back to the Black Table
  You've learned that art is not in the packaging. And so the shabby exterior of the Sendai Rock and the posters of partially clothed young women at the entrance are an invitation to step inside.

You slip your four thousand yen through a slot in an opaque pane of glass. For those who didn't have the forethought to download a discount ticket from the theater's Web site, the cost is five thousand.

After handing your ticket to a middle-aged man sporting a gray ponytail, you push your way through the double doors and enter a dark room no larger than a suburban two car garage. The floor is

concrete. Five rows of seats are crowded around the foot of a small stage and turntable a body width in diameter. You've arrived between performances. There are four a day, each two hours. The last one begins at 9:15.

Because it's a weekday, there are only a few customers:


three businessmen, a man in a gray uniform with a name patch over a breast pocket, two other men in sweaters and jackets. Now and then the businessmen whisper to each other. A man in his early twenties, probably a student, comes in and sits down in one of the back rows, nursing a Coke. Students, when they show an I.D., receive a 1,000 yen discount.

You feel you could be in a theater which screens art films were it not for the twinkle of Christmas lights across a black curtain. The theatre is tidy and clean. In one corner a fire extinguisher, in the other a men's room. You look for a women's room, but there isn't one. A metal storage locker is next to the men's room, and behind the seats a mop and bucket. In a corner, two technicians are crammed into a tiny booth where the lights and sound are controlled. You remember seeing a vending machine in the lobby that dispenses beer.

* * *

A man announces, "Thank you for coming to the Sendai Rock. We hope you enjoy the show. Please refrain from smoking. Should you wish to use your phone, please come out to the lobby. And no photographs or videos allowed of the performance."

The lights dim.

A figure appears on the stage.


A woman belts out, "Look at me! I'm a talent queen!"

Your feet, following the quickening thud of your heart, tap out a beat


with the music. A spotlight captures a lithe young woman in a sparkling green cowgirl outfit -- halter-top, skirt, hat, cuffs -- all trimmed with a very appropriate Dale Evans white fringe. Sequins sparkle. She stares straight ahead. Like most Japanese, she assumes the role of her job and performs it without complaint. Stripper or bus driver, dignity and discipline are expected.

Red, blue, and yellow strobes come on.


She takes off her hat. Her hair, a subtle shade of ginger, falls to her shoulders.

Holding the brim of the hat in both hands, she looks up to some imaginary stars. An expression of unrequited love crosses her face. She covers her heart with the hat, looks stage left, stage right, tosses the hat to the side and begins to dance, a little moon walk here, break dance there. She stops to pantomime the drawing back of an arrow in a bow and lets the arrow fly. You ponder the symbolism. Yes, you have to agree with the singer, she is a talent queen.

* * *

Striptease came to Japan in the late 1940s, when the American occupation was well underway and the Japanese, eager to learn the customs of their conquerors, were somewhat open-minded about accepting foreign ideas. Japan had been at war since 1937, when it invaded China. Even before Pearl Harbor, commodities such as eggs, butter, cotton, wool, and charcoal were in short supply.

By August of 1945, the month two atomic bombs fell, the Japanese had had enough of war and, as John Dower accurately expresses in the title of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, were "Embracing Defeat." It was time to look to the future, if they could see their way past the ash heaps which were now their cities, and have some fun.

Then, as now, striptease was headquartered in the theatres of Tokyo, either in Shinjuku or Asakusa. (The artists who go on stage at the Sendai Rock receive their training in Asakusa, an area of Tokyo known for its entertainment venues. It is brief, only a few days. They learn some basic dance steps, how to stretch out gracefully on a turntable. Then they go on the road to practice their art, taking along a variety of elaborate costumes which range from "Gone With the Wind" hoop skirts, complete with matching hat and feather, to Bathsheba baubles and beads, Tinkerbell wings, and even kimonos.) The Sendai Rock is one theater in a national strip club chain, but the artists are allowed to choose their costumes, dance numbers, and music, which helps them all retrain their individuality. The tunes, ranging from love ballads to gangster rap, are almost always in English and are an attempt to evoke that international atmosphere which Japanese cloak themselves in but rarely embrace. A Western man in the audience could attract as much attention as an erect nipple.

* * *

The cowgirl exits stage right as the spotlight narrows.


You and the other men applaud enthusiastically.

The theater darkens.



You hear some rumbling noises backstage.

A few minutes later, the sound technician announces, "Music."

This time it's an American pop singer: "Tonight I celebrate my love for you!"



The spotlight comes on and there she is again, this time in a gossamer nightgown. She does a series of modified pirouettes, making her way to the turntable, where she falls to the floor like a wilting flower, her arms crossed over her breasts.

The turntable starts.

She arches her back, raises her arms, lowers them gracefully, and slips off her panties, wrapping them around a wrist. Her willowy body appears as soft and smooth as satin.
A man leans forward, studying her.

She points one leg skyward. It's as straight as a reed. She raises the other. Two reeds moving rhythmically in a breeze. They cross, separate, split.

Lowering her legs as she extends an arm, she pushes herself up off the floor. Her back flexes. She's as supple as a ballerina.

The men stay in their seats, mesmerized. Some are lost in their fantasies.

Applause builds as she rises slowly, elegantly, to her feet. Standing now, the applause reaches its crescendo, and she exits stage right.

* * *

Her performance has been great fun so far, very Japanese -- individual performance within a defined form -- (is that why the Japanese enjoy baseball so much?) -- and such attention to detail: white fringe!

She and the men played their assigned roles. The men didn't paw at her, show her who was in control by having her grovel for wadded up one thousand yen notes tossed on the floor or tucked in her panties. No vulgar shouts, hoots of laughter in the Western style. She didn't sneer, show any resentment. No one lost face. They both knew where the lines were drawn and behaved accordingly, just as they will when the show ends and they take on other roles: husband-wife, boss-employee, teacher-student, doctor-patient. In all these roles, they are themselves, of course, but they're themselves within a greater us. The certainty of knowing what is expected of one keeps society running smoothly.

* * *

Dressed in a sheer teddy, a very personable smile painted across her white face, she returns to the stage carrying a small basket. Carefully arranged in the basket are a Polaroid, extra pack of film, pen, and child's cash box.

"How about having a Polaroid shot for one thousand yen?" asks the announcer.

She squats down, looks at one of the businessmen, and says, "How's your wife?"

Everyone laughs.

"A souvenir to remember me by, Big Brother?" Students call teachers "teacher." Office workers call their boss "section chief." Calling him "customer" would have been a little cold. "Big Brother" fits their current role.

The three businessmen, as if they were back at the office, hold an impromptu meeting before one pulls out his wallet.

His colleague stands.

"How would you like me to pose?" she asks.

"Would you mind putting your legs that way?" he asks.

"You're nasty!"

His face reddens; his friends laugh.

The photo is taken, and she signs it and hands it to him, bowing the way a university president would when handing a diploma to a graduating student.

He pays her, and she puts the bill away in the cash box.

Turning to her next admirer, she says, "And you, Big Brother?"