Issue 5,  Poetry

Kabuki Lessons by David Lohrey

It must be thrilling to know 
Girls used to be so full of doubt but now they say,
“Sure, I’m sure.” I say 1970, she says Nixon bombed Cambodia.
When I was a kid, I found a brontosaurus under my corn flakes.
Today I get all of world history at the end of my tootsie pop. 

The bodies, you cry. The dead bodies in the lobby. 
Why can’t I reply, my mother’s violets in the window box 
remind me of tiny 
The poor don’t need money. It’s the rich who are always short.

Everywhere I go, I’m an unknown quantity.
Why do you invade my territory?
They bring me hot dogs when I order 
In China they begged me to stay, but here, why won’t you go?

Don’t ask, how are you? It’s an intimate question.
I think it is privacy and so do you, but here it’s a matter of public policy.
wear reading glasses to mommy and baby English classes.
You are in another country

when students dance into class wearing chiffon tutus.
They hide their hair in 
One student’s yellow toenails match his glasses;
another’s braces are as sparkling as her tiara.

On trains, the girls don’t keep their legs together. One sees
bandaged knees and little hands spreading skin cream.
The Santa Barbara coffee shop in Roppongi brews no coffee; 
it serves poached eggs on a bed of 

is demanding.
The bodies pile up to my Adam’s apple.
My daughter’s into cranes and pandas.
Are we punished for ignoring corpses?

Must I feed the neighbors, take care of tornadoes,
split the atom, and make ice cubes?
I can barely add 2+2. I can’t remember to change my socks.
week I lost the Empire State Building.

I want my teddy bear.
Can’t I like pandas, too?
Thou shalt not 
Is that not enough for you?
The busker asks for what’s left over. 
Must I share?
I have lots to spare but none for you.
Why can’t I say that?


There is no such thing 
as friendliness here. One’s contact is measured to a purpose. 
Hello could lead to marriage in the US, but here…one 
never answer a stranger’s greeting. 
He or she is just a stranger here, a gaijin.

Japanese are not too polite, no; they are not polite at all. 
Americans have this idea about them, but the fact is that 
on the street it is a matter of silence; there is no 
not even an acknowledgment, not even a blink. 

One has no part to play, one is at a loss; one 
never speaks to strangers. There are no hellos, 
good mornings, no smiles, no head nodding…no winks: nothing. 
On the street no one ever returns my automatic American smile. 
In fact, that smile is seen as a solicitation. What do you want?

It’s simple: they are waiting to be introduced. Once 
one has an identity people spring into action: 
“Ah, you must live on the 9th floor. Nice to meet you.” 
And from then on one gets polite good mornings 
and without fail: konichiwa

Women particularly are loath to make eye contact. 
I know what he wants! 
starts with merchant-customer exchanges; people know their place, 
their lines. Excuse me. It all falls into place and they speak with ease. 
May I help you?

There is no such thing as friendliness here. 
contact is measured to a purpose. 
Hello could lead to marriage elsewhere, but here…one would 
never answer a stranger’s greeting. He might need something.
He or she is just a stranger. Why bother? 


The chef stirs the pancake mix
and stirs me, too. I love her
bowtie. She looks like
a soda fountain clerk circa 1959.
She keeps her hair cut smart
and wears slacks. She has
a flat chest and works at a brisk pace.
If she were a boy, she’d make
me laugh. As it is, she makes me swoon.

It’s not that I’m into ogling chicks.
Good lord, no. I just appreciate
the effort, the development of
a caring soul who knows how 
to use a whisk. She doesn’t 
just throw things together. She’s 
not just killing time. 
and excellence are so rarely found. 
It’s a thrill to see a girl embody both.

The Japanese understand these things.
It’s not just the sushi; it’s in
the way they bend. You find it 
in their insincerity. It’s a 
They’re like ballerinas on the stage, not idle 
dancers in their dressing rooms.
It is indeed like kabuki. Their actions 
mask their pain. They study movement;
they rehearse each step. 

They want to know who you are 
before saying hello. Otherwise,
they don’t know what to say. In a land 
where speaking out of turn could get you 
they don’t waste words. Visitors get 
the cold shoulder because they have not 
been introduced. We’re like the help 
at a wedding in the Hamptons, told to serve 
the champagne and not to speak.

Invisibility is not due to race; 
it’s because strangers lack
consequence. In the West,
a greeting could lead to marriage. 
Here, hello goes 
It’s better to greet passers-by with silence.
It is cruel. Many can’t see it. Some can’t
take it. Travelers temple-hop from Akasaka 
to Kyoto in the belief they are welcome. 

That’s one way of looking at it. 
What’s more likely is that the 
and the ready smile 
are put on for your pleasure. Each 
and every minute is an agonized 
display. Secretly, the Japanese 
can’t wait for you to leave. They can’t wait
for the final curtain.



Japanese praise role-playing.
If the teacher acts like a teacher, and looks like a teacher, 
he is deemed to be a teacher. Dress the part. 
Polish your shoes.
take their cue from the act. If you act like a teacher, 
they will in turn act like students. 

This has nothing to do with teaching, of course,
and nothing to do with learning. The act is the outcome. 
The applause is what is rated, not the performance. 
There are no gods of caring. 
is frowned upon. 
You’re expected to come in every day. 

That’s what teachers do. Caring is a sign of malfeasance. 
You can teach your heart out, but if you leave early, they’ll call you
Interference is a form of molestation. Don’t call the parents 
when daughter forgets her homework. Don’t call the police 
if she comes in with bruises. You mind your own business. 
Parents will wonder why you care, and she better not be cute. 

If you talk to the boys, they’ll figure you’re a homo. 
They’ll be concerned.
Stand back, and do your job. Go through the motions.
busy. Attend commencement. Show up. Bow.
Don’t laugh or cry, that’s not professional. 
Accept flowers at graduation, smile.

Don’t complain. Don’t make suggestions. You’ll do fine. 
Don’t whine. Prepare to be surprised: my top engineering student 
aged 19 asked me why all Americans eat McDonald’s, 
breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. “Don’t you get tired 
of eating the same thing?” “Do you have fish in your rivers?” 
“Have you ever eaten rice?” Tell them you’re dying to try. 


I love Japan. I’m so into it, I eat my cornflakes 
with chopsticks. I want to fit in. I’m so into it, 
I wear a fake, jet black top-knot on my bald head. 
Japan is everything I imagined it would be. 
They still hate us; it’s a chance to re-experience 
On the trains at night, late, I imagine someone might
run a bayonet through my knee, screaming, 
“Stand up straight.”

They greet visitors at the airport
with a test. “When,” they’ll ask, 
“are you planning to leave?” If you answer, 
they send you home. There’s
only one acceptable answer: “ASAP.”  
Many foreigners love it even more.
They eat rice cakes for breakfast,
lunch, and dinner. 

They bow as they talk on the phone. They have 
all their body hair removed. They wear tattoos of men
carp. They regret not having slept with their mothers 
during college as many local boys do. Visitors often say 
how they love it here. They declare themselves smitten; 
they gush. They adore all of it, even the green or pink
poodles, the boys with yellow toenails,
and the men wearing red lipstick and mascara. 

I love them, too. I especially love the male retirees 
who take their pants off at the cinema. I love the soiled 
underwear sold in vending machines. I appreciate the home 
delivery of fresh eggs. I crave the beer-fed beef sold by the gram, 
at over $400 per kilo. I’m addicted to the parmesan cheese 
made of sawdust and powered soy. What I love 
most are the young housewives who wear Minnie Mouse bras 
and Donald Duck panties. 

My ardor, however, does not compare to that 
of my colleagues. 
They love it so much they hate their own countries;
America, England, Ireland and Canada are all in their eyes 
nothing but shit. They don’t miss home at all. What they love 
best about Japan is that those on death row are executed 
in secret. They like the denials of war guilt, the cult of the 
and the open hostility to “inferior” nations. 

What attracts them immediately and what they embrace is 
the Japanese love of peace. It’s their delicacy, their manners, 
and their politeness. When they chop a prisoner’s head off, 
executioners shout, “Excuse me.” But I love the citrus, 
a variety that tastes familiar but different. It’s something 
like a tangerine.
It’s small but looks like grapefruit. It could be 
called a Japanese orange. Its name is 

There must be something in the soy sauce. When 
I wave, 
they never respond. When I smile, they don’t react. 
Could it be the sake? It rains every day but there is no 
The puddles are fine and the river runs wide,
but showers are on timers. Take the wrappers off the bottles, 
keep the lettuce in the larder, the neighbors eye our bin.
This summer, lightning strikes harder but the rains lose heart.

And with that, 
it’s time to leave for the airport. 
If they’ll let me. My taxes may not be paid up. 
I made $28,000 last year, but they taxed me 
as a multimillionaire. They withhold over 
70% from foreigners out of fear 
they might 
Once you do, you can never come back.
Let’s see if it works.


David Lohrey’s plays have been produced in Switzerland, Croatia, and Lithuania. In the US, his poems can be found at the Stickman Review, New Orleans Review, and The Drunken Llama. Internationally, his work appears in Tuck, Expanded Field Journal, Terror House, and Nthanda Review. His fiction can be seen at Dodging the Rain, Storgy, and Literally Stories. David’s collection of poetry, MACHIAVELLI’S BACKYARD, was published by Sudden Denouement Publishers. He lives in Tokyo.

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