Sitting in a watering hole in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, meeting new people, exchanging name cards, one is likely to come across a tiny square name card with color caricatures on its front and back.
Comic figures, often bare-bottomed, are accompanied with one-word phrase text bubbles (or fart clouds), and sure to bring a smile and usually a laugh.
At the exchange, someone may be heard to exclaim, “Ah, a Bon name card.” The drawings are indeed good, but there’s nothing French about them. They are the creation of Japanese graphic artist Bon Yamamoto, known to all as simply “Bon.”
Though the cards are in no way restricted to use in Golden Gai, the stronghold of Tokyo’s subculture, it is the place a person is most likely to meet one, a 5.5 cm-square card in a bar that may only hold about as many people.
Golden Gai, the cluster of hundreds of tiny shops on the edge of Kabukicho has perhaps the highest density of Bon cards. It was inevitable.
The cards are just the thing for the kind of people who would cringe at being associated with a faceless corporation, who would shudder at the thought of being somehow defined by a company name or job description.
Until Bon cards came along in 2001, traditional name cards in Golden Gai were handed over more often with apologies if they were handed over at all. Now, over 1,400 people around Japan have Bon cards.
“They’re very different,” says rocker Osamu of the cards. Osamu, who goes by only one name, is a drummer and proprietor of the shop Oil, the walls of which are plastered in posters of his idol, the late actor Yusaku Matsuda. “Whenever I give these cards out, people always comment on them and want to get some of their own.”
Bon, whose real name is Takumi Kuwabara, took his artist’s name from an early nickname, Takubon. “Yamamoto just had a nice ring to it, so I added that,” he says. A background in design saw Bon working at one point making traditional name cards.
The sheets of paper for the normal-size cards left a bit of scrap at the edge, a bit that bothered Bon so much he had to do something with it. “I started playing around with that leftover bit, started making sketches for my friends,” he says.
From cards for close friends and relatives, Bon branched (quite a leap) to making cards for strip show dancers in Shibuya. By word of mouth and with the help of people in the night-life business, Bon’s cards spread to the Shinjuku ni-chome area, an area with a high density of gay and transvestite bars as well as your grungier rock pubs and live music joints.
From there it was a stone’s throw to Golden Gai. Nowadays, Bon is most likely to be found there, sitting at the end of a bar, quietly observing the scene. An amiable, yet enigmatic, smile plays over his lips. There’s something very approachable about him. Like his cards, it’s a conversation waiting to happen.
Conversations are key to making a Bon name card. It’s that 30-minute, one-hour, five-hour talk between Bon and a customer that sets the stage for what goes on a card, how people will be depicted, what clothes they’ll wear, whether they’ll be standing, sitting or even lying down.
Spending time talking over a drinks is what Bon enjoys doing. It’s how he picks up on people. “I never do a card for someone I haven’t met,” he says. “I need to get a reading on them and the only way to do that is to meet in person. There’s an atmosphere about a person that I want to pick up on.”
The talk will determine one’s demeanor on the card and possibly the exclamations coming out of one’s mouth in a text bubble. “Yo!” “How are ya?” “Grunt. . .” Anything is possible and though a customer can make a specific request, the vast majority of people leave it to Bon to decide.
You don’t have to be a stripper or have an alter ego to have a Bon card. Even the most typical of office workers have them too. “Of course, I enjoy drawing some people more than others,” Bon admits, “but I won’t turn anyone down. I don’t discriminate.”
The card order form asks, naturally, for the usual contact information, as well as interests and hobbies preferences for the text bubbles.
There are also questions. Are you popular? Do you believe in God? Do you believe in extraterrestrial beings? Have you ever eaten foie gras? Are you rich? Which side do you wipe yourself from? The questions needn’t throw you, however.
“The only answer I’m really interested in is to the question, ‘Will you go for a drink with me?’ ” Bon says.
Admittedly, the cards, in their natural state, i.e., left totally to Bon, are not for everyone. Many poke fun at their owners. There can be a lot of bared skin and, occasionally, the fore-mentioned fart cloud. Image-conscious rocker Osamu, for example, specified that he wanted to remain fully clothed on his card. Leather jacket, jeans, waist-long hair, sunglasses make up Osamu’s everyday look and that’s the way he wanted it to stay. Nothing uncool. “It just wouldn’t be right,” he says.
Through Bon’s efforts, his cards, and a love for conversation, much of it philosophical, Bon has become something of an icon. In the early days, he was out every night pushing his cards. “I’d go into every shop, saying, ‘heh, I’ve got these cards I want you to get,’ I was pretty aggressive about it. It was costly too. Every single night I was drinking. But, it was a part of selling the cards,” he remembers.
Bon also took to the road, riding his bicycle throughout Japan, once north from Tokyo and around Hokkaido, the following year westward all the way to Okinawa. If there’s one thing Bon is, it’s a mover.
“The thing about Bon is that he has no ‘territory,’ ” says Toru Hiroshima. “He goes anywhere. A lot of bars in Shinjuku are not very accessible. Many people would hesitate to go in without an introduction and many places would not welcome strangers off the street,” explains Hiroshima, a drummer who owns a Japanese-style pub a bit east of Shinjuku ni-chome.
“I don’t know if he’s clever or just cunning. He’s an artist and can be incredibly sensitive, but also incredibly brazen. That’s his strength. Being with him is a lot of fun.”
Fun is the reason Bon gives for making the name cards. And wherever he may go, he is liked. “He’s the kind of guy no one can dislike. I’m sure there is no one who would think poorly of Bon,” says Haruko, a regular of the bar Tete-a-tete.
Osamu Yanagihara of Gamaguchi says, “Bon has a lot of friends. Above all, he’s a go-getter. In any case, I’d guess you’d have to say he’s different. I mean, look, he’s been around Japan on a bicycle. That’s not normal, right?” says Yanagihara, 64, himself a Golden Gai legend. Thirty-four years in business, Yanagihara got his far-from-normal start in Shinjuku working in a “gay boy” bar. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he says.
“Bon is always coming in with some kind of new plan,” says Kyoko Hayami, an actress who also runs two shops named Yumeji. “A lot of times I don’t understand what the project he’s doing is all about but he’ll be like, ‘it’s OK, you don’t have to understand it, it’s just for fun.’ ”
“He’s so positive. I love that about him. He makes me feel alive,” Hayami says. As for the cards, “At first, I didn’t like mine, but Bon himself was so convincing, saying, ‘You look great. It’s so you’ that I started to feel that way about it myself. Maybe it’s part brainwashing, but now I love them.”
Burlesque dancer Ryoko Hashimoto works part-time at Yumeji. The back of her card reads, “uh-oh, the electric bill . . .” The joke is wholly inside. “Anyone who knows her, knows she is constantly getting her phone cut off, her electricity cut off because she never has any money,” says Hayami laughing. “Yeah, Bon knows me too well,” Hashimoto says sheepishly.
It does take a bit of courage and the ability to laugh at yourself to order a Bon card. “For a long time, I’d look at people exchanging Bon cards and I felt something like envy,” says Tete-a-tete owner Nami Kuroiwa.
“It was strange, I don’t really know why, but I was hesitant to get my own cards. Then I did and I wondered why I’d waited so long. I guess I maybe was trying to hide something.”
It is hard to hide from Bon. Perhaps, for those tired of all the posing, a Bon card is just the answer.