By Andrew Innes
Certain cliches tend to be overused when talking about Japan. The travel blog will invariably start with a shot of that crossing in Tokyo. The lights will change to green, and you will be shown a drone shot of people walking from four corners of the pedestrian scramble, each towards the centre. Just as you think they are going to collide, they seamlessly emerge on the other side of the throng with barely a passing look. This will invariably be followed by a montage of images: a shy girl in a summer kimono holding an umbrella as she covers her mouth with a fan and laughs, a shot of a temple framed by maple leaves, a bullet train speeding past, and people having picnics under the cherry blossoms, among others.
In the case of the author, the words ephemeral, ethereal, unique, and inscrutable will be doled out at least once in their description of either the seasons, the people, or the culture; and the word neon in their description of either Tokyo or Osaka. Japan will then be referred to as a land of contradictions before we get a reference to Blade Runner, robots, and punctuality.
What is often missed, however, is the kind of place where this story begins; the kind of place vloggers and influencers walk straight past on their way to the dog café or capsule hotel as they seek out that quintessential essence of Japan. You won’t find it on Instagram among the photos of people with their back to the camera as they gaze out at Mount Fuji. You won’t find it on the promotional videos on YouTube that show Jiro san cutting up the finest cuts of fresh yellowtail at his world-famous restaurant. In fact, the place I’m talking about doesn’t even exist anymore.
I’m not sure what drew me into the run-down café near the castle, but here I was. It can’t have been the ancient wax food in the window outside that made the food look less appealing than any of the other fine fare the city has to offer. It can’t have been the murky interior and the old woman smoking a cigarette as she served cabbage and noodles to her customers. It can’t have been the feeling that the place looked like it had survived the Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and possibly the previous two world wars. Maybe I just wanted something to drink, and this was the closest place at hand.
“Yaah, that company,” the old woman screwed up her face as though chewing on a lemon as I mentioned the name. I’d been in Japan around a week and knew just about enough of the language to count to twenty, order a salad, and let the old woman know where I worked. I’d already done the latter, but it was too early in the day for twenty salads. That could wait for another time.
“Nan de ano kaisha de hataraiten no?” she asked why I worked for that company. I think this may have been where the extent of my Japanese ran out, but sometimes, a person’s expression and tone can tell you all you need to know. Guide books will tell you that a smile can communicate all you need when you travel—who needs translator apps or phrasebooks? Well, I did. The woman had just pulled an expression that suggested I’d trodden dog shit into her carpet. I checked the soles of my shoes. It couldn’t be that bad if there were branches all over Japan. Only time would tell if the company was that bad.
`Study abroad next to the train station` was the company slogan. `Have a conversation about what you did at the weekend with a foreigner while sitting in a tightly confined space with other native speakers of your own language before being pestered to buy more points on your way out, near the station`, was longer, but perhaps closer to the truth. Clover English School was everywhere, but not everybody had a good word to say about the company.
Training was kicked off by Joe, an Aussie whose beer paunch, or his tank as he called it, came into the room before the rest of him. He peppered proceedings with plenty of anecdotes, a sprinkling of jokes cut from a routine intended for a working men’s club in the 1970s, and perhaps one too many references to how he liked to `get pissed` at the Tiger Pub. For Joe, political correctness was when he correctly betted that Australia’s prime minister could sink a beer faster than his local watering hole’s house record. He was less likely to be cracking the whip and more likely to be the one rolling up two minutes before his lesson, hungover and stinking of beer and cigarette smoke.
Joe was a font of words of wisdom and advice, an Aussie version of The Karate Kid’s Mr Miyagi. “Give ‘em plenty o’ time t’ talk. It’s not easy talkin’ in a strange language,” he’d advise us, “and if they don’t say anythin’, well, fack ‘em,”. I wasn’t sure if he’d got that one from Confucius, but possibly not. He told us the importance of putting a lot of weight on maximizing student talk-time, and with his love of Asahi and Kirin beer, it was clear that he’d certainly put a lot of it on himself over the years. He peppered his Outback patois with cultural references that would have embarrassed a hardened crew of miners, but he got his point across, and his points were generally fair dinkum.
Students weren’t shy, he’d tell us; there was always more to it than that. Our job was to read the air, develop a sixth sense to see beyond the veneer of polite smiles and understand that silence in the classroom could be broken down into several essential elements. Perhaps it was the Japanese dynamic of the senior-junior relationship that was causing hesitancy on the part of the person holding the junior rank. It could be a simple case that the students weren’t within the zone of proximal development. Maybe it was because Japanese people were shy, as the stereotype assured us. Or, more realistically, it was something less mysterious that Joe would point out with a dismissive wave of his hand, “Ah, they just haven’t got anything t’ say t’ ya’, mate.”
It soon became apparent that the teaching materials needed a swift update. The dogeared textbooks from the 1970s were initially designed for Spanish immigrants to America and a little embarrassing, to say the least. We just learned to act like we weren’t looking at a page featuring a bearded man with flared trousers and a bubble perm trying to get a refund on a black and white TV. The coffee-stained carpet and peeling walls in need of a lick of paint didn’t matter, either. It all added `character` to the school.
Most teachers stayed for a year or two. A few moved up the corporate ladder and stuck things out a bit more. Some went on to get married, have kids, and make a respectable life for themselves. However, the one constant was the ever-changing stream of new faces who came to learn the ropes, skills, and tricks needed to fulfil the school’s simple goal: get ‘em talking.
Saturdays were the busiest time. Imagine two rows of minuscule cubicles with a pane of Perspex separating you from the classes taking place inches to either side of you. To the left, you might have a class where the students were having a lively discussion about cultural differences across South East Asia. To the right, you might have a group of students repeating the phrase, `This is a pen` over and over like they’d just started their own cult. Instructors filed into their booth like cows going into milking stations and poured their English into minds made hungry from a diet of Western films and images.
The teachers’ room was like a backpacker’s hostel where the travellers just happened to be dressed in office attire. Anecdotes were shared, different accents filled the air, jokes were made, and there was a feeling of excitement and novelty at finding yourself in a completely new country. New teachers came in most weeks for their induction before being thrown into the classroom after a couple of days. It was a case of sink or swim, but people got the hang of it soon enough. If you could speak English and had a pulse, you were good to go.
We sang at karaoke, went to bars after work, experienced the culinary delights of dried squid or vinegared octopus sold at the local convenience store, and steered clear of the raw horse meat at the local izakaya. Everything was new and exciting; we were essentially on a long holiday. Of course, this was all punctuated by lunchtime karaoke sessions, cherry blossom parties in the spring, and the official end of training night out on Fridays.
After one particularly memorable night out at the castle, the Japanese sales manager sustained a heart-shaped graze on his face after attempting a somersault from the top of a wall. It remained for weeks and looked like he’d been in a fight with a wall and lost.
On a different occasion, a group of male teachers found out that the local cinema offered a ladies’ night discount and decided to stage a `protest`. The guys turned up in a limousine, rolled out the red carpet, and stepped out to the accompaniment of several red balloons that floated into the night sky. They did their best catwalks and arrived at the cinema to the bafflement of the staff. All good fun and no one was hurt.
One day, perhaps pulled back to Australia by the memory of barbecues on the beach and good weather, Joe decided that the time had come to move on. Bidding us farewell with one final night out, we all returned the next day with hangovers to find a young man sitting in his place. He wore a simple black suit, a white shirt, a conservative tie, and shoes polished to an obsidian black. Rather than making introductions, he seemed more concerned with tapping out a message on his phone. It turned out that this would be his primary mode of communication with us.
It wasn’t long before the stories started to circulate. He had reduced a Japanese staff member to tears for using the wrong language when addressing him. He had sent a teacher home for having a suggestion of stubble. He had grilled a teacher in front of the students for riding the train to work without a tie on. One teacher had been given a warning for not having their top button done up. Another was on a final warning for not having polished their shoes satisfactorily. This was the kind of memo we were subjected to:
To: All instructors.
Re: Clover teaching materials.
It has come to my attention that certain staff members have been defacing and making negative comments about the textbook, saying it is outdated. Let me remind you that a good teacher can take any resource they are handed and make a good lesson out of it. Conversely, a poor worker will always blame their tools. To this end, until the culprit is found, we will be placing cameras in the classrooms to observe that everyone is following the Clover teaching way.
Should you have questions regarding this change, please contact the assistant manager or myself.
Thank you in advance,
It was around this point that the atmosphere in the school started to change. The air became fetid with the rotten smell of something decaying, like cat food left outside on a hot day. It lurked in the corridor. It skulked around dark corners like a spurned ex-partner and seemed to suck all the air out of the building.
It didn’t help that Phil’s arrival came around the same time as another thing the travel blogs don’t usually mention: the tropical Japanese summers. At some point around June, after the rainy season had finished, I felt it for the first time.
Stepping out of my company apartment one afternoon, a wall of scorching heat knocked me backwards as I opened the door and left the comfort of the air-conditioned building. Heat rose from the pavement and blasted from the buildings as they recycled hot air back out onto the streets. The humidity basted me like a turkey sitting in the oven and stuck my shirt to my back like the world’s worst wet t-shirt contest. The air seemed to press down on me like a hot, damp blanket, and the sun followed me like a searchlight on an escaped convict.
Doing my best to stick to the few inches of shade that the side of the road offered, I made my way into town and arrived near the castle. I locked my shopping bike and stepped into the cool, air-conditioned interior of the small café to meet a colleague for lunch. Finding a table near the window, I watched as tourists melted under the oppressive heat like ants under a magnifying glass. My colleague arrived, and we ordered a couple of iced drinks to cool us down. The conversation soon turned to the topic of Phil.
“Ah, sounds like he’s a bit of a rotten mikan, ne?” Midori turned the straw in her drink as I told her about the new manager, the ice rattling against the side of the glass.
“A rotten mikan?” I looked at her askance.
“Ah, how to say. He’s like the smelly old mandarin that turns the rest of the fruit in the bowl rotten.” Her chopsticks hovered over her lunch before she placed a few pickled cucumbers into her mouth.
“So, you’re not a fan?”
“I think he’s probably A gata,” Midori added as she crunched on the pickles and contemplated her words.
“What’s a gata?” I asked.
“No, no. Not a gata, A gata. His blood type is probably type A. We Japanese say that people with blood type A tend to be reserved. They worry a lot. What say? Someone who want to be perfect.”
“A perfectionist. Adolf Hitler was type A, wasn’t he?”
“Oh, I don’t know about him,” Midori took a drink of her iced green tea and thought for a moment.
“Have you heard of bura hara? How say? Blood type harassment. People say certain blood types are suited to some jobs. This person suit sales, this person suit design,” Midori said as she sidestepped the topic of historical tyrants. “At my kindergarten, the kids were split up into blood type groups. The teachers seemed to think it would help us be good team players,” Midori went to work on the seasonal fish she’d ordered.
“It all sounds a bit like horoscopes and star signs to me,” I added. Midori made a slurping sound as the last of her green tea disappeared up the candy cane straw.
“We also have sumeru hara,” she added, looking over the top of her glass.
“Sumeru hara?” I repeated back as though a student taking a Japanese lesson.
“It’s a kind of harassment. People with a strong perfume smell. Someone who smells sweaty. Someone who cause meiwaku, a nuisance to others with their smell.”
“Ah, that sounds like Phil.”
“Funnily enough, he doesn’t smell of anything except soap and shoe polish. The school started to smell as soon as he got here, though.”
“Is the school building harassing you?” she asked as she made a start on her strawberry parfait.
“Haha, very funny. Actually, that’s not far from the truth.”
“Not far from the truth?”
“Well, Joe might have been a bit blunt at times—a bit direct, but at least you knew where you stood with him. He’d always look you in the eye and give it to you straight. This guy’s like a shell of a human. An automaton. He doesn’t seem to have any emotions or skills at dealing with people.”
Midori gave a quizzical tilt of the head. Her English wasn’t perfect, but it was far better than my Japanese, and she was good at getting the overall gist.
“He’s too strict, ne?”
“Hmm, you could say that.”
I checked my watch, we settled the bill, and I pushed my bike along as we chatted about this and that on our way back to the school. Before long, we were walking through the 1980s style shopping precinct. Local people milled around looking for bargains as throngs of tourists explored the various eateries and took photographs of anything with Chinese characters. From above, there was a flash of colour as something receded into the rafters.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
“Oh, it was probably just a cat,” Midori replied. “There are lots of them up there. Funny ne?”
“Ah, most people probably don’t notice them; too busy with their heads in their phones,” I answered.
“Cats are, how to say, good at moving. Agile ne? But I think it’s a little dangerous up there, even for a cat.”
“Nine lives, though. Better than our one, eh?” Midori gave a slightly puzzled look as we headed back into the school.
Back inside the building, the smell had started to worsen. Over the years, I have tried to analyze, to put into words, just how revolting it was. A person usually gets used to that which is repellent to the senses. They become acclimatized to it. We even have the phrase `nose blind` used to describe how our brain learns to shut out the smell of wet dog in the living room or the cooking smell only apparent to a visitor. Yet, this was different. Its tendrils spread through the school and assaulted the olfactory system like a kind of pungent nerve gas. It never went away.
It was the smell of that which lay hidden in the corner of the drain, the festering soup at the bottom of the rubbish left out on gomi day in the middle of summer, the smell of death, rot, decay, and disease. Air fresheners dotted the corridors and classrooms, but all they did was add a sickly-sweet top note of rose and lavender that somehow made it even more cloying. The smell dampened our spirits and evaded our attempts to locate its source. It was everywhere, but nowhere.
I walked into the teachers’ room, opened a window and turned to see the rotten mikan tapping away on his phone. Before long, a text arrived on my screen.
To: All instructors.
Re: Professionalism in the workplace.
It has come to our attention that several instructors have been falling below the acceptable level of professionalism in the workplace. Various issues have been raised, which are outlined as follows:
Instructors are simply going through the motions.
Instructors are checking their watches in class too often.
Instructors are not adequately utilizing the textbook and are instead making idle chat.
Instructors are failing to use the Clover approach.
Students pay a lot of money to come to this school and should be provided with a commensurate five-star experience. Should you require further clarity, please contact the assistant manager or myself.
Thank you in advance,
Phil was the kind of person who seemed to think referring to himself as `myself` and thanking you in advance was the way to gain respect. In fact, he seemed to like it so much that it wasn’t long before a second memo arrived on our phone screens.
To: All instructors.
Re: Health and Safety.
Maintenance work will be carried out to ascertain the source of the foul emanation in the teachers’ room. The current situation is not conducive to maintaining standards of health or hygiene and safety for staff and students alike. Anyone found to be responsible will be dealt with accordingly.
Should you require further clarity, please contact the assistant manager or myself.
Thank you in advance,
A few hours later, the smell was even more acute. Windows were opened, and more air fresheners were put out, but nothing seemed to get rid of that smell. It felt as though the school itself was starting to turn rotten. A couple of men in overalls stood on a set of stepladders to investigate a brown mark that had begun to spread across the ceiling. The edges appeared to be a little stiff by the accretion of something viscous, and they were having difficulty moving it by hand. Phil seemed to be a little disgruntled that the men were breaking his concentration by talking animatedly about the recent Hanshin Tigers game,`Idle chat`, as he called it.
Struggling to get the tile to budge, one of the workmen took a crowbar from his work bag and prised it under. With a bit of effort, he got it to shift, and the hidden source of the smell suddenly became apparent. Brown liquid began to pour from the gap the workman had created. Just a little at first, like the first drops before a storm. But it was soon a positive deluge, a downpour of stink and rot. Then, marking the apogee of the disgusting performance, the bloated corpse of a cat that had lain dead for several weeks was dislodged like a macabre Jack in the Box.
It might have been better if the cat had simply descended in a vertical descent, landing with a dramatic thud on the table. Yet, such is the nature of decay that the bodily fluids of the cat had formed a kind of adhesive bond to the roof tile upon which it had lain, causing it to swing back and forth in the fashion of a pendulum, spraying the surrounding area with its disgusting payload.
It was unfortunate that Phil had been in the middle of the room when it happened. It can’t be said that he didn’t make a valiant effort to escape the brown rain that soaked through to his skin. Leaping to his feet, he jumped back just as the cat was dislodged, its stomach splitting open as it landed on the table in front of him. But it was already too late. His hair dripped with the brown fluid that spread all the way down to his highly polished shoes. Maggots that had crawled over the cat’s body and through its empty eye-sockets found their way inside Phil’s clothes. And that smell…
Of course, the staff made a big fuss, offered him towels, and apologized over and over for the fact that there was a dead cat on the other side of the ceiling. The details are a little hazy, but Phil’s face was a picture. He looked like Edvard Munch’s The Scream if it had been covered in dead cat left to stew in the hot summer sun. It was as though the school had become so rotten and sick that it had opened its mouth and vomited out the very core of its soul onto Phil. The commute home must have been a real stinker of a journey that hot August night.
The shopping arcade in Himeji is still there, and Clover English School is now a shabu shabu restaurant. I don’t know what became of Phil. A few years after the cat incident, the company came crashing down in what would be one of the biggest financial disasters in Japan since the Second World War. The company had spread itself too thinly, and the government had banned new sales as a punishment for a sales scandal. Mysterious memos had circulated about dark clouds hanging over us, which would soon be swept aside, but they never were. A handful of students raged against the staff that they couldn’t use the lesson points they had purchased but most accepted that it wasn’t the actual fault of the staff. One day, the shutters were down on the school, and the company that had marketed, packaged, and sold English to millions was no more.
People seem even more engrossed in their phones these days and less aware of their surroundings. If you ever do come to the shopping precinct in Himeji city and happen to look up though, you might just see one of the many stray cats that reside in the rafters. Perhaps they’re looking down on the throngs of locals who walk past with their heads in their phones or the tourists taking photos. Of course, none of this is guaranteed, they have a habit of disappearing.