May 18, 1999
In Japan, even getting together to party is a very structured, organized event. Last week I attended an enkai, or drinking party, with the faculty and PTA of one of my schools. In Japan, the PTA is called "PTA." In English. Apparently, the translation of "Parent-Teacher Association" was just too cumbersome.
An enkai is two hours long. Period. First, the MC step up to a microphone (there is almost always a stage area and a microphone) and introduces the speaker who will give the opening comments for the opening ceremony for this enkai on this date. That person says "This is the opening ceremony for this enkai on this date" and sits down. The MC thanks that person for giving the opening remarks for the opening ceremony of this enkai on this date. Then, the actual opening ceremony starts, consisting of speeches given by various semi-important people, each one of whom starts his or her speech by saying "I am happy to be speaking at the opening ceremony of this enkai on this date." Each speaker is then thanked by the MC for speaking at the opening ceremony for this enkai on this date. Then, the MC introduces the person who will give the closing remarks for the opening ceremony for this enkai on this date. I could go on.
Finally, everyone somehow gets his or her glass filled with beer (no one is EVER allowed, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, to pour for themselves). Then, the person whose job it is to make the toast during this enkai on this date makes the toast, reminding us again which enkai we are at and what the date is. He (in my experience, always he) says "Kampai," which means "Cheers," and everyone else responds in kind. Then, the party starts.
This particular enkai was with the teachers and parents from the school at which I witnessed the fight. I figured such a huge event might possibly come up in conversation. I was wrong -- everyone acted like life had no problems and only happy things existed. So, for the next two hours I schmoozed with the parents in the PTA and some of the teachers. There was food and drink, and it was actually quite fun. Except for the fact that everyone consciously put on rose-colored glasses and simply wished their problems away.
I should mention that the PTA in Japan is almost exclusively women. PTA meeting are in the middle of the day, so if you have a job it isn't really possible to participate, and all homemakers in Japan are women. Parent-teacher conferences, similarly, are in the middle of the day, so only the unemployed can participate. In an interesting twist, parent-teacher conferences in Japan are held at the students' homes, which means that the teachers must visit the homes of each of their students. In any event, although the PTA is about 95% women, the few males who do participate are automatically in charge. The President, VP, and other officers were men, and all the other members were women. The men were employed, too, so they can't even attend all of the meetings. So, while everyone knows that the PTA is basically a women's organization, the de facto rule is that they need men to tell them what to do. Yes, it was that sexist.
So, the enkai lasted from 6:30 until 8:30, and then there was the after-party. For some people, the whole point of going to an enkai is so that you can attend the after party (this time, about 20% of the people went to the second party, but that number varies with each enkai). That's when the masks really come off. The Principal, VP, PTA President, and other PTA officers had their own private little after-party, and the regular teachers and parents went to a different place (this is so that everyone can really speak freely). None of the female teachers came to the after-party, however, so it was four male teachers and eight mothers. Apparently, I was the only one who thought it was strange that the male teachers and the students' mothers were out getting drunk together on a school night. And let there be no doubt -- most of those attending were getting absolutely smashed (yours truly not included -- I was having too much fun watching).
The after-party was held at a karaoke bar, which is standard. The twelve of us sat around two little tables loaded with booze and poured away for each other while everyone took turns singing. Because other people are always pouring for you, it is difficult not to drink, but not THAT difficult (I have heard people complaining that they always get drunk because they can't say no. In my opinion, those people really want to get drunk, and they use that as an excuse). I had a difficult time, however, preventing two particular mothers from spiking my already-spiked iced tea. They finally won when I was singing and not watching my glass. The next time I tasted it, it was like someone slipped a tiny bit of iced-tea into my alcohol.
Unfortunately, during this otherwise pleasant evening, two items really annoyed the hell out of me. First, I found out that the many of those present were the mothers of the most disruptive and poorly behaved boys. They had the gall to show their faces at such an event and happily drink away with the teachers whose lives are made a living hell by their own children. I wanted to shout at them "how about controlling your children first, and then I'll buy you a drink." Remember that in Japan it is the teachers' responsibility not the parents', to control the kids. I still seethe about that periodically.
The second thing that pissed me off was that one of the mothers was the single most racist person I have ever met. When she came in, the only seat available was next to me, and she refused to take it. Finally, when no one else would move (because they thought she was joking, although I assure you she wasn't), she reluctantly sat next to me, but immediately turned her back and leaned as far away as possible. During the course of the evening, while I was making halting yet successful conversation in Japanese, others kept on encouraging her to at least say hello to me, and she responded "I don't speak English. I can't talk to the gai-jin." (Note -- originally, gai-jin literally meant "barbarian," but today it's meaning and use have been modified and it is not always considered rude. This woman, however, was using the word in its original sense) Giving her the benefit of the doubt several times, I looked right at her and said very clearly in Japanese "That's OK, I speak a little Japanese. Please use Japanese. It's OK." Not once did she even acknowledge the fact that I was speaking. But even more, she kept on talking about "gai-jin" this and "gai-jin" that, AFTER hearing me speak Japanese. Although I couldn't understand everything, I could tell that she was basically insulting me and all foreigners the entire evening. And she was sitting next to me, saying this stuff out loud. I really wanted to punch her. The English teacher, sitting on my other side, leaned over to me in the midst of one the woman's tirades and said "Like mother, like son." Great.
Anyway, the second party split up around 11:00, and everyone took taxis home, since in Japan the legal limit for driving is zero alcohol, and the penalties are stiff. These factors combine to make possible the existence of a special kind of taxi service. Parked along the streets of all of the nightlife areas are cars that look like taxis, but there are two people in them. The second guy is there to drive your car home for you while you ride in the taxi. So, basically, it's a taxi service for you AND your car, and I have heard that it is very expensive. Well, of course it is. You can charge drunk people as much as you want, and the only clientele they have, by definition, is drunk people.