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 speaking literally.
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 roll-top 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."