My interest in Japan is twofold: On the one hand, I’m curious about Japanese surf culture, how a sport that’s fundamentally individualistic and renegade fits into a society built on the group, obedience, playing by the rules. On the other, I’m trying to purge myself of sins committed in Japan some two decades ago.
I grew up in Southern California, came to surfing at age twelve, rose up the amateur ranks, and joined the ASP tour in ‘86. This was the era of Carroll, Curren, Occy, Pottz, a time when surfing was trying to shake off its dubious past and step into its professional and mass-marketed future. I did pretty average – my best results were a couple of thirds; I finished most seasons in the mid-40s – and when my career came to an abrupt end in 1991, I fell into a severe depression. I’d spent five years living my dream and suddenly I was put out to pasture, a has-been at age twenty-five.
I drank a lot of beer, sabotaged a perfectly good relationship, and moped around for a few months, until I realised that it was the self-expression part of surfing that I so loved, and if I couldn’t make my living riding waves, I could make my living writing about riding waves. You see, unlike most publications that require its writers to have college degrees, surf magazines demand only firsthand immersion, a willingness to sleep on couches, and a strong constitution.
For the next fifteen years I would travel the world writing for Tracks, Waves, Surfing, Surfer, The Surfer’s Journal, The Surfer’s Path, Adrenaline, etc. And while it’s been a wonderful, saltwater-drenched ride, I recently hit something of a dead end. I felt like I’ve said all I could about the WCT, the hot young upstart, the A-list surf trip. I found myself viewing surfing from a more pulled-back, anthropological perspective.
Thus, I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to “better understand Japanese culture through the lens of surfing”. I got it, and so here I am, scribbling away in a tiny nomiya bar in Shibuya whilst the non-English speaking proprietor sings along perfectly to Jerry Lee Lewis.
My first few weeks in Tokyo were filled with the standard observations that whack most gaijins (foreigners) over the head upon arrival: the ubiquitous drink machines, the conveyor belt sushi, the pigeon-toed women, the magazines that read back to front, the taxi doors that open automatically, the surname first, Christian name second, the sing-songy irasshaimase that’s sung when you enter stores, the over-wrapping of even the most basic items that completely contradicts Japan’s advanced recycling program, the slurping of noodles that your mother told you was bad manners but here is standard practice, the way the Japanese will wait for the light to change before crossing the street, despite the fact that it’s 4am and there’s not a car in sight. That I wasn’t more cognisant of these differences during the eight or nine visits I made to Japan in the late eighties bespeaks the myopic, blinkered nature of pro surfing. I remember miso soup, broiled fish and pickled vegetables for breakfast, and the fact that nudey magazines had the private parts scratched out, but beyond this, I remember only jockish narcissism.
What struck me about a month into my stay, especially after my vivacious wife Gisela arrived, is how absurdly delicious the food is. I imagined myself trimming down, eating light, mild meals consisting of rice, sushi, a cup or two of sake. Instead, I found myself gorging on okonomiyaki, gyoza, ramen, soba, tempura, sukiyaki, yakitori, sushi, sashimi, tonkatsu, goya champuru… I’d sit down to dinner with no appetite, then suddenly find myself under a kind of gluttonous spell cast by the exotic flavors and the fact that I couldn’t even begin to pronounce what I was eating. And the drink! Some years back it was learned that the oldest man in the world swore by his nightly drop of shochu. Since then this clear, potent spirit made of either barley, rice or sweet potato has become Japan’s drink of choice. I told myself that these indulgences were ‘research’, that the more dishes and drinks I could knock back, the closer I’d get to understanding Japan.
Disaster struck on a sweltering hot Sunday.
Gisela and I are strolling through the Aoyama District where poodle walkers sashay in Louis, Dolce, Issey and black Bentleys with blacked-out windows idle down the steam-cleaned street when suddenly we hear sirens, and then a few seconds later, watch a convoy of police cars race past.
“Something’s happened,” says Gisela with intuitive conviction.
Sure enough, a couple hours later, back at our shoe-box of a Roppongi flat, I’m tooling around on the internet when I come across this on Japan Times.co.jp: “7 Killed, 10 Injured in Akihabara Stabbing Spree”.
It turns out that while we were sipping coffee and marveling at the beautiful people, a deranged twenty-five-year-old was plowing his rented truck into a crowd of pedestrians. When bystanders jumped in to help, they were met by a knife-wielding lunatic, who leapt out of the vehicle and managed to stab twelve people before police could apprehend him.
It was quite ironic considering that I’d spent most of the day marveling at how civilised Tokyo is, how its inhabitants operate with a heightened sense of social and moral responsibility, how they all seem to be intrinsically aware that ‘one bad apple spoils the whole bunch’. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve stopped strangers in the street, mispronounced the name of whatever destination we’re trying to find, and had them literally walk us there, sometimes blocks away. I remember thinking that while America has road rage and schoolyard shootings, Japan has excessive politeness and cordiality.
What’s even more ironic, though, is the video I find on the LA Times’ website seconds after reading about Akihabara: In grainy black-and-white, a man attempts to cross a busy intersection. He’s slammed by a car, goes head over heels, and lands hard on the pavement. The offending vehicle slows, as if to ponder the ramifications, then speeds off. But this isn’t the shocking part. The shocking part is the stream of cars that literally drive around the lifeless body, the pedestrians that curiously addle to the edge of the sidewalk, stand on tiptoes to get a better view, then continue on their merry way. Several minutes and at least a dozen people pass before someone jumps in to help. The clip then cuts to interview footage: the thuggish but sweet-faced African-American kid who says something like, ‘Damn right Id’a helped the guy, that’s what choo do’; the chafed, retirement-aged highway patrolman who concludes his tirade with the scripted, “Sad state of affairs when a man’s bleeding in the middle of the street and no one comes to help out. I mean, how can you just walk past something like that?”
What’s interesting is how the Akihabara Massacre answers this question. I think of my friend Scotty, who came around a corner in deep Mexico, encountered what appeared to be a horrific car accident, pulled over to help, then found himself being robbed at gunpoint by banditos. I think of a renowned environmental organisation who were busted a while back for embezzlement. If ‘the greatest sin is the desecration of a child’s spirit’, as my dear father so loves to quote, then the second greatest sin is the desecration of these simple ‘brother’s keeper’ precepts.
I surfed Chiba, Shonan, Shimoda and Miyazaki, and though the waves were terrible, the people were fantastic. Japanese are astonishingly methodical in the way they go about surfing. They carry portable showers, change mats, and coat hangers to dry their suits. They do extensive stretches at the shoreline before paddling out. I watched a guy in Shimoda pull first a pair of knee-high stools from his customised van, and then his spit-shined longboard, which he deftly set on the stools so as not to let it touch the pavement. It struck me as ridiculous, the pageantry trumping the act itself.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but surfing is innately improvisational. The fact that Matt Johnson shows up at Malibu drunk and boardless in the opening scene of Big Wednesday is not an embellishment, but a truism. The fact that Tom Curren did some of his most genius surfing ever in the nineties Search era on borrowed boards speaks volumes. Being unkempt, barefoot, half naked – winging it, in other words – is half the allure.
My friend Naki, a Japanese surf photographer who’s lived between Kamakura, San Clemente and Kauai since ‘94, has an interesting take. He says that because of the heavy work schedules and inconsistent surf, there are these long incubatory periods during which videos are watched, magazines are read and imagination is stoked.
“California is where it’s original and cool. Japanese try to copy and digest. It’s like a father/son thing. We watch: how the top pros walk, how they wax, what car they drive.”
He goes on to say that Japanese surfers are a lot more self-conscious than surfers elsewhere. Because it’s built on the group, because ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’, there’s a kind of sheep mentality. Surf magazines in Japan, for instance, contain pages of ‘How To’s’ – how to bottom turn, how to cut back, how to hit the lip – and according to Naki, these are studied religiously. Not until one’s mastered the basics in this ‘by the book’ manner will they try and put their own spin on it. I find this fascinating because it completely counters my introduction to surfing. At Malibu in the seventies, if you gave any indication of deliberate, methodical effort you’d be laughed out of the water.
And then there’s Japanese porn.
My initial titillation came a few years back when Gisela and I rented In The Realm Of The Senses, the true story of Sada Abe. Set in the thirties, the ex-prostitute Abe meets the sexually omnivorous Kichizo Ichida and the pair embark on a wild fucking spree that starts as some of the greatest jerk off fodder ever filmed, then turns sick and obsessive, then spirals into that asphyxiation-at-the-point-of-orgasm stuff which, for vanilla sexers such as myself, is extremely tough to watch. He eventually asks her to strangle him to death, which she does, then cuts off his penis, wraps it in a magazine, puts it in her purse, and goes walkabout on the streets of Tokyo. When the cops finally catch up to her two days later she has a calm, dreamy look in her eyes. She produces the severed organ, explains that, “I wanted to take the part of him that brought back to me the most vivid memories,” and goes on to become one of the most famous murderesses in Japanese history.
Japan’s an extremely sexy country, though in a way that’s different to, say, France, Italy or Brazil. You see very little affection displayed in public. I recall when I went to meet Gisela at Narita Airport. She was arriving from JFK, i.e., an international flight. Normally that point where arriving passengers meet their loved ones is a logjam of hugs, kisses, chins nuzzling necks. Not at Narita. Husbands would greet their wives with a nod, pat their kid on the head and off they’d go toward the parking lot, efficiently, coldly.
But the same way the preacher’s daughter is the ravenous wildcat under the sheets, so too does this upright society have its shadow side. At the sex store up the street from our flat, I was surprised to see entire shelves devoted solely to coprophilia, golden showers, BDSM. I could tell you about the video we saw – the seven salarymen who take to their blindfolded victim with buzzing vibrators; the caged girl on hands and knees who suffers the pleasure/torture inflicted by a water cannon-like purple dildo machine with flashing neon lights and chainsaw-like sound effects; the gallon jugs of KY jelly and black tarps and boxing ring-like bedrooms – but that would be inappropriate.
I can tell you about the hentai manga that shows nymphets with cum-splattered faces, dogs fucking nurses and, in one particularly disturbing image, a blade-shaped phallus/murder weapon. I read somewhere that the Japanese see this stuff as a kind of safety valve, an antidote to the pressures of the treadmill. While America blames Marilyn Manson for its schoolyard massacres, Japanese see it in an opposite light. Better blood be spilled on the page than in real life.
Chikan is a distinctly urban way to get your rocks off. In trains so crowded that the white-gloved conductors have to stuff in every last protruding limb so the doors can shut, perverse bastards have devised a way to exploit the issue. Call it hit-and-run dry fucking, the ability to sniff out private moments in public places, a kind of erotic take on the punk rock slam pit: chikaners place themselves within grinding distance of their victims, strategically wait for that cascade of bodies that happens at every stop, swiftly writhe their way to orgasm, then slip out the door.
One thing I learned about Tokyo: all the best stuff happens down narrow lanes, often under train tracks. The best food is served not in big, fancy restaurants but rather in hole-in-the-wall joints. The best bars are little bigger than your average closet, and seat maybe five. The best takoyaki (fried octopus balls covered in sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed and bonita shavings) can be found in ramshackle shacks under tufts of electrical wiring. Tokyo appeals to that same part of the psyche that was drawn to cubbyholes, crawl spaces, and tree forts as a kid. Intimacy with the city takes place not on the big boulevards and main streets, but off the beaten track, behind drape-covered doors you have to duck under.
I’d heard stories of Japan’s heavy localism, and envisioned showing up to Nagasaki, paddling out to some rural beachbreak, having some angry local get in my face and order me to “Get the fuck out!” and then using this as a segue, localism in surf culture mirroring Japan’s xenophobia throughout the sakoku period. Truth is, I never made it to the beach, let alone surfed.
I did spend a couple hours in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, which is a disturbing, powerful ride that’s laid out with the same tension/release, peaks/valleys that makes for great novels.
It starts with backstory—WWII, Hiroshima, the B29 ‘Bockscar’, the offending bomb nicknamed ‘Fatman’, the fact that they had Kokura in their sights but it was covered in smoke, thus Nagasaki was Plan B. Then the bomb is literally and figuratively dropped, which is illustrated by a tattered wall clock stuck at 11:02. You wade through an extensive display of melted bottles, coins, household appliances, a particularly moving schoolgirl’s lunchbox, scorched clothing that forces you to ponder the fate of the victim, a burnt helmet with shards of skull lodged into it, and still more glass, more coins, more photos of the devastation. At the time it felt almost monotonous – do we really need to see another piece of scorched concrete? – but later I realised this was strategic – lull them into numbness then ram the point home.
The survivors’ testimonials are detailed and visceral. You learn exactly what melting flesh looks and smells like. You hear about the piles of dead stacked along the very river you crossed to enter the museum. You come to realise that the severely burnt survivors had nowhere to go – the hospitals were all up in flames. You wince at the rogue illnesses that cropped up in the aftermath.
And then just when you’re positively convinced that nuclear warfare is the most inhumane thing imaginable, you’re tossed into a large, high-ceiling room devoted solely to the history of nuclear war development. In a detailed chronicle that’s presented as a giant wall mural, you see that for every move to put an end to it, there’s a counter move that ensures its survival. The world becomes one giant chess board — Russia inches forward, America counters, while they’re facing off France adds a new pawn to the game… It’s meant to galvanise you into joining the fight against nuclear arms, but it does much more than this: it lessens your faith in humanity.
But the kicker is the final photo: A demure-faced nine-year-old boy stands amongst the post-apocalyptic wasteland, his dead baby brother strapped to his back. In the wall text, the photographer explains that he’s actually at a cremation site, how when the baby brother is taken by one of the stand-in cremators and set aflame, the older brother tries to keep himself from crying by biting down on his lower lip. He bites so hard, the photographer says, that a trickle of blood drips down his chin.
Suffice to say, I walked out of there crying.
Japan’s a unique country in that it existed in a kind of vacuum for two-and-a-quarter centuries. Having observed the way in which the Japanese took up Christianity brought by the Portuguese, and seeing this as a threat to national purity, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu declared sakoku (meaning ‘closed country’). From roughly 1633 to 1858, foreigners were not allowed in and Japanese were not allowed out. There was, however, a trickle of contact, and this took place in Nagasaki, where Dutch traders brought, along with their wares, medicine, literature, physics and astronomy.
I became interested in this as a potential thread to surfing. How did the Japanese respond to this imprisonment? What does this do to a country? Could a line be drawn from the first Europeans right up to the US Naval officers who brought surfing to Japan in the post-WWII years?
It turns out that much of what I’d suspected is true. At the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, I learned about nampaks, those Japanese who became obsessed with all things Dutch. At the Edo-Tokyo Museum I discovered a haikuist called Somo Katu who visited the US in 1860 and came back with flags, playing cards, maps, newspapers, bottles and, in what’s laden with symbolism, the blueprints for a hot air balloon. One could argue that sakoku imprinted a kind of ‘outsider complex’ on the Japanese psyche. Having been shut off to the world for two centuries, there was the sense of being behind the eight ball, needing to catch up. And like the preacher’s hellcat daughter, they embraced the outside world, particularly the West, with a vengeance. As writer Paul Theroux put it, “By losing their Japanese-ness, they become even more Japanese.”
What’s refreshing, what’s a pleasant digression from all the posturing and attitude that pervades the California surf scene, is the general innocence and enthusiasm of the Japanese. Several times I’d be talking to a waiter or bartender, notice a wetsuit tan or some kind of saltwater tattoo, and ask, “Are you a surfer?” and without fail, their eyes would light up and they’d enthusiastically nod in the affirmative as if they were suddenly ten-years-old.
On the flipside, though, is localism. From what I’m told, in taking up every facet and nuance of surf culture, the Japanese have added localism to the list. Doesn’t this sound out of character? The irony of embracing this rapturous import then building a kind of moat around it… But of course hypocrisy is part of the surfing spectrum as well. Part of the human condition.
So getting back to previous sins.
It’s 1989, I’m a young, loud, and snotty pro surfer and so are the majority of my fellow competitors. A well-known photographer of the time, Cap’n Fun, arrives at the Marui Pro in Chiba with two suitcases full of seventies polyester he’d picked up at a San Diego thrift store. We’re talking giant collars, skin-tight bell-bottoms, white patent leather platform shoes, glitter ball necklaces, feather boas, vibrant wigs.
A half dozen of the best surfers in the world, along with yours truly, gather in Cap’n Fun’s hotel room, to sip beers and piece together outfits, the more hideous the better. We then head up to the local 7-Eleven, buy a couple fifths of Jack Daniels, maybe twenty beers, and bags of chips, rice crackers and Pocky Sticks. We hop the Tokyo-bound train with a swagger that recalls Alex, Pete, Georgie and Dim in A Clockwork Orange.
Our first transgression is the ghetto blaster we snatch from a pair of happy-faced schoolgirls, turn up to ear-splitting volume, and use to fuel our cavorting, ridiculous dance moves. Then we steal a fire extinguisher and chase each other up and down the aisles. Then we tear down the posters that hang like Tibetan prayer flags. Then one beer spills, another, another, another, and the next thing you know, the floor’s like an ice skating rink. What twists the knife of guilt that surfaces in my stomach when I ponder this stuff are the faces of our fellow passengers: they just smiled. Our behavior was so obnoxious they hadn’t even the means (nor the words) to deal with it. I can still see the grey-haired salaryman peering over the top of his newspaper, faking a little laugh whenever we caught his eye, perturbed, repulsed.
By the time we arrived in Tokyo a Top 30-ranked pro had puked out the window, a world title contender was nearly blinded by whatever chemical it is that they put in fire extinguisher spray, the entire car had been evacuated by our fed-up fellow passengers, and a river of dubious fluid and rolling beer cans sloshed to the front of the car at each stop.
Needless to say, the cops were waiting for us. But we were clever. Cap’n Fun had declared a meeting point (“McDonald’s on the corner of Roppongi Dori!”) and we scattered like buckshot. I can still remember tearing through the station, hopping turnstiles, and laughing hysterically at my twisted Aussie mate who flashed BAs at the cops, bystanders, anyone who happened to be looking.
We ended up at a fashionable club called Lexington Queen where we made fools of ourselves on the dance floor, offended American models, and got severely pickled on JD and Cokes. If there was a Robin Hood element, which is how we rationalised it at the time, it was that the staff and clientele at Lexington Queen were pretentious and uptight, and we were lighthearted and self-deprecating and thus liberators, crusaders for freedom.
But that was two decades ago. Having spent the last four months experiencing Japan with new, more mature eyes, I see things quite differently. In its order and regimentation, a new kind of freedom surfaces. Ten-year-old kids can ride the subway alone. Women can walk down dark alleys late at night. Non-Japanese speaking, clueless gaijins can ride bullet trains across the country, show up to unfamiliar towns, and know there will be a hot meal and bed to sleep in. Japan is like something out of a fairy tale. I mean, where else in the world does this happen?
I’m walking down a dark, narrow alley in the pouring rain when suddenly I feel an umbrella over my head. I look over, and there’s the male-half of the couple I nodded to in the 7-Eleven, with a warm smile on his face.
“To keep you dry,” he says.
“Thanks,” I say, and take the handle.
“Where are you from?” asks his simpatico girlfriend.
“What are you doing here?”
“Do you have a place to stay? Friends?”
“Yes, I’m staying here with my wife and good friend.”
“OK, just want to make sure you have friends.”
“Yeah,” adds the boyfriend. “Japanese difficult for foreigners.”
“That’s really nice of you,” I say, and when we bow goodnight, and I try to hand the umbrella back, he insists I keep it.
And that’s Japan for you. You step out of the house at one in the morning for ice cream, and come back with new friends and a free umbrella.
This article originally appeared in Huck 9 – The Jack Johnson issue, from 2008.