BIGGER THAN LIFE
I like visiting Japan. I like it so much that I do not mind the long and tiresome flight, sitting anonymously in the belly of a gigantic airliner. If you think that it's because I am an Anime fan, then it's correct, there's that. Anime, or more specifically my favorite series Azumanga Daioh, was the sole reason why I learned Japanese years ago. But perhaps the bigger reason is how my hosts treat me as royalty.
Back in the States, I am a computer programmer in a company making small Internet appliances, called "Neko". Neko is a cute little thing, not terribly powerful, but extremely useful. It is silent, takes little space, and just works - every time. My job is to write software for the Neko which never breaks, hangs, or crashes. On that job, I have a manager, teammates, schedules, all sorts of usual things. In Japan, my life is anything but usual.
Neko sells reasonably well both in the U.S. and Japan, but attitudes of its users are markedly different between countries. Americans do not care much. Their CIOs look at the price, look at features, then buy a batch of 10,000 and call it "a deployment". Japanese are obsessed with their Nekos. They buy them for their homes, then serve their webpages off them. They plaster them with stickers of Hello Kitty. They even paint them! They have "Neko hacker" websites, "Neko lover" websites, and God knows what else.
So, whenever I visit our partners, they pamper me like a rock star on a tour. The have a volunteer from the Tokyo Neko User Group carry a pile of my welcome presents to my hotel room, because I do not have hands to carry them all. It is a guilty pleasure, but it cannot be denied.
This evening, my minder is Miss Chieko Watanabe. She is very young and very pretty and does everything to make me uncomfortable, subconsciously of course. Her body language reminds me of Kaorin in episode 10: "Saaakaki-saaaaan! We are in the same class again!" Before we left the office, she had to be persuaded to call me "Pete". It could only be done with the iron will and logics of Mr. Shimoda, the Director of Business Development: "The first name is the American way, Miss Watanabe. Mr. Zaitcev shall call you Chieko, and you shall call him Pete. Please have a good evening now." Some of these things are really awkward. I only hope that other patrons in the restaurant take Chieko for my daughter.
Presently, she asks, "Pete, is it true that you like Anime?"
"Oh, I do like it! Do you?"
"Yes, yes, I do! But what is your best liked show? Mr. Shimoda asked Eiko to do the research on your bio for your trip and she wrote that you liked Azumanga Daioh..."
I do not have to ask how Eiko knew that. Probably did a search on my blog.
"That's right, I love Azumanga Daioh. In fact, I'm completely crazy about it. Why?", I ask encouragingly.
"I know someone who you may be interested to meet, if I may be so bold. That person can join us here".
My heart skips the beat because I know that some of Neko enthusiasts can go to rare lengths in an effort to please me. But it cannot be...
"Oh, no, but please let it be a surprise!"
"Oou kay ...", I agree. Now that would explain Kaorinish movements, she was excited about her cunning plan!
"Please do not listen," says Chieko, whips out her cellphone and dials, covering secretively. It is not really needed, because I only understand Japanese spoken slowly and and clearly, but in any case the conversation is short.
"They will arrive in 20 minutes", announces Chieko with a satisfied grin.
Now this is news. "Who are they? There are several of them?"
"Pete, please, you promised!"
After that, the only thing left is to cast around desperately for a new topic of conversation, and I fumble furiously with it. Minutes pass torturously as we munch on strange Japanese appetizers and talk to the waitress, but then Chieko jumps in her seat and waves to someone behind me.
Turning, I am presented with a sight of two young women, about Chieko's age, making their way to our booth. The taller one is smartly dressed in an expensive looking business suit, but the shorter one looks like a college student. She leads the way and greets us with a hearty "YO!" I and Chieko half-rise to greet them, constrained by the booth. But the moment I say, "Konbanwa", and before Chieko has a chance to say anything, she plops at the bench with me and asks, "So, Chieko-chan, is this the American you filled our ears with? He is a little too old for you!"
Chieko freezes half bent and turns red like one of Chio-chichi's tomatoes. The taller woman rolls her eyes. I muster my composure to address her and ask her to take a seat, sit myself, and say, "Chieko... Ms. Watanabe, please introduce me to your friends".
Chieko, still red from embarrassment and fury, says in a shaken voice, "Our guest from America Pete Zaitcev...", and then she says -- God so help me -- "Miss Koyomi Mizuhara... and this is Miss Tomo Takino, just as might be expected."
Now it is my turn to be shocked. Shellshocked, to be exact. Miss Takino laughs out loud - my mouth must be gaping as I try to recall Japanese words which suddenly escaped me. Miss Mizuhara bows slightly and says a few words, amused. My mind is working frantically on more important things, like what is the meaning of it all? A prank?! I feel that it cannot be so simple. Firstly, Chieko wouldn't dare. And secondly, wasn't Yomi supposed to wear glasses?
My surprise helps to heal Chieko, and she comes to my help.
"Pete, these persons are my high school friends. They are Tomo and Yomi, but they are real, because Mr. Azuma wrote them into the manga".
"Into the manga... Wow..." I have a hundred questions now, and it's hard to sort them. But first things first, and I ask: "Did Chieko mention that Azumanga Daioh is my favorite Anime? I hope you do not mind if I ask you about it... a few questions?"
"Fire away, Mr. Pete!" shoots Tomo, and at once, "Chieko, we need more drinks!" I start to suspect that she is a little tipsy. But before I come up with the question, Tomo proceeds, "I know what you are going to ask! Yes, it's all true! Even the moldy bread story!! Oh yes, they all ask that!"
Chieko is cunning again and suggests, "Tomo, eat the wings, please. Actually I have ordered your drinks already. You like Sapporo, right?"
I use the pause to venture on, "So... are all the girls real then?"
Chieko nods and confirms, "Yep, they sure are! Well, except Chiyo, of course. She was there to add the spice. But everyone else is real. Sakaki, Osaka, Kagura, Kaorin - everyone."
"The Anime is even more real than the manga. Mr. Wada interviewed us", adds Miss Mizuhara.
"I see... So how did it come about? I hope Mr. Azuma didn't serve as a model for Mr. Kimura. Miss Mizuhara, he wasn't an arts teacher at your school, was he?"
"Oh no, he wasn't a teacher. But his daughter reported him everything. Her name was Miho Azuma. She even got a cameo in the manga and Anime. She is the girl with long braids, friend of Chihiro and Kaorin." Miss Mizuhara takes a short breather, but fortunately Tomo's mouth is full, by chance or by fine timing skill. "And Mr. Zaitcev, do not call me ``Miss Mizuhara'', please call me Koyomi. Please?" (4)
Apparently, she's not too fond of her old nickname now. Tomo is trying to interject, but I firmly rely on my bad Japanese to misunderstand her. Also, it's really noisy in the restaurant.
"If you call me Pete... Koyomi. I will be happy," I reply still struggling with the idea of Yomi alive. At first, she doesn't look anything like her bigger than life image, because she does not paint her hair anymore, doesn't wear the famous glasses, and is not inclined to be fat or chubby. If I had to guess, I would say that I am looking at Miss Sakaki. But there is something familiar in her manner after all. When she speaks, I can almost hear Rie Tanaka's voice.
"Ah.. Pete. I meant to mention, I have Neko at home. I am very fond of it."
"I am sorry for my Japanese, but are we talking about Internet appliances?" In Japanese, "neko" means "a cat", so it's better to make sure.
"Oh, your Japanese is perfect! Yes, it's one of your company's Neko", says Koyomi.
This puts us at an even footing. I ignore the polite appraisal, which is so far from the truth that even my inflated ego cannot obscure it and I just try to enjoy the company. When drinks arrive, the conversation becomes even livelier. We discuss comparative merits of life in rural California and in Tokyo, why Miho hasn't got a bigger role (Tomo suggests that Mr. Azuma was a big jerk and sold their privacy, but didn't do it to Miho), Koyomi's work in Matsushita where she serves as a project manager, and, of course, Neko's software design philosophy (Koyomi is very polite to let me do it). I mention that Yomi is my favorite character because she values the hard work, and that work in Matsushita must be hard. I snare Koyomi's business card. Tactless Tomo yaps about Koyomi's contact lenses and karaoke, but I do my best to stay away from topics of weight-losing diets and ICPO.
By and by, Japanese becomes just too hard. As Chieko valiantly struggles with alcohol to interpret for me, Koyomi summons her English, which is actually quite passable, or so I think: I'm just too tired to understand any language. Suddenly, Tomo's tireless energy runs out and she starts to nod, so we call it a night. I literally carry Tomo to a cab, where we have to discuss it a little bit with the driver. At the first stop, Chieko keeps the cab while Koyomi and I deliver Tomo to her apartment. There I discover that though Tomo lives with a roommate, that roommate isn't Koyomi. Surprise! The two of us return, and as Chieko protests weakly, Koyomi suggests that Chieko's flat is on the straight line between here and her own place, near the hotel, and that she's perfectly capable to be my guardian in Chieko's stead. Or so I understand the plan, expressed in Japanese.
When we finally reach the last stop, Koyomi insists on a cup of coffee. At least it looks that way, because her words do not get to me well. I don't think a cup can harm anything, I'm so jet-lagged that it makes no difference, and I agree. Then I am walking into a dream and do not remember anything.
It sure is great visiting Japan on business!
Tracy, California August 2004
* Neko is made to resemble the Cobalt Qube before the acquisition of Cobalt by Sun Microsystems.
* Any similarities between Miss Chieko Watanabe and any of my former coworkers or Matsushita employees are purely coincidental. She is a composite character specifically designed not to resemble anyone in particular.