Out of Manila: Not waving, but drowning politely

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The Independent Online
THEY arrived in a group - five Japanese men, accompanied by five young Filipinas. With their short, permed hair, tight black trousers and gorilla- like roll of their shoulders, the men would have been immediately recognisable to anyone who had been in Japan. But the Filipino diving instructor did not realise whom he was dealing with until they had changed and come down to the beach for their first diving lesson.

'It was incredible. They looked as if they had already put on wetsuits,' he said. The gentlemen in question had tattoos covering their entire bodies, stopping just short of wrists, ankles and necklines - a full body suit of dragons, tigers and devilish faces in green and blue inks. 'I laughed at them, but they didn't seem to mind, they were proud of their tattoos. And at the end they gave me a very big tip.'

They were members of the yakuza, Japanese gangster syndicates, and had taken time off from the exacting demands of gambling, prostitution and running nightclubs to have a holiday by the sea.

Having spent the past month doggedly covering the run-up to the Japanese elections, at which only 67 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote (a record low in post-war Japan) the Independent last week decided to track down the missing 33 per cent and what better place to start than a diving resort in the Philippines, four hours by jet from Tokyo. The search turned up an interesting group of characters in addition to the playful gangsters: a pharmacy student trying to catch up with his friends who had all been diving the previous year; two young women office workers who said they preferred travelling on their own than burdened with boyfriends; a salaryman who was too polite to tell his diving instructor when he was drowning, and an adventurous young man who had been trekking in Alaska - in the winter.

Each one of them had a broader world view than the average party hack from the antiquated Liberal Democratic Party back home. No wonder they didn't vote, nor show any interest in the election results or subsequent scramble to form a coalition. Like young Americans a generation ago, the Japanese are discovering their incomes make them richer than anyone else, that the world is out there waiting for their (strengthening) yen, and that they don't have to do it in a tour group all wearing the same white hats following a guide with a little flag into the same museums.

Kiyoshi, the pharmacy student, was a man seeking to regain lost honour. In March he had gone to Thailand with some friends, only to discover to his horror that they had all taken diving courses previously, leaving him standing on the beach with a snorkel as they headed off with scuba tanks to explore the coral reefs. So he had quietly booked a holiday in the Philippines to do a diving course, and by the end of it no one was going to kick sand in his face mask.

The two office workers had been diving before but they didn't much mind about Kiyoshi's lack of a diving licence, and thought him quite an 'interesting' prospect. They had been propositioned rather crudely by an anonymous telephone caller to their hotel, and quickly warmed to Kiyoshi's tame and retiring manner. It took him several days to get over his shyness, but eventually candle-lit dinners ensued.

The salaryman, Mr Aoki, was an endearing character who nodded and smiled but didn't say very much. His enthusiasm for diving, however, was boundless, to the extent of jumping in one day before he had opened the valve on his air tank. Under the surface, his instructor signalled to ask him if he was all right, and Mr Aoki replied with the okay gesture several times in a comedy of errors that continued until the instructor realised Mr Aoki was not emitting any bubbles and was not able to breathe. Mr Aoki bought everyone beers that night because he thought the joke against himself was so funny. 'Could not breathe' he kept repeating as he laughed.

The most enterprising of all was a 26-year-old man who worked in the early morning fish market in Tsukiji in Tokyo, and used his earnings to travel. He went by the name of 'Ji' and liked out of the way places, such as Alaska in the winter. Last year he took six months off to go to the Sahara. 'I bought a camel,' he said. 'But it ran away - the Arabs cheated me. So I bought another camel, and I spent six months with this camel in the desert. Very interesting.'

Next year Ji is planning to take off to South America. 'I like Japan, it's a great place,' he said. 'But outside Japan is interesting also.'