[Note: This is an article I wrote one day while I was living in Sendai, Japan, in January 2004. I just found it while browsing through my Writing folder and thought I’d post it]
After just over six months of living here in Japan, the question I am most asked is: “How is life in Japan different from back home?”. The other night, at nearly two o’clock in the morning, I stumbled across something on Japanese television that serves as a helpful piece of evidence for my otherwise fumbling and awkward responses.
I was on the phone at the time with my fiancée, who is currently in Seattle completing her studies at the University of Washington. I had been up late reading a linguistics textbook, so it was no problem for her to call as she woke up. Since Japanese apartments are rarely as warm as I’d like them to be, I turned on the TV – as if this would magically make things warmer – before wrapping myself in a blanket and sitting down in the chair next to the telephone.
We chatted about the usual things: the cats, the Korean student living in our house with us, and the problems with the computers that inevitably crop up when the only person with any real knowledge about them leaves for any period of time. As my eyes wandered around the room, they would occasionally settle on the TV screen, where it appeared as though two pairs of males were wandering around with camera crews.
One pair, consisting of a somewhat sumo-like gentleman along with his much skinnier and shorter sidekick (it’s entirely possible that the more petit of the two was of average stature, but it was difficult to say in close quarters), was chasing pretty young Japanese girls around a train station, trying to get them to talk to them in front of the camera. As is normal on Japanese television, a constant stream of text in a funky font would slide across the bottom of the screen, transcribing each utterance they made. Of course, not being very proficient at Japanese, I could only read about 30% of it, and continued to let my eyes wander.
“Oh, and BB (that’s Boutros-Boutros Ghali, our one year old male Egyptian Mau) threw up again. He ate a rubber band, the dumbass,” came the voice over the line, drawing me back into the conversation. Our cats are very cute, but stunningly dimwitted.
The second couple of Japanese men, both of normal stature, also appeared to be spending non-trivial amounts of time running around trying to get pretty young girls to talk to them as well. They were in a bar talking with a girl band with three members. The sumo guy and his sidekick had since walked into a ramen bar, and had managed to get the three girls working there to agree to do something for them, again all helpfully spelled out for me at the bottom of the screen in an alphabet I can only barely read at extremely slow speeds.
“And I managed to get a new network hub, replace all the cables, and plug everything in. And it all works! Aren’t you proud of me?”
I really was, but at that time, strangely more concerned with why the four men were all in a hot-tub that had a rope drawn across the middle to divide them up into their groups. The hot-tubs were, in fact, what they call onsen here in Japan. Being one of the most seismically active countries in the worlds means lots of lava under the earth, which translates into some delightfully hot water coming forth from the ground. The Japanese, being incredibly crafty, harness this hot water and have places where you can go sit in it all over the country. It’s extremely common to see people doing this on evening television variety shows – the only caveat being that, while onsen typically separate bathers by gender and all are naked, on television they are wrapped in a towel.
So, while we were discussing the latest batch of bills that had arrived in Seattle, I was watching a hot tub with four men in towels, an announcer with a scoreboard, and a dividing line keeping the two groups apart. And then, from behind a rice-paper screen, arrive two girls in towels. They look somewhat nervous, smile at the camera, say something in Japanese, and get into the hot tub with the two normal guys. Then arrive three others, who get in to the tub with the sumo and sidekick. This continues until a commercial break, which distracts me and encourages me to pay closer attention to the phone conversation.
When my eyes next return to the screen, after some discussions of exercise (we’re both members of the latest and greatest fad diet: eating less and doing more exercise), there are many girls on both sides of the tub, and the two normal guys have 22 points to sumo and sidekick’s mere 11 points. Something about a bi-kappu flashes across the bottom, but I don’t quite catch it – two year old children are significantly more proficient at this language than I am. Where are those points coming from?
Well, stroll in the three girls from the restaurant, all in towels, again looking shyly at the camera. The camera then proceeds to focus in on two of them, and label the first C-kappu, while the second is B-kappu. C-kappu was worth 3 points while B-kappu was only worth 2. Then it became clear to me: they were getting points for the size of the girls’ breasts. An A-cup was worth 1 point, B-cup 2 points, and a C-cup 3 points. Each group of guys was supposed to go pick out 10 girls, and they would total up the collective breast sizes, and see which group was better at finding the ladies with the mammoth mams, as it were. Sumo and sidekick were down to their last three girls, and, trailing by 10 points, it wasn’t looking good.
But then they struck gold. The third girl, with all the shyness of somebody neither fully comfortable with her body, nor with talking about it in front of a television camera, quietly announced that she was an F-kappu. That was a full 10 points, rocketing sumo and sidekick to 26 points. The television exploded with noise, text scrolling across the bottom, and I couldn’t even really pretend to be fully engaged in my telephone conversation any more.
“Uh honey, I think they’re measuring women’s boobs on the TV here in Japan.” The camera vainly tried to zoom in on her ample bosom, as if to verify their magnitude, but the bulky towel clumsily wrapped around her torso helped them defy measurement. The sudden find meant that the score was now 26-21, with the two normal guys pinning their hopes on their last two girls. In a country known for women of petite stature, they would need some good fortune to win. The last two girls came out, and – the show cut to commercial.
Now it’s worth saying that this isn’t particularly gripping television watching, and thus, in an attempt to ensure my continued status as “engaged”, I returned to the telephone conversation in full. When next my eyes drifted back to the TV, sumo and sidekick had found themselves robbed by a couple of C-cups, who together tipped skinny guys over the top to a 27-26 victory.
And that was pretty much the show. I’d like to say that this was one of those odd shows that come only at two in the morning (like that weird show in Italy we saw in 1999 where girls come out on stage and take their tops off in front of a creepy, leering guy who looks like a 6’ tall Ron Jeremy), but I’d be lying. With other shows where girls sit in the onsen and bad mouth each other before launching violent streams of hot, frothy water at each other with the slam of a button, or guys, in a display of insane frugality, wrestle and catch 40kg octopi and eat frogs, this is pretty normal fare for Japanese television. I’d also like to say that this was a one-shot show, but that also appears to be untrue, as the credits at the end heartily reminded viewers to come back next week, when they’ll be getting pretty young girls to sing in a karaoke bar.
What a strange and wonderful country this is.[Read Rest of Article]