Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tama, Ginza (球)

For a couple of weeks, I've been mentally turning over the idea of a publishable profile of late-night Ginza. I, of course, have barely scratched the area's surface, but I think that's true for almost everyone except those who own bars there. With my limited surface-scratching, the two words that keep turning over in my mentally are mystery and desperation.

An important skill for searching things out in Ginza, or any urban area of Japan, is to look up. It sounds simple, but so many things, good things, don't have street-level frontage. Especially in Ginza, especially in the deep southwest of Ginza (like the area near Mardi Gras), a look up will quickly smack you in the face with row after row of signs for tiny bars. Most of those bars are hostess bars. You could spend a year or a hundred thousand dollars and not visit all of those bars, let alone get insider status. Nor would you necessarily want insider status, because the cost burden actually increases once you have it. These are all aspects of the mystery for me.

The desperation is everywhere else. The people, even the places. Let's review the system - men avoid going home to their families, instead visiting bars where women are paid very well to pour them drinks, make conversation, flatter them, and listen to them sing. In general, I think the expenses are paid by companies - another example of how the Japanese system favors the employee over the shareholder. It's pleasant on the surface, but the unhappiness and desperation should be obvious for the men. For the women, it's a hard, hard life. They have to drink every night with some customer or another, but stay beautiful, well-informed, witty and charming. It's also high-pressure because of the sales aspects - I'm pretty sure everyone has a revenue target of some type, to be met by tagging customers to themselves and bringing them in regularly, hopefully also by making the customers take them out to dinner first. There's not much future in it; perhaps the best you can hope for is to open your own bar and take on a whole new set of challenges, or else marry a customer. Even if you're pretending to enjoy it every night, it can't be that much fun.

Tama was already closed when we got there (12:30), but the boss banged on the door, and mama was happy to unlock it, and overjoyed when she was it was him. She had sent home whatever hostesses were there, but quickly set us up with a bottle of wine ('free') and plate after plate of junk-food snacks. I mean individually-wrapped sweets, canned tuna on crackers, processed cheese with salami, mixed nutz.

You might get a sense from this picture what I mean if I say that the interiors are also a bit desperate. Pink walls, pink banquettes, blinking lights, cheezy art, knicknacks everywhere...my dominant thought was suspended animation, that a 15-year old had decorated this bar like her bedroom. And added a big liquor cabinet where the regular customers keep their bottles. Don't get the idea that this is a cheap bar - while I'm a peon, it's not an exaggeration to say that my (former) boss is one of the top guys in our industry in Japan. The people that he discussed with mama were more important than him, and one of his many asides to me was that he had to come to Tama because the CEO of a household-name company really liked Tama herself, and had asked my boss to take care of her.

Here he is, taking care of...business, I guess, doing a cat-claw imitation. We stayed for a couple hours, drinking and singing. Did I sing? I did. I like to think I was being mildly subversive by singing Cheap Trick's Surrender, which doesn't make a lot of sense in any language but was certainly big in Japan. No one knew it, which is the problem that always plagues me at karaoke. Once the boss passed out and started drooling on his tie, it was time to go home.

Another night of my life that I'll never get back.

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