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Japan according to Don Maloney: Still amusing and relevant, mostly, 40 years on

by Andreas Neuenkirchen

Contributing Writer

A couple of years ago, I wrote a humorous column about life in Japan for a publication in Germany. I stopped when I actually moved here; it just did not seem enough of a challenge anymore. The publisher sent me a nice farewell message, mentioning in passing that my work reminded him of the columns a certain Don Maloney used to write for The Japan Times in the 1970s.

Now, I might have replied: “1970s? That was a bit before my time, old man.” But that’s not how I was raised, so instead I said: “Really? Cool! Tell me all about it!”

Also, the ’70s were not really before my time. Before my time in Japan, certainly, but not before my lifetime.

My memories of that decade are a bit blurry, though, like ever-fading Polaroids. I often wish I was 10 years older, so I could have experienced the ’70s as a teenager and the ’80s as a youngish adult, happily sacrificing the dull, unimaginative ’90s to serene, full-blown adulthood. The ’70s and ’80s were fun enough as a kid and a teenager, but in retrospect I realize how many things went straight over my head at the time.

So, I suffer from a severe case of general ’70s nostalgia, along with that Showa Era (1926-89) nostalgia that apparently nobody can escape, even (or especially?) if they never set foot in Japan during that time. So, to cut a long argument short: Yes, I was definitely interested in discovering a writer who wrote about Japan in the ’70s.

On the trail of the Don

Don Maloney, as it tuned out, worked in the printing equipment industry, starting his tenure in Tokyo in 1970, his wife and three of his four children in tow. To most Tokyoites, however, he was best known for his weekly column, Never the Twain…?, in the Sunday edition of The Japan Times.

The title stems from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Ballad of East and West”: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” (The title might also contain a self-deprecating reference to a certain other American humor writer.) The columns were collected in two best-selling books, titled “Japan: It’s not all Raw Fish” and, inevitably, “Son of Raw Fish,” first published in 1975 and 1977, respectively, and reprinted many times, but out of print by now.

Sadly, researching a forgotten writer and obtaining his books is not the adventure it once was. Successfully Googling Maloney took me a few seconds longer than Googling other individuals, since my informant had slightly misspelled his name, and Don Maloney does not seem to be enough of a household name for Google to auto-suggest the correct spelling. Also, I learned, there is a Canadian ice hockey player of the same name who apparently holds greater significance in the world of search engine algorithms than the writer. Otherwise I found my guy rather quickly.

While haunting the used-books stores of Jinbocho for some old Maloney sounds romantic, I simply bought a copy of “It’s not all Raw Fish” from AbeBooks with a few mouse clicks and a bad conscience, promising myself to buy some more books from actual bookshops in the near future.

When Maloney’s first collection was finally sitting on my desk, I was a bit afraid to go near it. I wanted to like this gentleman from another era, whose writing, according to others, had some resemblance to my own. But what if he turned out to be one big jerk? What would that make me? As much as we might romanticize past decades, we also consider them the stone ages as far as all kinds of -isms are concerned. A male white American businessman (not even a well-studied scholar!) writing “funny” stories about life in Japan 40 years ago? That sounds like it’s bound to get too un-PC even for readers who are not too sensitive about political correctness.

My fears turned out to be baseless. Maloney knew the first rule of humor writing: The joke should always be on you, not innocent bystanders. His work might contain a bit of generalization here and there, but that can be forgiven. Generalization is how we humans of Earth cope with the world around us.

There are some petty jokes about less than perfect English translations in public facilities, yet Maloney concedes that in Japan it is his responsibility to learn Japanese rather than the Japanese people’s responsibility to learn English. And “Engrish” jokes will certainly never die out as long as new generations of smirking foreigners keep discovering the country and feeling like they are the first to do so. (And as long as those translations don’t get better. Sorry.)

And like Maloney, these newcomers will wonder what the Japanese are not telling us, when train announcements go on forever and ever and then the English version just says: “The next stop is: Nagoya.” Hopefully they will also follow Maloney’s example in trying to find out.

Gripes of different stripes

Not that he never complains. Some of his complaints still feel timely — for instance, the ones about the price of fresh fruit, or taxi drivers not exactly being great confidence-boosters for language learners. The gloved ones freeze in a silent panic as soon as an apparent foreigner settles on their back seat, unable to understand a word of Japanese unless it is more than 99.9 percent correct.

My wife claims I don’t linger long enough on the long vowels, but I wonder if I’m not actually overdoing it. When I start saying “Ōtori Jinja,” the name of the nearest landmark to our place, I feel like I am suspended in a slow motion “O.” Yet still I have to say it four more times until my taxi driver knows what I’m talking about. (Once we contemplated moving to Ookayama, but I don’t think I have that much time, phonetically.) In his column “I Felt Better with the Paper,” Maloney almost exactly echoes my experience when I decided to finally start talking to drivers instead of just showing address cards.

Other complaints seem downright outlandish today, like the ones about random toilet paper outages (unconnected to natural disasters) or streets full of garbage and urinating men. I can’t claim that Japanese men never urinate in public these days. Just because I don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Maybe it happens in the wilder parts of town, in the darker hours of the night, but it hardly seems to be the problem of epidemic proportions that Maloney describes.

I also find it hard to wrap my head around his low opinion of Japanese workmen. The story of how he got his gate fixed is a multi-episode arc of incompetence, laziness and slapstick.

When the alarm system in our apartment was broken, however, I was downright touched by the dedication of the good people who fixed it. In the end, the president of the company that had manufactured the faulty system came to our house in person to bow in apology and provide the missing spare part from his own private collection of discontinued alarm systems.

Those shifts in the Japanese experience might seem trivial against the changes that Japan has not made in all these decades. Yet they leave me cautiously optimistic. If men can learn not to urinate wherever they please, maybe they can learn not to abuse their power. If we can learn how to hide our garbage, maybe we can someday learn not to produce that much of it in the first place.

After seven years in Tokyo, Maloney returned to the U.S., where he continued writing columns for local newspapers until his death from cancer in 2007, at the age of 79. While reading his Tokyo adventures, I respectfully pictured him as an older man than myself. But doing the math now, I realize he was around my age when he wrote these columns, even a bit younger. Yet he seemed so much more mature than I feel, more grown-up than most people I know my age, his domestic life much better organized than ours.

Those men of the ’70s. I guess they don’t make them like they used to.

Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo. Some choice cuts from past Never the Twain…? columns can be found here. Your comments and Community story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp