We drove ten hours to the Bay Area last weekend so that I could compete in the annual Silicon Valley Showdown Scrabble tournament. Last year was the first time I had attended this particular event, but this year something is different: My nephew has graduated from the University of California (UCLA), has found a job in the computer industry and has returned home to Palo Alto. I had not seen Elliot in more than two years, so I made a point to set up dinner plans with him.
Elliot loves all things Japanese. He studied the language in high school and college and is knowledgeable about Japanese popular culture. He is very much into manga and Japanese animation generally. So it is no surprise that while I was pushing tiles around the board and generally losing to some incredibly good Scrabble players, Elliot was attending FanimeCon at the Convention Center in San José.
When we sat down to dinner, my nephew regaled us with stories of his recent trip to Japan with his father and his sister. Ostensibly, they were dropping off my niece at a college in Tokyo and helping her get settled in. Shayna, who is also an avowed Japanophile, was planning on spending a year or two attending a graphic arts program (she ended up returning to her college on the east coast of the U.S. after just a few months). While Elliot was in Tokyo with his dad, they had a chance to be tourists and generally take a good look around the city.
I’d like to share what I consider to be two of the more interesting stories that my nephew related about his trip.
Elliot and his father consulted a map of the city, got on the subway and headed over to take a look at the Tokyo office of his employer. By the address, they knew that the building was located in one of the most lovely, residential areas of the city, Akasaka. So they were a bit surprised when they arrived and realized that the office is located in a skyscraper in the grimy nightclub district of Roppongi. When they looked for the entrance, they noticed that it was indicated by a sign on the opposite side of the street. It turns out that the entrance takes one through a tunnel that crosses under the street to the office building. The apparent reason for this quirk is to avoid the undesirable Roppongi address. Akasaka is just north of Roppongi, the two districts bordering on each other. The border runs down the middle of the street. Placing the company entrance on the opposite side of the street earned it the much preferred, if misleading, Akasaka address.
The other story involves the shocking openness with which sex is hawked on the streets in certain Tokyo districts. My nephew claims that the Japanese themselves rarely participate in this marketing activity, but that Nigerian immigrants have taken up the business in earnest. He and his dad were quite surprised when they were accosted on the street by a man with a flyer who asked them in English whether they wanted “to see some titties.” After declining, they burst into laughter the moment they ducked around a corner.
Although I plead ignorance as to how this type of activity is conducted in this country, I imagine it must be a bit more subtle. Then again, I picture Richard Dreyfuss in the 1970s movie The Goodbye Girl standing with his flyers in front of a Times Square strip club yelling about “Erotic acts! Exotic acts!”
Sadly, I fear that some sorts of language are pancultural, if not universal.