On campus, especially in my international school-within-a-school, being a foreigner feels like nothing special; you see enough white people around that you think of them as pretty usual. However, it's easy to forget that a lot of Japanese people really have almost no contact with westerners, and that's a fact that can be turned to your advantage.
This story starts a few weeks after classes began, out at a club in Shibuya. An exchange student's Japanese pen-pal had invited us out to Camelot, a cool little hip-hop/house joint pretty close to the station. Around 3 a.m, as people start thinning out, I found myself looking at the rare sight of two cute girls standing at a table alone. I go over to start a conversation, and a few minutes later, two Japanese guys walk over. Now, Japanese guys aren't that intimidating as people go, but one of them had a shaved head, both were decked out in hip-hop attire, and I found myself wondering whether they might be jealous boyfriends of the two girls I was chatting up (up with which I was chatting?).
I wasn't worried about violence- I figured the worst that would happen is the situation would get a little awkward, and I'd move away- but I didn't exactly know what these guys were feeling, so I decided to be friendly with them. Turned out to be a very good move. Once I introduced myself, it became very clear that:
a) They didn't know these girls.
b) Both were incredibly drunk.
c) They were super-happy to make an American friend.
Despite the serious faces and macho posturing on a lot of the guys at the clubs, I've found that they're really friendly if you strike up a conversation, and easy to befriend. Within a few minutes, these guys were trading phone numbers with me, and one of them told me he was a local DJ (DJ A-SO), and wanted me to go to his next show. I chalked the phone-number exchange and invitation up to intoxication, and figured I could write this off as a funny story, but the next day, I had a text message not only letting me know where his show was, but also telling me to let him know if I wanted to get on the guest list for any clubs in Shibuya. I actually ended up using the hook-up on Halloween, when we went to Club Atom- I think the guy made a call to one of his friends, because we entered as the guests of a DJ I had never heard of. It was a pretty excellent feeling.
I really wanted to make it out to see my new friend A-SO, but times didn't really coordinate until this weekend, when he invited me out to Lounge NEO, a hip-hop/house club that seems to be his regular spot. I went with my friend Sam, a pretty cool guy that stayed with the same host family I'm with a few years ago, and is now hanging out in Tokyo for a few months. A-SO met us outside, as drunk as when I saw him before (which, according to his girlfriend, is his usual state), with a few other DJ friends and a couple girls. A-SO is quickly becoming one of my favorite people ever- he stumbles around with a huge smile on his face, friends with everybody and living for nothing but music, alcohol, and fun.
This club was a way different feeling than dramaqueen, Camelot, or Atom- not too crowded, barely any non-Japanese, and a more laid-back vibe. Between the tequila-ginger-ale shots he foisted on everyone, A-SO kept introduced us to his friends, most of which seemed to be DJ's, dancers, or other heavy club kids, and all of whom were super-happy to make American friends. The vibe of the club helped- we weren't rivals for their women or loud foriegners here to drink and be rowdy, just friends of a guy they knew, enjoying the music and the crowd.
外国人 (Gaikokujin, or "foriegners") have inherent value here. We're like handbags or expensive, logo-ed ballcaps- a Japanese person with a Westerner in his entourage increases his social value, by showing that he has access to a moderately rare, slightly exotic, pretty cool commodity. My knowing Japanese helped things a little, but only on the logistics side (explaining when events were happening, trading numbers, etc.)- a lot of the appeal of foriegners is our English ability.
In return for spicing up their image, we get the sorts of things that are otherwise pretty hard to come by for people new to the area- guest lists, event invitations, and free drinks. A-SO kept the ginger-ale-tequila flowing, I have the email addresses of a few more DJ's to hit up for discount in's and invites, and I get the bonus of being able to invite friends out to meet "my Shibuya DJ friend." Especially if the friends I bring out are also exchange students, it brings in a whole new crop of forieger friends for these guys, and everybody wins.
I read a magazine by an expatriate in Tokyo one, recalling a conversation he had with an American friend. The friend asked him how he dealt with the expensive prices here, and he said "I don't really know how much stuff costs- people tend to pay for all of it for me." I don't know if he was exaggerating or is just very charming, but I get the sentiment- trading foriegner coolness for nightlife benefits works out for everyone, and makes going out a heck of a lot cheaper, and more fun.
Also: If you're hanging out in Tokyo at the moment, and are into the hip-hop/house scene, hit me up- I'll introduce you to A-SO and his gang, and we'll make a night of it.
Also also: I recommend always trying to start up conversations on either the last train (drunk salarymen) or first train (returning clubbers) of the day. The daytime trains are dead-quiet, and their riders stoic, but on the late-night/early-morning rides, I've had hilarious talks with ojisan (middle-aged Japanese guys), been given phone numbers from guys wanting to set me up on group dates, and coming back from this most recent club outing, ended up meeting two rappers, quick to foist phone numbers and fliers for their shows on me. My friend Alia says it's just me that this stuff happens to, but I think it's more a question of talking to everyone you can, being friendly, and realizing that simply being a westerner in Tokyo gives you instant coolness that you can leverage to pretty good effect.