Friday, 13 May, 2005

More Lessons in Japanese Culture

How hard can it be to find a beer?  This evening, after enjoying the best sushi I've ever had, I thought I'd find a quiet place to have a drink or two and soak up a little of the culture.  I soaked up a little culture, but not quite what I had expected.  I'll relate the two experiences and then explain what I learned when I asked about things the next day.

As I said the other day, I'm illiterate here.  I should have had the foresight to ask somebody how to identify the Kanji symbol for bar, lounge, or alcohol.  Lacking that prior preparation, I wandered around the streets near the hotel until I saw a sign, in English, that said "Blue Dolphin Lounge, 7th Floor."  The young man dressed in a business suit who met me when I got off the elevator asked, in very good English, whether I speak any Japanese.  When I told him no, he put on a concerned look and said, "The girls speak only Japanese."  I was starting to think that maybe I was in the wrong place, but since I was there I figured I'd learn something.

After a little bit of fumbling with the language barrier, I finally understood that for 4,500 yen (about $45 U.S.), plus a 25% "tip," I could sit down and drink all the beer, whiskey, or champagne (I think, but maybe he meant white wine) I wanted, and a lady would "be my friend" for an hour.  I thought about that a bit, wondering just how friendly the lady would be, and ultimately declined.  I just wanted to have a beer, and I can't drink $60 worth of beer in an hour.

Back on the street, I walked around taking in the night life until I found another sign:  "Bacchus Bar, 3rd Floor."  The bartender looked surprised to see a Westerner, but he greeted me kindly and asked in Japanese what I would like.  Trying not to look like a total idiot, I scanned the shelf behind the bar looking for their beer selection.  That shelf contained just about every kind of liquor known to man, most of them with English labels, but not a beer in sight.  Figuring that any bartender knows what beer is, I smiled at him and said, "Beer."  He nodded and pulled me a beer from the one tap at the bar.  Whatever it was, it was excellent.

There were two bartenders behind the bar and one other customer: a woman sitting a few stools down, talking to one of the bartenders.  I didn't understand any of the conversation, but I got the impression that this woman was a regular.  After a while, another woman came in and sat down next to the first one.  Obviously friends, they proceeded to chatter up a storm while chain smoking cigarettes and drinking.  A couple came in a bit later and sat down at one of the tables.  They ordered drinks and, I think, sashimi.  I sat there drinking my beer and taking it all in while trying to puzzle out the katakana characters on the menu by comparing them against the writing on some of the bottles.  I ordered a second beer, nibbled on the mixed nuts that the bartender had set before me, and then finally asked for my bill.

I was a little surprised to see a bill for 1,700 yen, as I thought that the sign outside said "Beer 600 yen."  I don't remember paying $8.50 for a single draft beer before, but I wasn't going to complain.  I paid with two 1,000 yen notes, left a tip, and walked out the door.  I was almost to the stairs when one of the bartenders came running after me with my change.

The Blue Dolphin, I found out, is a hostess bar--the modern rendition of an ancient Japanese tradition.  For her part of the $60 I would have paid (probably the 25% "tip"), the lady would have listened attentively, laughed at my jokes, and told me what an incredibly good looking and wonderful guy I am.  It's all very proper, with no nudity or inappropriate touching.  Japanese society is apparently very stressful on men, and the culture doesn't allow them to show weakness--even in front of their wives.  The hostess bar allows them an outlet and provides validation of their worth.  It sounds shallow from a Western perspective, I know, but the culture really is different.

The bar thing is very simple.  Service employees are paid a normal wage in Japan.  The Western custom of tipping is not widely practiced in Japan, and the scrupulous honesty which is so prevalent in the culture forces people to return that which does not belong to them, if at all possible.  At least that's the way I read it.  My understanding is that many Americans have had much the same experience after trying to leave a tip.

I continue to be surprised by my own preconceived notions, in large part because I like to think that I'm open minded and receptive to new experiences.  I often see something and have to surpress my first instinct to say, "But that's not the way things are at home."  Fortunately I've learned not to hold my cultural predjudices so closely that I automatically think that any thing different is bad or stupid.  I have to laugh at myself sometimes when I run into new things and catch myself looking at them with a very narrow viewpoint.

We took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo this evening, and after a delicious dinner of traditional Japanese food (I don't remember what it was called), I'm back in my hotel room.  Work is over for the week.  The next two days are set aside for playing tourist.