Japanese men eat squid jerky. They buy underwear from vending
machines. According to an actual survey, 78% of Japanese men
would select, as their sole female companion on a desert island,
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. So the indelicate conclusion
is inevitably drawn: Being branded a misfit in Japanese society
is, in fact, a certification of one's sanity.
No other nation walks so fine a line between what is normal and
what is perverse. Japan is all fine lines. When trying to
procure aspirin in a Japanese hotel, never tell the concierge,
"Atama ga itai [my head aches]," for he might mistakenly hear an
almost identical phrase, "Kintama ga itai [my testicles ache]."
I assure you, the silence that ensues is excruciating.
The point is, Japan can be "a little difficult for the
unaccustomed," which is how a Nagano restaurant called
Fu-Ru-Sa-To describes the "squid guts" on its menu.
Japan is nearly as difficult for the well-accustomed. So on a
10-day flak-finding mission to the host nation of the 1998
Winter Olympics, one meets countless citizens who feel they
somehow fail to fit into Japan. When you consider that 125
million Japanese live on four main volcanic outcroppings
collectively smaller than California, they might just be
February 9, 1998
But probably not. For it's easy to feel out of place in a
country where convention is so unconventional, where the mundane
is often bizarre. "Other nations have mocked this country,
saying, 'Japan's rationality is the world's irrationality,'"
read a recent editorial in The Sankei Shimbun newspaper. "The
Japanese sports world is no exception to this view."
In which case the forthcoming fortnight will be interesting, to
say the least. Welcome to the Olympics. Smoking is compulsory.
The man who secured the Winter Games for his native Nagano
smokes Mild Sevens through a tortoiseshell holder, which he
carries at an imperious angle, in the manner of Franklin
Roosevelt. "[Juan Antonio] Samaranch doesn't like me to smoke,"
says Soichiro (Sol) Yoshida, blowing Olympic smoke rings with
each exhalation, chain-defying the president of the
International Olympic Committee.
He is in his driveway, leaning rakishly on a phlegm-colored '54
Mercedes 300 rolltop sedan that once served as the limousine for
West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The Benz now belongs to
Yoshida, who has a collection of 50 classic cars that he drives
only after midnight, when the rest of Nagano has gone to bed.
"Japanese jealousy," he says with a sigh, by way of explanation.
"I have to tell you, after we got the Games, I experienced a lot
of what we call 'high-poppy syndrome.'"
Among Nagano's 360,045 residents, there is no tall poppy riper
for pruning than Yoshida, the zillionaire owner of 66 gas
stations, 34 Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises and one
diabolical biodiesel plant that converts used KFC oil into
automotive fuel that is then sold at his gas stations.
By day Yoshida, 52, drives a Land Rover that runs on old cooking
oil and emits fumes that smell like Original Recipe. As the
Rover belches out fried-chicken emissions, salivating
pedestrians subconsciously seek out one of his ever-near KFCs.
Says Yoshida, grinning like a Batman villain, "All conditions
are working perfectly for me."
Or they were until he did a dumb thing like land the Olympics.
From 1988 through 1991, in 80 countries, Yoshida personally
charmed, and imbibed Jack Daniel's with, each of the IOC's 92
voting members. He glad-handed world leaders and mingled among
tenors. "I met the opera singer, what's his name, not Pavlov,
the other one," he says. "Domingo!"
When Nagano was at last awarded the Winter Games, in June '91, a
rival Salt Lake City representative was quoted as saying, "We
did not lose to Nagano, we lost to Yoshida." The Japanese were
less impressed. "People thought we were too extravagant [in
courting the IOC]," Yoshida says one afternoon over steaks and
wine in an exclusive Nagano restaurant--so exclusive that
Yoshida and his guests are the only patrons. "We spent two
billion yen. That's $20 million. In Japan you cannot be so much
more outstanding than other people."
This also presents a conundrum for Manabu Horii, who is
imprudently distinguishing himself as the world's finest speed
skater. The former world-record holder in the 1,000 meters and
his nation's best hope for a kin-medaru (gold medal) in Nagano,
Horii stands out among his countrymen in every way, from his
skate blades (they're gold) to his scalp (it's bald).
Last year Horii found himself at the epicenter of an
entomological earthquake when the governor of Nagano Prefecture,
Goro Yoshimura, publicly dismissed speed skating as
"uninteresting." Worse, Yoshimura likened speed skaters on an
oval track to "water beetles on a whirligig." Whatever in god's
name that means, the comment was presumed to be unflattering,
and the guv was made to give the most abject of public
apologies, serve a cruel and unusual penance of attending 39
speed skating races, and restore honor to the water beetle by
praising it as an "admirable insect."
Such public embarrassment is to be avoided at all costs in
Japan, which is why the country has karaoke practice booths. In
any event, Horii is too good-natured to rise to the "water
Seemingly every article on the interview-shy athlete, who won
the 500-meter bronze medal in Lillehammer, claims he shaved his
head to intimidate opponents, a fiction that is rather humorous
to anyone who has met this unassuming absentee employee of the
Oji Paper Company.
"I shaved my head before one race," says Horii, 28, between sips
of coffee in the lobby of a hotel in Obihiro, on the northern
Japanese island of Hokkaido. "It felt good, so I kept doing it.
I didn't do it for an image, I did it for myself. It's normal in
North America for athletes to shave their heads, like Michael
Jordan. Or in ice hockey, what is his name, Mark Messier? But in
Japan, it is not what the group does, so people must come up
with an explanation."
That's the trouble. Japan defies explanation. Guns are legal,
but bullets are not. This is a nation that produces and
distributes pornographic movies that show no private parts. (Or
so I am told.) By Japanese law, images of private parts are
pixeled, which seems rather to be missing the whole point of
Then there is the men's Olympic downhill ski course in Hakuba.
The Japanese set the starting gate 1,650 meters from the finish
line, rather than the 1,800 meters requested by FIS (skiing's
world governing body), so that the course would not infringe on
a national park farther up the mountain. That would have been
admirable, except that the park is open daily to thousands of
non-Olympic skiers during the rest of the ski season, raising
the question: What's the point, exactly?
"No one knows the reason," Chiharu Igaya, a silver medalist in
the slalom in the 1956 Games, told the Kyodo News Service. "No
one can understand the explanation." After five years of
resistance on the issue, Japanese Olympic officials abruptly
raised the start to 1,750 meters in December. But Igaya's
statement amounts to a national mantra on a multiplicity of
issues in Japan: No one knows the reason.
Vending machines (jido hambaiki) are on every corner, selling
everything from 40-ounce beers to AAA batteries. I asked a
Canadian who lives in Nagano what is the oddest item he has ever
seen on display in a Japanese vending machine, and he said
without hesitation, "Underwear and dress shirts." In Tokyo there
is now a clerkless department store containing row after row of
vending machines. Why? No one knows the reason.
Yet a funny thing happens to a tourist after a week or so in
this bewildering, nonsensical, Nagano-a-go-go. Just when you
become convinced that Japan's rationality really is the world's
irrationality, the country inexplicably begins to inspire not
frustration or dread, but something close to awe.
I refer not to the nation's gratuitous technophilia, though some
of Japan's solutions to problems that you didn't know you had
are indeed wondrous: traffic-signal clocks that count down the
seconds remaining until the light changes, or the glorious
electronically heated toilet seats of Japan's upmarket hotels
(rump-roasting, bum-toasting delights that ought to be made code
for all new construction in North America).
Rather, I am talking about the people of Japan. Yes, their sense
of humor can be obtuse. When Yoshida said he recently played a
match with the crown prince of Japan at the Tokyo Tennis Club, I
asked, "Did the prince use a Prince?" and Yoshida replied, "No,
he used a Mizuno."
But this opacity, one soon discovers, is often deliberate, and
little more than a veneer. In that sense Naganoans are not
unlike Nagano, whose narrow and mazy streets were designed to
prevent invading hordes from ever reaching the city center. With
sufficient time and chicken gas, however, you will reach central
Nagano, and with similar perseverance, you will likewise reach
Naganoans. Know this: When you arrive at the heart of either,
you will not believe your eyes.
In Nagano's small but intense nightlife district, there is an
obscure bar called Police 90 that is owned and operated by
ponytailed 46-year-old Yosio Matuzaki, who insists that you call
him Machan, or "friend." Machan has a face that could stop a
clock. In fact, I watched him halt the second hand on a
tourist's Tag Heuer wristwatch simply by staring at it.
Nine years ago, when he was working at a Nagano hotel, Machan
awoke one morning with the unaccountable abilities--paranormal,
supernatural, call them what you will--that burden him to this
Or so I discover when I sit down to dinner at the bar one
evening. Lightly applying his thumb and forefinger to the tines
of the stainless-steel fork I am eating with, Machan bends them
into coils. He then ties each tine into a knot. Later, he holds
his hands an inch from mine, closes his eyes and radiates a
pulse of heat that feels as if he has opened an oven door. A
patron puts his rental-car keys on the bar, and they violently
swing toward Machan, pointing to him like a compass needle
Machan asks for a disposable lighter. When one is placed in his
palm, he closes his hand and instantly reopens it, revealing a
lump of melted plastic in a puddle of butane. Even Machan
appears powerless to comprehend these powers. He makes celebrity
spoon-bender Uri Geller look downright dilettantish, but Machan
is neither rich nor famous, all but unknown even in Nagano. When
I suggest he might make millions in Las Vegas, Machan and his
patrons howl with laughter. "Vegas!" he says, offering his best
Michael Buffer impression: "Lllladies and gentlemen...."
Years ago Machan made a single appearance on Japanese TV, during
which he took a lie-detector test. He passed, but then he
demonstrated the unreliability of the exam by using his mind to
manipulate the polygraph needle.
How the hell does he do these things? With furrowed brow, Machan
utters the only phrase I have ever heard that adequately
explains anything in Japan. He says wearily, "I cannot explain."
Sixty-six days before the Olympics begin, countdown billboards
all over Nagano reveal that there are 66 days before the
Olympics begin. "When do the Olympics begin?" a reporter from a
Nagano television station asks me in a man-on-the-street
"In 66 days?" I venture.
The reporter nods, then says in Japanese, "Many local residents
we have asked do not know the answer."
In December speed skater Hiroyasu Shimizu, who will carry
Japan's flag in the opening ceremonies, tells me, "I am worried
that people are not very excited yet."
Where there isn't apathy, there's antipathy. The cost of the
Olympics, which could go as high as $1.5 billion, will be borne
largely by residents of Nagano Prefecture, where public debt has
increased by $30,000 per household. That's a lot to pay for the
privilege of watching water beetles on a whirligig.
"But without the Games," protests Yoshida, "there would be no
bullet train to Nagano. There are now two major highways coming
here from Tokyo, which is very rare for a Japanese city of this
There is indeed a bullet train, which became operational last
October. It serves an exquisite squid jerky, covers the 120
miles from central Tokyo to Nagano in 79 minutes and cost a mere
There is, likewise, a new superhighway from Tokyo to the Nagano
region. It ends at the doorstep of Shiga Kogen, a ski resort
owned by Yoshiaki Tsutsumi. He's the reclusive,
richer-than-Buddha president of the Japan Ski Association, a
vice president of the local Olympic organizing committee and the
owner of the gargantuan Seibu corporation, whose holdings
include the Prince Hotel chain and baseball's Seibu Lions, last
season's Pacific League champion.
But more troubling than the perception of political favoritism
in Nagano is the notion that there is no snow in Nagano. The
very first question at the very first press conference, in 1989,
to announce Nagano's bid for the Olympics came from a
Tokyo-based reporter who inquired of Yoshida, "Uh, do you have
snow in Nagano?" This winter, until early December, the answer
was no, and the southernmost city ever to host the Winter
Olympics was in danger of having its Games called on account of
"I think the Games will be a success, but I am worried about the
traffic," says speed skater Horii, voicing another mass concern
but one that he need not worry about personally: During the
Olympics, vehicles ferrying around 2,500 athletes and bigwigs
will be equipped with infrared sensors that instantly change red
lights to green.
Rest assured, the devices will work. If you have ever gone
virtual deep-sea fishing in a Nagano amusement arcade, or
shopped for inch-thick TV sets in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics
district, or waved to a road construction worker who turns out
to be a robot, you know that Japanese society is a monument to
all things man-made. Which explains why the slogan for these
Olympics is "Respect for the beauty and bounty of...nature."
Nature? To be fair, Nagano is endowed with breathtaking natural
beauty, from the perhaps-too-ambitiously-named Japan Alps to the
enviable monkeys at the Shiga Kogen hot springs, where 265
simians live out their days enjoying one long monkey shvitz.
Precisely because there is so much beauty, environmental
activists have been going monkey-shvitz ever since Nagano
announced its bid. Yoshida occasionally encountered anti-Olympic
eco-protesters from Japan during his bid-related overseas
travels. "Fortunately they would chant in Japanese, so only I
understood them," he says. "They didn't have much money, so they
couldn't follow me to many places."
The irony is that Japanese Olympic officials are now the folks
without much money. They made their bid at the late-'80s apex of
Japan's bubble economy. It was a giddy time when--according to
at least one newspaper account--people thought nothing of
"spending thousands of dollars on funerals for their pets."
That was then. Today, of course, the whole of Asia's economy is
going down the electronically heated toilet. "The Japanese
[economic] system was built after World War II and never checked
very closely," says Yoshida, who earned his M.B.A. from Michigan
State in 1969. "What we are seeing now is like metal fatigue in
aircraft." Only days earlier, Japan's giant Yamaichi securities
company failed, prompting its silver-haired chairman to appear
on national television and dutifully weep in shame.
There is unlikely to be such a denouement to these Olympics,
though officials do have some explaining to do. Nagano won the
Games in part by promising to pay the travel expenses of all
visiting athletes. They can now afford just $1,000 per athlete.
A promised 12,000-seat hockey arena will in fact hold fewer than
9,000 spectators, some of whom will have to stand.
Blame everything on the Japanese bureaucracy. Everyone in Japan
blames everything on the Japanese bureaucracy. It is a favorite
target of Yoshida, a maverick who is married to a
Minneapolis-born woman named Carole. ("With an e! I don't know
why she spells it this way," Yoshida says.) Their son and
daughter both live in the U.S.
"Wa means harmony," says Yoshida. "When we make a team in Japan,
we must have wa. The Japanese concept of wa is, if there are
four of us working together, and you have four units of
competence, and someone else has three units, and I have two
units, then we all work together at two units of competence.
This is the kind of teamwork respected in Japan."
Wa went out the window in Nagano's pursuit of the Olympics, he
says. "If we tried to get the Olympic Games by wa system, we
wouldn't have cared about the outcome," says Yoshida. "Under wa
system, if we lose to Salt Lake City, we should just cry and
say, 'Well, we worked very hard.'"
In parting, he adds his hope that these Olympics will become a
global group hug. "If the Japanese people think the Olympics are
our success, that we won over other international communities,
then this is not good," he says. "But I think these Games will
be the beginning of a good change."
Sports are an engine for change in the world because they
transcend cultural and religious differences. They are
Esperanto, as catholic as the life-sized Colonel Sanders outside
the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Chuo-Dori, the bustling street
that leads uphill to the stunning centerpiece of Nagano Zenkoji
On this morning, before a lapis lazuli altar, a blue-robed
Buddhist priest sounds a silver gong in a solemn ceremony inside
Zenkoji. The temple is 1,400 years old and has burned to the
ground 11 times, most recently in 1707. The priest is 41 years
old, and his name is Katsuhika Ito. When he smiles without his
false front teeth, he looks alarmingly like former Broad Street
Bully Bobby Clarke.
That is no coincidence. The priest's teeth have been knocked out
repeatedly by the butt end of a hockey stick. "I have given up
trying to have them fixed," Ito says that evening at the Nagano
Skate Center, a dilapidated indoor rink where the
player-coach-goon of the Nagano beer-league Polar Stars is
conducting hockey practice. He has shed his priestly vestments
for a pair of Philadelphia Flyers breezers and a Los Angeles
Kings practice jersey, which he obtained when playing with
members of the Kings at their practice center in L.A., where
Ito's sister lives. Ito is an ardent fan of the NHL. The Polar
Stars' game jerseys are modeled on the Pittsburgh Penguins'. He
will work as a volunteer at Olympic hockey games. When I ask him
whom he admires in hockey, he looks at me to make sure that the
question is not rhetorical, then gives the inescapable answers.
"Gretzky," he says, "and Messier."
As a player Ito is more Messier than Gretzky, a hard-knuckled
forward unafraid to drop his gloves. "I think I know him,"
Yoshida says, when told of Zenkoji's hockey-playing priest. "He
drinks at my bar. He is a tough guy, yes?"
Ito has been skating since fourth grade, when the Nagano Skate
Center opened. He has been a priest since he was 23. He sees no
conflict in his twin passions; to him, they complement each
other. "In sport and religion, I believe in doing one's best,"
he says. "Believe in the god that you believe in in the best way
that you can. I tell this to schoolchildren in motivational
He is pleased that CBS has built a makeshift studio on the
grounds at Zenkoji, from which the network will broadcast the
image of the temple around the world for 16 days. "Of course
there are problems," says Ito, leaning on his stick. "But we
hope to have the best Olympics possible. I think it is great
that people will identify Japan with religion and with Zenkoji
In the winking fluorescent light of the ice rink, Japan suddenly
seems not so very foreign after all. So you say Zenkoji, I say
Zamboni. Why call the whole thing off?
I have breakfast with Koji Aoki, a Japanese sports photographer
who is as callous as the rest of us in this business, and talk
naturally turns to...ice dancing. Aoki remarks that his
favorite Olympic moment came at the 1984 Sarajevo Games, when
British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean scored a
string of perfect 6s.
The photographer saw the twosome 10 years later, after the
Lillehammer Games--they were gnawing on stale cinnamon rolls in
the Oslo airport. Aoki approached them and said evenly, "I saw
you in Sarajevo. I was there. And I want to thank you. It is
rare in life that one gets to witness such a ..."--he paused,
then lit upon the appropriate phrase--"such a moment of
Then, as now, Aoki's eyes went slick, like resurfaced ice, and
so did the eyes of Torvill and Dean. "I could see," says Aoki,
recalling the scene, "that this touched them."
Isn't that all you can ask, from life or from the Olympics: Amid
all the manifold problems, a moment of perfection?
Nagano has already given me one. It transpired in the Police 90
pub, with its multiple portraits of Marilyn Monroe, whom Machan
admires because, as he puts it, "hers is a story that could
never happen in Japan." I took him to mean all of it, the good
and the bad, the blonde hair, the drug overdose, the marriage to
DiMaggio, the peculiarly American miasma of superstardom.
Anyway, police paraphernalia (and the year of its grand opening)
give Police 90 its name. There is an arsenal of weaponry on the
walls and an AK-47 behind the bar. "I can own the guns but not
the bullets," Machan says. It is a concept that now makes sense
to me. Machan was fascinated when an FBI agent popped into the
pub last year, sweeping Nagano in advance of a visit by Hillary
Clinton. "We have nothing like the FBI in Japan," he says. "It
simply isn't an issue here." Imagine that.
As I did, Machan was behind the bar, mixmastering this little
moment of perfection: In one flourish he broke a spoon into
pieces with his gaze, poured a pair of Suntorys from the tap and
answered the bar phone with the harried "Moshi-moshi" of a
Japanese publican. I sat by, slack-jawed, with a British
photographer, a Canadian interpreter, a German editor and a
Japanese blues guitarist named Sam. On the bar, our drinks had
left five linked rings that resembled the Olympic logo.
An authentic CHiPs motorcycle stood sentry by the doorway.
Someone taught me the proper phrase for aspirin-procurement in
Japan (futsuka yoii: "hangover"). A man at the bar sang the Sex
Pistols' Anarchy in the U.K. on karaoke. At that moment I felt
precisely the way the Olympics are supposed to make you--and me,
and everybody else--feel: like nothing less, and nothing more,
than a citizen of planet Earth.
"After we got the Games," says Yoshida, "I experienced a lot of
what we call 'high-poppy syndrome.'"
Machan utters the only phrase that explains anything in Japan:
"I cannot explain."
Ito's theology is simple: "Believe in the god that you believe
in in the best way that you can."