Sainu, please

A thick, salty aroma from the noodle shop on the train platform in Osaka hung in the sultry air while I waited for the Shinkansen—the bullet train—on the last day of July, the time of year when Japan peels off its rain tarp in preparation for summer pastimes and festivals.

“Sainu wo itadakemasuka?”

Behind me a Japanese man, mid-thirties, held out a pen and a shikishi—a small square board used for calligraphy or writing messages. In Japanese, the word for autograph is sainu, which sounds similar to the English word “sign.” Why was he asking for my autograph? I’m sorry, you must be mistaken, I said. He flashed a sheepish grin, quickly bowed his head, and disappeared down the platform into a crowd. A few hours later, while reading The Japan Times on the train to Tokyo, I saw that there was an international kickboxing tournament scheduled that evening in Osaka. Could he have mistaken me for one of the foreigners competing in the competition?

The route to Makuhari city, approximately 20 miles east of Tokyo, passes by Tokyo Disneyland, the sprawling playground for the Japanese that attracts well over 10 million visitors per year. I reached Makuhari in the mid-afternoon lull of the train station, so it was easy to spot my two Australian friends, Ben and Mike, waiting outside the ticket gate. We were on our way to a baseball game between the hometown Chiba Lotte Marines and the Yokohama Bay Stars.

Marine Stadium was a sellout. On the stadium concourse, vendors sold steaming ramen noodles in Styrofoam cups, boiled soybeans generously sprinkled with salt, and hot dogs on a stick. From our seats, we watched sections of fan clubs from both teams roaring with carefully choreographed cheers for each player, accompanied by taiko drums and trumpets, under giant waving flags. Young, attractive Japanese beer girls with half-kegs strapped to their backs poured our beer.

The score was tied in the bottom of the ninth inning, with a runner on second base, when an American player for Chiba—Matt Watkins—lined a pitch into an outfield gap for a sayonara (game-winning) double that sent fans jumping into each other’s arms. The fervor was infectious, and we, too, joined the masses in bouncing and high-fiving our way out of the stadium after the victory.

Just outside, I heard the scream: “Watkins’ brother! Watkins’ brother!”

Puzzled, I looked around. People were staring—at me. Then I noticed my friend Mike, pointing—at me.

“Watkins’ brother! Watkins’ brother!” he yelled again, a roguish grin on his face.

No, no, I tried to explain to the crowd surrounding me, but my voice was lost in the cacophony of song and blaring loudspeakers. The news quickly spread through the crowd, and, like in a version of the telephone game played by children, moments later I heard: “Watkins! Watkins!”

Curious glances quickly turned to rapacious stares. I was now surrounded by hundreds of maniacal Japanese fans, believing I was either Watkins’ brother or Watkins himself. Tiny splashes of spittle from the overly excited, intoxicated men pelted my face. Women clutched my arms and leaned in for pictures. Children scratched and pulled at my legs.

“Sainu. Sainu.” they all demanded, holding out hand towels, balls, and t-shirts. With no other choice, I began signing: Watkins, I scribbled. No first name. Nobody seemed to mind.

The crowd around me swelled. My heart rate picked up. Breathing became irregular, even difficult, as I fought back feelings of claustrophobia. Pens began slipping from my clammy, fatigued hands. Drops of sweat trickled down into my eyes, stinging like the smoke from a hundred cigarettes. Another flashbulb. Disorientation. Another pen. Fatigue.

I don’t know exactly how much time passed before the crowd began to disperse. I could barely see the splotches of ink and stains of ketchup covering my body. I collapsed on the pavement for several long minutes listening to the hum of the cicadas in the distance.

I spotted my friends across the parking lot, talking to a group of cheerleaders who had finished their shift and were going home. As I limped past an old, rusty maintenance truck parked under a streetlight, I paused to look at my reflection in its window. Smudges on the window skewed my reflection, however, and I felt somehow trapped and hollow, like a cast member in costume greeting the masses just up the road at Tokyo Disneyland.

B Rugen

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