That August, when I would start my commutes by walking the five minutes from my tiny Japanese apartment to the nearest train station, I wouldn’t wear a shirt, because if I did, it’d be completely gross with sweat by the time I swiped my Suica pass at the turnstile. Never did the cartoon penguin on that plastic card seem less appropriate than during the summer in Tokyo, when the heat was less oppressive and more despotic.
My shirt would be in my backpack as I stood on a local train, cooling my face with one of the logoed, plastic fans handed out for free in front of the station. There were poor sods on every shopping street handing out this corporate merch, which changed with the seasons: fans for the summer, then handkerchiefs for winter runny noses. On the day in question, my other hand was holding a few printed sheets of paper—too creased from being badly folded several times—which I was skim reading in something of a panic. That day I was going not to work, but to staff training. I had been asked to give a presentation to my fellow ESL teachers on English for business purposes. I wasn’t being paid to do this, but was told it would look good on my CV. With a decade of hindsight, I can now report that it does not look good on my CV, because it is, of course, not even mentioned on there. A 22-year-old fresh out of uni will believe such things, especially when told them by a manager.
The corporation I worked for was the British School, which had branches on shopping streets and in malls all across Japan. This training day was being held in Machida, a satellite city of Tokyo that was a popular meeting place among the teachers for after-work beers. Given the mood I had been in over the previous weeks, I was hoping that some of my colleagues would join me at an izakaya that evening, so that I could get absolutely plastered. As I made my way out of Machida station, I looked around for a moment before clocking the school logo, which was decaled onto a window of a nearby building: a Union Jack with ‘BS’ superimposed over the middle of the cross, and the company slogan, English Forever, written ominously along a saltire.
I entered the building and took an elevator to the men’s room on the fifth floor, where I could take off my pit-stained Pikachu t-shirt, coat myself with deodorant and put on my shirt and tie; and this is precisely what I would have done, had I remembered to pack the bloody shirt.
It was very hot in the eighth-floor classroom that day. There was no upside to being that high up in the building, not even the view, because the decal completely covered the room’s sole window. It was like this room had been specially designed to make everyone inside it feel depressed.
My presentation went badly, and not just because I had to give it while wearing the smelly Pikachu t-shirt. I had spent the previous week failing to motivate myself to prepare properly, so when my time to present came, I could only take out my notes—which consisted of passages hastily copied and pasted from a few TEFL websites—and do some jargon-heavy waffling on until my ten minutes were finally up. As I sat through a series of equally boring presentations—while fanning myself to little avail—I wondered why I had cared at all about my own. I and the majority of the other teachers had come to Japan out of youthful wanderlust rather than to climb a career ladder. Frankly, we didn’t even like teaching.
Before our lunch break, the Director of Studies came into the classroom to make an announcement.
“Alright,” she said, clapping her hands together, “so the big news is that starting from January, any teacher with two consecutive free periods on a given workday will be required to hand out company handkerchiefs on the shopping street nearest to their school.”
I looked at the logoed fan in my hand. How could I have carried so many of these things around without foreseeing what I had just been told?
“Excuse me Ms. Director, the last thing I want to be is rude, yet I find this to be absolutely barmy.”
A man sat at the front of the room had spoken in what seemed to me a vaguely Dutch accent. He had already caught my attention for two reasons. The first was that, being in his forties, he was clearly the oldest person at the training session. He had a decade even on the Director. The second was that he was the only person besides me not wearing a shirt and tie, as per company rules. He wore a rumpled, maroon, cotton shirt with a few buttons undone, like he was the owner of a village cheese and wine shop. (Nowadays I frequent such places, because I myself am becoming middle-aged.)
“Why?” he said. “Because when we signed on the dotted line, this was nowhere to be seen in our contract.”
“You’re right about that Rudy; however, it’ll be included in the new contracts you’ll all sign in the new year.”
“You have broached the subject of the new year, so let me put this to you,” he said. “Will I and my fellow teachers be keen on handing out handkerchiefs in January? Not a chance. Why? Because it will be damn near Baltic out there.”
“Yes, you’ll need to wrap up. Anyway, we’ll give you more information about it nearer the—”
“Are any of my fellow teachers also having kittens about our impending spells of parkiness?”
He turned around, shaking his shoulder-length, brown curls and revealing a ruddy, expectant face to the rest of the room. The other teachers just stared at him. Then I raised my hand.
“Only the two hippos in the room!” Rudy said. “Wait, no, of course I mean hippies.”
Everyone laughed, which gave the Director a chance to end the conversation and send us on our break. As I was walking out of the door, Rudy patted me on the back.
“Thanks for sticking up for me mate,” he said.
We talked on our way to the convenience store around the corner. It turned out Rudy was from Belgium, and he and I had both been in Japan for a year. He lived nearby, having just moved out of the company’s accommodation and into his own one-bed flat. I was jealous. I never looked forward to sleeping in my own flat’s loft bed, particularly during the humid summer months. It was like trying to sleep inside something’s mouth.
We both paid for a black coffee and went over to the machine. I found myself staring at Rudy’s hand as he held his disposable cup under the nozzle. It was thick and crinkly soft, as if he wore gloves made of skin.
“Our little secret,” he said, and winked at me. For a moment I didn’t know what he meant, until I realised that he was sneakily getting himself a latte.
For the afternoon session, Rudy joined me at the back of the classroom, where we chatted about things other than how to become better at our job. I didn’t even bother pretending to be professional anymore; in fact, more than once I remember laughing loud enough to disrupt another teacher’s presentation. It had been a long time since I’d acted in such a juvenile way in a classroom. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
“I heard there’s a new batch of teachers arriving next week. Makes me laugh that they call them ‘batches’. Like they’re gonna arrive in a shipping container.”
Rudy and I were having a pint in a British (i.e., fake British) pub chain. There were photos of London tourist attractions on the walls and Union Jack bunting over the bar. You could even buy lager in a novelty yard-high glass.
“In much the same way that we in the West bulk buy our appliances from Asia,” said Rudy.
“Right. They’re bulk buying Western liberal arts graduates.”
“And they ran the rule over Stephen Jackson and said, ‘This one’s defective.’”
I actually spit my drink out. Stephen Jackson was a teacher who had come to Japan in my and Rudy’s batch and done the initial training week with us, before being fired a month into the job. He’d had little choice but to fly back home.
Rudy’s joke was unexpected and mean and made me laugh. I found him both intentionally and unintentionally funny. This is a good combination for a drinking partner.
“Are English teachers as valuable as fridges?” I asked him.
“Good gracious no. Well, perhaps if we understood grammar. In any case, I think the Japanese people find us considerably more simpatico than fridges – even the fridges here which chinwag with us.”
After he spoke, I stopped myself from stealing another glance at the two young Japanese women sitting at the table next to us.
“Do they really though? Maybe thirty years ago when there weren’t as many expats, but we’re everywhere now. They must be sick of us.”
“Aren’t you hip to the phrase ‘Gaijin smash?’ It means we can break Japanese cultural conventions and get off scot-free. Why? Because the locals have a soft spot for us.”
“Because we’re dicks, more like.”
We drank for hours as the bar filled up around us, primarily with a) Westerners and b) Japanese people looking to date Westerners. I found the place unbearable when it was this busy, not least because the staff were under orders to scream irasshaimase! whenever the door chime sounded, which was pretty much all the time.
“This place is a meat market with a chicken coop,” said Rudy.
“Got your eye on anyone?”
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” he said. “I’m already spoken for. Akiko and I have become an item.”
Akiko was the school secretary at Machida. She was a quiet, formal woman who I had only ever really thought about in the context of her job—specifically, the endless paperwork she was forced to do by hand because the school was too cheap to buy her a laptop. I was glad that she and Rudy had found each other, although I assumed their dates must have been a series of epic struggles in search of conversation topics.
Finally, we decided to go to an izakaya across the street, which had darts and stayed open late. I had already missed my last train, which therefore meant that I was staying out until tomorrow’s first train. As we got up to leave, I looked over at the young women, who were now having an involved conversation over an open pack of menthols.
The izakaya was close to empty and mercifully quiet. We got beers and played a few games, which Rudy won handily. His darts always landed in or around the twenty, and each time he would strangle and pluck all three of them from the board at once, as if he was pulling up a weed. The screen above the darts machine kept flashing up the scores, so I at least didn’t have to do any maths to work out how badly I was playing. I was already a bit too drunk to give Rudy any real competition. As we bantered with each other, my voice was gradually picking up speed and losing stability, like someone running downhill.
Afterwards, we got a bottle of sake, sat at a table in the corner and talked. It was the point in a drinking session when the conversation gets deeper, and given that I was the considerably younger party, my role was mostly to listen. Rudy told me about his life. After studying history at university, he had married a woman he met on the course and settled down in one of the less expensive districts of Antwerp. They promptly had two kids and Rudy started teaching at a local secondary school. By the time his youngest could walk, he had been promoted to head of the history department; however, this was as far as his career would advance. He was passed over for head of year group positions on several occasions, both at his own school and at others around the city.
By the time his children were preparing to attend university themselves, he and his wife were living separate lives—her own interest in history had led her to take part in a series of archaeological digs in increasingly faraway locations. Not long before he came to Japan, Rudy celebrated his fortieth birthday, followed a month later by his twentieth wedding anniversary, followed a month after that by moving out of the marital house. He signed the divorce papers only a few days before arriving at Narita airport. From the way he was talking around the subject, I inferred that he wasn’t in regular contact with either of his kids.
As Rudy spoke, I had an awful feeling in my stomach. The feeling was so strong that for a moment I thought it was the sake, until I decided it wasn’t, and that more sake would in fact be needed to make it go away.
We left the izakaya at closing time, in the early hours, and walked off some of our drunkenness in the warm night. Just as I was thinking that the temperature was finally comfortable, it started to rain. Rudy produced a collapsible umbrella from the inside pocket of his jacket and shook it open.
“Room for a little one!” he said.
At first, I said I was fine, thanks, but then the rain became heavier, so I walked close to Rudy under the black canopy. He then suggested that, rather than bother finding another izakaya, we just go back to his flat and drink there instead. I agreed.
The story didn’t end that night. In fact, it ended about a week ago.
When we got back to Rudy’s flat, I took off my wet shoes and socks and asked if he had any junk food I could heat up. He told me to look in the fridge. I remember opening that fridge. Inside was a pitcher of water, a tub of full fat butter and little else. It looked very similar to the one in my own flat. At that point in my life, I didn’t yet appreciate the satisfaction of a fridge that’s been fully stocked. Nowadays I sometimes open mine just to look inside and smile.
We had a final cup of sake together, watched an early morning TV show in which an anime racoon taught some Japanese kindergarteners their ABCs, and then I fell asleep. The next morning, I went home. At one point, as I was looking out of my train window at a factory tower emitting a shillelagh of smoke, I realised that I was late for work by about two and half hours. A few hours after that, while I was lying on my futon eating strawberry ice cream straight from the tub, I got a phone call from someone high up at the school, someone I’d never even met before. He told me that I’d failed to follow company procedure for a sick day, that I was totally irresponsible and that he’d never known anything like this before.
“Really?” I said. “Have you not been in the job long?”
I left Japan a few months later. In the end, I didn’t have to hand out any handkerchiefs. I never saw Rudy again. Over the years, I googled his name a few times, but nothing ever came up. In the social media age, it hardly seems possible for someone to disappear completely from one’s life, yet Rudy had somehow managed it.
Until last week. Someone in the British School’s teacher’s-only Facebook group (unsurprisingly named ‘Total BS’) shared a news story from a Japanese tabloid: an expat had been sentenced to a year in prison for stealing from his local convenience store. Over the course of a few months, the staff had got wise to the fact that the man was paying for black coffees but helping himself to lattes every morning, and the police were subsequently alerted.
So thanks for the story, Rudy. I don’t mean to be heartless, but having only spent one day in his company, the news felt more strange than sad. My sense is that he’ll be alright in prison, and beyond. To my mind, he’s already proven himself to be particularly resilient. Not everyone could write off the first half of their life and still have hope for the second.
Written by Anthony Coleman
Edited by Kayla Sosa