The following story is true. The names have been changed
to protect the guilty and the innocent.
In my younger days, when I (Johnny)
was still working
for a certain large Finnish mobile phone company in Tokyo,
Japan, a certain good friend of mine -- let us call her Amy --
came to visit me for a few weeks. As luck would have it, one
of her good buddies from her university in England, a Japanese girl we
shall dub Yuki, was also in town along with her boyfriend,
so the four of us spent a lot of time hanging around and
doing the sights together.
One day, Yuki's parents decided to invite the whole bunch of us
over for dinner; a rare honor in Japanese society, mind you,
as few Japanese consider their (often tiny) apartments presentable
to guests. But Yuki's recently retired dad used to be a big cheese
at a big trading company, so they had an entire house to
themselves not too far from Tokyo and could well squeeze in a guest
The big day arrived, the four of us were seated at the table
on tatami along with Yuki's
Dad, and then Yuki's Mom started ferrying in the food. The dish
of the day was an incredible array of handmade sushi
(temakizushi), accompanied by beer. We were served
fruits for dessert, accompanied by green tea, and then it was
time to break out the crackers and dried squid and start the
serious drinking. Yuki's dad plopped a large multi-liter plastic
bottle of cheap shochu (Japanese firewater, around 20%) on the
table, and I was introduced to the wonder/horror that is the
grape-flavored Calpis sour.
However, our dinner was in the middle of the week, so I knew I had to
go to the work the next day and thus kept a bit of a check on
my drinking. Amy was equally serious about her tourism, so she kept
well within her limits. Yuki and her boyfriend weren't the
hard-drinking type either, and Mom -- who fulfilled the stereotype
of the ultra-efficient homekeeping Japanese mother to a T -- was
too busy doting on us to drink at all.
But as for Pops... well, well. It turned out that he had been
a salesman, and a very good one, which meant that his job consisted
largely of wining and dining customers in the exclusive
clubs of the Ginza. Doing this job well requires an immense
tolerance for booze and a long-suffering liver, which Dad clearly
had, but by the time he started to plow into his second liter of
shochu it started to be clear that he wasn't quite superhuman either.
It was all in good international cultural exchange fun though, and
Mom was even kind enough to steer the topic back to safer waters whenever
Dad started to recall his favorite geisha parties in too much detail.
Eventually the clock ticked past midnight and it was time to bid
our farewell. I got up, legs screeching after multiple hours
cross-legged, and tottered over to the genkan to put on my shoes.
Pops got up even more slowly, wobbling almost alarmingly at first,
but managed the feat just the same... and then he stood there, blinking
his beady, glassed-over eyes at me and looking at my
192-cm (6'4") frame.
Hey Johnny. Hey Johnny, ya know what? Johnny, yer a really,
really tall guy!
Well, yes, in fact I did know this; oddly enough, this astonishing
fact is regularly pointed out to me in Japan
, and Dad himself had
made this same observation at least 5 times earlier during the same
evening. But, henna gaijin
that I am, I merely smiled, nodded and
observed that yes, I do suppose that's true.
Amy looked at me, rolled her eyes and went off to the bathroom.
In slow motion, Pops' eyes followed Amy down the corridor,
then snapped back to me. A short pause, and you could almost
see the flourescent energy-saving bulb at first flicker a
couple of times and then burst into light.
Hey Johnny. Hey Johnny, ya know what? Coz yer such a
really tall guy, I betcha have a really big uncle!
Now I have to clarify a few things here. We weren't
speaking in English, we were speaking Japanese
and at the time
I'd had less than half a year's real-life practice with it. The facts
that I was drunk and that Pops was speaking in fast, rough, guttural
(and drunk) male Japanese
weren't helping either. However,
despite my somewhat inebriated
state, I did realize two things:
- Pops had referred to my uncle as "big" (大きい, ookii).
In Japanese, people can be "tall" (背が高い, se ga takai,
literally "back is high"),
or they can be "fat" (太い, futoi), but they can't be "big" --
the language just doesn't work that way.
- A not-uncommon way and somewhat humorous way of referring to
the penis is jiji (じじ), which is a diminutive, familiar
form of "uncle". But no, of course Pops hadn't used this form:
instead, he had enquired about my ojisan (お爺さん), which
literally means "Honorable Uncle Sir" and would be the proper
word to use for referring to a guest's uncle.
Still, I wasn't sufficiently sure about any of this to be able to react,
despite the giggles from the girls at the table and their friendly
suggestions that Dad was drunk and should shut up. So I just
continued my earlier grin-nod-and-act-stupid act, and kept lacing my
But Dad was a crafty one -- he clearly wasn't about to be fooled by
my act, and he definitely wanted to get his message across. Still
scrutinizing my countenance with one eye scrunched closed, trying to get
a better grip on the situation, he asked:
Hey Johnny! Didja, didja understand what I jus' said? I said,
I betcha have a really big uncle!
And, in order to drive his point home, he placed one hand on his crotch
and indicated a length of about half a meter
other. The girls cracked up and Mom, grinning all the time, grabbed
onto Dad's neck and frog-marched him out of the dining room despite his
Meanwhile, Amy emerged from the bathroom and wondered what all the
fuss was about. I told her the story later that night...
...and that, kids, is how Uncle Johnny got
Over the years, I've occasionally wondered just what on earth one can
reply to question like that; I mean, the canonical reply to any
remotely attractive female would be along the lines of "C'm'ere and
find out", but what are you supposed to say to the father of a friend
of a friend? And for any women in the audience, can you imagine
getting asked the reverse -- "Hey Jane, since you're so skinny, I
betcha have a really tight aunt?"
My favorite part of the story came only later though. A few years
later, as one of the founders of a techno promoter crew I was
elevated to a sort of father figure of the younger members.
One girl in particular -- blissfully unaware of the above sordid
story, mind you -- took to referring to me as "Uncle Johnny",
resulting in a couple of absolute gems such as this end of an
e-mail to our public mailing list:
So remember folks, and this applies especially to all you
cute girlies out there, if you have any problems Uncle Johnny will be
always be glad to help you out!
Truer words were never spoken.