Gray Kimono

by Casey Loken

The photograph remains. A young white woman, echoes of baby fat still cushioning her face. She tilts her head to the left, away from the group of Japanese men. They are outside, in the wind, posed for a group photo in front of the sea. Next to them is a large plywood board, painted with mermaids and fish cavorting. The mermaids are shapely redheads, the fish round and thick lipped with bright blue fins. The young woman is caught in the moment, trying to pull a strand of her long brown hair from the side of her mouth. She smiles, but there is no light in her eyes

The men were her English students at NLC, a company on the 17th floor of a tall, unremarkable building in Osaka. She did not know what NLC stood for, or its address, or the name of the building where it was located. This was 1982, before the advent of cell phones and Google maps, and she only knew how to get there by memory. Take the subway to Umeda station and leave by the south exit. Turn left at the barber shop and go three blocks. Turn right at the building just past the noodle shop. Take the elevator to the 17th floor and turn right. 

Her students had invited her to join them for a company outing to a part of Japan that she had heard so much about. Everyone was coming, they said. The boss, the managers, the engineers (all male) and of course the secretaries (all female).  Of course. Everyone was coming and it would be fun. 

Fun, she thought to herself as she rode the bus through the beautiful Japanese countryside, looking out the window at the brilliant colors of mountain maples. Fun. Inside the bus two TV sets screeched Japanese sports and her fellow passengers smoked cigarettes and drank beer, becoming increasingly louder than the TV sets. Fun was not the word she would use to describe this experience. 

She realized it would not be fun the minute she arrived at the appointed spot to meet the bus at 7am. It was then she saw that everyone else was male. Where are the secretaries? she wailed. They weren’t able to come, she was told. She knew then that she had been tricked, bamboozled by her students, and that they were all laughing at her. She was mad and embarrassed. But she was stubborn too, and decided to go anyway.

The photograph was taken on Sunday. It was the second and last day of the trip. The mood of Sunday afternoon’s bus ride was very different from the festive atmosphere of the previous day. No less drinking and smoking, but it was a pensive end-of-holiday indulgence. Many of the men were sleeping off hangovers. When they stopped at the seaside tourist attraction, they grumbled noisily as their seatmates shook them awake. Everyone tumbled out of the bus. The men ignored the sea and headed for a low, non-descript building across the parking lot.

Where are we going? she asked. To buy souvenirs, she was told. Inside the building were tables heaped with pickled seafood, crackers, boxes of cake, and small wrapped items that she guessed were either sweet or very salty. A trip was not a trip unless you brought home regional treats for those you loved or needed to impress. Dried fish for the wife. Fancy cakes for the office mates. Wrapped fruit for the boss. She had no one to buy souvenirs for, and as she watched the men join long lines to pay, she realized that they would be there for a long time. I’m going outside, she told one of the men. I’ll be looking at the sea.

She was glad for the wind off the sea. It blew away the scent of cigarette smoke and the stale beer-soaked air of the bus. She took out her camera. It was a dull day, and the view was dimmed by that, but it was refreshing to take photographs with no people. Her camera was filled with photographs of people from the night before.

After reaching their destination, a very expensive looking Japanese inn, she was shown to her room, given a robe and fresh warm towels. The Japanese woman who appeared to have been put in charge of her waited while she undressed, then brought her to a small room that held her own private bath, a large and lovely wooden tub filled with hot water. After washing at the low spigot next to the tub she climbed in. The water was hot enough to wash away the tension and embarrassment that had built up during the bus ride. Maybe they’ll forget about me and let me stay in my room all night, she thought, knowing that would never happen.

She was given a gray kimono to wear, directed to follow the Japanese woman to the dining room. When she got there, she realized that this was to be an elaborate banquet. The men sat at small trays placed low to the ground around the perimeter of the room, facing inwards in a large circle. Japanese women were already bent over the men, laughing, pouring beer and sake. All the men wore plain gray kimonos, just like hers. The Japanese women who served them wore colorful patterned kimonos. But she was not a Japanese woman. She was here by mistake––the only woman in the circle, the only woman eating, the only woman wearing a gray kimono, the only woman doing everything wrong.

The dinner was incredible. Fish and crab and beef. Tofu twisted into intricate designs. Delicate vegetables and creamy egg custards. The Japanese women brought out the same small portions for everyone at once. The empty dishes were then removed gracefully as more exquisite ones were presented. Just as the men were exclaiming how delicious something was, how artfully presented, another dish appeared that put the previous one to shame. Beer and sake glasses were kept filled. As the night wore on, there were jokes made about the American girl, good-humored jokes that could be said in front of her face. But she felt the sting and knew that other jokes were being whispered too, in words she didn’t understand.

After the feast, it was time to sing and dance. A microphone was brought out. The men took turns singing to the taped music and everyone danced. They tried to convince her to sing a song, but there were only three songs available in English and she pleaded ignorance. Yesterday. My Way. The Green, Green Grass of Home. No, she knew none of those songs. The men danced with each other or with the Japanese women who had served them and a few of the brave ones even danced with her.

Someone was calling her name. One of the men was waving his hand at her, motioning for her to join the group standing next to the plywood. They were all waiting for her––the mermaids, the fish, the men. Three solemn rows. No joking now. The men motioned for her to come, told her to stand in the front row, right there on the end. So she came and stood and smiled out of habit, as the wind tangled her long brown hair, blowing a thin strand of it into her mouth, and she tried to pull it free just as the shutter snapped.