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Chapter Two: Lonely hearts in Tokyo

January 24, 2011

I had come to Tokyo to get in touch with my roots. Not really my genetic roots, that is — my parents come from a quiet southern tropical island of Okinawa on the southernmost tip of Japan, not the giant concrete sprawl of the capital. Tokyo was the epicentre of my fantasy and imagination while growing up.

Alana Oshiro. 大城アラナ。My family name, 大城、in Okinawa, is actually read “Uhugusuku”, though no one either in Canada or mainland Japan ever pronounces my name properly, so everyone in my family has resigned to “Oshiro”.

I grew up in the prairies of Alberta, the vast and sprawling wheat fields and scorching summer sun, air hot and dry it would make your lips peel and burn.

Be proud of your heritage, my dark-skinned mother always told us — hold your head up, for you’re a descendent of the royal educators of the Emperor of the Ryukyu Islands. No matter what names the schoolkids called me in the playground — shrimp, chink, monkey — I always had this name to cling to, a sense of honour that I was not of common peasant stock.

In our small rented home, I always spoke in Japanese to my parents — my father never graduated high school, but but he spent hundreds of precious dollars a year on expensive Japanese books, and I devoured all of them. If my mother ever wanted me to behave, all she had to do was hint that she would cut off the subscription to my favorite magazine from Japan, a comic book digest —

Black-haired and short and stout, I never Canadianized, as my parents hoped I would. I grew up with crystallized, old-fashioned ideas about a samurai’s honour and the proper conduct of a young Japanese woman which even the youth in Japan, I heard, have come to abandon.

Enough of these wheat fields and the smell of manure, I thought, even as a young child. Bring me to Tokyo, the centre of all modern technology in the world, and a lifestyle as delicately beautiful, fast and untouchable as laser light. By hook or by crook, I would get there, and

Education and jobs brought me closer and closer to the coast, and finally in my 29th year and in my last month of a contract with a translating company, I made the leap across the Pacific Ocean to take a job with the Japan branch of the International Broadcasting Corporation.

The move to me, continues to be surreal. I have perpetual jetlag, and fall asleep at work in the afternoon while coming alive at night. The TV news broadcast was the very first job of its kind that I had ever worked in, and it was filled with too many mysteries to digest.

The moment I landed in Narita Airport, I felt overwhelmed by the sight of Asian people who were like, and yet not like me, hundreds in view for as far as the eye could see. There was a light sprinkling of black and white people, an East Indian couple, but for the first time in my life, I was part of the majority.

Breathing deeply, I looked around me in triumph, but was surprised to find that the feeling of empowerment that was expected to feel all these years was absent from my heart at that moment. Why?

Dragging my heavy yellow backpack and stumbling around the hall with my black, dirty sneakers, I observed with worried eyes the signs that were supposed to be leading me to the train stop. Women with plucked, shaved-off eyebrows whipped past me in a storm of clicking heels, staring icily ahead or into the screens of their gleaming cell phones. Expressionless salary-men drifted past, their minds in trance-like concentration on tomorrow, trench coats flowing at their backs like monk’s robes.

I turned to the side, and saw walls covered with giant images of youth and celebrities with beautiful faces, idols worshipped in the absence of a real God.

But Tokyo — Tokyo was a mind-boggling city, unlike anything I could have imagined. Such cramped spaces at home, such undignified and poorly-built homes, and yet such material luxury flooding from every realm of the public sphere. Salted caramel from Bretagne, France, fresh-baked croissants, individually packaged soft-boiled eggs with yolks like custard cream could be purchased on every street convenience store, and yet something as basic as central heating is lacking in most middle-class homes.

There seemed to be a profound desire for beauty and refinement everywhere in Japan, which was heightened in the capital city of Tokyo. This, the fantasmagoric aspect of modern Japan, I was used to seeing through the pages of magazines and in animation videos.

What I was not expecting was the ugly twin brother of deprivation and blindness that stalked Tokyo, walking side by side with the city’s public face everywhere it went. With modern technology, came laziness and lethargy. With the appreciation of beauty came the mad, blind disdain of ugliness that caused plain women to pluck, tweeze, and paint themselves into the template of prettiness. With the intense dedication to work came the monstrosity of a neglected family, children who raised themselves through no love or guidance.

In the streets, everything was possible: there was sumptuous food, exquisite and glamorous clothing, streetside clubs where you could buy love by the hour, seductive cell phones and futuristic gadgets beckoning at every corner, luring you in with sleek screens and illuminated screens.

The loneliness came in small droplets at first, like water dropping from the faucet of a bathtub. But a few months after arriving in Tokyo, after all the excitement of tourist activities were over, the lonely feeling was spilling over and drenching everything in my personal space.

And it wasn’t just me who was lonely: many people carried a sense of mute isolation in the interior of their hearts, like a vial of poison. When someone’s words struck hard, the vial would crack, letting the poison spill into our veins, driving us mad with unhappiness.

The first day of work was filled with high hopes: I was working at INT, the famous national TV broadcast station in the centre of Shibuya city. My parents were so overwhelmed when they heard that I had been accepted to work as part of their organization: the building was a stark white behemoth-tower, with satellites cropping up like large mushrooms attached to a tree.

I breathed in sharply as I flashed my ID card to the security guard, bowing his head softly in his dark blue suit. The gleaming grey walls held up huge posters of famous TV dramas, news anchors, wildlife shows and award-winning art shows put together by the publicly funded network. I passed by the huddles of employees marching past like soldiers in their cream-white shirts, cutting through the serious air that seemed to pervade the entire building.

Coming out of the elevator on the 7th floor, I gasped at the gleaming mirrored halls of the International News section, and poked my head into the room with utmost caution. The director, a lean bearded man with tanned skin, pulled me to the front of the room and asked me to introduce myself to the crew.

“My name is Alana Oshiro, and I’m a new recruit here. I’ve just arrived from Canada, so I really hope to make friends with everyone here — it’s a real honour to be working for the INT Corporation,” I introduced myself in formal Japanese, and gave a deep bow. “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”

Polite applause crawled its way into my ears. When I looked up, everyone in the room had gone back to work.

The director, shooting me a look of sympathy, loosely patted my shoulder and himself returned to work in his busy station.

Hearing the clatter of keyboards and bustling voices, I smiled hopefully, thinking how exciting it would be to work in this intense environment. But I also had a sinking feeling that it was going to be exceedingly difficult, making friends in this new place.

The day ends, I walk home alone down the busy and glittering streets of Shibuya, filled with the sound of clicking high heels, the tinkling laughter of brown-haired students, the scent of perfume mingling with sweat.

I wander into a bustling jewelry store in the underground train station, and try on a plastic red rose encrusted with fake diamonds, a silver bracelet with two lonely-looking heart charms, dangling from the end.

I stare at the intertwining shapes, and suddenly take the bracelet off, as though waking from a trance.

It’s not gems that I seek on my hands. What I desire is something that cannot be bought in a store….the warmth of another human hand.

I blink at my reflection in the mirror, and mouth the words silently,

“I want a boyfriend.”

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