It happens every time. Every extended holiday, although I am here in Japan, physically, in other ways, I am not. I enter my own, specifically, edited version of it, where I keep it outside of me and observe its cold beauty, its out-of-reachness (a foreigner, ultimately, can never, never become part of this place;  and perversely, much as I find that detestable as a concept, part of me likes that fact. I came here impulsively for no reason other than escape and a desire to discover something different, both within and without, am no Japanophile despite my deep-seated, always ambivalent addiction.) The country – gleaming, dream-like, with a level of safety unattainable anywhere else that lets you just glide through it like a fish in water, is my playground. I immerse myself in it like neon in a pool of rain. I breathe in the sacred air of Nikko, feel the history enter me; the ice green breath of the avenue of ancient trees (it was literally snow falling on cedars when we were there), the spiced, heliotrope camphor of the Rinnoji temple’s self-crafted incense.


And yet whenever I go back to work after the break, I feel that I can’t breathe. When I am free ( and  I do really feel free at these times, and there is nothing more important to me in this world than that ), atmospherically, aesthetically, intellectually, Nippon fascinates me, rarely leaving me indifferent to its annihilatingly frustrating contradictions. Yet I can pick and choose, work within it. And then come back to the nest, our cinematheque, the New York Times, endless films and conversations in English, novels in the same, the far more expressed and uninhibited and selfishly me me me of western culture, in which we put ourselves first and our idiosyncracies and wants and needs and individualism, screaming to be heard over the hordes in our desire to be ‘someone’ (always my most despised aspect of American culture, that one; the separations into somebodies and nobodies, of people who have managed to ‘live the dream’ and the rest who have been fucked over by it).


In, Japan nobody is a nobody. There is a fundamental sense, here, that people should be afforded respect on some level. A cleaning lady here has a different aura to one back home, not at the bottom of the trash heap, just doing her job, and I like this. But it all comes at a cost, one I know full well and have accepted at the conceptual level, but still find utterly suffocating. Coming back to the office after a month of being off (I know, I know, hideously spoilt – why do you think I took the job in the first place? Paid holidays are like mirages here now for foreign workers in the current clime of exploitation), after spending time with Duncan’s parents and slouching into the warm, Christmas and New Year spirit, I got used to being myself, of saying what I wanted whenever I wanted (sometimes too much; my self-repression valve wore out decades ago) but that is the point: I CAN’T BEAR REPRESSION. And I have chosen to live in the most self-repressed country on earth.



And at the moment I just can’t stand it, as if my diaphragm were being pressed down by unseen forces. But in actual fact they are seen, because Japan is a country of eyes. Eyes that look, all the time, but don’t register that they are doing so: infinitesimally quick glimpses that there is a foreigner, then invisibly render them void, not there. Or in the workplace, where unlike in offices chez nous (wherever that is) there is a wall, or a divider, or a private space you can call your own, here you are constantly within the gaze of others, facing people (who often ignore you) in work spaces that are designed to be communal, cooperative, working together, no secrets (yet always secrets, because no one actually says anything they really feel), never being able to extricate yourself from your dog-worn, exhausted colleagues because you are constantly facing them. The desks are positioned that way.



But it is so exhausting for me, spiritually, even after all these years, to be positioned in such a space: my foreignness an extra barrier, my innate ‘weirdness’ yet another. When you arrive in the teachers’ room, no one ever asks how you are, how your weekend was, or anything else, because that is not the time nor the place (conversation of a more personal level can happen while you are cleaning the classrooms later on, or at work parties, under the influence of sake). You come in, utter the required aisatsu, or greeting, like a robot, and get a robot greeting in return, and then you get down to your lesson preparation with the atmosphere as heavy as a fishtank filled with mould and bitter algae, desperately trying to breathe.



It is not always like this, by any means. As the term progresses, and when spring comes, it will be different. But right now is the ‘exam hell’ season (for more on the unbelievable, slave-like conditions during this time, read my ‘Narcissus You Stink’ piece – I lack the energy to reiterate it all here), and the teachers, not having any days off for two months, or they won’t have by the time the exams are finished anyway, are understandably not exactly feeling communicative. They have to get through it. And I understand that. But it doesn’t make the daily fact of being trapped in such an environment any easier.



The classroom is an entirely different proposition altogether. There, it is my world and theirs; fantastically upbeat – this year – and positive, funny, intelligent students who I love teaching, where I can ‘perform’, if you like (and teaching is definitely a performance: every day I wake up thinking nooo like an actor before a nightly play, yet once I get going I am in my element, usually, though it always takes time for me to gradually get my spirit tamed enough to actually give a shit about what I am doing, and I am still very much in that defiant, hate this, can’t be arsed stage at present, recalcitrant, unwilling, and unable. At some point something clicks and the other more conservative and ‘proper’ side of myself kicks in and I start to get into it but oh! the lazy Sagittarian just doesn’t want to be there at all at the moment (and this piece might have to be a limited edition, come to think of it – I don’t want anyone there reading it: good jobs are much harder to find these days in Japan, especially in a place so bloody ageist (and sexist, and racist, but don’t get me started; wow, this really is a Japan-basher this one isn’t it)



This world I am working in is so colourless, so odourless; (so colorless, so odorless). The greys and beiges of the halls and the classroom, plastic walls. The ban on perfume. The drab, black, fraying suits. The surgical masks that most of the students wear to protect themselves from colds (now they really are not odourless but don’t let me go there). It all brings a chill to my soul. The pointlessness of it all. The arbitrariness of any given culture, and how the people mindlessly stick to it.



And the same thing happens every year. I begin, at first, by heeding the rules. I don’t wear perfume. I don’t wear scent. Yes, I am shampooed and fresh: yes there are lip-balms and hand creams, ah so we are already circumventing those fascistic fragrance rules aren’t we, but in essence (and I can tell from the smell of the classroom if I leave it and come back), the overall vibe is sweet and pleasant, at least I hope so; salutary and amiable, if damn boring, but then, after a couple of weeks or so something within me starts to ache, terribly, for some colour, be it visual or olfactory. I bought a new pink DVD player to use with one class, and it is quite pitiful really how much pleasure it now gives me. Against the black of the TV screen we now have some colour, for christ’s sakes, and it’s like a chink of light for a prisoner in solitary confinement. A decant spray of La Traversee du Bosphore, L’Artisan Parfumeur’s sweet, Turkish delight scent of almonds and roses, and leather and apples, has also somehow found its way into my coat pockets, this week, and the other night after work, I found myself thinking fuck it, fuck this, and spray, spray, spray, went I as I walked along the platform coming back into Kitakamakura, in my coat pockets, on my scarves, all things that can be removed once I get back to work and hung up on the malingering coat rack but which nevertheless, this week, have been wafting nonetheless (“ I smell some exotic aroma coming from you” said my right-wing, Russian literature major colleague yesterday evening, a person as averse to perfume as I am to his nationalism, whose pallor and nervous palpitations are definitely affected quite badly by this stinking queen from England but “too right, baby” thought I, and thank the heavens for it). It’s like colouring in a colouring book; reaccentuating the monochrome, the constant repression of the self that a Japanese person is forced to perform in order to fit into the society.



On Wednesday night I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Even in the classroom. And with two, lovely, sweet, unusually innocent seventeen year old students, a boy and girl, as we were doing an entrance exam  reading comprehension on the spice trade, and the history of cinnamon, and cloves, and cardamon and black pepper, I asked them, as I had just bought an essential blend from Muji, Winter Spice, if they would like to smell the real thing. Yes! they said, enthusiastically, and genuinely, and so out came the tissue paper onto which I shed copious drops of the oil, the aforementioned blended with orange and benzoin, and handed it to each of them quite happily as they inhaled the smells and the classroom suddenly came to life, taking on a richness, and three dimensionality and realness that it had previously been lacking. The oils will also help to keep colds at bay I told them, they kill bacteria: and would you by any chance – I know it is our last lesson before the exams (and these exams, in this strictly hierarchial society, really do determine how the rest of their lives will pan out) – would you like me to bring in some perfumes next week? We can do it in the break time, it might be fun, I can bring a selection (in truth, when the boy was absent one time I had already starting talking about scent with Manami, and given her a perfume by Ex Idolo). YES, they said emphatically, visibly excited. And so next week, we are doing perfume. Big time. I am going to take in a whole selection, and possibly give them some, though it is totally against the rules, as well. Because they need to know that these strictures within which they find themselves, these stiff, societal pressures, are not the only way forward. Yes, I know that Japan is the master of imaginative escape and curious invention (why do you think they create such brilliant animation?), but they need to also realize the sensuality and sensuousness of existence as well; that pleasure can come in the inwardly, bodily form of scent, the sheer physicality and joy it can bring. And to learn that smell is a connector, and a language all of its own, quite apart from the cutaneous mie of Japanese society, where everything is done for appearances, and to maintain, and not fuck with, the precious wa, or societal harmony that is always the goal, and the reason, practically,  for existence here and what makes the country, in many ways, so superlative. But there are limits. And sometimes you just have to let go, or attack, even, to free yourself from the asphyxiating insularity, inwardness, and monstrous obedience to all the rules and the regulations. To just burst through that membrane of cold respectability and meaningless societal approval with a spray; an inhalation; that hot, sensual shiver of appreciation that marks the pleasure of true olfactory retribution.

















Filed under Flowers, Japan, Psychodrama

49 responses to “P E R F U ME AS R E V E NG E

  1. Robin

    Love this. Love that you are both a good English boy and cheekily subversive. It’s all charming to me.
    I also love how much I learn about what it is like to be you, in Japan — and what Japanese culture is like from that perspective. So different from my own experience, as a Vancouverite in Vancouver, very much a fish IN water. More, please!

  2. Robin

    This is one of my favourite bits, N.:

    ‘. . .I found myself thinking fuck it, fuck this, and spray, spray, spray, went I as I walked along the platform coming back into Kitakamakura, in my coat pockets, on my scarves, all things that can be removed once I get back to work but which nevertheless, this week, have been wafting nonetheless (“ I smell some exotic aroma coming from you” said my right-wing, Russian literature major colleague yesterday evening, a person as averse to perfume as I am to his nationalism, whose pallor and nervous palpitations are definitely affected quite badly by this stinking queen from England but “too right, baby” thought I, and thank the heavens for it).’

    That is just SO great.

  3. I found this extraordinary and fascinating to read. Often when you write about the experience of living in Japan, I am beguiled and intrigued and at the same time feel so claustrophobic that I can hardly imagine finishing the post. Since you have visited New Orleans, you can understand that growing up in Louisiana had Kabuki elements but, ultimately, could hardly have been more different. I just don’t think I could control myself for half as long as you have. And oh, thank fate that in that wild Southern environment, what I did at 17 didn’t determine my fate for good.,

    • What a brilliant line! As you know, I adored New Orleans, and am craving it again actually, but I know that I couldn’t live in America, much as I am obsessed with so much of its culture. One hour of US TV makes me want to put a gun to my head in despair. Literally.

      • True, and there is nowhere in America that you can get away from the continual braying of our presidential candidates, as they terrorize the planet. I don’t have a TV and, even so, they are quoted to he by all my colleagues with a sort of despairing hilarity. Even the appalling Sarah Palin has been resurrected, the manic queen of this utterly mad Mardi Gras. So I feel in the position of needing to apologize to the rest of the world and say “Really, we aren’t all batshit crazy, or at least we do it more ironically.”

      • Oh god but I really do think that Donald ‘Trump’ (did you know that means fart in British English?) is going to be the next president. And it genuinely terrifies me.

      • I am not yet prepared to believe that, maybe becaus if I thought it was a real possibility, I would have to move to Nippon and behave myself, and I can’t face the prospect.
        Trump the sonorous methane blast…I like it.

      • Thing is, I have a serious twisted, camp side to me that in a way loves the idea just because it is just so TERRIBLE. Him as president. The end of the world, and so on. The hair. All the people he will insult. The wars that will ensue. And all because he is a chronic, pathological narcissist of the text book variety, and hardly anyone seems to realise it. People’s profound stupidity and simplicity mind never cease to amaze me. I give up. I love it.

      • Renee Stout

        I live at ground 0 in the US: Washington, DC. And your right. Sometimes it makes me want to put a gun to my head too. Fortunately, I’m a visual artist who channels my subversive impulses into my work and I have managed to make a modest living doing this. Otherwise, I don’t know how I’d get through it. Your post was amazing and I was hanging on every word, feeling the tension, frustration and sense of confinement. I can’t imagine not being able to get up everyday, choosing a perfume and then going out to face the world in it.

  4. sylviavirginia

    This is another amazing writing piece, over and over again through your words and photos you have made me want to jump ship and travel to Japan.
    Also through your words you have made me buy perfumes that I never heard of i.e. Magie Noire, Eau de Lune, Figure Amere…and I usually love them… no other person ever writes about perfumes as you do.
    How wonderful to fill your classroom with fragrances and introduce your
    students to a fundamental joy- of-living experience so removed and estranged in their own culture.

    • To have someone say things like this is exhilarating to me, and makes it all worthwhile. Yet how funny that despite all this strangulated, spleen-hardening negativity, you STILL want to come here.

  5. OMG I love this blog. What a great piece of writing! I should be in bed asleep and now I am revved up after reading this.

  6. ninakane1

    Yes! Subvert through scent and teach them what you know. It’s a good education for them and strangely your colleagues might start to approve.

    • Certain of them, quite possibly. It can all be so bloody BORING sometimes.

      • ninakane1

        Come back to the UK for a bit. I’m serious. There’s a really great vibe here at the moment. Yes the Tories are trying to wreck it, people are exhausted, overworked, underpaid and living in insecure financial circumstances, but there’s a vibrancy here That’s growing that’s beautiful, freeing and dynamic. I’m continually impressed by the current generation of young twenty somethings i increasingly hang out with who are so lucid, gentle, creative, open minded and sane! There’s an openhearted confidence growing here – people express themselves more openly and honestly than ever before. It’s beautiful. And the queer scenes, the Trans communities, the arts and pop DIY arenas go from strength to strength- so much innovation. The crass consumerism and ‘retreat into little boxes and woodchip fences’ of the post-Millenium years is past. There’s a quiet confidence and enjoyment of just being with others that’s beautiful. You know me – i aim to travel and live abroad in years to come – but at the moment something good is happening here and Britain is beautiful.

  7. TuskAnny

    Oooh how great is this piece ! You are… such a gift to the many people commenting here, your admirers truly : ” through your words you have made me buy perfumes that I never heard of” or “no other person ever writes about perfumes as you do” or “I should be in bed asleep and now I am revved up after reading this” !!! C’est pareil pour moi ! Thank you Neil.

  8. Daphne and Rod

    Loved your piece Neil, just be who you are and you will be loved for it. You know we love you Daphne and Rodxx

  9. Zubeyde erdem

    I’m going to share this post at my FB account. As too many readers made amazing comments about this post and you, I’m of course agree with them ( and I guess most probably you must used to get always good comments, even may be bored to hear that you are so brialliant e.t.c)
    Honestly, I have to look up the dictionary too many times when I’m reading your post – lately gave it up , it doesn’t matter how complex words you are using – it is getting day by day easy reading your post. Because what you want to say you are saying without any hesitation. The thema doesn’t matter I love your courage, honesty YOUR JUSTNESS, equitable.
    No matter what happens that’s the key point for me. The complexity of terms at your post in fact is becoming so easy to understand you. You are simply trustable person – except too many other good adjectives like brialliant, entellectual etc-
    Every time I read your post I smell same notes but you always get the OSCAR by being so fair,clean which is the most difficult then how you are writing sometimes complex things in harmony or whatsoever.
    You are a good men Lemon Peel and doesn’t deserve somethings that makes you bored to death.

    • Too much praise but I am glad you liked the piece. In fact, writing it broke the spell (sometimes it is me being morose that causes the problems). It was actually much better at work after writing it. And I have SO much holiday I really have no right to complain. Just a spoiled white man.

      • Zubeyde Erdem

        ☺️morose! Zubeyde after reading N’s comment ( spoiled white men) by imaging herself an African women – from Zulu cabin- ) looked up the dictionary again. Meaning of that word was equal the zubeyde or zubeyde was not a Arabic name ( has some meaning in Arabic )any more. Zubeyde is morose or reverse.
        Then zubeyde wondered N’s IQ. Morose or zubeyde was thinking that N was the smartest person that she met in her whole life. What a wonderful world🎼🎧🎤
        Zubeyde was damn sure her IQ /perception is not comparable with N but both was morose😊 Couldn’t decided either she must dance with African drum’s music in her room alone or listen to that song she likes what a wonderful world from Lous Armstrong ( btw,morose or zubeyde whatsoever doesn’t like especially his voice tone/color but his confidence. )
        Anyway morose understood that was not enough, not enough ,something is missing could be same/ valid for anyone else and promised to universe she wouldn’t be any more complaining being a low IQ moronic person ( couldn’t sure of giving more promise for not feeling envy/ jealousy comparing to herself some other talented ,genius people).
        Zubeyde studied tonight too much and went to pray to universe for new lessons.
        Morose was still insisting that N is sensitive GOOD person☺️

  10. Absolutely enticing read. I just love when you share the love/hate relationship you have with Japanese life, as it is. As much as I adore scent though, I would probably be able to go without it if I were there.
    When I was in Hong Kong, I found myself going out regularly without scent. I just never seemed to remember to wear it. There were so many intriguing smells about me, literally everywhere I went, that I never seemed to miss my own aura of fragrance. Now, I would never do that here in the states. I need some type of armor to protect me from the world I inhabit here. Fragrance provides me that armor.
    I will eventually see how things are in Japan, when I make my way there; hopefully sooner than later. I am sure I will be just as enticed by the smells around me and forgo my own scent..

    • Well even though I do have these occasional bouts of ‘revenge’, I ultimately only end up regretting it, as I did yesterday as well. You just end up stinking in their eyes, and I hate that as I am so ultra sensitive to it. As to the array of beautiful smells here, I don’t really think there are, unless you mean food. But I must admit I find the belly-centred primitivism here quite sickening in many ways. That the expression ii nioii, or ‘smells nice’ almost inevitably refers to bloody food. That’s all that matters here.

  11. Wonderful piece!! I have never visited Japan though I would love to see it; some day. But I have read enough about it that I think I understand some of what you voice here. I’m so glad you shared the scents of those spices with your students. How can one understand the allure of the spice trade, and the costliness of those substances, if one has never smelled them?
    Perfume as revenge. Marvelous.

    • Exactly. Filling up the room with spice while reading about the subject was an entirely different experience. As for Japan, obviously I love it in many ways else I would never have lived here so long, but at times I just need to rant out pieces like this to get my equilibrium back again.

  12. David

    This was a great read. I am still trying to make sense of my feelings for Japan even after being gone for almost 3 years. It was a poignant day last week, the day my 3 year work visa expired, and I realized tha Japan is just a part of my past. I will never live there again. When I still had a valid visa, I sometimes considered moving back there, especially on days Brazil got to me. Then I forced myself to remember the suffocation I felt working there and I’d get those heart palpitations and echoes of the dread I felt walking to my work place. Now I don’t need to remember the misery. I just think Japan was a place I made some money. I was legal. I met my husband there. Same with Brazil. I’m legal here. I’m working. I’m with my husband. That’s enough.
    But I know I’ll be back in the USA for my last years. I often read comments from Americans who say they will leave the USA if Trump is elected. I feel the opposite. I want to be there if he becomes President–I want to protest him, join watchdog groups, embrace all the immigrants he insults, live every day of my life in opposition of what he represents. By the way, I didn’t understand your comment about American TV. Yeah, lots of it is garbage, but just don’t watch it. Just like in Japan.

    • Yes, in that awful eventuality, come back to join the rest of us! We will need you. We will be the Resistance of genuine American values.

    • Of course. But that one hour I saw in a Florida hotel, with the evangelists, infomercials, and slick glossed sensationalism honestly made me feel insane. A nation’s TV says a lot about it. Naturally, there is nothing better than American TV if you mean shows/series or whatever – The Sopranos, The Wire and millions of others, and my favourite films are almost all American as well – the world would be utterly, utterly dull without American culture – but the sell sell sell of the basic TV mode does highlight the ultimate horror at the heart of it, the worship of money.

  13. Rachel Stevens

    Oh- how your words fill me up… Sitting here in New Zealand the scents that surround me come alive…

  14. emmawoolf

    A book about Japan is surely in order? Wonderful, wonderful piece. I do know what you mean, though. At the moment (and of course, it is January) being a fish IN water, living in the same county I was born in, working in the same office for 12 years – no dividers here – just the stares of people – is drowning me. I literally can’t breathe at work, right now. Thank goodness for scent. I love your subversion and wish I had the courage to follow suit!

    • Just shows it isn’t just Japan then. And thanks for the book recommendation (try telling my agent: I still haven’t heard anything). As for venting though, after writing this (in one furious take) I felt MUCH better and work and then felt guilty for painting such a dense and one-sided picture. The people I work with aren’t so bad really, it’s just when I come back after being on holiday that it feels like a total nightmare and I felt that I had to somehow capture it in words and then flush it out of my system. You should do some more singing. Sing sing sing. People like us need some form of aesthetic catharsis to stay sane.

  15. emmawoolf

    Wow. Reading this again, and the comments (including mine, I had no memory of writing them) is rather curious. Firstly, your writing is so invigorating (next book MUST be one on Japan, I insist), like a spritz of grapefruit on a cold January day, secondly, oh my goodness those Trump comments, what can I say, hindsight is a wonderful thing?! And thirdly, I wonder what you did actually teach in the perfume subversion lesson? Am hoping you can breathe again (I finally can now I’m out of the office environment). Life’s too goddamn short not to baci xx

    • I actually cannot breathe at the moment and am HATING every day at work. So YES: let me write a book on Japan. I know it would be shocking and extreme, but good. I have been planning it for years. Had to get the perfume one out of the way first!

  16. Matty

    A fascinating piece. I’d love to know what you taught in the perfume lesson.I can imagine the joy on the student’s faces when they sniffed the perfumes.

    • Actually, I remember that I did the lesson as usual, but added twenty minutes or so at the end: I had brought along some mini atomisers, and said the students could siphon off three perfumes they liked (everyone went for the beachy perfumes like Songes and Il Profumo’s Aria Di Mare). I gave them a perfume 101 on top notes, middle notes, etc and they were fascinated. They all went home with perfumes that I hope will have ignited some kind of interest in the subject. And one boy, who had dyed his hair blond and who I dubbed Angel, went home with a miniature Thierry Mugler. If only the content of the lessons were always that fun!

  17. Tara C

    Can’t wait to read your book about Japan, I loved this piece. I was fascinated and horrified by Amélie Nothomb’s book, yours would be even better I’m sure. You must be looking forward to your next break desperately.

  18. This is fascinating, horrible, hilarious, tragic. All things rolled. I was a teacher for may years and relate to the aspects of freedom and time off – Being able to completely come to yourself as the longer breaks trail on. But not in Japan, so without the severe conformity aspect when at work. Although there is always an aspect of conformity when you are a teacher. And then both loving student interaction and the whole drama of teaching but dreading it everyday. Nicely captured the dualities of life.

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