Imagine all the neurotic aspects of American culture -- the materialism, the bright lights, the TV addiction, the obsession with ourselves -- and then imagine it growing unchecked for decades into the future. Imagine the cities getting denser and taller, the people getting more whacked out, the stuff that we buy getting more stuffy, and the pace at which we buy it getting ever more frantic.
That's what Japan's cities are like: America on steroids.
Ironically enough, down on street level, Americans are often not treated with much respect. Sure, in corporate Japan and traditional Japan, everyone is very nice, and even on the streets they eat up our culture like we eat up reality shows. But in the day-to-day life of Osaka, where people shop in grocery stores and drink in bars and ride the subway and sometimes eat in restaurants, actual foreigners, called gaijin, are considered, well, unclean.
The group I hung out with in Japan hardly did anything to counter this impression. Granted, folks in Japan dress so nicely that what you and I wear to work looks like a hobo's getup in Osaka. On top of that, the crowd I was with -- Americans, Brits, Germans, Aussies, etc. -- were only there to teach English, save money, then spend their earnings romping around the rest of Asia.
So, looking good and acting nice weren't high on the agenda -- and for that matter, living in a place where people don't think much of you can lead you to not think much of them either. Put it all together, and what you have is people making crazy money -- like $20,000 a year for working two hours a day -- while living on the wrong end of town and spending their time idling around, drinking, and/or trying to freak out the locals.
It was on just such a night that I witnessed the spectacle known as Gomi Night.
We were lounging on the tatami mats in some gaijin crash pad, trying to decide if we should spend our evening eating on the subway, drinking in public, or going out to hit on Japanese girls -- all utterly taboo and wildly entertaining -- when somebody ran in and started shouting, "It's Gomi Night! It's Gomi Night!"
Gomi, you might not know, is Japanese for garbage. It seems that in each neighborhood, there's one night each month on which local residents put out their bigger garbage items, stuff like TV sets and tables and chairs and various appliances. All of these things work, you understand. It's just that A) Japanese folks buy new stuff all the time -- America on steroids -- and B) Japanese homes are incredibly small. So, when you get a new TV set, the old one goes out on Gomi Night.
Sometime early the next morning, teams of men from the sodai gomi ("big garbage") agency come by and pick these items up for resale. And sometime before that, in the wee wee hours, some Japanese folks come out to get them, ashamed to be seen in need of such items.
Not so the gonzo gaijin. We aggressively, as a matter of principle, didn't care. So, when the Gomi hit the streets, out came the gaijin! It was very much like cockroaches coming out for the leftover pizza.
Launching from the chaos at the crash pad -- every unit of which was furnished with gomi -- I bought a can of beer in the vending machine downstairs (remember, America on steroids), and my host and I headed out. We looked for a spot where she had found a desk and some other good things last time, but it was empty. So we just wandered, and within a few minutes, we saw a complete stereo system -- several units in a console and two three-foot speakers, still connected to each other! We didn't need a stereo, and there wasn't much else there, so we moved on, and a little while later we found a great couch. It was in pretty good shape. We were very excited and had to have it.
We also found a small chair and a nice table, so we tossed those onto the couch as well. We kept inviting people to sit on the couch with us. I mean, we had a sixpack of tallboys. But nobody was taking us up on it. We figured lounging around and drinking was the American way. But I guess here, in America on steroids, drinking with roaches in public just won't do. •