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Kabuki kid’s taxi tussle exposes insular world

by Philip Brasor

Celebrities live in goldfish bowls, but some goldfish bowls are roomier than others. The amount of leeway the public is willing to allow a famous person in terms of objectionable behavior depends on the nature of that person’s fame and his or her own understanding of the seriousness of the trespass. Michael Jackson can’t catch a break from the general public because he seems unreasonably stubborn about refusing to acknowledge the bizarre image he projects.

The goldfish bowl that young kabuki star Shichinosuke Nakamura lives in is more cramped than most, not because he is in constant view, but because his public behavior is already bound by qualities ascribed to his gei (art). He is expected to be poised, polite and punctilious, so when, last weekend, it was reported that he struck a policeman who stopped him in the wee hours for refusing to pay a taxi fare, the embarrassment all around was acute.

It was also ironic, though not in the usual celebrity-caught-with-his-pants-down way. The misdemeanor occurred the morning after his father, Kankuro, was honored with a party to celebrate his assumption of his late father’s kabuki name, Kanzaburo, which will officially take effect in March. An event related to a timeworn ritual devolved over the course of a night into slapstick.

Japanese people tend to be more forgiving of offenses committed in a drunken state, and, in the case of Shichinosuke, who, when he was deposited in a taxi at around 3:30 a.m. was so drunk that he could barely speak, the dispensation he’s received from the media has been augmented by his relative youth. He’s 21 and by his own admission had never drunk so much before.

Further sympathy will come from those who have some experience with Tokyo taxi drivers, especially the ones who make their living by night. Though the wire services and the major news outlets didn’t feel it necessary to cover the incident in detail, the wide shows and tabloids revealed that for some reason it took three hours for the cab to make the 8-km trip from Roppongi to Bunkyo Ward, where the Nakamura house is located. And that, what would normally be a 3,000 yen ride, ended up costing 8,000 yen.

These numbers are tantalizing. Where, exactly, was the cab during those three hours, and, more significantly, why so cheap? Eight-thousand yen is certainly too much for the distance covered, but it’s chicken feed for the time involved — you keep a meter running three hours, and you’ve tripled that amount.

One, of course, has to factor in the young star’s difficulty in giving directions considering his condition. But this would not have been an issue if Tokyo taxi drivers were required to actually know the city they service. In many cases they don’t and, while Tokyo is a notoriously difficult place to navigate, some hacks seem to actually take pride in not having a clue as to where they’re going. “According to the transportation law,” said one anonymous driver to a TV reporter, “we can refuse a fare who admits he doesn’t know how to get to his destination.” In any case, the car navigation systems that grace so many cabs these days probably don’t supply directions to the Nakamura estate, though I wouldn’t be surprised if software featuring just such information is available.

The driver said he stopped the vehicle somewhere in Bunkyo ward when he became worried that his passenger was about to throw up all over the cab and asked him to get out and hurl someplace else. Shichinosuke left and then came back. At this point, the saga enters the twilight zone. The consensus is that words were exchanged and Shichinosuke left in a huff, at which point the driver called the police.

Shichinosuke claims he remembers nothing, but after a policeman tried to stop him on the street he supposedly said, “I’m not going to pay,” and knocked the officer’s glasses off. The actor was then taken to the police station, where he paid the taxi fare. It turned out he had more than enough cash on his person for the full amount.

These are important points for his trial in the court of the media. In addition to his youth, his inebriation, and the dodgy quality of Tokyo taxis, Shichinosuke’s best defense is the general understanding that his goldfish-bowl existence has prevented him from experiencing the universe the way the rest of us do. Considering the world he grew up in, he might as well have been stepping onto the surface of Mars when he stumbled out of that taxi. But if people believe he purposely tried to stiff the driver and then hit a policeman who caught him doing it, he’s nailed.

Likely, the truth involves something in between, but we’ll have to wait to find out. At Shichinosuke’s press conference on Tuesday, his lawyer prevented him from answering reporters’ queries about particulars. During his own press conference the day before, where he apologized for his son’s behavior and called him “stupid,” Kankuro assumed some of the blame, saying that perhaps he hadn’t raised him right. “But [kabuki actors] are so proper and polite,” said the host of Fuji TV’s wide show, obviously perplexed. “They know exactly how to greet people.”

That’s the point. Kankuro, who is reportedly a tough taskmaster, was strict with his son while teaching him the art of kabuki, but there probably weren’t many occasions when he had to teach him about something outside of that stilted universe, such as how to deal with taxi drivers. With its unbroken generational succession and insular lifestyle, a kabuki actor’s lot is not much different from that of a member of the Imperial family. The difference, of course, is that kabuki actors are fair game for the tabloid media, something that Schichinosuke learned about the hard way.