November 30, 2012

Delightful Discrimination

Wow, another fantastic day in which I accomplished three more goals: go to Okinawa, perform in a karaoke bar, and be denied access somewhere because I'm white. Only in Japan can being discriminated against lead to so much joy.

I decided early in my Japan adventure that I wanted to go to Okinawa, which are the southern-most islands in Japan. I knew very little about them, but my research for Pursuing Happiness kept leading me to this area of the world as the people are insanely happy. That, and they had excellent beaches. I messaged all my friends in Tokyo to see if anyone wanted to join, and Aziz responded that he would love to come, assuming his two friends who were visiting from London were also interested. And they were! By the end of my adventure I plan on just stealing all of Aziz's friends.

Most trips during the past two months have been spontaneous, with only the slightest amount of planning. We had booked flights to Okinawa, found an apartment on AirBnB for one night, and a resort for the other two, but that was as far as our plans extended. So when we found Aziz at the airport, we had reached the end of the "planned" portion of the trip. "Perhaps we should get a rental car?" someone suggested.
Our shuttle bus to the rental car company, equipped with truly elegant chandeliers. 
I'm not sure why the process of renting a car took an hour, or why it required mountains of paperwork and no less than 4 employees helping us at once, but it did. I'm also not sure how we intended on finding this guy's apartment who we were staying with, but we did.

Upon arriving we met Ujji, a Los Angelino dentist currently paying back his debt to Uncle Sam by providing dental care to soldiers stationed in Okinawa. The main island is compromised of a number of bases, all of which are mini-cities, he explained. One could live on Okinawa and never know they were in Japan. He took us out to an odd izakaya complete with personal pods and all-you-can-drink menus by the hour. We dined and inquired more about military life on Okinawa, which is when we were told that all American's on Okinawa who were serving in the military had an 11pm curfew. Apparently every few weeks a soldier or Marine gets drunk and starts a fight with the locals. And by "fight" I mean molests. And by "local" I mean teenager. USA! USA!

Climbing into our pod
Gotta love Japan
Even though my lack of crew cut and muscle mass would be proof enough in the States that I was not military, on Okinawa I probably looked like John Cena in "The Marine" so I quickly adopted a British accent and hoped that no one would give me a hard time. When we finished our pizza, fries, chicken skewers, rice, corn pudding, and endless supply of fruity drinks, we parted ways with Ujji (who had to be home before curfew) and set out to find the wild nightlife in the small Okinawan town. We found a narrow alley filled with karaoke bars (including one called Mr. Girl), but each time we attempted to go in, we were met with stunned faces and the gesture of an "X" accompanied with "sorry, we're close."

First of all, they were not "close" because there were loads of people singing and enjoying themselves, but we were white and it was passed 11pm and we were clearly looking to molest some children. We continued to get denied, place after place, and it became comical. The look of terror on these people's faces when four white people walked into their bar was what I imagine people looked like in the 1920s during prohibition, when cops suddenly walked into a speakeasy. It was apparent that a culture had developed in the last few months of after-11 locals-only partying, and we were not invited.

We finally found a place that was clearly open and had a large, open booth. It was my turn to try to gain access and although I was met with blank stares and open mouths, I insisted that "yonnin" (four) of us would like to sit and have a drink. I kept pointing to the open table and they finally conceded. It would have been too obvious to say they were closed, and by the time they could say anything, I was already on my way to the table. The karaoke track which was playing did not scratch to a halt, like it would in a movie, but the singing stopped and we suddenly felt everyone looking at us, perhaps out of fear that we were going to start a fight.

"We only take Japanese yen here" a man said to us. "No US dolla"

"hai! arigato gozaimasu"

The waiter brought over a small basket of kit kats; a peace offering, I thought!
The first offering of friendship
"American-ji?" he asked.

"No no! We're British! England-ji" I replied, hoping the true Brits would chime in with their accents.

He seemed to be relieved for a moment, realizing we were not military, but he was still very confused why were there. Everyone seemed to wonder why we were there. He kept explaining that they only took Japanese yen and that the karaoke songs were 100 yen each. We continued to nod in understanding, "wakaremasu". Even after we had drinks in hand, he kept inquiring and insisting that they only took Japanese yen AND that the drinking age was twenty. We assured him we were over the legal age and that seemed to be good enough proof.

What transpired next can best be compared to the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the humans play the series of notes that was being broadcast to Earth from the mother ship, resulting in a cacophonous duet between human and alien. Within a matter of minutes, we went from a potential dangerous alien-life form to the life of the party.

Firstly, they underestimated that Aziz and James were fantastic singers and more than willing to hop on some karaoke tracks (Beatles). Secondly, they had no idea that Aziz knew magic, nor that I had been a camp counselor and had acquired a number of tricks and riddles to keep people busy. And they definitely didn't know that I would be more than willing to perform an interpretive dance to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" while being serenaded by a rather drunk Okinawan mom.

Our white flag
The bar owner sent over free drinks and these gods of Karaoke when he realized we came in peace
Captivating the locals 
"Every night in my dreams..."
"I see you, I feeeeeel you..."
"That is how I know you, go on...."
Forbidden love: Romeo and Juriet
I am happy to report that I also partook in the karaoke (47) and that my limited vocal range still gained me residency at "Rose Bar". I am also pleased to report that my singing scored high enough to see vulumptuous Japanese women in bathing suits. "What", you ask? Well at the end of every song, an image of 100 pixels appears on the lyrics screen, and for each point you earn, a pixel disappears, revealing a photo of a large-breasted Japanese woman in a bathing suit. "Why", you ask again. Because it's Japan.

We arrived as outsiders and left as friends. We wanted to get an early start the following day so we decided to leave before last call, much to the dismay of our new friends. As a parting gift, Aziz grabbed a guitar that was laying around and performed a heart-wrenching rendition of Spandau Ballet's "True".

I like to think that everyone learned something that night:
The locals: that not all white people want to molest children and punch people in the face.
Us: that the power of song with a dash of magic can overcome even the toughest of differences.
And me: that the woman I was dancing with had two kids, that she really liked me, and that her husband was "out of town"...

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