Speaker by Various Artists

Travelling with an under 2

by James Littlewood

As the sun went down over Tokyo we looked out form the high coach window over a towering mass of factories and I realised what it meant to be in a seriously industrial nation: it’s awsome.

The Tokyites had a sense of pride. People who in New Zealand might wear overalls … street cleaners, garage attendants, truck drivers … in Tokyo these people wore the overall as a uniform (laundered, ironed, emblazoned), and proudly.

The best advice we got was not to worry in the event of getting lost: people would come to our assistance. This in fact turned out to be true. The whole place is so high on efficiency – at the level of both the national and the individual – it feels as if lost people are likely to cause problems if their lostness goes unrectified. That way. Over Here! Yes! No! Thank you.

Bowing really does your head in.

Many businesses have signs in English, and these are the most minimalistic, aggressively literal, irony-free zones you will see anywhere. Kiddie Land. Yamaha You Shop. Hotel With, next door to an identical building, the With Annex. And this for a business name: Client Service – It’s How You Treat People Everyday That Counts (the business: industrial machinery hire). This felt like the instructions with my toaster, only much, much bigger.

Perhaps this is the nature of the second language: literalism. I checked with Gina when we got back, and she reckoned it’s cultural. She said they try and teach ironic techniques at Unitec, and the Asians have a bit of a rough time with it.

Anyway the wedding was just completely astounding. What a do! The coach – not your average either, we’re talking leather seats – full of kiwis pulled up at a four story marble building, and I mean marble. The stuff was everywhere.

On the way there we saw a guy pissing the torrential piss of a piss artist in the gutter amidst the Saturday morning retail analysands. Japan, land of contrasts.

The first person we met was Candy, tall, blonde, fair, her accent amalgamated from diverse English speaking continents. “I’m one of your translators, and the producer of today’s wedding.” Producer? I had no idea what she was talking about, so engaged in halted English conversation with a woman in a kimono, who was fighting like an ESOL samurai.

The wedding took place in a chapel on the 3rd floor. How a chapel like this could possibly exist on the 3rd floor of anything is remarkable in itself. More marble, marble everywhere, harp and a violin over here, three little choristers over there, stained glass, bit of a Sistine number on the ceiling, and someone looking remarkably like a priest, heavily robed, arms spread wide in beatific benevolence: “Welcome!” he intoned, “to a Christian wedding!” Then he intoned the same thing again in Japanese.

My friend strolled down the aisle in a suit that had jumped straight out of a Jane Austen novel. Not tails, but a shiny, metallic morning suit with a flat bottomed Jacket as low in the front as in the back, tightly buttoned up to the breast with a wing collar, bow tie (not your average one either) and floral arrangement that thrust itself up and out with joyful fecundity.

She wore a perfect meringue with a train from here to oblivion. Ceremony. Contract. Fabulous music. Then out the arched door and onto the balcony, turn and bow to great applause. Flower shower. Bouquet toss, end of act one.

Act two began in the dining hall, a space of which I can remember only parquet and gold, nothing else. We found our places, close to the front but also off to the side … the geijin parents-with-kids’ spot. This was when we met our second translator, assigned to our table. Lovely guy, a lean, longhaired Hawaiian Japanese called Nigel, I think, with a goodly collection of Cheech and Chong jokes and translations like “ok guys, time to get pissed!”

Then the happy couple appeared in the doorway, majestically enrobed in kimono for She and what you might call a dining gown for He. The lights dimmed and their majesty soared as two follow spots picked them up and lit their promenade through the adoring crowds, screaming their praise in standing ovation. They took their place at the grand table at the head of the hall.

The food was astoundingly intricate: really, really complex, detailed little constructions, but no one was taking the least bit of notice. We were all too busy listening to speeches, watching fan dances, and listening to each other sing Karaoke.

I visited He at his table when He was alone, waiting for She to make another costume change, and He offered me a speech. Never one to turn down a mic, I accepted, but was unprepared 10 minutes later amid chopsticks and toddler-wrangling to hear my name called out through the PA and realise the two follow spots had landed upon me. No pressure, just a few short punchy one liners along the lives of two people bringing together two families and two cultures … the kind of thing you hear on marae … seemed about right.

But what was really surprising was the realisation, momentarily poised at the centre of attention, of just how much stage management was going on around me. There was one guy who spent the whole gig in a kind of ambulant squat, his outstretched arms locating his white-gloved hands at about table-top height. He pointed me across the room, assisted with a gentle shove, and no sooner had I commenced my trajectory when I saw another guy with his white-gloved hands up and ready to catch. Okay, don’t fight it, stand where the ninja stage manager tells you. That way. Over Here! Yes! No! Thank you.

Bowing really does your head in.

With the ninja stage managers, plus the light op’s, plus the AV op’s, plus the non-stop MC, the physical production crew alone must have numbered eight or nine. Added to these were the translators, the whole chapel crew and of course untold waiting staff. By the time I took bongo (now 2) outside for a bit of a breather we were both starting to suffer from sensory overload.

But the clincher was yet to come. If everything thus far felt like a sensory feast for all the senses, the final stages of the reception resembled classical tragedy in its pathos, its beauty and its use of deux ex machina. In short, the bride engaged in publicly amplified conversation with her dead father. Of course, it’s all smoke and mirrors, and everyone knows that, but even Nigel had tears in his eyes as he kept us up to date with the discourse. “She’s sorry he never got to see this day … he says he likes the husband very much … he says he loves their child with all his heart … she says she’ll do everything she can to make him proud … he says he’ll always love them both.” And then, tear ducts awash with wonderment and disbelief, “Yeah, that’s what he’s saying!” It helped enormously that the photograph of dad appeared to have been taken while he was singing karaoke. It meant he had – in addition to a great smile – his own microphone.

After the reception we went on to a private house and carried on the party. Crazy Japanese Uncle sang English and Japanese folk songs with bongo all the way on the coach. “1 little 2 little 3 little Indian … hee hee hee!” The food in the house was even better than that at the reception. People sang songs, love songs, and also national anthems. We trained back to the hotel and spend the next day in a thermal hot spring, which was what I always imagined Roman baths to be like.

The custom I liked the most was that of never pouring your own drink, which – if you do – is apparently a damning indictment of your friend’s social abilities. Trouble is it only works if everyone’s on the same page with it.

The day after that we flew to London.