April 28, 2010

Coping Mechanisms

When I went to live in Tokyo during my senior year of high school, all those many years back in 1992, I had to discover several different coping mechanisms to help me mentally resolve the waves of culture shock that washed over me on a daily basis.

You may find this hard to believe, but growing up for 17 years in a small Minnesota town, with a population of just over 1,000, and transitioning into a major metropolitan city of over 20 million people is a rather jarring experience. Throw into the mix the fact virtually the entire Japanese population didn't regularly speak my language, and you can adequately start to appreciate just how out of my element I actually felt. Every day for the first couple of months brought with it a new adventure, and there was no telling if each new adventure would be a pleasure or a nightmare.

So, yeah: coping mechanisms.

During my first week in Tokyo, I was put up in a hotel located near a fairly popular shopping street, and one of the first shops I encountered while exploring that street was a fascinating model store, where a customer could find models of practically anything you could imagine. There were model cars, model airplanes, model buildings and even model humans, all in neatly stacked boxes, just waiting to be purchased and assembled.

Even though I hadn't assembled a model in years, I found myself sequestered in my hotel room my second day in Tokyo, meticulously putting together a model of a ceremonial Japanese parade shrine. Over the next several months, I would assemble roughly two dozen other models, ranging from a model Porche, to model Japanese swords, to model Japanese castles. In retrospect, I think I was trying to understand my new world by assembling a tiny Japan I at least had some control over.

But assembling models was only a gateway coping mechanism. It wasn't long before I discovered video games, which was quickly followed by gambling, which wasn't that much of a transition, since most video game parlors were housed in the same building as Pachinko parlors.

For those not familiar with Pachinko, it's basically a type of Japanese gambling machine where you try to manipulate a bunch of tiny steel balls, via gravity, down a brightly lit panel consisting of a bunch of pins that ping and pong the balls this way and that, not unlike a vertical pinball game. The idea is to guide the balls, if you can, into certain slots and cubbies which, if you do so, results in the reward of many more steel balls. If you're good at Pachinko, you can accrue a lot of steel balls, which can be redeemed for cash--albeit in a somewhat shady, back alley sort of way..

While I wasn't particularly good at Pachinko, I was nevertheless an enthusiastic participant. Nothing soothed frazzled, culture-shocked nerves quite like burning through $50 worth of Pachinko balls. I would later discover most Pachinko parlors also had slot machines, which were immensely easier to understand, but just as capable of separating me from my money. However, I have to admit, I did have some winning streaks that kept me flush with cash for quite some time. I think such winning streaks maybe happened three times over the course of that year.

Video games, however, held their own unique appeal, to say nothing of their own unique surprises. I was surprised, for example, by the regular appearance of video games dedicated to Tetris, of all things. I mean, I had played Tetris for many years on my Nintendo and, later, on a Game Boy, and I had long since grown tired of that irritating game with its irritating music, so it was a bit surprising to see it featured so regularly in Japanese video game parlors.

The mystery surrounding the appearance of so many Tetris consoles quickly evaporated once I discovered the "reward" for completing different Tetris levels. I was seated at a different video game, based off the movie "Hook," when I noticed the young man beside me was playing a particularly fast-paced game of Tetris. He completed the level, and suddenly an image of a nearly completely naked Japanese girl flashed up on the screen for about 20 seconds, before fading back to the Tetris game and the next level.

I was initially dumbfounded, but I have to admit to a renewed interest in the game of Tetris. I watched that young man play Tetris for the next half hour, and I'm here to tell you, he was REALLY GOOD at Tetris. The blocks descended at rates so fast, they were almost a blur, yet he was able clear level after level, and he was rewarded each time with 20 seconds of viewing different Japanese women in varying levels of undress.

The genius of this pornography reward system was immediately obvious to me. For years, I'd played Tetris and was rewarded for clearing each level with. . . MORE Tetris. No WONDER I got so sick of that game. But there, in Tokyo, I saw a Tetris/porn reward system that was obviously resulting in a population of young Japanese males who were just plain awesome at Tetris. I'm not saying it necessarily resulted in better school grades, generally, but I can't imagine it really hurt.

And, I have to tell you, it really made stop and consider whether assembling models and Pachinko parlor gambling were my best choice of coping mechanisms.

Posted by Ryan at April 28, 2010 06:42 PM | TrackBack
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