The Racist Ramen Club
“Make the Ramen Shop Great Again” – Some club member chud
“Don’t eat that racist ramen” – Julian Smith
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. From the 3rd to the 7th, which was the first week in April this year, it was clubs week at Doshisha University. But, since that took place before the chronology of the last blog post, instead I will focus this section on one instance of an attempt to get involved in club life at a Japanese university. This post is an anachronic anecdote.
Clubs are very important during the springtime of one’s youth. It’s said that many young women see clubs as a scouting opportunity to find their future husbands. Others contend that they are for proving that one can work with the group in the same way most graduates will have to later in a company. Still others aver that clubs and circles (サークル) are the first step in a global plan to have 2D moe anime girls rise out of a poor otaku’s 3DS dating sim and complete a world revolution to cast all and sundry into a dystopia of big droopy eyes and constant AKB48 background music while we are forced to end every sentence with mewling cat noises. Per the rule of the golden ratio, I fall into the reasonable position halfway between these two, equally-likely propositions.
That is, clubs teach subordination to forms of authority without question as to their legitimacy, and to normalise the internalisation of totalitarian values. Senpai are to be deferred to merely by virtue of being one year older. This is reinforced through discursive performances like humbling and venerating language. Groupthink is celebrated by asserting mythologies of all within a group being equal without any probing as to who sets the agenda for acceptable bounds of thought, and whether they hold more power than others, or the legitimacy of the grounds from which that power is asserted. The crucial question about the entire charade, which is never asked, is who benefits by this arrangement?
The answer is ramen. Ramen shops benefit.
Sometime in April, Marcus and Rosanne joined the Ramen Club at Dōshisha. Luke and I are both (probably) human, of which a defining trait is the need to eat, and its corollary the want to eat. Hence, we tried to tag along once.
It wasn’t that Marcus was opposed to us coming, but he didn’t seem overly pleased either. I wasn’t sure of the reasons, and I’m not sure even now. Regardless, we gathered in front of the Ryōshinkan building at Imadegawa campus, where a host of about thirty Japanese students were also milling around for the same reason. The horizon line of half-orange twilight was vanishing under an overhead canopy of creeping stars. Kyōto was close to being shaded in navy tones, subsumed by evening proper. Chatter among the students fell and rose again, dipping sometimes below the decibel level of the city’s evening insects. We were all called into a circle, or I think we were since everyone formed a circle and began listening to some guy who was probably a senpai. Then, we broke off into groups.
Marcus and Rosanne quickly gravitated toward a group going to find dan-dan (spiced Sichuan-style) ramen. Luke and I were lost. I love dan-dan ramen, but the other two didn’t want us to be in their group. Something about too many foreigners in one place. So we floated around while students coalesced into hard groups, left as the metaphoric gaijin elephants in the metaphoric room.
As club leaders go, the organising senpai wasn’t too helpful. The first group he tried to pawn us off to had an auspiciously apologetic leader. That’s never a good sign in Japan. Mr Thick-Rimmed Glasses, that group’s self-identified leader, ignored the other members’ nonplussed attitude to our joining and took it upon himself to explain the difficulties of us joining them in broken English. “I’m sorry,” he explained with the furrowed brow of false obsequiousness, “my English not—not good. Sorry, don’t speak.”
“That’s fine,” I said in Japanese, “we’re fine with Japanese.”
He pretended not to hear with all the patronising airs a rich university student can muster. “Sorry—bad at English.”
“Look, Japanese is fine—”
“—No sorry, don’t speak. English not good.”
I clamped my mouth shut and the most messed-up bilingual conversation I’ve ever had the misfortune of being party to ended. Luke and I walked away in disbelief. It really is one thing to express concern about not having a wonderful time when there’s a language barrier, and another to hide your blatant xenophobia behind that excuse even after any faux-concern gets eroded by factual evidence. Mr Thick Rimmed Glasses half-bowed again and shuffled back to his group. That avenue was closed to us.
We eventually joined another group, this one mostly women, probably having joined the club so they appeared productive members of Japanese society even though it revolved around going to eating places, and set off for seafood-stock ramen. All groups headed to Shijo station, by train, and another weird aspect of society here reared its head. Firstly, Shijo is only a twenty-minute walk South from Imadegawa, and secondly we only needed to catch the train from Shijo on the East-West line two stations. Luke and I asked why everyone didn’t just walk. That earned us a look that made me feel like I’d just suggested setting up a totalitarian dystopia of 2D moe anime girls taking over the world. Turns out even meagre distances are considered beyond the pale with these people.
We caught the train, walked, sat on the overflow seating waiting to be let in to the ramen shop, slurped deliciously thick seafood-stock ramen, drank water to cool our throats from the steaming fresh noodles, slurped some more, finished with a clatter of plates, and paid the most worth-it 790 yen I have ever paid. The pall of patronising conversations with ‘educated’ Japanese kids who should know better was sliding back and away to where twilight had disappeared, beneath the horizon. Unfortunately, Luke and I ended up in conversation with one of the girls in our group. She was nice enough, but I discovered that night, at the racist ramen club, that you can never really get out of the patronising shadow of stereotypes that come with being a foreigner.
“So, do you watch anime?” She asked.
I sighed internally, and regretted being such a bad liar. The truth would have to come out. It always did anyway. “Yeah,” I admitted, “I have seen a bit here and there.” Luke assented on behalf of himself.
“Wow,” she said with practised Japanese enthusiasm. “Your nihongo is so jouzu.”
Little did she know, that inside, deep within where I had held on to a modicum of hope that ingratiating myself into Japanese society better would let me be treated as another human being, that small seed of hope was strangled by thorns, and died. I looked to Luke, who had the same standard expression for anything and everything, then back to the girl. For Luke, it didn’t matter. He already hated this place more than I ever would, and was the most maladjusted. It made no difference. For me, I had to face up to hearing those echoing words “your Japanese is so good” from a thousand different faces and each time turn back, smile bashfully, and deliver the next line in the social script. So I let go, let the last piece of hope in my heart by strangled by thorns from this girl’s mouth, and let any human dignity go. I became at last the second-class citizen they wanted me to be.
“Thank you. It’s very muzukashii.”