AFRICA IN TOKYO--a true story by Steven Jon Kaplan
For years I had been intrigued by the idea of visiting a part of the world even more crowded, more wealthy, and more modern than New York City. For a year and a half I crammed the study of Japanese into every moment of spare time, especially on the subway to and from my job as a software debugger in downtown Manhattan. Shortly after the stock market crash of 1987 I finally made the journey to Tokyo.
My only serious preparation outside of language immersion was to secure a room of my own in the center of the metropolis. After writing several letters to low-budget inns offering private rooms with shared baths, I selected the establishment where the proprietress responded in the most polite language. Considering the price of two thousand yen per night--at that time about fifteen dollars--I assumed that my fellow visitors would be mostly young American or European tourists who did not wish to travel the even cheaper but absurdly crowded youth hostel route.
Finding one's way around Japan's capital city is quite challenging, since most of the streets are unnamed, and it is necessary to continually ask the omnipresent policemen for directions. As I followed the route marked with a smiling Donald Duck on the hotel's map, I was puzzled that I seemed to be only a block away, yet there was nothing around but tiny, quiet private residences. Finally I spotted their nameplate inscribed in English--on a two-story concrete structure no larger than my own parents' modest house. I tentatively pushed the bell and waited for the innkeeper.
My ringing was greeted by muffled sounds of laughter. "It's always open!" shouted a British-accented voice from within. Would that be Oxford or Cambridge? I tried to guess. Finally the door was slowly opened--by a six-foot, seven-inch man, about thirty years of age, clearly out of Africa. Behind him were four other tall, handsome young black men, surrounding a table on which a giant mashed potato was the center attraction. No one else was visible.
"Is this the Tokyo Center Hotel?" I inquired.
"Oh, most definitely, sir. The lady is out today, but she informed us of your arrival, and will take your money tomorrow morning. The other residents work later hours than we do, so they are not home yet. Meanwhile, would you wish to join us for dinner? We would be most delighted to have you."
How could I refuse? I quickly discovered that my five fellow residents were born and raised in the same town in Ghana. They had all left their families behind to labor for high salaries on skyscraper construction. Like the Mohawk Indians in this country, the Ghanaians are valued in Japan for their fearless and meticulous skills when suspended twenty stories above the ground. A large percentage of their pay was being immediately sent back home, so they saved money and found camaraderie by preparing and dining together after their day's labor. Since they began their toil at the crack of dawn they finished around two-thirty p.m., and could therefore make and consume their late afternoon meal without imposing upon or being disturbed by the inn's other occupants.
"Where are the rest of the tourists?" I inquired of the gentleman who had answered the door. Though his given name was a formal African Muslim appellation, he was known to friends and family as Kwality.
Everyone burst out laughing again. "Actually, you are probably the only tourist here. In fact, you are definitely unique in that department. All of us are working full time. The Canadian is teaching English. We have an American, like you, who is manufacturing Toyotas. A footloose gentleman from Australia plays the guitar on crowded streetcorners. Several young women from New Zealand are working as waitresses and barmaids. A few of us have been staying here for more than five years."
"My travel guide didn't say anything about that!" I exclaimed.
"There are reasons why it's kept quiet. Occasionally there are certain problems with the authorities, having to do with employment while holding tourist or education visas. The five of us are supposedly in an intensive English language program, even though we've spoken your native tongue since childhood and haven't seen the inside of a classroom since we arrived. The carmaker is officially learning ancient Japanese cultural practices, which isn't far from the truth if you've ever been on an assembly line here. The worst nightmare would be to have one's visa renewal refused, since that would mean returning--for the others, to their old boring lives; for us, to sheer poverty. So every six months we sign a statement asserting that, indeed, our English is noticeably improving, and we would be honored to continue our lessons."
"What kind of dish are you serving?" I wondered.
"At home we have a special kind of tubular vegetable which is something like cassava. Here we cannot obtain such a delicacy, so we have learned to utilize potatoes and eggs which are inexpensive and make a reasonable substitute. You will notice several circular wooden containers surrounding the central mound. The first contains a special spicy sauce; the second is a Japanese fish that is like our own; the third is a medley of our favorite vegetables. With your hand take some of the potato-egg mixture, then dip it in any of the bowls as you choose. We believe that people who are friends eat from the same plate and converse about common interests."
The supper was quite tasty. As the days passed, I found myself purchasing some of the ingredients for the communal feast, which I made sure never to miss. On one occasion I informed my companions that I would be traveling a bit farther to see an out-of-town attraction, and would not be home until seven o'clock. To my astonishment they all waited until my late arrival to eat their meal.
In addition to their excellent command of English, the Ghanaians spoke their native language, Hausa. When they presumably wanted to say something that they feared might insult or embarrass me, they switched into rapid-fire Hausa for just long enough to convey a specific message. I became curious, so they taught me to utter simple phrases like "Hello" and "Thank you." Once I was riding the subway to a renowned shrine when I noticed that the person standing next to me was an African. He was stunned and delighted when I greeted him with a few words of Hausa.
One Sunday, Kwality had some free time and wanted me to show him around the city. We headed for a historic island in Tokyo Bay called Tsukudajima which is almost never visited by outsiders since it is a half-hour brisk stroll from the nearest subway stop. Seeing the two of us walking together, a tall American redhead with an even taller African, caused the residents to look at us in wonder. One old woman even reached out to touch us to make sure we were real. When we spoke to her in broken Japanese she almost fainted. While standing in line at a local food shop we were soon surrounded by onlookers. As we continued to converse with the bolder ones, more and more people swarmed to see what was going on. Eventually the whole town seemed to be following us--we were the unintended pied pipers of Tsukudajima.
For seven years after returning from Japan, I maintained a lively and frequent correspondence with Kwality. His sense of humor was quite refined and made for entertaining reading. In late 1994 I suddenly stopped receiving any communication from him, so I worry that his visa renewal may finally have been refused and he had been forced to return to Ghana. Perhaps the long recession in Japan compelled the highrise builders to dismiss some of their foreign workers, or maybe twelve years of English language classes ultimately seemed absurd to the authorities.
I have a wonderful photograph that shows Kwality crosssing the street in a major shopping district surrounded by the much shorter locals, some of whom are pointedly ignoring him, and others who cannot help but stare. He is beaming with happiness, and I hope that wherever he may be, he remembers his days in Tokyo and smiles.