CUSTOMERS and FRIENDS.
Who’s who is difficult to define in Japan.
A “Customer” is someone who comes to the club, buys you presents and puts an envelope of Japanese yen in your hand. A customer who comes often and spends a lot of money is a good customer. The one who spends little or doesn’t have much is a bad one.
The key to success in this work is to play the game. You see, customers who are being kind to me are in reality being kind to themselves. I’m a part of their dream world where they behave like THEY want when THEY want. It adds an emotional dimension to their gray busy humdrum existence.
Isn’t it true, that when we perform even a small act of kindness, we ennoble ourselves in our own eyes?
My job is to give customers the opportunity to feel better about themselves by allowing them to make my dreams come true. I let them believe my desires are their own, so I can get what I want. If our relationship becomes honest, the customers will run away, because it will ruin the rules of the game. They will quickly find the next innocent girl who will appreciate everything they do and who will not open her mouth. Anything is okay, except honesty.
You know, the one who pays the tab is the one who chooses the music.
“Friends” are the ones who give you moral support. After my second visit to Tokyo I didn’t waste time making friends. In Obninsk, I could drink coffee with friends, but to Tokyo I came to work. The old Russian proverb, “Don’t have 100 rubles, but have 100 friends,” has changed its’ meaning. Here, my motto is “Don’t have 100 friends, but have 100 customers.”
I wanted to go study in America. But I needed money. All my friends in Russia laughed and thought I was crazy. I didn’t even think I could ever do it. But I did have a chance. Just one and only one. Work in Japan. How could I pass it up? Sometimes I had to let go of my principles. And that was hard. But in the end, I think it made me better. I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I want to tell you about.
Airplane San Francisco – Tokyo.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gone to Tokyo. My dream is to become a movie director and I’m almost finished with film school in San Francisco. My visits give me the possibility of making this dream come true.
My blue suitcase rolled up to the Japanese officer’s window. Handing him my passport, which still said “CCCP,”—the name of a country that hasn’t existed for many years—I tried to look dignified, but my doubts ran wild. What kind of expression should I have when the custom officer examines my passport? This might be a stupid question to a citizen of the USA or France, but ask any person who has lived in the USSR, and you will understand I’m not the only one who worries when crossing borders. The officer was also cautious.
“Purpose of visit to Japan?” The officer asked.
“Tourism.” I answered as calm as I could, but my shaking knees betrayed me.
I couldn’t say that I had come to Japan to use naïve Japanese men who were fascinated by the possibility of a relationship with a white foreign woman. I also couldn’t say I had come to work illegally and in one month save as much money as a middle class American could earn in a year and an average Russian in 10 years.
This time I was picked up at the airport by one of my customers, Takashi, a 27-year-old Japanese businessman.
“Merry Christmas!” I handed him a photo of San Francisco in a plastic frame.
Takashi sniffed shyly and rolled my suitcase to the parking lot in silence. I walked behind him.
“What did you do today?” I regretted Christmas Day was already coming to an end.
But of course, I had flown from America leaving many things unfinished in order to make it in time for Christmas, completely forgetting that no one cared about Christmas in Japan!
“So where are you staying?” he asked as we stepped off the escalator to the parking lot.
“I don’t know.” I had no idea.
“And where are you going to work? In the old club?”
Without answering his question, I dialed a number on my phone.
“This is Anetta.” My name in the club is Anetta. “I just flew in. How many? 50? I see.”
In the club where I used to work at Kinshicho station, there were now 50 girls—Russians and Romanians. I was convinced they wouldn’t take me, and I didn’t want to work there either. Five years in the same club was not appealing in the least.
I got on the phone again—thanks to another old customer, Chef Matsushima. He gave me the cell phone last summer and didn’t disconnect it while I was gone. All I had to do was charge the battery before I left America andI could now simply find a place to work.
Unsuccessfully, I called all the clubs I knew. Just when I was about ready to give up, Takashi said, “I know one place. If you want I will introduce you to the mama-san*.”
Indeed! How wonderful to have friends! Or customers? Sometimes I don’t know where the line divides the two.
We got in the car and went.
*mama-san – the owner of the club.
To be honest, except for Kinshicho, a working class neighborhood where I spent a few months each year for the last five years, and the main shopping malls, I didn’t really know Tokyo. I had no idea where we were when Takashi’s car stopped in a brightly lit narrow street.
We walked to the 9th floor of one of the side-by-side glued together buildings and entered a club named “Linda.” The ring of the doorbell pierced the stale air.
“Irashaimase! Welcome!” A chorus of women’s voices shouted as the hostesses jumped off the couches and ran to the door. The girls were all different: young and old, tall and short, skinny and fat, blonde and brunette, even black. The fact that Takashi and I were not customers disappointed everyone.
Takashi explained the reason of our visit to a beautiful full-figured woman with dyed blonde hair: I needed a job. The Brazilian mama-san who had lived in Japan for 15 years, looked at me suspiciously. I knew I didn’t look my best after the long flight. She explained the working conditions: 10 dohan* a month—3,000 yen per hour ($28), 15 dohan a month—3,500 yen per hour ($33), and less then 10 dohan—2,000 yen ($18).
10 dohan a month? When I worked in Kinshicho, I had dohans every day. Her quota seemed silly.
“Merry Christmas!” I said on our way out.
“When do you start working?” Takashi asked.
He looked surprised. “So soon? Right away?”
“We Russian woman like to work,” I joked.
When we came out of the club, I realized, to my delight, that the street was familiar to me. Close by stood one of the major Japanese TV stations I had visited before.
“Now where to?” Takashi asked.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“If you want, you can stay with my family in Yokohama.”
Yokohama.... It sounded nice, but for me, who loved Tokyo, Yokohama was too far from anything I was used to calling home.
“No… but thank you.”
I got on the phone again. “I just arrived. Of course, I have no money...” I said in Japanese.
“Tomorrow I will bring you some,” the voice said on the other end of the line. It was Kazuhiko, another old customer of mine.
“Tomorrow everything will be taken care of, and tonight I’ll stay in a hotel,” I told Takashi. “Thank you.”
We quickly walked to the first business hotel on our way. Takashi paid for my room and we said goodbye to each other.
Left alone, I calculated how much money I could make in a month working at “Linda” and how much I needed for my last year of film school in San Francisco. One salary was clearly not enough. I desperately needed to come up with something else. Or should I just give it all up?
*dohan –when a hostess meets a customer before work and they come to the club together.
When I was growing up in Russia, we had nothing. The town where I was born, Obninsk—the “City of the Peaceful Atom”—had about 100,000 inhabitants, most of whom were modest nuclear engineers. Respect was given for being a good student and doing volunteer work. Nobody thought about money. Nobody had it.
One of my strongest memories was my 7th birthday. I really wanted my mother to make special food for my special day—salads and cake—but for some reason we ate the usual boiled potatoes and borsch.
Another memory wassliced Finish salami in plastic packages that appeared in our grocery stores during the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. It was such a joy to tear those plastic bags open and be just a few seconds away from eating a piece of salami. This happiness didn’t last long though. In our town, the last day of the Olympics was the last day of the salami’s existence.
But it wasn’t just about thesalami.
“A new coat?” My mother would ask me surprised, “I wore mine for 15 years. And my boots for ten. You have to take care or your clothes.”
My clothes, except for my school uniform that I sometimes wore for days on end, were passed on to me, or secretly taken from the closet of my brother Nikita. We always fought about it.
Only a hockey game between us helped keep the peace. The eraser “puck” flew with the speed of light into the radiator “net” and no matter how hard I tried to protect it with my school ruler “stick”—it still got past me. In those moments Nikita would forgive me for anything. He felt his power and triumph.
My father, who knew the poetry of Lermontov and Esenin by heart, was born in Voronezh. His uncle was a bishop who didn’t fight in the war due to his religious convictions and only by a miracle was saved from punitive measures.
My father also wanted to give his life to God and studied in Zagorsk at the theological college, but he didn’t graduate. He became disillusioned by the real motives of “God’s servants” and studied to be an electromechanical engineer instead.
My mother worked as a teacher in a nearby town. She worked two shifts at the elementary school and came home after 9 pm every night very tired. She’d sit down to watch TV in the living room and fall asleep.
We were an average Soviet family: in the summers we worked at our country dacha growing vegetables. In the winter we carried home half-frozen potatoes and homemade pickles from the cellar.
My parents were very busy, and I stayed home alone from the age of three. I was not allowed to go to kindergarten, because I wasn’t able to tolerate the vaccinations required to attend. I learned to read very early. My favorite book was “Pippi Longstocking.” I dreamed that one day I would travel from country to country just like she did, and bring back exotic gifts and tell gripping tales.
I was very lonely and starved for attention.
I wrote poetry and short stories and sent them to the newspapers—“Pioneers’ Pravda” and the “Young Naturalist.” I liked the colorful envelopes with various Orders of Lenin on them in which the editors would send me their rejections. They didn’t want to publish my creations but encouraged me to write more.
I wrote letters to the film companies too. “I want to be in the movies!” And once I got a response from “Mosfilm.” They sent my photo back with a note saying, “We do not invite school girls from other cities to Moscow.” What a discrimination!
When I was eight, my parents sent me to music school to study violin. I preferred piano, but those lessons were too expensive. Also, when my mother was young, she played the violin with her grandfather, so everyone expected me to continue the family tradition. But I dreamed of becoming an actress in the movies or theatre.
My parents were afraid I would get out of hand, so while I was growing up they never allowed me to spend the night at my girlfriends’ houses, even though one of them lived right next door. I had to be home when the lights came on in the windows. But in the winter people in the Moscow suburbs turned on the lights around 4pm.
My parents also didn’t like me attending the local theater, where I could have happily spent every evening. There were many adults, and my parents were worried they might teach me bad things like smoking and dirty jokes. Since everything was prohibited, I had to make up stories to ever get to do anything I might have wanted.
In school I was a member of the Counsel of Pioneers, and then on the Komsomol committee. I had many pen pals from Eastern Europe. And I was a good student; although, sometimes my behavior was “unsatisfactory” for “snapping” at and talking back to the teachers. My sixth grade teacher wanted to kick me out of the Counsel where I was responsible for organizing cultural events because I came to the New Year’s dance in a long skirt. ThePioneer Counsel members, Komsomol committee and teachers got together, and for two hours 20 people discussed whether they should kick me out or not.
“But why did you come to the party in a long skirt?” my class instructor kept asking me.
“What should I have come in? A short skirt?”
“You see, she’s snapping again!”
In the end, they finally decided to leave me alone. But at the school entrance they placed a group of teachers as monitors to check that we had brought a second pair of shoes, our daily report cards, and our school uniform. They even checked our ears for dirt and earrings.
And suddenly, everything started to change very fast. We were allowed to vote to rescind the rule that made it obligatory to wear red pioneer bandannas and school uniforms, attend political information classes, and eliminate behavior grades, morning calisthenics and even daily report cards! We didn’t have to be Pioneers or Young Communists anymore!
The Berlin wall had come down, Ceausescu had been shot.
The old history books were removed. A new version of Russian history was coming out every day in the newspapers and we copied it into our notebooks and took the exams. We were now allowed to choose our classes, the exams we wanted to take, and even our teachers!
My God! We children didn’t understand what happened and why we could now openly discuss and do things that in the past would cause teachers to call our parents and even get us expelled.
The time came to choose a university. My father wanted me to go to a pedagogical one so I could be a teacher, like my mother. But I was drawn to the arts and I applied to the Moscow Cultural Institute, to the department of directing cultural entertainment programs.My parents were sure I wouldn’t pass the entrance exams. There were more than ten people competing for one place. But I was accepted and happily went to live in the student dorm.
By then, political or any other activism was no longer fashionable. We rehearsed theatrical sketches and wrote screenplays. The best part was that having a student ID would get us into any museum and theater in Moscow for free.
The country continued to change.
All over Moscow dashed about Mercedes 600s. Second hand stores thrived on selling clothing by the kilo sent from the US and other countries as a humanitarian aid. Even we students could afford to buy a couple of old American t-shirts. On TV we saw Barbie dolls and Disneyland for the first time as we watched programs from all over the world.
As I watched people on the TV walking around freely, roller-skating, lying on the grass and constantly smiling, I cried. I thought it was unfair that we couldn’t live like that.
I loved acting and directing classes. I admired my teachers. They were all very talented and interesting people. Then my first love, a physics student named Kolya, swept me away for two years. Big arguments and desires to be loved more than loving myself led me to another two year relationship with a student in my class and DJ named Gena. We lived together in an old house with Gena’s grandmother. There was no indoor plumbing. Gena, his grandmother, and I would take turns fetching water in a bucket from the pump. The toilet was also outside.
“What will I do after I finish school?” I wondered.
“Get married. Have children!” my parents advised.
Getting married and having children was pretty much the only way for girls my age. And of course, like all girls, I wanted to meet a prince on a white horse who would come and take me to the land of endless happiness, but at the same time I had doubts.
What about self-development, self-discovery?
How would I find out why I was born the way I was and the meaning of my existence on this planet if I got married and had children right away? What else could I do with my life? As a Russian, of course I loved my country, but I didn’t think it was fair to limit myself.
There was a very famous song during the Soviet era: “My address is not a house and not a street. My address is the Soviet Union…” But I wanted to sing to everyone who would listen, “My address is not a house and not a street and not even the former Soviet Union. My address is planet Earth!”
How to make it a reality?
My family thought I was crazy. It hurt me that my surroundings didn’t understand me. My family, friends, school, traditions, government—they all laughed.
But I wanted no matter what to find my own way. But how?
Once, after having a fight with Gena, I returned to my dorm with all my belongings. My roommate Anya told me she was preparing to leave for Japan to work in a bar. In a bar? I was terrified for her. Jobs like that—in a store, bar or restaurant—were held in disdain by my family.
“What? It’s prostitution! Haven’t you heard the stories of how they take girls to other countries and sell them into slavery?”
This was during the Gulf War and I imagined my friend being raped by the American soldiers on leave from the battlefield.
Anya didn’t answer. It was the day of her audition.
“I’m going with you.” I said. “I want look into the eyes of those liars who organize these trips. They should be ashamed for lying to young girls!”
When we arrived at the audition there were already about 20 girls. The bosses, young men around 30 years old, were sprawled back in new leather chairs. They wore colorful ties and red jackets—typical for the New Russian businessmen of that time.
There was one real Japanese man among them: Shimidzu-san.
A few of the girls looked like prostitutes in wigs and tons of make-up. I was wearing my only pair of jeans, an NHL jacket and pink high-top sneakers (a gift from Gena). I carefully observed what was happening, and to my surprise, everything seemed honest and sincere.
Suddenly, the Japanese man asked me to stand up. He took my picture and told me that I’d been chosen to go.
The New Russians convinced me there was nothing bad about working in a karaoke bar in Japan and that it had nothing to do with prostitution.
We were simply supposed to sit there and smile and for that, we’d get a whole lot of money. They said their wives had already been to Tokyo and had come back to Moscow very happy. The contract said we had a salary of $600 a month. $600!!!
It was 1993. Moscow. I was 19. As a teacher my mother was making twenty dollars a month. Japan sounded too good to be true, but I also doubted the organizers of this trip had any reason to lie to me, a simple student, when they had a lot of girls in the room who would go to Tokyo under different conditions. I signed a six-month contract. To me it seemed like a chance to go abroad, buy a Barbie doll and visit Disneyland!
But first I had to explain my decision to my parents and Gena. To do that, I had to graduate from University. It took me six months to convince my parents. Papa yelled. Mama cried. My brother nodded his head. But I continued to persuade them. How could I listen to those who had never even been abroad? How could they know what was out there?
The only support I got was from my professor, Ludmila Alexeevna. She often traveled to Holland as a director of Russian programs in the theme park “Efteling.” She said to me, “Go. If you don’t like it, you can always come back.” I believed her.
Finally my parents gave up.
“It’s your life, do what you want,” said my father.
Well, thank you! Of course, I wanted to have my family’s support, but for the moment, these words were enough.
I waited for a Japanese visa. Sometimes before I went to bed, doubts crept in my mind. “Do I really need this?” But in the morning, with the beginning of a new day, the doubts disappeared.
I passed winter exams in the fall, and with the promise to write a thesis on the effect of ancient traditions on the entertainment industry in modern Japan, the university let me go. Gena was not happy, but he promised to wait for me and buy a car for my return.
The day of departure finally arrived. Mama, Papa, Nikita and Gena came to the airport. Everybody cried. I felt a bit guilty—I was the only one actually happy. I crossed the customs line and turned to look at my family one last time. I felt like huge wings had grown on my back. That was it—a sweet feeling of overwhelming FREEDOM.
When we arrived at the airport in Tokyo, we took off our winter jackets. To walk outside in November for the first time in my life in just a t-shirt—it was an unforgettable experience! In Moscow at that time of year, it was already snowing. I traveled with two other girls, Angelica, a slim eighteen-year-old blonde, and Natasha, a cute round-faced nineteen-year-old brunette.
Shimidzu san, the Japanese man we met in Russia, met us at the airport and took our passports promising to give them back after three months of work. The girls started to worry, but I didn’t care. I was ready and open to new adventures and didn’t plan to go back to the homeland sooner than in six months anyway. We ate huge caramel-covered ice cream bars and got into a minivan.
Through the windows, short gray buildings with mattresses and pillows drying on the balconies blended together. It reminded me of summer in Obninsk. We didn’t see any skyscrapers. Japan was very different from what I imagined. The road was filled with cars, and the drivers all seemed to have the same face.
We exited the highway and drove down a narrow street. For the next half hour, we flew through one narrow street to the next. Finally our car stopped in front of a four-story metal-covered building.
“Your apartment is on 4th floor,” said Shimidzu. At that time he already spoke a little Russian. “I will come to pick you up at 8 pm. You can rest now.”
Angelica, and Natasha and I climbed up metal staircases to an upstairs apartment. I opened the door to reveal a huge table in the middle of a large room. Little tables stood against a wall covered in mirrors. Along another wall there was a kitchen. In the bedroom there were 27 beds: three rows of three, each with stacked triple bunks. Beside the beds there were three toilets and one big bathroom. Everything was covered with dirt.
Anjelica started crying. “I want to go home!” she looked around the room.” This is a barrack!”
“It’s ok. We just have to clean it up...” I said, glancing at Natasha. And by 8 pm our apartment was in order. Dressed in the best clothes we had, we came downstairs where Shimizu was waiting.