Cash On The Table: An Expat's Tale

Back to Contents of Issue: March 2003

by Robert Juppe

A COUPLE OF SUMMERS, an American guy teaching university in Tokyo approached me at a party. "So, when you getting out?" I was a bit puzzled by the question and asked him what he meant. It turned out that he had wanted to say, "When are you leaving Japan for the summer?" When I told him that I didn't have any plans, he looked at me as though I were a borderline sociopath. "You mean, like, you're gonna stay here?" My willingness to stay in Japan without a mercantile objective seemed to make him uncomfortable, perhaps even a little scared.

It is not often talked about, but it would seem that most Americans come here to make some cash, build up their resume, then get out. Most of them do not want to put up with what they see as a materialistically Spartan life. "I can't wait to get out of this playhouse with this toy oven and furniture and get back to a real life!" griped one young North American woman a few years back. I comforted her with a sympathetic nod, then hit the remote control so that we could watch the munchkins bid Dorothy farewell as she hit the yellow bricks in The Wizard of Oz.

Those who stay on for prolonged periods of time tend to be regarded as spooky, for lack of a better word. So when I tell people I have been here 16 years, I see their guards go up. "He looks normal," they seem to be thinking, but I know they are watching me very carefully.

For the first nine of my years in Japan, I was largely oblivious to reality. I lived on government largesse (Japan's, not America's), a gravy train whose loop, like the circular Yamanote Line in Tokyo, seemed to have no end. I would refute those who spoke of horribly cramped and expensive housing conditions; as for landlords who discriminated, they did not exist in my fantasy world of subsidies. My university overseers would run over and clip my weeds if I so much as hinted at a problem. I often heard Americans complain about cramped and outrageously priced apartments, but I dismissed them as xenophobic cranks and whiners.

Until 1996, that is, when I switched to the private sphere, so to speak. Like Apollo 13 threatening to combust upon entry, I came in through the stratosphere of reality hard. For the first time, I realized that even a cheap apartment carried a huge initial sum: two months' shikikin (deposit), two months' reikin (key money) and a month's rent plus a month for the real estate agent.

F-san was the first agent I would deal with. As if I were paying for all of the scowling I had done over the years about gaijin complaints, F-san gave strong indications early on that this would not be easy. He kept a handkerchief over the lower half of his face as he talked, as if he were about to suddenly break into a magic trick. His eyes occasionally met mine, and they twinkled bemusedly. Most of the time he spoke to my wife, who is Japanese. I could not help but think that with a cowboy hat and a few magic markers, he would make a great looking outlaw in a silent Western. Occasionally, his eyes would shift to the side, communicating a message that said, "Are you still here?"

My wife kept insisting that he was holding up the handkerchief because he had a cold, but I suspected otherwise. Then came a hard blow during the contract signing. He pulled the contract away from me gently, lowered the handkerchief just a tad so that I could see the outline of an evil smirk, and said, "You cannot sign for the apartment. Your wife will have to do that."

"But I work full-time," I protested. "I have three jobs, and she doesn't have a single source of income!"

He nodded in mock sympathy and my wife shot me a glance so full of reproach that it reminded me of those hypnosis glasses sold from the back covers of Archie comic books. The agent delivered the deathblow by reminding me that we might be rejected by the owner.

So my wife signed and I left, humming a snatch of a Negro spiritual and then breaking into a couple verses of "This Land is Your Land." (It turns out that after the agent told the owner about my salary, the owner had said how nice it was to have such a fine person living in her flat.)

Soon after, we moved into our new digs. To call it small would have been a gross understatement; not only did I have to discard 60 percent of everything I owned, but once settled, I found that I had to go outside to change my mind.

We lasted two years. My wife decided she wanted a slightly bigger place, so while I was away in the US for several weeks, she covertly arranged another move. It is no mystery why she did this surreptitiously, and it is no secret why the Japanese don't move very often. I had thought that they were merely family-oriented people with strong Confucian roots; actually, they hate each other in their familial settings just as much as everyone else in the world, but no idiot will pay the equivalent of six months' rent for the privilege of moving ... well, except for my wife.

She made sure that I never even met the real estate agents this time, but somehow, she got my name on the lease. She did this, I suspect, largely to soften the blow of parting with an amount just shy of a lottery jackpot. I settled into a two-bedroom apartment 40 minutes from Tokyo at about $1000 a month. A parking space was an additional $60. I scoffed and bleated, "What dope would buy a car, living so close to Tokyo?" Three days later, my wife surprised me with a used car she had picked up so that we could live more of an "American" lifestyle.

Two and a half years later, my wife got smart and ditched the car, then got dumb and decided she needed to live in Tokyo. We moved to a flat that was smaller, but that went for $1,500. Yes, the first payment was six times that. John Dillinger probably didn't net that much during most of his major bank heists.

The building was new, and the location very central. On the first night, we went to do aisatsu with the owner. This means saying hello, introducing yourself and giving them a towel. It was a cold January evening, and the landlord's elderly wife let us in as her husband shoveled in mouthfuls of oden, a stew of pressed fish matter, most of which look suspiciously like long ago discarded geometrical blocks for school kids. "You got a bike? Don't park it around here! They're all thieves! Those gaijin -- especially those Chinese!"

I looked carefully at his eyes; at first, I thought they might have been cosmetic implants, but no, he could see and he was indeed looking right at me. His wife laughed good-naturedly and told me not to pay any attention. I exchanged polite bows as I hurried out; the husband was in the midst of a tirade against Koreans for cooking smelly food.

Literally, the high rent drove us out. The apartment was nice but tiny and simply too expensive. A thought had finally hit me. Like Blackthorne realizing that he was not going to be allowed to leave, I had missed my final opportunities to depart. I decided I might as well buy. Instead of $1,500 a month, I could put down $60,000 and start paying $700 a month for a bigger place that I would one day own. I set out for the real estate agent nearest my house, determined not to let him get a psychological edge on me.

Sure enough, the portly agent shot me a look of suspicion and outward displeasure. By this point, rather than walk out, I decided to simply put up with the overt surliness. He agreed to show me around several places, and I found one I liked.

This time, I was adamant. I was going to buy it. At the signing ceremony, he kept explaining to my wife with gentle insistence that she should sign for it, or at least co-sign, because she was Japanese. She reminded him over and over again, "He's buying it." A quick glare at me said it all: We Japanese can buy Rockefeller Plaza and Universal Studios, but I am not going to let you get 57 square feet of Japan this easily!

The only bank that would lend to me was Citibank. However, since I wasn't Japanese, they required 30 percent down. The bank representative was jovial and suggested strongly that I get a second place. "Only 20 percent down on the second one," he laughed. Then he looked at my visa and commented that I did not have permanent residence, but merely a three-year work permit. "Yes, if it expires or I lose my job, I could be thrown out of the country," I laughed. He and the real estate agent exchanged worried glances, the latter adding a "see-I-warned-you" look for emphasis. However, the loan went through; I now own an apartment in downtown Tokyo.

My next experience in the real estate market was entirely positive. I bought a large piece of land (large for Japan; it would house something the size of a pool cabana back in the suburban US) in a planned community with an ocean view. For the first time, the agent opted not to talk to my wife exclusively, but deal largely with me. He told me that the plot would go to the winner of a lottery, as he plied me with cup after cup of coffee.

I had just bailed out of the US stock market, so the $90,000 price tag did not seem too outlandish. We were hitting the part where he had to admonish me delicately that both ownership and bank loans could prove troublesome. He added that it might be hard for me in the lottery, since I wasn't Japanese. He did not say this outright, of course, but after being here a while, you acquire this odd ability to decode euphemistic messages. I felt he was gently trying to ease me out of the office, so as I reached for my coffee I casually said, "If I pay cash, will I get any advantage in the lottery?" His sorrowful spiel suddenly betrayed a trace of hesitance. "Cash?" he repeated slowly. "Mmm," I replied, glancing out the window as if scanning the skies casually for dirigibles: "The entire amount." I felt a slight buzz; either the fact that I was pledging my entire stock portfolio had gotten the best of my nerves, or I had downed entirely too much joe. "You will surely have an advantage!" he announced. That magic sociolinguistic power in my head went into effect again. I had cracked the code. "You have just won the lottery!" was what I heard. When he shook my hand at the door and said that he would notify us soon about the lottery results, I heard only, "Put your cash on this table, pal, and that land is all yours!"

He was a wonderful agent. When my wife and I went into several houses for sale to look them over, he not only held my dog's leash, he once held the feces bag while we both ventured inside. If I learned nothing else that day, I learned that people, regardless of cultural upbringing, will go to great lengths for you if they know you have a hundred grand in your pocket.

OK, you're dying to know ... how did it turn out? Yes, I miraculously won the lottery! Like a character out of a 1950s film noir who had rigged a horse race, the agent chortled and chuckled as he put the papers out for me to sign. They knocked off JPY 1 million to make the deal even more attractive. "I will consult my supervisors," the agent said when I asked about the possibility of reducing the price a bit since I was paying cash. I beamed as I heard not that, but, "Sure, we'll lop off 10 percent for you." 
So I now live in a comfortable little home atop a 470 square meter plot overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Well, not quite. You see, I bought the land, but the banks all turned me down for the loan to build the house. I felt a little bit like the celebrated World War II parachutist who made over 50 death-defying leaps during the War, but then during an air show in Moscow in the early 1990s, plunged to his death in front of thousands when his chute failed to open. Citibank stopped lending and the others will not lend to me because I am not Japanese.

In sum, I figure that I am the Japanese economic quagmire in microcosm. For years, the banks have been accused of reckless lending. Now, along comes a guy with the full amount behind him, but they still won't lend because he fits a warped picture of a high-risk guy, i.e., someone who is not ethnically Japanese. If I run off, after all, what would happen? They get land, fully paid for. They get a house with 30 percent down already. Instead, the land lies as it is. I now save everything I make, looking to get the entire amount by working. I spend nothing any longer. No garments, no splurges in restaurants, no trips. The businesses around me could probably use my money. Instead, I am squirreling everything away, hoping to get that house built before I am 95.

According to Confucian thought, those who have no problems or appear too successful are in danger because the gods will look down on them jealously. People are encouraged not to flaunt their wealth or their success, though I secretly suspect it has less to do with a fear of jealous gods and more to do with a fear of getting mugged. In any case, the economy is at a standstill, and businesses are suffering a general state of deflation. I am at a standstill, and my land lies empty. I doubt the gods are going to get jealous just because a bunch of weeds have sprouted up. We are in harmony. Gee, I guess I really do fit in here. @

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