It was midnight, and I walked down into a smoky cocktail bar in the basement of one of the thousand neon-lit buildings in Tokyo’s center. The decor was a mix between a corporate conference room and a 1920s cruise ship, all dimmed to a jazz club’s shadowy intimacy. Faux-leather chairs slouched in the darkness, and the pungent scent of the highly-polished table-tops cut through the acrid smoke.
The waiters bowed with stiff backs as I entered, their suits hanging off their slender frames, sagging at their shoulders, and lending them a boyish formality. They swept around the side of the bar to take my coat and wish me a warm welcome. They smiled professionally and moved almost imperceptibly, their black trousers swishing in the darkness.
I was in Japan to cover a story about kodokushi, or the “lonely death,” a phenomenon in which isolated, often elderly, people die from loneliness. That day I had witnessed my first case. The man was 60 years old and had no family—or at least, no family that wanted to know him—no friends, and no job. He had not committed suicide per se; he just chose not to live. He stopped eating, stopped washing, and he stopped leaving his apartment, until one day he died of a heart attack. I had seen his ignominious end, his urine-soaked bedsheets and his shit-caked carpets. And I had watched from his balcony as the rest of the world carried on obliviously below.
The waiter came and I ordered on an Old Fashioned. Not because I liked the drink especially, but because I had a very limited cocktail knowledge. I had been going to the bar every day for over a week, and every night I found myself smoking and sipping unenthusiastically at that pepped-up bourbon.
The bar was quiet as always. Five salarymen, regulars, lined the bar with their solemn expressions and empty glasses. They were all alone, separated from each other by the nebulous cubicles of cigarette smoke that formed around them. To the left of the bar were three more men, each one seated at a different table, each one drinking deeply from his glass. No one spoke, but everyone stared: into the dregs of their drink and beyond, into their thoughts.
My cocktail arrived, and I gulped it back quickly. I ordered another one, and I finished that one, too. I suppose I wanted to get drunk, to dull the sweet stink of putrefaction in my nose and the sadness in my mind. But I couldn’t.
Instead, I imagined the hundreds of thousands of small rooms like this one, piled on top of one another. I imagined the millions of lonely drinkers getting drunk, slumping into each other’s personal space like melting candles; close enough to touch, but too drunk to talk. Then, I imagined the man dying alone in his apartment, and how close his neighbors might have been at the moment of his death. I imagined a woman sitting in her chair reading, while the man lay ill in his bed. Back to back, they were separated only by a thin wall.
I looked around the bar, resting my drunken gaze on the temple of the man next to me, and willing myself into his thoughts. I wondered why, if every night he saw the same people, ordered the same drink, and did the same thing, he kept his loneliness to himself. I wondered why, in a city of millions, where people spill into to each other’s intimacy on a daily basis, this same man was unable to let physical proximity become familiarity. But how could I know anything? The boundaries that separate us from other people’s problems, however slight they may seem, the plaster of an adjoining wall or the skin of a human being, are in actual fact miles thick.
My thoughts were interrupted by the barman, who had come scurrying over to my table, and was nodding to my empty glass. I saw in his face his desire to talk to me. Up until that point, none of the barmen had spoken in English; we had instead survived on elaborate hand gestures and a global vocabulary of cocktail-related words. But for whatever reason, he had now summoned the courage to interrogate me.
With a deep, shaky breath, he asked, “What have you done so far in Japan?”
This article appeared first in Roads and Kingdoms