It was the best of times achieving rock-star status during my three trips to Japan in the late ’80s for the annual J. Press convention in Tokyo, a series of blowout bashes organized by the new owner, Onward Kashiyama.
On three separate occasions, I enjoyed the whimsical and intoxicating power of celebrity with incessant flashbulbs, a flurry of sake toasts, constant interviews, addresses to packed auditoriums, jet-lagged days and nights greeting lines of devout J.Press customers and the local press referring to me as The King of Ivy. And it was even more of a blast than it reads on the page.
My third trip to Tokyo resulted in my being called up to the big leagues. No more being sent home in a van after the company dinner as on my first two visits. The Kashiyama team invited me to accompany them to their favorite club in Roppongi, the nightclub district of Tokyo. Instead of as in previous trips being sent back to the hotel all by my lonesome self, there was excitement in the air, as if I were about to pitch in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium. I was hustled from the van into the welcoming arms of Mama-san, a broad-shouldered linebacker of a woman who ran the joint and who had obviously been provided with my scouting report. She led our group to a long table that had been saved for us in an alcove away from the dance floor, finally introducing me in Japanese to my hostess.
Assigned to be my “friend” for the evening was Divina, a slight Filipino woman in her mid-twenties conservatively attired in a black denim shirt that partially camouflaged the more suggestive sarong she wore underneath. She was unique among the women who sat at the table with my Japanese counterparts in that she came off as low-key and attempted to speak English, while the women assigned to the rest of the crew were much more garishly attired and gaudily made up. As Divina’s English warmed up, she revealed that she had been a shop-girl from outside Manila, one of a dozen kids that lived in a modest shack. She then wanted to know stories about America. It was a lovely conversation.
Not terribly familiar with Japanese house rules for the occasion, I was relieved when Divina made it clear that she was a “table girl.” This meant that her role was to sit next to me, make me feel important and laugh at my jokes, although I’m not sure she got my Mel Brooks punchlines. I suddenly noticed the commotion and crowd gathering around us nearing pandemonium.
“Sing Richard, sing! We want Richard! Sing Karaoke Richard!” chanted our group, probably using 80% percent of the English they knew.
Sensing my reluctance, Divina leaned in and whispered, “Follow me.” An old pro at this, Divina showed me the American songs available, which was invaluable considering the alternative. Making the executive decision that my vocal shortcomings would be thoroughly exposed on a full-throated rock-and-roll number, I sensibly sought out Elvis’s ballad Love Me Tender and a real softie, Edelweiss.
For the first time in my life, things seemed to have reached their conclusion in mere seconds. After the applause and winding down of festivities, Divina took my hand and said, “Thank you, Richard, for a wonderful night.” I stepped away and bowed to her as though she was Madame Butterfly, at which point she laughed and gave me a peck on the cheek.
Yes, it was good to be The King of Ivy, and big in Japan.