It’s not often you meet someone in a Haruki Murakami novel. Two chapters of courage and cowardliness would lead me to getting to know the man Murakami would later write about.
A mysterious and sinister character, Johnnie Walker is named after and dresses like the mascot for Johnnie Walker brand whiskey. He is extremely cruel and violent, especially towards cats - Kafka on the Shore
Murakami was writing metaphorically, as though physical details match, there has never been any evidence of cat violence.
In the summer of 1997, I had just moved to Tokyo, then and now a vast city with limitless possibilities. Shortly before this I had drifted into an aimless year in Wisconsin as a grad student without a major. I needed a fresh start and with a few non credit semesters of language lesson under my belt, I packed up my bags, worked up my courage and took a flight across the globe to my new home.
After making a few friends, one asked if I wanted to go to a Johnnie Walker party.
“Johnnie Walker, the whiskey, is sponsoring a party? I said.
“No no”, he laughed, “Johnnie Walker is a person. He promotes artists.”
“Is he an artist?”
“He knows lots of artists. You should come.”
The film Basquiat, about a penniless struggling up and coming artist in New York, was popular at the time. The Rolling Stones song Beast of Burden was heard everywhere on the back of being featured in a good scene. Art seemed glamourous.
Further research turned up Johnnie Walker was the top foreign art dealer in Tokyo. He was pictured at media events with Japanese celebrities and American and European notables visiting Japan.
I was definitely going.
Tokyo at dusk in the summer is magical. You can smell a dusty dryness in the air, the air is still warm while the sky turns orange. The side streets filled with ancient wooden buildings and shops are cast in soft shadow.
We left the Shibuya shopping district and took the train a few stops to the residential neighborhood of Yoyogi-Uehara. We came to a modern sculpted concrete building that looked more like a design studio than a home.
The party had already begun and we let ourselves in. Inside, the party was composed of a handful of Westerners, and many more Japanese, dressed in flowing garments and bespoke accessories in the style unique to the Tokyo art community.
Johnnie Walker was pointed out. A crowd of artists circled around him and talked to him very solicitously. I would later learn it’s hard to sell fine art, and Johnnie as an art dealer would be someone they would be very happy to connect with.
Eventually Johnnie came around to our group. He was a shortish stocky older man with very colorful glasses in the style of a TV host, he made quippy jokes and dropped the names of A list celebrities that he met recently then told us all to enjoy the party. I was about to launch into a personal introduction when Johnnie eyed the next group and moved on. I watched him ushering them upstairs for a personal viewing of his art collection.
With a lack of my own art or any endeavours to promote myself, after few glasses of free champagne, I gradually got around to cornering, and in the manner of a slightly drunk student journalist, questioning the attendees. Most were artists, or art students, or working in various design related jobs. Many were actually slightly confused as to why they were here and who Johnnie Walker was.
After a while word spread through the crowd to hush.
A space cleared, and a dancer moved to the central atrium area. For 15 minutes the crowd was perfectly silent and watched her enact a Butoh dance performance.
“Bravo! Bravo!” A booming vaguely European voice exclaimed. I looked back and saw it was coming from Johnnie. Everyone cheered and then the party continued. It was a fascinating party and I would attend several more events there.
Afterwards, I would occasionally see Johnnie walking with his Pomeranian through trendy Harajuku. He would avoid my gaze. It would appear I was not to be accepted into his world of artists and art dealers and celebrity acquaintances and such. Perhaps I should have introduced myself more directly but I didn’t have much confidence then.
Rumors floated around that he was a white Russian emigree from the revolution. Some said he was a Jewish refugee from Germany who fled to Shanghai before arriving in Japan. In his media interviews he never referenced this topic. He bathed in mystery.
The next year out of financial necessity I started a job at a European stock broker’s branch office in Tokyo. After a year of being mostly alone, I was suddenly getting calls throughout the day from salespeople. Confident, brash, loud.
One of the most confident and loudest was Tony. Tony was from East London and spoke like someone in a Guy Ritchie film. Somehow, I am the opposite of loud, we became friends and began having beers after work about once a week.
One night after we received our pints at the Hobgoblin Irish pub, we had a long conversation.
“How did you wind up in Tokyo?” Tony asked
I told a mildly self glorifying biography, leaving out the slow bits, while he nodded and threw in a comment every once and a while. After I was done talking about myself, there was a pause. The pause continued. A cue.
“London to Japan, how did that happen Tony?”, I asked in return.
His story was to held elements of both rash bravery and sensible cowardliness.
“One day I was looking out my window in East London” he sipped his beer. “And I saw someone breaking into a car in the street below.”
“It wasn’t even my car.” Tony continued. “Being a big bloke myself, I ran into the street and grabbed him, and shouted for everyone around to call the police."
"The man was arrested. I asked the police, what would happen to him? The coppers said he would only go to jail if someone testified, and would I like to testify? Being young and wanting to do the right thing I said, of course I would!”.
Tony laughed out loud, a laugh of self deprecation.
“The next week the phone rang. The brother had tracked me down, An angry voice said ‘Mate you have a nice life for yourself there on Carrol Lane, you might want to think twice about testifying thats all i have to say' and hung up.”
“I was young and wanted to do the right thing, put a criminal away, you know?"
"The court date was the next week, so I hid out until then. When I showed up in the courtroom, I noticed people staring at me from the spectator seats. A lot of people. The car thief was from a crime family. They made finger slashing throat gestures at me, even in the courtroom with everyone there. I took the stand, pointed at the man who broke into the car, and said that's the man that did it.”
“The next day I booked a ticket to Japan, and here I am.”
After the next pint of Guinness Tony brought up a new topic.
“There’s a guy at our office driving everyone crazy.”
“Tell me more”
“His name is Johnnie, he’s a bit weird. He hosts art parties,” Tony said. “At our office no one wants to sit next to him, so they gave me that seat and I have to hear his stories all day.”
The mysterious art dealer was by day an undercover salesperson of dull financial products?
"Johnnie Walker?" I asked.
"Yes. That's him." Tony said.
Being artistically minded myself I felt drawn to learning more and defending an eccentric. But at the same time I felt a certain schadenfreude at having a beer every week with someone who shunned the person who had shunned me.
“We are on the same team, we pick up lunch most days together. When we go out at lunch he does things like.. one time we rode the subway and he hung upside. Last week he walked up to someone in the street, and asked to try on their hat. This confused Japanese man gave Johnnie his hat, Johnnie put it on, spun around and then gave it back to him. The Japanese man walked away having no idea what it was about. Why would someone do something like that? And this week, he said he peed in the coffee of a woman he hates in the office, and she drank it. It might be true, we don't know for sure with Johnnie."
Was it performance art? Was it an artist's unbridled emotions? I wasn't sure. I did begin to build up a picture of a very ambitious individual on a quest for identity, who liked to bend society's rules of behaviour, with also perhaps a genius for promotion and glamour. He attracted the attention of Japan's most famous living author after all.
Tony is still avoiding London, an individual similar to the fictional Johnnie Walker is alive and well and still active in the Tokyo art community, and I continue to write about things that happened a long time ago.
"Drive My Car", a film based on a Haruki Murakami short story was recently nominated for 4 Academy Awards and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.