Friends, the biggest of Japanese ships


This summer I opened an “omiyage” shop on our local beach in an attempt to help promote Shiraishi Island.

But I was overly optimistic. I hadn’t considered, for example, that we would have the longest rainy season in 10 years, that there would be 10 more days of rain even after the longest rainy season in 10 years, and that an “unseasonal” typhoon would come along and blow down my shop.

With good reason, not many people came to the beach this year.

I also learned that no matter how you price your merchandise, someone will think it’s too expensive.

“1,900 yen for a Shiraishi T-shirt?” exclaimed an old man while gulping down a 500 yen beer. “Too expensive!”

“But this is not an ordinary T-shirt,” I said. “It’s the world’s first karaoke T-shirt. It comes with a CD, and the words to the song are on the back of the shirt,” I said, pointing to the English lettering on the back.

“Too expensive!” the old man said, while shouting out an order for another beer to the restaurant next door. He went on to spend 4,000 yen on beers that afternoon (six for himself and two for friends). Personally, I think a T-shirt is a better value because you can wear a T-shirt forever. How long can you wear a beer?

But this old man got me thinking. If I could get people addicted to my T-shirts, they would not only buy them for themselves, but they would buy them for their friends too. People could get together and buy T-shirts and sing karaoke. Every couple of hours, they would say, “Hey Amy, give us another round of T-shirts!” The next day everyone would wake up with sore throats from too much karaoke, but still, they would come back the next week and we would do it all over again with more T-shirts.

San-chan, the owner of the restaurant next door, brought the old man his beer and said: “Hey Amy, where are all your foreigner friends? This is your shop’s opening day, isn’t it?”

I had invited about 20 foreigners out for the opening day, but it was pouring down rain, so they didn’t come. Nor did I expect them to come. “Most of them live far away, so it’s a long way to come to the beach when it’s raining,” I said.

San-chan scoffed and said: “That’s no excuse! They’re your friends. They should come anyway.”

This is one difference between Western friends and Japanese friends. Where the Japanese meaning of friendship is literally that: friends together on a ship, Western friends tend to be friends each on their own private dinghies.

What follows is the story of my Japanese friends and that big ship.

While most people had taken refuge from the rain inside the restaurant, I sat by myself in my omiyage shop. Suddenly, a customer came out of the restaurant and said, “I’d like a Shiraishi T-shirt.” This was my first sale, and to a complete stranger.

He went back into the bar, showed the T-shirt to some friends, and they came out and bought T-shirts too. “Wow, what a great idea — a karaoke T-shirt!” they said. Throughout the day, T-shirt sales picked up, and at one point one person bought one T-shirt for himself and seven for friends and family (that’s a round of T-shirts!).

T-shirt sales continued to be brisk all summer long. The restaurant made it their staff uniform, and every day, a few restaurant customers (complete strangers) would buy one or more. They always put on their new T-shirt immediately and sang karaoke. Sometimes they would even play the song on the restaurant’s piano. By God, I had achieved T-shirt addiction!

And all because of that big friend ship and “sakura,” the Japanese term to describe friends coming together to help each other succeed. You see, every one of those customers from the restaurant was a friend of San-chan’s!