Breaking the Ice in Tokyo

Breaking the Ice in Tokyo

Several years ago, I found myself working temporarily in Tokyo. I lived alone in a cramped room with a sink in the corner. I had no friends in the city, and I didn’t speak the language. The first couple of weeks, I spent many of my evenings at home watching Japanese television (international stock ticker updates, weather forecasts for Hokkaido, cartoon schoolgirls in sexy Victorian chambermaid outfits) while eating convenience-store takeout dinners, the salty contents of which I could rarely identify with assurance.

By day, I’d venture out from my room into the city’s glass-and-steel glare. My job required me to interview Japanese business executives, so I’d procured the services of an interpreter. Junko was a Japanese woman at least a decade and a half my senior. She spoke in a measured monotone, wore impeccably ironed skirt-suits, and appeared to be physically incapable of smiling. Each day, she and I would ascend by elevator to some skyscraper corner office, where we’d spend an hour or so posing questions to some gray-haired man.

The businessmen we interviewed—managers toiling in the upper levels of giant Japanese corporations—were polite but not especially prone to candor. (Until they’d imbibed a bit of sake, whereupon they might unleash an unflattering tirade about Koreans. But that’s another story.) Inevitably, my questions collided with canned, boring answers. The interpreter would dutifully translate them. I would dutifully scribble them into a notebook. The entire exercise was, for me, at least as sad and isolating as an evening spent eating alone in front of my TV, though without all the anime schoolgirl costumes.

And then came the day my interpreter smiled.

It was during one of our countless elevator rides together. We were whooshing back down to yet another polished-marble lobby after yet another snoozy interview. This time, I’d failed to subdue my exasperation. In a desperate gambit, I’d begun to frame my questions more and more existentially, hoping to elicit even a morsel of humanity from the blank slate in front of me. I think at one point I inquired about the executive’s childhood memories or perhaps asked something about his family life—which, in this context, was a personal invasion akin to asking him if he enjoyed reading manga tentacle porn and lacing up in chambermaid bodices. Junko could not manage to fully suppress a grin as she recollected the fellow’s reaction.

“I thought you asked excellent questions,” she said to me with a nod, her hand pressed lightly to her smiling lips. There was a hint of a chuckle in her voice. It was the first time anyone in Tokyo had broken formal protocol in front of me, and I adored her for it. In a single moment, she’d melted away all my dark, sulky feelings of alienation.

From then on, we gabbed like old friends. She told me about the traditional calligraphy class she was taking. She bragged about having once translated for Roger Ebert when he came to a Japanese film festival. She recounted a dreary week she’d spent in Gary, Indiana, interpreting for a business deal between Japanese and American companies—an experience that, in her description, sounded every bit as lonely and strange as the one I’d been slogging through in Tokyo.

Soon after Junko opened up to me, I began to find my footing in the city. I made a few pals. I came to see that there are, of course, an infinite number of personality types in Japan—as there are in every other country on earth. There even exist a few quirky, extroverted Japanese businessmen. And at least one or two teenage girls who don’t dress like escapees from a Lady Gaga video.

Once my gig was up, I went back home to the States, but I kept in touch with Junko by email. A few years later, when I returned to Tokyo—this time on vacation, because I’d missed Japan so much I couldn’t wait to get back—Junko insisted that my girlfriend and I visit her apartment in the Shibuya district for a home-cooked meal with her extended family. She and her tiny, elderly mother prepared steak and mashed potatoes in our honor, setting the whole table with forks and knives instead of chopsticks. Junko acted as interpreter for a lively dinner discussion that lasted well into the dessert course of green tea ice cream. We chatted with her nephew, the newspaper photographer; her niece, the cosmetics designer; and her uncle, the traditional Noh actor, who showed us a photo of himself onstage, arms spread, wearing a diabolical-looking mask.

At the end of the night, a little tipsy on sake, we slipped our shoes back on in Junko’s foyer. Junko walked us to the elevator, pressed the button, and rode down to the lobby with us. I couldn’t help but smile at her, remembering how that first smile in another elevator slid open the door to another world. A

Photo: Lopetz09: Buro District. This appeared in the May/June 2010 issue.

Seth Stevenson has been a journalist since 1997, writing features, profiles, and essays on myriad topics. He’s reported on-scene from countless events—including presidential campaigns, the Olympics, and high-profile criminal trials. His writing has appeared in Slate, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, New York Magazine, GQ, Wired, and other publications. He’s developed, scripted, and hosted multiple Slate podcasts. Stevenson has been excerpted three times in the Best American Travel Writing series, won the 2005 Online Journalism Award for commentary, and was nominated for a 2011 National Magazine Award for Digital Media. His book, Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, was published by Riverhead in 2010. Stevenson graduated from Brown and was a Knight-Bagehot fellow at Columbia Journalism School. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two sons.