One more time — with Charisma

Western Women had their share of the bubble-era fun and frustration, writes Barbara Bayer

by Barbara Bayer

My first reaction on hearing that “Charisma Man” was attempting a comeback was to ask, “Can it even work today?” Would the strip come across as funny, or just endearingly nostalgic? Worse, could it be completely misinterpreted and considered amateurishly silly, a gross exaggeration aimed at getting a couple laughs from people new to Japan?

Charisma Man, at least the way that I — a Japan resident since 1982 — see it, was not some rare beast that emerged occasionally from the swamps of eikaiwa to stalk the pickup bars of Roppongi; he was virtually every red-blooded male of pre-bubble and bubble-era Japan. In fact, he needn’t even have been been male; back then, we were all Charisma Men and Women.

Though the original “Charisma Man” strip started in 1998, when things had already changed considerably, there were great numbers of us still here suffering the postbubble hangover, and the comic appealed to us. There were still plenty of perks and plenty of fun to be had, and we were all hoping it would continue.

Just like in the comic strip, we had the red carpet rolled out for us. We were fawned over. We had money and taxi tickets lavished upon us.

This was Japan long before the Internet, before Walkmans, faxes, CDs, cell phones or reduced-rate international phone calls. Exposure to English wasn’t readily available, and foreigners at the time were still a highly unusual sight. By 1986, when the dollar plunged to about ¥260, the average Japanese could begin to entertain their dreams of traveling abroad. For the curious, as well as for those who couldn’t afford to go overseas, we were the next best thing.

Everyone, no matter how plain, how geeky-looking, how unrepresentative of his country, was transformed into an ambassador of his homeland and an object of keen interest.

You were stared at constantly, everywhere. You heard “gaijin, gaijin, gaijin” wherever you went. Kids chased after you in the suburbs chanting it. You stepped into the train and heard the word race through the car. You were accosted several times a day by people wanting to practice their English. At night, drunken men swayed into your face in trains. They asked for your phone number, if they could touch your hair, tried to hug you.

We were paid unbelievably well for doing very little. We were considered experts on all things, even though the majority of us had never even heard of a lot of them, let alone given them any thought. But did you shrug and say, “I don’t know”? Of course not! You came up with a snappy, valid-sounding answer. That’s what specialists did. And lots of us were specialists — it said so on our visas.

Were we delusional? No, we were all simply playing the game. We learned that when you pleased you got paid, and paid well. We were thought to be entertaining and Japanese loved teaching us about things. We were expected to be wholly ignorant about Japan and all things Japanese. Ninety-nine percent of us were.

Sure, you didn’t have real conversations or true dialogue. Face it, no one really wanted to get to know you who you were. They had their own ideas. But so what? We never had to pay for drinks.

Sure, there were dangers. One, that you started to believe the hype, and two, that the novelty wore off before you wanted it to. Either way, most foreigners could handle such transitions. After all, how many times could you be praised for your chopstick dexterity, the way “konnichi wa” rolled off your tongue, or the ability to eat natto and still flash a genuine smile of appreciation and reply “Arigato!” At some point it became difficult. That was when it was time to return to what we called “the real world.”

I knew two individuals who handled these transitions very badly. One was a Ginza bar hostess from England I shared a room with in a “gaijin house” on the other side of Tokyo. She would return home in a taxi every morning just as I was pulling open the curtains to let in the sunshine and give me light to study Japanese by. She and I would argue over how much light should be allowed into the room since she “had to sleep” and I “didn’t need to study.”

“Who wants to speak Japanese anyhow?” she would ask incredulously. She was used to pulling in about ¥1 million a month for doing nothing more than dressing up, smiling and chatting to the customers all night. She was given presents, taken on shopping sprees and hot spring trips — all the while insisting there was nothing more involved on her part.

The years passed. We would meet to chat, or when she needed something translated. More and more, however, I would find myself having to console her as she complained about how nasty the customers had become, telling me how they would slap her thighs and call her “debu” (fat) and remark on how “old” she was. She would go on and on about the ill-mannered, mean, ugly Japanese men and their horrible, horrible country. Though I would try to sympathize while reasoning with her, she refused to believe there were any “good Japanese” out there. They were “all” like the ones in the club. When I dared to suggest that maybe she was getting a bit old for the job, she screamed that I had “become one of them!” and that was the end of our friendship. All I can hope is that she left Japan soon after.

Then there was the American fellow at work who had returned to Japan after having been here in the early ’80s. He had gone back to the U.S., but his marriage fell apart. It was about 1990 and he anticipated rushing back into the consoling arms of the “J-babes.” In the meantime he made our lives miserable as he lorded it over us, setting himself up as the new boss who demanded we jump to do his bidding. It eventually became clear that a lot of his frustration wasn’t down to us. One day he cried it all out.

“Japan is so different now! The girls used to flock to my table wherever I went,” he wailed. “They really, really liked me! Now they don’t even look at me!”

The poor guy. It was heartbreaking to see a man so crushed. He returned to the U.S. soon afterward, giving only one day’s notice at work.

Ah yes, we are glad to have escaped such fates. And the foreigners of today coming to Japan should appreciate the fact that they have to work much harder, have so much more expected of them, and — at least at first — won’t have their opinions taken seriously. There is less risk to one’s mental health that way, and less responsibility to bear.

Besides, the Japanese don’t deserve to have their good intentions shot down. Think of how crushing it would be to praise someone for their handling of chopsticks only to get a sneer and learn, “What? You started using chopsticks when you were 5 and you’ve eaten sushi and natto since you were 6? You’ve been to Japan countless times before and you read and write kanji? . . . Oh.”

And ladies, how much fun is it for a Japanese businessman out enjoying some drinks to have to think about more serious things than, er, the color of your pubic hair? “What do I think of the dolphin slaughter? What’s my stance on foreigner voting rights in Japan? Did I know that Japan’s national sport was so corrupt?”

Don’t expect too many free drinks.

It’s good things have changed. I think. Now I get exercise running for the last train or save money waiting for the first one in the morning. I haven’t seen a taxi ticket in years, and I can accept ¥3,000 for private English lessons. Even less.

The other day in the neighborhood I overhead a little boy about 6 years old asking his mother if I was a “gaikokujin-san.” My God, I thought, he must be some sort of prodigy, using words like that so young. Or he might just be a very serious kid, not interested in playing games.

And, you know, since I’ve tired of the games as well, maybe the time for real dialogue has come.

Drinks on you.