A Bar to Come Home to (Kogiku - 2)
Stopping by after work, picking at some food with chopsticks between drinks, lingering at the counter with the other regulars, even though family members are waiting at home--this used to be the typical pattern in Japan. Nowadays, young Japanese people seem to be going out drinking less. However, there are bastions of this culture in some places, at least among Japanese men. Some are found at the small shops on Nishi-Ogikubo’s WiIlow Alley. Here, people don’t just stop for a drink but also for the pleasure of conversation with other regulars. This type of small eatery, in which mostly working-age male customers stop off after work to chat with the charming female owner, has a long history on this street. One such place is ‘Kogiku’—we introduced the ‘Mama’ of this bar, Nami-san, in a previous article.
Such a bar culture might seem like a callback to the patterns of a generation ago, but Nami-san contemporizes it by relaying the psychology of her customers and the exhausting lives of modern society. “For example, the husband comes and says, ‘Hi, I’m home,’ and wants to talk about his day. But the wife has also had a busy day. So no one really feels like listening to the other one. She’ll be like, ‘Wait a minute! You are back now? There is so much to do still…’ He will ask, ‘Is there something to eat? Rice?’ And she will say, ‘I hate to have left-overs, so I didn’t make any rice.’ At least, that’s what happens some of the time. There’s no real resting place for these people. Also, Japanese men are not really used to listening to their wives. I think it is more that they are not used to straight communication. So that will go on for five or ten years after a child is born. Then the woman gets stronger and stronger, so after a while, she thinks, ‘Well, I’ll just take the child and leave!’”
“Or then, because work is busy and there are many times when you have to go out drinking, you will think I’ll only cook when we are both at home. But if you think like that it becomes harder to decide, ‘Oh, today I’ll eat at home.’ So after a while, the husband starts doing the same. Then, the wife is more and more likely to stay at work. So then the cycle continues and no one cooks, and they just start eating separately.’ So if you are looking for a place where someone says, ‘Oh, welcome back!’ when you walk in the door, then the only place you’ll find it is here [Kogiku]!”
As Nami-san sees it, the problem of family meals is only superficially about time management, but rather a deeper lack of communication between spouses. “If you work in this kind of place, you’ll see it,” she said “In many Japanese families, there are many men who think they should never bring work-related matters into the home. That was the old custom from back in the day when women didn’t work, and most women were only housewives. I have an acquaintance, a couple (88 and 91 years old), and she will brag, ‘My husband never once brought up work at home.’ And, ‘He never once complained about anything.’ My family was a single-mother home so I didn’t know anything about my father, but I remember thinking, ‘Oh, a man who doesn’t bring work into the home is a good husband.’ That’s what it was like back in the Showa.”
In short, many things have changed, but husbands and wives are still not good at communicating, so the bar exists as a place where someone else—Nami-san—will genuinely listen to you. Also, Nami-san said, there are many customers who want to be mothered, and not always gently. “There are many customers who want to be scolded. Like ‘No! you can’t do that!’ I am like a real mother disciplining them, but I don’t really get angry. A mother is someone who cares about and for you. Many people at our age are beginning to die off, so at this age, those people come here and begin to be like children. They’ll say [in a childish voice] ‘Oh, I want to eat a rice omelet!’ And I’ll reply ‘you can’t just eat rice omelet every day’ or ‘You have gout!’ or ‘you have diabetes!’ like that.”
“It’s like that. Gout, diabetes, high blood pressure, you have to control these through moderation. For example, if a person eats a rice omelet one day, then later I’ll alternate that later with konjac jelly [devil’s tongue: a low-calorie, hi-fiber vegetable starch]. Every person is human, and I just want to let each person know that there is someone there who recognizes that they are here, that they are still alive. Of course, this place is not exactly a safety net, but everyone is a human. Even the head of a company feels lonely. Of course, a company president has money, but there are so many more who are not a company president. For those people, there is nothing they can do when they are lonely. When something happens to them, they feel like they have lost everything and may even want to die. To make sure something like that does not happen, I let them know, ‘Someone here remembers you. Someone is thinking about you, somewhere you are out there doing okay, there is always someone who is thinking about you.’ I want people to feel relieved and secure. I want them to say, ‘Everyone there has been telling me, hey, I shouldn’t eat this, I have diabetes, so I should eat this.’ I want them to have that kind of feeling, like when someone is telling you this, it feels like coming back to your family home.”
Nami-san emphasizes that not only men but women are also welcome at her restaurant.
“It’s the same for a young woman. If someone is feeling uneasy, she can also come to eat here. For a girl, well, she could even come to stay with me for a while. A kind of protection? Well, we all have to work hard. I want a young person to get that kind of feeling from me.”
“The problem with Japan today is loneliness,” she said. “The more rational people become the lonelier they are. There’s nothing that you can do about it. Empathy, that’s the feeling that's missing in society now. Japan is collapsing and empathy is really disappearing. People aren’t tolerant. For example, if someone comes in drinking, and I say, ‘three thousand yen, please!’ and they reply, ‘Actually, I don’t have any money.’—there really are these people—depending on the person, I might call the police. But if someone tells you their story and they only have a thousand yen left, then and you understand, if I take this thousand yen, that person is finished, they won’t be able to make it home on the train. I’ll say, ‘A thousand yen now? Nah, just forget it. When you get it together bring it to me.’ Chances are, they won’t show up again. But if I take that one thousand yen now, then how will I feel? Maybe in ten years, or maybe sometime before they die, they will come to a realization. They might remember that that bar owner was really good to them. Maybe once they realize this they might change. Maybe I have been changed by many little things like that in my own life. It’s more than just being nice, I believe we should consider people’s lives as a whole. So even if it is only one meeting just that one time, maybe they will think, ‘Oh that old lady in Nishiogi, what was that bar?’ Maybe they will forget the name of the bar, and they never come again, but maybe they will think of their experience. I know it might be wrong to say it this way –but it’s as if everyone is connected through God somehow.”
“I’m not religious, but in Japan, this idea used to exist… It can be called Buddhism…. In religion, there exists this kind of invisible place of salvation. Nowadays, people don’t believe in things they can’t see. But there is still a feeling that there is an invisible place of salvation, one that you can see, and that is like a mother. Even if it’s a mother who doesn’t have her own children, but is instead a mother to everyone. That is how the community is in this town. In the old days, there were people who were like a mother to everyone in these unofficial red-light districts. Still, these kinds of places were like ordinary homes. There was a mother-figure who took care of the girls who were working there. Now Kogiku is not that kind of place. The people here are regular people, they are mostly men who work regular jobs, but they all want a mother. Even if they don’t get along with their actual mother, they still love her. In other words, it is the mother’s heart that is needed in the world.”
Stereotypically, among men in an American bar, you might expect conversations about women, sports, or maybe politics. But what are you expected to talk about in front of “mother”? “In a Japanese bar you don’t talk about politics, religion or baseball,” Nami-san said. “It would be bad if there were Giants fans and Hanshin Tiger fans at the same time.”
“Actually, it appears that customers want to talk about human relationships”, she said. “Everyone is worried about human connection. It seems that in Japan people act like they are under a spell, or they are just fatalistic. They feel they are controlled by external forces and that’s why they are the way they are. They just want to avoid trouble. I don’t think it was like that in the old days. Maybe I’m getting old, but it seems society is like that now; people just want to avoid trouble, so they don’t express a contrary opinion. It’s now common to say ‘read the atmosphere.’ I think it’s more like you can read the atmosphere but understand you can also change the atmosphere. Otherwise, you are not taking responsibility for your own actions.”
At a bar like this, however, people talk without reservation, without the necessity of “reading the atmosphere.” Maybe, because there is no sense of competition among customers there is a feeling of security. “I don’t know about other bars, but here the customers get along well. If a young person comes in, they will ask the older guys, ‘Hey, I am having this kind of trouble at work, can you give me some advice.’ All the old guys here are pretty good-hearted so they will reply with a, ‘You, listen up a bit,’ [gently] like that. People here want to be useful to each other.’
We asked what sort of customers come to the bar. “In some ways, they are the same. When I was young people came in here for all kinds of reasons. Some of them wanted to have a friendly conversation. Some came in because they wanted to eat some home cooking. Some came because of me [she said with a smile]. Some people just happened by. They were all different. Now, and it’s the same for me, customers come here because they want to see each other. They are like brothers. There aren’t so many new customers now.”
Nami-san doesn’t just use her role as a ‘mother’ at Kogiku to give advice; she also sees it as an important way to continue the traditions of Japanese cooking. For example, one of her female customers – there are some – came in and asked her to hold a cooking class so she and her friends could ‘increase their feminine power.’ Nami-san holds these class at a neighboring community center or other borrowed space.
“I feel it is very important,” she said. “we have our traditional culture in this country. If you don’t pass it on then Japan will disappear. But people want things simple. These days, no one is standing in the kitchen thinking about their family members while preparing a dashi [soup stock] by hand. Now when you mention preparing dashi, girls are like ‘people still do that?! [imitating their surprised voices]. Now people think someone who makes their own dashi is like a saint living above the clouds. That’s okay, but I want people to know that this kind of thing existed. So I want to teach this to the young girls in a fun way. Now, this idea of ‘raising feminine power’ has become a popular slogan. Not everyone will make their own dashi. But I make my own and that is important for me. I also put on my own kimono every day, and that looks like a kind of feminine power, and the girls all want to learn that. So, only with proper dashi and kaeshi – shoyu, mirin, sugar – can you make true Japanese cuisine. It’s the same thing that a chef would do in a fine Japanese kitchen. The ingredients and equipment may be different. In the old days, people would use an iron pot, but the idea is the same. If you want to do it, you can.”
There are a variety of customers of different ages and genders, and quite occasionally a few foreigners, but most of the regulars are middle-aged Japanese men. We asked if they all got along. “If they don’t get along, I’ll be angry at them,” Nami-san explained. She is busy with cooking behind the counter, so the customers have to be able to entertain each other. “In such a narrow space it is unnatural if you don’t talk to the person beside you,” she said. “When someone walks in, I introduce them, ‘Oh, Nami-san this person is Sabu-san!’ “Sabu-san, this person is Shin-chan. Shin-chan likes trains, this person also likes that.’ I look for a common topic of conversation. Private matters, or things people want to hide, I won’t bring up, but I might say: ‘Oh you are both from Aomori, why don’t you talk about the old times at home, Mama’s busy,’ like that. This helps because most customers want to talk, but they just don’t have a reason to start. So I might move the two from Aomori together and create a chance for them to talk. Of course, there are people for whom this doesn’t work. And when I see that two people don’t get along, I will avoid putting them beside each other in the future.”
“I might not be watching them, but I’m always observing. This is the most difficult task. Making sure the seating order is right. When two people who do not get along are put beside each other, it is no fun for anyone, so I separate them.”
Nami-san’s attentive service and motherly demeanor aim to make sure every customer feels cared for and has a good time, but there will always be some customers who don’t fit in and ruin the atmosphere for everyone. “Because I am the mother, I could just ban them from coming in. It doesn’t matter how drunk you are, If you can’t stop doing whatever you are doing, then you must leave. That sort of thing has happened. There’s one guy who is like that, but now he comes twice a week. Whenever there are gyoza, he comes. For him, gyoza are like medicine.”
Nami-san seems to convey a kind of faith in the customers, that extends even to people who have caused trouble in the past. Nami-san, even by her own reckoning, is a figure from another generation. She is a strict but kind maternal figure to her customers who tries to create a sense of belonging and community and to pass on traditions that she regards as Japanese. Some say this is a type of “home” has become difficult to find in Tokyo these days, but we see it still in places like Kogiku. (James Farrer June 1, 2019)
(interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura Oct. 24, 2018, transcription and Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura, copy editing by Briana Baglini, copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved).