I keep my worlds separate. My school life is in many ways a galaxy away from my private life. There is a stark division: it feels water tight. Probably, everyone is similar in this way, keeping things distinct – especially in Japan, where no one asks questions, and privacy is respected to a degree that for a westerner can feel verging on disinterest: you say hello and goodbye; exchange pleasantries, have buoyant conversations in the workplace with those you get along with, but politics, religion, controversy – ie. many topics in the news, anything that might create disagreement, are taboo. You simply don’t rock the boat. To keep a nice atmosphere for everyone present is the ultimate concern (and there is a lot to be said for this: it is like entering a well managed aquarium that you can float in, unrocked, stable, if sometimes stagnant – rather than the churning waters of sparring egos, the clash of the aggressively opinionated sharks and killer whales and the angered ‘office politics’ of the western work place where cortisone is rocketed by incompatible adversaries digging into each other by the laminator). Thus; prying into someone’s personal affairs in Japan is considered anathema to the individual – you simply don’t ask if someone is married or if they are in a relationship, whether they have children etc etc unless you know them well (complete candour is between friends after work over drinks where nothing is secret); otherwise, the rule is simply : keep things light and friendly. Although my effusive and furious passions often seep through my pores despite my greatest efforts to contain them, especially with the younger adolescents I teach, I am possibly nothing more than a middle age, gammy-legged cipher. ‘Mr Chapman’.
Which is why it was strange the other day when at the beginning of a lesson and I asked a question about what was new, how they were, how the school day had gone, one boy said ‘I just heard you published a book on perfume and were in a magazine’. For a second I was flummoxed. I choked, slightly, on my words and couldn’t quite get out my next sentence. What? They know nothing of all that: I think they imagine rather that I am a quaint bachelor who lives alone with his cat and reads nineteenth century English literature at the weekends, cooking beef stew and picking fluff off my arran cardigans. Practicing Johann Sebastian Bach. A stiff. Which is ok. I am fine with however they see me, as I am not the important point in the equation, and I like being slightly enigmatic. But although the Black Narcissus is a very minor website in the scheme of things, with the book out, and mentions in various places, I am also not anonymous: and a brief click on the vast lagoon of words and images that exists within these ‘pages’ will reveal all kinds of frenzies; from ‘foul-mouthed’ political rants and foolish perfumed whimsies, to the Tokyo underworld and the making of horror movies and the shenanigans of D Whom and Burning Bush. I don’t want my worlds to bleed. Japanese schools have ‘morality clauses’ – your behaviour outside work must be exemplary ; teachers in my school are contractually forbidden to write books, never mind do naked butoh or crawl around the undergrowth in the local forest as a gothic spirit animal; essentially, once committed to the organization you belong to it; it becomes your life, and that is all, though as a semi-part time foreigner who nobody can control (I know they have given up trying – I exemplify the phrase ‘a world unto himself’) all of this probably has no bearing on me. I am detached; a one man show. After all, if you are not Japanese, you will forever be an outsider (which is probably why we settled here in the first place: we actively chose to live on the dreamy edges, undisturbed).
But ‘perfume’? It almost sounded like a dirty word in the context of a scuzzy cram school classroom – an outlier from another realm. Poncey, a bit gay. Glamorous. Inconceivable with my image. And in fact, when I took the issue of Vogue into school – because I just couldn’t resist it or stop myself I was so excited – the teacher oddball who sits next to me claimed that it could only be a case of a person with the same name; a doppelganger; surely it couldn’t be me, the man with the messiest desk in the whole company, in his tired, baggy suits (although I do have some great vintage Leonard Paris ties); until he saw the bio info about Kamakura and saw it was all true. The teachers were flabbergasted; it created quite a commotion, for a few minutes at least, even if, being so incongruous with the surroundings, I did feel that it pushed me even further into my own alien zone of the untouchable – both in the positive and negative connotation. I had not expected, though, that Mr G would then go and blurt out this information to the students in the corridor as they came into the school, making their way to the small room in which we were sitting. I felt slightly violated; as if some unassailable vow had been broken; that something was about to be let in.
Oh god, I thought. Here we go. The beginning of the end. What’s going to happen now. Though I can’t deny a part of me was also electrified. Ultimately, I like honesty, expression, real connection. And so thinking for a second, I then thought to myself, oh fuck it. The previous week’s lesson had been a misery. I had been too lazy to come up with something interesting, and so had instead just done a high level listening and speaking test from the TOEFL examination – internationally recognized, pedagogically useful (I always bear in mind that the parents are paying for these lessons – there has to be something educationally worthwhile in each one), but at the same time, with the students being of different ages – and it being Friday night; the atmosphere has yet to gel this term, it was a po-faced, tedious disaster; it is the rainy season; they are exhausted from their punishing schedules and just want to have some fun (sometimes I just can’t escape from myself when I am tired and have a million other things on my mind – to make a lesson work, you have to crack yourself open like a raw egg and flow into the air around you; fill the room with compassion, empathy and love like a guru to pierce the defence barriers and let the kids relax and interact freely with each other; you are the fluid; otherwise they are just tight, nervous containers with dour demeanours slumped sulkily on their desks itching to get back home and have a moment’s respite with a Friday night anime or TV drama or manga on the sofa.
‘Would you like to see the book? And the article in the magazine?’ I asked them. Nods all round. The feeling between the six of them was already warming up – like scandalized but excited co-conspirators who could sense something brewing. What I had been planning initially had to go out the window- a curious article I had found from The Japan Times last week about a shinkansen bullet train driver who left the cockpit for three minutes to go to the toilet, leaving the train with 125 passengers on board travelling at 150kph along the automated tracks because of abdominal pain, deciding to take this risk rather than make the train late. A train hurtling along the tracks without a driver. Punctuality prioritized over human life. A mindset I thought was worth their criticism and consideration. And we did come back to that later – somehow the topic of how late or early you are in general (I taught them the expression ‘arrive on the dot’, which is my own modus operandi – I like to arrive precisely at the appointed hour, with a slight sense of giri-giri – am I going to make it?). Still, at the beginning of the lesson I reluctantly felt like there was no going back : I returned to the teachers’ room, blushing slightly to myself, retrieving my book and Vogue Japan from my bag – my fault entirely for being vainglorious enough to need the attention and validation of the teachers rather than just keeping it all neatly to myself in the first place – but I am only human after all, and both things are cool, let’s face it: I then came back, a little gingerly, to the expectantly expanding classroom – and passed both round.
‘Is this you?’ said one sassy twelve year old girl, a K-pop fan with attitude who has a promising vigour to her, scrutinizing my flattering photo. ‘Are you married? It says here you live with your partner?’ Thanks a lot, Mr G, I thought to myself – why the hell did you have to tell them about this – ‘
No, I am not’ I said, leaving it open-ended. ‘Wow, I love the black and gold’, said one boy – who could be reading this, for all I know, now that everything is out in the open. ‘I am really impressed by your knowledge’ said another. K-pop was sniffing the pages. ‘Does it stink?’ I asked, fully aware that this edition of the book has been sitting in my incense-filled kitchen for months, and that I once poured vetiver oil down the spine one evening, spraying some Comme Des Garcons II on some of the pages as well for good measure. I can no longer smell anything on it, but she seemed transfixed; taking off her mask and taking long inhalations. ‘No. It smells really good’.
Was I igniting something? I don’t know. At the very least, they were looking at me differently. The feeling in the room had changed completely. Perhaps by finally being more open myself and exposing an entirely different aspect of my life to them, there was a new found clarity.
( There is no Doors content in this piece, by the way. Just the title of that song, Break On Through, which D loves to sing at karaoke, raucously, drunkenly when in excited mode (those were the days….it will be great to go to karaoke again, if we are ever safe here to do so); I love listening to the shimmering keyboards of Riders On The Storm in the rain; it fuses with the sky. And I have a wonderful memory, ten years ago, or so, in Berlin, when D’s parents came to the apartment we had just bought in Schoneberg, one sparklingly bright and cold December’s day, in the snow; after a trip to IKEA, where we had bought a bed – impossible to assemble; and being the more practical types, D and his mum got to work reading the instructions and piecing it together piece by labyrinthine piece; his dad just relaxed and looked on; and my job was cracking open bottles of champagne, and entertaining everyone by dancing around wildly to the Doors Greatest Hits ).