Meet Vince Patchwork, an ordinary man, extraordinary in not being at all extraordinary. I know we work at neighbouring schools in Shinjuku and share a stout, most Fridays, in one of the university pubs in the Subnade, the one in which the statues of muscular men in their underpants stand with enormous phalluses at their heels. In fact, we met at this very pub. I could see his balding head with ginger eaves above a copy of the evening Asahi newspaper, the brow wrinkling and unwrinkling as he scanned the headlines. His pate was a bright red, orange in the strong pub lighting and I noticed that his fingers trembled ever so slightly as he held the paper.
"Excuse me," I stammered, "could you tell me the time?"
Eyebrows arched over gold-rimmed glasses, just a trifle too square to be John Lennon glasses. One edge of his paper dropped, almost floating down and landing on top of his daijogi of black beer.
"6:25," he replied. "Thank you," I paused. "I've still got an hour to spare. Would you care to join me?"
The glint of the spectacles stared back at me blankly, but the mouth manoeuvred itself into a smile.
Yes, why not indeed. It'll always be the phrase that most characterises Vince Patchwork, the question that's more like a statement, a summary of philosophy, lifestyle, religion, capacity for yet another drink. It was the statement that opened for Vince a whole vista of experiences in Japan. Some rather ordinary, others mildly extraordinary. They were experiences that never gave me a second glance. Vince would say Why not? where I would fill the blank with a myriad of excuses.
"How about another beer?"
"How about going to Chiba, this weekend?"
"How about a trip to the Moon?"
Why not? meant that Vince Patchwork would never be rich, well not in pecuniary terms, but that he would have an immense log of personal memorabilia, which he would load into letters and conversations. He was after all a compulsive letter-writer, after all, and a conversationalist too. He would fill me in on all the details of the past weekend and the coming one.
Vince Patchwork, at one and the same time, knew everything and nothing about Japan, which seems to be the way that Tokyoites or Kantonese, born and bred, seem to know it.
"Do you know anything about rakugo?"
"Rakugo?" he would suck in a lot of air. "Old time Japanese joke sessions?"
"Classical Japanese story-telling, I believe."
"Well, not a lot, Louis. All I know is that they sit down on a cushion with a fan and a napkin ... and there're lots of puns and in-Japanese jokes."
"Have you ever been?"
"Oh, a few times. You know, with friends."
"A few times!?!"
"Listen, I've got a couple of tickets here," he'd pull out his wallet and draw out a couple of dog eared slips of paper with drawings of bunnies on them. "I was wondering who I'd go with. They're for next Saturday."
Caught by surprise, I'd look blank. It wasn't that I didn't want to go. It was just that I knew how exhausted I'd be at the end of the next week and how little I'd relish doing anything very much at all unless it involved holding a beer in my hand.
"No, I'm sorry," I'd stumble, "I've got something on, next Saturday."
I was later to discover that Vince was something of an expert on rakugo, at least he knew more about the subject than 99.9 per cent of all Japanese. In similar terms, he was also an expert on sumo, Japanese rice culture, Edo history, sumie, shogi, Japanese vegetables and fungi, kagura, kyudo, sekibutsu and shabu shabu. To be an expert in Japan, it is necessary to know a lot intellectually, but not important to have even a modicum of practical experience. There are dedicated fishermen who have never caught a fish, technically perfect golfers who have never played on a golf course, diehard skiers who are lucky to hit the slopes once every five years.
Every now and then, Vince would appear to say something that seemed to encapsulate a major truth about Japan, a truth so valuable in its insight that it would take your breath away. Whenever he did, he never let 24 hours go by without contradicting it. One day, by way of example, I had been ranting, I fear, about the appalling service I had received in one of Tokyo's major book shops.
"Ha," I scoffed. "And yet, how often have you heard that Japanese service is the best in the world?"
Vince held his daijogi to the light and looked around the room through its curved amber perspective.
"You know, Louis," he told me quietly, "in Japan, the product is far more important than the market. In short, what you sell or make is far more important than the people who buy it. Of course, the Japanese have the reputation for the most spectacular service, but only when the service itself is the product. If it isn't, you come in a distant second to what you're buying. In the west, if the customer wants tomato sauce on his crepe suzette, then he gets it. Here, you're going to have a hard job convincing a noodle chef that you want your udon without negi."
This statement held for me, in one subtle moment, so many of the contradictions, frustrations, total bewilderment I had been feeling for some time in Tokyo. For a crystal second, everything was suddenly explained. Then, in another second, it was shattered.
"Of course, that's total bullshit. Take the school I work for. It's just a business. You'd expect that there'd be some interest in education, but no, there's not. They actually go out of their way to obstruct it.
"It's the same with medicine. Have I ever told you about Nozomi? She's a nurse at an old folks' home. They had a patient transferred in, last week, from a hospital. He was in a critical condition, but the hospital needed the bed so they transferred him into a place with limited medical facilities. He died four days later and, in all that time, the doctor at the home hadn't been to see him once.
"Same with the music industry. There's an incredible fringe, I know, but the heart of it all is Japanese pops, cutesy boys and girls who can't sing or dance and aren't even the best-looking kids around. The guys that are making the big money give nothing back to music or musicians."
And just as you were digesting that, he would be off again about a photo shop where they really looked out for you or a green grocer where the owner had asked him not to buy the apples today, because there'd be better ones in tomorrow. Yes, the green grocer would declare, you could have enough apples to tide you over until the next day, but he wouldn't let you pay for them. It wasn't as if it was your fault the good apples weren't in today. Or the old gentlemen who had followed him all the way to the sixth floor of Kinokuniya Bookstore to return a package of rye bread and rhubarb jam he'd bought in Mejiro.
In the end, Vince had only one absolute message about Japan, one that he repeated over and over again.
"The only way to enjoy any country is to get to know some people there, make some friends. Most Japanese people are okay. The ones who aren't usually avoid you anyway. The Japanese generally like uniforms, a sense of identity, a role. But people in uniforms are pricks anywhere. It's only when people shed the uniform that you see the real person beneath. Get a salaryman in a shot bar and watch him loosen his neck tie. The best place to meet people in Japan is in the sento ..."