First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man
– Japanese Proverb
Visitors to Japan will notice that there’s an awful lot of drinking going on here. Most resident gaijin don’t have a problem with it – after all, “When in Rome”… or Fukuoka. So I thought that we should pause to consider the phenomenon of drunkenness and the foreign English sensei. I once received an e-mail about the joys of drinking to excess as espoused by comedian Larry Miller. I have adapted it to reflect the local culture: “Five Levels of Drinking in Japan”.
It’s 10:30 on a weeknight and, let’s call him Frank, is with friends at the yatai in Nagahama. Frank’s had a few Kirin, plus some sake that the group at the next bench insisted he drink. He gets up to leave because he has to teach Period One the next day, but one of his friends buys another round. At Level One he thinks to himself: “As long as I get seven hours’ sleep, I’m cool”.
It’s midnight. Frank is sitting in a bar in Tenjin (something akin to “Flavor from the Insides” or “Bingo Love”) and had a few more beers. He’s just spent 20 minutes arguing against natto. Again he gets up to leave, but at Level Two a little devil appears on his shoulder. Now he’s thinking: “Hey, I’m out with my friends! What am I in Kyushu for anyway? As long as I get five hours’ sleep, I’m cool.”
It’s one in the morning. Frank has abandoned beer in favour of Suntory whisky. He’s just spent twenty minutes arguing FOR natto. He’s thinking: “Our waitress is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!” At Level Three Frank loves Fukuoka, he loves Japan, he loves the world. On the way to the toire, he buys a drink for the salaryman at the end of the bar. Just because he likes his face. He begins to engage in drinking fantasies like: “Hey fellas, if we bought our own bar, we could live here forever. We could do it. James, you could cook.” But at Level Three that devil on his shoulder is bigger – and he’s buying. Now Frank’s thinking: “As long as I get three hours’ sleep – and a change of blood – I’m cool.”
It’s two in the morning at “Kuros Nude” in Hakata. And the devil is bartending. At last call Frank orders an extra-large bottle of sake and a Pocari Sweat. He IS natto! Frank is thinking: “Our barman is the best-looking man I’ve ever seen!” He and his friends decide to leave, right after they’re thrown out, and someone knows a hostess bar in Oyafuko. At Level Four Frank thinks to himself: “Well, if I’m only going to get a few hours’ sleep anyway, I may as well stay up all night! I don’t mind going to that staff meeting looking like Shoko Asahara. I’ll turn it around and make it work for me. Besides, as long as I get nineteen hours’ sleep tomorrow, I’m cool.”
It’s five in the morning. Frank unsuccessfully tries to get his money back at the tattoo parlor (“But I don’t know anybody named Emi!”). He and his friends have found themselves in Sasebo, at a bar with American sailors and guys who have been in prison as recently as that morning. It’s the kind of place where even the devil says: “Uh, I gotta turn in. I’ve got that brunch with Hitler, can’t miss that.” At this point, they’re all drinking some kind of thick blue concoction – like something from an anime feature – at roughly ¥800 a pop.
A waitress with nose rings and orange hair comes over, and Frank thinks to himself: “Someday I’m gonna marry that girl!” One of his friends stands up and screams: “Let’s go to a karaoke bar!” And then passes out. They all crawl outside for air, and that’s when one hits the worst part of Level Five: the sun. They weren’t expecting it. You never do. Frank and his buddies walk out into daylight and see people on their way to work. And they look at him in a strange way, as if to say: “Who’s Emi?”
Let’s face it, if Frank was 19 and stayed up all night, it’s like a victory because he would’ve beaten the night. But if you’re older, the sun is like God’s flashlight. Frank and his ilk all say the same prayer, usually kneeling at the porcelain shrine: “I swear I’ll never do this again as long as I live – and this time, I mean it!” Dodesho?
By Nicholas Klar
Australian, Author of “My Mother is a Tractor”
Illustrations by Shirley Waisman
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn82, Oct. 2005)