When Japanese people have been asking me, “how do you like Japan so far?” or “what do you think of Japan?”, my reply has been “I’ve never been made to feel more welcome”. On Saturday night, 17th September, I was reminded of why that is.
I have signed up to teach legal English with a school specialising in that field, and am giving lessons in, inter alia, Fukuoka High Court. My boss has been going on and on about someone she calls “The Head Lawyer”, which sounds like a character from The Matrix, who really wants to meet me. Fine.
On Saturday, then, I was dispatched, neck be-tied, hair be-gelled and pits be-sweated, back to the Court for the monthly meeting where all of the heads of the eight Kyushu bar associations (d’où the expression “Head Lawyer”) come together and discuss the international aspects of their practice. I had been asked to give a speech about the Bar in England, which I did with relish, and it was a pleasure to see so much curiosity, and see the high regard in which the profession is held internationally.
Post-meeting, they invited me to dine at the office of the head of the Fukuoka-ken Bar association. The food was great: loads of good chicken (a rarity over here, I’d say) and loads of excellent sushi and sashimi (and I did not care in the slightest that I had had sushi for lunch too!)
More importantly the booze was good and plentiful. I had decent Japanese beer for the first time (it’s bloody expensive over here, despite the quantities people are rumoured to drink), but that was just for the old kampai. Because I mentioned that I had lived in Paris, the “Château Blanc” was soon cracked open, then some French red, then some Laurent Perrier, then some form of cognac. Then we got on to the “workers’ drink”, some vile but warming spirit from, yes you’ve guessed it, China. I remember the first time I went to mainland China being advised never to go near it, but what is advice for if not to be ignored?
But it wasn’t the drink that made the night so moving, it was the off-the-cuff, red-faced, heart-felt speeches that these proud men made in a language that is not their own, in honour of some gaijin they don’t know, and have no reason to know except to welcome him to their country. There were eight senior lawyers around the table, a stunningly gorgeous Korean girl who was Head Lawyer’s assistant, and a cool Filipino guy who spoke impeccable English and was himself an accomplished jurist. Each of them made a short speech welcoming me to Japan and insisting that I come and visit them in their respective prefectures. Their English was, they admit, poor, but they struggled on. For my benefit.
The affair was quite Japanese, in that they were quite drunk but there was still lots of bowing and ceremony and formality. But I got a sense that, though the rituals were adhered to, there was a consciousness of the ridiculousness of it all. They all insisted on refilling my glass all the time, and every time I accepted and held my glass with both hands, they would all shout “the Japanese way!” and have a good giggle. One of them had inexplicably learned the expression “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” and they all loved that. They gave me the Japanese equivalent: “Gou ni itte wa, gou ni shitagae” (When in a town, obey!).
The Head Lawyer from Nagasaki was an extremely jovial man who had lived in New York, and had probably the best English at the table. His speech was perhaps the most moving: “Grahame, you have been invited by us all to stay with us in our homes and we sincerely hope that you will come. We’ve all promised you free food and drink all over Kyushu, and if these guys don’t live up to their end of the bargain, I’ll sue their asses”. Nice! “There’s a Buddhist idea that we call En. It means something like this: the world is a huge place, and there are billions of souls in it, but for some reason we have been brought together and so we owe it to the unlikeliness of that happening to start a relationship. Welcome to Japan”.
They gave me gifts (“The Japanese way!”) and sent me home drunk.