—Monday, September 12, 2011—
I had studied abroad before. I had even studied broads before. But never had I ever studied broads abroad and my 2011 trip to Tokyo, Japan was a one week crash course.
I’d spent the better part of ten days observing the women of Japan and looking for some way to get a date with one of them. Mostly though, it was a lesson in almost talking to them and balking at the last second. No one seemed open or chatty enough to approach. Also, I didn’t know who spoke English.
Luckily, my aunt Haruko taught me the most important phrases needed for most of my interactions with Japanese women:
Sumimasen — Excuse me
Arigato — Thank you
Gomenasai — I am sorry
It was my last night in Tokyo and I had just left my family for the first time in ten days. I was nervous because I could barely navigate the train system there and I was supposed to be meeting my date at a major station shortly. Only 15 minutes prior, I had left a restaurant with my family, where we had our final meal together, only to go straight to another dinner with Misa. I texted her to say I would be a few minutes late — my train was not scheduled to arrive for another seven minutes. I knew this because all the trains in Tokyo told you exactly when they’d be at a particular station and they were nearly always on time. NYC is now just starting to get that information out there, but we are still years behind Tokyo.
I exited the train and made my way through the flurry of people, searching for a sign that said ‘South Exit’ in the language I needed it to be in. I saw signs directing me to the left, so I swam upstream through the river of people like a carp. I made it out of the exit and saw the flower shop she had told me about, and there in front, looking down at her phone, was Misa. Even though she had texted me back, I could hardly believe she was there.
I was American.
She was Japanese.
I had met her so briefly and now, two days later, we were going on a date. I was amazed.
(More on our meeting later.)
Approaching slowly so as not to startle her, I greeted Misa with a wave hello and some heavy nodding. Not formal nodding, just some, “I don’t know what else to do with my body” nodding. The Japanese do not really hug in public and I thought that even a handshake would have been a little forward without knowing each other.
“Do you like Mexican food?” Misa asked me. Of course I liked Mexican food, but I’ll be honest, I had not expected that to be her question. I am not so narrow minded to think that there are no Mexican restaurants in Tokyo — I had eaten at one the week before — it was just that I wouldn’t have thought of it as a first choice. So many other things came to mind while in Tokyo, or even New York, ahead of Mexican food. It was a welcome suggestion though and anyway, I always liked being thrown a bit.
“I love Mexican food,” she told me. I guess that really shouldn’t have been surprising considering Misa had lived in Pennsylvania for nine years. If you’ve spent any significant amount of time in America, you’ve likely consumed your share of Mexican food. She wished they had Taco Bell in Tokyo though. Apparently, they tried it in Japan for a few years but it wasn’t very popular. I used to love Taco Bell. It was the only fast food I ate for four years after reading Fast Food Nation. The night was already off to a great start.
Misa asked me what I had done with my day and I told her that my brother and I had been watching the Rugby World Cup a great deal since my uncle, who we were staying with, was a massive rugby fan. We’d actually been watching the Japan game and I remember being impressed with how well they were playing. They were probably better than the American team, I told her, since it was not a very popular sport in the States. “Football,” she said. “Yeah, American football is much more popular,” I confirmed. “Go Steelers!” Misa exclaimed. I could have turned into a robot, she was so adorable. I told her that I was a Patriots a fan, but that was okay because we didn’t really hate the Steelers.
My brother and I had also completed our souvenir shopping that day, which was a major accomplishment on any overseas trip. Misa had just come from work, which she admitted was rather boring that day. She had spent much of her time there watching videos on YouTube. I couldn’t watch YouTube videos at work because they used to block all the sites with streaming media. Total blummer, right? I suppose I didn’t need the entertainment as much as her considering I was a full time employee who was supposed to be working on mission critical projects and Misa was just doing administrative work while she finished up her summer break from university.
Although she had a full time job lined up with Sony Music for when she graduated that following March, Misa still had one more year of school left. It was funny — Misa attended the only school in all of Japan that I actually knew anything about. Not only was it the same university my Japanese aunt went to, but it was the sister school in Japan to my college back home. The connection lay in the fact that they were both Jesuit schools. Look at that! Those four years of working in the Study Abroad office had actually paid off.
As we approached, the restaurant didn’t look particularly lively. The neon lights in the window were not giving off the radiant glow they typically would. It was open though — it was just that the whole city was still conserving electricity since the March 11th, 2011 earthquake and tsunami damaged or destroyed several power plants. Not only was it open, but the restaurant was packed. So much so that we were seated all the way in the back, at what seemed to be the only empty table.
We were handed menus and Misa informed me that the drinks were on the last page. Ah yes, the most important part of the menu. Liquid courage — beneficial to almost all first dates.
“Sumimasen!” Misa tried unsuccessfully to get our waiter’s attention. “Sumimasen!” she repeated. It was the first waiter I’d had in Japan who had to be asked more than once for anything. “Sumimasen!!”
Finally, our waiter stopped and took our drink orders. It was surprising because every staff member, any place I’d been thus far, had been incredibly attentive and polite. Everyone had in fact — all the Japanese. Misa thought that the Japanese were too polite sometimes. They needed to stand their ground a bit more.
Misa had a younger brother who was also at university with her, so they were relatively close in age. I asked her what he was like and when she began to tell me what he studied, she couldn’t seem to think of the word. She offered, “philosophy?” and I let her know that she was exactly correct. She was so cute while trying to figure it out, largely because she spoke English almost perfectly — she really didn’t need to second guess herself.
After I asked her about her brother, she told me that he liked a high school teen girl group called AKB48 and I said that such a thing usually wouldn’t happen in America. Guys in the US are too tough. Boys are “softer” in Japan, she told me. Although I was never a fan of the A*Teens, I told her that I was more like that. I was softer, I guess, than most guys were willing to be.
After years of having girlfriends though, and playing sports, I didm’t worry so much about my masculinity. I may have been of average size in Japan but I was a thin little nothing in the USA. I liked to dance too, which many guys were not willing to get into, even if they did find it fun. And shit, yeah, I liked cute things. I was 25 years old and I had a small pile of stuffed animals in my room . While most guys tried to hide their more feminine features and tendencies, I had found only happiness and good times by embracing them. To quote the immortal wisdom of Popeye The Sailor Man, “I yam what yam, an’ that’s all what I yam.”
A couple days earlier, I had installed the Japanese Romaji keyboard on my phone simply because it had so many crazy emoticons. These were just plain hidden from the English users but were available on every iPhone. She laughed when I told her this because she already knew all about deluxe emoticon packages. Cute culture was just a part of Japan and it didn’t matter if you were young, old, male or female.
We talked a good deal about how Tokyo was so much cleaner and efficient than New York and America in general. The trains were far superior. We were not even close, in the States. I told her how everything in New York smelled bad, especially during the summer. She remembered bad smells in NYC subways when she had visited, and that they were dark. Plus, we didn’t have air conditioning in our subways like they did in Tokyo. And while the taxis were far more expensive there, they were also much nicer. The driver wore a suit, the cabs were clean and the door even opened for you automatically.
I had seen one problem with the automatic doors though, which was when a driver opened one into the path of a cyclist several nights prior. It was so surreal. In NYC or Boston, even getting cut off warranted a shouting match between both parties. This biker had run full on into an open door, was thrown from his likely damaged bike onto the ground and all he did was stand up and speak one or two sentences to himself, which to me sounded like, “Fuck, this really hurts. What a foolish driver. Ahhhhh. I hope it’s not broken.”
And that was it. Fifteen seconds maybe, calmly talking to himself. The passenger in the taxi said nothing — simply paid and stepped out to go to the theater. The driver then pulled over to the side of the road and got out to talk to the cyclist. That was all. In NYC, that shit would have caused WWIII. It would have been two people screaming at each other, the cyclist threatening to sue and the woman in the back probably would have chosen a side and started screaming as well. In Japan though, everything was done quietly.
Misa asked where my aunt and uncle lived and when I told her “Minato-ku, near Hiro-o Crossing,” she informed me that it was a wealthy part of town. Many famous people, she said. I could see that. There was one building just around the corner from their apartment that had 24 hour standing security. My aunt and uncle had no idea who lived there, but it must have been someone important.
There were also models in the neighborhood because of an agency near by, I told Misa. I saw girls that looked like pencils walking down the street. She laughed a lot at that one. I mean, really, they looked kind of like walking pencils. She asked if I liked thin women, and while I didn’t necessarily prefer them, I remarked how nice it was that everyone was healthier in Tokyo. You walked down the street and most women, and men, were healthy looking. It was rare to see anyone overweight, or even a little hefty.
It was largely the diet, I guessed, and Misa agreed. She used to be chubby in America and as soon as she moved back to Japan, changed her diet and walked to and from the trains all the time, she lost the weight very quickly. I looked at her then and she was tiny. I took her description of chubby to mean average sized at best.
Finally, I asked Misa about dating in Japan. I wanted to know what it was like over there so I could compare it to the US. Perhaps, once I’d dated all of New York, I needed to make a world tour of it.
In particular, I wanted to know if what I had done the other night was too forward. I met Misa at a club in Roppongi where four friends were hosting a joint birthday party. We’d been invited by a high school classmate of my brother. We knew one person there and while my brother and Billy spoke to each other, I was essentially on my own. I was also trolling for women pretty hard since I knew it was my last chance to get a date while in Tokyo. That was when I saw Misa sitting with her friends at the table next to where I was standing. I smiled in their general direction and Misa smiled back. This happened once or twice more before all the men at the table vacated and I was able to slide in next to her.
Over the dance music, I said loudly, “HI. DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” After receiving the affirmative, I continued, “EVAN DES,” which more or less means, “I’m Evan.” With all the noise and my own hesitance to say something in Japanese, she didn’t understand me. I tried again, “EVAN. MY NAME IS EVAN.” “Oh, I gotcha,” was Misa’s reply, letting me know that I was dealing with someone who not only spoke some English, but was comfortable with the language.
We talked for ten minutes or so and then I told her about the project, that I needed a date while in Tokyo and asked her to dinner the next night. She didn’t know her schedule, she told me. “HOW ABOUT MONDAY?” I asked. She didn’t know her schedule then either. While she couldn’t give me an answer then and there, she gave me her name and told me to find her on Facebook.
An hour or so later, I found her back at the same table and asked her to dance. She came out to the dance floor with me for all of five minutes before going back to her friends. The message seemed clear: she wasn’t interested.
My uncle had often told me stories of what it was like to work with the Japanese. He said that since they were so polite, they rarely said “no” straightaway. In fact, they had a phrase which directly translated to “we will review this and get back to you” but should really be interpreted as “there’s no way we are agreeing to that”. This caused much confusion the first couple times he had worked in Tokyo. By 2011, my uncle used the Japanese phrase when in meetings to let people know that he meant business. I figured Misa’s “I don’t know my schedule” was her way of politely telling me “no”.
As such, I was quite surprised when I sent her a message on Facebook the next day and she responded within a half hour, telling me that she checked her schedule and she would be available to have dinner with me on Monday. I was blown away. I was actually going to get a date while in Tokyo. All was not lost.
Despite my somewhat forward approach at the club and my immediate internet stalking, Misa let me know that I hadn’t been too aggressive in the least. I was worried because interactions in general were far more formal there than back home — I didn’t know if dating was also more restrained. Misa said that since many of the boys in Japan were too soft to ask women out, and with women becoming more and more empowered throughout society, it was common for women to have to ask men out on dates. At the very least, they often have to initiate the courtship. Those poor, soft, little men were just too shy.
Also, I had been worried about being too aggressive, such as asking her to dance, because public affection was still incredibly restrained there. She told me that it was fine because we were at a dance club and the crowd was largely Americanized. Also, that was where you talked to people and danced and all that good stuff, so none of it had been out of line. But yes, public affection could very well have been seen as disgusting or boastful, so it was very uncommon to see anything beyond hand holding in public. Even at the airport when my brother and I had arrived, my aunt had pointed out, people were looking at us disapprovingly for hugging our aunt and uncle. Misa said that was not surprising.
While Misa and many other Japanese women may have oft lamented the shy men of Japan, it didn’t mean that they liked overly aggressive guys either. Guys that were nice, but still confident enough to have fun and ask her out, were more Misa’s type. She probably wouldn’t have asked a boy out though — she was too shy, she said. There was one thing in particular that she, and many Japanese women, liked about American boys though: they were chivalrous. Along with that, they were also more romantic, which was a plus as well. Japanese men never talked about how they felt or said “I love you.” I told her that I had the opposite problem — I talked about how I felt too much and I fell for women far too often.
I warned her that not all American men were romantic and chivalrous though. There were many men who were shy. Then there were ladies men. The ones in the middle were the romantic and chivalrous ones. I also told her how chivalry was slowly fading as the equality of women was becoming more recognized and put into practice. Obviously, women were our equals and we should treat them as such, but that didn’t necessarily translate to our romantic affairs. Unfortunately, there were still many many many men and women who played by the rules of decades past when it came to dating. I was not against chivalry, I just didn’t think it should be some kind of expectation or duty.
There was an old Japanese custom that my aunt had told me about in which women always walked three steps behind their husbands. It was a sign of respect, apparently. I remembered the last time I had been in Tokyo, for New Years 2006, and watched the men do nothing at family meals. My aunt exclaimed at one point during this trip how she was lucky to have American house guests because we actually helped out. I explained to Misa that my brother and I would feel horrible if our aunt was just doing everything for us. Japanese men though, didn’t seem to have any problem with that.
She asked me if I liked Japanese girls and, through my laughter, I admitted that she was the only one that had really ever talked to me. They all seemed very nice though.
I wanted to know more about her life at school and she told me she was an English linguistics major, if I understood her description correctly. Funny, that might have been exactly what my aunt studied at that school too — she had been a translator before marrying my uncle. What a coincidence — Misa was originally on the track to becoming a translator herself before deciding it wasn’t for her. Instead, she was going into the heartwarming business of the music industry. I told her that the first Fall after graduation would be the hardest because you didn’t get to go back to college. I hope I didn’t freak her out too much by revealing the sobering realities of adulthood.
I asked her if she would ever return to America to live. She took a minute to think about it, and I could tell from her expression that the answer was no. Maybe if she had a job offer in major city? Yes, she said she might return if she would be living in a big city, but other than that, probably not. She certainly didn’t want to move back to central Pennsylvania. I told her that was okay — I wouldn’t want to move to central Pennsylvania either.
We talked long after we were finished with our meals and I told her I felt bad for ditching my family on my last night there. Misa said she was thinking the same thing. I told her not to worry though, it worked out because I had already spent the whole day with them, but she seemed to kind of feel terrible. If my family felt neglected, only I was to blame. They were my family, after all. I tried to tell her that they were just watching rugby and that my brother was packing. I doubt I missed anything important. The whole reason I had even suggested Monday was because I didn’t even think I would hear back from her, so I hadn’t thought it would be a problem.
I had been so lucky that I found her on Facebook and that she replied to me so quickly. I had even asked my aunt if it was okay to take the night off from the family and she said it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I agreed. Misa told me that she didn’t think that I would find her on FB. “And then you were like damn, now I have to go out with him,” I joked. She assured me that she wouldn’t have messaged me back had that been the case.
Something, I’m not sure what, convinced Misa to go out with me. After she revealed that she got out of a four year relationship just one month earlier, it was not surprising to hear that she didn’t usually just go on dates like this. It was an awful break up too. So bad that I couldn’t believe she was out with me, crazy Japanese dating adventure aside. I don’t think I would have been so upbeat and willing to date if I had been in her position.
As we left the restaurant, I told Misa that I liked it there in Tokyo. She said that I fit in, that something about me was very Japanese. I was the right balance of loud and quiet, and I was the right size. Something about my look too. I’ll take it. That was probably the best compliment I had received in some time, and one that I was secretly seeking out any time I traveled. I never want to come across as a brash American tourist. I want to connect with the place I’m visiting.
As we crossed the street, Misa asked when I might return. Five years maybe? I would have to do it on my own though. My aunt and uncle probably wouldn’t be there again any time soon, since they moved somewhat often, so I really didn’t know. In fact, “You’re the only reason I’d come back to Tokyo,” I told her, “You’ll be the only person I know here.” As I said it, my mind drifted to the idea of returning one day and reconnecting with her. Misa and I, years later, talking once again about the different worlds we lived in and distances we’d traveled since first meeting.
We were taking different trains, but Misa walked with me through the station to make sure I got going in the right direction. She shook my hand and told me to keep in touch. I told her I would and that if she was looking to visit America, I could give her some options of where to go.
All I could think about on the train ride home, aside from how I would miss Tokyo, was how nice Misa had been and how lucky I was to have found her amongst the roughly 36 million people in the greater Tokyo area. Really, what were the chances?
Given my life at that point, with OHD being at the center of everything, it only seemed fitting to have ended my family-centered trip to Tokyo with an eye opening date.