Monday 24 June 2002

Mizu shobai

mizu-shobai the bar and entertainment business

Kodansha Furigana Japanese English Dictionary

mizu-shobai, water trade
the vulgar term for any precarious form of trade yielding an income entirely dependent on the patronage of its customers; for example entertainment provided by geisha, bars, cabarets, and so on

John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade

Pub Blue Moon

“What’s mizu shobai mean,” I asked Ayako. We were eating breakfast.

“There’s no such thing,” she flatly replied, without looking up from her newspaper.

Twenty minutes later she folded the newspaper, pushing it to one side. She moistened the tip of her middle finger and began to collect the crumbs on her plate, one-by-one.

“Where did you hear about this mizu shobai?” she asked, as she daintily retrieved each crumb with her tongue—yet another provocative gesture from her seemingly inexhaustible repertoire.

“I read it in a book.”

“Which book?” I loved the way she pronounced it, saying ‘buke’ as in Luke.

“A textbook,” I fibbed, certain this would annoy her. A former high-school teacher, she regarded textbooks as inarguable sources of fact.

In a way though, I was telling the truth. Though John David Morley’s Pictures from the Water Trade, is a kind of shi-shosetsu, a lightly-fictionalized account of the author’s several years in Japan, at a crucial point it had functioned as a textbook, my only reliable reference to the enigma of Japanese behavior.

Unless I’d discovered and diligently read Morley’s book I would never have been eating croissants with Ayako on a Sunday morning, arguing about the existence of the mizu-shobai, the water trade.

Ayako had been evasive, the first time I invited her on a date—to see Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-ga the following Sunday afternoon. She asked if she could call me on Sunday morning, that it would take her until then to decide.

She did call back and we saw the movie, which made her laugh and cry. We went on to dinner, chatting so easily and happily together that when I dropped her off in front of her apartment building, I was already falling in love.

I asked her if she wanted to do it again and she said: “Mmm, sometimes.” She gathered up her coat and bag, climbed out of the car, and stood stock still as I drove away. All the way home I tried to decipher what had passed between us in those last moments.

She called me frequently on the phone after that yet it was always the same. Ayako would imply an interest in seeing me again—perhaps another Japanese film?—but the moment I tried to pin her down she would retreat in a flurry of vague apologies.

Our stop-start relationship seemed to have permanently stalled. Around then, fortuitously, I bought Pictures from the Water Trade. The answer to my difficulties was on page 69.

John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade (book cover)“The framing of questions in Japanese was an art, an instrument to be handled with great delicacy and care. A direct question at an untimely moment could prove very destructive, merely by virtue of its directness. Direct questions (with obvious exceptions in professional, business life and so on) were not much liked. The typical question was really a feed line, what in a court of law would be disqualified as suggestive, full of loop-holes, offering escape-hatches, and in fact as unlike a question as it was possible to be. The person who had been asked the question could thus be indicted on no more serious charge than of aiding and abetting the person who had asked the question; an accessory to the answer, as it were, not the principal malefactor. He had merely conspired to answer.”

John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade

Suddenly it all became easy. She’d call, I’d make a nebulous remark about reading a restaurant review in the newspaper or mention in passing that a friend had enjoyed such-and-such a movie and, almost magically, Ayako and I would be seated at the counter eating sushi or standing in line to buy tickets to the film.

I put Morley into practice with a diffident vengeance: shying away from any attempt at precision; using qualifiers like “perhaps,” “maybe,” or “apparently;” omitting the subject of a sentence, or the verb; speaking, in effect, a kind of ethereal English that mimicked the oblique, tentative quality of spoken Japanese.

And the wonderful paradox was that the vaguer my speech, the more definite Ayako’s affections became.

Months later I asked her if she’d noticed what had happened.

“Of course,” she replied. I asked her what she thought about it at the time.

She said with a smile: “I liked it very much.”

So Ayako’s statement that there was no such thing as the mizu shobai—when both of us knew perfectly well there was—was meant to draw my attention to some inarguable facts: that I needed to learn that “direct questions were not much liked;” that her o-jo-sama upbringing had kept her well clear of the water trade; and that—by extension—she had no desire to associate with a man who felt at home in its relaxed, squishy world.

But most of all she was reminding me that I wasn’t Japanese.

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A very good post Jonathan.

Posted by Michael Webb on 24 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Arguably the best thing I've read on looking at Asian culture from a Western POV. It's fascinating.

Posted by John on 25 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Concur. A beautiful little window on the Japanese mind. And the last sentence is so true... It always ends up one day with "en ga nai", you're not concerned by this...

Posted by dda on 25 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Agree, a lovely post, and very loving too. That quote from the Morley book (one of these days I'll get around to reading my copy lying around somewhere) is priceless. You now have me ruminating on aspects of my wife and I's courtship stage :)

Posted by Kurt on 25 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Strangely (having just read the post about Ayako that you linked to in this post), in Chinese the first character of her name (fei) means no longer means 'gorgeous.' It has been reduced in common use to meaning 'elegant,' which was probably its original meaning as the 'wen' radical it contains tends to refer to things that are elegant and graceful. Still, not a half-bad concept to be named after :)

Posted by John on 26 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour