How to be invisible in Japan

by Monty DiPietro

Three o’clock in the morning, and a knock comes at my door.

"Dochira sama deshoka?" I ask, and when the reply, in a female voice, is "Takyubin desu" I know something is fishy.

So I pick up my aluminum ‘Easton Special’ baseball bat. I may be a foreigner, but I have been here long enough to know that there are no Takyubin deliveries at 3 AM. In a tired blue Yukata, I ease open the steel door to my Kabukicho studio apartment.

And there she is, that slinky young curator from the suburban museum. A woman who my pathetic middle-aged eyes have undressed many times at openings - there she is! At my door! I do some quick thinking and realize that my address is on the museum’s mailing list.

I put down the bat.

‘Rika’ smiles one of those smiles - half innocent, half devilish - so I invite her in - what else am I supposed to do?!

She shrieks when, as I am mixing her a candlelight martini, she squints and makes out the outline of two figures reclining on my futon.

And ‘Shazam!’ I become invisible.

The conversation that ensues is not particularly important - women apologizing, laughing, being civil, all over a catty subtext everyone is aware of and nobody gives a shake about.

But I disappear. Anything I say, in either English or Japanese, falls on deaf ears. It is if I am a Steely Dan CD playing in the background, set on ‘repeat,’ spinning ‘Do it Again’ for the 12th time, or is it the seventh, or the first?

A few days later, en route to Shinanoya to buy some cheap Chilean wine to bolster my pot-belly, I hear a scream that is so fierce it stops my bicycle. I head down a small street and find a gangster, badly knifed, spewing his blood into the street. As red ribbons sing in the afternoon sun, we hoist his bleeding leg and arm, looping makeshift tourniquet belts around his thigh, his bicep.

And ‘Shazam!’ I become invisible.

The scene that ensues is not particularly important - cops arriving, ambulances summoned, streets cordoned off, witnesses questioned.

But none of the cops even approach me, even though I was obviously one of the first to chance upon the victim.

After picking up my Gato Negro [an excellent, full-bodied red, available for only 680 yen a bottle at Shinanoya, just behind the Koma Theatre in Kabukicho’s moviehouse district], I dally awhile with my Filipino pal Ernie, then head home and past a dragnet which the now dozens of police officers have set up around the crime scene. And the first cop to have arrived, a young, square jawed type, looks up at me.

I am not easy to miss - I am wearing Thai pajamas, gold wrap-around sunglasses and a black beret, riding a red mountain bike. I feel sure he has recognized me and will stop me to ask some questions. I plan to refer him to the fishmongers from the market across the street - they are there all day long, and would have noted details that passerbys might have missed. I also want to tell him about a pair of plastic slippers I saw a few meters from the victim. I am about to dismount, proud to be able to help.

But it is not to be - the cop looks right through me. I almost run him down out of a frustrated sense of civic duty.

"Go into a restaurant with a Japanese," says Australian stand-up comic Cloudy Bongwater in one of his routines, "and you have become invisible."

"You can stand right in front of the waitress who is going to seat you, and she will still look right past you to your Japanese companion before asking ‘Nan nin sama deshoka?’"

The Bong has hit the nail on the head. We, as foreigners living in Japan, become invisible when in the presence of two or more locals.

We do not exist. We are Steely Dan.

Which, in a surreal way, is kind of liberating.

I often answer those who ask me why I live in Japan with a quick "Because I’m not Japanese." I honestly feel that if I were Japanese, I would have fled long ago.

But I’m not - I am an alien.

And I realize that while living in Montreal, Toronto, Los Angeles or Vancouver, I always felt like an outsider, but wasn’t. Whereas one of the conditions of my residence here is that I carry at all times my ‘Certificate of Alien Registration,’ which makes being an outsider officially government-certified.

Years ago, while I was living in an ancient, wooden Koenji house above a kind old Japanese engineer, he was forbidden from including me on the register of all residents of the dwelling - because I was a foreigner.

‘Shazam!’ I became invisible, and have been ever since.

Now, when I head out at 5:45AM to scoop another bottle of Gato Negro [which also has a reasonable finish] before Shinanoya closes, I don’t worry if my skinny dick is hanging out of the Montreal Canadiens terrycloth bathrobe - because it, like me, is invisible!

Clerks at the Lawsons where I stumble in to buy my Mild Seven Extra Lights 100's don’t whisper behind my back, "Monty DiPietro is a weirdo!" No - at worst they laugh and sigh, "Foreigners sure have unusual customs - whoever they are."

Ah, resignation. Do it again.

And although my neighborhood [Okubo-itchome] is, according to statistics obtained from the Shinjuku Ward office, made up of foreign residents at a level exceeding 30% of the total population, we don’t exist - so what the hell!

Next Summer, I think I’ll give up clothing altogether.

That will give my pot-belly an exotic tan that even ‘Rika’ [who called me this morning] cannot pretend not to notice.

Vive la difference!


Montreal-born Monty DiPietro, 38, is an artist, performer, and writer living in Kabukicho, Tokyo.
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