KOBE – If there’s one thing you are likely to come across almost ad nauseam in Japan, it is Alex Kerr-esque laments over the withering away of traditional Japanese communities — of festivals with centuries-old traditions on the brink of extinction, emptied-out rural villages, traditional houses turned to rack and ruin.
Yet if I want to make myself all misty-eyed with nostalgia about a vanished world of “community,” then I would be writing not about that, but of things that arose and vanished in the bat of a historical eye and are never even mentioned today. It was those things that provided me with a greater vista of diverse, authentic human life in Japan than anything else I have ever encountered.
I’m thinking of places like the netto kafe (internet cafe), which, for those under the age of 25, was a place that, before the advent of smartphones 10 years ago, people used to drop into to check their email and surf the web. The particular internet cafe I used to frequent in south Osaka in the early 2000s brought together one of the most fascinating, eclectic set of punters I have ever encountered.
Exchanging ‘electronic mail’
I can recall with some precision the first time the notion of communicating by “electronic mail” entered my consciousness. I was in Thailand in the spring of 1998 and some people I had met suggested we keep in contact not by ordinary mail but by this new method. “Nerds,” I thought, rolling my eyes in mirth at the idea of faffing about on a computer to communicate, but dutifully took down their “electronic mail addresses” (who came up with this nonsense?) though doubted I would ever be using them.
But soon I thought I might as well give it a go. And, besides, I had to write up a Ph.D. in Japanese, and I had little idea about how I would go about typing and formatting this in the language. When I had to give presentations in Japanese before, I used to babble my rambling ideas in pidgin Japanese to a friend who would type them up into a more coherent version on a basic word processor. But now I had to type up the monster thesis myself.
I figured I could go to one of these odd “cyber cafes” that had started to pop up with computers (I didn’t have one myself) and they could show me what to do. I discovered a place in Osaka’s Uehonmachi area called Bean Bit Cafe where they had perhaps a dozen computers in a back room linked to a front room that was a more traditional cafe serving light meals and drinks.
And so I commenced an intense six-month period in which I went to the cafe every single day, sitting for hours at a time at my terminal and thinking about Friedrich Nietzsche and Japanese literature (the subject of my thesis) and typed and typed. Whenever I got stuck on how to use the machines in Japanese, one of the helpful waitresses would do her best to resolve the problem, and on more than a few occasions, the cafe owner himself would have to be rung and the computer shut down, turned off and rebooted. Oh, what pioneer days those were.
Yet while I was intensely preoccupied with my academic project, an entirely different, diverse world was unfolding around me. Into the cafe stumbled hostesses, tourists from the nearby Miyako Hotel, flight attendants, salarymen and long-term Japan residents from around the world. Pretty soon everyone was speaking to everyone and getting to know one another.
One day, I was working on my thesis and I suddenly became aware of an intense, vigorous movement going on in the seat next to me. I realized that a Japanese high school student in his black uniform was engaged in lustily pleasuring himself by whatever delights he was enjoying on his computer screen.
Every day around tea time, on the other side of the room, a big mustachioed American fellow called Dave rolled in, ordered himself a great plate of pancakes and settled down to several hours of playing some computer game, the nature of which I never entirely grasped. The waitresses would joke that his seat was “Deibu senyō” (“for the exclusive use of Dave”). Dave seemed to regard it as utterly risible that anyone would ever speak to him in a language other than English and if a rookie waitress made the mistake of asking him his order in Japanese, he would chuckle indulgently at her folly and patiently reply in the folksiest American.
In our current age, when it seems like an utter crisis if we lose Wi-Fi contact for an hour and are constantly checking our “likes,” it’s hard to transport yourself back to the times when people would check their mail perhaps twice a week — and have to go to considerable effort to do so. As I was in the computer cafe anyway, I soon got into the habit of sending emails all day long.
The people who were the greatest glory of this cafe world were the waitresses — there was just one boy mixed in with the girls, whom they teased by doodling a picture of him dressed up in a pinafore. They were all salt-of-the-earth Osaka types, living embodiments of everything I love about that city.
If you asked the young head waitress, Kanako, how she was doing, you would not get some Kyoto-style guff about “Okagesama genki desu” (“Thanks to you, I am well!”). Instead, she would hilariously blurt out, “Donzoko ya de” (“I’m f—-ing rock bottom”), which would only ever make me want to find out more what was going on in her life.
Living as I did at the time, in a tiny one-room apartment in Nishinomiya, a place in which during 10 years residence I never once cooked and usually did little more than sleep and bathe, the internet cafe became my home from home on the other side of Osaka, where I arrived every day around noon and usually stayed until the 9 p.m. closing. Then, every evening, I would walk from Uehonmachi to the entertainment district of Shinsaibashi, where I would often dine in a cavernous, chic underground restaurant bar called Africa, have a pint at an Irish pub and catch the last train home.
At one point, I was thinking so intensely about Nietzsche and Japanese literature that I simply could not sleep and stayed awake for 36 hours before sleeping for 17. Sleepy-eyed under the mental strain, I looked across at a computer in the internet cafe and saw a thin, bespectacled guy from New Zealand, who started talking to me about the novelist George Eliot.
It seemed like he had read all George Eliot’s novels and he particularly recommended “Daniel Deronda.” I was thinking what a character he was, then he disappeared for a few weeks and re-emerged, came over and sat next to me and started showing me some of his pictures from a recent trip to Moldova. We began with some desultory public buildings before segueing to rough-looking women in drab interiors. Not pausing for breath, he nonchalantly commented that they were sex workers he had met while over there and that they had very enticing rates.
The definition of strange
The world of the internet cafe challenged my definition of “strange.” Who was the weirdo, anyway? The shamelessly masturbating student? Big Dave? The well-read Kiwi sex tourist? Or was it in fact me, wasting months and years of my life on a grand thesis in Japanese that no one was ever likely to read?
I finished the thesis, submitted and revised it and eventually turned it into my first book. When it was published, an article appeared in the People section of the Mainichi Newspaper that announced that I had written the book in an internet cafe. Subsequently it was this fact — far more than anything in the book itself — that inevitably caught readers’ interest.
For a period of about four or five years, the internet cafe was the center of my universe — my office, my social arena. But then, decline set in. The biggish cafe in Uehonmachi closed. “Fune wa shizunda!” (“The ship has sunk!”), I bewailed on an evening out with the staff on the final night. They presented me with a board with personal messages of goodwill, jokes and doodles from everyone who worked at the place.
There was a minor second wind when a smaller cafe, run by the same owner, opened in the Tanimachi 4-chome area, but by that stage the foreign crowd had all disappeared and only a handful of dedicated Japanese customers remained. Suddenly, at the block containing my one-room apartment we had Wi-Fi provided and I had bought a computer for myself.
Now, the only reason to go to an internet cafe was to get out of my cramped room. But then, in 2006, I bought a house with a pleasant kitchen and dining area that looks over an expansive garden — a perfect place to write — and the last reason for going to the internet cafe finally evaporated.
Yet, even now, I miss the human interaction and sense of community that for several years the internet cafe provided. Now I too, like everyone else, has my smartphone, head down on the train, scrolling through my feed, not interacting in any way with the people around me.
It seems extraordinary to me now how quickly that world of the netto kafe passed from being newfangled to completely obsolete. No one is likely to write any eulogies to its passing and all we can do is shrug our shoulders and move on, but for a significant chunk of my life in Japan the vanished world of the internet cafe is what defined my experience more than any other institution, and certainly far more than any aspic-preserved festival at a local shrine.