Jane Scerri (Wollongong University, Australia)
The Ginza Star is one of Tokyo’s oldest and most prestigious clubs, and the only reason I’m working here is because it’s fashionable these days to have a gaijin or two among the Japanese girls. Except for Asuka, they could be women – their ages like their opinions are hidden. I’m treating it as a kind of exotic, free finishing school, whilst I save my airfare to London. The advertisement in the Tokyo Times reads:
‘Evening Wear Requiring
I have only three outfits that are in-keeping with the dress code and will have to expand on these if my one-month probationary contract is to be extended. Tonight I’m wearing my blue, fifties dress and red stilettos. I leave the cold dark street and apply make-up on my way up to the twenty-seventh floor – the fluorescents in the lift cast a most unflattering light.
Most of the hostesses are still seated near the bar, whitening their faces, as they chat with Haru the barman – probably about last night’s tips. He looks up from rolling the warm hand towels to gives me a cursory nod, then continues singing along with Lionel Ritchie’s, All Night Long on NHK radio. Even though he speaks English he prefers not to. The Hello Kitty alarm beeps at ten to seven and the flurry commences. Mizuki, our chief hostess, turns on the paper lanterns and Kabuki music. Sachi lights incense to disguise the persistent odour from a nearby kitchen and Haru sets up the whiskey trays and dims the main lights. Minutes later Mamasan’s doorbells chime. The show begins.
‘Irrashaimasse!’ We welcome our first guests, the enthusiastic Mr Yamamoto and his American guest, Mr Bradley Williams. Mizuki seats me between the two gentlemen. While they are talking business Mizuki, Sachi and I make name cards and attempt a little conversation. They can’t be much older than me, even though their poise and elegance suggest otherwise – I’m attempting to emulate some of their refinements. As Mizuki turns to tell me my dress is kawaii, Sachi notices a small white patch on the shoulder of her kimono, discretely wipes it and whispers to me ‘aachen’ (baby).
Mr Yamamoto requires our attention again and as Mizuki and Sachi have done all the work with our clients so far I decide it’s time I join in. I begin my hapless Westerner routine – by attempting to make an origami-esque, ‘chopstick rest’. Mizuki and Sachi know it by heart. With their chopsticks poised perfectly, they laugh as my first attempt collapses. I then follow Mizuki’s deft fingers again – as in three simple moves, she creates another perfect rest. My fingers feel thick and stubby as one of the elegant chopsticks slides to the floor. I crumple the rice paper into a ball, feigning exasperation. As Mr Yamamoto’s shrill song ends, he picks up the chopstick, relieved to be passing on the microphone, and patiently demonstrates his version of the ‘rest’ routine. This time I make a reasonable one and everybody claps, especially Mr Yamamoto.
The customary clapping for the slightest thing is one of the things I find most difficult about the job. For instance, right now I think my weak clapping could be the reason Mizuki is giving me that look. I respond with a puzzled half-smile, as I watch her gaze shift toward the shoji screens. The clapping gives way to silence, and then an ominous rustle – as Mamasan, resplendent in an emerald green, new style ‘hostess suit’ – descends from her upstairs parlour. I uncross my legs. She sashays towards our table and formally greets us, (her girls) ‘Konbanwa!’
We rise, returning the extended version, ‘Youkoso irasshai mashita!’ The usual bowing continues as Mamasan’s attention shifts to the gentlemen. She locks eyes with them, tossing her coiffed head, her lips parting to reveal red lipstick on a tiny front tooth. She looks a little tired, our seductress, our maître d’. I see a glimpse of the timid girl she must have been; pretty, yet conniving.
She squeezes in between Mr Yamamoto and Mr Williams. Even though she has a bit of a tummy, she is still shapely. She is going to expect me to sing tonight, I’m sure. I’ve dodged the microphone more times than is reasonable this week. Oh here we go.
‘You country song!’ cheers Mr Yamamoto, proud of his one English phrase, which he yells straight into my ear.
Mizuki claps, gently correcting him, ‘Song from your country!’
The other girls – except Asuka, who has just arrived wearing a short red cocktail dress – join in, ‘Therese-san, song from your country!’
I go through the ritual of trying to find a new song. I’m sure if I sing the one Mr Yamamoto wants, the one I’ve been singing all month, Mr Williams will be amused. Sachi reverently passes me the plastic folder opened to the gaijin selection page. I refuse to sing the two awful Australian songs and resort to what is basically the American section with the addition of a few Beatles hits. There’s a Japanese song I could almost manage, but I’m not sure if it would be a novelty or cause offence. Perhaps later. I’ve now dawdled for so long with the songbook that the Kabuki is playing again and everyone’s happily chatting.
I pick up the ice tongs. Ice tongs are another part of the ceremony. After daintily removing the lid of the canister, I select the cubes carefully – two or three at a time is best – before submerging them ‘just so’ into the tumblers. Mizuki smiles as my ice cubes plop perfectly into each glass. About as much ice as whisky and then a little top up, just for good measure. The warmth and gaiety develop with every new round of plopping and topping. Mr Yamamoto notices my glass is empty and fills it.
We girls all nurse our Suntory. This is another art I’m learning – I’m finding it quite difficult. The girls laugh uproariously. Mr Williams has just made a joke about his recent visit to a bathhouse. Mizuki and Sachis’ giggling crescendos – as Mamasan does an impression of a gaijin jumping out of a Japanese bath. I smile at Mr Williams but he looks away – we are both embarrassed to be at each other’s table. I take a swig of the whiskey instead of a sip and correct myself. Asuka continues staring into space.
The prevailing hilarity provides me with the opportunity to slip out. The five- hour shifts go so slowly sometimes that I, a non-smoker, have taken to ducking out the back for a ‘Mild Seven’. Almost everybody smokes, which makes me think that perhaps I should sing Cigarettes and Whisky and Wild, Wild Women. That’s more my idea of Karaoke. I can hear Mr Williams’ tentative chuckling. He’s quite typical of the gaijin gentlemen – shy to begin with. After a while though, once they’ve gotten to like the new, more respected version of themselves, perhaps even acquired a taste for the microphone (singing at The Star is enough to give even the most reticent a taste for the bright lights), they can become quite animated. Their inhibitions usually wane just as the gentlemen develop a rapport with one of the girls – such beauties with their silken hair and unreadable eyes. Often it’s Mizuki. She has that special way of cocking her delicate head and expressing sudden delight that the gentleman in question could easily be forgiven for feeling it is the first time he has been truly understood.
Someone is coming! I stub out the cigarette in the antique vase and dash into the bathroom. From inside the cubicle I hear the familiar flick of the Zippo lighter – Mamasan doesn’t like to be seen smoking by her clients. I smudge on some lipstick and come out smoothing my hair. Mamasan eyes me suspiciously, we’re allowed one cigarette break but not before nine. I grimace slightly and touch my stomach, implying ‘women’s trouble’, before slinking back to my table.
When I sit next to Mizuki, I realise it is really she that runs the Ginza Star. I watch her as she helps Sachi and Kobe set up a table for a new group of guests. Sensitive to the slightest ripple, the tiniest gap in hilarity, she now has the added responsibility of tempering Mamasan’s newest hostess, Asuka. Even though I’m relieved the attention has shifted to her, I’m still aware of the tenuous nature of my own position. Mr Yamamoto is talking to Mamasan, no doubt requesting her. Asuka, so different from the other girls, with her sizzling resentment and abrupt modernity shoots me a disdainful look. No doubt unimpressed by my second-hand dress.
A certain client, Mr Tengo, fancies that I look like Marilyn Monroe in it. A lovely thought but considering I have dark hair and the only actress I’ve ever been likened to is Jane Russell, I wonder if he is having a little joke with me. Speak of the devil – he’s just walked in. He totters towards me and I trill, ‘Irrashaimasse, Konbanwe!’
‘Goodnight you, Therese!’ he replies, doing a succession of miniature bows. He fancies that he speaks particularly good English when in my company. The fact that I will be excused from singing at the American’s table if he requests me is some consolation. Except tonight is Wednesday, David Carridine’s night, and I was looking forward to joining him in the velvet club lounge. I groan when I see Mr Tengo has brought his very drunk, very fat friend, Mr Tanaka. Never mind. Mr Tanaka talks and laughs and stares at me until I say ‘hai, hai!’ after which he explodes into laughter. Mr Tengo, however, is another story. An earnest man with bad breath, he is studying Business English in Shibuya. I don’t tell him or anyone else at the club that by day I’m teaching at The Nancy School of English just down the road. He comes to The Star most evenings after completing a ten-hour day at the office and often a two-hour English lesson, after which he presumably goes home to his very good wife and two promising children.
I usually just talk in the spaces when he pauses. I’ve recently added a few new emphatic phrases such as honto and so deska, to alternate with hai. Mr Tengo is delighted but is really more in the business of speaking Business English. I also say, ‘Very good English, Mr Tengo.’ as often as possible. This makes him blush and hopefully makes my job a little more secure; especially if I can manage to say it as Mamasan slithers by.
Mr Tengo is looking seriously at Mr Tanaka, perhaps a deal has been struck. Although seemingly the dimmer of the two, Mr Tanaka must be the superior because Mr Tengo always defers to him, even letting him sing his favourite song. Now two tables are full of frivolity and many more gentlemen are arriving. Mamasan relaxes. The till is ringing and The Star is living up to its reputation.
The problem with being stuck with Mr Tengo and Mr Tanaka, I just remembered, is that apart from Mr Tengo’s breath, the very drunk Mr Tanaka has wandering hands. This club is one of the top clubs in Ginza, with visitors from all over the world, so it really doesn’t have to put up with this behaviour. If one of the girls is having this kind of a problem, the correct thing to do is to call Mamasan. I already know that Mamasan prefers us to turn a blind eye. I don’t want to be any trouble because there are a lot of girls like me; wishing to work in such a top club, many with ‘movie star looks’ far superior to mine. I still haven’t even come close to saving my airfare to London, or any place else for that matter.
I cough to get Mizuki’s attention. She knows the problem of the wandering hands well and rises gracefully, bowing to her new clients, before gliding across to help me with Mr Tanaka. Crinkling her perfect eyebrows she gives him a faux cross look, like a loving and patient mother, before gently placing his pudgy hands on the microphone. He pretends he doesn’t want to sing, but when she sings the chorus it is as much as he can do not to snatch the microphone from her. Mr Tengo smiles and pats his damp forehead with one of Haru’s hand towels.
Mamasan looks on, nodding as if she has orchestrated the correction. Decorum has been re-established. While Mr Tanaka sings, Mamasan comes to have a word with Mr Tengo. He says ‘hai, hai, hai!’ nodding his head emphatically and agrees to order expensive champagne and delicacies from Palace House Sushi. Asuka overhears him and throws me an irritated glance. Her eyes glaze over as Mr Yamamoto talks. When he offers her endamame, she declines. She is obliged to stay with him; he is a good steady client, but cannot afford what Mr Tengo can.
All of a sudden, Asuka dances boldly across to our table. Even I wince at her faux pas. The shock waves that ripple through the club are so strong, I wonder if there’s another earthquake. When she offers Mr Tengo the microphone, Mr Tanaka stops talking to leer at her. She’s more voluptuous than the others and her sullen manner is alluring. All eyes follow her as she sits next to Mr Tanaka and boldly tops up his champagne, tossing her head a little like Mamasan, before sipping, uninvited, from his glass. Mizuki and Mr Tengo share a worried look. He has already had to buy the very expensive champagne and assure Mamasan that Mr Tanaka’s hands will not wander again.
Mr Tengo is also very concerned about the bill. He’s fairly sure the volatile Mr Tanaka will pay but as he is much drunker than usual he could, if displeased, storm out. Mr Tengo knows Mr Tanaka has a penchant for some of the less prestigious clubs closer to his home. I watch Mr Tengo clasp and unclasp his sweaty hands. Mamasan sits next to Asuka and whispers in her ear – even though it’s obvious she’d rather be clipping her round the ear. Asuka picks up the ice bucket and tongs, her face stony. Mamasan offers the tray of delicacies, first to the gentlemen and then to me. I know not to take too much. I select a small seared scallop. The flavour is delicate, a hint of ginger, and like Asuka, I could easily devour the whole plate. Even the hostesses still waiting in the lounge area, turn their heads, taunted by the aroma. It’s not that Mamasan starves us girls. She provides nuts, endaname and occasionally gyozo but the food from The Palace House Sushi is in a class of its own.
Asuka refuses to return to Mr Yamamoto’s table. Even I understand what Mamasan has just said. She ignores her, sliding the largest piece of glistening salmon into her mouth. I watch, impressed by her audacity. Mr Tanaka, still jovial, is being clapped to do another song. As he tries to stand he falls over. Everyone laughs. Such a good time is being had. It’s not long however, before he can’t resist getting his sashimi-sticky hands on Asuka. Mr Tengo watches anxiously. Asuka seems content to ignore his groping for as long as the delicacies remain on the platter. As Mamasan momentarily leaves to greet a group of even more important businessmen, Asuka devours the largest of the tempura prawns. I watch Mizuki pick up the diminishing platter and offer it to Mr Tengo. He is too pre-occupied to eat, but insists I try the ‘special’ sushi. I eat slowly and deliberately, just like Mizuki.
The doorbell chimes. It’s actually David Carradine, looking dashing in his cream linen suit. As he saunters in I smile but only Mizuki notices. He walks past us and she whispers, ‘kawaii Therese-san’ and does a mini kung-fu chop under the table. Now it’s my turn to blush. Asuka, sensing a distraction, leans across to take another piece of tempura, but Mizuki deftly moves the platter out of her reach. Shrugging, she drains Mr Tanaka’s champagne instead. He laughs, refills his glass and raises it to her lips. As she tips her head back to swallow he claps. Mizuki and I take the last pieces of tempura while all eyes are on Asuka and Mr Tanaka. The Star is full to capacity.
Now that the platter is demolished, Asuka unceremoniously places Mr Tanaka’s hand back on the table causing his choler to rise dramatically. Mr Tengo looks like he’s about to cry. Mamasan is watching from the bar. Poor Mizuki, she really has her work cut out for her tonight. She looks tired and lets out a small sigh as she glances back towards Mr Yamamoto’s table, intimating that the situation there is even worse. I turn around. Mr Yamamoto is crestfallen. Mr Williams has grown silent and Kobe, their replacement hostess, is distressed, unable to amuse either gentleman. Mizuki taps Asuka on the shoulder, and then exerts the slightest pressure on her wrist as she leads her out through the shoji screens. I go to assist Kobe.
Mr Yamamoto’s self-esteem is partially restored, now that he is seated between two gaijins again, speaking English. I try to convey to Mr Williams that more care must be taken with Mr Yamamoto’s feelings, but Mr Williams isn’t sensitive and doesn’t know the first thing about pretending to understand Mr Yamamoto’s English. I plop ice into Mr Yamamoto’s glass, straighten his coaster, and say, ‘Okay Mr Yamamoto let’s talk Business English!’ He perks up a little and resumes chatting with me in fluent Japanese. I slide a crooked rest under his dislodged chopstick and pour some of Mamasan’s ‘special’ sake. He claps and with a concentrated effort says, ‘Kawaii Marylin Monroe!’ Mamasan almost smiles at me. Mr Williams looks confused and when I explain, he laughs. I decide to take advantage of his sudden lightness of mood and ask him if he’ll do a song. Of course he won’t – he’s not that drunk – or obliging. Oh no! Now Mr Yamamoto is passing me the microphone. Why doesn’t he insist Asuka accompany him to the velvet club lounge as arranged? I pick up the plastic songbook and flick through it again. Surely there’s a song I’ve missed.
Mr Tengo chimes in from the other table, ‘Song from your country! Song from your country!’ Even Mr Tananka knows the chant. His voice booms and they all clap. If I was still at Mr Tengo’s table I would say, ‘Very good English Mr Tengo!’ I mouth the words and he smiles proudly. I do a reasonable version of Big Spender, but they’re unimpressed. They chant again, ‘Song from your country Therese-san!’
Mr Yamamoto stands, passing me back the microphone I’ve prematurely laid on the table. He bows and all of a sudden – you could hear a chopstick drop – ‘Please Therese-san, song from your country!’ There’s no getting out of it. This is the best sentence I’ve heard him construct so far. I’m almost touched. I do a blistering rendition of Country Roads Take Me Home.
Mr Yamamoto and Mr Tengo both have tears in their eyes and the others clap and cheer in delight, still singing the chorus they have come to know and love. I shrug off my embarrassment as the grinning Mr Bradley Williams bows and refills my Suntory.
Mr Yamamoto and Mr Tengo have a microphone each now and are going to sing the John Denver classic again. Asuka, against all advice, is devouring Mr Yamamoto’s Sushi box in the velvet club lounge and making eyes at Mr Carradine.
Kobe, who is making an origami bear, stops to look at me and clap. I have been absentmindedly fiddling with the crumpled rice paper and have finally produced a perfect rest.
Jane is currently doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Wollongong University. She is halfway through writing a book of travel stories and also runs a vintage clothing shop in Newtown, Sydney called Scrags House of Fashion.