The Drunken Art of Bridge Building

newskiingcowsEvery year, for two consecutive warm summer days and nights in late July, our town celebrates its Shinto roots with a shrine festival. During the day, a portable shrine is hauled all over town by a group of half-willing junior high teenagers, followed by a large flatbed truck full of taiko-drum thumping elementary school children, and lastly by a throng of demon costume wearing city councilmen and government workers. They scour the streets searching for large piles of sand sitting on top of folding tables. When they find such an occurrence, they set the shrine down in front of it, and a priest comes over, shakes a paper pompon around in the air above the dirt, and reads a blessing. Then everyone gathered at the location bows twice, claps twice, and bows again. After which the drums start beating, the demons start dancing, and the junior high students lumber lethargically away with the shrine.

All along the streets, electric lanterns have been meticulously strung, and as evening approaches, their flickering bulbs light up their dirty, worn and faded pink and white paper canvases, and lead participants to a final ceremony in the woods on a small hilltop at the edge of town. Here, tired and exhausted, the students and company all make their final stop, returning the god in the portable shrine back to its home in the sanctuary of the town’s main shrine. Once again there is a session of collective bowing and clapping, and countless offerings of 1.8L bottles of sake to satisfy the thirst of the gods. After all this, it’s time to party.

My wife and I traditionally have a light dinner at home on festival days and head down to the venue once things have gotten into full swing. We usually discerned this timing by opening a window and listening for the blaring enka music that comes spewing out of the PA and into the misty night sky, echoing off the surrounding hills and down the empty streets to our house. Rising on top of it all is, inevitably, a piercing, nasally female soprano singing about a broken heart and love that will never be.

Standing on my front porch, I call inside to my wife, “C’mon, let’s go. They’ve let loose the karaoke singer.”

Now mind you, Japanese people would not refer to this soprano in such a crude manner. No, no. She is an enka singer. After all, karaoke is when you sing overtop pre-recorded backing music in a bar with your drunk friends. Enka singing, on the other hand, is when you stand on a stage in a gaudy 30 year old prom dress and sing overtop pre-recorded backing music in front of your drunk fans. By this logic, with the differences reduced to a prom dress and a stage, my friends often look at me exasperatedly and then say something like ‘Yes, but she is a professional singer.’

“Aha! So she is a professional karaoke singer!” I chide them.

“No!” they insist. And at that point I usually laugh and they laugh, and we let it go.

Tonight my wife and I arrived at the venue in short order on our bicycles, dodging a few children running around in the street, and stopping to chat with our friend who was volunteering as one of six policemen standing there for hours rerouting nonexistent traffic. In front of us, the stage lights bled out over the small parking lot that serves our local library. Directly in front of the stage, a few giant blue tarps had been spread where people could sit and eat and drink while enjoying the show. Around the tarps, shoes were strewn about everywhere as, in true Japanese fashion, everyone removes their shoes before stepping on them. Behind the tarps, some tables and chairs were setup for the elder folks who couldn’t stand sitting on the hard asphalt. Next to that were a couple tents housing games for kids like pinball and, “scoop the floating bouncy ball out of a pool with a tissue-paper spatula.” And along the street side, a dim haze rose from a small collection of four or five food venders.

As usual, food is what I head for first. I buy an obligatory pack of ten chicken skewers, some fried potato dumplings, a glass of sake, and a cream filled cake for dessert. It’s difficult for me to not immediately consume all of this at once. Though the background music, the language, and the taste of the cuisine is all different from where I’m from. There is something strangely nostalgic about being at a festival, and this feeling pleasantly seems to intensify with every bite. Somehow though, I manage to save some scraps for my wife. And, after finding her in the crowd, we decide to go and find an open space on the blue tarps.

Japan is perhaps the only country in the world where when there is open seating for a live show, nobody sits in the front row. It’s even stranger in a case where there are no chairs, as it is at our festivals, and instead just this invisible zone of blue tarp that nobody will enter. For someone new to Japan who happens to arrive in the middle of a concert as we had, you might wonder if someone hadn’t recently vomited or lost control of their bodily functions on that section of tarp. Luckily, I’ve been here long enough to know better, and because I’m a foreigner have absolutely no problem sitting in what I considered the best spot in the whole venue. Lucky for my wife too because, although she’s Japanese and feels reluctant to sit there by herself, she can happily sit there with me because I am taking the lead.

So, we take off our shoes and gingerly tip-toe across the tarp. I’m especially careful to balance my glass of sake while trying to avoid stepping directly on the numerous sharp rocks poking up from asphalt underneath. As we reach our intended seating area, a throng of drunk men sitting just behind raise their glasses and begin yelling, “Boasen! Yeah! Boasen!” like I am some victorious gladiator come to attend a post-killing celebration. I’m not quite sure why I bring out such testosterone laden greetings from other men at these gatherings. Perhaps it’s the beard? Or maybe the cowboy hat? Honestly, I do my best to be very soft-spoken with folks here. But, it is not wise to let the cheers of drunken men go unanswered, lest they turn to taunts, so I raised my glass of sake and, much to their jubilation, roared to them in return. Their bellowing increased two fold and we all momentarily drowned out the wailing karaoke singer’s voice as we grunted and “Compai!”ed and, in short, partook in a brief moment of silliness. With this obligatory show of manly respect successfully accomplished, my wife and I finally sat down to enjoy the show.

Tonight the singer was one that I hadn’t remembered seeing here before. She looked like she was in her 40s, which is a good 10 or 20 years younger than the singers that are usually dredged up and brought to our town. She wore a long, tight-fitting white sequined dress with three giant bands of thick white frills on the bottom and a single strap covering the right shoulder where an enormous white, fluffy poof-ball bobbed around as she danced. Her voice was actually quite good. She had an excellent enka nasal whine and was quite adept at stretching out her arm emphatically at the climax of every verse. But there was something tentative about her performance, as if she was new to this whole professional karaoke scene. I was about to venture a remark upon this to my wife when I noticed that a man had come off the tarps barefoot and staggered over to the stage where he began to spastically gyrate his body in what appeared to be a highly rudimentary form of drunken dance.

“Woah. Now there’s a happy grandpa,” I muttered. For indeed, even taking Japanese longevity into account, he looked to be at least in his mid-70s.

His friends meanwhile, though not the same bunch that greeted me, were nevertheless just as vivacious. A group of six or so elderly men, cross-legged and huddled in a small semi-circle around a stack of empty beer cups. All of them were now laughing hysterically, pointing, and cracking jokes about their supremely inebriated comrade. The wisdom, maturity and self-control that comes with age is, it would seem, easily neutralized with a healthy dose of alcohol.

Observing the dancing grandpa, for it was impossible to do otherwise with him standing right in front of the stage, began to become more and more alarming. He apparently wanted to shake hands with the singer, which in it of itself is not a bad thing. But he kept leaning his upper body as far as he could over the edge of the stage, waving his hand around frantically and screaming while the singer was in mid song. She obliged him once, probably in the hope that he would calm down and go back to his seat. However, it only seemed to excite him more.

He staggered backwards and twice nearly stumbled to the ground and then immediately returned to the stage to plead for another touch from the singer. It was beginning to get rather inappropriate and the singer, and her manager, were having a difficult time hiding their concern, their brows sometimes furrowing as they shot quick glances down from the stage at the man almost in fear.

I thought to myself, “Isn’t anyone going to do something about this? Why doesn’t anyone from the group he’s in intervene?” But one look in their direction and it was clear from their stomach holding, literally rolling on the ground hysterics that they were far too drunk themselves to offer any meaningful assistance. The group of gladiator fans behind me weren’t much better either. However, by now our wild grandpa had pitched himself a sizable tent and was beginning to get quite belligerent.

He wandered over to the chicken skewer booth with his giant hard on, yelling out and speaking gibberish, and still barefoot mind you. With one great stumble, he nearly knocked over the grill, BBQ chicken and hot coals and all. The poor woman doing the cooking was quick though. She immediately seized the grill with towels in her hands and prevented disaster. The grandpa, completely unaware of what he was doing berated her as he staggered back to the stage, barely maintaining his balance.

“This is ridiculous,” I said to my wife. “He’s either going to hurt someone, or cause serious injury to himself by falling and smashing his face into the pavement .”

I waited another few moments for someone else to do something, but no one did. So, fed up, I walked over and put on my shoes and went up to the stage. Grandpa was once again frantically trying to reach out and touch the singer when I came up beside him. I put my hand gently on his shoulder and spoke out over the blaring music.

“Grandpa, good evening!” He momentarily forgot about the singer and looked puzzlingly at me, trying to figure out who I was. I know a lot of people in this town. But I can’t say that I had ever made this man’s acquaintance. And though it’s possible that he knew me, he clearly couldn’t figure out in his drunken state why he was being hailed suddenly by a foreigner. But no matter, I had his attention.

“The performance is really great, isn’t it?!”

He mumbled something that seemed like agreement.

“You want to shake her hand, I see. Why don’t we wait until after she finishes to say hello? She’s pretty busy right now with her performance and it’s difficult for her to talk to us. Why don’t we go sit down together and wait for her to finish and then go get a hand shake?”

He looked at me very hard, trying to concentrate and process my words.

I repeated myself, “C’mon. Let’s go sit down together and enjoy her performance.” Now that he was facing me and not the stage, I put an arm around his other shoulder and gently turned him back towards the tarps. Whether he completely understood or not, he didn’t resist and rather seemed happy to have a friend. I guided him back to where his friends where and he rejoined them of his own accord.

As he tried to sit down, he couldn’t maintain his balance and fell flat on his back. But returned within the sphere of his friends, they quickly reached out their hands and helped him up, patting him on the back and soothing him with soft and polite praise, “Woah there buddy… Up you go… There you are. You’re OK now, eh? Yeah, we love ya. Let’s just take it easy now, eh?”

As I returned to my seat, my gladiator fans once again sounded their cheers, “Boasen! Boasen! Boasen!” My eyes internally rolled. There was nothing to do but subdue them again. But this time, I offered handshakes and sat down and started a conversation. Their cheers died away and for the next half hour or so we made small talk about work, family, hobbies, etc. From the corner of my eye I could see that our happy grandpa had risen again and this time was staggering over to a hedge growing behind the stage.

“Uh-oh,” I thought. “Is he going to yak?” But he was apparently too experienced a drinker for that. Instead, right there in the open, with his back to the crowd, he opened his fly and started urinating. He had ingested quite a large volume of beer so it took some time to finish. Halfway through a group of elementary school children came skipping by and halted abruptly at the sight, mouths agape. I involuntarily smacked my forehead with an open hand.

Right about this time, the music had stopped and the festival ended. We parted with the gladiator fans, offering a friendly resolve that we should all drink together more properly sometime. And as my wife and I stood to go get our shoes, I noticed a group of elderly women walking by the old man and one of them addressing him in a rather irritated tone.

“What are you doing wandering around in your bare feet? Where are your shoes? You’ve been drinking way too much! I’m going home now. Are you coming?” It was clear that the woman was his wife. I couldn’t help laughing a little. It wasn’t going to be pleasant for him the next morning, in more ways than one.

As we walked to the back of the venue, a friend of mine running one of the food booths hailed us. Apparently they had a few unsold sodas leftover and he gave us two. I tried to pay him but he refused. We happily accepted the gift went and sat in the now empty chairs to enjoy them. Sucking away at the bottle and burping occasionally, I couldn’t help but reflect upon that evening’s occurrence.

Public drunkenness is something that can happen in any country where alcohol is enjoyed. And certainly in any small town it would not be unusual to have someone get a little wild at a festival. But it struck me as culturally fascinating how, when the grandpa left his social circle and began his erratic behavior, no one had been willing to intervene. I don’t believe that his behavior was acceptable. In fact, I think that it was precisely because it was unacceptable that no one wanted to go near him. For going to him would, in a way, be akin to taking responsibility for him as a member of one’s group, like saying, “Hey, he’s one of us.” And doing so with your husband or friend while he’s dancing about in front of hundreds of people, harassing a performer, and sporting a huge boner, is simply far too embarrassing for the average Japanese person. It’s kind of similar to the, “I don’t know him/her,” mentality.

As an American, I can relate to this thinking when it comes to an immediate family member. But when it comes to a friend, I don’t have the same group mindset, and have no problem separating another individual’s behavior from my own. It highlights the fact that all humans, I think, unconsciously divide their associations with others among an ever increasing collection of social spheres. Yet, depending on our culture, where those lines are drawn can differ significantly.

Living here as a foreigner, I am always keenly aware of my role as a bridge between my culture and Japan’s. But that night, by intervening with that grandpa, I had done what everyone probably wanted someone to do, but could not do themselves. And as I thought about the moment when I returned the old man to his group and watched them readily re-accept him, I realized that instead of bridging two cultures, I had served as a bridge within the one.

It can be frustrating sometimes receiving differential treatment because I am a foreigner and knowing that, while I have been accepted as a member of the community, I will always be perceived in some sense as an outsider. But that evening’s lesson augmented a growing conviction of mine that, when wielded properly, the fact that one is accepted as different can lend one a profound power to do good. And when we act in such a way, although it reinforces those differences, it simultaneously endears us to them, allowing us to be loved and accepted exactly the way we are, and exactly the way we would want to be.

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Jared Boasen

Singer/songwriter; paragliding, kung fu, and private English instructor, living and playing in northern Hokkaido.