It’s not uncommon for the doorbell to ring here. Visitors include
- People trying to sell newspaper subscriptions (whilst generously handing out free toilet rolls and washing powder: I gave the latter to the secretary at uni, and the former I wiped my bum with. That’s what I think of that newspaper)
- the Japanese equivalent of a Jehovah’s Witness
- A chap trying to sell me a fibre-optic internet connection (he was dismayed when I pointed out the metre-high metal box right behind him containing the fibre optic modem-things that provided all apartments in the building not only with broadband internet but also video-on-demand courtesy of the Windows Media Centre TV things we all have)
- Delivery men (food parcels from mum in the West of Japan, futons with needles in etc)
- People from the water board making sure we know how to use the taps (!)
- Someone who told us not to open the door to strangers as there had been an ‘incident’ in the area recently
- The man who, upon seeing that I was a foreigner, said, “Oh, you’re a foreigner aren’t you? Sorry for bothering you. Bye.”
- The NHK Man
Whenever the doorbell rings, I’m the one sent to to answer it. Initially this was done to ward off the salesmen – I could feign ignorance of the language. However, with the passing of time, so I’ve actually come to like answering the door. The thing is, I know full-well that I’m not going to sign up for whatever, thus I can just enjoy the opportunity to practice my Japanese with the stranger, humouring them, trying to make them talk about anything but whatever it is that they’re trying to sell, trying to break down the formal barrier.
In this was, the NHK man has come to be one of my best friends.
NHK, the equivalent of the UK’s BBC, is in the unfortunate position of relying upon subscription fees for a lot of it’s income – the reason this is unfortunate is that the paying of these bloomin’ expensive fees is not actually mandatory.
In order to get people to cough up, NHK has an army of clipboard-wielding Subscription Fee Collectors, a job which requires applicants to be at least 6 foot tall and over 85kg. They spend their days wandering the streets of Japan, knocking on the doors of houses listed as not having paid the NHK fee, asking them to please hand over the money.
The point at which their job gets difficult is when the customer says “No”. There’s no law that states that one must pay, so if you don’t agree to pay, there’s not much they can do. For people like us, who rarely watch TV, it just makes no sense to pay.
The first time he rang the bell I was, I must admit, pretty thrown. Having had no direct experience of A Meeting With The NHK Man, upon seeing his badge I panicked. I knew that I didn’t want to pay, and thus immediately felt guilty.
It was bad. I just couldn’t pull myself together. His speech became a blur in my ears as images of him pressing a ball-pen into my hand filled my mind. I felt sick, I wanted to slam the door, but knew that if I did that he’d stick his foot in the way and I’d be arrested for GBH. But then suddenly, he started to bow, and said goodbye. Quite what had happened I didn’t know.
The second time he rang, I was much more prepared. Hearing the doorbell, I looked up at the little screen on the wall behind the TV (which was off!) to see who it was. Ah, yes, that bald patch, I’d recognise that anywhere. I was feeling daring, ready for a fight.
“Ah, hisashiburi desu ne!” (“Ah, long time no see!”)
My initial greeting threw him off guard. I was off to a good start.
The 15-minute conversation began. We started with his usual spiel, which ended with the line,
“I know that you have a TV because all apartments in this building have them as standard, it’s in the contract you have with the owner”.
ME: “Yes, we do have a TV, but never watch it. Like you say, we have to have it, it’s in the contract, but never use it”.
HIM: “I’m afraid it’s irrelevant whether you use it or not. The fact is that you should pay if you have one.”
ME: “But don’t you think that’s crazy?!”
Him: “That’s how it is in Japan”
ME: “I’m sorry, but I just can’t agree with that. It’s ridiculous”
HIM: “I’m sorry. Please pay.”
ME: “Tell you what, I’d be more that happy for you to take the TV with you, as long as you tell the landlord.
HIM (getting into the spirit of it): “I’m afraid I can’t do that. I came on a bicyle.”
We both laugh.
ME: “You know, I don’t understand why, in Japan, you don’t have TV detector vans like we do in the UK. You know, in the UK, instead of having people like you doing your difficult job, we just have people sitting in magic vans that can see through people’s walls, like superman, to see if they have a TV”.
HIM: (laughing): “Ah, yes, but did you know that the NHK collection rate is higher than that of the BBC in the UK?”
ME: “But the population of Japan is twice that of the UK.”
HIM: “No, not the number, the rate. We’re much more successful in Japan.”
I noted that he was suspiciously knowledgeable about the BBC, something he seemed entirely ignorant of when I mentioned them in our first meeting. It seemed he’d been doing his homework.
The conversation when on. Him babbling away, with me understanding most of what he was saying, adding the odd, “Yes, I understand” at opportune moments. Then he said something I didn’t understand at all. I tried to keep up, but no, it was no good, I’d lost the sense of what he was saying. Thinking he was about to leave, and that this was his romantic farewell speech, I thought it best to feign an understanding, and so continued to say “yes”.
And Then It Happened.
His face lit up. He looked delighted.
I had just inadvertently agreed to paying a ridiculous sum of money for a service I don’t use! What could I do?
It was at that point that fate intervened. As The NHK Man reached into his big, heavy bag, he lost his balance, and almost fell over backwards. It was most unexpected, but I seized the opportunity before he could get his hand on his contract pad.
“No, No, No, I absolutely won’t pay. It’s impossible, I won’t pay”
Had he not lost his balance, he would have been able to assert himself, to tell me that it was too late, I had agreed to pay, but as it was, he was feeling foolish, and was thus in no position to tell me what to do.
He’d lost his confidence. I assured him again that I wouldn’t pay, and perhaps he’d be better off talking to my girlfriend whose name is on the contract, but she works very long hours and is seldom at home.
He knew he’d been beaten this time. Still, we’d both enjoyed the battle.
“Goodbye, see you soon” I told him, although really I wanted to invite him in for a cup of tea and a bit of TV.
Having spoken to a few friends about The NHK Man, I know that our relationship is not yet over – three visits before giving up is standard.
The NHK Man Always Rings Thrice.