Never play cards with a Ginza Mama: AS part of his research, Lewis journeyed to Tokyo and took in the delights of the Ginza.

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The Independent Online
I WAS relieved, as we entered the hostess bar, by its familiar feel. A piece of reproduction furniture here, an imitation Monet there. Plump stuffed chairs like Grandma used to have. I was the only foreigner in sight and could sense everyone working hard not to stare.

Our party of three was ushered to a table in a corner and instantly attended by five young ladies: Kiko, Miko, Yuko, and a couple of others with equally improbable names. They wore Mickey Mouse watches. They spoke in voices an octave higher than the average birdsong. I would not have been surprised to learn that they slept with stuffed animals. Kiko, distinguished by her ability to giggle in English, poured whisky and water into our glasses and served us cheese balls and fruit.

At last she made way for an attractive older woman who was in her early forties but claimed to be 34, and wore a funny pin through her hair. She was the owner of the bar, and looked about as professional as a person can who shuffles around in a kimono. We exchanged business cards, and then the Mama-san, as she was called, conducted the orchestra of praise and flattery that Kiko and the other Disney characters showered upon my Japanese host. He took it in for a few minutes, like a cat having his neck scratched.

Then, without warning, he turned sniffy. He spat out a few curt Japanese words that my translator declined to interpret but that I later learned were 'Please don't bother too much with me. Make the foreigner happy. He's a very rich American writer.' The Mama-san and her charges shifted around in unison and looked for the first time at me. I felt inadequate, like an empty bank vault.

'Is he married?' asked the Mama-san.

'No,' said the publisher.

It didn't matter that it wasn't true (I was married, and I hadn't seen a dime of royalties from my recently published book). All of a sudden a tiny, soft hand fluttered like a dove on to my knee, and Kiko was saying, 'I like American men best because they are strong and know how to tell a joke.' By the end of the evening we had sworn eternal friendship, and I had agreed to return the next night as the Mama-san's honoured guest. Alone.

'A great honour,' said a stuffy old Englishman I had met early in my stay in Tokyo. He had lived for years with the vain belief that he knew everything there was to know about the local culture. Tokyo is full of such elderly frauds, who in my brief experience are invariably old boys of British public schools. They spend their time peddling bad advice to newcomers like me, who know even less than they do.

'But can I afford this honour?' I asked, knowing that nights in the Ginza could easily run to thousands of dollars, and having nobody but the old Englishman to ask.

'Oh, you would never be expected to pay. Money is never discussed in the Ginza hostess bars,' said this great expert on Japan. He chuckled at my naivety and crass materialism. 'You needn't even carry your wallet.'

The Mama-san had lured me back by promising to tell me all she knew from her years of observing Japanese businessmen: how they held their liquor, what they said about American cars - that sort of thing. She never told me anything, of course. The Mama-san treated information as if it were money. She was a shrewd titan of commerce. She was saving for the day when the yen would be strong against the dollar. She was in the market for property in Cape Cod, where she had heard there were distressed sellers.

She had a friend, a noodle-shop owner, who leased Boeing 747s as a tax shelter, and she was considering the loophole herself. She thought American women weak, because they 'don't control the family money'. She asked what I thought of the Japanese stock market. She felt it was overvalued (and she was right: it fell by 50 per cent in the following six months). She spoke about six words of English, but she spoke them well.

The first of these words was Amex. This was her favorite word. She spoke it often, and each time she did she made a little square in the air with her fingers: the sign of the card. After the last drink in her establishment, she raised the question of payment: 'Amex?' She said it in a high-pitched chirp that I took to be her bid to seem soft and vulnerable.

Later, as we staggered through a night on the town, it became a command: 'Amex]' It boomed like a volley from a cannon. When I retired to my hotel in the heart of Tokyo at 4.30am, I had consumed exactly two glasses of weak whisky and was billed dollars 575 on my American Express card. My hostess, Cape Cod landlady and stock-market speculator, had traveled for free - and turned a tidy profit for her establishment in the bargain. Her final words to me were translated, 'Michael-san, you are very American.'

I told this tale to a friend as we passed through Kasumigaseki, home to the ministries that oversee Japanese business and finance. 'Young Mister Lewis,' he said, 'a sucker is born every minute in America - and half of them find their way to Japan.'

(Photograph omitted)

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