Shortly after arriving for my first stint in Osaka, I discovered, as all new arrivals did, the Pig and Whistle, an ersatz British pub in Shinsaibashi. It was then (c. 1989) the only place one could get an order of fish and chips, and beer in a pint glass. It was also one of the first actual gaijin bars in the city (this was in the days when “Gaijin dame!” – no foreigners! – was a not untraditional greeting in the drinking quarters of cheery old Naniwa). Salarymen, in those heady, Bubble Economy days, were always working hard to use up their then-generous expense accounts, and it was quite trendy to go to the Pig and try to start up conversation with a gaijin sensei or two. By 10 PM, it was usually standing room only, the ratio of Japanese to foreigners nearly 50-50. If they were middle-aged managers or bosses (so not really salarymen, although we weren’t aware of the difference at the time) they’d also bring an underling salesman or a few OLs and treat them to a drink and the passing parade. I find it hard to think of myself as exotic (it’s not an adjective that clings naturally to anything from Nova Scotia), but I guess we were, to them. In 1989. Hard to believe now.
Besides the one-time-only gawkers, there were a few regular Japanese patrons, salarymen, whom you’d notice there at least once a week. They did not all look alike, but back then they certainly tried to, and it must be said that many of them succeeded. They would introduce themselves once, and you were expected, like a Japanese businessman must, to remember their name for the rest of your life, though of course I rarely did. I spoke next to nothing, literally a few sentences of Japanese (including those sure-fire conversation starters, “Where is the subway station?” and “How much is the beer?”). I couldn’t even follow Japanese-accented English (now I can barely understand anything else…). More often than not I would miss the name several times until the guy helpfully took out his business card and showed me his name, written not in English, but kanji. Big help.
At any rate, it got you meeting people, and the Pig was sort of a halfway house to acclimatize newbies to Japan and enable Japanese to meet actual foreigners at close range, under controlled conditions (it was also a pick-up joint, but it didn’t become primarily so until somewhat later, when it became sleazy and boring and we deserted it for Tin’s Hall). It didn’t seem so bad at the time.
I had been in Japan about a month when, dropping into the Pig after work, a gray-haired man in a pinstripe suit and a meticulous comb-over (bar-code, the kids call it here) struck up a conversation with me. I have no idea what we spoke about, he seemed friendly enough, and he offered to buy me a beer. I accepted with feigned reluctance (I had learned that much Japanese etiquette in a month), and he had barely walked over to the bar when a stocky foreigner, also in a suit, brushed past me and muttered in my ear.
“Hey, pal,” he said, ” get your own damn salaryman. He’s been buying me drinks for the past week.”
There’s no point to this story. I was just reminded of it by another blog I’ve just read. I do remember drinking the beer anyway, naturally. As for the ale-whore, he eventually went up to the man, bowed ingratiatingly, and got his beer too, throwing me a smug look in the process. Luckily, I started making Japanese friends and going to izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese pubs) around then, and my quality of life (if not my liver’s) improved exponentially.