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Enemy At The Gate

Jack Donaghy once said, “A nemesis can be anyone… or anything.” He was, as always, spot on. I know this better than anyone. Since moving to Japan, I have made enemies with numerous people, objects, and metaphysical concepts, including (in chronological order): a four year old boy, the remote for my air conditioner, a bag of onions, Japan’s absurdly complicated recycling practices, food menus, a one-year-old-girl, my own inability to learn Japanese, gravity, fake-handwritten Japanese, a bee, crippling loneliness, the JLPT, a coworker who was unaware of our rivalry, and recently, the incessantness of teenage male testosterone.

Some of these adversaries I heroically vanquished (I bought a bag of onions earlier today), some buried me in the ground (I still can’t fly), and some are still being fought (the one-year-old-girl is now 2). However, all these battles have been rendered inconsequential by the arrival of a foe so heinous, so vile, and so repugnant that I’m now drunk with righteous anger just thinking about it.

A while back, my doorbell rang. Not thinking anything of it, I answered; to my immediate regret. It was the NHK guy.

The NHK is the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Much like the BBC in Britain or, kind of, PBS in America, it is a publicly owned network that provides television and radio content. It houses the majority of news and television in Japan. But, despite it being a huge corporation in a technologically advanced country, NHK collects its fees in the same way as the Romans did in the New Testament. Some guy shows up at your door and demands money. By law, anyone who has a TV is obliged to pay this fee.

When I first moved to Japan, I was warned about the NHK guy possibly coming to my apartment and was instructed to `look confused` and `pretend you don`t speak Japanese. ` This advice has been passed down for generations ever since Thomas the Apostle pretended not to speak Aramaic when Matthew the tax collector came calling. This was easy advice for me to follow because I actually didn`t speak Japanese and I was often confused. So, that’s what I did. I stood there, looking bemused, until the NHK guy got frustrated by the stupid gaijin who didn’t understand a word of Japanese and eventually he would leave.

“今晩は。失礼します。私はNHKから来ます、” he said. Remembering my training, I said nothing and continued to look stupid. I could see his frustration as he realized this was going to be a pain in the ass. “テレビがありますか?” Again, I said nothing. “テレビ。Terebi…Te-re-bi….” Still, I did nothing. “T-V,” he said, now in (kind of) English.

“Oh, TV,” I said in English. “わかーI mean, ok. No, I don’t have a TV.” Unfortunately, I do have a TV and, more unfortunately, he could see it from where he was standing in the doorway. He pointed at it.

“Oh, television. Yes, ok.” This exchange went on for a couple of minutes, with him explaining things to me in Japanese and me somewhat understanding, but pretending not to. His frustration grew and, when he opened his bag, I assumed he was putting away his things and we were done. I was wrong.

He pulled out a tablet and proceeded to open a video chat with one of his colleagues, who, as it turned out, spoke perfect English. They had found a solution to the oldest trick in the book and I had no other tricks. But I was not giving up so easily. He gave me a form to fill out with my information. Under Name: “Matthew Johnson,” I wrote. Under address, I wrote my real address because clearly NHK already knew it. Then came bank account information: my last chance to escape.

“I don’t have a bank account,” I said.

“Did you recently arrive in Japan?” he asked through his skype interpreter.


“What is your job?”

“I don’t have a job,” I said.

“Are you a student?”

“Yes.” It was more plausible for a student to not have a bank account.

“What school do you go to?”

“Osaka…something.” I couldn’t think of the name of any nearby colleges.

“How do you pay for things?”

"I use cash I brought with me.”

Defeated, he told me I needed to establish a bank account within the next week and he would be back. I closed the door, thrilled, relieved, and covered in sweat. Because of all the translating, he had been at my door for almost a half hour.

I resolved to not open the door for people in the future and, thus, he would be easily avoided. The following week, as I was unlocking my door, he materialized a few feet behind me. We made momentary eye contact. In a panic, I rushed inside, closing the door in his face.

He rang the doorbell, but I didn't open the door. He rang again, but again, I did nothing. Eventually, he left. I had won the battle, but not the war. Since then, every time I get home, I am on the lookout for him around every corner. Every time the doorbell rings, my heart jumps out of my chest so aggressively I have to collect it from the other side of the room and reinsert it into my body. Sometimes he is waiting at my front door when I get home at night, so I have to wander around the neighborhood until he leaves. Other times, he is at my door when I want to leave, so I have to either wait or I sneak out of my own apartment through the back door and climb down a balcony. I even have a recurring dream where I walk into my apartment and he’s sitting there waiting for me in the dark, smoking a cigarette with a shit-eating grin on his face. Such is the extent that he haunts me.

I figured this could only last a short time. It can’t possibly be worth his time to come back to my apartment at least once every week to try to get me to pay my tithe. But he persists. It has been more than three months and still he returns. Initially, I despised this man who disrupted my life to make me pay for television programming I don’t watch on a television I only own because it was in the apartment when I moved in. But, over time, a begrudging respect for his persistence formed. I can’t help but wonder if he is impressed by my efforts to avoid him. Unfortunately, because of our situation, if I am to win this standoff, we can never learn each other’s feelings. As I type this sentence, he is standing outside my front door. I can hear him, pacing, sighing, and, presumably, fantasizing about he day he finally bests me. He is truly a worthy nemesis.

Is constant, life-shortening fear worth the $14/year licensing fee I am avoiding? I’m not sure. The life of a fugitive from the law isn’t an easy one, but it’s the life I’ve determined to live.

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