Senpai is a word that even Devon has heard before, but he’s a little confused as to what it means. Not only the strict definition, but also how they might affect his position in the town of Hotaru.
What’s a senpai? Is it important that they “notice me?” What are they supposed to do? Most important of all, who are the senpais ’round these parts?
Devon and co. unlock some of the answers when Victor and Mio make their dramatic entrance into the lives of our favorite English teachers. There’ll be gin and tonics, karaoke, and insecurity galore in Chapter 8 of Forever Foreign.
Where and When to Listen to Forever Foreign, the Fictional Japan Podcast
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Writing, producing – David Taylor
Sound design – David Armfield
Story Edits – Juan Olivares
Voice of Devon – David Taylor
Voice of Callum – Josh Leach
Voice of Victor – David Armfield
Coming in a minute!
Chapter 8: Tag, You’re Senpai (Transcript)
DEVON: Monday, August 19th 2013
Dear Henrik. Dear, dear Henrik…
After more than a week of faithful service I have failed you. I won’t burden you with excuses. Won’t attempt to blame my shortcomings on fortune or circumstance. But if I may be so bold, I would make an appeal.
Please understand my hesitation to call this a simple request, Henrik. Even under the best conditions forgiveness can be hard won, and for one who has so utterly desecrated his post such as myself its bestowal should be the last thing to be presumed. And yet that is what I ask.
I come before you, humble, prostrate, offering my deepest and most genuine apology for the abomination that has been my stewardship of this diary. Of course, what I’m referring to is the lack of an entry from yesterday. A pledge was made to keep a record every night, but… I just don’t feel that it can be done.
The highlight of the day was making coffee with my new percolator and drinking it from a mug that says “challenge”. What it really says is “charenji”, but I thought I’d give you the root English word. Though I guess that’s not all that useful, so let me give you the actual meaning.
Erika informs me that when someone says “charenji” to you, what they’re really saying is… challenge yourself? Give it your all? Something along those lines. Now that I think about it, I guess pretty much all of these mugs are basically saying “do your best”.
At any rate, drinking my first coffee from that mug was the most novel thing I did yesterday. Not exactly excit… Wait, what am I saying? Ahh I should’ve made that its own entry… Damn it.
Honestly, as soon as I start talking about today’s event you might wonder why I didn’t skip it, too. But it seemed more significant in my eyes.
A couple of days ago I went furniture shopping in a town called Soja since Hotaru is too small to have many options. Those mugs that I was just talking about? I bought them while I was down there at a recycle shop which you may remember is what they call used goods stores in Japan. I also ordered a sofa from a different store.
When I spoke to Callum about my desire for new furniture he asked, “Why do you care so much about a sofa?”
To that, Henrik, I gave him something resembling the following speech:
“It’s not just a sofa,” I said. “It’s a gateway to better times. You wouldn’t wanna set out on a trip from Victoria to St. Johns in an old Volkswagen van with 300,000 kilometers on it, would you? Actually that’d be an incredible trip. Especially if it was one of the ones with a bed in the roof.”
To his blank stare, I added, “I’m the driver in this metaphor. The van is my new sofa.”
“Yeah, I got that,” he said.
I’m not so sure that he did get it, Henrik. You see, what I was really getting at deep down is that I wanted to be the driver for our little group of English teachers. And nobody’s gonna let me drive them anywhere if I don’t have wheels. Wheels being a sofa… Am I making myself clear?
Let me try putting it another way. In hockey – maybe in all sports… I don’t know, really – there’s something called a ‘glue guy’; personalities that bring the dressing room together. Callum may not be thinking about it, but our little team of English teachers needs someone to perform that duty, and a good hangout space is essential to the job.
Thankfully, the most important piece in that space arrived at precisely 10:08 in the morning. After the deliverymen left, I stood alone in my haven to evaluate the room’s aesthetics. The couch’s midnight blue fabric complimented the dark hardwood flooring. The brown folding chairs on the other sides of the square kotatsu table provided a bit of symmetry. Altogether, there was a new sense of warmth.
Stepping forward, I bent down to sniff the fabric of the new addition. Man did it smell great. Like brand new sofa! New car smell… New sofa smell… Maybe it wasn’t such a bad metaphor after all.
Laying down felt every bit as good in my apartment as it had in the store. No, better. You could sink into the cushion, but there was still a healthy amount of firmness. The armrests were at the perfect height, too, making it ideal for a little shleepy time. And that’s exactly what I did.
I had no intention of going to sleep just after ten in the morning, especially after a full night’s rest. I mean, I’m not much of a napper. But it happened. For two hours straight. That’s a record for me in healthy times, and a testament to how wonderful this couch is. It literally put me to sleep. If I can’t be the glue that keeps Hotaru’s foreign community together with a couch as comfy as this, I guess I never had a chance.
(tape recorder clicks off)
(Hoarse voice)Tuesday, August 20th, 2013
(whisper) This isn’t gonna work. I’ll try again tomorrow.
(The tape recorder clicks off. It then clicks back on a few seconds later at the start of a new day)
DEVON: Wednesday, August 21st, 2013
Sorry about last night, Henrik. My throat couldn’t handle much more punishment after teaming up with Callum as many times as we did. Uhhhh maybe give me a chance to explain that one…
I invited everyone to lunch yesterday, and it turned out to be a special event, because Callum, Alyssa and… are you ready? Bree showed up. She never responded to my message, of course, but somehow Alyssa managed to rope her in. I guess she just couldn’t deny her empty tummy.
Maybe that’s the key to bonding with Bree… Hey, that would make a good name for a talk show! Bonding with Bree. It might be the talk show with the least talking in history, but at least it’s got a catchy name.
Lunch itself was good, but it’s not why I’m drawing attention to that portion of the day. After we finished eating, the four of us were standing on the sidewalk outside, getting ready to head our separate ways, when a frantic call came from the nearby entrance to Hotaru station. The voice was bubblier than Mentos in a bottle of cola. Sunshine personified. I don’t think I’ll be able to do it justice, but I’ll give it a shot.
“NEW ALTs!” it said. ALT, obviously, being short for “Assistant Language Teacher”.
We turned to see what kind of person could possibly have such a voice, and were thrilled to see that the body matched. Walking toward us was a short, pasty, blonde-haired gal wearing a frilly summer dress and open-toed platform heels. Yes, Henrik, she was short even with the shoes. She wore a wide brimmed straw hat as well, but the best part of it all? The cherry on top of that perky sundae? She held a lacy umbrella for shade on that blistering, cloudless day.
“Loli,” Callum breathed. He was good enough not to point, but his mouth hung wide open.
“That’s not loli fashion,” Bree said. “But it’s not far off.”
“Sorry, what’s loli?” Alyssa asked.
“Shhhh,” Bree said.
It was a sensitive topic, and Callum and Bree weren’t about to touch it while the subject was within earshot. I later learned that loli is the Japanification of the word Lolita which comes from a Vladimir Nabokov novel about a man and his… affection… for a 12-year-old girl. Japan took that and ran.
After looking at pictures of the Victorian-style fashion associated with it – don’t worry Henrik, I had safe search on. Or as safe as you can get… Anyway, I have to side with Bree. What we were seeing probably wasn’t true ‘Loli fashion’. It was just a very short girl in cute clothes.
As she made a b-line for us she waved awkwardly with the hand holding her umbrella. Her other hand was busy with a brown leather suitcase.
“I’m Mio!” she said.
“Isn’t Mio a Japanese na—” An elbow to the ribs from Bree cut my sentence short.
“I’m so happy to meet my first senpai!” Bree said.
“Oh, I’m not your first senpai,” Mio said, turning to look behind. “That’s Victor.”
Mio was such a sight that we didn’t notice the man trailing behind her. That’s not saying much, though. There could be a full-sized gundam in front of Hotaru station and Mio would still be the first thing we noticed.
Victor had a plain black suitcase of his own, and the rest of his outfit was just as understated; black shorts and a white t-shirt that weren’t so dissimilar to Callum’s loungewear. He also wore a pair of Rayban sunglasses and baseball cap that made him look a little like a celebrity trying to avoid paparazzi.
“These are the new kohais, huh?” he said, sliding the sunglasses down his nose slightly and peering over the top of the frames. “Where’re you kids from?”
The four of us gave our names and nationalities.
“We’re gonna have to party tonight so I can get you all straight,” he said. “Let me have a lil power nap in and I’ll be ready to rock. Say… 7? Shoot me a text later, Mio.”
He didn’t wait for an answer before walking away, leaving the rest of us to gawk.
The bubbles started rising again in Mio as she turned to us. “I may not be your first Senpai, but you’re definitely my first kohais! Yayyyy!”
Bree shot forward for a high five with Mio, turning it into a hand-holding, jumping up and down celebration. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Somehow, the girl who came with a manufacturer’s guarantee of melancholy had been infected with cheer. The result left me gawking, and when Bree noticed she settled down, staring at the ground.
“Don’t stop on my account,” I said.
Unfortunately the damage had already been done. But while the dancing came to an end, the smile on Bree’s face remained.
“Why don’t we all meet at the Gulag tonight?” I suggested. “I just got a new couch. It’s midnight blue.”
“He won’t shut up about the thing,” Callum said.
He was ‘taking the piss’, which I’ve come to learn isn’t only a British thing after hearing Callum say it a few times. Little did he know that Hotaru’s new resident glue guy has a never-ending supply of piss, so Callum can take all that he wants.
Back in my apartment that night, with the clock approaching 1900 hours, I started to get antsy. I’d hosted people once before on the night of the festival, but that was an after-party – no pressure on the host. This was my first time with main event duties, and after going couch shopping I couldn’t hang any failures on a lack of seating.
Then there was the matter of Victor and Mio. Somehow I hadn’t factored my senpais into the calculations that ended with me as Hotaru’s ALT glue guy. Mio, I probably didn’t need to worry about so much. She seems like the type to keep to herself. But Victor? The way he came in all cool with his Ray-Bans and white t-shirt? Probably has a six-pack under there and a box of cigarettes up his short sleeve. Maybe even a nicer couch than mine. Some kind of modern European-looking thing in ultramarine blue…
As I rearranged the bouquet of potato chips, drinks and cookies on my kotatsu table, Victor’s theoretical couch got bigger in my mind. Comfier. Bluer. Thoughts of that couch and the guy that probably owned it rampaged through my mind until Erika arrived, just prior to 7.
The two of us had hardly finished greeting each other when Callum hurried over, hearing the sound of our voices. They jumped on the couch next to each other and Mio, Bree, and Alyssa came shortly after that. Alyssa took the single-seat floor chair next to mine and the other two squeezed next to Callum. I say squeezed, but let’s be real. ‘Ol midnight blue can handle four just fine.
“Only Victor left,” I said, a small part of me harboring the selfish hope that his power nap would stretch through the night, leaving me as the de-facto hosting king.
“You might be waiting for a while,” Erika said. “He’s late for everything.”
“Well, we can’t do the kanpai without him, right?” I said.
Henrik, you probably remember my kanpai mishap from the festival last Friday where I drank before the group cheers. From the looks I got you’d have thought I’d dropped my trousers and taken a shit on the sushi. I’ll never drink out of turn again.
“This is your apartment,” Erika said. “Your rules.”
That was all I needed to hear. Everybody brought their own drinks except for Callum, so I tossed an Asahi at my next door neighbor and cracked one open myself, holding it up.
While we were drinking, Mio dug into the paper department store bag she’d brought, pulling out a neatly wrapped box. Carefully, she placed it on the kotatsu table with both hands. In that adorable voice of hers, she said, “Taishta mono janain desu ga.” Literally, It’s not much, but…”
While that formal sentence would be appropriate to use on a Japanese person, in this context it felt… jarring shall we say? Not least because, as I found out later, Mio is a Caucasian from California, not Japan. I’m not the type to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I didn’t mention any of that, of course.
“I got it when I was up in Hokkaido,” she said, this time in English. “I wanted to welcome you all to Hotaru properly.”
“Hey, I know Hokkaido!” I said, remembering a conversation I’d had on the flight to Japan. “Great melons up there, right?”
“You and Victor went all the way up to Hokkaido together?” I asked.
“Victor? No. We were only on the same train from Okayama. He was coming back from Tokyo.”
“Oh. I just thought that the two of you looked like you might’ve been a couple.”
It was an innocent remark. Nothing meant by it whatsoever. It certainly wasn’t an attempt to turn Mio’s cheeks the deep shade of red that they went as soon as the words left my lips. If I’m not mistaken she was doing her best to avoid looking at Erika, as well, who had suddenly started a fierce inspection of the box on the table.
“Definitely not a couple,” Mio squeaked.
Henrik, you’ve heard the term ‘pregnant silence’ right? Well the one that followed was past its due date. And in order to birth it I turned to the box of cookies in Erika’s hands. As the host, I had the honor of opening it. That’s… not a Japanese cultural thing. It’s just a Devon’s apartment thing.
“It’s shiroi koibito,” Mio said, happy to talk about something other than people that she wasn’t dating.
“They’re probably the most famous omiyage in Hokkaido,” Erika translated.
I pulled out an individually wrapped treat consisting of a layer of white chocolate between two thin slabs of vanilla cookie, taking a bite. The combination of sweets being washed down by lager might seem strange – and to be clear, is strange – but it got our group where we needed to go. That is, to a relaxed state. We laughed and made merry, feeling natural enough that any doubts about how I was doing as a host were put at ease. Then Victor arrived.
The sounds of my neighbor’s door opening and closing could be heard, followed quickly by my own bursting open. Actually I appreciated the fact that he didn’t knock. My hope is that all of my friends will feel at home in my apartment. Mi casa et su casa and all that.
He strolled in – or maybe strutted is more accurate. Yeah, he strutted into the room, empty handed. Didn’t even have a drink for himself. But that wasn’t an issue; Mi cervesas et su cervesas.
I handed him a cold one and sat back down, not recognizing the blunder until I noticed Victor in his pink button-up shirt hovering over me. All of the possible seats in my apartment were filled, and one of my guests was waiting for his. What an embarrassment, right Henrik? I call myself a great host. A glue guy. And I can’t even get the number of people I’m having over straight. The night was taking a turn for the worse.
Jumping out of my chair, I said, “Sit here!”
“Thanks,” Victor said, and without batting an eyelash took my seat. That left the bed to me. It was better than the floor, but there’s no denying that it created clumsy spacing for conversation.
“Mio tells us you were in Tokyo,” I said from what felt like 20 feet away.
“Yeah, a couple weeks in the capital,” he said.
“What’d you get up to?” I asked.
“A gentleman never kisses and tells,” he winked. Apparently it was impossible for him to leave it at that, so he added, “I went on eight dates while I was there.”
“I thought a gentlemen never kisses and tells,” Callum said.
“I didn’t say I kissed anyone! …but I did. I kissed all of them.”
Victor gave a big belly laugh and clapped Alyssa on the back – Alyssa of all people! Thankfully she didn’t take his hand and put him in an arm bar like I thought she might.
Victor leaned back in the floor chair so that he was balanced on the point where the back meets the seat. “Don’t worry boys, I’ll teach you everything I know,” he said to Callum and me.
Erika tossed her head back. “Please don’t,” she said.
At Erika’s words, Victor dropped the seat back to the ground. She didn’t look angry, so his reaction stood out. If anything she seemed playful.
“So, what are we doing tonight?” Victor asked, clapping his hands together.
The six of us glanced at each other. I think we were all expecting a night of hanging out, getting to know our new senpais via conversation and maybe some card games.
“Oh come on,” Victor said. “We’re not sitting around the apartment on our first night together.”
“What are you thinking?” Alyssa asked. She seemed ready to run out the door at the sign of anything interesting. For me, guests wanting to leave said that I wasn’t doing very well as host.
“Why don’t we go to Aoneko?” Victor said.
“Do they still let you in there?” Erika raised an eyebrow.
“What are you talking about? Jun loves me!”
“What’s Aoneko?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
“It’s a karaoke bar down the street,” Victor said. “The owner’s name is Jun. Really chill guy. He spent a year in Vancouver when he was younger on a working holiday, so his English is fantastic.”
By the end of Victor’s sales pitch he had the room. And with every word I shrunk further into my bed knowing that my apartment couldn’t possibly compare with that experience, despite having a phenomenal spread and godly couch. I’d never done karaoke before, but everything I’d seen in TV and movies told me it was the pinnacle of group bonding. No glue necessary.
My friends all had a glint in their eyes that said their minds were made up, and it took Victor maybe fifteen seconds to get them out the door from there. All except for Callum. But, deep in my own crisis, I didn’t notice that at first. I was battling with the idea of staying home, of spending the night moping, when he grabbed my arm. Really tight, I might add. Tight and uncharacteristically sweaty…
“I’ve never done karaoke before,” he whispered. “Think I’ll sit this one out.”
I pulled away as much as the soggy vice grip would allow and studied my neighbor’s face. There was panic. Fear. A deep-seated aversion to hearing tone-deaf performances of such popular hits as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Wonderwall. All of that.
“I’ve never done karaoke either,” I said absently, one eye on my neighbor’s existential crisis and the other on the happy chatter heading down the stairs. Chatter that should’ve been inside my apartment.
When it was quiet, Callum and I locked eyes; two people with their own doubts and worries. Both wrestling for position. Callum was on the verge of a panic attack at the prospect of singing in front of others, while I..? Well, I was a little blue knowing that my efforts to set up a good hangout spot were being overlooked. Let’s just say that it didn’t take long for my problems to fade away in that struggle. When they did I put a hand on my friend’s shoulder.
“I need you there with me.”
“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Stupid Victor. He thinks he so cool, strutting into Hotaru and forcing us all to sing. I wish we got a re-roll on our senpais.”
“Come on, Callum, Victor’s not that bad. Let’s give him a chance. You don’t have to sing if you don’t want to, you know.”
“Who goes to karaoke and doesn’t sing?”
“People who don’t want to sing?” I suggested. “Ya know… People like you. Look, my Grandpa once told me that when the ocean’s tide pulls back in the morning you can either allow your boat to get left behind or you can jump in and untie the mooring. I used to have no idea what he meant, but I’m starting to… get his drift…”
Callum didn’t acknowledge me, audibly or otherwise, which was a huge bummer because puns like that don’t come along too often. Not to mention that it was plain good advice.
I kept pressing.
“How about this: You and I’ll sit at the bar, sipping on drinks while everyone else sings their hearts out. You don’t have to go near a microphone.”
The panic in Callum’s eyes faltered. “You’ll stay with me?”
“I can’t promise I won’t sing any tunes, but yeah, I’ll sit with you.”
Sighing, he said, “Okay I’ll go.”
Aoneko really was just down the street. No more than a three or four minute walk west of the Gulag. For the most part it looked like everything else nearby, with thin wooden slats forming vertical bars across the windows and walls consisting of a similar shade of wooden siding. There were two floors to the building, the roof that protected it all being of the usual black tiled variety that you see everywhere here. Fixed to the front, just above the entrance was a big painting of a blue cat, curled up with its eyes closed in peaceful slumber. Above the animal was the word Aoneko in Japanese. Literally, The Blue Cat.
A bell fixed to the door announced us as Victor pulled it open.
“Irasshaimase,” the owner called out. He was wiping the countertop with his head down as we stepped inside. Once we came into view he lifted his eyes and a smile bloomed on his face.
“Victor, Mio, Erika!” he said cheerfully in English. “And you brought friends! Welcome! My name’s Jun.”
Following the others inside, I took a look around. Every bit of furnishing was made of wood as far as I could tell; old, but well maintained. There were five high stools next to the bar and six or seven chairs at a roundtable whose oddly-shaped top looked like it was taken directly from a thick tree. Bookshelves lined the walls, mostly full of manga, or Japanese comics, but there were plenty of novels as well, some written in English. Infused in every corner of the place was a natural, earthy smell: faint mentions of cedar and paper, like an old library set up in a woodshop. If it weren’t for the stereo system with two microphones in charging ports and the TV screen just above, I might’ve mistaken it for a hobbit hole. I ran straight to the owner to give him my thoughts.
“I’m Devon,” I said. “I just wanted to congratulate you on running the greatest bar I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Jun said, offering his hand.
The thought of kissing his knuckles crossed my mind, but I figured he was probably looking for a handshake more than an oath of fealty. Taking his hand in both of mine, I gave it a firm shake.
Jun had a youthful face framed by a neatly trimmed beard that ran along his jawline up to shaved temples. But the hair on top was long, flowing into a ponytail in the back. He also had a small steel loop piercing his left ear lobe. That, mixed in with Victor’s description of a man who spent time in Vancouver when he was, quote, ‘younger’ made it hard to place his age. At a first glance I would’ve said he was in his late 20s.
Before I could heap any more praise on the man, Victor walked up to the counter next to me. “Gin and tonic,” he said. “And the karaoke touchscreen please.”
Jun handed a heavy device with a stylus attached by a short string over to Victor before getting started on the drink. My senpai tapped the screen decisively, before setting it down.
Henrik, if you do karaoke with a big group like ours you’ll find out a lot about each individual. If they decide to give a performance, that tells you one thing. The way in which they perform tells you another. Then there’s the choice of music. What a person listens to tells you plenty, but what they sing… can tell you everything.
The TV at the other side of the room came to life and Victor was running across for a mic. Just as Callum and I took our seats at the bar a song title appeared on the screen: “Baby, by Justin Bieber.”
Come on, I thought to myself. What is this guy trying to prove?
In a few moments the opening instrumentals could be heard, and at the bottom of the screen the letter O appeared in a long string. I slumped in my stool and tried to look away as Victor got prepared.
Standing with his feet wide apart, he closed his eyes and gripped the mic like it was a broadsword. Then, he brought it to his lips. The whole thing was over-the-top, but try as I might I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
“Oh-oo-o-oo-o-oo-o,” he sang. And he sang it again. And one last time, with more of a flair, just before launching into the first actual words.
That was the song that unbolted the door to karaoke in Japan for me. Baby, by Justin Bieber, sung by a 28-year-old Russian-American.
The truth is that it didn’t only unbolt the door. It broke it the hell down. Try as I might to resist, to feel animosity for the man who was stealing my flock, I couldn’t help but feel safe and secure, cradled in Victor’s confident arms as he transported me to a world of innocent, teenage love.
Most of the room had been laughing at Victor’s antics throughout, but I don’t think he was going for comedy. To me, his performance came off as raw and honest.
When the performance was over he put the mic down on the table and quietly walked back to the bar next to me where his gin and tonic was waiting.
“Justin Bieber?” Erika said. “Really?”
“What?” Victor said. “Japanese girls love it when I sing the Biebs. Don’t hate.”
“I thought it was great,” I found myself saying before I could think. Callum gawked at me in disbelief.
The comment also earned a gag from Erika as she reached for both mics, handing one to Alyssa. The song she chose was Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. Not to be confused for a second with being a ‘Belieber’.
As the two ladies started singing, Callum and I turned to the bar for drinks; a whisky for me and a beer for him.
“Really?” Callum whispered to me. “You’re a fan girl of his just like that?”
“Come on man,” I said. “You gotta admit he did a great job.”
I swiveled in my chair from Callum to Victor. “How long have you been coming here?”
“My first time was a couple days after arriving,” he said. “Two years ago.”
“He’s a regular,” Jun added from behind the counter.
“You must know him pretty well,” I said.
“I know all English teachers that come to Hotaru,” he shrugged.
“Ooo do you know the guys who lived in my apartment before me?” I asked.
“I know all English teachers that come to Hotaru,” he repeated, somewhat ominously.
“What about Devonte?” I asked.
“Tall black guy from Chicago. He didn’t come here that often, but I remember him.”
“What about Mikael?”
“Yup. Mikael was in Hotaru more than 10 years ago. We’re still in touch”
“Even I know Wayne,” Victor said. “He was in your apartment up until a few weeks ago.”
“What about Avalanche?”
Victor laughed. “Avalanche?”
“Yeah, that’s the name of one of the guys who lived in my apartment,” I said.
“I’ve never heard of an Avalanche,” Jun said. “You sure that’s his real name?”
“I don’t know his real name,” I said. “That’s just what’s on the cover of his diary. It’s the oldest one in there.”
Jun shrugged. I asked him about a few others and outside of Avalanche it really did seem like he knew all of them. It was to be expected given it was obviously an alias, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.
Don’t Stop Believin’ faded in the background and I turned to see Mio standing up, looking around the room with her head slightly bowed. “Is it okay if I put a song in?” she asked.
“You don’t have to ask, Mio,” Victor grunted.
“Just making sure,” she said.
The moment Victor gave the okay she tapped the touchscreen, filling the room with a high tempo, high-pitched melody that I couldn’t help but tap my foot to. Mio’s voice came through in Japanese, easily matching each note.
Callum told me the song was by a JPop group called AKB48, and while Mio killed it, my eyes hardly went to her. No, they were too busy with Bree who was watching Mio go through all the poses. You’d think you were seeing someone fall in love in real time.
When Mio was finished, a No Doubt song followed for Alyssa and Erika, and while they were doing their best Gwen Stefani impression I snatched the touchscreen.
My first karaoke song was ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’. As I sang it, I took turns walking around the room pointing at everyone and flashing a smile, and I got one back from all of them. Even Bree. A karaoke miracle.
The night was mostly a blur after that. We all mixed with each other, doing duets, trios, and quartets. Even Jun sang. Booze flowed, and the seating was flipped on its head over and over.
The only constant was Callum and I sitting next to each other at the bar counter, nursing our drinks. We both sported smiles as the night wore on and whenever I felt like singing – which was often – I put a song order in. It just so happened that my neighbor was content with silence.
Then, as Jun was receiving a round of applause for his rendition of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, the opening to another of Mio’s Japanese hits started playing and Callum was out of his seat for the first time that night. He didn’t hesitate, either. It was like there was a magnet fixed to the mic, slowly pulling him in. He wanted to sing this song so badly that he begged Bree, who’d been singing almost everything with Mio until then.
I sat on the edge of my seat, watching her hand the mic over just in time for my boy to jump in on the opening lyrics. He later told me that it was the original theme song to his favorite Japanese anime, Evangelion. That didn’t mean much to me, but watching Callum burst out of his shell sure did. It was the best part of the night in my opinion.
Erika took the opportunity to steal Callum’s old seat, leaning in and yelling into my ear. “Are you having a good time?”
“The best,” I said, looking around the room. “I’m so glad our senpais brought us out. We’re in good hands with Victor and Mio.”
“I don’t know about that,” she said. “But I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.”
Erika swirled the rum and coke in her hands and took a drink.
“I don’t mean to pry,” I said. “But I couldn’t help but notice you and Victor.”
“What did you notice?”
“Well… Like I said, I don’t wanna pry, but, I dunno… It just seems like there’s some history there.”
“We dated once,” she said, before having second thoughts on her choice of words. “Ano… almost dated. It’s complicated but things didn’t work out. I don’t mind being around him and I don’t think he minds me, but I guess it can still be… weird.”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said, then with a smile added, “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Don’t you think you were kinda weird today too? Especially at your apartment.”
“Me? Come on.”
The smile never left Erika’s lips as she leveled her eyes at my own to watch me squirm.
I looked around to make sure Victor and Mio weren’t listening in. Erika and I were already shouting into each other’s ears to be heard over the karaoke music, so I doubted anyone across the room would catch what we were saying. Unless they were lip readers, that is. Just in case, I covered my mouth.
“It’s just… I was kinda hoping to be someone that people depend on in Hotaru,” I said. “With two senpais already in town I doubt it’ll be necessary.”
“How much do you know about senpais?” she asked.
“Not much,” I admitted. “They’re like superiors, right? They show us what to do and what not to do.”
“Ano… kind of, but… not really. Senpais help kohais and sometimes kohais help senpais.”
Out of nowhere a napkin and pen appeared over Erika’s shoulder. I have no idea how Jun heard us talking, but he said, “It might help to write out the words in Japanese.”
“Great idea,” Erika said, and neatly wrote down two words in kanji characters.
“This is senpai and this is kohai. The second kanji is the same in both words. It means, like… ‘person’ or uh…”
“‘Companion’,” Jun suggested.
“Yes. That!” Erika said. “The first kanji is obviously different. The first one in senpai means ‘before’ and the first one in kohai means ‘after’. Victor and Mio aren’t your bosses, and they shouldn’t act like it. It’s just that they got to Japan before you, so they’ll be able to help with some things… But I have a feeling that you’ll help them too.”
Just then Victor got to his feet, and as he stumbled his way to the bathroom he tripped on one of the chair legs, spilling Mio’s sake. Too drunk to care, he hardly looked in her direction, let alone apologized. Actually, Mio was the one bowing and scraping as she cleaned up her drink.
Erika nodded in the direction of the scene, laughing. “Ano… what’s the phrase… case and point? Senpais aren’t always good people, Devon,” she said. Then she turned back to me. “And good people aren’t always senpais.”
Henrik, if that wasn’t a compliment you can call me clueless. Of course, she might’ve just been trying to cheer me up, but whatever her motive was it filled my bucket right to the top. Suddenly I had hope again. Hope that I might become the glue guy after all.
So I slapped a 1,000 yen bill on the bar counter and ordered a drink from Jun before pulling Bree aside. For once she didn’t give me a look as if I’d burst some bubble of hers.
“Jun is pouring a new drink for Mio,” I said. “I already paid for it, so you can just grab it and give it to her.”
The bubble was dangerously close to popping as Bree’s face grew suspicious. “What are you trying here?”
“Nothing! I promise. I just thought this was the perfect chance for you to be an all-star kohai – not that you’re not already.”
“Okay, but you’re not paying for it,” she said.
“Yes I am,” I said.
“No, you’re seriously not.” And she stuffed 1,000 yen in my hand.
Something told me that fighting it any further wouldn’t amount to much, so I put the bill in my pocket. Handing Mio the mic so she could finish her song with Callum, I traded it for a rag and got to wiping the floor.
We were at Aoneko for another hour after that. Our group might’ve headed home sooner, but singing the Evangelion theme lit a fire in Callum that couldn’t be put out with just one turn on the mic. He must’ve requested at least half of the remaining songs, singing everything from more anime tunes to Linkin Park. There was also one memorable rendition of Marvin Gay’s Sexual Feeling that Alyssa and I ended up joining in on. It was really beautiful.
When we did pry Callum away from the microphone it was just before midnight. Erika had to work in the morning, so she rushed home to get some sleep, leaving the foreigners behind.
Jun stood just inside the entrance of his bar, holding the door open as he thanked us for coming. He watched us walk up the street until he was sure we would be okay. Only then did we hear the bell to his shop door ring as it closed shut.
Callum and I practically had to drag Victor back to the Gulag, each of us with one of his arms draped across our shoulders. Our other senpai was much livelier and was actually supporting Bree rather than the other way around. Poor Alyssa looked like a third wheel.
I didn’t consider it at the time, but now that my head’s a little clearer it definitely seems strange. Bree wasn’t drinking, after all. Maybe she’s assuming the role of helpless kohai? Who knows?
When the three of us boys got back home Callum and I fished Victor’s key from out of his pocket. We had no choice but to take his word that he was fine before having the door closed in our faces.
“That’s our senpai?” Callum said, just short of spitting.
“Guess so,” I said. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? You probably know as much about this country as he does. I can’t imagine you’ll be leaning on him too often.”
“It’s him leaning on me that I’m worried about,” Callum said. “Cheers, mate. Have a good sleep.”
Actually Henrik, he didn’t call me mate that time. He used a different 4-letter word starting with ‘C’ that he insists means we’re friends. Aaas long as he seems happy when he says it. It’s really confusing…
Anyway, he started up the hall, stopping just as I was about to step into my apartment.
“Hey Devon?” he called. “Thanks for getting me out tonight. I’m glad you’re my neighbor.”
“You too, Callum,” I said.
Maybe the whole senpai-kohai thing doesn’t matter so much, Henrik. Or maybe I’m still not understanding what it’s all about. What I do understand is that you simply are a kohai the moment you become a part of a group in Japan, whether it’s employees of Chiron or students in a school. You don’t get a choice. And you don’t get a choice when the next group comes in either. You simply become a senpai, whether you’ve earned the title or not.
I guess if I have to be a kohai I’m gonna be the best damn kohai there is. I’m gonna be the kind of kohai that makes other kohais look more like no-hais. I’m gonna—
(Sound of the door bursting open and Victor stumbling into Devon’s apartment)
DEVON: Jesus! Oh. ‘Morning Victor.
VICTOR: What the hell are you doing in here? I’ve had to listen to you talk for the last half hour about senpais and kohais and blah blah blah… Just shut it already! None of that shit matters.
DEVON: Hey! That’s kind of the point I was gettin—
VICTOR: And why do you keep talking about all of us? Who are sending that to?
(Callum’s voice is muffled as it’s coming through the apartment wall)
CALLUM: He’s a Chiron agent sent by Timothy to spy on us.
DEVON: Callum, you sly devil! You been listening this whole time?
CALLUM: Hard not to listen. These walls might as well not even be here.
DEVON: How’s the hangover?
CALLUM: Not bad, actually! Gonna be nonexistent once I get my famous Wednesday morning pancakes in me.
DEVON: Pancakes! I hope you’re making extra…
CALLUM: Mmmmight be!
DEVON: Yooooooo I’ll bring the bacon and eggs! Wednesday morning brunch y’all–
VICTOR: Shut the fuck up. Who are you sending these recordings to?
DEVON: Uhhh no one, technically. But I actually like to think that I’m talking directly to the next foreigner that’ll live in this apartment! I named him Henrik.
DEVON: Yeah, after my favorite athlete.
VICTOR: I see what you’re doing… You’re making one of those stupid podcasts, aren’t you?
DEVON: What? No… It’s an audio diary. Like what Wayne did before me, but… audio.
VICTOR: I didn’t know Wayne kept a diary… Move over. Let me get some of that couch action
(Victor walks further into the room, a bit of shuffling before he sits down next to Devon)
VICTOR: Is that thing still recording?
DEVON: Yeah. Want me to turn it off?
VICTOR: Absolutely not. Ask me some questions or something. It’d be great content for your podcast.
DEVON: It’s not a podcast. It’s an audio diary.
VICTOR: Sure. Whatever you wanna call it. Go ahead.
DEVON: Uhhhh where are you from?
VICTOR: Born in Cleveland, grew up in Brooklyn. Ask me something better.
DEVON: Oookaaayy… well, since I was just talking about it, what does being a senpai mean to you?
VICTOR: That’s your idea of a better question? Look man, that senpai-kohai shit? That’s Japanese culture. You’re American right? You don’t need to worry about it.
DEVON: Actually, I’m Canadian.
VICTOR: Canadian… That makes sense.
DEVON: Alright then. If being a senpai doesn’t matter to you, what does?
VICTOR: Stuff like last night. Having fun. Don’t worry about being a senpai or a kohai, Kevin. You’re in Japan! Take advantage of it!
DEVON: My name’s Devon… but we can work on that another time…
VICTOR: You know what? If it makes it easier maybe you should think of me as your senpai. Yeah… I’ll be the fun senpai that shows you how to get laid over here, where the best clubs are… all of that. God knows Mio won’t do that for you.
DEVON: as long as we don’t have too much fun, right?
VICTOR: Too much fun? How could there be too much fun?
DEVON: Well, I mean… I don’t wanna end up in jail or anything.
(Victor starts to stand up)
VICTOR: Jail? Who said anything about jail? Why are you bringing up jail?
DEVON: I didn’t mean anything by it, Victor. Was just… kinda making a joke I guess
VICTOR: Right… I’ll talk to you later Kevin.
(Sound of Victor’s quick footsteps)
(Victor slams the door shut)
DEVON: Devon… Did I just make him want to be a senpai even more?
CALLUM: You unleashed the beast.
DEVON: Oh god, and right in time for Chiron English Camp, too… I guess we’re gonna find out a lot more about what kind of senpai Victor and Mio will be tomorrow. And in front of all those kids…
(Victor’s next lines are now muffled too as he’s speaking from the other side of Devon’s other apartment wall)
VICTOR: You’re not gonna learn anything about me at work, bro.
DEVON: Damn these walls… Well, Henrik, I think that’s it for today. Am I coming to you or are you coming here, Callum?
CALLUM: More seating at your place. I’ll bring the pikelets over.
DEVON: The what now? I thought you were making pancakes.
CALLUM: You’ll see.
VICTOR: Guess I’ll come back over…
DEVON: Come on down! The more the merrier. Talk to you later, Henrik!