Four Views of Raoul: A Fictional Portrait of an Expat's Life in Japan

What's it like to be an expatriate living in Japan? Here is a portrait from four different perspectives.


Ralph McCarthy
January 29, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

As I walked past the police box at Roppongi crossing I noticed one of the officers watching me. It was Sunday evening, and I had about an hour before I had to be at a studio down the road.

I'm an assistant professor in German language and literature at a university on the outskirts of Tokyo, but I live in Nogizaka and often do narration work. I have a beautiful voice. That's the only beautiful thing about me, though.

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There is, I fear, some truth to the stereotype of Germans as lonely, gloomy people, and I am lonely and gloomy even by German standards. I first came here three years ago with a Japanese woman I'd been teaching at my university in Tubingen. I was madly in love with Emi; we planned to wed, and she helped me find employment here. I started to study Japanese even before we left Germany, thinking it would help me blend into the society, and learned to read and write 2,000 kanji in less than a year.

Emi changed after she got back to Japan. She moved in with her parents and took a part-time position teaching at a junior college. At first we met at least three or four times a week, but she gradually started inventing more and more excuses for not being able to see me. Just a year after I moved here, she told me it was over. A few months later she wed a Japanese man. I was devastated. I probably should have gone back to Germany, but didn't like to waste the knowledge I'd acquired about Japan. Wait. That is not exactly true. The truth is that depression had robbed me of the energy to make any major decisions. I've remained at my university, going through the motions, but I must admit to being even less motivated than most of my students.

The longer I'm here, the less I understand these people. This is what I was thinking as I walked around Roppongi with over an hour to kill and no one to talk to. When I approached the intersection, the WALK sign began blinking and a herd of loud young Americans ran across. I was in no hurry and stopped at the curb to wait. A moment later, someone shouted in my ear.

"Hi!"

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My nerves were on edge anyway, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I spun around to see the little police officer who'd eyed me as I walked by.

"Understand Japanese?" he shouted up at me.

"To a certain extent," I said.

"Oh! You're good! Show me your alien registration card!"

"What?"

"Are you carrying an alien registration card?"

"Why?"

"Because, if not, you're breaking the law! You don't have one, do you!"

"I have one."

"Show it to me! No, wait! Come inside the police box!"

He took a firm hold of my arm and steered me inside. I was livid with rage. Another policeman was sitting at the desk, doing paperwork. He glanced up at me indifferently while I showed my card to the little officer, who seemed impressed that I was a university professor. "OK, you can go now," he said.

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"Why did you stop me?" I growled. "Did I do something bad?"

"Don't let it bother you!" he said. "We ask everybody!"

"Ha," I said, and gestured outside, where a group of foreign models were laughing and shouting as they waited for the light to change. "You mean you ask everyone who looks suspicious to you."

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"No, no! Today's Sunday, right?"

"So what?"

"It's Sunday, and you're all alone! Everybody else is walking around with friends, but you're alone! That's unusual, right? Just checking! It's my job!"

I didn't know whether to burst into tears or strangle him. Fortunately I did neither, but stormed outside and marched straight to a bar around the corner. There was one other customer in the place -- an American named Raoul, whom I knew slightly. He was drunk. I don't believe I'd ever seen him when he wasn't.

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I bought two large beers, plunked one down in front of him, and began to relate what had just happened to me. I was so distraught that my knees, my hands, and my voice were shaking.

"Ha!" he interrupted me. "You think you've got problems. I've just been stood up again. Third time this month ..."

I spent the rest of the evening buying this dimwit beers and listening to his woman problems. I never made it to the narration job. I did, however, decide to return to Germany.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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Rhinoceros

At Charlie Congo's the head of a rhinoceros protrudes from the mirrored wall behind the bar. A real rhinoceros. The eyes aren't real, of course, but very realistic. Amazing how gentle-looking those eyes are.

"What am I doing here?" they seem to say. "The last I remember, I was romping through the savannah with my mate and child ... then a sound like thunder ... a searing pain in my heart ..."

It's one of the saddest things I've ever seen.

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Not as sad as the character sitting a few stools down from me, however. He is surely European -- perhaps German -- but he is studiously ignoring me, staring now at his beer, now at the muted variety show on the television. On the sound system, Jimi Hendrix demolishes and recreates the cosmos, but this person is wallowing in misery and doesn't even seem to notice.

I want to help him, to offer some words of encouragement, if not a moral sermon on the evils of negative thinking. Or, then again, maybe I just want to talk. I do like to talk.

I pull out my cigarettes and ask if he has a light. He smiles shyly -- look, he can smile! -- and slides a white disposable lighter toward me. I've got him now.

"I feel sorry for this rhinoceros," I say, and he looks up at it as if noticing it for the first time.

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"I know what you mean," he says. He sighs and shakes his head. "Human beings are disgusting creatures," he mumbles. Ah, we come straight to the crux of the matter.

"You are German?" I say.

"No, American."

He doesn't sound American.

"You were born there?"

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"Yeah."

Perhaps he is lying.

"New York?"

"No, no. The Midwest."

Where is the Midwest, I wonder? Texas, perhaps? Impossible. No, he must be lying. But never mind. Probably he has his reasons.

"And you?" he says.

"Me? I am Parisian, of course."

I have a beret, a goatee, and a thick and unashamed French accent, and I chain-smoke Gauloises. Even the Japanese can usually guess where I'm from.

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"Oh? I love Paris," he says.

"You have been there?"

"Well, just once. But I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. And the women! Why would anyone ever leave?"

I stub out my cigarette and give him a stern look.

"It is true," I explain to him, "that Paris is the most civilized and cultured city in the Western world. But one must spread one's wings. I am quite happy in Tokyo. And I like very much the women here."

"Oh," he says. "Ah."

"What is more," I add, "they like very much me." And I proceed to tell him about Mitsuko. At the moment I have three women, but Mitsuko, ah, Mitsuko ...

We met at a small reggae bar in Aoyama called maze. I knew she liked me right away, and I explain to this Texas German named (he claims) Raoul that the reason she liked me was that I was obviously not only intelligent, but sensuous as well. It is not enough to be merely intelligent.

"Perhaps," I tell him, striking a somewhat personal note, "that is your problem. You are too much in your mind."

He squints at me and smiles again. "I'm not in my mind," he says. "I'm in your mind. Who says I've got a problem?"

"It is Friday night. You sit there alone, sighing into your beer. You do not look happy."

He thinks about this for a minute. "And you are?" he says at last.

"Yes. I am happy because I believe that someday I will be happy."

"Say that again?"

"Happiness," I pronounce, "is believing that one day you will be happy."

His eyes go out of focus for a moment, and then he comes back. "I'm not sure I know what that means," he says, "but it sounds good. I'd better write it down." And he takes a little notebook from his pocket and begins scribbling in it. He scribbles for some time. I fire up another cigarette with his lighter and try to steal a glance at what he's writing. But all I can see, at the top of the page, is the word RHINOCEROS.

Hello kitty

Mutsumiko got on the train at Ikejiri-Ohashi, as usual, and of course I was
saving a spot for her. Our school's in Kanagawa, so there are always plenty
of seats in the morning.

"He isn't here!" she whispered as she plopped into the seat, craning her
neck to peer up and down the car.

"Maybe he's sick," I said, and she gave me a wounded look.

Mutsumiko has a crush on a foreigner who rides in the same car on our train
almost every Tuesday. It's the silliest thing -- he's at least as old as her
father, and I really don't see anything all that wonderful about him. He's
handsome enough, I guess, in an ancient, wrinkled sort of way, but nothing
like some of the tall young foreigners you always see in Omotesando, for
example, which is where this aged person gets on the train.

But Mutsumiko says it isn't a question of looks.

"He's so mysterious," she said one time. "What kind of work do you think he
does?"

"Teacher. Businessman. Bartender. What else could he be?"

"No," she said. "His hair's too long, and he doesn't wear a tie, and why
would a bartender be up so early in the morning? No, he's not just your
average foreigner. I think he's a spy."

"A spy?"

"A spy, or, I don't know ... a detective ... something like that."

I had to laugh. Mutsumiko's strange. We're friends, but it's really only
because we're in the same class and ride the same train to school and,
besides, neither of us is smart or pretty or funny or athletic or talented
enough to be very popular, and you've got to have someone to talk to,
right? We don't really have much in common otherwise, though.

She wears cute little ribbons in her hair, for example, and has little
plastic cartoon characters -- Garfield, Donald Duck, Snoopy, Hello
Kitty -- dangling from her schoolbag, and she squeals "How darling!" about
seven hundred times every day. Personally, I think that once you've reached
the third year of junior high school, it's time to put away childish things.
It's only natural that you start thinking pretty seriously about men when
you're our age. But middle-aged foreigners? Please. Why can't she fantasize
about some of the senior boys in our high school, like everybody else? It's
perverse.

Maybe that's what happens when your parents brand you with a name like
Mutsumiko. My name's Aya -- not very original, I admit, but at least it's not
Mutsumiko. I'd kill my parents if they gave me a name like that. All the
girls in our class have nicknames -- mine's "Petchan," thank you -- but
"Mutsumiko" is already funny enough, so that's what everyone calls her.
I do like her, though. She's grown on me over the past couple of years. I
was thinking about that lately, and I decided the reason I like her is
because she doesn't really fit in, and I don't either. The difference is
that Mutsumiko doesn't even seem to realize that she doesn't fit in. It's
kind of sad, but kind of endearing, too. Most of the other girls think
she's a total geek, but it's as if she's not even aware of that.

I know everyone thinks of me as gloomy, but it doesn't bother me, because I
know I'm not. If I don't run around squawking like a chicken and bursting
into uncontrollable giggles every time a chopstick rolls over, it's only
because I have a little dignity. I'm what they call a late bloomer, anyway.
One of these days, I'm really going to blossom.

"Raoul," said Mutsumiko, as we reached Mizonokuchi.

"What?" I said.

"Raoul. That's his name."

"Whose name?"

"That foreigner. Last week, when you were absent? I talked to him."

"You're lying."

She swears it's true, though. She says that last Tuesday, when she saw I
wasn't on the train, she sat down next to him and said, "Good morning," and
asked if she could practice her English with him. She wanted to find out
what his job was, but she didn't know how to ask that in English. All she
found out was that his name was Raoul, that he was twenty-nine (Ha!), that he lived in Harajuku, that he was from South Africa, and that he was tired and didn't really want to talk.

We reached our station and stepped out on the platform as she was telling
me all this. I still didn't believe she'd actually talked to the foreigner,
until the train started pulling away and I saw him. He was sitting three or
four cars down from the usual place, and when he noticed me gawking at him,
he hid behind his newspaper. Poor Mutsumiko.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Wrong

I couldn't believe it when he called me. We'd only had one date, and that
was more than three months ago.

We first met in a bookstore. He was looking at Ryu's latest book -- glancing
through it and actually reading parts of it. I'm mad about Ryu, and I was
curious about what a foreigner would think of his work. So I just went up
to him and said, "This book is really interesting."

I don't know what got into me. It's not like me to talk to people I don't
know, let alone a foreigner. Maybe it seemed all right because he was a
foreigner. I don't know. I wouldn't have thought I could ever do something
like that.

We ended up going for a cup of coffee and talking, mostly about Ryu. I
offered to lend him the book he'd been looking at, and we agreed to meet
for dinner the following night.

That was our one and only date, and it was quite a disaster. We met in
Shibuya, near Hachiko, and he took me to this little Indonesian restaurant
he knew. The food wasn't very good, but the conversation was even worse.
I'm too shy to be much of a conversationalist, and I think he's kind of
shy, too. Or maybe he just didn't like me. It was hard to tell. He
certainly wasn't trying to charm me off my feet, at any rate.

After about fifteen minutes of small talk, it was as if there was nothing
left to say. He looked very uncomfortable. He kept wiping his face with the
moistened hand towel, and he drank a beer in nothing flat and then ordered
another one. About halfway through his second beer, his Japanese started to
get a lot cruder, and he started complaining about his life in Tokyo.

I didn't know what to say to most of that. It made me feel embarrassed, and
defensive, and sad, and guilty, and angry, and, I don't know, confused. I
always thought Americans were supposed to be cheerful and positive, always
joking, but he certainly wasn't like that. Mostly, I guess, I felt sorry
for him. Here he's been in Tokyo all these years and speaks Japanese pretty
well and everything, but he doesn't really fit in, and he probably wouldn't
fit in if he went back to America, either.

After dinner, I told him I wasn't feeling very good (I wasn't) and said I
had to go home but that I hoped he'd call me again. He seemed relieved that
it was over, and I wasn't really expecting him to call, and in fact he
didn't, until a few nights ago. The funny thing is that I'd been thinking
about him a lot, wanting to see him. It was weird -- as if I was falling in
love with the person I imagined him to be.

"Mariko-san? This is Raoul, do you remember me?" I have to admit I was kind
of excited when he called me up and asked me that. And when he invited me
to dinner again, I said sure, I'd be delighted. I thought it couldn't
possibly be as big a disaster as the first time. Wrong.

I was supposed to meet him just outside Shimokitazawa station, and I got
there a little early. Picture this.

I'm standing in front of the coffee shop, with a fine rain settling on the
patchwork of umbrellas all around me -- people waiting to meet other
people -- and I'm watching the crowds pouring out of the station in waves,
when finally, a little after seven, I see him hurrying down the steps. He's
looking all around, and I wave to him, but he doesn't see me, and finally
he goes and stands by the curb across the square.

So I trot over and tap him on the arm, and he turns and looks at me in a
very strange way, as if he doesn't recognize me at first. Then he says,
"Oh! How are you?"

"Fine. And you?"

"Fine, fine. Long time."

"Yes."

So I'm waiting for him to say, "Hungry?" or "Shall we go?" or something,
but he doesn't say anything. He just stands there, still looking around. I
think, maybe someone else is coming to join us, so like a dummy I just
stand there too. Then, finally, he turns to me and says, "Waiting for
someone?"

I don't know what to make of this. A joke? A mistake in his Japanese? Or
does he think I've invited someone else? At last I just say, "I'm waiting
for you."

Well, he furrows his brow and looks at me as if I'm crazy. "Look," he says,
"I'm sorry, but I'm meeting someone here. Let's make it some other time.
I'll call you."

I went home in sort of a state of shock. When I got back, there were two
messages from him on my answering machine. The first was, "Mariko, I'm
waiting." The second was, "Mariko, it's eight o'clock and I'm giving up.
Maybe I'll see you again in Hotown next weekend."

I've heard about Hotown. It's a bar in Roppongi where foreigners go to pick
up girls. I've never been there in my life.


Ralph McCarthy

Ralph McCarthy has lived in Japan for almost two decades. He is the translator of two collections of stories by Osamu Dazai, "Self Portraits" and "Blue Bamboo," and of Ryu Murakami's novel "69."

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