rest. Phil had had a Japanese girlfriend for quite a while, but like most foreigners struggled to connect with many of the girls he had met. Rather predictably Western men have a reputation with Japan for only wanting one thing, and that expectation doesn’t help with the genuine approaches of a Gaijin like Phil.