Thomas Wictor

Japan during the bubble, as requested by a reader

Japan during the bubble, as requested by a reader

In 1985 I went to Japan to seek my fortune. I began studying Japanese in 1981, mostly because of my interest in Japanese military history. In the winter of 1983-1984, I spent six months in Sapporo on an exchange program.


That sealed the deal. Japan was clean, orderly, and had great food. And oceans of booze. I’m an alcoholic, so Japan was heaven. Beer and whiskey are social lubricants in Japan. Every occasion calls for getting drunk.

Off to Japan without a plan

After I graduated from college with a BA in history, I went back to Japan with the vague idea that after I became perfectly fluent in Japanese, corporations would bash down my front door and heave giant sacks of cash into my arms. I arrived in Tokyo on a tourist visa and found a “guest house,” as they were called. Then I set about looking for work teaching conversational English.

Every Japanese studies English for a minimum of six years, but they never speak it. This is because of the concept of “face.” The Japanese don’t do anything unless they can do it well. Failing will make a person lose face. Therefore nobody practices speaking English at school. Instead, they go to private conversational-English salons. Back in 1985 the shtick was that you’d get a job teaching for three months on your tourist visa, and then you’d go to South Korea to apply for a three-month extension. After six months you either left Japan or found a sponsor so you could get a work visa.

At my guest house, I immediately fell in love with a Japanese-American woman I’ll call “Nakamura.”


It was a whirlwind romance that resulted in us moving into an apartment together after knowing each other for only a matter of weeks. A bad idea, but we were both twenty-three, so bad ideas came naturally to us.

At that time, western men went to Japan to have sex with as many Japanese women as possible. I can’t fathom the Japanese attitude toward sex. Women are passive and pretend that they’re being raped. They say, “No! No! No!” but you’re supposed to ignore it. I’m the only unmarried, heterosexual, western man on earth who never slept with a Japanese woman. Every westerner thought I was insane to be in Japan and have an American girlfriend.

Well, I’ve never claimed to be sane. Besides, I prefer extremely butch women. Not women who look like men; in fact all the women I’ve loved were small and very feminine. But butch. They punched me in the arm, wore trousers instead of skirts, wrestled with me, and had their own ideas on how things should be done. Tomboys.

Maybe I’m a lesbian trapped in man’s body.

Partying Japan-style

It took Nakamura and me almost eighteen months to completely disengage. I then met “Carmen,” the Cardinal Ghost, the only woman with whom I was able to have a real relationship.


But that didn’t happen until after we’d left Japan. In Tokyo, all we did was drink. They had beer and whiskey vending machines on every corner; the Japanese trusted their children to not buy alcohol if they were underage. Generally this trust was well placed. But adults like Carmen and me bought booze every night. I also picked up a hashish and methamphetamine habit. In Japan, meth is called the “housewife’s drug.” Unhappy married women use it to brighten their days.

You had to buy your hash and meth from the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.


Like all other Japanese, they were infatuated with westerners, so they weren’t dangerous. Every westerner I knew had yakuza friends who would take them to bars and spend tens of thousands of yen on them. From the summer of 1985 until the summer of 1991, I was drunk and high for all of my waking hours. You can do that in Japan. The culture allows you to do anything you want when drunk. It’s a safety valve.

I was never a crazy drunk: I drank (and smoked hash and took meth) to numb myself. But Carmen was a crazy drunk. Like this.

Why did I put up with that? Because I remembered her when I met her. I already knew her. Everything about her was familiar. That’s never happened before or since. She tried my patience, to the point that we broke up several times. But I always took her back.

Japan = music

The Japanese are the most musical people on earth. Every Japanese plays an instrument, and they all sing. I was the bassist in a band that played almost every weekend in the many “live houses” or clubs devoted to amateur bands.


From 1987 until 1990, all I did was teach English, edit the world’s first online newspaper, do voiceover work, drink, smoke hash, snort meth, and play in clubs. Although I did become a fluent speaker and reader of Japanese, it didn’t provide me with direction. I knew I could never have a nine-to-five job, and by 1991 I’d grown to hate Japan.

Although the Japanese have an incredible artistic sense, the culture was heartless in so many ways. Pet dogs were kept in tiny cages, food animals were butchered and eaten alive, the education system drove children to suicide, men were expected to be work-robots utterly devoted to the company, and all entertainment was sadistic.

Contestants on game shows were physically tortured in unbelievable ways. Pornography was everywhere, but with censored genitals. The culture is defecacentric: Apparently only South Korea is more obsessed with feces. I’ve learned from firsthand experience that toilet humor is a sign of horrendous pathology.

About 98 percent of Japanese were identical, and 2 percent were wild nonconformists who taught themselves how to speak fluent English and left the country the first chance they got. It took me until 1991 to understand the loathing that the nonconformists had for the hideously inhumane regimentation. Twice in Japan I met people so terrified of not belonging that they blatantly lied about themselves.

In one class that I taught at a bank, a man had eyes this color.


“I’ve never seen a Japanese with blue eyes,” I said.

“My eyes are brown,” he replied.

“What are you talking about? Your eyes are as blue as the sky.”

My eyes are brown,” he snarled.

“What color are his eyes?” I asked the class.

“His eyes are brown,” they all said. So I let it go.

It happened again with a woman who had beautiful bottle-green eyes.

“My eyes are brown,” she insisted.

That was it for me.

Japan is where westerners go to die

I had to leave Japan because it was killing me—the drinking, the drugs, the savagery, the sex obsession, the feces obsession, the racism, and my status as a permanent outsider. It’s ironic because I’m now more isolated than I ever was in Japan, but this is the life I prefer. In 1991 I still had Carmen and dreams. I didn’t know that a normal existence was not possible.

Still, I don’t regret my years in the Origin of the Sun. I met Carmen and the real Jason Bourne.

It seems like yesterday and multiple lifetimes ago. Actually, the second half of that sentence is true. I’ve died and been reborn at least six times since I returned to the US. In the life before the current one, I published a book titled Ghosts and Ballyhoo: Memoirs of a Failed LA Music Journalist.

I didn’t actually leave Japan until 2013. But you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.


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