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Some years ago, there was a yatai (food stall) behind Yotsuya station. It was run by a real eccentric character who ruled his mise (translated as ‘shop’) with an iron fist.  

The yatai seated about twenty people, ten around the stall with the others sitting on two benches either side of a table, which consisted of a board perched on top of some empty crates. It served only oden (a hotpot), sake and shochu (distilled liquor). The oden was excellent, and itself a reason for stopping by. But the main reason for a visit to this particular yatai was the atmosphere. Every patron was considered an equal and expected to participate in the conversation and the banter on completely equal footing. 

There was one rule, and the master (Japanese equivalent of ‘proprietor’) enforced it with the ruthlessness of a medieval despot: No talking about or indicating rank or status! This effectively meant that talking about one’s job, company or educational background was prohibited because they were clear indicators of status, and so was exchanging or even showing a meishi (business card).  

The rule, which was not written down or displayed anywhere, was explained to newcomers before they even ordered anything. Naturally, some people took offense and left immediately, but most people accepted and even appreciated it.  

Any infringement of this rule would lead to instant eviction from the yatai. Once the master made a decision to evict someone that decision was final. No amount of apologizing or appealing would reverse the decision. But eviction did not mean a permanent ban. People evicted were always welcome to return, provided they obeyed the rule—and many people did return.  

There were, of course, some people who either never learned, or perhaps enjoyed the procedure and attention of being thrown out. These serial offenders were sometimes given a temporary suspension of one or two weeks, after which they would be welcomed back as if nothing had ever happened—until the next time they were evicted.  

The topics of conversation varied with the season and with what was happening in the world. Baseball and sumo were popular topics, as were culture, politics and society. Discussions were often heated—fueled by the hot sake and sochu—with everyone around the stall, or even those sitting at the table, getting involved. Everybody had an opinion, and every opinion was respected, even if not agreed with.  

The master’s favorite topic was sex, of which he had an encyclopedic knowledge. Every single night the conversation turned to the subject, and it was discussed enthusiastically by all present—including the females, of which there were many regulars. In fact, the banter between the master and the female regulars—ladies ranging from early twenties to late fifties—was one of the special features of the yatai. Some of the ladies, no matter how reserved or modest they affected to be at work, could surprise or shock newcomers with the ease at which they handled the sexual innuendos being thrown back and forward.  

The yatai, unfortunately no longer exists. A few years ago the master retired and thus one of the few true bastions of equality in Tokyo vanished. That it no longer exists, however, does not mean that it will be forgotten. I, like many other patrons, will always remember it. How could we ever forget a character like the master, a man who welcomed everyone on the same terms irrespective of rank, status or gender? How could we ever forget his ‘shop,’ a place that served excellent oden, reasonable but not the best liquor, and a fantastic evening of conversation and entertainment (at least one person was evicted every night and the scene was always highly amusing)?

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

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