Japan notebook; Takenoko dancers, matchbooks, and much ado about a suit

On Japan Air Lines' afternoon flight to Tokyo I take seat 23-J, wedged between two Japanese businessmen in short-sleeved white shirts. One sells typewriters, the other doesn't. He designs submarines for Mitsubishi.

The typewriter salesman grew up in Nagasaki and was two years old when the United States leveled his city with the ''Little Boy'' atomic bomb. Fortunately he was living in Manchuria. His aunt was killed and his brother is still treated monthly for radiation contamination he received 37 years ago.

When I tell him my father was on the USS Phoenix in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the typewriter salesman leans forward and whispers: ''For years I was anti-America. Now I'm antiwar and we can be friends.''

He gives me a lesson in eating the soba noodles on my dinner tray, we exchange addresses, and I doze off to a videogame cacophony coming from Row 24. Two Japanese grade-schoolers are traveling with Pac-Man.

Getting lost in Tokyo, the world's second-largest city, is an everyday adventure. The roads, narrow and tortuous, fan out from the Imperial Palace, often with little rhyme or reason - or street names, for that matter. Moreover, Japanese signs are difficult for the uninitiated to read and cabdrivers speak little English. In case of emergency, advises guidebook author Eugene Fodor, ''keep a matchbox from your hotel in your pocket. Prepare to be lost, and don't worry. When you want to return, show the matchbox to a cab driver. He will take you home.''

Easier said than done. Not long ago an American, unable to retrace his steps to his Tokyo hotel, hailed a taxi and handed the driver a hotel matchbox. The driver didn't take him home, however. He drove him to the match factory.

The Japanese have a reputation for hospitality. In fact, they tend to be more polite to foreign guests than to their own neighbors. This is the result of a time-honored social code, said to have evolved centuries ago when fearsome samurai roamed the countryside and wouldn't hesitate skewering anyone who didn't treat them royally.

Because samurai frequently traveled incognito, swords concealed, prudent peasants greeted each and every guest in an exalted manner. Hence, as the story goes, today's sometimes excessive politeness.

Japan may be the land of dragons, but the language is a bear. As one American diplomat put it: ''I've never seen one Japanese-English translation that any four experts agree is accurate.'' While the English alphabet has 26 letters, to read a Japanese newspaper you need to have under your belt a trifling 1,850 kanji characters. The average Japanese college student can read and write 5,000 characters and has a vocabulary of about 80,000 words. Their American counterparts know half as many English words.

Complicating this communications thicket, Japanese, unlike English, is largely nonverbal. And it doesn't rely so much on body language as on the relationship between the two speakers. The words a Japanese uses can be far removed from what is being communicated. When you have something important to say you tiptoe deftly around, but not through, the issue at hand. Like a painter you may prepare the canvas, even sketch in the background, but you always leave the other person to fill in the main subject himself.

A Japanese, for example, would never make the outright demand ''Give me a ride!'' Rather, he might hint, ''I have a lot of packages and it's quite a walk to the train station.'' If you don't care to give him a lift you return the vagary and perhaps console him: ''I'm sure a taxi wouldn't be too expensive.''

And be careful to watch what you admire in the presence of a Japanese - you may well find yourself the owner. The wishes of the guest are usually granted. But also remember that when a Japanese offers you a gift he may not intend to give it to you. An Osaka businessman told me that between friends, if you don't offer something three times, you don't mean it. Unfortunately, we Westerners too readily accept their offers and come away looking like barbarians with no courtesy or tact.

''Japan is built on the effective use of space,'' says Japan scholar Edwin Reischauer, ''America on the effective use of time.'' Japan has half the population of the United States, sardined into a landmass slightly smaller than Montana. Moreover, some 50 million Japanese - nearly half the population - are crammed into 1/100th of Japan's total area, the 350-mile-long Tokaido megalopolis, which sprawls from Tokyo to Osaka.

The Japanese are also sports fanatics. Everything from sumo to American football. In the big cities it seems that every other apartment roof has a batting cage or miniature golf range.

In Osaka I visited the Sumiko Kyobashi Golf Center in the middle of town, just opposite the grand 16th-century ''Golden Castle,'' built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. (Nearby is a more recent, and popular, monument to culture: the baseball stadium for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, one of Osaka's four professional baseball teams.)

The Japanese, who brought back to earth the lofty ''small is beautiful'' concept, have figured out how to compact a quarter-mile-long driving range down to one-fourth its normal size, and then triple its capacity. The secret is specially weighted golf balls, fish-netting draped over four-story scaffolding, and stacking three tiers of golfers on top of one another.

That day in Osaka I was accompanied by Kiichi Niiya, a young dentist, and Shuichi Takano, manager of a local sushi shop. At 6 feet, 2 inches, Takano was the tallest member of the Osaka Jaycees. In Japan, they told me, golf is a game for the privileged few. Takano and Niiya both belong to suburban country clubs and for a lifetime membership they pay a whopping 6 million yen (about $22,000).

Driving ranges, are, of course, for hoi polloi, and because we went on Japan's National Holiday for the Aged, the place was packed. We paid 500 yen ($ 1.80) for a yellow basket of 50 balls, climbed to the third floor, and found some room at the top - two AstroTurf teeing pads, Nos. 323 and 324. With a three-iron (woods are banned on the top floor for fear an amateur like me might slice one over the net and into rush-hour traffic), I duffed a few over the edge , narrowly missing golfers in 223 and 123. I surrendered my club so the dentist and sushi chef could swing away to their hearts' content.

Every Sunday, hundreds of neatly dressed junior- and senior-high-schoolers converge at the Harajuku subway stop in west Tokyo, carrying shopping bags and the awkward swagger of adolescence.

On their bags are the portraits of such matinee idols as James Dean and Donald Duck. In the bags are their ''oldie goldie'' costumes. Black leather jackets and wraparound shades for the boys. Saddle shoes, bouffant hairdos, and petticoats for the girls. They assume their Sunday disguises in subway bathrooms or in the bushes next to Olympic Stadium, then spend the afternoon dancing in a circle around Sony radios the size of suitcases, which blast out American rock-and-roll from the 1950s.

In the last few years Tokyo's so-called Takenoko (bamboo shoot) and Amegura (Japanese shorthand for the film ''American Graffiti'') dancers have grown in numbers and notoriety. Satellite dancing parties have sprouted in other large industrial cities. They have become Japan's rebels without a cause. They are signs of the postwar generation turning its back on an oppressive school system, and old-world Confucian traditions and values.

For some reason Japanese youth clings to the American '50s as the golden age of rebellion. One group of Amegura boys wear Elvis Presley sneers and motorcycle jackets emblazoned with ''Flash Cadillac Tetsu,'' ''Rockabilly the '50s, Peppermint Member,''and ''Tokyo Jailbreak.'' They roll up their sleeves, put Vaseline and hair spray on their ducktails, and stage mock street fights in true ''Blackboard Jungle'' style. When they tire of those activities they might, for variety's sake, twirl their foot-long combs like batons or polish their pointy black shoes. As for the girls, some prefer the senior prom look: high heels, pearl necklaces, stockings, and pink formal gowns. Others choose more casual bobby socks and Mickey Mouse ears. They are united by the vintage of their music. Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, and Chubby Checker predominate.

Ironically, these youngsters' rebelling against the old Japanese ways are living proof of tradition's tenacity. Despite the apparent chaos of sound and color, each dancer sticks to his own group, both in style of dress and well-studied dance steps. One rarely sees anyone leave his group to dance with another. The ambiance here is more one of Halloween frivolity than violent rebellion. Yet late that afternoon a dozen neo-Nazi teen-agers with black uniforms and swastikas shaved on their heads bullied their way through the crowd , roughed up a few dancers, and strutted on. The dark side of Japanese nonconformity.

Last night my French busboy get-up nearly caused an international incident.

Hearing that Japan was experiencing one of the muggiest autumns on record, I left my gray flannel suit at home and packed a safari jacket and a comfortable blue-and-white busboy's uniform I'd bought in the working-clothes section of a Paris department store. At 100 yards it bore a faint resemblance to a seersucker Sun Yat-sen suit. Pierre Cardin it wasn't.

The evening before my audience with the Crown Prince and Princess, I wore my ''suit'' to a backyard buffet given by the president of the Osaka Junior Chamber of Commerce. The assembled businessmen were dressed in three-piece funereal black suits. They had left their wingtips at the front door and were flopping around the back lawn in the customary plastic torquoise slippers.

But I soon learned that the secret subject of conversation, as the guests picked their way from the poached salmon to the cherries jubilee, was ''Will McBride wear that French busboy's uniform to the Imperial Household tomorrow?'' Too polite to directly pop the question, the Japanese sent over a tall, thin emissary from the American consulate, one Allen Kong (''as in King Kong,'' he introduced himself) to broach the subject of Japanese dress codes.

Mr. Kong had learned his Japanese manners well and daintily nibbled around the controversy at hand. ''There are no suit rental shops in Japan with sizes big enough to fit you,'' he informed me. ''I would be happy to lend you one of mine.'' With that diplomatic slap on the wrist we slipped out of the torquoise backyard slippers, into beige slippers to cross the living room, then brown slippers to enter the bathroom. There, while the chilled melon and strawberries were being served, we attempted a quick swap of clothes. Two weeks of sushi and soba had done in my waistline and Kong's trousers didn't stand a fighting chance.

When I checked into the Okura Hotel, across from the American Embassy in Tokyo, the bell captain announced with a blush: ''Mr. McBride, I will send the hotel's three largest suits to your room.'' Again, no luck. I began to understand why sumo wrestlers had nothing to walk around in but bathrobes. Fortunately, the NATO allies on the ninth floor rallied. An American computer salesman down the hall donated his blue blazer and Brooks Brothers tie to the cause. The Belgian economist a few doors down kicked in a pair of shoes, and the British playwright contributed a white silk shirt to go with the dark trousers I dug out of the bottom of my suitcase. All the West German could do was take a backhanded slap at Reagan's defense policy in Europe. ''All you need now,'' he quipped, ''is a nuclear umbrella.''

The night before leaving Japan, I splurged on a can of room-service ''100 percent'' orange juice and a package of beef jerky, and leaned back in bed to jot two lists. The first was ''Japanese comforts I will miss'':

1. Taxicabs with antimacassars on the headrests and back doors that mysteriously swing open when you approach.

2. Nachi, that curiously delicious hybrid fruit that combines an apple's texture with the juice of a pear.

3. Sushi bars and chubby pink pay telephones on every corner.

4. Emperors who give monthly poetry parties.

5. No Tipping Allowed.

6. Trains you can set your watch by.

7. The serenity of formal Japanese gardens smack dab in the middle of major traffic patterns.

8. Hot washcloths served before each meal.

9. Hotels with bedside flashlights and a choice of hard or soft pillows.

10. Room service beef jerky.

My second list, ''Things I won't miss'':

1. Getting lost.

2. Visiting match factories.

3. Hotels with short beds, and thumb-size tubes of toothpaste that run out before you get to the rear molars.

4. Loud American tourists.

5. Japanese cars named Sunny California and Homerun.

6. Osaka rush hour.

7. Sumptuous Japanese meals, with no dessert. How about a little wedge of New York cheesecake?

Bluegrass banjo picker Earl Scruggs once said of the Japanese: ''They're extremely good imitators. And so polite they even copy the mistakes.''

When it comes to advertising, that great lubricant of the free-enterprise system, the Japanese out-Madison Avenue the best and worst of America. For years , they have been importing from the West leggy models and slick gimmicks to move their merchandise. Recently, most Japanese admen have gone star crazy, and have hired the likes of Paul Newman and Roger Moore to sell their fast cars, Farrah Fawcett-Majors to model diamond necklaces, Brooke Shields to apply mascara and sell designer jeans, and Bjorn Borg to sip fruit juice. The late Marshall McLuhan would have had a field day with Japanese television and its commercials ad infinitum. I don't know how they get away with it, but sponsors will run the same 30-second spots back to back, presumably to catch anyone who slipped away from the tube for a plate of tempura leftovers in the kitchen.

After a few hours of Japanese TV jingles, it is painfully apparent that, if advertising is not television's primary function here, it is certainly way ahead of whatever is in second place. Programming is treated like Styrofoam stuffed in to keep the ads from rattling around.

I wondered after three weeks of touring Japan's cities, is there no refuge from this commercial bombardment? My last afternoon in Japan at Narita International Airport, I cleared customs, immigration, and all those antihijacking machines, and mounted the JAL boarding ramp. I let out a long sigh and thought, finally, a bland but peaceful promised land, off limits to ad copy and flashing neon. I stood in the passenger line, munched a last bag of seaweed crackers, and made the mistake of gazing down at my boarding pass. Opposite the seat and gate number was a whopping great Panasonic ad for their latest 6,500 -yen hair dryer, called the ''World Series.'' And all I wanted to do was get back to the Giants and Dodgers in Candlestick Park.

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