By Mark Halpern
I take the 4.5 centimetre green-stripe candle from my pocket and squish it into the 110-gram wagyu steak on my friend Derek’s plate. Right into the tenderest part near the middle. Lighting the candle, I sing, “Happy Meat Day to you. Happy Meat Day to you …” I’m wearing my dark blue Brioni suit, with an Egyptian cotton shirt, silk pocket handkerchief and pastel-striped Armani necktie, all tastefully coordinated by an obliging shop clerk.
Approaching the climax, I execute a tight, crisp two-finger drum roll on the tablecloth, crescendo-ing to mezzo piano. The well-cultured-looking bunch one table over takes notice. Finally, “Happy Meat Day to youuuuu,” rallentando, appassionato, still pretty much in key. The next table watches keenly as if I were the most cleverly sophisticated foreigner they’ve ever seen.
In this, they are wrong. But at least they get the joke, as does Derek. Though his birthday isn’t until the following week, today is indeed Meat Day. February ninth. Niku, “meat”. Ni, “two,” for the second month, and ku, “nine,” for the ninth day. The real, once-a-year Meat Day – not just the 29th of some indiscriminate month, when your local supermarket promotes sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. Derek blew out the candle and proclaimed a wish for world peace and a worldwide 37.5% tariff reduction on beef, pork and poultry.
We choose our friends, even casual ones, from among the people we gravitate to naturally, and until high school it didn’t occur to me that not everyone loves numbers. As for words, well, they are, by nature, compellingly fascinating for us humans. Surely. And if you delight in words and numbers you can earn a good living – at least if you write cleverly about numbers other people don’t understand for an investment bank that transfers you to Tokyo. Okay, so the job didn’t much call for music – my other passion – but two out of three ain’t bad. And thus, until a couple of years ago, my life, day to day, was mostly not unpleasant. Although I lacked a sense of purpose, and of connectedness, I had the freedom to buy a Brioni suit in Ginza at full retail price and keep on spending with recklessness.
Now I’m on my own. I’m responsible to no one except the overseas-based clients – I like to call them “partners” – whom I help to assess the Japanese market potential for their miscellaneous goods and services. My connection is direct and my purpose relatively clear, though so is its frequent absence. It all depends on whether my “partners” value me enough to pay me money, which, lately, they mostly do not. I’d picked out that particular suit for a meeting with a much-needed potential new client scheduled for 15:00 in the impressive conference room, with its dark-stained mahogany table surrounded by twelve tall leather-backed chairs, that I’m entitled to utilize 5.25 hours per month within the basic charge of the shared office facilities I inhabit weekday daytimes. My preliminary goal was to not spill food on my clothing. The considerable challenge that even this posed likely went unnoticed by the next table, so distracted were they by my panache and faux joie de vivre.
There’d be no such distraction for my father, should he ever visit. He’d zero in on how I really live and see only that. Then he’d call my career move an irresponsible prioritization of amusement over earnings – in my mind his grey, monotone voice already utters those very words. He’s previously heard my rehearsed speech about desiring a personal connection with my work-product and also a less-cluttered life, which is all true so far as it goes. I’d be unable to conceal my other motivation. To wit, a primal desire to work shorter hours.
But my father will never pull himself away from his own words-and-numbers career long enough to visit me. In fact, nobody ever tries to discern what I actually do all day. This further privacy – I already had lots, since the few people who know me well live continents away – was self-employment’s big unexpected reward. Also, in Japan you can even be truthful about lacking sufficient work. If you say you do nothing all day, everyone assumes that saying this merely reveals a humble attitude and, if you’re an educated and properly-dressed Westerner, that you must doubtless be successful – not least because of an admirable humility thought to be much too rare among Westerners. So, openness coexisting with privacy. But the B-side of privacy is loneliness.
I’d hoped to use my newly-fabricated non-work hours to find a woman to marry. Someone with at least overlapping interests, someone to be with and to count on. A life partner. But I’m no closer than before. On the one hand, many Japanese women are of a type that seems to like Western guys, and I have an accumulation of expensive clothing and an impressive job title. On the other hand, that’s not necessarily the sort of woman I’m looking for. Also, I lack confidence, am not good looking – weakish chin, baldish head, roundish shoulders etc. etc. – and am apparently incapable of hiding my nerdiness, especially around women. So it’s hard to find someone who will both understand me and also love me, and whom I can love back.
Since I arrived in Japan, a small number of women have come and quickly gone – I believe all were, fundamentally, good people. Always, though, there was an absence of genuine intimacy, and of deep communication, and I’ve never known whether the problem was individual or cultural or both. I suppose this may just be due to my inadequacy at one of life’s central tasks: figuring out how people are the same, and not the same, and why. I like to call this the “other-people problem.” Perhaps I don’t understand other people at all, and that’s why they don’t understand me. Whether that last statement really makes sense, I don’t know, but it has a nice symmetry – and when I apply it to my life so far, it reveals a pattern of predictably-repetitive failure that has a different sort of symmetry, algebraically speaking, but which too is nice.
Anyway, zero-point-zero progress on romance – just more hours for feeling lonely.
Also, I’ve come to learn that when no one else is around and you don’t push yourself forward, you can drift to a standstill. Thus, into worry, ineffectiveness, self-doubt and cash constraint. And more intense loneliness. Which is why I’d invited Derek for lunch – a lunch whose ending was now forcing me to march back and face another expected failure. Then a most pleasant thing happened.
Lingering behind at the next table was the petite woman with large, round eyes who’d smiled at me directly and knowingly. Her smile had been as if to approve my musical efforts – my putting up a good front – while suggesting she knew I wasn’t what I seemed. She looked upper thirties, around my age, but her longish black, undyed hair already had crinkles of grey that somehow made me feel trusting. When she finally stood up, her pleated navy skirt temporarily stopped short enough to reveal skinny legs that were a little sexy and highly adorable. We spoke a few words and – I couldn’t help it – I awkwardly proffered my business card, identifying me as president and representative director of a company whose name conveys no hint that it lacks other employees. She studied the card very carefully, both the English and Japanese sides. Then she said she liked my “playfulness,” all the while smiling in her knowing way. And then she looked into my eyes so deeply I felt the floor vanish from beneath my feet. But after a few seconds she said a quick goodbye and rushed to catch up with her friends.
Week after week passed and I still kept thinking about Fumie – that was her name. I wasn’t optimistic I’d ever see her again, but she did exist and, I believed, she sensed who I truly was and even so found something in me attractive. This – just merely this – was a spark. It gave me impetus. Though my mood still fluctuated up and down, my trend line shifted distinctly to positive. I started celebrating more special days. Most of these I invented – which isn’t hard, given the variety of Japanese syllables associated with each different number.
In terms of concepts, not all these special days were intrinsically uplifting, but I was, in my admittedly idiosyncratic way, lifting myself up. My creativity had returned by February 19th, which I deemed the Day of Absence-of-Gym-Class (fu-taiiku – futa-ii-ku – 2-1-9), though I treated it merely an excuse to veg out. But on Thank You Day (3-9 – san-kyū), I determined to be thankful right through the morning. Then, on April first (4-1 – yo-i – good), I was good – reasonably good – nearly all day. And on May third (5-3 – go-mi – garbage), I systematically threw out all the accumulated refuse in my apartment. These are, of course, just examples.
But Garbage Day was a high point, after which I spent a month drifting downward. My billable work was still thin and I was becoming depressed. Though nearly two years had passed since I’d fled a work environment where self-worth seemed everywhere measured by salaries, bonuses and perks, I hadn’t quite broken the irritating link between money and the meaning of life, which I like to call the “real-world problem.” I still lived in the real world.
In the worst case, I could float along for a while on accumulated savings. I would survive modestly, without pain or drama or achievement. But it would be humiliating if my business failed and, once again, I had to do what some boss told me, all day and frequently into late evening. Especially after my high-minded proclamations, to my father and others, justifying my career restructuring.
My life seemed pointless. I sank to my lowest yet, foreseeing loneliness ahead forever. But then an email came from Fumie.
She politely inquired after my well-being and apologized, without explanation, for her delay in writing. The email, though quite brief, included Japanese phrases rich with connotation, and a few that were disarmingly delicate. As I reread her email again and again, its words – they must have been chosen with great care – increasingly conveyed to me a longing for affection. A longing, it seemed, she’d tried to partly reveal and partly conceal. Like step one in a multi-stage sequence for opening up her true self. It was as if Fumie knew exactly what I needed to hear.
I replied instantly – uncontrollably over-eager, yes, but also seeing no point in playing games. I invited Fumie to dinner the following Monday, June ninth, 6-9, ro-ku, rokku, Rock Day, which I explained, truthfully, was the most special of all my special days. A day to celebrate rock and roll music – even more than we should celebrate it the rest of the year. Though many Japanese seem ignorant of the Day of Rock, I did not invent it. It existed before I got here and will exist even if I someday return home. The Day of Rock. Is Japan cool or what. Our high school rock bands may die, but the music lives on forever. I mean, rock on, man. Rock on!
I did not conceal my nerdy excitement.
Writing in English, I said “I want to celebrate such a special day with someone who herself is special.” Trite and corny that may sound, I was confident that Fumie, being Japanese, had never heard anything like it. Anyway, those words said how I felt.
Fumie wrote back that she loved rock music and wanted to celebrate with me. She said she couldn’t stay out late and suggested meeting at 17:45 at a quiet little bistro not far from where we both worked. I agreed and, during the intervening days, kept rereading her short emails.
On the morning of the Day of Rock I put on another of my expensive suits and its pre-coordinated accompaniments, and began calculating what to say first when we met. I wanted words that indicated my thoroughgoing commitment to honesty, yet didn’t sound goofy or otherwise off-putting. But that day my work was relentlessly – and encouragingly – busy, and I needed to finish on time. So when Fumie appeared precisely at 17:45 wearing subdued-sparkly eyeshadow, all I could think of was, “You look beautiful. I’m so happy to see you.”
Fumie said she too was happy and complimented my necktie. She again looked directly into my eyes, but this time smiled differently, more simply, artlessly, without a grain of pretension, maybe because we were completely alone – it was early and there were no other customers. I wondered if, like me, she felt vulnerable. I tingled all over, like the one time as a teenager I’d got up the nerve to ask out a girl I really liked who then said yes.
I remembered to get Fumie to do the talking and so right off asked what she thought of the background music. She said only that she liked “all music,” so I knew she was shy. It was John Coltrane playing “Too Young to Go Steady” and every sensitive, intelligent person must surely have an opinion.
After scanning the menu, I ordered two glasses of Champagne for celebrating the special day, and also some French wine, because that’s what the man is supposed to do. As I can’t tolerate alcohol well, I was glad Fumie drank most of the bottle – in principle I’m against wasting food. We talked mostly about our jobs, and she agreed right away that we’d afterwards go back to my office to watch rock videos together on YouTube. Actually, I’d already booked the conference room until 22:30 – I could carry in my portable computer, Ekotech pre-amp and McIver XJ speakers from my exclusive work space, which is really just a crowded cubby hole with a door. Since Fumie ate lightly and didn’t want dessert or coffee, we finished dinner at 18:50. I stayed calm the whole time, even after learning she was a tax accountant and liked numbers. All in all, everything went nearly perfectly.
Once outdoors, Fumie was more distant, more reticent, but I supposed this was just because strangers were around. That became clear once we reached the conference room, where she touched my arm and then sat so close her body sometimes brushed against mine. Her modesty in public was so nice. Shyness in a woman is so comforting.
I suggested we take turns deciding videos, but at first Fumie kept insisting that I choose. Her letting me pick tunes helped me relax, especially as I took this as concrete evidence of the compassionate and sympathetic personality I’d sensed in her during our brief meeting months before. On my side, it was important to pick thoughtfully to make a good impression. I told Fumie my selections would be chronological – I’d already decided against choosing thematically or geographically or based on the musical development of particular artists or their chains of stylistic influence on other artists etc. – and started with “School Days” (Chuck Berry) and “Glad All Over” (Dave Clark Five). Then I was brave and picked Smokey Robinson and the Miracles doing “Ooo Baby Baby,” a very romantic number, and as we watched I talked about the difficulty in drawing a clear line between rock and R&B, which I like to call the “rock-versus-soul problem.” Whenever I sang along, Fumie would move closer to me. She said I had a good voice and then, suddenly, pressed the back of her hand upward along my leg.
I’m not the kind of guy who recounts his sexual exploits, so I’ll just say this. My selections included “Eight Miles High” (the Byrds), “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes), “Blinded by the Light” (Manfred Mann) and “With or Without You” (U2). All Fumie picked from the classic rock era were the Beatles doing “Yesterday” and two tunes by the Ventures. Otherwise she chose bland J-Pop hits and a few 1980s British heavy metal bands. But everyone is entitled to their own taste in music – and perhaps I myself need to further develop my appreciation. Regardless, it was undeniably my best ever Day of Rock. Around 21:30 Fumie went home, as I did, but I lay awake very late thinking about her.
That same week came the Day That Is Meaningless (muimi – mu-i-mi – 6-1-3) and I rejoiced in the irony, as Fumie was bringing meaning to my life. Unfortunately, her work became busier and it was a month before I could next see her. Again, it was very early on a weeknight.
We met at the same restaurant and our dinner was much like the first, but this time I invited Fumie to come afterwards to my apartment. Though it was somewhat far, we’d have more comfort and she’d be able to see my vinyl collection. But she was concerned about the time, so by 19:10 we were back watching YouTube videos in the conference room, which, fortunately, was still unbooked. As to our act of physical intimacy that evening, I’ll just say that it was beautiful and moving and touching, and that I felt connected to her. Later, as we watched Cat Stevens singing “The First Cut is the Deepest” and then the Temptations and Supremes together singing “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” I felt tears forming and had to turn my face away. It was July ninth, 7-9, na-ku, naku, “cry,” but that was a mere coincidence.
Fumie remained terribly busy and weeks kept stumbling by without our meeting. My own work at last picked up too, which I used as an excuse for not visiting my parents – my first summer skipping a trip home – but, really, I didn’t want to miss a chance to see Fumie. Having her in my life brought optimism and a sense of all-round well-being, making me confident at work and, even, giving me strength to discipline my communications with her. I sent only one long email per week, which I proofread carefully to ensure it didn’t push too much. Thus, even when asking about her favourite flowers (hana, ha-na, 8-7) on August seventh, I merely said I’d bring a bouquet next time we met, whenever she was free, without pressuring her on the timing. It was enough that I’d let her know, on that special day, that she was in my mind.
The day we finally did meet, I went to the florist beforehand to pick out each flower to be joined into an expression of my affection. This time Fumie had suggested that instead of a restaurant, we get take-away food, so I purchased elaborate o-bento boxes in the basement of Mitsukoshi Ginza and a bottle of very fine sake that I hoped she’d enjoy, and reserved the conference room for 17:15. Then I could lay out everything in advance and set up the computer and sound system. As always, Fumie was precisely on time, and beautiful. Seeing her face after all these weeks brought sharp pangs of joy.
On impulse I selected “Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood” (The Animals) and then immediately “Say a Little Prayer” (Aretha Franklin version), which, inevitably, did nothing to lessen the intensity of my feelings. Still, when I felt the urge to say “I love you,” I could find the strength to stay silent – I thought Fumie might not yet be ready to hear these words out loud, though she must surely have seen them when she stared piercingly into my eyes. During our remaining 85 minutes together that evening she didn’t smile – I believed she was experiencing an emotion that could not, due to her modesty, be expressed in a smile.
From that day on I floated with happiness. I lost restraint and kept pressing Fumie to see me again, which happened about two weeks later. This time it was midafternoon. The night before I’d stayed up late, planning words that would be utterly truthful, but delivered in a calm and measured way. I even practiced out loud.
Fumie had suggested an ordinary coffee shop and when I arrived, I felt ready. I steeled myself and remembered my purpose.
“My heart is full,” I said. “Let me—”
“No. I will go first.” And for the next five minutes Fumie did the talking.
From the start, she said, she’d assumed I was in my mid-forties, married and sought nothing more than a short fling. This she’d believed true of all middle-aged Western men. When I invited her to my apartment, she figured it must be a place I kept to take women, which wealthy guys like me could afford.
Fumie lifted her hand and continued. She herself was forty-five. She was married. She had two teenage children. She had no intention of jeopardizing the stability of her family. She was sorry if she’d done anything that caused me pain.
I asked why she’d looked so deeply into my eyes again and again – somehow that was all I could say. Fumie replied that I had “attractive blue eyes.” I guess this was a kindness, her way of letting me down lightly. It was September ninth, 9-9, ki-ki, kiki, “crisis,” but that was mere coincidence. Fumie doesn’t care about such things.
From her perspective, no doubt, everything made sense. As always, the “other-people problem” strikes me down. So again – or, rather, still – I am alone. Also, I’m humiliated at my foolishness, though my life’s built-in privacy lets me keep that private. On the plus side, during the brief period I felt connected to Fumie I was able to put my business on a better footing. And, though I apparently didn’t know her at all, I now possess further evidence of my potential attractiveness to women. But the pain has grossly outweighed the pleasure, and I’ve crossed February third (2-3, fu-mi) off my list of special days. Whether I’ve learned something that generates a net positive return over the long run, I cannot yet say. For the time being I shall call this the “Fumie Problem,” for want of better words.
Mark Halpern has lived since 1993 in Tokyo, where he runs his own law firm and writes stories about foreigners in Japan. He was born in America, grew up mostly in Canada, and has also spent much time in the UK and France. As for Japan, Mark has, like some of his stories’ characters, found a way to be both an outsider and an insider.