Author Q&A, with Nick Vasey
Now that Roppongi has been out for a while, feedback has started to drift back in, and some questions have been asked. Below (in no particular order) are some of those questions. If you have a question, please feel free to ask ... just hit me up on the Contact Form.
Q. Is the novel autobiographical? Is the character of Zack (the protagonist in Roppongi) you?
A. Given the subject matter and my in-depth experience with it, I guess this was always going to be an inevitable question. I should start by saying that Roppongi is a novel, that is to say, fiction. It should be obvious to anyone that I have utilised the character of Zack to illustrate some of my worldviews and my experiences of Japan. In Roppongi, he has provided a vessel through which I have attempted to depict the challenging nature of Roppongi, as well as illustrate the difficult personal and philosophical quandaries that the Roppongi environment seems so adept at imposing on its inhabitants. In short, there is certainly some of Zack in me. But needless to say, his character does things I didn't do, and vice versa. Ultimately, the question is irrelevant ... readers will either be interested in Zack, his take on the world, and the adventures which follow as a result, or they won't.
Q. What motivated you to write the novel?
A. As I've said in some of the promotional material, the Roppongi experience was a truly amazing time in my life. I would venture to say it was an amazing time in most people's lives. It had a profound impact on how I perceived the world thereafter. It is like an intensive life-education ... you learn a lot about yourself, and a lot about human nature. You have to, or Roppongi will simply swallow you whole. One thing I must have heard at least a hundred times during my time there was, "Someone should write a book about this place." That stuck with me, and because I had some spare time (recovering!) after leaving Tokyo in 1998, I was able to start scribbling some ideas. Needless to say, there is a huge difference between scribbling some ideas, and finishing, editing, polishing and publishing a 135,000 word novel, and I am proud of myself for having seen the project through to the end (albeit twelve years later!). It is very satisfying to see the finished product and to have so many people around the world writing to tell me how much they're enjoying it.
Q. The novel paints quite a bleak picture of Roppongi. Do you think it's an accurate and/or fair depiction?
A. I think so, yes, but that question inevitably requires what will always be a subjective response. I am certain I have not exaggerated the nature of the beast ... other authors such as Jake Adelstein (Tokyo Vice), Robert Whiting (Tokyo Underworld) and Richard Lloyd-Parry (People Who Eat Darkness) leave me convinced of that. Having said that, I'm sure there are many people who floated along on Roppongi's pleasure currents (for a short time) without really encountering its dark side ... but that only means they remained unaware of the dark side, not that it doesn't exist. The deeper one digs into the core of Roppongi's mizu-shobai, the darker it and its denizens get. Whenever large amounts of money coincide with beautiful people, naive people, and greed, and that situation is mashed into adventures in alcohol, drugs, and partying excess, the darker side of human nature will always be there, pushing the edge of the envelope. That's always how it's been with human beings, and I don't see it changing anytime soon. A Nietzsche quote probably serves well here: "Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you."
Q. What was the hardest thing about writing the novel?
A. There were many very difficult things about writing this novel. Firstly, as a first-time novelist, the largest difficulty was being wracked by doubt. Am I a good enough writer? What makes me think I can write? What makes me think I can write about this? Secondly, there is the personal aspect. Writing a book (especially a novel like this) and giving it to the world is a very revealing and personal thing to do. The very issuing of it invites criticism, from which you have nowhere to hide. That is daunting for anyone, especially a first-time novelist, and makes it very easy to procrastinate! Thirdly, the fact this book is essentially the first on its subject-matter meant that it had a lot to live up to. I did not want to disappoint people. Roppongi is a daunting prospect to depict well in print, and that was certainly an intimidating factor. And finally, there is everything else which normally makes a novel difficult to complete for any author. Time. Energy. The Creative Process. Frustration. Life Challenges. Money, etc. The long and the short of it is that finishing a viable novel is a small miracle, requiring a degree of sacrifice and personal cost that most non-writers probably have difficulty envisaging.
Q. Is Roppongi the same today as the period you wrote about, or has it changed?
A. Interesting question. The answer is both simple, and complicated. Put simply, Roppongi in 2012 is a very different animal from the heyday of the late eighties and nineties. There are many things which are different. The Iranians are, for the most part, no longer there. Ditto for the Israelis. They may be elsewhere in Tokyo, but they are not in Roppongi. In contrast to this, and perhaps filling that vacuum, the Nigerian influence now dominates. There is also much less money up for grabs these days in Roppongi. From my recent observations over a two week period in Feb 2012 (as well as via extensive discussions with Roppongi veterans), it would seem today's punters have a lot less discretionary income than was previously the case. Corporate expense accounts have been discontinued or slashed heavily. Add to this the fact a drug scandal a while back led to more than one high-profile financial services firm actually banning its employees from visiting Roppongi. So, overall, there are also generally less punters than before. For whatever reasons, much of the financial district seems to have left Japan for Singapore or Hong Kong. This exodus was only exacerbated by the March 2011 tsunami (and nuclear uncertainty which followed). Bars and clubs Roppongi-wide shut earlier now, and are not as much fun as they used to be. The day-clubs (if they exist) are even more hidden than they used to be, which is certainly saying something! Amongst night-life operators generally there is a pervading sense of desperation, impending doom, and the feeling Roppongi's nightlife scene is living on borrowed time. Bars and clubs have even been shut down and their owners fined because the patrons were dancing! This alone should give the reader some indication of the intent of the "powers that be." Since the closing of the iconic hostess-club One-Eyed Jacks in 2006, many of the smaller hostess clubs followed suit as a result of more aggressive policing of various laws, many of which had not been enforced for years (see "dancing" above). The Police had (for whatever reason) suddenly decided to get tough on Roppongi and its way of life. Consequently, there are now practically no foreign hostesses working in Roppongi ... certainly not in the "traditional" sense of working within a designated hostess-club, anyway. Given that back in the day there was anything up to a thousand foreign hostesses working in clubs from Akasaka to Roppongi to Azabu-Juban etc, this shows a significant difference in the "flavour" of Roppongi and the energies which used to drive it. On the other hand, what is currently driving the "gentrification" of Roppongi is questionable, but one would be hard-pressed to imagine that the forces (economic and political) behind the two huge and high-class developments Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown have nothing to do with it. As early as 2007, articles such as this one started appearing, seemingly foreshadowing the eventual death of Roppongi as a place for smut, sleaze and nightlife revelry ... "Veterans there sense that Roppongi's days as a hedonistic haven are numbered." So, in a nutshell, that is today's Roppongi. Let's call it "Roppongi-lite" or a Roppongi that has long since lost its mojo, and seems unlikely ever to recapture it. Whatever the case, I am glad I was lucky enough to be there during an amazing era ... accordingly, I prefer to remember it like this!
Q. Is it true hostesses generally don't sleep with their "customers?"
A. I truly cannot believe that this question never dies. Usually it is only foreigners who are utterly unfamiliar with Japanese culture and how the concept of hostessing "fits" into that culture who keep on asking this question and assuming that sex must indeed play an integral part in the hostessing transaction. Curiously, the fact is that sex does play an integral part ... that is to say, the withholding of sex plays an integral part in the hostessing game. Once and for all, let me categorically state that in the vast majority of cases, hostesses do not sleep with their clients! For the most part it would be detrimental to their earning capacity as a hostess. That alone makes it unlikely a hostess would choose to forego hostessing to become a prostitute. Add to that the fact many hostesses actively dislike their clients, feel sorry for them, and even disgusted by them, and you have an unlikely recipe for sexual congress! The fact is (as described in the novel) that the hostess-client relationship is an elaborate hoax which is perpetuated for as long as possible (by both parties) until one party tires of it and ends the arrangement (usually the client). It is an illusion where each party gets something from the other, for a while: the hostess gets money and expensive gifts, and the client gets a level of intimacy and perceived friendship with a beautiful foreign girl, which he would otherwise be unlikely to achieve. Eventually it ends, usually badly, but there is (was) always a never-ending line of customers ready to enter into the fantasy. Having said this, I should strongly note that the decision to prostitute oneself is always one for the individual, and there are of course always going to be girls who choose to cross that line. The fact however, is that in any reputable hostess-club (the way it used to be anyway), hostesses engaging in prostitution would be frowned upon and probably fired. Prostitution by hostesses was never a requirement, encouraged or condoned. If this was not the case, then the venue in question wasn't a hostess-club, it was a brothel masquerading as one - such venues did exist, but were not commonplace. I really hope this puts the "hostesses sleeping with clients" question firmly to bed (pardon the pun!).
Q. Are you going to write another book? A sequel? Or something else?
A. Whew! This one's only just out the door ... and it took me twelve years to eventually finish it! Truthfully, I can hardly even think about writing another novel right now (although I must confess that I do have a good idea for one!). But to be clear, I currently have no plans to write a sequel to Roppongi ... I think that chapter is probably closed. But never say never, I guess. I am going to use this year of 2012 to collect myself, my thoughts, and stabilise various areas of my life which suffered due to the effort of getting Roppongi into the world. Then we will see. 🙂