Bonding boozily over the pleasure and pain of Bukowski

I found Charles Bukowski’s works at a stage when I had lost all sense of direction as an adult and an English teacher in Japan. At a time of uncertainty and self-doubt, Bukowski presented the idea that just living could perhaps be enough.

There are a surprising number of references to Japan in Bukowski’s fiction. One example is the poem “The Japanese Wife,” in which he uses a comparison between Eastern and Western females to attack modern American women.

Bukowski seemed to have an interest in Japan and to like the idea of it on an escapist level. He even meets a Japanese co-worker in “Factotum” who inspires further musings on Japanese women: “I had always had a very strange idea, for a long time, that after all the trouble and pain was over, that a Japanese girl would come along and one day we would live happily ever after.” I’ve heard similar thoughts expressed by Japanophiles back in the U.K. and actualized by many of the people I’ve met in Japan (except for maybe the “happily ever after” part).

It’s surprising how often I meet Bukowski fans in my day-to-day life in Tokyo, and it’s amazing how quickly the connection endears me to them. A dull time filling in gaps in conversation with “What kind of books do you like?” rarely elicits more than a surface-level response, but when Bukowski is involved, it signals something deeper.

I had a conversation with one hitherto reticent fan that seemed almost scripted.

“Who do you like?” I asked him.

“Well, my favorite writer is this one guy, but he’s not really all that popular.”

“Oh yeah? Who is it?”

“You probably don’t know him.”

“Is it Charles Bukowski?”

His face lit up.

I have another friend who sleeps with Bukowski’s books by the side of his bed.

At one bar, I started reciting the part of “Women” where Bukowski goes through all the reasons to drink, culminating with, “and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.” My conversation partner only spoke a little English and I was translating this into Japanese, but he instantly remembered the scene I was talking about, and he put his hand on my shoulder and laughed — more because we both knew and remembered the same scene from a book than the fact it was actually funny. It’s rare in the modern world to connect with people in foreign countries over scenes from books.

It seems that when you say you like Charles Bukowski, it’s a declaration that you relate to the loneliness and pain in his works. If your fellow Bukowski reader has felt that same pain, it means you’re not so alone after all.

The ability to discuss Bukowski is hindered by the fact the Japanese titles of some his works are so different. The Japanese version of “Ham on Rye” has a title that loosely translates as “F-ck You, Childhood,” for example.

It makes sense for Bukowski to be so popular amongst Japanese males. After all, for many, isolation is a large part of Tokyo life. Respect for the privacy of others is valued as a major virtue, yet it also leads to a distancing effect. You are crammed together on a train full of people yet fully alone in your head, and people rarely communicate with strangers. Japanese culture encourages people to fulfill roles, yet there’s a palpable sadness within as individuality dissipates.

It’s my feeling that the embrace of individuality combined with the pain of loneliness is the main reason Bukowski’s works are embraced by the Japanese men I’ve met in Tokyo. It is both wish fulfillment and empathy at the same time.

William Bradbury is a freelance writer and musician living in Tokyo. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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