Hustling Nakamura-san

He needed to learn English to keep his mistress. My English-language school boss needed his money to keep her job.


in Archive


When Nana Takahashi arrived as our school’s new manager she had one good thing going for her: Things could not get any worse. An ongoing lack of English students meant we hadn’t come close to meeting our monthly business goals in nearly a year. Wooing new students was difficult with scuffed floors, flimsy desks and bare patches of wall where cheap wallpaper paste had lost the battle against Japanese humidity. Many of the students we did have had been scared away by my perpetually unshaven and hung-over British predecessor, who was finally fired for playing Fatboy Slim to a class of 6-year-olds.

I wasn’t doing much to help the situation. I’d fallen in love with Japan during a summer internship in Tokyo and a semester in Kyoto, and had decided to go back to teach English after graduation. The large chain of schools that hired me said I’d be going to Okinawa. Packing my suitcases in Chicago, I daydreamed about sunning myself on the beaches and spending my weekends scuba diving. Instead, the sudden firing of the delinquent teacher meant that I was reassigned to his school in a little river-basin backwater in the mountains of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. The town was mostly notable for having the hottest and most humid summers in Japan. I was bitter, and while I tried to give good lessons, I made little effort to recruit new students.

While I ignored the monthly financial targets, they were everything to our manager. Takahashi’s predecessor, spooked by relentless phone calls and faxes from head-office staff, had managed to get himself arrested for posting advertisements on city property in a desperate midnight promotion spree. He was quickly transferred to another office; Takahashi-manager, a promising young woman, was fast-tracked through her training program and told to get the job done by whatever means necessary.

Since we had trouble attracting new students, Takahashi-manager decided to focus her moneymaking efforts on the ones we already had. She came up with a simple plan: if she could convince just one existing student to buy a 72-lesson private contract, she could reach the monthly goal easily. All she had to do was find one person who loved English and had $5,000 to burn. She zeroed in on Nakamura-san.

Nakamura-san was a 50-year-old hospital administrator who lived alone in town. His wife and adult children lived off his salary 90 minutes away in cosmopolitan Fukuoka, where the schools were better and the lifestyle much more fashionable. He was one of the few new students we had, and I would often emerge from my classroom after a lesson to find him loitering in the lobby.

“Hi Nakamura-san! How are you today?” I’d say.

He’d usually giggle before his reply. In spite of his age he was still self-conscious, especially when speaking English.

“I’m fine, thank you very much. I hope you are, uh, keeping good condition.” Keeping good condition was his favorite phrase, and I was never able to convince him that it wasn’t proper English. He always kept excellent condition himself, jogging every day no matter what bad weather we were enduring.

One afternoon he beckoned me to his usual seat in the lobby and, with a sly grin, handed me his cell phone. A tiny photo filled the screen. It was of a young woman with unremarkable features and skin that certainly wouldn’t benefit from higher resolution. The next photo was of the same woman.

“Oh, is this your…” I was going to say “daughter,” but as I scrolled through the photos and the woman’s poses became more seductive, the word dried up and disappeared on my tongue.

He leaned in closer and smiled. “That’s JP. My girlfriend.”

It didn’t take us long to find out that JP was a Filipina immigrant working at a snack bar in town. Despite the innocent-sounding name, the dozens of snack bars in our town had little to do with serving food. The place where JP worked was as cavernous as a nightclub, with dim lighting and white leather couches lined up against the walls. Customers, usually small packs of tired salarymen, came in and were immediately joined by a number of Southeast Asian women in cocktail dresses and high heels. These “hostesses” were there to light cigarettes, pour whiskey, sing karaoke, dance with customers, and engage them in the kinds of conversations these men would never have with their wives.

For many Japanese men, snack bars were just another part of mandatory after-work socializing. For guys like Nakamura-san, however, a snack bar was an alchemist’s shop whose proprietors specialized in turning loneliness into gold. Under the watchful eye of “Mama-san,” the women would call up their best customers, encouraging them to come over to the club night after night, where it was easy to drop a hundred dollars an hour buying drinks. The women also encouraged customers to pay the bar huge sums of money for official dinner dates. Anything beyond that, especially invitations from a customer to extend the date to a love hotel, had to be coyly but resolutely refused. The women and their Mama-san strung the men along for as long as they could keep them wanting more.

We learned all about JP through Nakamura-san, and it seemed clear that she was playing by Mama-san’s rules. He never seemed discouraged. The conspiratorial wink or smile that accompanied every conversation about her made me feel like an accomplice, but I rationalized that all I was doing was teaching him English, and there was certainly no crime in that.

Knowing that Nakamura-san was learning English to get closer to JP (who didn’t speak much Japanese) strengthened Takahashi-manager’s belief that she could sell him the expensive new contract just as soon as he finished his current one. Trying to speed things along, Takahashi-manager started indulging Nakamura-san in long conversations about JP, and he took the bait, coming over every afternoon just to chat. She quickly convinced him that since he was there every day anyway, he might as well take a few extra lessons.

The closer he came to finishing the contract, the more time Takahashi-manager was willing to devote to hearing about JP She gave Nakamura-san her cell phone number and they began meeting for drinks after school. At first she endured long nights of hearing about JP’s talents and beauty, but those conversations were gradually replaced with questions about women. General questions quickly became more specific: “Why doesn’t she keep her promises? Is she telling me the truth? Can I trust her?” Slowly the story came out: Nakamura-san was upset that JP wouldn’t meet him outside of the official dates, and he was running out of money to pay the bar.

Takahashi-manager refused to accept this as a setback to her plan. She kept meeting Nakamura-san outside of school, offering to review all of JP’s English phone messages for him. When that didn’t work, she arranged a late-night dinner for the English teachers, herself and Nakamura-san, as if to say, “JP won’t have dinner with you — but we will!”

While this was going on, another month ended and again we had fallen short of our financial goal. Takahashi-manager was blamed for our continued failure. By this point, Nakamura-san had stopped dropping by the school, and soon he began skipping lessons. I started to wonder if he had finally figured out JP’s game. Takahashi-manager was desperate, but before she could come up with a new way to push her plan forward, he sauntered into the lobby with a grin.

“Could you help me? It is, uh, love letter.”

He handed me a card from JP and asked for help translating a certain phrase. Curious to see how they’d reconciled, I surreptitiously scanned the entire letter. I expected cute pet names and oaths of never-ending love, but all I found were expressions of sincere gratitude. JP was thanking him for a large sum of money he had just wired to her sister in the Philippines. I looked up at Nakamura-san in disbelief, but he seemed entirely satisfied with his love letter. In fact, he was completely back to his usual cheerful self.

I helped him translate the card and the thank you notes from JP’s mother and sister, as well. But when JP’s next “love letter” arrived – this time to thank him for money he sent to her cousin (who had mysteriously came down with a heart condition requiring an immediate and expensive operation) — I had to hand over translation duties to Takahashi-manager. She was happy to take over, especially as Nakamura-san was almost finished with his contract.

Finally, when he had only a few lessons left, Takahashi-manager accosted me as I came into the school and dragged me into the office.

“I did it!” she whispered.

“You sold him the contract?”

“Yeah! And the money’s already in the bank! We met the goal!”

All day the phone rang with congratulations from the other managers and the people in head office. Takahashi modestly played down her success on the phone, but she was elated. Her plan worked and she had earned a much-needed bonus. After work, all the staff went out to celebrate.

I was still worn out from the late night spent frittering away Takahashi-manager’s bonus when I arrived at school to find Nakamura-san sitting in the lobby. He locked a pale Takahashi-manager in an icy stare. I slunk into my classroom and as soon as I closed the door Nakamura-san began yelling with a speed that surpassed my limited Japanese ability. I sat slumped at my desk, imagining that Nakamura-san could finally see the reality of his situation and was now asking Takahashi-manager the questions I had been asking myself: “How could you do this to me? She never loved me. She just wanted my money, and you — you were no better!”

Once he left, I ventured out. When Takahashi-manager was able to talk, she told me that Nakamura-san’s bank statement had arrived in Fukuoka and his wife, seeing enormous bank transfers and the huge bill for English lessons, had grown suspicious. Waiting until his monthly visit home, she’d commandeered his cell phone, read his text messages, and threatened to divorce him. Nakamura-san’s daughter, older than JP, tried to mediate, telling him that he was throwing away his family for a woman who obviously only wanted his money. This line of reasoning had apparently gotten through to him, since he’d cut off JP the night before – and had now canceled his contract with us.

We had to refund Nakamura-san’s money and start the new financial month with a load of debt. Takahashi-manager took to hiding in the office, nervously watching every fax to see if it was her termination notice. When I didn’t have class I would sit with her, reminding her that financial goals aren’t important, and that a woman with such determination should have no problem finding a much better job. But she refused to quit. She started calling students about renewing their contracts and worked herself into a fervor creating advertising flyers late into the night.

The ads didn’t attract any new students, but that wasn’t a problem. Nakamura-san was still lonely and JP still needed money. Before the month was over they were together again, and we were all back in business. • 29 October 2007